"I remembered you with my soul clenched / in that sadness of mine that you know." -Pablo Neruda
Orochimaru screamed as he was being wrenched away from Sasuke's body, Itachi's Totsuka blade shaking with the effort.
The chakra was sealed; the bottle closed. And then there was nothing left but a puff of smoke.
Itachi squinted, trying to see through the sudden cloud of dust and debris being kicked up around Sasuke's body, but when the dust settled, he could just barely make out the shape of a child crouching on the ground.
Itachi's eyes widened. "What-"
Itachi took in a sharp breath. The child staggered upright, then fell again, tripping over the pile that was once Sasuke's clothes.
Itachi skidded to a halt, then fell onto his knees. He gripped the child by the shoulders, searching his face.
The child's face was smudged with dirt; black hair stood out at all angles. He looked up at Itachi with frightened eyes.
"Sasuke." Itachi's face was pale.
Boulders crashed; Itachi turned sharply to see Zetsu coming across the rocks.
"We need to leave," Itachi said. Sasuke whimpered.
"It's all right," Itachi said. He wrapped Sasuke up in his Akatsuki cloak, which was torn and covered in soot. "Do not be frightened."
And he glanced behind him, before leaping into the brush.
The child was sleeping. Itachi sat at the corner of the cave, tossing in a few dry branches and wincing slightly with the movement. He still wasn't sure what had happened: he had sealed Orochimaru's chakra, but it seemed as though his chakra was so entwined with Sasuke's, he had inadvertently sealed Sasuke's chakra as well.
The prisoner Juugo would regress similarly, Itachi remembered, but he was able to retain his memories. Sasuke didn't seem to remember anything about the massacre.
Itachi startled. Sasuke was awake. If Itachi had to guess, he would suppose Sasuke was about seven right now, and probably retained his memories up until that point. Slowly, Itachi moved to sit heavily next to him, favoring his good side and careful not to put weight on his injured leg. Sasuke looked at him with worried eyes.
"Nii-san. How come you're hurt?" Sasuke said.
"Because I was battling a skilled shinobi," Itachi said. He didn't know what to do.
Sasuke cuddled next to him, leaning against his side. Itachi winced. Sasuke jerked back.
"Did I hurt you?" Sasuke said.
"No," Itachi said. He smiled, weakly. "Do not worry yourself, little brother. I am fine."
Sasuke crawled over Itachi's lap, pulling at his shirt with grubby fingers.
Sasuke's eyes widened. Itachi's wound was exposed, raw and angry and still oozing blood.
"You're hurt bad," Sasuke said. His lower lip trembled.
"It is nothing," Itachi said. "Only a scratch." He gently pulled Sasuke's hand away.
Sasuke said nothing. For a long moment, Itachi watched as Sasuke sat on the ground, brow furrowed as he silently counted the scratches on his body, the large welts and bruises on his skin. "When we get home, maybe mom can give you something," Sasuke said. Itachi kept his eyes trained on the rock wall in front of them. His muscles tightened.
"What's wrong?" Sasuke said.
"You don't remember," Itachi said. "Of course you wouldn't remember."
"Nii-san, remember what?" Sasuke said. Itachi's hands gripped into fists.
"Mother and father are dead," Itachi said.
"Wha-" Sasuke's eyes widened. "...what?"
There it was. Itachi could see the slow-blooming horror dawn on Sasuke's face. Fear, confusion, all those same emotions Itachi remembered when Sasuke had stumbled upon their bodies, all those years ago.
"Mom. Dad." Sasuke's voice wavered. "They're..."
Sasuke began to cry.
Itachi stiffened as he felt Sasuke bury his face into Itachi's chest. Sasuke sobbed. He clung to Itachi's shirt front uselessly, his small fists gripping the fabric.
"Why?" Sasuke said. He sobbed harder. "Why? Why?"
"Sasuke." Itachi buried his face into Sasuke's hair, holding him tight. "I'm sorry, Sasuke. I wasn't the brother you deserved."
Sasuke was asleep again, but it was a fitful one. He whimpered slightly, and under the thick fabric of Itachi's old cloak, Itachi could see him shaking. Wordlessly, Itachi sat beside him and pressed a hand to Sasuke's back, rubbing soothing circles until the shaking stopped.
