He woke at once, his hand on a kunai; the sound had been too loud and graceless to be one of the neighborhood's wandering cats. He waited, but there was no further sound. Perhaps it had been just a cat after all, or a noise in his dream that he had mistaken for a sound in reality because he'd been waking up already. What had he been dreaming about? He should remember - it had only been moments ago - but the dream was already shredding into incoherence. Some kind of monstrous armored skeleton, and lightning, and a snake - but it had all been so blurry that it was impossible to organize the images into a real narrative. It had only been a dream.
Another few minutes of quiet, and he began to relax back into sleep when something cracked. A creak and he rose, a faint rough, shuffling sound and his kunai was back in his hand. Someone was in the house, and if they made just one more noise, he could find them...
There, from one of the spare bedrooms. He slipped out of his room in perfect silence and moved through the dark halls till he reached the right room. He slid the door open carefully, staying in its shadow as moonlight shone through the gradually widening crack, but there were no new sounds; he took a cautious look around the edge of the door and saw no one, nothing that immediately struck him as out of place. The empty room smelled wrong, though. It should have smelled of dust, or at best a hint of the lemony cleaner his mother used; instead there was the sharp tang of lightning-struck air, the choking smell of charred cloth and ash, the metallic scent of -
He opened the door completely and saw dark smears on the floor.
For a moment he was perfectly still, even as something in him protested - not here, not in my home - and then reflexively he checked the room's corners and blind spots before kneeling to look closer at the stains. The moon was full, but its light through the window was at the wrong angle and made it difficult to see the entire pattern of the stains clearly.
He was about to get up when the room's overhead light was switched on. "What are you doing?" his mother said, her voice thick with sleep. "I thought I heard someone making - wait," and her voice sharpened, fully awake. "Is that blood?"
"Yes," Itachi said.
Mikoto inspected the bloodstains while Itachi put away his kunai and checked the rest of the room. There was very little in it; an unmade bed, a small empty chest of drawers with some scratches on the top and a cracked handle on the middle drawer, and two slightly battered cardboard boxes filled with old baby clothes and toys that had never been thrown out or given away. None of it had been disturbed. He spent the most time on the room's single large window, activating his sharingan to make sure he had missed nothing.
"Well, here's the good news," Mikoto said, and Itachi turned away from the window to look at her. "There's not nearly enough blood here for any mortal wounds - it looks more like someone with a lot of little injuries decided this was the perfect place to collapse. See, it's mostly light patches with a very thin layer of actual blood, except here -" She pointed at a small, uneven puddle of blood next to one of the light smears. "- where I think our mystery guest's head was. A nosebleed, I would say, possibly from hitting the floor face-first. And here -" Her finger hovered just above a narrow streak a moderate distance away from the possible nosebleed. "- where there may have been a deeper cut, maybe to the side or upper chest. But no serious bleeding, so at least we're not worrying about a murder. Just why someone who'd taken a beating would decide to break into our house to take a minute's nap and then run off."
She sat back and smiled up at Itachi, pleased with her deductions, and another time Itachi might have smiled in return; at the moment he was too concerned with what he'd found around the window. "I'm not sure that they ran off," he said. "What exactly did you hear?"
"A thump," she said, "like one of the bigger cats jumped off something but louder, which would be our guest falling down - then a creak like someone opening the window, a dragging sound, and then another creak - hm." Her smile vanished. "The window's closed now."
"It appears to have been cracked open from the outside, then shut again," Itachi said. "There's no blood on the inner frame, but on the outside I found a small drop close to the broken latch."
"That was clumsy of them, wasn't it?" Mikoto stood up and stretched, then went to the window to see for herself. "And the sequence of sounds isn't right - somehow our guest collapsed in here before they opened the window, and then someone with enough fresh blood on their hands to drip was kind enough to break in and pick them up... You can't flash-step through a wall, so it would have had to be some kind of teleportation, and that's not an everyday technique. This doesn't look good."
Itachi nodded, and bent down to look at the blood stains in the light. He could almost see the outline of a body in the pattern of bloody patches; an out-flung arm there, the impression of a scraped shoulder not far above it, what could have been the outline of bloody toes over there. Whoever they were, he could guess that they were close to his own height.
