Paths not taken
Uchiha district, Konoha, slightly after the incident
Asura lifted his hands defensively, realised they were dripping with blood, and hastily wiped them on his robe. The faces of the crowd grew slightly stonier.
"Okay, look," he said. "I know it looks bad, but – "
"Bad?" said someone. "You stand there, covered in enough blood to drown in! Are you seriously trying to talk your way out of this?"
"But… but it really wasn't me! Can't you see the suspicious fake ANBU guys?" Asura waved his hand, taking in the corpses in white armour. "I saved the children! They were trying to take them away for Danzo! Blame him, not me!"
"We saw you stab that Uchiha!"
"He was already dead! I was just making sure no one can steal his eyes!"
Asura barely managed to dodge the sword before it gave him a new, bloody nose job. He leaped back, barely avoiding yet another swing, and ended up on the roof.
"Hey! Hey, don't do that! I was talking!"
Kakashi the younger gave Asura such an icy look it should probably have frozen his innards. His sharingan was open, glaring angry red in the near darkness.
"We don't have to listen to you. The torture and interrogation will uncover the truth eventually," Kakashi said.
We can't be caught here, said Kurama urgently. Danzo must have the means to cover his tracks. If you want to clear your name, we need to corner him now!
"You're right, I guess," Asura said and sagged. Kakashi blinked in surprise.
"Sorry, but… I've got things to do and places to be. I… can't be caught here."
There was a flash of light and Asura was gone. In the afterimage caused by the light, an outline of the district of corpses were burned into everyone's eyes like a photograph.
Slowly, the rivers of blood began to cool and clot into clumps.
Danzo's (almost) secret hideout, a few minutes earlier
Shisui swallowed uneasily. He had walked into a trap, had known he had walked into a trap, but he couldn't even begin to guess what shape it would take. His every muscle was wound tight with tension. He clenched his fists to stop his fingers from trembling.
Danzo's eye gleamed with avarice, he thought. It wasn't a reassuring sight.
"But most of the clan doesn't even know about it! It's just a few bitter elders – "
"Eventually, the tension between the village and your clan will escalate again. Even if you were to use your eye on Fugaku, even if the Uchiha changed… the village would not change. If the village should change, someone distrustful like me will not. Will you use your eye on me as well, when the time comes?"
…And Danzo was barely putting in the effort to appear reasonable. That was probably the worst part. 'Yeah, well, I'm not trusting you guys anyway, so there' didn't seem like the height of rhetoric. Shisui was getting the impression he shouldn't be looking forward to a long life and a peaceful retirement.
Itachi would have been so much better at this. But then he'd have been the one walking in the trap, and Shisui was glad to pay that price. Shadows suited him just fine.
And he was starting to think Danzo's suggestion had merit. Perhaps Kotoamatsukami would be better used on someone else than his clan head.
"Your sharingan… I shall be keeping it safe," Danzo said and he struck, fast as a viper and all too limber for a man of his years.
But Shisui was faster and weaved the illusion. His eye burned with the force of the suggestion, that much closer to blindness, modifying memory and twisting it. Danzo went still, looking faintly puzzled. Shisui jumped back –
And found himself punched in the stomach, then in the chest, then in the jaw. There was a worrying crack somewhere inside. He stumbled on the floor in a heap of limbs.
Air struck out of his lungs by the force of the hit, spit dribbling down his chin, he looked up at Danzo. A red eye stared back at him, its twirling kaleidoscope slowly fading into white.
Izanagi, Shisui thought, mind reeling from the lack of oxygen. He can use Izanagi.
Danzo fisted his fingers in Shisui's hair, lifted him up in the air and –
And there was a loud swear, a flash of light, and Shisui was on the other side of the room, held up by someone much gentler than Danzo.
"Okay, what is it with you people and wanting to steal eyeballs?! Were you really just going to rip it out, too? Gross! Super gross!"
(Red hair, Shisui thought absently. A lot of hair. And red blood, drying on bright yellow robes.)
"So, it is you," Danzo said. "The so-called Asura. Have you decided to show your true colours after all? I will not allow you to harm this village."
Asura gaped. "What? Are you crazy? You've got to be crazy! You're the one murdering the people of this village, not me!"
"The Uchiha were always going to be a threat –"
"Says no one else but you!"
