A name was all he had left. All that remained of a once great family. It was his duty to restore that name; to ensure, through his actions, that it would once again be whispered in reverent fear.
All that shining glory had become merely a tarnished reputation trampled into blood-soaked mud. Power had proved to be a malicious mistress for the mighty Uchiha clan; at the height, when the clouds shrouding heaven were just in view, she had cut the ties of fortune and favored the bold no more. Instead she gifted her worshippers with ignominious death; now they were nothing more than corpses rotting beneath hard-packed soil
but today their ghosts had risen to unleash their fury at innocent lives stolen away just as they were reaching the height of their potential.
Once upon a time there had been no one but him; a boy a mere child easily dismissed by those in power but, as he fought with all the skill and power he could muster under the lowering sky, Sasuke could almost feel the ghosts of the dead Uchiha clan converging on him. They gave him the strength to do what he must; what he had been born to do, reminding him that he hadn't always been alone; reminding him of his duty to avenge them - his atonement for not having saved them. It didn't matter that he couldn't decimate Konoha in its entirety. Somehow, somewhere along the way, everything he reviled, everything he had sworn to destroy, had come to be embodied in Naruto's tall frame and that was enough.
Under the gray sky, on a trampled battlefield, he was finally severing everything that still tied him to this existence. Memory flashed almost in conjunction with his katana, renewing his waning strength and he blocked Naruto's words as the other spoke them; refusing, one last time, to hear the pleas and the promises.
Nothing could ever make the wrong right.
Rage strengthened his arm and Sasuke swung the katana with renewed vigor, even as he retreated from the world and sunk back into the past
give me the boy and I will show you the man
Wasn't that how it went? But they had all been wrong Konoha and Orochimaru
the one who called himself Madara, even. Outwardly he had conformed but inwardly he seethed. Centuries of noble blood backed by noble deeds had been his true teachers; forming the weak clay of a scared, abandoned boy into the steel of an avenger.
Blades clashed in a shower of sparks as Naruto finally fell silent and Sasuke could feel the ghosts retreating; satisfied now that he would do right by them, that he wouldn't sacrifice the ties of blood on the altar of the greater good as his brother had done before him. It was almost like being trapped in Itachi's Tsukiyomi again: the sudden clarity; the startling realization that he had been broken down to the very basics of his own being. The moment of vengeance - awaited impatiently for so long - swayed and melted with his movements and Sasuke almost faltered when he realized that he was no longer waging war on Konoha, no longer facing Naruto in the hardest battle he'd ever fought; he was facing himself.
He used to have a clear picture of his goals and his ambitions.
The mirror of his soul had always reflected pure and true, and he had been satisfied by what he had become, but he had been wrong. Everything he had ever believed about himself, his future, his past
it had all been a lie.
Deceived, betrayed; he had been a lost child seeking resolution absolution in all the wrong places
A sound ripped from his throat, a low anguished cry for all he had lost, and Sasuke moved faster than he had ever believed he could; dipping and swaying, dodging and slashing
He could clearly read the reluctance in his one-time friend, perhaps the only real friend he'd ever had. Naruto defended, but he did not attack with all the power Sasuke knew was at his disposal. That hesitance fuelled the fire of hatred burning unendingly in his heart and Sasuke employed all the skill he was capable of to force Naruto to give ground; to force the other man to fight. Dimly, he understood, he knew that Naruto just wasn't ready yet, couldn't give up on him, and because of the bond Naruto clung to, he couldn't quite bring himself to the point where he unleashed the full fury of his power on Sasuke. The Uchiha understood that
but part of him hated Naruto more than anything because of it. The blonde was, perhaps, the only shinobi alive who could actually defeat him and increasingly, more than anything, Sasuke just wanted it all to be over.
Naruto's smaller kunai locked with the blade of Sasuke's katana, the screeching of metal under great pressure accompanying the fiery sparks, as the blonde brought his full strength to bear against the advancing Uchiha and, for a moment, Sasuke was close enough to read the anguish in those blue eyes. The truth of the matter was Naruto didn't want to kill him; even if he understood intellectually that it was the only way. Deep down, the little boy was still there; the one who believed absolutely in his ability to bring his friend back home.
But Sasuke had realized his own personal truth long ago, and today, his truth had risen from the grave; a gaunt spectre, beautiful in her terrifying way. After years of being confined, screaming, to the avenues of death; bloated, rotting corpses her only audience, she had finally broken free and was eager to wail her song so that all may hear:
There is no strength, no power; only betrayal.
