A/N: A look at Sasuke's return to Konoha, emotional baggage and all.

It is no secret that expectations are strange things, inevitably and inexorably flawed; for what is expected is so very rarely anything at all similar to what actually comes to pass.

It hadn't been at all like he'd thought it would be, fulfilling his purpose, for it was entirely lacking of anything filling whatsoever; it was more like an emptying, a gradual erosion of his free will and morals and sanity and all sorts of other parts of himself that he'd once thought vitally important and that he was progressively being forced to abandon and go on living without. Things like feelings and devotion and love had no place, they had to be torn away to streamline his mind, to prepare him for that worthiest of goals, that glorious and all-consuming revenge.

He had dreamed about it constantly, that is when he wasn't haunted by nightmares of that night which had started it all, or the more simple, peaceful dreams of them--of him and her, especially her--that he resolutely put out of his mind, regardless of the feelings they evoked within him at first. Then time had passed, and those happy memories had faded (though he could never quite forget what a vivid, earnest blue his eyes were, or the quiet intensity of her soft, clear green gaze), soon leaving him with nothing but visions of blood and death on which to brood.

And then, jarringly, it is no longer merely a vision: it has come to pass, it is reality, and now it is unalterable, a sickeningly dark scar on the fragments of what had once been his soul.

They looked eerily alike. He had known that, of course, but the years had emphasized this rather than altered it. It had been like stabbing a mirror image of himself—one reflected from a dirty, cracked mirror kept in a dark room to be sure, but it had still been unnerving. His brother was a full embodiment of that blacker facet of his own soul--what he himself could easily have been had he allowed himself to follow the same path--and now, even after he has slain his brother, that facet still lives on. Oftentimes he wishes that he were able to rid himself of that inner darkness as easily (for in the end, it had been surprisingly easy) and as completely as he removed his older brother's existence from the world.

But it is just another scar, another memory that he must fight to repress throughout the desolate nights, yet one more thing to fill him with such unwanted feelings as doubt and sorrow.

The worst feeling by far, however, is the emptiness.

Sacrifices have to be made to gain something of great worth, and power had been worth everything to him then. He had hungered for it, yearned for it, given up everything in the preparation of achieving his goal; but nothing had prepared him for what happened after he had done so.

He had been forced to clear himself of all but hatred and the desire to kill, and when that drained away, rage cooling and purpose fading and the meaning to it all elusively slipping farther and farther away with every drop of his brother's traitorous (yet startlingly red and somehow still undeniably human) blood that dripped from his sword, he had been left entirely empty, with nothing to cling to and nowhere to turn.

And surprisingly, he feels even more empty now than he had on that day, when he had returned home to find that it had not been a dream, and that his life had become a nightmare. He is adrift, lost in his own confusion and pain and despair, and these feelings only intensify when he realizes that what he actually feels strongest of all is regret.

He has ruined his life, hurt his friends, and practically sold his soul all for that one moment…and what is it worth now? What good has he done, really? Of course he had known from the very beginning that Itachi's death would not bring his loved ones back, but he had thought that they would somehow rest easier, that their honor would somehow be restored, if a member of their Clan avenged their deaths. The fact that the atoning offerings both contained rich Uchiha blood only made that crucial sacrifice that much more honorable and noteworthy.

He would like to tell himself that he has taken the right path; he wants more than anything to believe that he's chosen wisely, that he has fulfilled his promise, and that his family would be proud of what he has done, what he has become.

He would like to believe that the penalty he paid, the happiness and the love and the honest simplicity of life that he gave up, wasn't really all that important, that the revenge he hungered after for so many years is more meaningful than the dear things and precious people he left behind.

But he is smarter than that: he knows all too well that it wasn't worth it in the end.