"'Were'?" Shisui whispered. Blood seeped into his clothes from where Asura was propping him up, and he hated to think of where it had come from. "Asura-san… What happened to my clan? Are they –"
Asura looked at him and made a short noise in his throat, like he had somehow only just made the connection that Shisui was, in fact, an Uchiha.
"I… I saved the kids," he said, and the words sounded like an apology and a plea all at once. "He was trying to take them away, but I at least managed that. And Itachi, he's also alive. And now you."
Shisui swallowed bitterly and shook his head, trying to get rid of the remaining vertigo. He didn't have time to mourn yet.
Danzo… probably only had the one eye to use Izanagi. Probably. Sharingan came in pairs, after all.
"Why would he risk going after my clan so openly? The Hokage agreed to let us act – "
And realisation hit him.
"You were going to use my eye," he said. "To convince the Hokage that it was his idea all along."
"I will have it yet," Danzo said. "And the other one, as well."
Something shifted, as though a fog was lifted. Suddenly, the room was full of Root agents.
"Yeah, well, unfortunately I'm here too," Asura said. "You probably noticed. And I'm really good at ruining plans. Famed for it, even."
"Your interference was unfortunate but not entirely unexpected," Danzo said. "I wonder… Why have you not attacked me yet? Perhaps you are tired after tonight's events? Or perhaps you are a shadow clone, unwilling to risk getting hit?"
"Or maybe I don't want to risk losing this blackmail material I stole from your office," Asura said, pulling out a neat bunch of documents. "Your correspondence with Orochimaru. About sharingan implants, mostly. Disgusting stuff to read, by the way! The Uchiha are people, not things!"
Danzo gritted his teeth. "I am merely extracting vital information from a known traitor. Those have nothing to do with the tragic loss of one of our most venerated clans…"
"Yeah, but what if everyone in the village heard? Would they ever pick you Hokage if they knew?"
Danzo froze. So did everyone else. The silence was deafening.
"Time's wasting, Danzo-sama," said Shisui, who felt like he had caught onto the rules of the game. "You got too greedy, trying to kidnap our children. At least one or two are going to wake up and remember being put to sleep by ANBU, if I don't get there to modify their memory first. So, you let us go. You leave us alone. In exchange, we won't implicate you."
Danzo gritted his teeth, eyes sharp and calculating. "Very well. We have an agreement. For now."
The words sounded like they were thorned vine pulled off of his tongue. Asura and Shisui didn't waste time escaping.
A dirty alley, the seedy side of Konoha, ten minutes later
"He's going to start plotting against us all the moment he finishes covering up after himself," said the Uchiha guy with the pretty eyelashes. "And… I hate to say this, but he'll probably pin all the blame for tonight on you."
"I figured, yeah," said Asura gloomily, leaning against the wall.
He could sleep for a week. He was aching all over, clone or not, and if he had to try one more flash step thing, he was going to literally die. And he was going to transmit the death to the boss, even if it was impossible.
"If today gets any worse, we're looking at an invasion. Or a giant monster with a freakish eye and ten tails, trying to kill everyone. Wouldn't be the first time."
"Yes, I can see how that would be bad," the Uchiha said. "But… you said Itachi is alive?"
"Yeah, he went to take Sasuke to the hospital. He's still there, I think. He's looking after all the kids."
"We need to fill him in before we do anything else. Although, maybe we should go clean up first? It won't be long before they start sending people after you, and we're both covered in blood. They won't need an Inuzuka to smell us. Anyone with a working nose will do."
"Yeah, actually… before that, there's one more thing."
Asura grinned sheepishly and scratched his nose.
"Who are you?"
Konoha hospital, a few minutes later
Sasuke was finally sleeping. Itachi made a half-hearted effort to pry his brother's fingers off his sleeve, but gave up when Sasuke whimpered.
Shisui must be all right, he told himself. He was one of the strongest the clan had ever produced. Danzo had his tricks, but Shisui had his eyes…
There was a flash of light and Shisui and Asura appeared.
"Oh, I'm going to die," wailed Asura. "Why did I let you talk me into using that?"
"Shush! Kids!" hissed Shisui, who had the look of someone freshly out of a street fight. His left eye was swelling up and there was blood dribbling down the side of his mouth. "There were ANBU, and we couldn't be seen together. That wasn't my first choice either."
"Yeah, well, only one of us has been burning their own innards with chakra in the last half an hour…"
"Shisui, you made it!" said Itachi, cutting the argument in half. "What happened? You… are you hurt?"