He didn't tell Sasuke what happened. He started to, but telling him would be cruel.
"Nii-san!" Sasuke said. He sobbed. "Nii-san you're all I have left!"
He dug the branch hard into the ash, the branch beginning to splinter at the ends. Itachi's eyes hardened.
Somewhere, Zetsu was out there, telling Madara what he saw.
The branch broke. Itachi tossed it into the soot.
He had no choice. Child or no, Sasuke was a missing nin. He was hunted by Konoha, and likely by Madara too. And with Danzou still in the council, Sasuke had no one else to trust. He had to protect him.
"Nii-san?" Sasuke sat up. "Nii-san, you're crying."
Itachi looked up at him with darkened eyes.
"It's okay," Sasuke said. He hugged Itachi, tight. "I miss mom and dad, too."
Itachi was walking fast. Sasuke's legs weren't long enough to walk at the same pace, so he was practically running beside him. "Nii-san! Slow down."
His brother stopped and turned. "Can you walk?" Itachi said. Sasuke nodded, but Itachi scooped him up and set him on his shoulder, anyway.
Sasuke grinned, pressing his face against Itachi's neck. Itachi glanced up at him and smiled.
Sasuke had been sitting at the corner of the cave when Itachi mysteriously returned with new clothes. Long black cloak, a white shirt that didn't button all the way-the cloak Itachi had given him was all burned and tattered, but Sasuke liked it better. The flowers were pretty.
"Those are not flowers," Itachi said. "Those are clouds."
Clouds or no, Sasuke liked the old cloak better. "Nii-san, you could fix it!" Sasuke said. "This one is prettier. That one is just black."
"This one is made for traveling," Itachi said. Sasuke sat and watched as Itachi started to peel off his old shirt, which was still stained and bloody. There were burns all over Itachi's right arm, and the skin was raw and peeling.
"Does that hurt?" Sasuke said. Itachi glanced over.
"I am fine," Itachi said. "Tch. Sasuke. Keep that on."
Sasuke glared as Itachi knelt beside him, rearranging the long white shirt. "We will have to find you clothes that fit," Itachi said. He tied the shirt twice around Sasuke's torso, doing as best he could to keep it from falling off.
"This shirt is ugly," Sasuke said. Itachi's mouth quirked. He folded up his old shit and started heading toward the river.
Sasuke watched behind the bushes as Itachi knelt by the riverside, slowly scrubbing the blood off his old shirt. They were going into town; they had to look as presentable as possible. Itachi stood and hung the shirt to dry over a low-lying branch, and Sasuke's eyes widened at all the wounds on Itachi's chest and back. "Nii-san!"
Itachi turned. "Sasuke. I told you to stay inside."
"Why are you so hurt?" Sasuke's eyes teared. "How come you didn't tell me?"
Itachi's mouth was a tight thin line. "I told you, Sasuke. I had fought someone very formidible. And if you do not go back inside, I may be forced to fight him again."
"But they're not here!" Sasuke said.
Itachi put on a stern look. He moved purposefully until he was standing closer to Sasuke. "Nii-san?"
Itachi poked Sasuke in the forehead. "Ow!" Sasuke said.
"Inside," Itachi said.
Sasuke glared, rubbing his forehead. "Nii-san that's not funny," Sasuke said. Itachi ignored him.
They avoided the main roads, Itachi hoisting Sasuke only his back and letting Sasuke ride on his shoulders. For a brief moment, Sasuke wondered if it hurt to carry him, but Itachi didn't seem to mind, so Sasuke figured it was okay. He rested his cheek against Itachi's shoulder, feeling the muscles moving as he walked. "Like a horse," Sasuke said.
"You feel like a horse," Sasuke said. Itachi gave him an odd look.
That wasn't what Sasuke meant. Horses were powerful, and whenever Sasuke saw one he liked to press his hand on their flanks as they walked, feeling the muscles contract and release with each step. There weren't horses in Konoha, but certain clans tamed horses, much like the Inuzaka tamed their dogs.
His mom had taken him to see the horses once. Sasuke's eyes began to water.
"Sasuke? What's wrong?"
"Mom..." Sasuke's voice broke. Wordlessly Itachi stopped and set him down, and Sasuke buried his face into Itachi's shirtfront. He felt warm and he smelled like grass, and the rise and fall of Itachi's chest was comforting to him. "When can we go back?" Sasuke asked. "Everyone's probably looking for us. How long is it before we get there?"
