"Ha!" Sasuke cried, in imitation of his hero. "Bandits are no match for the famous Yukimaru!"
There was a banging sound, the noise of a great battle, where Yukimaru defeated his wooden enemies soundly, as he had always done in the stories - but not without sacrifices.
"Aww... Mother! It broke!"
His mother came to see the toy at his cries. Sasuke held it out to her; a piece of the once great Yukimaru lay in each hand.
"Oh, Sasuke." She sighed, in both exasperation and in pity. It had only been a few weeks since Sasuke's birthday. She thought about taking it from him; a lesson about taking better care of his toys.
Sasuke looked up at her, both hopeful and guilty, from under the length of his hair. She reached down and tugged a piece of it gently. It needed cutting again. Perhaps it was good that he still played with toys, as well as ninja tools. Itachi had grown up too fast.
She smiled at him. "Nevermind, Sasuke. Give him here, and I'll ask your father to fix him for you when he has the time."
And instantly Sasuke burst into one of his most radiant smiles, the ones that he normally saved for Itachi, and said, "Thank you, Mother!" and hugged her.
Sasuke's whole world shatters when he is eight and a half years old, and he does not know how to fix it again.
There were four staples of his life before - Itachi, father, mother, academy. And now, after, he has the academy still. But he comes home and wanders through an empty district to his house and takes off his shoes without prompting from his mother. He does not hope and fear at the same time for a summons to his father's presence. And he certainly does not run home, wanting to know if Itachi has returned from his mission yet.
Academy. Eat. Work. Sleep. Academy Eat Work Sleep. Academy Eat Work Sleep -
It is not enough to fill the gap and he is almost nine and he does not know what is.
Life is empty now, hollow. He tries to remember what he did with his spare time before and can't.
He tries to remember the games he played with his wooden soldiers and can't.
He tries to remember who his friends are and can't.
He tries to remember if he ever had any, and can't.
He sits in the classroom at the academy and listens intently. Sometimes the other children talk to him and he doesn't know how to answer.
Wow, Sasuke, even you must find this hard!
He doesn't. This is easy compared to-
You sure must practise a lot.
Yes, but there is no one to practise with or for anymore.
I think your family would be proud.
What do they know? He doesn't have a family anymore!
Aren't you gonna talk to anyone?
He will when he finds something to say.
There is a woman paid from the clan's finances to come and make him food three times a day. Every monday is the same. Every tuesday is the same. Every wednesday is the same. Every...
There are never any of his favourites. None of the food is his mother's. It all tastes sickly and bitter.
One day he gathers the dinner she has left for him - Sasuke is always out at the hours she is in - and takes it out into the square and uses a justu to set it alight. He goes hungry and feels better.
A week later he is in hospital with a drip and he is still refusing to eat.
What can we do to make you eat, Sasuke-kun?
Bring his mother back.
If you don't like the food, could always ask for something else.
He'll do it by himself.
He is eventually released from hospital after the nurses finally forced him to eat something under a genjutsu. The Hokage agrees to give him a generous stipend for food from the Uchiha monies.
I'm sure your mother only bought the best, Sasuke-kun.
Sasuke forces down the ashes he left the hospital with for dinner that night, but the next morning he takes out one of his mother's recipe books and copies it word for word to make breakfast.
He tastes it and it tastes nothing like hers. So he throws it away and starts again.
He has to go out for more ingredients three times. The shopkeepers give him odd looks. He misses a day at the academy. He doesn't care.
By the end of the day he hasn't eaten anything, but he continues to cook through the night and at one in the morning he tastes it and it tastes the way his mother used to make it.
He eats everything then.
There is only so much work a boy can do. He does all of his homework as soon as he enters the house. He practises with shuriken, kunai, jutsu. He practises taijutsu on the dummy in the old training room. He stares at himself in the mirror, waiting for his eyes to turn red.
