A/N: A few of my reviewers reminded me that I had forgotten to add an important bit onto my annotations for the last chapter. Thanks goes to 'AntiSora' and 'Juxtathought'. Inspiration for the last few bits of dialogue between Naruto and Kyuubi was taken from The Ellimist Chronicles by K.A. Applegate.
Fear no more the heat o' the sun
Nor the furious winters' rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
- 'Cymbeline' by Loreena McKennitt
Kakashi flung out an arm to prevent the former Rookies from jumping the wall as the red fox loped toward the onrushing enemies, the nine tails flicking with each breath of wind, the mist parting in its wake.
The fanged jaws opened, and a cry like the sundering of worlds rushed forth, so loud the earth trembled, so deep and terrible in its fury that Kakashi was forced to close his eyes against the noise and the brightly burning figure.
A tail darted out, wrapped itself around Kisame's robed figure, and flung him up into the air, one paw lifting from the ground and sending him hurtling back down to earth. He landed with a wet noise and did not get up, sprawled on burning grass, his skull broken and leaking.
Hidan was next, his scythe slashing the air as he charged. The metal passed through the flaming chakra surrounding the beast and melted, silver droplets spattering the earth like rain. The fox spun with unnatural agility and snatched him up in slavering jaws, snapping once. It was enough. Hidan dropped back down to the earth, gone to seek his god with intestines hanging like someone's demented idea of a wedding train.
Hinata came up beside him, shaking like a leaf at the sight of Naruto's relentless, bloody fury.
"Hatake-san," she said, biting her lower lip, "has- has he lost control?" Kakashi reached up and slid his headband out of the way, opening the Sharingan. Purple chakra filled his vision, flickering to blue.
"No," his voice was sober, "Not yet." Gaara stood in front of him, silent and intense, hands curled into fists, focused solely on the red kitsune. Naruto- it was really him, then: a boy wearing a demon's skin- spat flame at Zetsu, obliterating him in the shadow of an instant, with not even ash to mark where he had stood.
Itachi attacked, black fire forming from nothing and shrieking towards the fox, who turned his head and regarded it with a jaundiced eye. Kakashi felt the wildly inappropriate urge to laugh, at Itachi's- the Uchiha genius, the greatest mind Konoha had produced in all its illustrious history- schoolboy mistake.
The fox's lips peeled back into a leering grin. The flames spun in the air, reversed, and spread, rocketing back towards Itachi, who stood, frozen in the face of death. As the first flame reached him, he turned his head and looked at Sasuke, who stood farther down the line, lips twitching into a mocking smile. And then he was dead, consumed by the fire, skin bubbling, blistering, charring and falling off his body in sheets, before he was gone, the heat of his own fires boiling him into the ether.
Kazuku's threads snaked out, catching fire as soon as it got within ten feet of the fox. He tried to pull them back, but Naruto's tails flicked out, coiling around him and crushing him. Blood ran from his nose, his mouth- his face bulged grotesquely, and then it literally exploded, showering his body in his own gore. Naruto dropped the body contemptuously and caught Deidara's clay bird in his paws, ripping it into pieces with a twist of his limbs.
Deidara, himself, however, he trapped in his tails and flung into the sky, spitting a fireball of whirling white flame after him. Deidara didn't have time to scream. Ashes, gray and soft, fell to the earth like a sickening parody of snowflakes.
Black, sickle-like claws snapped out, impaling Tobi through the belly. Tobi looked down at the obsidian hook piercing the rapidly reddening cloth, back up at Naruto's intent face, and slowly slumped forward, falling to the ground in silence as the claw withdrew, leaving him on the scorched earth.
Naruto swung around, head held close to the ground, ears pinned back in feral enjoyment. Blue eyes roved around the clearing, caught sight of the Akatsuki leader and his underling, and narrowed. He lunged with terrible speed, snatching both of them up in his jaws and flicking his head back like a cat toying with a mouse, breaking their necks quietly and efficiently before dropping the limp corpses onto Tobi's.
The demons watched it all in eerie silence, unmoving, unconcerned with death or humanity. As Naruto moved closer, they cowered away from the proud being, whining, scratching at the earth, unable to escape the one whose fire had given them life in the primordial void.
Naruto's tails stopped their ceaseless flicking, settled onto the ground. Claws dug into the ground, ears pricking. He turned his head and looked at them with one sky-blue, slitted eye, lips curling into a facsimile of a grin, tongue lolling, before turning away. He lifted his head to the sky, to the sun that was climbing in the sky, and called the fire.
It slashed down from the sky like the hammer of the gods, breaking the silence with its own terrible howling, the thunder of damned souls, the calling of an abandoned child. It writhed and consumed the milling corpses with a hunger that could never be filled, a need that could never be assuaged, a hatred that could never end. It twirled, swirled, danced in long streamers from tree to tree, from demon to demon, cooking everything it touched, obliterating trees and poison and mists in boiling white-blue light.
