{OoO}---SCARLET---{OoO}

{OoO}---{OoO}---Chapter 9: Sasuke---{OoO}---{OoO}

I traveled back toward Konoha, alone, bearing a corpse over one shoulder, wrapped in my black cloak, and the two scrolls. I had burned Souen's ashes on the plateau, and scattered them in the wind. She, at least, was free.

The lonely journey took a heavy toll on me. I was quick but not terribly strong, and my back and neck ached terribly from the load. I camped against stands of boulders, too leery of Orochimaru finding me again to make a fire.

I did not sleep a single night. I tried the first night, but woke screaming each time, thrashing off invisible hands. The Uchiha were all around me, all the time. I could feel it. Every time my eyes drifted closed they crowded in around me, clawing and clutching as if I were the one lifeboat in they could cling to. They wanted something from me but I could never understand what. Mortal flesh, so they could live again? An apology, to still their grudge? My spirit, to join theirs? I was drowning in them. The desert was wide and open and free but my memories walled me in.

I was beginning to remember the massacre again, in flashes, and the cold-blooded killer who ran at my side to the Uchiha compound, when until recently I'd believed I was alone that night. Uchiha Madara, who split from me in the compound to make better time. I remembered how we were like two renegade wolves, winter-starved and hunting the sheep in their fold. He had made me like him, for the sake of me surviving that night. If I'd had any shred of hesitation in me, I could have been killed before escaping Konoha.

I passed travelers, who scarcely looked at me. They must have been too afraid.

The pain in my head and stomach grew worse. I began to experience dark spots in my vision, and to believe that the Sage had been right. I was dying.

I stopped caring about anything but the sheer will it took to place one foot in front of the other. Souen had said I would find purpose, but I'd lost it instead. Who would give it back to me? Akatsuki, to whom I was just another cog in the grinding machines of war? On the fifth day I collapsed. Dropped like a stone, in a narrow ravine worn smooth by wind and water. The corpse thudded against the stone floor behind me, and I pitched forward.

But I was denied even the peace of unconsciousness.

Why why why? Their wails echoed through the canyon. My head snapped up and I groaned; bloody handprints smeared the rocks around me. Their footsteps whispered over the hard earth, gliding toward me.

I scrambled to my feet, spun about to face them.

The place was empty. The walls were clean. The only blood red stain came from the dawn, seeping into the canyon. I squinted. A small, dark spot appeared in the sky, drawing nearer. Shading my brow with one shaking hand, I focused my Sharingan and realized it was a messenger hawk. Then the dark spots clouded my sight again, and I ceased the dojutsu, rubbing my eyes with both fists.

Moments later, the hawk alighted on the canyon floor. I crouched before it, holding out a hand. With near comical dignity, the bird stuck out one foot, to which a tiny scroll was fastened. I took it, mindful of the sharp beak, and sat to read it.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to contact you sooner. But I have left Konoha, and it was difficult to find a messenger. Great injustice has been done, which I will try to set to rights. What has happened between you, and your family, and the village elders can't be undone, but I swear I'll do what I can to give what befell you a purpose. Fate willing, our work will bring about the peace you wanted.

I will meet you in the Valley of the End, at the next full moon.

Jiraiya

I read it three times. What was my connection to him? I couldn't remember. I'd seen him before, heard of his strength. But the only connection I saw was that my companion had killed a friend of his, and that I was taking him a message, no doubt to report the old man's death.

Frustrated, I opened the scroll the Serpent Sage had entrusted to me.

I know that you have in your care the Jinchuuriki who bears the Kyuubi. The six-tailed dragon inside me begs for release. She will not let me sleep. She tasted freedom only to have it torn from her, so can we blame her? I thought living without sleep would kill me, and end this, but she lent me her strength, so that I remained healthy and sane.

