Alone in the night, a shadow mourns.
It lies in the grass like a oily snake, flat yellow eyes peering out of black liquid up into the sky. The forest doesn't care for its existence; the ordinary sounds of dusk seem to fade away near it, only resuming at a safe distance. It's an anomaly in every sense of the word.
The shadow does not belong here, but it has no choice in the matter.
The sky is clear, cloudless. The moon has risen early, full and bright. Pockmarked by craters, it gleams down onto the earth below, a bright dime in the darkening sky. It is what the shadow is staring at with its moldy yellow eyes.
The moonrise is a celestial mockery. A message of bitter failure.
Decades of planning have been set back; millennia of patience, unrewarded. The shadow never questions its goal, but it can feel frustration, hate, and regret. Tonight, it is overwhelmed by them. One Rinnegan has been destroyed. The other has disappeared beyond its sight. With them has gone any chance of a clean plan.
The shadow is desperate, and desperation has born sloppiness. It has been forced to roll the dice; to entrust unto others, unwitting as they would be, the development of its means, and the notion fills it with disgust.
It didn't want this. Everything had been so close to coming together, before coming apart in the most infuriating manner possible.
But underneath the rolling anger, the clinging desperation, the shadow is calm. This has happened before, though not to such an incredible degree. It did not relent then, and it will not now. It has waited for thousands of years, and now, it can sense the end of things is close. Time is fast to it; hundreds of generations have lived before its eyes, and none of them have seemed particularly different. They all squabbled, suffered, and died. To it, twenty years would be miniscule, and it feels things will come to a close much sooner than that.
Black Zetsu stares up at the moon, and closes its eyes. It does not sleep, and so does not dream, but it imagines that if it could the moon would feature prominently in its dreams. Every night it is drawn to it, be it a crescent or a whole circle.
Every night, Zetsu watches the moon and yearns for its mother. This night, despite everything, is no different.
Breathing spite and disgust as it always has, lurking in the darkness beyond black, Zetsu mourns.
"Mother," it says, its voice like thick tar.
"It's nearly time."
Hundreds at a time, disciples of Pain take counsel with their Angel. The scattered souls of Amegakure are all across the continent; most move in one main body, heading east, while many others strike out on their own. But together or not, they speak to the Angel nonetheless.
Some talk softly to themselves, clones of the Angel listening attentively. Others scrawl their thoughts into transient paper, hoping for their prayers to be read. There are as many subjects of counsel as there are disciples. Some are drowning in despair, or suffocating on their own ennui. Others spit curses and accusations of betrayal.
No matter the subject, the Angel listens. Mostly silently, but every so often offering a word of her own.
In this way, Konan tends to her flock. She takes onto herself their doubts, fear, and hate, and attempts to turn their minds to more hopeful things. Safer things: away from crimson demons and melted homes.
She is leading them to a new home, one where they can not afford to harbor such dangerous thoughts. Konan has no illusions; she has placed her people at the mercy of the same foreigners who transformed her country into a barren graveyard of unprecedented scale, and the notion sickens her.
But it's the only path open to her. Amegakure's people cannot live in the glassed shell of a city their village has been transformed into, and Konan herself cannot ignore Nagato's final wishes. Her last friend passed his mantle to Naruto Uzumaki; he, then, is the one Konan must follow.
She resents Nagato for that. Quietly, and guiltily. For entrusting his dream to a naive child. For leaving her alone.
She resents, but she pushes herself onward. There's nothing else to do. She cannot afford to drown in her own guilt and doubt; there is already more than enough of it surrounding her.
So she does not relay her fears. Instead, she impresses upon her people simple truths.
Their god is dead, but he was not slain. He sacrificed himself to give them all a second chance, among their former enemies. They cannot afford to refuse Pain's gift.
It's a compelling message. Konan almost believes it herself.
Obito is not quite in a coma, but distantly, he wishes that he were.
He is hardly aware of anything outside his own body. The world is nothing but grey smudges and muffled, impossibly distant sounds. All that exists is him; his thoughts, floating in an ocean of senselessness. It's maddening.
He can do nothing but ask the same question of himself, without pause.
What had he been he thinking?
Obito wants to claw at himself, but he can not move. He wants to cry, but he can not cry. He would trade his remaining limbs for the chance at one deep breath, to ground him in the abyss, but he can not breathe.
How had he let things go so far?
Obito does not know, and that realization deeply frightens him. He cannot make sense of his actions over the past decade and a half; it is as though he were stuck in another man's body, watching their life through familiar eyes. Only now, locked in this grey purgatory, can he look back at what he'd done with horror.
Protect Konoha. That was what Obito Uchiha has always dreamed of. Becoming Hokage, and defending his home, his family, and his friends. But now that dream is broken, and Obito can not understand why. He stole his own life away, and can offer no justification after the fact.