It turned Shukaku into melting glass, yellow as the sun, tumbling and sliding over itself until the fire receded and left the demon that had tormented Gaara for sixteen years as so many beautiful crystalline glass spears piercing the sky.
It tore through the sky and the earth and the stream, tainting the sky white, charring the earth into black ash, boiling the stream away with hissing like the sound of a snake about to bite.
It, finally, ended.
Silence filled the air, the silence of a world new-made.
But Kakashi was moving, running, the soles of his shoes melting to the ground and the soles of his feet blistering- pain that he did not feel- Gaara beside him, heart thundering through his head and fear, fear, fear singing its sour melody inside him, on his tongue and in his heart.
As if separated by a thousand miles of ocean, he heard the former Rookies thundering after him, charging across charred ground black as obsidian glass with grass crumbling into ash in their wake.
He finally caught sight of blond hair against the darkness and sped up, coming to Naruto's side and flinging himself down beside his still form. Gaara skidded to a stop beside him and knelt, dragging Naruto's upper body onto his lap. Naruto lay still, skin pale and eyes closed, white streaks sprinkled through his hair like snow on a field of daisies. Still beautiful, still strong.
"Wake up," Gaara whispered, shaking him. Naruto's head lolled as if his neck was broken, his chest still. "Wake up," Gaara repeated, shaking him harder, tears swimming in his voice, cracking, his eyes glossy with the liquid gleam of tears, "please?"
His eyes burned, the fabric over the Sharingan growing damp and cold. ' Obito… are you crying for him, too?' A sob heaved up from inside him, splitting the air as he bent and kissed cold lips, trying to breathe life back into him, to push the fire that had been lost back into burnt-out chakra coils, taking the cold hand in his and rubbing it between his own in a vain attempt to make him warm again, alive again.
"Wake up! " Gaara howled, his gourd dissolving, the ground beneath them turning to sand, the sand spiraling up into the sky, blotting out the sun, an eclipse, darkness covering the land, the echos of Shukaku.
He pulled away as Sasuke and Sakura came up beside them and dropped to their knees, Sasuke taking Naruto's hands in a friendship thought lost forever, Sakura's hair dropping over her face as she spread her hands over Naruto's chest and concentrated, green chakra, green like the color of a new leaf, diffusing into the air.
Kakashi turned his hand and brushed the back of his finger across Naruto's cheek, lips curling into a hysterical smile of grief. Blond lashes lay against pale skin, like crescents of ash on snow.
'Still, so still…' He remembered the last time this happened, when he knelt under cold raindrops and held the hand of a boy whose body was crushed under a boulder, struggling for life, each shattered, shaking breath a battle won in a war that had already been lost.
That story had been a tragedy.
He supposed this one would be, too.
Tsunade and Shizune broke through the silent circle around Naruto, kneeling in the black dust and joining Sakura in forcing chakra into Naruto's still body.
"Come on…" Sakura gritted out through clenched teeth, a drop of sweat rolling down her nose, tears shining in her eyes. Rock Lee placed a hand on her shoulder, his normally smiling face solemn, blank, mask-like.
"Come on, idiot," Sasuke was whispering, he belatedly noticed, had been whispering for several minutes now, "you can do it, come back to us, don't make us all end up crying- you promised us, remember?" He sniffled, wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve in a decidedly un-Sasuke-like gesture, "You said you'd never make your precious people cry, like- like I did. Wake up, please, we're all waiting."
Kakashi leaned into Gaara's side, running his fingers through Naruto's hair in a return to the old habits of the past two months, his breath frozen and cold in his chest. The people crowded around them all ceased to exist, ceased to be, so that it was only he and Gaara and Naruto at the end of the world, in a land of silence and sorrow.
"I am not going to lose you," Tsunade growled, the jutsu that kept her appearance young wavering in and out of existence as she poured every bit of available chakra into Naruto before finally flickering out altogether, "I am too fucking tired of being Hokage to go back to it, you little twerp! So wake up!"
Kakashi turned his head to gaze dully at Gaara, the leaden, heavy weight of grief settling onto his chest with the finality of a kunai through the heart. Funny, because that was what this felt like. Gaara met his gaze with calm implacability, his faith in Naruto spoken in every breath and heartbeat. ''I wish. I wish I could believe like he does.'
Minutes ticked past, gone and dead. He felt a gloved hand settle on his shoulder and turned to look at Neji, proud Neji who hadn't believed in changing fate, Neji whose face was stony in his belief that this was Naruto, Naruto who always beat the odds. Sakura wavered and fell backward, Lee catching her as she fainted from chakra exhaustion. Shizune followed, Shino easing her to the ground as Hinata took her place, face determined.