"Danzo turned out trickier than I'd expected," Shisui said. He pressed his hand against his stomach and groaned. "He got around my Kotoamatsukami. I think I have a cracked rib. This guy showed up just in time to save my hide. Or, well, more like my eyes."
"Yeah, that's me. Showing up in the nick of time. Or too late," Asura said bitterly, leaned against the wall and slid down.
"But you are the only one who made the effort," said Itachi quietly. "You, who have few ties to this village, have been trying to protect us all these years. If it weren't for you, none of us… I can never thank you enough."
On his bed, Sasuke mumbled something indistinct and turned sides. Absently, Itachi reached out and ruffled his hair.
From his spot on the floor, Asura scratched at the back of his head, looking everywhere except at Itachi.
"I… I don't…"
"We should come up with a plan," said Shisui, gently steering the topic into the task at hand. "We don't have much time before Danzo makes his move. I'm surprised he even allowed us to go, considering the papers you stole from him are kind of really incriminating."
"Hah, I bet the jerk thinks he's outsmarted me," Asura said. "They were rigged with an explosive seal."
He pulled out a bunch of papers from the inside of his robes. On the surface, there was a faint glimmer of an active seal. Painted partly over it, however, was another seal that seemed to have disrupted the combustion process.
"Permanence seals," said Asura proudly. "The one seal I made that works reliably! I still wouldn't leave them out in the sun, though. Or near a mug of hot tea. Just, you know, sensible precautions. It's still an explosive seal."
"Then… this means we have an advantage," Itachi said, leaning closer to examine the overlapping seals, sharingan burning bright in the darkness. "These should be hidden in some safe location until we have a chance to use them. No doubt Danzo will have us followed, but we cannot leave them anywhere people might accidentally stumble upon them either…"
"It would be best to leave them with someone trustworthy," said Shisui. "But who can we rely on? The Uchiha did not have any real allies in this village."
There was a silence. Then, Asura sighed.
"I know a guy," he said.
Hyuuga estate, ten minutes later
Hyuuga Hiashi woke up to his assistant whispering urgently through the shoji door. He sat up and grabbed his robe. If no one was shouting, this couldn't be too important… but still important enough to wake him up at all. That didn't leave many options.
"I… I apologise, Hiashi-sama, but you said to let him in if he showed up and he said it was important and it wasn't a genjutsu, I looked…"
"Let in who?"
"Asura-san. He's, well, he's waiting in the guest lounge. With Uchiha Itachi and Uchiha Shisui…"
Hiashi considered, and sent the worried assistant to fetch ramen. Asura had always avoided asking for anything or accepting any help beyond some basic advice, as if afraid Hiashi would abandon him the moment he became inconvenient. What sort of disaster could have made him seek help?
Whatever it was, Hiashi wasn't going to face it with an empty stomach.
He slid open the door. Asura was kneeling on a pillow near the table. Next to him were, indeed, Itachi and Shisui, who managed to look even more out of place than Asura and his flaming red hair.
"Asura-kun. What brings you here, at this hour?"
"…Yeah. Right. Sorry," Asura asked, looking like he was hoping the earth would split open and swallow him. "Remember that favour you promised me years ago?"
Hyuuga estate (still), five minutes later
"…And I know you said you wouldn't risk your clan, but I don't know who else we can trust!"
Hiashi was reading the papers Asura had stolen from Danzo. He had been reading for a while, all throughout Asura's rambling explanation, and his face was looking scarier by the minute.
Proper scary, like Kakashi-sensei when a comrade got hurt.
Asura fidgeted. He wasn't comfortable with silence anyway, but this silence wasn't comfortable with anyone. It was like a hole in the air, all silent and menacing. He felt the need to fill it with words.
"I know I'm asking a lot, but we need to get rid of him! And he didn't really have a lot of papers that weren't stupidly circular and said nothing useful, so these are all we've got. But I don't want him to come after you either, so if you think –"
"I will keep these documents," Hiashi said. "You were right to come to me."
"But he knows we've been hanging out for years. I mean, everyone knows."
"I am not an easy target," said Hiashi. "Rest assured, I am fully capable of dealing with him. Leave this to me."
"R-right. Thanks, Hiashi-san."
"What will you do from now on?" Hiashi asked gently, tucking the papers into his robe. "You will likely be unable to show your face in public after this."
"Yeah. Guess I'll have to leave the village," Asura said. "Which… probably means I can't eat ramen with you again."
