A/N: Thank you, Eye.G, for that lovely work of art. :)

December 31, 2012


The Sky

by Hic Iacet Mori


Chapter 28

Look at what you did.

The admission sent the room in a flurry of movements.

Are you happy now?

"Oh fuck no you don't!" Naruto hollered.

A powerful blast of wind knocked everyone back, effectively stopping Kakashi, Iruka, Sai, and Sasuke from completing their Shunshin. On instinct Sasuke materialized in front of the Hokage, shielding her with his body with his arms raised to cover his face, his eyes red slits as he analyzed the chakra interspersed with the wind. Beside him was Sai, protecting the Hokage as well like any true ANBU.

"No one leaves," Naruto panted after the wind died, his left palm on the floor, his right hand wielding a bloody kunai. "Don't even dare."

"You asshole!" Konohamaru yelled. "You're not gonna stop us!"

"Yeah?" Naruto raised his head and cracked a painful grin. His kunai whistled in the air and he spread his empty hands before him, leaving himself open with a mocking air. "Give it your best shot, bozu."

Konohamaru growled, immediately going through the handseals. "Shunshin no Jutsu!"

Naruto snorted when nothing happened. "Well?"

Konohamaru jerked in surprise. "What—" His eyes narrowed. "What did you do?!"

"I told you," Naruto repeated, swaying as he slowly stood up, baring his teeth. "No. One. Leaves."

"Go to hell!" Konohamaru cried out. "Naruto-oniichan is dying—"

"Naruto… is in extraction right now?" Sakura whispered.

Naruto faltered. Sasuke slowly turned to her. Sakura sounded like a child, so lost and confused, her gaze an unfocused green as soundless words came out of her mouth, her eyes trapped on a vision none could ever glimpse.

"Sakura-chan—"

In that moment she wasn't Sakura, successor to the hospital chief Shizune. Neither was she Sakura, apprentice to the Sannin Tsunade. She wasn't even the hardhitter who took down a battalion with a single punch.

"We have a lot of catching up because some idiot decided to take ten years to climb down."

She was Sakura, the girl who never stopped waiting.

"But we reached the moon so it's all good, ne?"

She raised her eyes and Sasuke had to look away—her eyes were so green and bright and hoping, always hoping, the way they always did even when she stopped waiting for him, the way they always did because there was someone else to wait for—someone important, someone kind, someone more precious than he could ever be—

"He c-can't be, that's not—that's not true—"

Sasuke hurt for her.

"T-That baka—" Sakura abruptly whirled around, pink hair flying behind her as she made for the door. She took out her black gloves, tugging them on, "Always p-pranking—I'll teach him a—a lesson he'll n-never forget—"

"You're feeling his pain."

Sakura stiffened.

"The pain of bijuu extraction—you feel it, don't you? What is happening to you is because of it, na?" Sai asked, voice ringing clear and strong with an emptiness that would never go away. Beside him, Sasuke bore witness to the drying tracks on pale cheeks—and the scream he let out in silence by biting on his bottom lip.

Naruto swallowed convulsively. "How—did you—"

"He's in the middle of extraction all this time and, even if he sleeps—"

"Shut up, baka!" Sakura snarled, pivoting swiftly to appear in front of Sai, yanking him by the collar and shaking him furiously. "He's no—"

"—the fact that you feel his pain," Sai continued, unperturbed, as tears gathered in the corner of his eyes once again, "means he's feeling it too."

Sakura's hold laxed. "Sai…"

"And if I, by knowledge alone, is in much pain already—" Sai tilted his head, "—how much more does it hurt you, feeling a shadow of his? How much more does it hurt Naruto, feeling it all while he sleeps?"

Sakura released him and swiftly took off her gloves, throwing them carelessly behind her. Her medic instinct had kicked in—the instinct to nurture, to soothe—and she raised her hands to the pale cheeks, drying them as much as she could. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she murmured almost silently, practically mouthed the words, and gently pressed her thumbs down to wipe the tears beneath his eyes. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have forced you to say those things..."

"I'm catching all I can," Naruto murmured, blind to the plight of his closest friends. Sasuke felt his breath stop at the quiet admission—how much more—beside him Sakura wavered in her ministration—when does this end—and Sai's eyes narrowed, forehead pinching in pain even his facial apathy couldn't hide. "Don't worry too much, he's in too deep to feel a thing," he added, turning to each stricken face as if he could see them all behind his eyelids—what is wrong with you—attempting to encourage with his most assuring smile, "I'm doing my best—"

Sai opened his mouth, uttered the despairing thought that had crossed Sasuke's mind, "But he'll feel them all when you disappear, you're still a kage bunshin."

