Yeah, it's been a while. I have been derailed twice over, once by fandom (lost interest in Naruto for a while and wandered off to other pastures before returning; ngl, still not a huge fan of what's happening in the manga right now), and once by RL (academic studies, y'know).
That said: a very sincere thank you to everyone who has read this and refrained from dismissing it entirely given the last update date (from... two years ago...), and especially to crimson-rising, whose insightful comments recently inspired me to get this chapter finished.
I am a little apprehensive—my writing style may have changed over these years (okay, definitely has changed)—so please feel free to let me know what you enjoy and what you find jarring. I appreciate your support. :)
14 - their hate is as their loving-kindness
Sakura saw the kunoichi raise her flute, knew with a firm certainty—"Oh no you don't!" she snapped, even as she twisted around and, in a split second, let her shuriken fly with cold fury. They split the flute like a spliced leaf. Disarm the enemy, she thought grimly, and relished the rage that came over the kunoichi's face. There had been a reason the kunoichi had stolen Sakura's kunai to use in the genjutsu—Sakura had guessed, then, that she didn't have any in real life and, relying on ease and familiarity to simulate a fight, hadn't created any in her genjutsu seal. You gave me information, and gave me the chance to gamble, she said silently. Blame yourself for that. "Naruto!" she said. "How's—"
Sasuke-kun, but the name died in her throat as she turned her eyes upon the boy she had admired for so long. Sasuke leaned heavily against Naruto, the curse seal taking root upon the skin of his face like a mass of leering curlicues, the writhing imprint of a cattle brand—and stamped across his eyelids were thick smears of blood. Naruto had his hand covering Sasuke's mouth, but even so she could hear the muffled sounds of trailing laughter threading through his fingers. Sasuke blinked his eyes, his Sharingan rolling about like the eyes of a madman.
For a horrifying, disorienting moment, she thought: this is not my teammate. She looked into Naruto's eyes and saw nothing but a dawning dread.
Then reality crashed down upon her with the water spray. The one monster released by the Oto kunoichi had not dissipated yet with the flute's destruction, though it had slowed its speed. It lumbered toward them, the absence of its arms a mark of promised violence.
"Shore," she blurted out, and raced with Naruto across the water. She could feel the kunoichi's chakra behind them, the monster's too—another of the Oto nin broke off from the crowded lake melee of Oto three on Konoha three, his chakra flaring like the heat of firing clay against her back.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto gasped, as they curved around the shore to meet Lee and Chouji, "we gotta put Sasuke somewhere. He's gonna black out—there's something wrong, he was laughing like a maniac—and Sakura-chan, his eyes are bleeding, the Oto nin must've done something to him—"
"Nothing," muttered Sasuke. His voice was raspy, like crinkled paper. "I didn't see—I didn't see you, you shouldn't have been there—"
"Of course we're gonna be here, teme!" Naruto said fiercely. "We're teammates, I'm going where you are!"
Lee tensed and leaped forward to intercept them at the shore. "I will take him," he said, his face strangely solemn. "If he is injured—"
Sakura dared to look back. "Naruto, Kage Bunshin," she said. "There's no time. They're coming. Get them on land. Chouji!"
"I'll take the other one," said Chouji in reply, narrowing his eyes at the approaching Oto nin. "I'm not that fast—but he doesn't look like he is too. Lee hasn't been cleared yet, so—well, it's a matter of strength rather than speed."
She darted a look at Naruto, who was biting his lip anxiously and had yet to declare his fight. "Sasuke can't—I don't think he can fight," he stammered, "but we can't—"
We can't just leave him here. That would defeat the purpose of the mission altogether—to take him back to Konoha, rather than become sitting prey for the Oto nin to swipe from under their noses.
Sasuke staggered up with a jerk—he resembled, in his shaking and trembling, a aimless puppet with no puppeteer, and Sakura stared, for she had never seen him so discomposed. His right arm hung limply by his side, she noted—definitely a break in there somewhere, no time to check—and he breathed heavily through his swollen nose; bared his teeth as if it still meant anything, useless gesture though it was. With his eyes closed, Sasuke's eyelashes rested against his cheeks like faded brush strokes. "Shut up, dobe!" he muttered. "I can—I can fight. You stay out of this."
