It feels like a fairy tale by now, but the first six years of Sasuke’s life were simple. Straightforward, with so much happiness and love that he can barely believe it’s true. Every day was defined by the interactions he had with Itachi. Not that there was only Itachi, of course- there’s Mother who hums as she tries to teach him to cook, patience honed from years spent as a teacher, and Shisui, with the strong hands that lift Sasuke to sit on his shoulders, laughter bright and warm and oh so brilliant as they run through the streets. Aunts and Uncles who smile at him and sneak him fun places behind Father’s back (though they learnt very quickly to make sure he kept it a secret after the T&I event; Mother nearly killed them for smuggling in a four year old), cousins who teach him tricks and moves, telling him stories all about their teams and what they’ve done. He had a family, a clan, larger than life and filled with the fierce love they only showed their own.
(He doesn’t think of Father, who only saw disappointment in his youngest son even to his dying day. He doesn’t think of the Elder’s and the elitists, who only saw the Spare, the son who would never bring their clan glory).
But it’s Itachi who he adored, the one who Sasuke chased after like a bird the horizon, the Brother who he loved above everything else. Itachi was the one who Sasuke sought out when he couldn’t sleep, the sun and the moon all in one; Itachi was his Brother and from the moment he could walk, Sasuke chased after him. Every moment with Itachi was one he clung to, the thing to fuel him through the days when Father’s scorn was too much to bear or when he woke up crying from nightmares. When he tried hard in school, it was Itachi’s praise he sought, and when he didn’t understand something Itachi’s word was law. Throughout his childhood, the brightest memories- the good ones, the best- involved Itachi.
But then he’s six years old; his parents are dead, his brother a traitor, and every good thing has been twisted until he’s not sure what was real and what was not. Three weeks he spends in a coma, watching the massacre on replay over and over, again and again until everything’s a blur and he doesn’t understand -
(whY diD nii-san Do iT why why why did he leave me mother father shisui whY)
He doesn’t understand. Not even the interrogation changed that- the masked, terrifying figures who push and push and push, demanding answers he doesn’t have until Sasuke feels brittle. Cracked, like shards of glass that haven’t been put back together right so everything feels wrong. Eventually, they grow tired of him or have gotten what they need or something, because he’s shoved back into the empty district. In that time, Itachi has gone from Brother to That Man, and all that Sasuke knows is his clan is dead and his duty is to avenge them. And to do that, he can’t let the pain dull; he can’t let himself be weak, to forget that night.
(Not that he ever will, with it burned into his brain through a combination of his own Sharingan and That Man’s).
So in the district he remains, left with nothing but the ghosts and a whole clan’s worth of empty houses to serve as a home. Healing never is something he gets around to doing, not really. Sometimes he’ll wake up with the Sharingan spinning in his eyes and a tangle of hurtgriefanger caught in his throat, swelling with each passing day until it feels like he can’t breathe. On those days, he’ll work himself to the bone when he’s not in the academy- practise jutsus until he’s on the verge of chakra exhaustion, run laps until his muscles burn and lungs ache; on those days, he’ll train, train and train some more, because it’s the only thing stopping him from exploding.
(If his teacher’s see anything wrong then they don’t say anything, merely slip scrolls and books into his desk. Perhaps, were times different, they might have taken him aside and tried to help, recommended him to a psychological expert or something to circumvent the risk of another Uchiha snapping, but the tension between countries was fit to snap any day now, and the threat of war was big enough that it was in their best interests to encourage his excessive training rather than stop it.
Were times different, they might have learned from their mistakes rather than repeating them).
Most of the time, though, he only feels cold. Hollow, like he’s been unseamed and everything is spilling out. Where he drifts through everything, a clone malfunctioning; he’ll go through the motions and wonder why he doesn’t just… stop. Stop breathing, stop moving, stop trying- why survive when he’s only here on the whims of a mad man, when the only thing to keep him going is an age old duty to his dead Father and the knowledge that to stop would mean dishonour. To stop would mean to forsake everything and face the disappointment of those long since lost. Those days are the worst, the ones where he gets weird looks from those around him and not even working until he bleeds can stop the thoughts, the voices, the ache in his chest.
