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Days in Good Company

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Rebecca Nayland sighed quietly as her manager headed back to his office, and added yet another item to the list that she secretly called ‘Things To Be Done For All The Idiots In This Place Who Couldn’t Organize Their Way Out Of A Paper Bag, Into Which Paper Bag They Should All Be Confined For Wasting So Much Of My Time.’

On her computer screen and desk, of course, it was merely labeled ‘To Do.’

Slipping this latest mess of a folder into its proper place, priority-wise, in the stack of similar folders that was threatening to take over the right side of her desk, she straightened her back and grimly returned to work. Although most of the time she honestly enjoyed her work as a secretary, she wished that fewer of her co-workers and bosses were so idiotic. Honestly, she wasn’t sure how this company kept running, sometimes.

Enough of that, she chided herself. There are intelligent people here too. They just all happen to work in other departments. Another quick shake of her head and she grabbed another file off the top of her ‘To Do’ stack, determined to have at least half of that stack on the ‘Done’ side of her desk by the end of the day.

Half an hour later, that determination was flagging slightly.

Argh! Is it too much to ask for the man to make at least a slight effort towards having legible handwriting? She scowled down at the letter, trying to make out a particularly obscure set of squiggles, and was just about to give up on the whole thing when a deep, quiet voice called her attention out to the far side of her desk.

“Pardon me, but do you have a moment, Miss…Nayland?”

Rebecca looked up, and was glad that her professional training had included keeping her reactions under control.

Otherwise, I’d be gaping rather badly right now, she admitted to herself. Hot damn!

The man standing in front of her had smooth, pale skin, a pair of deep black eyes, and long black hair pulled into a low ponytail. Some hair (which looked thick and silky even from across the desk and under bad office lighting) escaped from the hair-tie to hang loose around his thin, sculptured face. He wore his dark suit like a second skin, with everything perfectly in place, from the neat knot on his tie down to the polished tips of his shoes.

That is probably the best looking man I have seen in a long time, Rebecca thought, keeping her expression polite and blank. He must be new, otherwise I’d certainly have remembered seeing him around before now!

“Yes,” she replied, and it wasn’t quite a lie. “What can I help you with, Mr.…?”

“Aoru,” he replied to her query. “Itachi Aoru.”

Ah, that’s right. I did hear that old Ben had hired a new analyst to take his place under Mr. Cochran before he quit. Huh.

“I realize that you are busy, Miss Nayland, but I was told that you were the best person to ask for arranging more complicated copies.” He held another of the ubiquitous tan folders across the desk to her, and she took it, concealing her distaste for the things. “I would normally do it myself, but Mr. Cochran has called another meeting, and this really must be done before the end of the day.”

His voice was carefully neutral, but Rebecca sensed an underlying annoyance against their mutual boss that struck a responsive chord in her, as did the nearly-apologetic tone of his request.

And someone must have thought well enough of him to let him know that I’m the secretary to come to, she noted. That told her a lot, too. A quick scan of his almost too-beautiful face revealed other things, now that she looked past the surface. He seemed rather tired, although he hid it well. There were light shadows under his dark eyes, and he held himself too stiffly. Hmm.

“I’ll see what I can do, Mr. Aoru,” she said, and gave him a quick but genuine smile.

Some of the tension seemed to drop away from his face, and though he didn’t quite smile in return, she could tell that he was relieved. “Many thanks, Miss Nayland.”

He turned and walked off, and Rebecca watched him until he rounded the corner of a cubicle and vanished. Then she sighed and opened the folder he had given her, wondering how long it would take to get everything organized enough to make the copies he was asking for…

…only to blink in shock and pleasure when she looked at the contents.

Everything was stacked quite neatly, with both the writing and all of the charts included, paper-clipped into orderly bunches. He’d even left her with a couple of brief sticky notes explaining precisely how he wanted the pages to look and…and…

His handwriting was perfectly legible.

For a long moment, Rebecca could only sit there contemplating the wondrous beauty of it all, before finally shaking herself and properly reading his instructions.

