AN: Yes, I know, FINALLY. I was so blocked on this chapter, though. Gomen nasai. _
Quick reminders, since it's been so long:
Gaara was born a girl; Temari has betrayed the Sand; Rock Lee has the curse seal, not Sasuke; Naruto was raised by Anko, who has a son with Iruka; Deidara killed Tenten's parents, so she's now an avenger a'la Sasuke. Sorrysorrysorry...
Dink, dank, donk.
Plitter, platter, plonk.
Oh… is that your blood, or mine?
Answer: neither of ours.
Purple pinwheels; Orochimaru likes them, finds himself lost, as he rarely can be, within the careful cycle of it's wheeling limbs. He hates watching repetitive things- and yet there seems an inherrant danger to every pinwheel; that perhaps it is about to tumble out of careful order, for no reasons but it's own.
Orochimaru knows better than anyone that reality is not static, and that even the most careful pinwheels can tumble out of sync; plans can tumble out of control, and playthings out of the universe.
"Pinwheel, pinwheel, burning bright, in the shadows of the night…"
Orochimaru wrote that poem, in his universe. He spins the pinwheels deftly, watching, almost waiting for them to spin out of control.
It's ever so interesting when they do, isn't it?
There will be no Exams any more.
There will be no Shikamaru versus Temari, because there is no Shikamaru; he is tearing through the foliage, chased and angry and his stomach a rock, the angel-pressure of her hand burned into his. He is dripping sweat and chasing death- and death is chasing him. The Suna nin are after him in a hoard, four of them dispatched after one genin. It'll be child's play; the last game Shikamaru ever plays, if they'd have it their way.
He lands against a tree branch, and feels the katana go through parts of himself that he imagined impenetrable; how often do we consider the duality of the shoulder, it's give at the mere pressure of a steel blade?
Pinned to the tree, Shikamaru gazes up at the sky one last time- and then bites down on the smoke pellet, spewing purple poison from his ringed mouth. He's the bait. He's the diversion, so Temari can soar over the cloud and maybemaybe do something.
Maybemaybe they could have been something- but there's no 'maybe' about whether she's worth it. It is Shikamaru's first and last love, all vaulting through the sky like a fast-forward sun through a grim, grey sky. He looks for the girl with the sun in her eyes- and then he's gone, just as the three-headed Hydra snake crashes through the village stronghold.
The invasion of Konoha has begun prematurely. No one but Shikamaru is ready.
After the days and days of solitary solidarity, her touch comes as the greatest surprise in the world; he can feel the ridges in her skin, the valleys of her fingerprints as she clamps down on his clammy shoulders, shakes the olive blankets away and drags him into the light of a half-lit room, his skin breaking out in icy droplets of sweat.
"Get up," Tayuya says, and it's not a command; it's a sick statement, in a world where grammar doesn't matter.
Get up. Go out. Kill. They don't need to be commands; it's what's in their souls, branded onto their bodies in Curse Marks and scars.
The marble table shatters; such a pretty piece of furniture, but with weak legs. Weak legs, kicked out from under them by a mere girl-
"Bring her head to me," he says to the air, which rushes to heed his command. Orochimaru is supreme ruler of the Western Skies, the god of wind, the god of snakes and vengeance and-
"One girl," he murmurs, pressing a finger to his thin lip. One girl.
What on earth could Deidara have wanted with that one girl?, he wonders…
"Neji, what's going on!" she calls, panicked, scraping the rubble around them.
Neji doesn't answer; his glazed eyes are locked on the sunny ceiling, following the bent shrapnel that's protruding from his unmarked forehead.
Her hand is still knit with his. He didn't even have time to startle, the dignity of watching his death coming-
One down, a village to go- Lee punches his exit into the wall of the arena, and heaves out, saliva gushing down his bare chest. It hurts, it hurts so much-
… But it feels so good.
"You need to leave me here, I'll be fine-"
"Like hell I would!" Naruto shrieks over the roar of the giant monster, it's three unholy heads shrieking skyward and renting outer space. Sakura stumbles, still so weak- but Akiyama catches her waist, supporting her like a four-foot-tall, living brace. Brother and brother, arms linked around her, trying to save her from the death that's all around.
Akiyama doesn't ask what's going on; he knows that this is beyond them, and that this is their future. This is a world that was not supposed to be. His brown eyes tremble to take in the snake, but they are steeled-grey over Iruka's loving brown.
"Aki, take her to the bunkers that your sensei told you about." Naruto says, his calm boiling like a pot on heat, quivering at the radiation all around.
"GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE," is the last thing he says to his brother, before Sakon and Ukon come, rambling in unholy unison, down the lane like toothy demons out for a turn in their natural element: destruction, horror, a fear so metallic that you don't realize it's blood until you've already been stabbed through by it.
