Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. If I did, the fillers would be over by now.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for the manga, up through Chapter 309.
Note: Italics are inner thoughts or flashbacks.
Sasuke sat alone in his room, contemplating his future…such as it was. A few hours earlier, Kabuto had announced that the preparations needed for Orochimaru to take over his body were nearly complete. The transformation would be happening tomorrow.
The candle flames that lit the room flickered, and Sasuke's eyes narrowed in annoyance. Orochimaru had several hideouts scattered across the continent, and every single one was a damp and cold place. A breeze blew through the room, ruffling Sasuke's hair. Wait a minute…a breeze? He was deep underground, in a room with no windows, and the door was closed. Where the hell would a breeze be coming from? Slowly, Sasuke looked up …and nearly toppled off his chair in shock.
Sitting on the opposite edge of the table was a young boy, about fourteen years old. He had black spiky hair and an open, trusting face. A pair of goggles was perched jauntily atop his head. His right eye was dark, and he held one hand over his left eye, as if to hide it. Sasuke had never met this boy, but he had seen pictures of him, and had heard his story from Orochimaru.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Uchiha Obito asked.
"Somehow, I think I should be the one asking you that question," Sasuke said. Obito had been his cousin, but he had died before Sasuke was born.
"Orochimaru-san, there's something I've been wondering about, and I thought maybe you could tell me."
"What is it?"
"How did Kakashi-sensei get his Sharingan?"
"You mean he never told you guys?"
"Hmph, that's just like Kakashi-kun to keep everything to himself. Well, did your parents ever mention a cousin of yours named Uchiha Obito?"
"A few times. They said he had sacrificed his life to save a friend."
"That friend was Kakashi-kun. They were fighting to rescue their teammate Rin from the Stone ninjas who had captured her. Kakashi-kun lost his left eye in the battle, and Obito knocked him out of the way of another attack, taking the brunt of it for him. Before he died, he asked Rin to transplant one of his eyes into Kakashi-kun to replace the one he had lost. His name was engraved on the Memorial of Heroes—Kakashi-kun used to visit it every day. He probably still does, the sentimental old fool."
"Is this a genjutsu? You can't possibly be here." Sasuke activated his Sharingan, but this was no illusion. He did notice something unusual, however. Ordinarily, a person's body contained two types of chakra: physical and spiritual. The hand seals that were used to perform a jutsu mixed different amounts of the two types of chakra in different proportions to create various effects. The Sharingan copied techniques by seeing the amounts of the two types of chakra that were combined to perform a jutsu. But Obito had no physical chakra—the only energy signature Sasuke could see with his Sharingan was spiritual.
"This is no genjutsu, Sasuke-san," Obito said. "I'm really here."
"How is that possible? You're dead."
"Yeah, and you will be too in a few hours, when Orochimaru takes over your body. People who die aren't normally allowed to come back, but…we managed to bend the rules a little."
"Why? Are you here to help me?"
"Yep. I'm here to save you from Orochimaru."
Sasuke shook his head. "I don't need to be saved from him. I'm giving him my body willingly, so that I can kill Itachi."
"Well, you see, that's the whole problem. Sasuke-san, haven't you ever thought about how giving up your body to Orochimaru will affect the people who care about you? Naruto considers you a brother, Sakura loves you for some reason that only the gods know, and Kakashi-san…well, you're one of the few precious people Kakashi-san has left. He'd never show it outwardly, but he'll be devastated if you die."
"Why should I care about them?"
Obito's face clouded over, and his right eye turned red. "Why should you care about them?" he asked incredulously. "They're your friends! You're a precious person to them!"
"So? I didn't ask for their friendship. I didn't ask for them to care about me. If they want to spend their time sulking about the decision I've made, that's their business." Sasuke was starting to become angry. It was bad enough that living people kept badgering him about his decision to go to Orochimaru, now he had dead people doing it too!
Obito seemed to be just as outraged as Sasuke was. "Didn't Kakashi-san teach you anything? A ninja who abandons his friends and tries to hurt them is no better than trash! Konoha is your home and its people are your comrades. If you really don't care about them at all, you're just the same as Itachi!"
