A/N: This chapter, like all the others, was betaed by AisCrim. I do not own Naruto. The only things I own are the plot and the original characters.
They made up their minds and they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going without ever knowing the way?
- 'The Way' by Fastball
Naruto Uzumaki lay prone on the forest floor, completely empty of chakra, watching Gaara stare back at him, defeated and bloody for the first time in his life. Black dots buzzed around the edges of his vision, the pain in his body almost beyond bearing, breath shuddering in his lungs, bubbling from his lips in a pinkish froth.
::Uzumaki.:: A voice, deeper than the ocean and rumbling like an earthquake, spoke inside his head, blood-red chakra sparking across the inside of his eyelids as he closed them, well-aware of the speaker.
'What, Kyuubi? I'm a little busy right now!'
::No, you're not, you're lying around on the ground as if you're dead. Which I would love to see, you realize. But we have bigger problems. Come to the cage.:: Naruto's fingers clenched in the dirt, broken nails dragging and tearing free of his skin.
"Don't wanna," he mumbled to the empty air, the words tearing at his throat.
::If you want your friends to live long, happy lives, you will.:: His eyes flew open. 'What? What do you mean? You going to try to hurt them or something?'
::As much as it pains me to admit… no. Will you just take my word for it and come here?::
The air was cold and wet, beads of water clinging to his eyelashes, the water around his knees sloshing with each pained step he took towards the heavy gates looming ahead, stretching up into the darkness.
Red chakra drifted around the bars like living flame, hissing and crackling the closer he got. Water dripped from the pipes set into the walls, the white seals up ahead the only spot of light in the gloom. He finally reached the gates and yelled into the darkness beyond the gates, "Hey, furball! What's with you threatening my friends?"
There was the sound of scythe-like claws ticking against the earth beyond. Two red, slit eyes loomed from the darkness, full of wicked cunning and eerie intelligence. Nine tails writhed sinuously around each other, blood-red and fiery. The demon's tongue lolled from its fanged jaws in a gaping grin.
"You came. Good."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. What's the deal with you and my friends?"
The Kyuubi came closer, a paw pressing idly at the bars.
"Nothing. I needed to get you here, and threatening them was the most expedient way."
Naruto snorted, folding his arms behind his head. "Fine. Don't do it again. What'd you want me for, anyway?"
The demon sobered, ears flattening against its back as it laid down, its blood-red eyes tired. "Kitsune, such as I, receive the power to see the future when we gain our ninth tail. Sometimes, in the web that contains the infinite futures, there is a point where you reach a crossroads, a place that contains only two choices."
Naruto rocked back and forth, fingers drumming on his wrist. "Uh-huh. And?"
The Kyuubi bared its teeth in a snarl, blasting breath as hot as volcanic magma, tinged with the acrid smell of chakra. "Listen to me, you pestilent brat! There are greater things than your miserable attention span at work here! We have reached a crossroads, and the choice you make at this point is more important than you know. One choice will lock you and your friends into a path leading to your inevitable deaths. The other, while carrying with it great personal cost and pain, will leave you and your friends free within the web, still able to make your own choices."
Naruto stilled, brought his arms down, and took a step forward.
"What's in it for you?"
The demon's lip curled. "If you make the wrong choice, you will one day be captured by a group known as Akatsuki. You will kill them and die, and I will die with you, never having had the chance to escape."
"Okay. And how much of a chance do you have now?"
A flash of white, knife-like fangs. "More than you know."
Naruto turned away from the red eyes, pacing through the water, before whipping around and staring defiantly up at the demon. "So what're my choices, then?"
The Kyuubi grinned.
"Abandon Konoha, become a missing-nin-" the Kyuubi ignored Naruto's sputters of protest, "- and take the Shukaku vessel with you. Collect the other seven jinchuuriki. I will then guide you to a village hidden in the southern jungle, a village where all your needs will be met, and Akatsuki will never find you." The Kyuubi shrugged its massive shoulders. "I can see nothing more of your future after the arrival in the Village of Shadows."
"Sounds creepy. And the other?"
Red chakra gathered in front of him, congealing into a web with so many strands that it appeared solid. The web stretched from one side of the tunnel to the other, so large that the top end disappeared into the darkness. "The web of futures," the Kyuubi said gravely, tails flicking.
"You make the choice to stay." Several strands suddenly lit up, gleaming silver, spiraling out from the center of the web. "Touch the strand. You will see several scenes from that future."