He had no use for Naruto's truth - friendship and camaraderie and caring overcoming all that was not the path Uchiha had ever been destined to travel. That was the final defining difference between the Uchiha and the Senju; the reason behind the latter's triumph. There had always been something inherently corrupt about the Uchiha some genetic deficiency that turned them into power-hungry creators of madness
and for all his promises, for all his intentions, eventually Naruto would come to that same realization. Finally, he would be forced to the betrayal that Sasuke knew lay in wait if he should succumb and return to his former home.
And with the realization of that horrifically glorious truth, the mirror in his mind trusted and true friend for so long shattered under the force of Fate's shrill voice and suddenly he no longer knew who he was. That reflection of himself, taken in self-satisfied smugness as reality for so long, dispersed in shards of shining glass as Sasuke lunged forward with all the strength he had, no longer even seeing Naruto's form in front of him. Reality, with its clash of blades and spilling blood, melded with the dark thoughts swirling relentlessly at the back of his mind and he wanted nothing more than to destroy the red-eyed demon in front of him
that terrifying reflection of himself and his heritage.
Diamond-like, the pieces sparkled as they flew through the air until he was mesmerized by the beauty of their flight; the terrible loss they represented as they found purchase in his heart. The sharp points dug into his flesh until pain, and love, and regret flowed like blood; going unnoticed as he finally succeeded in freeing himself from the most damning bond of them all the one that bound him to himself.
Finally, he was as he shouldbe. The mirror had reformed on the opposite end of the spectrum and now it no longer showed him a reflection. Though the polished glass still shone brightly, it reflected nothing but darkness and he could finally admit the liberating truth: even his name had been lost.
Uchiha Sasuke was no more.
The ghosts emitted a sigh, a thank you, perhaps? And, at last, no one needed him anymore. Finally, he could lay down his burdens and disappear into the mists of obscurity; becoming nothing more than a cautionary tale told to frighten genin away from the path to reckless power.
Red eyes narrowed, the tomoe spinning wildly, as Sasuke analyzed his opponent's movements. He was himself, and yet he wasn't. From far away he watched as a slight gap opened up under Naruto's guard, exacerbated by the reach of his kunai as opposed to Sasuke's longer blade. He watched the graceful arc of the katana slicing through the air, until it connected with Naruto's body, with mild interest as if someone other than himself was wielding the weapon. He never even felt the shock travelling up his sword arm, making the muscles tremble as the blade bit deeply into the blonde's midsection. Dimly, Sasuke realized that the wound would be mortal if left untreated for too long - that he had sentenced Naruto to a slow and painful death unless a med-nin could be spared within the next few minutes
but somehow that seemed fitting. Justice had finally been served; for all the Uchiha had suffered, the pain had been returned ten-fold.
They stood frozen, heads bowed closely enough that golden strands mingled with obsidian black, and Sasuke instinctively twisted the katana; pushing against the resistance of flesh and bone. Blood flowed, warm and sticky, over nerveless fingers clutched feverishly around steel not much colder than the flesh which encased it. Muscles shook with strain and Sasuke quickly yanked the blade of the katana free from its victim; bubbles frothed red around the gaping wound; the slow, inexorable welling of blood indicative of the depth of the damage.
His arm dropped, weighted, to his side, fingers just barely managing to retain their hold around the hilt of his favored weapon. He'd expected to feel he wanted to feel the cold-ice burn of pure, white rage
these days Naruto was the only one who managed to excite any kind of emotion in him. Maybe there was a part of Sasuke that still clung to humanity, a part that still dreamed of experiencing the full kaleidoscope of human emotion but, as always, he had to settle for anger. It was better than nothing.
Instead of the blessed, calming rage, the flash flood of righteous anger washing through him, he felt numb. Dispassionately, he watched as blood stained orange fabric a darker hue, as tanned hands clutched convulsively at torn flesh
blue eyes accusing and understanding at the same time
He wanted to throw up.
His stomach heaved and he gasped through the sudden shock that gripped his system he was an Uchiha, not a rookie facing his first kill...
Confusion swam in black swirls through his mind; this was what he had wanted, wasn't it? Naruto, dead by his hand
to no longer be held hostage by the faith and love that reached for him even through the condemnation of his actions and choices
Screams penetrated the dull ringing in his ears; a blur of pink hair shoving roughly past him with such speed that the enemy she'd just defeated barely had time to fall to the ground before Sakura crouched by Naruto's side. Green light glowed around trembling hands as she moved them frantically over the fallen man's broken body; tears dripping unrestrainedly down her pale cheeks as fear darkened her eyes to deep emerald.