(He prefers the anger).
But he forges on, despite being unable to sleep without driving himself into exhaustion first and the fact he’s injured so often he becomes a regular sight in the hospital. By the age of seven his control of the sharingan is comparable to that of most adults before their death, and he can complete enough jutsu’s of the higher ranks to make a Jounin jealous. He’s mastered every chakra control exercise they’re taught in the academy and ran with them until he’d all but invented his own- he’s good, is what he is. A genius for his age, with the hard work to back it up, could probably defeat a chuunin with ease if he tried, the best performer in his year group even with the Hokage’s son there-
But it’s not enough. He’s not enough, and he never will be. For every step he takes, That Man is half leaps and bounds ahead; for every improvement he makes, he is well aware that he is lagging behind enough that he’ll never catch up. He may be a genius in comparison to the rest of his age group, but in comparison to Itachi he may as well be the Dead Last, a failure. At this rate, he won’t even graduate until the age of ten and that- that is unacceptable.
(Itachi was already in ANBU by then, had graduated when he was six, and Sasuke has to catch up. He has to graduate and soon, even if it means killing himself in the process. Heck, it would simply mean he wouldn’t have to wait for Him to do it).
When he is seven and a half, the Third Shinobi War breaks out and his prayers are answered (if not in the way he expected).
Sasuke graduates at the age of eight, standards lowered as the focus in education shifts from quality to quantity (and perhaps that’s why the teacher’s all became grim faced and harsh, pushing everyone to their limits so that they can churn out another lot of cannon fodder to ship off to the front lines. Perhaps that’s why they abandoned any attempts at subtlety and started to outright hand Sasuke B and A rank jutsu scrolls like creating a stronger genin might help turn the tides in their favour.
Compassion has no place in a war, after all).
In the space of a day he gains both his forehead protector and a team, another stepping stone to bring him closer to his goal, to the end of his duty. And that- that was all it was supposed to be; a tool, a means to an end, something that he could use until it was no longer necessary. He had thought that it would be the same as it had been in class, where it had been something akin to survival of the fittest even with the cliques that formed, where the only concern shown from those above was when they feared they might lose another shinobi to madness. He hadn’t expected them to grow on him as they fought through thick and thin, to be friends- to become something more, even.
(Family, is what he thinks when he sees them, are the words he will never say aloud. Will never risk, because family dies and betrays and fragments, but Team will never part. This team is forever, and he thinks he might love them for it).
There’s Naruto- rival, best friend and brother all in one, a bond forged from trial and tribulation, the boy who smiles like he put the sun in the sky as he forces a twenty-story fox under his heel with every breath he takes, who looks his father dead in the eye and says ‘I’ll beat you to the hat,’ as much a promise as it is a challenge. Naruto, who went from snarling at Sasuke to bumping shoulders with him, who tore his way through a battalion when Sasuke was kidnapped in a mission gone wrong, who takes his hand and stares down the world like he dares it to come closer. Who says, ‘Sasuke’s ours,’ and makes it feel right.
Sakura, who goes from fangirl to sister in the time it takes for them to complete their first mission, who stands between an A-rank missing nin and his bleeding body with nothing but a kunai and manages to fend them off long enough for back-up to come, grins with a mouthful of blood and tells the world, ‘Nice try, but not good enough.’ The girl with hands that can break ribs just as easily as she can heal them, who holds them both by the hand and warns them not to die; who looks him in the eye when he tells them of his duty, squeezes his shoulder as Naruto does his hand, and says, ‘We’ll be right by your side; a threat to you is a threat to us.’