Naruto bit his lip, glanced up at the demon, and finally reached out, fingers brushing across a strand, humming with tension.
Sasuke's brother- Itachi, murderer of the clan, missing-nin, member of Akatsuki- stands with his hand around Sasuke's throat, his red eyes glinting as he whispers, "Tsukiyomi." Sasuke- harsh, uncaring, silent Sasuke- screams, the sound as sharp and keen as a knife trailing over stone.
A woman- Tsunade, granddaughter of the First Hokage, blonde and beautiful and burdened- stands in the robes of the Hokage, a new leader for the village.
There is rain on his face, and Sasuke's hand is full of the light of Chidori, and they fight, savage and focused, one to leave and one to make him stay, and suddenly the Chidori is in his shoulder. He screams, and falls, and when he wakes, bleeding, alone, to the rain on his face, he pretends that he isn't crying.
Gaara is Kazekage, and dead from the Akatsuki's lust for power. He howls, and forces chakra down dead, cold pathways to the unbeating heart. Gaara coughs blood, and inhales into dusty lungs the breath of life. He helps him to sit up, and Gaara takes his hand, and smiles.
Orochimaru is dead by Sasuke's hand, the man he can no longer call his best friend long gone, returning to the shadows he had chosen.
Kakashi dies first, Sakura second. He finds them, killed by Sasuke's hand, together, hands linked and fingers tangled, the last bond of comradeship. Kakashi's eye socket is wet, and red, and ruined, and the Sharingan that has burdened him his whole life long is gone. Sakura is smiling.
Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji - he finds them floating in the Nakano River, the still waters tinged with blood. Fallen by Itachi's hand in his quest for the Kyuubi, black fire still burns on their bones. Regarded as second-rate genin, the team of misfits, they still proved themselves worthy as ninja, for Kisame's torn body floats beside them.
Deidara kills Hinata. Neji dies beside her, chakra drained from pumping it into a body whose spirit has already ascended, and at his death Tenten and Lee go berserk, and their bodies twist apart and uncoil in an explosion of clay and shrapnel. Kiba and Akamaru fall to Tobi's knife, the blade through them both, pinning them together, even in death. Shino survives. He kills himself that same day.
Konoha falls a year later, the streets slick with blood and bone, littered with the bodies of Sound-nin and Leaf-nin both. The Hokage Mountain has cracked down the center, and Tsunade lies atop them with her fist through Kabuto's chest. Naruto stands in the gates. He has arrived too late. Sound and Leaf destroyed each other in a final conflagration, two of the last great shinobi villages wiped off the map in a war that has only truly lasted a week. He falls to his knees, and weeps.
Naruto finds the Akatsuki's headquarters. He sees Sasuke's head impaled above the entrance, and feels nothing for his old friend, who has failed in the quest he sacrificed everything for. The Akatsuki rush him, and he just… lets himself go. Red chakra leaks from every pore in his body, blood puddles around his feet, and the Akatsuki finally die screaming.
He drags himself from their home, and lies on the rocky ground underneath a red dawn, a creature of flesh and bone that cannot be called human, lipless, skinless, his skin and his clothes incinerated, and dies.
Naruto jerked away from the web, staggered to a corner, fell to his hands and knees, and threw up into the water, the acrid taste burning his tongue and his nose as he heaved, his body shuddering, fingers clenching in the muck.
"So you see," the Kyuubi said with implacable calmness, "what you must do." Naruto blinked eyes stinging with tears and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, staring down into the murky water, his clothing wet and heavy and clinging to his skin. He bowed his head and exhaled in a long sigh, breath clouding in the frigid air, his hair clammy.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. But I don't- I don't want the village to hate me! I don't want to give up my dream of becoming Hokage, 'cause that's all I've got." He pushed himself to his feet and turned burning eyes to Kyuubi, who met his gaze with eyes as old as the earth.
"Then you, and the village you love so dearly, will perish."
Naruto sloshed closer, clenched his fists around the bars, feeling the burning, chakra-laden breath stir his hair. "Give me another way!"
"There is no other way."
He fell to his knees in the water and leaned his head against the bars, fingers blistering in the heat.
"It is not," the Kyuubi continued, "as if I want to spend any time around the other demons. We despise each other. But this is the only way to prevent my own death, and yours as well."
"Are you sure?"
