Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, Sandman, or any of the characters in either series.

Warnings: Spoilers for the Naruto manga. NO spoilers for Sandman: Overture.

Notes: Written for PikaCheeka's HashiMada fanfic contest. Set post-series (for both series). I'm using the (I assume) archaic spelling of the word "apprentice" that Petrefax uses when he tells his story in Worlds' End.

Swallowed by the Sky

Although the man standing outside the main gates of the necropolis Litharge was dressed in a simple white kimono, it was obvious to Petrefax that he was a warrior. The way he walked on the balls of his feet; the way his eyes flicked back and forth, taking in everything around him; the way all his movements were calibrated to spend no more energy than was absolutely necessary. This is a man who has glimpsed our city on the horizon before, and sent many men through our gates.

The man carried something in his arms. It was a bundle that must have weighed near as much as he did, though neither his shoulders nor his back bent under its weight. It was wrapped in rich velvet, a black background adorned by a red-and-white fan.

"I have come here to bury this man," the visitor said. His voice was rich, and Petrefax knew that in less solemn times it would be a voice that was given to much laughter. "He was my friend and my comrade and more than that."

Petrefax gestured to his prentices, who pushed open the gates. "You and he are both welcome here," he told the visitor, "and you have my word that the deceased will be accorded the full ceremony that is his due."

The library at Litharge contained records of the funeral customs of every culture. Every master knew the common ones, of course, but when a visitor from an obscure and distant land arrived, it was sometimes necessary to consult the books. "Never be afraid to make the client wait a few hours while you check the library," Klaproth had told Petrefax once. "It is far better to delay the burial and do it properly, than to do it wrongly because you were too proud to say there was something you did not know." Having truly embraced the role of "journeyman," traveling all the worlds that were before finally returning to Litharge to take his place as a master, Petrefax had seen more than most, but even to him, there were some places that were remote and strange.

One book, bound in slats of bamboo, told of the rites practiced in the Elemental Countries. Each village was detailed within, and each clan of each village. Petrefax leafed through the pages carefully, being mindful not to tear the thin paper, until he came upon the fan symbol he had seen on the client's shroud.

The visitor, who had introduced himself as Senju Hashirama, sat beside the slab where the client rested. He refused to leave, even taking meals there. Petrefax had no doubt that he would sleep there if necessary.

"I have consulted our books of ritual," he said, "and they tell me that the Uchiha Clan prefers fire burials for their dead. I have already set my prentices to building a pyre. They are diligent, and I expect that we can begin the burial in a few hours."

Hashirama was silent for a few seconds, and then he answered simply, "No."

Petrefax wanted to ask what he meant. Had he made a mistake in his research? Was the information in the book out of date? But he remained quiet, waiting for Hashirama to explain himself.

"It is true that Madara was of the Uchiha Clan, but he was a creature of the air." Hashirama turned to the shrouded figure on the slab and placed a hand on it, over the heart. "I never saw him so happy as when he stood in a field, watching one of his falcons drift up into the sky. He told me once that he wished he could soar with them, leaving all the troubles and petty grievances of the world down on the ground."

Petrefax held Hashirama's gaze and noted the blackness of his eyes, the fine web of cracks that marred his face. This Madara must have truly meant much to him, that he delays his return to the Sunless Lands for his sake. "An air burial it shall be, then," he said.

Hashirama carried Madara's body up the slopes of Mount Calamon, with Petrefax ahead of him and the prentices hurrying in his wake. On a high ledge, from which they could see the whole of the city, he unwrapped it and laid it on the shroud.

He didn't flinch as Petrefax began his work, dismantling the body with an ivory-handled boning knife. The prentices did flinch, and turned pale, but to their credit, they didn't look away. The metallic smell of blood and the piquant scent of the sandalwood fire that would call the raptors mingled in the thin air.

"We won't have to wait long, now," Petrefax said as he stood up. He wasn't as young as he used to be, and there was a cramp in his back from crouching on the ground for so long. But his eyesight was as keen as ever, and he saw the black dots wheeling far above them.

"Is this really all that's left of us, in the end?" Hashirama asked as they stood with their necks craned back, watching the birds float slowly down.

"Of course not," Petrefax answered. "There are also the deeds we've done and the memories we leave behind in the hearts of others. Even this," he gestured to Madara's remains, "will become part of something new. A bird, or a tree, or a star."

