Chapter 8: World of Darkness
Naruto sat up. His head was killing him. He rubbed at his forehead and pulled his hand away at the unexpected texture.
“Sand?” The grains drifted between his fingers.
A glance around showed that he was sitting in a dark place, on some sort of black substance. What light there was didn’t have any obvious source; it just seemed to come out of nowhere. He couldn’t see anyone else. Whatever he was on was uneven, broken into jagged and uncomfortable chunks and tilted at an angle that would make even standing difficult.
Yet he rose, panting, despite the pain in his head. It felt like someone had kicked him in the heart, then taken out his lungs and used them as a rapid-fire punching bag before stuffing them back inside. His arms and legs could have been covered in lead, for all the difficulty he had making them do what he wanted them to.
For a moment his footing slipped, but he managed to avoid falling. It was a struggle, but his sense of balance returned with some effort. As it did, his eyes and ears and nose cleared up, too. He immediately regretted the last one. The stink of this place was terrible, like blood and sewage all mixed together in the most offensive combination possible.
“How did I get here?” he asked himself.
The voice that drifted in was so faint Naruto was almost convinced he had imagined it. But it was something. It was anything but this stink and the jagged black landscape. He staggered, climbing up the slight incline towards the source of the sound.
“Hello? Where are you?”
Naruto grunted. The way was becoming steeper the higher he climbed. He began to grab at chunks of crumbling black landscape with his hands, pulling himself along as much as pushing with his feet.
“…go away… go away… Go away. Go away. Go away! I don’t want you here!”
That voice. It was familiar. It stirred something in Naruto. He began to scramble faster, ignoring the words and listening to the meaning. The ground began to shake. He lost his grip with one hand and flailed for balance before managing to catch himself. The earthquake grew more intense. He began to shout back at the grinding sound.
“You can’t stop me!” he roared.
Then the entire ground crumbled and he was plummeting down-
It was wet. The stink remained. He sat up. It still hurt. His head hurt. He rubbed at his face. Foul liquid dripped from his fingers into his eyes and he rolled around, cursing and blinking and weeping the pain out.
Finally he made it to his knees and looked around. He was… in a sewer? The water was shallow and stagnant. But there was something under it. Fouler and thicker – like mud, but also unlike it in a creeping, horrible way. The walls were crumbling concrete. The ceiling was strewn with pipes in some crazy design that made no sense, twisting and fusing and joining with no rhyme or reason.
It was making his headache worse.
He managed to get to his feet again. It was easier this time. He looked up and down the passage, but there was nothing to suggest which way to go. The voice had vanished with the broken landscape.
But there was a sound. It filled the air, so deep and low it was felt more than heard. Rise. Fall. Rise. Fall.
Like a great bellows, or a fireplace.
He began to walk towards it. His feet sank into the sewage with a dull echoing splash with each step. He was already soaked. What he hated was the smell. It bubbled up each time he broke the surface. But there was nowhere else to walk.
He turned a corner and it was there.
The bars sealed off the entire end of the corridor. Beyond them was only darkness. Not just bars – it looked like an absurdly huge cell door, joined in the middle. The only thing he could see holding them closed was an single tiny slip of paper with a kanji on it, plastered far above Naruto’s head. He was squinting at the character, trying to figure out what it meant (kanji had never been his strong subject), when the eyes opened on the other side of the bars, and all thought of the paper was erased.
They were huge. They were too huge. And the bared teeth which suddenly gleamed beneath the eyes were way too huge. The air grew stale and hot, rolling over Naruto and ruffling his hair and jacket. He staggered back a step. “You’re… you’re…”
The terrible sound which emerged was too deep and malicious to be called laughter, but it was the only word Naruto had. “Yes, I am,” a voice like thunder rolled through the sewer.
“…wait, who are you?” Naruto asked, rubbing his temple and leaning forward to squint.
Silence descended on the sewer.
The eyes blinked.
“For crying out loud, not again!”