It hadn't been a fair match; Sasuke could admit that much even if he didn't place much store in fair play these days. He'd been fighting to kill and Naruto
as always he had held himself in reserve, trying to save rather than destroy, trying to give his friend one last chance to redeem himself
In the end, it was his compassion that had cost him the battle.
Sasuke smirked mirthlessly, automatically wiping the katana's blade on the trampled, muddy grass before sheathing it, though his eyes never left Sakura's hands as she frantically tried to stem the worst of the blood-flow. Years of living in the shadows, running and hiding, had honed his instincts to perfection and even through the confusion and fatigue Sasuke sensed the approach of more Konoha-nin.
He turned on his heel, already in flight almost before his body was really prepared for the motion, but he wasn't fast enough to evade the words Sakura uttered.
"You will pay for this, Uchiha."
And for the first time he realized that he wasn't as numb as he'd assumed. For the first time pure hatred underlined the dripping tears and the venom in her voice. For the first time Sasuke recognized something lurking beneath the anger and the numbness swirling nauseatingly in his gut an emotion buried so deeply he'd forgotten how to identify it.
Piercing, agonizing regret.
He wanted to stop; to turn to her and explain
it shouldn't have been like this. He had never really wanted to destroy Naruto. Or their team. If only they had let him go
mourned his loss and gone on with their lives as he'd meant them to
Maybe then the closest thing to peace that he'd ever had wouldn't be a ruin a pair of broken bodies outlined in hatred and bitter regret. Maybe, if they'd heeded his warnings, he wouldn't have had to witness the love he'd somehow despite his denial of it come to regard as wholly and indefinably his, turn to the coldly implacable animosity of the worst enemy he'd ever made.
He'd thought that seeing his brother come back to life would be the happiest day of his existence; instead guilt at his disloyalty shot through him at the thought he'd wanted nothing as much as his brother back in the ground, because the dead should stay dead; they should not torment the living with their continued presence.
He'd thought that finally being rid of Naruto, Sakura and Kakashi his eternal, unwanted shadows would be the most liberating moment of them all
but strangely victory, dreamed of so often in the hate-filled nights, felt far more like defeat
Instead he wanted nothing quite as much as he wanted to turn the clock back; to give Naruto the chance to show him that life could be different
The open plain gave way to towering trees, the canopy of leaves above obscuring the grey daylight from view and the branches felt reassuringly solid beneath his feet as he leapt from limb to limb.
Finally, it was done.
Finally, he could rest.
Now he was truly alone.
The blessed numbness settled over him like a shroud and Sasuke successfully resisted the urge to look back in the direction he had come from; the urge to say a final farewell repressed and buried before it could become a reality and make a mockery of the power he had sacrificed everything for.
Her legs trembled with fatigue and Tenten stumbled over a tree-root she'd failed to see in the dark, grey light of the pre-dawn. Cold hands tightened around her neck, nearly choking her, but at the last possible moment Tenten managed to right her stumbling form.
"Sorry," she muttered to the girl clinging like a monkey to her back but there was no answer from her little sister, only gasping breaths.
A stab of guilt made Tenten speak up again, despite the dangers of making unnecessary noise.
"We'll stop soon, okay?"
She felt the slight movement, a nod, and sped up again, resisting the urge to cast a glance behind her. Instead, she felt carefully for any signs of chakra though the entire exercise was futile and she knew it. The ones they sent after her would be proficient at shielding their chakra, and with the extra weight on her back she needed her concentration placed firmly on the ground. While Ami was with her she couldn't risk taking to the treetops though her instincts screamed to get lost in the dark, rustling canopy above.
Kami, she was tired.
But there was no rest to be had, not with ROOT after her, not with their parents dead and her sister in danger. Distraction, in her current predicament, was not something Tenten could afford but, not for the first time since the previous evening, the memories came rushing back, and this time she was unable to repress them.
The Fourth War had ravaged across the countries, the damage wrought by Akatsuki far-spread, impoverishing even the Five Great Nations. Despite the way they'd all fought together, despite the unprecedented alliance, the war had to end eventually and with its blessed victory came the dissolution of the alliance and the return of domestic problems that were only exacerbated by the ravages of war. The Will of Fire seemed almost extinguished these days they'd barely begun to rebuild before the war had broken out and, upon the army's return, Tsunade-sama's opposition had taken their chance. The dissidents were made up of, mainly, ROOT members still loyal to Danzou, though their cause had quickly been joined by many of Konoha's civilian families. The truth was, though it was not of her doing and though she'd nearly given her life many times over to save the village, under Tsunade's rule Konoha had suffered the worst setbacks the village had experienced since the days of Madara and the Shodai Hokage.
