Actions

Work Header

corvus

Chapter Text

1

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.

~~~

2

“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.

~~~

3

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.

~~~

4

“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.

~~~

5

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.

~~~

6

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.

~~~

7

“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.

~~~

8

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.

~~~

9

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.

~~~

10

“…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….”

~~~

11

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.

~~~

12

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.

~~~

13

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.

~~~

14

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.

Kaaaw-kaaaw!

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?

~~~

15

“…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.

Chapter Text

16

Shisui is late.

Itachi paces by the river, and the crows shift restlessly in the trees above him. One of them, the large female that looks after him most closely, has come down to sit on his shoulder. Itachi lets her, comforted by the weight and the soft noises she makes, clearly talking to him even though he doesn’t understand.

It helps, but not enough. Something is wrong.

He left Shisui at work today, with a promise from his cousin that he just wanted to finish up a little more paperwork and then he would be along to the river, today being their one day with part of an afternoon free. He has never before been late.

Itachi has now been waiting for three hours.

Something is wrong.

It is almost twilight now, the wind blowing with the chill of early autumn. The fading daylight is thin and red, and it takes an effort of will to keep himself pacing calmly along the riverbank.

Itachi tries to think if there was anything off at work today, or at home, anything that might give him a clue, but there is nothing. Shisui had acted perfectly normal, and there was nothing different about his father over the past few days. His mind inevitably goes to Sasuke, then, hoping that his brother is all right. His worry increases and he wants to go check, just to be sure. He should already have been home, in truth…but Shisui is late, and something is wrong.

The crows give him a half-second warning before he hears it for himself: someone stumbling through the undergrowth of the park trees that come down almost to the riverbank. Itachi hides himself behind another tree in the next breath, his crow winging off across the water to perch on the other side.

But it is not an enemy who stumbles out of the trees – it is Shisui.

Itachi is at his side in the next moment, catching his cousin as the taller man staggers and starts to fall.

“Shisui!”

“Hey,” his cousin says, voice raspy and strange, “sorry I’m late….” He coughs, and it sounds uncomfortably wet.

“What happened?” Itachi demands tersely, maneuvering the older man so that he is on his back…and then freezes.

Shisui’s left eye is a bloody mess only loosely hidden by one hand…his other is red with three black comma shapes circling the pupil.

Itachi knows in the next breath that his own red eyes have triggered, and he feels Shisui jerk when he sees it.

“You too, then,” he rasps, and does not seem terribly surprised.

“What is going on?” Itachi whispers, feeling cold.

Shisui shakes his head, jerkily. “Nothing good. Itachi, I can’t go to a hospital.”

Itachi stares, knows that probably he is supposed to protest, but doesn’t. Shisui’s right eye is still red.

“Who did this?” he asks instead.

“Danzo,” Shisui says. “Itachi, listen. There’s a lot you need to know, and we don’t have much time. He may have sent someone to follow me.”

Itachi nods, tearing his eyes away from his cousin long enough to scan around them. The crows are the only living things nearby, though, and they are keeping silent vigil. Trusting them to let him know if anyone approaches, Itachi turns back to Shisui. “Tell me.”

Shisui does. He explains that the red eyes are something called the “Sharingan,” an old and rare ability that runs in the Uchiha family. Itachi has heard rumors of this – that some people are born with special abilities beyond those possessed by normal humans – but for some reason he has never quite categorized his own red eyes that way. He had thought it was something special from the crows, but he realizes now that they must just have helped him to awaken the ability, rather than creating it.

“You know the rumors,” Shisui says, gripping one of Itachi’s hands with his free one to help with the pain. He refuses to take his other hand away from his wounded eye. “Those with special abilities are not always looked well upon, and it can be dangerous. So I’ve kept it secret until today, and you have too. That was good. But…” he coughs again, “but some people don’t want to destroy them. Some people want to collect them.”

“Danzo,” Itachi guesses, remembering the rumors about Root.

Shisui doesn’t nod, trying not to move his head anymore, but says “Yes.” He falls silent for a moment, just breathing as if to regain some strength, before going on. “I went looking for more information today after you left. Trying to see what they have on the Uchiha, so maybe we would have somewhere to look. Danzo caught me with the Sharingan out, and attacked me. I’m too much of a threat, I guess. He got this eye, but then hesitated about the other one even while I was incapacitated…I think he wondered if he could use me after all. He waited too long, though, and I got him back.” Shisui makes a weak slashing motion with his free hand. “Eye for an eye, and all. But I had to fight some of Root getting out, and they got me pretty good too, so I’m in bad shape now.”

“What now?” Itachi asks, his mind already racing. Danzo will of course suspect him now as well (they have never been entirely trusted at the NIA, either of them, and this will end any chance of that ever happening).

“This is genetic,” Shisui says, gesturing carefully at their eyes. “Danzo knows or suspects that. He’s using Root to gather people with special abilities in such a way that he has absolute control over them. You know how they are, cold-blooded loyalty to him. He’ll want this one too, now that he knows for sure it exists.”

Itachi stares at Shisui. That means Danzo will be after him.

It means Danzo will be after Sasuke.

“Yes,” Shisui says, guessing his thoughts. “Yes. I don’t know if your little brother has it or not, but if you do then he must have the potential.”

Itachi is shaking now. If any harm were to come to Sasuke….

“We have to stop him,” Shisui says, “have to keep him away from the family, but also stop anything your father is planning.”

Itachi nods, and tries to stop shaking. He has to think, has to find a way to keep Sasuke safe. Nothing else matters now.

Itachi closes his eyes for a moment, and lets his brain work, and soon he sees the beginnings of a plan. It’s not perfect, not yet, but it’s a start, and that’s all he needs now.

“I have an idea,” he murmurs then, “but it will be difficult to get you well and explain your absence and your injuries-”

“We can’t.”

Shisui’s voice cuts him off, and Itachi opens his eyes.

His cousin meets his gaze, more deadly serious than Itachi has ever seen him. “I can’t go to a hospital. Can’t let them poke and prod at my eyes. They watch for this, and they will find it. And we can’t let Danzo get me alive.” He smiles his crooked smile up at Itachi. “Sorry, cousin, but it’s going to be up to you now, I’m afraid.”

“Shisui,” Itachi says, his voice low, “are you asking me to kill you?”

“Well,” Shisui says, matter of fact, “to help me kill myself.”

Itachi is shaking again.

“You have to see, Itachi, it’s the only way. Help me sit up. I’ll write a note. Something about defeat while on duty and dishonor and not being able to carry on with a handicap.”

Itachi helps his cousin sit up, helps to steady him as he writes one-handed, and doesn’t say that no one is going to believe a word of this. It doesn’t matter. Shisui is right. Danzo can’t let Shisui live anyway, not after this, but he could use Shisui first if Shisui is taken alive. Danzo will suspect Itachi, but without proof that Shisui spoke to him he won’t dare act, so this will buy Itachi a little more time.

He will need it. He has to make things safe for Sasuke, somehow, and then he has to get out of here.

“Sorry, Itachi,” Shisui says quietly. “I didn’t mean to blow everything to hell.”

Itachi shakes his head. It is done, and Shisui was only doing what they both felt they needed to do.

“All right, cousin,” Shisui says, looking to the river, “are you ready?”

/No,/ Itachi thinks.

“Yes,” he says.

~~~

17

/A murder of crows,/ Itachi thinks as he holds his cousin under the waters of the Nakano River.

/A murder of crows,/ Itachi thinks, /because sometimes a flock of crows will fall upon and kill one of their own who is already dying./

Itachi’s murder of crows sit noiselessly in the trees until it is done, and then depart in equal silence.

~~~

18

Itachi’s eyes feel different. He ignores them.

Instead, after a quick detour to plant the suicide note in Shisui’s apartment, he goes home.

He apologizes to his mother for being a little late, and accepts her good-natured scolding about not letting the NIA run him too ragged. He changes his clothes. He writes up a report that he is supposed to turn in at work tomorrow. Later, he eats dinner with his family, and listens to Sasuke talk about his day at school. He bathes, and goes to bed.

Lying in the darkness of his room, he lets the red bleed into his eyes (Sharingan, Shisui had called it), and at last lets his mind replay the image of his cousin’s lifeless body sinking out of sight into the river.

He thinks of that, and begins to plan.

Much later, when not only his own home but the entire neighborhood is dead asleep, he rises, dresses, and goes out of the house. He makes his way swiftly through the city to the National Intelligence Agency, and then stealthily makes his way up to the top floors of the building where he has never been before, but where he knows he can find the people he needs to speak with.

The old man and his advisors are surprised when he walks into their late night meeting, though they hide it well after their initial shock. Danzo is not there. This is fortunate for him, because if he were, Itachi would kill him on sight. He is not fool enough to think himself under control just now, though he is managing to keep his eyes black through an effort of will.

He stands in front of the Third Executive Director of the National Intelligence Agency at two o’clock in the morning, and tells him what happened earlier that day to cause such an uproar in the Local Division. He tells them that Danzo murdered his cousin. He tells them it was because Danzo suspected Shisui of being a traitor.

They listen to him. Itachi wonders, briefly, what his face looks like right now, but dismisses it as unimportant.

“What will you do?” Sarutobi asks. There is a lot of my-word-against-yours involved in the whole situation, but Itachi has enough pull from his family name to make a scandal of this if he chose to. But a scandal would mean an investigation, and that is what he cannot afford. Not knowing the full truth.

“I will bring you whatever evidence I can find of any plot that my father and the rest of the family may be planning,” Itachi says, “and then I will disappear. On one condition.”

“Which is?” the female advisor asks, obviously displeased.

“If Danzo, or Root, or anyone else, lays so much as a finger on my brother, then I will return, and I will kill them. I will kill anyone who is involved.”

His listeners understand that the threat includes them. They believe him.

They should. Itachi has never been more serious about anything in his life.

There is silence for long moments, and Itachi lets his face become a mask to avoid betraying the fear that gnaws at him.

“Two days,” the Executive Director says at length. “Return in two days’ time with the evidence, and we will have something arranged for you.”

Itachi bows, once, then turns and goes back out the way he came, still silent and still undetected.

He goes home, undresses, and goes back to bed. He sleeps this time, but his dreams are full of Shisui’s face, the mess that was once his left eye bandaged to lend credence to his suicide note, pale and lifeless under the water.

Shisui’s face becomes Sasuke’s face, and Itachi wakes up, eyes wide in an instant, his heartbeat too loud in his own ears.

He does not go back to sleep after that.

~~~

19

Itachi spends the next day throwing himself into his work with a single-minded intensity that does not leave him room to think about anything else. Unfortunately it also means that he finishes early, and he finds that he is not inclined to linger at work as he might have done before Shisui’s death. He has not seen Danzo, but Root is around, and they are watching him. Itachi gets permission from his supervisor and goes home early.

He is sitting on the back porch, trying not to stare helplessly at his hands, when Sasuke finds him. A report card drops onto the wood, and Itachi picks it up as his younger brother sits down next to him letting his feet dangle over the edge as Itachi is doing. He is glad for the distraction.

The report card is perfect, once again, and Itachi allows himself a small smile of pride.

“It won’t matter,” Sasuke says then, staring out at the garden. “Father only ever talks about you.”

Itachi looks at his brother, who has gained several centimeters over the past year or so, and then looks up at the afternoon sky. There are three crows sitting in the trees across the street, on the other side of the garden wall.

“Am I unpleasant for you, Sasuke?” he asks, as lightly as he can.

His brother jerks around to look at him in surprise.

“That’s all right,” Itachi goes on. “You are determined to surpass me, and that will be easier if you dislike me.”

“Niisan…” Sasuke doesn’t continue, but he looks upset and is shaking his head.

Itachi shakes his head too, but he turns and smiles at Sasuke. “Well, we are a little bit unique, so for me that’s part of being an older brother. I will always be there for you, even if only as the obstacle you must overcome.”

Sasuke starts to say something, but is interrupted first by the warning voices of the crows across the street, and then by the sound of a door slamming open in the house behind them and a voice calling, “Is Itachi here?”

Itachi rises and goes inside, annoyed that even this last little bit of time with his brother is to be interrupted, but schooling his face into a neutral mask before he reaches the entryway; their mother is out shopping, so he must answer himself.

“What is it?” he asks politely upon seeing three other Uchiha there, all members of the police force who work under his father.

Itachi knows why they are here, but keeps his face carefully schooled and his eyes black.

“We are here to ask you some questions,” the one with long hair says, “about the suicide by drowning last night of Uchiha Shisui in the Nakano River.”

Itachi feigns surprised upset, but says nothing.

“He was your partner,” another of them says pointedly, “we would have thought you knew.”

“He did not come to work today,” Itachi says quietly, closing his eyes, “I called his home, of course, but there was no answer, and my supervisor said that he would take care of it. I was told nothing further.” He opens his eyes again. “That is sad to hear.”

“We are here to fully investigate his death.”

“Investigate?” Itachi asks, again feigning surprise. Of course they would investigate, that was their job. But he had to keep his cover just a little while longer.

“We have Shisui’s suicide note, and it certainly appears to be his handwriting, but these things can be forged,” the tallest of the three hands the small piece of folded paper to Itachi.

Itachi is proud that his hand does not shake as he takes it. He reads it again, finds it just as unconvincing as he did when Shisui penned it nearly twenty-four hours ago, but says nothing.

“Shisui didn’t have any missions yesterday that could have exposed him to danger, and neither did you. This note makes no sense,” the tall man goes on, and Itachi can’t disagree.

“Besides, Shisui was of great help to the family. He would never throw it all away just like that,” says the one with long hair.

Itachi looks up then, just enough to meet their eyes, and says softly, “It’s not wise to judge others by your preconceptions and their appearances.”

“Ch’,” is the only reply he gets, dismissive. “Take that with you to the NIA tomorrow, and have them investigate from your end.”

They turn away and go out into the street. “And don’t think we won’t hear about it if you don’t show that to them. We’ve got other connections there besides you.”

“Why don’t,” Itachi says, his voice still soft to hide both rage and guilt, and keeping his eyes black only by an effort of will, “you say it directly.”

They turn back, open hostility in their faces, and Itachi no longer bothers to hide his own.

“You suspect me.”

“Of course we do, brat,” spits the man with long hair.

Itachi pulls in one breath, and by the time he has let it out, all three men lie sprawled in the street, groaning and swearing.

“I warned you,” Itachi says, straightening, “don’t judge others by your preconceptions and their appearances.”

“You assume,” he goes on, voice low and dark, “that I have patience. ‘The family, the family,’” he mocks, “you go on and on about the family, as if that is pinnacle of life and honor. You refuse to open your eyes and see that there is so much more-”

“Itachi, stop!”

Their father has turned into the street, and stands a few meters away. He steps forward, deliberate but cautious, as Itachi ceases his rant. Itachi takes the moment to breathe slowly.

A crow caws softly somewhere nearby.

/Careful,/ he snarls to himself, /be careful. Stay in control./

“Itachi,” his father says, “you’ve been acting strange lately. What’s going on?”

“Nothing is wrong,” Itachi says, quiet again, “I am only carrying out my duty.”

“Then you should not be fighting with others who are only doing theirs,” his father says sternly.

“And am I to let them smear my name merely because it is convenient for them?” Itachi asks, biting the words out before he can stop them, “Because it is convenient for the family?”

“Enough,” one of the men snaps, finally getting to his feet. “We’ve heard enough from this brat. Captain, please allow us to take him into custody!”

The other men rise and line up with his father. Itachi stands facing them, hanging onto his control by the slimmest of threads as Shisui’s dead face floats before his eyes, more real than his father and the others standing before him. His hand is ready to draw a knife if any of them should so much as-

“Niisan, please stop!”

Sasuke!

His brother is standing in the open doorway, eyes wide. Itachi lets out a quick, sharp breath, and drops to his knees. He is leaning forward in a full bow in the next moment, begging innocence in Shisui’s death and forgiveness for his words. It is meaningless, all of it, and only the apology he does not say aloud is meaningful.

/Forgive me, Sasuke. I almost forgot myself, and almost lost the chance to secure your safety./

His father accepts his show of contrition, fortunately, and the other Uchiha leave, and he is still free to finish his mission tomorrow. This incident may even be of some use for that, he thinks in the back part of his mind which is constantly at work on his plan.

But for a moment, he stays there, kneeling in the street, and cannot hold back one last look of hatred at his father’s back as the older man goes into the house. If it were not for him and his arrogance, none of this would be happening.

Then he remembers Sasuke, and rises to go reassure his brother as best he can.

Worry does not leave either his father’s or his brother’s eyes all night though, flaring up whenever they glance at him, and his mother is also uneasy. Itachi forces himself to act normally, and retreats to his room early, only partly feigning his tiredness.

He supposes that he will not sleep tonight either.

He is wrong.

~~~

20

That night, Itachi dreams.

He dreams that there is a sword in his hand, and he is standing over bodies. There is blood on the sword.

He dreams that he has killed strangers, killed family, killed his parents…

He dreams that he has not killed Sasuke.

He drops the sword, and starts to run. He runs down a street lit by red moonlight, and he feels himself changing, growing light and compact and small. By the end of the street, he is no longer running, but flying from his crime on black crow’s wings, his voice nothing but a harsh caw in the dead air of the darkest hours.

He dreams that his eyes are still red, and that they feel strange, and that the world around him is red as well.

~~~

21

Itachi wakes in the morning and gets ready for work.

He is in the entryway, putting on his shoes, when he senses Sasuke in the hall behind him.

“Niisan,” says his younger brother, “will you help me today? I have the knife-throwing competition next week, and I need to practice.”

Itachi turns, and beckons, not quite able to summon up a smile.

Sasuke comes, and pulls back (still a second too late) from the poke, though he scowls fiercely at Itachi for it. “Niisan!”

“I am busy today, Sasuke. Why don’t you ask Father?”

“You’re better at knives,” Sasuke grumbles, still scowling and rolling his eyes. Itachi feels the corner of his mouth twitch in a slight smile, but it is quickly gone.

“Forgive me, Sasuke. Next time.”

“Niisan, you liar,” Sasuke says, meaning it (mostly) in jest.

The words make Itachi’s stomach go cold. For the first time it is a lie. There won’t be a next time.

He keeps his face under control, somehow, rising and walking out the door. He does not give into the urge to sweep his brother into a tight, tight hug, and apologize for everything, and say that yes, they can go train right now.

He walks out the door, and does not look back.

~~~

22

The crows accompany him home.

Itachi returns with carefully measured steps. He has decided already that there will be no bloodshed.

He has already all but murdered his cousin. He is not sure what another would do to him. Besides, his plan does not require it, and he will not kill needlessly.

It is dusk when he comes in, acknowledging his mother’s greeting quietly.

“Itachi,” she says, coming to the kitchen door, “I know you are busy with work, but it would be nice if we could see you a little more often.” She smiles. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

“Yes Mother,” he says, “thank you.”

She turns and goes back into the kitchen.

He is behind her in the next instant, his hand striking the back of her neck, bringing her as swiftly to unconsciousness as he knows how. He catches her as she falls; there was not even time for surprise to register on her face.

Itachi carries his mother into his parents’ bedroom, and lays her on their futon, covering her carefully. She will not wake for some time, and will have a bruise on her neck for awhile, but will otherwise take no harm.

The kitchen clock chimes as he slides the bedroom door shut and paces back down the hall. He notes it and continues to his father’s study, a room always forbidden to himself and his brother. He uses lock picks to break in and leaves the door open just a crack. It will be enough.

Sharingan, he thinks, and his eyes are red almost before he has finished thinking the word. With them and the little light coming in the window from the street lamp outside, he can see well enough.

There is a large crow perched on the street lamp, watching. Her presence is reassuring – Itachi takes a deep breath, and begins his search.

The forty-five minutes until his father arrives home are just enough time for Itachi to find everything that he is looking for. He reads all of the information that has been collected about the Sharingan, and puts those documents back exactly as he found them. There will be no hiding that he has the ability after tonight, but it will be useful if his father is uncertain regarding Itachi’s level of knowledge about it.

Besides, if he takes them, there will be no chance for Sasuke to ever find them should he need to.

The rest of what he is looking for, the first beginnings of a plan for some kind of rebellion (whether against the government or just the NIA, it is difficult to tell), Itachi gathers from scattered hiding places and collects into a folder he has laid open on his father’s desk.

He is still sorting through a last few documents when the crow on the streetlamp outside gives a sharp warning call. Itachi looks up to the window, showing his face and nodding once, and then goes back to what he is doing as he hears the front door open and close. His father is home and calls a greeting which no one answers.

Itachi feels calm, despite what will come next. He finds one more small notebook buried at the back of a drawer, and a quick flip through it reveals that it too is relevant to his search.

He is rising and putting it onto the pile of other things he has collected just as his father slams the study door open, spilling light from the hall into the room. Fugaku realized quickly that his wife was not making dinner as usual at this hour, and knew what it meant. Since Itachi made himself a target of his father’s suspicions the day before, then he came straight to the study, especially on seeing the door open ever so slightly when it should have been closed and locked.

“Itachi,” he says, voice hard, “what are you doing?”

“My duty, Father,” Itachi replies calmly, keeping his gaze lowered. He straightens the papers and the notebook to make sure they are neat before closing the folder.

“Your duty is to the family and the police!” Fugaku snarls, his calm breaking down at the glimpse of what Itachi has in the folder.

The crow gives another call, a flockmate-greeting. Sasuke is nearly home.

“Is it?” He picks up the folder and slips it into the small bag he has brought, pulling that on even as his father takes a step into the room.

“Of cour-”

Itachi finally lifts his eyes to meet his father’s gaze, and the older man cuts off abruptly at the sight of Itachi’s red irises.

“Assumptions, Father,” Itachi says, “can be dangerous things.”

Fugaku reaches for his gun. Itachi is around the desk and kicking his father back out through the open doorway before the older man is even halfway to his weapon.

Itachi is a breath behind, his hand around Fugaku’s throat, slamming his head back again and slamming a foot down on one of his father’s. There is an unpleasant crunching sound, and Fugaku makes a strangled noise, his face going white.

“If you act on incorrect assumptions,” Itachi says low in his father’s ear, “then you must be prepared to pay the price.” Fugaku’s eyes widen, but he can’t do anything else before Itachi grabs his shoulder with his other hand, and executes a quick twist that snaps his father’s collar bone. Fugaku doesn’t have time to let out any noise before he slumps, unconscious from the pain.

“I’m ho-” Sasuke’s greeting cuts off abruptly as he turns into the hall.

Itachi steps back, and lets his father’s body drop carelessly to the floor. He could have broken the man’s neck with equal ease, but a quick breath reminds him that he does not want to go there.

“Niisan!” Sasuke gasps in protest, but stays frozen where he is. Itachi keeps his eyes on his father’s unconscious body, not daring to look at his brother. He has been mentally preparing himself for this all day, but it is difficult. “N-Niisan….”

Itachi swallows, his eyes narrowed as he prepares himself for the hardest part of all.

“Little brother,” he says, and turns so that Sasuke can see his eyes for the first time. Sasuke blanches and steps back, fear coming into his dark eyes.

“Niisan,” he says, voice a hoarse, shaky whisper, “why? Why are you doing this?”

“To measure what I am capable of,” Itachi says. These few days have certainly done that, although it is not actually his goal. But Sasuke can know nothing of the truth. Not now.

“To measure…what you are capable of,” Sasuke glances at their father’s crumpled body, and slowly his hands curl into fists. Pain and growing anger slowly twist his face into a snarl. “You have to be joking!”

Itachi says nothing, but takes another step forward, menacing.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Sasuke snarls, and comes at him. Itachi ducks his first swing easily and catches the second, using the momentum to jerk his brother towards the wall, pinning him there with a solid fist in his solar plexus, knocking all the air out of his lungs.

Sasuke wheezes and tries to hit him again, but Itachi easily stops both the punch and the kick. His brother is good and getting better, but he is no match for Itachi with the Sharingan to help him see. He catches Sasuke by the throat then, and presses just enough for him to feel, although not quite enough to cut off his breath.

“Little brother,” Itachi says again, “you are foolish and weak.”

Sasuke, despite the panicked fear in his wide eyes, lets out a defiant sound.

Itachi takes a deep breath, and lets the strange feeling in his eyes unfold. Mangekyou Sharingan, it is called, something he learned in his father’s papers. Different for everyone. But he finds that his eyes and mind already know how it works.

He catches Sasuke’s wide eyes, and pulls his mind into a world that moves under a red moon, a world for which Itachi is the sole master. Here, he can build anything, show anything, and so he shows Sasuke…

Itachi comes home, steps into the kitchen after his mother, and attacks her remorselessly, leaving bruises on her pale skin and blood on her face. He watches with relish as she cowers away from him in fear. He comes after her slowly, drawing out her fear and pain, and then strikes her once more savagely across the face, kicking her body aside as she passes out.

Itachi waits in his father’s office, lurking, and ambushes him as he comes in, kicking him out into the hall before he has a chance to defend himself. He breaks his father’s foot and watches gleefully as pain and fear flare in his father’s eyes as well, fear of the knowledge that his beloved eldest son, his genius, is stronger than he is. Stronger, and determined not be bound to weakness by ties of family. Itachi soaks up his father’s pain as he beats him, and at last snaps his collarbone, letting him drop to the floor like so much garbage.

And last…Shisui’s still body as it drifts out of sight below the surface of the river.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!” Sasuke screams when Itachi lets go of the illusion. Itachi takes a quick, deep breath, backing up as his brother clutches at his head and falls to his knees, trembling, saliva sliding from the corner of his mouth as he gasps for air. Itachi imagines his face to be a mask, blank and perfect.

“Noooo,” Sasuke groans pitifully, but slowly pushes himself to his knees, and then to his feet. “No, why….”

Itachi is before him again in a flash, pinning him to the wall again, letting his eyes bore into Sasuke’s, but without the Tsukuyomi this time.

“If you wish not to be foolish and weak, little brother, then you will have to try harder to surpass me,” Itachi says, following a carefully planned script. “If you truly wish to defeat me, you may not be complacent. You may not live a pleasant life without thought or care. You must open your eyes, and see the world around you for what it really is. You must hate me.

“Only hate,” Itachi finishes, “will give you the strength to defeat me.”

/Only hate,/ Itachi thinks, /will keep you safe./

He jerks Sasuke forward, and brings his hand down on the back of Sasuke’s neck, the same swift movement he used on their mother an hour ago. He catches his brother as Sasuke goes limp, and lowers him carefully to the floor of the hall.

Hurting his brother even this much was almost too hard; he cannot bring himself to do worse. This will, he hopes, be enough. Sasuke will hate him for this betrayal, and that hatred will keep Sasuke safe. Hopefully, he will also in time come to the same conclusions that Itachi has about what is going on in their family, but if not, Itachi will still be able to look out for him.

Itachi stands for one last moment in the hallway of his home, then takes a deep breath, and leaves. He does not run, just walks quietly to the door, closing it gently behind him. Out in the street he walks away, his steps measured and even, not pausing even as the large female crow swoops down from the street lamp to sit upon his shoulder.

Blocks away from the house, well out of the quiet neighborhood and now fully under the cover of night, Itachi lets his pace quicken and disappears into the shadows.

~~~

23

“Akatsuki,” Itachi says slowly, repeating the name.

“Yes,” the Executive Director of the National Intelligence Agency says. “A small organization with a growing influence. I need a pair of eyes on the inside.”

“Won’t they realize that?” Itachi asks, his eyes black and now narrowed. Sarutobi knows more than he is letting on, but everything Itachi has been able to discover about him suggests that he is a man of his word. That they are alone in his office now is both worrying and reassuring. No one else will ever know of this conversation, which means that Itachi cannot prove his innocence should things go wrong. On the other hand, it also means that no one can leak information about his presence here to those who could use it against him.

“If you were to appear too suddenly, yes,” the Director agrees. “Which is why you will go on the run tonight. You will not, I am afraid, be provided with assistance of any kind. If you can make your own way for a few weeks, then they will come to you.”

Itachi thinks this through, fitting it into his plans…which, admittedly, were a little bit rough from this point onward. His goal, securing Sasuke’s safety, has been achieved, and from there he knew only that he needed to disappear.

“You are certain that they will find it worthwhile to recruit me?”

“They would be fools to pass you up, and you would be a fool to pass up their offer, should your situation be what it appears to them. There will be suspicions, of course, but I trust that you were not seen coming here, and so long as you are not seen leaving, then there should be nothing solid. The leader is smart, and dangerous, so you must take care.”

“How am I to report to you?” Itachi asks then, for that is the main snag in keeping himself hidden.

“For the most part,” Sarutobi says, “you won’t. Thus far, Akatsuki is largely operating outside of this country, and thus are not directly our concern. But I need a pair of eyes regardless. I will rely on your judgment about reports – do so only when you feel it urgent, and when it is relatively safe. I trust you will know should there ever come a time when safety must be ignored.”

Itachi digests that, and then nods curtly, once. That is the sensible way to do this; it will allow him to engage in as little suspicious activity as possible, while still providing the NIA with any truly vital information he might come across.

“Is there anything else?” he asks after Sarutobi has passed him a small slip of paper with information about a specially encrypted website where he can leave messages.

“No,” the Director says, rising. “You held up your end of the bargain, I shall uphold mine.”

Itachi nods again, meeting the older man’s eyes directly. It is a reminder of his threat, should the Director fail. Sarutobi does not flinch or look away, and after a moment Itachi closes his eyes in acknowledgment.

He turns away, and pauses only briefly at the door when the other man speaks again softly:

“I’m sorry, Itachi. Good luck.”

Itachi walks out without a word.

~~~

Chapter Text

~~~

24

Over the next couple of weeks Itachi flees Fire Country with only the crows for company. They travel near or with him, and he finds that he is never lonely in their presence.

He scrounges food and clothes where he can, having discarded anything that carried the Uchiha family symbol that first night. He steals money from the criminals who try to rob or hurt him, doing his best not to fight too distinctively, not to stand out: both the police and the NIA are looking for him. He takes to wearing hooded shirts and jackets, shadowing his face and hiding his eyes.

He keeps the Sharingan out more often than not, whenever he thinks he can get away with it. It is a risk should anyone recognize him, but it keeps him safe as he steals rides on trucks and trains heading for the border, keeps him safe in the back alleys where he must lurk in between rides.

The crows lurk with him, allies and friends. They guard the shadows, warn him of approaching enemies, teach him how to scavenge food from unlikely places, and help him find sheltered spots to sleep. He shares with them whenever he can, picks up scraps of anything he thinks they might like for their nests, and provides an extra pair of eyes to watch over the younger crows as they test their still-inexperienced wings.

The group of crows who help him shifts as he moves further and further away. Each flock has its own territory, and they cannot move too far outside of those boundaries without running into conflicts. The one exception is the large female crow who has watched over him since he was small. She stays with him, showing no signs of distress or desire to go back, and through her new flocks either know him or soon learn his face, and all are just as friendly as those he grew up with.

Itachi thinks a lot about the crows.

He does not think of his old job, his current job, his parents, or the Uchiha.

He refuses to allow himself to forget Shisui’s face.

He tries not to think of Sasuke.

~~~

25

Itachi has been on the run for two months and is well to the northwest of Konoha when he is finally approached by a man wearing a strange mask. The crows do not like this man, but some other instinct tells Itachi that this time, he should neither fight nor run away.

He stays where he is, half-hidden in the shadows at the edge of a large, deserted parking lot, and watches the man approach through red eyes. The crows grow quiet, perched on buildings and the few unbroken street lamps, watchful.

“Uchiha Itachi,” the man says, voice deep and polite.

The female crow shifts on his shoulder, but Itachi does not stir where he leans against a brick-walled building. He nods once, slightly, in acknowledgment. His hands are ready to spring for his knives, should this meeting not be what he expects, but he makes no move for the weapons yet.

It would be unwise to act prematurely with this man.

“I have a proposition for you,” the man goes on, still pleasant, “I am looking for skilled, experienced fighters.”

“What would I gain?” Itachi asks, feigning arrogance and boredom.

The masked face tilts in what Itachi takes to be an indication of amusement. “What wouldn’t you gain?”

Itachi allows his eyes to flick down to his stolen, ragged clothing, and lifts his unoccupied right shoulder in silent acknowledgment of the point.

“I can offer you a chance to use and improve your skills, and a lifestyle significantly better than any you’ll manage scavenging in the streets,” the man goes on briskly. “The pay is good, if you care for such things.”

Itachi gives his one-shouldered shrug again, careful not to disturb his feathered companion, but straightens up from the wall.

“Very well,” he agrees. Then, allowing just a bit of curiosity to show, he asks, “Your name?”

Another tilt, and Itachi again has the distinct impression that underneath the strange, one-eyed mask, the man is smiling.