And Minato-sensei, who teaches them how to kill in the same breath he does teamwork, who fusses over them all as he does his son, and somehow manages to combine bumbling idiot with terrifying genius and make it work. Who tries, even though he doesn’t always succeed, and works to ensure they all get training suited to them alongside support to keep them from going off the deep end. Who doesn’t talk down to him when he says he needs to avenge his clan, is there for him on the nights where sleep is a distant memory, convinces him to leave the compound because no good can come from exasperating old wounds. It is him who invites Sakura and Sasuke to live with him and Naruto- who welcomes them into his home because ‘we’re a team now, and that makes you as much my kids too.’
They’re thrust into hell together, thrown into the darkest parts of the war the moment they’re deemed competent enough, and soon he feels like they’re as much a part of him as his limbs. He starts to think of them as his family and it isn’t until much later that he learns that this is a dangerous thought- look at what happened to his first family after all.
It isn’t until much later that he learns that some things can’t survive the weight of tragedy.
Sometimes Sasuke wonders what Naruto was thinking when he decided that his final action as a dying man would be creating an Uchiha jinchūriki; sometimes, he wonders exactly how Naruto, the golden boy, had gotten to that point of martyrdom that he actually thought it would be a good idea to push all his hopes and expectations on Sasuke, who was always the runt of the pack, the dark horse who never quite figured out how to kick. But then he would remember Sakura as she was at the end: lying on the ground with pink hair seeping red, her face so destroyed that she was barely recognisable, so very still. So very dead, even with the ground around the destroyed enough to signal to anyone ten miles off that she’d put up one hell of a fight, even with the fact that it was supposed to be a routine mission. They were supposed to get in, take care of the small group of Iwa-nin that should have been there, retrieve the package, and get out again- it wasn’t supposed to end with her dead.
(No-one was supposed to die- they were chuunin already, experienced enough that they could be trusted with some of the more vital missions of the war, and their team leader was the Yellow flash. They should have been able to handle it).
But she was and they’d failed her, both of them- left to her face of a bunch of Kumo Jounin (who shouldn’t have been there, the mission hadn’t planned for them) with nothing but a few traps, her weapons and some chakra pills for back up, all because they’d been too stupid to realise the two of them were chasing bait. None of them realised until they’d returned to the camp to find it destroyed and Sakura dead, hadn’t understood until Minato-sensei appeared frantic, spilling warnings that faded off as they all realised they were too late.
(Always too late- it was his curse, Sasuke realised later on. He would always be a step too late to save anyone he cared about).
Naruto had been angry- oh, he was so very angry, in the aftermath, when the ones to blame were dead (he’d hunted them down, Sasuke and Minato-sensei unable to do anything but follow him as he tore through the forest) and Sakura’s body had been burned. And the thing about Naruto was that he felt all his emotions like he was the fire and they were the gasoline; he blazed with them, so intense that it could fill the room, and as long as it had oxygen, these feelings would kindle on.
Naruto’s anger didn’t cool when Sakura’s ashes did, nor in the years that followed; he let it consume him, to the point that he was more fox than human, nothing in the world able to calm him down back to the person he was before. It terrified even Sasuke to see, despite how Naruto was still soft to him in a way he wasn’t to anyone else-made spending time around him feel like you were being choked beneath a whirlpool of chakra. By comparison, Sasuke’s own grief seemed inconsequential. Inadequate, even- he’d loved Sakura as fiercely as he did the rest of his Team, felt her death like someone had carved open his ribs and spat, but he was familiar with death. Knew it like an old friend, so when everything that had been numbed by years of companionship came surging back up, no-one looked twice- not even himself.
But Naruto- Naruto had never lost anyone like this before, For all that he’d killed more people than most jōnin, had lost his mother shortly after he first drew breath, he’d never had to grieve before. Not someone he’d known and loved with the fierceness he put into everything he did in his life; not for someone who was his.
(“You guys are like part of my soul,” he’d said once, when they were lying under the stars as they waited for Minato-sensei to return. “I love you so much I don’t think I could survive losing you. I don’t think I want to.”