Live an unseemly life-
There is still always two hours left before bedtime. So he does more practise. His muscles ache constantly and all the exercises they do at the academy hurt but he is far ahead of everyone anyway and it's still easy, like it was for
One day he wakes up and his legs hurt so much that he doesn't want to go to the academy today, so he makes himself breakfast the way mother did on a bad day and goes back to bed. He wakes up again at noon and makes lunch the way his mother did when he was sick. He has to make it four times before it tastes like hers, but he's getting better at it now. It is four in the afternoon by the time he is done and since he has no work today he doesn't know what to do.
He goes out, because he doesn't know what to do, and he wanders and gets lost a few times, but doesn't care and keeps wandering.
He passes the bank of the river and sees Naruto. Naruto is an orphan too. He will never understand what it's like either but he is closer than the rest of them and he understands nothing to do because no one is here to do it for and no one to make you.
A look of understanding passes between them, and then Sasuke goes home through the marketplace, and passes the playground that Itachi used to take him to when they both were younger. He goes and sits on one of the swings for a few seconds. Then he gets off again and continues home and beats up the practise dummy until well past midnight.
Immediately after, he used to dream of blood crawling out of the walls and drowning him; then after that he used to dream of climbing a tower of his family's bodies to get to someone at the top. He stopped dreaming that when he got to the top and found that there was nothing there.
Now he dreams of Itachi. He looks back like he did for real only this time he cries. Then Sasuke wakes up and goes back to sleep and dreams it again. Then he wakes up again. He doesn't know if it is real or not. He does not have other dreams. There is no one else to dream of; they are all dead.
He never dreams that they are still alive. Niisan doesn't make mistakes.
Mother used to tuck him into bed to sleep, and it is the one bit of her that he can't bring back by himself.
He still goes to bed at the same time as he has always done, but a lot of the time he will only lie there for a few minutes before he gets up again and then goes back to work for a few more hours. If he's lucky he won't be able to dream when he finally does go to sleep.
It hardly ever works. He always sees Itachi crying and he doesn't know if it is real or not. Sometimes he dreams of other things and he wakes up only to find he is still asleep.
Those are confusing days.
Some days he doesn't go to the academy because he has to just sit at home and think. He tries to remember as little as possible of the bad things, usually, even when he thinks about the good things all the time, to stop the memories fading with age - if he always thinks of them like new then they'll always stay new.
But on some days he has to think about the bad things too. That's normally Itachi.
Itachi crying. Itachi killing. Itachi speaking. Monotone. Monochrome. Red and black, a spinning eye. Water slips down his face. Capacity. Love. Hate.
And at the end of it, Sasuke still doesn't know what is real.
He thinks of the good memories, kept fresh in his mind: big brother, carrying him home, telling him he'll always protect him, telling him he is worth everything. But at the same time there are the bad memories, that he can't hope to forget: a knife and blood, black sickle blades in red eyes, and mother and father lying together on the floor. He is worth nothing.
And then there is the memory of Itachi's tears, that he only sees when he's dreaming and cannot picture clearly when he is awake, and he still doesn't know whether the image is real or not.
Sasuke can spend whole days thinking, building arguments and then tearing them down again. Niisan. Itachi. Niisan, father, mother... Itachi. It goes round and round in his head, and always the memory comes up again of the tears, and because he does not know if it is real or not, he does not know whether to hate his brother or love him. Niisan or Itachi.
He does not know.
Father had told him not to be like his brother, but which brother did he mean? Sasuke doesn't know, and can't remember, and wishes he could ask him, even if he would be in trouble.
Father was proud of him though. Wasn't he? Sasuke had mastered that katon jutsu under his guidance. That had made him happy. Hadn't it? Mother had said that father always talked about him. She wouldn't lie. Would she?
Father had always wanted him to be as good as Itachi, even if he had never said as much. So why did he change his mind? What was wrong with Itachi now?
Blood pooling on the floor and moonlight flooding through the window and one dark shadow standing over his parents-
He doesn't know anymore.
It is the day of his ninth birthday and he can't bear the thought of eating his mother's food without her there, so Sasuke goes for takeout instead. He gets udon and brings it home and places it out neatly on the table and picks up his chopsticks and then doesn't touch a thing.
Mother always said that takeout was bad for him. But she still let him have it sometimes, as a treat because he had done well. Father did not think much of his academy scores, but Mother would always quietly celebrate them when Father was away from home.