“You can call me Madara.”

~~~

26

Itachi cannot decide whether or not he likes the ocean.

Madara brought him south to River Country, one of the smaller countries along the coast, saying that it made an excellent base of operations because no one ever paid much attention to it. Itachi had nodded and said nothing. He speaks only rarely – he has never been inclined towards unnecessary speech, and weeks alone on the run have only encouraged his silence. Except for the occasional, quiet conversation with the crows, he has said almost nothing since the night he left Konoha.

He has been here for a week. He has met several (though not all) members of the “organization” (as Madara calls it), and has had time to categorize all of them as either “unimpressive” or “potential threat.” In front of the others Madara fades into the background and chooses not to be recognized as the group’s actual leader, leaving that position to a man with vivid orange hair and strange piercings called Pain.

The only other interesting thing to happen all week was the day Itachi was issued with the “uniform,” which mostly consists of a long, black coat with a stylized red cloud on the back. This seems more conspicuous than is really necessary, but Itachi doesn’t protest. He raises a disbelieving eyebrow over the nail polish, but Pain looks back at him blank-faced, and Itachi decides it’s not worth the effort of arguing about, even if it is ridiculous. The coat is warm, at least. It is warmer here than in Konoha, but it is winter now and the air is chilly.

Now he is waiting. He will be assigned a long-term partner with whom he will travel and carry out assignments. Itachi, who considers the crows to be far better companions than anyone Akatsuki could possibly produce, is not looking forward to this. It is out of his hands, though, and he is not interested in doing anything to attract unnecessary attention to himself. So he spends his time exploring the area, and trying to decide whether or not he likes the ocean, which he has never seen before.

~~~

27

Itachi sits at the far end of a long, high dock, with green hills and a temple behind him, the long dark coat spread around him. There is something pleasantly rhythmic, he muses, about the rise and fall of swelling water, the muted crash as the waves break against the beach.

Dark, triangular fins break the surface of the water below him, circling.

A crow calls from a distant tree: a man is coming up the dock behind him.

Itachi frowns, but does not move from where he sits, one leg drawn up so that he may rest his arm on that knee.

“I’ll be your partner from now on,” says the stranger, stopping less than a meter away.

Itachi, still frowning, turns to look over his shoulder. The words were polite…but they were not a question.

The man is tall, wearing the long dark coat of the Akatsuki uniform. He has unusually pale skin, so much so that it might easily seem grey, or even blue in certain kinds of light. His hair is spiky, and undoubtedly blue. He has high, defined cheekbones, small eyes an indeterminate shade of yellow, a broad nose, and a grin that gives Itachi the impression of being very…sharp.

“I’m Hoshigaki Kisame, formerly of the Kiri NIA – one of the Seven Enforcers,” he introduces himself, still polite. Kiri is the capital city of Water Country, a group of islands out to the east. It is similar to Konoha and Fire Country in some ways, but it is a less stable place, and their politics easily turn to violence. The Seven Enforcers were assassins internal to the Kiri National Intelligence who dealt with those deemed traitors and political targets.

Itachi turns away, and looks back at the water and the sharks, which continue to circle.

“And you are Uchiha Itachi, formerly of the Konoha NIA…though I’ve heard rumors that you killed your partner, betraying the NIA and your family, the police,” Kisame continues.

Itachi says nothing. He allows no movement to betray the flash of Shisui’s drowning face before his eyes.

“I understand you well, and that’s why I want you for my partner out of everyone in Akatsuki,” the man says. “The feeling of killing a comrade…it’s hard to describe, isn’t it, Itachi-san?”

Indescribable is certainly a good word for it, Itachi thinks. For another moment he says nothing, then assesses the other man quietly: “You talk too much.”

“You assume that you understand me,” he goes on, “but what about yourself? You’re just a mercenary with no goal and no destination. Am I wrong?”

He isn’t wrong. The man is easy enough to read. Itachi allows himself a brief moment of satisfaction that his cover is working, but it is dimmed by the knowledge that the other man isn’t wrong either. He brings his focus back to Hoshigaki Kisame when something long and vaguely blade-like, wrapped in bandages, appears beside him. It is a tacit threat, but mostly pointing down toward the sharks that still circle below.

“Let me tell you something,” the blue haired man says, and explains that sharks, upon hatching inside their mothers’ wombs, eat their siblings before they are born in an effort to better stay alive. “Everyone else is nothing but food.”

It is not a sentiment that Itachi can understand. He finds people useless, annoying or boring more often than not, but unless they present a direct threat to himself, to Sasuke, or to Konoha, then the most he has ever desired to do to them is ignore them.

If the tales that he hears about conditions in Kiri are true, though, then he can understand why someone like Hoshigaki Kisame might have grown up believing otherwise. He stares down at the sharks somewhat uninterestedly.

“Starting today, you and I will be comrades,” Kisame says, the strange wrapped weapon still there, “but watch out for me.”

He allows the open threat to trigger his Sharingan, and doesn’t stop the pinwheel of his Mangekyou from forming.

“I could say the same,” he murmurs softly, not turning around.

Kisame chuckles, recognizing and accepting the returned threat with apparent good humor, and the weapon, whatever it is, disappears from Itachi’s peripheral vision. He wills away the Sharingan. The man is not an idiot, whatever else he may be.

“Well, let’s try and get along,” the taller man says, fully polite once again and all antagonism gone from his manner, “and hope we never have to fight each other.”

“If you’ve already betrayed your comrades,” Itachi says, rising, “then why would it matter?”

“True.” Kisame chuckles again. “You and I are both that kind of good-for-nothing.”

“No,” Itachi says. He turns to face the other man fully for the first time, finding that he has slung the wrapped weapon into a holster on his back. “We are not fish; we’re human.”

Kisame blinks at him in surprise, then tilts his head, questioning. Itachi starts walking back down the dock.

“No matter what you’ve done, you never know what sort of person you are until the end,” he says, passing his new partner. “How can you know what kind of life you will have, until you have lived it?”

“That’s a little contradictory, Itachi-san,” Kisame points out, turning smoothly and striding forward to fall into step beside him.

Itachi thinks about that, and then shrugs, acknowledging the point. He believes both things: that after a betrayal, life would mean very little…but also that you don’t know until the end what your life has meant.

He wants to believe both, because he can’t excuse himself from Shisui’s death and his betrayal of Sasuke’s trust…but he hopes that he might still do enough good to even the scales, before the end comes.

The crows caw from the trees and Itachi closes his eyes, wishing he could allow the harsh chorus to give him hope.

~~~

28

Within a month, Itachi has come to the resigned conclusion that had he been allowed his own choice of any Akatsuki member for his partner, he would certainly have ended up choosing Hoshigaki Kisame anyway.

The blue-haired man is at times too talkative for Itachi, but is otherwise intelligent, surprisingly polite, and strong. He is by no means in awe of his younger companion (as so many in Konoha had been), but he is respectful, and Itachi decides that if a tendency towards chattiness is his only real complaint about his partner, then he could have done significantly worse. Kisame definitely falls into the “potential threat” category in Itachi’s assessment of Akatsuki members, but Itachi gives himself slightly better-than-even odds in winning any fight that might arise between them. He certainly would not escape such a fight without severe (and possibly life-threatening) injury, but he does believe he could win. He thinks that maybe Kisame feels the same.

They are, however, “getting along” as Kisame had suggested on the day they met, so a clash in the near future seems unlikely at best. Only if Itachi is unable to hide his true affiliations would such a situation arise, so he vows to be particularly careful. Kisame will definitely be under orders from Madara to keep an eye on him, so Itachi knows he must be more cautious than ever.

The only other member of the group that he pays any attention to is called Orochimaru.

Orochimaru is a tall, thin man with unhealthily pale skin, eyes a strange golden-yellow, and long dark hair. His manner does more to make Itachi dislike snakes than any actual snake has ever managed to (even when they raid crows’ nests). He watches Itachi with an interested, hungry gaze, and it makes Itachi’s skin crawl.

“Itachi-kun,” Orochimaru says one day, catching Itachi alone somewhere within the large, labyrinthine building that serves as the Akatsuki headquarters.

Itachi’s eyes go red before he turns to look at the other man, but he has never let Orochimaru see him without the Sharingan, so the other won’t notice anything odd.

“Such an interesting ability,” Orochimaru says then, slithering closer and smiling at Itachi. “I wonder, Itachi-kun, if this is really the best setting in which to utilize your…talents.”

Itachi narrows his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Surely you don’t believe that Madara is going to let you develop your full potential?” the taller man scoffs. “He knows better than to let a member of his own-”

Itachi’s eyes flicker with sudden interest, and Orochimaru cuts himself off, covering it with a smile that is too smooth.

“Think about it, Itachi-kun. You have so very much potential.” The man slides a little closer, and Itachi must physically restrain himself from stepping back. “The Uchiha always do. It would be a shame to let it-”

“Ah, Itachi-san, there you are.”

Itachi instantly forgives Kisame all his chatter. His partner has impeccable timing, and some hint of amusement in Kisame’s eyes tells Itachi that the interruption was not accidental.

“Apologies,” the blue-haired man offers politely to Orochimaru, “but I need to speak with Itachi-san about our first assignment.”

“Of course,” Orochimaru says smoothly, but Itachi does not miss the disappointment in his expression. “Think about it, Itachi-kun,” he adds softly, then turns and disappears down the darkened hallway.

Itachi does not allow himself to shudder, but quickly joins his partner, allowing the Sharingan to fade away. “Kisame.”

He does not say “Thank you,” but Kisame seems to catch the implication, and grins at him. “No problem, Itachi-san. We do have our first assignment, though.”

“Very well,” Itachi agrees, and follows him back to their rooms.

He will certainly think about what Orochimaru has said, and the things that he did not say. The slip was not a slip, for much as he might dislike Orochimaru, the man is not that careless. He was trying to entice Itachi with the implied promise of more information.

Itachi is neither that stupid nor that desperate.

“What did he want with you, Itachi-san?” Kisame asks, not bothering to hide his distaste for the snake-like man.

“I don’t think he will be with us for much longer,” Itachi replies. If Orochimaru is trying to recruit allies for a defection, then he must be planning to leave soon. Word will get back to Madara sooner rather than later about it, and Orochimaru won’t be welcome after that point.

“Ah,” Kisame says, understanding. “Well, I don’t think he’ll be missed much.”

“No,” Itachi agrees.

He teaches the crows Orochimaru’s face, and teaches them that he is an enemy. The man’s interest in the Uchiha is broader than Itachi alone, and Itachi does not like some of the possibilities that brings to mind.

“Watch him,” he whispers to them, stroking their midnight feathers. The crows caw in agreement, and leap into the sky.

~~~

29

Orochimaru is gone within the month, after a somewhat messy argument with the group’s leader. Most of Akatsuki assume this to be Pain, but Itachi is privy to the fact that it was Madara with whom the snake-like man had fought.

He wanted to linger to hear the whole conversation, but hadn’t dared. Even passing by as stealthily as he could had been a risk he wasn’t sure he ought to take.

“-stupid to make them scapegoats,” Orochimaru’s voice had spat.

Madara snorted. “They are the ones being stupid, going forward with that plan even after they’ve been exposed once-”

It is not much, but it is enough. Not so difficult, really, to deduce that they are discussing the Uchiha. That his father is being so idiotic as to plan another rebellion was new information for Itachi, though, as was the fact that Madara is specifically setting the Uchiha up to take a fall. What fall, Itachi wonders, and when?

It does not take very long to put the rest of the pieces together.

He and Kisame are only going to be sent on information-gathering missions, Pain informs them, because it will help both of them (but especially Itachi) to keep a lower profile. Pain does not say that it is also because Madara does not trust Itachi with any of the group’s “diplomatic” work, but that is the real reason.

Two missions later, Itachi knows why.

Akatsuki are forming connections and alliances with all of the major gangs in every country in this part of the world. He and Kisame are the front-runners in this project, sent in first to observe and collect intelligence, but not to have any direct contact with any of the gangs. Other members of Akatsuki come in and do that later, once it has been determined which people in which gangs are best approached, and on what terms.

Although Madara was apparently convinced enough by Itachi’s apparent defection from Konoha and the NIA, he is still not willing to trust Itachi with the more delicate work of building alliances, which is intelligent of him. Itachi makes every effort to behave as though he is actually here to help Akatsuki get their job done, and does nothing to sabotage or omit information sent back to headquarters. It would be difficult to do with Kisame around, anyway.

A few months later, though, he sends one terse, coded message back to the NIA in Konoha: Akatsuki was behind the street war. He does not sign it, but adds to the bottom of the encrypted message a small sketch he made of one of the female crow’s primary wing feathers.

He never found any evidence that the police had been involved with it because they hadn’t been; Madara and whatever of Akatsuki he had assembled by then had provided police weapons to Konoha’s gangs and sparked off the street war that Itachi remembers all too vividly from his childhood.

Now Madara appears to be making preparations to do the same thing again, on an even bigger scale. His goal this time appears to be to set up a world war in which he and Akatsuki can emerge the apparent heroes, and thus gain power and control in the governments of all the world’s nations.

Itachi thinks that even if he could feel things particularly well right now, his horror at the thought of this becoming a reality would be too deep to really feel anyway.

~~~

Chapter Text

30

They have a surprising amount of free time, left to their own devices in between assignments.

Itachi goes off on his own a lot in the first few months, meeting with the crows. He shows them papers and other potential sources of information in the dumpsters and trash bins, since no one will take any special notice of a crow rooting around through a trash bin. It isn’t difficult to casually walk by a given dumpster that seems likely to have helpful information, and wave a quick hand over it, and move on. The crows will then come in after Itachi is gone, root around, and bring him anything interesting that they might find.

He compensates them for their time by providing food; one definite benefit of drawing a generous paycheck. The crows seem to agree that the exchange is a fair one.

He continues to learn from them, too, recognizing more and more of their calls as the months go by. He cannot mimic the sounds very well himself, but he can now listen to the crows with a great deal more understanding than he used to.

The large female who has watched him since he was small is getting old, now, and usually chooses to sit on his shoulder, even accepting Kisame’s vaguely-threatening presence in order to stay close to him. Itachi frowns and strokes her gently when his partner is not looking, unhappy at the thought that he might soon lose her. She has lived unusually long for a crow, he knows, but that is little consolation against the thought of her possibly impending death.

Kisame watches the crows carefully when they are around, but says nothing and does not make a threat of himself. As they had with Shisui, the dark birds gradually become used to his frequent presence at Itachi’s side, and do not hide themselves when the taller man is around.

At no point does Kisame seem particularly surprised, either by the birds’ presence or by Itachi’s interactions with them. Itachi remembers dark fins cutting through the water on the day they met, and wonders a little.

The other part of his free time Itachi mostly spends digging up whatever information he can about the situation in Konoha (which appears stable for the time being) and using all of the equipment and information sources at his disposal to keep an eye on Sasuke. He tries not to be too obvious about this when Kisame is around (which is often), but neither does he go to great lengths to hide it.

He thinks that Madara would find him more suspicious if he did nothing strange at all, so he decides that it is better to do something Kisame can report back about.

He also is not the least bit sure that he could bring himself to stop watching out for his brother as much as he can, so he will have to be content with Madara knowing about it. He is careful not to actually speak of his brother, even to Kisame, and thereby keeps at least his motivations a secret.

~~~

31

“Hey.”

Itachi keeps walking, and Kisame’s footsteps just behind him don’t stop either.

“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you punks.”

Itachi tilts his head to one side without looking back, and hears Kisame sigh, so he stops. They’ve been working together for six months now, and Itachi is willing to admit to himself that he’s impressed with their communication. It also worries him a little bit – he has no desire to be close to Hoshigaki Kisame, and it’s a risk if the other man were to somehow guess his real purpose here.

But Kisame has shown no interest in being close to him either, so that possibility seems remote. He has no motivation to delve deep into Itachi’s motives, and assumes that he knows them already anyway. They are getting along superficially with no trouble; that is sufficient for both of them.

“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you!”

It is Itachi’s turn to sigh, and his eyes spin red. He and his partner finally turn around to face the group of rough-looking men who are challenging them.

They have been instructed to avoid fights when at all possible (something Kisame seemed a little disappointed about), so as not to potentially sour relations between the various gangs and Akatsuki, but it seems inevitable that they will eventually run into trouble. Today, it seems, will be the first time it is unavoidable.

Itachi and Kisame exchange a glance, and Kisame grins.

“Who the fuck do you punks think you are? Pay attention to me when I’m talkin’ to you!” The leader of this particular group puffs himself up, trying to inflate his own importance in the eyes of his underlings. This gang is just a small one under the umbrella of a much larger group, and not particularly important.

It doesn’t make him any less annoying.

Not even when he draws a gun.

“Itachi-san?” Kisame offers.

Itachi breathes in, and by the time he breathes out, six knives are flying through the air, incapacitating the leader’s gun hand, and the arms of the other five who had started to draw weapons.

Kisame is already moving in behind the knives even as they fly, his strange, wrapped, club-like weapon in his hands. Itachi isn’t really sure quite what to call the thing, actually; it is more than half of Kisame’s height and fairly wide, though not terribly thick around, and held by a long handle. Kisame wields it as if it were some strange combination of a club and a sword, and does quite well. He calls it “Samehada,” because underneath the wrappings it is covered with shark skin. The blue-haired man also carries some knives and sometimes a gun, but doesn’t seem to favor them much, preferring the action of close physical combat.

Itachi understands that, at least a little.

So he follows his partner into the melee. There are almost twenty gang members in total, so that means plenty for each of them. The clash and flow of hand-to-hand combat is a welcome distraction from the constantly whirling thoughts in his head, so Itachi lets himself dance, following the three-second jumps his Sharingan shows him. He deals fast, incapacitating blows to each opponent, taking them out with a minimal amount of movement and effort, often before any of them have a chance to take a swing at him.

Kisame is a graceful but much more dramatic fighter, swinging Samehada in broad sweeping arcs that sometimes take out two or three opponents at a time instead of just one. He grins the whole time, obviously enjoying the combat even if it is ridiculously easy.

It is over within a few moments.

The whole gang is laid out on the ground in various states of injury, though none are outright dead. That was their second injunction: if a fight is necessary, try not to kill anyone. A few beat-up underlings are not likely to endanger future diplomatic relationships with Akatsuki the way lots of slaughtered underlings are.

“Beatings prove us to be a credible ally,” Pain had cautioned them, “killings prove us a threat.”

Secretly, Itachi is glad for the order. He can see life leave a body with the Sharingan activated. It is not a pleasant thing to see.

He rejoins Kisame, his face impassive as always, letting the Sharingan fade away. Kisame glances around, shakes his head in disappointment, and slips the Samehada onto his back again.

“Shall we go, Itachi-san?”

Itachi nods, and they resume their trip, this time with the groans of twenty men to accompany their footsteps up the road.

~~~

32

Itachi and Kisame get some news from Akatsuki about what is going on generally with the organization, though rarely in much detail. Itachi manages to pick up a little more in the process of keeping an eye on Sasuke and Konoha. It is all fairly similar: contacts successfully made with the main gang in such-and-such country, alliance brokered between two other gangs, plans for material support for another gang falling into place, and so on.

Small but steady steps on an incremental road to war.

Itachi goes to sleep at night, and every night he dreams.

He dreams of the dead.

He dreams of fire, gunshots and screaming.

He dreams of bodies in the streets and the smell.

He dreams of Shisui’s body slipping away under the Nakano River.

He dreams of the way life leaves falling bodies, changing from dark fire to something viscous and choking that twists and writhes as it seeps out through spilling blood and gasping breaths.

He dreams of people (sometimes his father, his mother, his brother…his cousin) standing silently, motionlessly around him, their empty eyes accusing.

Itachi wakes up, and every night he slips silently out of whatever hotel or short-term apartment he and Kisame are sharing. He doesn’t take his coat. He walks until he finds somewhere high and dark and quiet, and sits, letting the cold seep through him in an attempt to be numb.

The crows join him, the large female sitting on his shoulder as always, the others perching around them, pressing their dark-feathered bodies against his legs and back as if attempting to keep him warm.

He loves them, but they cannot help him. There are ugly things in his brain, and nothing can help him.

Itachi sits in the cold and the dark, and takes what meager comfort he can from the crows as he waits for the ugly things in his head to subside. Eventually they do, and he is able to remind himself that he has a mission, that he is here to eventually bring Akatsuki down, and that he is here (most importantly of all) to keep Sasuke safe.

He breathes, and reminds himself of that, and eventually he can go back.

“Take your coat next time, Itachi-san,” Kisame’s voice, rough with sleep, greets him as he comes silently back into the hotel room. “You’ll be useless if you catch a cold.”

Itachi ignores him, and gets back into bed, where he eventually sleeps.

He gets up the next morning, goes about his day as impassively as ever, goes to bed, sleeps…and dreams, once again, of the dead.

~~~

33

Weeks go by, and Itachi realizes that he can’t go on like this. He will reach a breaking point eventually, and he can’t afford that. He might very well not survive this mission in the long-term, but there is no way he can keep Sasuke safe if he breaks down now.

So he tries to think of anything that might help…and finds one day that the wailing of police sirens in the distance gives him the answer. Maybe, he thinks, maybe he doesn’t have to entirely give up the work he has wanted to pursue since childhood. He will have to be careful, he decides, but he already spends hours out with the crows, so Kisame needn’t notice any difference.

Itachi takes the little portable radio that he uses as one tool for keeping track of current events in Konoha, and starts tuning into the local police radio band, currently that of Ame, the capital city of Rain Country where he and Kisame are staying this week.

Itachi finds a safe corner in an abandoned warehouse to sit with his ear pressed against the little radio, its volume turned almost all the way down so as not to accidentally attract attention. He listens carefully for some situation in which he might manage some invisible assistance.

“…suspect on the run down~~~~street, victim was mugged and shot~~~~~East Bridge, suspect now heading into alleys of warehouse district, will pur~~~n foot…”

Itachi nods to himself, and rises.

“One person, running,” he murmurs to the female crow resting on his shoulder as he steps outside, using some simple hand gestures to reinforce the words.

She caws immediately, querying the other crows in the area. Replies come in immediately, and Itachi closes his eyes in order to listen more carefully: nothing, nothing, nothing…north. He turns and sprints in the right direction, correcting with easy leaps over dumpsters and heaps of garbage as more calls reach his ears.

He pulls up in something too narrow to even really deserve the name “alley,” with plenty of shadows to hide him and a good view of the wider alley this little corridor opens into.

A moment later, a woman pelts into sight in the wider alley, clutching a purse in one hand and a gun in the other, an unpleasant grin on her face even as she flees the police.

It really is too easy.

Itachi, with the same control and accuracy that he throws his knives, hits her right knee with a small rock as she approaches his hiding place. He threw hard enough to bruise deeply, but not quite hard enough to crack her kneecap. It’s more than enough to trip her, though, and the mugger goes down hard, cursing.

She is up again quickly, but immediately stumbles, clutching at her knee and cursing again.

The two police officers pursuing her come into view in the next instant, and although the mugger tries to keep going, they catch up to her easily.
Itachi has another rock ready should the criminal decide to take a shot at them…but she gives in with only a stream of verbal abuse for the officers as they disarm her, handcuff her, and haul her off back the way they came.

Itachi waits and retrieves the rock he threw once the alley is empty. He is wearing gloves, so he could have safely left it there, even in the unlikely event that anyone would think (or care) to investigate why the mugger was so abruptly unable to flee. Since he has the opportunity, though, he sees no reason to be careless.

Another quick glance down the empty alley, and Itachi vanishes back into the late afternoon shadows as silently as he came.

It was a small thing, perhaps, but it was a start.

For the first time in a long time, he feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

~~~

34

Itachi wakes up on the morning of July twenty-third thinking happily, /It’s Sasuke’s birthday./

Then he rolls over and opens his eyes to a barely-familiar hotel room, and memory returns.

Cold and guilt and nausea hit him like a freight train, and Itachi closes his eyes again, swallowing.

He rises, and with a quick glance to make sure that his partner is still asleep, goes to the window that faces southwest, towards Konoha.

Another promise broken.

Itachi touches two fingertips softly to the glass and thinks, /Forgive me, Sasuke./

He eats nothing all day, despite Kisame’s confused and exasperated looks. If he cannot eat with Sasuke, he decides, then on this day, he won’t eat at all.

Even if he had been hungry, it wouldn’t have been a difficult decision.

~~~

35

When he and Kisame send in their mission reports, they are then free to do what they want until receiving their next assignment. Sometimes this comes as quickly as the next day, but more often they have at least a week to spend however they please.

Itachi fills some of that time with his new ‘vigilante’ work, such as it is, and spends a lot of time just gathering any and all information that he can get his hands on. He firmly believes the old saying that knowledge is power, and intends to have as much of it as possible. These activities, plus keeping an eye on his brother, certainly take up a lot of his free time…but not all of it.

Itachi figures out quickly that sitting around twiddling his thumbs or sharpening his knives in the remaining time is largely useless in addition to mind-numbingly boring. So, he decides he needs a hobby.

One day shortly after deciding this, a small second-hand bookshop catches his eye. Itachi looks at it for a minute, then shrugs and sends the female crow to perch in a tree for a little bit while he goes inside. He comes back out a good while later with two large bags full of books, and returns to the hotel.

From then on, Itachi fills his spare time with reading, buying them in second-hand shops and then leaving the finished books wherever he happens to finish them, be that a hotel room, a train, a restaurant, or a park.

Itachi finds reading to be a good hobby, as it is a welcome distraction from the less pleasant things in his head, and so he decides to make up for all the time that he didn’t have to read as a child and teenager. He reads quickly and devours a range of fiction and non-fiction, choosing by what catches his eye and interest, rather than by any particular subject or genre.

Kisame never makes any comments about this new habit, except to give Itachi amused looks whenever he comes in with a particularly large number of books. This is part of the reason why it takes Itachi a few months to realize that his partner picks up and reads some of the books after he has finished with them. The blue-haired man doesn’t read all of them, by any means, but he definitely gets through some. He seems to read them mostly when Itachi is out doing other things, which is the second reason it took him so long to realize.

The third reason is that Itachi hasn’t really been paying all that much attention to his partner in general, outside of missions. Of course they share living space the vast majority of the time, and eat most meals together, but their conversation and interactions have remained largely superficial.

Itachi realizes that while he may not want to get close to Kisame, it might still be a good idea to pay a bit more attention to his partner than he has been.

Now that Itachi is watching, he sees quickly that Kisame only ever picks up the non-fiction books that he has discarded. There were a few his partner didn’t touch (presumably he found the subjects uninteresting), but the ones he did decide to read seem to indicate a fairly wide range of taste. So the next time he finishes one, he puts it on the bedside table next to Kisame’s bed instead of tucking it away into the drawer of the room’s desk like he usually would.

(It was a book about ancient religions in Konoha and surrounding countries, which Itachi had found interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it talked about the early clans that had founded the area…one of which was the Uchiha. He actually ponders not giving it to Kisame briefly, just because he knows that his partner reports back to Madara, but decides that maybe acting nonchalant about it will be less suspicious. Also, it seems possible that his reading material is not of interest to Madara, though he doesn’t like to assume anything.)

Kisame grins a little when he sees the book later and says, “Thank you, Itachi-san.”

Itachi, now at his computer and absorbed in examining Sasuke’s latest (perfect) grade report, just twitches one shoulder up in a shrug, and nods.

~~~

Chapter Text

36

It is Itachi’s second winter with Akatsuki, and there are an unusual number of hawks around.

This makes neither Itachi nor the crows happy. The crows because they are never happy to see hawks under any circumstances, and Itachi because he knows enough about hawks to know that by this point in the winter, they should all have flown south. He and Kisame are up in one of Cloud Country’s northern cities, well north of Fire Country, and the winters up here are not mild.

He has identified at least two individual hawks for certain, and possibly as many as four in total. The fact that they are not gone and are so often where he can see them (and therefore where they can see him), says to Itachi that someone has brought them here for the purpose of keeping an eye on him.

He doesn’t like that.

So he is cautious and careful when he goes out alone…but not careful enough.

It is a cold, cloudy day, with the threat of snow making the air heavy. Itachi has been out with the crows, but is refraining from any of his usual vigilante work until he can be sure he is no longer being observed. Now he is walking back to the hotel through empty alleys, the large female crow settled quietly on his shoulder as usual.

Three local crows flash by overhead, screaming a hawk warning.

Itachi and his crow look up, scanning what little of the sky they can see as other crow voices join the first three. She tilts her head at Itachi and squawks a little in dissatisfaction. He nods in agreement, and quickens his steps, turning right into another alley that he knows will lead them to an empty lot where they can have a better view of the sky.

The clamor of angry crow voices is increasing.

Itachi is just shy of running when they finally reach the empty lot to find the sky above filled with agitated crows, diving and swooping in an attempt to drive off the two larger, dark brown birds that wheel among them: hawks.

In the instant he steps out of the alley, both hawks let out piercing shrieks and stoop into dives…aiming straight for him.

Itachi is so startled that he freezes for a second too long, eyes wide at the sight of wicked claws plummeting for his face-

A harsh, defiant cry comes loud in his left ear, and before he can do anything to stop her, the female crow has launched herself from his shoulder. Old though she might be, her wing beats are powerful, and she collides fearlessly with the two hawks, halting their dive just three meters above the ground.

She is a bigger kind of crow than the local crows here, larger by a significant amount, but even she cannot take on two hawks on her own.

Itachi has a knife in hand in the next breath, watching intently for a moment to strike where he will not hit her…

Only a belated warning prickle along the back of his neck saves him. He jerks to the side just in time for the knife to open a deep gash along his shoulder, rather than burying itself in the back of his neck.

Suppressing the pain automatically, Itachi is already spinning, his own knife flying off in the direction his red eyes tell him the attack came from, behind and up and to his right. It does not strike home, and Itachi has just enough time to turn again before his attacker (already behind him again) is on him.

He blocks an almost blindingly fast succession of blows that, had they connected, would have incapacitated his left shoulder, his right elbow and both knees.

For the first time, Itachi finds that he might actually be losing were it not for the Sharingan’s ability to show him the flow of his opponent’s movements a breath before they happen.

Fortunately, the exchange also seems to throw off his attacker, who jumps back, landing in a low, balanced crouch. Itachi wants to glance at the aerial battle still raging above them, but doesn’t dare. His opponent is a young man with long, brown hair and strange, all-white eyes, the veins around them standing out against his pale skin.
It is none of this, however, that sends Itachi bursting reflexively into the offensive.

That is thanks to the man’s familiar dark uniform – Root.

They exchange another flurry of blows until Itachi realizes that his wounded shoulder is slowing him down, and against this particular opponent that will get him killed sooner rather than later. He disengages as fast as he can then, and launches into a series of flips that take him across the empty lot, tossing off a few knives on the way to prevent his attacker from doing the same.

He is not surprised when those knives are blocked, but throws another wave of them immediately upon landing, including a couple to ricochet with careful calculation off the pole of a broken street lamp and the overhang of a window on one of the buildings.

The young man spins gracefully out of the way of all of them, including the two that should have been invisible to him.

Itachi’s mind works fast. White eyes, clearly a special ability like his own Sharingan, something he has seen before or read about, a clan ability…Hyuuga. Byakugan, the ability is called…but he knows little else about it. A lack of knowledge he will certainly remedy, if he gets out of this.

Running is the smart option right now, he decides. He is injured and lacking sufficient knowledge of his opponent. He turns to go- only to find the Root agent in front of him already, cutting off his escape route. They exchange blows again, and again Itachi does his best to disengage, feeling his left arm lagging as his wound worsens.

The agent follows him this time, not letting him avoid the hand-to-hand, interspersing it with knife throws that Itachi must use his left arm to counter. He doesn’t stumble, retreating gracefully across the broken concrete, but he knows he is not in a good position. Concentrating past the pain, he lands a couple of solid hits, but the Hyuuga gets in a couple too, not quite managing to hit joints, but hitting muscles and pressure points that make Itachi struggle harder to move fast enough.

He manages, barely…until one of the hawks stoops shrieking just over his head. It startles him for only a fraction of a second, but in this fight he might as well have thrown up his hands in surrender.

He sees coming the blow that will crush his throat, and starts to dodge-

-only to nearly stumble when suddenly his opponent is no longer there, flipping back from the long, wrapped form of Samehada that has interposed itself between them. Itachi blinks at the weapon in shock, and then follows it up to its owner who is standing there quite nonchalantly, though his eyes do not leave the Root agent. The agent is now crouched warily some distance away, clearly assessing the new threat.

“Well, I’m glad that you have a good excuse for being late, Itachi-san,” Kisame says affably.

“Kisame,” Itachi says, blinking again, his tone almost surprised. His partner grins, but still doesn’t look away from the agent. Itachi redirects his attention the Hyuuga’s way as well, red eyes narrowing in new assessment. With Kisame here, the odds are different.

The agent seems to think so too, and is gone almost before Itachi has time to figure out what strategy they might use. The hawks let out last, defiant cries amidst the on-going cacophony of crows, and glide away in the direction the Hyuuga had gone.

Itachi rises from his crouch, frowning. Kisame slides Samehada onto his back, and turns to face his younger partner.

“May I ask what that was all about, Itachi-san?”

“He is an agent of Root, a special division within the Konoha NIA,” Itachi replies, turning to inspect his shoulder, and frowning further at the large gash, still bleeding and now torn messily from Itachi’s having used that arm so much in the fight. It hurts, but he ignores that part. It will certainly need stitches, he assesses clinically, and will scar, but it shouldn’t hamper his movement in the future if he allows it to fully heal.

“Ah,” says Kisame, looking as though this answers most, but not all, of his questions. He doesn’t ask anything else though, coming over to also look at Itachi’s wound.

“Stitches,” Itachi says preemptively, “and rest.”

Kisame smiles, and nods in concurrence. Itachi allows himself a small sigh, and wills away the Sharingan. Then he glances up to find the female crow and make sure the rest are dispersing without injury.

None of them have dispersed.

The murder of crows is sitting silently all around the empty lot, covering the street lamps, the edges of the buildings, and the tops of the fences.

A trickle of something cold worms its way into Itachi’s stomach. The crows stare past him, and do not speak. Slowly, he turns around, and looks to the far end of the lot.

There is a dark, feathered body lying there, motionless.

Itachi stares.

“Itachi-san?” Kisame says, voice softer and edged with something that might be concern.

Itachi stares, and his body feels as though it were made of lead.

It is an effort to lift first one foot, and then the other, to make himself take steps across the rough ground.

When he gets there, he stops, and stares again.

He feels strange, he thinks distantly, but can’t be bothered to spare more attention to it than that.

The large female crow is lying at his feet. She is dead.

Itachi stares. She is dead. He knows this, but the idea won’t fit into his mind, feels wrong and won’t slot into place.

She has been his only constant companion for fourteen years. She looked after him, guarded him, guided him, taught him.

Now, she has died for him.

Itachi has never wanted anyone to die for him.

He jerks violently when a hand touches his shoulder, and Kisame pulls it away, but only briefly. The blue-haired man’s hand is large, and covers most of his shoulder. His right shoulder.

Itachi thinks that, even had his left shoulder not been injured, Kisame would have known not to touch him there.

That was where she always sat.

Kisame says nothing for another long moment, but then asks quietly, “How long?”

Itachi wavers, almost lashing out at him. Silence is the only thing he wants right now. It is already creeping into his head, weighing down his tongue. The crows are silent, and he should be too.

Itachi swallows, and takes one slow, deep breath, and then another. There are dark things creeping into his mind along with the silence.

“Fourteen years,” he whispers after a moment of struggle.

Kisame doesn’t say anything else, thankfully, but nods, and his hand remains on Itachi’s shoulder until Itachi kneels down to pick up her body. He gathers her close, gently, his hands stroking her dark feathers, straightening them automatically even though it doesn’t matter now.

He looks up to the murder of crows, and closes his eyes, bowing his head in silent acknowledgment. They make no sound, but a few of them bob their heads back, and Itachi knows that they will not mind if he takes her body away. The crows will sit here for a few more hours, in silence, and then depart.

A crows’ funeral, it is called, held at the site where one of their own has died.

Itachi is grateful that they will do it for her, even though she was not one of their flock.

Itachi turns then and begins walking toward the hotel, knowing that Kisame will follow. He does, and allows Itachi his silence. When they get there, Itachi sits numb and mostly unaware while Kisame does something with his shoulder. It hurts, but he doesn’t care. When his partner is done, Itachi lays down on his bed.

He does not sleep that night, lying awake in the darkness and wishing that he knew how to cry.