Naruto was lying in a street. The sky above was a swirling abstract of red clouds and twisting stars. Everything looked weird. Naruto didn’t have the words for this either, but the shadows were bright and the lights were dark. The world was shaded red in some way that made everything feel both unreal and at the same time… super real. Like, extra special real.
Naruto kicked to his feet in a smooth motion. His body still felt like a warmed-over garbage heap but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. He picked a direction and started walking. “Hello?” he called in the silence.
“..don’t want to die,” a voice called back.
“Sasuke!” Naruto spun and found a new alley. “That was Sasuke!”
He ran through the strangely familiar but also unfamiliar streets and became increasingly tense as he moved. It was the bodies. They were everywhere, scattered across the streets, lying in the doorways, even visible slumped against the walls inside the buildings. The bodies and the blood.
It was everywhere. It stank. That sickening sewage smell, this was what was under it. Blood.
He spun a final corner and paused as Sasuke ran screaming past. Except it wasn’t him. He was too small, voice higher pitched, body much too scrawny. He remembered this Sasuke. It was Sasuke from years ago.
“I don’t want to die! Pleasepleasehelpme I don’t want to DIE!”
A shift in the air, the lightest touch of feet on stone. Naruto gagged at the sudden pressure that threatened to overwhelm him. Not killing intent. This was nothing like what he had felt in Wave. This was… something thicker.
Sasuke seemed to stagger under the weight of it. He fell to the ground, staring up at the new figure. It was like an older, harsher version of Sasuke. He wore a full set of ninja gear, a Konoha headband and had heavy lines on his face. Despite that, he looked young.
“Foolish little brother.” The voice was cold. The air was cold. Sasuke was sobbing.
“Why? WHY! Itachi, why!?”
The figure looked up from Sasuke. He met Naruto’s eyes. They were red. Three tomoe spun in the iris. Then they became something else-
“I’m getting sick of this!” Naruto said as he landed on hands and knees. The disorientation passed quickly, but his headache was growing worse each time. It was like someone was driving spikes into his eyes. It was like his temples wanted to explode. He clutched at the ground.
Soft grass, fresh soil. It felt pleasant, but out of it came that awful retching stench.
Behind him something squeaked and it filled him with mind-blanking rage. He roared and surged to his feet, twisting around and pulling his fist in a violent arc.
The boy toppled from the swing. The boy gasped and stared up in horror and despair. The blond hair stood up in spikes. The blue eyes quivered. The marks on his cheeks moved as the boy shouted silent words.
“How… how is this… possible…” Naruto was frozen in place.
Around him, in the distance, the shadows waited. Large and small, male and female. Shapes of people. And the whispers. Distant. Unheard. Away from him.
Naruto clenched both hands into fists so hard he could feel his nails biting into his palms. He threw his head back and screamed at the sky. “You think this is funny!? You think you can mess with my head like this? Well, laugh all you want! This won’t stop me!”
Sasuke staggered through the darkness, clutching at his eyes with one hand while probing ahead with the other. For one awful moment, he thought he had gone blind. But his eyes hurt way too much to be blind. The light hurt. The dark hurt. He slowed to a stop, feeling more than seeing the bottom of a cliff.
He tried to look around. It was a blur. Objects blended into each other and colours merged together. “Genjutsu?” he said. His hands came up and he formed the release seal. “Kai!”
Nothing. Except maybe his eyes had cleared up a little. He could see… something. A figure. A child? It was too small to be any of the ninja he was fighting. The hair was bright… red? Orange? It was hard to say.
Sasuke reached into his pouch and gathered a handful of shuriken. It could be a transformation. It could be a genjutsu. His Sharingan should see through it all. He tried to focus on that feeling, to push his chakra just so to make the transition from normal sight to-
“Erk,” he hissed through clenched teeth. It was like he was trying to push a stuck valve. His headache grew worse.
“They left me…”
Sasuke looked up. The (boy? girl?) child was holding a red (ball? bomb?) and staring at him. “They all left me… they left me, left me… left me!”
There was a pop. The ball deflated. Sasuke jumped backward. Something quivered through the ground. Sasuke’s foot slipped. Sand? It shifted under his weight and he toppled to his side.
