BONUS #24

Is on the forum at fanfiction [dotnet] /forum/The-Chiaroscuro-Effect/185326/


The Tsukuyomi

"Two days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and fifty-eight seconds…"

"Two days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes…"

"Two days, twenty-three hours..."

I didn't know where I was anymore. All I saw was blackness surrounding me – suspended by a sensation of semi-consciousness, half-alive and half-dead.

Unless you have actually felt it, you cannot possibly understand how terrifying drowning is. The need for air is the most basic one of life, and to be cut off from that triggers one of the basest, most intrinsic fears hard-wired into our brains. It takes away your humanity, your intelligence, your soul, and leaves behind nothing but the most primitive instincts your body can muster.

Air – AIR −

I would have preferred burning alive or freezing to death than drowning for three days straight. Or however long it felt like.

It wouldn't be so bad if I was actually drowning. Because then I would black out after the first few minutes. And then it would be all over. I wouldn't have to feel or worry anymore. I would just be gone.

Death isn't so bad. It's incomprehensible, the nothingness, but it's not bad. I wouldn't mind being dead, when my time came, if only so I could finally understand what nonexistence really was.

But I was denied even this. Allowed neither escape nor release – only suspended in animalistic desperation. Clawing, fighting, crying for air that would not come. And I could do nothing but lie here and wait for it to end.

"Two days…"

Why me?

The question popped up out of nowhere. A common one, as most people are liable to ask themselves when in a situation of undeserved suffering. But useless

Except in cases where it was not meant to be rhetorical.

Why me, indeed?

Was he torturing me for fun, so he could show me how powerless I was? Because he couldn't possibly have any practical reason for using one of his greatest techniques, on me, a twelve-year-old rookie Genin, no matter how smart I was.

He was trying to break me. To ruin me completely.

I don't know how hard it is to keep a level head while being tortured. I suppose it varies from person to person. What I did know was this: observation, strategy, thinking – control of my own head − was as instinctual to me as survival was, because thinking was living. Even if he turned me into a sack of mush, I would still be Shikamaru Nara, and I would not bow to him.

To fight a technique, one must understand it first.

What did I understand?

It's a genjutsu.

Oh, brilliant deduction. No wonder they call you a genius, I snapped to myself.

Funny, my brain said. The very fact that it's a genjutsu should be all the information you need.

What…?

It was as another submersion started that I started to appreciate how interesting this entire genjutsu was. I had never seen nor heard of something so powerful. Some things affected the regular five senses, but they only superficially tricked the brain. To manipulate time, one had to directly manipulate interior of the mind itself…

…and this entire genjutsu depended on its ability to manipulate time.

He was inside my head. The bastard was inside my head. This was all inside my head. Even as my lungs filled with water and panic overtook every fiber of my body, there was still one tiny part of me that hadn't yet been conquered by my fear of death – and that was my desire to live.

I knew that if I had to endure the entire thing I would certainly go mad. I did not count madness as living. In fact, I would rather die than go on with a broken mind.

It was this thought that brought me back some semblance of sanity. One fear, conquered by an even greater one. What was the point of being alive, if I wasn't going to be myself anymore −

Hey, remember when you were talking to Anko about Orochimaru? You think something like this might do the trick –

Shut UP!

Because this couldn't be real. None of this was real. Who had the time to stand around and hold a genjutsu for three days straight? I was not drowning. I was not here.

Of course. It's a genjutsu. An illusion. It isn't real.

IT ISN'T REAL! THIS IS ALL INSIDE YOUR HEAD!

Congratulations. Full marks.

Are you going to focus on useful solutions, or are you going to sit there and snark at yourself while a psychopath drowns you inside your own mind?

There were two ways to disrupt a genjutsu. The first was to attack the illusion itself. All genjutsu had one thing in common: they were not real. It sounds obvious, but it's a very significant thing. Like monsters under a child's bed, all one had to do to break is grip was to force oneself to stop believing in it.

That was why genjutsu targeted the areas of the brain outside of conscious control. There is no automatic switch to shut off one's eyesight, or hearing, or pain receptors, at will. Your frontal lobe might not believe in it, but as long as one part of your brain did…It's a deathly realistic nightmare, when you are sure everything's fake and now you're just trying to convince the rest of your uncooperative body to wake the fuck up.

Physical harm usually worked. The natural response was to acknowledge the site of injury, and thus, acknowledge the world outside of the illusion. But certain things were strong enough that even pain didn't get rid of it completely, such as Sakura's auditory genjutsu.

And Tsukuyomi controlled every sense, as well as my sense of time, which was why it was so powerful. If it's hard enough to convince your ears to stop hearing things, then it's downright impossible to convince yourself time isn't real.

