TH: As promised, I have this chapter out in a timely manner. And it's the LAST CHAPTER! Thanks, everyone, for reading The Philosophy of Self. Super-awesome-shiny-thanks-yay for those of you who reviewed! I really appreciate it.
Please enjoy this conclusion to the story.
The Philosophy of Self
Several frantic thoughts ran through Sakura's head as Naruto spluttered and Tsunade looked grim. :He's going rogue again. He's going to attack Konoha. He's going after the rest of Akatsuki. He's going to kill the other Councilmembers. He's…:
"So much for that trust," Tsunade spat. "When I get my hands on that… to think I actually was starting to like that kid!"
"Are we searching for him?" Sakura asked quietly.
"ANBU squads are looking now, but he is adept at not being found. He can hide his chakra signature such that it is completely undetectable," Tsunade said grimly.
"I meant, are you going to have Naruto and I look," Sakura said. Tsunade's eyes went to Sakura's and stuck there.
"Do you know where he could be?" she demanded. Sakura shrugged.
"Not really, but I have ideas. And it wouldn't hurt to get more of us out there looking," she said. Tsunade started at her a moment longer, then nodded.
"That is true. Fine. Signal if you've found him by flaring your chakra. Do not approach him, do you hear me? We don't know what he's thinking," the Hokage said firmly.
:No, but I have a feeling I do,: Sakura thought, even as she replied with Naruto: "Yes, Tsunade-sama."
After they were dismissed and left the Hokage's office once more, Sakura turned to Naruto and said: "We should split up. It's important one of us finds him, not ANBU. Splitting up will give us better odds, though we'll still have to work hard to beat ANBU to him."
"Yeah!" Naruto agreed, his hurt expression lightening somewhat. "Do you know where we should look first?"
Sakura thought a moment. "Naruto, you check the Uchiha Compound. It's deserted and holds heavy meaning for him; he may have gone there. I'll… I'll start a sweep of the immediate area outside the Village proper, see if I can find any hint that he's left."
"Right," Naruto nodded. "Call if you need me."
"You too," she said, and Naruto took off running. Sakura's face descended into a scowl. "Okay, Itachi. Where the hell are you?"
She ran off, too.
…Toward the top of the Hokage Monument.
Somehow, it seemed appropriate. From the Monument, one can look down on all of Konoha. Itachi would want to see the Village he had sacrificed everything for before he…
Sakura set her jaw and shunshin'd up.
She found Itachi tucked slightly within the forest behind the mountain. The second she saw him, he trapped her in a genjutsu. There was already a squad of ANBU scattered around him, motionless in their own illusionary worlds.
Sakura, when she was younger, had internalized many of her stronger emotions in an attempt to seem like the serene, sweet girl that her parents had wanted her to be, and that she believed Sasuke had wanted. Those repressed emotions had become Inner Sakura, the strong, outspoken alter-ego that had lived in Sakura's head. It wasn't until Sakura's fight with Ino during the Chuunin Exam that she found out that that second, internal personality had conferred upon her a method of withstanding mental jutsu. Inner Sakura could split from Sakura's mind and break her out of Ino's Shintenshin… and it could even break her out of genjutsu.
Almost as soon as Itachi's genjutsu had settled over her, Sakura's mind split, and the genjutsu shattered. Undeterred, Itachi threw another genjutsu over her. She broke through that one as well, and glared at Itachi.
He stared back, eyes in the base form of the Sharingan, and cast a higher-level genjutsu. This one made Sakura close her eyes and use 'kai' to escape, but escape she did.
"I can do this all day," she growled at him. "What about you? I just need to signal, and all the ANBU teams out looking for you will be here in a blink. And I really doubt even you can take so many elites on at once."
"You don't know what you're doing," Itachi said sharply.
"Strange, I thought I was stopping you," Sakura sniped.
"I'm giving Sasuke back to you!" He hissed.
"You idiot!" she hissed back, stalking toward him. "I knew you were going to try to use that jutsu!"
"Don't pretend you don't want me to!"
"What?" she cried.
"Do not lie," Itachi said harshly. Sakura mouthed soundlessly for a moment.
"I… wha… Fine! Yes, when we first found out that Sasuke was dead and you might know the jutsu he used, I thought that maybe you could use it to bring him back! But it was only a thought, and one I didn't entertain for long!" Sakura said, throwing her hands up. "But apparently I've realized something you haven't since then!"
"And what might that be?" Itachi asked. His eyes were still red and black, narrowed in aggravation. Sakura met them belligerently, fairly glaring into the Sharingan.