“They left me, and you’ll leave too.” The child’s voice was growing deeper, older, but also more hysterical and crazed with each word. “You’ll leave, forever! Leave me alone forever! I’ll make you leave me alone!”
The ground was moving. The air was filled with sand. The red-haired figure loomed, and something huge was behind it. A great monstrous face, snapping jaws and crazed eyes shaped like crosses. Its terrible voice echoed in the bones, somehow coming a moment before the figure spoke.
Sasuke wanted to cringe back, to flee, to hide; but he was a ninja. He was not weak. He stared straight into that inhuman face. He met its terrible eyes. He screamed defiance.
The sand stopped.
The voice shrieked, and the child clutched his head. The monster flinched, throwing itself away. Receding. Retreating.
“Leave me alone!” The cry was not angry, but weak. Not terrifying, but pathetic.
The world dissolved.
Gaara crouched in a fetal position. He was alone. Alone and unloved. Again.
Yashamaru smiled at him. False face. Not real.
“Love, love is the antidote to loneliness,” he said, holding up his hand. The bandage on his finger. The smile. The lies.
Love was a lie. Only loneliness was real.
He was on a field. Shadows laughed in the distance. He sat on a swing, clutching one of the rope supports. Staring. Hating.
“Pathetic creatures…” Gaara said with a hiss. He looked up. The masked ninja came towards him, kunai in their hands. The sand rose to defend him. It always did.
“You do not have enough hate.”
Gaara’s eyes looked back at Yashamaru-in-disguise. But the shinobi under the mask was not Yashamaru. It was someone else. Someone Gaara had never seen before-
(except he had, hadn’t he? Running up the side of the final release, screaming and carrying a bright light behind in one palm)
-a shinobi with red eyes. “I killed them to test the limits of my abilities.”
He struck. The sand rose to protect him. It always had.
The blade sunk into Gaara’s shoulder. He clutched a hand to it. It was warm, and sticky, and smelled awful.
The shadows were laughing. They were mocking him. He was bleeding his own blood and the voices were laughing.
Naruto dodged sideways as the air itself broke. Dirt and grass flew up in thick lines through a cone that just barely didn’t include him. Sasuke came in behind him, floating through the air with his legs tucked up beneath him.
“Katon: Grand Fireball!”
The flames tore through the air, sucked up in the wake of the unnatural wind. The girl cursed and flipped her fan around, barely ducking behind it.
“Naruto!” Hinata called and pointed towards the far side of the clearing.
“Gatsuga!” Two Kibas spun through the air, bouncing from tree to ground and back, each time tearing a great gouge. One of the boys in the kabuki warpaint cursed and dodged, throwing his arm to the side. The other identical boy fell from his perch on the branch where he had been firing needles toward Shino.
“Right!” Naruto pushed off, crossing the ground with a handful of steps, his body moving almost too fast for him to keep up. “Rasengan!”
The swirling orb of chakra collided with the face, tearing it apart, revealing the creepy puppet face beneath. The face disintegrated, drilled apart into a shower of wood and metal.
“Naruto!” Hinata cried again.
Shino gestured, and a cloud of black specks poured out of the ground and swirled around the redhead kneeling at the edge of the clearing. The boy had his head thrown back, staring sightlessly upward. The beetles swarmed him.
“What is this awful chakra!?” Shino said, leaping back. His swarm burst in all directions. The ones clinging to the boy tumbled off, their bodies sizzling and dying.
And they stank.
No. Everything stank.
“Stop him!” Sasuke said, moving around the blonde girl’s side and wrapping his wire thrice around her fan. He snapped it shut with a tug and the weapon went flying into the woods. The girl barely turned to take the punch aimed at her chin on her shoulder. A kunai appeared in her hand and Sasuke’s. Sparks flew as they clashed.
Naruto staggered to a stop, his momentum pausing as he tried to close on the boy who was surrounded by a pile of dead beetles. His hand dropped to his side.
“It doesn’t work,” Naruto said. “I don’t make it in time.”
