Playlist: Heart's a Mess (Gotye), Cherry Tree (The National), Daisy (Brand New), On The Surface (Civil Twilight), She Spider (Mew), No Light, No Light (Florence + The Machine), Overdose (Hurt), No Bravery (James Blunt), and Skin to Bone (Linkin Park).
A brother is a friend God gave you; a friend is a brother your heart chose for you.
Wake Me Up
Sasuke sank to his knees.
He was fixated on the man fallen in the mud.
He teetered and hit the ground.
The gray sky and rain all blended into one.
Warm hands were on him, rolling him over.
Her fingers moved across his body with healing chakra.
Every muscle, every bone was pushed to the edge. It scared Sakura how close to death he was, yet he was so… clean…. What little remaining energy he had—just enough to keep him breathing—was untainted. It was as if he had been reborn.
"We need to get somewhere dry."
She pulled him up onto her back and peered at Itachi's body for only a moment.
He would have to wait.
Sakura walked through the streets until she came upon an undamaged house.
It was completely barren, but it had a roof.
She laid Sasuke on the cool ground. His head rolled in her arms.
She touched his face.
"Are you with me?"
She moved his hair out of the way and wiped away the water and blood.
He grabbed her.
Sakura gasped. His hand stuck to her and she was unable to break free.
His eyes were bloody and bright. The Sharingan inside swirled madly.
Six points spread from the center, creating a red star. The ink black lines stretched, surrounding his shrinking pupil. The Sharingan crystalized in this new shape. A shape Sakura had never seen before.
She rubbed her thumb across his skin.
As he calmed down, the color faded, letting his eyes return to black.
She sighed, pulled free, and began healing him.
One bloody wound at a time. The broken bones. The torn muscles.
Sakura noted all the scars, old and new.
His body was a monument.
Every mark was made in the pursuit of one goal.
As if he had been thinking the same thing, he spoke.
Sasuke lifted his hands so he could see and rotated them in the light. Seconds trickled by.
Empty. Cold hands.
He touched his forehead hesitantly where Itachi had. The line of blood from Itachi's fingers burned on his skin. He followed it, letting his cool fingers tame the sensation. He stopped halfway, realizing once more what he had done.
"I-I'm… Was I right?"
He stared at his fingers.
"I-I can't remember. I don't… I…"
He searched for the weight of his curse seal.
It was gone. Everything was gone.
"It's gone… I'm… free."
He rubbed where the curse seal had been.
"And…" The smile faded.
Sakura could feel his pulse rising.
She touched his hair, stroking him. "Sasuke. Sasuke, it's alright. Breathe."
His glazed eyes startled her, sightless.
"Itachi is… dead."
His arm dropped to his side and Sakura moved closer. She soothingly massaged his temple.
"Was I… right…?"
He was swallowed by shock. Was it happiness? Relief? She couldn't tell.
She placed her head against his and, as she pressed her lips into his hair, she whispered kindly, "Sleep."
He searched for her and, even after finding her face, he looked so confused.
"I… Was I…?"
She slowly encased his hands and put them to rest.
"It's okay. You can sleep now."
He fought against his exhaustion for a moment but, like the veil of a drug, sleep won him over.
His form slacked beneath her and his thoughts shut off.
Maybe in sleep, he could find some peace.
Maybe when he woke, he would see things more clearly.
She scooted to the wall and leaned there, playing mindlessly with his hair.
She rested her head against the sill of a broken window and started to follow Sasuke into sleep.
She was awoken by a familiar voice calling out.
Either Karin was too weak to spot them, or Sakura and Sasuke had no chakra left to track.
She didn't feel like yelling and just waited to be discovered.
Into the doorway walked Suigetsu.
The first thing she spotted was the blade slung across his shoulder. He scanned the room and was surprised to see Sakura and Sasuke in the dark corner.
He saw the battered Sasuke and asked timidly, "Is he—?"
Karin burst in, knocking Suigetsu. "Shut up! Of course he's not dead!"
She scanned Sasuke immediately and when she found nothing wrong she glared at Sakura.
Here it comes, she thought.
Karin opened her mouth to lecture, but instead let out an exasperated sigh. "You two are something else."
Sakura grinned. "I'm glad to see you, too. And in one piece."
Karin grumbled, "Barely! If Kisame hadn't formed a truce with us it'd be a different story."
Sakura glanced at Suigetsu, but he avoided eye contact.
Karin answered for him. "Root surrounded us. There was no way we would have been able to fend them off while avoiding cheap shots from Kisame. He was kind of in the same boat and… fatally injured from the start, I think."
Sakura teased, "I bet you made an interesting team."
Karin snickered. Then she looked sadly at Suigetsu who was posted up in the doorway. When he didn't look at her directly, she turned stubbornly to Sakura.
"Is there anything I can do for Sasuke?"
Sakura jumped, "Please, give him some of your chakra. He's running on empty."
Karin quickly complied. She opened Sasuke's mouth and placed her wrist over it.
"Bite down, Sasuke."
Still dreaming, Sasuke chomped.
Clearly they had been in similar situations before. Even when at rest, Sasuke was alert enough to listen to orders.
Sakura noticed Karin cringe as she shared her energy.
He finished and continued dozing.
She flexed her stiff fingers. "He was dangerously low. He's lucky he survived."
Sakura stared at his sleeping face, "I know. But it was worth it."
The three of them remained silent for a time, staring at him.
Sakura stood and invited Karin to take her place with Sasuke. She did and monitored him closely as he slept.
As Sakura walked past Suigetsu, he spoke.
"It really is over, isn't it."
Sakura didn't know how to answer him.
Then, like she had been struck by lightning, Sakura remembered something.
She impulsively shot out of the house with Suigetsu and Karin calling after her.
Only now did she realize that night had fallen and finding her way through the settlement would be much more difficult.
She stumbled in the dark, panting. But she couldn't stop.
She saw the small field of grass and her heart started hammering in her chest. It had stayed intact. The road where the crow had landed before them, where they shared what they thought might be a last goodbye.
She ran around to the front of the structure, to the battlefield.
At last, she stopped.
She was panting, unable to calm herself.
He was lying in the mud.
Hesitantly, she moved closer.
He appeared to be only asleep.
She knelt beside him and touched his shoulder.
He was cold.
She knew what a fearsome thing he had been in life, but now he seemed so fragile. His shoulder felt so breakable.
His eyes were slightly open, void of Sharingan.
She could hear her name being called.
Suigetsu caught up to her and splashed to a halt.
Sakura lifted Itachi's arm and started to haul him onto her back.
Suigetsu quickly joined to help.
Together they carried him to the forest.
They placed him on the grass.
Sakura had no idea what compelled her to take Itachi away from that place.
Suigetsu on the other hand instinctively began gathering wood.
The rain was letting up. They would be able to start a fire if they found some dry timber.
Sakura stayed beside Itachi as Suigetsu's pile grew.
When he was finished he stood over her.
"Should we wake Sasuke?"
Suigetsu waited, but soon realized she wasn't going to answer.
He left her there with Itachi.
Now that he was harmless, Sakura couldn't turn away.
He looked so much like Sasuke.
"Was this… what you wanted?"
She touched his shoulder again and rubbed it with her thumb like she would with Sasuke.
"What happened to you and your family?"
She felt strangely sad.
Was the tragedy real? Was Itachi really all he had painted himself to be?
Was this real?
"What is the truth?"
Sakura heard Suigetsu and the rest approaching.
The rain had stopped altogether.
She removed herself from Itachi and faced them.
Sasuke was on Suigetsu's back. He climbed down clumsily.
Sakura hurried to help him and they returned to Itachi's body together.
He stared at him for a long time, now that he had the chance.