Why would you hurt yourself like this?

"Yeah," Naruto admitted, voice getting lower and lower, "and we're actually… gunning on that…"

No.

Air caught in Sasuke's throat.

Shut up you don't mean that quit lying

"Because it's the only way he could think of that wouldn't push him in a deeper sleep," Kakashi finally spoke, his voice roughened by emotion. His fists tightened, the sound of clenching a warning. "That's very idiotic of you—of Naruto—"

Why would you hurt us this much?

Naruto jerked back with a wounded expression. "Kakashi-sensei…!"

What is wrong with you?!

"It's pain, isn't it," Iruka suddenly said, brown eyes electric at this discovery. "What your friend discovered. Pain wakes Naruto up. Not physical pain, at least not this—this magnitude. Emotional pain. Na, Naruto?"

Naruto gave a small nod.

"Naruto has—always been attuned to other people's pain," Iruka murmured, "It's what woke him up before, when you disappeared before the right time. The pain his friend felt—the pain of losing him—it's that pain that woke him up. His anchor wasn't so much your friend as his... empathy.

"Naruto responds to pain. Always. He can't help it, it's why he would always try. Would never give up. But with—" he swallowed audibly, his brows furrowing as his eyes clenched shut, "—with him—in extraction—there's no one to feel—pain for him, no one's pain he could wake up to. No one's pain to—to answer—to try and make better... So he'll use the pain his clone will bear, use his own pain"

Naruto gasped in surprise at strong hands suddenly clamping down his shoulders, the owner of these shaking hands seething with a fury no student would dream to see.

"I'm in pain right now," Iruka hissed, his hold becoming tighter, threatening to bury, to crush. Sasuke was reminded that Umino Iruka was no mere teacher with a gentle gaze and tender words—Umino Iruka was a teacher who taught students how to kill. "Do you feel it? This pain, from the thought of losing you, Naruto?! Open your eyes and see for yourself, see what you're doing to us!"

Naruto shook his head. "Iruka-sen—"

Even Sasuke flinched at Iruka's bellow. "Naruto!"

"What do you want me to say?" Naruto cried out, frustrated. "Do?!"

"Cancel the damned jutsu and let us find him!" Iruka yelled.

"I can't! Okay?" Naruto raised broken fingers as if to rub down his face, dislodging the bloodless hands that held him forcefully in place. "You're not gonna reach him on time and even if you do, there's nothing you can do! What else is there to? Coming after him like this, you might as well kill hi—Sensei!" he squawked.

"Look into my eyes and say it to my face," Iruka ordered lowly. He yanked Naruto forward, their faces inches from each other. Their noses almost touching. "Say it to my face," Iruka repeated, a sibilant command. "I dare you."

"Iruka," Naruto pleaded. "Tou—Tousan."

It wasn't enough. "Tell me I'm killing Naruto."

"You're not! It was a—a stupid thing to say! Look," Naruto's voice was edged with a desperation for understanding. "I get it, okay? I get it. But there's nothing else to do, it was Naruto's choice—"

A humorless chuckle reverberated in the room.

Sasuke glanced behind him. The Hokage's rouged lips were tilted up a notch—it was the drunken mocking smile she hardly ever wore anymore. "Naruto's choice," she repeated. "This agreement with Pain, to sacrifice himself for Konoha—Naruto's choice. A poor choice, ne?"

Naruto tensed.

Sasuke automatically moved to the side as she strode past them, her arms crossing over her chest as she leaned before her desk. "Ten years is a long time, but I didn't realize it would be enough time to forget Akatsuki's reason for capturing the bijuu—or that it would be long enough to forget the Moon Eye Plan that will put the whole world into Tobi's dream world." Her smile was unrepentantly mirthless, "Which would include Konoha, being part of the whole world Naruto seemed to have forgotten."

Naruto growled at her implication.

"Pain must have intercepted Naruto on his way here," she mused aloud, ignoring him. "I don't understand something, though. If, as you said, Naruto was winning, why would he need to make that choice? Unless you're lying, which I'm more inclined to believe—you're here to make sure we're blissfully ignorant of what's happening to him after all."

