Disclaimer: Not mine, nor ever shall be.
Spoilers: Takes place after chapters 400+, post Itachi vs. Sasuke death-match and eye surgery. That's basically where I stopped reading the manga. AU galore.
prologue: peace, denied
Red. It was everything his life had been since the day of the massacre.
Red was blood, dripping scarlet. It spoke of life but tasted of death, it haunted him in nightmares and seared with visions of flaming wheels that turned endlessly without rest. It was a corrosive fire that burned from the inside out, eating away at his sanity even as it fed his lust for power. Sasuke hated red as much as he craved its touch, Sharingan eyes always ready to paint his battles crimson. And everything he laid eyes on shriveled, dying embers that scattered as ashes in the wind.
Red fed his vengeance, and in the end it was the last color he saw before Uzumaki Naruto grabbed him by the face and ripped it from his body.
He hadn't even bothered trying to fight back when his former teammate attacked. Under Sasuke's guidance, Akatsuki (what was left of it, anyways) had single-handedly destroyed Konoha, still weakened from recent attacks and years of continuous invasions. Naruto had come too late to save his precious people, but not too late to stop Sasuke. And he had come with a wave of massive killer intent.
"Bastard," Naruto rasped between hissing breaths that spoke of barely contained rage. "What did you do?"
Sasuke would have shot him a patronizing glare, but settled for a sneer instead. "Still an idiot, aren't you, Naruto?" he paused to wipe away the stream of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, even as more poured from his eye sockets. "You can't see the obvious? And I thought I was the blind one."
Once upon a time, Sasuke screwed up. Or rather, life screwed him up, and turned him into a vengeful, arrogant, cold-blooded bastard that ended up betraying friends, killing teachers, and destroying his village. One could argue that the tragedy that made him an orphan was the root of his instability, but there were plenty of orphans in a shinobi village. One of them was the container of the world's strongest demon.
Then again, that boy had never experienced the pain of losing everything he'd known and loved for all his life. Not until now, when he was old enough to be respected by the village. The Last Uchiha was more than willing to share his pain in spades.
A hand shot out and grabbed Sasuke by the throat, slamming him against a tree. He coughed as the wood splintered behind him, bringing up more red that he could taste but not see. A few moments passed in strained silence before the demon host spoke again, voice eerily calm.
"I'm going to rip you into little pieces and feed them to the fox in hell, Uchiha."
He lost everything on the day he defeated Itachi. Purpose, meaning, justice—all he'd lived for, just a lie meant for a child who should have died. Slaying the brother who'd shared his blood and haunted his every moment had left him strangely empty inside. Of course, twisted logic then dictated that he should kill the village that made him kill his kin. Revenge upon revenge, red upon red, a murderous, vicious cycle that never seemed to end. He'd been trapped in the curse ever since the night of the massacre and he would follow its lead until the end—of the village, of the Uchihas, of himself.
There was only one person different enough to cut the chains tying him to destruction. An antithesis to his own existence. And as Sasuke laid on the ground, eyes gone, wounds bleeding and body getting colder with every second, he mentally thanked the loudmouthed blond.
"You're even more selfish than I remembered."
Lacking the ability to move, Sasuke's ears strained towards the sound of the voice. Footsteps approached him, then stopped, before a figure crouched by his side.
"You wanted me to end everything with a bang, huh? Fix everything by killing you?" there was a pause, as the figure gnashed its teeth. "Well, what am I supposed to do now, bastard? Who's left to help me with my problems after I help you with yours?"
Sasuke's breath hitched. No way that idiot knew what he'd been planning...
"Dead last..." his voice came out, raw and oddly gurgling. It was getting harder to breathe.
"Selfish bastard," Naruto muttered again, and Sasuke felt a warm glow envelope his wounds. "Stuck-up, arrogant, prick of a Uchiha..."
He fell silent. Sasuke said nothing, partly out of choice, partly because he couldn't form words around the blood pooling in his throat. Naruto was trying to heal him, but he'd never been good with chakra control, much less medical jutsu. He half-wondered when the idiot had bothered to learn—then again, he'd probably did it for the sake of others, after Sasuke had decimated the medic-nin population. That was Naruto for you—always thinking for the sake of others. It was a foreign concept for Sasuke.
"I talked with Itachi, you know. Before he died. It was with one of his shadow clones, but still." Naruto's voice was low. "I told him I was more of a brother to you that he'd ever been. That I'd bring you back home no matter what. That I'd stop you if you ever tried to destroy Konoha."
Between his struggles for air and the haze of pain threatening to overwhelm consciousness, Sasuke barely registered the drops of hot liquid that fell on his face.
"Well...it looks like I failed, huh?" Naruto drew in a shuddering breath. "In the end, everyone still died. And this time Pain's not around to bring them back."
The wounds weren't healing fast enough.
A small part of Sasuke found it ironic that the boy once considered demon incarnate by the village could freely shed tears for his best friend-turned-enemy, while he, the pride of Konoha's Uchiha clan, hadn't felt a twinge of guilt razing the same village to the ground. And in his final moments, he saw clearer than ever how blind he'd been. How utterly blind they'd all been.