Crazy. He must be crazy. It's the only explanation.
He sees something. He sees something, though he has no eyes. Familiar gates in a familiar place.
Obito can see the entrance to Konoha, and it takes him a moment to understand how.
Paired eyes. It's the only explanation. He is seeing what Kakashi Hatake is seeing right now, through his eye. Obito doesn't even have eyes of his own now. Orochimaru took the one he had left. How can he be seeing what Kakashi is seeing with no eye to guide the link?
Kamui. He can feel that familiar coldness, an ice knife cutting through the frost surrounding him. The more than physical link.
Why is Kakashi looking through his Sharingan? He's not in combat. One more thing that Obito does not understand.
It doesn't make sense.
Nothing makes sense.
Kakashi Hatake memorizes the gates of Konoha once more. He has pulled back his hitai-ate, his red Sharingan eye darting over the structure. Behind him, Kisame Hoshigaki grins and shifts his shark-sword over his shoulder. The man is impatient, but willing to tolerate Kakashi's habits.
Both Kakashi and Kisame are leaving the village on the same mission, but for very different reasons. They are both aware of this, and take some satisfaction in the contrast.
Kakashi has already said goodbye to everyone of importance. He's not sure if he'll be coming back from this mission. This is hardly the first mission Kakashi is not sure he will come back from: in fact, those have comprised the vast majority of his assignments. But it is certainly the most intensely personal.
Kisame has been waiting patiently for this day. In a way, he has been looking forward to working with the Hatake. Kakashi reminds the Hoshigaki of his last partner; quiet, professional, hyper-lethal, Sharingan. He thinks they will make a good team, despite their past relationship. Kisame is used to working with people who have tried to murder him, and vice versa.
They depart without ceremony, breaking into the distinctive kilometer-eating movement of shinobi as soon as they clear the walls, bounding through the forests of the Land of Fire. Kakashi keeps his Sharingan uncovered for another minute or so, despite there being being no need to.
He can feel something: a cold connection, like a dagger in his eye. He doesn't have much experience with the sensation, but he could never mistake it for something else.
Obito is looking through his eye. Kakashi keeps his vision unimpaired.
He wants Obito to know he's coming for him.
Despite everything his long-gone teammate has done, Kakashi is coming for him. He refuses to be a hypocrite. He still remembers what Obito told him all those years ago, before he lost his teammate and gained the title of Copy Ninja.
Worse than trash.
Kakashi is chasing words spoken seventeen years ago. He failed then.
He won't fail this time.
Hinata's face goes numb when Neji smashes his palm into it. She stumbles backward, nearly crashing to the ground, and strikes out with a low kick. She has to keep her balance and stay on the attack, or the spar will end in a moment.
The kick brushes the back of Neji's knee before her cousin spins out of the way, striking at Hinata's side. She blocks with a dropped elbow, feeling the tenketsu in her forearm cease functioning as Neji's fingers make contact. Neji's other arm shoots forward, towards her chest, and Hinata only avoids it by bending her entire upper body backwards; she's forced to move into a backwards flip, pushing her cousin back with an impromptu kick to buy space.
The floor of the dojo is cold, and has that particular stickiness that only laminated wood is capable of. As Hinata comes out of her flip, her hand sticks to it as her cousin moves in.
The low strike she throws out with her free hand is easily deflected, but she had planned for that. Hinata channels the momentum of her cousins deflection into a full body movement, her entire torso rotating over her hand with her legs quickly following. Neji tries to jump back, but he's just slightly too slow: the double kick strikes him in the calf, and sends him tumbling.
Hinata has never been very enthusiastic about sparring. She does not like trying to hurt those close to her: every time she has been sent to fight her sister, her sister, cousins, teammates, or anyone else from Konoha, she has been unable to keep herself from hesitating. Landing a blow seems like a betrayal to her. It's something that her father has been utterly unable to train out of her.
But today, it's different.
She's smiling, and so is Neji.
Hinata is smiling because a great weight has been lifted off of her. She finally stepped into Naruto's light, and it didn't burn her to ash as she feared. She's only grown stronger, more confident. She just landed a blow on her cousin; it's more obvious to Hinata than ever that she is improving. Hinata has never felt much pride in her being a shinobi, but now, she thinks she can understand the feeling.
Neji is smiling because he's finally free. It's extremely amusing to him; he laughed out loud before he fell asleep the night before when he realized in a haze of exhaustion that following Naruto had stripped the Hyuuga's Seal off of his forehead. Three years ago, he could have never imagined it. He's also glad for Hinata's progress; he doesn't want either of them to die again, and this training is necessary for that.