"Shut up! I'm not like everyone else in Konoha! In case you hadn't noticed, Itachi slaughtered our entire family! I don't care what I have to do—I'm going to avenge them no matter what!" Sasuke stood up, knocking his chair over backwards, and stormed out of the room. Obito remained behind.
Sasuke stalked down the hall and into the kitchen. He hadn't had dinner yet, and his stomach was rumbling.
Most people would have been terrified if they had just seen a ghost. They would have cried, or prayed, or just run screaming out of the building. But not Sasuke. One night, when he was eight, he had witnessed something far more horrific than any restless spirit could ever be.
Sasuke took some vegetables and tofu out of the fridge and tossed them on the counter. Some fell out of their bags and scattered across the floor, but Sasuke didn't care. He was still boiling with anger over the things Obito had said. "You're just the same as Itachi!" How the hell could he say that? Obito didn't understand what Sasuke had gone through. He hadn't come home from the Academy one night to find the broken bodies of everyone he loved lying in the street. He hadn't been forced to watch his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins being murdered, over and over, for 24 hours. He hadn't trained relentlessly for years, only to be told that he was weak and less worthy of Itachi's attention than that dropout Naruto. How dare Obito act like he had the right to judge Sasuke's actions?
Sasuke poured the ingredients for tempura batter into a bowl and began stirring. Once again, a breeze seemed to blow through the room, and Sasuke whipped around. Leaning against the sink was an old man with gray hair and a long gray mustache. He wore a green kimono, tied with a white cloth belt that had a buckle in the shape of the Uchiha clan symbol. The man's face was deeply lined, but his black eyes sparkled in a kindly way. His arms were folded across his chest, and he was gazing at Sasuke with the look of a man who is seeing someone he loves for the first time in many years.
Sasuke sat across the table from his grandfather, Uchiha Nakatsu. Squinting at the shougi board, he pushed one piece forward a few spaces. The older man contemplated the board for a few moments, then moved one of his own pieces. They continued on in this way for about 15 minutes, then Sasuke's face fell. "I lost," he said in a disappointed tone.
"There's no shame in losing, Sasuke-kun, as long as you try to figure out what mistake you made and avoid it next time."
"It's just…hard to concentrate on the game."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"I'm worried about Itachi-san. I've heard that people die in the Chuunin Exam sometimes."
"Well, it's true that students taking the exam have died in the past. But living with that risk is part of being a shinobi. Besides, a strong student can make it through the Forest of Death without any trouble. Do you think Itachi-kun is strong?"
Sasuke nodded eagerly. "Yeah! Itachi-san was the best in his class at the Academy, and he graduated when he was seven, and he can already use the Sharingan! He's really strong!"
"Then there's no reason for you to worry. Tomorrow, when he comes out of the Forest of Death, you can greet him. And then we can cheer for him in the Third Exam. How does that sound?"
"That's great! Thank you, Grandfather!" Sasuke jumped over the board and hugged Nakatsu tightly.
"Oof! You're squeezing all the breath out of me, Sasuke-kun!" Nakatsu was grinning, and his eyes twinkled with laughter.
Sasuke opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to think of something to say. Nakatsu had always been able to make him feel better when he was sad or worried. He felt a vague sense of shame, knowing that his beloved grandfather would be disappointed with his decision to go to Orochimaru. He pushed the shame aside, just as he had pushed aside his feelings for his teammates and sensei. "It's…a surprise to see you here."
Nakatsu chuckled, his eyes twinkling in the way Sasuke remembered from his youth. "Well, I've always tried to be there for you when you needed help, and it seems like you need a bit of help now."
Sasuke shook his head. "I appreciate the effort, but I don't need help. I've made my decision, and I'm prepared to go through with it."
Nakatsu sighed. "Sasuke…do you really think that what you're doing is going to solve anything?"
Sasuke blinked, a bit surprised by the question. "Well, of course. I mean, Itachi will be dead. You and the rest of the clan will finally be avenged."
"And will that bring any of us back?"
"Sasuke, this vengeance of yours will serve the past at the cost of the future. Once, a long time ago, you said that you had two goals. Do you remember what they were?"