Sakura watched Sasuke as thoughts tossing inside of him probably similar to her own.
"Sakura." He reached slowly to his face. "I need you to do something for me."
He placed his fingers above his eye.
Sakura remembered the transformed Sharingan.
"Itachi told me that these eyes—" He directed it meaningfully to Sakura. "—become sealed the more they are used."
Sasuke was aware of the change within himself. If his Mangekyou had truly awakened, there was no doubt his vision would fail over time.
"Give me Itachi's eyes."
Karin was instantly opposed, "Why!?"
Sasuke stared at Sakura. "He said we were each other's spares."
Karin shouted at him, "Why would you believe Itachi!? He probably told you that in case you won. He could have cursed his eyes!"
Sakura understood—if what Itachi said was true—why they needed each other's Sharingan. But…
What was Sasuke's goal now?
Everything had been erased.
Something in her hesitated.
This ambition… could she trust this new ambition?
What did she think would happen after this day?
In her mind, the world ended with this day. Sasuke was freed. Not only of his brother, but of Orochimaru's curse as well. Finally it could stop. The journey could stop.
She felt elation at the thought.
But what was Sasuke still pursuing?
What more was there to be done?
Sakura was brought out of her musings by Sasuke's piercing stare.
The determination and pride in his face made Sakura ashamed of herself.
What was she thinking?
How could she forget?
Naruto. Konoha. Tsunade.
Had she been so blinded by her relief?
How dare she forget?
There were people she still needed to protect.
There were battles she still needed to fight.
Until the day she paid her dues to her country and her comrades, she was a warrior.
With her purpose reaffirmed, she was met again by Sasuke's patient face.
"Can you do it?"
The resolution inside of him enveloped her.
She grinned. "Who do you think you're talking to?"
Karin moved to protest further, but Suigetsu stopped her.
Sakura remembered now.
The war was not over.
"Lie down next to Itachi. Karin, I'm going to need whatever sedatives you've got left. And soldier pills."
She started rummaging through Itachi's things and found a well-stocked pack. She nearly jumped for joy at the sight of bandages—real, sanitized bandages.
"You're not putting me under."
Sakura scoffed, "You'll pass out either way."
He glared. "I don't need them. Or the soldier pills."
"Really? Who is the doctor here?" She stood tall and put her hand on her hips. "I know a thing or two about the Sharingan thanks to Kakashi. I know that it sucked up quite a bit of his chakra to adapt the Sharingan to his body. And he took it from a living person." Karin handed her the pills and Sakura shoved them at Sasuke. "Itachi's eyes are dead now. We have to bring them back to life. Who knows what will happen when we do."
Sasuke lifted a brow. He accepted the pills.
"You just sit back, Sasuke." Sakura smiled at him. "I know you trust me, so let me do my job."
Sasuke took the sedatives and soldier pills, and proceeded to lie beside his brother.
He studied his team working around him. They lit a fire close by and Itachi's face was illuminated.
Sasuke examined every feature. In death, Itachi resembled his younger self more than he had in years.
Sakura noticed what he was doing. "It's amazing… isn't it? He's so… human."
Sasuke didn't know how to respond.
Sakura's lips pulled tightly into an obligatory smile. She didn't really know how Sasuke felt about his brother now that he was gone.
"When we're done—" She glanced at the fire, "—do you want us to wait for you to wake up?"
Sasuke shook his head.
She placed her hands on Itachi's face and felt around with her chakra.
"You're lucky you've got a medic who can work without tools."
He started feeling the effects of the medicine.
He continued to watch as Sakura poured shining green chakra under Itachi's eyelids.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
The last thing he saw was the thin line of blood dribbling down the side of Itachi's face.
In the light of the fire, it looked like a tear.
Footsteps, slow and calculated, beat on the rubble of Konoha.
Beneath a black trench coat whipping in the wind, a clenched fist held small pebbles. Every few feet, the thumb flicked one away.
The little pebble hit the ground with its quiet force. It bounced only once, then stuck on the ground with a tap. It shuttered and then melded into the earth.
Haphazard hair pulled into a stolen hair tie.
One eye staring forward with deadly determination, the other shut tight.
The bag slung across his body was nearly emptied of the explosives he had prepared.
He slowed to a stop, chewing on the bit of clay in his mouth.
The chakra gathering in his eye, the one that battled illusion, was almost ready.
He had made his rounds. There was hardly any clay left to him; just enough to cause a load of trouble for one unfortunate adversary.
The sound of wings caught his attention and he slid behind broken walls out of sight. Above him, a strange white bird flew over. He watched it soar silently towards a broken down hospital nearby.
Even with the village quite, all shinobi dead or dying, he could feel a stirring power below.
Chakra, not his own.
In fact, whatever force was brewing underground was concealing his small clay deposits that littered the village.
He walked out into the light of the full moon.
He flicked the last pebble.
Konoha was a mess, there was no doubt about that. But it hadn't gotten a taste of real destruction.
His power would set a blaze that the whole nation would see. He would illuminate the evil imbedded in this country and he would send it straight to hell.
He would break open the Earth itself and burn all creation.
He took a deep breath and stretched.
"No mistakes this time."
Sakura rested in a tree, gazing at the sky.
The clouds were drawn like curtains and the stars were glistening.
One storm had ended.
The light of their fire had grown into quite a beacon. They would be fortunate if no unwanted visitors discovered them. But it was a risk they had decided to take.
Suigetsu and Karin were watching after Sasuke below.
The transfer had been a success as far as she knew. They had been wise to give him extra chakra. The procedure would have killed him otherwise.
Karin stared at his sleeping body fearfully. She and Sakura could see the sinister life stirring inside those eyes. The power of the Sharingan was truly a fearsome thing to behold.
Sakura stared at the flames. She could see the shape of Itachi's body.
Slowly it would turn to ash.
The smoke was rising high in a thick column. Even though it was downwind of her, the scent of the wood was unmistakable. Every shinobi knew how a pyre smelled. It reminded her Hidaka Akane and how Sasuke had given her a shinobi's funeral even though she had been an enemy.
The time that had passed seemed almost unreal.
Her knowledge of the world, her understanding of the shinobi… everything had changed.
She tried to remember Akane's words and sighed when they didn't come to her.
In the distance Sakura saw a glint of light, like a star.
She stared at it curiously.
Karin's alarm made her realize something was amiss.
It was growing in the dark canvas.
It mimicked the sun, breaking through the night.
She felt waves of light hit her. Warm and lively.
Her jaw dropped, "It… can't be."
She jumped from the tree.
Suigetsu and Karin were up, ready to fight.
"I-it's okay. It's okay!" She ran from the forest, ran to meet the light.
It descended sharply and she found herself at the site of Sasuke's battle.
Her heart stopped when she heard his voice.
The melody hit her and she opened her arms.
She caught the golden light and yellow hair. Into his arms, she fell with a laugh. He hugged her and lifted her up.
He had come back.
She grasped at his clothes desperately. "I thought… I thought you were dead!"
He rubbed her hair, "I'm fine."
She laughed, "Yeah… stupid. You're fine."
Naruto set her down and eyed her face.
She was worn. But the green light in her eyes was fearless. Her smile was incomparable.
He touched her cheek and felt no tears.
"This is disappointing."
She glowered. "I can't believe I worried about you."
"Were you really worried? You're not crying or anything."
"Shut up." She swatted his shoulder. "Where have you been!?"
He sighed happily as he hugged her again, "That can wait."
She held in a shaky breath. "Naruto… I'm glad you're back."
He released her and noticed Suigetsu.
He was poised to attack behind the rubble.
Sakura mocked. "Does it look like he's here to hurt us?"
Suigetsu stepped out. He placed himself between them and forced them apart. "I have a problem with your displays of intimacy. And so would Sasuke, probably."
