Author's Note: I wrote this story while listening to 'The Way Out is Through' by Nine Inch Nails. 'Just Like You Imagined' by the same artist also works. Basically, I'm going for any song with a massive crescendo.

Hardened by Fire

By Geno Calamari

It was late. He was tired. Had he the choice, he would have dropped from exhaustion long ago. But it was not his choice. Never had been, really. His whole life, the pace was dictated by another.

His father, who didn't want anything to do with him until Itachi proved... uncontrollable, had given him an impossible task in trying to live up to his family name. Never was he good enough, always a year too late, a step behind, a bit too slow, too weak. So his father pushed him in Itachi's place, because he wanted the elder boy's strength and the younger's pliability.

Remarkable how brilliantly it failed...

Then Itachi dethroned their father in a stunning act of patricide to assume his place. His parting words, as the seven-year-old boy stood amongst the bodies of his extended family, were cold and cruel. Brutal directions for the awakening of the Mangekyou Sharingan burned into the small child's memory. You must kill your closest friend. Do unto another as I have done onto Shisui. Only then can you reach the depth of your capacity.

Run... live miserably... hate me... foolish little brother... The keys to success in Itachi's mind were hatred and revenge. Suffering brings strength, just like any other form of adversity, but it brings it far faster.

So he had lived according to his brother's will for the past few years. Sasuke trained, fought, and learned everything he knew for the sole purpose of avenging his clan. At least that's what he told himself.

In truth, Sasuke didn't give a shit about the clan anymore. It'd been too long and he was too jaded to give any loyalty to an organization dead for a decade. No, this was about mother and father. It was personal.

He had loved his brother. Idolized him. Given him every ounce of his attention and affection and for all his efforts, Itachi had given him mind- rape, a bleak future, and horrible, vivid nightmares. It wasn't really a wonder that he could not return that foolish girl's attention. Uchiha Sasuke knew all too well what happened when you loved a person.

Sasuke shifted his feet. The roof was cold behind him and he pulled his arms about him to ward off the chill in the air. Below him, the Uchiha compound in disrepair. The ancestral home of the Uchiha had been unoccupied for almost ten years now. This was Sasuke's first homecoming since that incident. Friends of the family had taken him in for a while, and they had been the ones to collect his few possessions.

This had been coming for a while now, but Sasuke had always found a reason to avoid returning to the place of his birth. The family mausoleum was not on the grounds of the compound, but rather in the Nidaime Memorial park, as a reminder of the great clan who maintained the peace of Konoha. He could visit it without triggering the terrible memories of that incident.

Jumping down, he alighted next to the entrance gates.

Even when young, he had always found the idea of a gate in a Hidden Village absurd. Any ninja worth his salt could easily vault over the fence, so why have one?

It had taken Sasuke the better part of a decade to realize that the fence, despite its actual ineffectiveness, symbolized safety and security. It kept out the pressing masses of normal people, while allowing only the elite shinobi unrestricted access. When he looked at it like that, a soft pang of understand ran down his spine. The Uchiha clan was elitist, and Sasuke was no different.

Was that what Itachi tried to prevent? Sasuke had always believed that 'to measure myself' line was bullshit, but he had never been quite able to piece together the real reason behind his brother's fratricide. Did it have to do with the police division and the ANBU being rivals? Neither organization was on good terms near the end, because they both had a tendency to step on one another's toes. In a world as fluid and dynamic as the world of the ninja, it was nigh unto impossible to tell where the jurisdiction of one ended and the other began.

He began to walk, bringing his hands up into seal position. The last time he had walked this route was when he came home on that night... to discover that incident. It was only fitting that he walk this way the last time he set eyes on home.

Stopping to regard a non-descript restaurant, Sasuke remembered how his father always used to take sake at this particular establishment after a hard day at work. His mouth hardened into a thin line. Pale fingers flashed in the moonlight, "Katon: Housenka no Jutsu!" Tiny balls of flame leapt from his mouth, splashing their fire against the sides of the building before him.

The raven-haired boy nodded as the wall caught and began to burn steadily. Satisfied with his work, he walked on.