Until you can.

Because I, the real me, in the real present,was still standing on solid ground, with completely dry lungs, and my shadow –

− my shadow was still connected to him.

My shadow was still connected to him. Out of the suffocating darkness I remembered, with blazing clarity, exactly where we had left off right before this all started. I could not see it, I could not feel it, but I knew, with absolute certainty, that my shadow had not abandoned me.

The Kagemane drained chakra at a steady rate. It didn't matter if I couldn't use it in here – the fact that I still had the same exact amount of chakra since we started was damning enough to the integrity of the Tsukuyomi.

"Two days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and forty-nine seconds remaining," he said, in the patronizing tone of a nurse giving a child a shot. He raised his arm to replace the wet cloth over my face.

Ino, lend me your knowledge; Sensei, lend me your cunning; Naruto, lend me your brazen disregard for the impossible.

I smiled and flared my chakra.


Itachi regretted that the boy felt pain. He did not regret that he was the one causing it. "You're doing very well, Shikamaru Nara. Most people would be incoherent by now."

The boy was smiling.

Itachi felt his heel sting. Odd. He shouldn't be feeling anything in the Tsukuyomi.

How unusual −

"I'm not Shikamaru, foolish older brother."

Itachi froze. As did the entire world, the water from the bucket still suspended halfway in the stinging sensation on his heel became sharper.

"…What?"

He reached out to the Nara boy again. Surely that was him. Yes, it was him. This wasn't right −

"Shikamaru holds you," said the boy. "You forgot me."

Itachi's stomach turned to ice. Sasuke?

"They thought they hid me, but they hid Choji. I thought you were smarter than that. Did you think were the only one in the world who could use the Tsukuyomi?"

But when? Who did he see die?

You're kidding, right? You murdered his whole family and made him watch; there was bound to be the one he loved most in there.

Mother, then. He always liked her best.

This had to be a trick. But when Itachi tried to draw upon all the possibilities, he came up blank. The pain at his feet was definitely chakra. How did he find me? He shouldn't have any access to the outside world in here. He shouldn't even be able to speak.

The boy smirked. "Now for the real question: whose Tsukuyomi is this?"

Mine, of course. He betrayed nothing, but somehow the boy read his blank face.

"Are you sure?"

Yes, I'm sure.

"Positive?"

Yes.

"Really?"

Yes?

The world flickered as he felt his concentration waver.

"The Tsukuyomi is a only a genjutsu, after all. Foolish older brother, how do you know what reality is, when your life is built on lies?"

The stab of chakra against his feet became insistently painful, and for the first time in many years, Itachi felt the crippling poison of self-doubt again. He thought it had been beaten out of him by his captain when he was just an ANBU trainee (the hazing, the lying, the dreaded psychological tricks…Damn you, senpai; I thought I left you and your mind games behind!), but apparently not.

Itachi, normally the one to hold the cards, now felt a nagging fear that he was, in reality, lagging so far behind he didn't even know he was losing. Logic agreed that the chance was all too real: chakra that was not his own, burning at his heels, even though the Tsukuyomi could neutralize even the strongest men; his victim, supposedly helpless, smiling smugly like he'd already won. It's a trap. It has to be.

He could not remain here and leave himself vulnerable.

The Tsukuyomi hummed and buzzed like a vibrating sheet of glass.

It shattered in his face −


and

I

was

free

I screamed like a wounded animal. My knees hit hard gravel. I collapsed to the ground, panting. Free. I could see colors again. Blue sky, painted buildings, green plants.

He fell for it.

He actually fell for it.

The other way to break a genjutsu was to attack the caster. If his immersion broke, so would his illusions.

Reaching Itachi from inside the Tsukuyomi was impossible. Conveniently, I'd latched on to him before it started. The Kagemane ensured that my chakra would be able to find him, even if I could not.

A tiny spark wouldn't do any damage, but that wasn't the point. The point was to lend my lies a basis in reality. Someone you believe to be at your mercy acting uncharacteristically smugly could be dismissed as a bluff. Physical evidence, however, couldn't be ignored.

I would have done the same in his situation; only an idiot would continue walking into an obvious trap.

If only the obvious trap was real.

His attacks were fake, and so were mine. Psychological warfare against more of the same; it was only fair. Turns out Sasuke had the same effect on Itachi as my father's reputation had on me. At best nothing would happen; at worst he would have been ambushed between two different Tsukuyomi. There was no logical action but to err on the side of caution, and break the illusion himself.

Freeing me in the process.