It took her three minutes to get everything laid out the way he wanted and another two to make the correct number of copies, plus a couple extra just in case. Another minute to paper-clip them together, and with barely more than five minutes gone she had set the whole folder off to the ‘Done’ side of her desk. Leaving her with a little extra time to sit back again and wonder at a man who actually understood how to do things efficiently. And thoughtfully. He had obviously gone to no little effort to make sure that her part was as easy as possible. No papers stacked higgledy-piggledy, all out of order. No making her look up the necessary charts or figures. No illegible shorthand to decipher. No making her guess as to the layout he wanted which might or might not turn out to be correct, so that she might or might not have to do the whole thing over again. No, none of that.

She remembered that…and also remembered the weariness in his eyes, and decided that he was worthy to receive some of her special treatment. Normally it took months for anyone to rate that, but for this man (Itachi, he had said his name was) he had already earned a lot of points in her good book.

So, two hours later (and thirty minutes after it was supposed to end; Rebecca thought that she was getting to know Mr. Cochran’s habits a bit too well) the meeting to which Itachi had been summoned got out, and he returned to her desk six minutes after that, making her estimate of five minutes off by only one.

He accepted the folder from her with a grateful nod, the weariness and frustration now even more apparent in his eyes, and was about to turn and go back to his own desk when she stopped him.

“One more thing, Mr. Aoru, if you don’t mind the liberty,” she said, and slid the steaming mug of coffee across the desk to him.

This was no ordinary mug of office coffee. This was her coffee, that she brewed herself with real, freshly-ground coffee beans, and that almost no one else had earned the privilege of drinking, though its existence was legendary throughout the lower levels of employees and management in the office.

The guarded look on his face dropped instantly to reveal a look saying something along the lines of ‘You are a GODDESS,’ as Itachi turned back and picked up the mug carefully. He took one sip and let his eyes slip closed, sighing quietly in pleasure and appreciation.

Then he opened his eyes and looked at her again, but this time as if he were really seeing her.

Rebecca discovered that those midnight eyes could be rather disconcerting when leveled so intently at you for any significant length of time. He held her with that gaze, this one more along the lines of ‘Let me take you apart and see how you work.’ It wasn’t out of attraction, either, for which one part of her sighed regretfully, and another, more judicious part was glad. It was the most intriguing mix of curiosity and astute assessment that she’d ever received from anyone, and found her opinion of the man going up by another couple of notches.

“Thank you for the coffee, and the files, Miss Nayland,” he said quietly after a long moment. Rebecca, not fully trusting her voice, merely nodded, and managed a small smile for him. That got her another brief, assessing look, and then a respectful nod before he turned and walked off.

Leaving Rebecca to wonder who the hell he was and what the hell had just happened.

Definitely have to keep an eye on that one. I don’t think I’ve met anyone so interesting in a long time! I wonder what he’s doing here, at Akatsuki Enterprises, as a low-level analyst?

$$$

She had more cause to wonder this almost every time she saw him after their first meeting. His intelligence, his elegant bearing, his obvious skill with running a business…none of it fit with where he currently was. The more Rebecca saw of him, the surer of this she was; which did not, of course, get her any closer to an answer to this puzzle named Itachi Aoru.

He came to her on a fairly regular basis after that, usually after those meetings that were especially useless and boring, often with something for her to do, but occasionally just to stop by and talk for a minute or two. She got good at judging when he would come, and so could almost always have a mug of coffee ready for him. She suspected that the coffee was the main reason he came by, especially when he didn’t have anything for her to do, but their conversation was also interesting, and she began to look forward to his visits more and more.

Rebecca did notice when he started to take on more work than was supposed to be his responsibility, about a month after she met him (which was two months after he had been hired).

The first thing she noticed was that she got fewer and fewer files from Mr. Cochran, and although she certainly didn’t mind having to deal with his horrific hand-writing less, it was odd, because she didn’t think the amount of work he was supposed to be doing could have diminished this much, this quickly.

Then, one day, Itachi showed up at her desk unexpectedly, looking particularly tired, with one of his neat, legible reports for her to put together. She took it without much thought, smiling and offering to make him some coffee.