Has Sasuke done anything worth celebrating? He remembers distantly that he was top of the class on his last report card too. So he eats the food. It settles in the pit of his stomach heavily. He feels like he has done something wrong, like sneaking desert before the main course, only ten times worse.
Is coming top of the class enough anymore?
Mother is dead.
He runs to the bathroom and empties his stomach. His hands shake, but he returns to the kitchen and cooks one of his mother's meals again. He barely manages to touch it. He still feels sick.
What is top of the class when there is no one to prove himself to? What is top of the class when Itachi was already chuunin by this age? What is top of the class when he couldn't save Mother? What is being the best when Itachi is still better?
Sasuke has no right to celebrate a thing, and nothing to celebrate. They are all gone.
He goes back to the academy the next day and instead of just listening to the lectures he processes them. When it comes down to it, Iruka-sensei isn't really saying much that Sasuke doesn't already know.
Sasuke frowns to himself. This isn't right. He can't just be academy standard anymore, he has to go further... although he has not quite decided why and how far, yet. But he won't let what happened to Mother and Father happen to anyone else again, ever. He won't.
As he leaves the academy at the end of the day, though, he realises that he's not going to get much further that way. He'll have to go into the Uchiha library for that.
He's just passed the gates. Someone shouts at him from behind.
Hey, Sasuke! I'm going to kick your ass one day.
He glances over his shoulder and sees Naruto staring after him and scowling. He turns back again.
"You do that, dobe," he says, in a hoarse voice that doesn't sound like his own.
Are you making fun of me? I'm going to be Hokage one day! You better believe it!
He doesn't believe it. But he can feel the stares on the other children on his back as he walks away, because he has said it aloud.
Naruto deserves that much.
Now, when Sasuke has his days when he just feels like thinking, he doesn't think about Itachi, he goes to the library and he reads. There are all sorts of fire jutsu there, mostly ones that are beyond his reach for now, but he learns a lot of the weaker ones for himself, and reads all the tactics and strategy books he can get his hands on, and practises them as best he can in his head.
There are stories in the strategy books; times when the Uchiha beat their enemies through trickery and the Sharingan. He recognises some of the names. The books could only have been written recently.
In one of the books he comes across his father's name and stares at the same page for three minutes without taking in a word. His fingers delicately trace the kanji of Uchiha Fugaku.
If he were alive, Sasuke wouldn't need to read the books, or learn jutsu from them. He could simply ask his father.
But that option is closed to him now.
He closes the book as well, before his tears smudge the page's ink, and carefully puts it back where he found it and memorises its exact position. He starts allowing himself a few minutes of each day before and after the academy to read his father's name.
He has his father's name in a book, but he has nothing of his mother's. There are photographs, but none of her alone. Sasuke takes all the ones with her and his father together and sets them up around his room. All the photographs that have him in also have Itachi in them. He hides those ones and tries to forget where he left them.
The ninja took most of her possessions away when they cleared up. But he wants to have something, anything, that was his mother's.
He finds nothing until he stumbles from his room one morning, still rubbing sleep from his eyes, and catches sight of something in the mirror, just out of the corner of his eye. It takes a second to process but then he is back, standing in front of it with wide, disappointed eyes. For a second, he thought...
But, he thinks, as he stares into the mirror, and sees himself looking back, he looks like her. He has his mother's looks, not his father's.
He stares at his shaking pale hands and remembers his father's slightly darker skin, that Itachi had, but he never did, no matter how much time he spent in the sun.
Mother's here, he thinks. She's here with him, living in his skin.
And for the next few days he feels happier than he has in a long time.
The academy continues to be useless, and increasingly irritating. The girls who tend to follow him round so much are just annoying. Naruto is annoying as well, but at least he understands... to a certain extent. The rest of them have no idea.
But Sasuke still continues to attend, because it is expected of him, and it is the only way to become a ninja, and he will draw even more attention to himself if he leaves.
All the same, he wishes the children would leave him alone. He doesn't want friends. He had them, almost, before, in his own district and with his own people.
He would still have them, if not for Itachi.