The boy screamed and the sand erupted around him, exploding in all directions at once. He felt somebody grab his collar and pull him back. His body fell to the ground and Hinata crouched over him.
“Naruto! Naruto, can you hear me?”
“Hinata…” He gasped. “This isn’t… I… this isn’t how it happened…”
“Naruto, if you can hear me, you have to wake up!”
“You all have to wake up, Naruto! All of you! You have to wake him up!”
He was falling. The air was thick. He looked down, way down. A circle of beasts. None of them normal. He could feel them. Small but towering, young but ancient. It was terrible and beautiful. In the centre a small figure, barely a dot, growing larger.
Two of the beasts looked up. The one tailed yellow beast. The nine-tailed red beast. The figure in the center looked up.
“Get out of my HEAD!“
Naruto landed badly, his shoulder smashing into an eave and his body spinning into the street. He crashed and groaned. His hand reached up to his head. It hurt. His eyes. He clutched at his eyes futilely.
He forced aside the pain with a snarl. He rose on shaky feet. His eyes opened.
“I- Iruka!” Naruto shouted, running to the man. His body was hunched against a wall, bloody from a dozen kunai and shuriken wounds. A great windmill shuriken was buried in his back.
“…run…” the man said, blood on his lips before he slumped forward.
“Iruka!” Naruto shook him. He looked around wildly. “Kuh- Kakashi?”
The man was lying on the ground, surrounded in water. His skin was blue, his eyes rolled up. His skin was wrinkled yet also washed clean. “No… no… we saved you…”
Naruto stared around in mounting horror. Old man Hokage, slumped over a table. Konohamaru, lying deathly still on the corner. Sakura, a hole in her heart, her sword broken into pieces in front of her.
Tazuna. Inari. Hinata. Kiba. Choji.
It took him a moment to realize he wasn’t the one screaming. He broke into a run, towards that heartbroken sound. A boy, a child, barely more than a toddler, was crouched on the top of a roof. His red hair was bright. A swirling vortex of sand was spinning around him, a single tendril drilling into his forehead as the boy screamed and screamed.
Naruto bunched his legs, prepared to leap.
He bounced off the chest of the ninja who had appeared. Naruto landed, looking up. The giant cleaver was propped on the man’s shoulder. “A ninja is a tool to be broken,” Zabuza said. He blinked and his eyes were red, three tomoe spinning hypnotically within. “And you do not have enough hate!”
The blade came down. Naruto tried to dodge. Arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding him in place.
“I said we would meet again,” Haku’s voice whispered into his ear.
The blade came down.
The sewer smell was worse. He was on his hands and knees. He coughed. The pain was worse. It was growing. It felt like his head was going to burst.
A hissing noise drew his attention. He looked up. The little paper note was burning. The flames were all the colours of the rainbow. A great face pushed against the bars.
“That’s right, brat. Burn. Burn it!“
Naruto stared up dumbly. It was hard to think. He felt like he was being stretched like taffy and cooked like noodles.
“Let me out, and I will teach the One-tail a lesson!“
Some lizard brain instinct made Naruto shake his head. “No…” he said, barely even a whisper.
“Let me free!”
“Get out! Get out! I don’t want you here!”
It was the black land, the crumbling world. He was tumbling down the slope, bouncing painfully against the pieces of geometric landscape. He snapped his hands out and dragged himself to a stop. He hissed and rose slowly.
His head hurt. And his stomach was on fire. It was like a terrible force in him. He could feel his canines pressed against his cheeks. He could see his fingernails formed into claws. This feeling, it was like that time at the bridge…
A hammer-like mass of sand crashed into the ground, sending the cracked pieces of the landscape in all directions. Naruto rolled to the side, barely avoiding it.
Further up on the slope was another globe of light, and Naruto realised the light here didn’t come from nowhere, it came from him and the other and was coming straight out of them. The boy was pale, his eyes lined with dark circles. A red tattoo stood out on his forehead.
But he was also a child. Barely past a toddler. He held a red ball in both hands and stared at Naruto and he was alone.