"We cannot go back to Konoha." Itachi's face was pinched. "Sasuke. It is no longer safe there. We must find shelter elsewhere, for now."
They reached a market. Around them, people were bartering for dried fish and vegetables, and they were shoulder-to-shoulder with the other buyers.
There was an old woman squatting in the dirt. In front of her were delicately embroidered shirts. Sasuke balked.
"How much?" Itachi said.
"Nii-san! They're for girls," Sasuke said. The old woman smiled.
Itachi didn't have much in the way of money, but the old woman was generous, and soon Sasuke was face-to-face with the least girly of embroidered shirts. "I thought you said you liked flowers," Itachi said. Sasuke glared.
"Forgive me, Sasuke," Itachi said, when they left the market. "There wasn't much in the form of proper clothes, but I wouldn't be a very good brother if I allowed you to continue walking as such. You were almost half-naked," Itachi said. Sasuke glared.
"You're the one who found the stupid shirt," Sasuke said. "Nii-san. It didn't even close all the way!"
Itachi made a sound. Sasuke startled-it almost sounded like Itachi was choking-before he realizd Itachi was trying not to laugh. "What?" Sasuke said. Itachi shook his head.
"It is nothing," Itachi said. "Regardless, I share your sentiment. That shirt was rather ridiculous."
"Like they wanted to show off their chest or something!" Sasuke said.
"Indeed," Itachi said. He was trying hard not to smile.
They built a campfire, Itachi tossing in a few branches while Sasuke curled up on the ground beside him. He was using the old shirt as a makeshift blanket, and by the fire he felt nice and warm.
"We will go toward the sea," Itachi said. "There is a port just three days' walk from here. From there we can get safe passage, possibly ally ourselves with the Land of Waves. They are a peaceful country, after all."
Sasuke watched as Itachi stirred the ashes quietly, the firelight glinting off his skin.
There was a sound. Someone running behind them. "Nii-san. What-"
Itachi motioned for him to quiet, then slowly rose.
Bandits exploded all around them, and Sasuke ducked. Kunai slammed into the trunks of trees and Sasuke screamed. "Nii-san!"
Itachi fought, but there were too many. There was a shuffling of feet, a knife at Itachi's throat. "Nii-san! Nii-san!"
And Sasuke's eyes began to bleed.
Black flame exploded all around them, and the bandits screamed. They fell back, leaping into the dark.
And then there was nothing but pain.
"Sasuke!" Itachi rushed toward him. Sasuke screamed, his hand flying up to his eyes.
"Make it stop!" Sasuke said. His eyes were burning knives. "Nii-san!"
Itachi pried Sasuke's fingers away. His eyes widened.
"Mangekyou Sharingan," Itachi said. "But you do not even have Sharingan at this age. You can't-"
"Nii-san, it hurts!" Sasuke sobbed.
"It's okay," Itachi said. He pressed a cool hand to Sasuke's forehead, then held him, tight. "Little brother. It's okay."
Sasuke was shaking. Itachi knelt beside him and pressed a canteen to Sasuke's lips.
"Drink," Itachi said. "It will make you feel better."
He watched Sasuke gulp the water down almost desperately, water dribbling down his chin. His eyes were bloodshot and his Mangekyou had receded into a normal sharingan. Sasuke was still too young to control it. It was all autonomic.
Itachi didn't understand. He hadn't had the chance to implant the Amaterasu before the battle, and yet it had somehow manifested on its own. Even the Mankekyou, which the elders had stipulated required some sort of personal sacrifice to obtain, spun as clearly and surely as any of Sasuke's old sharingan eyes...
Personal sacrifice. Possibly the death of his old self. Itachi glanced sharply at Sasuke, who was crouching by the fire, shivering. His chakra would eventually recover, and when that happened, they would inevitably resume their battle.
But it didn't matter. Sasuke had the Mangekyou Sharingan. All that was left was the grand finish, the slaying of the man who slaughtered his clan.
Sasuke curled up beside him, nudging his head under Itachi's arm. Itachi shifted slightly, and Sasuke leaned against him, breathing and pulling Itachi's arm around his shoulder. "How are you feeling?" Itachi asked.
