Author's Note: Hello, all, and welcome to my current epic project, or, as I affectionately like to call it, "AdklafjsASDLK OH GODS THIS THING IS EATING MY LIFE WHY WON'T IT EEEEEEEEEND WHY DKAJFDLKJIO" ... yes, anyway, this is that dreaded thing, a WIP! Never fear, however; I've already got enough chapters finished to update every couple of weeks regularly for a while, and though updates will be more sporadic after that, I'm really excited about this fic, already have the end in mind, and work on it at least a little every day, so I'm pretty confident about finishing this or else I wouldn't be posting it here at all.
Credit where credit is due: Without the excellent psiten's "The Butterfly Effect" (a fic which I happily recommend), I wouldn't have had the impetus to start this thing, and without the enthusiasm and help of my friends IraeNicole and Jason (a.k.a. Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Part-Of-The-Internets), as well as my constant reader csad, I probably wouldn't have gotten as far as I have. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart!
Oh, and don't let the title fool you - no one's going to wake up at the end and go "it was all a dream!" Madara might get punched in the face, though.
1. as dead as leaves
The compound was too dark; even from outside Sasuke could see it. Maybe he had stayed out training a little too late, but there should still be some places open, some lights on somewhere...
He ran through the gates (why wasn't anyone there?) into empty streets and glanced up at the moon, just to be sure it hadn't gone out with all the other lights, and saw a shadow against it.
It was a clear night, there shouldn't be any shadows, and anyway it wasn't a cloud shape, it was a person, crouching on top of a telephone pole. Before Sasuke could see anything more the shadow vanished.
Sasuke looked back down and saw the street properly, the moonlight gleaming on lumps and puddles that hadn't been there this morning, and he put his hands over his mouth so he wouldn't scream. It couldn't be, not his clan, not lying all over the road like that, not the people he'd seen every day of his life, it couldn't be and that shadow went towards my home...
He ran through the doors and it was too quiet and too dark and all he could hear was his own panting until he covered his mouth and concentrated. There - voices starting to argue, getting louder, in his parents' oh no no no - he ran to their room, crying for them, "Father! Mother!" and as he put his hand on the door-handles a low and awful, familiar voice came out of the darkness:
"Don't come in..."
A different voice, older, angry: "They'll never allow it. It won't work - that man will never -"
"That's my concern," Itachi said, sounding colder than when he had threatened their cousins, colder than Sasuke could have imagined. "You're done here. Leave."
"I promise you, Itachi," the other voice said, "there will never be a day of your life when you will not regret this choice. Foolish boy, wasting the power you've gained..."
"Get out," said Itachi, and Sasuke couldn't stand it anymore and threw open the doors.
"Niisan! Niisan, are you -"
But Itachi stood alone in the room, turning to face Sasuke; he smiled, the way he used to, and said, "Sasuke - welcome home," and blood dripped from the katana in his hand onto Father and Mother's bodies.
Sasuke woke up in bed with a start, and winced at the light from the window. He could hear someone cooking in the kitchen, and that made him wince, too; his head really hurt this morning, and there was something missing - something he should remember, something from last night...
He jumped up and dashed through the house, through the kitchen and outside to the street.
There was nothing there. No bodies in the dust, no blood, nothing out of place - but also no neighbors or cousins, no aunts or uncles, no one who ought to be there. It was late morning by the sun and lots of people would be at work already, but even the people who worked in the Uchiha compound weren't there. It was too quiet, just like -
Sasuke took a step back into the kitchen, and behind him Itachi said, "Ah, Sasuke, you're up."
Sasuke stopped, one hand still on the door's frame.
"I told the school you were sick so you could sleep in, if you needed to," Itachi continued, and Sasuke could hear water boiling for tea, rice grains clicking against each other as they were measured out. "But if you'd rather go to class, that's fine... I was just making breakfast for us, you should eat before you -"
Sasuke bolted for school.
He ran all the way, but he was still late, and when he opened the door to his classroom Iruka-sensei said sharply, "Decided to join us today after all, Sasuke-kun? All right, take your seat..."