~~~

37

Itachi does not bury the female crow. Instead, he takes her body out of the city the next day, and builds a small funeral pyre in the silent, snow-covered woods.

Kisame, somewhat surprisingly, comes with him, standing quiet and solemn as Itachi kneels in the snow and waits for the fire to die away. It takes a long time. He does not collect the ashes, but leaves them to be scattered back into the forest.

Only after he rises does Kisame come over and put a hand on his shoulder again.

“Let’s go south,” he suggests, “it’ll be warmer by the ocean.”

Itachi breathes, and thinks about that. He is not ready to break his silence yet, but after a moment he nods. Kisame’s mouth twitches up in a half-hearted smile.

“Come on, Itachi-san,” he says, and leads Itachi away.

~~~

38

“It’s a little bit chilly, but not that bad.”

Itachi greets this assertion with the dubiousness he feels it deserves, and Kisame chuckles.

“That’s what the wetsuit is for, Itachi-san,” he points out. The blue-haired man is already in the water next to the dock. Itachi remains on the weathered boards, not convinced that the thin wetsuit that covers him from neck to ankles is really going to keep him warm.

They are in Water Country on its southernmost island, which is not quite far enough south to be tropical, but getting close. It is still winter, though, so the ocean is not really warm.

When Itachi slides into the water, he finds that it is as Kisame says, and the chill passes quickly once he moves around a little. He knows how to swim (no potentially necessary skill was overlooked in his education), and Itachi has always considered himself a good swimmer.

He is certainly a competent swimmer, but as he watches his partner, he realizes that “competent” and “good” are not really the same thing. Kisame moves through the ocean as if he were born swimming, moving with at-home ease as he swims in a wide circle while waiting for Itachi to adjust to the water.

Kisame surfaces again next to him, not smiling, but looking…relaxed, in a way that Itachi hasn’t seen in the older man before.

“There’s a sandbar out a ways,” he says, pointing out and to the left of the dock, “a few hundred meters from the reef.”

Itachi nods in acquiescence. He hasn’t spoken in the four days it took them to come south, but he has been making some effort to stay focused on the present, and communicating with his partner in other ways. He pulls on the mask and snorkel Kisame had given to him back onshore, and finds that although the equipment feels a little awkward, it makes seeing and breathing significantly easier. He particularly appreciates the former, not liking the idea of swimming blind.

He follows Kisame out to the sandbar, taking in the seabed as it moves by, blinking at the fish and crabs that dart about amongst the seaweed. The water is quite clear. This is nothing like the few trips they took to a nearby lake when he and Sasuke were both still young.

They reach the sandbar, and Itachi finds that it is shallow enough for him to stand comfortably with the slow swells of water cresting just under his chin. The sand is cool and scratchy between his bare toes.

Moving the mask and snorkel off of his face, Itachi tilts his head at Kisame questioningly to ask, what now?

Kisame grins. “I have some friends out here I’d like you to meet. Is that all right?”

Itachi pauses, having a good idea who (what) these “friends” likely are, but eventually nods. He doesn’t think Kisame has brought him out here with any intent to harm him, and given that is the case, there is probably little risk so long as his partner is here.

Kisame raises a hand to his mouth, and a moment later blood is flowing from one of his fingers into the water. Itachi takes a moment to be glad that his own wounded shoulder is well wrapped in plastic as well as bandages. Aside from the necessity of keeping the injury dry, he assumes that having his blood in the water right now would not be wise.

Kisame’s must be known to his “friends,” however, because a few moments later there are three, black-tipped triangular fins breaking the surface of the water, coming in from the direction of the reef.

“They mostly prefer the reef,” Kisame explains as they come closer, “but they don’t mind coming in this far if they have a reason to.” The three sharks arrive and circle him, bumping against him and rocking the taller man a little in what Itachi assumes to be an affectionate manner, their mouths gaping in characteristic grins.

Kisame grins too, and Itachi has no trouble whatsoever seeing the resemblance.

“Blacktip reef sharks,” the blue-haired man introduces them. “They're usually shy around humans, but they tend to mind me less.”

Apparently this applies to any companion of Kisame's as well, for one of the sharks breaks away from him and crosses the couple of meters between them to circle Itachi. Itachi is not at all sure he is comfortable with this, but stands as still as possible in the moving water and remains calm, turning only his head to follow the shark’s progress as it circles him with seeming curiosity.

It is as beautifully designed creature, he decides after watching it for a moment. The grey body, about as long as Itachi is tall (less than two meters), is perfectly streamlined, perfectly efficient, moving effortlessly through the water with powerful muscles. After it has circled him a few times, Itachi carefully lifts one hand out of the water and holds it above the surface, looking at Kisame.

“On the back near the dorsal fin is best,” his partner answers, nodding, “he won’t mind.”

Itachi nods and, carefully, lets his hand sink to rest on the shark’s back as it comes around again. The skin is rough, much rougher than it looks. Itachi pulls his hand back before it bumps into the tail, but tries again on the shark’s next rotation. Then, curious, Itachi puts his mask and snorkel back on, and slowly sinks beneath the surface of the water.

He can see better this way. It is definitely a male circling him, its white underbelly contrasting with the grey of its upper body, one pale eye rolling back a little to look at Itachi, assessing. It continues to circle, though, and Itachi sees that it does indeed have black tips on all of its fins, though the coloring is most prominent on the dorsal fin and tail.

Another minute, and then it breaks away from Itachi to rejoin the other two (a second male and a female) still hovering around Kisame. Itachi watches from underwater as Kisame touches all three sharks, gentle strokes from the back of their heads to the edge of the dorsal fin, and all three let him do it.

In the next moment, though, the sharks flick their tails sharply and are back in motion, this time breaking away from the two men and disappearing swiftly back in the direction of the reef.

Itachi surfaces then to find Kisame peering after them in some puzzlement.

“I’m a little surprised they came out at all,” the blue-haired man admits, frowning over the rapidly-diminishing dorsal fins, “wasn't sure if they would with someone else here. But since they did come out then why-” His partner kicks himself a little higher in the water, scanning the ocean around them. After a couple of tries, he sinks down again, nodding, and beckons for Itachi to come closer.

Itachi does…and sees another shape, longer and darker, moving towards them.

“She won’t bite you as long as I’m here,” Kisame says, “but it’s best if she knows you are here with me.”

Itachi gives his partner a somewhat dubious look again, but takes a deep, slow breath and stays still at Kisame’s side. Even if Kisame had been trying to get rid of him (and the paranoid, strategic part of his mind suggests that this would be an excellent way to do so), the three reef sharks together would likely have been adequate for the purpose.

No, Itachi decides, Kisame really has brought him out here just to meet his animal companions. It is a fairly transparent attempt to distract and cheer him up, and Itachi is surprised to find that he…appreciates it.

The shark that approaches them now is more cautious than the reef sharks had been. It circles them from several meters out and slowly spirals in closer. It is significantly larger than the reef sharks. Measuring as best he can against Kisame, Itachi estimates that this one is at least four and a half meters long, well more than twice his partner’s height. Its skin seems more blue than grey, and is marked with a pattern of faint, darker stripes along the length of its body.

After a moment, it turns a little and bumps Kisame’s side with a snout that is flatter and blunter than that of the reef sharks. Kisame chuckles, lifting a hand to run along the shark’s back as it resumes circling them.

“A tiger shark,” he says, “she’s been the reigning shark in this area for at least eight years now. I wasn’t sure if she’d be around today or not.”

Itachi watches her, and nods. She looks as though she is a top predator; scars mar her skin and fins, but her movements are graceful and controlled as she glides through the water. Her eyes, though not precisely intelligent, watch with their own kind of knowing.

“She would eat the reef sharks, if she catches them,” Kisame adds, explaining why the three smaller sharks had left so abruptly.

He has questions, Itachi realizes suddenly, that he would like to ask Kisame. He has never before had the chance to actually talk with someone he is sure has an affinity with an animal the way he does with crows.

He has questions…and is not yet ready to break his silence.

The tiger shark bumps Kisame one more time, and then powerful strokes of her tail carry her away, back to whatever watery hunting grounds she stalks.

They stand there in the sun, and the water rises and falls steadily around them. It is calming, Itachi thinks, closing his eyes for a few minutes.

“Well, shall we head back, Itachi-san?” Kisame asks then.

Itachi takes one more deep breath, and nods.

Tomorrow, he decides. Tomorrow he will speak again, and ask Kisame his questions.

~~~

39

It is three months before Itachi can sleep the night through again.

His nightmares are simpler: a constant loop of the day Shisui died.

Of the day he killed Shisui.

He remembers that he had to press, to keep his cousin underwater. He remembers watching through his red eyes, seeing the life seep out of his cousin’s body. He remembers that his fingers were cold, under the water.

He remembers how Shisui’s body looked as the river pulled it under, limp and unnatural. In his dreams, Shisui stands before him like that, his body wet and slumped at unnatural angles.

He watches Itachi with empty eyes.

It is three months before Itachi can sleep the night through.

~~~

Chapter Text

40

In March, Sasuke graduates from high school at the top of his class.

Itachi thinks about it all day, drifting absentmindedly through their intel gathering and even a short, easy fight, trying to fight off the guilty feeling that he ought to be at the ceremony. Given that Sasuke is now the only son, he can at least be reasonably sure that their father went.

His distraction is bad enough that at last Kisame comments on it, and Itachi makes a little bit more effort to focus.

He still regrets not being there.

Later, he hacks his father’s computer and steals the five best pictures of the Sasuke at the ceremony for himself.

~~~

41

A month later, three crows from Konoha find Itachi.

After their trip south, he and Kisame have remained largely in the countries to the north and west of Konoha for their assignments, and that is where they are now, staying in a high-rise hotel this time because they both felt like it.

The crows, clearly agitated, get Itachi’s attention through the hotel window, and he frowns, rising from the bed.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” he tells Kisame, who nods from the desk.

Itachi pulls on his coat and goes out, rounding the back of the hotel to find the crows perched on the dumpster, chattering to each other as they wait for him. They greet him as soon as he comes into sight, and he smiles a little as he comes to stand in front of them.

“Hello,” he says softly, “what happened?” They caw and ruffle their feathers several times, indicating agitation but not panic. Frowning again, Itachi pulls an envelope out of an inner pocket of his coat. He flips through the contents and then shows them Sasuke’s picture: it is a recent picture, a simple shot of his upper body in school uniform, taken at his recent high school graduation.

The crows bob their head a little and give the greetings for a flockmate. Itachi allows himself a small smile and starts to relax a little. They would have given a warning if Sasuke had been hurt somehow. Next, Itachi pulls out the pictures of Konoha enemies, trying to figure out who they have come to give him a warning about. None of those pictures elicit any particular response, though. Now a little confused, Itachi pulls out other pictures, people he has given warnings to the crows about since leaving Konoha. He thinks it unlikely that Konoha crows would know any of these faces, but flocks do pass information to each other sometimes, so it seems worth a try.

The third picture he lays down is of Orochimaru, and immediately the crows caw out strong warnings.

Itachi rocks back on his heels, anxiety returning in force. If Orochimaru is in Konoha….

This clearly is the message they came to give him, and the crows now bob their heads expectantly. Itachi gives them food automatically from another pocket, his mind racing. If Orochimaru is in Konoha, then the Uchiha (Sasuke) will undoubtedly be one of his goals. The snake-like man most likely has more than one purpose for being in Itachi’s home city, but the potential threat to Sasuke is of greatest concern to him now.

The crows trill their pleasure as they finish eating, and take off. Itachi stands and lifts a hand in farewell before going back inside the hotel, his eyes barely focused on what is in front of him.

The elevator ride back up to the room is just long enough for him to come to the conclusion that rushing off to Konoha is in neither his nor Sasuke’s best interest. He will absolutely be keeping a much closer eye on things, but he cannot risk going back, much as he would like to.

“Anything wrong?” Kisame asks as he comes back into their shared room.

Itachi almost gives his habitual, one-shouldered shrug, but thinks the better of it at the last second. Instead, he says calmly, “News from Konoha. Orochimaru is there.”

Kisame grimaces a little, and Itachi nods in agreement. They are under orders to report any information they find about their former comrade; Madara (through Pain) has made it clear that he will not suffer a deserter and a rival.

“We’d best let Pain know,” the blue-haired man says.

“Yes,” Itachi agrees. “I’ll find out more. The crows only told me he was there.” He goes to his computer, still outwardly calm, and feeling very grateful that he has a good excuse for keeping an eye on Orochimaru’s whereabouts and actions.

The next day, having had the night to think it over, he sends a warning back to Konoha as well, once again carefully coded and concealed from his partner’s eyes, and signed only with the sketch of a crow feather.

~~~

42

“Ah, Sasuke-kun. Congratulations on your recent graduation.”

“…who are you?”

“My name is Orochimaru. I have been hoping to make your acquaintance for some time now.”

“Why?”

“There is no need to be so suspicious, Sasuke-kun. I believe we could have a…mutually beneficial relationship.”

“Not interested.”

“I can give you information about your brother. Aah, I thought that might interest you.”

Where is he?

“Such intense hatred, Sasuke-kun. How delightful. Come, and let us talk.”

~~~

43

The situation in Fire Country deteriorates rapidly over the next month or so.

Itachi’s books are all set aside temporarily as he spends all of the time he has to spare from actual Akatsuki work digging up information about what is happening in Konoha. Unrest in all of the country’s major cities builds up to fighting, especially in the capital, and eventually involves some visiting foreign dignitaries from Wind Country as well as the police and the NIA.

Itachi is displeased with it all, but after ascertaining that Sasuke (now apprenticing at the National Police Headquarters) is uninjured and acquitted himself well throughout the incident, most of his concern subsides. It is a mess, but one that is not (and cannot be) his responsibility. It will definitely force Orochimaru out of Konoha, at least for a time, and that is also a good thing.

That evening, Itachi decides to check through the news and his information sources one more time, just to be sure. He is greeted immediately with a new headline:

Fire Country’s NIA Executive Director Dies of Injuries Sustained in Today’s Fighting

Itachi feels his blood go cold.

The words burn themselves into his mind, stark and black, and he is grateful that they are already planning to sleep, because otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to keep his shock hidden from Kisame.

He lies awake all night, letting his mind work through the options available to him. He looks at them as coldly and analytically as he can, trying to determine which plan will be of greatest help to Sasuke and of least risk to himself, if he can manage any such combination.

By morning, he has reviewed and dismissed a dozen options…which leaves him back where he started last night. It is not an ideal solution, but it is better than anything else he can think of.

When he and Kisame have finished breakfast, Itachi says, “We’re going to Konoha.”

His partner looks first startled, and then dubious at this pronouncement.

“We aren’t supposed to go to Konoha, Itachi-san,” he points out slowly, as if only just now starting to question Itachi’s sanity.

The thought would almost be amusing if Itachi’s blood weren’t still frozen in fear.

Itachi shrugs. “Pain said we should avoid it, but we’re the closest team. If there’s a chance of catching Orochimaru weak, then we should take it, and it will be important to get information about any power shifts in the Konoha gangs.”

Kisame looks at him for another minute, clearly not convinced by this logic, but then he sighs and acquiesces. “When do you want to leave, Itachi-san?”

“Now,” says Itachi, already turning away to gather up his things. He hears his partner sigh again, but the bigger man rises and starts packing.

Itachi wishes, fleetingly, that he had a partner he could confide in. The thought is little more than a passing flicker, though, and then gone.

He has known since the beginning that this is a burden he must bear alone.

~~~

44

A murder of crows greets Itachi as he and Kisame enter the city of Konoha late that afternoon.

They are excited to see him. Itachi is equally happy to see them.

He sits down with them in an empty lot for a little while, and lets Kisame go to find them discreet lodgings for the night.

The crows chatter at him, sit on his shoulders and knees, preen his hair and show him interesting things they have found around the city. He admires the trinkets, strokes a few of them softly in return for the preening, and feels a brief pang of loss again for the female crow.

His grief is more bearable now, though, and being surrounded by so many of his friends helps to ease it further.

The crows depart when Kisame returns, and fill the sky with their wings.

~~~

45

The following morning they are sitting in Itachi’s favorite sweet shop eating dango and sipping tea.

Kisame is clearly amused by this, but he doesn’t protest and Itachi has decided not to explain himself further. They did the reconnaissance and information gathering they needed to yesterday, keeping their presence quiet. Orochimaru is already gone, unfortunately, but they got some good information about what is going on with Konoha’s gangs.

All of which means that if he spends today being as visible as possible to Konoha’s law enforcement agencies, then his real purpose here will be accomplished, and they can leave again.

Given that the police are out in visible force today, it shouldn’t take very long. Hatake Kakashi, a detective and former colleague, is positioned just outside the sweet shop, reading one of his ever-present trashy novels. Kakashi is undoubtedly aware of their presence, though he gives no indication of it and may not yet know specifically who they are. They are wearing their coats, with only hoods pulled down over their faces as any concession to subtlety.

A couple of other detectives arrive and exchange banter with Kakashi. Itachi listens with only half an ear, until-

“Kakashi-sensei, you’re early.”

Itachi rises immediately and turns away, both so that Sasuke won’t see him and so that Kisame won’t see the delighted smile on his face.

His brother has gotten taller again, making him nearly Itachi’s own height now. His hair is still short and spiked up messily at the back, and his voice has deepened from when Itachi last heard him speak.

His intention is to avoid Sasuke entirely while they are here, but he cannot help feeling glad for this one brief, accidental glimpse.

Kisame follows him without comment, abandoning their tea and sweets.

Thinking that it will be quieter and less visible, Itachi goes down to the road that runs along one of the city’s rivers (not the Nakano, he reminds himself). The weather is nice and the path a pleasant one to walk, but Itachi finds it difficult to keep his eyes away from the river. Even when he can, the noise of flowing water fills his ears, inescapable.

He manages to keep his breathing calm, but is glad of the distraction by the time Kakashi and the other two detectives arrive to challenge them.

They fight, and Kisame at least is glad of it, though he doesn’t end up doing much. Itachi feels no desire to torture Kakashi with the Tsukuyomi, but the man is a threat at the moment, and he has a reputation to maintain.

Liar, deserter, traitor…murderer.

Not that he is in danger of forgetting the last, not with the sound of flowing water in his ears and Shisui’s pale, cold face floating in his mind. He has to force himself to focus on the fight at hand.

Torturing Kakashi gives him no pleasure…until he imagines that it is Danzo in the detective’s place.

That Kakashi is still coherent enough afterwards to ask why Itachi is here impresses him; he is tired himself. He is also glad that he has an excuse ready.

“We are looking for the fourth Director’s legacy,” he tells Kakashi, deciding to be cryptic even though Kakashi will know who he means.

“Naruto?” Kakashi says, surprised.

Itachi doesn’t feel the need to explain himself further. It is not widely known amongst the public that Naruto is the son of the NIA’s Fourth Executive Director, who was killed in the street war when Itachi was young, but most of the older members of the police and NIA know.

Obviously, Kakashi and his comrades are not pleased to hear this, and the fight is about to resume when reinforcements for them arrive in the form of Maito Gai. Whatever the man’s appearance and mannerisms, he is a dangerous fighter, and Itachi has no desire to become that involved today, not when his eyes are already tired.

“Kisame,” he says, “let’s go.”

His partner grumbles at him, but complies as Itachi leads them quickly away from the river. Fortunately, Kakashi is in bad enough shape that the detectives choose not to pursue them directly, and the other police who are called in to pick up the chase are easy enough to avoid.

“Where are we going now, Itachi-san?” Kisame wants to know as they work their way across town.

Itachi thinks about it for a moment and decides, “To see Naruto-kun.”

~~~

46

Uzumaki Naruto is actually of some interest to Akatsuki, though Itachi is not quite sure why. The boy is normal enough, from what Itachi knows of him, but his is one of nine names on a list that they were provided with some months ago as “persons of interest.” He will look into that further at some point, he decides, but for now Akatsuki’s reasons are unimportant.

What is important for Itachi is that Naruto is one of Sasuke’s two closest friends. All of these recent events have left Itachi sharply aware that he has no good way of getting information or warnings directly to his brother through a trusted source, should the need arise. Uzumaki Naruto intends to be a field agent with the NIA, and thus might make a useful contact in the future.

The boy is out with his mentor, one of the NIA’s most veteran agents, a man called Jiraiya. Fortunately for Itachi, the man is a known pervert and it is not difficult to distract him with a pretty young woman. Naruto, exasperated, heads back to his own apartment building.

Itachi allows Kisame to think that his purpose is to kidnap Naruto, even though this alarms the boy. It will be easy enough to take him out of the city, speak to him, and then arrange an opportunity for him to escape before they have gone too far. It might even be good experience for him.

Naruto is afraid of them, and rightly so since he doesn’t know Itachi’s actual intentions. He comes out of his apartment without a fuss, and Itachi hopes that maybe they won’t actually have to cause too much of a disturbance with this.

Itachi!

He is mostly dismayed that Sasuke has somehow found them…but still cannot help feeling delighted at the chance to see his brother again.

The delight is quickly overcome by the less pleasant knowledge that he must, once again, play the villain for Sasuke. He cannot give his brother cause to doubt what he said on the night he left.

He turns, his blank-faced mask firmly in place, and is thus able to cover the jolt at seeing the red of the Sharingan in Sasuke’s eyes. His coming back here was more necessary than he had realized, now that Sasuke has it too.

“Oh?” says Kisame, also turning to look. “Who is this? He looks a lot like you, Itachi-san.”

Itachi suspects that Kisame already knows, but answers anyway. “My little brother.”

It is difficult to keep affection out of his voice, but he manages.

Itachi!” Sasuke yells again, and something sparks in his left hand before he is dashing down the hallway towards them. Itachi watches with narrowed red eyes, trying to figure out what his little brother could have that would be giving off such large blue-white sparks of…electricity…?

The attack would have been easy enough to deflect without the Sharingan, though, so Itachi has no trouble directing it into the wall, keeping a tight grip on Sasuke’s wrist.

His brother glares venomously at him even as Itachi examines his weapon. On realizing what it is, it is hard to keep amusement out of his expression: it is a modified tazer. Interesting, but far too obvious to really be useful in a fight.

“I don’t think so,” Kisame says abruptly, addressing Naruto and pulling Samehada down and around in one swift motion that knocks the knife from the other boy’s hands and sends it spinning away.

Itachi, realizing that with this much commotion there might be help coming for the boys, responds to Sasuke’s renewed struggling by saying, “You’re interfering,” and then breaking his wrist.

Sasuke screams in pain, doubling over.

“Sasuke!” Naruto yells, anger and protectiveness overcoming his fear. He bares his teeth, preparing to fight, but Sasuke stops him with a snarled, ragged, “No!

“It’s my fight,” he insists, straightening, teeth clenched against the pain. “I’ll be the one to defeat him and bring him in.”

Itachi is impressed. But to be truly safe, Sasuke must be stronger than this. So, he takes a breath hidden behind the high collar of his coat, and says “Very well,” cutting off both Naruto and Kisame. If Sasuke must learn the lesson again the hard way, then so be it.

They fight. Sasuke manages, even with a broken wrist, to keep on his feet and get in a few counter-attacks, but they are too slow and weak to matter. Itachi can see, too, that his brother’s Sharingan does not seem to be fully developed yet, implying that perhaps he cannot see movement ahead of time as Itachi can.

Itachi frowns, and pins his brother to the wall at the end of the hallway, holding him by his throat. “You are still weak, foolish little brother,” he says quietly. “Why are you still weak? Have you not yet opened your eyes to the truth of the world around you?”

Itachi takes another deep, silent breath. “Do I need to show you again?”

Sasuke’s eyes fly wide in horror, though of course he should have closed them if he really wished to avoid this. Itachi’s Sharingan spins into the pinwheel of his Mangekyou, and the illusion begins. In the red world of Tsukuyomi, Itachi once again shows Sasuke the edited version of the night he left, the pain he inflicted on both their parents, and on Sasuke himself.

Sasuke screams again, tears streaming from his wide unseeing eyes, dark once again with the Sharingan gone.

Itachi lets his brother slump and slide down against the wall, barely conscious, and feels his own eyes twitching with fatigue. He tries not to use the Mangekyou much for this reason.

“How cruel, Itachi-san,” Kisame comments as Itachi turns away from Sasuke and comes back down the hall, face still impassive. He sounds impressed.

“Well, boy,” the blue-haired man says to Naruto after a quick glance at Itachi, “let’s get going, shall we?” He raises Samehada and gives the boy his most shark-like grin.

Naruto, looking fearfully between them and Sasuke, takes a step back much too slowly to avoid the blow that will knock him out-

-until suddenly white smoke fills the hallway, the boy is yanked back, and there is a frog on Kisame’s face.

Itachi blinks as his partner pulls back, sputtering, pulling the large amphibian off of his face and tossing it away. Itachi looks past him into the clearing smoke, displeased but not surprised to find that Jiraiya has returned.

“Did you really think you could distract me, the great Jiraiya-sama, with such an amateur effort?” the older NIA agent asks, posing dramatically.

Itachi thinks to himself that it seems to have worked pretty well, but refrains from either saying that or rolling his eyes.

“Now, it seems to me that you two are both wanted criminals, so I think I’ll be taking you along with me,” Jiraiya goes on then, shooing Naruto behind him and dropping the act.

“Kisame, we’re going,” Itachi says curtly, and Kisame follows him without hesitation. They had decided before going in that it would be unwise for them to tangle with Jiraiya directly.

Even with their abrupt departure, the race through the halls of Naruto’s apartment building is not easy, for Jiraiya pursues them, and there is a blockade waiting for them at the door.

They pelt towards it…and Itachi feels his eyes burn. He closes them, hearing something in his mind whisper Amaterasu.

Itachi opens his eyes, the Mangekyou spinning, and repeats the name.

Black fire explodes on the doors and barricade, devouring them so fast that the way is clear when he and Kisame get there a couple of seconds later.

The other police and NIA agents outside are too shocked by the fire to give chase immediately. It gives the two Akatsuki members enough of a head start.

“Don’t go near it!” Itachi hears Jiraiya bellow at someone just before he and Kisame vanish down a nearby alley.

Itachi goes a few blocks and then gives a short, sharp whistle. A crow lands on his shoulder a moment later.

“Fastest way out of the city,” Itachi asks, using hand gestures to help his breathless request. The crow caws and takes off, and Itachi leads the way out of town mostly by listening to the crows, rather than by sight; his eyes are too tired.

“You overdid it, Itachi-san,” Kisame says as they finally board a train out in one of the suburbs.

Itachi feels the tingle of his Sharingan fade away even as his partner says it, and nods.

“May I ask what that was, Itachi-san?” Kisame wants to know a few minutes later after their train has pulled out of the station, heading towards the border of River Country. Itachi pauses for a moment, still catching his breath.

“Amaterasu,” he says at last. “Part of the Mangekyou.” He has explained some aspects of the Sharingan to his partner, mostly those things that are visible enough for Kisame to ask about.

His partner nods, seemingly satisfied for now, and Itachi gratefully lets his dark, tired eyes slide shut. Trusting that Kisame will watch for any trouble, Itachi lets himself sleep. In the last moment before darkness covers his mind, though, he allows himself the smallest of satisfied smiles.

That ought to be sufficient to remind Danzo what will happen to him should he lay so much as a finger on Uchiha Sasuke.

~~~

Chapter Text

47

“Itachi,” Madara says, and Itachi stops. They are deep inside the cavernous building that makes up Akatsuki’s headquarters, so he has his Sharingan out in order to help make his way through the darkened halls. (Akatsuki’s apparent position on lighting is that if you can’t get along without it, then you shouldn’t be part of the organization.)

He turns to look back at the older (if some of his suspicions are correct, much older) man. He waits.

“It’s a somewhat unorthodox way of looking after your brother, isn’t it? Torturing him?” Madara’s voice from behind his mask sounds amused.

Itachi keeps his face impassive, hiding his sudden alarm that Madara seems to have figured out at least part of his motivation, and shrugs. The man might just be fishing for a reaction, and Itachi doesn’t intend to give away more than he has to.

“He must be stronger if he is to be worth anything,” he explains simply.

“True,” Madara agrees. “But why just him? What about the rest of your family?”

Itachi doesn’t have to fake the hint of scorn in his voice, or the hate that flashes in his eyes. “The family? My mother is soft-hearted, my father is a fool and the rest of them are weak. Shisui had potential, but even he didn’t measure up, in the end.”

Silently, he offers Shisui an apology.

“But there is still time to see whether or not Sasuke will?” Madara finishes for him. Itachi nods, still impassive.

“Well, he is your younger brother,” Madara allows, turning away. “I will leave it up to you to deal with him as you see fit.”

Itachi closes his eyes in acknowledgment, holding back the sudden flash of anger and worry those words spark. It will be better for Madara if he does not interfere, for Itachi will not tolerate that even if his chances of winning against the other man are not good.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem as though it will come to that. He goes on his way.

~~~

48

Itachi accepts the reprimand for their impromptu trip to Konoha from Pain. It is mitigated by the useful information they came back with, and Pain sends them north again for their next assignment, this time to Earth Country, clearly intending to keep them well away from Konoha for awhile.

That suits Itachi just fine.

He reads most of the way north. It is a book about sharks, since Itachi still has a number of questions about them, and this seems like a more efficient way to get the basics than asking his partner everything. He finishes on the train, but keeps the book, and later that day puts it on Kisame’s bed after they have settled into their latest hotel room. Kisame smiles when he sees it, and spends most of his time reading it over the next couple of days when they aren’t out observing the local gangs.

“I didn’t know there were sharks that live in freshwater,” Itachi says over dinner the day Kisame finishes the book.

The blue-haired man nods, his eyes lighting up as they always do when he speaks of his companions. “Yes. The bull sharks can live well upstream in some rivers,” he explains, “although the rivers are a little too cold for them this far north. Next time we go south, I’ll take you to see them.”

Itachi nods, and eats a little more of his fish. His partner has surprisingly good taste in restaurants, so Itachi usually lets him choose where they will eat and is rarely disappointed with the results.

“It must be hard,” Itachi says then, thinking about what Kisame had said, “being so far away from them all the time.”

Kisame looks at him, and then shrugs slightly. He eats his crab, seeming thoughtful.

“It would be nice to see them more,” he admits, “but they wouldn’t ever be companions the same way your crows are. They aren’t that intelligent, for a start, and they could only really be of help to me in a fight.” The thought seems to please him, because Kisame grins then.

“They would be useful for that,” Itachi says, remember the long, powerful body and sharply jagged teeth of the tiger shark who came to greet them when they visited the ocean.

“Yes, but we rarely fight near a river, much less the ocean.”

Itachi nods. He allows himself a brief moment to imagine Danzo, and maybe Orochimaru, in the ocean, the tiger shark circling them, her sharp-toothed grin decidedly unfriendly.

It is a pleasant image, but a fantasy only. Neither man would be stupid enough to fall into such a trap. Unfortunately.

“And I think I would be the only one who would be particularly happy if land sharks existed,” Kisame adds then, taking a drink of his tea.

Itachi has a sudden vision of the two of them standing back in an alley as a group of thugs huddle together in terror inside a circle of shark fins that slide easily through the pavement around them.

He feels his lips twitch up in amusement.

Kisame is grinning at him over the teacup. Itachi composes himself, and returns to his dinner.

He adds softly, “But it would make our jobs much easier.”

Kisame laughs, and they finish their dinner in companionable silence.

