Well, I hope you enjoy this result of inspiration.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

This fanfic is brought to you by MoS, edited by Aqualoner.

The Art of Being Strong

" The three of us are one!" (Because when did hatred make a person happy?)

Sasuke likes being able to protect people.

(A lifetime ago, an age, in the span an instant and a breath he watched everything he'd ever known, everything he'd ever loved torn and ripped and hauled away from him with terrifying, sickening force, while he sat, frightened and helpless and let it all happen; let their blood paint the road for the ANBU to follow and let their bodies clutter up the pathways of his home like cheap, grisly decorations.)

So Sasuke likes his team. Likes bumbling, stupid Naruto; likes lazy, laid-back Kakashi; and most especially likes weak, fragile little Sakura, painted up in pastels and ribbons, a mockery of the kunoichi she's supposed to be, and a cheap imitation of the girl she might've been.

Sasuke likes them because they can't protect themselves, and so it falls to him.

He blocks the blows, and catches the kunai, and pushes back the enemy, all while thinking This time, this time is different. This time I'm stronger, this time I won't lose anyone. This time I won't let him take anyone from me!

He twists and dodges and fights and trains, sweating and dirty and heady with the rush of protecting them, dizzy with the feeling of keeping them safe with his own two hands.

This time, I can keep them safe.

And little by little, his mother's smiling face becomes Sakura's, Itachi's barely heard laugh becomes Naruto's boyish one, and the praise he so longed to hear from his father becomes Kakashi's subtle encouragements, and suddenly, Sasuke isn't so alone anymore.

Distantly, he wonders how long it will last.

Distantly, Itachi laughs at his foolishness.

" I am an avenger!" (Can you let go of something you never had?)

Sasuke separates his memories into sections.

(In his mind, there are three of him: The Sasuke-who-was, the Sasuke-who-is – who is also called the Avenger- and the Sasuke-who-almost-was, or, even though he won't admit it, the Sasuke-who-should-have-been.)

The Sasuke-who-was is the memories from his childhood, his mother and father's faces, his aunt and uncle's laughter. The Sasuke-who-was is the time when his brother was his world and his world was kind and stern and protective and everything a brother should be. The Sasuke-who-was loved Itachi and still does, and so Sasuke-who-is calls him a coward and banishes him from his sight. Sasuke-who-was likes Sasuke-who-almost-was better.

The Sasuke-who-is, who insists on being called the Avenger (in big, bold, bright red-like-blood letters), is cold and cruel and calculating. He sneers at the tender memories and spits at Itachi's ethereal face. Sasuke-who-is is the blood, is the sight of the bodies strewn out over the wooden floor and the shuriken ripping through pale flesh. He is the pinwheel of the Mangenkyo, the scarlet sky of the Tsukiyomi. He is the echoing whisper of Itachi's words: " Come after me, come after me, come after me…" into the oblivion of hatred. Sasuke-who-is is everything his brother ever made him, and nothing of who Sasuke chose to be.

The Sasuke-who-almost-was is Team Seven. He is Naruto's blinding smile, and Kakashi's curving eye, and Sakura's gentle touch. He is the laughter, the joy, the teamwork and the lazy D-missions on hot afternoons. He is dirty fingernails from pulling weeds and scratched faces from the cat Tora. He is who Sasuke-who-was wanted to be and who Sasuke-who-is never dared to be. Sasuke-who-almost-was is the one who loves and lives for Team Seven, and the one who realized how easily it can all be lost.

(Because Itachi comes for Naruto –the one who should've been 'Brother', the one who should've been loved, the one who holds that place now- and he is strong, and fast and cruel and cutthroat, and Sasuke is helpless, is useless and a child once more. And suddenly, his back against the wall, the Sharingan –bright red, burning red, rubies and sunset and little jewel-bright baubles painted in blood- at his face, Sasuke realizes how easy it all is, how simple it will be for Itachi to rip everything away again.

Kakashi's neck will snap and he will fall, ash gray and cold to the floor.

Sakura will splatter against the wall, red, redder even than her dress, pink hair –finally short, finally strong- splayed out over her pale, choking face.

Naruto will gurgle threats around the kunai in his throat, spit and grapple insults from his foam corrupted lungs and die with a scowl on his face.)

But Sasuke-who-almost-was isn't quite Sasuke-who-was, and he's far more willing to die than either Sasuke-who-was or Sasuke-who-is.

