When Itachi begins to grow distant, Sasuke begins to grow angry.
It feels as though something has changed overnight. Where his brother used to be warm, he is cold. Where he used to pull him close and indulge his whims and wants, he pushes him away, keeps him at arm's length and dismisses him without so much as a second thought.
It hurts. It makes him want to scream and cry and throw a fit like he hasn’t done in years. It makes him sad in a way he’s never, in his thirteen years, had to experience. He loathes it more than he can put into words. Resents the way it makes him feel weak and powerless, and so he forces the sadness to turn to anger, instead.
It’s not as though he doesn’t try, at first, but whatever he does, whatever he says, nothing seems to breach the distance between them- nothing stops Itachi from pushing him away, so he decides to push back, hard as he can.
Itachi won’t even sit with him for a game, so Sasuke refuses to give him so much as a kind word. Every conversation becomes one-sided, questions are left unanswered, he resolves not to even acknowledge his brother’s existence unless his parents are insisting on it.
They’re off on a family trip down the coast when their parents encourage them both to lean in closer for a photo, prompting Itachi to throw an arm around his shoulder. He goes stiff as a board at the contact. Shivers away despite the angry heat that builds in his chest, recoiling not quite enough to upset their parents, but just enough that Itachi will feel it. He brushes him off the second he’s able, shooting him a quick glare.
He’s almost sure that the wounded look on his brother’s face isn’t imagined, but it disappears too quickly to be certain. The pit of confused guilt that grows in his stomach seems confirmation enough.
A year passes, each day like this, the chasm between them growing wider by the moment.
Their parents have noticed the growing distance between them- how could they not- and his mother can see the way he’s hurting. She offers quiet assurances that this is just a phase, that it’s natural. Itachi is becoming a young man, preparing for university and focusing on his future. It’s only typical that he has less time for his family. For everyone. For Sasuke.
The problem is that he knows it’s not true. Knows his brother, knows he’d never be unable to find time for him if he truly wanted to. Which means- which means he doesn’t.
He’s a fool to let himself believe her words, despite what he knows to be true.
The worst part of it all is that Sasuke does, in fact, still know his brother quite well.
However cold the distance between them becomes, however far they push each other away, Sasuke has always known his brother’s heart better than anyone else. Sasuke knows he is loved.
It only makes it more impossible to understand why things have become the way they are, and that’s what makes it all the more difficult to cope with.
A year passes and Itachi is leaving, as he knew he would.
His bag is packed and their father is waiting by the door with his keys in hand, ready to drive him to the airport.
Their mother pushes him forward to hug his brother goodbye and Sasuke wants to cry and plead with him not to go. Cling to his legs and beg him to take him along, not to leave him behind, the way he used to when he was small.
Itachi steps forward to say goodbye and Sasuke can’t look at him, cuts his gaze to the floor, instead. He can hear Itachi's steps still, hear- if he’s not mistaken- the sharp breath he takes, with something almost pained laced just below the hitch of it, but then he lets it out slow and calm as anything and when he feels Itachi’s index finger press gently into his forehead, he can’t bring himself to look back up until he hears the door shut.
He knows that if he looks at his mother he’ll see the disappointment in her eyes, but it’s nothing compared to sound of his brother’s pained breath looping in his mind, real or imagined, combined with the surreal finality in the knowledge that his brother is gone.
It should feel satisfying- he thinks. Like a victory of some kind, but the suffocating hollow in his chest only grows deeper.
After that, it gets- not easier, but less consuming.
He can see the irony in his actions more clearly, as time goes by. He was so determined not to care- to seem unaffected by everything Itachi did, but it dictated every waking thought, every action- everything about him.
It’s still like that, some days. The bad days, when Itachi is home to visit and Sasuke aches for their lost closeness like a phantom limb, but for the most part, the soreness in his chest has lost its sharp edges and faded to something dull. Always there, but mostly something that can be ignored.
Itachi tries, sometimes, he thinks.
He’ll get a message out of the blue, so benign and simple that he wouldn’t think anything of it if it weren’t quite so meaningless. So blatantly unnecessary, utterly without a point to the degree that there can be no purpose served- nothing gained- except the knowledge that Sasuke will read it.
Sometimes, when Itachi is visiting home, he’ll pass by his room to inform him dinner is ready, as if their mother wouldn’t have done it a moment later, lingering there in the doorway just half a second too long to be casual.
The temptation- the desire to reach out and take whatever Itachi will give him, any sign of affection or caring- it’s so strong it makes him feel sick with missing him to stop himself. Still, though, he manages. The idea of rejection- the possibility of going through the raw pain of his brother pushing him away and leaving him behind yet again, it’s the only thing worse, and just enough to make sure he stays put, both literally and figuratively.