He hesitated for a moment, but then sighed and accepted. He didn’t seem in a mood to talk this time, so she merely went back to her typing while the coffee brewed. When it was done, he took the cup with a brief thanks and hurried away. She stared after him thoughtfully, then finished the letter she was currently working on before pulling out the file he had given her.

And proceeded to blink at the contents in confusion, because she knew that this particular report was one that Mr. Cochran was supposed to be taking care of, so why would Itachi-

Rebecca narrowed her eyes at the file for its implications, then got to work on it so that it would be done as quickly as possible for him.

This happened a couple more times over the next week, and when he came to her for the fourth time with something that had, in the past, been their boss’s job, she took it and, without looking at him, asked politely, “Would you like me to take care of the Snyder case and monthly department holdings report for you as well, Mr. Aoru?”

“No, thank you, Miss Nayland, I can-” He stopped abruptly, eyes snapping to meet hers sharply. “How did you know that I was working on those, Miss Nayland?” His voice had gotten very quiet.

“An educated guess, Mr. Aoru,” she replied calmly. “Several of these files you have been bringing me are things that Mr. Cochran is supposed to be doing, and you have been looking more tired of late. It wasn’t hard to deduce that you are taking on other work of his as well, even on top of your own.” Now it was her turn to look at him sharply, and she lowered her voice. “He thinks that he’s pulling something over on you, doesn’t he? Getting the new guy to do his work for him?”

Onyx eyes held her green ones for a long time, before Itachi finally replied in an even softer voice, “Yes. That is what he thinks.”

Rebecca wasn’t sure whether to shiver at those secretive, calculating eyes, or smile at him.

All secrets and calculation were gone in a flash the instant she slid the now-familiar mug of coffee across the desk to him, replaced by a grateful longing that was nearly worshipful.

She smiled at him.

He looked at her sharply once more as he blew on the drink to cool it, then gave her a brief, secretive smirk and a nod before turning and walking away.

Well…I just hope he knows what he’s doing, she thought, shaking her head almost fondly and turning back to her computer. The brief memory of those dark eyes, sharp as a knife blade and piercing through her as though he could read all of her deepest secrets passed through her mind and made her pause again.

No. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Holding off both a shiver and a smile, she got back to work.

$$$

 

Their next unusual encounter took place two weeks after that, when work-loads throughout Akatsuki Enterprises picked up. There was a slight increase in the reports she was receiving from Mr. Cochran, but not nearly as much as she was expecting. Which meant, of course, that Itachi was taking on even more work. She was being flooded with assignments from every which way herself, though, so at first she couldn’t find the time to go to him and offer help, and he didn’t make any of his usual appearances at her desk.

On Thursday she decided to stay late and just get some of the growing mountain of files done and over with. At last, just after midnight, the pile was three-quarters diminished, her eyes were truly beginning to droop, and she decided that that was enough. The rest could be taken care of tomorrow.

Everyone else (in this department, at least) had long since left, so most of the huge room was dark, except for the pool of light around her own desk. Thinking that she should check and make sure all the offices were locked before she left, she set off down a row of dark cubicles.

Except…she wasn’t the only one left. She had just finished checking the last of the doors, when a mostly-obscured light in a corner cubicle caught her eye.

Who on earth…? At this hour?

Though her steps had been quiet, he must have heard her coming, because his dark eyes had already swung around to meet hers when she stepped into the opening in the cubicle wall.

“Mr. Aoru? It’s awfully late,” she said, concerned. He looked tired, but not as though he were about to fall asleep, which probably meant that he was intending to stay for some time yet.

“I know,” he replied quietly.

“Shouldn’t you be getting home? Or at least call?” She asked, realizing abruptly that she had no idea where he lived or whether he lived alone or not.

“I called,” he said, answering both her spoken and unspoken questions. A flash of blue in the lamplight drew her eyes down to his left hand, where a small sapphire set in a plain silver ring was glinting on his ring finger.

Huh. Not exactly what one would call a wedding band, but… She pushed the thought away. It wasn’t any of her business. “All right, Mr. Aoru.” She hesitated. She was exhausted and really needed to get home, but at the same time she hated to leave him here alone…

“Go on, Miss Nayland. I’ll be fine.”