And Sakura had squeezed both of their hands and replied, “Then it’s a good thing you’re never getting rid of us.”
Sasuke wished it had been him to die instead; she was their anchor, the one who could ground them and direct them where they needed to go. She would had known how to comfort Naruto, how to deal with this in a way that was healthy, and for all that Naruto would have still been hurt, it wouldn’t have been like this. It wouldn’t have destroyed him.
It’s surprising, Sasuke thinks, how many problems could be solved if he had simply died in someone else’s place).
He drifted away from everyone but Sasuke, even his Father (and God, Sasuke prays he never sees another man look like Minato-sensei had in those weeks leading up to the explosion), recklessness only growing after the war ended and you had to seek out dangerous missions by clawing your way past the restrictions and paperwork. Naruto would never let Sasuke out of his sight as though afraid that the moment he blinked he’d find that two teammates had died instead of one; all the missions they took were together, if Sasuke went out to go see someone then Naruto would tag along, they even started sharing a bed because otherwise Naruto would come and check on him every hour. The only time Sasuke was ever alone was when Naruto would go to the memorial stone, staring at the spot where Sakura’s name was carved for hours on end until Sasuke eventually came to drag him back to their home.
(It was too big for three people, the lack of Sakura’s presence all too noticeable).
Naruto drifted for two and a bit years, barely passing as human, until Sasuke woke up one night when they were on their way back from a mission to find him gone.
(To find that he was alone).
It took ten minutes to send out an SOS to the village, a further hour to locate him, and by the time Sasuke arrived it was too late. Naruto was barely standing, bleeding sluggishly in a way that spoke of a wound left for too long, glowering up at a man with orange hair, a lot of body piercings, and the sharingan in one eye (which what the genuine fuck) and a twenty story fox. When Sasuke grabbed him, all Naruto did was smile weakly at him and say, “Sorry, looks like I’m not going to become Hokage after all.”
Minato-sensei burst into existence, distracting the pierced guy just long enough that Naruto could restrain the Kyuubi with hand seals that struck horror in Sasuke’s mind.
He said, “Promise me you’ll live, Sasuke- for me, and for Sakura-chan,” and slammed his hands against Sasuke’s stomach before he could so much as scream, and then all Sasuke knew was pain.
He wakes to the sound of sobbing, Naruto’s lifeless body cradled in Minato-sensei’s arms, tears of blood on his face as the sharingan shows him the world with more clarity than he's ever known before; he wakes in a world that is so very wrong, and yet it isn’t until a snarl that isn’t his echoes through his mind and he catches a glimpse of slitted red eyes that he turns over and vomits.
(He’d failed once again, and somehow it’s not even a surprise anymore).
Sasuke spent two weeks confined to a secure room in the hospital as Konoha did some combination of trying to figure out what the hell to do with him, spreading false rumours to the wind to try and stop it from becoming public knowledge, and having people proke and prod at him to see whether he was stable- both in terms of the seal, and his mental health.
(Unsurprisingly, one was better off than the other and it wasn’t his mental health).
During this time, Minato-sensei doesn’t come see him once, no-one quiet manages to look him in the eye, and Sasuke dwindles away, left with nothing but his memories and the new voice in his head (salt in the wound, considering how every time the Kyuubi reminds him of its presence Sasuke can only think of Naruto and the blood on his hands). When he’s finally released he finds out (from Ino of all people, who’d never been close to him and the only bond they shared was Sakura) that Naruto’s funeral had already taken place and that just- that just-
(Funerals were awful and he hated them, but they gave closure- they let you know, through a ceremony where the body was dressed beautifully and you had one final chance to look at them, to say any final words, to memorise their features- and Sasuke needed that. With Sakura all they’d been able to bury were her ashes, and with his family there hadn’t been enough coffins for them all, but Naruto- they had a body. At the very least, Sasuke would have been able to see his face in something resembling sleep without the blood smeared everywhere and to imagine that any moment know he’d open his eyes and smile-
But apparently he was worthy of even that small mercy, his part in Naruto’s death too significant a sin, and so all he has is the hurt and the grief and the hollow beat of his heart in his chest. He hopes, dimly, that it will be enough).