Sasuke sat down and tried to pay attention as Iruka-sensei resumed the lecture on calculating the wind's effects on thrown weapons. It was easy and hard at the same time; easy because it was interesting and normal, hard because it was so temptingly normal that it only made him think more about last night and this morning. Last night couldn't have really happened, not when school was going on just as usual, Iruka-sensei talking and sometimes yelling at the students who couldn't stay still. Last night must have been a dream, just a dream, and maybe everyone had just had to go somewhere this morning. A big mission, that was it, a big important mission that he was too young to know about. And Mother and Father, they were just - Itachi had been letting them sleep in, too, he was letting them sleep in and making breakfast for them to make up for how cold he'd been lately. Making breakfast for an apology wasn't really like Itachi, but it was still possible, wasn't it? The other wasn't. It had all been a dream, a dream, a silly dream.
He realized he was biting his knuckles and forced himself to stop.
At the end of classes they always practiced making copies of themselves. It was a basic jutsu, but only a few people in class could make a good one, and Sasuke's was always the best. He went to the front of the classroom with his usual confidence, but as he made the first seal he heard Foolish boy, wasting the power you've gained and lost his concentration, and his clone, instead of standing straight and perfect next to him, was a washed-out ghost that slowly crumpled to the floor.
"Ah - do you want to try again, Sasuke-kun?" Iruka said, as Sasuke stared at the fallen clone in sick horror. "That's not exactly up to your usual standard..." From up in the desks came a big burst of laughter, and Iruka shouted, "Naruto! Don't laugh - not unless you're going to come down here and do better?"
The blonde boy sitting halfway up the room made a face, but he jumped down to the front. Sasuke recognized him, sort of - he sat a few seats over, but Sasuke had never paid attention to him, just because he was always so loud and irritating and trying to get attention that he obviously didn't deserve any. Sasuke glared at him now for having laughed, but Naruto just stuck out his tongue and started making the seals for the jutsu, all sloppy and half out of order.
Of course, his clone looked even worse - it didn't even start off standing up, and there wasn't any color to it at all - and Sasuke said "Hmf," though with less disdain than usual. The fallen clones looked terribly dead, sprawling across the floor...
Naruto's face turned red. He opened his mouth, probably to say something stupid, but just then a grey-haired jounin in an ANBU jacket opened the door, and Sasuke saw him make a quick series of hand signals to Iruka-sensei.
"All right, class, that's it for today," Iruka said. "Get out of here, and don't forget to do your homework! Especially you, Naruto!" Everyone else got up and headed for the door, laughing and talking, and Sasuke went with them gladly as the jounin stepped past him to talk with Iruka. He was going to go home and everything was going to be fine, even if he did have to elbow his way past Naruto to get through the door and Naruto elbowed back and had extraordinarily sharp elbows.
He was just considering the strategy of kicking Naruto in the ankles really, really hard when he heard Iruka-sensei say "What?" Naruto took advantage of his distraction and got past him with an almost-friendly fist to the stomach, and while Sasuke was catching his breath Iruka said, "Wait a minute, Sasuke-kun."
Sasuke turned around, but stayed at the door, trying to lean on it casually. Sensei and the jounin were both looking at him; he didn't want them looking at him, he wanted to go home and bug Itachi to help him train and eat rice balls with Mother. There wasn't any reason for Iruka to look at him with such a sad expression...
"Sasuke-kun, I'm so sorry," Iruka-sensei said, "I have some bad news."
"No you don't," Sasuke said. "You can't have any bad news, because there isn't any. Everything's fine."
He couldn't read the ANBU jounin, who had a mask covering most of his face and his forehead protector over one eye. But Iruka's face crumpled up like he was going to cry, and he said, "Sasuke-kun, please listen -"
"Everything's fine!" Sasuke screamed, and he turned and ran for home. They couldn't make bad news happen, they couldn't make nightmares real, they were wrong, wrong wrong wrong.
He'd barely gotten through the school gates when an arm caught him around the waist, and he found himself scooped up and tucked against the jounin's side. "Sorry, kid," the jounin said, setting off the wrong way at a jog. "Orders. The Hokage wants to see you."
Sasuke would've kicked him if he'd thought it would do any good. He settled for sulking, and said, as meanly as he could, "This is stupid. You're stupid. I want to go home, I told you it was fine already."