Another shape loomed before him, this time a house. It had been the domicile of his maternal aunt, Uchiha Oharu. He remembered how his mother used to leave him in Oharu-san's care when she needed to run errands. Oharu- san had a child, a little girl who would be about his age. They used to play together under her mother's watchful eye. Then he had grown older and enrolled into the academy and that little girl had been taken away to begin her training in refinement and the feminine arts. He never saw her again.

Itachi killed her. Itachi killed everyone.

"Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!" The house was left in cinders behind him, flames spreading to the surrounding buildings. The smoke from his throat made his eyes tear up, but he ignored it.

The dock where he practiced that same jutsu, where his father first showed him what being an Uchiha meant, stood before him. He glared as he remembered his father's tepid response to his success. At the time, it had meant everything to him. For his father to acknowledge him as his son... it was like the clouds parting and sun shining on his face. But now, after ten years, Sasuke could not see the exchange with anything but bitterness. Of course Sasuke was his child, and if his father had spent more time training him instead of worrying over Itachi, Sasuke would have been strong enough to protect his family.

It was all his father's fault. Just like it was all Itachi's fault.

He turned away, letting the dock burn away behind him.

Tapping the curse seal, Sasuke pushed past the first stage. "Katon: Karyuudan!" A dozen spheres of fire burst across as many different homes, places where people had lived and breathed and slept and eaten and suffered and finally, died. They burned just like any other piece of trash.

His uncle Tatsushiro's lavish mansion. Flash-fried. The main street of the Uchiha compound, where Sasuke had first discovered the massacre. Glassed. Sasuke's favorite spot for lunch as a child. Destroyed. Itachi's personal training ground. Decimated with extreme prejudice. Servants Quarter? Scorch marks.

And suddenly he was there.

Before him was the massive house of the Head of the Clan. The house where the raven-haired boy had lived for the first seven years of his life. It was a place he had hoped to never see again. Just being this close, he was overwhelmed by memories. The smell of his mother baking on Sunday mornings. The sound of his father shuffling through the morning paper. The feel of his dragon plushie. The taste of onigiri. Coffee and tea and cinnamon and turmeric and curry and wasabi and all the smells of good food and good company. Soap, suds, baths, friendship, sweat, blood, tears, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, superiority, arrogance, sadness, and death.

But most of all it was the memory of him.

It wasn't about his father or his mother anymore. They were long dead. Sasuke still had difficultly remembering the little things about them. How exactly did his mother's voice sound? Did her hair fall between her shoulder blades or to the middle of her back? Was the hem of his father's Uchiha uniform white or merely cream? How did his father take coffee?

"KATON: RYUUKA NO JUTSU!" He was screaming at the top of his lungs now, tears streaming down his cheeks even as fire blazed from his open mouth. The fiery dragon burst through three homes before detonating against the side of the Uchiha meeting hall. Sasuke dimly remembered it as a brightly- lit place with a large table. At the age of three, he had been presented to the leaders of the clan. Their reaction had been non-plussed.

He was not sorry to see it engulfed in fire.

He didn't know anymore. At one time, Sasuke was certain he could have answered these questions, but the truth was slipping away in the quicksand of time. Perhaps it was time to let his parents go as well.

Then, there were even more important questions he found himself unable to answer.

Did his father ever smile? Had his mother ever laughed? Could she use the Sharingan? Were Uchiha women even trained in the use of their birthright?

Was the Mangekyou Sharingan really that much more powerful than the normal Sharingan? How many had Itachi killed on that night? He hadn't spared anyone, man woman or child. Not Oharu-san or her daughter. Except for Sasuke. Because Sasuke was to become his killer. The thought burned him with the flames of anticipation.

The curse seal burned on his neck like a brand and he pushed himself into level two. Instantly, he became aware of the burning, the smell of cinders filled his nostrils and he came alive as never before.

The cold, hard truth was that Sasuke had never been interested in avenging the clan. All he ever wanted was to be acknowledged. All he ever wanted was to be included by his father and the rest of the people he respected. All he ever wanted was that damn shuriken jutsu.

All he ever wanted was to surpass his brother. It was all competition, and the clan had merely gotten burned by the two brothers. Itachi had killed it while Sasuke had disgraced its memory.

His hands flashed, and the curse seal darkened his skin as he drew from its tainted power. The breath filled his lungs and his back arched in preparation for the sheer power of his jutsu.

