How will it end?

With the people who survive. Naturally.

Not with yakisoba at half-past-noon, or meadowgrass tales. Nor with my brother's finger in his mouth, lips quirked quizzical while I plucked my kunai off the floor. Not even with my knock on the innroom door while the Nine-tails boy squinted up to me in all his blonde confusion.

By the time the victors will be crowing over my corpse, a new beginning will have already occurred. The old one will be lost. Forgotten. A mass fabrication will replace the numerous threads that led me to this course, rope-thick rationale serving as an easy explanation for everything I have ever done.

And these summer-moment strands, gone forever.

Certain events never happen at all, when a story is written. They slip through the cracks of the tale. Unimportant, or considered detrimental to a smooth flow of events. Point A links up neatly with point B, then to point C, all targets on a map that historians can stretch out and track with nodding heads.

Ledgers never make note of the number of days it took to cross from Mizumashi to Takuyan Bridge. They just want to make sure you got there.

Or didn't, sometimes.

History is a box unfolded. The walls form a path when laid flat, but you are not allowed to stray. Instead you trace your proscribed route. This is how events started. This is why they occurred. That which does not fit in is a fluke.

Eventually, the jarring details are forgotten.

If they were not dominant enough to survive past historical selection, they will never have existed at all.

Motivations aren't ever written down the right way. Even if you leave a detailed memoir stating precisely why you took a step forward, a step back, readers will like to create their own rationales to puppet you. You went back because of pity. You killed your family out of hate. You didn't care and were a monster; you had a heart as compassionate as a childbirth-god and acted out of mercy.

Any truth you'd have will die with you. History in all its lies will be declared by the ones still standing, whether they'd been fighting in the war or not. Whether they even understood. Or not.

The Hidden Villages will say anything about me later. It's unavoidable. A person can't hope to act in this world and not be made maladjusted by the victors.

Not that such things bother me anymore.

They shouldn't.

This existence is transcendental. Walking over the boards of a bridge is an exercise in detachment. The wood isn't really there; the hollow thunks of my boots on the planks is just noise, the death of my parents just so much organic meat. Kisame isn't muttering in monotone to make up for the silence that I bring. The hour is never afternoon, and I'm not listening to teenagers whose eyes go red when the sun catches the angle just right.

Red. Not quite like the Sharingan, those demon's pits of pinwheels. Sometimes at night I wake up trying to remember what color my eyes really are, because incredibly enough I have forgotten during the course of my dreams. When I fumble for the light and then a mirror, I always catch myself before I lift the glass to check. It's too late at this point in the tale to search for what I used to be.

I wonder how long I can keep telling myself these things.

As long as it takes, I suppose. No more. No less.

"Your face isn't looking so good, Itachi."

I am continuing to walk.

"Hold up. We can stop here."

Kisame's hand thrusts itself in front of me and I find myself stepping into it, his fingers pressed against my stomach. I am surprised to discover him there. Maybe he is right--I am tired.

Blame the Leaf for that. The ruse with Jiraya should have worked for longer. There shouldn't have been so many instructors catching us on the bridge.

There shouldn't have been my brother in the hall.

When the Mist outcast is vexed about something he cannot kill, he takes it out on inanimate objects. I hear him grumble while he tramps through the underbrush with those heavy boots of his, looking for a suitable place to rest. He kicks a fallen branch out of the way with the same scorn he would use on a body.

It is important for us not to leave tracks but Kisame has never been particularly subtle.

I will clean up after we are ready to leave.

We find a spot several minutes from the main path and I sit, leaning against a tree and feeling the nubs of bark through my clothes. The afternoon sun through the forest is a patchwork nightmare for the paranoid. Leaves rustle. Any whisper of branches could be sign of Anbu hard on our trail.

I am not afraid of being attacked out here. Kisame could kill any who would try to assault us, and I don't care even if assassins do show up to fight.

And Konoha won't send any. The attack by Orochimaru has left them cautious. Self-preservation is straining the Leaf thin. If the Akatsuki wished, we could pick off their numbers at our leisure, forcing the Leaf to narrow their territories down like a rat backed into an alley corner. The other countries would move in. Konoha would collapse inwards, and any recovery of its power could take decades.

They are still sensitive from the fox. Determined. But weakened nonetheless.

Konoha is not that important. I have said as much. We do not need to break their backs anew just to see if the third time would be the charm.

I have said this many times.

Kisame listens to me when I do, which is another reason I am not so displeased that he was assigned as my partner. Overcompensation and all.

He is a strange creature to watch sitting. Action suits him better, even the bristling stride he uses when he is resentful, or the crass proddings of his chopsticks to his ramen bowl as if he hopes it will bleed if he shoves hard enough. Kisame is a shark at heart. Always moving, keeping water running over his gills so that he can breathe.

When Kisame plays shogi, he does so with one finger in the air, knuckle waving to the beat of his thoughts. It is possible to tell when he's found a strategy by how that hand speeds up. If you trace which piece Kisame regards at a time, combine it with the intensity of his motions, you can read his pattern of attack as clearly as if you used the Sharingan.

No one's told him that, of course. We like winning too much.

"Have you got your strength back yet, Itachi?"

Kisame is very tough. I wonder how long he will survive.

"I never know what you're thinking, with that expression of yours."

When I still refuse to speak, Kisame snorts through his nose and turns his face away. Now his foot is moving. Just the toes, painted shards of the nails stirring as the Mist-nin suppresses the urge to tap his heel, impatient.

If this afternoon does not exist, then it will not disturb me when it is forgotten.

My eyes hurt. The sun strikes pangs into my face, plunging hot needles into my skull. I knuckle my temples in an attempt to arbitrate the pains. Sleep would be a welcome option now, but we are too close to Konoha for a prolonged nap. Even so, I know that Kisame would watch over me well enough that I could wake surrounded by corpses, and he grinning, pointing out that not even a drop of their blood had fallen upon my cloak.

I drowse.

In time I wake and realize that the sun has passed faster than I thought. By the angle, we are risking evening. Kisame hears my stir and looks over to me, sword on his knees like a table and sandal-laces in his lap. When I stare groggily at what he is doing with a shoe in his hands, uncomprehending, he offers the sandal back to me.


So it is. I hadn't realized one of my laces was about to break.

All the same, I glance up to him with a brow I hope is arched.

"Feeling any better?" Upon my nod, Kisame's face splits into a sharp smile. "Good. I'd hate to see you get wasted on these pieces of trash."

"I won't die yet." Rising to my feet reminds me of the process of muscles uncoiling, bones organized to their task. Such are the mechanics of living. Most of the time, they involve willpower and little more. Other times, they require resources. I am hungry. My foot is cold. The basics.

I do not ask Kisame just how he removed my sandal while I was asleep, wordlessly slipping it back on and testing the tauntness of the new cord with a flex of my toes. I know he likes to keep himself busy, but this is bordering on ridiculous.

"Let's go." Speaking feels like mouthing cotton, but I know the sensation will pass once I fully wake. "We still have a long road left. I don't want to waste our lead while we're ahead."

If living is winning, then my brother is going to lose at this rate.

I bet he's still forgetting to check his kunai.

Foolish little brother.

I'll see you later, Sasuke. You can ask me these questions then.