Sakura laughed, "Thanks for your concern."
She absorbed his bewildered expression.
She took his hand. "Follow me."
Naruto was rigid and did not move with her.
He felt a tingling inside of him.
There was a faint presence in the settlement.
He walked away from them, splashing in the mud and water.
Sakura was confused. She trailed after him. "What is?"
Naruto walked numbly, following his instincts.
He went closer to where Itachi had fallen and he paused there.
"Naruto, what is it?"
He lifted his arm and pointed.
In the shadows, Sakura could see nothing.
Light sparked on Naruto's hand. His arm was covered in golden chakra and became a torch to see by.
In the crevice of debris, Sakura saw the glint of metal.
She immediately noticed a hole near the hilt. It was a perfect circle, yet it seemed carved out accidentally.
Naruto took a step forward and his hand shot back.
The light was extinguished and a spark of purple split the night.
Ripples of black and purple spread, revealing a barrier surrounding the sword.
Naruto examined his hand. It had turned black.
Sakura ran to him, pressing her healing power to his skin.
He tugged away. Naruto curled his hand and black ash cascaded from his palm. His fingers started to crumble and Sakura gasped. Just before it fell apart, his hand became covered in gold energy.
Bathed in light, his blackened skin regenerated.
Naruto's gaze upon his hand was grim. Sakura was astounded. And terrified.
He muttered to himself, "I don't understand."
He searched inside himself for the Kyuubi's voice.
He searched for the Kyuubi's guidance.
The Hachibi was right in front of him. But he couldn't touch it?
What was he supposed to do now?
Sakura examined his face, trying to read his thoughts. "What? What does the Kyuubi say?"
Naruto was at a loss.
What happens now?
"Tomorrow… We'll figure it out tomorrow." Naruto spoke to Sakura, "I'm sorry. I know this is weird, but… I know we'll be alright tonight. The Hachibi… I am the only one that can release it. It isn't going anywhere."
Naruto stretched his hand so she could see that it was back to normal.
Sakura smiled helplessly, "What am I going to do with you?"
She took that hand and together they returned to camp.
Suigetsu was in front of them, leading silently. He looked over his shoulder every once in a while to glare suspiciously at Naruto.
When they arrived, Suigetsu sat down and pulled Karin to the ground with him. She resisted at first, but then noticed Sakura and their previous target, Uzumaki Naruto.
Naruto saw Sasuke lying there and Sakura let him go alone.
Bandages were wrapped around his head, covering his eyes.
Naruto sat down beside his old friend.
Sakura explained, "He's just sleeping."
Naruto looked at the fire. He recognized the smell rolling off the wood.
"Sasuke killed Itachi."
The fire cracked.
He murmured with a halfhearted smile. "Looks like I missed all the action."
Silently, Naruto mourned Itachi.
He wondered if… if perhaps Itachi had been given the chance to tell Sasuke all he knew, all he had been through, things would have ended differently. He wondered if—had they understood Itachi's life—he would still be here.
Then again, Naruto knew that wasn't Itachi's goal.
A thought struck him, "Have you seen Ino? I actually came here to make sure she was safe. She left Ame when she found out Sai was in this area."
Sakura gasped a little. "They were here! Sai was bent on killing Sasuke and Ino jumped in to fight… I don't know what happened after we split."
He saw her expression and softly reassured her, "Ino will set him straight."
She wanted to brush his words off. "You're too optimistic." But she knew this wasn't just glass-half-full talk. He sounded so unbelievably certain. Maybe he knew something she didn't.
His face fell as his thoughts continued to churn and a nervousness entered her. Maybe he really did know something more.
But this sadness seemed unrelated.
"Itachi… is dead."
Sakura approached him, confused by his tone.
She stroked his cheek kindly. "Are you okay?"
He gave a "humph."
She put both his hands on his face.
He didn't look at her, but answered her gesture. "I'm just a little shell-shocked. Don't worry so much."
Hearing that scared her. What happened to him in their days apart? Was it about the Hachibi? His talk before seemed so distant. He was keeping things from her. That much was crystal clear.
And she wasn't prepared to wrangle the answers out of him just yet.
Naruto gripped her palm against his cheek.
"You're being so forward, Sakura. You missed me that much?" He eyed her seductively.
She blushed. "You're stupid."
From below, they were interrupted.
"That much hasn't changed."
His blue orbs locked on Sasuke.
Sakura helped him as he tried to sit up. "You should take it easy. I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's hard to sleep with you two yammering on."
She stopped him as he tried to pull off the bandages.
"Not yet. You're eyes aren't ready. You need another healing sessions before we can take them off."
Sasuke grumbled as he surrendered to her wishes.
Sakura looked up at Naruto. "I'm sorry. This isn't much of a reunion."
Naruto stared at them with awe.
He dropped to their level and grabbed them both. "Wh-what are you talking about?" He squeezed. "This is the best reunion ever."
Sasuke hid his embarrassment. "Get off me."
Sakura pushed Naruto away. "Do not hurt the patient."
He chuckled as he fell into the grass. "Sorry!"
The kunoichi's shoulders relaxed.
"This time we were waiting on you."
"Yeah." Naruto grinned. "Sorry."
His smile drew out subtle tears. She leaned into Sasuke and rubbed his arm.
He found her hand and held it.
"It's been a while, Naruto."
"Last I saw you was at the Sound Base." Naruto chuckled. "I remember, kind of."
Naruto couldn't see, but he was sure Sasuke was rolling his eyes.
He twitched and Sakura jolted up.
"How do you feel? Does it hurt?"
She pinched his cheek. "Don't lie."
He yanked his head away. "I'm being honest. It feels…" He put his fingers on the bandages, "Amazing."
She was relieved. "I'll need you to lie back for a minute."
He obeyed and she began working.
She kept glancing at Naruto.
Finally she asked, "What happened to you, Naruto? Itachi… caught you. We had been tracking you until we found the note he left for Sasuke. How did you escape from Rain?"
Suigetsu and Karin were shocked to hear the news.
Naruto sat in silence for a time, collecting his thoughts.
"Itachi saved me. Well, it sounds weird when I say it like that. Itachi… He helped me communicate with the Kyuubi and make peace with it. He told me where to find the Hachibi."
Sakura shook her head, "I don't understand… How did it get here?"
"It's here!?" Sasuke was shocked. "What do you mean!?"
Naruto confessed to his friend with reluctance, "The Hachibi… the Hachibi sealed itself into a sword long ago. Kusanagi no Tsurugi. And I'm— the Kyuubi is the only thing powerful enough to break the seal. Madara tried to strike a deal with the Kyuubi in order to release it… and told us to find it."
Sasuke added, "The sword was supposedly with Orochimaru. But you were there, Naruto. There was no sword."
"Yes… I assumed the Akatsuki had taken it. So did we all." Naruto started to wring his hands. "The truth is… the Kusanagi never left Orochimaru. It lived inside of him, completely suppressed by his chakra. It was untraceable, unless you already knew where it would be. Itachi knew it from the beginning. And maybe Madara did too…" Then Naruto hesitated.
Sasuke snapped, "Spit it out!"
The camp was motionless in anticipation.
"Sasuke. You killed all of the people Orochimaru put his curse seal on, didn't you?"
Sakura felt the air get cold.
Sasuke showed no response.
"Did you notice any change within yourself as time passed? As more pieces of Orochimaru died, did you feel yourself get more powerful?"
Karin shot up. "What are you saying? You think Sasuke killed those people… to get stronger—!?"
Suigetsu interjected. "Karin, that's enough."
Sasuke remained silent.