“You can’t see!” the boy shouted and gestured, two tendrils of sand snaked out towards Naruto. Naruto leapt over them and gasped. Behind the boy stood two figures. One was Zabuza. The other was the red-eyed ninja Sasuke had called Itachi.
The world was tilting. Not just in his head, but literally. The ground’s slope was becoming steeper and steeper. Naruto snarled and clung on. The boy above was being held in place, one hand on each shoulder from the two older ninja. Where they touched, the light coming out of him dimmed.
It was like they were pulling him back and up, higher into the darkness. Naruto scrambled for purchase as the ground went entirely vertical. His fingers slipped free and he saw sand sifting between his fingers.
“Didn’t Kakashi forbid this jutsu?” Sasuke asked, hands in his pockets.
“Technically he forbade the time stop,” Sakura said, holding up one finger. “This is just six times accelerated time.” She gestured to the edge of the field she had drawn out in chalk. Beyond the edge of it, a single leaf fell towards the earth with slow surety, like it was sinking through molasses and not air.
“And if he doesn’t want to show up on time, I figure that means we’re free to train on our own.” She crossed her arms and smirked. “And what nobody tells him, he can’t forbid.”
“All right!” Naruto bounced in place. “This will be awesome!”
Except something was wrong. It was terribly wrong. Naruto was infused with some frightening red chakra. It blazed through his skin, swirling up from his stomach. His grin was less enthusiastic than sadistic, his eyes less cheerful than feral. He was panting and hunched over, red chakra pooling out of his body.
On his stomach, a black spiral symbol had burned through his shirt. Rainbow sparks erupted from it, like sparks from a welding torch, and where they passed the symbol was vanishing.
“Naruto!” Sasuke moved his arm, but it was like swimming through molasses. Naruto and Sakura were moving at normal speed, but he was slowed down to a crawl. His words came out barely legible as he screamed. He tried to run but his feet slipped out from under him.
He landed, looking down.
He looked over his shoulder. A figure stood at the edge of the chalk circle. A man, with white skin and grey hair and horns (horns?) bursting from his forehead. The only colour was a circular crimson mark on his forehead. He sat lotus-style, floating above the ground. Beneath him a number of spheres spun between earth and man, circling endlessly.
“Sasuke. Do not trust it.”
“You aren’t strong enough. I cannot remain. Do not trust it. The chaos will unmake it. You must stop it. You must stop her before it is too late.”
“What are you talking about?” Sasuke shouted. But the man was gone and the world was dissolving again. And the pain in his eyes was worse.
“We have to lead it away from the village!”
Hiruzen landed on the side of one of the great trees of the forest. The devastation was both familiar and shockingly new. Where the Nine-tails’ rampage had left the same shattered landscape, it had also created fires and melted rock. The One-tail was crushing the stone into sand and flattening great sections of the landscape with bullets of solid wind.
“Can anyone get close to it?” he asked.
“No. The sand that makes up its body attacks anyone who gets close,” Hiashi said.
“And the genin?”
Hiashi’s frown deepened. “No change,” he replied with obviously forced composure. It was no great stretch to see why. If Hiruzen’s child had been trapped atop that thing, he would have been strained as well.
A series of jutsu smashed into the side of the behemoth One-tail, gouts of flame and water and lightning all streaking in. The beast laughed at the ineffectual attacks and turned to face the retreating ninja, spitting out a giant bullet of air that carved a new valley into the forest. For now, at least, his ninja were keeping the thing’s attention on them. But any moment the beast could grow bored and turn towards the civilians only a handful of kilometres away.
Hiruzen had seen the damage a Tailed Beast Ball could do, and there would be no Fourth to deflect it this time.
“Kuchiyose no jutsu!” Hiruzen called and slammed his palm into the trunk. In a cloud of smoke the great Monkey King Enma appeared. The summon took a deep breath, not needing to ask what the emergency was.
“So, once more we face disaster, eh, old friend?” Enma said. “Do you need a weapon or an extra set of hands?”