Sasuke thought back to his introduction to Kakashi, Sakura, and Naruto. "I don't want to call it a dream, but I have…an ambition. The restoration of my clan…and definitely to kill a certain man."
"I wanted to kill Itachi and rebuild our clan," he told Nakatsu.
The old man nodded solemnly. "If you give up your body to Orochimaru, you may very well be able to kill Itachi. But what of your other goal? What of the future of the Uchiha clan?"
"That goal is meaningless unless Itachi dies. If I try to rebuild the clan while he still lives, he'll just come along and destroy it again."
"Then think about this: is it possible to kill Itachi without giving yourself to Orochimaru? You have concluded that you cannot achieve both goals, but is that really true?"
"I fought Itachi, and he…he beat me. He even beat Kakashi-sensei, and Orochimaru is afraid of him. I can't beat him on my own!"
"Sasuke, I told you once that there is no shame in losing as long as you figure out why you lost and correct that error in the future. So, you should figure out what weakness made you lose to Itachi, and work to correct it."
"I did! That's why I'm here!" Sasuke was becoming agitated again. He had always respected Nakatsu's wisdom, and the old man had never steered him wrong before. But he simply didn't understand! "My bonds with Konoha made me weak. They dulled my resolve. So I cut those bonds to become stronger."
Nakatsu snorted derisively. "That is the explanation for your loss that Itachi gave you. What makes him so trustworthy that you would listen to his opinion more than that of your sensei and teammates?"
Once again, Sasuke found himself at a loss for words. Finally he said, "One of my first real ninja missions was to the Wave Country. We had to fight this kid named Haku who also had an Advanced Bloodline. He knocked me out, and it was Naruto who defeated him. The first time we fought Orochimaru, he summoned this giant snake that was about to kill me—until Naruto stopped it by himself. When I fought Sabaku no Gaara during the invasion by Sound and Sand, I couldn't do anything against him. It was Naruto who beat Gaara and saved Sakura's life. When Itachi came back, he didn't care about me at all. He wanted Naruto. He acted like I was just…some annoying kid who was getting in his way. Naruto had the lowest scores in the Academy, he failed the graduation exam three times, and I couldn't even keep up with him. What the hell kind of weak-ass training was I getting in Konoha if I couldn't keep up with a useless dropout like him?" In frustration, Sasuke punched the tempura pot, and it crashed to the floor, splashing batter everywhere. He walked out without looking back at Nakatsu.
Sasuke wandered aimlessly through the halls of Orochimaru's compound. The Sound ninja he came across simply nodded to him and got out of his way. Eventually he found himself in one of the dojos where he often trained. Furiously, he began punching and kicking one of the wooden training dummies, his limbs moving so fast that an observer would have seen them only as blurs.
"My goodness…your new strength certainly is impressive."
Sasuke closed his eyes for a second. Not another one. He opened his eyes and turned around, coming face to face with his godmother. "Hello, Madara-san," he said respectfully.
"Nii-san, don't do this! Please, don't make me watch this!" Sasuke knelt on the ground, sobbing, beside the bodies of Nakatsu and his wife. Itachi had said this ordeal would last for 24 hours. How long had it been? It seemed like it had already been days since he had first fallen into the world of Tsukiyomi.
The world around him wavered, and at first he hoped that the mental torture was finally over. But when his surroundings solidified, everything was still black and white and red. Sasuke found himself inside the Nakano temple, the one that housed the Uchiha clan's secret meeting place. Kneeling on one of the tatami mats was Uchiha Madara, Sasuke and Itachi's godmother. Being named a godmother or godfather was a very serious responsibility in the ninja world. Being a shinobi was a hazardous occupation, and many children became orphans. If a shinobi couple chose someone as a godparent for their child, it meant that person would be obligated to raise the child if his parents died. Madara had accepted that responsibility for both of Fugaku and Mikoto's children.
Madara was wearing a typical jounin vest, with the Uchiha clan symol emblazoned on the back. A katana lay on the tatami mat in front of her, and she appeared to be praying.
"So this is where you are. I've been looking for you."
Sasuke recognized that smooth, deep voice instantly. It was Itachi's. "Nii-san, please don't! Leave her alone!" he pleaded, but neither of the figures in front of him could hear.