"You see?" Naruto hissed under his breath to Sakura. "He's absolutely out of his mind!"
Sakura wanted to object, wished she could object, but the plain and simple truth was that she agreed. Sasuke-kun... "Let me and Lee deal with him," she said. "Naruto, take the Oto nin for a moment, okay?"
Naruto opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. "You mean it?"
"'You mean it?'" repeated Sakura, impatience throttling her throat for a moment, her temper snapping under the strain. "'You mean it?' Of course I mean it! Do I need to clean your ears out?—god, Naruto! Keep the Oto nin off our backs for a moment and I'll get Sasuke out of the way!"
Naruto's face was forming a hard study in determination. "I'll beat them into the ground and you won't have to worry," he said—"Believe it!"
His hands came together to form the seal of Kage Bunshin.
Susanoo slips through his control like wisps of fog. The blood slips through his eyelashes like raindrops. The water beneath his feet slips to firm dirt, and Sasuke stumbles.
Those whom we love, his brother says, his eyes blazing red like venomous flowers, like raw rubies.
"Sakura, what's wrong with his eyes?"
Sasuke laughs, and opens his eyes. The Mangekyou Sharingan takes in his surroundings in a glance, a recorder that will never fail. This is the curse of memory, he recognizes, which will dog him to his grave—he remembers the killings in Tsukuyomi—Itachi and his blank eyes—an orange mask like a mocking whirlpool—the end of it all, and the emptiness in his chest, his heart eaten up by death. His blade, protruding through a spread of orange and black. "Jiroubou," he giggles, "don't you like to be toasted?" and lifts his mangled right hand, the pain shooting up to his elbow like a paralyzing poison. But that's right, he thinks, if I feel pain then I am alive. I am not dreaming. This is truly real.
I am alive.
They are alive.
"Sasuke, stay back!" Chouji shouts, but Sasuke is already moving forward, hears the step of his feet like a death knell. Amaterasu, he thinks desperately, Amaterasu, but his chakra gasps and flickers—and collapses, draining away the manic giddiness which has infected him and wringing him out like a wet rag. No, Sasuke mouths as he crashes to his knees, not now—the skin of his face tightens as the seal pulls back, spiraling to the nape of his neck, and a strange itch on his back flares into existence—
"You mess with me, I'll show you Uzumaki!" Naruto shrieks, echoed hundredfold by the voices of his clones.
"Lee, you're the fastest of us all," he can hear Sakura's voice ringing about his head. "Take him and go—we're six against four, we'll manage, I promise! But keep Sasuke-kun safe—"
"No!" Sasuke snarls, turns his face up to seek Sakura. "This is my business. I'll kill them all," he adds, the words deathly cold. "I'll kill them all." He nurses the resolution in his heart like a snake, feels his eyes whirring like machine gears—do this for me, he forces his Sharingan forward relentlessly, my eyes cannot fail me—
"Sasuke-kun—" begins Sakura, but the words tremble with fear. Sasuke can almost see himself reflected in her green eyes, a hazy image spitting with unfocused frustration.
"Are you afraid of me?" he snorts, surging to his feet. "You should be. I could kill you all. Everyone will die in the long run."
Sakura whispers, "Afraid for you... what did the Oto nin do to you, Sasuke-kun?"
He stretches out his hand. "This is nothing." Think of what I did to the Oto nin, Sakura, he says silently. I used fire and lightning and set them ablaze—if it weren't for this stupid, slow body, I could've taken them down and left them to Orochimaru's mercy. I could've gone to look for Itachi and come back with him—
—and you wouldn't have had to come after me. You wouldn't have had to die.
"Don't be silly—"
But Sasuke has a knack for insubordination. He darts past Sakura and winds around Lee, who jerks back and is hesitant to stop him—Naruto is bombarding Tayuya with clones, while Chouji thunders into Jiroubou with a dizzying spin, the Akimichi technique grinding him down before Jiroubou rises once more, glowering.
