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if I don't pay the ransom

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It was the twenty-second day since he had refused Madara, and Itachi began it the same way he had begun the other twenty-one days; he got up well before dawn to train.

The apartment blocks set aside for ANBU and special jounin had a good-sized training ground close by, but they were usually in use in the morning, so he went across the village to one of the grounds on the other side of the river. He only worked out for about an hour; then the shinobi who practiced there regularly began to show up, eying him as they started their exercises, and it was time to go back to the apartment and make breakfast.

He had been making the same meal for twenty-one days: rice, miso, and leftovers, with enough extra rice to make rice balls for Sasuke's lunch.

(Sasuke loved rice balls. It was natural to make them. It wasn't foolish to make them twenty-two days in a row in case this was the day Sasuke wouldn't throw the whole lunch away as soon as he was out of the apartment building.)

The door to Sasuke's room opened just as Itachi was about to knock and make sure Sasuke was awake. Sasuke was already dressed and had his backpack on; he flinched when he saw Itachi, and Itachi stepped back and said, "Breakfast is ready."

Sasuke looked down, his shoulders hunched up, and went past Itachi, heading for the apartment door. Itachi didn't touch him. He said, "You should eat before you leave. And I haven't finished making your lunch..."

"'m not hungry," Sasuke mumbled, the same thing he had said for the last six days. For fourteen days before that he hadn't said anything at all within Itachi's hearing.

"At least have a little rice," Itachi said, reaching for the half-filled bento, but he moved too quickly and Sasuke bolted out the door.

For the twenty-second day in a row, Itachi ate breakfast by himself.

He wasn't on official leave, but he didn't have a team at the moment and his superiors had let him know that he didn't need to come into headquarters unless they summoned him. After he took care of the dishes, he left for headquarters anyway; perhaps he could find someone else off-duty to spar with, or take a security shift.

He passed by the apartment below theirs - it belonged to a special jounin named Mitarashi Anko, if he remembered correctly - and saw the woman herself leaning against her door, eating dango. She waved her free hand at him and said, "Yo."

"Good morning, Mitarashi-san," Itachi said.

"Just Anko's fine," she said. "So you're still alive? You should watch some TV or something, yanno. It's so quiet up there I was gonna call in a biohazard team to make sure you two weren't rotting away."

"I'll - consider it," said Itachi, wondering if this was her way of showing concern.

Anko stared at him for a minute, swallowing another dango, then snorted and said, "Oh, get outta here, I'm sick of looking at your stupid mopey face."

Itachi went.

Headquarters was practically empty, which was partly Itachi's fault; besides the increased security in the village, most of the active teams had been sent out to hunt for Madara and any possible allies or hiding places. The few ANBU still there knew Itachi's mask and avoided him, except for a girl with a short black jacket and a bear mask who shadowed him through the building. Danzo did like to keep an eye on him.

Commander Daruma's shoulders slumped when he recognized Itachi at the door to his office, but he was gracious enough about assigning Itachi to sort through a pile of potentially hazardous items brought in from missions. The ANBU in the bear mask followed him there, too; he could sense her lurking among the shelves of summon scrolls.

Briefly, he considered asking her whether he really looked "mopey" - he didn't want to show Sasuke an unhappy face right now - but remembered in time that his mask was on. Foolish. He had been forgetting obvious little details like that lately; it was a dangerous habit, he would have to take more care when he was officially active again.

Itachi activated his sharingan and carefully unwrapped the first item, and the bloody hilt of an ANBU katana doubled before his eyes. He preferred as clean a kill as possible, but it was difficult to control the blood splatter of a katana strike and by the time he had reached Mother and Father he had run out of kunai and he had cleaned his katana every day since that night but the hilt had already been -

He shut his eyes, shut off the sharingan, looked at the katana again. Of course it wasn't his; his sword was in his locker, he didn't make a habit of carrying it around headquarters, and the pattern of the stains was different. There was nothing special about his katana, anyway. It was no more potentially hazardous than any other sword.

He reactivated the sharingan and resumed the inspection of the katana that wasn't his.



Itachi was writing a warning label for a fan with a genjutsu trap when he felt the other ANBU's chakra signature disappear. He finished the label, placed it on the fan's box, and left the room; if there was trouble, he would be needed. Outside of the storage room, however, headquarters was quiet, and another ANBU in a black jacket and a swallow mask was just coming down the hall. No trouble, then; just a shift change for Danzo's eyes.

That reminded him that he should eat. He'd brought the bento he had made for Sasuke so that it wouldn't be wasted; he retrieved it and left headquarters, preferring not to eat with Root watching every bite. He found a bench in a shady spot not far from the Academy, but removed enough from the sidewalk that he would be undisturbed, and began to eat. He wasn't particularly hungry, but it was important to keep up his strength. Curious, though, how tasteless the food seemed; he was sure he'd seasoned everything properly this morning...

As he picked up one of the rice balls, indistinct shouting from the Academy drew his attention, and he saw smoke explode out of a classroom window.