When Minato finally speaks to him it is from the other side of the Hokage desk, promoting him to Jōnin with eyes that can’t quite look him in the face and the order to work hard enough that no-one will dare try to kidnap him. There is no warmth in this, none of the pride of a teacher watching their student make a name for themselves- there is only the clinical tone of a superior speaking to their subordinate, all emotion buried deep behind the veneer of the professionalism, and Sasuke can’t even find it in himself to blame him for it. After all, it should have been Naruto standing there, alive and strong and one step closer to his dream; it should have been Minato’s son wearing a flak jacket tailored specially for him, a future ahead as bright as his hair.
(It should have been Naruto to survive, not Sasuke).
And for all that the feeling is lined with hurt, Minato is all he has left (his mentor, guardian, and practically his father), and Sasuke loyalty will not waver. So he takes the words to heart: he becomes a regular sight at the mission desk, taking every A and S rank they’ll give him to get his face seen and his strength recognised. He stretches himself to the limits, performing feats that seem out of place in the hands of someone still too young to drink by civilian standards, and before he’s even sixteen he has a page in the Bingo book with a ‘flee on sight’ order, ‘the Kyūbi's jinchūriki’ printed in small letters beneath ‘Uchiha clan survivor.’ He doesn’t feel any pride in it, not like he thought he once would- not even with the knowledge that Itachi would have seen it, or how Ino (who seems to have taken it upon herself to ensure he socialises) drags him out to celebrate with those still alive from their class, or how Minato manages to give him a tight ‘you did good’ and even ruffle his hair briefly (the first time he’d touched him since Naruto died). All he can think is ‘would this make you happy, Naruto?’ and ‘Am I doing it right, Sakura?’
All he can think is that is shouldn’t be him.
Whenever Sasuke’s actually able to spend the night in their home, it’s rather like living with a ghost; Minato is always in the office, to the point that even his bodyguards are concerned (something they inform Sasuke of whenever Ino drags him to the routine gatherings, Shikamaru with a yawn that can’t quite hide the sharpness and Shino with a smattering of questions he answers himself). Not that their concern is misplaced- each time Sasuke sees him Minato is always just that little bit gaunter, just that little bit deader, and Sasuke finds he can’t see any trace of the man who was once his teacher in those eyes anymore. It’s worrying, but Sasuke can’t bring it up- not when the air between them is still so heavy, wrought with guilt and grief and anger from both sides, and how they can’t look at each other without remembering that two was once four.
By the time Sasuke’s sixteen, Minato is so much closer to a corpse than a man that Sasuke can’t even bring himself to be surprised when he drops the hat and the robes on his desk, declares that he resigns, and leaves on a mission before anyone can breathe a word of protest. Less than eight hours later the Fourth Hokage is found dead, killed by a lucky Kumo-nin in the middle of a suicide mission (they were only lucky because he didn’t even try to fight them). Less than eight hours later the village lowers their heads in grief as the Sandaime dons the hat once more, everyone gathered in the square to watch the grand procession that makes up the funeral. But Sasuke- Sasuke does not attend. Sasuke sits in a house that was built for four but now holds one, surrounded by echoes of the dead, and wonders if it was one final act of spite on Minato’s part that had Sasuke finding the body, or if it was just his luck. Wonders at how he feels so numb that he barely even notices his hand clenching around the blade of his sword, or the way the red in his eyes is not entirely due to the sharingan.
(He wonders why he ever thought it would be different, this time- why calling family by another name would somehow avert the tragedy.
He wonders when he became so stupid as to think he alone could be happy).