Blood swirled black in the river as Itachi dully washed his hands, the cold water making his skin go numb and his knees begin to ache. The mission had started, and Itachi was surprised at how training and muscle memory were quick to take over. Just moments earlier, he had watched his best friend sink into the murky water, dead gray eyes staring up at a colorless sky. From far away, he could see lights from the Uchiha quarter winking steadily in the indigo darkness, punctate yellow halos flickering in the dark.
The river groaned, then burbled, almost heaving with the effort to suck Shisui's body into the water. Seaweed stuck to Shisui's mottled limbs, and tiny bubbles rose from the back of Shisui's throat.
The talks fell apart as soon as they started. Hiruzen sat, his mouth a thin tight line, as the Uchiha representatives shouted obscenities at the rest of the council: Koharu and Mitokado seethed with silent rage and Danzou passed knowing glances at his two young attendants, whom Hiruzen was sure were Root, though they had disbanded years ago.
Chairs clattered as the men stood, sharingan flashing and one clan member spitting in Danzou's face.
"Now do you understand?" Danzou said. His voice was low, ominous, even as he wiped the spittle off his cheek; the Uchiha had slammed the doors as they left, but the sound of it still echoed throughout the great hall. "We have danced this ridiculous dance for weeks now, and the Uchiha are nowhere near conceding. We must take action before it is too late."
"And what would you propose?" the councilor asked. Hiruzen's eyes narrowed as Danzou elegantly unfurled the scrap of parchment out from the fabric of his robes.
That night, Hiruzen hunched over his desk, taking the scroll in his hands and silently unrolling the paper. The room was dark except for the half-glow of the orange candle on the desk, and in the muted light Hiruzen could see the plan intricately etched out for the Uchiha extermination. All it needed was a signature.
"Hokage-sama." Danzou stepped forward. "Time is of the essence. All we need is for you to sign."
Hiruzen sighed, then set the scroll back on the table. "I must think."
"Give me one day," Hiruzen said. "I must think this through."
The air was cool and thick when Hiruzen found Itachi at the training grounds; chakra dampened, Hiruzen melded into the background of the night of the forest and watched as Itachi trained. The sinews of his arms flexed and stretched with each studied movement: one strike, then another, the parabola of his sword making a perfect arc through the air.
"You don't have to do this," Hiruzen said, and Itachi turned, moonlight falling on his face. "No one said you had to accept this mission."
A bird flew, the flap of its wings disturbing the silence. There were bruises under Itachi's eyes, and Hiruzen couldn't help but notice the small scratches on his arms, or how tightly he held the kunai in his hand. "And what would become of them if I didn't?" Itachi's voice was low. His eyes flicked upward. "Hokage-sama?"
Hiruzen's heart stilled. His breath and the air around him were cold. "They would die," Hiruzen said. "But not by your hand."
The youth turned sharply, and Hiruzen could see the curve of Itachi's neck and the delicate bumps of his spine, and he was reminded just how young he was, how fragile. The rims of Itachi's eyes were shining, and Hiruzen knew the boy was trying not to cry.
Then his head snapped back up: Itachi's eyes were dark; hard. "I will do what is needed of me," Itachi said. "An eye for an eye, just as Danzou-sama said."
"And when it is through?" Hiruzen asked. "When all your kinsmen are dead and you're the last one standing?"
And at this, Itachi closed his eyes, and gave no answer.
The sun rose, and the grasses were backlit pink with morning dew. The village was waking, and from the high perch of his balcony window, Hiruzen could hear the quiet morning sounds of civilians being shuffled back to life, blinking sleepily as laundry strung on high taut lines flapped with the breeze.
The scroll was still open on his desk. Beside it, remnants of the candle from the night before smoldered slowly, half-melted and the smoke curling up into the air.
"Hokage-sama?" Hiruzen raised his eyes to see the young attendant standing hesitantly before him. "Tea, Hokage-sama?"
The boy had the same bright hopeful eyes as Itachi once had. Hiruzen smiled, sadly. "Yes," Hiruzen said. "I would enjoy a cup of tea."
The boy bowed, then softly closed the door.
Slowly, Hiruzen sat. The joints in his knees ached, and the words on the parchment seemed to him like fabric unraveling in his hands.
"Will you do nothing, and let the lives of millions come crashing down around you?"
Genocide or a fourth ninja war. They could gouge out their eyes, but the outcome would be the same.
The pen in his hand burned him.
"Your tea, Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen's eyes flicked upward at the boy smiling in front of him, gently placing the teapot on his desk.
His signature was shaky, the ink smudging under his fingers.
News of Uchiha Shisui's death traveled quickly throughout the village, reaching even the civilian quarter at the northernmost side.