Itachi vanished.

No sword, only a few kunai and shuriken, avoid a head-on attack; get Madara's attention, draw him away from the school before he could find Sasuke, get him out of Konoha and then - and then -

He ran through the Academy (not that room, not that one, there it was, smoke and dust billowing into the hall from the doorway) and the mangekyou spun, focused on two shapes in the smoke - a yelling chuunin and a student.

"- ever catch you messing with the exploding tags again - what are you trying to do, you little monster, kill us all?"

"I was just seein' what would happen, yanno! I didn't mean to -"

Not Madara. Not Madara. Just a mischievous student causing trouble. Itachi put a hand on the wall and forced the mangekyou away. Not Madara. Not yet.

"Excuse me, ANBU-san - can I help you?"

Itachi looked up and saw the chuunin teacher looking at him warily. ANBU-san - yes, he'd put away his mask, but he was still in uniform. Foolish. He should have changed before he left headquarters. "Please forgive me," he said, "I saw the explosion and came to investigate, but I see that you have matters under control."

"Yes, well, thanks for checking," said the teacher. "No one's hurt, but this brat just can't resist anything that makes noise." She shot the student a filthy glare. "Can't believe they let him of all -"

"Hey, mister, you okay?" the boy interrupted. He appeared to be around Sasuke's age, with short, scruffy blonde hair and blue eyes shining out of a sooty face.

"I'm fine, thank you," Itachi said automatically.

"Only your eyes were all weird and red, and you look kinda -"

The teacher's eyes widened at "red." She had heard of him, then. "That's enough, Uzumaki," she said, grabbing the boy's shoulder and pulling him away from Itachi. "Don't pester Itachi-san, he's - very busy, I'm sure."

"Yeah, sorry," Uzumaki said, although he didn't look very sorry and grinned up at Itachi, waving. "See ya, mister! Good luck bein' busy!"

Itachi made himself smile and raised his hand for a return wave. "Please study hard, Uzumaki-kun," he said, wondering vaguely where he'd heard that name before. "And don't cause too much trouble for your teachers."

The teacher dragged the boy back to class, and Itachi resisted the urge to check on Sasuke and made his way out of the building, back to his abandoned lunch. He must have been careless when he had put it down (he didn't remember putting it down), because it had fallen off the bench and spilled on the ground. He knelt down to clean it up and wondered how he had eaten any of it; it looked disgusting, smelled disgusting, of course Sasuke wouldn't have wanted such a terrible bento.

He picked up what had spilled and emptied the whole thing into the nearest trash can, then went back to headquarters. He still had work to do.



Hana came by the storage room late in the afternoon to tell Itachi that he could go, she would finish checking the remaining items. It wasn't really a job Hana was suited for, as she usually worked on reconnaissance and short-term spying missions, but she had been on medical leave for a month due to injuries from her last mission and took desk jobs whenever she came in.

As he was leaving she said, "Oh, and it'll be Captain Hana soon - the promotion goes through soon as my leave is up."

"Congratulations, Captain Hana," he said.

"Don't lay it on too thick," said Hana, shuffling the pile of weapons and miscellaneous objects around to better accommodate her injured right arm. "Still a few years behind the genius captain, aren't I?"

Itachi tensed. "I didn't mean -"

"Oh, I know," she said, sighing. "Look, just forget I said anything. Get out of here and get some rest, Crow. They're going to want you back out in the field soon enough, you should be relaxing while you have the chance."

Itachi wasn't sure what she meant by that, but he nodded politely and left.

He had done laundry four days ago, swept yesterday, and he took care of the dishes every day, so he had nothing to do at the apartment; he did need to get groceries, though, or he wouldn't be able to make a decent dinner for Sasuke. The meat and eggs weren't a problem, but the woman who sold vegetables near the ANBU apartments ignored him when he tried to buy an onion and tomatoes, until the people who elbowed in around him had bought up all the ones that weren't bruised or overripe. He tried another market on the other side of the village, but the man who ran the vegetable stall there named a price for the tomatoes that was twice what was written on the sign in the box.

Itachi paid it, because it was getting late and he didn't know any other vegetable stalls. He still made it back to the apartment before Sasuke, as he usually did, and was halfway through preparing dinner when he realized that he was making oyakodon.

There was nothing wrong with that. It was so normal that it was silly and there was no reason to think anything of it except the name and Itachi took the simmering chicken off the stove and sat down on the kitchen floor and took several very deep breaths. He was not going to start laughing uncontrollably because he was making oyakodon and he had killed his parents twenty-two days ago. That would be ridiculous, so it wasn't going to happen. He had responsibilities. He had to take care of Sasuke.

He stood up and returned the pan to the stove, and was slicing the onion and tomatoes when he heard the door open. He looked over his shoulder and said, "Welcome home, Sasuke. I'll be done with dinner soon..."