Both of the Hyuuga are looking to the future with their all-seeing eyes. There is a shared conspiracy between them, bringing them closer than they've ever been, and driving them to new heights. Words from the past are pushing them forward.
I'll change the Hyuuga.
Naruto doesn't go back on his word, and as Hinata and Neji batter each other across the dojo, that knowledge makes them smile.
No one sees Itachi Uchiha leave Konoha. The man departs like a shadow sent fleeing by a sudden light.
Then, Itachi is where he is most comfortable: alone. For the last decade, he's survived like this, taking refuge in the silence inside his head. All he had keeping him moving forward was a vague aspiration, hushed directives. Relay information about Akatsuki. Trust no one. Keep Sasuke alive.
Prepare to die.
That changed, of course, but Itachi still finds himself thinking that perhaps he should have let his brother kill him, months ago. It would have simplified things.
It's a selfish thought: a silly thought. He has a real mission now, directly from the Hokage once more. Find the man who put the Uchiha on the chopping block, who's betrayed Konoha once more, and put him down. It's straightforward, karmic; a subtle relief.
Itachi wishes his brother were alongside him. He's growing tired of being alone.
There had been no need to say goodbye to Sasuke. His brother didn't care about him: it wouldn't have made a difference if he'd left without a word. That was certainly his right, after what Itachi had done to him.
There's regret. Bitter regret. Itachi can't deny it.
This won't change anything. Sasuke has hated him since he was seven years old. Itachi ensured it. He's lived with it for almost ten years. If Sasuke still hates him, that just means that everything is as it was.
This won't change anything.
Naruto finds his master somewhere in the streets of Konoha. It's not a meeting that's planned, but as soon as they see each other, they both understand they have to speak. They meet each other once more atop the Hokage's building, brought there by an unconscious impulse.
Naruto only has one thing to say.
"I can't forgive him."
Jiraiya knows who his student is referring to. It's obvious. He's been aware of the internal struggle Naruto's been concealing over the last few days. That night in Amegakure will stay with him for the rest of his life, and the burden placed on him with it.
I'll put my faith in you, Naruto.
"I know." Jiraiya does. He wouldn't have been able to forgive Nagato either, had the same happened to him. But it's what his student will say next that really matters, and Jiraiya waits for it with a sense of anticipation he hasn't experienced in years.
Let's hope you both have better luck.
"You have to help me." It's somewhere between a plea and a demand, and Jiraiya grins at it. "I don't know what to do." Neither of them do, and they know it. They've decided to take on an impossible crusade.
"What do you want to do?" Jiraiya asks. He's almost… excited. "All this hatred in the world. It isn't easy to wrap your head around."
"We have to figure it out." Naruto's conviction is tangible; Jiraiya's sure it should be pushing him back. "I don't know if we even can, if it's the kinda thing that can be figured out, but we've got to try. Pain..." The blond swallows. "Nagato killed himself so I'd have a chance. I can't forgive him, but I'm not going to waste that sacrifice."
Jiraiya smiles. This is the first of his students to come to him so openly about his ambition. The Sannin didn't realize how much he's wanted it until now. "He was right to trust you, Naruto. You know that?"
Naruto doesn't. He shrugs, and looks up at the Hokage monument behind his master. His eyes wander over the visage of the Yondaime; the stern gaze of the dead Hokage seems to meet Naruto's own.
You're my son.
Naruto has tried not to think about his parents since he'd returned from Amegakure. The whole thing is too confusing; almost frightening. But now, he can't stop himself. Two people he'd never had a chance to meet in life, who'd had absolute belief in him. The notion makes him shiver.
First their words of encouragement, and then Nagato's. He is being pushed towards something. No: that isn't how these things worked, or at least he doesn't think so. It's just the kind of person he is, to have these things happen to him.
Naruto Uzumaki is a shinobi, and a shinobi is one who endures.
He's been given an impossible task. But he has his village at his back, and his friends at his side. His parents are watching over him. He is pretty sure he has a girlfriend now as well, which is exciting in new and strange ways. The Akatsuki is gone. There's never going to be a better chance.
So what has he to lose by trying?
Naruto looks his master in the eye, and grins.
"Alright," he says. "Where do we start?"
AN: This is the end.
I want to extend my thanks to you: to everyone who's made it this far. Beyond the pursuit itself, you're all the reason I've kept at this for so long. Thanks to you, I've finally finished my first fic. Your feedback has been invaluable: it's made me a better writer, and it's brightened up many a day.Not Sick is ending here, but the story it's been telling will not. I'll be writing both a sequel and a sidestory: hopefully sooner, rather than later.
So again, thank you for your support. Thank you for reading this story. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope if that's the case, I can continue to entertain you in the future.