"A suicide," they said. Villagers glanced furtively at the high walls of the Uchiha compound: given the growing animosity between them and the others, outsiders were barred from his funeral. Smoke spun high into the cold air, mixing with the cherry blossoms falling from the trees around them.
He found them just as the sun was setting, walking quietly on the wooded path toward the outskirts of the Uchiha compound. Danzou stepped forward and waited as Itachi nodded politely, his younger brother fingering a shuriken uncertainly and watching them with wide dark eyes.
The child stared up at him. It was dark in the woods surrounding them, and though the boy's eyes were no darker than his own, Danzou imagined them to be bottomless pools, strangely cold and full of sorrow.
There were certain kinds of people Danzou detested: hypocrites and liars, selfish, cowardly men who refused to sacrifice for the greater good. He could see it splattered on the killing fields in ANBU missions gone wrong, the grotesque curve of a child's grimacing mouth, the withered hands of a civilian corpse rotting in the mud.
And the men who've abandoned their posts? Who've succombed to their fear of death and dying and ran to save their own skins?
It was a weakness he knew all too well: even now, decades after the fact, Danzou still thought of that night, the battle where Hiruzen jumped into the fray and sacrificed himself, gaining the title of Hokage while Danzou fretted over his own skin. "I cannot believe you are still fixated on that," Hiruzen said once, and though the old fool would have liked to think Danzou a friend, Danzou had shot him a withering gaze.
Despite what the Hokage believed, (and Danzou bristled at the fact that Hiruzen refused to take responsibility, his signature on the document notwithstanding), Uchiha Shisui was not Itachi's first kill. But somehow, despite Danzou's best efforts and an ANBU track record rivaling the most seasoned jounin, Hiruzen stubbornly and stupidly bore the guilt of Shisui's murder.
"How many missions has he been on?" Danzou asked. "How many combatants has he already killed?" The long rectangle of his shadow fell over the Hokage's desk, the yellow slant of light cut in harsh sections from the door. "He is a jounin, Hiruzen," Danzou said. "Do not deceive yourself. Uchiha Itachi is no child. He's killed more men than jounin twice his age."
The Hokage sagged; he looked older than his age. Quietly, Danzou stood and walked over to the balcony window, hands clasped behind his back and looking out into the village skyline. In the distance, they could see the choppy silhouette of the Uchiha quarter, dark tendrils of smoke rising silently into the air. "That boy is preparing to murder his family tonight," Hiruzen said. "I cannot help but to worry for him."
"Idiot," Danzou said. "Why must you ruminate on such useless things? Can you not see this is for the best?"
"It is," Hiruzen said. His voice was the barest whisper.
Danzou's jaw tightened.
"You are too soft," Danzou said. "Hiruzen. You know I am loyal; the safety of Konoha is all that matters. I would never undermine your authority in front of the others, but you should know that you are weak. Foolish. The price for peace can never be too high, and if I were Hokage the Uchiha would have been wiped out long ago!"
"Then why are you coming to me now?" Hiruzen asked, quietly. "It is past midnight. If you do not care, then why are you here?"
Danzou bristled. Hiruzen closed his eyes.
"It is as I thought," Hiruzen said. "You are human, too."
When Shisui's body finally washed back to shore, his skin was pale and gray and his limbs and face were bloated to the point where he was nearly unrecognizable. Uchiha nin gathered, hefting the body with fishing nets and dredging up other bits of detritus from the muddy waters.
"Oh my god," one passerby said, and another one retched in the bushes, the stench of it overwhelming in the summer heat.
Itachi's eyes ached. Somewhere, one of his relatives wailed, clutching the body and sobbing and falling to the ground. Dully, Itachi walked past them, eyes fixed forward and walking along the riverbank. The sun was high and the sky was a bright yellow haze. On the water, his reflection refracted and made broken images on the river's surface; all he could see was the ripples of a current, dead leaves floating as the sun slowly disappeared behind the clouds.
"Nii-san, what's wrong?" Sasuke asked.
Itachi forced himself to smile.
"Your aniki is tired, Sasuke. I must take my rest."
His younger brother nodded gravely, then hugged him around his waist, chubby fingers clutching the fabric of his shirt. He was too young to be told. Gently, Itachi pried away Sasuke's fingers and took his hand, leading him toward the training fields behind their home.
If he had been asked, one year before, who was most precious to him, Itachi would have answered without a doubt that his baby brother was; unlike the rest of his family, Sasuke didn't care about his grades or his ANBU status. But now he knew everyone was equally precious to him, his mother and his father and his stupid older cousin, who tailed him like an unrelenting shadow.