Perhaps in the beginning it had been for vengeance: to punish Itachi for committing so terrible a travesty, for slaughtering innocents (and innocence as well), for betraying his own flesh and blood. But slowly over the years as his anger hardened into hatred, it had mutated and twisted itself into a thirst for revenge, the older and much less noble brother of vengeance. Some part of him recognized the change, but still he had refused to turn in his course; his path was firmly established, and nothing and no one could turn him from it, not even himself.

But even then he had recognized his actions, and his decision, for what they were, and he had known that his goal had become something that was entirely selfish, just as leaving had been.

And yet, regardless of the means, or even the true provocation and the motive behind the drive, the end was the same, and it is an end he has achieved at long last. The traitor has finally been laid to rest--Sasuke hates to think of it as rest, it sounds too peaceful and idyllic and not at all what he wants for the person who made his life a living hell--but Itachi made another traitor long before he died; and Sasuke realized as he stood over his monster of a brother's bloodied corpse, that truly the one who had made his life hell was none other than himself.

And now he has more ill-gotten power than he knows what to do with, and far too many terrible memories of how he attained it, and he realizes that the person that he hates most of all is himself, because even though their paths were not the same, they arrived at identical locations in the end, and when he looks in the mirror, far too much of Itachi looks back out at him.

And then the guilt attacks him as it always has, and as always he pushes it away and determinedly refuses to feel anything, because he can feel the power in his hands, in his every movement, can see it in his eyes, and he realizes that if the world works as he always thought it should, then he too will have to pay for the atrocities he committed to become what he is, and all that he has to pay with that is worth anything at all, that could even approach the price that will be demanded of him, is his own blood.

Itachi had paid the price for his sins; Sasuke had seen to that.

…But what about his own sins?

Their number is so great as to nearly overwhelm him, and though in recent years Uchiha Sasuke has become someone who is not prone to feeling guilty about anything, still these various transgressions somehow manage to inject their voices into his head, harassing him at every turn. How can he possibly expect to be forgiven for what he has done? He has gone too far to turn back to the higher, more virtuous path now. It would serve him right if they killed him on sight.

He agrees with these thoughts almost entirely, not daring to hope for something he knows he does not deserve, something he has rejected and run away from for so long, because he knows that Fate, if he believed in such a thing, has never wasted any of her kinder thoughts on him.

That is why, when they do find him, he does not move toward them, does not reach out to them; he merely stands and waits—waits for them to curse and scream at him, waits for them to cripple him or knock him senseless, waits for them to kill him.

Thus he is surprised when what he gets is not at all what he is waiting for, for he is waiting for everything but tears and happiness and warmth and willing, joyful embraces.

And as he stands there in her tight embrace, looking over the top of her head into his unspeakably happy bright blue eyes that are full of that ridiculous yet ever-present optimism and unexpected pride and equally unexpected tears and faith of all things, he feels at peace for the first time that he can remember. Slowly he raises his own arms and gently, and for the first time ever, returns her embrace, pressing her warm, slender, soft-yet-firm body against his own, and gradually it dawns on him that this is something wonderful that he has been missing, something he could have had all along, and he closes his eyes and bows his head, resting his forehead against her silky locks, unintentionally drawing in her clean, familiar scent.

After the initial shock wears off, after his amazement dies away and his humility fades, however, incomprehension and disbelief step in and his attitude changes. How is it possible that you can still care for me after all that I have done? How could you be so stupid? he shouts, onyx spinning into jet-flecked scarlet as he angrily and thoughtlessly smashes a fist into the wall, breaking the fragile, pretty things lining one of the shelves in her home. Teeth bared but expression pained, he holds his open hands out to her, palms up, ignoring the drip of blood from his knuckles, the action almost seeming one of supplication, and his voice nearly breaks as he demands How can you overlook the stains on my hands?

He is dirty, he is dark, and he does not deserve their love, their friendship, their company, and most of all their devotion; but regardless of this they stay with him, and slowly he learns to accept their affections once again, and little by little things return to the way they were before, a time that seems so very long ago now.

