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unbeing dead

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I wake up when a little bit of light washes in from a far window, highlighting the white ceiling. I blink up at it—beep, beep, beep—a few times, sure there’s something there I’m close to catching. You know when you go upstairs to get something, but by the time you’re there, you’ve forgotten what you had to get? I’m that close to something, blinking up at the ceiling tiles.

Beep, beep, beep, keeps going, noisy, somewhere outside my line of sight. Makes it harder to think. Ceiling looks white, but not real white. The more I look at it the more other colors I see in spots against the tiles. The longer I try to stare the more the ceiling tiles start to fade away, darkening until I have to blink back the blackness. Maybe I would be able to see if I blinked a bit harder. My body’s so still I might not even be able to move it. A film starts growing over my skin, hardening. My mouth’s sticking on my inner lip, like it’s been glued closed or I bit my lip bad and then the skin’s healed attached to each other. The sheets scratch at my legs. I twitch a finger. It moves, struggling against the cover of blankets. Twitch. Twitch. Beep, beep, beep.

I stay on my back in the scratchy sheets with a limp pillow under my head. I count each tile on the ceiling, touching them all with my sight. They don’t look right. When I’m heading directly at one, it looks normal, but when I look away, shadows slick up the cracks. The ceiling’s made of grey flecked white rectangles separated from each other by black borders. It’s the boring ceiling you see in low rate elementary schools or hospitals. The line of sunlight creeps over the territory of the ceiling above me, inching with the minutes. Air smells like airport bathroom soap. I blink every now and then to clear the dark edges swallowing up my sight.

Light just barely touches one of the larger grey flecks when the door opens, sliding roughly. The cold paralysis cultivating over my limbs breaks when I jerk up, head moving to the sound and eyes blinking rapidly to watch an unfamiliar woman walk inside. My left arm moves awkwardly—wires cover it, crisscrossing over my arm. One is actually going into the skin. Is that… I know what that is.

It’s an…injection. Drug. Bag. Injection bag? That’s not right. But they’re in hospitals. One of the wires on my arm leads to a larger machine; the beeping one. The room’s sterile upon closer inspection. Plain white cabinets above a sink, a table with some files pushed up against the wall.

The woman steps forward, her footsteps dull clicks on the linoleum. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. She pauses, looking at me. I go rigid, out of place, feeling like someone walked in on me in a department store fitting room. Tap-beep-tap-beep-tap—“You’re awake!” she greets, her walk turning jaunty. She’s in white. Real white—not white ceiling white, but actually white.

She skips over to me and leans down, pulls out a flashlight. The door opens again, but she raises her finger and says, “Look here.” I do, halfway on instinct, and before I can flinch back, bright light shines into my eyes. I’m blind for a few seconds. I can hear more footsteps, the sound of the door. “His eyes,” the woman says. I close them, the afterimage searing on my eyelids. Tap-tap-tap-taptaptap. Moving fast now. Almost fast as the beeping. By the time I can see, the woman has walked over to the table pressed against the wall and there’s another person in the room, sitting down in a chair by my bedside. The white clothing—doctors? The flashlight woman ‘hmm’s. “Is that in his medical file? Eyeshine?” she asks. The other doctor (?) leans towards me and I scowl at him. The woman turns to him. “The way the light reflected… What’s the name? Tapetum—”

“He’s an Uchiha, not a cat,” the man snaps. She swallows the rest of the sentence, face scrunching up. I scoot back. Something about this makes sense to me. It’s just behind my eyes, just beyond the boundary of my head. The man looks at me the way people look at cornered rats. The beeping picks up, so fast the noise nearly hurts.

“Who are you?” I don’t mean to, but when I speak I’m nearly spitting. The man raises an eyebrow. I attempt damage control. My mouth moves as if to smile. The expression won’t finish on my face. My lips will only pull back, like they’re trying to snarl.

The woman comes back over. “I’m a medic,” she says, smiling soft. She’s talking real slow, careful. How you’d talk to a dangerous animal. She jabs a thumb at her chest and goes, “Matsui Ichika.” There’s a name tag pinned below her left shoulder. The man—my eyes dart down, blinking rapidly to clear the blackness from the corners—his name tag says Kojima. Matsui holds her hand out for me to shake. When I don’t make a move to reach for it she eventually pulls back. “We’re both medics.” She smiles again, this time even smaller and softer, like she thinks too much teeth will scare me off. “We’re some of the best here at Konoha Hospital.” This her tone implies is a secret she’s sharing with me. It’s annoying—I get the feeling they’re treating me like a little kid. “We’ve been looking after you the past few days.”