"You cannot use Touka Koukan to bring Sasuke back," she said. She wasn't shouting anymore; instead, she was speaking in a low, intense voice to force him to listen. "If you do that, there will be no end to this! You sacrificed yourself to give Sasuke closure and a future. But when he found out… When…"
She could see she wasn't getting through to him. She almost wished she had brought Naruto with her after all; he could have just used his 'therapy jutsu' on Itachi and everything would have been fine. But then, she hadn't brought him because she wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't want Sasuke back badly enough to let Itachi use Touka Koukan.
But she was the only one here, and she couldn't convert people just by punching them and yelling at them. She'd have to rely on her powers of persuasion. Shaking her head, she tried a different track: "For all that you loved him, you never really understood your brother, did you?" And before Itachi could voice his indignation, she continued, "You thought you could make him hate you. You thought you could make him hate you so much he would be healed by killing you. But I think you underestimated how much Sasuke loved his older brother. Sasuke loved you so much that when he discovered the truth, it broke him that it had been his hand that had ended you."
"How can you know this?" Itachi demanded.
"The proof is in how passionately he hated you!" Sakura said, waving a hand. "There cannot be that depth of feeling of betrayal if he hadn't felt something for you! And I bet you that half of that was Sasuke transferring the hate he felt for himself, because he found that he could not stop loving his brother even after what you'd done."
"When I bring him back, and he realizes…" Itachi started stiffly. Sakura interrupted him.
"Stop thinking with your guilt and start thinking with your mind! Sasuke was never emotionally strong! The evidence is all over his childhood! Hating and loving you, and the guilt and the hurt, and the betrayal… Everything about that situation broke him. Sasuke could not go on. That he sacrificed himself in the first place to bring you back, even though he knew you had wanted to die, is telling. Sasuke could not live knowing that he was the reason you had died. What makes you think he won't just use Touka Koukan again after you've used it? And if he does, are you going to give up? No! Just like every other obstinate, arrogant, damn fool Uchiha, you'd probably just up and turn it around again! When does it stop, Itachi? Huh?"
It bothered Itachi that Sakura had found him so quickly. It bothered him that she had proved resistant to his genjutsu. It bothered him that she seemed to know him, and Sasuke, well enough to make educated guesses at their actions—past and potential. Most of all, it bothered him that he could hear the reason, the sense, in what she was saying.
He could feel his resolve wavering. And that brought on a burst of aggravation. "You will explain everything to him, once I bring him back. You and Naruto, you will persuade Sasuke to stay…"
"Yeah, because he listened to us so well before," Sakura snapped.
"Then, what?" Itachi demanded, completely incapable of maintaining his usual calm, stoic demeanor. "Sasuke was unable to stand under the weight of his grief and regrets, so I must stand under my own? Is my suffering so negligible next to his?"
Sakura blinked, looking slightly taken-aback. Then her eyes narrowed. "You're finally thinking selfishly for once and it's at the wrong time."
Itachi stayed silent, staring at her and waiting. She scowled at him.
"You were always stronger than Sasuke, and I don't mean this—" she made a vague gesture he assumed encompassed shinobi life "—Think about it. Would Sasuke have ever been able to go through what you did? Or would he have broken under the pressure of your Clan? Or under the pressure and horror of being ordered to kill his family? Or would he have broken later? But you… despite your guilt and pain… despite the fact that you're a pacifist, you continued to live and protect those important to you."
"That may be," Itachi said quietly, the soul-deep exhaustion that had plagued him for most of his life returning, "but strength is not limitless. And I am at the end of mine."
"So, what now? Are we supposed to let you kill yourself?"
"I wouldn't count it a tragedy if I gave my life to give Sasuke his," Itachi told her.
"I would," she disagreed firmly. "Haven't you been listening to me? Sasuke would never let it all go and live. He's past the point of wanting to try. He's past the point of listening to any of us. You have become everything for him. He doesn't care about anything else. If he can't save you, he'll kill himself."
Itachi's eyes snapped to hers, and he could read in them that she truly believed what she was saying.
"Suicide," he murmured.
"Sasuke was beyond any of the help we could have given him," Sakura said. There was a note of sorrow in her voice. "He couldn't stand all the guilt and grief and regret and hate and love he was feeling. He let his emotions overcome him, and let them guide his decisions. His anger and hatred let Orochimaru get a toehold in his mind. They drove him to almost kill his Teammates. He almost killed Naruto in particular numerous times. Because he gave in to his emotions, and because of Orochimaru's influence, he's done things he can't forgive himself for."