"One last time, then," Hiashi said, waving in the assistant who was struggling not to drop any of the four containers of take-out ramen. "Itachi-kun, Shisui-kun, you are quite welcome to stay, but I suspect you have other things to do…?"
He left the end of the sentence hanging in the air, a polite dismissal. Itachi and Shisui were glad to take the cue.
"Thank you for everything, Hiashi-san," said Itachi. "Asura-san... Will you be all right with this?"
"Don't worry," Asura said. "I'm good at being hated for things I didn't do."
Konoha hospital, concurrent time
Naruto was trying to sleep in the bed next to Sasuke. Technically he wasn't supposed to be in the hospital because he wasn't hurt. Or that was what the staff had argued, at least, but Itachi had bullied them into letting him stay anyway.
He had also tucked Naruto in and ruffled his hair and thanked him for being there for Sasuke. It was kind of strange to be treated like a kid again. Which was more real, Naruto or Asura? Neither shape really fit anymore.
Sasuke was whimpering in his sleep. Naruto turned to his side, blanket wrapping around him like he was a giant caterpillar. He was exhausted, but sleep eluded him.
He didn't think he'd ever failed this badly. Sasuke's entire family… and it was Danzo's fault, of course, but it was also Naruto's fault because he was the only one who had seen it coming. Half-blind and fumbling, maybe, but…
Surely, he could have done better than ending people's lives because he was in a hurry. Because he had screwed up and most of the Uchiha were already dead and he had been so desperate to save someone. Anyone.
It was Danzo who had twisted and shaped his people into what they were. They didn't have to stay that way. Sai had changed. They could have, too, if Naruto hadn't killed them. Killed because they were in his way. Coward, whispered an imaginary Ino in his mind.
Naruto closed his eyes and breathed in deep.
He opened his eyes to a hot, humid sewer. He waded deeper, tracing a familiar path.
Naruto's subconscious, flow of time not applicable
"So, you made a bad call," said Kurama. "Or maybe you didn't. Maybe you could have saved everyone, if you did something else. Maybe all of them would have died instead. But this is what happened and this is what is real. It's useless to think about'might have'."
"But… I… how can I talk about changing the world, when…"
"Oh, is that how it is?" Kurama snapped. "You screwed up and lost your sparkling pure high moral ground and got pulled down to where us filthy murderers stand?"
Naruto flinched. "I didn't mean…"
"But you thought it," Kurama said sourly. "Then again, some part of me still looks at you and thinks 'damn idiot hairless monkey, can't do anything without me', so I suppose I'll let that slide. Listen, brat. I've seen things like this happen over and over. Everything you build, the world will tear down. Sometimes there are no good options. You had to choose one of them anyway, and you did. Now you have to own up to it."
"So… I have to just accept that I got most Sasuke's family killed because I was careless? That I'm a murderer because I made a hasty choice?"
"It is the price you paid," Kurama said, almost gently. "Now you can understand the feelings of hundreds of generations of ninja."
Naruto was silent for a while. Eventually, he spoke.
"The world will tear everything down, huh? Then I'm just going to have to get up and start building again. As many times as it takes."
"That's better, brat."
Hyuuga estate, concurrent time
"What do you intend to do after tonight?"
"I'm not sure. It's not like anyone can actually catch me. I guess I'll go run some errands I've been meaning to do. I haven't framed Orochimaru of any crime in months."
Hiashi raised an eyebrow. "I see. In that case, might I ask you for a favour?"
"Yeah, of course!"
"After tonight, Konoha's reputation will be certain to suffer. Allegedly losing a clan to an attack by an outsider… We may lose missions and income. Other villages may think that we are weakened and attempt to take advantage. This is the sort of thing that breeds war. Danzo will certainly have thought of measures to counter this, but I refuse to rely on him."
"I… yeah. That's… bad. What do I need to do?"
Hiashi smirked. "What you do best. Keep the other villages busy. Irritate them. Of course, I do realise that I am likely making an unreasonable request. You have already done more than enough for us…"
"No, I'll do it. I mean, my reputation is pretty much in ruins anyway, so might as well. Although I probably shouldn't go anywhere near Suna… I'm not sure Kazekage has forgiven me yet."
"Do I want to know?"
"I wanted to show him he was wrong about his son! It's not my fault third of the village got buried in sand and they had to dig everyone out. I mean, I guess technically it was a little bit my fault, but…"
"…That was you?"