He and Konoha alike had been trapped in the past, unable to move forward. From the Nine-tail's attack and the Fourth's death to the Uchiha massacre, they'd crippled themselves hoarding worn grievances and nursing old scars. And in their thirst for vengeance, they had twisted justice to make it suit their own needs. Orochimaru, Danzo, Madara, himself—the motives didn't matter, because in the end they were all bitter souls consumed with rage, who had cut others deeply over self-serving vendettas.
Yet Naruto...he was different. He'd always been unpredictable, loud and obnoxious, stubborn to the point of idiocy...but he'd never lost faith. Faith in his friends, in himself, in the world. And somehow, he'd managed to share that faith with everyone he met. The dead-last gave people the courage to hope, to believe in their dreams—and when they couldn't, or wouldn't, he'd always find a way to make their dreams reality. On his shoulders, Uzumaki Naruto carried promises of a lifetime, a resolution to never back down, and Konoha's Will of Fire.
He saw what needed to be done and did it, because he believed in the future.
Naruto was one who read his fate, accepted it, and moved past it to create new paths. Sasuke had choked himself with fate's obligations and ended up in its death grip.
Faintly, he heard the blond demanding to know why he'd just stood there, why he'd let the blond beat him to a pulp, why he hadn't even tried defending. But his voice was so far away...
"Don't die, you bastard! I'm not finished yet! Don't you dare!"
'Idiot, don't talk so much when you're trying to heal someone.' Sasuke felt his body jerk as a sudden jolt of chakra pulsed through his system. It took him a second to process that this wasn't ordinary healing chakra, but Nine-tails chakra-raw power that liquefied his veins and screamed pure CRIMSON-
The pain. By Kami, the pain—he felt like his skin was peeling off—no, it had to be because—
—everything was ripping apart, tearing his body to shreds and tatters—
—and bloody fingers scrabbled wildly for purchase as his body spasmed against the dirt, clawing at air in pure agony—
—he was going to be burned alive from the inside out—
His body was already dead by the time the crows appeared.
It was quiet, and the pain was gone.
That was the first thing he noticed. The second was the fact that he was floating in a pool of water-as much as he could guess. For some reason, his arms were stuck to his sides and his eyelids were squeezed shut, but the coolness cushioning his body and dripping noises in the background fed his suspicions. He half-wondered how he was staying afloat so stiffly when he wasn't using any chakra, but knowing he could (somehow) breathe properly again was infinitely more satisfying.
His eyes flew open at the voice, only to stare up at a high, pebbled ceiling covered in glistening droplets. He seemed to be in a cave of some sort, but it was brightly lit. The clarity of his vision was astounding, and he inhaled sharply as a stray drop splashed onto his nose. Didn't Naruto gouge out his eyes already? Sasuke tried to move—to sit up and touch his eyes, or reach for the chokuto he always kept on hand. Nothing happened. His body wouldn't listen.
Maybe he was being held with a paralysis jutsu. He tried to disrupt it with chakra, but realized with a start he couldn't feel any in his system. A genjutsu? He bit hard enough to draw blood, but nothing changed. 'What the heck?'
"Sasuke. Look this way."
He turned right and blinked at what he saw. Then he blinked again, just to make sure. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
A figure stood on the water a few feet away, hands at his sides. He was pale-skinned and dark-haired, unassuming but for the scarlet clouds on his cloak.
"Who-no, what are you?" Sasuke snarled. "I killed you! I saw you die with my own eyes—your body and you...you can't be—you shouldn't be here!" He struggled, but his body remained immobile.
"Do you understand your current situation?" Itachi asked.
Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "I understand that I can't move."
"Not surprising, considering that you have effectively expired."
The younger Uchiha drew in a hissing breath. "Explain."
"The infusion of Nine-tails chakra was sudden and unexpected. Your system rejected it, leading to a chakra recoil that sent you into massive shock on account of preexisting injuries. The result was fatal."
"So I died." Sasuke finished. It was inevitable, considering the damage he'd taken. 'But...' "That doesn't explain this." He glanced at his useless limbs. "Or you."
"The body you inhabit now is merely an illusion, created by your own mind." Itachi said tonelessly. "I myself am a chakra construct, implanted into Uzumaki Naruto. This form you see is a physical manifestation of my existence, and unaffected by time space. Your consciousness was not damaged by the demon, so it was simple enough to pull you here."
'Pulling my mind out of my own body...is that even possible? Unless it was some sort of sealing technique, or a forbidden jutsu...' The gears were turning in Sasuke's head. "Chakra construct...implanted...?"
His older brother let out a slow breath. "Needless to say, one of my clones...chatted with Naruto some time ago. I infused him with a portion of my power as a precaution, set to react whenever the demon chakra grew out of control. You'll recall I did something similar with you, little brother."
Sasuke flinched, muscles twitching as he remembered the Amaterasu he'd used on Madara. Then he grit his teeth. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"If you mean what Madara told you, then I believe the man has explained my reasons sufficiently." There was no change in Itachi's monotone.