I will not be this weak again, he repeats; lopes over to Chouji, whose breath skips and stutters with strain. Chouji, he knows, is always well-prepared; and Chouji doesn't take his eyes off Jiroubou, so no time for him to react as Sasuke reaches out and flips his pouch open. There are spare kunai, and spare shuriken, but—
There. Nestled on the side are several colored chakra pills, and Sasuke's mouth twitches into a humorless smile. Who would make better chakra pills than the Akimichi? he thinks, and carelessly, thoughtlessly, swallows down the green one—
Chakra rises up in him like fire, stripping away the sensation of muscle and tendon, till he is nothing but crackling bone—he breathes in, heat coating his throat and puffing out as steam. The fire cradles him like a baby, like Susanoo born anew—this is unlike any chakra pill he ever had, he thinks dazedly, this is power—this is strength—
"Sasuke, you ate the—" Chouji's voice, rising up into a horrified yell, barely breaks through his reverie. He stalks forward like a skeleton, like a dead man resurrected, a second life under the sun—raises his hand and there—blasts Chidori Nagashi again at Jiroubou, who bristles and shakes it off like water sliding off his back, but makes the mistake of looking up, looking into Sasuke's bleeding eyes—
If I am going to hell, Sasuke says, whether aloud or in his mind, he does not know, and does not care to know—I am taking you all with me. Tsukuyomi. And he curls in on himself and lets himself drown.
He paints the sky red, because it had been red, lurid swaths swiping their way past clouds down to the far horizon. The ground, too, is red, gurgling with idle streams of blood that ripple and settle themselves into the barest semblance of a seal. Jiroubou has tensed a few meters away, glaring at Sasuke with beady eyes. "What the fuck kind of jutsu is this?" he hisses.
Sasuke does not smile. He raises his chokuto and places the tip of it at the hollow of Jiroubou's neck—no, he sees now. Ah, he thinks. This was what I should have done. Madara. "Well now," he says. The pause lingers uneasily for a moment, the world unearthly silent-for no wind whistles, no waterfall roars. Then a crow caws overhead, tearing through the world, and Sasuke knows Itachi is watching—dead, yes, but he is watching, he would be certain to witness the demise of the man who helped kill his clan. "You'll just have to find out, won't you?" And the blade slides in between skin and muscle, parting them like the thin delicate pages of a book. The body trembles. The man cannot scream. Will not scream. Sasuke does not like to hear the screams of the already dead.
(He hears the voices, the murmuring ghosts.)
"Again," Sasuke says. Madara's orange mask remains impassive.
"Again," Sasuke says—
Again, mutating inside the barrel—again, a fight at the Valley of the End—so everything else, will it (not) happen again? Sasuke is too tired to make sense of it. He is in his past, but what good was his future? What good is there to find, beside the deaths of those upon whom he sought revenge? Nothing in Konoha for him, but death; nothing outside of Konoha for him, but death. It is easier, ultimately, to start with what he knows.
"Again," Sasuke says, and twists the blade.
"Sasuke-kun, now you're just being redundant." He glances over and sees the bright crimson splash on the front of Sakura's vest; sees the scar along her right temple; the wink she delivers.
"Hn. Next time, don't come."
"I wonder where Naruto is," she says in a singsong voice. "That Kyuubi jinchuuriki—"
Sasuke stares at the blade, dripping blood from its tip sporadically, reminiscent of a leaky faucet. Back then it had slid in so easily, so quickly. But he had not slid it through Madara.
Twists it again. Blood flies onto the orange mask. "I don't want this," he says, "to be real." I'll kill them all, he had said. Rote memorization and recitation of the words by now: they were, after all, so easy to say, and had been so easy to fulfill. Weariness surged over him again, a wash of weakness.