But the euphoria of winning quickly gave way to fear and anger as I took in my surroundings. Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei were still dying. Choji was still here, in harm's way. And I had used up my one advantage on Itachi; he wouldn't fall for that again.

My shadow tensed. I looked across the ground, to where it was still attached to Itachi Uchiha. It snapped like a rubber band, flying back at me with so much force I fell over again. In two strides Itachi was before me, his hand fisted in my collar. With a sharp jerk he yanked me back up to my feet and held me before him.

Though I could feel his breath on my face, I kept my eyes resolutely closed this time.

"Sasuke was never here. You were bluffing the whole time," he realized. If there was any shock from before, it had been entirely replaced with the true discipline of a warrior − tranquil fury laced his voice like steel. "You used my brother against me – "

"And if I did? One lie for another. After what you've done you still call him brother?You're a disgusting psychopath who gets off on watching people suffer," I spat, "because I don't understand how this could possibly help your supposed goal − "

"Stop," he ordered, "right now."

I shakily drew a kunai, even though I was in zero condition to wield it. "Make me."

He grabbed me before I could plunge it into his gut, as I knew he would. But I refused to drop the knife, even when he twisted my wrist so hard I thought he might break it.

"I have my reasons," he hissed in my ear, "for what you rightfully call a stupid plan that was bound to fail. And I will not tell them to you."

"Bugger that," I snapped. "What was this for? There's nothing I could have told you, and even if my sensei came, he'd slit his own belly before betraying Naruto, you imbecile – "

His grip around my neck tightened. Go ahead and snap it, I thought. Even if you kill me, you've still lost. I may have made up those things about Sasuke, but you'll still lie awake fearing the day they come true for the rest of your short miserable life.

"You mentally destroyed someone who only ever blindly loved you. Then you conspired to kidnap and murder a kid whose life was just starting to be something other than complete crap. And now you waste 'the most powerful genjutsu in existence' on a Genin!" my voice rose to a shout. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

My windpipe constricted beneath his fingers.

Is this the end for me?

But instead, his hands went slack, and he let me collapse onto the ground in an undignified heap once more.

Then he began laughing.

Not the crazed cackle of a monster, but the broken chuckle of a man who had forgotten what happiness was.

"Everything."

I heard people approaching. Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Yamato's voices in a jumble of others. It occurred to me that this entire exchange – starting from the confrontation, to Kisame nearly killing Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei, to Itachi's mind trip – took less than thirty seconds.

"May you die as you lived," I said softly, and I was surprised to hear how much malice I could pack into a polite whisper.

He didn't seem to care. He was still laughing. "I was asking the wrong question all along," he said. "It's not if you're good enough. It's if you're too good."

I bristled. "What are you going on about now?"

His laughter died down to a rueful smile. "If you really think you can do more good than harm, go ahead. Play all the games you want. But remember this: nothing in this world is completely pure, not even love. I once stood in your place and look at me now. You do not know the limits of what you are willing to do for them until you have become something even they cannot love in return. If you ever get there then know you can never go back. The ends rarely justify the means, Shikamaru Nara. I hope you remember that."

Was I hallucinating again? Kai, I whispered to myself, but he didn't disappear. Maybe I was still stuck in the Tsukuyomi. Maybe this was all a bad dream, and I would wake up at home in bed.

"If you're implying I'll end up like you, you're mad," I shot back defiantly. "I would never torture children, especially not one that obviously had nothing of value to tell me!" I could feel my strength fading, the unconsciousness creeping around my head. If he wanted to slit my throat now, he could. I certainly wouldn't be able to stop him.

But he only shook his head. "Some things cut deeper than swords."

He and Kisame disappeared into my darkening fields of vision.


Konoha Central Hospital

They had to suspend Asuma-sensei in a special cot because his spine was partially fractured. Nothing Tsunade couldn't heal, but still.

Sasuke clenched his fists so hard his nails left little bloody crescents in the crooks of his palms; he was that angry. Asuma-sensei had gotten hurt because of them – because of him

Kurenai-sensei, too. And her situation was worse. Asuma-sensei's injuries had been more severe but easier to heal. Kurenai-sensei, however, had been stabbed in the gut, and there was a chance she'd have to end up using a surrogate or adopting…

"Only" four people were seriously hurt that day, if you didn't count the Chunin on firefighting duty hospitalized for smoke inhalation. "Only" four. Asuma-sensei, Kurenai-sensei, Shikamaru, and another ANBU Itachi had interrogated before the fire started. They acted like it was a miracle that it hadn't been more.

Miracle, my ass. They're only saying that because it wasn't personal.

