Itachi’s earliest memory is crows. A sky full of crows, all their wings over-lapping, their voices raised in a cacophony of sound.
Itachi remembers looking, and listening, and smiling.
“Will you come say hello to your new brother, Itachi?”
His mother’s voice sounds tired but happy, and Itachi (now five years old) stops hanging back in the door of the hospital room and tip-toes over to the bed. His mother looks as tired as she sounds but she is beaming at him, and even his father on the other side of the bed looks less stern than usual.
Something small is wrapped in a blanket and cradled carefully in his mother’s arms. Carefully, Itachi climbs into the chair next to the bed and kneels there so that he can lean over and look.
“Itachi, meet your brother Sasuke,” his mother shifts the bundle closer to him.
“Sasuke,” Itachi repeats softly, leaning over to peer at the red, wrinkly baby that is wrapped in the blanket. Sasuke’s eyes are shut, and his head has only a small tuft of dark hair.
The baby shifts uneasily, squirming a little as if preparing to fuss. With a quick glance at his mother, Itachi reaches out gently to touch his baby brother’s face: his nose, his cheeks, and last his forehead.
Sasuke squirms a little more, but then calms and seems to fall back into sleep.
“There,” his mother says, pleased, “he likes you already. I know you’ll be a wonderful big brother, Itachi, and help Sasuke whenever he needs you.”
Itachi feels a little overwhelmed – he has a brother! – so he doesn’t speak, but he nods vigorously and even smiles, first at his mother, and then down at Sasuke.
“All right, Itachi,” his father says then, “we have to let your mother and your brother rest. And it’s nearly time to get ready for your karate lessons.”
“Yes Father,” Itachi says dutifully, though he doesn’t really want to go. He wants to stay and watch over his mother and Sasuke, but he has to listen to his father. He touches Sasuke’s forehead softly one more time, accepts a kiss on the cheek from his mother, and then carefully climbs down from the chair to follow his father out of the room.
The crows come to him for the first time when he is seven, and allowed to go to the small park near their home by himself. He goes and wanders out of the park to get away from the people there, instead going deeper into the surrounding woods.
The woods are deserted, sunny and peaceful.
Then they are filled with crows.
It is not so very many, Itachi thinks as he stops and tilts his head back to start counting them. They caw with harsh voices in the trees all around and above him but it is not a frightening sound, so Itachi pays it no mind. He looks at the crows and counts them, getting up to several dozen before he loses track.
The crows seem to be looking at him, chattering to each other (and maybe to him) in what strikes Itachi as a friendly manner. So, he sits down on a log and waits. Eventually they seem to reach a decision, and start to dive and swoop around the clearing, their beady black eyes glittering at him, their thick black beaks opened in harsh chorus. Still, Itachi senses no threat, so he waits and lets the crows look, and soon the flock begins to break up, winging away through the trees, returning to whatever it is that crows do during the day.
One crow, a big one, flaps down and lands on a low branch right across from Itachi. It caws decisively at him, once, and then also takes off, disappearing into the sunlit trees.
Itachi sits and thinks for a little while, and at last rises to go home.
He wants to learn more about crows, he thinks, and decides to see if he can find a little spare time from his homework to read about them.
He thinks that he is probably going to see them again.
He is right.
“Niisan,” Sasuke begs, “play with me!” His dark eyes are wide and pleading.
Itachi smiles slightly at his little brother, accepting the hands tugging his calmly. He has just gotten home from school and Sasuke comes running out to greet him as he does every day. Itachi glances over at the toys scattered on the floor, many of them his own from when he had been Sasuke’s age. He then glances at the hallway into the rest of the house, guiltily remembering his homework and thinking that his mother will scold him.
“Niisan!” Sasuke pouts, and Itachi gives in. It’s not as if the homework is difficult, and isn’t being a good brother for Sasuke more important anyway?
“All right, Sasuke,” Itachi says, smiling again as his little brother cheers and tugs him over to the toys.
This is more important, he decides, watching how well Sasuke does in putting together his castle of blocks, with just a few suggestions from Itachi to help him.
Something draws his eyes up to the window. There is a large crow sitting in the tree outside, watching him back, its feathers soot black against the bare branches and winter sky.