"Oh, oh, oh, whatever do you mean, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura hisses, and when he looks again the corners of her eyes have sharpened and angled down, her tongue flicks out to taste the air, and Orochimaru grins lazily at him, smelling of decaying flesh and gleaming with snakeskin unshed. At his feet, scavenging birds skitter over Sakura's day-old innards, nipping at those which spill out onto the ground. Her heart rests still within her chest, shining jewel-bright.
Sasuke says nothing aloud, but he thinks: I have already killed them once. And I... am tired...
He has not allowed himself time for rest in all the years he has been learning, moving, killing. His vengeance is spent. I have nothing left to give to this new past, Sasuke says to himself. It would be easier if—
He does not know. He twists the blade again. He holds the genjutsu on himself and Madara, and lets it eat his chakra, the fire flowing like a life force into Tsukuyomi and draining Orochimaru's seal dry. If I kill a thousand times in here, Sasuke decides, that will be enough. And he closes his eyes.
Naruto didn't notice right away—his attention had been utterly focused on the kunoichi, who sneered at him—"Uzumaki? Don't bother with your name, boy, and you don't need mine, you'll be dead before that happens—"
"Yeah, right!" he hollered, and laughed heartily in her face—was tempted to stick out his tongue too, but maybe that was a bit much. "You didn't get us in Konoha, and you got no flute either!"
"I'll kill the girl too," the Oto nin said lowly, and spat, "She shouldn't be alive, that bitch—no one leaves my death genjutsu alive—"
"Call it fail genjutsu!" Naruto cackled—and ha! Two clones burst out from underneath and grappled with her, holding her arms, and even as she was kicking out to dispel the one on the left, a third clone bulldozed into her—
She fell back, scowling. And there was something wriggling over her neck—
"No way," he groaned; watched the ink dance over her skin, the horns jut out of her head like sharpened battering rams, her fists clench as she breathed in newly given power. She straightened, and the new rush of knowing superiority glinting in her eyes was no good signal. Not cool, he grumbled—swung a kunai around his middle finger and threw it to gauge how she moved now—
She snatched it out of the air like it was a irritating mosquito. "Try again," she taunted, "if you get two out of five I'll be pretty impressed as is—you look like a guy with no brawn and no brains—"
Naruto noticed, then, because he heard Sakura's incomprehensible scream.
He turned his head so fast he could almost feel it vibrating and bobbing on his neck—his shoulder went crack under the Oto nin's fist, he spat out blood as he skidded back—"Clones, have at it!" he screamed, and turned his back on his enemy, running lightly upon the water like hell was behind him. Or in front of him, because as his shoulder knitted itself back together and his nin sandals slapped at the lake, he saw—
—Lee and Chouji, holding down the other Oto nin's twitching body and tying him up, as he gibbered and drooled and spoke nonsense—
—Sakura, her hair hiding her face, kneeling next to and desperately shaking—
—Sasuke. Sasuke's body, which in the course of a few seconds had become thin, emaciated—Naruto came closer now, could see Sasuke's collarbone revealing itself under his skin, his ribs thrusting up to show underneath his wet shirt, his eye sockets sinking deep into his head—
"What happened?" he growled, and Sakura looked up, shuddered, and screamed again. "What?" he asked.
Sakura's eyes were round and blindly seeing but uncomprehending, as she stared at him. "N—Nothing," she said. "Naruto—your chakra—"
"Sasuke ate my chakra pill!" Chouji shouted. "It's a special one, he shouldn't have, but he took it and did something to take this Oto nin down—"
"—he won't wake up—" Sakura moaned. She looked as though she were praying over the dead. "Stupid, stupid, stupid Sasuke-kun—"
"Serves him right, the bastard!" the Oto nin sang from behind him, and he turned—too late, too late—
—pushed down to the ground, Naruto felt his face greeting the dirt as an unwanted friend, muddied by water and blood.
"Gotcha," said the Oto nin.
A drop of blood fell on his ear, sliding around the shell and down inside—Naruto shook his head wildly as he leaped to his feet, blond hair pulsing out red like a warning beacon—"Sakura-chan!"