Now there are three Akatsuki here, to take her from me. I cannot let them take her. But two of them still have good left in their hearts, and

My heart clenched. Oh, stupid old man, how can you believe that? I have never been 'good.' What does it matter to realize I loved my family, loved Konoha? Loving the ones I killed makes me all the more a monster.

But I read on.

and I've found hope. I will ask them to kill me and end my torment. So when this reaches you, I will be gone. But I beg you to watch over your Jinchuuriki, so that he does not suffer the same fate. Jinchuuriki die young because the beast wears them down from the inside, until it becomes who they are. I entreat you to keep your boy who he is. And if the time should come for him, see that his end is quick and merciful.

Your friend, always

Soujin

He wanted us to kill him. But he ended up asking Souen, and not me. Why? Had he judged me the weaker of the two?

Then I remembered: "What shadows are those that follow you?"

He knew I was haunted. So he, unlike Souen, chose not to lay his burden on me.

I closed the scroll again. Then I hoisted his body onto my shoulders, rose, and began walking.

{OoO} {OoO} {OoO}

Jiraiya was waiting when I arrived at the falls. He sat on one side of the river; I stood on the other. I laid my burden down and waited.

He looked older than when I'd last seen him. There were new lines under his eyes, where time had raked its claws. He looked as weathered as the boulders around him, worn smooth by the river. His expression told me that I, too, had changed.

"Come to this side, Itachi," he said gravely.

I hadn't thought much of what I would say to him, how I'd react. Now I laughed. A bitter laugh I had to choke back at the end. "Join you? We can hear each other well enough. This place echoes."

He looked sad, so sad. "I don't blame you for not trusting me."

"Why do you trust me?" I asked. "Don't you know your monster when you see him?"

His squarish jaw tightened visibly. "We all have monsters in us," he said sharply. "Every one of us. Even the weakest. And Konoha has committed a terrible crime. They forced you to use yours, to draw the blood they were too cowardly to stain their hands with."

He hadn't even asked about the corpse at my side. He truly was there for me.

I couldn't imagine why. "So you think to help me out of pity?"

He bowed his head. "Out of guilt. Sarutobi wants me to succeed him. But when I learned what the council had chosen to do about the Uchiha last month, I left. I was too eager to prevent my hands from being stained, so I abandoned the Village. But I knew I could not let them do such a thing to you, then cast you out to die."

I laughed again, and this time it hurt, oh it hurt so much. It merged with the pain already twisting my stomach and became a thick mass of pain I could neither heal nor vomit up. "Do such a thing to me? Do such a thing to me? I did it. I did. My monster is stronger than yours, so you wouldn't know. There was no mind control when I agreed to do it. No one held a knife to my throat. They spoke, and I obeyed. And the beauty of it is, I even loved them! I killed Shisui before they ever called upon me! All because strength is my drug, the shadow I chase but never catch."

He bowed his head again. How heavy his guilt must have been! Such a burden! He traveled, wrote his books. While I slaughtered everything I touched.

"They gave you to Ibiki," he said, "when you were twelve."

His words struck me like a slap in the face.

"You were always troubled," he said. "They decided to use you. But you needed to be stronger. Through hypnosis, Morino Ibiki and his interrogators learned the secret of the Mangekyou Sharingan from you. But you were not a monster. Though you struggled with inner violence when you killed enemies, still you would not kill your closest friend willingly. So they gave you a…push. They needed something with which to brand you insane. They were planning to destroy the Uchiha anyway. Shisui was conveniently close at hand."

"You're saying," I said slowly, "that I did not kill Uchiha Shisui."

"No," he said. "Not willingly."

I believed him when he said they'd tried to "push" me into killing Shisui. Ah, but as a user of dojutsu, I knew well the law of hypnosis: you can't hypnotize someone to do something which their deepest moral fibers oppose. And I had no deep, strong-rooted moral fibers. At least, not the morals most people hold to. Regardless of what Jiraiya wanted to believe, I had killed Shisui because deep down, I wanted to. The same way I had hated my clan, deep down, for wrapping me in their prison of duty.