She cupped her chin with a thoughtful mien. "But we know now—and you don't want us to come after him. You tell us you're catching all the pain you can so when you disappear, every pain returns to him at once—to what? Wake him up in time to draw his last breath? No," she looked down, her jaws tight, light yellow fringes whipping her cheeks, "this can't be there is to it. There's more to this. There must be."

Her voice lowered, almost a whisper, eyes resolute, brighter. "There must be."

In the sorrow of a second that shrouded the whole room, Kakashi's terse question cut the silence like a scream. "Is this how he follows in his father's footsteps?"

"Bet you and Ero-jiji been hassling my old man up there. Be nicer to him! He died for everyone so cut him some slack. I'm going to be like him, y'know."

Naruto's breath hitched.

"Wilfully put his life on the line to buy Konoha a little time—at the expense of the world?"

"We're going to be like him."

Naruto made a sound of protest. "It's not lik—"

But Kakashi was relentless, the gray of his eye a storm of ash. "Tell us, Naruto," quietly, gently, the snow fall of dust, "how Naruto's sacrifice will save us all."

There was no peace in the silence that followed Kakashi's words. It was jagged and piercing and loud, full of words left unsaid, of deeds left undone. In this fullness Sasuke felt a uselessness so demoralizing he felt sick—one of the most powerful the world had ever seen and here he was, paralyzed in a room that fell victim to the caprices of one of its occupants, watching and listening and raging in his mind and heart, raging in his most secret places that once were known to him. Too powerless to do a thing with questions that kept rising, too weak to seek answers that were nowhere in sight.

How was he an ANBU? A shinobi in his prime, what was his power for? What was his strength for?

What had been his hard work the past ten years for?

So useless…

In every breath Sasuke took Naruto was losing his—but they could do nothing, trapped in a shield of the clone of his best friend's making, contained like hapless prey as he died in the most painful way—

"To me you have become"

His most precious person—

"—my closest friend, yeah."

His Naruto—

"Naruto!"

Everyone was frozen—saved for Sasuke and Naruto, who jerked forward and spewed blood over Iruka's shoulder.

"Sasuke-kun!"

Sasuke couldn't see above the crackling white light.

"Sasuke, you're hurting him!"

Couldn't hear above the shrieks of a thousand restrained.

"Teme!"

Silence cleaved, abrupt and shrill. Sasuke's vision faded to normal when the brightness died a sudden death. Sight and hearing rushed back. He smelled the stench of fire and copper, felt the touch of feather and ice—

"… Dobe?"

Naruto grasping his wrist, assaulting all his senses—panting and pale and bloody, so bloody—halting his mindless attempt at drilling a hole on the chakra-infused shield, straining with the effort of keeping that shield up to stop Sasuke from saving—

"You," came quietly—a second's peace before the crash, soothing and sudden and over too soon—everything in him thrashing like a man beneath the sea, life fading and death looming in flashes of brilliant—

blue.

A collective gasp rose and it was the burning rush of air.

"Your eyes!" Sakura cried out.

"Did Akatsuki do this?" Tsunade demanded.

"What the fuck," Konohamaru uttered weakly.

Iruka strode between them and pulled the broken man into his arms, releasing the pale wrist to the chill of painful freedom. Head bowed, face unseen, his back against the rest, Iruka leaned up and enfolded Naruto in his arms.

Over shoulders shaking soundless Naruto stared down and blinked—sockets gaping, shuttering, flaps of flesh over void. Through the late afternoon sun flooding the room with light, they could see the hollowness where mirages of blue lived and died sloshing with blood.

Konohamaru dropped on the floor, legs too weak to hold him up. Sai's eyes remained open as tears streaked down, his arm around Sakura who had burrowed sobbing into his side. Kakashi's Sharingan was uncovered, a suspicious glaze within as his other eye blinked. Sasuke's own was wakened, rage and fire and grief.

Gaara's back was to the room, fists clenched on either side. Tsunade's head was bowed.

"It's not that bad—"

Iruka's head whipped up. "Not that bad?!" he yelled hoarsely, sulphur and brimstone, pure condemnation, "Fuck. You!"

"Iruka-sensei!"

