The sky was so blue Naruto thought. So blue and distant. He could get lost looking at such a beautiful sight. He smiled weakly to himself, perhaps for the first time understanding why Shikamaru pursued cloud watching so diligently. It was almost like if he searched hard enough, he could find all life's answers. It was such a nice thought and such a captivating sight that he could almost forget the crushing weight on his chest, the fire of broken bones in his body, the agony of his betrayal and his vow to destroy Konoha.
It was both of theirs, had always been. But while Naruto fought with everything he had to protect it, he simply wanted to destroy it.
Naruto didn't ask why because he would never tell him. He might get some story like he'd gotten a year ago when he'd finally found him again in Oto. But in the end, it wouldn't be the truth. It wouldn't be what he held in his heart.
He didn't understand it and he'd never liked it but since the day Naruto had met…Sasuke…he'd never once spoken the truth – never once dared to let Naruto in. And finally, Naruto had stopped trying. He couldn't let Sasuke go but he couldn't pierce a darkness his friend didn't want to be pierced.
And in the end, in order to free himself from Naruto, he'd given Naruto a choice – a choice he couldn't make no matter how much he cared for Sasuke.
It was Sasuke or Konoha.
There was no real contest. It had to be Konoha. It had always come foremost and for the first time, Sasuke was truly on the other side and absolutely unreachable forever.
The weight on his chest increased and Naruto moaned against the pain of cracking ribs pressing against his lungs.
The orange mask leered down at him, mocking him for who he was. Mocking him for believing in Sasuke so badly. Mocking him for choosing Konoha first when it was burning all around them.
Through the single hole in the mask the Sharingan glinted, whirring slowly in its socket. It alone had stopped him. It had suppressed the fox's chakra just as Sasuke had done a year ago.
Naruto didn't know who he was though some part of him was desperately grappling with the fact that all along, there had been one other last Uchiha besides Sasuke and Itachi. Yet for all his furious questions, this man had only told him three things:
His name was Tobi.
Sasuke had betrayed Konoha and joined Akatsuki – taking his brother's place.
And Naruto was finally going to die today. He, Tobi, was going to capture Naruto and he was going to take him back to their hideout and this time, there would be no one there to stop them taking Kyuubi and there would be no one to give up their life to save Naruto's own like there had been for Gaara.
Despite his impending death and the knowledge that his dreams were rapidly shrinking into nothing, Naruto couldn't summon the energy to think about them or to mourn their loss. All he could think of was the quiet, brooding boy who'd sat behind him in their classes at the academy and who's aura hadn't seemed forbidding like so many believed but actually seemed sad and lonely to Naruto.
He wanted to hate Sasuke, wanted to loath the sight of him but he couldn't. That one distant image of him so long ago had kept his friend alive to him and had reminded him that Sasuke had never needed saving from anyone but himself. And now, it was finally too late and Naruto's greatest dream – the one he hadn't spouted about to anyone who'd listen but actually kept locked deep inside his heart – was never going to be fulfilled. Team 7 would die with his death.
"All ninja face death but until they're actually on the receiving end when they know there's no escape and they can't seem to get away from that awful truth, they never quite realise how truly terrifying that is. So tell me Uzumaki Naruto; are you afraid to die?"
"Should I be?" he murmured.
Naruto wasn't afraid. Death wasn't important enough right now for him to fear it. There was only that lonely little boy from years ago.
"Hmm, you should be," replied Tobi.
The wind picked up a little, making his shrouded black clock with the red clouds sway gently. Naruto hated that clock more than anything else. It had torn one boy's life apart and now, if had finally claimed him.
Konoha wouldn't die – not today or ever.
It would get over it, it would survive and in time, it would kill Sasuke because Sasuke no longer protected its people. He had given up the safety of his people and thus, Konoha had given up the protection of its own.
He wondered where Sakura was. He wondered if she was alright. There'd been so much blood the last time he'd seen her. So much blood as she slumped in the shade of the damaged sakura tree her body had impacted against, the cheery blossoms falling all around her still form.
Naruto couldn't believe she was dead. Sakura-chan had gotten way to strong to die and she wouldn't – not with Kakashi-sensei there; Kakashi-sensei who had finally revealed why he was worthy of being Team 7's sensei. With Yuki, the giant white wolf for a boss summons, Hatake Kakashi, son of Konoha's White Fang, was a more than formidable opponent and Akatsuki was currently finding out why.
"Then again," mused Tobi, drawing Naruto's attention back from the thoughts of his comrades, "I suppose for someone like you who has always failed at everything he's ever attempted, death must be a welcome end."
"Death?" whispered Naruto. "Why would I welcome it? Time. Time would be the gift I'd welcome."
He wouldn't give up – wouldn't ever because he never went back on his promises and no amount of taunting from Tobi was going to goad him into doubting himself in his final moments. Even if he couldn't move – even if he couldn't do anything! The one thing Naruto could do was keep believing in himself and his friends and by hell he wasn't about to give up now!
"Suit yourself," mused Tobi. "I'll tell Sasuke you said goodbye."