So, Itachi tries, sometimes, but Sasuke never does.
Sometimes, on particularly bad nights- the worst nights, he sneaks into his brother’s room. He waits until he knows his parents are asleep, and tip-toes inside to burrow under the cool covers of his brother’s empty bed. He never touches anything but the picture of the two of them sitting on the nightstand, lays there holding it with a white knuckle grip, staring at it and wondering why. Some nights, it’s only the risk of being caught here and having to explain himself that stops him from smashing it to pieces.
He’s always gone before the sun is up, bed left immaculately made, photo unscathed.
They see each other less and less. At first, Itachi is always home for the holidays, not to mention the occasional weekend, but over time it changes. There’s always some exam, some internship, some pressing course of study, some promotion on the horizon, and eventually he stops coming home, stops joining them on family holidays, stops seeing him altogether.
Their parents start going down to visit here and there, on weekends when exams have passed, but by then Sasuke’s own studies are intensifying and he has the excuse not to join them.
One spring, just a few months before Sasuke’s seventeenth birthday, Itachi comes home.
It’s only for a week, for a school break, but it’s- strange.
Even their parents are surprised. Clearly pleased, but surprised.
It’s been more than two years since Itachi has been home to visit, and something about the visit- something about him, has an unfamiliar itch running under his skin. It makes him want to fidget whenever Itachi is in the room. Makes his cheeks go hot and leaves him feeling unsettled, feeling watched. It takes him a couple of days to realize that’s because he is. Being watched, that is.
Itachi’s eyes are on him, always.
He doesn’t understand why, his brother’s expression never gives anything away, never tells him anything, just serves to leave him feeling paranoid and confused. That must be it, really. Itachi must be playing a game with him, Sasuke only wishes he knew how to win. Instead, all he can do is refuse Itachi the knowledge of just how far under his skin he’s managed to crawl, and so he does his best to ignore it and keep it contained when he can’t quite manage that much.
A week after his seventeenth birthday, he finds the letters.
Since his brother’s visit in the spring, something has changed.
They still aren’t talking, they still don’t see each other, but something in the way he thinks- the way the hurt between them had become almost dormant, moot, and has once again flared to life with sharp, burning clarity and edges of something he can't quite- something has changed, is the point, and it’s been driving him out of his mind.
It’s been a long, long time since he crawled into his brother’s empty bed in the night, a long time since he allowed himself, but tonight he feels- lost. Needs something to ground him.
As soon as he hits the mattress he notes that the picture that always occupied the nightstand is gone, Itachi must’ve gotten rid of it during his visit. The thought sends a pang of hurt through his chest, and it’s that pain that pushes him to open the drawer by the bed, hoping he’s wrong.
The picture is there, and when he sits up and lifts it out, it catches.
That’s all it takes.
When he lifts the false bottom and unearths- unearths himself, essentially- or rather, them, as they had been, his heart pounds hard enough to make him shake.
There are photos he’s never seen of the two of them together, happy, smiling sincere and wide in the way only kids can. He finds a pressed flower he’d brought Itachi as a child. There’s even a worn-out string bracelet he’d knotted together for him with clumsy fingers when he was small. Itachi had kept it on until it was frayed all over and ready to fall off.
Tears cloud his eyes and he can’t- can’t understand why his brother would keep these things so hidden if he felt the need to keep them at all, can’t fathom what his reason could be, not until he spots the letters.
They’re addressed to him, but he’s certain he’s never seen them. They’re clean and crisp and still carry the faintest smell of fresh ink when he lifts them from the drawer, like they’d been written and immediately put away, never touched again. He can’t quite manage to steady his hands and the paper trembles in his fingers as he opens the first one, chosen at random.
What he learns, above all else, is that Itachi wants. He wants so many things.
Itachi wants to see him happy, to see him succeed, whatever that might end up meaning.
Itachi wants to do all that he can for him. Wants to be there for him, wants to lift him up and give him everything, whatever it takes.
Itachi wants to- to be with him through all these things. Wants to be with him always. Wants never to hurt him.
Itachi wants him. Plain and simple, in every way.
Even the ways he shouldn’t.
‘I wish things didn’t have to be this way, wish I could be anything but this.’
‘The way you look when-’
‘I miss your smile. I especially miss having you smile for me.’
‘If keeping away is all I can do for you, I won’t consider it a choice.’
‘Hurting you is the worst thing I've ever done. I cannot imagine a worse type of person than myself, to do this to you.’
‘You’re a part of me, so deep under my skin I feel you there, always. I wish I could touch you. I want to be the one to-’
‘You deserve so much better than I can offer you. As a brother. As-’
Whatever else they say, the letters all end the same.