~~~

49

Itachi is relieved when Sasuke’s cast comes off. He made sure to break the wrist cleanly, so there was no reason for it not to heal well, but he still worried. Better if he hadn’t had to do it, of course, but he must remain a villain in Sasuke’s mind.

His brother is now back at work, though, and doing well as far as Itachi can discover.

So, Itachi takes a slow breath and puts his worry aside. Then, he determinedly goes back to his search for information on Orochimaru’s whereabouts.

~~~

50

Itachi, fingers hovering over his keyboard, looks at Kisame, who shakes his head.

“I don’t think this group is one we should contact,” the taller man says. “They’re pretty powerful around here, but I’m not sure it will last.”

“The leader is too unstable,” Itachi agrees, and finishes their latest report for Pain with that as their final assessment of the gang they had been observing this time. He reads the whole thing one more time, and then sends it.

“Done,” he tells Kisame, already pulling up websites to check the whereabouts of various enemies. He has checked them twice already today, but thinks that there’s no harm in being careful. Things have been quiet lately.

Itachi doesn’t like it when things are too quiet.

The last time things were too quiet, Shisui was late.

Itachi swallows, and pushes the thought away. He has work to do, and no time for-

“There’s a festival in one of the little towns north of here,” Kisame says then, seemingly out of the blue. Itachi looks at his partner, blinking in confusion. He can only assume it is meant as a suggestion for where they should go next, but why would Kisame be interested in a village festival?

“It’s a celebration for the spirit of their main shrine,” Kisame elaborates upon seeing his confusion, “a crow spirit.”

Itachi blinks again, this time in surprise.

“Would you like to go?” Kisame asks, seeming amused by his shock.

Itachi blinks again. He does want to go. He…

Abruptly, he rises from his seat and goes to stand at the window, a slight frown creasing his forehead. Part of him is whispering that he should be suspicious of this, of any attempt Kisame makes to be nice, to take notice of Itachi’s interests. He must remember that the man is reporting back to Madara, and Itachi can’t risk him learning anything that might reveal the truth about why he is here. It is still much too early.

He thinks back carefully over his interactions with Hoshigaki Kisame during the two years that he has now been with Akatsuki. Even the cold, ever-watchful part of his mind, though, has a difficult time finding anything truly suspicious in any of Kisame’s actions. The man can be, despite his appearance and background, a sociable person, and it makes perfect sense that he would want to “get along” with the person he spends nearly all of his time with.

It is not as though either of them interact with other people, really, save the most casual things involved with daily life.

Kisame has rarely asked about things that Itachi wouldn’t want to share, and has never pushed even when he did ask, seeming satisfied with whatever answers Itachi was willing to give.

“If it would make you feel better about it, Itachi-san, there is a shark festival on one of the southern islands in the spring that I’d like to go to,” Kisame says, seeming to think that he has given his partner a long enough moment to think.

Itachi turns around again, to find the blue-haired man giving him a somewhat wry grin.

Itachi doesn’t bother asking if Kisame minds going north to this little festival, since clearly he does not. All he had to do was not mention it, if he really didn’t want to go.

Itachi looks at his partner for another moment, and then slowly nods. He does not let go of his suspicions (it is imperative that he remain vigilant), but neither does he let them rule him entirely. On balance, the evidence does not suggest that it is dangerous to do this; Kisame already knows of his connection with the crows, so it is not as though he is providing the other man with new information.

He nods again, this time with more certainty, and says “Please,” quietly.

It is Kisame’s turn to look surprised then, but he hides it quickly with another grin.

Later that day, they go north for the crow spirit festival.

~~~

51

Digging up information about Root is both difficult and dangerous, and Itachi can only do so slowly when he can do it at all. He does know for certain that the ranks of Root have swelled over the past couple of years, growing more quickly than they seem to have in the past.

Finding information about the Hyuuga is also difficult, but significantly less dangerous than finding out about Root.

It has been a year since Itachi’s brief return to Konoha, and he hasn’t seen so much as a hair of any Root agent since, which means that his plan to scare Danzo in order to keep him in line must have succeeded. The truce will not last forever, though. Danzo will not be stupid enough to touch Sasuke, but Itachi has no guarantees of his own safety…and if he dies, Sasuke will no longer be safe either.

So, Root will come after him again, because Danzo cannot afford to let him live, for a growing number of reasons. Itachi suspects it will be the Hyuuga agent again, and this time he needs to be better prepared.

The Hyuuga’s special eye ability is indeed called the Byakugan, and after many months of digging through old manuscripts and stories that are more than half legend, Itachi thinks he understands the basics of how it works. It sees life force as the Sharingan does, but to a much greater extent. It grants both distance and detail vision to any who possess it, and also a nearly three hundred and sixty degree field of sight.

“Nearly,” of course, means that there is a blind spot, but it will be small and difficult to locate. How specifically the Byakugan does any of this, and what other possible ways exist to defeat it, Itachi is unable to discover.

His search for information about the specific Hyuuga he encountered two years previously is much more fruitful. Hyuuga Neji is the son of one of the family’s secondary houses, and by all accounts a genius in his own right. He is also one of only two Hyuuga currently known to have the Byakugan.

The other is his younger female cousin, Hinata, the eldest daughter of the Hyuuga main house.

A younger female cousin, of whom Neji is said to be extremely protective.

That, as Itachi knows only too well, can be powerful motivation to do things one might not otherwise have done, such as joining Akatsuki…or Root.

The implied knowledge that Danzo has taken to blackmail in order to secure more agents is nearly as helpful as the knowledge of Hyuuga Neji’s likely motivations, even if Itachi doesn’t yet know how he will use it.

~~~

52

“Well, it looks like we’ll have to spend today down by the river for this one,” Kisame says, reading through the preliminary information they’ve gathered about their latest mission. “This gang seems to have dug into the riverbank and some of the sewers in the vicinity for their hideout. I don’t envy them the smell in summer.”

Itachi realizes that his heart rate has jumped, and it is suddenly a fight to keep his breathing calm even though he is sitting down. He frowns at the physical reaction, staring at his own computer screen.

He doesn’t want to go down to the river.

“They have a secondary hideout on the other side of the city,” he points out, “I’ll watch that one.”

Kisame turns to him with a slight frown. “We can observe that one tomorrow, Itachi-san. The Sharingan will be helpful by the river, it’s always much easier for you to get a headcount-”

“I will watch the secondary hideout,” Itachi says again, his tone soft and brooking no argument.

Kisame is still frowning at him, but he correctly decides that it’s better not to push his partner just now.

“All right, Itachi-san,” he sighs, “but we’re going to need that headcount eventually.”

The blue-haired man is right, Itachi knows. They will get the headcount, but not until after he has figured out a way to do it without going down to the river himself.

Shisui’s face floats in his mind, and it is a long time before Itachi’s breathing and heartbeat return to normal.

~~~

Chapter Text

53

It is a clear, bitterly cold day in northern Earth Country, and the streets are mostly deserted as afternoon begins to fall into evening.

Itachi, layered and hunched against the cold, is returning from a fruitless afternoon spent attempting to locate a killer who has been stalking the city’s streets. The man is unfortunately clever and the police have so far had little luck in attempting to find him. Itachi has been searching for him as well, knowing that he could tip off the police to the killer’s whereabouts, and if necessary even keep the man pinned down until they came.

Today is just too cold, though, and the man has gone to ground like everyone else. Itachi doesn’t call on the crows for help, either, not wanting to pull them away from their roosts where they could huddle for a little extra warmth.

A few cars rush past him, their drivers anxious to reach their destinations before darkness falls. Itachi tucks his arms inside his coat, resigned to the fact that he has wandered too far afield today. He will undoubtedly be late for dinner.

Several blocks further on, he comes around a corner and sees a small bundle of midnight black feathers crumpled in the street.

Scarcely remembering to check for cars, Itachi dashes into the road and gathers up the dark body, sadness gripping his chest. Young crows are especially prone to being hit by cars, and Itachi takes this one and gets off the road quickly. He can at least leave the body where its flock can find-

The young bird makes a weak noise, and Itachi stares in breathless shock for a long moment before quickly undoing his coat and cradling the bird to his chest, fastening the coat over it.

The crow is still alive!

It couldn’t have been hit much more than a few minutes before he came around the corner, or the cold would already have finished it off. He knows that its chances of surviving the night, half-frozen and with what looks like a broken wing, are slim, but Itachi is determined to try. He settles into a fast, smooth walk, trying not to jolt the injured crow, and hurries back, the cold mostly forgotten.

He and Kisame, in the middle of a three-month stay, have gotten a short-term apartment this time, rather than staying in a hotel for so long. Itachi comes in, almost fumbling with the key in his haste, and says “Kisame, I need towels and the first aid kit.”

This gets him a raised eyebrow and a quick, clinical once-over from his partner. “Are you hurt, Itachi-san?”

“Not me,” Itachi says, already grabbing his computer and moving into their small kitchen. He opens it and then alternates between typing one-handed and getting his coat open, still cradling the young crow in his other arm.

Kisame says something as he appears at Itachi’s side with the requested items. Itachi, too focused to care about anything else, ignores him. He quickly scans the instructions he has found, and rattles off another couple of things to Kisame. His partner sighs but obeys, and Itachi is unable to spare him more attention than that.

He sets the crow carefully on the table, now reading the instructions more thoroughly, and takes a deep breath when he finishes. He checks to make sure she is still alive; she is, her heartbeat steady but weak. Kisame has returned, so Itachi begins to instruct him, trusting his partner will do as he asks. He thinks he can do this, but probably not by himself.

It is, Itachi reflects later, not quite as difficult as he thought it might be. Although he has helped his crow friends with minor injuries many times, he has never before attempted something like this. It is a delicate procedure, and he is glad that the crow is still insensate. Even so, it stirs weakly in pain as Itachi moves the wing back into its natural folded position against the body, feeling carefully along it to make sure the bones are where they need to be. After that, it is simply a matter of binding the wing such that the unbroken bone splints the broken one, and then securing the wing to the bird’s body so that it won’t be moved around.

After he is done with that, it is important to finish getting the crow warm again. It is a female, probably hatched the year before. Itachi builds her a nest of towels and puts her on the side of the bedroom closer to the heater. It is closer to Kisame’s bed than his own (the taller man dislikes the cold and doesn’t deal with it as well as Itachi), but it is more important right now that she be warm. Itachi also leaves her a dish of water, close enough that she might drink without moving much at all.

The website seems to indicate that many birds recover from this sort of injury when they are helped quickly, but Itachi is not sure how the day’s bitter cold might affect her chances. He also knows that he has little with which to help her should an infection set in.

Itachi doesn’t eat anything for dinner, finding he is not hungry, and sleeps fitfully that night, rising often to check on her. He uses the Sharingan so as not to disturb Kisame with the lights, and each time is relieved to find her life-fire still burning darkly within her. It burns weakly, but it is there.

She survives the night.

That is not a guarantee, but to Itachi it feels like an important obstacle overcome.

She is awake more the following day, and definitely in pain. Itachi can do nothing about that for her, and it makes him pace in helpless frustration. But she manages to drink her water, and then sleeps again.

When she is still alive and at least no worse by the second morning, Itachi begins to allow himself a tiny bit of hope.

He sits with her a lot over the next few days, sometimes stroking her head very gently, and talking softly to her from time to time. She stirs a little in her nest, and chitters softly back at him, seeming not to mind the soft petting.

Slowly, she heals.

Over the next few days, even the apprehensive look in Kisame’s eyes begins to fade, and Itachi’s appetite returns. He still wakes often to check on her, but he finds that he can at least sleep peacefully in between those times.

She gets livelier in the second week, voicing her dislike of being confined to the nest, and cawing with pleasure when Itachi carefully lifts her out. She learns to balance with one wing bound after only a few stumbling attempts, and after that seems content to pace around the apartment after Itachi.

By the end of that second week even Kisame is feeding her scraps of food, and Itachi has decided that he will call her Whitewing. She has two thin bands of white feathers along the front edge of each wing. It is an unusual and distinctive marking, and Itachi thinks the contrast with her otherwise coal-black feathers is a nice one.

He starts teaching Whitewing some of his verbal commands and hand signals in an effort to keep her occupied while her wing finishes healing. She picks them up fairly quickly, so he moves on and uses his picture-file to introduce her to both allies’ and enemies’ faces.

At the end of the third week he unwraps her wing, and then takes her outside to see how she is doing. Although it is clear that her flight skills are rusty, her movements are overall smooth and without pain, so he suspects that she will just need some time to rebuild her strength. She has been well fed for these three weeks, at least, so she is as healthy as she can be.

By the end of the afternoon she is circling him easily, and caws a goodbye before winging off in the direction of the local flock’s roosts. Itachi sighs a little to see her go, but suspects that she will be back, so he does not let himself feel sad as he returns to the apartment.

“Is she doing okay?” Kisame asks, seeing that Whitewing is not with him.

“Yes,” Itachi says, “she has gone to spend the night with her flock.”

“I would have stayed in here,” his partner grumbles, “it’s warmer.”

Itachi feels the corner of his mouth twitch up slightly. He finds it amusing that his larger partner seems to feel these northern temperatures rather more keenly than he does.

“Their feathers are more insulating than you might suspect,” Itachi explains.

Kisame nods, mostly absorbed in something on his computer. “I’m going to see if Pain will let us go south when we’re done here,” he mutters.
Itachi turns to his own computer, and almost smiles.

~~~

54

They are stuck in this northern city of Earth Country for another three weeks.

Itachi sees Whitewing and all of her flock again, and in the end they do help him track down the killer he has been searching for. The police react well to his tip, fortunately, not alerting the killer to their presence until it is too late for him to escape, so no further involvement on Itachi’s part is necessary. He and the crows watch from the cover of a nearby rooftop as the man is taken away, and Itachi feels fierce satisfaction.

It may not be much, the things he is doing – just a call here, a well-placed obstruction or a well-thrown rock there – but the results are not insignificant.
On nights like these, he sleeps a little better.

By the end of their last three weeks here they have heard from Pain that they will have more than a month until their next assignment picks up, and that it will be south along the coast again. Kisame’s mood improves dramatically, and Itachi feels his own mood lighten as well.

There is only one unanswered question that might dampen it, and he has the answer to that early the next morning as they leave the apartment building for the last time.

The murder of crows is waiting for them, waiting for Itachi, and Whitewing glides down from a telephone pole to perch easily on his left shoulder. The familiar weight there makes Itachi close his eyes briefly against a wave of strong emotion, but he is calm by the time he opens them again. Whitewing scolds him peremptorily, making Kisame chuckle and Itachi duck his head a little to hide another wave of emotion, this one much more positive.

Whitewing calls goodbye to her flock and they call back, and she then ruffles her feathers once before settling with every evidence of satisfaction.

Kaw,” she says then, as if meaning, “Well? Why aren’t we going yet?”

Itachi presses his lips together against a smile, and the three of them make their way to station.

~~~

55

They go south, well south even of Water Country to one of the small islands that truly is tropical, so that even though it is late winter the temperatures are hot and the sun beats down strongly.

Both of them discard their coats for the duration, and Itachi takes to covering himself with sunscreen. It is messy and somewhat unpleasant, but far better than the angry red burns he will otherwise suffer. Kisame does not cover himself with sunscreen and somehow manages not to burn anyway, his skin darkening towards a shade that is more blue than brown.

They go swimming with the sharks, and Itachi and Whitewing visit with the local crows, a small and very intelligent species. He and Kisame also spend an inordinate amount of time just sitting on the beach not doing much of anything, which bothers Itachi less than he thought it would. It helps that the little cottage they are renting is right there on the beach. The beach itself is not deserted by any means, for there are many such cottages along this stretch of the coast, but neither is it particularly crowded.

One afternoon, Itachi puts his latest book aside and draws his knees up so he can rest his chin on them. He lets his eyes drift closed, just listening to the soothing, rhythmic crash of the surf breaking a couple of meters away. He is warm, and calm, and the closest to relaxed that he has been in a long time.

Wing beats in the warm air warn him, so there isn’t even a break in his breathing as Whitewing lands on his shoulder. He reaches up one hand to stroke her slowly, not bothering to open his eyes. The young crow chatters quietly to him for a little while, presumably speaking of her forays into the jungle. Eventually, she nudges his hand away and shifts around on his shoulder so that she is facing the side of his head. A moment later, she makes a scolding noise and he feels her tug on the tie holding his hair back in its customary ponytail.

Itachi sighs slightly, opening his eyes in time to see Kisame just coming out of the water. His partner’s odd coloring really strikes him in that moment. Shirtless and with the water reflecting up onto his legs and chest, his skin really does look blue, instead of its usual odd shade of pale. His normally spiky blue hair is soaked and lying flat against his skull, so he lifts a hand to shove it back as he comes up the beach towards Itachi.

Whitewing scolds again, and Itachi resumes his interrupted movement to loosen his hair for her.

“Bossy, isn’t she?” Kisame asks, offering both Itachi and the crow a grin and throwing himself down on his half of the large blanket they have spread out on the sand.

“Yes,” Itachi says, content, pulling his hair out of the tie and shaking his head carefully to loosen the thick strands without disturbing Whitewing’s perch. The crow, who has decided that she really must groom his hair once a day, caws softly in satisfaction and sets to work preening him.

Kisame watches the procedure, his face unreadable. “They aren’t much like the stereotypes, are they? The crows.”

Itachi glances at him, then turns back to the ocean. “Pests and scavengers? Well, they are.”

“More than that, too, though.” Kisame has read a couple of books about crows that Itachi left out for him.

Itachi nods. “Yes, they are.” Crows are even seen as bad omens in some places, due to their association with battlefields and death. Itachi won’t deny the association, but he has a hard time understanding how anyone sees crows in a truly negative light.

“It is like the sharks,” he points out, “they aren’t well understood by many people either. Predators, certainly, but not all out to eat every human they see.”

Kisame agrees with a wry smile. “So what does that make us, Itachi-san? With such animals for companions?”

Itachi closes his eyes and tilts his head into the press and slide of Whitewing’s beak. “We are human,” he says, echoing their very first conversation.

“Which doesn’t guarantee that other humans understand us,” Kisame points out, stretching and folding his arms behind his head.

“I thought you, at least, had me figured out,” Itachi says lightly, conceding the point.

Kisame doesn’t answer right away, and then says “Maybe,” in a thoughtful tone.

Itachi’s eyes fly open, and he turns his head sharply to look at the other man, making Whitewing chitter in annoyance.

“I thought I had you figured out,” Kisame agrees, eyes closed, “at first. Now, I’m not so sure.”

The blue-haired man cracks one eye then, but fortunately Itachi has managed to get his expression under control. He regards his partner with an impassive dark gaze for a moment, and then turns back to the sea, resting his chin on his knees. He reaches up to pet Whitewing again, unsettled.

Kisame lets out a breath of laughter and resettles himself. “You’re different, Itachi-san, so it’s interesting to try and figure you out. But you don’t need me to tell you that.”

“No,” Itachi whispers.

“Well, life might be more interesting if you don’t have everything figured out,” Kisame concludes, and then yawns. “Wake me when it’s time for dinner?”

Itachi nods. Kisame drops off a moment later, his breath evening out.

Itachi sits silently, his hair falling around his face even long after Whitewing has finished and taken off.

He has never made the mistake that some make of underestimating Hoshigaki Kisame’s intelligence. He does seem to have underestimated Kisame’s level of interest in Itachi himself.

He watches the ocean, and contemplates what it might mean for him to have his partner actually trying to “figure him out.”

None of the outcomes he can see seem to bode well.

~~~

56

“Mother, can I talk with you?”

“Of course, dear. What is it?”

“On the night Ita- on the night he left, how badly did he hurt you? …sorry.”

“No, Sasuke, it’s all right. He didn’t really hurt me, not physically. He knocked me unconscious, of course, but so quickly that I didn’t realize what happened until I woke up later in the bedroom. Sasuke! Goodness, what did you think happened? You know I didn’t go to the hospital.”

“…nothing. I know. I just…just wanted to check.”

“Why did you think he hurt me?”

“No reason.”

“…all right. If you’re sure. Are you well, dear? I know it still upsets you, but….”

“Yes, Mother, I’m fine. Thanks.”

~~~

Chapter Text

57

Autumn comes around again, a little more than two years after Itachi’s warning visit to Konoha, and at last Itachi sees the hawks again. They are Dusky Hawks, he now knows, dark brown birds with keen eyes and wickedly sharp talons.

The local crows kick up a fuss, immediately beginning to gather and cawing loud hawk warnings. Itachi quickly sends Whitewing to join them, with strict instructions (to whatever degree she understands them) that she is to stay with the flock and harass the hawks from a safe distance, not to engage them herself. She is too young and too small to stand a chance in such a fight.

This time, Itachi does not wait for the Root agent to find him. Instead, he goes hunting. This time, he is prepared.

They meet again in an empty lot, with a storm of crows and hawks overhead, and this time the Hyuuga doesn’t bother trying to ambush him. He steps openly into the lot, the veins around his eyes already standing out to show that his Byakugan is activated. Itachi has been standing with his eyes closed, but opens them now to reveal the black-and-crimson of the Sharingan. They meet each other’s eyes silently.

In the next moment, they launch themselves into battle. It is even faster and more furious than the first time, for Itachi is uninjured and has an old grief in his heart, and the Hyuuga has experience against him now…and they both have too much to lose.

They engage in a chase around the empty lot and surrounding alleyways. Itachi keeps his distance and makes it a game of knife-throwing when he can, for he is faster at that. The Hyuuga keeps the combat close whenever he can, for he is faster in that short-range, immediate flurry of blows.

After nearly half an hour of this, the Hyuuga catches him in a narrow alley. Itachi lets fly another volley of knives, but his opponent dodges them with ease and catches up to him before he can get out of the alley again.

The Sharingan allows him to keep up with the blows as they come towards him, the other man’s hands striking fast and hard like claws. But as the exchange goes on, Itachi finds that even though his eyes can follow his opponent’s moves, it is harder and harder to make his body move fast enough to counter them…

He slips. The Hyuuga’s eyes narrow as he hits two pressure points in Itachi’s arm and one in his neck, further slowing him. This is followed by an expertly aimed blow with his left palm that neatly dislocates Itachi’s right shoulder.

Itachi’s eyes go wide as he flies back into the concrete wall of the building behind him. He drops down into a defensive crouch, teeth grit against the agonizing pain in his shoulder. He manages to throw more knives with his left hand as the Root agent approaches, but of course it is useless. Hyuuga Neji allows himself a small smirk as he approaches, drawing a larger knife from the back of his belt.

Then he freezes, white eyes flying wide in shock, when the barrel of a gun is pressed to the back of his head.

Itachi, slumped against the wall, smirks…and dissolves into a murder of crows that caw victoriously as they scatter and fly away.

Itachi, standing behind Hyuuga Neji and holding a gun to his head, says “Careful.”

Then, he pulls the trigger.

Itachi allows the illusion to collapse in that instant.

He and the Hyuuga stand just as they were when their eyes first met; barely a minute has passed. Itachi watches as his opponent slowly sinks to his knees, gasping, struggling with the exertion of a fight and the shock of a death that didn’t actually happen. He had not been entirely sure that an illusion would work, given what the Byakugan does, but apparently the power of Tsukuyomi and the illusion’s initial injunction that the Hyuuga should see what he expected to see were enough.

Itachi watches, expressionless, as the Root agent slowly gets back to his feet, anger and horror warring on his face.

“You…” he starts, voice hoarse.

Itachi answers with a barrage of thrown knives, carefully calculated to drive the Hyuuga just four paces to his left, where there is a conveniently placed streetlight just behind him. Hidden amongst the last of the knives, Itachi throws a single blade to ricochet off the metal pole at the precise angle necessary to send it directly into where he has calculated the Byakugan’s blind spot must be.

He is right.

He is also not surprised when his opponent collapses a moment later. The shock of an actual wound in such an unexpected place is too much on top of the toll Tsukuyomi took. The wound will be painful, but isn’t too deep, so if the Hyuuga is half as strong and competent as he seems, then he should live.

Itachi leaves him there. He walks away, unscathed but feeling tired, and is relieved when Whitewing joins him. She is still indignant at the presence of the hawks, but uninjured. Itachi spares a last glance back at the Hyuuga before turning down an alley, and sees the two larger birds spiraling down to their human. He allows himself a brief moment of sympathy for the other man.

He knows all too well the lengths necessary to protect someone from Danzo, after all.

~~~

58

“Kisame,” Itachi asks one day as they are walking to a train station, “what is your ability?”

His fight with the Hyuuga had finally helped to click into place for him the fact that companionship with some type of animal seems to go together with one of these strange special abilities, like the Sharingan and the Byakugan. He has never seen Kisame do anything to indicate that he has such an ability, but his friendship with the sharks implies that he does.

His partner’s looks are a bit more shark-like than is quite normal, of course. He has assumed that this is an affectation on Kisame’s part; teeth-filing and hair dye would explain it. But he has essentially been living with Kisame for the past four years, and has never once seen any indication of hair dye either in the other man’s possessions or in any of the places they have stayed.

Inconclusive proof, Itachi decides.

“My ability?” Kisame asks, looking vaguely surprised. Itachi nods. He will not press, of course, but he is curious. His partner raises a hand to his mouth, and bites carefully at one of his fingers, then holds that hand out towards Itachi. Itachi blinks at the small wound, blood welling along a thin slice, wondering what this has to do with it.

Then, slowly but visibly, the cut begins to close itself.

Itachi blinks again, and watches with fascination as the blood is reabsorbed and the skin knits itself back together, leaving Kisame’s finger unmarred again in short order.

“That and stamina,” the blue-haired man says.

“Useful,” Itachi comments a moment later, after thinking it over.

“Yes,” his partner agrees. “Not as flashy as yours, Itachi-san. But definitely useful.”

Itachi doesn’t dignify that with a reply. This is a helpful realization, however. It means that anyone who has a confirmed connection with an animal will almost certainly have a special ability, and vice versa.

He has to close his eyes for a moment as he realizes that he never knew which animal Shisui had bonded with.

Then, he wonders about Sasuke. He can’t recall seeing his little brother with any animal in particular throughout their childhood, but he clearly has the Sharingan, so he must have-

A brief flash of memory, Sasuke crouched in a hidden corner of the yard, something small and thin and dark sliding out of his hands and away into the shadows as Itachi approached.

Snakes, Itachi realizes as he recalls a couple of other similar incidents. Sasuke’s affinity must be with snakes. Smaller snakes, though, garden snakes and similar kinds. Itachi is fairly certain he and their parents would have been aware had Sasuke been keeping company with the kind of large constrictors that Orochimaru seems to favor.

He is not sure how he feels about that.

Itachi wonders why he didn’t notice before, why Sasuke never kept a companion closer. It would have been difficult, of course, but not impossible. Whitewing chooses that moment to swoop in and land on his shoulder, and Itachi realizes that the presence of his own crow companions might well have kept many snakes away from the house, and Sasuke might not have been willing to risk calling them.

It also occurs to Itachi that snakes do not have to be large to be dangerous.

When they get to their next destination, he decides, he will go to a bookstore, and find some books about snakes.

~~~

59

In the spring, Sasuke earns his badge.

One of his brother’s friends keeps a blog which Itachi follows. He has learned rather more about the young woman’s pet slugs (a gift from a nursing school mentor) than he really cares to know, but she also speaks of her friends, including Sasuke, with some regularity. This time, she conveniently posts pictures. He spends the next couple of hours looking at them, especially the one of Sasuke in his dress uniform, thinking fondly that his little brother wears it well.

He is torn between pride and worry, for if their father intends to draw Sasuke into his idiotically renewed conspiracy, now is when he will do so.

Itachi hopes that he will not.

He saves the picture of Sasuke in uniform and two others, both as reminders of why he is here and not there. The first is a shot of the moment where Fugaku pinned the badge to Sasuke’s chest. Both of their eyes are shadowed, and it is clear that they are thinking about Itachi.

The second picture is of Sasuke after the ceremony, standing with Uzumaki Naruto and the pink-haired young woman, who is called Haruno Sakura, their arms slung around his shoulders. It is these two who have been his close friends since high school, and this is the only picture of Sasuke from the whole batch in which his eyes do not appear to be shadowed with unpleasant thoughts. “Exasperated” is the only good word to describe his expression, but it is clearly fond and Itachi can see a hint of his brother’s smile underneath it.

Someday, Itachi thinks, he would like to thank Sakura for her blog, although she would likely be horrified to know that he reads it.

He looks at the pictures one more time before closing the files and putting his computer away. They are definitely a good reminder.

~~~

60

The following spring finds them in the capital city of Grass Country. It is a reasonably nice city, but Itachi’s enjoyment of it has been overshadowed by the presence of another serial killer…one that the police here seem unable or unwilling to catch.

The man has claimed a new victim every fourth night like clockwork for the past three weeks, and the pattern combined with multiple anonymous tips that Itachi has given them should have been more than enough to apprehend him. He is more intelligent than many criminals, but also arrogant, and Itachi has assumed that the police will take advantage of that and do their job.

Now, it is the fourth night since the last killing, and Itachi’s last night in this city, and nothing has been done.

Itachi has not quite been able to determine what position this man holds in the government here that makes the law so unwilling to touch him even though he is committing murder.

Itachi doesn’t care.

He lies awake and stares at the ceiling with red eyes. The dead have been in his dreams for a week now, and he has not been sleeping.

Tonight, he is not even trying. Soon another teenager, another boy or girl, will be snatched, sexually assaulted, and strangled.

Tonight, he doesn’t want to sleep. He wants to do something.

Itachi has never yet taken the law into his own hands. In the four or so years he has been doing his “vigilante” work, he has never really done anything that any other concerned citizen couldn’t or shouldn’t have done.

He has also never yet found any police force either unable or unwilling to do their part for so serious a crime. Until now.

Itachi listens for a moment to make sure that Kisame is asleep, then gets up and dresses. He puts on his coat and then, after a moment’s hesitation, gets out a mask that he once bought at a small village festival: the stylized face of a crow.

Mask in hand, he goes out.

He makes his way silently through the city and deliberately does not call the crows to him. They would be of help finding the man, of course, but it is late, and Itachi is fairly certain he knows where the killer will be. So tonight, he will work alone.

The newspapers have claimed that the killer is striking “at random” but Itachi has found a pattern to the killer’s chosen locations. It might be a subconscious pattern, but it is nevertheless there, so Itachi knows where he will be tonight.

He is nearly there and everything is quiet…until he hears the sound of familiar footsteps behind him.

Itachi stops.

Kisame comes forward a little more, and then also stops. Itachi turns around and looks at his partner with red eyes.

“Don’t interfere, Kisame,” he warns softly.

“What is it that I would be interfering with, Itachi-san?” Kisame’s voice is light, but his expression is wary.

Itachi feels his free hand clench into a fist, and narrows his eyes. Something in his mind warns that he should not let Kisame find out about this. Another part warns that he also cannot risk a fight with his partner.

The rest of him knows that this is not something he can walk away from.

In the end, he says nothing. He holds Kisame’s gaze for another moment, then deliberately brings the crow mask up to hide his face. He spins on his heel and continues toward the place he suspects the killer will be lurking.

Kisame follows, but at a distance. He will not interfere, the action says, but he is going to watch.

The man is there, lurking at the edge of a carnival ground. Itachi watches from the shadows as the killer looks with sick hunger at a boy as he says goodnight to his girlfriend, waving as she heads off with others.

The boy, yawning, turns to go home alone.

The killer follows him, and Itachi follows the killer.

He waits for a moment when the boy has gone around the corner of one street but the killer has yet to reach it, and places himself between them. The boy continues on, unaware.

The killer jerks back, startled and angry. “Who are you?” he demands.

Itachi, the crow mask still covering his face, says nothing. He takes a step forward, and the man steps back. Itachi forces him back down the dark, deserted street.

“If you try and arrest me,” the man sneers, covering fear, “then know that your career will be over. Don’t think that mask will save you.”

“I am not here,” Itachi whispers, “to arrest you.”

“Then what are you here fo-”

In his inattention, the man has backed up against a boarded window. Two flicks of a wrist, and knives pin his forearms to the board, the blades going through flesh and sinking deep into the wood. The killer lets out a choked scream, eyes now wide with terror.

“Get away from me!” he demands, struggling, only to scream again as the movement tears his wounds wider. “Get away!”

“I am here,” Itachi whispers, “to kill you.”

He lets Tsukuyomi do its work first, amplifying all the pain and terror of this man’s victims back at him a thousand fold. Itachi doesn’t care to get close enough to the man to strangle him as he did his victims, so he opens the arteries in the man’s wrists instead.

The killer’s horror as he feels his life slowly drain away is sufficient.

Itachi watches with the Sharingan, and for the first time feels nothing but satisfaction as he watches the man’s life force dribble out with his blood.

When it is over, he collects his knives, cleans them, stows them inside his coat, and then starts walking back in the direction of the hotel. He goes four blocks before stopping and removing the mask. Then he waits.

Kisame comes out of a nearby street a moment later and comes to stand a meter away, regarding him with curiosity and continued wariness, though less of that now. Itachi stares straight ahead with red eyes, and does not speak.

“That was the man who has been killing over the past few weeks,” Kisame says, and it is more statement than question. Itachi nods.

“Certainly didn’t seem as though the police were doing much about it,” the blue-haired man goes on, voice calculatedly casual. Itachi nods again.

They stand in tense silence for another moment that feels very long.

Then, Kisame sighs gustily and tucks his hands inside his coat, taking the last two steps so that he is standing next to Itachi. “Well, the world could use fewer sick bastards, so that’s no loss.”

The profanity from Kisame is startling, enough that Itachi turns to look at him. The Sharingan fades from his eyes between blinks, and Kisame shrugs. “Only a sick bastard would feel the need to prey on defenseless kids.” Itachi takes this to mean that the blue-haired man wouldn’t kill them. Whether this is because they aren’t enough of a challenge or because he actually draws a line somewhere, Itachi isn’t sure.

“Can we go back now, Itachi-san?”

Itachi is tempted to snap that he certainly didn’t ask Kisame to come along in the first place, but bites it back and nods. It won’t help, and he is not in a mood to talk.

He doesn’t know whether it is a good thing or not that Kisame asks no questions.