"Get the fuck out of here, get the fuck out of here," is what he says when Sasuke rounds the corner behind him. Naruto has time to turn and face his teammate, his friend, his-
The flames spiral down from heaven, unspeakable and beyond man or god; Sakon and Ukon go up into the black belly and are consumed, moths so stunned by their trip into the light that they cannot even scream as they are flayed alive by the undying fingers of Amaterasu. Naruto is staring into Sasuke's bleeding left eye, staring into the star at it's center, the Mangeyouku Sharingan that nobody told you Sasuke had.
A hand, from the darkness of the world they see as light, finds the boy's shoulders. Fingers crawl up it, two, three, four- and then emerges a tall form, a lanky form rankled by sickness and a heaviness that comes only from the anticipation of death, of living in death.
Uchiha Itachi grips his younger brother's shoulder to steady himself. He has no idea what he is looking at, you see- Itachi's eye sockets are empty, emptier than his eyes were before they were gouged out.
The city is in worse-than-shambles; any familiarity is gone, any resemblance to the quiet village they have known. Balls of flame are raining from the sky; hell-monsters are crushing houses with people in them, limbs are hanging, waving, screaming, being consumed. It is the end of the world as Gai has known it.
But it has been for a long time, he imagines- and he could have stopped it. He could have stopped it, if only-
He dies in mid-step, eyes somehow finding her meandering form. "Tenten," he says, as if to accustom himself to her new presence. "Tenten- TENTEN, TENTEN!" he screams, and tears after her shambling form.
She is weighed down by an unholy burden, a world strapped to her chest by black bonds of energy that pulse in time with her thin body like worms engorged upon her heart. Tenten is walking, but she is really quite gone already- she is halved by a fear more fearful than fear; a grief more certain than life. She is stumbling through Konoha, still in this man's command.
She always has been. The life that is flashing before her eyes has been drained by the desire to kill him, to avenge the horror he bestowed upon her, a child tainted.
… How could she have been so stupid?
Gai shoots out of the flames, calling her name. His arms are open. Why? Why could she not see the embraces and run to them? Why does hindsight have to be 20/20, and why do we love, why do we love when we can only lose?
Why did he have to destroy her, that day?
Her mouth is copper, her tongue iron, heavy in her mouth. The world moves in slow motion; Gai's huge strides leaping over piles of destroyed lives; the little boy with a girl twice his size bent, unconscious, over his young shoulder; the final leer of his ice-eyes in the clouds of hell above.
Tenten screams Gai's name, as the bomb implanted within her body by Deidara combusts in an unspeakable whiteness. Whiteness, great- to wipe everything away, their lives and their regrets.
"Come," is what he says, and come is what Naruto does. He comes to the end, comes to another pile of rubble just like the rest that is somehow different; somehow containing his whole world and simultaneously scattering it to the farthest reaches of the world as he does not know it.
Akiyama's breath is only Sakura gasping beneath his prone body; when she sits up, Akiyama falls against her chest, his charred skin barely flush with life. He is burned- horribly, horribly burned. Naruto can't even tell how badly, because he has no time.
There is no time. There is only Itachi's hand on his shoulder, and Sasuke's trembling form beside him.
"My brother- my brother-" is all he can say; he's clutching Akiyama to him with all the strength he can, as if he can squeeze life into existence like a god closing it's fist. Somehow it does- Akiayama startles alive, for an instant, his tiny body beyond shock. He is dying, is Naruto's only thought.
"Come with us, Naruto, and we will explain," the blind man says, his fingers trembling on Sasuke's shoulder, his eyeless sockets staring through Naruto's head, past Akiyama and into the innocence imploding as Sakura hides in her own lap, her face blackened by burns.
The world swims, blotted by tears. "My mother…"
"Come with me," Itachi says plaintively, beckoning with one hand. "And we will do what we can."
Anko in his eyes, Naruto glances over his brother's burned scalp at the madness around them- and then, finally, slowly, he takes her in with the horror, his blue eyes full of it. "Come with me," Naruto says to her, and Sakura has no choice but to do just that.
None of them do…because the pinwheel's spinning off it's axis.
She crests over the canopy, too paralyzed to pant. Temari is one of the few things she is certain of at this moment, because the world is falling apart around her. She has betrayed her country, and they know- they are searching for her, they want to take her and-
Well, we can't imagine what happens to traitors.
Ten, in a ring; her fan swings, one aubergine moon leering at the enemy. She has been taught well; she's old enough to remember their mother, and to remember the secret their father is keeping from Aiko. She remembers love, and that alone is carrying her through this warzone, has carried her through years of trying to connect to her sister, through years without the love she deserves.
The cyclone around her sends their lithe bodies flying into the air; they rebound, but she is gone, leaping again into oblivion. She can't lose them; she can't defeat them on her own. Who has a choice? Who's blood is that?
"Find her," Shikamaru murmurs, his voice dry as death. He zips in front of her, mutters this in the fleeting second as they pass within proximity to one another, bound by a faith that they cannot yet describe.
"Find Aiko. Find Aiko, and wake her. I'll find you, I'll find you…"