Sasuke-who-is stands before Orochimaru and scowls at the death-pale face, coloured only with wicked, reptilian eyes.

" Give me the power to kill my brother." He demands.

(Sasuke-who-should-have-been raises his head and looks at Orochimaru. He shudders, and thinks only of their faces.)

" Give me the power to protect them." goes unheard.

" I have strength to match my beauty!" (What is it that makes you so strong?)

Sasuke can forgive Kakashi's strength.

(Kakashi is a jounin, has been fighting and protecting and killing for longer than Sasuke has been alive and so Sasuke doesn't resent Kakashi that strength, doesn't hate him for being strong. Because Kakashi is willing to teach Sasuke, is willing to show him how the jounin became strong, and so his strength is not a threat to Sasuke's ability to protect Team Seven.)

Sasuke will eventually forgive Naruto's strength.

(Because Naruto is a fool, is the idiot, is the one no one thought would go anywhere, and Sasuke is too used to being the strongest, to used to being the best, to relinquished that hold on his superiority so quickly. But still, Naruto is his rival, is his obstacle and test and helper all in one, and Sasuke will learn to forgive Naruto that power, learn to accept that Naruto has strength to, learn to allow Naruto to help shoulder the burden that Sasuke has taken. Sasuke will learn let Naruto help protect Team Seven, once Sasuke has learned that Naruto loves it as much as he does.)

But Sasuke can never forgive Sakura's strength.

(Because Sakura is weak, is useless, is childish and girly and has no desire to grow. Where Kakashi has experience and Naruto has drive, Sakura has nothing and so relies on her boys to protect her. She is the weak link, the pretty little sideshow, the stay-by-the-target-and-don't-get-in-our-way!-We'll-handle-the-real-villians!. She is his burden and duty, the one who will always need him to protect her. She is his constant, who has no need for strength but will drive those around her to get strength in order to keep her safe. She is the one who will never grow.)

Sakura whips her hand back and brings it down with stunning force, shattering the earth beneath her clenched fist into a gaping maw of cracked stone and smoking rumble, her entire body taunt. Her arms are covered by slim muscles, legs strong and lengthy, kunai finely sharpened and covered in nicks from overuse. The knuckles of her gloves are worn and body is shining with sheen of a faint sweat from training, and her hair is short.

She is a woman, neither a mockery nor an imitation, and Sasuke hates her for it.

(Because she no longer needs him. Because now she is strong and now she is ready and now she can stand on her own two feet. Because now Sakura can punch holes through concrete and level trees and crumble mountains to dust and pebble with one flick of her wrist. Sasuke's heart clenches and suddenly, Team Seven doesn't need him anymore, because they are all strong and all proud and all willing to die for each other and he wasn't there to see it, wasn't there to keep any of them from growing up and ceasing to need him.)

Sasuke-who-is can't forgive Sakura her strength.

Sasuke-who-should-have-been loves her even more now.

" This time, it's my turn to protect you guys!"

"Give me just a little. Give me just enough chakra to protect everyone!"

" I never want to see my precious comrades die in front of me again!"

So when Itachi rears back to stab the kunai into Sakura (Who stands like a guardian angle between him and Naruto, ready to die, willing to die), Sasuke-who-should-have-been shoves Sasuke-who-is aside and races forward on desperate legs and catches the kunai with his sword, and suddenly he's twelve years old again, and his team needs him.

(Sasuke slashes with the sword and Sakura smashes the ground to the jagged bedrock below and Naruto rams a Rasengan into the retreating form. Itachi chokes on his own blood and waits for Sasuke to follow.)

Sakura hits him on the head.

" Idiot." She murmurs, but there something in her tone he's missed so much that he lets the insult slide. " I could've handled it."

Naruto scowls at him playfully.

" And you think I'm the stupid one?" He scoffs quietly in a mock sarcastic voice, but even though it's a little deeper, it's still the same carrying shout it was all those years ago, and Sasuke relishes in it.

Naruto looks over his shoulder, and Sakura offer her hand.

" You coming?"

Sasuke-who-is looks at Itachi.

" You lack hatred." (Because when did hatred make a person happy?)

Sasuke laughs, and the Avenger is pushed back.

" You lack love." He counters, and threads his hand through Sakura's, smirking at Naruto's grin.

"Revenge won't make anyone happy."