She grimaced at him, and sighed. “At least let me make you a cup of coffee before I go?”

He struggled with himself for approximately a second and a half before breaking down and giving her a genuine, if tired, smile. “I would appreciate that a great deal, Miss Nayland.”

She smiled back, relieved, and went back to her own desk quickly, not letting herself wonder too much how many nights he had been doing this. Returning a little while later she found him hard at work once again, though he did spare her a thankful glance for the steaming mug she handed him, and a soft, “Good night, Miss Nayland.”

“Good night, Mr. Aoru,” she replied, and then left without looking back. She wasn’t his mother to nag at him for staying up late, and he would hopefully be sensible enough to know when to stop.

Still…I wonder what it is he’s trying to accomplish?

$$$

Somehow they all got through the rush, just like they always had (at least, they always had in Rebecca’s memory), and even Itachi had gotten all of his work done, though she didn’t like to think how many nights he had stayed late, or for how long. After the night she had discovered him here, she had taken to leaving him with a mug or sometimes thermos of coffee before she left in the evenings, which he always accepted gratefully, and with a quiet reassurance that she wasn’t to worry over him. As soon as the rush had ended, he had begun to look less tired, fortunately, so she knew that he had started getting more sleep as soon as was possible for him, and accepted that that was as good as it was going to get.

But when everyone was just beginning to get used to normal workloads again, whispers from higher up of potential “staffing rearrangements” (lay-offs and promotions, Rebecca translated) began to trickle down to them.

Rebecca wasn’t too worried for herself; she was a good secretary, and although she most likely wouldn’t be promoted, she had little chance of being laid-off either. For now, that was good enough, and if she sometimes wished for a job that was slightly less boring and repetitious, she was at least getting a decent paycheck.

Others, however, were slightly more ambitious. Everyone was talking about it (quietly, of course), wondering who would lose and who would gain in the upcoming “rearrangements.” One of the few people aside from herself who wasn’t talking, and indeed hardly seemed to notice the talk at all, was Itachi Aoru.

Or so she thought.

One morning, nearly four months after he had joined the company, he came to her desk unexpectedly and empty-handed.

He came up so quietly that she didn’t even notice he was standing there for nearly two minutes while she attempted to decipher yet another of Mr. Cochran’s illegible letters and tried not to mutter to herself about it.

“Oh! Mr. Aoru, pardon me. Feel free to catch my attention if I don’t notice you,” she said apologetically when she finally looked up and noticed him standing next to her desk. “Do you need something?”

He looked at her silently for a long moment, one of those scrutinizing looks that continued to catch her curiosity, before finally replying. “Yes. I was going to go out for lunch today, and was wondering if you might care to join me, Miss Nayland.”

She blinked at him in astonishment, then pulled up her schedule. “I…don’t believe there’s anything I need to be here for during that time. Any particular reason?”

“Yes.” He gave her a satisfied nod and turned to go back to his cubicle. “I will meet you here at eleven forty five, then.”

Rebecca could only stare after him, and it took her several seconds after he had disappeared to realize that he hadn’t told her what the reason for his invitation was. Rolling her eyes and sighing at his continued mysteriousness, she turned back to her work, and tried not to check the clock too much.

At eleven forty five precisely, just as she was rising and pulling on her jacket, he appeared from around the corner in his ever-impeccable business suit and looking expectant. Leaving a quick note that she would be back in an hour or so on the front of her desk, Rebecca grabbed her purse and followed him out of the building.

His car was new, dark blue, of a good but modestly-priced make, and told her almost nothing about him except that it did seem to fit with what she already knew of his personality. He drove them a little ways further into town to a small, out-of-the-way Italian restaurant, and had still not said anything.

After they were inside and had ordered, though, Rebecca’s curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she couldn’t help asking her earlier question again.

“You said that you have a reason for inviting me out to lunch, Mr. Aoru?”

His dark eyes held hers as he nodded slowly. “Yes. Partly, it is a ‘thank-you’ for all of the help you have given me over the past couple of months.” He paused to sip his water, seeming to think over what he wanted to say next. “And partly it is because I have a…business proposition to discuss with you that I did not wish to talk about in the office.”