"Better," Sasuke said, and he closed his eyes.
The sun was rising, and in the watery light Itachi could just make out the sea port town ahead of them. Above them, gulls circled the gray clouds and he could taste the salt in the air. They were getting close. "So are we gonna ride a boat?" Sasuke asked.
Itachi looked down and smiled. "Perhaps," Itachi said. "There is also a bridge we can cross."
"I want to ride a boat, though," Sasuke said. There were dark circles under his eyes.
The knife-edge of the wind did nothing to ease Sasuke's shivering, and so Itachi wrapped the boy up in his traveling cloak, moving forward and keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon.
"Nii-san!" Sasuke tugged on Itachi's arm. "Look! Fishing boats!"
Itachi squinted his eyes. He couldn't see anything.
"I'm afraid I don't see," Itachi said.
"There! There!" Sasuke said, and he tugged on Itachi's arm, further.
Itachi concentrated. If he took certain artistic liberties, he could almost see the white sails of the fishing boats ahead of them, the fishermen casting their nets and the gulls circling overhead.
"I'm afraid my eyesight isn't what it used to be," Itachi said, finally.
"Aw! I thought only old people can't see," Sasuke said.
"Your aniki is old, Sasuke. Perhaps too old," Itachi said. Sasuke grinned, then bounced further down the road.
Sasuke was the same age when the massacre took place. Somehow, though, Itachi didn't remember just how young Sasuke was. Perhaps because Itachi had been young, as well.
"Nii-san?" Sasuke stopped and turned. "Nii-san? What's wrong?"
Itachi smiled. "Nothing," Itachi said. "You move too fast."
"What? Nii-san! You areold!"
"Old as the hills," Itachi intoned.
It was near sunset when Itachi finally reached the town square, and Sasuke was practically walking in his sleep. The area seemed safe enough, however; they could probably afford to stay overnight. They stopped for food at an inn at the center of town. They could probably get lodgings there, as well.
"This your kid?" the man at the counter squinted as Itachi stood there, Sasuke rubbing his eyes and tugging on Itachi's arm.
"He is my little brother," Itachi said. "We're just staying the night."
"Ah." The man turned and slowly rummaged for his keys.
There was a sound. Itachi turned. Heavy footsteps entered the room.
Itachi's face went pale. "Excuse me," Itachi said. He emptied his satchel of coins onto the counter and pulled Sasuke into the back room.
"Nii-san? Where are we going?" Sasuke said. "I thought we were going to eat."
"Quiet." Itachi crouched in the shadows, watching. Through the crack in the door, he could just make out the man's Akatsuki cloak.
"Sasuke, listen to me," Itachi said. "No matter what happens, do not leave this room. Understand?"
Sasuke looked frightened. "Okay," Sasuke said. Itachi hid him and stood.
"Kisame," Itachi said. Kisame stopped and turned.
"I've been wondering where you were," Itachi said.
Kisame tossed back another drink. "I knew you weren't dead," Kisame said. "You're too much of a callous bastard to die."
"So it would seem," Itachi said. Kisame grinned. Behind him, Itachi could just make out Sasuke's form, hiding behind the row of barrels in the back.
"So did you get his eyes?" Kisame asked. "That Eternal Mangekyou or whatever?"
"No," Itachi said. "They were destroyed in the midst of battle."
"Oh boy, Itachi-san." Kisame seemed genuinely amused. "All those years, and you barbecue his eyeballs to a crisp! Oh well, better luck next time, right?"
"It's a good thing I found you." Kisame said. He picked at a napkin, bored. "The Leader is making his move."
Itachi's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" Itachi said.
Kisame leered. "Konoha," Kisame said. "He's going to attack. It seems as though the nine-tails is finally within his reach." Kisame grinned, widely. "I know how much you'd love to see Konoha burn."
Something clattered behind them. Kisame turned.
"The fuck was that?" Kisame said.
"Kisame." Itachi's voice was sharp. Kisame rose.
"I thought I heard something," Kisame said.
"You heard nothing," Itachi said.
"Wait, is that-"
Itachi leapt forward. The table crashed. He held Kisame by the throat.
"That's right. It is young Sasuke." Itachi's eyes flashed. Kisame paled.
"You are surprised," Itachi said. "You shouldn't be. I am taking him with me."
"I don't understand," Kisame wheezed.