This is not unusual in itself, for Itachi often finds crows nearby wherever he happens to be. Something about this particular visit strikes him, though, as if underscoring his earlier thought about what was important.
He remembers it later, sitting in his own room after dinner, doing his homework without much enthusiasm. His mother’s scolding is still fresh in his mind, as is Sasuke’s disappointed pout as he rubbed his forehead after Itachi’s apology. The crow, with its glittering black eyes, is in Itachi’s mind too.
Itachi is a week shy of his ninth birthday when the crows come to him again in large numbers.
It is a strange day, a little bit cool for summer, and overcast with high, thin clouds so that the sky is neither blue nor grey but some kind of in-between color, perhaps weakly silver. He is walking home from school alone as usual, and coming up to a small park that he must pass through on the way. Today, he finds the park strangely empty of humans. It is not deserted, though, because covering every tree in sight is a huge flock of crows.
/No, not just a flock,/ he thinks, remembering the book he read about them recently, /a murder. A murder of crows./
The birds shift and resettle in the trees as if they can hear his thoughts, but they are strangely silent. Itachi comes up to the point where the sidewalk crosses into the park and pauses. Something very odd is going on, something out of the ordinary. He doesn’t have to find out what it is, he realizes. This is an invitation, not a demand. He could still go back a little and go around the park, could leave the murder of crows behind and go straight home, the way he is supposed to.
Itachi looks at the murder of crows, and they look back at him.
Itachi makes a decision.
He takes one careful, deliberate step into the park. He follows it with more deliberate steps, taking himself to stand in front of a bench that sits in the middle of the park, and stops there. The crows shifted again as he made his choice, their wings rustling, but they still do not raise their voices.
Itachi looks at the crows and they look back, and then he realizes that he cannot look away and he feels his eyes widen.
Black eyes by the dozens, by the hundreds, hold his, glittering in the colorless afternoon light. Itachi can suddenly feel his own eyes (also black, black like soot, like midnight, like crows), and they feel as if they are too dry, and then too cold, and now too hot, and the heat becomes a burning sensation. Itachi gasps because it hurts, but he cannot blink and no tears will come.
Still the fire builds in his eyes until there comes a moment when Itachi is sure that he will either scream or pass out, but the crows’ eyes hold him and carry him through it and in the next moment the heat breaks and his vision has changed.
Itachi blinks once, slowly, and as his eyes open again, the crows burst at last into excited noise, their harsh, cawing voices filling the air even as Itachi stares wide-eyed at the world around him. Everything is sharp, revealed now in a clarity that is too much, and Itachi closes his eyes again. The strange feeling in them, now a subtle tingle, does not go away, though, and for a moment Itachi is gripped with fear. What has happened to him?
A loud caw, much closer than the rest, brings his eyes open again, and sitting on the back of the bench in front of him is a single, very large crow, looking at him with one beady eye, her head cocked to one side.
“Kaw,” she says, quite deliberately, and Itachi takes a deep breath. He knows this particular bird, he thinks. She follows him more closely than the others do. In his strange new vision he can see every detail of every feather, and some kind of dark fire burning brightly within her. Within all the crows, he realizes, and within the plants that his eyes pass over…he lifts a hand and finds it in himself.
He closes his eyes again and this time thinks calmly of the strange sensation ending and it does. His vision has returned to normal when he opens his eyes again.
“Kaaw!” says the large crow, and then as one the murder of crows leap skyward, filling Itachi’s sight with the fluttering black of their overlapping wings. The harsh, familiar chorus of their voices fills his ears, and Itachi stands quite still with his head thrown back to the sky until the last crow is gone from view.
On the bench before him is a single black feather. Itachi takes it carefully, and then goes to the park’s small fountain and leans over the water, closing his eyes to will the strange new vision back.
He is not yet used to the effects of it, and his reflection is difficult to look at, but the one detail that cannot escape him is that his black eyes are now red. The color is deep and vivid, broken only be three strange, black, comma-shaped pupils that circle his normal pupil in each eye.
Itachi closes his eyes and wishes away the red and it goes, leaving his reflection familiar again when he looks.