Karin spoke cautiously, "Sasuke… You didn't kill those people because you wanted power. Right? It was because—…" She stopped herself and spoke quietly. "Orochimaru did terrible things to them. He created monsters. And we—" A face flashed in her memory. "You and Juugo. You were the same. He looked up to you. His seal wasn't always… he couldn't help it. But you protected him. You understood. You understood that he wasn't a monster." Karin was shaking. "Sasuke. That last time he lost control… you were together."
"I made a promise to Juugo." Sasuke sat up. "The day that he was unable to return to normal, I would make sure he couldn't hurt anyone else. By any means."
Karin was horrified.
"Sasuke. Did you kill… Juugo…?"
"Stop." Suigetsu put his hands on her shoulders. "This is old news, Karin. Besides, Sasuke isn't the only one who made Juugo that promise."
Sasuke laughed bitterly at Suigetsu, his rescuer. Their glance conveyed the tragic link they shared. Juugo's final wish, their heavy promise.
"The more people we killed, the crazier Juugo got. He took out a whole village of people before Sasuke brought him down." He pressed a finger hard into her cheek. "We told you all you needed to know. So let's drop it, alright?"
Karin reared up, smacking his face, and stormed into the shadows, separate from them but still in earshot.
Suigetsu pressed his lips together and leaned against a tree. The dejection and shame on his face was obvious.
Sasuke spoke again to Naruto and Sakura. "Juugo and I could feel the others with curse seals when they were close. Like Juugo, they were all destined to lose control someday."
Sakura imagined the various outbursts she had witnessed. Sasuke's fight with Itachi was fresh in her mind, but also she remembered what happened to Kabuto when he lost control.
"And there was no way to remove the seal… until today."
Naruto confirmed, "The pieces of Orochimaru inside of you were not what created the outbursts. I believe Orochimaru was creating vessels to do more than extend his life, and he didn't want just any shinobi. He wanted powerful Kekkei Genkai users. He wanted someone who could contain the sword… He wanted the Sharingan. I believe the seal he gave you, like mine, was created to keep in a bijuu. What drove so many people with curse seals off the edge was not Orochimaru… It was the Hachibi." He stared intently at Sasuke. "Itachi knew this whole time. He knew the Hachibi was sealed inside of Orochimaru—"
All attention fell on Sasuke.
"—Inside of you."
Silence chilled them.
Karin stammered under her breath, painfully afraid, "Are you kidding me?"
The darkness his team had seen in him and the sometimes merciless acts Sakura had become familiar with suddenly made sense.
Sakura couldn't pretend to be surprised. Orochimaru had plagued their lives in more than one way already. The seeds of evil were hard to kill. However, it was evident now that the evil had not stemmed from Orochimaru, but from something much worse that encompassed the entire nature of chaos and death.
Naruto seemed to be realizing himself the truth he had been ignorant of as he spoke, "Itachi knew you would follow him, Sasuke, and fight him. He knew he was the only one who could remove the Kusanagi from you, and it had to happen in your weakest and most desperate moment. He knew when he succeeded, Orochimaru's curse would be lifted and the Hachibi could finally be destroyed…" Naruto uttered despondently, "Everything played out… just like he wanted."
Anger flared in Sasuke.
"It all began with the Hachibi. Before, the bijuu were just spirits of nature; they embody all the aspects of the world. They didn't fight in the beginning. There was peace. Then the Hachibi tore it apart. It became aware of its own strength and started the battle for control over the world, over all life… and the other bijuu were pulled into it… this endless and pointless struggle for power where there is no true victory or end… Shinobi were born out of the chaos. Jutsu were developed in order to protect against the demons. And then the Sharingan was created… a technique that could control and subdue them… The Uchiha were born." He covered his eyes, trying to see through all he had learned. "This all began… long ago. The war we've been pulled into began long ago. Bijuu and Shinobi. This… is all for one man. One man, inspired by the bloody history of these countries. He created this chaos so he might unite the bijuu again, for the first time since they were born as demons, and use them to control this world. And he started preparing long ago… with your family, Sasuke. Itachi told me… I… I don't know how to… explain… Your brother had to make a choice—"
"Enough!" Sasuke shoved Naruto away.
Naruto bounced back and roared. "Shut up and listen! Madara has been in control of this whole thing since before we were born! He pitted Itachi against his own family to take out anyone capable of opposing his own Sharingan!"
Fragments of voices shot out.
We absolutely must stop the coup.
"The Third Hokage only agreed because he believed if a clan like the Uchiha started a civil war it would destroy all of Fire Country! Itachi was ordered to kill your family because they believed it was the only option! And no one could ever know. Tsunade and countless others have sacrificed everything to discover the truth!"
"The TRUTH!?" Sasuke covered his ears. "Are you STUPID?!"
Naruto nearly knocked Sakura over getting to Sasuke. He pulled Sasuke hands away.
"The council and Danzou made Itachi kill his own family—"
Call for Danzou.
The shattered pieces of illusions were ringing in his head.
"—and leave the village in dishonor! Your brother knew what civil war would do to the nation. It was out of love for peace!"
I'm sure you want to protect the village.
Sasuke fought against Naruto fiercely, but he didn't have the strength to break free.
"He played the role of the villain. He did everything they asked of him… but…"
His voice cracked, "But… he couldn't… he couldn't kill you. You were…" Tears swelling, "YOU WERE HIS BROTHER! How could he kill you!? How could they force him to… kill his innocent little brother. His… brother… that he had watched over and protected all his life."
It's the path you chose.
"He went against the world he knew…! He betrayed his friends, his teammates, his mother, his father."
Sasuke sat, eyes covered, with his teeth clenched.
Naruto slacked, his head sunk. "He killed them all. But—"
He rounded on the unsuspecting Naruto and started choking him.
Sakura jumped between them and tried to pry Sasuke's hands from Naruto's neck.
"Sasuke! Let go!"
Naruto would not be silenced.
"B-but he couldn't do it!"
The black world Sasuke stared into—the memory of illusion—was distorting the words.
His father. That was whose voice he was hearing.
"He couldn't kill you, Sasuke!"
Saying his name.
The voice he had always wanted to hear.
"He…" Naruto struggled, gasping for breath, "…chose you. O-over everything else."
Sakura wrapped her arms around Sasuke, trying to separate them.
"—to the very end…"
Promise me that you will take care of Sasuke.
"He loved you."
From under the bandages, tears streaked across his face.
The three froze.
Sasuke released Naruto.
Every memory, every moment he had shared with Itachi came flooding back.
Sasuke reached up to the bandages and began pulling them away.
The shielding arms that always seemed to be surrounding him.
The gentle and reassuring smiles.
Was it all a lie?
He removed the last piece and watched it fall into his lap.
Lifting his head to the fire.
Staring at what remained of his brother.
His eyes bright with an unfamiliar Mangekyou Sharingan.
I'm sorry, Sasuke… This is it.
The Mangekyou fell asleep inside of him and the color faded.
The fire cast heat onto his face.
Scorching his eyes.
"The truth…" Naruto laughed breathily, humorlessly. "Truth… is unattainable. We all go through life believing in the world we see. But… it's only pieces put together of what we think is real. All of us. Are we strong? Are we helpless? Are we murderers? Are we heroes? How do we make those judgments? How do we decide?" Naruto couldn't understand Itachi. "He told me… he told me I could change things. Itachi said I had the power to reshape everything. He said I could create peace…?"
He locked eyes with Sasuke.
"What I see… What do I— …What is my truth? What kind of world did Itachi see? What world do I see?"
He stared into Itachi's black eyes.
They were frozen, overwhelmed and afraid.
"I can change the future…? What does that mean?"
Naruto saw himself reflected in Sasuke.
"I'm just a man. I have as much power to change reality as you do."