Naruto laughed; a hollow fleeting sound broken by the blood in his lungs and the weakness of his breath.
"Yeah. You tell Sasuke-teme I'll see his arse on the other side."
Tobi cocked his head, amused by the pathetic form of the boy he was crushing beneath his heel.
"I doubt Sasuke cares what you say but I'll tell him."
"You're probably right," agreed Naruto. "But that never stopped me telling him before, no matter how much he pretends he isn't listening."
This time Tobi laughed and leaned forward so that he could whisper into Naruto's ear.
"Sasuke always hated you Naruto, I don't know why you keep insisting that he thought of you as anything other than an annoyance and perhaps someone he could use on occasion on his rise to power."
The words, though they sent a shaft of ice through Naruto, were not quite enough.
"It doesn't matter how many times you, everyone else and Sasuke says he hates me. It doesn't matter because I know that there are people out there who acknowledge me – people like Tsunade, Jiriya, Kakashi and Sakura. People like the rookie Nine and Team Gai and especially Sasuke himself. Because Sasuke was the first one to acknowledge me. After all, he told me I was his best friend."
"His best friend huh?" murmured Tobi. "How quaint. Did he also tell you that higher levels of the Sharingan are obtained through killing those close to you?"
Tobi's cruel words finally penetrated Naruto's armour and the truth of that statement could not be ignored.
What had Sasuke said all those years ago?
"I won't do as you say. I won't kill him. I'll achieve power in my own way."
He said that and left, choosing not to kill Naruto who'd only dimly heard his words while he lay beneath the falling rain in the Valley of the End.
With sickening clarity the words all made sense and Tobi saw the truth in Naruto's eyes. He knew the blond ninja had heard and deduced the reason why Sasuke had never killed him before.
"Sad isn't it? But that's the strength of the Sharingan and only those of great power can attain it."
Naruto couldn't respond. He couldn't find the words to defy Tobi.
The thought of what Sasuke had planned had never bothered him but the thought of why – that sickened him. All along, the Uchiha had hidden his own monster and it was the demonic red eyes of his clan – the bloodline that so many believed saved others when in fact, it could only be attained through the sacrifice of your closest loved ones.
Tobi withdrew but Naruto hardly noticed. The glinting blade in his hands, already stained in his blood was raised and turned, ready to bring the hilt crashing down on his temple and send him into complete darkness.
Naruto turned his head just slightly and there she was, limping towards him, struggling to make it in time. Her feet suddenly slipped in the red earth and she went down hard.
She wouldn't make it, Naruto knew it and so did she.
The tears poured down her face, washing tracks through the grime and dripping off her chin to fall gently to the ground.
Those beautiful green eyes of hers shouldn't cry Naruto thought. No wonder Sasuke had hated it. Maybe Sasuke had always hated him Naruto thought but perhaps all along, he hadn't been able to hate Sakura-chan whose kindness to him had never wavered no matter what he'd said or done to her.
"Hmm? She won't make it," remarked Tobi who'd noticed the terrified girl struggling towards them.
"No, she won't," agreed Naruto dully.
Tobi shrugged and turned away from the wounded ninja. His action ignited a fresh wave of screaming from Sakura who was desperate to get to him – who clearly didn't want to be left alone. But there was nothing he could do and Naruto knew it. He would face and accept his fate and hope that Kakashi-sensei would never loose Sakura-chan because she would be his last precious person after this.
The kunai came up and then it was swinging down with lighting speed.
Naruto didn't look at it or Tobi.
He looked at the sky and noticed how blue it was. It was a beautiful thing.
Blood flew through the air, marring the perfect clarity of the blue sky.
Naruto looked back, unable to comprehend the blood nor the sword emerging from the black fabric beneath which Tobi's heart sat.
The silence stretched; the surrealism of the scene above Naruto making no sense to him and then, just like that, Tobi fell sideways. He collapsed onto the bloodstained earth, his clock falling sardonically around his silent form. The orange mask fell off revealing the shocked expression of its owner and wide, unseeing dark eyes. Eyes as black as night like all the Uchiha possessed.
Naruto looked back up, staring at the figure standing over the fallen form of the Akatsuki member.
Why did you do this? Why you? I thought you…?
"Because he was the final one I needed to enact my revenge upon," replied Sasuke calmly.
Usually so tall and erect, the Uchiha's form was bowed down by injury, his white shirt stained red by the blood of his grievances.
Though calm and his face expressionless, for the first time his eyes gave the truth away to Naruto.
I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner. I'm sorry you got hurt but most of all I'm sorry I left Konoha. I don't expect you to understand or to forgive me.
The green eyed ninja stared at the visage that was her old team mate – the person she thought forever beyond their reach and the one who'd finally come back to them and saved Naruto of all people.
Sasuke said nothing, as had always been his way. He merely stared back, allowing Sakura a moment to glimpse into the depths of his heart and then he shut the door on them.