"No you don't Iruka-sensei me, you—you—" the fury stumbled, choked, overwhelmed by tears, "Baka! Always getting into trouble! I shouldn't have let you graduate—You can't even see no—"

Naruto pulled back with an annoyed scowl, heedless of the blood now overflowing from gaping sockets. "I can see just fine, thank you," he groused. "And I'm seeing a bunch of melodramat—"

He yelped when Tsunade yanked him by the front of his robe again, almost crushing Iruka before unconsciously pushing the older man away. "Don't you make light of this, gaki," she warned in a soft voice. From the side Sasuke watched tears drip down her chin, mixing with the puddle of blood on the floor. "I've put up with your shit long enough and my patience has run out hours ago. Don't—" she gritted her teeth. "Don't!"

She grabbed him and wept.

"Baa-chan. Baa-chan, sorry," came the muffled apology. "Guys, sorry."

Tsunade shuddered, and nodded. "Good."

"And—anou—I might get blood on your—your boobs—"

"Gaki…!" Tsunade looked up. "Was this Akatsuki's doing?"

Naruto shook his head. "I didn't even know about this," he admitted. "I did have an idea that something's wrong with my eyes but... maybe? I don't really see what's going on in the other side. I only get what Naruto has before creating me, and he still had his eyes last time I saw him before they fought. And I doubt Pain would gouge out his eyes, he doesn't seem the type."

Sasuke frowned. No, this wasn't Akatsuki. He didn't know why but he was sure of it.

He froze and looked up. Did Naruto just admit

"I see now," Kakashi suddenly said. Naruto pulled back the same time the Hokage released him and turned to him with a perplexed frown. The mismatched eyes darkened with somber realization. "It was not by accident Pain found Naruto." He gave Iruka a meaningful glance. "Naruto planned to be caught all along."

"There was no offer," Iruka said slowly, brown eyes disbelieving as he immediately caught on, "None at all. Naruto intended for Pain to catch himby putting up a fight and getting himself captured for extraction." He shook his head. "He wasn't winning. He didn't plan to. That offer was just another cover-up, another distraction!" Accusing eyes turned to Naruto. "It's another lie and you didn't even know you just contradicted yourself."

Naruto winced.

Kakashi nodded. "And you're containing us here so none of us can come after him. ANBU on the trail, you don't mind, but us? You don't want us there. Not with what's at stake in the last phase of his plan," Kakashi concluded. His jaw clenched. "A plan that involves dissolving yourself at the right moment to crash your memories of pain magnified by exhaustion into his mind. Extreme enough to wake him up."

"Is this true?" Tsunade asked softly. Naruto flinched when her voice rose sharply, "Is this true?"

"The extraction killed me," Gaara muttered, turning around to face him. The dried tracks on his face were glaring to Sharingan eyes. "I wouldn't have lived if not for Chiyo-obaasama. Why would Naruto choose to undergo the same? Does he believe he will live after, with no outside intervention?"

Naruto sighed and briefly closed his eyes. "The Akatsuki didn't die with Madara," he answered. "Not with—Tobi still alive." He turned to Sasuke, shaking the latter to his very core with the hollow of his gaze. "Tobi and Madara—they're different people. The man you killed, Madara, was your ancestor. He's not the man behind the mask. Tobi is—is—" an apparent reluctance, "He's—another Uchiha."

"Another Uchiha?" Kakashi echoed.

Naruto nodded. "Aa. The Akatsuki was quiet for some time, we did a number on them toobut soon they're active again." His mouth thinned in disgust. "They set their eyes over the Western Seas. Tobi was experimenting," he spat out, "trapping villages, cities of civilians in his fucked-up genjutsu. Wiping out entire civilizations. There were no shinobi over there, just people who want to get by, live a peaceful life." His voice lowered in pained intensity, "No one stood a chance.

"Then I started hearing stories. Men in black cloaks with red clouds, kidnapping people. Returning them after ransom is paid, dead. Or worse, alive and—different. Nearly inhuman. An eye on a hand, liver outside the chest, beating heart on a forehead beside a baby's foot..." He chuckled darkly. "Apparently they got a member who thinks people could be fucking reassembled. Could be taken apart and rebuilt. Could be eaten sometimes, returned chewed-up like a toy. Could be used as living explosives—could be weapons

"Then there were people returned, whole in the body but not in the mind... driven crazy by the glowing red moon. Some vanished and reappeared, sucked off their life force, kept alive long enough for their family to see them die for three hours..."

