Hey... Extremely sorry for the insane delay in posting this. Life's just been... Hectic, and I'm really not sure where my muse wandered off to. Throw in a struggle with depression and totally-not-working medications, and... Yeah, perfect storm, and I don't have any other excuse than that I found myself really, really not wanting to work on anything, let alone this. Truthfully, this chapter's been done for awhile, but Kishimoto went and made it non-cannon, and (being OCD) I just had to go back and fix it, but I couldn't get enough motivation to do so. And I want to go back and fix the previous chapters, too, now that we know what Itachi's gift was, but that... Will take a while.

Don't count on another update anytime soon. The next chapter has less than a thousand words written, and I basically have a few moments to breathe right now before plunging back into the sea of insanity. I have so many major projects and papers looming on the horizon that I probably will have minimal free time until February at the earliest. So if you hate insane waits, I'd suggest taking this off your 'alert' list.

(Everything will clear up more-or-less completely around late June-ish, though, so I'll do my best to start updating at least once a week around then)

WARNINGS: Character death this chapter. Screwy perceptions. Slight fiddling with cannon. Some scenes were awkwardly edited, so potential inconsistencies. Also, Sasuke being a bastard, so if you like happy, goody-two-shoes, Redeemed!Sasuke, I would suggest you go somewhere else.

...

The Story So Far:

Naruto awoke to find himself in the past, the morning of Sasuke's failed retrieval. He sets off with Shikamaru, Neji, Kiba, Chouji, Shino, and Tenten, shortly after sending Gamakichi off with a message to Gaara. They meet up with Shizune's team on the way, and Shizune and one other – Iwashi – join the effort. Chouji and Shikamaru peel off to fight Jiroubou, while Tenten and Neji fight Kidoumaru. The retrieval team catches up to Sakon, Ukon, and Tayuya, who are engaged in a fight with Temari, Kankurou, and Gaara. Naruto separates Tayuya from the barrel. Just then, Kabuto and Kimimaro appear far before schedule.

In the past, we learn that Sasuke approached Naruto rather than blindly following Madara. Naruto offered to let Sasuke have the Kyuubi, or at least kill him for the Mangekyou, but Sasuke refused and brought up Itachi's innocence, then Danzou's orders. Naruto joined Sasuke in his quest.

...

(Now)

A pulse in the darkness.

Sounds filter in through the haze that shrouds his mind, slowly resolving into an echo of all-too-familiar voices.

His body aches all over, pain like burning cold radiating from his shoulder and two thick curves on his back. His eyes burn with their own distinct fire.

A presence. A sensation of something once felt, like the memory of a long-ago dream. Familiar yet alien. Warm, almost to the point of scalding.

Ephemeral images swirl up from the darkness, echoes of distant sounds. Brief glimpses into an incomprehensible future.

Fire and smoke and screams, and he was standing in the center of it, clutching at his burning eyes.

Light filters in through the narrow cracks, and Sasuke slowly stirs from his deathly slumber.

...

Kimimaro calmly regards this newest enemy, this boy who dares challenge Orochimaru-sama by trying to steal his master's chosen vessel. He pays little conscious attention to the fury, power, and blood-lust rolling off the boy. He only gives a brief thought to compare it to the aura of his ex-clan members with a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion.

His eyes flick over Tayuya's torn body. She was a disgrace of a shinobi who deserved to die, but the brutal manner in which she has been ripped apart, her blood and guts strewn over the branch and the boy's body, only adds to Kimimaro's impression of the jinchuuriki as even more of a disgrace.

The jinchuuriki glares up at them, crouched down and snarling, more beast than human. His eyes gleam blood-red in the dying light, a shade that Kimimaro first mistook for the sharingan before seeing the slit-pupil and lack of tomoe. "Why the hell are you here, Kabuto?" the jinchuuriki yells, his voice rough and deep. The wind lashes at the trees, swirling violently around the boy.

Kabuto merely smirks. "Why, can't you figure that out for yourself, Naruto-kun? I'm here to ensure that you fail in taking Sasuke back to Konoha." Kimimaro narrows his eyes at the possible subtext held in that statement, old suspicion and dislike of Kabuto stirring within him. He remains silent, though, deciding to avoid challenging Kabuto until the spy's intentions become clear.

The wind pauses briefly, trees settling with a rustle and debris falling from the air, like an intake of breath. The jinchuuriki crouches down further, his bones cracking audibly in the sudden silence. A faint expression of alarm begins to flit over Kabuto's face.

Kimimaro processes all of this in the space between slow heartbeats.

The jinchuuriki straightens suddenly, throwing his arms out wide. The wind reacts accordingly, roaring away from its master, slamming into Kimimaro with enough force to break an ordinary man's bones. The wind rips him from his position on the branch, tossing him through the air like a ragdoll, only to slam against a particularly large and ancient tree hard enough that he leaves a crater three times as deep as the width of his body. A thin layer of chakra like fire follows immediately in its wake, too dissipated by the time it reaches Kimimaro to do more than scald his skin.