“Hands,” Hiruzen said. “This forest is full of young genin. I need you to find and extract them. My ninja are too busy to assist.”
“Too busy with the beast?” Enma asked with a frown.
“…and another matter, perhaps just as dangerous.” The Monkey King nodded and bounced away into the forest.
“How did this happen?” Hiruzen asked, turning his attention to the two genin that had been taken up to this tree with him.
“Uh…” The Inuzuka boy looked stunned.
“We had no idea we were engaging such a beast,” the Aburame boy said, his voice clipped and controlled but spilling out the words so quickly that it betrayed his frayed nerves. “Hinata had disabled the red-haired one, Gaara, and then I was attempting to render him comatose with the help of two ninja from Team 7-“
“Team 7?” Hiruzen asked.
“Kakashi’s team.” Ibiki said, then added, “Haruno’s team.”
“I see.” He looked back at the Aburame. “Continue.”
“When he transformed, Naruto was too close. He was pulled up. We feared…” He coughed. “Sasuke and Hinata pursued him, running up the beast’s side.” He considered his next words. “I decided to concentrate on subduing the Sand Nin’s teammates.”
Hiruzen gave him a reassuring smile. “You did a good job, Aburame Shino. You are a credit to your clan.” He turned back to the One-tail. “Nothing would be gained by trying to climb that thing.” He wanted to add how foolish it would be. But Naruto was up there, and Sasuke, and Hinata. Three of the children he had sworn to protect.
“I need to know how we stop it,” Hiruzen said.
“You heard the Hokage,” Ibiki said, pulling the kabuki-painted Sand Nin up by the collar. The boy was wrapped in rope. His sister was being rushed to the hospital, having suffered severe chakra exhaustion via kikaichu beetle. The boy was largely unharmed save for a broken arm courtesy of the overenthusiastic Inuzuka. “Answer him!”
Ibiki was perhaps being a little forceful. He had frowned but not said anything when Hiruzen had used precious medical nin to take care of the sister. Hiruzen was still operating under the theory that this was a tragic accident rather than an attack. If it was an attack, it was very poorly timed. It wasn’t like Konoha could say they were holding their own jinchuriki away from missions or letting him participate in the exam.
“… wake him up,” the boy said reluctantly. “When he sleeps, the Shukaku possesses his body absolutely.”
“That thing comes out every time he sleeps?” Kiba said in surprise. “What do you do every night?”
“…Gaara doesn’t sleep.”
The Sand Nin only bit his lip and turned his head away. Hiruzen nodded and gestured. Ibiki grunted and gathered the two Leaf and one Sand genin and removed himself from the battle zone.
“Are the other genin still safe?” he asked Hiashi. The white-eyed man tensed, but nodded.
“I’ve been using special Hyuuga chakra pulse codes to communicate with Hinata. She is safe for now, but all four of them are trapped inside that cocoon on the top of the One-Tail.” He pointed to the comparatively small bump incongruously perched on the beast’s monstrous laughing head.
“Can she do anything?” he asked.
“She’s trying to break the other two genin out of whatever genjutsu Sasuke cast. But even still they are stuck in the same position, Naruto and the one tail host both looking into one of Sasuke’s eyes.” He paused. “She does not want to try attacking the host in fear she might hurt the other genin, or prompt the beast to see her as a threat to itself.”
Hiruzen could well picture how badly that would turn out for all three Konoha genin if they were trapped in that sand cocoon. If only he had a plan for how to deal with this. If Jiraiya were here, maybe they could use some sealing array to reseal it. But aside from breaking into the cocoon and attacking the host (either to wake him or… otherwise) and thus risking the death of all three genin, there were precious few options.
It didn’t help that he still hadn’t heard from the ANBU he had left to deal with Orochimaru.
Hiashi’s head snapped up. “Lord Hokage!” His voice was filled with more alarm than Hiruzen had ever heard before. “We’re running out of time!”
“What is it?”
“The Uzumaki boy… I can see his chakra… the chakra of the nine-tailed fox is flooding his system!”