“How did I get here?” I try to count it out on my fingers, using them as a visual representation of going back, but when I look down at my hands I get so nauseous I barely see them. Blurry, my hands look like those of a child. I resist the shiver shaking my spine and look back at Matsui. Her lip pulls just slightly down on the left side. Something’s wrong.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Kojima leans back in his chair, mouth a straight line and eyes narrow.

The last thing. The last thing. The last thing—

“Am I dead?” I ask.

“You aren’t dead,” Matsui-sensei says.

“The last thing I remember is dying,” I say.

Matsui cringes back. She and Kojima exchange a glance. “Someone will be here soon,” she says. “He’ll explain everything.”

“Who?”

Kajima’s eyes drift from Matsui back to me. “The Hokage,” he says.

“What’s that?” I demand. The both of them look at me—beep beep beepbeepbeep—and the sense I’m going to remember what I needed to get from upstairs vanishes, flicking off like drying sweat from skin. “What? Who is that?” Matsui face twists in pity, eyes scrunching up. She adjusts her hat, fitting it more firmly against her head. With each movement they make any familiarity in this room peels away more and more. Kojima runs a hand through his short greying hair.

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Kojima says. “He’ll talk you through it.”

unbeing dead nuqǝıuƃ ɐǝɐp

Here’s how you died:

Okay, so you were at a doctor’s appointment. Just a general check up type of thing, and your go-to guy, the family physician, main man Doctor Barnett asked you, “Do you have anything else to add?” You know, the way doctors do. “Is there anything else you need to get fixed?” It’s always hard to answer this type of question in a way nobody gets annoyed at. Barnett’s retired navy and something must’ve gone a bit off during his years of service because he was twitchy and distractible and everything he said, even dead serious type shit, sounded like it’s the punchline to a stomach crunching joke. One time when you were twelve, he said you were gonna need spinal fusion surgery, and you couldn’t tell he was serious for a good five minutes. Every time you talked to him it felt like he should’ve been wearing a top hat or a monocle or something. He already had the classic curly mustache.

Anyway, Barnett went, “Do you have any issues you need to tell me about?” the way doctors do and you were gonna say no, nothing, the way you usually do but instead you told him you’d been sleeping like shit, because you had been, and your mom in the corner of the room piped up about how you never take her up on the melatonin she was always offering and you said melatonin gave you nightmares and her stare got kinda hard because mentioning nightmares pissed her off. You talking about being in pain means Mom’s already angry. If it’s some kind of emotional or mental pain—if there’s a chance someone could blame her for it—she’s seething. Melatonin gives me nightmares, you insisted, and it really did—super vivid type of stuff, the kind of bad dream doesn’t feel dreamy, realistic stuff that’s happened before, and waking up loud from a nightmare is a bad idea. If you woke up and started crying or something, the nightmare could become real. The cause of your bad dreams was a light sleeper conked out just up the hallway from your room. Don’t wanna wake him up. Stay quiet. You dropped out of high school when you were fifteen—personal reasons—so even four years later you’re still living at home, tiptoeing around, avoiding the squeaky third to last staircase step. You were taking college classes online, but still living just down the hall from your parents. What? You’re a coward. It wasn’t like you were gonna do anything about it.

You didn’t tell Barnett all that. You just said, “Melatonin gives me nightmares.”

So Barnett wrote you a prescription immediately for some medication you’ve never heard up with a chemical name that was something like ambihexiconi-whatever but then when you looked it up it wasn’t Ambien. You don’t remember what it was. Mom in the corner didn’t like that at all; she didn’t trust modern medicine. She liked to tell people she’s from old money in Bulgaria even though she was poor as shit and didn’t have indoor plumbing for the first decade or so of her life in rural eastern Europe. It’s Dad that had the money. You think she liked to lie about it to make it look like she wasn’t pitiful, wasn’t depending on him, but most normal people don’t automatically pity a woman relying on her husband so it said more about her than anything else. Lying is fine and lying to strangers doesn’t matter much but it’s embarrassing since you know the real story. During childhood in her poor as shit hometown she learned to distrust medication. Years later she’s all grown up and she thought the government invented prescription meds in some big scam to kill us or something. Don’t actually know. You just assumed she was kinda crazy and never asked for specifics.