The energy pulsates against him for a few brief seconds that feel like eternity. They dissipate all at once, leaving Kimimaro to collapse and slide down the ruined edges of the crater as the support vanishes. His eyes snap open and he lashes out blindly, flattening one hand against the tree bark and immediately tying in his chakra network to the tree's. He completes the maneuver just in time as he slides fully from the vertical crater, just barely avoiding a likely deadly fall to the forest floor far below. Gravity pulls him down and swings him away from the tree, wrenching his shoulder painfully. Further pain lances through his body, centered on his heart and lungs, as his chakra network protests any usage. He swings back, only to once again hit the side of the tree.

Kimimaro coughs, his lungs burning. Blood splatters lightly on his pale arm and the brown bark. His vision grays, and Kimimaro has to grit his teeth to fight off the coming onslaught of darkness. The seals that Kabuto traced onto his skin before they departed his master's lair flare to life. His skin shivers and twitches as they begin to repair the damage done. Kimimaro can already feel his old strength returning to his limbs, and he revels in his ability to fully serve Orochimaru one last time.

Unfortunately, the seals are nothing more than a temporary patch to hold together Kimimaro's dying body. Otherwise, Kimimaro would have gladly offered to take the delayed Sasuke's place.

Before the seals can even halfway finish their work, Kimimaro pulls himself up onto the branch. He crouches, gathering chakra, and leaps, pushing off from the branch with enough force to propel him up into the high reaches of one nearly ten meters away. He lands easily before shooting off again, the rhythm ingrained after several years of training frantically in the towering forests native to this land.

Kimimaro reaches the fight within twenty seconds. In that time, the seals have already nearly finished their work. He pauses only briefly to take stock of the situation.

Kabuto had apparently recovered even faster than Kimimaro. He now stands with Sakon and Ukon, fending off the attacks of the two jinchuuriki, the jounin, and the other two members of the Suna team. Kimimaro straightens from his crouch and fires small finger-bones at his opponents: two each towards the Suna jinchuuriki, his two teammates, the jounin, and the Konoha jinchuuriki.

Even though the Suna jinchuuriki faces away from him, sand still rises quickly and blocks Kimimaro's bullets. Both bullets slam full-force into the Konoha jinchuuriki, one dangerously close to his spine, but he ignores them. Quickly, Kimimaro sees why, as the bones are forced out of his flesh, the wounds closing behind them. His other three targets cry out as the bullets bury themselves in their flesh, although none hit in vital areas.

All except for the Konoha jinchuuriki immediately turn their attention towards Kimimaro. Kabuto takes instant advantage of the chance. He swipes at the Konoha jinchuuriki, causing the demon to fall back, before swiftly retreating with Sakon and Ukon. Kimimaro presses the attack against their enemies as Kabuto pull back, fisting his hand and forcing a part of the bones in his forearms to form a blade.

His body reacts far more smoothly than it had for months, perhaps even for nearly two years. Kimimaro easily dodges the sand that surged up around him, the whizzing darts sent by the puppet-master. The jounin lunges at him, hands glowing green. Kimimaro twists out of and under her reach, white bone lashing out to score a thin line across her stomach. She throws herself backwards, narrowly avoiding being gutted, but he has still managed to tear through her reinforced jacket.

She leaps out of his reach. Kimimaro is unable to pursue her as the Suna team step up their efforts. He moves out of the way just in time to avoid being sliced into bloody slivers by the Suna-girl's wind. Strong gusts hound him, preventing Kimimaro from dodging her two brothers' attacks as gracefully and efficiently as he would like. She knocks any ranged attacks off course, and between the four of them, they prevent him from getting too close to score a serious physical attack.

The jounin dashes in close to him again. Kimimaro curses under his breath as she breathes out a shimmering, faintly green cloud of poison, followed swiftly by a barrage of senbon. He dives down off the branch that he had been on, but several senbon still lodge themselves in his skin. His right arm and shoulder feel numb and respond only sluggishly. He has to close his eyes and hold his breath as he passes through the edge of the already dissipating poison cloud. It irritates his skin slightly, but he is safely past it before any serious damage can be done.

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses the violent red of the Kyuubi's chakra, but not directed at him... Even more briefly, he sees Kabuto standing triumphantly, two coffins standing erect before him. Kimimaro's attention is forced away by an attack from the Suna jinchuuriki. He dodges yet again, using the motion to propel him closer to the fan-girl.

The jounin gives a cry of alarm, and all four shinobi – Kimimaro and the Suna team – paused briefly to glance over at her. She stares at something, slight fear and horror on her face. Kimimaro follows her gaze, and sees fully what he had only glimpsed before. The Kyuubi brat crouches low in the branches, several lines of blood trailing from his mouth, the Kyuubi's chakra flowing irregularly around him. Over a kilometer above, Kabuto has his arms crossed over his chest, a smirk on his face. The two coffins have fallen open, and within stand the decrepit forms of ghosts from the distant past, faces that Kimimaro has only ever seen in outdated bingo books.