"- ought to get Shisui," his mother was saying, "and a good tracker, one of the Inuzuka -"
A loud banging came from the front door along with indistinct shouting and they both started, Itachi's kunai coming to his hand again; Mikoto put her hand on his head and said, "Let your father take care of it. Maybe someone's already found our mystery guest, and we can go back to bed."
Shisui's voice rose out of the crowd, calling for Itachi, and Itachi moved out from under his mother's hand and went towards the front door. There were four members of the police there with a civilian in bloody clothes, all talking loudly at Fugaku, but Shisui had elbowed his way past them and was running down the hall towards Itachi's room. He stopped dead when he saw Itachi. "Oh, good, you're up already," he said cheerfully, as if he hadn't been yelling like a panicked genin a moment ago. "Listen, it's awful - someone just broke into the bakery and killed the old man there and Aunt Uruchi, too. The police are on it already, but -"
"But nothing, Shisui-kun," Mikoto said from behind Itachi. "Jounin or not, you're still a junior officer, you don't need to get mixed up in a murder when we have another mystery for you."
Fugaku said something short and final-sounding to the officers at the door, then shut it and turned to face them. "We'll have to see," he said. "What are the two of you doing up, anyway?"
Mikoto told him about the noises and bloodstains while Shisui took Itachi's shoulders and steered him a short distance down the hall. "I don't know what's going on," he whispered, "but this is all suspicious as hell. Who'd go after a baker and his nice wife? They weren't even shinobi, they'd both retired years and years ago... And you had a break-in here too, sounds like."
Itachi nodded, thinking. Blood on the spare room's floor, but not on the window frame; the drop by the window's latch, as fresh as the blood inside. There was a connection.
"You two, come here," Fugaku said, and they obeyed at once. "Yashiro and Tekka are officially in charge of investigating the murder of Uruchi and Teyaki, but Itachi, I want you to look at the scene as well. Shisui, you've already seen it?"
"Good. You'll look at the crime scene here, then I want you to meet with Itachi and Yashiro to discuss possible similarities and connections." Itachi's father ruined the sharpness of the order with a yawn, which he covered with a sleeve and then turned into a scowl. "Get a tracking specialist -"
"An Inuzuka," Mikoto said. "Don't give me that look, dear, you know they're the best. But does Itachi really need to be involved?"
"He discovered the scene here," said Fugaku. "And with two murders in the compound itself, the Hokage will want an ANBU member investigating with the police anyway; it might as well be Itachi. Get a tracker and investigate possible trails from here and from Teyaki's shop, and get radios from the supply department to keep in touch with each other." He frowned slightly. "I would hope that two prodigies such as yourselves won't need back-up, but keep an open channel just in case. We don't know who we're dealing with, and I don't want either of you taking foolish risks."
"Yes, sir," Shisui said, "I'll take care of Ita-chan, don't you worry -"
Without a shift in expression, Itachi elbowed Shisui sharply in the side. "We'll be careful," he said.
"And I will be, too," said Mikoto. "I couldn't sleep again even if I wanted to, I might as well go with -"
"Absolutely not," Fugaku snapped. "This is a matter for the police and ANBU, not a special jounin."
She sighed. "Fine, then I'll handle radio communications," she said. "And coordinate operations or anything else necessary, since you'll need to be at the office. What a night this is turning out to be... Wait, dear, did you check on -"
"Yes, yes, he's fine - sleeping soundly. Hasn't noticed a thing."
Itachi glanced out of a window and saw thin clouds stretch across the moon's face. He started to turn towards Shisui and his eyes suddenly snapped back to the window, blinking. The clouds were black with silver outlines, as they should have been, but for an instant, seen out of the corner of his eyes, the moonlit edges had appeared red. Almost as if -
- dawn were close, but it was nearly midnight; there was a long time to come before the sun rose.
"All right, let's get started," Shisui said, running a hand through his messy hair. "How long do you think you'll take, Itachi? Hey - Itachi?"
Itachi looked away from the shrouded moon with some effort. "Not long," he said. "I'll meet you back here in an hour with the tracker and Yashiro-san."