The Kyuubi snarled, tails lashing in irritation. "Yes! Yes, damn it, I'm sure, and I wish I wasn't, because I hate you and all your kind, and to see your friends live another day is almost more than I can bear!" A clawed paw smashed against the gates, the metal bars shuddering in Naruto's hands.
"You must go," the demon said, "now. The Akatsuki have become aware of your existence. They are on their way here. Take the vessel of Shukaku, and flee. Once you've escaped all pursuit from Konoha, I will direct you to the jinchuuriki." Naruto pulled himself upright, and stared up into red, fathomless eyes.
Naruto smiled, saluted mockingly.
The demon spat, the phlegm fiery and hissing as it hit the water, steam boiling around it. "Didn't do it for you, fleshbag. Did it for me."
"Still," he insisted, "thanks."
He opened his eyes, and shoved himself to his feet, his shaking steps drawing him closer to where Gaara lay.
His knees shook and gave out, and he collapsed to the ground. Gaara's black-rimmed eyes flicked over to meet his, bloody mouth parting in silent question. Naruto held himself up with scraped hands, speaking quickly and quietly, trying to impress the seriousness of their situation on the other vessel.
"The Kyuubi- the demon in me- it says I've got to leave Konoha and take you with me to get the other jinchuuriki together so we can all go live in an abandoned village or something, but that'd make you a missing-nin too, and will you go with me anyway?"
He took a deep breath. Gaara blinked, spoke, his voice as soft as the rustle of leaves, his throat dry and sore.
"I would not be a missing-nin. Suna would be all-too-pleased to see me gone."
Naruto smiled, and felt bad for doing so, because that was awful, the idea that your own village wouldn't want you. 'Although it makes things easier for him.' He cast a glance over his shoulder, eyes welling as he saw the walls of Konoha, walls that he must leave, and not come back to, ever.
A village, and the dream that sustained him all his life, that he must abandon, to save his friends- the friends who would hate him for it.
"So- so you'll come with me?"
Gaara turned to stare back up at the darkening sky, his face still and thoughtful. 'Well- we're both jinchuuriki. Maybe he wants to meet the others, so he won't feel so alone?'
Gaara rolled his eyes to glare at him. "I said I would. I dislike repeating myself." Naruto punched his fist into his other palm in triumph, wincing. 'Not a good idea.'
"Hey, kid!" Pakkun's gravelly voice made him turn, the small pug staring up at him with small black eyes. "We've got to get out of here and take your friends to the medical-nins. You can leave Psycho here for his village to pick up." Naruto ran his fingers through his hair, bit the inside of his lip.
"Pakkun, I-" he looked back at the walls of Konoha, warm and welcoming and golden in the sunlight, home and family and love and safety and everything he would abandon. But the memory of Sakura's smiling, dead face, and Hinata's still body spurred him on. "I can't go back to Konoha. I have to leave." He forced down the wail rising in his throat, the tears at the corner of his eyes. "I'm sorry. Tell Kakashi and the others-" he choked on a sob, "tell them I had to do it, to keep them safe. Tell them I love them, and I'm sorry."
And then, before he could talk himself out of it, he reached out and smacked the dog over the back of his head, making Pakkun disappear in a puff of smoke. 'Kyuubi, I need some energy. I can't get out of the borders alone!'
::Fine. Leave your hitai-ate here.:: Naruto shook his head. 'I'll leave Konoha behind, but I won't leave my hitai-ate. Ever.' He felt, more than heard, Kyuubi's sigh, but the demon provided him with energy anyway, the red chakra blooming on his skin and repairing the tears and abrasions.
Naruto leaped to his feet, reached down and hauled Gaara upright, slinging the other vessel's arm over his shoulders. Gaara finally spoke again.
"Where are we going?" Naruto began to move, leaping from branch to branch, feeling the energy boost he had from Kyuubi rapidly draining away. "We've got to get out of Konoha's borders, and then we can decide which village to go to next. Do you know of any other jinchuuriki?"
"Okay--", his throat was clogged with tears, "Okay, then."
He left Konoha behind, ignored the tears streaming down his face, ignored the voice inside him howling for him to return, to forget the future, forget the Akatsuki, forget that Sasuke would one day betray them, but he couldn't-
To save the village he loved more than life, he would have to leave it.
Konoha's walls receded, and Naruto didn't look back.
A/N: Review, please?