"This is my kill, Kisame," Itachi said. "The child has regressed. His eyes have not matured. Do not get in my way."
He dropped his hand, and Kisame pitched forward. He coughed hard, rubbing his neck.
"Shit, Itachi," Kisame said. "You didn't have to fucking strangle me."
"It could not be helped," Itachi said.
"Hmph. Always the callous bastard," Kisame said. "So I take it you're leaving?"
Itachi's eyes narrowed.
"I no longer have need of the Akatsuki," Itachi said. "The child is what I want."
"That's too bad," Kisame said. "I would have liked to see you stick around with Pein." Kisame rose, hitching his sword over his shoulder.
"I gotta get going," Kisame said. "No point in me sticking around if you're leaving. I have some things in town I need to take care of, anyway."
"See to it that you do," Itachi said, and Kisame left, the door swinging behind him.
Itachi sagged, gratefully.
"Sasuke?" Itachi opened the door. "Sasuke, it is safe now. Sasuke?"
Sasuke was running, feet pounding and dust mushrooming around him.
"This is my kill, Kisame. Do not get in my way."
The terrain dipped, and suddenly Sasuke was rocketing downhill. Memories began flooding back: an empty street, a full moon. Uchiha bodies, littering the ground.
"Sasuke!" his brother was behind him. Sasuke ran and lurched to the right, a hard turn that sent Itachi sliding to a stop. Itachi slid and changed direction, and Sasuke was running faster now, pure adrenaline, heartbeat roaring and breathing hard.
His foot caught a root, and Sasuke slammed onto the ground.
Itachi came to a stop. Kisame stood in front of him, holding Sasuke by the arm.
"Oi, Itachi-san. Looks like you owe me one, big time," Kisame said.
"Nii-san! How could you!" Sasuke said. He struggled against Kisame's grip. "Mom. Dad. You killed everyone! You-"
Kisame back-handed him across the face. Sasuke sagged, unconscious.
"The brat is annoying," Kisame said. "Are you sure we can't just kill him?" Itachi's throat was dry, but the lies came easily, slipping over him like a well-worn glove.
"We must keep him alive," Itachi said. "I wish to fight him when he's recovered his full strength. You will indulge me that much, at least."
"Hmph." Kisame looked bored. "Well. In the meantime, you should come with me to Konoha. The Leader is planning a war there. It's something I'd like to see."
"I as well," Itachi said. He glanced back at Sasuke, who was lying on the ground.
Sasuke couldn't stop crying. Kisame had roughly tied his hands, and every so often he would yank Sasuke forward, pulling on him like a dog. "Itachi-san. This is a pain," Kisame said. "He has the Sharingan, he had it when he was running. You could take his eyes and get it over with."
"He nearly beat me, Kisame," Itachi said. Sasuke struggled but Kisame yanked him forward. "I wish to fight him again, to prove which of the two of us is stronger."
Sasuke's eyes watered.
"Nii-san, you lied," Sasuke said. "Why did you pretend? Why didn't you just kill me?"
"Foolish little brother," Itachi said. "Don't you realize how much easier it was, when you cooperated?" His eyes flashed. Sasuke whimpered.
"Oi! Brat!" Kisame yanked him forward. "You're lucky Itachi-san doesn't want me to touch you. Because if I had my way-"
"Kisame," Itachi said.
"Fine, fine," Kisame said. "You know where we're going, kid?" Kisame leered. "We're going back to your village. And guess what? When they see you, they'll probably shoot you on sight. You're a missing-nin, as well."
It was nighttime. Itachi watched, warily, as Kisame sharpened his kunai, leaning lazily against the campfire. "Zetsu'll probably shit himself," Kisame said. "He saw you take the kid. Thought you grew a conscience. Hmph." He held the blade to the firelight, squinting. Behind them, Sasuke was crying, softly. Kisame glared and stood.
"Can't you see we're talking?" Kisame said. He yanked Sasuke roughly up by the shoulder and dragged him by the fire, slamming him onto the ground. "Shut your trap, you hear me? Or else I'll cut that tongue off of yours and feed it to my sword."
Kisame glanced back up at Itachi. "That's okay, right? He'd still be able to fight."
"I do not have time for this," Itachi said. He rose, pulling his cloak tightly around him. It was better this way. Fear was more powerful than love, and Itachi knew Sasuke would not try to escape.