For a moment then Itachi is gripped by fear and he shivers, feeling very small and very young. For a moment, he wants to run home and tell his mother and hope that she will hold him and tell him that it’s all right, and tell his father and hope that he will explain everything.
For a moment, he wants to do that more than anything else in the world.
In the next moment, though, a breeze rushes past him and Itachi shivers, and the sudden chill makes him recall a windy, cold March day just a few months ago when he went to see an eye doctor.
“Just a check-up for both of you,” his mother had said cheerfully as she put Sasuke in the car, “to make sure you aren’t straining your eyes.”
The visit was normal enough, if a bit uncomfortable, and the doctor had said that both his and Sasuke’s eyes seemed fine. Seemed normal.
And then Itachi also remembers a conversation from later that same day, a conversation between his parents that he overheard by accident. Sasuke was already in bed and he himself was supposed to be in bed reading, but he had slipped down the hall to ask for something, and heard…
“Anything unusual?” his father’s voice had asked.
“Nothing,” his mother said, sounding both solemn and relieved. “They’re both perfectly normal.”
His father sighed then. “Good. We’ll still have to watch them, of course, and get them checked again when they’re a bit older, but it seems unlikely it will appear.”
The conversation had left Itachi confused, but he had turned around and crept back to his room rather than let his parents know he had overheard and ask them what they were talking about.
Itachi kneels by the fountain in the park, stares at a reflection of black eyes that had turned red, and thinks that maybe he isn’t as confused anymore. He also thinks that maybe he shouldn’t mention this to his parents. He clutches at the crow feather in his hand.
/It will be a secret,/ he decides, staring solemnly at his own reflection, /a secret for me and the crows./
Then Itachi stands up, puts the feather away in his bag, and goes home.
Itachi grows his hair long.
His father does not approve, but his mother smiles and tells Itachi that it’s fine.
“But why?” his father grumbles, giving in. Itachi shrugs, and says that he feels like it.
He does not say that when his hair is longer, it reminds him of crows’ wings.
“As expected of my son,” is all his father says when Itachi graduates with his high school degree at fourteen years old. “Now, your real training will begin.”
Itachi, who has been training in martial arts and a variety of weaponry since before Sasuke was born, feels that this is a strange statement, but simply answers “Yes Father,” as always.
“I got all As again this term,” Sasuke says at dinner that night, eager as always to prove himself.
“That’s-” Itachi starts to say, but is interrupted by their father, who glances at the report card and says “Of course” dismissively.
“Strive to follow your brother’s example,” he tells Sasuke, who bites his lip and looks down at the table, but nods obediently and mumbles, “Yes Father.”
Itachi clenches his hands into tight fists under the table, tight enough to hurt, and closes his eyes against the tingling sensation in them. He has been careful; he can’t slip now because of his anger.
“That’s excellent,” he tells Sasuke later, finishing what he meant to say at dinner. “I know that you have been working very hard.”
“Thanks, Niisan,” Sasuke says, and Itachi can tell he means it, but his mood does not cheer up, and he goes to his room without asking Itachi for anything at all.
Itachi, feeling his anger surge up again, goes to his room as well. Sasuke is not advancing as quickly as he himself did, but is still well ahead of his peers.
/I’m not normal,/ Itachi thinks and knows it to be true. /I’m not normal at all./ He is an abnormal and unfair standard, and will not forgive his father for using it anyway. He resents the goading just as much as Sasuke does, and tries hard to make sure that it doesn’t drive a wedge between them. He doesn’t always know whether or not he is succeeding, but he tries to be there when his brother truly needs him, and in those moments, at least, everything seems all right. That Sasuke still comes to him first for help or when he has troubles at school makes Itachi immensely happy, and he clings to that as a balm against their father’s words.
A crow caws outside his window, and Itachi takes a deep breath. He still has his own work to do, after all.
Itachi’s most vivid memory is war. Shooting and blood and bodies in the streets.
It wasn’t a real war, just gangs fighting over territory, but they were large gangs and it spilled out of control for a few weeks, and the whole city was caught up in it before the police managed to break through and put an end to it. It wasn’t a real war, but it was real enough for Itachi.