Sasuke crossed the hallway, where he could see Choji, still blubbering. "I was standing right there. We've been friends since we could walk, and I didn't do anything when those creepy eyes turned on. Sasuke, what now? Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei can't do anything for at least a month, and Ino told me something was up with her sensei, too. That's all three of the rookie teachers gone – "

That was all he could get out, though, because at that moment, Ino shouted from inside the room, "He's awake! He's awake!"

Immediately, Choji stopped sniffling and charged through the doorway, faster than one might expect for someone of his size. "Shikamaru!"

"Time," Shikamaru muttered groggily.

"Past six," Ino provided. "You've been out for hours."

"Even with my help it should have left him out of it for several days," Tsunade said in wonder.

"I only got about ten seconds," Shikamaru said. "Well, more like ten minutes, since each second was a minute. Could have been worse."

His sensei looked absolutely terrible. "I should have been there for you."

Jiraiya snorted. "And what would you have done?"

"I left him behind; was that not clear?" Kakashi-sensei's voice rose. "I had Naruto and Ino with me, and instead of finding Shikamaru, I made a conscious decision to leave a teammate behind! Do I have to remind you what happened the last time I did that – "

SLAP.

Sasuke jumped in shock. Genin were the ones who got smacked around, not seasoned Jonin. That would be like – like Asuma-sensei getting caned by the Hokage himself.

"Listen, you neurotic fool," Jiraiya snarled, "do you know how long it took them to find and take down two of our best Jonin?"

Kakashi-sensei shook his head.

"Less than five minutes."

A chill fell over the room.

Kakashi-sensei turned slowly to face a man Sasuke didn't recognize. "Is that true, Yamato?"

Yamato nodded. "I went looking for Shikamaru as soon as you had left with your batch. In the few seconds it took me between spotting the fight and entering it, they were already gone."

"And do you know what they were doing before that?" Jiraiya asked. At the silence, he answered darkly, "They went and checked the very place we were initially going to hide those kids first."

Sasuke could feel his blood pounding in his ears. Were we really that close to death?

Jiraiya crossed his arms. "So do you know what would have happened, had you chosen to take the time to go find Shikamaru? And let the ANBU take Naruto?"

"I – "

"Naruto would have been captured, Sasuke might have been killed, and either way you'd have been left with dead kids. You did the best you could realistically do in this situation. Stop beating yourself up over something you couldn't help, and just be glad that things turned out as well as they did!" Jiraiya roared.

"But I could have helped! I could have told those ANBU where to go, and then – "

"Would they have listened? Would they have gotten Naruto to the right place in time? If they got caught, would they have survived interrogation? Would you have gotten to Shikamaru in time? And what would you have done then? Stood there like an idiot?" Jiraiya shot the questions out, one after another. "Sometimes, you have to accept that you can't be good enough."

The defeated way in which one of the Legendary Sannin said this seemed to destroy Naruto's sensei – but not as much as it destroyed Sasuke.

He sat down on the chair by Shikamaru's bed and pulled his knees up to his chin. Sasuke was vaguely aware that Ino and Naruto were watching, but he hardly cared. He needed to get this off his chest.

"He did it to me, too."

He didn't know why he was saying this. Maybe it was because now there was another survivor of Itachi's nightmares he could talk to, someone who might understand. The "adults" were still going back and forth about what was and wasn't possible, who should substitute teach the Rookie Genin…

This was all his fault. If only he'd finished Itachi off sooner, this wouldn't be happening. So what if Naruto had been their primary target. It wasn't as if Naruto chose his life – but it was Sasuke's responsibility to finish what Itachi had started.

"He made me watch my family getting murdered. And I could do nothing but stand there helplessly as everyone I loved was slaughtered before my eyes over and over and over again. He cut off my mother's head and slit my father across the belly. He slashed all my aunts, uncles, cousins across the throat. Even the nice old lady who lived on the edge of the compound, who would pass out sweets to me when I went by…all of them. Gone."

"You watched that for those 'three' days?"

Sasuke nodded. Choji lay a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "What did he do to you?"

Shikamaru shrugged. "Tied me down to a table, put a cloth on my face, and then poured water over me. A little scary, but not nearly as gory as yours."

Naruto interrupted, "'A little' scary? That sounds like waterboarding."

Shikamaru shifted uncomfortably. "…It was waterboarding."

He knew Itachi was bad before – the bastard murdered his entire family – now here was another nail in his coffin. First, him. Now, Shikamaru. Who next? Choji? Hinata?

Sasuke blanched at the thought of Hinata having to go through even a fraction of what either of them had. He tried to form words with his mouth, but he was so livid nothing came out. Nothing could describe the sheer amount of raw anger and hate that consumed him in this very moment.

He's going to pay. He's going to fucking pay.