So a little time went by and you were taking your sleeping pills and sleeping great on the days you remembered to take it on time. You remember you thought getting the medication was, like, you know, too easy? It was real easy. Not like sleeping medication was dangerous or anything, but you’d always thought getting stuff prescribed was supposed to be harder. Didn’t you need to get tested or something? So next time you were back in for a general physical type exam, mom sitting in the corner as if you weren’t nineteen fucking years old, you brought up your back. “It’s been really hurting me,” you said, trying to make it sound like you’re admitting to something you’re ashamed of. The surgery was more than a few years ago, but it seemed like a good excuse. Mom—who told you often all pain was probably leftover from a past life and was your soul’s responsibility to carry—looked at you very carefully. “It’s actually been hurting for a long time. It never stopped. It’s really bad.”

Barnett considered this and you all had a weird threeway exchange in which you felt certain your mother and Barnett and you had transported yourselves into a sitcom. You’d say something like, oh man, if only there was a medical solution, a way to manage my pain effectively, and then Barnett kept making these weird comments about your scoliosis history and mumbling about maybe looking back into the surgery records and x-rays and whatever but all in the same tone as someone saying “Of course,” and then giving a conspiratorial wink. Mom was adamant you handle your pain through the power of the auras in her favorite rocks or something. That probably isn’t actually what she was saying, but that’s the same level of batshit you remember she had, so it’s a proper equivalent. Barnett and you had a cute little exchange on whether or not the pain counted as “severe,” but you ultimately convinced him by tearing up, guilting him. You said stuff about how “no one ever helps until something bad happens” and “nobody ever wants to help me until everything’s gone really wrong” and all that and since you’d been seeing Barnett since you were ten he at least sort of got what you were referencing and that was that.

Okay, next scene. What next? You saw a documentary on this kind of thing once, how freely physicians give out prescription medication, even when it might not be necessary. Was it a movie? Can’t remember. Some parts of it felt really convincing—“I didn’t need a cymbalta prescription. I needed a fucking hug.”—but other parts it really just sounded like some dude with crusty stuff under his eyes and hair like dirty shag carpet telling you to get high instead of taking your heartburn meds. What happened next? Barnett prescribed you oxycodone. The end.

Cut to black.

.

“Hello, Sasuke,” the old man says. He’s settled into a chair that’s too small for his robes. His sleeves spill over the edges of the armrests, flopping around his thin wrists. My name isn’t Sasuke, my mouth starts to say, but I don’t get past a breath. If that isn’t my name… “You must be very confused.” He adjusts himself. Scoots a little closer, chair screeching on the tiled floor. Even in the bed, even though he’s clearly elderly, even if I get the impression he’s not tall, I still have to look up to meet his eyes. He, similarly to the medics, looks at me like I’m a little kid. It’s annoying. The old man watches me pointedly, sitting back in his chair, tilting his head in invitation.

“Um, kinda, I guess,” I say. I itch my arm just for something to do. I look down at my hands while they do it, but it doesn’t look right for some reason, my fingers small and a little stubby, my arm looking too thin—the old man sighs and I jerk my head back up to look at him. “Why am I here?”

The old man leans forward on his elbows, very seriously. “A good question, my boy,” he murmurs, thoughtful and consequential the way old man often are. A corner of my mouth twists up. My boy. Like I’m his son. I’m not a kid, and not his kid, and I’m not—“What’s on your mind, Sasuke-kun?”