He stopped himself with a deep breath, calming himself forcibly, "And then—and then they got to B somehow and I know—" another deep breath, jostling the sockets that filled with thick blood once more, gritted his teeth, "—sooner or later, they'd be coming for Naruto again to complete that fucking dumb Moon Eye Plan or whatever stupid piece of rock they decided to use next. So we met them," he shot a feral grin, and he was the demon and it unsettled, sharp canines stained with blood from the windows of empty soul, "and Naruto's taking them all down and all the bijuu with him."

Kakashi's eyes rounded. "Taking all the…"

The glee was inhuman. "Yup. Like a rubber band! And they agreed to help!"

"They?" Gaara asked, frowning. "The bijuu? Including—Shukaku?"

"Rubber band?" Tsunade repeated.

"Aa! Heard them last night! Does he always sound drunk? Kept giggling and playing with his balls, didn't think he'd be like that from the last time I met him. Y'know, when I headbutted the love out of you?" A light chuckle, "And rubber band, Baa-chan, like when you stretch it too much and it comes back at you and stings you stupid?"

Kakashi was rubbing his chin. "Kyuu—Kurama will be the rubber band, then? Stretched out to the point of breaking by the extraction?" he asked skeptically.

"Yup!"

"Aa," Gaara replied absentmindedly. "How did you hear them?"

Naruto laughed sheepishly, unconsciously scratching his blood-matted hair. The motion pushed his head an inch and blood dribbled down again. "I uh, accidentally fell asleep last night." He smiled at Sasuke, raised a mangled thumbs-up. "Good thing bastard's there to wake me."

Sasuke nearly recoiled. He had fallen asleep in Naruto's arms—his dark hair brushed back, his head tucked under a chin, assured and promised better dreams in a voice rough with sleep and soft with tenderness, held like a child dearly loved even now the ache choked—then jerked awake soon after by fear so thick he could smell it, a tang in the air, of copper, of burning he could taste it in his skin in his clothes in his lungs—

"Oh yeah, I almost forgot something!" Naruto exclaimed.

"You took them with you."

Now he knew why.

"Just like you took something from him..."

Why he was sure it wasn't Akatsuki who took the blue.

"... and something from me."

It was him.

Naruto reached inside the folds of his now-gaping robe, grabbing hold of an object hanging from his neck. With a forceful tug, Naruto held a small bottle of shining blue shards in his hand. He leaned closer to Tsunade and gently took her palm. "Naruto's really sorry he broke your necklace. Y'know Kurama was a downright bitch before, Baa-chan."

"Gaki…" Tsunade murmured thickly. She pushed the bottle back to his hand. "I told you, it's yours—"

He stopped her with an open palm. "But I'm not Naruto, remember?"

She gave a short chuckle. "Cheeky brat—" Tsunade paused, eyes fixed on his torso. "Is that—?"

Naruto looked down. "Huh? Oh." Parting his robe, he lifted up his shredded jacket, a black and orange affair similar to what Sasuke remembered. His visible stomach was distended and purple, with black rods embedded within to form a spiral formation. "Chakra receivers," he explained, albeit hesitantly. "We modified it, links Naruto's pain to me."

They were silenced for a beat.

"Naruto couldn't have just gotten hold of that, even in ten years—unless you and Pain... have been working together…" Tsunade trailed off.

"Aa." Before anyone could react to this astounding revelation, he raised a finger then immediately turned around, retching up blood. Everyone in the room winced, even the Kazekage, and nervous chuckles filled the room when Naruto burped.

"Ugh, 'scuse me. That was nasty. Anyway," Naruto wiped his mouth with a sleeve, now more amenable to talking—a step towards truth often swiftly turns into a run, "Dunno how he jumped back alive—he wouldn't tell me, the jerk, but he's been waiting to go back dead to be with his pals. Just wanted to stop all this bijuu business, y'know? So we started hanging out." He frowned. "Which is why I don't have a fucking clue why'd he stalk you guys. It wasn't in the plan and that's not cool." Still frowning, he shrugged. "Maybe he got impatient or something. I was kinda late."

Sakura shook her head, incredulous. "But he attacked Kakashi-sensei!"

Kakashi, an intensity in his eyes sans the usual veneer of charming apathy, shook his head. "It only escalated when I insisted on engaging him," he admitted, earning a glare of disbelief from the Hokage. "I just needed to recuperate from Kamui overuse."

Naruto, glaring down at his clothes, muttered, "Whatcha do, try to teleport him to hell or something?" He tried vainly to fix his robe, fussing at the blood and cursing when more dripped from his eyes. "I guess it's time," he added without thought.