The two things that never really leave him are the vacant eyes of the dead, and the smell.
Itachi begins his degree studies with a private tutoring institution almost immediately after graduating high school, and at the same time joins his father at the National Police Headquarters as an apprentice. This is something he has been looking forward to for a long time. That the Uchiha family has the privilege of leading Fire Country’s police force has been a source of pride for Itachi ever since he was small, and to be able to join them now himself (even if he’s only an apprentice) is the culmination of all his hard work. That he could join this proud family tradition, to be the nation’s keepers of the peace, is a dream come true. Never again, he promises himself, never again will innocent people have to suffer what he saw when he was young.
It is here that he meets his cousin, Shisui, for the first time. The Uchiha family is relatively large and sprawling, so he has many cousins, but Shisui is the first who has ever seemed worth spending time with. Two years older than Itachi, he is also apprenticing at Headquarters, and when Itachi’s father tacitly approves, they are partnered together for a lot of things. Shisui is not his brother, but quickly becomes a good friend nonetheless, something that Itachi hasn’t really had before. He finds it pleasant, overall: Shisui is prone to teasing, but is otherwise intelligent, skilled and hard-working, and so earns Itachi’s respect.
They even take to spending some time together outside of work and study hours. There is a place mid-way between their homes along a small river that is secluded and pleasant, and after a few months it becomes their habitual meeting place. The crows are uncertain of Shisui, and at first refuse to gather nearby when he is there. They seem to trust Itachi’s judgment, though, and gradually come to accept that Shisui is a friend. Even then, they will not come out of the trees unless Itachi is alone.
“…gratitude? That’ll be the day. Bastards can’t be bothered.”
“I didn’t see them doing anything to stop the fighting! As if we’d make life harder for ourselves, anyway.”
“They just have it in for us. What idiot hands out weapons to gangs just so he can turn around and get himself and his comrades shot by them? How stupid do they think we are?”
“Pretty stupid, obviously. It’d be way too obvious, and there’d have to be a paper trail. Maybe they’re stupid enough to do it, and assume we are too….”
Itachi wishes he had more time to spend with his brother. They see less of each other now, with Sasuke pushing ever harder through his studies and training, and Itachi caught up in his own work. Shisui is a good friend, of course, and having that friendship helps, but Itachi has by far been closest with his brother and he misses that.
It has not been easy to get used to seeing Sasuke only long enough to apologize for not having the time right now. He always promises “Next time,” and Sasuke always accepts that, but there is a new fear deep in Itachi’s heart that “next time” might be too far away.
Itachi also wishes that that were his only fear.
He is sixteen now and has earned his badge. He is a full member of the police, the youngest ever, and partnered with Shisui, who has also earned his badge. It is a proud moment for Itachi, much more so than merely graduating high school.
But even as he realizes the first step in his life’s ambition, he has also realized that his vision of carrying on a noble tradition as a loyal keeper of the peace is…not entirely in concurrence with reality. Of course, there is no question that the police are out doing their duty, catching criminals and preventing crime, saving civilians from violence that would otherwise go unchecked. But there is a growing question in Itachi’s mind regarding the attitude of those at the top of the police hierarchy, who are without exception all members of the Uchiha family.
The police, he has learned, were blamed in the aftermath of the street war for not having stopped it before it got so bad, for not responding quickly enough, for not having the situation under control. It should never have reached that stage, people say. Itachi has to agree with them on that point. But there have been other things said, too. Whispers that the gangs on both sides had used police weapons. Rumors that the police had colluded with the gangs, and stepped in only at the peak of the violence in order to garner more prestige. Stories that police administration had cared more about an excuse to get more appropriations from the government than they did about the welfare of the citizens they were supposed to protect.
And on, and on.
The police at all levels resent these rumors that are, as far as Itachi has been able to discover, only rumors. He has found no evidence to suggest that anyone from the police had colluded with the gangs, and while certainly it should never have reached the point of open warfare in the streets, that fact alone does nothing to indicate that the police deliberately encouraged it; there is ample evidence that the opposite was in fact the case.