Hiruzen’s blood ran cold and his flesh seemed to dry out and shrink all across his body. They could barely contain the weakest of the tailed beasts in this abandoned and massive training ground. If the Nine-tailed Fox should escape his bonds…
His hands ached. He may have no choice but to use That Jutsu.
“You think this will stop me!? I’ll never give up!”
Naruto struggled through the twisted mindscape. Even he knew what was happening now. Half the buildings were the familiar wooden buildings of Konoha. Half of them the stone monoliths of Suna. Some of the Konoha homes had the Uchiha fan emblazoned on them. Others were familiar to Naruto from his own childhood.
He had watched the cycle repeat again and again. The corpses of the Uchiha were everywhere. The laughing faces of the children, the distant faces of the adults from his own childhood were in every distant window and alley. Screaming children ran from him.
He walked through scenes of that freaky Itachi guy carrying Sasuke on his shoulders and through scenes of that freaky redhead murdering his own uncle again and again. Blood and slaughter and always, always the oppressive sense of being alone.
“Why do you continue to struggle?” Gaara stood on a distant building. The sand snaked out, pouring over the corpses of the Uchiha, binding Naruto’s arms. He pushed against the hold. “I can feel it in your stomach. Why do you hold it back?”
“Because a ninja is not a weapon to be broken!” Naruto shouted back. “A ninja is a person who protects what is precious!”
“There is nothing more precious than the self,” Gaara said with a flat monotone. “Love is an illusion that cannot be shared. You have seen my life. You have seen my hatred. I was created out of hatred by my father. He tried to destroy me five times. But I always survive, because my existence is stronger than theirs.”
“You think you’re the only one who was ever alone?” Naruto pulled, wrenching his hand free. He grabbed the wall and dragged himself forward. He just had to reach him. If he reached Gaara, this nightmare would end. “You think you’re the only one who was hated? You saw my life just like I saw yours!
“Yes. You are weak, relying on others to sustain your own existence.” Gaara raised his hands. “I will prove the flaw in your philosophy. I can feel the hunger of your beast. Let me release it from you, and show you exactly how much your precious people truly love you.”
“GAARA!” Naruto roared as the sand descended.
The sand scattered. A blue field filled his vision. The Uchiha fan was emblazoned in its center.
“Sasuke?” Naruto asked. “Are you… really you?”
“Yes.” Sasuke nodded. “I think… we’re all inside my genjutsu. Somehow we became trapped. But if that’s true, this is my genjutsu. Which means this isn’t his world or yours. It’s my nightmare.”
“Sasuke…” Naruto said softly. He thought of the images he had seen. The family Naruto would never have… and Sasuke would never have again.
“But I think I’m almost out of chakra, and I have no idea what happens if I can’t break this before I run out. So… I need your help.”
There was a pause.
“How do I do that?”
Sasuke chuckled. “Loser,” he said with affection. “Fine. Let’s go. We have to all wake up. Which means we need to force that guy to wake up, too.
“So let’s beat some sense into him. Together.”
Gaara roared and released an entire wall of sand. Sasuke sprinted forward and smashed it apart with a flying axe kick. Naruto followed in his wake. The Sand Nin was growling and firing blast after blast, but again and again Sasuke knocked it away. It was his illusion, after all.
They reached Gaara in a few seconds and leapt to the roof. The boy snarled and gestured, and the sand around him swirled. It formed into a figure, a figure with red eyes.
“Rasengan!” Naruto roared, obliterating the image before it could fully form. He winced and clutched his stomach. It felt like his insides were tearing. Gaara frowned at him and then brought down both hands. Sand erupted from everywhere. Sasuke spun in place and made a hand sign. The sand stopped.
“I can’t hold his beast’s power forever!” Sasuke said over his shoulder.
“I gotcha!” Naruto stepped in to Gaara, who staggered back. Naruto grinned as he realised the boy had no idea how to actually fight. His sand had done all his fighting for him. Naruto drilled a right cross into his face. “Wake up!”
Gaara staggered under the blow. “I won’t…” He spat a dollop of blood. “Shukaku will destroy your village. All your precious people will die.” He grinned. “Then, when you know true loneliness like I do, I will allow you to die.”