"Well, if Naruto is working with Pain and—and all the bijuu—" the rising hope in Sakura's eyes was desperate, sickening, turning Sasuke's gut in on itself, as she stepped closer next to him, "Then that means he'll be back soon. Ne?"

Naruto bit his lip in consternation but Sakura plodded on, "You didn't want us to come after him because he—he wouldn't want us in the—the crossfire." She chuckled, nigh breathless, hope was what she breathed for, " The bijuu would all be—pissed off, ne?"

When Naruto closed his eyes, Sakura faltered and she looked ready to shatter. "You're not—even sure it would work, are you?" she whispered, shrill in the accusing silence.

Kakashi was slow and measured, the clock marching on. "Even an Uzumaki won't survive as container of all bijuu, especially after an extraction. Na, Naruto."

Sasuke had known it all along but he'd been blind for too long—

No, you damned moron

—even with eyes finally open it took a while to see.

Don't you fucking dare

After an indeterminate length of time, Naruto nodded.

Sasuke shriveled inside.

"I hate you," Sakura hissed. Tears fell down her eyes with more swiftly taking the place of the ones she lost in a haze of betrayal. "Why did you come here at all if Naruto doesn't plan to return?!"

"You weren't supposed to know—"

"And that makes it better?!" she screamed. "Did you think we wouldn't suffer if we thought Akatsuki kidnapped him after falling for a stupid message? That we'd be okay thinking that we failed to save him?!" She brought her hands to her face, almost in hysterics. "Why did you come here at all—"

"Because I made a promise to Sakura-chan," Naruto replied softly. "And I never break my promises, that's my nindo."

Sakura whipped up, furious, "Naruto promised me—!"

"No," he corrected, gently. "The Naruto who left Konoha, ten years ago, was already a Kurama bunshin. That Naruto—was me."

"Already—" her eyes widened.

"And clone or not, fake or real, Naruto is Naruto," he said with a smile, tender and warming and human, always human, "Naruto will always deliver on his promise to Sakura-chan." He lifted a broken hand, tenderly wiping a tear that streaked down her quivering lips. "Naruto will always come back for you. Even if it's just a clone. Even for the last time."

Somewhere within his soul Sasuke felt something break.

"So smile, okay? All of you." Naruto looked around, the eyes none for any to see taking them all in. "His favorite memories are where all of you smile—and your smiles, he'll need them soon."

Sakura's voice shook. "Soon?"

Reaching behind him, ignoring the grotesque sound of popping bones, Naruto produced a scroll and opened it, revealing the kanji of man in the center surrounded by a seal. With a flutter it landed among pools of his blood, and he planted a palm firmly on the center.

"Gyaku Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

A kage bunshin appeared, meditation unbroken. Sage mode, Sasuke realized by the prominent pigmentation around the eyes.

His heart jumped. He had seen Naruto like this before. Fought him like this before and left him nearly—

He nearly swayed where he stood as he felt himself break some more.

Sasuke internally shook his head—now was not the time to lose himself to a memory. This kage bunshin, this sennin, had been gathering natural energy for quite some time—so was the other one that appeared from another scroll. He didn't know for how long, just knew it must be long enough for both sennin to radiate so much power without even unveiling their chakra. But why did Naruto's Kurama bunshin summoned them?

Naruto leaned towards the first, almost in a crouch. Their faces were almost inches to each other before the first sennin exploded in a puff of smoke. Sharingan alert, Sasuke caught the chakra within the smoke disperse into the hitai'ate hanging barely around Naruto's neck. The same thing happened with the second sennin.

It was all done quickly, almost over in a blink. What was he planning?

With a wide, disarming smile Naruto looked up and blew Sasuke's thoughts away.

"I tried to pick up girls as sennin once," Naruto confided in a stage whisper, a juvenile giggle threatening to erupt in every word. "Didn't work, they keep pointing out my weird eye shadow. And my contacts look weird too, 'Why do you have to pick a pair of froggy eyes, Clueless-kun? Frogs are icky and they look dumb with your whiskers, sorry! But you can still buy me a drink.'" He grinned. "A girl asked me to lick her, though."