“I don’t know who Sasuke is,” my mouth says before I remember I got nothing to fill the hole this leaves. “I’m not even a—a—” A boy, either. It’s true, but it doesn’t feel true. My lips twist but the words won’t come out. I hiss out a low breath, hands digging into the sheets, glaring at the hospital bed frame so I won’t glare at him. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Sasuke-kun,” the old man says, slow and soft. Delicate.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m six,” I mutter. Grumbling to myself and glaring at the border of my bed doesn’t say much for my maturity, admittedly. It feels the same way it does when you go upstairs for something and then forget what you went up there to get. It’s just behind my eyes, words lodged halfway up my throat. My name is—my name is—I’m—

“Oh, child,” the old man breathes, placing his withered hand over mine and my hand is so, so small next to his, plush and pale and tiny. My words all catch in my throat when I look into his eyes and see a little boy reflected in his dark irises. “I know you’re afraid. But you don’t have to try to succor yourself.” He comes closer and the stranger mirrored in his pupils looms over me, all wide dark eyes and fluffy dark hair and pale skin. “Your family may be gone, but I am your Hokage.” He smiles at me. He must think this is comforting. “You will never be alone in Konoha.”

I don’t know when I start screaming, but somewhere in between ripping my hand away from his and kicking out at his face when I twist out of the hospital sheets, all the shadows in the corners become masked figures and somewhere in between the mad scramble to get out of bed and the Hokage’s small sigh one of the masked figures restrains me, arms behind my back. “Let me go,” I whine, yanking so harshly my wrists are sure to bruise. “Lemme go—”

“Calm down,” the Hokage soothes. “Sasuke, I’m sorry. I’m here.”

“I don’t know you,” I whisper to the boy staring at me from the glass of the old man’s rich eyes. “I don’t know you.”

“Your family’s funeral is today,” the old man explains gently. He reaches out a hand to me, an offering, his other hand flicking in a quick gesture. The mask releases my arms. Without the support I nearly fall, knees shaking. My hands are so, so small. I don’t know you. They shake. This morning, in bed, sheets pulled up and tucked in, this body wouldn’t do anything for me but blink. I wiggle my fingers—they move. They move. My fingers. Mine. My fingers don’t look like that.

(What do they look like?)

“If you’ll let me,” the Hokage continues, “I would like to accompany you.”

“A burial?” I ask. Before the words even come out I can tell they’re wrong. The bodies won’t be buried. I know they won’t.

“Of course not,” the old man assures me. “A funeral pyre. The way your family would have wanted.”

My family isn’t dead (but who are they? no images appear just fuzzy frames of what might be people) and funeral pyres aren’t… They aren’t real. People don’t actually have death ceremonies like that. That isn’t… That doesn’t happen. People don’t do that. My own tiny shaking hand reaches out to take the Hokage’s gnarled one. “Okay,” I say. Quietly. Shyly, even. The last time I saw a funeral pyre was on some B-rated film adaption of King Arthur. With each step I let the old man lead me through, the feeling this will be a much worse experience grows stronger and stronger. When we leave the hospital I flinch against the cold air. There’s lots I recognize on the slow walk through the streets. It all looks familiar to me, like driving through your hometown would feel like. The corner grocery store run by the widowed old lady, the nicer store owned by a younger couple, the street leading towards the Thursday farmer’s market, the distant peak of the academy, the row of militaristic weapon and clothing stores, the bakery one street over from the entrance to the—the—the—

“The Uchiha district,” I whisper. It’s ringed with concrete walls. Snow dots the sidewalk.

“Yes,” the Hokage says. He looks down at me. I can still see the strange little boy in the depths of his eyes. I don’t know you.

Uchiha Mikoto was my mother. (This isn’t real.) Uchiha Fugaku, my father. Both died. The Hokage leads me through the district, over the pathways leading between houses. I step around the tiny spots of snow. (This isn’t real.) Uchiha Itachi is my brother, but he’s the killer. That’s true. That’s true. He’s the killer. Who is he? (This isn’t real.) Uchiha Shisui was my cousin. Uchiha Hazuki used to be in a book club with my mother. We keep walking, twisting around the training fields and tiny tree groves and grassy parks. We’re going towards the lake. My feet keep stumbling over the uneven ground. (This isn’t real.) Uchiha Izumi was Hazuki’s daughter. Base born, but beautiful and intelligent, and Itachi killed her—and Uchiha Harumi was her younger sister. Harumi was in the year above me at the academy; she would almost always wait for me by the gates when school let out. (This isn’t real.) Down on the beach, beyond the docks, there’s a forever row of tiny wooden houses. Each has something on it: a body. (This isn’t real.) Harumi and I sometimes used to walk home together. Uchiha Hisana was in my class, but her mama always came to get her, so she didn’t walk with us. Harumi’s grandma owned a bakery stationed just outside the clan compound. On the way home, we would stop there, and Uchiha Mayu would give us free pastries. (None of this is real.) She was an older woman with her children long grown. She would smile down at us, maternal and kind, and I loved her the way I loved all of them and all of them are dead.