“Pull your head out of your ass!” Naruto drove a fist into Gaara’s stomach. “You think you’re the only one who hurts? Who ever feels lonely!?” Naruto kicked him against the wall. Gaara slumped, but stared with defiance.
“I won’t let you hurt Sasuke! I won’t let you hurt Sakura or Kakashi or old man Hokage!” He drove his shoulder into the boy and tackled him to the ground. He pinned his arms with his legs and began to drive rights and lefts into his face, punctuating each statement. “All of my precious people, you think I just am going to let them die?” Right. “After I worked so hard to get them?” Left. “I was just like you, ya know?” Right. “Except I didn’t give up!” Left. “Even though it hurt!” His right hand hovered over Gaara’s face. The boy was bruised but still glaring. Naruto’s fist shook. His head hurt. His stomach was on fire. “Every. Single. Rejection!” He grabbed Gaara’s collar and lifted him up to face level. “This pain is nothing compared to that. But I never stopped trying. I never stopped looking. And I found them.
“And yeah, some of them are bossy and make me eat my vegetables. And some are always late. And some keep way too many secrets. And some are arrogant bastards.” Sasuke grunted. “But I found the ones who could see past the thing in my stomach and past my own idiot issues and I. Won’t. Let. YOU!”
He drove his forehead into Gaara’s.
Sasuke was one step behind Hinata as the two rushed up the side of the forming monster. It wasn’t that he couldn’t outpace her. He felt like he was able to fly. He could have ran past her like she was standing still. But they needed to be together for this. The girl hadn’t even hesitated when Naruto had been caught in the expanding form of sand that had emerged from the redhead.
“Do you have a plan?” Sasuke asked. He didn’t want to, but he had no idea what was going on and no idea how to deal with it. Taijutsu, ninjutsu, genjutsu: Those he could deal with. Turning into a giant monster? Officially something Sasuke had not thought would be important to his life goals.
“We have to wake Gaara up,” she said. She shifted to the right, avoiding a spike of sand that came out. Sasuke evaded the next three and she the next two. She must be using her Byakugan to see the rising chakra force, whereas Sasuke’s Sharingan allowed him to see the spikes form almost before they did. “If we do, we’ll break the tailed beast possession.”
“Right.” Sasuke nodded. His training in Sakura’s hypertime would be helpful then. “You and Naruto distract him. I’ll take care of waking him up.”
They reached the top a moment later. Naruto was struggling, his body slowly being swallowed up by a whirlpool of quicksand. Hinata cartwheeled over him, her hands flashing out. The sand around Naruto hardened and cracked and Naruto burst free.
Sasuke focused on the redhead. His torso emerged from the beast’s forehead like a anglerfish lure. He was slumped forward. Sasuke frowned. Sakura had told them they would have exactly one minute of this accelerated speed once the fighting started. His Sharingan allowed him to perfectly count the seconds.
He had two left.
“Naruto, his eyes!”
“Right!” Naruto jumped in, wrapping one arm around the boy’s shoulder and the other up over his head, fingers touching his forehead.
Spikes shot out from all directions, seeking to impale Naruto. Hinata slipped in and pressed against him, back to back. Her arms and legs snapped out and the sand dispersed.
Sasuke dodged a handful of his own, his hands forming a series of seals. Naruto pulled the boy’s head up, dragging the eyelids open. Sasuke caught his gaze and Naruto looked over the boy’s shoulder.
Time was up-
-and he was falling. The air around them was full of cascading sand. It cloaked out all sight or sound. His vision had returned to normal. He couldn’t move.
All his chakra was gone. He had never been this exhausted in his life. He felt the world around him dimming.
Then a series of shadows moved through the sand, and he felt arms wrap around him. The air became clear and before he knew it he was in the trees. He looked up.
“Sensei?” he asked. Kakashi knelt over him. His normal and Sharingan eyes closed as he smiled.
“Sleep, Sasuke. You did well.”
“We did, sensei…”