Sasuke saw himself reflected in Naruto.
"What does it mean?"
Paralyzed, Sasuke could not speak.
"Really… you two." Sakura wailed, "You don't know when to quit!"
Unnoticed until that moment, they realized how close she had remained. Sitting delicately between them, sobbing.
"We all…" She held their hands tightly, linking them in warmth. "If reality is the illusion we live in…" She pulled them close. "Doesn't that mean we can make it however we want?! No one can control our future. What we can do, what we will do… who we are, who we will be… When we change ourselves… we can change everything! No one can keep us from making our dreams a reality. We can make peace last!" Sakura searched inside herself for the memories and trials she had survived and held them close, like precious children that had shown her the way to who she was meant to be. "All our struggles have transformed us, evolved us. All the people that have touched our lives won't be forgotten. And just like they fought to change the world they lived in—we are transforming the current world with everything we are! We can leave behind a legacy…! We have time…!" Sakura's voice soared, enveloping Sasuke and Naruto in her strength. "We have all the seasons of our lives to shape this world!"
She took a deep breath, turned her sights to the clear night, and roared so the stars could hear.
"We make the world!"
The echoes of her words melded into murmurs through the trees and through their hearts.
Sasuke's last memory of Itachi struck his heart.
He glanced at the fire.
The memory of lying beside each other. The blood on Itachi's face. His cold body resting limp at last. The battered body, the guilt-tortured existence… The secrets that he died with… all of it could be laid down at last. And Sasuke saw it…
A sleeping face finally out of pain. Finally free.
The flames were still so high.
Sasuke was transfixed on the churning light. Even surrounded by calm, he felt a niggling inside. Like a child desperate to be noticed.
The child frozen in time on that horrible night when it all began.
The child that had been corrupted by the pursuit of violence.
Would it ever stop?
Would his anger ever end?
"I… I can't."
No one would ever know for certain what had happened that night.
"I can never forget…"
Nothing could show him the truth. No one could say the words that would sate him.
"…what he did… What Itachi… did."
No one could take it back.
No one but Sasuke.
Sasuke could decide.
He could choose to forgive Itachi.
"I wish it could… just…"
Forgive his brother for a night that had happened so many years ago.
Forgive his brother for not sharing the truth.
"Can I change—?"
Accept the past…
"After everything… can I...?"
"Can I change…?"
Remember the brother that loved him.
"Can I forget this hate…?"
And forgive himself for letting go.
"Can this be the end?"
He couldn't feel the tears streaming down his face.
He heard Naruto's voice from far away saying:
Death could not defeat truth.
Truth was relative.
A cycle, born again and again inside the human mind.
As long as people inhabit the world.
There would be no end.
Truth born from illusion.
Illusion born from reality.
Reality born from truth.
All of it was relative. All of it was seen through Sasuke's eyes.
As if he had woken from a bad dream, Sasuke took in Naruto and Sakura with fresh eyes.
He reached for Sakura and she took his hand, pressing it to her cheek.
She kissed his palm, then leaned closer to kiss his forehead.
As soundless tears continued to flow, he leaned into her shoulder.
Time passed as the three of them sat together before the fire.
Sakura was petting Sasuke's head when she met Naruto's eyes.
She started to laugh a little.
"This is real, isn't it."
She hugged Sasuke tighter, and then released him to get a good look at them both together.
"They're back." She laughed and let out a sigh, "My boys are back."
Sasuke wiped her cheek.
Captivated by the moment, time passed and melted away the tension in the air.
They all suddenly became aware of how long the day had been. How much it had taken out of them.
Sasuke laid Sakura down and Naruto followed suit without hesitation.
Naruto rolled close to Sakura and half hugged her. She snuggled with him reflexively.
He peered up at Sasuke and whispered aggressively, "She still loves me more than you."
Sakura saw Sasuke's stunned expression and pushed Naruto off immediately, red-faced.
Sasuke smirked at her, and then chuckled at Naruto, "Whatever you say."
All three heard movement close by.
Karin took this change of atmosphere to approach camp again.
Suigetsu gestured for her to sleep near him, but she flat-out refused.
Undoubtedly, her anger with him had not been resolved.
She sat at the base of a different tree to signify she was going to sleep.
Between the two of them, they settled curtly who would have first and second shift.
Sasuke murmured, "I've got third."
He was watching the fire when he felt something nudging him. Sakura was tugging at his shirt and, amenably, he rested beside her.
Naruto sighed loudly. "I'm beat. I've been fighting all day, if you can believe it." He crossed his arms behind his head to serve as a pillow. "I've never been so tired in my life."
Sakura hummed, "When this is all over, it's story time."
"I've got some good ones. You wouldn't believe what Hinata—" He cut off mid-sentence, laughing. "I guess I won't tell you yet. You'll probably fall asleep in the middle."
She whispered sharply and resisted the urge to whack him. "What the hell, Naruto? Now I want to know!"
"When it's all over, I'll tell you."
There was a small rustling and Naruto peered at Sakura. Her eyes were shut, but she was grinning. Sakura's side was pressed against Sasuke, their hands clasped.
Naruto took a deep breath, determined to rest.
The answers would soon be clear, he was sure. He had to be patient.
Tomorrow would come.
Kakashi's Sharingan ached lightly.
He watched the moon that still showed in the morning sky. Bright red.
The shinobi walking under it seemed almost sluggish. Like some primal fear was weighing heavy on them.
He moved his sensei's kunai in his palm, gripping it occasionally, and feeling the world on the other side where its partner had been left.
Shikamaru stood behind him, arms crossed. "Did you get any sleep?"
Kakashi sighed, "Did you?"
The young man grumbled without answering.
They observed the other teams in silence.
Akamaru padded alongside Kiba as he spoke to his older sister. He rubbed his partner's head. They heard him say, "Not this time." Akamaru whimpered, but Kiba shoved off before he might change his mind. Hinata and Neji were sitting quietly together. Tenten plopped down beside her teammate and scooted close. She grasped his hand firmly. Lee was stretching on the ground while Shino and Chouji gave simple greetings to each other.
They were all waiting for Gaara to end his conversation with Jiraiya. Most of Ame had been emptied already and had started making the journey to Suna, but they still needed to decide what to do with their former enemies that had been resurrected.
Kakashi was wary. He recognized the old power living inside of Gaara. Though it did not feel malicious as it had years ago, there was no mistake that Gaara had become a Jinchuuriki once again.
He was uncertain of what had happened between Gaara and Naruto after the battle with the Juubi. The Sharingan could only show him the result. There was a strange imbalance of energy. Not just in Gaara, but everywhere. Everything.
Reality had been thrown off kilter.
He felt sick to his stomach.
Everything he thought he knew about shinobi, about the Uchiha… About Obito…
Everything seemed to be spiraling downward and out of control.
But he could not afford to surrender.
Gaara finished his talk with the Sennin and approached him.
"Are you ready?"
He stood and the whole camp shifted in response.
The youth of their nation stepped up: Shikamaru, Chouji, Neji, Tenten, Shino, Kiba, Lee, and Hinata. They had earned their place among the other veterans of war.
Kakashi pulled his gloves tightly on his knuckles.
Sprinting into the camp were a few familiar faces Kakashi was shocked to see. Gai, Shizune, and Yamato came through the crowd receiving greetings.
Gai immediately ran to Kakashi, grabbing him by the collar, "How could you even think of leaving without your rival ready to watch your back, Kakashi!?"
Kakashi was speechless.
Yamato gave a small respectful bow. "Good to see you alive and well, senpai."
Kakashi shrugged them both off, "What are you doing here? What about defending Suna?"
Yamato answered, "Now that the shinobi are coming back, our job is done."