Saw the kunai lodged in her chest, above the heart. She kept her hand over it and didn't pull it out—her brow shiny with sweat, her breath coming through her mouth in harsh gasps. "Naruto," she said, "we—shouldn't give her weapons anymore..."
"Just like last time," said the Oto nin. "You twerps never learn, huh? You're outta your league with us, trash like you—"
"It's all a lie!" Sakura shouted. One hand over her heart, one hand beginning to form kai. "It's not real—Naruto, don't worry—Sasuke-kun and I, we won't die!" In her voice he heard nothing but—fear, trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to convince Naruto.
Naruto never quite remembered what he had seen in that moment, as time sighed and slowed itself down, as Naruto broke his gaze from Sakura and looked at the kunoichi, really looked at her, even with Sakura and Sasuke overlaying his vision. Sasuke, nothing but bones like a long-dead corpse, and Sakura, bleeding so brightly and freely and saying, it's all right, Naruto, it's all right—
You're lying, he thought. Sakura-chan, you're lying. And saw the Oto nin's face, the whole lot of them, purple ropes tied round their waists like they were presenting themselves to be hanged. Pathetic, stupid human, she hurt Sakura-chan and the others drove Sasuke crazy and—it's all your fault, he thought savagely. Your fault, I'll—I'll—
Deep within Naruto, the Kyuubi stirred languidly, and grinned.
"I'll kill you!" he screamed, unknowingly echoing Sasuke in a time far apart. He could feel the Kyuubi's chakra bursting out over his skin into a blazing cloak of crimson, killing and regenerating his cells all at once—his pupils sharpening to slits, his whiskers deepening and broadening on his face, as he crouched down and sprang forward, his heart afire. "I'll kill you all!"
The chapter title comes from:
Shall such a one lend love or borrow?
Shall these be sorry for thy sorrow?
Shall these give thanks for words or breath?
Their hate is as their loving-kindness;
The frontlet of their brows is blindness,
The armlet of their arms is death.
—Algernon Swinburne, "Ilicet"
This practically describes Uchiha to a T.
When I described Itachi's eyes as "blazing red like venomous flowers," it was a nod to Swinburne's "Dolores":
Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
Red mouth like a venomous flower—
Ok, no more Swinburne glee for now.
"Call it fail genjutsu!"—okay, so maybe Naruto has to work on those fail comebacks. I couldn't resist. :D
It's mentioned in the Naruto Wiki that Tayuya did not carry kunai on her, because she relied on her flute. It's just her bad luck that Sakura purposefully aimed for her flute instead of her body, the way most of Tayuya's past enemies have (my Watsonian explanation is that the flute is an odd object to have in a battle, odd enough that people would tend to discount it as a trifle in favor of preparing to fight with the usual weaponry-at which point Tayuya would already be gleefully leering at them).
I thought for a while about having Sasuke take apart the Sound Four—not gonna lie, oh the temptation of a major smackdown in the narrative, mwahaha—but then my little voice of reason stuffily told me that, given his mental state re: the final fusion of past!future-present memories, he would hardly be able to take them all on. In the end, I decided to have him contribute to taking care of one, but taking care of that Sound Four member in a way which is... well, all about Sasuke. He's not really seeing you in Tsukuyomi, Jiroubou—sorry, but Sasuke wants to kill other people more (aka Madara). And the idea of truly facing the old past again, with his former future entirely erased (including Itachi's death, his time in Sound, Team 7's fate and all), is frankly a terrifying notion to him. All that pain and effort undertaken, now completely negated. It's mentally paralyzing, and I decided to have Sasuke react by retreating into the familiar: his own universe of Tsukuyomi, where anything goes. The battle at the Valley of the End and the Sound Four there in this new past—to him, it seems like a foreign land entirely, one step removed in his mind.
What a coincidence, one might exclaim, re: Chouji's chakra pills. :P Well, Sasuke never knew about them—and knowing as he does the genin, out of the four at hand (Lee, Sakura, Naruto, and Chouji), it does stand to reason that Chouji would have them. Hehe.