No, Jiraiya, I am guilty. The only difference is that now I understand regret.

"And my clan…?"

"Memory alteration takes its toll. You started experiencing blank places in your memory. You agreed to destroy the Uchiha of your own volition, to protect Konoha. It was not a choice you made lightly. When they offered you hypnosis to keep you sane, you refused. You were frightened. But in the end you could not bring yourself to do it with a clear head, and you began to lose your sanity as the appointed day approached. That was when Uchiha Madara found you. Made you an offer: join him, help him infiltrate Akatsuki, and he would drain away your sadness and your fear."

"Have I helped him?" I asked, suddenly dizzy. I couldn't remember. Every word I'd spoken with Madara felt like a dream.

"I don't know," Jiraiya said, and now his tone was gentle. "That is for you to determine. I am here to confess my guilt, and the guilt of the council. And to absolve you of yours."

"Your friend is dead," I said. I tossed him the scroll. I needed him to hate me. He wanted to forgive me but he didn't understand the deep darkness in me, and that I did not deserve absolution.

When you've hated yourself for so long you become addicted to it.

He caught the scroll but didn't read it. "You didn't kill him, Itachi."

I smiled, but there was no truth in it. "I don't know. Maybe I did. And I just want to believe I didn't."

He only looked sad. "You're dying."

I exhaled. Paced a meaningless circle while the world blurred around me. My face burned.

"How?" I finally asked. I did not question the truth of it. "You're ill," the old man had said.

"I'm not sure who," Jiraiya said heavily. "Danzou was the most ruthless. And Root breeds assassins. But you carry in your blood a slow-acting toxin meant to end your life once you've accomplished your purpose."

"How long?"

He produced a small glass vial from his pack. "I'm still working on a true antidote, but this slows the spread."

He threw it to me, and I caught it. I didn't tell him, but I was glad it wouldn't keep me from dying. I had protected Konoha with my sins, hadn't I? Now my purpose was served. I'd reached the height of my purpose, and beyond this strength was meaningless.

"What should I give you in return?" I asked him. I could not have lived with myself being in his debt. Not when my life wasn't worth preserving.

He looked down at the corpse beside me. "You have brought my friend to me, so he can be buried. That is enough."

It was not enough. The phantoms swirling round me like sea mist hissed that it was not. I might have destroyed their lives and saved many more, but the person who must lose his life never sees it that way. They knew it was really my hatred that had brought about their ruin, and they would follow me until I joined them, and until that day no good I did would ever, ever be enough.

"I will serve Konoha, then," I said. "As your spy."

He gave me a long, measuring look. I think he'd been secretly hoping for such an arrangement, but had been too full of guilt to ask. Even now, he was too full of guilt to accept.

"Itachi, enough has been asked of you," he said. "I will send you new antidotes as I find them."

I didn't want his forgiveness. I backed away from the river's shore, into the shadows of the wood, into my shadows. "I will send you information."

"What about Sasuke?" he called after me. "You were close, before…"

"Tell him nothing," I answered. I had spent too long trying to make him into what I was. If he did not keep his hatred for me, I feared he might follow me into ruin, regain his love for me and suffer in a Village that believed I was insane. Better he stay bound to Konoha, to learn that I was with Akatsuki and come to hate and fear them, as well he should. After all, I was a murderer. It may have been true that I was ordered to kill, but in the end I bowed to their will because I had it in me to kill. In the end, however much I blame my clan, my government, my enemies, three fingers point back to me.

I slipped off into the forest, alone.

{OoO} {OoO} {OoO}

Five Years Later

Northern Fire Country

I trudged the muddy road to Otafuku. My stomach hurt constantly, and the Mangekyou Sharingan was beginning to take its toll on my vision. But I was alive, thanks to Jiraiya's constantly updated versions of the antidote. At my side strode Kisame, my new partner. They had assigned him to me one year after Orochimaru left the organization. He was a cruel man in battle, a deformed relic of the old shinobi teachings in the Water Country, a Mist swordsman. But he was also remarkably polite. He knew that when dwelling among the best and brightest of the world's killers, it was best to avoid offending them. Smart man.

