Author's Notes: After much deliberation and urging, I've finally written a sequel/epilogue-esque conclusion for this story. The idea came to me many months ago and half of this story was written and sitting untouched on my hard drive. Although I'm rather happy with the way this piece turned out, in my experience sequels tend to destroy the original, which was the main reason I didn't write this for so long. Nonetheless, should you decide to read, I would love to get your opinion.


Sunrises and sunsets, all interspersed by silence. It is a parable of sorts that has become fact. And so dawns the longest week of his life, counting down the seconds until the inevitable decision would need to be given. His mind is made up, and has been since Itachi vanished into the night. Naruto knows this; Itachi knows this. This grace period for reflection is something he neither likes nor appreciates. He becomes unsettled as medics buzz in and out around him, bringing food, administering medication, examining his physical state while he tries so hard to keep his thoughts private. Naruto is marking the days until he can rectify everything he has managed to do wrong.

He goes to sleep with numbers on his mind.

"Kakashi-sensei," he says on the fifth day when the man has come for a visit. "Why doesn't anyone blame me?"

One onyx eye gazes at him for a long time and a swirl of thoughts chase their way across its depths. "Blame you for what, Naruto?"

You already know what. "Everything—this whole mess. Sasuke…"

Kakashi lets out a heavy sigh. "No one's to blame for that. And if you insist on making it someone's fault, I'm more to blame than you are."

No. He is silent. Sasuke never envied your strength. You never pushed him away.

"Sakura-chan is angry, isn't she?" he asks finally. "That's why she hasn't come to visit."

His sensei looks startled for a moment, as if this fact has never been brought to his attention, but Kakashi is a shinobi to the core and pulls his features into a mask of empathetic understanding. "She probably doesn't want to disturb you, Naruto."

She blames me.

"And she's still coming to terms with what happened. Give it some time. I'm sure she'll be by to visit soon."

Discreet knocking on the door stops them, dispersing their words. A medic pokes her head in apologetically, explains his medication to Kakashi and his sensei gets up to leave, promising to be back in a few days to check up on him. Naruto doesn't care too much as the needle slides effortlessly into his vein and causes his arm to tingle, thinking that in a few days he wouldn't be there to greet Kakashi anyway.

--

"And your decision is?"

On the night of the seventh day, Itachi's voice tears off the scab that has been sheltering his wounds. He is suffocated by the darkness when this man appears.

"After I see Sasuke," he says hesitantly, not yet willing to trust, "I'll go with you."

"Very well." Itachi is the epitome of calmness. "Sasuke will return to Konoha. At midnight tomorrow, I will be back for you."

If these terms are objectionable, Naruto doesn't have time to dispute them. The moon melts into the clouds and Itachi is taken away with the hidden light.

He opens his eyes again to a rush of noise and commotion.

"He was just slumped by the village gates," someone whispers outside his door, and Naruto doesn't need to be told who it is they're whispering about. There is much more movement during the day. The regular medic who brings his meal is flustered when he asks about the situation, and that's almost all the proof he needs. His ears strain to trace the path of the footsteps; when it is dark, he slips free of the tubes that have clung like parasites to his body, shedding his unnatural existence. With the small amount of chakra he has within him he performs a minor camouflage genjutsu and slips, unnoticed, into the hospital corridors.

His breathing is laborious by the time he can feel Sasuke's presence. He eases himself into the room. On the bed, lined with tubes in much the same manner as himself, Sasuke is a miserable excuse for a human body. Lumps that appear at first to be cancerous flesh, traitorous pores, are in fact the jutted edge of broken bone, not quite cracking the skin. His dark hair is matted and bloody, shorn haphazardly where numerous sharp objects must have narrowly missed. Naruto clutches his stomach to prevent upchucking sick all over himself and winces at the pain the movement causes.

Half-stumbling, half-dragging, his feet convey the lumbering mass of his body to the bedside of his best friend. Sasuke's hard-fought breathing moves the expanse of his chest just barely, just enough to create the millimetres of progress signifying life. Wrapped in the sterile embrace of white, his skin is paler still. When Naruto reaches out a trembling hand to touch the nearest incandescent cheek, he finds that the organism beneath is chillingly close to death.

"Sasuke," he breathes, the air from his lips misting the tube that caresses his friend's face. Long dark lashes, the stroke of a master calligrapher, flutter ever so slightly. Every muscle in Sasuke's body, all the strings supporting the puppet, pull taunt as the tell-tale frown encumbers his strangely unmarred face. When he relaxes again, limbs limp and brows creaseless, Naruto is suddenly certain that Sasuke will live.

The death he expelled in his exhale would morph to become Naruto's demise.

When he finally heaves himself back into the confines of his own room of malady, he is unsurprised to find the signer of his contract waiting. Itachi's eyes are a hellish red at the height of this Faustian dementia. When Itachi beckons to him, the clock on the wall begins to chime.

"He'll live?" Naruto asks despite knowing the truth, despite knowing the lies.

"Yes." Itachi is an angel of death framed before the premonition of an engorged moon. Naruto begins to understand, under the immensity of such perfect roundness, that this is a trip from which he will not return. He has always known, within the caverns of his soul; it is only tonight, with the inescapable bidding of Itachi's outstretched hand, that he is capable of accepting the truth.

"Sleep," Itachi says when their fingers meet, and instantly his eyes are anchors. It is with surprising gentleness that he feels himself lifted, his head and legs cradled by slender, powerful arms.

"Sleep," Itachi says again. The last sliver of light vanishes behind his closed eyelids, and the world is no more.

--

They form a curious picture; two grown men in cloaks of black and red, one young boy with a shock of golden hair in an even brighter jumpsuit of orange. The boy is unconscious; one of the men has grey-tinted skin. Instinct screams danger while politeness asks why. They are unassuming in their gait, neither forbearing nor hurried, protected by their aura of mystery and power. The young man who carries the boy, who appears to lead them, could once have been called handsome; but he is now too corrupted by the touch of the world to seem anything but lonely and severe.

They had been a group of two, entering a hidden village far away from where they are. It could even be argued that they had entered as a group of one, for the grey-skinned man kept watch on the edge of the town gate, perched impatiently on a secluded branch. A fish in a tree. The dark-haired young man with the unnatural eyes had passed the border, unseen, to undertake a small token of business. He re-emerged not ten minutes later, bringing with him a very colourful package. It is the first and only time they have broken into this city of splendour by night.

Rain falls on the unlikely travelling company as Naruto continues to slumber under the influence of Itachi's persuasion, unaware of his own plight, unaware of Sasuke's. Through the link of their bloodline, through the turmoil of their souls, Itachi can feel the ever weaker presence of his brother where it had always been, delving deeper into the lair of snakes.

There were no more Uchiha in the Village of the Leaf.

"Why did you go to the trouble of tricking him?" Kisame asks. The Kyuubi would have been theirs regardless, but even he is amazed at the ease with which his partner manages to snare this cunning and most powerful of all tailed creatures. Mingled in with admiration, with the wonder of this unknowable feat, is the disappointment of losing what had promised to be an entertaining battle.

Itachi's steps do not hesitate for even a fraction of a moment. "To ensure that his soul will never be able to escape us."

His hands tighten imperceptibly around their precious cargo. The constant friction of cloth on cloth has rolled up the bottom of Naruto's shirt, exposing the seemingly harmless swirl that would come to define a nation. Kisame spares half a glance at the ginger-hued pattern before disregarding the conversation with a noncommittal shrug.

"Escape was never a possibility to begin with."


end