The first of the raptors swooped down then, a small kestrel with a slate-gray head and speckled wings. It skimmed the earth for barely a second, just long enough to snatch the Rinnegan eye, and then soared back up into the air, missing the heads of the prentices by inches. Many more followed: bare-headed vultures and majestic eagles, nimble falcons and fierce hawks. They shrieked and squawked as they fought over the choicest bits or called out to their fellows from above.

To Petrefax's surprise, the gruesome spectacle made Hashirama smile. "People always said that Madara had a harsh voice, like the falcons he kept," he said. "And it's true, his was a wild voice, not suited for measured tones and careful words. But there's something beautiful about a voice like that, isn't there? When you hear the cry of a hawk, isn't there an answer from somewhere in your heart, some part of you that's not bound to the earth?"

As if to confirm Hashirama's philosophical musings, a great scream pierced the air. A shadow fell over Petrefax, and he tilted his head back to see a massive hawk soaring overhead. Its feathers were russet brown, its eyes the color of molten gold, and it could have carried a boy of sixteen years upon its back. It glided low over the corpse, its wingtips brushing Petrefax's face as it snatched something red and dripping. His heart. Petrefax shivered: never, in all his years as a master of Litharge had such a grand raptor appeared at an air burial.

Hashirama's eyes tracked the last bird as it disappeared into the endless field of blue that lay over the mountain. He seemed to be glowing from within, as if the sun were shining more brightly on him than on the surroundings. Petrefax shielded his eyes with a bone-white hand as the cracks in Hashirama's face deepened, and the light shone out from within. Finally, the shell of paper and dust that held Hashirama's soul captive fell apart. As the bits of detritus spiraled to the ground, his spirit soared upward, following the birds.

Petrefax turned to where his prentices were standing. Both were gaping at the sight they'd just seen. "Does...does that always happen?" one of them asked.

"No," Petrefax told them. "Most souls depart for the Sunless Lands immediately upon their death. This one was called back, and chose to stay behind even after his obligation had passed, for the sake of the one he loved." He searched in the pockets of his jacket for a few moments, finally retrieving a small, round acorn. He knelt by the red-stained patch of dirt that was the only sign Madara's body had ever rested there. With the blade of his boning knife, he dug a hole, the coppery tang of blood and the rich scent of the earth mixing in his nostrils. He set the acorn at the bottom of the hole and pushed the dirt back in on top of it.

"Is that part of the air burial ceremony?" one of his prentices inquired.

"Yes and no. It's not part of the ritual laid out in our books and scrolls, but it was the right thing to do. It was a way to honor the bonds that the deceased forged in his lifetime, and a reminder of the things that were important to him. And for us, those must always be the paramount concerns."

Petrefax gestured, and his prentices preceded him down the narrow mountain path.

The two former prentices, now masters in their own right, carried Petrefax's body up the mountain. After having having observed hundreds of burial rites, it was the air burial he had chosen for himself. The prentices laid his body carefully down on the ground, and one gathered kindling while the other unwrapped the corpse.

As one prepared to light the fire, the other placed his hand over hers. "I'm not sure that'll be needed. Look, the first of the birds is already here."

There was only one tree on the ledge, a mighty and towering oak, and he pointed to its upper branches. Squinting against the sun, the other apprentice saw a hawk with sand-tinted feathers resting there.

She smiled. "He hasn't come down from the sky. See, look there, by his feet. He's built his nest here. This tree is his home."

"Everything is given to the birds: the flesh, the lights, the meat, even the bones-rough ground and mixed with barley. Everything is swallowed by the sky."

-Hermas, "Cerements", Sandman Vol. 8: Worlds' End (by Neil Gaiman)

A/N: I actually started this around the time Issue 1 of Sandman: Overture came out, and was hoping to get it posted relatively quickly in honor of the new addition to the Sandman canon. But then my FrostIron Fest fic decided it wanted to be twice the length I'd been intending, so that plan went right out the window.

Worlds' End has always been my favorite volume of Sandman, and particularly the section set in Litharge, because of how many layers there are. I mean, you've got Mistress Veltis's story about the hidden chamber, which is being told by Hermas, which is being told by Petrefax, which is itself part of the larger story of the volume. (And apparently one of Mistress Veltis's other stories is about a master and prentices getting stuck at an inn where the price of admission is a story, so the whole thing is one giant Mobius strip of story.) And with the Naruto manga fast approaching its end, and the inevitable defeat and death of the series's final villain as part of that, a story that made use of Litharge seemed appropriate.

Reviews would be lovely!