Konoha's Wildfire and Red Hot-Blooded Habanero, Uchiha Mikoto and Uzumaki Kushina.

...

(Then)

"Nagato..." Naruto stared at the figure, unable to fully and immediately comprehend what lay before his eyes. "You... Died... How?" But even as he asked that, it hit him: Kabuto and his abominable jutsu, which Naruto had only heard rumor of so far. His mouth went dry.

"A man named Kabuto summoned us, along with many others," Nagato began as the two shinobi circled each other, testing – Naruto reluctant to fight, Nagato struggling against the ingrained orders. Then, in a murmur that belied his blazing eyes: "You no longer wear the headband of Konoha... Have you truly changed so much, to go back on your precious ideals? What happened to your determination to become the Hokage and lead the world into an era of peace?"

Naruto's eyes narrowed, flashing red. "I never did! Danzō seized control... And I had to support Sasuke, who is by far my most precious person... You of all people should understand, Nagato. If you could trade it all, for Yahiko and Konan, would you?"

Nagato titled his head to the side, an unreadable expression passing over his face. "But what point is there to struggling to survive in a world of hatred, even with your friends by your side? Still..." His expression hardened, an almost murderous glint in his eyes. "I can see how you would abandon a Konoha ruled by that monster." Naruto glanced to the side, clenching his fists. "Naruto-san... We dead have no control over our actions... Please, kill me, and end this suffering." Reluctantly, almost against his will, Naruto returned his eyes to Nagato's face. "I entrusted you with my dreams, and that promise still holds true, does it not?" Naruto could do nothing but nod. "Madara... He has stolen the Rinnegan for himself, and raised the slain jinchuuriki as the new Six Paths, each with a Sharingan and Rinnegan of their own."

"But..." And he didn't want to kill Nagato again, to see that furious life burn out – to lose that last connection to his mentor, his family, to relinquish such a valuable ally in the war. "Kabuto... The man who did this..." And he paid for his hesitation as Nagato lashed out, the rippling of his gravitational manipulation tearing the world asunder. Naruto threw himself to the side, using a powerful blast of wind and the Kyuubi's chakra to propel himself away faster than the thin black line's draw.

"I'll kill him! To protect my precious people, to release you and all the others under his command, I'll kill that bastard myself!" The Kyuubi's chakra roared within him and the wind swirled about him, tearing at the trees and sending debris flying.

Nagato just shook his head, leaning further against the same cliff wall that had supported him the entire time. Slowly, black dots began forming and coalescing like underwater bubbles. "From what I've heard," Nagato said, his voice sorrowful, "Even killing Kabuto will not end this jutsu. We would still be bound to execute his final orders." Both paused, the only sounds the whistling of the wind and the roaring of Nagato's jutsu. "Naruto-kun... There are others. The combined shinobi forces are already embattled all over... The one who carried me here... Was Itachi. He sensed your Sasuke's chakra and veered off, I do not know to where."

Naruto jerked back, eyes widening. Itachi! And there was no way that Sasuke would be able to deal with fighting his brother again, not so soon...

He spun towards where he had last seen Sasuke (he should never have let that impulsive idiot out of his sight), preparing to leap away, but a sudden ripping force nearly pulled him off his feet, only a sudden surge of Kyuubi's chakra into the earth keeping him anchored. "I apologize, Naruto-kun, but I'm afraid that I cannot allow you to go to him."

The Kyuubi roared within him as Naruto cursed, crouching and preparing for the fight to come.

Far above him, storm clouds began to gather.

...

(Now)

A shadow eclipses the watery light. It passes, like the shadow of a great hawk or of a storm-cloud, but the light that returns barely resembles the faint light from before.

Brilliant red, blinding red, forces its way through the cracks, lancing into Sasuke's eyes, into his mind. Damp darkness, dripping water – a mighty beast formed entirely of some liquid, its nature indistinguishable in the gloom but Sasuke glimpses a gleam of deadly red where the light manages to struggle its way through the darkness.

"Eyes with such power… more sinister than... once saw … Uchiha Madara... Don't kill Naruto... regret..."

The glow fades, only to be replaced by an explosion of white.

The world shrieks and cracks around Sasuke. Cold air against his skin, so many sounds, so many scents...

So much heat and pain.

Sasuke crouches, biting his lip and groaning, his right hand clawing at his shoulder, his left bracing him on the ground. The wind catches on something behind him, as if on new skin rubbed raw – he can feel the phantom sensations from limbs that he shouldn't have.

He gasps, the power like fire coursing through his veins, like some deadly toxin.

"Come... Unleash me... And your wish will be granted..." IthurtIthurtIthurt it hurt, something erupting from his core, corrupting his soul and chakra.