Shizune advanced towards them. "I won't let Tsunade's death be in vain." She was clutching the scroll in her fist. "I know you probably want to go alone, but—"
"What d'you mean? The more the merrier, right, Kakashi?"
Kakashi whipped around to see a confident man with a toothpick perched between his lips.
The shinobi strode up to the young group and rubbed Shikamaru's head. "This guy told us what was going on. And we figured it's time to clean up our own mess."
Shikamaru batted away Genma's hand. "I'm amazed you got here in time."
Genma reached up to adjust his bandana and placed his hitai-ate forward to display the leaf etched into the metal. "Gai runs fast. He was practically dragging us here."
Gai roared proudly in response.
Kakashi wanted to laugh. Surrounded by old friends and pupils alike. Some things never changed.
But Obito… When did things go so wrong?
He moved the kunai in his hand again.
All the answers were on the other side.
They were all watching him.
He took a deep breath. "I don't know what's waiting for us when we get there. There might be no turning back. I don't know what we will be facing, or what we can accomplish. We might not be able to right the wrongs done to the Uchiha. We might not be able to make up for the lives sacrificed in error under Danzou's command. There might be nothing we can do to change the past. But we can stop this from going any further. We can protect those that are still living. And we can give an answer to the world… that we will not abandon the hope for peace. And that we will protect it to our last breath."
He placed the kunai at arm's length.
Hands started piling on.
They all looked at each other, not sure if they would all survive this day, but proud and full of strength.
Gaara was last.
Kakashi stared at him, seeing the foreign energy swelling under his skin.
Gaara sent a pulse of chakra into the kunai and the world tore away from them.
They were suddenly at the foot of the Hokage's office, standing in the shell of battle. Kakashi looked down at the second kunai and picked it up from the drying puddle of Tsunade's blood.
Konoha was gray and lifeless. Fire in the morning was smoky and red. Shadows were cast from the plumes that mimicked clouds. The scent set everyone on edge.
Kakashi walked forward, "Let's go."
The sun was coming steadily up, casting harsh light on the devastation and corpses scattered on the streets. Ame and Root nin, bloodied and battered.
Shizune listened hard for pained breathing, searched for signs of life, but was met by the stillness of death.
There was an ominous chakra swirling below the village and they could all feel it.
Hinata pressed her hand to her forehead, hoping to suppress her pulsing headache. "What is that?"
Neji seemed equally uncomfortable. "I'm not sure. I can't see anything distinctly."
As if triggered by their arrival, the chakra started agitating more and more.
Kakashi and Shikamaru realized at the same time that the signature was familiar.
He slapped his hands into a sign, "I know!"
Fire erupted from Kakashi and coated the ground.
Hinata dove forward, leaving Tenten and Lee confused. She, Kiba, and Chouji recognized what was happening just as Kakashi and Shikamaru did.
From the fire, figures burst out. Dozens of white clones of the Akatsuki member they had fought while searching for Sakura. Zetsu.
Neji and the others, though confused, quickly defended against the ambush.
Genma flicked out a swarm of senbons at the clones that were trying to trap them from behind, but he was unable to stop them all. Gai joined him and they prepared to fight barehanded.
Gaara's sand knocked some Zetsu back, pinning them to the ground with spears.
The more they defeated, the more that came from the ground.
Shino's bugs, Shizune's poison gas, and Temari's wind could only do so much to keep them from being overcome.
Gaara commanded, "Gather together!"
The party of shinobi got back to back and, before they were completely overwhelmed, Chouji's enlarged fists scattered the crowd. Gaara followed up with sand spears that took them down for the count.
There was finally a clear path.
"Get to high ground!"
They split, leaping up to the office roof.
The surviving clones trailed after them. Their numbers growing yet again.
Tenten threw explosive tags into the air and Temari whirled her fan down, blowing them into the oncoming crowd.
The explosions went off and the shinobi escaped.
Shizune called out to Kakashi, "What are we going to do?"
Gaara was sizing up the enemies over his shoulder, "I can take them."
Kakashi snapped, "Don't you dare. If you lose control, we're all dead."
"What's he talking about?" Temari looked between them.
"I can control it. It's different this time."
Kakashi was shaking his head.
Shikamaru glanced behind them. "We better think of something quick. They're all over the place now."
Shino, in response, sent a cloud of insects out to slow them down.
"Kakashi, we're going to get cornered if we don't make a stand."
Kakashi's heart was pounding. What had he done? What had he gotten them into?
He roared and turned to their pursuers. "Yamato! Split them!"
Yamato planted his feet and sent tendrils of wood out into Zetsu's formation. They were funneled into the shinobi, like pigs to slaughter.
"Gai, flank left! Neji, flank right! Chouji and Gaara, stay with me!"
Genma, Kiba, and Temari joined Gai. If Temari or Kiba didn't tear them apart, Gai and Genma certainly would. Tenten, Shino, and Shizune ran to group with Neji and proceeded to knock handfuls of clones off the roof and into a pit of Shizune's poison that filled the streets below. Those clamoring up were taken out by a barrage of weapons from Tenten. Hinata and Lee stood dead center mercilessly defeating them with taijutsu and Shikamaru stood with them, impaling others with a web of shadows. Kakashi, Chouji, and Gaara defended all of them from behind, clearing the air.
Suddenly five dozen opponents were almost manageable.
Zetsu's numbers dwindled to nothing in no time.
"Well done, Kakashi! As expected of my rival."
Kakashi couldn't relax. Neji and Hinata could feel it too. Kakashi's focus was coming in and out. His Sharingan was almost pulsing.
After a strange calm had descended, the earth started to quiver below them.
"This couldn't be more perfect."
Kakashi jerked his head up.
Standing a few rooftops away was who they had been searching for.
"I can't believe you came all this way, Kakashi. For what?"
Kakashi turned to face the person he knew as Danzou.
"To stop you."
Their enemy shook his head, gazing upward with a sigh. "What high expectations."
"I swear, I will kill you." Kakashi took a shaky step. "Obito."
"You're always so quick to make promises. It's no wonder you've lived a life of regret."
Shooting pain plagued her dreams.
Standing knee deep in putrid black water.
Sakura could hear Naruto and Sasuke's voices.
She tried to wake up.
There were slithering things clawing at her skin.
Something dark and twisted was eating at her.
She snapped awake and looked at who had called her name.
Naruto and Sasuke were seated together, staring at her.
She was standing over the pile of ash and charred wood that had lit their evening. The same pyre where Itachi had been placed.
Sakura's hands were clammy. She was shivering and there was that aching in her spine again.
"Are you okay?"
Her stomach lurched and she shook her head.
She ran for the nearest tree and dry-heaved with no relief.
She heard Naruto behind her, "Woah! What's wrong?"
She waved him off and started walking away from the camp.
When they were out of sight, Sakura tried to vomit again.
She continued walking.
The nausea was debilitating.
She leaned against a tree when she began to sway.
Her vision flashed red and she buckled.
Head in the grass, she vomited.
She squeezed her eyes tightly, letting the heaves pump out her stomach.
She panted, lifting herself off the ground.
She felt the stinging acid in her throat and froze when she saw the puddle below her.
It was black.
She touched her mouth.
She stood in a panic and tried to run to camp.
Her voice refused to come out.
Her body suddenly lit up in pain and she doubled over, throwing up more of the disturbing bile. Her eyes glazed over and Sakura passed out.
She was staring at her reflection in red wood. Clean, sacred wood.
In her peripheral she could see a figure approaching.
Black figure with glistening eyes.
Tainted blood spread from the figure's shadow. Black and infectious green.
She tried to turn around.
She tried to move at all.
The figure reached for her and the veins ran up her legs, digging under her skin.
She tried to scream.
And she did.