He also never tried to pry into my past. Again, smart man.

Unfortunately, along the road, beneath a stead downpour, my past found me again.

We met him while taking shelter under a wood awning by the roadside. I with my straw hat pulled low. He sat hooded in his grey cloak, cleaning water spots from his glasses.

"The storm will clear soon," he remarked casually. "But there's bound to be a clash. You're not the only one journeying to Otafuku, after the Nine-Tails brat."

Kisame tilted his head and grinned, one hand surreptitiously sliding to the hilt of his sword, Samehada. I stilled him with a barely perceptible shake of my head.

"Orochimaru is targeting Uzumaki Naruto as well?" I asked. "Or are you warning me about Jiraiya, with whom the boy travels?" This was going to be a delicate enough operation, my planned failure to capture Naruto. Jiraiya had spent months discussing it; how to fool my partner. Kisame wasn't an idiot, and that was a problem. The last thing I wanted was to add another powerful non-idiot to the mix.

Kabuto smirked. "You should know, Orochimaru wants the boy. For his next body. For the eyes, specifically."

I knew about the "snake charmer's" body-jumping habits by this point. And I knew that Kabuto wasn't talking about Naruto when he said "the boy."

"Why tell me?" I asked coldly. "Surely your master didn't send you."

Kabuto leaned his head back against the shelter wall. "Mm…I wonder. But as for why I'm telling you, you tell me. You're the one who spared him from the massacre. I doubt it was so that he could become someone else's skin."

"No," I murmured.

"Well then." He rose and left.

Kisame peered at me with great interest. "Who was the brat talking about, Itachi-san?"

"No one important."

I made a vow to myself, as the rain pounded the roof. Orochimaru would never have my brother. Sasuke was the last good part of me.

Sasuke was mine.

Two days later, we made our way down the rickety halls of the Otafuku inn. My plan was to find Uzumaki Naruto, rough him up a little. And stall until Jiraiya came. My plan was to let Jiraiya beat me, and flee with Kisame, feigning exhaustion.

I found Uzumaki Naruto, who answered the door to his room and stood gaping at me. Innocent and trusting, this boy was. I'd heard he was friends with Sasuke. I somehow doubted Sasuke was anywhere near this naïve.

My plan was set to go smoothly. Take the boy, lose him again, flee.

But my ghosts had followed me down the hall. A familiar voice called my name. My heart clenched. It was as if they all called my name at once. Shisui, my mother, my father. I turned, slowly. Standing there, in the hall, eyesblazing, was the only real ghost of the Uchiha.

"He looks like you," Kisame remarked.

"He's my brother."

My brother, who was my last remaining purpose. Who was the last real meaning to my life.

Whom I loved.

{OoO} {OoO} {OoO}

Epilogue

But I can't tell him any of this; he wouldn't understand. His face is contorted with hatred. He has become what I've made him, and he will never love me again.

Feebly he struggles to free himself from my grasp, for I have pinned him to the wall, to show my strength, to show my cruelty, to keep him safe.

He is the best part of me, the only part worth saving.

Sasuke.

Sasuke.

May you never understand what I have done and why, and leave me to follow this dark path alone. May you live to see peace. I will watch over you, silent and sure.

And I will be your shadow.

End

Author's Note: I think Itachi was watching over his brother to the very end, when he freed him from Orochimaru's curse seal, hoping that despite the evil he had committed himself, Sasuke might live on to redeem the Uchiha name. The tragedy, I suppose, is that Sasuke ended up learning the truth from Uchiha Madara, and turning his vengeful heart against Konoha instead. But at least Itachi died believing he'd saved his brother. Believing his life, at last, had meaning.