:So have I,: Itachi thought, and something of that must have shown on his face or in his eyes, because Sakura said:
"You never went against your innermost morals. You never betrayed the core of who you were, never lost sight of that. You may have been a pacifist who killed, but you never betrayed your beliefs. You killed because you thought it necessary to preserve other life. It's the most difficult moral question: Should you kill some to save others? I don't think you have ever acted in a way that ran contrary to what your answer to that question is.
"Sasuke," she continued, "lost his reason. He could have resisted Orochimaru's Cursed Seal, but he gave into it, because he was angry and lost and frustrated. He wanted to kill you, but he loved you, and he saw in Orochimaru a way to kill that love. All love. He went to Orochimaru on purpose, to lose his humanity. Under the Cursed Seal, his loyalty, his love, his self all burned away. It is one reason why I don't think he could let himself live, now. You got rid of the Seal, you said, and when that happened, Sasuke regained his conscience, and he knew he had destroyed himself with his emotion-fueled decision to go to Orochimaru. And when he learned that you weren't the monster he'd thought, and realized that maybe, if he hadn't killed his love for you, he might not have killed you… He realized that he had well and truly lost all sense of the very core of his being. Bringing you back was the one thing he could do that gave him back some measure of himself. It patched together the broken pieces of his self, long enough that he could die as Uchiha Sasuke, and not some twisted caricature."
Itachi, who himself had been on the brink of acting solely on the basis of his own emotion, contrary to what his own sense of reason was telling him, repressed a shudder. He turned his face away from Sakura, who fell silent.
He remembered the last flicker of feeling he'd gotten from Sasuke's departing soul, as the Touka Koukan jutsu dragged his own soul from death. After the love, regret, and forgiveness, there had been one blinding flash of… relief. Relief so profound that even the memory of it made Itachi's eyes sting with tears.
He had been avoiding think about it, about what it had meant, because he had not felt that he deserved life. He had felt that Sasuke deserved it, needed it. But that flash of relief, the exhalation of a torn soul finally given reprieve… told him otherwise.
Itachi might have suffered and grieved for the lives he had taken—he might always carry them with him—but he had never doubted his purpose. He had always had the strength of his morals, his conviction, to lean upon. He'd never lost sight of his self or his goals.
Could he, then, begrudge Sasuke the solace of death? Could he think to take it away?
Sharingan fading, Itachi closed his eyes and felt the tears hot on his lashes.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't strong enough for your expectations.
"I was never as strong as you…
"But I am strong enough to give you this.
"My weakness would have destroyed it all. It destroyed me. I cannot; you must. You should. You deserve this more than I. I'm sorry… onii-tama."
Itachi opened his eyes, head tilted up so that the sight that greeted him was the bright blue sky over Konoha. He murmured to the waiting Sakura: "You are very perceptive."
He could sense her relax slightly, heard her exhalation of held breath. "Then…?"
"I felt Sasuke's soul in the Touka Koukan. I knew his reasons, felt his emotions," Itachi admitted to her. "I had been ignoring them in my own pain. I hadn't wanted to think…"
He paused, then told her: "Everything you've said rings true."
"So, you'll let yourself live?" she asked quietly.
"I cannot guess how you can care so much," he admitted, "for one such as I."
Her lips wavered into a wry smile. "I never used to understand Sasuke, when we were younger. I didn't have the same experiences to draw from, and couldn't fathom his. That's changed as I've gotten older, and now after all this, I think I might finally understand him. And I… even after everything, he was my Teammate. I respect the decision he made in sacrificing himself to give you a second chance. And…"
She hesitated momentarily, and then admitted: "And I've gotten to know you. I've gotten to understand you, even if only this little bit. And I like what I see. Sasuke did not over-judge your worth. I am proud to call you comrade, and Teammate."
Itachi was silent a moment. "It's good to hear such words from a Leaf-nin again. But I'm afraid that I've ruined things, once again. In slipping my guards, I've destroyed the trust the Hokage has given me, and I suspect her trust, once broken, is not given a second time."
"Ruined things again?" Sakura repeated, eyes narrowing. "What, you mean like you ruined the situation with Sasuke? That you meant for him to stay in Konoha, to hate you so much that killing you would give him closure, to become stronger in his drive to kill you so that he wouldn't require your protection anymore? You think it was your failing that it didn't go as planned? You idiot. You might be one of the strongest shinobi to ever grace the ranks of Konoha's forces, but you aren't a damn god. You would've had to have been omniscient to have foreseen everything that happened. You can't guess at the action, reactions, and spontaneity of all the players in this game. It's impossible; there are too many variables. And people don't always act logically."