He clutches his head, curled into a tight ball, and screams. The things on his back flare out, shoving away everything around him in a violent gust of wind. Muscles that he has never had before protest the strain. Beyond his own voice, beyond the roaring of the winds (so familiar, like a voice he has heard before), he can barely make out the startled cries of others.

"So, you've finally shown yourself..."

Who else could possibly be here?

Sasuke slowly cracks open his eyes. They burn like a thousand suns, and he has to fight back tears to see what lies around him.

"He... was crying..."

Sasuke straightens and glances around, scanning the battlefield. That chakra... Red eyes and skin like blackened blood, an inhuman shroud that draped itself around that flesh, and his breath rattled in his chest, blood wetting his lips. But, no, Sasuke has only felt that chakra once, not innumerable times, in that fateful fight with Orochimaru in the Forest of Death.

His seal pulses and aches at the memory. Sasuke scowls. Something calls for his attention, and he can't help but feel that he's forgotten something important.

His sharingan eyes take in the situation without his conscious input. White hair, bone weapons (Kimimaro, his mind whispers, but he doesn't recognize the name)... A female jounin with short black hair – shouldn't she be more familiar? And... The Suna team. Sasuke scowls at the reminded of his weakness against Gaara, but... A shiver runs up his spin at the fleeting image of a powerful figure standing at the head of an army of tens of thousands.

His eyes move at last towards Naruto, and his heart nearly skips a beat when he takes in what lies there. Naruto with red chakra visible around him, taking the form of some sort of beast (a fox – even its mighty jaws taller than him, enormous teeth bared) with two tails. Beyond him... Kabuto, and Sasuke should feel neutral, but an inexplicable loathing rises from within him, blinding in its intensity, on par with what he feels for Itachi – undiluted by still lingering sorrow and love and jealously and admiration and why me?

Why does the thought of Itachi bring up such deep, overwhelming sorrow when it should call up only hatred and resentment?

And before Kabuto... Familiar faces – no. Mother.

'But they're dead...'

And he's dead, crimson eyes faded to a dull black, blood leaking from his mouth... Standing before Sasuke, those eyes filled with even more anguish that on That Night – "I'm so sorry, Sasuke... Please, forgive me, for if I had a choice I would lay all my weapons at your feet..."

But Itachi would never say that. Itachi would never beg for forgiveness.

Sasuke is interrupted from his tortuous thoughts when his sharingan catches motion, threatening from both sides. They look like insects, trapped in molasses, and a giddy feeling rushes through Sasuke. He grins, widely, maniacally, and straightens, preparing for the fight to come.

"…Never be able to kill Itachi… Can't even kill your own emotions…"

And then steps back, disorientated and confused. Why would he want to fight them? Shouldn't he get to Orochimaru? Aren't the sound nin on his side, even?

But why would he want to return? Orochimaru is weak, foolish, and he doesn't need him anymore.

But isn't his need why he did all this in the first place?

And suddenly Sasuke doesn't know where he is, or what he's doing here. The world rushes and spins around him, and only ingrained instinct causes him to leap to another branch, and then another, avoiding the shinobi that have noticed him. Naruto... Naruto still seems oblivious (as always), furiously attacking the two forms (they cannot, cannot, cannotSasuke refuses to believe what his eyes tell him, that Kabuto desecrated both women's graves but the redhead should be unfamiliar, so why does Sasuke feel so confident that she is Naruto's?)

The redhead – Kushina, his mind whispers – turns and attacks the other shinobi, while Mikoto (his mother, and Sasuke feels the strangest urge to cry) charges the jinchuuriki, her expression a step beyond emotionless.

And Sasuke cannot see his friend, his comrade, whose vibrant aura has been eclipsed entirely by the bloody shroud of the fox's chakra. He does not recognize Naruto, and, with a chill, Sasuke realizes that Naruto does not recognize him either.

She dodges one of Naruto's strikes, sending a wave of purple fire that roars like thunder and leaves ripples in its wake in retaliation, her long glossy black hair catching the light, and suddenly all Sasuke can see is Itachi, fire dancing around him…

"No! I won't do it! Stop…" And that perfect alabaster skin crumbling, like little bits of plaster flaking off. White hands with black tangled around them, shaking.

"Ah, Sasuke-kun, it seems that you have finally decided to join us." Sasuke glances up to see sunlight glinting off of glasses below white hair, and rage fills him again, so much that it must be shining through his every pore. The roiling hatred pushes at the boundaries of his self, as if he is too small a container for this overwhelming sensation.

Sasuke doesn't know what's going on, he's confused and disorientated and there's a clamoring in his head and why won't it stop?

A crack and a roar and a rumble, like thunder but a thousand times over that reverberates through his bones and flesh and echoes in his mind. Blinding light fills his vision, searing pain lancing through his skull – ripping through his muscles and leaving them quivering. His chakra twists and writhes within him, excited, disturbed.

Kirin! And the world quivers at his feet.