"Whatever quarrel you have with the clan, the children are not part of it. They're innocents. Leave them be." Sasuke knew that the Uchiha's secret meeting place also housed a passageway leading to the emergency shelter for the children of the clan. In the event of an attack on the village, they were to hide there. An enemy from outside the village would not know where it was, but of course Itachi did. Madara had clearly anticipated that he would come for the children eventually, and had come here to wait for him.
Itachi wordlessly drew his own katana, then his eyes flickered from Madara to the statues of the gods at the front of the temple. "Why are you praying?"
"You obviously don't understand this, but it is a great crime to spill the blood of one's own kin. I am asking the gods to forgive me…for killing my own godson." Before Sasuke could even take a breath, Madara was standing in front of Itachi, her sword pressed against his.
There were many memories from this night that would be seared into Sasuke's memory, but this was one of the most vivid. The battle between Itachi and Madara lasted for only 10 minutes—but that was twice as long as the average shinobi fight. Energy blasts from jutsus broke apart the pillars that supported the ceiling, ripped the tapestries on the walls to shreds, and cracked the large bell near the entrance to the temple. After some time, Itachi darted towards Madara, a blue light glowing around his hand. Sasuke covered his ears as the sound of the Chidori grew louder. When Itachi's hand pierced through Madara's chest, blood spattered the statues of the gods behind her. Itachi wrenched his hand out of her body, and she fell to her knees, coughing up blood.
"Aunt Madara! Please don't die!" Tears began to stream down Sasuke's face. He wanted to stop Itachi somehow, but he couldn't even move.
Madara looked up at Itachi, and Sasuke gasped. A third tomoe had squeezed in between the two that were already present in each of her eyes. "This…technique I'm about to use…I copied years ago from a genin teammate…it is forbidden in all circumstances but one…Now is the time of that circumstance…the time to protect my precious people…INITIAL LOTUS!"
Madara ran in circles around Itachi, so fast that her body was just a blur to Sasuke's eyes. Itachi just stood motionless, watching her. Finally, she broke the circle, running in a straight line towards Itachi. She spun, and her foot arced directly towards Itachi's chin.
And he caught her ankle in one hand.
He lifted her off the ground, spun around, and flung her across the room, into a wall. As she got to her feet, he threw two kunai, which pierced her wrists and pinned her to the wall. He walked up to her slowly, and laid another kunai against her neck. Sasuke tried to look away as Itachi cut his godmother's throat, but he could not.
Madara still wore her jounin outfit, and her katana was strapped to her back. Short black hair fell to about the level of her chin, and she looked into Sasuke's face with a piercing red gaze. "You've improved far beyond the level of most shinobi your age," she said. "You truly are a prodigy."
"Thank you," Sasuke said. "But my strength is still not enough to beat Itachi. I know why you're here, and I won't let anyone talk me out of what I plan to do."
"I wasn't finished," Madara said, in a much sharper tone. Sasuke recognized that tone of voice from when he was a young boy. It was the voice an adult used to reprimand a child who was being foolish. "You truly are a prodigy, but your strength is not nearly as great as it could be. Coming here, to Sound, has weakened you."
"I've gotten far stronger than I ever would have in Konoha!" Sasuke shot back indignantly. Didn't his family understand that he was doing this for them?
Madara shook her head. "Sasuke-kun, if you had stayed in Konoha, you would have gained ten times the strength you've gained here in Sound. Aside from the fact that Kakashi-san knows the Sharingan better than anyone else outside our clan, aside from the fact that most of the world's strongest ninja—your brother included—were trained in Konoha, there is the fact that Konoha is where your precious people are."
"That's exactly why I left! I told Nakatsu-baasama this already: my bonds with the people in Konoha were making me weak, so I cut them."
Madara knelt down in front of Sasuke and put her hands on his shoulders, as she used to do when he was a child. "Sasuke-kun…having precious people does not make you weaker. On the contrary, having important people to protect will make you stronger more quickly than anything else ever could. Think about all the times Naruto seemed to be so incredibly strong. All those times, he was protecting people who were precious to him. That's why he was so strong at those times."