Sakura came to, standing rigid, in the middle of the settlement.
Her voice ringing in her ears.
Her mind was suddenly filled with voices. Pleas for help, for mercy. The cries of children. Women and men in agony.
Sakura hit her knees.
Her hands were seeking out something.
She remembered, trapped in Kabuto's grip, the feeling of this chakra.
But something wasn't right.
The chakra wasn't right.
Orochimaru's presence was like a veil over the real source of evil.
Like Naruto said…
Orochimaru was keeping it in.
Keeping it contained.
This power was different.
Different from the curse seal, different from Orochimaru's gold eyes.
The white snake had been consumed.
And only the pure evil remained.
Her skin was mangled by the spreading ink.
Limbs felt twisted.
Her voice was breaking apart her body.
She could hear someone coming.
She could hear the heart beats.
She could smell the veins filled with blood.
The scream distorted into a cackle that stretched out her bones and pulled her in one direction.
When her fingers touched their goal, her body went limp.
Sasuke's shift passed without incident. He spent the early hours watching the bloody moon.
The night had felt entirely too short.
Not enough time. Not enough rest.
His mind was buzzing with images of the day before, like a very disturbing, lingering dream. He stretched and felt the soreness of his body that still remembered battle.
Not an illusion.
He hadn't been up for three hours when the others started to stir. It seemed that they were struggling to sleep as well.
Karin woke and stormed off almost immediately after realizing Suigetsu had wiggled his way closer to her while she slept. Suigetsu was awoken by her movements and trailed after her. Sasuke could almost see in her retreating figure that Karin was ready to forgive Suigetsu, but only if he truly worked for it.
Naruto was next.
He sat up after grumbling and groaning about how early it was. He saluted Sasuke, who clicked his tongue in response.
He whispered, trying to be considerate of Sakura as she still slept, "Good morning!"
He walked over and plopped down beside his long lost comrade. Sasuke tried not to acknowledge his unnecessary energy, and his thoughts remained engrossed with the moon.
Naruto's gaze drifted upward like Sasuke's.
"When Pain summoned the bijuu, that happened. I don't understand why it didn't go back to normal after the demons dispersed."
He read the question in Sasuke's upward gaze, but didn't have any idea how to being to answer. He moved uncomfortably. Nothing had happened as he imagined. After all the unexpected shifts in the path others had laid out for him, would destroying the Hachibi really end everything?
He couldn't break the seal, let alone touch it.
What was missing?
What was he supposed to do?
The Kyuubi was gone. Itachi was dead.
Who was left to guide him?
Both he and Sasuke jumped when a small cry came from Sakura.
They looked at her sleeping body. She was sitting up, eyes half open.
"Hey, are you okay?"
Her entire body was quivering. Sweat glistened on her forehead.
She lunged with stiff legs and started walking.
Naruto chuckled as she stood, "You look terrible, Sakura."
She didn't answer them, but muttered under her breath. Gasping and twitching.
Sasuke called out loudly, "Sakura?"
Her head snapped to look at them, struck with horror.
Her eyes darted around, confused.
Sasuke started to get up, "Are you okay?"
She blanched and convulsed. She ran to the nearest tree and leaned against it, dry heaving.
Naruto jumped up, "Woah!"
They both ran to her.
She stumbled and Sasuke reached for her. She lifted her trembling hand and he stopped.
They watched her walk away, hand still waving as if to reassure them.
Naruto half laughed, "Something she ate?"
Karin had returned when she heard their raised voices. "What's going on?"
She recognized the concern in Sasuke's voice.
"Oh, geez." She mocked quietly, "It's not like she's never been sick before. That girl's weak to stress."
Sasuke glared at her.
She sighed loudly and sat up, "Okay! Fine. I'll check on her."
Karin stormed in Sakura's direction. She passed by Suigetsu, who was just returning as well. They made eye contact and Karin was hit with a furious blush. She scampered on past him and Suigetsu turned to the other men with a grin.
"So much energy this morning!" He eagerly started picking up their things. "We're headed to Konoha, right?"
"After we deal with the Hachibi, yes." Naruto's eyes narrowed at the memory of Konan's words. "Madara is there."
Sasuke sat down, arms hanging over his knees. He rested his head, touching his closed eyelids.
"What does Madara want with the bijuu?"
Naruto leaned against the tree behind him. "It doesn't matter what Madara wants with them. That kind of power…" He imagined the chaos and destruction the Juubi caused in Ame. "That power shouldn't be controlled by anyone. The bijuu combined… it wasn't evil, it was just… overwhelming. It felt like the center of the universe. And the Kyuubi," Naruto touched his stomach, his seal, "I felt like I was being pulled in. Called home."
"But they've been separated now. Who knows how long it would take for Madara to find them all again."
"Yeah, but I've got to make sure that never happens."
"Who says it has to be you?"
Naruto laughed, "I don't know if I am choosing this path… or if it was meant for me. All I want is for all of this to stop. All this war. And I think we can do it… I think we can achieve true peace."
Sasuke recalled what the crow said, just before his battle with Itachi.
Naruto is where he wants to be.
Sasuke huffed, "Always an optimist. I can't imagine a world where there is no war."
"Itachi said that too." Naruto smiled sadly, "Everyone fights for a reason… But, underneath it all, that reason is not evil. If you take the violence away, we're all just struggling to protect something that's precious to us." He looked dazed, like he was staring into a dream. "Is it wrong… to want a better future?"
Sasuke didn't answer. Sakura's voice resounded in his mind, soothing his rampant doubts.
"We make the world… right?"
They laughed lightly together, but it was cut short when Naruto cringed.
"What is it?"
He shook his head. "It's nothing. Headache."
Sasuke leaned on his hands. "First Sakura, now you."
Suigetsu, who had been listening, tossed in, "Sympathy pains."
Sasuke glared, "What does that mean?"
Suigetsu snickered to himself.
Naruto watched, hesitant to speak, but something compelled him, "I spoke with Itachi… about you. He told me… that he had a reason to kill… that night."
Sasuke stared at him, fully alert.
"He said… that he wanted your happiness. He didn't want Konoha or the Uchiha to decide your life for you." Naruto smiled, realizing what Itachi had meant, "He wanted you to make your own reality."
Sasuke was about to respond when a scream shattered their camp.
The three men were frozen for half a second before identifying who it was and they all shot after the echo of her voice.
Sasuke was blinded by his speed as they approached where he and Itachi had battled. Naruto was lagging behind, holding his head.
Then a second cry split their ears.
It was Karin.
"I've watched your life, Kakashi, from this body. Fragments. Flickers of a reality that I didn't belong to. And all you've done is bring sadness and death to those around you. You are a perfect example of how far this world has fallen. It's completely worthless… and there is nothing left in it but misery."
Kakashi was transfixed on a face he suddenly could not recognize. Was it Danzou? Was that the name he attached to it? The more he looked at it, the more he saw traces of another face. Another person whose time had long since frozen in Kakashi's memory.
This was the face of Obito. There was no mistaking it.
He was brought back to reality by Gai.
"They're surrounding us, Kakashi."
Madara smiled, "You have nowhere to run. The only fate you can accept is death."
"Then I'll just take you down with me."
In that instant, something hit them all like a tempest. A shattering fear consumed them.
The shinobi looked at each other desperately as piercing waves of chakra bombarded them. This arising manifestation was eerily similar to the Juubi in Ame, but there was something fundamentally different. There was a sickening maliciousness sticking its fingers into their souls.
Madara took a deep breath, "It's awake."
He looked at Kakashi, his eye—half revealed under the failing bandaging—glinted.
Kakashi knew that Mangekyou instantly.
A mirror of his own.
"I will save this world from itself. I will erase the errors of humanity. And there will be no more war. There will be no more suffering."