"But I totally proved my point, so he's blowing it all out of proportion. Stupid cranky old men, can't accept being wrong…"
There was a knock by the door. "Hiashi-sama? There's a message for you. It's from the Hokage tower…"
"Ah. It seems the rest of the village has finally caught on."
"I… guess I should leave, huh?" Asura said, scratching at the back of his head. "You got work to do and all…"
He looked very young. Hiashi laid a hand on his shoulder. "Take care of yourself," he said. "The truth will be brought to the light yet."
"I… yeah. Thanks for… everything," Asura said and fidgeted.
"I will miss our lunchtimes. Will you take the rest of the ramen to go?"
"Yeah. I'd hate for good noodles to go all soggy."
Asura vanished into the night. Hiashi went back into his office and slid the door closed.
(They would not meet again for years.)
Streets of Konoha, concurrent time
Itachi and Shisui walked in silence, heading towards the hospital without any particular hurry. There was no more adrenaline left, no more urgency.
They were too exhausted to even mourn yet. The events of the night felt like a distant dream.
"We're the eldest now," said Shisui suddenly. "Responsible for the entire next generation. And the one after that, probably. Hell, I bet we're stuck with a bunch of brats until we die of old age."
Itachi managed to smile a little. "We will just have to manage. There are worse fates than parenthood."
"But what if I drop one of the kids and their neck snaps and the head falls off?"
"That is a strangely specific fear…"
Tomorrow, reality would be back, Itachi thought. He would have to accept that his parents were gone and that Danzo was still out there and that any number of gold diggers would try to get their share of the spoils…
But right now, tomorrow was a distant land. Some other Itachi would have to live in it. And Shisui was alive and not maimed and…
"…Shisui, why are you eating the ramen now?"
"I don't want the noodles to go all soggy."
Tomorrow could wait forever, Itachi thought.
(Five minutes later, he was approached by a messenger from the Hokage.)
The temporary lodgings of the Uchiha clan, four days after the incident
Sasuke was sitting on the windowsill, watching as the sun set behind the village and waiting for his brother to return.
He hadn't seen his brother since that night. Itachi had been forced to run from one meeting to another, talking to people about where they were going to live and arranging the cremation of everyone and dealing with the investigation. He always left before Sasuke woke and returned after he had already fallen asleep next to the door, waiting for his brother.
Sasuke always woke up in the bed and there were notes left in the kitchen, so he knew Itachi must come home eventually, but… he wanted to see Itachi. There was no one else anymore.
Tears welled up in the corners of his eyes again. He wiped them away furiously.
There was a knock on the door, and for a brief moment joy bubbled up inside Sasuke. Then he realised Itachi wouldn't need to knock.
He went to open the door anyway. It was Naruto. He looked strange, shuffling nervously like he wasn't sure if Sasuke wanted to see him.
Sasuke wasn't sure either, but Naruto had been there and didn't look patronising or like he pitied Sasuke, so he let him in.
"There's something I have to tell you," Naruto said. "I wanted to say it before, but couldn't come up with the words. But I can't keep coming up with excuses anymore. 'Cause no one… no one ever wants to tell anything to us kids. People think we must be protected or that we can't handle the truth, or they want things from us. So I will tell you everything, even if it means you'll hate me."
"Does it have anything to do with… that night?"
"I… Yeah. A lot."
Sasuke stared. "Okay. Then… tell me your 'everything'."
"No one has told me anything about anything. I want to know."
A miracle happened, I updated. Any mistakes or weirdness you may spot are entirely my fault, because I started to lose motivation by the end of the chapter and forced myself to finish. Results are always kinda wonky when I do that.
Most of the events of this chapter happened pretty much within half an hour or so. The damage control from the village proper was pretty chaotic to start with, so they took a while to get to the point of sending messages. Poor Itachi hadn't given that any sort of consideration. To me, he always seemed like a person who was good at outsmarting himself. Just look at what happened with Sasuke in canon.
Danzo probably planned to dump the blame on Asura from the start. It just didn't work out like he'd wanted. The papers Asura stole aren't precisely pointing him as the true culprit as such… but no ninja could fail to make the connection either. He wouldn't lose his position as the village spider, probably, but he'd never have even the most remote shot at getting the hat either. Public trust is a different political animal than plausible deniability.
Additionally, guess who forgot all about Gaara? That would be me. But Naruto wouldn't have, so I guess I'm going to have to write a flashback omake for the next chapter, or something. Whenever that comes out. Hopefully within the next year at least…