Sasuke thought about that for a moment. It was true that all the times he'd seen Naruto pull off some amazing victory, it had been to protect him and Sakura. Nor was Naruto the only one to become stronger when protecting his precious people: Haku had unleashed the power of his bloodline limit against them to keep them from hurting Zabuza, the Third Hokage had temporarily defeated Orochimaru while protecting Konoha, and he'd heard that Gaara had only been captured because he used the last of his strength to save the entire Sand Village. And of course there was Madara herself. Her determination to protect the most vulnerable members of the clan had awakened the next level of the Uchiha bloodline within her, and given her the strength to continue fighting long after a lesser ninja would have died. "That jutsu you used…the Lotus…it's not something you normally would have been able to use, is it?"
Madara smiled sadly. "No, it's not. Sasuke-kun, the power level you saw me at in that fight…it would have taken me almost a year to reach that point through training and missions. I pushed my body to that level in a matter of minutes because…because I had to protect those who were precious to me. Orochimaru is right about one thing: there is power in your eyes that surpasses even Itachi's. But you will never unlock that potential if you fight only for yourself. There is a strength that can only come from fighting for the sake of those you love."
"But it wasn't enough."
"Even the strength you gained from having someone precious to protect wasn't enough. He still killed you." Sasuke took a deep breath. "I've tried to protect precious people. I threw myself in front of Haku's needles to save Naruto. I unlocked the curse seal for the first time to protect Sakura from Orochimaru's Sound nins. I used the Chidori for a third time when I should only have been able to use it twice to stop Gaara from aiding the attack on Konoha. But what did it get me? I was still too weak to beat Itachi. Protecting other people isn't enough." Sasuke turned away, pushed the door open, and strode out of the dojo.
Walking through the halls of Orochimaru's compound, Sasuke eventually came to a door that led outside. He walked through it, and breathed in the cool night air. He looked up at the stars and the moon. This is the last night that I will see these stars. Tomorrow, I will cease to exist. My body will live, but the soul that animates it will be Orochimaru's. That thought hadn't really bothered him before, but it did now. Sasuke shook his head, pushing his doubts away. I have to do this. It's the only way to beat him.
Then Sasuke heard a deep, resonant voice coming from behind him. "Hello, son."
Sasuke stood on the dock next to his father. This is it, he thought. This is my chance to show Father how strong I can become! This is my chance to earn his respect! Sasuke drew in a huge breath of air, and released chakra into his lungs. He formed the seals for a fire jutsu, and felt the chakra and air in his lungs start to warm up. He exhaled in a great breath, and the chakra ignited the oxygen in the air, creating a huge blast of flame that extended ten feet out over the water.
Sasuke looked to his father, hoping to see pride in his face. But there was only a blank look. Sasuke's father turned away and started walking wordlessly back to their house.
Why? Why won't he acknowledge me? Why is Nii-san the only one he cares about? Doesn't he love me at all? Sasuke could feel tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, but was determined not to let them fall. Father never cried. Nii-san never cried. Even Mother never cried. Sasuke was certainly not going to cry. Then he noticed that his father had stopped.
"As expected of my child," Fugaku said. The same words he had said to Nii-san! Sasuke grinned, and though he still felt tears in his eyes, they were now tears of happiness. He had done it! He had gotten his father to acknowledge him!
His father continued walking away, and Sasuke hurried after him. Then his father stopped again. "One more thing," he said. Sasuke listened eagerly. Was his father going to teach him another jutsu? Was he going to tell him about the Sharingan? Was he going to say how proud he was of his younger son?
"Don't follow your brother's path."
Despite all the strange and impossible things he'd already seen tonight, Sasuke could not quite believe his eyes. "Father…?"
Fugaku looked exactly the way he had looked in life—tall, with brownish gray hair and finely chiseled features. He looked strong and powerful, just like always. But he also looked sad. "Sasuke-kun," he said simply.
"I…" Sasuke couldn't think of anything to say. It was strange. He'd been confronted by the ghosts of his grandfather, his godmother, and his sensei's best friend, and hadn't been fazed by it. He'd refuted their arguments and stood his ground. But his father was different. He couldn't think of one single thing to say to the man. Then it came to him. "Why are you all here? If ghosts can return to the world of the living, why didn't you do it before?"