Sasuke didn't answer, keeping his head down as he took off his shoes. Itachi added the sliced onion to the skillet, decided to add the tomatoes a minute later so they wouldn't be overcooked, and turned around to talk to Sasuke properly. "How was school today?" he asked. "Do you have much homework?"

Sasuke shrugged and stayed silent; with his face set in a stubborn expression like that he looked like Father, although Father's stubbornness had never been mixed with fear.

(He hadn't wanted to kill Father. He loved his family. But that foolish man who couldn't compromise, who would have torn Konoha apart for his pride and let war destroy his own home - Itachi had hated him.)

It had been a minute, so Itachi tipped the tomatoes into the soup mix, fighting to keep his hands steady, and stirred it. He heard Sasuke slip past him and mutter, "I ate already," and then the door to Sasuke's room closing.

For the twenty-second day in a row, Itachi ate dinner by himself, as well. Not much dinner, though; he still didn't feel hungry, and it was hard to eat the oyakodon without wanting to laugh again. After a few bites he gave up, covered both bowls, and put them in the refrigerator. He might as well begin his evening training.

He knocked on Sasuke's door first, and Sasuke yelled, "Don't come in!", his voice high and panicked.

"I won't," said Itachi. "If you get hungry later, the leftovers are in the fridge. I'm going out to train, I'll be back later - don't forget to do your homework."

After a minute of silence, Itachi accepted the lack of answer and went out. He made sure that both the door and the kitchen window were locked, checking each three times, and then went to the practice grounds near the apartments; most ANBU trained in the mornings and it was generally empty at night, so Itachi could train as long as he wanted. The physical effort was relaxing at first, keeping him occupied with aim and distance and motion. All he had to think about were the targets and the weapons, nothing else...

After a while he took a short break for water and to consider his next exercises. He shouldn't neglect his taijutsu, but that was best practiced with a partner - perhaps sword kata, he could do those alone, and the moon was growing full again.

Itachi watched it. If the moon was already up - and well above the horizon, too - then it was later than he'd thought. Perhaps he should go back and try to sleep, but he didn't feel tired yet, and he couldn't let himself slack off when -

Movement and he drew and threw and a hand shot out of the darkness, catching the kunai just above a startled green snake.

"Watch it, hotshot," Mitarashi Anko said, and scooped the snake up; it wrapped itself around her neck and shoulders and buried its head in the collar of her coat. "You're not the only one who likes training at night, yanno?"

"My apologies, Anko-san," he said, catching his kunai as she tossed it back to him. "I was only -" He didn't know. He should have looked before throwing. "I've been a little - on edge, lately," which should be safe enough to admit. She was only a special jounin and he barely knew her; certainly she couldn't know about Madara.

"Nah, really," she said. "Never would've guessed. Look, Uchiha -"

"Just Itachi is fine." He wasn't an Uchiha anymore. Sasuke was the last Uchiha.

"Gotcha," said Anko. "Anyway, if you're free around three tomorrow, stop by and have tea with me. You look like hell warmed over, you should relax some - and I make some damned relaxing tea."

Itachi considered this offer carefully before saying, "That's very kind of you, Anko-san."

"Kind my ass," she said, but she was grinning. Her smile reminded him of Uzumaki's, though he couldn't have said why. "I just hate dealing with the biohazard teams and their bullshit procedures, so you better not keel over and die from stress, got it?"

"Understood," Itachi said.

They split up the practice ground, Anko taking half to work with the snake while Itachi ran through sword kata; it was rather pleasant to share a training ground with someone who didn't look at him as if he were about to start killing everyone in sight, and Itachi soon lost track of time again.

Then Anko planted a needle in the katana's hilt and told him that it was past a good ANBU's bedtime. Itachi was beginning to feel tired, and when he pulled the needle out to return to her he noticed that his fingers had difficulty gripping it.

Anko didn't notice, or perhaps didn't care; she just said, "See you tomorrow, bring your own snacks," and waved him off with that wide grin.

The apartment was undisturbed when he got back, but when he went to wash the dishes from dinner he found an extra bowl in the sink, sloppily rinsed and with shreds of egg and onion still clinging to the inside.

It was ridiculous and it meant more work, but it made Itachi feel a little less tired. He could handle this, he thought as he filled the sink with hot water; it was all right if Sasuke avoided him, he could understand it, it didn't matter as long as Sasuke was safe. Itachi didn't need anything more than that.

After he had finished cleaning up, he leaned against his little brother's door and said quietly, "Good night, Sasuke," and then he went to bed. The alarm clock read 1:37, turning over to 1:38 just before Itachi closed his eyes.

It read 2:09 when he woke up and had to go through the entire apartment to make sure no one else was there, but at least Sasuke didn't wake up when Itachi checked his room.

It read 3:28 when Itachi woke up again, but he wasn't quite sure how to deal with a dream where his mother had screamed at him to cut his hair short, so he went back to sleep.

It read 4:30 when he woke up properly on the twenty-third day since he had refused Madara, and Itachi got up to train.