~~~

61

Whatever Kisame does or does not tell Madara about some of Itachi’s more unusual habits, it must not be anything that the true leader of Akatsuki finds too
objectionable. Their day-to-day, and even month-to-month routine remains the same, and Itachi finds that with a role to continue playing and so many threads of his plan to keep track of, time passes quickly.

By fall, he realizes that he has been with Akatsuki for nearly six years.

The only other unusual thing to happen that autumn is that, for the first time that he can remember, Itachi feels unwell. He has a cough that eventually gets bad enough to keep him up at night, and after the second night of that Kisame goes out and returns with a bag from the drugstore that he tosses wordlessly to Itachi.

Itachi frowns at the bottle of cough syrup inside, but decides that he can grant his partner the courtesy of not keeping both of them awake. Kisame is used to sleeping the night through, after all.

So he takes the cough syrup, and after a couple of weeks the cough mostly subsides. Itachi, glad the annoyance is over, doesn’t think about it anymore.

~~~

62

It is July twenty-third. Sasuke is turning twenty-one today.

Itachi wonders what his little brother does for lunch on his birthday now. Does he eat at work? With their parents? With his friends? Alone?

A very small part of Itachi sometimes hopes that it is the latter. Most of the time, though, he hopes that Sasuke eats lunch with his friends.

Itachi does not eat anything at all.

~~~

Chapter Text

63

Orochimaru has been frustratingly hard to track down. In the years since his failed attempt at a power-grab in Konoha he has drifted mostly under the radar, occasionally surfacing somewhere just long enough for Itachi to hear about it before vanishing again. Itachi has dutifully included all such information in reports back to Akatsuki, since he doesn’t particularly care who gets rid of the man, as long as someone does.

He doubts, though, that anyone else in Akatsuki is having any more luck than he is. Given the large snakes the man keeps company with, some of the truly enormous constrictors, Itachi would not have supposed that he could so easily go unnoticed. Just because he doesn’t personally consider Orochimaru much of a threat, however, doesn’t mean that the man isn’t intelligent.

That is why, when he reappears in Konoha a month or so after Sasuke’s twenty-first birthday, Itachi immediately begins to collect as much information as he can about the man’s movements and intentions, and hopes that he can deal with things from outside of Konoha.

He is not sure how he could cover up a second “visit,” if it becomes necessary. He will go, of course, if Sasuke’s life is on the line, but he would rather avoid it if possible.

So when it becomes clear that Orochimaru is still trying to entice his little brother’s attention, Itachi decides that steps must be taken. He will do what he can without going to Konoha first, and leave that as a last resort.

He begins by tracking down Uzumaki Naruto.

~~~

64

“Who’s there?” Naruto asks, peering suspiciously into the shadows of the empty parking garage.

Itachi, watching from behind one of the concrete pillars, waits for a moment, and then slowly steps into view, keeping both of his hands loose at his sides. Whitewing is still and quiet on his shoulder.

The young NIA agent jerks back as he gets a good look at Itachi, face twisting into a scowl as he reaches for a weapon. “Uchiha Itachi!”

Itachi nods, and makes no move for his own knives.

“I don’t know what you want with me, but you’d better stay away! And you’d better stay away from Sasuke, too!”

Itachi tilts his head to one side. “Why is that?”

“Because I’m not gonna let you hurt him again!” Naruto declares, teeth bared.

“Even though you know he wishes to be the one to arrest me?” Itachi asks, curious now.

“Yes,” Naruto says, lowly. “Even though…yes.”

Itachi decides that he has chosen well. If Naruto is willing to risk Sasuke’s anger over this in order to keep his friend safe…yes, he has chosen well.

He closes his eyes in acknowledgment. When he opens them again, he becomes aware of other living things in the parking garage, slinking through the shadows and under the cars, slowly working their way so that they might surround him. He can see none of them directly, but the Sharingan shows him outlines through the dark, glimpses of slender furred bodies, bright eyes and bushy tails.

Interesting.

He doesn’t fear the foxes, but this encounter was not meant to be a prolonged one anyway.

“If you wish to keep Sasuke safe,” he tells Naruto, “then I should not be your concern. There is another danger much closer to home.”

Naruto narrows his sky-blue eyes suspiciously. “What do you mean? And why should I believe you?”

Itachi offers a one-shouldered shrug. “You don’t have to.” The information will be easy enough for Naruto to confirm, should he choose to listen.

“What did you mean, there’s a danger closer to home? Why would you care if Sasuke is in danger?” The young man may be brash and lacking in the subtlety of most field agents (the orange jacket is just a bit conspicuous), but he is clearly not stupid. He is definitely a useful contact, but certainly not someone in whom Itachi can confide.

“Tell my foolish little brother that it is one thing to keep company with serpents, and another to keep company with serpents disguised as men. If he wishes to surpass me, he must avoid the latter.” He lets a crow feather fall to the ground and drifts back towards the pillar as he speaks, vanishing into the shadows again as soon as he has finished.

He does not entirely avoid the eyes of the foxes on his way out of the underground garage, but he takes to the rooftops as soon as he is aboveground. This is his territory, his and the crows’, and he leaves as quickly and silently as he came.

Naruto will take the bait, of course, and pass the message along to Sasuke. It won’t take long for him to confirm that Orochimaru is in Konoha, and then he will likely worry about Sasuke’s interactions with the man just as much as Itachi does.

Uzumaki Naruto was a very good choice indeed.

~~~

65

“Naruto, it’s two in the morning, so this had better be good. Aren’t you out on a mission, anyway?”

“Just got back. Let me in, bastard. I have to ask you something.”

“And it couldn’t wait until, you know, morning? Argh. Idiot. Fine. Come in. …now what is it?”

“Sasuke…are you communicating with Orochimaru?”

“What? …no, of course not. Where would you get that idea?”

“Don’t scowl at me, bastard. And don’t lie, either. I can tell. Why would you talk to that creep?”

“…leave it alone, Naruto.”

“Tell me why!”

“It’s none of your business!”

“It damn well is my business, he’s a wanted criminal! Sasuke, what the hell?”

“Damn it, Naruto…”

“Just talk to me, bastard. I’m not- Just talk to me!”

“…he had information about Itachi. That’s all. I’m through with him anyway. He’s not useful.”

“I should hope not! What info could he have, anyway?”

“He was in Akatsuki when Itachi joined. But that’s not what I need information about, I need to know about when he left Konoha. No one knows anything about it.”

“I know you’re frustrated, Sasuke, but man. Orochimaru? Come on.”

“Shut up. I’ll tell you everything I know about his movements tomorrow. …how did you know he was here and talking with me, anyway?”

“Sasuke…”

“Don’t lie to me, either, because I’ll know. Where’d you get that information?”

“I won’t lie. Look, Sasuke, I kind of…ran into Itachi.”

“You what?? Where? When?”

“Don’t give me your freaky red eyes! Jeez. Two nights ago. He found me, and I couldn’t track him after, so don’t get your panties in a twist. He wanted me to give you a message.”

“…what?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s weird. He didn’t try and kidnap me or anything this time, either.”

What did he say?

“Sasuke, you seriously need to chill. He said to tell his foolish little brother that it’s one thing to keep company with serpents, but another to keep company with serpents disguised as men. If you want to surpass him, you should avoid doing the second thing. Your brother talks really weird, you know that?”

Damn him. How does he always know everything. Does that mean that I was on the right track after all?”

“Sasuke-”

“Why else would he warn me away from Orochimaru, unless Orochimaru can tell me what I want to know?”

“Sasuke-”

“Maybe he’s been holding something back. I knew he was. I knew there was more-”

Sasuke!

“Shut up, dead-last, do want to wake up the whole apartment building?”

“If you’d quit being stupid and listen for a minute, I wouldn’t have to yell! Sasuke, I don’t think he was warning you away from Orochimaru because you’re getting too close to information he doesn’t want you to know.”

“Why else would he say that? What other possible reason could there be?”

“Look, I know this is gonna sound weird, but…I think he’s trying to protect you.”

“…Naruto, that is not funny.”

“I’m not joking! He said I should give you that warning if I…if I wanted to keep you safe.”

“……..you’re sure?”

“Yeah. That’s definitely what he said. But why would he be trying to protect you?”

“I…don’t know. It doesn’t… damn it, none of this makes any sense!

“Sasuke…”

“I have to have more information. I know, I know, not from Orochimaru. I won’t be stupid. Not unless I can confirm that he knows something through another source. But somehow, I need answers.”

“I’ll help however I can, Sasuke. Sakura too.”

“I know. …thanks.”

“Heh. Don’t look so sour about it. What are friends for?”

~~~

66

“You’re squinting again, Itachi-san.”

Itachi blinks, looks up from his book, and frowns slightly at his partner. The movement makes him realize that he has a headache, though, and he closes the book. Sitting back in his chair and closing his eyes helps some, although the headache doesn’t entirely subside.

“Itachi-san, are you having trouble seeing?” Kisame wants to know, and when Itachi opens his dark eyes again, he sees that the other man has turned around in his seat at the desk and is watching him.

Itachi wants to say “No,” and leave it at that…but he suspects that Kisame will know it’s a lie. “I can see fine with the Sharingan,” Itachi replies, which is all that Kisame should care about.

“You’re always over-doing it, Itachi-san,” Kisame sighs, and turns back to his computer.

He frowns at his partner again and says nothing.

“Get some glasses, Itachi-san, then at least you won’t be straining your eyes constantly.”

Itachi’s frown turns into a scowl. Glasses? And broadcast his growing handicap to the whole world? No.

Part of him says that soon he’s not going to have much choice, it will be have the Sharingan all the time, or get glasses. It isn’t just reading that has become difficult, in truth. Distant objects are also beginning to blur around the edges. That isn’t too pronounced yet, and thus far he’s been able to hide that part from Kisame, but the condition of his eyes is not improving.

Itachi is afraid to think about when the deterioration might stop…or if it will stop at all.

He looks down at his book, and then sets it aside. The prospect of reading is suddenly much less appealing than it was just moments ago.

~~~

67

Itachi can see Madara and Pain’s grand plan beginning to take real shape now.

It has been nearly eight years since he joined Akatsuki. In that time, the group has gathered information on, approached and established contact with almost all of the major, and sometimes a few of the minor, gangs in all of the countries that make up this part of the world. For the past year or so, they have then begun the slow process of connecting those gangs to each other across country lines. Akatsuki works as a background mediator in establishing lines of communication, trade for weapons, drugs and information, and in a few cases even “alliances” of a sort. The gangs seem to enjoy being made much of and treated as if they were legitimate organizations in their own right…enough not to realize that for every deal they close, Akatsuki keeps a hand in it.

Such relationships between violent gangs are inherently somewhat unstable anyway, and it would not be hard to spark off a serious conflict if someone were to suddenly disrupt all of those trades and alliances all at once.

Akatsuki will soon be in a position to do just that.

Itachi estimates that it will be another two to three years, but not more than that. Akatsuki is of course helping to keep all of the relationships that it is brokering stable for now, since they need the conflict to happen all at once rather than spread out over months or years. But they won’t manage forever, so it must not be too far down the road.

Itachi spends a couple of weeks fighting off nightmares after he comes to that realization, and the annoying cough (which hasn’t ever quite gone away) worsens for awhile. Gradually, he convinces his subconscious that he is doing what he can, and the bad dreams subside. So does the cough, and he gratefully turns his mind to other things.

He wants to send a message back to the NIA in Konoha, but he has no specific warning to give them, and reluctantly decides after a few days of careful thought that it isn’t worth the risk.

~~~

68

Eventually, Itachi breaks down and buys a pair of glasses.

He won’t risk a trip to an eye doctor, but it is not difficult to find a pair that simply magnify things a little bit, which he finds is sufficient (for now) to help when he reads. He doesn’t like to wear them in public, though, and thus restricts his reading to those times when he can be in a hotel room or apartment.
Kisame, although he grins when he first sees them, does not tease Itachi about them as Itachi had thought he might. Instead his expression (which Itachi can see a little better now) seems a bit relieved.

It strikes Itachi every now and then that he still doesn’t know his partner very well.

“Do you like any fiction?” he asks one day, having just finished a novel. He is sitting cross-legged on his own bed, leaning back against the headboard with his eyes closed, the glasses discarded next to him. He senses Kisame’s shrug.

“Not particularly. Why?”

Itachi offers his own shrug. “You never pick up any when I finish it.”

“There’s enough fiction in real life,” Kisame explains, “I don’t need to go looking for more of it.”

A somewhat odd viewpoint, but after thinking it over for a moment, Itachi thinks that maybe he understands. He himself is perpetuating a fiction for Sasuke, after all.

“True,” he says softly. Then, feeling tired, he shifts down on the bed without opening his eyes, and settles in for a short nap.

~~~

69

Their next mission is unusual, for the instructions are to find the fourth person named on their “persons of interest” list, and attempt to recruit him. If he cannot be recruited, then their orders are to “render him harmless.” Itachi takes that to mean “kill him,” though he supposes Pain might accept other, less drastic measures so long as they do actually leave the target harmless to Akatsuki’s interests.

Their target turns out to be an older man, though he is clearly still a fighter of some kind even though he doesn’t have any affiliations with law enforcement or criminal organizations that Itachi could find.

“I’ll take care of this one, Itachi-san,” Kisame offers before they approach the man.

Itachi frowns, and thinks about it. He doesn’t really like any of this, and doesn’t like what will happen if the old man won’t join them. Sitting back and watching it happen is no better than doing it himself.

None of which changes the fact that he cannot interfere directly with Akatsuki business without revealing his true affiliations.

He is saved the choice when suddenly his breath catches in his lungs and bends him over in an unpleasantly harsh coughing fit. By the time it passes, he is out of breath and can still feel his breath wheezing harshly in his chest, so he nods to Kisame in acquiescence (ignoring the dubious look he always gets from his partner after these coughing fits) and finds a safe perch from which to watch the encounter. The old man seems to be something of a hermit, so they are out in the country for once, a hilly, forested area in Earth Country.

Itachi finds himself a reasonably comfortable seat high up in a nearby tree, and Whitewing perches herself on another branch nearby.

The encounter and even the fight that follows are not particularly engaging, save that the man and his large ape companions are good enough that Kisame actually has a challenge for once and seems to be enjoying himself.

Nothing too out of the ordinary…right up until the very end, when it becomes clear that Kisame is about to win.

Then, the man changes.

Or tries to. The change leaves him vulnerable, and Kisame is quick to step in and rend him unconscious. The man’s body reverts to normal then, but he had gotten far enough to make it clear that he was taking on the shape of an ape, one significantly larger than his companions...an ape in possession of four tails.

A list of nine suddenly takes on much greater significance…as does Uzumaki Naruto’s name in the ninth place. They are all shapeshifters. That alone is an ability Itachi has never seen so much as a hint of anywhere, but it seems clear that they do not shift into normal animals.

They can shift into the great tailed beasts of legend.

Akatsuki’s interest is much clearer now.

So are a number of other things.

Itachi’s mind is still reeling with the new knowledge and the implications when Kisame stops under his tree and looks up.

“Coming, Itachi-san?”

Itachi glances over at the man’s sprawled body, a little surprised when the Sharingan reveals him to still be alive. Of course, with no one to aid him, the man will likely not wake up anyway. Itachi comes down from the tree, and Whitewing swoops down as well, flying ahead of them into the trees.

Kisame offers no explanation for why he didn’t finish off his opponent, and Itachi doesn’t ask, his mind too busy with its new information to care.

He spends the next month trying to confirm whether or not Konoha is aware of Akatsuki’s knowledge of the legendary beasts. He realizes that he may have inadvertently tipped them off himself, by showing interest in Naruto during his brief return.

In the end he decides he will send a warning anyway. He is not sure who knows what about the issue, and this is important.

As always, he keeps the message brief:

Akatsuki knows about the Tails.

~~~

Chapter Text

70

Itachi’s cough gets worse. It has become less frequent, but the fits that he does have are extended, bring up unpleasant-looking phlegm, and leave him gasping for breath. Cough medicine stops being effective.

Kisame frowns every time the coughs wrack his body, and Itachi himself is starting to be concerned, though not yet enough to go to a doctor. He does his best to get more sleep, and eats as much as he can stand, still trusting that his body can mend itself.

Until one morning, when a particularly long and painful fit leaves him doubled over the bathroom sink, staring with wide eyes at phlegm that is now tinged pinkish-red with blood.

Kisame, seeming to sense the stunned nature of his silence, opens the bathroom door after a brisk knock and brief pause. He finds Itachi still bent over, clutching the edges of the counter in a white-knuckled grip. His partner takes one look in the sink and then draws back, his face set. Kisame is not often stubborn about things, but Itachi can tell that this time, he is going to be.

“You’re going to see a doctor,” he says, “today.”

This time, Itachi is not feeling at all stubborn. He nods.

A few hours later, he is sitting in a small, sterile room, waiting for the physician to return and tell him what is going on. He hates the waiting, and hates even more that his life is so completely in someone else’s hands.

/I no longer have a choice,/ he reminds himself grimly.

“Well,” the doctor says, returning at last, “it’s a good thing you didn’t wait any longer to come, or there wouldn’t have been much we could do for you. As it is, you’ll deal with this for the rest of your life.”

“I’m not…dying?” Itachi asks, face blank and eyes wary.

“No,” the doctor says, and explains the disease to him. It is a lung disease, not cancer, but something that can be controlled with medication, though it may never fully go away now that it has advanced to a later stage. “If you take the medications I’m prescribing and take care of yourself, you should be able to live a mostly normal life. I would not suggest taking up any hobbies that involve prolonged, strenuous physical activity.”

Itachi decides that sometimes he fights, which is strenuous but short, or walks a lot, which is prolonged but not strenuous, so he shouldn’t have to change any of those routines. He nods in curt agreement.

“I’m giving you three prescriptions,” the doctor goes on. “Two for the short term, the next four to six weeks. These will fight off the disease itself and also lessen the symptoms so your body can start to mend itself. The third you should get when you have finished the first two, and is to be taken long-term, at least the next two years. It will help fight off any recurrences and should aid your lungs in healing.”

“After two years?” Itachi asks.

The doctor flips through his charts again. “You should see a physician again at that point. The disease is advanced enough that I suspect you will need to be on some medication for the rest of your life, but it is very early in the advanced stage, so perhaps not.”

Itachi digests that for a moment, feeling the worst of the cold knot in his stomach loosen, and nods. Then he says, “Thank you.”

The doctor nods, says “You’re welcome,” and looks as though he would like to say more, but doesn’t.

Itachi is grateful for that too. He doesn’t think there is any doctor who can help him with the things that plague his mind.

He gets his medicine, and goes back to explain to an exasperated and relieved Kisame.

~~~

71

Now that he is looking, Itachi realizes that there is information to be found about the tailed beasts, from the one-tailed tanuki up to the nine-tailed fox.

The legends say that long, long ago the beasts, which caused great destruction in the human world, were sealed into humans with magical techniques long since lost, bound into their body and blood. Ever since that great sealing, the beasts ceased to be individual creatures and exist only within the humans, passed down through long ages, somehow reborn or reawakened in each generation.

Itachi is not able to figure out exactly how this process works, only that it does. It does appear to be related to direct lines of descent, but what happens if those lines are broken is unclear.

Although widespread belief in the beasts and the fact that humans carry them has faded, the law and military establishments of the world have retained just enough knowledge and belief to keep track of the individuals in question. Often they are encouraged to work as law enforcement or military, though some countries are more insistent about this than others. Wind Country has long been harsh with their carriers, Itachi learns. While Fire Country’s treatment of the nine-tailed fox carriers has varied significantly over the years, on the whole they have treated them better than Wind Country. Uzumaki Naruto is the current carrier, seemingly having inherited it from his mother. This may be the reason why he takes her last name rather than his father’s, but Itachi is unsure whether or not Naruto himself knows about the nine-tails.

Detailed descriptions of the powers granted to the humans carrying the remnants of the tailed beasts are scarce and more difficult to find. An affinity with that kind of animal is one thing all the sources agree one, which matches Itachi’s own observations. He does find mentions of shapeshifting abilities, but other than those things and two sources suggesting that each carrier has a physical marking of some kind, Itachi can find little. One source indicates that they may have unnaturally quick and powerful healing abilities, but he can find no other sources to confirm or deny it.

Itachi thinks of Naruto and wonders what kind of powers he has, and whether he knows it or not. He thinks of an old man in the forest, and wonders who the new four-tailed carrier will be. He thinks of Akatsuki, and wonders if they have recruited any of the other carriers to their cause.

He wonders, and has fewer answers than he would like.

~~~

72

Things quiet down some over the next few months. They revisit a lot of old territory, this time to keep an eye on the gangs and Akatsuki’s growing network of alliances to make sure that things run smoothly. This involves more short observations spread out over more time, which still leaves them with time to themselves, but not the ability to take long trips in between assignments.

Still, they find things to fill their free time without too much trouble. Itachi goes to try new tea shops regularly, and sometimes Kisame comes along. The blue-haired man takes a moderate interest in some of the sports played in and amongst the various countries, and occasionally takes Itachi along to see games. They both enjoy the various national level martial arts and fighting tournaments, and watch them whenever they are televised.

Itachi is surprised, sometimes, to realize how much they do have in common despite their differences.

“I’ve never taken you to meet the bull sharks, have I?” Kisame asks one day as they finish up some observation in one of southern River Country’s larger cities.
Itachi’s stride falters for half a second before he catches himself.

“Not yet,” he says, voice carefully betraying no hint of his elevated heart rate and faster breath. His medicine, thankfully, has been of great help, so his breathing is not painful.

“Might as well go today, then,” Kisame says, “it’s nice out.”

Itachi nods. Half a dozen perfectly plausible excuses not to go flash through his mind, but he dismisses them just as quickly. Eventually, he will either have to go or explain why he doesn’t want to, and explaining is out of the question.

Besides, it has been almost nine years. Surely he can manage a brief visit to a river.

They take the train a couple stops out of the city to a place where the river widens out a little and the banks are more open. Kisame chooses a grassy patch of bank to descend, where the edge drops off abruptly into the river, and the water seems deeper even right at the edge. He takes off Samehada and sheds his coat, looking back up to see if Itachi is coming.

Itachi takes deep breaths, the sound of flowing water loud in his ears, and follows his partner down. They are not in Konoha, he reminds himself. This is not the Naka River.

Kisame has taken off his sandals and rolled up his pants by the time Itachi gets to the bottom of the slope, and is now sitting at the river with his feet dangling in, and one hand held under the murky water as well.

“You should probably keep your feet out, Itachi-san,” he says, and looks over his shoulder to grin at Itachi.

Shisui crouches by the river, flicking water at him and grinning when Itachi glares in annoyance.

Closing his eyes, Itachi deliberately strips off his coat.

“They’ll be here soon,” Kisame says as he approaches the water, sitting up and pulling his hand out, though not his feet. The small cut on one of his fingers heals itself. Itachi follows his advice and keeps his own sandal-clad feet clear of the river. His partner either does not notice the hesitance in his movements as he seats himself on the grass, or is choosing not to comment on it. Itachi wonders suddenly if this is a test of some kind, and puts on the blankest face he can, watching the water with red eyes.

He will be able to see the sharks better with the Sharingan, but he knows that his eyes would be red right now even if that weren’t the case. The water flows swiftly under his gaze, murmuring along the bank with a noise that Itachi can’t seem to ignore. He wishes abruptly that he hadn’t taken off his coat. The collar helps to hide his face, and he is cold despite his rapid heartbeat and the summer sun high overhead.

A pair of triangular dorsal fins break the surface of the water several meters out, and make their way in towards the two men, providing a momentary distraction. Itachi’s tongue is heavy, but he swallows and manages to voice his question anyway.

“Do they hunt in pairs?”

“Sometimes,” Kisame replies, leaning over to put his hand in the water again. “Often alone, though, like most sharks.” The bull sharks arrive and the first bumps Kisame’s hand, and then is pushed away by the other. Its face lifts momentarily out of the water, revealing a gaping mouth full of thin, sharp, jagged teeth.

Their bodies are grey with white bellies, Itachi sees before getting distracted by the flow of the river again, the swirl and eddy of water passing along the bank.

“Itachi-san?” Kisame is looking at him with his usual hint of not-quite concern. “Are you feeling all right today?”

“Itachi,” Shisui says, exasperation and concern mingled in his voice, “you’re way too tense. You’re going to make yourself sick, cousin, if you don’t learn to relax.”

“Itachi-san?” Kisame’s hand on his shoulder jolts him back to the present, and Itachi realizes he has been staring at his partner with wide, unseeing eyes.

He jerks away from the touch, turning to face the river again, fighting now to keep his breathing even. He knows that Kisame is frowning at him, but he has no intention of offering an explanation, so his partner will just have to wonder.

“You can touch them if you want,” Kisame says, conceding that he won’t ask, though he clearly wants to. Itachi takes the excuse to return his attention to the sharks, who are still milling around Kisame’s dangling feet. “Just keep your hand away from their heads.”

Kisame himself is obviously not following this advice, but the blue-haired man has greater reason to feel that is safe. One of the sharks has shifted a little bit towards him, its body parallel to the shore with its head up at Kisame’s feet. Itachi, making an effort to focus on why they are here, reaches out to touch the rough-skinned body lurking just beneath the surface of the water.

The roughness of shark skin is just as unexpected and interesting as ever, so Itachi lets his hand move, stroking from the dorsal fin towards the tail. The shark thrashes a little, muscles flexing as cool water flows over Itachi’s hand-

Shisui’s shoulders flex underneath his hands, and Itachi watches with wide eyes as he cousin tries not to struggle even as the last of his air bubbles out from between his lips. He does thrash then, remaining eye screwed shut tightly as his body struggles for air and Shisui struggles against that instinct. It is only Itachi’s hands and strength that keep his head below the surface of the river as his body finally gives in to the inevitable, pulling in water instead of air.

Itachi, still watching with wide red eyes, sees the moment that life leaves his cousin’s body, flowing out thick and black and ugly from his nose and mouth…and abruptly, the body under his cold, inexplicably steady hands is still.

“Itachi-san!”

He comes back to himself to find that he is a full meter from the edge of the water, breath coming fast and shallow, his eyes fixed on the river. His heart is racing, and he is trembling.

Kisame is crouched in front of him, genuine shock clear on his face, obviously trying to decide whether or not it is okay to touch his partner.

Itachi stares at him, aware in a distant corner of his mind that he is revealing too much, sharing a weakness that he shouldn’t have. But the dark things are creeping into his mind again, scattering his thoughts and composure, and the silence has already taken him.

He rises without a word, turning away from his partner and grabbing his coat. He puts it on, hoping that it might stop the shivering. The summer heat does not seem to do anything to help. He climbs the bank without waiting to see if Kisame is following.

Visions swim before his eyes. Shisui’s body sinking down under the water over and over again, unnaturally still, his limbs drifting out at odd angles. Shisui’s pale face under the water becomes Sasuke’s face and then Shisui’s again. His cousin, his brother, his parents, his family, the people of Konoha and a thousand others stand around him, their bodies contorted in death, their empty eyes watching him.

A distant part of him realizes that he has somehow gotten back to the train station and that Kisame has caught him up. The bigger man stays close, but does not speak, merely ushering Itachi out of the train when they are back in the city.

Later, Itachi will feel grateful for it.

Right now he is shivering, and numb. He barely feels Whitewing’s weight on his shoulder when she finds them somewhere between the station and the hotel, chirping quietly with worry and attempting to preen his hair.

Back in the marginal sanctuary of the hotel room, Itachi breathes, and that distant part of him insists that he can’t do this, that he has already revealed too much and that he must try to be himself.

Dark things gibber in the corners of his mind, and he shrinks back. It is safer in the numbness and the silence.

He curls up on the floor in the corner near his bed, and buries his face against Whitewing’s warm, black feathers.

He doesn’t move until the sun comes up the following morning. He wonders, once again, why no tears will come.

~~~

73

The silence keeps a tight hold on him for the next two weeks, and he sleeps only when exhaustion forces his dark eyes shut.

He manages just enough focus to drift without trouble through their assigned work, and to obsessively check over and over his every accessible source that Sasuke remains safe.

He is safe every time Itachi checks, and gradually the dark things begin to retreat into the back, hidden corners of his mind. He can look at the world without Shisui’s shade floating in his vision, and the running water of the sink or shower no longer makes his eyes spin red.

At last, he feels the heaviness leave his tongue, and is greeted by Kisame’s relieved look when he requests dango and tea on the sixteenth day, his voice hoarse with disuse.

“Sure, Itachi-san,” his partner says, turning back to the menu in his hand. He had asked out of routine if there was anything Itachi wanted; he has spoken to Itachi this entire time, except for the first day, and seemed not to care if Itachi wasn’t ready to answer. His relief at finally receiving a reply suggests otherwise, though.

Itachi takes a deep breath, and feels able to look at the world around him with some interest again. He only checks up on Sasuke four times that day, and thinks that by the next day he can probably manage to go back to his usual twice-a-day routine.

It is another month before the nightmares subside enough to let him sleep the night through, but he feels more like his usual approximation of human again.

~~~

74

Itachi is relieved that his warning to Sasuke through Naruto appears to have been effective, because in the year and a half since then he has encountered no further evidence that his little brother is communicating with Orochimaru.

Unfortunately, Orochimaru’s interest in Konoha and the Uchiha has not abated despite this, and no one has managed to catch him yet. He has begun, over the past year or so, to establish his own ties and alliances with the Konoha and other Fire Country gangs, in opposition to whatever Akatsuki has arranged there. Itachi knows far less than he would like about either situation, unfortunately, since he and Kisame have still been kept well clear of Fire Country, but he knows enough to ensure that Sasuke is safe for the time being.

Orochimaru has a base of operations in one of the smaller countries just north of Fire Country, though neither Akatsuki nor any of the national law enforcement agencies have been able to locate it yet. Or rather, they have located several smaller enclaves, but not yet Orochimaru’s main headquarters.

Itachi is frustrated with the seeming inaction, for surely if either Akatsuki or Fire’s agencies were putting any real effort into it, they could have found it by now and dealt with the man. Orochimaru may be content for the moment to keep trying to persuade Sasuke to help him, but Itachi has little doubt that he will turn to force in the end to get what he wants, and unlike Danzo, Itachi has no direct threats to hold over Orochimaru to keep him in line.

Itachi has a feeling, growing in direct proportion with his frustration and worry, that he will have to be the one to deal with Orochimaru in the end.

It is not, he must admit, an entirely displeasing thought.

~~~

Chapter Text

75

The beginning of Itachi’s ninth year with Akatsuki is a cold winter evening in Earth Country’s capital city of Iwa. He and Kisame have drawn the curtains of their hotel room, and flooded the room with warm, yellow lamplight. Kisame is lounging on his bed, reading Itachi’s most recently finished book, and Itachi has commandeered the desk. He sits with his back to his partner, looking through some papers that the crows “rescued” for him the day before. The silence is a comfortable counterpoint to the rising wind outside.

Kisame is almost unusually quiet, in fact, but the book is an interesting one, so Itachi is not surprised.

After a little while, shifting indicates that Kisame has set the book aside and is stretching.

“Itachi-san?” he asks a moment later. Itachi lifts his head a little and tips it to one side to let the other man know he is listening, taking a moment to remove his glasses.