"Where are you going, Itachi-san?" Kisame said.
"To gather my thoughts," Itachi said. "I cannot think clearly with the two of you making all this noise."
"Suit yourself," Kisame said. He stretched and leaned lazily against the log.
Itachi walked into the forest, silently counting his options. Around him, the trees loomed dark and menacing, and in the half-twilight of his vision, seemed to be silently mocking him. He knew what he had to do.
Sasuke cried out as Kisame kicked him to the gut, rolling over and wincing, painfully. "Oh boy. The great Uchiha Sasuke. What a fucking joke."
He hit Sasuke again. Sasuke cried out, then coughed up blood.
Kisame turned. "You done thinking, Itachi-san?" Kisame said.
Itachi came to a decision. His eyes narrowed.
"The river," Itachi said. "I would like to have a word."
It was quiet by the riverbank, and as Itachi walked he could hear the soft thud of Kisame's sword strapped to his back. The water burbled and the air was cool, and he could just dimly make out the fireflies flitting amongst the reeds.
"Oi, Itachi-san. You think it's safe to leave him?"
"He is tied up," Itachi said. "Unless you are so incompetent as to be unable to tie a proper knot."
"Ouch," Kisame said. "That hurts my feelings. Why are we here, anyway?"
Itachi thought of Shisui. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
"Kisame," Itachi said. "Come closer."
Sasuke heard Itachi approaching. He twisted in his bonds, his heart beating fast.
There was blood on his hands. Sasuke's eyes widened.
"Move." And he was yanked upright again, Itachi pulling him roughly by the arm.
"Understand," Itachi said. "I have no use for you other than your eyes. You would be killed if we journeyed back to Konoha. I need you to be alive."
"You killed him," Sasuke said. "You killed him and he was your friend!"
"I've killed more than just friends, Sasuke." Itachi's eyes were hard. "Fratricide, little brother. And I would kill again."
He grabbed Sasuke's arms and pulled out a small blade. Sasuke's eyes widened. He jerked back, but Itachi slide the blade under the rope and cut it with the knife. The bindings fell in a heap on the ground.
"You have no choice but to come with me," Itachi said. "You are wanted. They will hunt you, Sasuke. And until you regain your adult form, I will protect you as best I can. Then we can finish what we've started."
Itachi turned and his cloak fluttered, dark and terrible and silhouetted by moonlight.
And it was only then that Sasuke began to cry.
The days passed in silence. If Sasuke were older, he would have screamed, would have raged at him, tried to hurt him or kill him, or both. But Sasuke was too young; he curled up into himself, his face tear-streaked and his small body shaking like a leaf.
There was no way to comfort him. Wordlessly, Itachi passed him a bowl of rice. Their fingers brushed, and Sasuke flinched as if getting burned.
"Eat," Itachi said.
Sasuke stared at the rice. He looked like he was trying not to cry.
Itachi sagged. He didn't have the energy to be cruel to him. He didn't have to. Silently he stood, a shadow passing over Sasuke as he left. It wasn't until Itachi was fully out of the room that Sasuke hunched up into himself, pushing away the bowl.
"I'd like a room," Itachi said. He spoke quietly, Sasuke hanging just a few feet behind. The innkeeper looked at Itachi, then glanced at Sasuke, frowning. "What's his problem?" the innkeeper said.
"Our mother died," Itachi said.
"I'm sorry," the innkeeper said. Itachi didn't have to look to see the tears welling up in Sasuke's eyes.
That night, there was a storm. Rain lashed against the windowpanes, and outside the wind blew, hard. Itachi waited until Sasuke was asleep before sitting quietly next to him, pressing a worried hand to his back.
He wouldn't stop shaking. Itachi knelt forward; his sharingan spun.
Sunshine streamed through the half-opened blinds, and outside Sasuke could hear the birds chirping. Blinking, he started to sit, when he felt a cool hand press against his forehead.
"Sasuke." His mother smiled. Sasuke's eyes widened.
"Mom." A tear slipped, then another, and Sasuke barreled forward, throwing his arms around her neck. "Mom! Mom!"
"It's okay, Sasuke." His mother gathered him up against her chest, rocking him close. "I'm here. And I will never leave you."