' - Your loving brother, always.’
He feels- he feels too much. His heart is soaring and sinking all at once, beating through his chest hard enough to make him dizzy and send a sore ache sprawling out under his ribs. He doesn’t know how much time has passed, but when he hears the sound of footsteps in the hall- his father’s, he’s quite sure, wandering into the kitchen- it tears him from his haze and back into reality so suddenly it almost feels vicious.
He waits- terrified and shaking- until he hears nothing, and, quiet as he can manage, rights the bed and the dresser, putting everything but the letters back where it belongs.
They terrify him, but he can’t seem to let go.
He slips silently from the room and back to his own.
Once back in his room, curled up on his own mattress, he spends far too long just staring at the letters in his hands. He can’t bring himself to continue reading, can’t bring himself to put them down. He just- can’t.
Everything he’s read, it makes so much sense, and still, he can't seem to comprehend it.
Itachi had pushed him away to protect him. He’d been afraid of himself, of his feelings. He wanted- wants- wants Sasuke in a way that feels so overwhelming he thinks he might be sick from the mess of emotions tugging and shifting, settling deep in the pit of his stomach and- yeah. Yeah, he’s going to be sick.
He barely makes it to the bathroom in time to wretch.
He doesn’t sleep, that night. Or the night after that.
Two full days are spent in a haze, his mother fussing over him, looking for a fever to explain the glaze over his eyes, the nausea, the cool sweats he finds himself prone to. He does his best to pass it off as a migraine, but he’s fairly certain he’s not being particularly convincing.
His mind still reels. The war of instincts inside him only seems to get messier, more tangled by the day, by the hour, even. He’s- he’s revolted, he thinks. He knows he should be, at the very least, wondering how many innocent moments were not as they seemed. Wondering how Itachi could be so- so selfish. To let his feelings get in the way, to abandon him, to feel as he does in the first place.
That's not all, though.
There are other things, too. Relief prominent among them. Relief at the knowledge- the confirmation, really, as he’d known all along- that his brother still loves him, cares for him, still tries only to do what’s best for him, even if it hurts them both. Love that is both like he craved and entirely different from anything he'd ever thought of, let alone expected, but more than he can grasp, all the same.
And, there’s something- something indefinable. Or- perhaps not that so much as something he simply isn’t ready to define. Not yet. Not even in his own mind. Something inevitable.
When he finally sleeps, he dreams of Itachi.
He wakes up hard, a longing, horrified ache in his chest, and refuses to acknowledge the clouding of his vision as anything other than sleep.
He tries to ignore it. Ignore the letters, ignore the dreams, ignore everything.
It never works.
So, instead, he decides to face it.
When he wakes up, it’s with the same knot of nauseous arousal that’s been plaguing him daily, every morning since he found the letters, always afraid to close his eyes for fear of the too-vivid images of like bodies intertwined that feel practically seared into his eyelids, at this point. This time, though, he doesn’t shy away.
With a heavy exhale, he closes his eyes and slips his hand under his waistband.
He finishes to the phantom feel of Itachi’s hands trailing over his skin and images of sharp features and dark eyes looming over him.
As his breathing evens out he waits for shame to wash over him. Waits for the weight of what he’s done, what he’s allowed to transpire in his own mind, to squeeze the breath from his lungs, but the feeling never comes. What he feels, instead, is closer to a sort of mourning.
Months go by, every morning is the same.
He waits for the other shoe to drop, but it never does.
That’s not to say it feels entirely right, exploring these new feelings, it just doesn't quite feel wrong for the reasons he knows it should. Instead, it rekindles the lonely ache in his chest in an entirely new way. It’s almost worse than the last time, because now he misses Itachi in all these new ways he’s never even had him, and knows he’s missed back just the same.
It’s enough to make him hurt, yet not enough to change anything, it seems.
He knows it’s not possible, what he- what they want from each other. It can’t be. It could never be. He knows this.
It’s not something that they could ever get away with, even if they were more anonymous. Even if they didn’t have the expectations on their shoulders that they do, the family that they do, the recognition that they do. Without all of that, it would still be wrong, they look so alike that the smallest slip would give them away, they could never be seen as anything less than brothers, even to strangers. With all of it- it’s more than wrong. It’s unthinkable.
The knowledge of this should be enough to stop his thoughts, if not his desires, in their tracks. Should be enough to shut down any other ideas as irrational, a waste of time. Never going to happen.
Instead, it serves to force him into confronting the uncomfortable but undeniable truth that there is very little he wouldn’t give up for Itachi, even in the way of family.