“Why are you still working for the NIA?”

Between that heartbeat and the next, Itachi’s eyes spin red.

He goes utterly still, save for his eyes lifting to stare at the wall in front of him. He has three knives on his person, and many more in his coat on the bed less than a meter behind him. He knows that Samehada is propped against the wall near the head of Kisame’s bed, though the bigger man’s coat is in the little closet near the door. He can certainly throw the three knives he has at hand before Kisame can get to Samehada, and the distraction should be long enough for him to get to his coat. He will have to get Kisame to meet his gaze somehow, though, for he can’t count on winning a straight, physical fight against the larger man. Kisame’s size and strength and fast healing powers are too great an advantage, especially in these close quarters where Itachi cannot utilize his speed. Kisame knows better than to meet his eyes, though, so perhaps he should get out-

“You’re thinking too hard, Itachi-san.” Kisame’s tone is amused, but there is tension underneath the amusement. “Will you at least answer before you try to kill me?”

The beds in this hotel room are squeaky, making it impossible to make any significant movement on them without noise. Itachi has heard nothing since Kisame first spoke, which means that the other man has made no move for Samehada.

His eyes narrow slightly, but the only other movement he makes is to shift the arm farthest from Kisame towards one of his knives.

“Does the answer matter?” he returns, voice low. Then, after another second, he realizes that there is something else. “Why are you asking at all?”

If Kisame knows he is undercover for Konoha’s NIA, then he’s had numerous opportunities to just attack and kill Itachi by surprise. He has let his guard around Kisame down significantly as the years have passed, and the larger man could have killed him before he had a chance to retaliate.

Why give him the warning?

“I don’t really care,” Kisame admits, still making no move for his weapon, “I’m just curious. They have been trying to kill you all this time.”

“Obviously,” Itachi replies, his hand curling around the handle of his knife, but not moving to throw it quite yet. The tension between them is thick, but hasn’t yet reached the breaking point. “My cover would not be very good otherwise.”

“Somehow, Itachi-san, I had the impression that it was more than a matter of keeping your cover.”

He is not inclined to reveal more than is absolutely necessary, even with his cover blown. If he can somehow get out of here-

-but of course, if Kisame knows, then Madara will also know by now. He won’t really be safe anywhere.

“Itachi-san?”

“It was the price I paid,” he whispers, red eyes still staring at the wall, mind still calculating all the ways this fight might go, how he can turn it to his advantage.

There is silence for another long, tense moment, and when it becomes clear that Itachi doesn’t intend to say anything else, Kisame guesses quietly, “To keep someone safe?”

Itachi nods, a fractional dip and lift of his head.

Kisame sighs. “Itachi-san-”

The bed shifts.

Itachi spins in his chair and sends the knife flying in the next breath. Despite the awkward angle, his aim is good, for the blade catches Kisame’s upper right arm…and only after he has the next knife in hand does Itachi realize that the other man was moving to get off the bed on the side away from where Samehada rests against the wall.

Their eyes meet, and Itachi is too surprised to trigger Tsukuyomi, so they end up staring at each other. For a long minute, neither move, both too surprised. Then Kisame grimaces, and reaches up to pull the knife out of his arm. Itachi gets ready to throw his next knife, but the blue-haired man just tosses the bloody weapon away, out of arm’s reach.

“Itachi-san,” he repeats, deliberately meeting Itachi’s eyes again, “I’m not interested in killing you.”

The show of trust leaves Itachi dumbfounded for a long moment. At last, he manages, “Why?”

Kisame looks at him for another moment, and then shrugs. “It doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other.”

Itachi narrows his eyes again, and shifts his grip on the knife. “What have you told Akatsuki?”

The other man meets his eyes again. “I’ve told them that you keep obsessive track of your brother,” he begins listing calmly, not denying that he has passed information to them, “that you keep close company with crows, and frequently suffer from insomnia. I’ve mentioned that you were ill, and that your eyesight has gotten worse, and that you have never refused to do our assigned work, or sabotaged it.”

He stops, and Itachi waits. When he doesn’t go on, Itachi frowns slightly. “That’s all?”

“That’s all.” Kisame’s gaze is steady. “I have not told them about your communications with the NIA, the trouble you have with rivers, or the fact that you like to hunt down criminals in your spare time.”

The three things that Itachi cannot afford to have Madara know, for those are the things that tell where his true loyalties lie. He lets his red eyes bore into Kisame’s, not activating the Mangekyou but looking for any hint of a lie.

He finds none.

Itachi stands up, keeping his hand clenched around his knife, but letting both arms hang at his sides. He looks at Kisame, still sitting on the edge of his bed, and Kisame looks up at him, calm, the wound in his arm already starting to close.

“Why?” Itachi asks again, voice low and harsh. “Why are you keeping my secrets?

“When you live with someone for nine years, Itachi-san,” comes the quiet reply, “it can change things.”

It can change things. It does change things.

Itachi wavers, feeling as though he stands on a thread or a knife-edge, and he must inevitably fall one way or the other…

It has changed things.

Trust wins in Itachi’s mind. When he realizes that the option of putting that first knife through Kisame’s throat rather than his arm hadn’t even occurred to him, the second knife drops from his hand. He sinks back into his chair, exhausted and almost trembling with the now-needless adrenaline coursing through his body. He drops his head into his hands, and breathes, slow and deep, looking for calm.

“Kisame,” he says after a few moments, voice close to a growl, “don’t do that again.”

He can hear both the grin and the shakiness in his partner’s voice. “I’ll try not to, Itachi-san.”

When he feels the minute trembling leave his limbs, he looks up again, eyes dark, and retrieves his glasses from the desk to peer over at Kisame. “How is your arm?” he asks, not feeling quite up to an apology.

“It’s fine,” the bigger man says, and seems to understand. “I should probably wash the blood off. Do you mind if I take the shower first this evening?”

“No,” Itachi says.

By the time they are both washed and getting into bed, everything feels almost back to normal.

It is surreal, and Itachi is still inclined to be suspicious of it. Can he really trust Kisame with this knowledge…?

“Kisame,” he whispers a little while after the lights have been turned off. “Why aren’t you asking?”

“Asking what, Itachi-san?”

“About me.”

There is a rustle from the other bed that is probably Kisame shrugging. “I assume you will tell me when you want to, Itachi-san.”

Itachi thinks about that, and then says, “All right.”

“Good-night, Itachi-san,” Kisame says, voice wry.

“Good-night, Kisame,” Itachi says, voice not wry at all.

He lays awake all night, and Kisame sleeps soundly as ever.

Somehow, Itachi doesn’t feel tired in the morning.

~~~

76

“Sakura. Why did you want to meet this morning? We’re meeting Naruto later for dinner.”

“Hello, Sasuke. I know. But I found something last night that I really think you should know about.”

“What is it? Is that why we had to meet…here?”

“Yes. I think it’s better if no one else hears about this. No one comes down here anymore.”

“Yeah, well, after what happened…”

“I know. I’m sorry. But it’s also…relevant to what I found.”

What? What did you find? Is it about Itachi? Was the NIA hiding information about him? Did he-”

“Actually, it’s about your cousin, Shisui. Please be quiet for a minute, Sasuke, and let me explain.”

“Sorry. Fine.”

“It’s okay. I know this is hard for you, or I wouldn’t be telling you at all. I shouldn’t tell you, but this is too important. I stayed late last night to sort through some old classified files because Shikamaru wanted to know what was in them and make sure that nothing still of current interest had gotten mixed in with them accidentally. One of them caught my eye because it had your cousin’s name on it. It seems that on the day he died, there was actually a big confrontation over in the Local Division at the NIA late in the afternoon. There weren’t as many details as I would have liked, but it was definitely a fight between Shisui and someone else.”

Who? Who did he fight?”

“Sasuke, please. And you shouldn’t have the Sharingan out even here, it isn’t safe. I don’t know for sure who it was, because that name and a lot of other things had all been blacked out on all the papers I could find. But I am pretty certain that it wasn’t your brother. Later, I went and checked some other records, and those all indicate that he left the NIA about two hours before this fight started, so he couldn’t have been involved.”

“…all right. But how does that help, then? Shisui died here, not at the NIA.”

“I know. The documents do confirm that he was injured in the fighting, and specifically his left eye, so he received that injury before coming here. But Sasuke, the reports also said something else: they said that Shisui’s eyes were red.”

“Red! He must have had the Sharingan too. But then…damn! If only we knew who he fought-”

“I might know. Don’t glare at me, Sasuke, I didn’t want to say it at first because I am not sure, but I want to give you as much to work with as possible.”

“Fine. But you must have some kind of evidence or you wouldn’t say anything at all.”

“Yes. On one of the documents, there was a mention of an eye injury that wasn’t blacked out, but I think that might have been a mistake on the part of whoever censored these records. The mention is of a right eye being injured, and I don’t think that it was a typo, and it couldn’t have been referring to your cousin, since his right eye was uninjured.”

“So, Shisui injured the right eye of whoever he was fighting?”

“I think so. Sasuke, there’s only one person in the Local Division who is missing a right eye, and that’s Danzo.”

“Danzo? The head of Root? But what would he…!!”

“Yes, I think that’s it. Shisui had the Sharingan. We know what kind of people Root looks for: people with special abilities, like you or Neji.”

“Or my cousin…or Itachi. But Root has never approached me.”

“They haven’t? That is odd. I assumed they had and you turned them down because you’re still reasonably sane.”

“Shut up. No, they’ve never approached me. …Sakura. If you’re right, then it was Danzo who fought and injured Shisui. But there was never any evidence that Danzo was here, and there’s no question that Shisui died here, and that he died by drowning.”

“Well, doesn’t that make the suicide theory more plausible? His note-”

“Not really. The note is still a load of bullshit. Who writes a suicide note like that? It didn’t sound like Shisui.”

“They never could prove it a forgery.”

“I know, damn it, I know! But it doesn’t change the facts that Itachi was here, and Shisui died here, and on the night he left Itachi as good as admitted to me that he did it! But even that is… Look, I’ve been over the case a dozen times, and none of it makes any sense. There are too many discrepancies for it to have been a suicide. On the other hand, whatever the rest of the family wants to believe, there are too many discrepancies for it to have been a murder.”

“So…you believe that your brother killed him, but it wasn’t a murder?”

“I don’t know! I just-”

“Sasuke! What if that’s it? What if that’s what happened?”

“What? How would that even work? Why? It doesn’t make-”

“But it would make sense! What if Shisui asked to be killed?”

“You mean, like assisted suicide by drowning? That’s crazy!”

“Does it fit what you know of the case?”

“……it might. I’ll have to look again. But then the real question is, why? If Danzo injured him, why wouldn’t Shisui want to get help? Why wouldn’t Itachi take him to a hospital? Why drown him?”

“I can’t help you with that, I’m afraid. But there must be an explanation. I don’t think either your cousin or your brother would have done something like that without a good reason. Maybe you should tell your family! They might be able to help- Why not?”

“Even if what happened with Shisui isn’t what we’ve thought, Itachi still left and- well, he’s been a criminal for more than nine years now. And I- I don’t know. Things have been strange at work and with Father for awhile now. I don’t think bringing up Itachi is a good idea.”

“Is everything okay? Do you need help?”

“No, it’s not that strange. I’ll figure it out. But damn everything, even if that is what happened, it still leaves the most important question unanswered!”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t find out more for sure.”

“No, this is more than anyone else has been able to tell me. Thanks, Sakura.”

“You’re welcome, Sasuke. Well, I should really get to work. See you tonight?”

“Yeah, see you then. …damn you, Itachi, what are you doing? What is going on?”

~~~

77

Kisame treads lightly around him for the next few days, and although he behaves as he always has, Itachi notices that he is also careful not to move suddenly for any of his weapons, or to be quiet and out of Itachi’s sight range for longer than is strictly necessary.

For his part, Itachi does not sit with his back to his partner for those same few days, and cannot keep himself from watching carefully when Kisame is holding Samehada or some other weapon. Part of him is extremely distrustful of this supposed leniency regarding his true affiliations, insisting that Madara must know and have commanded Kisame to keep up an act.

What purpose this might serve that would be more beneficial than removing him as an enemy spy is not clear to Itachi. The only plot he can come up with where keeping a traitor in the organization alive makes sense is if Madara wants to feed him bad information to give to Konoha, or if Madara wants revenge. The first is plausible, of course, but Itachi has too many other sources of information for it to be particularly effective, and he suspects that Madara would know that. As for revenge…Itachi hates to presume that he knows what goes on in that man’s head, but it doesn’t seem likely that he would care enough. His grand plan is his only real concern, and if he knew for sure that Itachi was a double-agent and a threat to that plan, then Itachi cannot imagine Madara ordering Kisame to do anything other than “Kill him.”

Which leaves the only logical conclusion to be that Kisame is telling the truth about keeping Itachi’s secrets.

Itachi is really not sure how to feel about that.

There is a certain amount of relief, of course, for there are things he no longer needs to waste time and energy attempting to conceal from his partner. But there is lingering suspicion, discomfort with the idea of confiding in someone, and a long-buried anxiety that the things he knows are too dangerous to share.

He dreams of Shisui’s drowning face for nine days. He decides that Kisame may know what he is doing, and certainly has some guesses as to his motivations, but Itachi will keep the why to himself.

It is his burden to carry.

Kisame does not press when Itachi chooses to keep his silence about this, though he must be curious. Itachi appreciates the restraint, and does his best to be normal in other things.

Slowly, their days slip back into the ease they have shared for the past several years. Weeks go by with no evidence that Kisame has been duplicitous, and Itachi finds that gradually the tension in the back of his mind eases too.

~~~

78

Itachi sips his tea thoughtfully, and sets the cup down to contemplate the flavor.

He and Kisame are out at a tea shop that he hasn’t been to before, a small one in the city of Taki. It was Kisame who found the shop and suggested they stop, which is unusual, and Itachi assumes it is something of a further peace offering. His partner is not overly fond of tea shops, but knows that Itachi is.

This one is different than those he usually goes to, but not bad.

Nodding a little to his partner, he sips his tea again and pulls out a small notebook from an inner pocket of his coat. He flips to a new page and takes a few notes about the shop, its location, and what sorts of tea and sweets they serve.

“Itachi-san,” Kisame says, watching the familiar procedure, “is there a reason why you write your notes about tea shops in code?”

Itachi shrugs. “Why not?”

Kisame sighs and rubs his forehead as though Itachi’s logic gives him a headache. Itachi sniffs a little and drinks his tea. He sees no point in leaving information about himself vulnerable, however seemingly trivial it might be. If Kisame doesn’t understand it, then that is his problem.

There is a smile lurking at the corners of Kisame’s mouth, though, so Itachi lingers over his treat and makes sure that the other man knows he enjoyed himself when they leave.

~~~

Chapter Text

79

At last, Itachi is able to put together the pieces of the renewed Uchiha conspiracy.

For a long time, they simply weren’t doing anything, so there was no information to find. Now that there is, it is perhaps more difficult than getting information about Root had been; if Fugaku were to get the slightest hint of a suspicion that Itachi is digging, he might very well shut the whole thing down, or at least remove information from places that Itachi can (however illegally) access.

He would question his father’s wisdom in putting any information in such places at all, but given what he and the rest of the family are plotting, intelligence is clearly not their strong point.

Itachi is unable to discover much, regardless, but what he does find is sufficient. The police, like the NIA, are aware on at least a broad level of Orochimaru and Akatsuki’s movements and goals. The Uchiha are now in loose contact with Konoha’s gangs with promises that they will not come to support the NIA should a clash occur. If the gangs will then cooperate in letting the police appear to “win” and be the hero of any such battle, then they will be granted secret concessions afterwards.

Most of the gangs are unaware that any broad conflict is looming on the horizon, but they are receiving quiet orders about the Uchiha offer from higher up. The gangs that Orochimaru controls will agree with the Uchiha offer and ultimately support them. The Akatsuki-controlled gangs will also agree with the offer, but for the purpose of later exposing and betraying the Uchiha. For Madara’s plans to succeed, none of the existing law enforcement agencies can be left intact at the end of the fighting, and a scapegoat to blame for the start of the fighting will also be convenient. The Uchiha, by planning to betray their country at such a desperate hour, will play right into his hands.

Orochimaru’s inability to secure all of the Konoha gangs will keep him from preventing the exposure of the Uchiha’s scheme. This will render them useless for his plans, but he will still attempt to salvage what he can from the wreckage: Sasuke. Itachi will have to be there to prevent that from happening, which will also mean that he will have to disobey any orders he receives from Akatsuki regarding where to go when the war is begun.

This does not concern him. Itachi has known all along that in the end, he will have to go back to Konoha in order to keep his brother safe.
Kisame knowing and not caring about his real affiliations will make it slightly easier, at least. Itachi coughs a little, and then sits back in his chair to take deep, slow breaths, grateful for the medicine that keeps his body functional. He has little expectation of ultimately surviving whatever his last battle in this war might be, but until then he must be strong.

He glances at the clock and sees that Kisame will probably be out for at least another hour. That makes this a good time to review his plans. Getting up from the desk, Itachi settles onto his bed and closes his eyes, falling into a semi-meditative state that lets him better visualize his plans, the people and the relationships that make them up.

He envisions a web, spider-like, with Sasuke in the center. The circles that ring him concentrically are his brother’s defenses, and the radial lines signify enemies or potential threats. The smallest circle right around Sasuke represents his brother’s own strength and personal defenses, including the unconfirmed presence of snakes that have their own defense mechanisms. The next circle out from that is Itachi’s injunction to the NIA that no one is to harm Sasuke on pain of death. The third circle contains Uzumaki Naruto and Haruno Sakura, who would both go to great lengths to keep their friend safe. The fourth circle contains the few other individuals in Konoha such as Jiraiya and Hatake Kakashi whom Itachi thinks he can rely on to help Sasuke in an emergency. The fifth circle is himself; he would prefer to be closer in, but for now he can only protect Sasuke from a distance. It is a pleasingly formidable set of defenses, but there are also more radial lines than Itachi would like.

His plans revolve around making sure that none of these radial lines actually run all the way through to the center of the “web.” Danzo is the most immediate potential threat, since he has direct designs upon Sasuke. Itachi knows that he has gathered enough information about Root that he might be able to force the upper administration of the NIA to stop overlooking Danzo’s transgressions. He has direct evidence of Danzo’s blackmailing and his use of underage agents, either of which would be unwelcome publicity for the NIA should it become known. He cannot count on the NIA’s upper echelons to do the right thing, though. The man all but murdered Shisui, and they were more than happy to cover it up when Itachi gave them the option.

He pushes the ever-sharp image of Shisui’s shade away from his visualization.

It makes him feel numb, though, and he decides that if the NIA will not police their own, then he will do it for them. It will be necessary to kill Danzo first, and quickly. He dare not take on Orochimaru first only to find that he doesn’t have the strength to eliminate Danzo, and Root will not be able to aid their master if he strikes quickly enough. He cuts off that radial line at the circle representing himself.

Of course, he thinks then, there are others who might happily see Danzo removed from power. Itachi adds another circle out from his own, a dim circle for “potential allies,” and dims Danzo’s line between that circle and his own. He will keep his eyes open for a hawk.

The Uchiha are the next radial line. They are harder, in part because it is the whole family and in part because Itachi no longer cares what happens to them; they deserve everything they are going to get for their disloyalty and stupidity. He has already sacrificed himself in an effort to preserve their honor, and they have proven themselves unworthy of the attempt. He does not intend to do it a second time. They only earn an enemy line in his plans because their actions are a threat to Sasuke’s well-being. He has not been inducted into the conspiracy and will be horrified by the family’s betrayal, and does not deserve to suffer for their sins.

That third circle out from his brother in this mental web glows bright gold and pink. Yes, that will likely work. He will need to send the NIA prior warning about the Uchiha’s plans to betray them anyway, so he sees no reason not to send it directly to someone who will have Sasuke’s well-being in mind. His protection is neither Haruno’s nor Uzumaki’s first duty, of course, but he trusts that between the two of them they will find some way to keep their best friend safe in this. He cuts off the line representing the Uchiha threat at that circle.

There are a couple of other minor radial lines, taking into account the dangers that Sasuke must face simply through his police work, and one to account for the increased violence once this gang war begins. Those both stop at the innermost ring, for his brother has improved greatly in both strength and skill over the past few years, and Itachi must trust that Sasuke can keep himself safe from these more minor threats.

The next radial line, and the most difficult, represents Madara and Akatsuki.

Itachi knows too little about Madara, and has not dared to dig too deeply for more information. Kisame has added a little bit to his knowledge now that it is safe to speak of such things with his partner, but it was not enough to really be helpful. Not knowing anything except the man’s broadest goals makes it hard to predict how he might react in any given situation. Will Itachi’s interference in Konoha be enough to bring Madara there? If he does come, will he be a direct threat to Sasuke? Even if he managed to prevent Itachi from dealing with Danzo or Orochimaru, that would put Sasuke in greater danger, but that is not the same as being a direct threat himself. Neither Madara nor Akatsuki have any interest in Sasuke that Itachi is aware of, nor can he think of any reason why they should. Whether or not this keeps them from being a threat to his brother, he cannot say.

It is useless, he decides, to speculate too much on this issue. He can certainly repeat his warning to Konoha of the threat that Madara and Akatsuki represent, and then it will be up to them to counter. Unless he can find some direct threat to Sasuke, he decides, then that is not his fight. He cuts that line off at the fourth circle, trusting that Sasuke’s wider circle of friends and mentors will all be helping each other if it comes to direct fighting with Akatsuki.

The last radial line, done in red, represents himself, for he is his brother’s enemy as much as his (unknown) ally. He cuts that line off at the fifth circle (also himself), and hopes that maybe he can effect everything he will need to do in Konoha without running into Sasuke himself.

Much as he would like to see his brother one more time, it is better if he does not.

~~~

80

Summer returns, and most of Itachi’s remaining worry about Kisame fades. He still will not speak to his partner in any detail about why he is doing all of this, but he is better able to trust that whatever else is going on, Kisame means him no harm.

“Kisame,” Itachi asks one hot June day as they sit on a concrete rooftop, eating what little lunch they still have appetites for in the heat.

“Yes, Itachi-san?” the blue-haired man asks when Itachi spends too long thinking about his next question.

“Why did you join Akatsuki?”

Kisame looks at him in mild surprise, and then shrugs, gazing down at the sweltering city below them. “It seemed like a more honest sort of life than the one I’d been living.”

Itachi gives his partner a sidelong look at this claim, his eyes narrowed in confusion.

Kisame grins wryly. “How else would you assess it, Itachi-san? I was a member of Kiri’s law enforcement, yet I spent all of my time intimidating or killing fellow citizens of Water Country. When things finally went to hell at the Kiri NIA, I got an offer from Akatsuki and decided that actually being a criminal in name as well as fact would be less contradictory.”

“It bothered you? What you did in Kiri?” Itachi asks, not having had that impression from his partner before now.

Kisame shrugs again. “I did what I was ordered to do. The contradiction of it used to bother me. But eventually I just accepted that life is a contradiction no matter what you do. Ultimately, all these countries are ruled by the powers people don’t see, so I thought, why not make that obvious?”

“You agree with Akatsuki’s goals, then,” Itachi says, turning his own gaze (sharp just now with that Sharingan activated) out over the city, a hint of a frown creasing his forehead.

There is silence for a long moment before Itachi realizes that the blue-haired man is looking at him, and not out at the view. His partner looks away when Itachi turns to meet his gaze.

“I still think it would be more honest,” Kisame says then, “but, life’s a contradiction anyway, so what does it actually matter? If people want the appearance of peace and control, who am I to say otherwise?”

Itachi thinks about that, pausing to greet Whitewing when she swoops in to land on his shoulder. She is panting, her feathers dull and drooping in the heat. Itachi feeds her part of his lunch out of sympathy, and she eats it desultorily, croaking her thanks softly.

“Is it an appearance?” he asks after a few more minutes of thought. He can see why Kisame believes what he does, but doesn’t think he agrees. Kisame looks at him politely, waiting for him to continue. “If normal people can go through their lives without fear of violence or war, if the police or intelligence agency do their jobs, then is that peace really an illusion?”

“There will always be some violence, and the possibility of war-”

“Yes, but then isn’t the reverse also true? In any war, would there not always be the possibility of peace?”

They look at each other for a long moment, seemingly at an impasse. Eventually Whitewing caws at them, demanding more food and breaking the silence. Kisame grins and offers the crow a few scraps of his own lunch, and Itachi relaxes, allowing the corners of his mouth to tip up.

“It is complicated,” he offers.

“And you may not be wrong, Itachi-san,” Kisame concedes, “just a bit idealistic.”

Itachi twitches just his right shoulder up in a shrug so as not to disturb Whitewing, reaching up to lightly stroke her warm, dark feathers. He doesn’t feel idealistic, but maybe Kisame has a point.

“Let’s go,” he says then.

“No one is going to move around in this heat,” Kisame agrees. There has been no sign all day of the gangs they are supposed to watch for today, and Itachi has other things he would rather do than sit here sweltering uselessly.

“The movie theater will be air conditioned,” he suggests when they are back down on the street.

“All right, Itachi-san,” Kisame agrees with a grin in his voice. “That new cop movie, right?”

Itachi nods, dignified, ignoring his partner’s amusement. He sees no reason to guard his taste in certain things like movies anymore. Kisame makes no objection, so they spend a companionable afternoon at the movie theater before trying their assignment again in the marginally cooler temperatures after sunset.

~~~

81

The summer drags on, long and hot. Itachi feels as though the tension is building with the heat, that the world is kept still only by the oppressive temperatures. Even the crows are listless.

He goes out to spend time with them anyway and they come to sit with him down in the shade of empty buildings and back alleys where it is fractionally cooler. The young ones somehow find the energy to hop around and squawk at each other, though the adults mostly perch on or near Itachi and chatter to him and each other more quietly.

He lets their presence and familiar harsh voices soothe him. The dark, looming specter of war is ever-present in the back of his mind now, and he is frequently losing sleep to his old nightmares: the dead with their empty eyes, Sasuke’s face somehow cold and still, Shisui’s body drifting out of sight beneath the water of the Naka River.

They are no less terrifying for all their familiarity.

Crow voices pull him back out of the unpleasant thoughts and he smiles at them, pulling food out of his pockets.

There is little that he can do about any of it, save to accept the nightmares as calmly as he can, and continue his vigilant collection of information.

When the time comes, he promises himself, he will be ready. And he won’t ever be completely alone, no matter what comes.

He will always have the crows.

~~~

Chapter Text

82

Itachi paces, too restless to focus on anything. The sullen heat of the early August evening invades the hotel room despite the weakly sputtering efforts of the air-conditioner to cool it.

Pacing doesn’t help with the heat, but it is nonetheless better than sitting still. He keeps his movements economical to minimize the effect of the heat, and he has pulled his hair up into a messy bundle at the back of his head. His glasses, prescription strength now out of necessity, sit forgotten on his nose as his feet slowly wear a track in the carpet from the door to the window and back again.

Kisame, less restless than Itachi, is on his bed, idly flipping through a newspaper. Neither of them are sure when hostilities are going to commence, but both agree that it will undoubtedly be soon. Things are holding, but it can’t last more than another few months, so they are watching for warning signs.

They have not yet discussed what is going to happen when everything does start. Itachi doesn’t know how the conversation will go, and has decided not to initiate it just yet.

He is frustrated with his own pacing, but his normal center of stillness and calm will not come to him tonight.

“Did you take your medicine today?” Kisame asks.

“Yes,” Itachi replies absently. He always does, but Kisame still checks more often than not.

His partner is being patient with him tonight. Not that Kisame has often been impatient with him, and when he is it is usually because Itachi is forgetting something like food or sleep or-

Slowly Itachi comes to a halt halfway between the door and the window, his back to Kisame’s bed.

It strikes him for the first time just how patient Kisame has been with him. He cannot recall any time in the past five years when the blue-haired man has been frustrated with him over all the things that Itachi would have thought would drive a partner to distraction: his silences, his insomnia, his frequent withdrawal into his own mind.

Even in the first half of their partnership, Itachi thinks back, Kisame showed great restraint in putting up with him.

There is a realization hovering at the edge of his mind now. He remembers all the days that Kisame gently nudged him out to eat or do something after their work was done. The trip south after he lost his first crow companion. A stick of dango appearing unrequested on his desk after a particularly bad night. The relief when he came back from the doctor and said that he was going to be all right. Yellow eyes locked steadily with his own red, the night Kisame confronted him.

”When you live with someone for nine years,” Kisame’s voice saying, “it can change things.”

Slowly, Itachi turns around.

“Kisame,” he whispers, the revelation that they are close sweeping all restlessness and all other thoughts out of his mind. His partner looks up, expression inquiring until he sees the look on Itachi’s face.

“Itachi-san,” he says, solemn.

Kisame watches his back, and he watches Kisame’s. He knows Itachi’s favorite foods, reads books so that they can talk about them, and goes to tea shops and cop movies with him. Itachi follows him to sports games, to the occasional back-alley bar, and they bicker politely about the results of martial arts tournaments. Kisame teases him about any number of things, always polite: about his love of sweets, how much he lets Whitewing boss him around, his book of tea shop notes written in code, the strange novel he picked up at the bookstore. Kisame looks after him on those days when he cannot bring his full focus to the world. Kisame keeps his secrets.

Itachi does not know when or how this happened, and cannot pinpoint a moment when they crossed from being colleagues to being close, from being two people tossed together by unusual circumstance to being friends.

“Why?” he breathes, still staring at Kisame with wide, dark eyes, and knows that his hands are beginning to tremble. “Why do you care?”

“Why do you?” Kisame returns. Itachi stares, mind stumbling over the question because it is true. “I don’t have a good answer for you, Itachi-san. It doesn’t always work like that. You’re here. You’re you.”

Itachi stares, his breath coming just a little bit harsher. He has only ever had one friend, and that was Shisui and he-

He killed Shisui.

The thought triggers the memory, and it replays in his head for the thousand millionth time, Shisui’s cold still face under the water-

Itachi closes his eyes. He takes three deep breaths, accepting the memory. Then, he takes three more deep breaths, and does not let it replay again, forcing his hands to uncurl from the fists they have clenched into.

Itachi opens his eyes, and they are still black, and calm. He meets Kisame’s gaze again.

“All right,” he whispers, “all right.”

Kisame offers him a smile. “Think of it this way, Itachi-san. We’ve already managed to put up with each other for almost ten years. We can probably manage from here on.”

The “for however long that might be” is left unspoken.

“True,” Itachi admits, voice still quiet.

“I promise I won’t bite,” Kisame adds then, grinning to show off his sharp, white teeth.

Itachi sucks in a quick breath, and lets it out as something that might be laughter.

~~~

83

A week later, Itachi comes down from watching the sunrise on the hotel roof and waits for Kisame to wake up.

“Let’s go out,” he says when his partner finally stirs. Kisame does not ask questions, just says “All right, Itachi-san,” and gets ready. Itachi leads them out to the edge of the city and climbs up to the roof of an abandoned warehouse, facing away from the taller buildings. There is a slight breeze, and the heat is not yet too over-bearing. Distantly, a river shines gold under the early morning sunshine.

“When I was nineteen,” Itachi says quietly, “I killed my cousin Shisui.”

He goes on, quiet and succinct, to explain why and to tell Kisame briefly about what happened afterwards that led him to joining Akatsuki. He does not speak very much of Sasuke, but for the first time doesn’t hide his affection when he does.

Kisame listens quietly, looking at him solemnly as Itachi stares out towards that distant river. He doesn’t offer sympathy, or pity, but nods after a little while and then joins Itachi in looking out at the river.

“I won’t get in your way,” the blue-haired man promises quietly.

Itachi closes his eyes in what he is reluctant to acknowledge as relief, and nods. That is all he wants or needs from his partner. “Thank you.”

They do not speak again until they come down from the rooftop more than an hour later.

~~~

84

“I feel I should first mention, Uchiha-san, that I have two members of Root waiting for me a half a block away, so I would prefer to keep this meeting civil.”

“Whatever. I’m only here for whatever information you have about Itachi. I don’t care about anything else.”

“So your message said. You still seek revenge after all this time?”

“Of course! You must know what that bastard did, and I won’t let him get away with it, no matter how long it takes!”

“Your sense of loyalty and duty is commendable, Uchiha-san. Would that you had joined us at the NIA, rather than your brother and your cousin.”

“…what did my cousin do? I know Itachi is a traitor.”

“Unfortunately, your brother was not alone in his disloyalty. I found Uchiha Shisui digging through classified Root files in direct breach of his loyalty oaths, clearly spying on the NIA from the inside. I attempted to apprehend him but was unable to.”

“You fought Shisui? Is that how his eye was injured? Why didn’t you tell the official investigation of his death about it at the time?”

“I was injured myself in that same fight, as you can see, and was unable to do much of anything for several weeks while my body recovered. By that time the case was largely closed and I did not see how the information would be of assistance. It was clear what had taken place. Uchiha Shisui was injured but alive when he fled the NIA, and with care his injuries would not have been life-threatening. What sort of falling-out occurred between him and your brother, I can only guess.”

“That bastard! So, Itachi wasn’t at the NIA during that fight?”

“He was not.”

“All right. Fine. What else can you tell me about Itachi?”

“Root has done their best to keep track of his movements over the years, especially since the rest of the NIA seems to have been rather lax about doing so. I can let you have this information on this flash drive only, for reasons of security classification. I’m sure you understand.”

“Yes. That’s fine.”

“It is still probably more complete than any information you can find elsewhere. Here you are then, Uchiha-san. I hope that we can conduct future business in an equally fruitful manner.”

“Thanks. Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

“I’m please to hear it, Uchiha-san. I’ll take my leave now.”

“Fine. … all right, he’s gone, you can come out. That bastard! He is responsible for Shisui’s injuries. You don’t destroy someone’s eye when you’re trying to ‘apprehend’ them. Follow him to the place where the path crosses through the wooded area of the park. Strike him there, only him, and don’t be seen. I’ll wait for you over there in the empty building.”