The shaking stopped. Slowly, Itachi moved his hand, when a sharp pain knifed through his eyes.
Itachi doubled over, squeezing his eyes. With effort, he looked again at his brother: Sasuke was breathing evenly now, cuddled under the blankets. Itachi's hand shook. Slowly he raised a shaking hand to the corner of his eye, and wiped back a trickle of blood.
Weeks passed, and word traveled from the allied nations that the Hidden Village of the Leaf had finally crumbled. "About fucking time," one nin said. The others nodded their heads, gripping their cards and tossing in a few stray coins into the center of the table.
Sasuke spent the night at turns crying and throwing up. "You do not even remember your friends," Itachi said. His eyes were cruel. "Why must you be so upset?"
Sasuke gritted his teeth. "Because no one cared for them, Nii-san." The words were venom in his mouth. "We're the only ones left."
He was getting older. In the span of a few short weeks Sasuke's muscles tightened and the tenor of his voice deepened. His chakra was returning. Memories faded in and out, swirling and intermixing with the nightmares while he slept. "You must be about thirteen, now," Itachi said. His lips twisted into a horrid smile. "Good."
Some nights, Sasuke crouched in the darkness, his Sharingan activated and waiting. He would spring forward, an explosion of muscle and bone, only to be thwarted, Itachi's hand on his neck and his body slammed to the ground.
"Trying to kill me, little brother?" Itachi said. He smiled, cruelly. "How quaint."
"Kisama." Sasuke glared. "Why not kill me now when you have the chance?"
"Because you have the Mangekyou," Itachi said. "Even if you do not know how to use it, I cannot risk you activating those flames. It would not bode well, you see."
"Dammit!" Sasuke sprung, but Itachi grabbed him and shoved him back down.
"Easy, little brother," Itachi said. "We won't have long, now."
Sasuke struggled, then reared forward. He spat in Itachi's face.
Itachi leaned back, then lifted an elegant hand to wipe the saliva from his cheek.
"Charming," Itachi said.
"Mark my words, Itachi. I will kill you!"
"I am counting on it," Itachi said. He squatted in the dirt, watching Sasuke, levelly. "What level do you think you are right now?" Itachi said.
"Fuck you," Sasuke said.
"Genin, correct?" Itachi's eyes narrowed. "You are still weak," Itachi said. "You do not deserve those eyes of yours, Sasuke. But like the fruits on a vine, I will wait until they ripen. Keep you in my possession until they're ready to be plucked."
Sasuke slammed onto the ground, the nin above him twisting his arm across his back. He had tried to escape, but the shinobi in the tavern descended upon him, throwing kunai and wrangling him onto the ground.
Itachi came from nowhere and dispatched with them easily, whirling in a single blur. His sharingan wasn't even activated. He turned to Sasuke and yanked him upright.
"Foolish," Itachi said. His face was pinched. "They are bounty hunters, Sasuke. You must be more careful!"
Sasuke jerked away. "I'll take my chances with them any time!" Sasuke said.
"Idiot," Itachi said. "Be thankful I am invested in your well-being, however temporary that may be."
"I can leave!" Sasuke said. "I can leave anytime I want!"
"Oh? And where would you go?" Itachi said. "Your precious Konoha is in ruins. Don't think that I don't know."
"You don't know, or you don't care," Sasuke said. "You're a murderer. You killed our entire clan. You don't give a shit about Konoha!"
Itachi slapped him across the face.
Sasuke staggered back, blood dripping down the side of his lip. He lifted his hand to the cut on his mouth, shaking.
"Do not speak to me about Konoha," Itachi said. "Understand?"
Sasuke's vision blurred. He staggered back, before passing out.
The first thing he was aware of, as he was regaining consciousness, was the fire.
With difficulty, Sasuke opened his eyes, blinking slow and rolling to the side. There, just a few feet ahead of him, Itachi was leaning beside the campfire, turning over a kunai in his hands. His eyes were unfocused, almost sad, and he kept pressing the blunted edge of the blade into his skin.
Sasuke frowned, then pushed himself up. "You should press deeper, and do us both a favor," Sasuke said. Itachi's head snapped up. His eyes flashed.
"You are awake," Itachi said. "How unfortunate."
"Hmph." Sasuke glared.
His sharingan was activated. Sasuke didn't even notice until he realized he was instinctively measuring Itachi's chakra stores, and calculating what little he had left to keep himself alive.