(You could make this better. It would be easy to make this better. You don’t have to hurt. It’s easy. You just need to stop hurting yourself. You can feel better if you stop destroying yourself. Don’t hate yourself anymore. I promise, it’s that easy. All day you look at yourself as a target to rip apart. Do you think you deserve it? To hurt like that? Does it make you feel better to attack someone you know will never fight back?)

One of the masked figures sets a torch aflame down by the water. I think they’re using a match to do it. A match… Too artificial. That isn’t right. Someone’s supposed to set the fire. There’s supposed to be someone specific to set the fire. Not a stranger. There’s a technique. What is it? I don’t know. I don’t need to know. I don’t know these people. I don’t have to know. It isn’t my responsibility to know. The figure leans forward and touches the torch to the first pyre. They move down the line, lighting each one. From this far, I can’t tell what body is in which. It smells like burning meat. The soot quickly starts to stain my face, my eyes stinging. I start to cry. I’m holding the old man’s hand tightly. I can’t look away from the dance of burning wood and burning bodies.

(This isn’t real.)

I don’t know you.

.

The Hokage leads me to my house after, the masks vanishing behind us into the shadows. Maybe the dark figures actually left, or maybe they only left my line of sight. Try not to think about it. What can I do? If I look, I won’t see them. It’ll only freak me out, lead to unsettling images of beady black eyes watching me through the windows, set into a face crouching behind the bushes.

Don’t want to think about this. Stop thinking about this.

My house looks just like all the other ones. It isn’t any bigger. Maybe it’s more centrally located. Hard to tell. The buildings, all very traditional, styled very old Japanese, don’t look like much. Same for this house, too. The old man slides the door open and walks in, taking his shoes off and organizing them neatly. I watch from the walkway. I don’t want to go inside. It feels intrusive. I feel like a serial killer or something, watching someone through an open window, invading things that don’t belong to me. Like I’m crouched up on a tree branch, hefting a video camera in one hand, zoomed in, focusing on someone through halfway closed blinds. It’s just…creepy.

“Come on, Sasuke,” the old man beckons, waving me on with a hand. The step over the threshold should make me feel sick, but it’s just a step. Lightning should strike when my foot goes through the doorway and I pull the sliding door shut. The doors should slam like the entrance to a bank vault. It’s just a door. Not too satisfying. It’s a little louder than a shouji door would be, but that’s only because the main door’s not paper. The old man pauses to pray at the house altar. I think that’s the traditional thing to do, but I don’t kneel down next to him. I’ve taken my shoes off very nicely to put them methodically next to his, but only because it feels wrong to put my shoes down all messy when his shoes look so neat. He might go to the sink and wash his face, but he just walks through the house. Don’t know if that’s polite or not. If he did wash his face, though—if he walked back with me after standing for hours at the fires on the bank of the beach and then washed the remains off in the house of the bodies—my hands twitch with an urge to turn to fists. I like he doesn’t. His skin and fine white robes are a bit grey now, stained. Good.

The old man sits down at a low table further inside the house without prompting, settling himself on one of the cushions. He pulls a stack of papers from his robes and sets it on the tabletop. After a bit of hesitation, I sit down, too, pulling my legs up underneath me and leaning back on my heels. It seems like he’s waiting for me to speak, but I don’t say anything. I don’t know what I could say. “I’ve brought you your academy schoolwork,” he says, motioning towards the stack. It’s not very big.

“How much school did I miss?” I ask curiously. I don’t think I’m in school. Or if I am, it isn’t like that—an academy, I mean. I don’t go to something like that. He misunderstands the question as worry and works his face into a soothing expression.

“Not much, my boy,” he mollifies. “Only a little more than a week.”

For a little bit neither of us say anything. I stare at the smooth wood of the table. It isn’t just a table. It’s a kotatsu. My mom used to have one. It’s nice. Maybe I’ll use it. It’s cold. I’d have to grab a comforter to throw around it, though. Something to put under it, too, maybe. After a minute or so, I go, “Cool.” It’s quiet again. I wish we had tea to sip or something. Maybe I should make some.