His father sounded tired, and his voice seemed kinder than what Sasuke remembered from his childhood. "Sasuke-kun…we normally can't come back. The worlds of the living and the dead must remain separate, or chaos will erupt. But…considering the…circumstances, an exception was made."
"Circumstances? You mean…me giving my body to Orochimaru tomorrow?"
Fugaku nodded. His expression changed, and Sasuke suddenly realized that his father was nervous. Uchiha Fugaku, head of the Konoha police force and leader of the Leaf's most outstanding clan, was unnerved by a conversation with Sasuke. "Sasuke-kun…please…don't do this."
Sasuke was shocked. His father was a man who ordered, who commanded, who instructed. He was not a man who asked, even pleaded, as he was doing now. "But…I'm doing this for you," Sasuke said. "I'm doing this so that I can avenge the death of our clan. Why are you trying to stop me?"
"Sasuke-kun, do you remember when I told you not to follow your brother's path? I didn't want you to become like him, consumed by a desire for power and forgetting those things that are truly important—your friends and family. By leaving the people who care about you behind and betraying Konoha's ideals of loyalty and friendship, you have become more like Itachi." Fugaku put his hands on Sasuke's shoulders and sighed. "You have become an incredibly strong shinobi. You could probably beat me, if I were still alive. But that strength is meaningless unless you use it to protect the people you love. That is what strength is for."
Sasuke looked into his father's sorrowful gaze and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. He did indeed remember what his father had said to him on the day he mastered the Grand Fireball Technique, but he did not understand how it applied to what he had done. As a child, he had not understood what Fugaku meant by that statement. His brother was a proud and strong shinobi of the Leaf; why shouldn't he follow that path? After the massacre, he thought that his father had sensed Itachi's growing evil, and meant, "Don't become evil like your brother." As far as Sasuke knew, he wasn't doing anything of the sort. There was nothing evil about bringing a murderer to justice and avenging the dead. On the contrary, avenging a dead clansman was an honorable and noble thing to do. But now it seemed that his father meant something quite different. "I…don't understand," he admitted. "Don't you and the others want me to avenge you?"
Fugaku's shoulders slumped, and he suddenly seemed tired. "Sasuke-kun, we know better than anyone else what a threat Itachi represents to the rest of the world. And to be honest, none of us would shed a tear if someone managed to kill him. But there are some things in this world more important than vengeance. One of those things is the safety of the people we love. We would not object to you killing Itachi—but we don't want you to destroy yourself to do it."
All night, ever since Obito had appeared, Sasuke had been burning with frustration and resentment. Everyone acted like there was some other way he could defeat Itachi, some other path he had overlooked. Didn't they understand that he had tried everything else? Finally, the built-up resentment exploded. "What else do you want me to do? I've trained every hour of every day, I've completed dangerous missions, I had the best sensei in Konoha, I tried to work together with my teammates, and what did it get me? The worst beating of my life and three days of mental torture, followed by a month in a fucking coma! And that dropout, that idiot Naruto, is stronger than me! Even Sakura is strong enough to fight an Akatsuki member now! I'm the only one who's still weak! What the hell else do you expect me to do!"
Fugaku shook his head and tightened his grip on Sasuke's shoulders. "Sasuke-kun, you're not weak. As I said before, you have gained an amazing amount of strength for someone as young as yourself. The reason Naruto and Sakura are so strong is that they have goals that are just as important to them as yours are to you. Naruto wants to become Hokage, and Sakura wants to become strong enough to protect both herself and her teammates. Like you, they have trained every waking hour to reach those goals. In truth, the only thing that keeps you from being as strong as them is your refusal to form bonds with others. A person whom I met on the Other Side said this to me: 'When you have something precious to protect, that is when you will become truly strong.' You have unleashed your greatest strength when you were protecting others. If you return to Konoha, if you renew your bonds with Naruto, Sakura, and Kakashi, you will develop a far greater strength than anything you could achieve by training alone."