“I see,” Rebecca said, carefully, sipping her own water and watching him. “And this proposition is…?”

He gave her a hint of a smirk, pausing as their waiter returned with their food. “I am an ambitious man, Miss Nayland, and I appreciate others who are also talented and intelligent. I have certain plans in regards to our place of employment, which is why I have been taking on so much extra work, as I’m sure you’ve been wondering. However, I’m going to need a good secretary, someone who will get things done efficiently and on time, someone who knows me, trusts me, and someone whom I can trust. You fit all of these criteria rather neatly, Miss Nayland. My proposition, therefore, is this: stick with me.”

Rebecca blinked at him, not quite sure she was hearing him right, then slowly began to smile. “No matter what, Mr. Aoru?”

“No matter what.”

“And this…plan of yours; where is it that you are looking to go?” She knew she shouldn’t get too excited about what he was hinting at, but it was hard. It would be so much fun to work for him! Not to mention that it would be much easier to look after him and make sure he didn’t overwork himself that way – he was too young and talented to risk burning himself out now.

“Well,” he admitted quietly, looking down at his pasta, “I have made myself a promise to be the president of my own company within the next…year and eight months or so.” He looked back up at her through long, dark lashes, eyes calculating again. “I won’t lie to you, Miss Nayland, there’s a risk involved…but I think you’ll find it worth your while.”

“It wouldn’t be boring…” she whispered, almost involuntarily, caught in his eyes as he raised his head again.

“No, it wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be bored, wouldn’t be frustrated by a lazy, idiotic boss. You’d have the time and opportunity to expand your own knowledge and skills, as well as to help this business truly grow.” His voice was low and enticing, his eyes bright with concealed excitement.

Rebecca wasn’t sure quite what she was getting herself into, but… “You really can do this, can’t you? I don’t think anyone else could, but you…” She knew that her own green eyes were wide as she stared back at him, her voice still a whisper.

“Yes, I can.”

Deciding that if this was what it felt like to sell your soul to the Devil, then at least she’d go to Hell happy, Rebecca took a deep breath and slowly held out her hand to him across the table.

“I don’t know you, really…don’t know anything about you, but…even so….” She closed her eyes when he grasped her offered hand, and finally let her excitement out in a smile. “I accept your proposition, Mr. Aoru. Wherever you go, I’ll stay with you as your secretary.”

Though his face remained mostly calm, Itachi’s dark eyes were eager, and that smirk was probably worthy of the Devil himself. Still…she did trust him (a startling realization), and that was enough.

They ate in silence for awhile then, before Itachi finished off his water and looked up at her.

“Now, Miss Nayland, it’s about time for us to be getting back,” he said, and rose. She rose too, and slid her professional mask back into place, though she could tell that it didn’t entirely conceal her excitement.

“Yes, sir!”

“And besides,” he murmured to her when they got back to her desk, just before he disappeared again, “you make the best coffee that I’ve ever had in my life.”

That made her laugh, and she shooed him off.

Well, she thought, sitting down at her computer and picking up the files that had been left on her desk in her absence, life is about to get a whole lot more interesting!

$$$

It came as a surprise to almost no one (except perhaps Mr. Cochran himself) when he was one of the managers let go in the new “rearrangements.” It had been noted by more people than just Rebecca Nayland that he was no longer doing all of the work that he was supposed to, and he hadn’t ever been that good a manager to begin with.

What did come as a surprise to almost everyone was that Itachi Aoru was the one chosen to take Mr. Cochran’s place. He had done a remarkably good job of keeping a secret the fact that he was the one doing all of Mr. Cochran’s work as well as his own, and somehow managed to do it all well. Much better than Mr. Cochran ever had, certainly.

Still, Mr. Cochran’s boss hadn’t taken too long to figure out where his subordinate’s missing work was going once he started looking into it, and was so impressed he decided that Itachi might as well just have the job.

Rebecca, while feigning surprise along with everyone else at the announcement, secretly smiled to herself.