“I’m so sorry, Sasuke-kun,” the old man says. He sighs deeply. I can’t get myself to look at him even though I can feel his stare on me. “If you need anything, I will be here.”

“What are you sorry for?” I ask him, still looking down. He keeps saying that—I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He won’t say for what. No one has said it. He brought me to the beach and had me watch the fires, but he didn’t say it. I hear him open his mouth and close it again. “I want to hear you say it,” I tell him before I can remember myself. It’s easy enough to connect the dots. I know what happened. It’s obvious. This Sasuke whoever must’ve been related to all those bodies, and they’re dead now. The names that’d filtered through my head while I watched the smoke rise, that must’ve been them. They died.

“I’m sorry about your family,” he says.

“No.” The words feel like screams with the way they stab up my throat. I really wish I’d thought to make some tea. “That isn’t good enough.”

Quiet again. I can hear him breathing.

“Your family was murdered,” the old man tells me. His voice has changed. He’d been talking like I was a little kid, but now it seems like he’s too tired to sound kind. I raise my head to watch him. “I apologize, Sasuke. Your family was murdered.”

“All of them?” I confirm, words tumbling out. “Mother? Father? My—” brother? I don’t have a brother. I would remember more about her if I had a mother. I did have a mother, but not her.

“Yes.”

I look away from him and over towards the kitchen. That’s where it happened, I realize. That’s where they died. Mikoto was dead right over there, blood everywhere and I don’t want to think about the specifics. “No way,” I say. Right there, in the kitchen? That’s where it happened? Itachi’s sword came out of her all slick and the noise it made—no I don’t want that. I don’t want to think about that I don’t want to know. I don’t want to have to think about what it must’ve felt like to feel resistance on a weapon and know it was a body, pulsing muscle and flowing blood. “He wouldn’t—he wouldn’t kill her—he wouldn’t have—”

But he did. He did he did he did.

(“I never wanted you,” your mom said to you once in the car on the way back from a therapy appointment when you were fourteen. You remember at first you weren’t sure if you’d heard right, if it had really happened, if those words were what she said and if she really said them. You stared at a line of stitches on the cloth covering your seat. Your tongue floundered in your mouth, saliva sticky on teeth.

“Then why am I here,” you said.

She shrugged a little bit, signalling her left blinker to slip into the turn lane. She glanced over at you when she pulled up to the red light. You didn’t look away from the line of stitches next to your thigh.

“You dad wanted children,” she said, and you jerked, head ripping up to gape at her. The way she says words like “dad” used to be sort of funny to you. Words like slang always fell off her mouth a bit awkwardly. It wasn’t too funny then, but still—what a fucking joke. He didn’t want children. He didn’t ever want children.Children. The word felt like too much, like she was trying to pick out a vocabulary that’d make it more dramatic. What he wanted didn’t exist. He wanted people to think he was perfect. A perfect life needed participants. I’m real, you wanted to say. I’m not a doll. I’m not something to throw around. I’m alive. I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive. I’m real I’m real I’m real.

But she wouldn’t have cared anyway so you didn’t say anything. She made the turn and silence ruled the rest of the drive.)

“She loved me,” I say. The old man ‘hmm’s in agreement. When it happened Itachi didn’t look human anymore, his eyes red shadows and Mikoto’s blood staining his shirtsleeves. I can’t breathe I can’t move all those people all those people! All those people I laughed with and smiled at and ate with and celebrated clan festivals with all of them dead. It can’t be real; I can’t have known them. The images still persist. The funeral pyres. My parents with their bodies halfway stacked on top of one another, tossed carelessly.

My parents. Mikoto wasn’t my mother. I had one. It wasn’t her. But Mikoto loved me. She loved me and I loved her, and she’s dead. She loved me and I want to believe that meant something—that love existing even in a world strife with pain and even for me had meaning—but she’s dead and her son killed her and maybe it never meant anything at all. “What day is it?”

“Saturday,” the Hokage replies promptly. “If you feel ready, your academy training can resume as soon as Monday.”

Nobody speaks for a couple seconds or maybe an hour. I can’t feel my chest rising or falling. A passing fear I’m not breathing sparks to life in my head like two knocks of flint, but when I pull my hand to my chest, it’s moving. I’m alive I’m alive I’m alive.