He blinks, the world sets itself aright, and destruction lies before him. His arm is cast out towards Kabuto, his pale fingers spread wide, shaking like a leaf in the wind. That arms points to a swath of destruction, black scorch marks along the trees, smoldering. The stench of ozone pervades the air around him.

Sasuke traces that path of death with his eyes. At the end it tapers off. His mother stands there, her form crumbled (is this how Itachi felt?), like a construct of sand that has begun to collapse. Yet even as he watches, she reform, slowly. (He screams in rage and horror as that haunting face rebuilds itself again and again and ever again, no matter how many times he destroys it.) Naruto lies beyond her, the malevolent chakra around him subdued but already increasing. He pushes himself up slowly, his head bowed – hopeless eyes tinted red by the eerie light around them, jarringly wrong in that face, as if they were ripped from their rightful places and forced into an ill-fitting skull.

Driven by some unnameable compulsion, Sasuke continues to search (unable to rest his eyes on her jarringly wrong face without feeling the urge to vomit) until he sees Kabuto, his flesh blackened like the trees. But a soft glow of green surrounds him, and even as Sasuke watches ever so briefly, the destroyed skin begins to peel away and disintegrate, only to be replaced by new, unblemished flesh.

For some reason, that sends anger beyond reason rocketing through Sasuke's veins. He scowls, the wings behind him shifting and flaring slightly. His muscles tense and he leaps, instinct guiding him as he launches himself towards Kabuto.

"Why so upset, Sasuke-kun?...You're the one who put him within my reach, after all…"

That unnatural voice issuing from familiar lips…

Fire burns through his arms, through his veins, and he would scream if not for the fury that overrides all other situations. His vision has tunneled in on that one point, on Kabuto's form that moves as if in slow motion.

White skin with glossy black hair blocks his view, and Sasuke's heart stops for a moment as he thinks he sees Itachi. But no, it is Mikoto, black eyes horror-filled (I'm sorry!). Her fire lashes up in front of her, a wave crested with flickering, dancing knives that slams into Sasuke, searing his flesh and knocking him off course, forcibly dissipating the nearly instinctual build-up of lightning chakra. Sasuke screeches as the backlash from his disrupted jutsu lances through his body, tearing into his muscles and nervous system. He convulses, blacking out briefly. And Death dances at the edges of his vision, His cold breath ghosting over the back of Sasuke's neck as his sword gleams red in the light of the full and bloated moon.

Sasuke doesn't even feel it when he slams into the tree trunk and begins to fall. His vision returns slightly, but it is a mockery of the real world, bloody red and the world cast in negative colors like the Tsukiyomi and he is falling, falling, falling, into a misery beyond comprehension. His eyes burn and bile rises in his throat. Sasuke hits the wide branch before its presence can even register in his mind, his shoulder taking the brunt of the force. Pain, nothing compared to the agony that has just now faded, flares up in his shoulder and something cracks loudly.

His momentum causes him to roll after hitting the branch, sending his nerves screeching in agony. Sasuke pays no attention to the further injuries that he is likely garnering as he tries to slow himself down, so loudly does his shoulder scream. He leaves bloody smears from his fingers and palms as he grips tightly onto the bark and channels chakra through his hands, sliding to a jarring stop. Sasuke grunts and bits the inside of his cheek, trying to focus through the pain. He has nearly slid off the branch, and now dangles halfway off the side.

Slowly, Sasuke drags himself up with his mostly uninjured arm. His limbs shake, violent tremors running through them and threatening to fully dislodge Sasuke from his precarious position. His skin has gone horribly numb, throbbing and almost cold. He cannot feel the texture of bark under his palms. Gritting his teeth, Sasuke swings his legs around and settles himself more or less in the middle of the branch. Mostly secure, he then takes the opportunity to glance slowly around. His mother has not pursued him, instead having been accosted by a crimson blur that Sasuke assumes is Naruto. Sasuke narrows his eyes, dark dreams of rampant destruction flitting through the back of his mind.

The glowing figure has reached three tails, and Sasuke can no longer see Naruto within it. Instead, a dark mass of something shaped into a demented mockery of both a human and a fox fills the space within, its features like something out of a Tsukiyomi-induced nightmare.

Sasuke yanks his vision away from the nauseating and terrifying sight (craters and smoldering ruins where once was his world), instead searching for what remains of the Konoha shinobi and their allies. Shizune leans against a tree in the distance, clutching her side with glowing green hands. Gaara's sand hovers around her, protectively (cresting like a wave that'll never break in a vain attempt to protect the thousands strewn across the bloody plain). Temari appears to have joined in the fight against Kabuto, and now attacks the red-head, her wind clashing and flaring against bizarre symbols and shapes drawn in fire. Every time Temari hits her, though, she quickly reforms, and the red-head presents enough of a threat to keep Temari tied up and struggling to keep her out of close range. Sasuke can briefly glimpse the fight between Gaara, that other Suna shinobi, and the white-haired Oto shinobi in the distance through the trees, but he is unable to make out any details of it.