Shisui. The thought of him made his chest tight and his gut bottom out. He shouldn't have followed him. He shouldn't have come.
A thin trickle of blood slowly dripped down the edge of his cheek, and Itachi wiped it back, almost an afterthought.
Sasuke fell asleep. Quietly, Itachi moved the old comforter from the bed and draped it over Sasuke's shoulders, taking care to tuck the blanket around the hollows of his body. Shisui had said once that Itachi acted like Sasuke too when he was young, chasing happily after Shisui's footsteps and clinging to the edge of Shisui's leg. Somehow, the memory didn't come to him; another thing Itachi regretted, now.
Sasuke slept. Quietly, Itachi watched the slow rise and fall of Sasuke's breathing, before brushing back the shock of black hair peeking out from beneath the covers.
The moon was a grim silver the night Itachi slaughtered his clan.
He started, of all things, by knocking. Trust and kinship were on his side when the neighbor opened the door.
Slice. The body fell with a soft thud, the spray of blood slowly pooling onto the hardwood floor.
Itachi walked, because there were no sentries out. Dust kicked up around his feet as he moved, legs full of lead and his katana hanging listlessly by his side.
Doors opened. "What's this? Itachi...?"
Two shuriken to the stomach. That was another one of his cousins. Footsteps came running.
His Sharingan flashed. Pivoting on a step, he whirled, the blade of his katana slicing through flesh and bone. Screams ricocheted off the cobbled walls and bodies fell around him like leaves.
Slash. Strike. Slash. They were all coming at him now, red eyes open, running toward him. Itachi leapt forward, the chakra springboarding off the soles of his feet and thrusting him toward them, and the Mangekyou whirled, his eyes erupting into a starburst of blackened flame.
His face betrayed nothing. It was only after he had seen Sasuke, after he had cleared the Uchiha periphery and rocketed through the forest downhill, that Itachi staggered forward and vomited, shaking and retching violently, the tears in his eyes smearing the sides of his face with blood.
Hours passed, and it wasn't until the balcony doors softly opened and the pale curtains billowed around his frame that Danzou and Hiruzen saw him: a specter, a ghost, wraith-like and pale and blood still drying on his hands.
"Is it done?" Hiruzen asked, after Itachi knelt and kept his eyes respectfully fixed on the floor. "Itachi?"
Danzou watched as Itachi's hand shook. His eyes were dead, as was the voice in his throat.
"No," Itachi said.
Danzou shot a glance toward Hiruzen, the muscles in his shoulders tightening imperceptibly. Meanwhile Itachi kept his head bowed; his eyes were unfocused as he spoke.
"Hokage-sama," Itachi said. "I have come, as you instructed. But there are survivors," Itachi said, and he swallowed, hard. "Myself of course. And my brother, Sasuke. I could not..." and he hesitated, his voice straining a bit. "I could not bring myself to do it," Itachi said, and he bowed again, closing his eyes. "Forgive me," Itachi said.
Hiruzen leaned forward, touching Itachi on the shoulder.
"The price for peace cannot be measured," Hiruzen said. "You did well, my child."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen nodded, then let go of Itachi's arm.
"You did well, young Uchiha," Danzou said. "Despite what you think now, you've saved hundreds of lives. You prevented a war," Danzou said. "I can only hope you take solace in this fact." The youth nodded, his heart in his throat.
"The western gate will be open and unguarded until daybreak," Hiruzen said. "We will give you a day's head start before we make you a missing nin. Hopefully by then you will have given yourself a wide enough berth."
"Understood," Itachi said. Hiruzen smiled sadly, then stood.
"Yes?" Hiruzen glanced back at Itachi, who seemed to hesitate on the floor.
"I've done what you've asked of me," Itachi said. He looked up at the Hokage, pleadingly. "All I ask is that you keep Sasuke safe."
"And what do we tell him?" Hiruzen asked. Itachi lowered his eyes.
"Tell him nothing," Itachi said. His eyes flicked upwards, meeting Hiruzen's gaze. "I would rather he hate me than think poorly of our clan."
Hiruzen hesitated. "...Are you sure?" Hiruzen asked.
Itachi closed his eyes. "Yes," Itachi whispered. Danzou glared.
"Such foolishness," Hiruzen said, and he sounded impossibly sad.
It was starting to rain. Slowly, Hiruzen watched as rainwater sluiced down the glass of the balcony window. Lightning flashed, and suddenly he felt older than his years, the bones of his wrists and hands throbbing with a dull ache.
The western gate was open and unguarded as Danzou had promised. Quietly, Itachi pulled over the hood of his cloak, glancing only once before he left the ruins of his home.