Stiffly, he untied the thick rope he had carried with him from Oto from around his waist. It dropped into the dirt beside his feet followed by the sheath for his sword and the cloth that had always been bundled beneath the rope belt. The weapons pouches clipped to the white sash securing his shirt also came off and joined the other items on the ground. Finally, with a loud rip the Uchiha emblem was torn from the back of his shirt and thrown onto the bloody soil.
"Naruto, Sakura; I'm leaving Konoha. Please don't follow me this time. I need to be alone and to think," Sasuke said.
His voice was soft, supposably a warning in there but it almost sounded like pleading.
"Sasuke," murmured Naruto. What could he say? Don't go? Please don't leave again?
"Don't try and stop me Naruto," warned Sasuke.
Naruto hesitated, warring with himself. Sasuke hadn't asked the first time but this time he was requesting that Naruto leave him alone. Could he? Could he let Sasuke leave and disappear from their lives again?
"I won't, this time," he relented.
The promise was the hardest one he'd ever had to make but he knew in his heart that it was the right thing to do. Sasuke, for whatever reason, had just saved him and not only that, saved all of Konoha. Naruto was well aware that he was the last of the demon carriers. If he'd been caught, Konoha would have been doomed.
He couldn't presume to understand Sasuke, couldn't figure out why he'd vowed to destroy Konoha but if he was willing to protect Naruto no matter what words came out of his mouth to justify his actions, Naruto would let him go.
"Good," replied Sasuke.
Sakura however wasn't quite satisfied.
"Sasuke, will you come back?"
And that was all the answer she'd get and she knew it.
Forming a hand seal, Sasuke looked at them one final time.
"Take care of yourselves Naruto, Sakura."
"Aa, you too Teme," replied Naruto sadly.
Sasuke nodded curtly and was gone, vanishing in a puff of smoke just as Kakashi had done hundreds of times before.
Naruto stared at the empty space his friend had just vacated. Sasuke was still an enigma and one it looked like he and Sakura would never reach.
When Kakashi finally found them after the fighting had ended, Sakura had managed to crawl to his side and cry herself into unconsciousness. Naruto had cried too, just like back in Oto but this time he hadn't quelled the tears and they were still evident in the trails through the filth on his face.
Their sensei was bloodied and tired but still upright. His Jounin vest had been ripped away and his facemask was gone, allowing Naruto his first ever uninterrupted view of his sensei's face. Looking at that strangely beautiful face, Naruto had to wonder why Kakashi hid it from the world but he didn't ask. There were more important things right now.
When Kakashi saw Sakura's battered form and the evidence of Naruto's tears, he froze and his single eye widened.
"Don't worry Kakashi-sensei. She's fine," Naruto assured his sensei. It was true. Somehow, Sakura had found the necessary chakra to seal all but her smallest scratches. There was no longer any danger of her bleeding to death.
"What happened?" he asked. His eyes fell to rest on the fallen form of Tobi. "Did you kill him?"
Naruto smiled weakly. "I wish Kakashi-sensei."
"Then who did?"
The Jounin kneeled beside them and gently began examining Naruto's injuries.
"You'd never believe me sensei," he said.
Kakashi smiled back, amused by Naruto's tone. It was so much lighter than it had been for the past year. What could have happened?
"Try me," prodded Kakashi.
Naruto grinned brilliantly even though he was tired and he just wanted to go to sleep.
"It was Sasuke."
"Sasuke?" answered Kakashi sharply.
"Aa, Sasuke-teme! He stabbed that Tobi guy right through the heart."
"Did you ask why he did that?" queried Kakashi.
"He said he was the last person he had to kill to get his revenge," explained Naruto.
Naruto could see the cogs whirring as his sensei's eyes narrowed. Kakashi was more observant than anyone ever realised – Naruto knew that fact quite well but sometimes Kakashi's perceptiveness surprised even him.
"He had the Sharingan, didn't he? He was an Uchiha."
"Yeah, how did you know Kakashi-sensei?"
Kakashi shrugged and gently eased Sakura away from Naruto's side.
"He looks like an Uchiha plus subduing the Kyuubi's chakra would have been the only way to bring you down so easily. There have also been rumours and unaccounted reports around for years about another Uchiha survivor. Jiriya suspected it could possibly be Tobi but he never confirmed it. As to his identity because I doubt Tobi is actually his name – we'll have to go back through the records of the clans. I have an idea who it may be but I'll need some time. So, what happened to Sasuke?" asked Kakashi.
The copy ninja sighed wearily.
"Did he say why? "
Naruto smiled sadly. Everything was getting fuzzy now.
"You know Sasuke sensei. He wouldn't admit he was dying even if someone stabbed him through the chest. He wants to be alone to think. He might come back, that's what he said Kakashi-sensei."
"Thanks Naruto," replied Kakashi quietly. He smiled fondly down at his student and adjusted Sakura so that she was leaning more comfortably against him.
"Go to sleep Naruto. You've done enough for now."
Naruto didn't argue.
Sasuke he thought as the darkness encroached, come back some day huh? Come back to Konoha and we'll all be Team 7 again.
And the darkness claimed him.