Sasuke glances back towards Kabuto last. He growls when he sees the medic-nin standing there, completely healed and smirking. Kabuto makes no move to attack, and his nonchalant attitude, his silent dismissal of Sasuke as a threat, rankles him more than it should. Sasuke forces himself to his feet, ignoring how his muscles quiver and complain, how his vision briefly blacks out and his balance shifts and twirls.

The world lurches and spins around him, and he falls to his knees, his chest heaving and burning and a warm liquid splatters onto his palm and he thinks Oh God Itachi and the jutsu, his only armor and defense, slowly disintegrates around him.

Sasuke suddenly has the sickening feeling that he is already dead. He mouth feels dry, coated with dust – graveyards and silent stones and ghosts whispering in his ear, just past hearing and a single white chrysanthemum on a lonely grave and his chest feels heavy as if a great weight presses down upon him from all directions, trapping him, rendering him unable to move and he cannot breathe nor blink nor twitch his fingers.

He stumbles back and slips, his legs crumpling beneath him. Limp and unable to even grasp at the rough bark again, Sasuke falls off the branch, the wind whistling past him.

And his chest hurts and there is blood on his lips and a numbness has infected his limbs, and this is a familiar feeling, an edge that he has hovered on numerous times. But there is no pulling back at the last second now, no miraculous recovery, and Sasuke's eyes are wide, gazing desperately out into a world of darkness.

"SASUKE!"

His eyes open to light, blinding light that pervades every corner of his body and mind. His breath catches in his throat because he can see (and why should that be so strange?). Sasuke dimly registers the wind roaring in his ears, the sickening feeling in his stomach, and his pulse starts to tap out a frantic dokidokidoki in his ears.

He doesn't want to die (never again).

He wants to live.

His back muscles flex, burning with the strain, and the wind catches something, like arms and hands spread wide but too much and aren't they cradled protectively before him, anyways? His stomach gives another sickening lurch as he twists in the air, his descent spiraling into something resembling a vague attempt at slowing down. The wind rushes by him, but another sound mixes with its roaring – thumping, frantic, struggling to find a rhythm.

His hawk screams beneath him, winds thrashing at the air in a vain attempt to stay afloat even as it falls, its form beginning to disintegrate in its pain. A less loyal summon would have already retreated, and for the first time it occurs to Sasuke to be astounded at the loyalty he garners – Itachi, Naruto, Team Taka, Sakura – despite how horrible he has always been.

His wings spread wide and Sasuke twists in the air, and this is freedom even as he rushes to almost certain death – and there is liberty even in that, an exhilaration found in the deadly impact rushing to meet him.

His wings angle slightly, stiffen, and Sasuke's path changes drastically. He turns his fall into a dive, pulling out of it at the last moment sweeping down on enemy lines, his blood rushing in his veins, his pulse pounding in time with his summon's, and no one can keep up, can fly as skillfully or insanely as he does so close that he could almost touch the ground, so close that he can taste freedom faintly on his tongue.

But he doesn't soar, doesn't spiral upwards with heavy thumps nor a blast of wind-natured chakra. These wings (weak, useless, not like the masterpieces that replace them – and Sasuke has never had wings, and his head spins and vision doubles) give, because of injury or exhaustion he doesn't know. One wing dips low and collides with the ground, searing pain, and Sasuke's tumbles and rolls.

His momentum spends itself, and Sasuke finishes his slide on his front, clutching the dirt beneath him. He is surrounded, blood and death and ashes in his mouth and Sasuke pushes himself up, his heart racing in panic, even though his body screams at the effort but he has had worse than this, he knows that he has, even if his nerves disagree.

Heat pulses against his skin, and Sasuke's heart seizes in his chest. This is malice, Killing Intent far beyond that of the Demon Zabuza, beyond even that of Itachi on That Night. He shakes in the freezing cold despite the searing heat that pushes at his skin, but there is worse and memories spin unhindered through his mind of battles that he has never fought, of eyes like ripples spreading through a pond of quicksilver, of you will be my light and a grotesque, deformed body (hatred beyond comprehension, that someone would dare take such actions).

Sasuke's eyes burn, with the intensity of the sun, with the frigid cold of the moon, and he forces himself to roll so that he faces Naruto's battle again. He swallows, mouth dry, and there is fire in the air, gossamer, teasing at the dry wood and leaves and if Konoha's forests weren't so resilient against fire, there would already be a conflagration.

A fourth tail has begun to form, and Sasuke can find no trace of Naruto anymore.

...

(Then)

Naruto arrived horrendously late as usual, shrieking Sasuke's name, and a flicker of memory – "Uzumaki Naruto has finally arrived!" – threatened to distract him before sliding away.

Sasuke tightened his grip on his katana, unable to tear his eyes away from Itachi's slowly regenerating form despite hearing his teammate's shouts.