The Hyuga Clan Compound

You are strong, Hinata. You just have no direction.

Tenten's words still rang in her mind.

Why does she think I'm strong? I always lose – to Neji, to my own little sister, to her. What makes her think I'm strong, when everyone else has called me weak?

There were a few trees growing about the back of the Hyuga compound. Hinata poked one of them sadly. It was shorter than the rest. Maybe it had grown too slowly – or maybe it had started too late – but now it was impossible for it to get any healthier. All of the other trees around it had grown too tall and leafy to let any sunlight through to it. Hinata wished she could climb up to the top and trim the others, just a little, so that the smaller tree would be able to keep growing.

The little voices in her head laughed at her. It won't help. Once a loser, always a loser. You were born weak, and you'll never be able to get better. Stop trying.

I know, Hinata thought. You've told me this dozens of times. Every time you open your ugly mouth I always hear the same things. It's like you can't think of anything smarter to say.

Hinata hesitated. She was surprised – she didn't consider herself a resentful person, but the way that last thought had come out, you'd think she was.

And then Hinata realized that she was resentful. Resentful that her family thought she wasn't worth anything. Resentful that they sneered at her for being without any skill one moment, then told her to stop trying the next, then wondered why she didn't improve. Resentful that all her life she was called weak. All because she refused to hit her own sister. All because she wasn't as fast or as strong as a boy a year older than she was.

She hated it. She hated it, and she hated them. She was angry and she was just plain sick of it. Tenten was right; she was better than this.

She ran. Away from the compound, away from the Clan, away from all of their stupid expectations and judgments and insults…She just wanted – to hit something. Not even the Gentle Fist. Justpunch something, in the good, crude, old-fashioned way…

"Sasuke? What are you doing out here?"

Sasuke was standing near the rear gate, with a pack over his shoulder.

That look on his face. It was pure, murderous hatred, and it terrified her. She hadn't seen it on him since months ago, before they all met Asuma-sensei. "Go away, Hinata."

"Why? What are you doing?" Like it or not, Sasuke was her teammate, just like Neji was her family, and she'd be stuck with them until circumstance otherwise dictated…

"Go. Away."

She figured it out quickly enough. "…Itachi. You're planning to go after him."

"I'll say this one more time, Hinata. Go. Away."

"You can't do that, Sasuke. Didn't you see what they did to Asuma-sensei? You're not ready! We're not ready!" She stepped in front of him. "Are you planning to go after him alone? Did our sensei's lessons on teamwork mean nothing to you?"

Sasuke shoved past her dismissively. "You don't understand anything. Stupid."

Hinata jaw dropped.

She had been called weak her whole life, and she was used to that. She didn't win fights and she could barely keep up with Choji when running.

But she wasn't stupid.

Before Hinata's brain could catch up to her body, she had already pulled back her arm and let it fly as hard as she could.

Her punch connected with Sasuke's face in a nice, hard, satisfying CRACK. Sasuke went flying backwards through the air, and landed on the ground in the dirt some three meters away, nursing a very obviously broken nose. He lay there in a stupor for a few seconds, then slowly sat up, staring at her in a dazed wonder.

Hinata's first instinct was to apologize. Stutter out some lame excuse and cry.

But her anger wasn't gone yet. Plus, she didn't feel like apologizing.

What would Tenten say?

"Stupid, am I? Well, at least I'm not the one trying to walk through a gate blockaded off by every ANBU in the village," she hissed, Byakugan flaring. Horrible memories were flooding back – of a Cloud nin with a twisted smile, of her father screaming in anguish as her uncle died in his place. "And if you even do escape, don't you know what people do to kids like us? You'll be dead in a week – if the ANBU don't bring back your head separated from your body then some other bounty hunter will. Just hope they don't carve your eyes out from your skull, first! Next time you make one of your boneheaded decisions, think about how you're not the only person on the planet, and just who else might be affected by your stupidity!"

Sasuke stared at her, mouth hanging open comically, shocked into speechlessness. She did a sharp pivot, and marched straight back to the Hyuga compound, leaving him still sitting in the dirt with a bloodied face.

As she passed by the rear garden, the stumpy, pale little tree came back into view again.

And suddenly, Hinata hated it, too.

The next thing she knew, her knuckles were raw and bloodied, and nothing remained of the tree but a pile of splinters at her feet.


A/N: Shikamaru did not break the Tsukuyomi (that's impossible); he only psyched out Itachi into ending the technique for him. Itachi is still stronger than him and could have killed Shikamaru after, had he chosen to.

This chapter has fanart! All links are consolidated at: sites [period] google [dotcom] /view/boomvroomshroom (this page is also accessible from my profile).