But that doesn't mean that he wants replacements.
He has forgotten that maybe he needs them.
He continues to practise every jutsu, every movement in taijutsu, every throwing technique, until it is second nature - until he can do them as easily as breathing, just like Itachi.
The Uchiha district has its own private training grounds, so he does not ever need to leave. He isn't sure he ever wants to leave, either. There might be ghosts here, and sometimes blood and broken things, but it is all he has left.
And it keeps reminding him why he has to get better.
He has his mother's face, and his father's name, and he has pictures of both of them together in all the rooms of the district he still visits, so he can see them smiling at him wherever he is. He has his father's name in a book and he has his mother's looks, and it is not nearly enough, but he will have to make do.
He'll get stronger for them, so he can keep seeing those frozen smiles without feeling guilty.
Apart from his own room in their house, the library holds more of his father's and mother's faces than any other building. He thinks about moving some of the ones from his room into here, since he ends up falling asleep in the library more often than not, but it feels wrong to move too many pictures out of their house, so he leaves them where they are.
One day he rediscovers the pile of photographs with Itachi in them, the ones that he hid and almost forgot about. They tumble out of the cupboard and more than a few frames smash.
He picks up one of the undamaged ones, a picture that he remembers being taken on his eighth birthday. Father, Mother, Itachi and him, all smiling at the camera. Sasuke only looks a little different to how he does now, but the Sasuke in the picture looks so happy that he feels like it might as well have been a different person altogether.
Itachi has changed everything.
Sasuke moves his parents' pictures back into the house, and puts this on in the threshold of the library, where he is bound to see it every time he enters. Every day, the stab of pain he gets from looking at the picture goes a little deeper.
He forgets the dream of Itachi's tears, because it confuses everything, and it is easier for him to hate than it is to love, when he is so out of practise.
He passes Itachi's photograph every time he enters and leaves the library. Though it has other faces in it, Sasuke has stopped looking at them, and started only seeing his brother.
Now he spends all of the free time he does not use practising in the library, reading and planning and, sometimes, just sitting at the entrance and staring at his brother's face and wondering why he did it.
It has gotten to the point where he barely goes back to the house anymore, and spends most of his time in the library. He even sleeps there, most nights a week. He has so much to read, to learn, that he cannot pause. He gets takeout more often than he does cook his mother's food.
After a while he realises he cannot clearly remember his mother and father's faces, even though he used to be able to draw their photographs perfectly from memory - and had, sometimes, when he was at the academy and missed them. But this realisation comes on the day when Kiba managed to hit him in their spar - not once, twice, but three times - and Sasuke knows he will have to get better, better, better, if he is to ever beat Itachi. No one must be able to touch him, like no one was able to touch Itachi. He pushes it to the back of his mind and decides he will fix it later.
One day Sasuke decides to tour the district. He visits and bows to all the bloodstains, even if he can only put names and faces to a few of them. They must have cleaned up very well; there are not nearly enough to represent the whole clan here, and those that remain have faded to a pale and sickly pink.
At every one he stops and says, 'I will kill Itachi for you.'
And then when there are none left he goes to the Uchiha tomb and stops in front of every grave and repeats the same thing.
For you. For you. For you.
Itachi is not going to be easy to kill, Sasuke knows. He was a genius and Sasuke knows he is good, but he will have to work harder than ever before if he is going to be that good.
So Sasuke works. He trains until his body aches so badly that he can barely get out of bed, and then he drags himself to the Academy in the hopes that he will learn something today. He rarely learns anything other than how good he is getting compared to people his own age.
Sasuke starts to think that maybe he is finally getting stronger.
He doesn't smile. He tries, but the corners of his mouth refuse to curve. He's getting stronger; this is all he has left now; he should be happy that he is doing so well for his family, that he is getting one step closer to killing Itachi.
Eventually, Sasuke decides that he can't be happy. Not until Itachi is dead.
And then one day Sasuke comes home from the academy and beats a training dummy until his hands are raw and bleeding because he smiled at a prank Naruto pulled in class that day.
He has forgotten that before he couldn't be happy because he did not know how to, and not because he tells himself he doesn't deserve to.