But still, he is different than they are, and he knows and can see it all too well. What he said years before still rings true even now, for there is an insurmountable barrier between them, and even with all their efforts towards pushing it aside or scaling it, still it remains. He can feel it, he can see it (and he gazes upon it hatefully), and with every breath he is forced to take in its very essence.

But they

They seem totally oblivious to its existence. It is yet another ripple in a vast sea of things that he cannot understand about them—how can they, who are so observant and knowing of his emotions, his desires, his entire wretched self, be so blind as to miss this, this integral part of himself?

They are too close to him to see such gaps in his character, he realizes, but he knows that those gaps are there, and he is terrified of what might occur if he or she were to find them, if they were to learn that he is dark and twisted inside, and yet somehow at the same time that he is not really as cold and harsh and reserved as he seems…but then he realizes that they already know, that already they have seen far more than he wanted them to, and sometimes the knowledge that they know so much about him frightens him, and sparks something sinister within him that demands he protect himself from them.

He has always been very good at hating—hating Itachi, hating the blushing, squealing girls who followed him around during his childhood, hating the loudmouthed idiots in his class who were all swagger and no substance, hating the weak, the foolish, the incompetent…and most of all hating himself for being weak and foolish and incompetent.

And yet, try though he might to hate them now, as he did once effortlessly, he finds that he simply cannot do it.

Because even though he's always been the type who rejects others without even a first, much less a second, chance, apparently there is no justice in the world, because they do not do the same to him.

It would all be so much simpler if he could just hate them, if he could push them away like he has done to others nearly all his life; but the simple path is not always the best or the correct one, something they are showing him with every patient question, every gentle touch, every hearty slap on the back, every soft and caring look.

Even after all the hell that he's put them through, despite everything he's done to them, somehow they still accept him, a realization that is slow and appallingly humbling and painfully bittersweet, because he knows that he has so little to offer them in return.

They are full and complete, warm hearts brimming with life and energy and that strange and wondrous thing called hope, while he is all broken pieces and sharp, bitter edges, cold and desperately empty and utterly disconnected.

But not forsaken, never forsaken, he has to remind himself at first, for after so many solitary years of self-reliance, it is hard to remember what it means to have someone simply care with no hidden agendas or vaguely outlined consequences, and harder still to remember how to trust.

But, gradual though his progress may be, he is remembering, he is discovering that placing one's confidence in someone, that depending on someone for emotional support, that loving someone, is not a shameful thing, nor is it as dangerous as he once believed.

They are fixed points, stars firmly set in the heavens, brilliant and beautiful and so very pure and eternally distant on a level that is entirely unreachable for someone like himself who was nearly swallowed by his own inner darkness; but they are always there, and he can guide himself by measuring their unchanging stances and matching their positions with his own.

Regardless of his actions, they continue to shine on him: they never give up on him, and somehow he knows that they never will. Their bond has been altered, but it still remains, and though different it is still strong. They stand by him, they cling to him, even though they must know that the darkness he's steeped in might stain them irrevocably and that they are leaving the light to stand in the shadows with him.

But they steadfastly remain by his side, eternal companions, fixed and loyal constellations that openly tell their story to all who will but look, and he is caught up in that story, and when he looks, for once he too can see himself as bright and beautiful and untainted, as he was in the past, as he should have been, as he could be…and as they see him even now.

He knows this by the way he calls out to him, pestering him about some inane topic, inviting him along on a trip to a favourite restaurant, warning him about a deadly trap ahead, berating him for taking too many chances.

He knows this by the way she reaches up and touches his face, tender and innocent and sweet, the way she catches at and clings to his sleeve or curls into him when he opens his arms for her, the unspoken devotion and ardent emotion that he can see in those transparent jade eyes.

This knowledge is gradual, the acceptance of it even more so, but it becomes a part of him a little more each day.

And slowly he realizes that not all sins are punished in the end.