Bleakly, Tenten stared at the ground beneath her feet. They had lost many good ninja in the war, their resources were depleted
Konoha had been like a field, dried out after a long, hot summer, awaiting only the first spark before it burst into a conflagration of internal strife and hatred. Not for the first time, Tenten cursed Uchiha Sasuke roundly; if he hadn't injured Naruto so badly that even now, months later, Sakura and Tsunade still labored with his rehabilitation, things might have been different.
As it stood, the village's trust in their hero had been shaken; Sasuke's katana had done great damage to Naruto's spinal cord and his recovery was slowed by Konoha's lack of proper medical stores and resources; the hospital was still mostly in ruins. Sakura and Tsunade had done their best and Tenten and the rest of the Rookie Nine and their families firmly believed that the tide would change in the civil war once Naruto was back on his feet. But, the sad fact was, by then it would be too late for Tenten.
As Konoha turned on itself, the clans had banded together more and more, squabbling among themselves and with each other. Loyalties were tested every day for the clans who still supported Tsunade and ROOT was indiscriminate in its destruction. Civilians, the clan-less, they suffered most and, unfortunately for Tenten, she was both: not only without a ninja clan to provide at least a modicum of protection but from a civilian family to boot.
Another raid had taken place the night before. Fire had raged uncontrolled across one of the newly rebuilt sectors a fire that had claimed her parents' lives. The only reason her sister had survived was because she'd been staying with a friend a few streets away where the fire hadn't burned as brightly.
Guilt ripped through her, and Tenten blinked furiously against the tears. She was a ninja, it wasn't a profession that promised longevity by any stretch of imagination; her parents had chosen to live in a shinobi village and they'd known the risks. Eventually, the promised of the money her blacksmith father could earn in a hidden village had overcome the trepidation about living in a society built on violence, but it still hurt. She should have been there; she could have saved them
Instead, all that remained of her family was the small scrap of humanity that clung to her back. She hadn't been able to save their parents, but she would save her sister. The raid had been a blow to the defenders of the status quo; many families were grieving today, Tenten knew. But the fact was, ROOT made no secret of their targets. The clans were still too powerful - the Nara, the Aburame, the Inuzuka, the Yamanaka and the Hyuuga - for them to attack the old bastions of Konoha directly so they attempted to clear the ranks a little by targeting the clan-less shinobi
Gai-sensei and Lee had been driven into hiding a month before. Tsunade had had to order them to go, reasoning that having some form of resistance building on the outside would be helpful when the time came to strike back with everything they had.
Still, it was simply too dangerous for Ami in the village after the night before. So Tenten had done the only thing that made sense; she'd grabbed her sister and run, vague ideas of finding Gai-sensei and Lee at the very back of her mind.
The still, grey light seemed heavier than ever as Tenten finally confronted the worst thought; the one that had been rolling around in the back of her mind since the night before. She couldn't stay with Ami. Rather, her sister couldn't stay with her. She had no skills, aside from her shinobi training, no way to support a little girl who still had a lot of growing up to do. Such considerations aside, Konoha had been their home and Tenten couldn't fathom simply giving up on that on letting her parents deaths go unavenged and her home abandoned. She'd given her oath, vowed to obey and defend with her life, and, as all other ninja, it was not a vow she could take lightly. She couldn't discard those ties.
With a deep sigh, more a gasp for breath than anything else, Tenten forced herself to accept the inevitable loss they had family in Grass country, outside the hidden village there. Her sister would be safe with the grandparents they saw only periodically. Far away from ninja strife and conflict, she could grow up the way she was meant to, and maybe one day, she might even be able to put the night of the fire behind her.
Three weeks later Tenten entered the forest guarding the edge of Fire country; alone and more than a little afraid. It had been a long time since she'd heard any news from home and she had no idea if Konoha still held out or if ROOT had overrun them. The trek to her grandparents' home had been arduous. Eventually Ami's shock had worn off and the questions and the tears, the screams and the pain, had made it nearly impossible for the pair to keep as low a profile as Tenten would have liked but they had reached the grasslands without incident.
Leaving the safety of her grandmother's kitchen had been the one of the hardest things Tenten had ever done. She could still smell the onigiri, could feel the warmth of family and safety enveloping her in a comforting daze. Her grandfather had frankly forbidden her from returning to Konoha once the girls had been a little more settled and they'd had a chance to really talk. She'd been ready to argue, until she'd seen Ami's expression, so Tenten had pretended to agree to the plan. If nothing else, it allowed her sister to settle more fully into her new life but finally she hadn't been able to delay any longer. Though she hated the thought, Tenten had been forced to sneak out, like a thief in the night, with only a note left behind. She hoped her family could forgive her, could in time come to understand that she'd had no other choice.