Not until Itachi is dead.
Not until then, whenever that might be.
Now Sasuke passes the book with his father's name in it every day in the library, but he doesn't realise it, because he barely remembers that book exists. He's reading the old books now, and the Uchiha of ancient history - of a different age, of before even the Shodai's age - fill up his head.
In those days, there was only the clan, the Uchiha, and all others were second to them or an enemy.
Itachi is the enemy. All others are secondary.
Because Sasuke is the only one left now, the only one with a right to bear the Uchiha name. Itachi discarded that right when he killed all the others, because if there was one thing the Uchiha believe in it is themselves.
Itachi killed the Uchiha, therefore he is not one of them. Sasuke is, and therefore he must make Itachi pay for the clan's death.
Sasuke rarely thinks the words father and mother anymore; it hurts too much to think of them, because the parts of his life they used to fill have never really been replaced by anything else; the wounds have never been covered and given time to heal.
It is much easier to make them - to make everyone - simply Uchiha. When he thinks of the Uchiha he only thinks of history.
History is something that didn't happen to him. History is... safe.
Fugaku never liked to be dragged away from his work, and he liked it even less when he was dragged away to a stifling tourist spot, an ancient temple a week away from Konoha that Mikoto wanted the boys to see. He could be doing something useful, instead of carrying his youngest son on his shoulders. Itachi, too, was taking time off from his training for this - wasted time that might prove to be his downfall later.
So Fugaku was in a foul mood, and when a tired Sasuke asked if they could go home now, his answer was a sharp, "Home is a week away, Sasuke. We are returning to the hotel. Learn some patience and perhaps you will be half the shinobi your brother is some day."
Mikoto let out a soft sound of disapproval, but Fugaku's temper wouldn't let him regret (wouldn't, Sasuke was just being a silly child) what he had said, even when Itachi glowered at him (mild, compared to the attention Fugaku normally received) and Sasuke sniffed.
"But Mother said..." Sasuke mumbled, quiet enough that he probably thought Fugaku couldn't hear. "Mother said it's family that makes a home."
'I'm worried that you don't give Sasuke enough time,' Mikoto always said at home. 'He worships you, yet you barely speak to him!'
'I don't want him to become like Itachi,' Fugaku had always answered, because his eldest son hated him now, and he wasn't sure why, but he couldn't bear it if both did.
This time Sasuke's tone reminded him of all those times his youngest boy had whispered 'Father...' as Fugaku walked out the door, and he thought maybe this was another poor way to raise a child.
He let Mikoto and Itachi walk a little ahead, and said, "I'm sorry, Sasuke, I shouldn't have snapped at you."
"It's okay," Sasuke answered quietly.
"Your Mother is right," Fugaku pressed. He hesitated. "You are right. Family is home."
And he could feel, rather than see, the warmth of Sasuke's smile reflected in Mikoto's soft eyes as she looked back at the pair of them, and as Itachi's shoulders relaxed in a way Fugaku hadn't seen for maybe years.
Perhaps he still had time to correct his errors.
On a shelf in the Uchiha compound, there is a broken toy soldier who will never be fixed.
A/N: Phew! I've been sitting on this one for a while. I can't remember exactly when I started this, but it must be at least a year ago - I'd seen one moment of Sasuke-bashing too many. I don't personally like where Kishimoto has gone with the character. But that is a fault of the narrative and not Sasuke. He was not always evil, he was not destined to be a villain from the word go, and he didn't, for example, try to kill Naruto out of pure jealousy or rape Sakura. Sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Sasuke is just a very screwed up boy.
On the fic itself: I was trying to track the changes in Sasuke's mindset that might have turned him from very upset!gentle!Sasuke to avenger!Sasuke. I don't know how well I really succeeded, but I'm quite happy with the result. I also tried to experiment with a few narrative, er... aids, I guess, the 'scenebreaks' in particular. Did they influence your reading of the fic at all? Did you even notice them before I pointed them out? Let me know either way! Unfortunately FFN messed up the initial ~style~ I had going on, but I think this works too.
Feedback, as always, is warmly welcomed, and I apologise for my rambling. :)