After a little while, I go, “Cool.” We sit like that for a while. Eventually he leaves. If I’m supposed to be a kid, maybe that should be insulting to me, but after a bit my legs start to hurt from holding the position and I get up, dig around in the kitchen until I find the rice, root about in the fridge until I come across some carrots and a half empty bottle of soy sauce. I’m too short to reach the stove.

I find a stool in a hallway closet, right next to a blood stain somebody must’ve forgot to get out.

.

You eat your rice slowly, sitting at the counter, your legs dangling. You can’t touch the floor. It’s cold in here. Not as cold as outside, with the bare trees and iced up air. You’re seven. Did it feel like an axe hanging over your head, getting heavier and heavier the more likely it was Itachi would be capable of execution? Did it feel like you were waiting to be murdered, hoping to live and hoping to die in equal measure?

Look. There shouldn’t be any unsurety. Just want to make it obvious: if Itachi wanted to kill the Uchiha, then sorry, but they’re gone. There wasn’t a way for you to stop that, just like there was never any way for Sasuke to stop that. You might be more well-learned than your average seven year old, might have taken advanced placement calculus in high school, might even be able to consider yourself intelligent now that you’ve got Sasuke’s brain matter, but if you think any of that matters now, you’re wrong. What the hell can you do? Can’t fight him. Can’t fight anyone older than ten. You think you somehow could have stopped him? You think you deserve this somehow, that it’s your fault? You think this was about you? You think if someone tried to hurt them—if anyone tried to hurt anyone—you could stop it?

Ha. You’re funny. That’s cute, really, it is.

No.

It’d be nice if you could magically save the day, wouldn’t it? Make you feel real good. Maybe you’d stop feeling guilty then. Maybe you’d stop putting your hands to the mirror and hoping you’ll look up and see your own face in there. Maybe you’d even let yourself be Sasuke for real. Would it make you feel better? Would you stop hearing him crying in your head if you could save somebody?

Get over it. You didn’t save anyone. Just ask Sasuke.

Before it got cold enough for you to worry, you spent a long time looking at the autumn leaves on the ground, rotted, and thinking about Mikoto’s gentle smile, the one that used to make you feel more important than air. You’d periodically look up at the increasingly skeletal trees and think about Fugaku’s subtle pride and his overwhelming disappointment. Try to take in the entire courtyard and think about Hisana and Izumi and Yue and the bagel girl. You’d think about them and imagine them gone.

It hurt, right? It hurt to think about that, didn’t it? But you’d live.

Even thinking that made you feel guilty, had horror for yourself blooming rebelliously, shame fluttering down your spine, disgust for yourself collecting on your skin like sweat. At least Sasuke wasn’t around to hear you. If he cried when you started this, then think of how he’d be sobbing if he knew how you’d never actually cared about any of it. He’s crying now. You know that, right? You keep eating, chopsticks poking around the stir-fried carrots, acting like you can’t hear anything. That’s pretty sick, you know. Sasuke’s crying right now. Can’t you hear him? Guess not. You’re pretty rough. What a monster, right?

Don’t feel too bad. It’s only true. Not trying to be cruel. It’s pleasant enough to be around Mikoto or Shisui or Itachi or even Fugaku. You didn’t dislike them, or anything. Does that help? Figured it would make you feel better to know you weren’t happy when they kicked it. But they weren’t your real family. Sure, you couldn’t remember their faces—of your mother or your father or your siblings did you have any—and, sure, you couldn’t remember the specifics—hair color eye color dog’s fur under your fingers—but they were there. Of course they were. If you weren’t Sasuke, you had to be somebody. You had a family somewhere. Of course you did. Right?

They were there, and that meant these people don’t belong to you. Do you get it? When they died, you were sad. It was sad. Dead people. Sad. But now it’s happened, and you’ve watched the bodies burn. How can you eat when you still have the ash on your face? Those were people. But it was like losing a pet cat for you. You’re sad, but it isn’t the end of your world. The Uchiha were his world, right? That doesn’t belong to you. Those problems aren’t for you.

Well, okay. Alright then. Keep eating your burnt rice, pretending you didn’t just get your long division homework delivered by the man who let Sasuke’s world go up in embers. Not your problem. You’re not Sasuke.

Who are you, then?