He snickered at his last statement before lighting up, "And some guys liked it, said I look wicked! There's even this dude—cool dude, had this tattoo of a huge freaking dragon on his arm all the way to his back—who asked if I could extend my tongue like a real frog, said a long wet tongue would give me entrance to him any time. Loaded too! And really generous, kept giving me free sake, a good new friend. We drank all night, him and me—even offered to let me crash on his place 'coz it got so late. Plus it started howling outside. Really chill dude. Told him I'd take him on his offer if I ever pass by Kusa again."

Iruka was clearly both aghast and amused that Naruto would treat his sennin mode so casually. He hit his head with his palm, his mouth twitching between a frown and a grin. "Baka. Jiraiya-sama would be rollin—" he cut himself abruptly. Iruka shook his head, deadpan. "No, he won't. He would be—proud."

Someone snorted. Sasuke didn't know who it was, he himself couldn't find anything amusing with the anecdote at all.

Apparently, though, someone did. And apparently, that was enough.

The room erupted into laughter. Kakashi was outright giggling, cheeks flushed, Sakura's face red with a hand cupped over her mouth as she tittered helplessly. Iruka was still shaking his head, a resigned grin on his face as he chuckled along, supporting Konohamaru who was almost mute in his laughter as he slapped on his thighs, gasping for breath. Tsunade was trying to be admonishing, equally appalled at such low regard for sennin mode, but her eyes danced with hilarity and her lips kept trembling with an ill-concealed smile, ruining the effect. Gaara was no less immune, his shoulders shaking as light snickers escaped his mouth.

It was Sai, hands wrapped around his middle as he hiccuped, fresh tears squeezing out of his eyes, who found the strength to speak. "Dickless," he choked out, pausing for breath as he wiped at the corners of his eyes with a laugh-trembled fist, "I believe it is my duty to advise you, as a friend, to never pass through Kusa again."

"Or I can come with you," Kakashi quipped, still chuckling. "As your sensei, I will shoulder the burden of protecting your innocence," he intoned quite dramatically, the effect ruined by the pink staining the bridge of his nose.

"Forgive me as I attempt to rectify my world view and fail," Iruka commented dryly, shooting the other man a narrow-eyed smile. Kakashi's eyes curved in return.

"Protecting my what?" asked a confused Naruto.

Sakura was almost squealing now.

"Perhaps the man assumed Dickless is a woman," Sai remarked, attempting to explain the reason for the absent man's invitation.

"I can see where'd that come from," Konohamaru agreed, nodding with a smirk. "The hair's bad enough."

"Oi! He knew I'm a guy, we went to the same restroom!" Naruto protested hotly. "Pee-mates, even!"

"P-Pee-mates?" Sakura choked out before dissolving into another fit of giggles. "I—I can't—I c-c-can't—"

Tsunade was now slouched forward, wheezing. Gaara's back was to the wall, undone by the tremors racking his body.

"And he said I'm biggest guy he's ever seen, Sai, so there!" Naruto threw in with a grin, daring him to say anything.

Sai dared. "You did say you were both drunk," he commented innocently.

The laughter was raucous as Naruto sputtered.

Teeth clenched, fists curled, Sasuke couldn't see what was funny.

"Asshole!"

He did see, though, when his eyes returned to Naruto, a small contented smile—and, unbidden, his eyes softened and he felt his own mouth tilting at a corner.

And then he heard, almost whispered—

"There. Perfect."

—before torn arms came up, rewrapped the hitai'ate over empty eyes with a speed he hardly caught and every wound, every bruise, every tear, and every drop of blood vanished like they never existed at all.

Naruto grinned at the stunned silence that followed. He pointed to the metal. "Awesome, huh? I got the idea from your rhombus, Baa-chan! If a special chakra stored somewhere can henge an old woman to look young, hiding a few scratches should be a piece of cake!" he ended with a perfect thumbs-up.

Sakura's eyes showed the wonder they all felt at the transformation. "You've been storing chakra there all this time?"

At a nod of affirmation, her voice trembled. "Is it time?"

A collective gasp rose once again when Naruto raised his hands in a familiar seal.

"Yes."

Sakura shook her head. "No, you can't," she said thickly. "He's so selfish, always taking everything by himself... What if he's wrong? What if he needs us?"

"He always needs you all," Naruto replied. His voice softened. "Always needs you."

With a gut-wrenching sob Sakura flung herself to Naruto.

Sasuke suddenly can't hear a thing.

"What do you think, Sakura-chan?" Naruto's mouth moved, whispering in her ear. Everything was suddenly too sharp, too bright. "Uzumaki Sakura?"