What brings fear into Itachi’s mind, though, is that the police resentment of these rumors is not abating with time. Instead it is growing, and twisting into something else, and although he has no evidence, no proof, not even a direct hint, the feeling of it all makes him uneasy.
That Shisui shares his unease makes Itachi more afraid than ever.
They do not discuss it at work. They talk about it in whispers at the river between their homes, breaking up those conversations into short, disconnected bits from one week to the next. The problem is that even if they have some privacy in which to safely discuss the issue, it is like putting together a puzzle whose pieces are nebulously shaped and for which they have no guide.
It is something slowly growing, whatever it is, so Itachi reassures himself that they have time to figure it out.
When everything becomes a little too much, sometimes, Itachi rises in the dead of night and goes out of the house.
He looks at the world through red eyes, and walks through the silent, empty streets. The crows come to him, leaving their roosts to glide along (above, behind, ahead, beside). They come with him to the park, and caw softly to each other and to him as he wanders (or sometimes sits) and looks with red eyes and learns both to see and to listen. He learns to see the world his red eyes show, a world that is like the real world but more. He learns to listen to the crows, and perhaps even to understand a little bit of what they try to tell him.
“Thank you,” he whispers to them.
They caw and settle on the bench around him, close enough to touch. They have long since accepted him as one of their own. One decides to sit on his shoulder, and preens the long, thick hair that Itachi has left loose, black and feathery like crows’ wings.
Itachi closes red eyes, and is grateful for their company.
Although he and Shisui might not have any solid idea of what seems off at the National Police Headquarters, Itachi suspects enough to question his father’s motives when he and his cousin are given assignments to go work in a division of the National Intelligence Agency. Itachi is just eighteen, the youngest the NIA will take applicants, so his father has wasted no time. There is no question of their qualifications, of course. He and Shisui have impeccable training records and two years of official job experience on the streets, so being accepted is not a problem, even if it does create talk.
So they go to the NIA, and are assigned to the Local Division that works entirely within the city. Itachi suspects that this is not a coincidence either, though what strings his father pulled to make it happen, he isn’t sure and can’t find any trace of. The work is interesting, harder than the police work he is used to, but both he and his cousin rise well to the challenge. They work mostly together, often paired off or sometimes in a group of four with other pairs. They get along all right with most of their colleagues and their immediate superiors, but see very little of anyone else. The man in charge of the whole division, Danzo, is rarely-seen but always present in the minds of his subordinates. He actually works most closely with a small group within this division called Root, but Itachi and Shisui are not a part of that, and from what few hints their colleagues will drop, Itachi feels that is just as well. Danzo looks for certain…special abilities for members of Root, or so the rumors go.
Itachi thinks of crows and a tingling in his eyes…and keeps silent.
Once he and Shisui are established in their NIA positions, Itachi monitors interactions with his father more closely than ever. Outwardly, though, nothing much seems to change. Fugaku insists clearly that he is to uphold his security classification as he would the family honor, an order with which Itachi decidedly agrees. He thinks perhaps there isn’t anything to his suspicions after all. Maybe he and Shisui really are just supposed to get a wider range of experience.
But there is no mention of when they might come back to the police force, and his father asks daily after any trivial, non-classified information that Itachi might be allowed to share. He seems interested in Danzo and Root, though he hides it well.
Itachi cannot think of very many good reasons why his father would want spies in the NIA, and says as much to Shisui in an increasingly rare private moment along the Nakano River. Shisui frowns and agrees, but then grins at him and messes up his hair.
“We’ll figure it out,” he says, and refuses to discuss it any more for the rest of the afternoon. Itachi lets it go, but stays by the river after his cousin goes home, and notices that his murder of crows shift uneasily in the trees, chattering to each other, and they all come together that evening to see him home, instead of the usual one or two.
On an assignment into one of the worst parts of the city, Itachi finds himself separated from Shisui and surrounded by more men than he has ever faced before, and freezes.
His training, his reflexes, his skills all fly out of his mind in an instant, and for three very long heartbeats he cannot even breathe, he is so frozen in terror.
The warning-cry of a crow snaps through him like a whiplash, and in the next breath Itachi is moving, knowing from the tingle that his eyes have spun red.