~~~

85

Danzo is dead.

Itachi stares at the news announcement on his computer screen in disbelief.

He has never believed in destiny or Fortune, and even if he did, he would never trust so kind a turn of Fortune as this.

This cannot be an accident. But if not an accident, then who…? Ignoring Kisame’s questioning look, Itachi buries himself in the news reports and press releases from the NIA.

He quickly learns that Danzo died in his sleep…because of a snakebite. The venom is identified as being that of a common krait, a snake known to inhabit the wooded and rundown urban areas of Fire Country. Danzo had gone out the previous evening, and had indeed passed through a wooded area of a park where one of the nocturnal kraits might well have been lurking. Danzo’s companions (two Root members, Itachi identifies) that evening saw nothing unusual; Danzo noted a mosquito bite on one ankle as they passed through the woods, but there were mosquitoes in abundance, so none of them though anything of it.

The venom of a common krait, as it turns out, is painless on injection, and bites are easily mistaken for less serious things.

The account finishes by stating that Danzo returned to his home as usual, and went to bed before the venom’s main symptom – paralysis – set in. He never woke, the venom having suffocated him in his sleep.

The death has been ruled accidental, with no suspicion of foul play. Indeed, there is no evidence of foul play, and nothing seems more obvious than that it must have been accidental. These things do happen.

But Itachi knows it was not an accident.

There is one, brief mention of the fact that Danzo had gone out only to meet with someone. The meeting was clandestine and related to NIA work, and the identity of the person is not given. It is noted only that even Danzo’s guards from that evening do not “consider that person a suspect.”

This is only the case because they are missing a crucial piece of information. Itachi is not missing it.

“Sasuke,” he breathes, torn between fear for his brother’s safety and pride at such an ingenious plan. So long as Sasuke remains intelligent about it, no one will ever suspect him of having been involved.

He sits back and closes his eyes. Pulling up the mental web of his plans, he replaces the radial line representing Danzo with a much dimmer thread to stand for “Root.” There is a slight chance that they might still prove a threat to Sasuke, if someone manages to figure out that he is responsible for this, but Itachi doesn’t think it very likely. They will be in chaos for a time without their leader, and possibly disbanded altogether if the NIA is smart.

Only then does it occur to Itachi to ask, Why?

He opens his eyes again. Why would Sasuke kill Danzo? He had no reason to know that the leader of Root was an enemy. Could Danzo have broken his word and threatened Sasuke somehow…?

Kisame, curiosity getting the better of him, comes to read over his shoulder. He raises his eyebrow as he finishes reading. “Your brother’s idea?” he asks, putting the news story together with Itachi’s earlier whisper.

Itachi nods, mind still racing through the implications.

“Impressive,” Kisame says, and Itachi nods again.

“But how did he know?” he finally voices his confusion aloud. “Where would he have learned that Danzo was responsible? What else has he figured out? It’s not safe if he knows too much about why I left-”

“But with Danzo gone, does it matter as much?” Kisame asks. “You told me the other day that he was the biggest threat to your brother, except for maybe Orochimaru.”

“Yes, but-” Itachi stops and looks back at the computer screen, frowning. At last he continues quietly, “He isn’t supposed to know.”

Kisame’s big hand covers his right shoulder briefly before the blue-haired man returns to whatever he had been doing. “You’ll work it out, Itachi-san.”

Itachi stares at his computer unseeing for a long time and thinks, /I hope so./

~~~

Chapter Text

86

Itachi perches on the roof of a tall building in one of the small countries north of Fire Country, Whitewing balanced easily on his left shoulder. Local crows have joined them, flying here and there restlessly and calling to each other even through the heat.

The sky overhead is empty, but the usual blue is muted and heavy with the soaring temperatures. It is September now, but the heat has not abated and there has been no rain for almost two months.

Itachi feels as though the whole world is suffocating under the heat and the tension.

He watches the western horizon with red eyes. Sweat trickles down his scalp and the back of his neck, but he ignores it. Eventually, clouds will have to form, and rain will fall again. There is nothing, though, no smudge of clouds at the horizon, and eventually Itachi closes his eyes. The heat makes everything heavy and quiet, save for harsh crow-song and the ever-present buzz of cicadas.

It feels like the calm before a storm. Itachi wishes it were the sort of storm that would bring rain.

Whitewing shifts on his shoulder and calls out to the crows winging overhead. Their voices fill the hot afternoon air with caws that are not quite warnings, but neither are they the soothing cries of “all’s well” that the crows usually give when no trouble is in sight. Itachi’s mind shades their voices with both apprehension and anticipation, though how much of that is the crows and how much is himself, he cannot say.

The sense of it will not leave him, though, and his instinct says that the human storm will break before the heat.

It is a matter of days, then.

He waits on the rooftop through a slight shift in the air that brings something like a breeze before returning to the hotel. Once there, he bundles everything he knows about the Uchiha conspiracy into an encrypted zip file and sends it to Haruno Sakura at her official NIA email, accompanied only by a brief message with his recommendations. He leaves the same message on the secure site where he has left all of his other warnings.

Then, there is nothing to do but wait for the storm to come.

~~~

87

“Can we talk about that strange email now, Shikamaru? Did you get the file unencrypted?”

“Yeah. Sorry to make you stay late, Sakura, but no one can know about this.”

“I understand. May I ask what was in it? Why was it sent to me?”

“It was information and a warning from one of our undercover agents. I’ll need to confirm a few things but…unfortunately, it looks like the Uchiha family are planning to betray us if Akatsuki and Orochimaru strike.”

What? That- That can’t be… They’re the police! They wouldn’t do anything like that…would they?”

“I didn’t think so, but…he’s never been wrong before.”

“This agent?”

“Yes. You’re not supposed to know about it, but since he sent this to you he must want you to know. Sakura, how was the email you received signed?”

“It wasn’t signed, there was just a little picture at the bottom, of a black feather.”

“It’s the primary feather of a crow’s wing. Just had to check.”

“A crow? Is it because he’s undercover and can’t sign his real name? Why wouldn’t he pick a code name?”

“I don’t know. …all right, I’m raising your security clearance for this. He wants you to know, so the consequences are his problem.”

“Is it someone working over at police headquarters?”

“No, he’s been outside of Fire Country since before I was made Head Analyst. Sakura, this does not leave this room. You can’t tell anyone, not even Naruto and Sasuke. I know you guys are close, and you’re going to want to tell them, but you can’t.”

“I understand. I won’t say anything.”

“Thanks. I know this is hard, and it’s probably going to be moot as a secret within a few weeks. But we need him alive and unharmed until then. He’s undercover with Akatsuki, and we have to know when they’re going to move.”

“Akatsuki! But that means…Shikamaru! Do you mean…?”

“Yeah. It has to be him. Old man Sarutobi never gave me a name, just the code for the scarily-encrypted website where he leaves his messages. But the circumstantial evidence is unequivocal. I wasn’t absolutely sure until he approached Naruto to warn us about Orochimaru for the second time, but after that there was no more question. Whatever else is going on, Uchiha Itachi is definitely still working for the NIA.”

“That means that he’s been undercover for nearly ten years! …and I can’t tell Sasuke. Damn it, this answers all of his questions!”

“I know. Sorry. But until he chooses to reveal himself, we can’t risk this information leaking.”

“No, we can’t. I won’t say anything. But, what are we going to do about the Uchiha? If- If he’s right about them then they’re all traitors…oh, and Sasuke! What if he-?”

“I don’t think he’s involved. There’s a list in here, identifying the main people Itachi thinks are part of this, and Sasuke’s name isn’t on it. Has Sasuke done anything to make you think he might be involved?”

“No, everything’s been normal. Well, last winter he did mention that his father and some other people at work were acting strangely sometimes, and he recently said that it’s still like that, but he couldn’t find out anything more. And he hasn’t been acting oddly.”

“This would explain all that.”

“Yes. Those bastards! How can they do this? Why would they do it?”

“Who knows. Anyway, for now I think we’ll follow Itachi’s suggestion to keep quiet and make preparations.”

“Okay. Thanks for trusting me, Shikamaru. Is there anything I can do to keep Sasuke safe?”

“I’ll think that over and let you know.”

“Thanks, Shikamaru. Good night.”

“’Night, Sakura. …man, this is troublesome.”

~~~

88

Five days later, the message from Akatsuki comes.

They are ordered to go to Cloud Country’s capital city of Kumo. There, they will make sure the gangs are fighting as planned, and then step in at the last minute to assist Kumo’s law enforcement against the gangs, as per Pain’s (really Madara’s) plans. The fighting is to begin the following day in the early hours of the morning.

They sit on their beds then, facing each other across the narrow space between.

“I am going to Konoha,” Itachi says.

Kisame nods. “I’ll go to Kumo.”

Itachi nods too, having expected that decision. It is for the best that they go their separate ways now. He pauses, though, not rising yet.

“Something else, Itachi-san?” Kisame asks, watching him closely.

Itachi hesitates only briefly. “One request. If for any reason I am unable to stop Orochimaru, please deal with him?”

It is the one thing Itachi can ask of him that does not require Kisame to break his loyalty to Akatsuki, so he does not feel it an inappropriate request. Kisame grins at him knowingly, but nods. “I’ll do my best, Itachi-san.”

Itachi nods in thanks, and then rises. Kisame does the same.

Itachi goes to his computer and sends one last message to the NIA, signed as ever by his simple crow-feather sketch that is now nearly ten years old. It has been, he thinks, a long ten years.

Akatsuki’s war begins everywhere before dawn.

Now, it is almost over.

He and Kisame do not speak again as they gather up their things. Itachi thinks that it doesn’t really matter; he won’t come back from this anyway, but it feels too strange to walk out of the hotel room with nothing. They walk to the train station, still silent, their steps in sync through long familiarity.

They face each other again on the hot, dusty platform, and Itachi holds out a hand on an impulse. Kisame chuckles and takes it. He hesitates when Itachi moves to pull back, though, and Itachi tilts his head in question at his partner. The distant rumble of a train begins.

Kisame shakes his head and lets Itachi’s hand go. “Try not to get yourself killed, Itachi-san.”

Itachi blinks, surprised, then closes his eyes in acknowledgment. When he opens them again, he smiles at the other man. “I will do my best, Kisame.”

Even more surprisingly, he finds that he means it.

The train thunders into the station, and Kisame boards it, looking once out of the window as the doors close behind him. Then the train is pulling away, and Itachi stands alone on the platform until it is out of sight before moving to find his own train.

He is glad for Whitewing’s presence on his shoulder when she swoops down a few moments later. He had not expected parting from Kisame to feel quite so strange.

~~~

Chapter Text

89

Itachi returns to Konoha heralded by a murder of crows.

They lift off from all over the city and come to him, circling overhead with voices raised in triumphant greeting. Itachi lifts red eyes from scanning the city below to look up at them, a swirling cloud of midnight feathers.

He smiles.

Whitewing hops down his arm, cawing impatiently.

“Find Orochimaru,” he requests. She caws again in acknowledgment. Making sure he is properly balanced in his crouch, he lifts his arm and flings her skyward. The white along the edge of her wings flashes against the dark of the flock overhead as she caws gladly and then disappears.

The cough catches him then, and Itachi uses both hands to steady himself in his perch at the top of a tall radio tower. The spasms wrack his body, and it is many seconds before he can catch his breath. It comes harsh in his lungs, which feel heavy. He has not coughed up anything, yet, but knows it is only a matter of time.
His medicine has helped him greatly these past few years, but a large part of his improved health has come from the fact that he has also avoided pushing himself too far. Today, he cannot hold back.

He has been walking since before midnight, when all the trains into Konoha abruptly stopped running. It might have been early fighting, it might have been Akatsuki’s attempt to keep him out of the city. He doesn’t know and doesn’t care. He didn’t bother to wait and see if the trains would run again (they didn’t), just started walking.

He reached Konoha hours later at dawn, and the fighting had already begun.

From his high perch, he continues to survey the city. The fighting has been worst on the south side of the city, opposite from where he sits now, for that was where the gangs held their main territory. It is spreading out, though, and even the north side of the city is not untouched. The worst of it remains south, though, and he can just make out the distant pop and rattle of gunfire. He knows from the crows’ delight that many already lie dead in the streets. Smoke billows from several buildings, thick and dark.

Itachi decides he will leave all feelings in the matter to the crows, and is simply grateful that he is too high up to smell anything but the smoke.

Childhood memories rise along with his more recent nightmares at the sight of war once again overtaking his city. In his mind, the dead stand around him, silent, with Shisui at their head. Briefly, Itachi closes his eyes to address them.

/Today,/ he promises, /this ends today./

For a passing breath, he thinks that maybe there is a slight smile on Shisui’s still, cold face.

Itachi opens his eyes.

He looks up to the murder of crows, and nine of the dark birds drop down to perch on or near him where he crouches at the top of the radio tower.

“Find any large snakes,” he bids them, “and lead me to them.”

They caw in harsh delight and leave him in a cloud of soot-black feathers. Itachi climbs down from the radio tower, suffers through another coughing fit at the bottom, and waits. He breathes, slow and steady, trying to ease the thick feeling in his lungs.

Overhead, the flock begins to break up, following their fellows out and over the city again, hunting snakes and enemies and the dead.

Itachi breathes…and then crows begin to caw snake warnings, and he sets off again.

~~~

90

He criss-crosses the city swiftly, led by the crows. Many of Orochimaru’s large serpents are lurking in the aftermath of the fighting, finding prey in the dead and wounded.

Itachi kills them one by one, quick and efficient. He may not care overmuch for snakes, but they are simply behaving as their natures dictate, just as the crows do.

It is their misfortune that their master has made himself Itachi’s enemy.

So Itachi rids the city of as many of Orochimaru’s snakes as the crows can find, and moves slowly south and east.

The sun climbs higher in the sky, and the temperatures are rising. It will be scorching hot again today, but there is humidity in the air with the dust and smoke that has not been there for weeks. It adds to the oppressiveness and thickens the breath in Itachi’s throat.

He breathes carefully, only suffering two more coughing fits, and works his way towards one of the city’s large stadiums out to the east that seems to still be untouched.

~~~

91

It is dark and cool inside the roofed stadium.

Itachi rests on the far side of the large oval from the main doors, legs crossed and eyes closed where he sits in one of the seats. Whitewing sits on his shoulder, restless at being away from the excitement outside, but unwilling to leave him alone. She found him just as he was reaching the arena, alternating “snake” and “bad human” warnings in her calls.

Itachi had known that killing so many of the man’s serpent companions would draw the slippery bastard out. Orochimaru is taking his time in coming, though. It left Itachi with enough time to make some preparations, and now to rest. The thickness in his lungs has eased slightly, and he thinks that he will be able to last this fight.

The whisper of scales on concrete, echoing through the huge empty building, warns him that his enemy has arrived. Itachi breathes, and keeps still, grasping at a few last moments of rest.

Footsteps join the whisper of scales on the floor, and Itachi opens his eyes.

“Such a shame, Itachi-kun, that it comes to this. If only you had joined me at the beginning, much of this could have been spared.”

The man’s husky, slippery voice crawls down his spine, but Itachi is careful to remain impassive, still lounging nonchalantly in his stadium seat. He is determined not to reveal his weakness unless he must. “That seems unlikely.”

“Itachi-kun,” Orochimaru chides, still at the far end of the arena, “I admire your dedication, but such rigid thinking will not accomplish your goals. Join me now and we can put an end to this wasteful-”

The five-meter-long python that has been crossing the stadium ahead of Orochimaru crawls across the wire that Itachi has stretched across the floor. This in turn trips the explosives he set up on either side of that half of the stadium.

The middle and far side of the stadium explode outward in a terrific roar. Itachi quickly opens his eyes and uncovers his ears before checking above himself; the roof over his half of the arena seems stable for now. The far half, however, is open to the blinding daylight and hazy hot air from outside.

Whitewing, flapping awkwardly and squawking with indignation at the blast, takes off and makes a beeline for the open air, calling out for her fellow crows as she flies. Itachi lets her go, preferring that she be well away from this fight.

The huge snake died in the blast. Orochimaru, unfortunately, did not. He rises from the rubble at the far end of the stadium, his face contorted with rage.

Itachi allows himself a mental shrug. What information he has been able to gather on the man suggests that it will be difficult to injure him in conventional ways, but it had seemed worth a try.

He stands, dropping the nonchalance, just as Orochimaru begins to race toward him across the rubble-strewn floor. Itachi moves forward as well, a set of knives already in the air between them. Orochimaru dodges the attack with preternatural speed, twisting to the side and then his body somehow keeps on twisting, his neck elongating and snapping across the few meters still between them with the speed of a striking snake. /His special ability,/ Itachi decides, avoiding the bite easily as the Sharingan tracks his opponent’s strange movements. He doesn’t know whether or not the man’s unusually long canines contain venom, but it seems wisest not to find out first-hand.

Itachi shoves himself away from Orochimaru, another volley of knives driving them further apart. Landing on some of the rubble from the explosion, he has to push off again in the next instant to avoid a strike from another large snake, this one nearly five meters long. It dodges the knife he throws, but does not pursue him.

He will have to be careful; if he knows where they are, the large snakes are easily avoided or dealt with and therefore not a large threat, but he does not like his chances should one of them actually get him in its coils. His breathing is too labored already, even without additional constriction.

Then Orochimaru is coming in again, stretching out his limbs to strike at Itachi from a distance, keeping Itachi on the move and too far away to land any blows that might do serious damage. It also pushes Itachi deeper into the rubble. There will be more of the snakes lurking there.

He pushes himself back from another biting strike, and is about to step back again when Whitewing’s voice caws a frantic snake warning from overhead, joined swiftly by the voices of other crows. Itachi turns his movement into a high, long, back flip, taking him well over the snake, landing in a neat crouch on part of the fallen roof.

A coughing fit catches him then, and he is unable to fight it back. There is sharp pain, this time, and he hacks up mucus before it is done. His breath feels thicker again, and he knows that his time is growing limited.

He must end this soon.

“Having trouble, are we, Itachi-kun?” Orochimaru had paused upon seeing him double-over, clearly curious.

Which was unwise, Itachi thinks as he finally lands hits with three knives, he should have taken advantage of my vulnerability.

Orochimaru falls back, cursing at the wounds, and Itachi forces himself to move again, away from the strikes of two more snakes, closing the distance with his opponent quickly. He gets two more minor hits with his knives before Orochimaru recovers himself enough to use his stretching ability again.

Narrowing his eyes in frustration, Itachi circles the other man, trusting the crows overhead to warn him if a snake gets too close. He has known that Orochimaru would not be so easy to finish off as a normal person, but neither had he expected it to be this difficult. He will need a better weapon-

Itachi registers that the crows’ calls have turned to flockmate greetings only half a second before a familiar voice yells “Itachi!” from the destroyed edge of the stadium.

Eyes going wide at the sight of his brother, Itachi pauses for half a second.

Orochimaru does not.

Before Itachi can pull in his next labored breath, Sasuke has dashed heedlessly into the rubble and one of the enormous pythons (this one nearly seven meters in length) strikes out from the rocks, tripping him and capturing him in its thick, crushing coils. Sasuke’s eyes (Sharingan red) go wide, and his face goes white.

“How convenient of you to come, Sasuke-kun,” Orochimaru says then, grinning unpleasantly. “You’ve been so hard to get in touch with lately, after all the help I’ve given you. But perhaps with both you and your brother here now, we can work out an…arrangement.”

Itachi is trembling. Overhead, the murder of crows scream their outrage and make threatening dives, but they dare not get too close and are thus powerless against the huge snakes. Seven more of the serpents slither out of the rubble, forming a protective ring around Sasuke and the python holding him tightly. It is not crushing him yet, but is certainly only waiting on Orochimaru’s command. Itachi can see his brother’s lips moving frantically, but whatever influence he might have with the enormous serpents is not enough to break their loyalty to Orochimaru, and the snake does not release him.

“So, Itachi-kun, let us…negotiate.”

Itachi is trembling. He is half the stadium away from his brother. Sasuke’s life is in danger…and Itachi cannot reach him in time with Orochimaru planted firmly between them. Not like this.

“Well, Itachi-kun?” Orochimaru is intelligent enough not to meet his gaze, but he is still watching Itachi’s movements carefully. “Allow me to withdraw. We are clearly at an impasse. I will take Sasuke-kun with me to assure safe passage. You will remain here, and I will release him when I reach the city limits. If you do not interfere, he will not be harmed. Do you agree?” He clearly expects immediate agreement.

Itachi’s eyes burn. He closes them, feeling them spin into the pinwheel of his Mangekyou.

“Will that be acceptable, Itachi-kun?” Orochimaru presses.

“No,” Itachi says calmly, and opens his eyes.

Black fire engulfs the snake threatening to suffocate his brother. /Touch only the snake,/ he instructs, and knows that the flames will not harm his brother.
Orochimaru shrieks with rage and fear, and elongates his tongue, somehow bringing up a sword from inside his body.

Susano’o,” Itachi whispers. Red-orange light like transparent flame engulfs him, and Orochimaru’s sword is turned back upon it.

Itachi draws a long knife from underneath his coat, and the light engulfs that too, reshaping it into a sword. Distantly, he sees Sasuke fight his way free of the python’s burning body.

Orochimaru comes after him again, and once again his blade is turned aside on Itachi’s new shield. Itachi paces forward steadily.

For the first time, doubt comes into Orochimaru’s eyes and he backs up.

Itachi comes forward, steady even as his breath rattles harshly in his lungs. His eyes narrow in renewed rage when Orochimaru turns and races over the broken stadium ground towards Sasuke. His brother manages to get out a gun and take aim, but Orochimaru’s unpleasantly long tongue lashes out and knocks the gun away before Sasuke can take a shot. He doesn’t have time to draw another weapon before Orochimaru has him locked in a strong hold, his sword pressed to the younger man’s throat.

Itachi keeps walking. The seven remaining large snakes come at him. He beheads them one after another with easy sweeps of his own blade.

“I will cut his throat,” Orochimaru hisses in warning, his voice choked with fear and rage as the last of his serpents fall to Itachi’s sword.

Sasuke rasps, “Now.”

Something fast and grey shoots out of his collar, striking at Orochimaru’s throat and then withdrawing. Itachi doesn’t think he could have followed the attack without his Sharingan activated, and he has no idea what kind of snake it might have been.

Orochimaru screams and falls back, clawing at his neck. Sasuke leaps away, out of reach, pulling out more weapons as he goes.

Itachi isn’t sure who his brother intends to attack, but can’t spare him more attention than to note that he is safely out of range.

Then, with as much of a deep, slow breath as he can manage to gather his strength, he puts on a burst of speed to close the remaining distance between himself and his opponent. The red-orange fire forging his blade burns brightly as he stabs Orochimaru straight through the heart.

Orochimaru’s sword clatters to the ground, and he stares at Itachi in disbelief. “You- That sword-”

Itachi watches impassively as the dark fire of the living slowly thickens in Orochimaru’s body, congealing in death. Only when all sign of life has left the man’s body does he step back and withdraw his blade.

Every breath is painful. Still, Itachi closes his left eye and whispers, “Amaterasu.”

Orochimaru’s body is swiftly and thoroughly consumed in black flame.

~~~

92

The sunlight is dimmer now; clouds have at last begun to gather in the hazy sky overhead.

Itachi’s lungs seize up, coughs wracking his body. He loses his hold on the shield and sword of Susano’o, and the strange, transparent flames fade as he falls to his knees. When the fit passes, his hand is stained with phlegm and blood.

This is not finished, though, for the crows are once again calling out the warnings for an enemy.

Weariness numbs his limbs, and his lungs struggle to pull in air. Somehow, Itachi gets to his feet.

Sasuke has moved back from him, so that he stands approximately halfway between Itachi and the edge of the rubble field. He still has his weapons out, a knife in one hand and a strange, two-pronged, dagger-like contraption in the other. He is watching Itachi, body tense and red eyes wary, but not yet moving to attack.

Itachi, unsettled, watches his brother in return. How much does Sasuke know…?

There is no time to ponder it further, though, because a group of people has gathered behind Sasuke: the rest of the family, finally making an appearance.

Itachi is grateful that it isn’t Madara. Dealing with the Uchiha will undoubtedly finish him off, but he is fairly certain that he can last long enough to get the job done. Madara is beyond him in his current state.

Distantly, thunder rumbles.

“Well done, Sasuke,” Fugaku says from the head of the group. “Let us apprehend the criminal and be on our way.”

Sasuke’s brows draw down into a frown, his eyes abruptly black again, and he looks between the family and Itachi. “Why are you here, Father?”

“If you had been where you were supposed to be last night, you would have known our strategy. But, you have defeated the criminals responsible for the fighting, so I will forgive you. Take him into custody.”

“I didn’t defeat anyone,” Sasuke’s voice is harsh and bitter. “Itachi killed Orochimaru.”

“Clearly there is no honor among murderers,” Fugaku spits. “It doesn’t matter. The criminal is weak. Arrest him.”

Itachi watches emotions flicker through Sasuke’s eyes, and sees the moment when the bitterness wins out, draining his little brother’s face of all animation.

“Yes, Father,” Sasuke says, “of course.”

Pain unrelated to his illness tightens Itachi’s chest until he forces himself to set it aside.

Thunder rumbles again, perhaps a little bit closer. Sasuke turns sharply and begins to walk towards Itachi, his steps paced slowly. “I apologize for missing the meeting,” he goes on, still addressing their father, “Once I apprehend him, what is the plan?”

“We will go and clean up the mess the NIA has caused,” Fugaku says, relaxing now that his son is demonstrating obedience. “Since it is clearly outside of their capabilities to deal with this rabble, we will have to do it for them. It is their own fault for not asking for our assistance.”

“Why did we not approach them, if working together in this would have been favorable?” Sasuke’s steps are still slow, his voice and face blank of all emotion.

“With the NIA being so secretive, we deemed it best to keep our own counsel,” Fugaku replies smoothly, “Their secrecy was suspicious, as has been their lack of interest in tracking down criminals such as this one. It was wisest to keep our strategy and other arrangements to ourselves.”

There are three meters between them now. Sasuke nods. “That is suspicious. What arrangements are in place to end the fighting?”

“We have negotiated with the city’s gangs to accept our authority in this matter. The fighting will end immediately upon our word.”

Sasuke stops, a meter away from Itachi, his head bowing.

“Apprehend this criminal, Sasuke, and then we will go and restore the family to the place of greatness and respect that we deserve,” Fugaku exhorts him, “Only he stands in our way. Only he stands in your way.”

Itachi remembers his own voice from so long ago, “I will always be there for you, if only as the obstacle that you must overcome,” and accepts that Sasuke must do this. He stands tall, hiding how much of a struggle it is to breathe. He will have to put everything he has left into this fight if Sasuke is ever to be free of him, free of the legacy he has garnered but never wanted. The NIA will have to deal with the rest of the Uchiha on their own.

Sasuke looks up at him, and his face is twisted into a vicious scowl of hatred and rage. Itachi is careful to keep his own face impassive. Sasuke’s voice is strangely clear as he says, “You are under arrest-”

He spins, quick and graceful, bringing up his knife to point directly at their father, “-for treason against Fire Country and the city of Konoha.”

Shock hits Itachi like a physical blow.

A crack of thunder and the crows’ voices sound suddenly loud in the stunned silence that follows this declaration.

“Sasuke,” Fugaku says, sounding wary and annoyed, “turn around and arrest the criminal. You have clearly misunderstood. We-”

“I have not misunderstood,” Sasuke interrupts, his arm steady. “The NIA received word that you were conspiring with criminals and Konoha’s enemies in order to set up a scenario in which you can be the heroes of this war and gain some kind of power over the NIA. I refused to believe it. Two days ago, I abandoned my best friends-” his voice breaks slightly “-because I could not believe it. Now, I see that it’s all true. You have betrayed your country, your city, your duty, and most importantly, the innocent people who depend on you for their safety. You are traitors. Drop your weapons. You are under arrest.”

Itachi had not known he could love his brother more, or be more proud of him than he already was.

He was wrong.

Fugaku is livid with rage, and makes no move to drop his weapons. Neither do any of the others.

“Stupid brat,” one of the other Uchiha spits, “do you really think you can take us all on alo-” He cuts off with a choked scream as Sasuke’s knife buries itself in his shoulder.

Yes,” Sasuke says savagely, and has rushed them in the next breath. He sends several more knives flying to stop those who are drawing guns, preventing some of their first assault while he closes the distance between them, his now fully-developed Sharingan allowing him to dodge the rest. The strange pronged blade in his left hand crackles and buzzes into life as he runs, long sparks of blue-white electricity wiggling between the prongs. As he reaches the group of Uchiha men and women, he sweeps his arm out and the electricity jumps outwards, stunning those it hits and leaving them to drop to the floor as it passes.

The group dissolves into chaos. Fugaku was one of the first to fall, and the rest seem unsure what to do in the face of a Sharingan-eyed opponent who is much, much better than they thought.

Sasuke is strong, fast and graceful. He snaps out with feet and hands and tamed lightning, spinning through the strikes of all who try to get in his way, dispatching them with efficient ease. Itachi’s heart feels tight with pride.

The cough catches him again, and he does his best to stifle it, fighting for air. He does his best to keep his eyes on his brother, and sees the last of Sasuke’s nearly thirty opponents fall. They are all down, either unconscious or clutching at wounds too severe to allow for much movement.

Itachi’s vision is starting to blur, and he thinks maybe it’s time to let go. Sasuke will be all right now. Sorry, Kisame…

A gunshot cracks through the ruined stadium and Sasuke yells in pain, doubling over and clutching his left hand, his strange dagger gone. Itachi’s eyes are wide and clear-sighted again in an instant, lurching forward as he sees their father rise from the rubble. He was injured in Sasuke’s first assault, but apparently not enough.

Fugaku moves quickly, and he is too close, because even though Itachi is pushing as fast as his body will go, he is only half-way there before Fugaku’s gun is pressed to the back of Sasuke’s head.

“Stop!” he snaps at Itachi, and Itachi halts himself, shaking. All pain has been wiped from his mind by the terror and white-hot rage. How dare he-!

Before he can formulate a plan of attack, though, a sinuous grey body rears up over Sasuke’s shoulder and bares a black-colored mouth menacingly at Fugaku. The strange tableau is frozen briefly in a flash of lightning, and none of them dare flinch at the ensuing crack of thunder loud overhead.

“You won’t survive the bite,” Sasuke says, his voice surprisingly calm even though his face is white with shocked betrayal. “Put the gun down.”

The snake sways, mouth still bared, clearly willing to strike and holding back only on Sasuke’s word.

Fugaku’s face is contorted with fear and anger, and he very slowly moves his arm away from Sasuke and lets the gun clatter to the ground.

The snake withdraws into Sasuke’s shirt, and Fugaku strikes out, but Sasuke is already spinning and is in time to block and counterattack. It is a short, vicious fight that Sasuke wins, landing a blow to Fugaku’s head that leaves him dazed long enough for Sasuke to knock him down and handcuff him.

“Suigetsu! Juugo! Karin! Get in here and help me tie these bastards up,” Sasuke calls out snappishly.

Itachi, surprised, watches as two young men and a young woman sneak in from the edges of the arena, picking their way carefully over the rubble. He hadn’t noticed their presence nearby at all; his senses are dulling. He is dizzy now, his breath coming fast and shallow and it still isn’t enough.

Sasuke rises and faces him, hands clenched into fists at his sides. Around them, drops of rain begin to fall.

Itachi draws in a breath to say “Little brother,” but is seized by a coughing fit.

The pain and lack of oxygen are enough to black his vision completely, and when he regains some of his sight, he finds that he has collapsed. His hand is covered with blood.

Whitewing’s voice sounds a distress call from somewhere close overhead, blending with closer, frantic cries of “Itachi! Itachi!

The rain is falling harder now, bringing long-sought relief from the breaking heat. His body is numb, because he can’t feel Sasuke’s hands on his shoulders. His lungs feel as though they are on fire when he tries to draw breath.

Sasuke’s dark eyes are wide with horror, but he is here: safe, strong, alive.

Itachi smiles, incredibly grateful that he gets to see his brother one last time.

Carefully, he lifts his right hand, and touches the tips of two bloody fingers to Sasuke’s forehead.

His brother’s eyes go impossibly wider.

“Forgive me, Sasuke,” Itachi says, his voice something less than a whisper, “this is the las-”

The darkness claims him before he can finish, and Itachi goes with no regrets.