It’s impossible, he knows this, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
Would Itachi ever cross that line? If Sasuke were to let him, would he be willing to reach out and take, when he’s already so convinced it’s the worst thing he could do to either of them? To Sasuke, especially?
He wants- he hopes so.
He wonders if he, himself, could truly do it. Wonders if he would ever have the nerve to take that step, risk everything just for the possibility of having his brother with him, in every way he's grown to need him. Every way they need each other.
The winter before Sasuke is due to begin university, his parents announce that they’ll be going on a family vacation, Itachi included.
The windfall of nervous anticipation that sweeps through his chest provides Sasuke with his answer.
For all that he loves him, wants him, needs him, Itachi is still very much still the perfect, untouchable older brother, who, between them, has always held the upper hand. Given that, he can’t entirely resist the opportunity to make him suffer, just a little.
When Itachi comes home, Sasuke acts as he always has, these past few years. Sullen indifference in his presence, one word answers to his questions- as if he ever asks any without prompting from his parents. He doesn’t let Itachi notice that anything is amiss, with one small exception.
Now that he knows what he’s looking for, knows what it means when he catches Itachi looking at him, he looks back. Holds his gaze until there’s heat bubbling up under his skin, skittering across his nerves, screaming at him to reach out and touch.
He’s not sure what he sees in Itachi’s eyes, as hard to read as he’s always been, but it’s- it’s something. Something besides the stoic masks and false smiles that have followed him through his teens. It’s something real.
It’s just past four, and Sasuke is not sleeping.
He should be, but he is not, because Itachi is in the next room, also not sleeping.
Originally, he’d thought the soft sounds drifting through their shared wall might lull him to sleep, soothing as it is to have him nearby again. Instead, he’s found it impossible to let his mind slow enough to drift off. Rather, he’s been stuck wondering what is Itachi doing, what is he thinking of, could it be him?
He’s stuck on that thought, suspecting he already knows the answer, when the sounds in the next room pick up, having tapered off in the last thirty minutes, or so.
He can hear him rustling around in the next room, his movements sound frantic. It was never unusual, when he still lived at home, for Sasuke to hear him up late, typing on his computer, stretching, but there were rarely more sounds than one would expect from activities so simple. This is different. He can hear him moving things around, drawers opening and closing, boxes being opened. He’s searching, and Sasuke’s fairly certain he knows what for.
When he gets to his feet, it’s a bizarre combination of detachment and adrenalin that pushes him out the door and lets him slip into Itachi’s room without calling out to see if it’s alright, first.
He’s met by the sight of Itachi, infuriatingly calm despite his unexpected presence, though he suspects that won’t last, leaning back against the desk that's pressed up below his window. He lets himself settle against the wall, far too casual for how little they’ve spoken, but needing the cool of it to help him feign a casual exterior. The false bottom to the drawer is sitting on Itachi’s mattress, along with the contents, and he has a letter- freshly penned, if the stationary out on the desk is anything to go by- between his fingers.
“Isn’t it a bit late for a visit, little brother?” Itachi asks with concern that may not be entirely false, but is certainly misplaced.
Sasuke wants to quip back, wants to play with Itachi as his older brother has always done with him, wants to drag this out as long as he can, but more than that- more than that he wants to wipe that dismissive, horridly nothing smile right off his face. He’s seen enough of it in the last few years to last him many lifetimes over.
He nods towards the letter in his brother’s grasp. “Is that one for me, too?”
Itachi- Itachi does nothing. Truly, sincerely, nothing. He goes entirely still, as still as anyone could ever be. He doesn’t breathe, he doesn’t speak, for a beat Sasuke feels frozen in time for how his brother simply stops. It pulls his awareness to the anxious beat of his heart rushing through his ears and it’s through sheer force of will that his hands don’t start trembling with the near painful bite of anticipation buzzing under his skin.
“What are you talking about?” Itachi asks- demands, really, and it’s so unlike him. This voice, this look- something akin to fear woven through and lighting up his eyes- that Sasuke feels compelled to step forward, closer and closer until he can’t go any nearer for fear that he won’t be able to step back again.
“Don’t worry, Itachi,” He reaches out without breaking his brother’s gaze, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice, fire lancing through his veins where their fingers brush as he takes the letter from him. From this close, it’d be impossible to miss the way Itachi flinches, slight as it is, only to sway forward again. “I’ll put it with the rest.”
There’s one heavy, terrifying moment that he sees, with too-vivid clarity, what it might be like if he were to take that last step forward, wind his hands through his brother’s long hair and yank, taste the terror set in the lines of his brother's mouth and-
He forces himself to step back, turning away from Itachi’s wide, dark eyes, and slip from the room, instead. He has a plan to stick to, though, the choked out whisper of his name that follows him into the hall nearly derails it.