Less than two minutes later, two dozen men lie dead in the street.
Those men had wielded knives, baseball bats, brass knuckles and two guns. Itachi used his hands and a handful of small throwing knives. He did not touch his gun.
It was the easiest fight he has ever had.
Itachi stares at the bodies with red eyes, remembering how easy it was, how he could see every move coming. He danced through them, three steps ahead the whole time.
Itachi stares at the bodies with red eyes, and thinks that he ought to have some sort of reaction, but he is not even breathing hard.
Above him, on the buildings and telephone lines, the murder of crows has gathered. They set up a victory chorus combined with a friend-greeting, and Itachi wills his eyes black just seconds before Shisui comes pelting around the corner, calling for him.
They are leaving seconds later, for there are more enemies coming. Shisui gives him a very odd, very intense look, but does not ask questions.
Itachi is grateful, and offers no answers.
How can he, when he has none himself?
“…and then the idiot challenged me – me! – to a janken tournament, as if something so childish and inane is any real proof of skill.” Sasuke scowls down at his drink, and Itachi diplomatically takes another bite of his lunch.
When it becomes clear, though, that Sasuke doesn’t intend to continue, he asks quietly, “But did you win?”
Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Of course I won. As if I’d let that dead-last beat me at anything.”
Itachi hides a smile behind his own drink. “Of course,” he agrees smoothly. He is amused by his brother’s inclination to down-play his friendships at school, though it is clear that Sasuke is close to at least a couple of his classmates, regardless of how much he complains about them. Itachi feels a soft pang of envy for the time they get to spend with his brother, but mostly he is glad that Sasuke is not lacking for friendship the way he himself was at that age.
It is Sasuke’s fourteenth birthday, and Itachi has (as he does every year on his brother’s birthday) arranged to be free at lunchtime so that they can celebrate just the two of them. They manage to spend other time together throughout the year, even if it is less than either of them might like, but those times all too easily fall prey to one or the other of their busy schedules. Sasuke’s birthday, however, is sacred in Itachi’s mind. This is the one day every year on which he will never say “Forgive me, Sasuke. Next time.” He will do whatever is necessary to make sure that he is free for lunch on this day.
Over the years, this has led him to tell several lies, commit two instances of bribery, one instance of (minor) blackmail, and one instance of sabotage. The last would almost certainly have gotten him in real trouble had he not inadvertently identified and caught an outside hacker in the process. Itachi had taken quick advantage of his good fortune, claiming that he had suspected the hacker all along and was merely trying to flesh her out. He had thus gotten off with a mild reprimand, and felt no guilt whatsoever about the incident.
Sasuke knows none of this, of course, and Itachi intends to keep it that way. His brother always keeps his birthday lunch open to spend with Itachi, but it is significantly easier to arrange on his end, and Itachi always leaves him with the impression that he has just as little trouble as Sasuke does.
They eat in silence for a few minutes, and Itachi feels calm and able to put all of his concerns and worries out of his mind. At least, until he looks up to find that Sasuke is not eating at all, but instead giving him a very fierce look from under his bangs.
“I won’t lose to you, Niisan,” he says, dark eyes serious.
Itachi pauses, and then sighs, setting down his drink. “Sasuke-”
“I won’t,” Sasuke insists, not looking away.
Itachi closes his eyes, and pushes down a wave of hatred for their father.
“You must keep doing your best at school, then,” he says lightly, “and be sure to find your strengths.”
“I will!” Sasuke agrees, fiercely eager, but the heaviness is gone from his eyes and manner, so Itachi counts it as a victory.
He nods solemnly, and then reaches across the table to poke his little brother’s forehead with two fingers.
“Niisan!” Sasuke complains, drawing away a second too late. Even now, at fourteen and in public, he always draws away a second too late, and Itachi knows that it is not because he doesn’t realize the affectionate poke is coming.
Itachi counts that as a victory too.
A glance outside shows him that there are three crows perched in the trees across the street, chattering with each other.
He pushes his worries aside again, and turns the conversation back to lighter things. Sasuke lets him, and they finish their lunch companionably.
In spite of everything, Itachi thinks, life isn’t so bad.