The Sharingan spun wildly.
The weight in the air dragged Kakashi down.
He watched helplessly and was pulled into what Madara was seeing:
People staring up—frozen.
Black clouds cast across a blood red sky.
A never ending hell.
Kakashi's vision snapped in and out, from reality and to horrific illusion.
He fell to his knees, gripping his head.
They all felt a pulse in their bodies.
A pulse that shook the earth.
Something was coming.
They could see the settlement in the distance in no time.
Suigetsu saw Karin's back and shouted out to her, "Karin!"
Sasuke was there first and got in front of Karin, ready to defend.
Suigetsu grabbed her shoulders, shaking her. "What's wrong!? Are you hurt?"
She was trapped by fear, unable to stop looking ahead.
Naruto tripped and there was a flash of light. He was launched backward and hit the ground painfully.
Sasuke turned to see what had happened. Half of Naruto's head and shoulder were scalded and turning black. He cried out, writhing on the ground.
A small hissing noise made Sasuke and Suigetsu turn.
Standing in the opening was Sakura.
Her limbs were contorted. Pitch black fluid was dripping from her mouth and her hands were covered in it. Her skin appeared to be moving over her bones, little dark tendrils covered her like a curse seal.
Sasuke took a step—ears filled with Naruto's cries of pain and the quite hissing. "Sakura?"
She lifted her head and met his gaze.
The white of her eyes were inked with black. Her iris was a pool of dark blood.
Her mouth opened wider and smoke slipped out.
She was as pale as death.
"Sakura, can you hear me?"
She lifted her hand to reveal the sword, the Kusanagi no Tsurugi, clenched tightly in her delicate fingers. She squeezed it and blood dripped from her palm. Her hand was burning, skin raw and sizzling.
Naruto called from behind him, "It's the Hachibi! Get her away from the Kusanagi!"
Sasuke reached for her, "Put down the sword." Karin whimpered in the background and Sasuke snapped, "Get out of here!"
Suigetsu swept her up in his arms and hauled her out of danger.
Suddenly it was just the three of them. Naruto, clutching his face as his skin healed over; Sasuke, standing rigid, completely helpless; and Sakura, her body knotted and covered in demented chakra.
"Sasuke! Get it away from her!"
Sasuke's heart was pumping in his ears.
He had to do something.
"Damn it, Sasuke!"
Naruto tried to approach, hand out, but it hit the barrier again and turned black.
He had to do something.
The black ash was tricking from her body.
Something clicked inside him and he stood tall, relaxing his body.
His eyes lit up, awakening the Sharingan.
Three tomoe transformed into the six points.
"Listen to me."
Red against red. Sakura's possessed eyes were startled.
Naruto saw Sasuke's expression and chills ran down his spine.
Naruto watched the six points sharpen and from Sasuke's pupils stemmed three spikes of black, mimicking Itachi's Mangekyou.
Sasuke felt power quaking under his skin.
The world changed in his eyes. He could see everything.
The chakra that was invading Sakura… and the thing inside the sword. He recognized it as the unnamed evil that once lived inside his curse seal. Inside Orochimaru. Everything was coming together.
And then, there was the growing presence behind him. Was that really Naruto? Not human. That's all he could think. Not human.
All the world was open to him. Everything was in his power.
Eyes that saw everything.
He reached out to Sakura again, arms wide.
"Sakura… Come to me."
Her red eyes widened, the shape of the Sharingan swirling into place there.
Naruto was standing, trying to ram the barrier with his body. "SASUKE! STOP!"
She took a step, struggling for control.
She sprinted straight at him, sword held steady between them.
The blade shot through him and immediately he felt the poisonous chakra invading his body.
The ink on her skin spiraled toward the hilt where her hands were still connected.
The breath was sucked out of him and suddenly he was swimming in darkness.
The Sharingan in Sakura's eyes faded and the green returned.
Slowly, she came to her senses.
She felt the dampness and looked down. Blood.
She released the blade and screamed.
Sasuke grabbed her shoulder, leaning on her.
Numbness was erasing his consciousness.
Everything was becoming cold and empty.
She held him up, crying his name.
"Sasuke! What—" When she saw his eyes again, she remembered everything. "WHY? Sasuke!"
Sasuke's head hung from his shoulders. He tried to shake off the power of the Kusanagi, but the chakra was corrupting him.
There was no light.
There was no distinction.
What else was there but the drowsy nothingness?
Sasuke shoved Sakura back and she skidded away from him.
His body was being covered in black.
Naruto struggled to stand, "NO!"
His closed eyes were reluctant to open.
His skin felt strange, tingly.
Who was Sasuke?
Naruto howled, pressing his hand into the barrier. His skin burned away, but the chakra moved through. He could feel it.
He forced his whole hand through and his flesh and bone turned to ash. His hand was gone.
But fingers made of light moved inside the barrier.
Still feeling. Still alive.
Naruto took a deep breath.
The purple chakra sent angry ripples around him.
He dove in and felt the Kyuubi's chakra ignite on his body.
His body—was it his body?—moved through the air to Sasuke's side.
His golden hand grabbed the sword.
"Sasuke! Don't give in!"
Inside, Sasuke felt the tug. Curious, he opened his eyes.
Something else awoke with him.
Sasuke's black hands gripped the blade, holding it firmly inside of him. The hole below the hilt cracked, splitting to the edge.
Rage swarmed inside Sasuke.
Like insects crawling in his skin, hatred filled every fiber of his being.
Sasuke let out a guttural cry that transformed into a roar.
Naruto thundered back in Sasuke's face and the sounds melded together, like those of ancient, formless beings.
They struggled with one another, chakra building inside both.
Naruto clenched the hilt and put all his strength into one last pull.
This time, the sword could not take it.
A calamitous cackle burst from Sasuke's throat as all the energy that had been leaking out was finally released.
The Hachibi was free.
Immediately, the chakra shot out at Naruto and he dodged.
Trees were leveled behind them.
Knowing that Sasuke could no longer hear him, Naruto dropped the hilt and flickered to Sakura's side.
He pulled her into his arms and dodged another wave of corrosive chakra.
Something was pulling Sasuke toward the horizon.
Something was sucking him in.
Sakura struggled against Naruto. "Sasuke!"
Sasuke's eyes were burning.
Some part of him wanted to stop.
While the rest was desperate for a taste of death…
Some piece of him was reaching for the ground, struggling to hold on to reality.
Sasuke's body swelled and he discovered power at his fingertips. The world had become smaller. It felt weaker. More easily controlled.
The Hachibi's chakra was tearing apart the earth.
Naruto launched into the sky and Sakura screamed as they faded into the distance, "SASUKE!"
Arching high, Sakura watched the chakra bubbling in the clearing, pouring out like a black sea. She could feel the power of the Hachibi in her body, like an acidic residue, pulsing painfully.
Naruto saw Suigetsu and Karin below and dropped down to them.
He grabbed them as well and he hoisted them up.
They stopped in the sky and floated there, staring down at the putrid chakra spreading and killing the forest.
A black mass started to rise from it, a figure supported by the materializing bones.
At the core was Sasuke.
Naruto's body was jittery and filled with instinctive rage.
It was the Hachibi.
There was a shift in the demon and suddenly it was moving. A colossal mass of death.
As it traveled, it destroyed everything it touched.
Naruto had done as he had been told.
And now the Hachibi's madness had been unleashed upon the world.
Sasuke floated in darkness. Nothingness. Death, surrounding him.
His body felt drenched in power.
He lifted his head and was standing on the surface of a vast ocean of blood.
In the limitless sky there was only one light.
He moved, flowing effortlessly over the viscous body.
Following that bright red eye.
Next Chapter – TBA
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.