"KATON:" he bellowed, "KARYUU ENDAN!"

A great wave of flame washed over the front of the place he used to call home. With his tainted Sharingan eyes, he watched as wave after wave of chakra-powered fire ignited wood and bamboo and rice paper as it swept through the dilapidated mansion. Even as he continued to spout fire from his mouth, he swept his hands in a complicated gesture, fanning the flames as only the cursed seal could allow him.

He stepped deeper into the house, allowing his purifying spark to reach the corners of the foundations. All around him, the inferno of his past life blazed uncontrollably. Sasuke had no fear. The level two curse seal made him immune to heat and flame. He was an Uchiha, after all.

To his eyes, he saw the flitting, guttering nature of fire. He watched it dance, consume, and spread. He found he longed to see it devour the entirety of the Uchiha compound. This was long past due. Tainted chakra spilled from him, bolstering the conflagration even as he stood in its very heart. The flames leapt and cavorted to his every whim. He expended his anger, his hatred, and all his memories as fuel for the bonfire. His house was charring the walls of surrounding homes now, and he had yet to expend all of his power.

It pulled tight about him, embracing him like a second skin. It forced its way between his fingers and toes and underneath his eyelids and into his mouth to fill his lungs and belly full of warmth. In a moment of pure control, Sasuke folded the blaze in upon itself, condensing it too far past its flash-point. The chakra-imbued inferno bubbled and roiled as it liquefied into boiling plasma. Still he poured more power into it, forcing it closer and closer to critical instability.

And at its center, Uchiha Sasuke stood. For a moment, he was the fire and the fire was him. There was no Sasuke, no Itachi, no mother, no father, no Kakashi, no Naruto, no Sakura, no Gaara... only the true perfection of his existence. Only fire crackled and danced and nothing else mattered.

He lost control, his perfect vision of flame slipping away like so much ether. This incredible power passed over and swept through his entire body, rushing outward like a meltdown. The ball of solid heat exploded from his body like a star achieving supernova. It raced out, sweeping aside the buildings of the Uchiha compound like so much kindling. Crashing over the gatehouse like a tsunami of heat and incandescence, the wave surged over the few houses unlucky enough to be close to the Uchiha estate's walls.

The crimson eyes of the Sharingan opened and the boy took in his surroundings. His home was vaporized and much of his old home stood in ruins or in ashes. A smile graced his thin lips. It was what he wanted. Mother and father were gone. So was the clan. It was only fitting that all traces of them be wiped from the earth by fire.

Even the clothes he wore, bearing the Uchiha fan had burned away.

But he himself was unscathed. Reforged by the flames into a new, stronger Sasuke, he had survived his self-made crucible. Now all he had to do was find Orochimaru. He would lead him to Itachi.

By the time the ANBU arrived, Sasuke was long gone.

I can fight you now, Aniki. Seriously, and for the last time. And you won't walk away from this fight. I've burned myself clean of all that makes me weak so now I'm pure. I've made a pyre of our home, in dedication to what you started all those years ago. I'm going to kill you with this incredible power, Aniki. Because I'm a better Uchiha than you.

Remember what father used to say, Itachi.

The Uchiha Clan specialty is the manipulation of fire.

Don't get burned.

Author's notes:

Yes, I know that 'Don't get burned' is an incredibly cheesy way to end it, but I don't care. I mean, for god's sake, look at some of the meanings of the names in this show and then tell me I'm cheesy.

Anyway. This is another impulse story. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I rather like the idea of Sasuke burning down the vast Uchiha estate in some hopped-up cursed seal madness. I think it also fits in quite nicely to my version of the Naruto plot. It's constructed from a few one-shots. Read Shoutei and my next piece Brothers to really get the whole feel of it.

Sasuke and Itachi are rather easy to write, because I don't think either of them ever got out of the 'I'm seventeen and I want to kill my family' period that every guy goes through. Sasuke because he can't break out of it and Itachi because he probably revels in it. (guessing from the manga, here folks, but anyway.) I happen to remember that period well, so it serves my purposes admirably.

In conclusion, I'll probably rewrite this thing. Smooth it out a little bit and stuff like that. I want it to be kind of rough and dirty, because I'm going for a sort of unfocused state of mind for Sasuke.