"Yes, yes, I heard you the first time," the jounin said, but he didn't put Sasuke down. Sasuke drooped, staring at the ground as it flashed past, and when he went to push his hair out of his eyes he found tears trying to escape.
Even at the end of the hallway Sasuke could hear people arguing in the Hokage's office; by the time the jounin reached the door and put him down he could make out the words, although the jounin put his hands over Sasuke's ears to keep him from listening. "- threw away a perfect chance," a man was saying. "Is there any possibility you could persuade him you've changed your mind?"
"No," came Itachi's voice, muffled through the door and the jounin's hands, but always recognizable. "I made the choice, and he knows it. You'll have to find another pet ANBU for that."
"Don't play the fool with me," the first voice said, getting louder and angrier and easier to hear, "you know there's no one else powerful enough to be convincing!"
"If you have such a high opinion of my strength, then stop testing my patience," said Itachi, and Sasuke remembered the day Itachi had attacked their cousins and tried not to listen to himself thinking, maybe things aren't fine after all.
"That's enough," the Hokage said, breaking through Sasuke's unhappy thoughts. "Kakashi, stop eavesdropping and come in."
The jounin opened the door and said, "Sorry, Hokage-sama, I didn't want to interrupt."
Sasuke didn't care; he flung himself at Itachi and buried his face against Itachi's side and refused to look at anything else. He was tired and Itachi was here and he didn't care what had happened anymore, it was time to go home.
Itachi put his hand on Sasuke's head and messed up his hair, and the grey-haired jounin said, "He was in class, Captain."
"Ah, good - thank you," said Itachi, and knuckled Sasuke's head. "Say something before you run off like that, okay? I was worried..."
"Sorry, Niisan," Sasuke said, and someone else snorted. Sasuke looked away from Itachi and saw an old man with a bandaged eye by the Hokage's desk; he was glaring at Sasuke like he was dirt, and Sasuke thought that he must be the one Niisan had been arguing with. He grabbed Itachi's hand; he was too old for it, really, but he couldn't pretend everything was okay anymore, and Itachi might be all he had. At least Itachi didn't mind, and squeezed Sasuke's hand back.
The man said, "So that's what you're throwing away Konoha for? You'll be regretting this for the rest of your miserable life, Uchiha Itachi."
Sasuke flinched at the echoed words, but Itachi didn't seem bothered at all; he said lightly, "There's no need to call me Uchiha anymore, if it pains you so much to say it."
The old man snorted again and gave Sasuke another contemptuous look, then stalked out of the room. The Hokage said, "You can go now too, Kakashi," and the jounin bowed and vanished. The Hokage turned to look at them with a strange expression, which made Sasuke want to be rude to him, but he stayed quiet. If they were in trouble, he didn't want to make it worse. "I don't like to admit it," the Hokage said, "but Danzo may be right. Are you sure this is what you want, Captain Itachi?"
"Yes, Hokage-sama," Itachi said, sounding calm, but his grip on Sasuke's hand tightened a little.
The Hokage sighed, pushing a sheaf of paper on his desk to the side. "I'm sorry that it's come to this, Sasuke-kun," he said.
The comfort of Itachi's hand around Sasuke's was suddenly a cold weight.
The Hokage talked for a long time. Sasuke stopped paying attention after the first sentence; it didn't even seem like a very good lie for someone as old as the Hokage to come up with. Sasuke thought about school instead, the stuff Iruka-sensei said he needed to work on, when he'd be able to practice throwing shuriken next, and the Hokage's words washed around him and he could almost imagine that he wasn't standing next to Itachi.
By the time the Hokage stopped talking, Sasuke didn't even hear it; he was thinking so hard about how to do an even better clone than usual next class that Itachi had to nudge him and tell him to bow to the Hokage before they left.
As soon as they were out of the office Sasuke pulled his hand away from Itachi's and tried to walk faster, keeping space between them.
Itachi touched his shoulder to stop him from getting too far away. "You didn't believe the Hokage, then," he said.
Without turning around, Sasuke shook his head.
"That's all right," said Itachi. "I'll look after you - it'll be fine, Sasuke. I promise."
Sasuke looked back and saw Itachi smile at him, the same tired smile as always, but all Sasuke could think of was blood.