Itachi turned his face away, hiding the expression of complete disbelief. But Sakura sighed anyway, and said: "You're not going to believe me though, are you?"
"Forgive me," Itachi apologized, stiffly, not quite meaning it.
Sakura craned her neck around and searched his eyes with hers for a moment, then she shook her head slowly, sadly. "You don't want to believe me."
There was an awkward pause, and Itachi felt a twinge of remorse for the hint of sorrow in her voice. But she squared her shoulders, firmed her mouth, and lifted her chin. There was fresh determination in her face. "Fine. We'll just have to keep reminding you until you do believe."
"Me, Naruto, and Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said firmly. "We're all Teammates, Itachi. We will never abandon each other."
"Teammates," he said, voice and gaze distant. His Genin Teammates had been kind to him, for the brief time that he had been with them. He had worked well with his ANBU Team, but he hadn't been with them for very long either. He had never really had Teammates that he'd connected to. He'd had teammates, but not Teammates. They worked together, and were cordial. But they didn't have the kind of bonds Team Seven seemed to have.
"Yes," Sakura affirmed, looking almost angry. She must have thought he was questioning it.
Itachi wandered a little way away, closer to the edge of the Hokage Monument. Just over the hill of the Fourth's hair, he could see Konoha spreading out below him.
He had given his life to save this village…had given more than his life, given the lives of his family… given his humanity. He felt so empty, like he'd poured out all of himself for Konoha, for Sasuke, and now there was nothing left.
Every bond he'd had, he'd broken. He had left his Genin Team when he was promoted, breaking that bond. He'd broken the bonds of his family when he took the mission to kill them. He'd broken the close, brotherly bond he'd had with Sasuke, replacing it with hatred. And he'd broken his bond to Konoha by dying—the plan had always been for him to act as a spy outside of the village, not for him to let Sasuke kill him.
Itachi turned to Sakura, who had shadowed him and was now standing watching him look down on Konoha. "I am weary," he told her. "The relief that death offers is a siren's song in my ears."
"But—" she started.
"But Sasuke traded places with me to give me a second chance at life," Itachi interrupted her. "And I will respect his sacrifice. And…"
He paused and looked her in the face. Her chin was set with determination, and there was worry in her eyes. He said, with a sense of wonder: "You call me comrade, Teammate. You try to persuade me to live."
Sakura's expression tightened a little in increasing worry. But when she opened her mouth, Itachi lifted a hand to still her.
"There is a bond that exists between us. Tenuous as it is. We have shared danger, and protected each other. I would even presume to say that you trust me, some little bit."
"You saved my life," Sakura murmured. "More than once. Yes, I trust you."
"I will live," Itachi said, "because you ask. In recognition of this bond."
Relief washed Sakura's expression clean, but then her brow furrowed anew as she processed his words. "You're going to live because I asked you not to commit suicide? That's it?"
"I cannot say I've been persuaded that I deserve it. I cannot say that I want to live. But Sasuke has given this life to me, and if what you say is true, there are people who want me to keep it," Itachi said. "All my life I have had to break the bonds that tied me to others. I was always alone. There is… perhaps a part of me that wishes to stay a part of Team Seven."
"Good," Sakura said, relaxing a little. "If you were just going to live because of some weird sense of obligation… It would almost be worse than you just dying. I want you to want to live for your own reasons. I want you… this is going to sound so stupid… I want you to be happy. You gave up so much for all our sakes. I want you to have happiness beyond the easy rest of death. We took your life away from you. Now I want us to give it back."
"…Thank you," Itachi said quietly. His eyes traced back to the vista, the village spread below the mountain. There was a long moment of silence.
"Maybe you'll find something to live for," Sakura spoke suddenly. Itachi turned toward her. "Maybe you don't have anything besides my weak words to keep you here now, but maybe…"
She trailed off. Itachi allowed: "Maybe."
For a moment, there was something indefinably sad in Sakura's eyes as she stared into the distance, and then she turned to him and a bright smile lit her face. The edge of it was too sharp for it to be entirely true. "Until you do, Team Seven will have to be enough."
A part of Itachi ached with the knowledge that he had been a part of putting that brittle quality in her smile. It was a part of himself that he'd never been able to silence, never been able to ignore. He was a pacifist. It had always been in his heart to heal, rather than to hurt.
So, when Sakura held out a hand and said: "Come on. I suppose we should start by trying to persuade Tsunade-shishou not to beat you bloody for your little disappearing trick." he reached out and took it.
The jagged edges of Sakura's smile softened slightly.
It was a start.