"It doesn't matter what he says!" Sasuke snapped. "I want to hear it from you!"
"There is nothing to discuss."
His younger brother cursed. "I've destroyed Konoha trying to find the answers, and now that you're here, I want them." As if in response to his anger, the cavern gave a low rumble, sending a rain of droplets into the pool.
Itachi's eyes flickered to the ceiling, and Sasuke noticed that the irises were black. Black like the days before the massacre, like the moment he fell in their final battle—
He ruthlessly crushed that train of thought as Itachi looked back. "There isn't much time."
Sasuke ignored him. "Nine years, Itachi. I've been living a lie ever since I was eight, all to kill a man I thought was a cold-blooded murderer. To kill my only brother." The walls around them trembled.
"It was the only way."
"I don't believe you."
"The Council's orders—"
"The Council is filled with cowards. I've seen proof of that myself." The spineless old geezers had tried to talk him into negotiating peace treaties countless times—offering everything from the village coffers to their own wives and children. As if that could make up for years of complete ineptitude. It disgusted him to remember.
"As have I," Itachi murmured as the cavern shook again. "But the Council's orders were only part of the problem. The Uchiha Massacre was a deal made between Madara and myself."
Sasuke paused. "What are you talking about?" Madara made it clear that it was the Council who ordered the killings—and he had personally verified those claims before burning Konoha to ashes.
"Our family history is not a proud one, Sasuke." Itachi said, voice clear and steady even as the tremors intensified. "Before Konoha's founding, Madara was exiled from the Uchiha. Seventeen years ago, he sought revenge by unleashing the Nine-tails, causing the death of the Fourth. While he failed, he has never stopping trying to destroy the village." He paused as a dull roar echoed through the cave, sending bits of debris from the ceiling.
"Pride and arrogance have always been the downfall of our clan," the missing-nin continued. "Father was intent on strengthening our presence within Konoha, and many on the Council resented him for it. His plan for a coup would have resulted in countless innocent deaths. And thus the massacre was necessary."
"Necessary?" Sasuke felt anger rising. "What about our relatives? The cousins who were younger than me?" The people he'd grown up with in his childhood hadn't deserved to die. "They were civilians. They didn't know anything!" A large chunk of the ceiling crashed into the pool, splashing water over Sasuke. He ignored it.
"On that night, Madara gave me a choice between Konoha and the clan," Itachi continued as more rocks fell around them. "I chose the latter."
"The Fourth gave his life for peace. I was willing to at least as much."
"By killing the Uchiha?"
"If that is what it takes."
"Then why didn't you kill me too?" It was the one question he'd always asked himself.
Itachi shook his head. "The sins of the past are for me to carry alone. You killing me paved the path for a future Uchiha worthy of Konoha."
"Is that what you think?" A bitter laugh escaped from Sasuke's throat. "Konoha's gone, brother. As is everyone else. The future doesn't exist anymore."
The disturbance had been building to a crescendo. With a crack, the ceiling split in two, revealing a crimson sky. There was an inhuman screech of triumph before a monstrous claw of chakra dived towards Sasuke, intent on crushing the impudent maggot that dared to intrude upon its realm.
But it never found its mark. Moments later, Sasuke found himself staring at a delicate pattern of needlework clouds as Itachi's cloak fluttered inches from his face. His brother stood over him, one arm blocking the twitching claw while his left hand ran through a series of one-handed seals at a blinding rate. When finished, he planted his palm against the monstrosity, ignoring the sizzling as his body began to pulse with blue chakra.
"...what did you do?" Sasuke demanded. The cavern had stopped shaking, and everything-from the water to the walls-was glowing. The claw shuddered and tried to pull back. It was stuck fast.
"This was a final backup against Madara," Itachi said. "It is meant to trap his consciousness, then destroy it with help from the demon chakra."
An angry scream tore through the walls, and Sasuke's eyes widened as he saw multiple claws form and dive towards Itachi. With a sudden flash, the entire cavern glowed blue—and the claws recoiled. Violently.
"By connecting my will to the Nine-tails, I am able to control some of its powers," Itachi continued. "That's enough to get you out of here."
"Don't bother. I'm dead either way."
"No. I am sending you back."
"Back to my body? So I can choke to death on my own blood?" the younger Uchiha smiled bitterly. "It's not much of an improvement."
Itachi turned. Two pairs of dark eyes bore into each other. "I didn't let you die the first time, Sasuke." The cavern glowed brighter as he reached out with his right hand.
"I won't let you die now."
And he slammed a fist through Sasuke's chest as everything exploded in a shower of sparks.
A/N: Just a heads up, I am a AGONIZINGLY SLOW UPDATER (think months...or years...) who's more in love with Real Life than fanfiction. I'm writing this as something in my (very limited) spare time, so if you don't like living off cliffhangers, avoid this story at all costs. Also, if any typos/minor mistakes bug you, feel free to point them out, but I won't re-upload an entire chapter for little errors unless I have time. Thanks again.