A rustling of leaves broke through the melancholy thoughts and Tenten automatically froze, senses tuned for even the slightest hint that she wasn't alone, her hands instinctively reaching for the scrolls hidden in a pouch at her hip. The slight breeze ruffled the sweaty bangs clinging to her forehead but she remained frozen on the spot until she was certain that the rustling had been nothing more than the breeze ruffling the leaves above.
With a deep sigh, Tenten relaxed her stance, forced frozen fingers to uncurl from their death grip around her weapons and, jerkily, moved forward again. She was cutting a fine line, the border with Sound only a few meters to her right and, not for the first time, Tenten berated herself anxiously for having grown so dependent on her teammates. How could she ever expect to live up to the legend of Tsunade-sama if she was afraid to venture out on her own? But, the fact was, there was a reason Team Gai worked together so efficiently; their abilities complemented each other perfectly and though Tenten was proficient in Taijutsu and adequate in Ninjutsu she relied on distance for her weapons-jutsu to work to their full capability. In close combat she could certainly more than hold her own but it wasn't the way she preferred to fight; and being alone in the shadowy, threatening woods did not help the anxiety that she would meet a foe she couldn't hope to handle on her own.
Frantically she shook her head; she was better than this
how ashamed would Gai-sensei be if he could see her now? Skulking through the woods, fearfully glancing over her shoulder every few seconds? Intellectually, Tenten knew that the unreasoning fear, the uncharacteristic anxiety, stemmed from the fact that, for the first time, she felt totally alone in the world. No family waiting for her at home, no Lee in front of her, no Neji guarding her back. She felt displaced and that was the source of her fear. Grimly she forced herself to recite the contents of every scroll in her possession to take her mind off the unsettling thoughts. She would make it on her own; she could. Even with no Lee or Neji around to back her up, even with no thought of distraught parents if she should fail and die
even so, she would prevail.
Better than yesterday.
The mantra Gai had taught them so long ago flashed through her mind and as if the words were whispered by her sensei himself she could feel warmth flooding through her veins, strength returning to her cold limbs and determination firming her failing spirit.
From his vantage point high up on the branches of a tree Uchiha Sasuke watched carefully as the kunoichi below straightened her spine, lifted her chin and forcefully picked up the pace. The faltering, fearful steps of moments ago seemed to have been consigned to the past though she still appeared uneasy. She was carefully concealing her chakra, suppressing it to levels low enough that she could be mistaken for a civilian; her eyes darted left and right without ceasing and the tension was obvious in the rigid muscles of her back. One dark eyebrow rose contemplatively as he studied her she seemed vaguely familiar. Of course he'd recognized the Konoha headband the moment he'd caught sight of her but still
it was almost as if he was remembering her from a dream. She seemed average on all counts nondescript features, chestnut brown hair confined into twin buns and hazel eyes making her indistinguishable from a crowd of people he had once known.
Still, she had somehow sensed his presence even if she didn't realize that she'd sensed him yet. The way she'd tensed and readied for attack only moments before, searching for the unseen enemy
she'd definitely sensed something and he couldn't help being intrigued no one sensed Uchiha Sasuke unless he wanted them to.
Slowly, Sasuke moved; slipped silently through the trees and the kunoichi below seemed unaware of him this time. He was careful to keep on the Sound side of the invisible line dividing the two countries even as the girl kept to the Konoha side. She looked a little worse for the wear, tired and gaunt, grubby, weary, hungry
in short, she exhibited all the signs of someone returning from a long mission but if the rumors he'd heard about his old home was true, it couldn't have been that she was on her way back to report. All missions had been stopped; Konoha shinobi rarely ventured outside the village anymore there was enough bloodshed within the walls to occupy all of the available ninja and the ones who roamed the forest had the looks of displaced, exiled warriors: at a loss for what they were supposed to do now. The girl seemed unthreatening, in the larger scheme of things, and he couldn't imagine that anyone would specifically target her.
Sasuke frowned as she veered to the right, to avoid a clump of stinging nettles, stepping firmly onto Sound land though she clearly had no idea of that fact. She was walking aimlessly, in the general direction of Konoha, seemingly without intent of going close to the village. Fifteen silent minutes of stealthily following along behind her and Sasuke was certain she was alone. No one had come to join her, she wasn't settling into a pre-arranged meeting spot and she didn't seem to have been followed. He watched as she stared around the clearing she'd come to; a somewhat defensible position, and began to gather dried branches for a fire.
She wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind but she would have to do.