Kakashi didn't know how long they'd been sitting here. Fifteen minutes, half an hour, two hours? Gaara cradled Naruto's head in his arms, fingers tracing the blue veins at the temples, stroking the places where the whisker scars had been.
Life bloomed under his fingers. Naruto's chest jerked upward, breath hissing into his lungs.
There was a long moment of silence between that heartbeat and the next.
It happened again, and again, and again, settling into an irregular rhythm, which melted into mathematic regularity. Tsunade rocked back on her heels, wiping at her forehead, tears running from her eyes and smudging her makeup.
"He's alive." Her voice broke in incredulity. "He's alive." Gaara bent his head and kissed Naruto's forehead, fingers resting on the pulse throbbing through the veins. Kakashi felt himself grin, then laugh, high-pitched, wavering with stress, but everyone joined him, shrieking their relief to the sky, arms around each other, joy returned to the world once more, and for that one glorious moment, it seemed as if they would all live forever.
Gaara nodded in greeting to the nurses trotting up and down the tiled hallways as he started up the main stairway. They all waved hello back, giggled, a few calling out greetings in the way that was so different from the silence of Suna.
Everyone here knew he and Kakashi by name. Unsurprising, since they had been coming here for a year. Pushing the door open, he entered what the nurses referred to as the 'long-term care ward.' The long hallway was almost silent, the background humming of machinery ever-present.
He found room number twenty-three and opened the door heavy with get-well notes, mail stuffed into the box attached to the door. The room was filled with soft white light, illuminating the numerous gifts- boxes of ramen noodles, a stuffed kunai, way too many music tapes- spilling onto the bed and its occupant.
Naruto lay asleep, pale and drawn, his blue eyes hidden from the world. He looked small, so small and frail surrounded by the ceaseless humming of life support machinery. Blond hair flowed onto the pillows, his hair cut every few months by Sakura. Gaara had tried to do it once, but Sakura, when she saw what he had done, had shrieked, taken the scissors away, and forbidden him to ever go near Naruto's head with a sharp object again.
"Hello, Naruto," he said, unbuckling his gourd and setting it down in the corner before going to the window and pulling the shades up, looking out on the village.
Naruto's grinning face stared out over Konoha, carved into the living rock of the Hokage Mountain, next to Tsunade and his father.
" Tsunade misses you," he turned and sat on the bed beside Naruto, taking his hand and beginning to massage the fingers to keep the muscles supple, as he and Kakashi did every day, "she keeps threatening to give the Hokage position to Shikamaru. The position's waiting for you; the people want you back." He looked down, comparing the ring on his finger with the one on Naruto's. A ring of braided strips of bronze, silver, and gold, the same one that was on Kakashi's finger.
"Hey," Kakashi poked his head around the door, smiling underneath the mask. "I talked to Sakura, and she says that Naruto's eyelids flickered for a little while yesterday." Gaara returned the smile, switching hands. "That's good." Kakashi came to his side, gazing down onto Naruto's face for a moment before he moved to pull the sheets up out of the foot of the bed to start on Naruto's feet.
"You received a mission for your genin team from Tsunade today, right?" Kakashi said, flopping into the armchair and stretching his long legs out underneath the bed, Naruto's feet resting in his lap.
"Yes," Gaara replied, working on bending Naruto's elbow, "Katashi was unhappy about it only being C-rank. I asked Tsunade if there was an estimate for when-" - always 'when', never 'if' - "Naruto would wake."
"After she yelled for a while about my asking the same question every day, she told me that it still depended on whether his chakra coils are able to hold chakra at all. If they can't…" he trailed off, focusing on massaging Naruto's shoulders, before looking up. Kakashi met his gaze with sad knowing, a small smile underneath the mask.
The sun had set over the village hidden in the leaves, bathing it in the warm golden light of a summer evening. Fireflies flickered in the grass around the streams, the glass spires that had been Shukaku reflecting the white lights and multiplying them into a spangle of stars.
Kakashi turned away from the window, watched Gaara pull the blankets up on Naruto's bed and comb the blond hair off the pale forehead with his fingers, face unguarded, his expression a sad mix of love and sorrow.
Gaara bent and kissed Naruto's forehead, standing and moving to the door, pulling his gourd on and buckling the straps. Kakashi crossed to Naruto's bed and kissed the warm lips- please move, please respond - before pulling away.
He gazed down at the still face (how odd it was to see Naruto's face still, when for twenty years it had always been smiling, grinning, screwed up in some contorted emotion) and smiled.
"We'll wait for you," he promised, turning to go to Gaara, who stood by the door, green eyes gleaming in the dimness. Kakashi reached up, turned the lights off, and they left, leaving the room wrapped in silence and shadows.
'As long as you need us to.'
A/N: Thank you for reading Dulce Et Decorum Est.