Nii-san...

His eyes burned, and Sasuke could not tell if tears or blindness clouded his vision. Itachi's grotesque form stood before it had even finished healing (a bloody, half-collapsed walking corpse surrounded by the enormous ribs of an ancient warrior). "Naruto-kun..." And why the hell did Naruto deserve such acknowledgement, to have his name fall from Itachi's lips? "I did not expect... That you would defeat Nagato so quickly..."

"I haven't." With a dim, sickening jolt of horror, Sasuke noticed the rasping, wet quality of Naruto's voice – something he had missed in his grieving, furious daze. He turned his head partially towards Naruto, but the blond did not enter his field of vision before Sasuke had to stop lest he lose sight of Itachi. "I just... ran away."

"And he was too weak to follow," Itachi muttered. "Still... He'll be here, far before even the two of you together can defeat me."

"Don't ever underestimate us," Naruto snapped, and Sasuke recalled with a vague sense of nostalgia all the impossible odds they had overcome when standing back-to-back.

"Then prove me wrong." And Itachi straightened fully, bloody Mangekyou eyes again coming fully into view.

...

(Now)

Sasuke cannot see his mother, cannot see Kushina (only Naruto fills his narrow field of view, blinding brilliance like a thousand suns in happiness or in rage). And… Fire and smoke dance at the edges of his vision, screams resonate just past hearing, and a senseless terror circles Sasuke's heart, searching mercilessly for a way to seize him in its grasp.

Sasuke watches himself. He is a passenger in a puppet-body that acts of its own will, and Sasuke screams (but no one can hear, only blood flows from his mouth) in the deathly silence of his own mind. His body forms a simple hand-seal, and Sasuke can feel his chakra coils being torn asunder as chakra fills them to the brim and beyond, pouring from his body in a visible aura.

The demon that has possessed Naruto whips its head towards him, its eyes entirely black-red with no pupil, no iris, no whites. Sasuke's eyes meet its gaze calmly, self-assuredly, and something lurches (and that is the only way Sasuke can describe something beyond normal sensation) and Sasuke is falling, falling, falling as the world warps around him as if in the Tsukiyomi.

He opens eyes that never closed and sees foaming water, rushing around him silently, reaching far above his head but splitting just before him. Sound returns suddenly, and the roar nearly deafens him. Yet even over the water his breathing sounds harsh and heavy, his throat raw and lips pulling painfully at the cracks, but he cannot hear his pulse, even though his blood should be pounding in his veins.

The water glows red with foaming pink.

Sasuke's eyes adjust, and in the distance he can see dimly the outline of something glowing in the midst of the water. Sasuke squints, and the figure resolves itself – Naruto! Bright lines like fiery hairs bind him with his arms stretched wide to wide metal bars. Naruto's head hangs down onto his chest, lifeless, and Sasuke's breath catches in his throat.

"Naruto!" he calls out, stepping forwards. The water slams against his chest, hard enough to break ribs or at least jar his injured shoulder, but Sasuke feels no pain, only a cold that reaches down deep to his bones and even beyond. "Naruto!"

Laughter, deep throated and malevolent. Sasuke's eyes snap upwards to meet bloody red eyes the same shade as Itachi's on that horrible night, but with a single slit pupil instead of spinning pinwheels. The eyes, lit from within by some dark power, hover in the shadows. Slowly boiling red water rises up and crests, forming into a mockery of a fox's skull around those eyes.

"Uchiha," it growls, its tone both loathing and mocking. Sasuke jerks and twitches, wondering how it knows him…

And then freezes when he realizes that its eyes are not focused on him. Sasuke twists slightly, glancing over his shoulder, his eyes wide.

"Kyuubi," the apparition replies in a monotone, its – his – bloody gaze locked with the Kyuubi's. And the figure is Sasuke, is Itachi – is Itachi wearing Sasuke's visage, but with different eyes, haunting eyes that Sasuke feels like he should know. The ghost steps forwards and grabs Sasuke's shoulder firmly, just on the verge of causing pain. "What did I say about leaving Naruto alone?"

His tone has an icy edge to it, an inflection that hints at dire threats unspoken. Sasuke shivers, fear seizing his body in its grasp and holding him immobile.

The behemoth snarls. "Why do you bother with this pretense, Uchiha? Your eyes… They hold just as much hatred and malevolence as always! Even in the brat, I can see that shadow of the future… You are cursed, child of lightning born to fire. You weave a lie about yourself, more complete than any of your line's accursed genjutsu." The fox crouches and circles, its form wavering. "But these eyes of mine see the truth, Uchiha…"

"Oh?" the ghost asks, sounding bored. "What should it matter to me what delusions you have, fox?"