Fugaku's words brought back memories. Sasuke remembered activating his Sharingan for the first time in his determination to protect Naruto from Haku. He remembered drawing on the power of the cursed seal for the first time, enraged by the sight of Sakura bruised and bleeding, hell-bent on insuring that no further harm came to her. He remembered forcing his body to perform the Chidori technique a third time, knowing that Gaara would kill dozens of Konoha citizens if he wasn't stopped. In those instances, he had called upon a strength he had not known he possessed in order to protect his friends.
"I said once that I didn't want to see anyone important die in front of my eyes ever again," he said in a low voice. "I still don't. But…I don't know if I can become strong enough to beat him on my own."
"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Fugaku said in an uncharacteristically gentle voice. "You won't have to face him alone. You will have three devoted comrades by your side. That is perhaps the greatest strength any man can ever have—the support of his friends."
"And you…you cared enough about me to come back from the dead and tell me this?"
"Sasuke-kun, I have always cared about you that much. Because Itachi was the heir to the leadership of the clan, I paid more attention to him when you were children. It was so important that he become a good leader, and I felt he needed my guidance more than you did. I think now that that may be the greatest mistake I ever made. But yes, Sasuke-kun, I do care about you enough to come back from the dead for you. You are a precious person to me—to everyone in the clan—and we do not wish to see you destroy yourself like this." Sasuke was amazed to see that his father's eyes were shining with tears. "Please return to Konoha. Pursue your vengeance against Itachi if you must, but do it with your own strength and with your comrades by your side, not as Orochimaru's puppet."
Don't follow your brother's path. The words echoed in Sasuke's mind, and he wondered how far down that path he had truly walked. Like his brother, he had cut his ties with all others, forsaking everything else for the sake of his own power. He had even gone so far as to try and kill his best friend, just as Itachi had done years ago. Was it too late to turn away from that path? "Even if I wanted to return, Konoha would never accept me back, not after what I've done."
"You are correct that you will have to work hard to regain their trust. But accepting the consequences of your actions is also part of being a shinobi. And Naruto, Sakura, and Kakashi will welcome you back with open arms—in time, the rest of the village will follow. They can't afford not to, really, with the threats of Orochimaru and Akatsuki still looming over the village."
"But how can I escape? Orochimaru will never allow me to leave."
"Orochimaru never needs to know—not until you're too far away for him to do anything about it, anyway. Listen carefully."
Carefully, Sasuke hoisted his backpack over his shoulders. The genjutsu his father had shown him made him completely invisible, but he would still need to avoid making any noise. Of course, for an experienced ninja, moving in complete silence was trivially easy.
Sasuke snuck out of Orochimaru's compound and set off into the forest. In order to avoid detection, he would stay away from the road until he had put some distance between himself and the Sound Village. His speed had greatly increased over the past three years, and he could walk for over a day without stopping to rest. With any luck, he would be in back in Konoha in just under 48 hours.
Concealed in the high branches of a tree and masked by a genjutsu similar to the one his brother was using, Itachi watched Sasuke leave the Sound Village. His Sharingan allowed him to effortlessly pierce Sasuke's invisibility genjutsu, and he nodded in satisfaction. He was aware that Orochimaru planned to take Sasuke's body the next day, and Itachi did not intend to allow that to happen. He had been prepared to remove Sasuke from the Sound Village by force, if necessary. But it now appeared that such actions were not needed: Sasuke had left on his own. Perhaps my younger brother is not so foolish after all. I wonder what made him change his mind?
Itachi was startled by a deep, resonant voice coming from behind him. "You know, Sasuke-kun has grown much stronger since the last time you saw him. In Konoha, he will gain even greater strength. The next time you fight him…you're going to lose." The voice was assured and self-confident—it reminded Itachi of his father's voice.
He spun around on the branch, a kunai in each hand.
But there was no one there at all.
A/N: This story was sort of inspired by a friend who said it would be cool if Sasuke learned Edo Tensei, used it to resurrect his father, and then was convinced by Fugaku to return to Konoha. I've always loved reading ghost stories, so instead of Edo Tensei, I made Fugaku and the others actual spirits. This story is really different in style from my previous one—much more dialogue-heavy—so please let me know how you think it turned out. Thanks for reading!