And Sasuke could hear again when she answered, soft and clear—

"It's not so bad."

"You know I love you, right?"

Sasuke suddenly can't see when Sakura looked up, with an angel's smile.

"Thank you."

And Sasuke could see again when Naruto stepped back, his face alight with love—

"Thank you."

Sasuke wanted to disappear.

"Gaki," Tsunade huffed out, her lips straining with the effort of holding a rouged smile. "All my bets won this morning so I'm going to take it as a sign that today is my lucky day." Her eyes sparkled as she grinned, confident of a hot streak. "I'm making another bet—the hero is coming back!" she declared.

Murmurs of agreement rose in the room—"Hero's coming back, Niichan!"—falling back to silence when Naruto raised his hands once again and flashed a brilliant smile. "It's been fun. You've all been amazing and I—Naruto—" his lips trembled, "you've always been the best of him."

Naruto grinned.

For one wild second Sasuke thought he saw blue.

"It's been fun."

Then his hands abruptly dropped and he vanished in a blur of gold.


"Son of a bitch!" Tsunade exclaimed.

"Hiraishin!" Kakashi ran to the window he saw the yellow light vanished to, Iruka and Konohamaru behind him. "The kunai—" Kakashi swore. "The kunai he threw earlier. I don't see it anywhere," he said grimly.

Iruka could be fluent in cursing. "The fuuton blew away Kazekage-sama's sands to clear the exit points. He trapped us here and freed himself!"

Kakashi frowned. "The chakra gathered by the two sennin—"

"—should have gone directly to Dickless," Sai continued. "Naruto's clone intercepted it not just to recover his henge but to escape."

"But why?" Sakura asked. Her eyes widened. "He's not planning to dispel himself, is that it? But Naruto—!"

"No. Impossible," Kakashi answered. "He wasn't lying about that. But there's something else he didn't tell. Something more he needs to do before he returns to Naruto."

"Well if he thinks we're letting this happen without a fight, he has another thing coming," Tsunade growled. She canceled the silencing jutsu and swiftly opened empty scrolls, jotting with the fury of a golden hurricane. "Shizune! Summon the guards! I need to be in Ame an hour ago! Sai, send these messages. Animate the fastest birds you can, bring Sakura along with you. Kakashi, bring Iruka with you in Kamui. Konohamaru—assemble the ANBU and Oinin, here are the instructions. You will remain here in my stead, in Naruto's stead. Got it?"

"Hai!"

"And Sasuke—" Tsunade's eyes briefly closed. Her captain was already flying away.

"—do what you can."


Naruto was waiting when Sasuke launched himself from his hawk with a lightning-filled punch.

"Usuratonkachi!" Sasuke growled as the other dodged easily. His sight was clouding with rage amid a soul-crippling ache. What was he doing here? Why here, of all places?

Why the Valley of the End?

His fists curled with fresh lightning. Sasuke was furious, and confused, full of hate and fucking hurting all over and his reasons for coming after Naruto had all but vanished into thin air against the suffocating press of his darker emotions.

Why here? Why the fuck here?

He lunged forward.

Why?!

"Your dreams," Naruto suddenly said.

Sasuke faltered and recovered quickly—Naruto jumped and twisted above him, landing right behind his back.

"What if they're not dreams?"

Sasuke swiftly turned around, his rage black on the edges, his hands white with blinding light. He didn't want to hear anything, the pain of knowing where they were and what it meant hurt too much and he couldn't control himself. "Shut up!"

"The sky you see every night—"

"I said shut up!"

"—what if they're illusions?"

Something roared inside him, enraged, clawed furiously inside his stomach. His head felt like splitting from the howls and cries within.

"You know not"

"No one dreams the same thing, everyday, for ten years."

"Shut up shut up shut up—"

"What if the sky of ten years was an illusion?"

Sasuke shook his head there were screams it hurt so much he was bleeding he was dying—

"Nonononono"

He was terrified.

"Genjutsu."

His breath shattered.

His dreams were all he had.

"Stop lying!"

Where he was alive.

"What if it's genjutsu?"

Where he was at peace.

"What if it's related—to Naruto's condition?"

Where everything was it should be.

"Will you cancel it?"

My sky

"You can't take them from me," Sasuke whispered.

"Teme"

Everything in him stilled and there was nothing but the sky.

"It's mine."