It roars in response and the world shakes, the ground beneath them buckling before inexplicably returning to normal. Sasuke shrinks back from it, but the grip on his shoulder just tightens. "I see your death, Uchiha!" the fox screams, sharp teeth flashing. It lunges at them, and Sasuke cannot flee, cannot think, and this is worse than Zabuza, worse than Itachi, worse than Orochimaru. The terror overrides everything, every sensation or thought that Sasuke could have beyond those of prey quailing before their natural predator.

But the figure behind Sasuke just extends one unnaturally pale arm. The Kyuubi slams into his outstretched hand, the white of which contrasts sharply with the Kyuubi's blackish red nose. "The future is not yours to control, fox," he says, and that boney hand clenches and jerks sharply to the side. The entire form of the Kyuubi bursts and dissolves.

With a roar like the ocean, the water all around them suddenly turns and rushes in the opposite direction, into the dark recesses of the enormous cage before them. As the water retreats, the soft light advances, until Sasuke can clearly see the towering forms of the large iron bars. Naruto still hangs there, limp and tightly bound.

Sasuke almost cries out in surprise as the ghost shoves him aside and strides determinedly forwards. His knees weak, Sasuke stumbles, but catches himself before he can fall. He straightens, and sees the ghost's hand clench tightly the bloody threads. They snap easily, shattering and dissipating into the air, and Naruto crumples to the floor. Sasuke rushes towards the two, rolling Naruto over so that he faces upwards while the ghost stands by, uncaring.

But it isn't Naruto.

Sasuke recoils in shock, looking down at a face both alien and achingly familiar. Perhaps Naruto as he would be, in a few years, without the baby fat or chronic stupidity that plagues Sasuke's Naruto. This face bears the same distinctive whisker marks, has a similar outline, but is older, sharper, the skin far more weathered.

"What?" he asks, mind scrambling to comprehend what has happened.

Well, at least the whispers and screams have stopped echoing, and Sasuke can think clearly. It is little consolation.

He turns to face the ghost, sharingan eyes – odd, that he failed to notice until now that he has those activated – quickly scanning the other's features. So like Sasuke's own, similar to him in the same way that this unconscious stranger is to Naruto.

"How?" he whispers, unable to comprehend the magnitude of what lies before him. Those eyes glance over him and something unnameable flickers briefly over that face, the echo of an expression.

No answer comes. The ghost turns his head to stare blankly into the Kyuubi's silent and dark cage. The silence lingers, heavier than darkness. Sasuke's chest aches, his lungs struggle to draw oxygen and the effort irritates his throat. His right hand rises to clutch at the elbow below the curse mark, and Sasuke shivers, freezing in the absence of the Kyuubi's burning heat.

"Where – Where's Naruto?" he asks at last, unable to bear the thoughts that have begun circling in his mind in the silence. The ghost shifts his gaze back over to Sasuke and appears to scrutinize him. Sasuke mentally evaluates this apparition as well, but still fails to glean anything from his expressionless face.

"Dead," the ghost says suddenly, voice flat yet tinged with an eerie echo of pain. Sasuke stares at him, unable to speak or think or breathe, and this is like that first glimpse of Itachi standing over their parents' bodies. He searches for some lie in that unchanging face, a protest rising behind clenched lips, and he hears ringing in his mind the screams of that frantic child. Dead, without even blood or cold flesh or ashes left behind as a marker. Just gone all of the sudden, in some other place and some other time out of sight, and Sasuke cannot grasp it. The image of Naruto as dead struggles and fails to rise in his mind. He finds himself unable to believe it, and the ghost talks but Sasuke cannot hear him over the dizzying rushing-roaring in his head.

A single sentence filters in through the turmoil in his mind: "The two minds could not coexist; for my Naruto to have control, the other must not stand in the way, even inadvertently…" Sasuke's breath hitches and his eyes widen. His body tenses and he steps back involuntarily as the ghost takes a step forwards, invading Sasuke's space and forcing himself into the center of Sasuke's attention.

"For what it's worth," the ghost's mouth forms the words, although Sasuke can hear no sound, "I apologize."

Frigid cold sweeps over Sasuke, painful in its intensity, burning like the hottest of fires. His lungs refuse to cooperate, to work, unable to expand and draw in air, frozen in place by jagged ice. Sasuke chokes briefly as he tries to force sound out, panic roaring through his mind and overriding every conscious thought, but he cannot move, cannot turn in flee nor even quake in fear.

He falls to his knees, the previously chilly water burning hot against his bare skin, soaking through cloth and flesh and bone, into his very soul. His eyes remain riveted on the ghost's face, but no hint of sorrow or regret so much as flickers in those eyes. The ghost watches him with a detached look, an almost bored look.

His body gives out on him and his eyes slide closed. Sasuke's last conscious sensation is that of water closing over him, heavy and yet supporting. The heat sears him yet fails to even touch the ice wrapped tightly around his core.

Captured breath shudders out of his chest, and Sasuke drifts off into oblivion.

...

And as he dies, he catches a glimpse of blinding white and a beautiful, honest smile and a tanned hand outstretched.