~~~

Chapter Text

93

Itachi discovers that he is awake and therefore alive, and opens his eyes in sheer surprise.

He can see almost nothing, the world an undifferentiated blur without his glasses to help correct his rapidly-failing vision. He knows without trying that he couldn’t activate the Sharingan right now even if he wanted to. The whiteness of the blur, combined with the hum of machinery and the antiseptic smell indicate that he is in a hospital.

He breathes, and finds that he can, which is his next surprise. His lungs are not free of pain, but they feel clear and the pain is bearable.

Slowly, he takes stock of himself. His muscles feel heavy with sleep and disuse, but he can twitch all of his fingers and toes easily, and there are no major sources of pain beyond that in his lungs and a fierce headache. Itachi decides to ignore it. There is an IV in his left arm, and the steady, reassuring beep of a heart monitor off to that side of the bed.

There is also the sound of breathing that is not his own.

He turns his head carefully to the right and finds a darker blur there, likely seated in a chair next to the bed. He cannot see who it is, but he sat with his brother through enough nightmares when they were small to know the cadence of his breath.

“Sasuke,” he says softly.

He is not expecting his brother to jerk awake. He blinks, wishing for his glasses. Sasuke has frozen, and is surely staring at him, and Itachi thinks that it would really help if he could see his brother’s face-

Niisan,” Sasuke breathes, and then Itachi finds himself smothered in as much of a hug as Sasuke can manage with him lying prone. It jolts him and his breath catches painfully, but he cannot care, too busy wrapping his arms around his brother and pressing his face into Sasuke’s hair, his eyes shut tight against the bright, wonderful pain in his heart.

“Sasuke,” he says again, choking a little.

Sasuke’s breath hitches too, and he holds Itachi tighter.

Itachi’s eyes burn.

He clutches his brother closer, and feels tears gather at the corner of his eyes.

~~~

94

“Niisan, why? Why?

“Why what, Sasuke?”

“All of it. Everything! Why did you do it?”

“I had to keep you safe.”

Niisan…

“Everything else was… Nothing else mattered, so long as I knew you were safe.”

“Niisan…”

“Sasuke.”

“I’m glad you’re alive, Niisan.”

~~~

95

Several hours later, Itachi is carefully sitting up in his hospital bed, blinking at the number of people now sitting or standing in the room. Whitewing assisted someone in finding the pack he had hidden on the outskirts of the city, so his glasses are on his nose and he can see again. He regards the tall, full-figured woman standing at the end of the bed solemnly.

“You’ll live,” pronounces Dr. Tsunade, the head of Konoha Hospital and the most brilliant surgeon in the country. “You’ll live, but you’re never going to be a fighter again.”

Itachi nods and accepts that with equanimity. It will be an adjustment, but it was never his favorite part of his job, even during those brief years when he was actually a police officer.

“And if you stress your lungs severely again, I won’t be responsible for the consequences,” she goes on. “If you damage them that badly again I will not repair them. It’s a small miracle you survived that once. Are we clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Itachi says.

“Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me,” she snaps. Her eyes sweep around to everyone else in the room. “One more hour, and then you had all better clear out of here. Just because he’ll live doesn’t mean he’s ready to put up with you lot for any extended period.”

With that, she spins on one heel and clicks determinedly out of the room, the dark-haired nurse following quickly behind her.

Itachi blinks after her, once, then turns his attention calmly to his visitors.

Sasuke has commandeered the chair at the head of the bed again and is sitting as close to Itachi as possible without actually being on the bed. He is using grumpiness to cover his relief, so Itachi gives him a soft, reassuring smile.

Naruto and Sakura are on the other side of the bed, looking both relieved and uncertain, and with them is a young man with his hair pulled up into a high ponytail.

“Nara Shikamaru,” he introduces himself, offering a hand that Itachi takes. “I’m Head Analyst at the NIA. Not here to stay, but I wanted to say thanks.”

Itachi feels something twist strangely in his chest, but he returns the handshake firmly. “You’re welcome,” he says softly, “I’m glad I was able to help.”

Shikamaru snorts. “We won thanks to your warnings,” he says bluntly. “Now, I’d best be getting back. The clean-up is going to take longer than a week and a half.”

Itachi closes his eyes for a moment. He has never expected gratitude for what he did – he hadn’t honestly expected to live long enough, and hadn’t supposed that anyone would want to offer thanks even if he had.

It means more than he thought it would.

Itachi surveys the room again, taking in his remaining visitors. Sasuke’s three new friends are standing behind him, looking as though they are here mostly because Sasuke is.

“Why don’t you introduce your friends to me, Sasuke,” Itachi suggests, and his brother glares at him so half-heartedly that Itachi can only just hold back an amused smile.

“That’s Naruto and Sakura,” Sasuke says, gesturing across the bed, “you know about them.”

“Yes,” Itachi says, turning to the two in question.

“We’ve met!” Naruto says, grinning, “man, I can’t believe you were undercover with Akatsuki for ten years! That is so cool!”

Itachi blinks at this display of enthusiasm. The pink-haired young woman sighs and smacks her friend lightly on the back of his head.

“Naruto. I’m sure it was not a pleasant job, and he probably doesn’t want to think about it right now.”

“Yeah, but it’s still cool that he did it,” Naruto insists, pouting.

“Thank you,” Itachi tells him, “and thank you for your help conveying my warning.”

“Hey, no problem!” Naruto grins brightly enough to light up the room.

Itachi smiles a little in return, and then looks at Sakura. “I have enjoyed your blog,” he tells her.

“You read my blog?” she asks, seeming lost between embarrassment and disbelief. Her cheeks go pink and her green eyes are comically wide.

Itachi nods solemnly, aware that Naruto and his brother are also gaping at him. “It was good to know what was going on in Sasuke’s life, and with his friends.”

“Oh,” Sakura says.

“And,” Itachi goes on, still very solemn, “I have learned a great deal of interesting things about slugs.”

Sakura covers her face with her hands, and Itachi’s mouth quirks up into a smile.

“Wow,” Naruto says, looking over at Sasuke, “how come your brother has more of a sense of humor than you do?”

“Shut up,” Sasuke says from between gritted teeth, but the corners of his mouth are twitching too. Itachi turns back to his brother and the three who are standing behind him.

“This is Karin,” Sasuke says grudgingly, gesturing to the young woman with bright red hair and glasses. “She kept you alive until we could get you to the hospital.”

“Thank you,” Itachi tells her, meaning it.

“It was nothing,” Karin says, her cheeks also very pink, refusing to meet his gaze.

“This is Juugo,” Sasuke goes on, gesturing to the tall young man with orange hair, “and Suigetsu.”

The shorter young man with pale hair offers Itachi a smile full of very familiar sharp teeth, and Itachi’s eyes widen slightly. “You are from Water Country,” he says, not really a question.

“Yeah,” Suigetsu responds, a little surprised. “How did you know?”

Itachi starts to respond, but finds that any mention of Kisame sits heavily on his tongue, so instead he draws in a slow breath and shakes his head slightly. “It’s not important.”

“They used to work for Orochimaru,” Sasuke explains, gesturing to the three behind him, “but didn’t want to anymore, and decided to help me when I asked. Since I- Since I wasn’t talking to Sakura and Naruto then,” here he pauses to exchange a careful glance with his two best friends, who return the gaze, “I asked them.”

Itachi nods slowly, reading from the tensions in the room that these six still have some things to resolve. He thinks it unlikely that he will be able help at all, and Sasuke is at least back on speaking terms with his childhood friends, so Itachi suspects that everything will get worked out.

“I am glad that you have had good allies,” he says truthfully, and the awkwardness eases slightly. “So, tell me what has happened.”

He has been unconscious for a week and a half, with some doubt on Tsunade’s part as to whether or not he would ever wake up. He does not tell Sasuke that he hadn’t intended to, but is now glad that he has survived after all.

The biggest news of the war that he had not known was that Madara and Pain had in fact come to Konoha, though their goal here seems not to have been Itachi. Pain is dead, defeated in part by Naruto’s mentor Jiraiya, who died in the fight, and finished off by Naruto himself. Naruto also clashed with Madara at the very end, pulling out all of his recently-discovered powers as the carrier of the nine-tailed fox and shifting into that massive, destructive form in order to win.

Itachi is displeased to hear, however, that although the masked leader of Akatsuki was certainly defeated here, his body was never recovered and his death seems uncertain. Still, it will be a long time before he could possibly become a threat again, so Itachi draws a slow deep breath and does his best to let it go.

A brief coughing fit reminds him that regardless of whether or not Madara is still out there, it cannot be his problem any longer.

“All right,” the dark-haired nurse from earlier has returned, this time without Dr. Tsunade. “It’s time to let him rest. Everyone out.”

“Thank you all for coming,” Itachi tells them, and receives smiles or nods in return as they start to file out. He takes a quick glance at Sasuke’s mutinous expression, and then adds to the nurse, “I would rather that my brother stay with me.”

“Very well,” she acquiesces, “but he needs to let you rest.”

“I will,” Itachi promises. The nurse nods and follows the others out, closing the door quietly behind her. Then he says, quietly, “Sasuke.”

“Niisan?”

Even after all this time, Sasuke pulls away from the poke a heartbeat too late. Itachi swallows against the painful tightness in his heart at that realization.

When he beckons a second time, Sasuke comes without hesitation. They hold each other for a long time.

~~~

96

“I’ve spoken with the NIA,” Hatake Kakashi says, voice neutral, “and have their assurances that everything you did with Akatsuki was for purposes of keeping your cover.”

Itachi nods.

“There is, however, the matter of your cousin’s death still to be addressed,” the detective goes on.

“I understand,” Itachi says. “I will tell you everything, and cooperate with whatever action you deem appropriate.”

Kakashi seems to relax minutely at this, and Itachi is glad the man chose to come when Sasuke is not at the hospital. Sasuke will protest if Kakashi chooses to arrest Itachi for his part in Shisui’s death, and Itachi does not want that. He will abide by the decision of the police.

“What happened that day?” Kakashi prompts, his voice still neutral.

Itachi takes a carefully deep breath, and closes his eyes. Shisui’s shade has been absent from his mind since he woke, but it returns to him now. “You will know from the NIA that Shisui fought with Danzo of Root on that afternoon, and was severely injured,” Itachi begins, opening dark eyes again. Kakashi nods.

“I was waiting for him by the river. We often met in that particular place. He was later than I expected that day. He stumbled out of the woods missing an eye, and refused to go to a hospital. Danzo had learned that he possessed the Sharingan, and neither of us wanted him to have those powers at his disposal. Neither did we want Fugaku to learn of it, which he almost certainly would have if Shisui had gone to the hospital; they watch for it in all the Uchiha,” Itachi takes another careful breath, then meets Kakashi’s one-eyed gaze. “Shisui decided that suicide was the best option, and requested my help carrying it out. He penned the note, and then I held him under the river until he drowned.”

He can hear the river, and Shisui’s face floats cold and pale before his eyes.

“How severe were his injuries?” Kakashi asks then, quietly.

“I do not know the full extent of them,” Itachi says, making an effort to pull his senses back to the present. “His left eye was gone. His breathing was also off. I suspect that he sustained significant injuries to his torso. He may have had a punctured lung.”

“Meaning he might not have survived much longer, even if all he had done was refuse to go to a hospital.”

Itachi looks at Kakashi, and frowns very slightly. “I will take responsibility for my actions.”

Kakashi looks back at him, steady. “And I will do my job by taking into account all of the relevant facts.”

They stare for another minute, and in the end it is Itachi who looks away first.

Kakashi sighs gustily behind his mask. “Itachi. The final call about this case has been given to me,” he tells Itachi, “because it’s been a cold case for so long and things are a little bit disorganized at Headquarters right now.” The man clearly has a gift for understatement. “Given all of the circumstances, I am inclined to clear you of guilt. If,” he holds up a hand to stop Itachi’s protest, “if you are absolutely insistent on giving me more work by making a martyr of yourself, then I will come back to arrest you when Dr. Tsunade has cleared you to leave the hospital. But, to be frank, I would rather not.”

Itachi stares at him, and then closes his eyes again, long-held pain and guilt and grief tightening his chest. Shisui’s shade waits for him there in the darkness behind his eyelids…

It is Shisui’s shade, but this time he watches Itachi with a clear, calm eye, his mouth quirked up in a smile. He looks peaceful.

Itachi has to curl up then, burying his face in his arms, trembling but once again unable to find any tears. The detective waits him out, surprisingly patient. At last, Itachi looks up and says “All right,” in a hoarse voice.

He does not yet know what he will do with such an absolution, but neither will he turn it away.

“Good,” Kakashi says, rising. “Now, get some rest. Tsunade will kill me if I’ve made one of her patients worse somehow.”

Itachi nods, and the detective goes out.

That night, Itachi dreams of his cousin. He dreams of fighting together, of trying to sneak paperwork onto each other’s desks, of occasional lunch out. He dreams of lazy afternoons by the river. He dreams of easy laughter and teasing and a crooked smile.

He dreams, and does not wake until morning.

~~~

97

Itachi is released from the hospital three weeks after he first woke up.

Sasuke had offered him a place to stay, but Itachi decided that it would be for the best if they each had their own space. There are still years of distance between them, and no matter his motives Itachi was cruel to his brother, deliberately and even now without remorse. However happy they both are to have been reunited, that is a thing not so quickly forgotten…or forgiven. He believes that Sasuke will forgive him for it one day, but it is going to take time. Until then, the fact that his little brother is glad to have him back in Konoha and alive is more than enough for Itachi.

Between his pay from years of work for Akatsuki, and the generous “bonuses” he has received from the NIA now that it is safe for them to give him money, he is actually quite well off. This combined with some assistance from his brother and Sakura means that there is an apartment waiting for him when he gets out of the hospital.

It is a nice place, he finds. The apartment itself is on the tenth floor and fairly small, with a kitchen that runs into a living room, a bathroom with a full bath, and one bedroom. Itachi doesn’t feel that he needs more space than this. He chose this particular apartment out of several similar places largely because this one is high up and has a large balcony where he can sit outside and the crows can perch themselves.

It will be strange to not be constantly on the move after so many years, but Itachi is looking forward to not living out of hotel rooms ever again.

He sits on his balcony, surrounded by crows, and watches the city begin to rebuild.

~~~

98

“So Mother turned herself in?”

“Yeah,” Sasuke says, sitting down across from Itachi with a mug of coffee. Itachi clutches his own mug of tea carefully, watching the steam rise, and nods. They are sitting at Sasuke’s kitchen table during one of Itachi’s twice-weekly visits, and for the first time the question of what exactly happened to the rest of the family has come up.

“She said that she knew all along and did nothing to try and stop Father or the others,” Sasuke says, frowning down at his own cup. “I think they’ll probably give her a lesser sentence because she turned herself in and wasn’t directly involved, but none of them are going to receive much leniency.”

“Nor should they,” Itachi says, sipping his tea carefully.

“No,” Sasuke agrees, but he is still frowning. “I’m the only one left at work, though some of the wider family weren’t a part of the conspiracy at all and weren’t arrested. They’re being left alone, mostly, but plenty of people in the city say we should all be arrested anyway.”

Itachi frowns too, and shakes his head. “I am glad to know that the NIA and the lower police structure are not acting on the basis of public opinion.”

“No,” Sasuke says, and his expression eases somewhat.

They sit in silence for awhile. Things are, as Itachi has expected, tense and awkward between them now that he has mostly recovered and is out of the hospital. It could be worse, though, and Sasuke is insistent that they see each other a few times a week. So, Itachi goes to his brother’s apartment twice a week, and Sasuke comes to his once.

“They are going to let you stay with the police?” he asks then, and Sasuke shrugs but nods.

“I think so. I’ve been demoted, but nothing has been said about it being permanent, so there’s no reason I can’t work my way back up.” He frowns again, then looks up at his brother. “I’d like to do it right.”

Itachi nods approvingly. No single family should be in charge of any of Fire Country’s law enforcement institutions, but if Sasuke can earn his place as head of the police, then there is no reason he shouldn’t have the position. “If” isn’t even the appropriate word, since Itachi has every confidence that his little brother will earn that position, but it will take time.

Sasuke sighs, likely thinking the same thing. Itachi does his best to think of something to distract him. A quick glance around the apartment reveals the corner of a large glass tank showing through the partly-open door to Sasuke’s bedroom, and reminds him of something he has been meaning to ask. His brother’s recent, off-duty tendency to wear loose, belted shirts of one sort or another does not entirely hide the fact that he has something wrapped around his waist under the shirt, so Itachi suspects that his brother has at least one friend close by.

Itachi thinks of Whitewing, and smiles into his tea.

“Why don’t you introduce me to your friends?” he asks when he sets his mug down. He ignores Sasuke’s blink of confusion. “So long as they won’t bite me, of course.”

Sasuke’s confusion turns to surprise. “Oh.”

Itachi tilts his head to one side and smiles patiently. Sasuke’s surprise fades into a grumble, but he reaches one hand down to touch the side of his waist. The fabric shifts, and after a moment a narrow, grey-scaled head with dark eyes emerges from Sasuke’s loose collar. The snake drapes itself around Sasuke’s neck, swiveling around to survey the room, its dark tongue flickering in and out as it tastes the air.

“His name is Tanasu,” Sasuke says softly, lifting one hand to stroke the snake’s head carefully. “He’s a black mamba.”

Itachi blinks, and keeps himself very still. They are one of the fastest and most venomous snakes in the world, he remembers from his reading some years before, native to the scrubland in certain parts of Wind Country. “You had him with you during the fight,” Itachi says, recognizing the grey coloring.

Sasuke nods. “He’s fast enough to be helpful, and his venom is particularly toxic. A head or neck bite would kill fast without treatment.”

Itachi nods. The snake flicks its tongue at him, and watches, but doesn’t rear up or open its mouth, choosing to stay draped easily around Sasuke’s neck and shoulders.

“He’s still young. He’ll be almost three meters long when he finishes growing,” Sasuke says, getting up to put his empty mug in the sink, “so I won’t be able to keep him in my shirt then.”

“No,” Itachi agrees, torn between amusement and relief at this fact. It is one thing to know that his brother keeps company with snakes, and another to see him so casually handling one of the most deadly species in the world.

Sasuke goes into his bedroom then, and comes back draped in three more snakes, with two more slithering across the floor after him. They make their own way up onto the table, winding up the legs as Sasuke sits down again.

Itachi smiles, amusement winning out over his concern. He is a little bit delighted to see his brother as comfortable with these companions as he himself is with the crows, for it is clear that however dangerous some of these animals might be to most people, they are completely at ease around Sasuke.

With the atmosphere between them considerably lightened, Itachi sets aside his mug and settles back in his chair for another round of introductions.

~~~

Chapter Text

99

Itachi walks home at twilight one evening a month and a half after his return to Konoha. Whitewing sits on his shoulder, happily stuffed full of food scraps. Naruto had hosted a cook-out for friends to celebrate the city’s recovery, and both he and Sasuke insisted that Itachi attend. It was a rather large party, all things considered, and Itachi enjoyed it more than he thought he might.

He is glad to have some solitude again, though, as he paces carefully through the quiet, darkening streets. Crows drift along overhead, calling quietly to each other and to Whitewing as they head for their roosts.

Itachi pays their calls of ‘welcome home, flockmate,’ no particular mind, for more of the flock are gathering together for the night with each passing moment, and he is not expecting the presence of any human “flockmates.”

Then he hears familiar footsteps on the sidewalk behind him and comes to an abrupt halt, stunned.

He had not supposed he would ever hear this particular tread again. He thinks that maybe the sound should not be as welcome as it is…but ten years is a long time. The grin he receives when he turns around is as sharp as ever, if weary and more than a little bit wry.

“Kisame.” Itachi greets his former partner calmly. Whitewing resettles herself on his shoulder, cawing her own greeting.

“Itachi-san,” the blue-haired man says. He looks rather the worse for wear. The Akatsuki coat is gone, and his clothes are torn and stained with battle and travel. He is noticeably thinner than Itachi remembers him, and sports bandages visible under his clothes, indicating wounds serious enough that his healing abilities could not deal with them quickly. Samehada is still strapped to his back, though, and he is steady on his feet.

“Now who is not taking care of himself?” Itachi asks, half-serious, half-amused. He turns to continue on towards his apartment, expecting Kisame to follow.

The other man’s footsteps do not resume, though, and Itachi stops and turns again to frown slightly at him. Kisame has not moved.

“I was passing through, Itachi-san,” he explains, “and thought I might as well see if you managed to keep yourself alive.”

“With some assistance, yes,” Itachi says, “I am well. You need at least one night of decent rest. Come.”

Kisame rolls his eyes. “Do you really want to harbor a criminal, Itachi-san?”

Itachi just looks at him, dark eyes steady behind his glasses.

After a long silence, Whitewing caws at them both peremptorily. Itachi smiles slightly and Kisame releases a put-upon sigh.

“Bossy bird,” he says to Whitewing, and then shrugs at Itachi. “You’re the one with something to lose.”

Itachi doesn’t deign to reply to that, and waits for Kisame to join him before moving on.

Their steps fall into sync within three paces, and they return to Itachi’s apartment in familiar silence.

~~~

100

A shower and some food do a great deal to relieve the weariness pinching the corners of Kisame’s eyes and mouth. He explains how Akatsuki lost the fight up in Cloud Country as he eats, and then sits at the kitchen table, watching Itachi clean up. Cool autumn air drifts in from the open balcony door along with the nighttime sounds of the city.

“What will you do now?” Itachi asks after a little while.

Kisame sips his tea and shrugs. “Go south. The southern islands don’t have many dealings with the governments up here on the mainland, so I can lay low for awhile.” Itachi nods, wiping down the counters with careful, precise movements. “After that…I don’t know. I’ll have to be significantly stronger before I set foot in Kumo, or their Eight-Tails carrier will best me again. He almost took Samehada from me as it was.”

Itachi’s mouth quirks up slightly at the possessive frown Kisame gives his strange, sharkskin sword. “You don’t like Cloud Country anyway,” he points out quietly.

“Too damn cold,” Kisame grumbles, agreeing. “But all the countries will be looking for former Akatsuki members for quite awhile. So I need to stay off the mainland.”

Done cleaning up, Itachi makes himself some tea and sits across from the other man at the table. Kisame looks at him and smiles wryly.

“Looks like you were right after all, Itachi-san,” he says.

Itachi shrugs, one-shouldered even though Whitewing has gone to roost with the rest of the flock. “This time,” he agrees. “But if war ever becomes the reality that people want, then Akatsuki’s vision will come true.”

Kisame nods, and they lapse into silence again. Itachi slowly turns an idea over in his mind. It couldn’t work now or anytime soon, but maybe in the future. He decides not to mention it just yet.

“Three days,” he says instead, “you’ll be fully recovered by then, and should make it south with no trouble.”

Kisame looks at him uncertainly for a long minute, then sighs. “There’s no point arguing with you, is there, Itachi-san?”

“No,” Itachi says, and smiles behind his tea cup.

“All right.” Kisame’s grumbling does little to hide the hopeful relief in his eyes, and the muscles of his shoulders relax minutely.

Itachi relaxes too, no longer tense from the suddenness and uncertainty of this unexpected reunion with the man he spent the last ten years of his life with. He and Kisame do not see eye-to-eye on any number of matters, but living with someone for so long does change things, as Kisame told him almost a year ago, and they are friends, however strange it might still seem.

They slip so easily back into their old routines that evening that Itachi has to stop and remember that they have spent the past month and a half apart. It will be strange when Kisame leaves again in a few days, perhaps, but Itachi won’t try to dissuade him. Kisame’s plan is definitely the right one for now.

Regardless of how natural this is, Itachi doesn’t really mind the thought of finally having space and time to himself.

~~~

101

It is late afternoon on the second day of Kisame’s stay, and Itachi is standing in his entryway, steeling himself for a trip he isn’t entirely sure he’s ready to make.

“Want some company, Itachi-san?” Kisame asks softly when Itachi has been staring at the door for a solid ten minutes.

Itachi can’t find his voice, but nods fractionally. When Kisame opens the door, Itachi manages to get his body moving, and after that it is a little bit easier.

He feels surprisingly calm as they make their way unobtrusively through the city, even if his tongue is too heavy to speak. He holds onto that calm even as they eventually emerge from the park trees and move slowly down the shallow grassy slope to the bank of the Naka River.

The area is more overgrown than Itachi remembers, and there isn’t even any trash to indicate that teenagers sneak down here after dark. Something Itachi identifies as loneliness tightens his heart painfully, and he swallows. As always, the sound of the river flowing just steps away overwhelms all other sounds, and only the rapid beating of his heart is perceptible over it.

He is aware, peripherally, of Kisame standing back quietly, present but not meaning to interact. Itachi is grateful.

He takes a few slow breaths, takes off his glasses, and then finishes the journey down to the water’s edge.

Kneeling in exactly the same place he knelt ten years ago, Itachi plunges his hands into the chilly waters of the Naka River and lets memory supply the feeling of his cousin’s shoulders under his palms.

The sensation of water flowing over his hands triggers the Sharingan, and for the first time since he woke in the hospital, Itachi’s eyes go red.

He does not know how long he kneels there, watching water flow over his hands with too-sharp clarity as cold mud seeps into his knees.

When his eyes are burning and his hands are numb, Itachi stands. He turns and takes five paces away from the water, and then allows himself to do what he did not (could not) do ten years ago: he sinks to his knees, buries his face in cold, wet hands, and cries.

He cries quietly, with only the hitching of his shoulders to indicate that there are hot tears welling out of his eyes, keeping the palms of his hands wet.

He cries for his cousin. He cries for the fear and pain and betrayal in his brother’s eyes. He cries for a lost family, a lost home, a lost life. He cries, at the end, for himself.

Gradually the tears slow, and the knowledge that Kisame is waiting helps Itachi pull himself back together. He takes a few more deep breaths, accepting the painful twinge in his lungs without wincing. He carefully dries his face on a sleeve, and gets to his feet. His eyes are black again, his vision slightly blurry even through his glasses when he pulls them out of his pocket and puts them on.

He thinks of how much Shisui would have teased him about needing to wear glasses, and feels the tears well up again.

It would almost be embarrassing, if he weren’t so terribly relieved at finally being able to cry about this. If anyone that he has lost is worth shedding tears over, it is Shisui.

Itachi turns to look at the river again, at the exact spot along the bank where he drowned his cousin and thinks, /Good-bye, Shisui./

Shisui’s shade, faint now in his mind and standing at the edge of the water, smiles and says, /Good-bye, Itachi./

He lets those last few tears drop from his eyes, then wipes them away and turns from the river. He goes back up the little slope to the edge of the trees where Kisame is waiting.

The blue-haired man puts a hand on Itachi’s shoulder when Itachi stops next to him. They stand that way for a long minute until Itachi nods, and Kisame steps back.

Neither of them speak, but Itachi knows somehow that by the time they are back at his apartment, his voice will have returned.

Itachi also finds that with every step he takes away from the river, he feels a little bit more human.

~~~

102

At dusk on the third day, Itachi and Kisame stand outside Itachi’s apartment building. Rest and good food have allowed Kisame’s body to finish healing itself, so his wounds are gone and he no longer seems unusually thin. His clothes are still worn, but at least they are clean and have the worst tears mended.

“Thanks, Itachi-san,” he says.

Itachi nods, and decides that maybe now is the time to mention his idea from the other night.

“You could try the third option,” he tells Kisame.

The blue-haired man frowns at him, confused.

“You’ve tried being a law agent who acts like a criminal,” Itachi clarifies, “and an actual criminal.”

“So maybe I should try being a law agent who acts like a law agent?” Kisame finishes, sounding both skeptical and amused, “Or a criminal who acts like a law agent?”

“I was thinking the first,” Itachi says.

“Well, the second seems to have worked pretty well for you, Itachi-san,” Kisame counters.

Itachi pauses, then combines a shrug with a nod. “Just something to think about, when you get tired of lying around on a beach.”

Kisame chuckles, and Itachi smiles slightly; they both know that Kisame won’t ever really be tired of the beach, but he will eventually get restless enough to move on.

“I’ll think about it,” Kisame agrees. Then the mirth fades from his face. “Won’t know what kind of life I’ve lived until I’ve lived it, after all.”

Itachi closes his eyes in acknowledgment. He is glad to know that his own words from so long ago will, if only just a little, help his friend.

“Who knows,” Kisame goes on more lightly, “there are always some of the less-official fighting tournaments. They looked interesting every time we watched.”

Itachi nods. Kisame would definitely enjoy that sort of thing.

“Take care of yourself, Itachi-san,” his friend says then, suddenly quiet and solemn again.

“You as well,” Itachi replies, meeting the other man’s eyes.

Kisame grins, sharp and white. “Sure thing, Itachi-san. I’ll see you around.”

Itachi nods, and then watches quietly until the other man turns the corner at the end of the street. Then he returns to his apartment, content with the knowledge that when the time is right, they will see each other again.

~~~

103

Konoha is recovering well from the fighting. The physical rebuilding is underway, although some of the larger reconstruction projects (such as the new stadium) are being delayed until spring.

The people are healing too. The gangs all took enormous losses in the fighting, both from each other and from the city’s law enforcement, and it will be some time before they regroup, leaving Konoha at least temporarily safer than it was before. There is some hope that the NIA and police can use this opportunity to gain a permanent upper hand in that struggle.

Hatake Kakashi has been made the new commander of the National Police Force, much to his dismay. He has quietly accelerated some of Sasuke’s leadership training despite Sasuke’s technical demotion and current lack of favor. Itachi suspects, though, that in a few years people will be more inclined to remember that Sasuke was the one Uchiha who remained loyal, and actually stopped the rest of the Uchiha from going through with their conspiracy. He also suspects that Kakashi is aware of this, because by that time, his brother should be ready to take over from the grey-haired detective.

Uzumaki Naruto looks like an equally easy candidate for Sixth Executive Director of the NIA, being the hero of the war for defeating Pain and fighting off Madara. Nara Shikamaru’s father has been serving as the Fifth Director since Sarutobi’s death years ago, but he is apparently not terribly fond of the position, and will be happy to pass it on to Naruto once he has more training and experience.

Haruno Sakura, though still working part-time at the NIA for now, has decided to go back to school to turn her nursing degree into a full medical degree. Itachi knows she is more than smart enough for it, and thinks the chances of her following in her mentor Tsunade’s footsteps are high. She will be a welcome addition to Fire Country’s already highly regarded doctors.

Even Sasuke’s three new friends, Karin, Juugo and Suigetsu, have been recruited by the police to help round up the remnants of Orochimaru’s criminal network. They seem (at least for now) to be settling in fairly well.

It is a strange sensation, to go about his days quietly and know that the quiet is not a sign of some impending disaster or looming threat. It simply is what it is, quiet. Peace. Itachi watches the city from his balcony by day, and walks slowly through the streets by night, and gradually it sinks in: he did what he set out to do.

~~~

104

A month after Kisame’s departure and as healthy as he will ever be, Itachi returns to work.

He received (quiet) offers from a number of places who had knowledge or at least rumors about his skills, including the police, but in the end he has decided to stay on with the NIA.

Given that he is no longer able to be a field agent, the job of analyst sounds appealing to him, at least for the time being. It is a new thing for him, to sit at a desk all day and put his mind to work in complete safety, and then go home to his own, safe apartment and not have to worry about keeping some kind of cover.

Every evening, he sits out on his balcony with the crows and watches the sun set. He sees his brother at least three times a week, and will be here to have lunch with him on his birthday next year. He has made his peace with Shisui, and although his sleep is not always undisturbed, his nightmares and insomnia have lessened significantly. He has been to see and speak with his mother. Kisame sends him wonderfully sarcastic postcards from a tiny tropical island in the southern ocean, which make a nice addition to the refrigerator as colder weather sets in here in Konoha.

It feels, strangely and unsettlingly, like something that could be a happy ending.

~~~

105

Itachi is going blind.

It will not happen tomorrow, nor the day after, but someday he will wake up and the world will be dark. Already, he is legally blind without his glasses, though for now a very strong prescription is sufficient to let him see.

He has read through all of the confiscated Uchiha papers, and confirmed from some of them that it was probably the use (or perhaps even just the acquisition) of his Mangekyou Sharingan that is causing the deterioration, and that it is irreversible. He is relieved for Sasuke’s sake that the normal Sharingan does not appear to cause any such deterioration, so his brother’s eyes should remain fine.

He is not happy about his own impending loss of sight, but finds that he can accept it. For a time he had hoped that the Sharingan itself might allow him to see even after his normal vision has gone, but lately even the Sharingan’s sight is beginning to blur.

Part of Itachi thinks that perhaps it is better this way. If his blindness is complete, then at least he can face it as a challenge to overcome, rather than a handicap that he can sometimes sneak around.

In a way, it helps to know that it is coming, though there are days when he looks at dark eyes in the mirror and feels helpless with fear and anger.

Other days, when he has successfully made himself dinner and then cleaned up without once opening his eyes, Itachi feels no despair at all.

~~~

106

Itachi’s most recent memory is crows. He stands on his balcony at sunrise and looks out at a sky full of crows. The whole flock has taken flight, their wings overlapping against the early morning sky, their voices raised in a joyous cacophony of sound.

Itachi looks, and listens, and smiles.

~~~

Fin.