I could a tale unfold whose lightest words

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

Itachi still remembers occasionally, before he can stop himself.

(but that's not really true at all, because Itachi can always control himself, can't he? – and so this is more; this is masochism and punishment and justice, maybe)

And in those moments, in the space between who he is and who he wants to be, in the pounding seconds that his heart is actually human and beating and alive – he regrets it. More than a nagging itch, more than a dark cloud of gloom, this is a feeling like suffocating, or drowning, or being pierced by every weapon he's ever touched, feeling every hurt he's ever inflicted. He hates the feeling, hates everything it means and has ever meant, hates that it tells him ohohoho, silly boy, silly boy, you are not quite dead yet.

If Itachi had ever been one for ultimatums or drama, or had simply been blind and naïve enough to not see the world as more than his own bubble, he might have thought that never before had there existed someone who loathed themselves as much as he.

But no, logic says, there have been other remorseful killers. There have been brothers who killed brothers in the red heat of rage, and then been crushed by the black weight of sorrow. There have been mothers that let their children die, immobile and useless. Kings have watched entire countries burn, fall, have heard the dying shouts of once-loyal masses damning everything they ever served. Itachi is not the only monster to walk this earth.

… He wonders, though, how many nii-san's have stared down at tiny, quivering aniki's, crying and whimpering and looking up at nii-san with all the hope, trust, faith and love in the world. He wonders how many have shattered such perfect adoration with a bloodstained sword and wicked, damning words.

(just me, says the hollow, despairing voice, me me me me)

No one has ever told him as much, and he doubt anyone ever will. And yet, he knows it to be true – recognizes it with a careful, clinical detachment that isn't really detachment at all, but merely another symptom, he supposes. Or maybe it's not at all. And maybe he needs to stop thinking like this, in circles and spirals and self-fulfilling prophecies that lead to nothing but more black nothing.

Itachi, who is cold and silent and jaded and hateful (and human: who laughed and cried and hoped and wanted, who loves and misses and hurts and dreams, dreams of a brother that still loves him and a past that could have been different, where he could still be nii-san and still hold kaa-san, and still respect okaa-san) is also insane.

But insane isn't quite the right term. Insanity implies an illness, an ailment, something gone wrong in the mind or body, something clear to the world but not the affected. That is not how it is for Itachi.

Sometimes, he wonders if there is nothing inside him at all. Maybe he's just a hollow skin, a mask over black nothing that began with a solemn I can do it and will never, ever end because the past cannot be redone. There is nothing to Itachi, no drive nor reason nor fulfillment. No matter what he does, no matter how strong he gets, there is a suck, a drag, that takes it all away until he feels weightless and fake.

On the worst days – the days he kills on order, without mercy; the days he looks around and knows with biting clarity that his is a hell most deserved – it is all he can do to keep the shell from falling away and leaving him as nothing, nothing at all. He feels like he is constantly on the verge of dying, of falling apart, of snapping that thin string of sanity he still has. Those days, when the world is upside down and inside out and not even the earth beneath his feet feels real, he wonders if it could have been different.

He could have said no.

He could have warned his clan.

He could have fought beside them, could have been invaluable in the taking over of Kohona.

He could have power and wealth and status and family.

Instead, he has nothing but this one goal. This one quest. It is all that matters (he thinks of round, tear-filled eyes and a scream that seems to always echo in his ears, no matter how many years go by, and he thinks about his own trembling hand, I can't, I can't, not to him, and an act of mercy that was anything but and Sasuke, Sasuke is the only thing that matters anymore, that fills the dark and anchors him to fragile lucidity). Nothing else is even worth pretending for.

Sometimes, he is sure that the other members of the Akatsuki know. Or at least guess. There is something in their eyes when they fall upon him that is more than awe of is power. More than the respect deserved by one who can scare hardened murderers with a single, blood red glance. And then he hears the whispers, when they think he is far enough so as not to ear.

He doesn't care about the power. He doesn't care about anything. And now the voices pitch lower, lilt in confusion and disgust. Why is he even here?

The Akatsuki fear Itachi because they do not understand him – his emotions, his motives, his past, anything.

He wonders how much more afraid they would be if they did.

Itachi has nightmares, most every time he closes his eyes.

In them, there is always war, and blood, and a thousand screams that echo in the air, that ring and make the bile rise, hot and slimy, in his throat. Itachi hates war. Itachi is scared of war. And so he dreams of it, that act of man that seemed more a living, breathing terror, back when he was young and impressionable (and scared and hiding in kaa-san's skirts, shaking in terror and why did she invite destruction back, why did she seek power when she'd seen the price? why?). He dreams and when he awakens he remembers and for a split second, a tiny space of time, he thinks that he is justified.

Peace has no price. I did what I had to. I do not regret anything.

But then he lives, and he knows what he is living for, and the regret is there, thick and heavy and crushing him slowly.

(a sword runs through his newborn niece, his favorite uncle burps blood – a toddler turns and runs, and Itachi must follow, Itachi must swing his blade and… oh no oh no oh no)

Sasuke is nearly sixteen now, and he is coming ever closer. He is more powerful, more dangerous and wild, so damned determined and so blind to the world around him that sometimes, Itachi is surprised (in his mind, Sasuke smiles up at him and holds his kunai wrong, no, like this, and he pries the little fingers, pushes them into the correct position, kneels behind a laughing little boy and envelops a little hand between his own; the kunai sinks into the target's bull's-eye). With any luck, he will strike Itachi down, the next time they meet, without a second's thought or moment's hesitation. Sound has made Sasuke more ruthless, awakened a dark power, hardened any softness left and made it into nightmare strength. Itachi is glad – Sasuke is what Itachi has always planned him to be.

(only, Itachi is not glad and he is not proud and the best he can describe it as is sickened, horrified, so, so mad at himself for doing this to the one person left in his world. he thinks that he is nothing more than scum, because Sasuke – who should have been happy, who should have been loved, who's soul should have been free of bloody handprints, Sasuke - )

Sasuke is a monster. A perfect monster. The ideal avenger. Single minded, determined, willing to do anything, anything at all, willing to rip out his heart and set it afire, willing to push himself past any boundaries and any limits, living only for the hunt – and the kill. There is no doubt in Itachi's mind that Sasuke will find him and Sasuke will kill him.

Itachi is only worried about what will happen afterwards. Madara wants Sasuke - Itachi knows this. And he will use the darkness, the anger, that has grown and engulfed his little brother (my fault, my fault), he will twist it and direct it and he will use Sasuke as a weapon of terror. And then there will be no rest for Sasuke; there will be no end nor purpose. It will be war and hate and fighting – always fighting, always hunting, always reaching – with no finale, no rest, no peace. That cannot happen. Itachi will not let that happen.

He goes to find Sasuke.

He is ready to die.

(but he wishes that before that happens, the universe would give him the chance to grab that stupid boy, shake him and scream and rant and tell him that he is a fool, an idiot, and how could he ever believe that his nii-san ever hated him? I love you! Itachi wants to say, shout, cry, I love you)

note: So I have this Really Big Bad Scary Life-Determining Test coming up soon, and I should not be wasting away the hour playing around with parentheses, italics, and the twisted, depressing inner-working of Itachi's mind. And yet, here I am. But, like I said, this here thing is really just the experiment of a procrastinating mind, because italics make the words look prettier and parentheses are my excuse for long, rambling run-on's and Itachi? Is wildly screwed up and thus totally fun to speculate on : )