"You've almost beaten me once before," Itachi said. "Perhaps you'd like another try."
Sasuke stared at his hands. They were bigger than he remembered, and stronger too. "My chakra is returning," Sasuke said. "Do not be so sure that you'd survive."
Itachi said nothing. His eyes seemed to turn inward. "You are still too young," Itachi said, but the venom was gone from his voice. He coughed then, and to Sasuke's surprise, he stopped and coughed up blood.
Sasuke turned in a fitful sleep, and from the corner of his eye he could see Itachi sitting at the edge of the bed. He looked worried. But no, it was just a trick of light; Itachi's face was as hard and stern as ever.
"Your chakra has returned," Itachi said. "We fight first thing at dawn."
Itachi watched as Sasuke slept, fitfully and with a kunai in his fist. It was a beautiful gift, being able to watch him grow and mature, a compressed return of their time apart. In this body, Sasuke was now fifteen years old. Itachi wished he could wait a few more weeks until Sasuke's chakra was fully restored, but his own body was beginning to fail him. He wanted to give Sasuke the chance to kill him before he died.
A breeze blew, and Sasuke stirred. Itachi knelt beside his body; years of training and silence had made it such that Itachi could get close to him without him noticing. His sharingan was not as strong as it once was, and though his tomoe had closed into red, he still could manage a few scraps of genjutsu enough to soothe him.
That night, Sasuke dreamt of fireflies in a courtyard and playing with his family; outside, Itachi watched, dark eyes red and tears of blood threatening to spill.
They woke at sunrise. Sasuke sat crouched at the edge of their campfire, a hard look on his face. "We doing this?" Sasuke said.
Itachi said nothing. Though his vision was failing him, he was struck at how much like their mother Sasuke looked, despite the hard edges around his face. "Well?" Sasuke said.
"Whenever you wish," Itachi said, and he began to rise. Through the haze of his vision, Itachi could make out Sasuke's form, fully-grown and standing not twenty meters away. The sky was yellow and the ground was a burnt orange, and dandelion fluff skirted the air.
He was not strong enough. Itachi knew that now.
The kunai had plunged deep into Sasuke's chest, even before Sasuke could activate his eyes. Itachi's face was pale. He had expected Sasuke to dodge. Sasuke sank to his knees and Itachi took up his weight, his fingers kneading into the fabric of his shirt. "Sasuke!" Itachi said. He shook him, breathing hard. "Sasuke!"
There was a sound, enemy nin at the periphery, and Itachi's mind blanked: there was nothing, a flash of light, the numbness like a clarion call cutting through the dark. His Amaterasu exploded, a barely-controlled burst, and the enemy shinobi were thrown to the side. Now there was nothing but silence, the soft crackle of flame and the half-wheeze of his breath. Sasuke was dead. Numbly, Itachi reached down and picked up the sword from Sasuke's hand: the hilt was still warm from where Sasuke was holding it.
"Forgive me, Sasuke," Itachi said. "I should have done this long ago."
They found their bodies in early morning, the soft gray light filtering through the trees. Itachi's head was in Sasuke's lap, and when they looked closer, they could see the sword still in his hand, his dark long hair matted with blood.
Because Zetsu was a nosy bastard, he was the one to find out first.
Rain fell then, drops of water hitting the gray concrete. Zetsu squinted his eyes and knelt beside the bodies. "Shit," Zetsu said, and he kicked Sasuke in the ribs, the body rolling over, slightly. Behind him, Madara adjusted his mask and frowned.
"Is it done?" Madara stepped forward. Zetsu snorted, softly.
"Yeah," Zetsu said. "They're both dead."
"How disappointing," Madara said. He knelt quietly and plucked out their eyes, which fell with a soft plop into the water inside his jar.
The night was quiet, and there was nothing but the dim light of fireflies flickering in the dark.
It was the first night of Sasuke's regression, and despite himself, Itachi felt a twinge of hope. He could start over; he could be the brother Sasuke never had. With effort, Itachi lowered himself to where Sasuke was sleeping, and pressed a small kiss into Sasuke's hair.
"Nii-san?" Sasuke breathed. "You're not leaving, right?" And then Itachi smiled.
"No, little brother," Itachi said. "I'm not."