She reported to Itachi’s new office the next morning with a professionally polite expression and laughing eyes.

“Instructions, sir?”

Itachi looked up at her with a pleased smirk. “If you would read this over for me, Miss Nayland,” he handed her an already-typed report, “and type up this report, that should be all for now. That second one is part of the Bryant Company analysis and should go out tomorrow.”

“Yes sir. The Bryant case was in three parts, I believe?”

He nodded, pleased. “Yes. I’ll have the third part finished in about twenty more minutes.”

“Very good, sir. I’d be happy to take that later as well.”

“We shall see,” he nodded (which Rebecca interpreted as “Only if I don’t have time”), paused, and couldn’t quite hide a hopeful look. “And…perhaps a cup of coffee?”

Rebecca grinned. “Of course, sir. I’ll bring it right in, then get to work on these.”

“Thank you, Miss Nayland.”

$$$

And thus it went.

Three months later, Itachi was offered another promotion, which he accepted on the condition that Rebecca remain with him as his secretary. The request, though odd, was not denied, and so Rebecca moved with him to their new offices, two floors up and on the other side of the building (and she had to admit that the change of scene was welcome).

The more she worked with him, the more Rebecca could only reaffirm her original estimate; Itachi Aoru was quite an extraordinary businessman, and only seemed to do better the higher up he moved.

And she was getting to know him better on a personal level as well. It was a slow process, of course, as most of their time was taken up with business matters and she was too polite to pry into things that she didn’t really need to know. But there were things to learn about him even from their day to day interactions.

He was quiet. That one was rather obvious, she admitted, but it had taken a little while for it to sink in fully. He rarely spoke beyond what was necessary, but it was more than that. He didn’t talk to himself, never whistled or hummed, and it was rare for her to come into his office and find music playing. He even moved quietly. It sometimes seemed to her as though he spoke to her less and less as time went on; often she could read his moods and guess at what he wanted without him having to tell her much at all. It had been a disconcerting realization at first, until she had slowly come to the conclusion that he liked it better that way.

Besides, she thought, if we can understand each other anyway, then what does it matter if we’re actually talking or not?

Four months in this position and then they were moving up again, this time skipping a couple levels of management in between.

Ambitious and intelligent, definitely. Not only could he do his own work with sometimes-astonishing skill and efficiency, but he was also good at organizing and inspiring the people under him to give him their best efforts too. He had an aloof kind of charisma that almost anyone who worked with or under him experienced.

He was anti-social. Rebecca didn’t often think of it that way, of course, because she was someone whose company he didn’t mind, but it was true. Although he was perfectly willing to interact with people on matters work-related, if it became too personal he found a way to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

Rebecca had once come up to his partly-open office door, quietly because he had been in the middle of a meeting with a manager from another department and she wasn’t sure whether or not they were done yet. Hearing voices, she had been about to leave when she actually caught the tone of Itachi’s voice and paused, frowning. She hadn’t heard him sound so stiff in a long time…

“Is that everything, Miss Robinson?”

“Well,” said a female voice, dropping into a suggestive tone, “that’s all of business, Mr. Aoru. But there might be…other things we could discuss.”

“If it isn’t business, Miss Robinson, then our meeting is over.” Itachi’s voice was very cold.

“Of course, if you’d rather discuss it elsewhere,” she amended quickly, “I’d be happy to accommodate. I’m free anytime….”

“That will be all, Miss Robinson.” ‘Cold’ had dropped to ‘frigid,’ and Rebecca quickly knocked on the door before pushing it open.

“I have a question, sir, if you’re finished.”

“We are,” Itachi said, only letting his relief show in his eyes. “Good day, Miss Robinson.”

The female manager, who had been standing very close to the dark-eyed man, nodded and left without pushing further, though she gave Rebecca a sour look where Itachi couldn’t see.

Rebecca sighed to herself and shrugged it off. If the other women wanted to think that she had some kind of monopoly on Itachi’s affections, that was their problem. In truth, her relationship with him was decidedly platonic, and although she would admit to having had a crush on him back during the early days of their acquaintance, that had since faded into something of a mix between admiration and sisterly affection.

She honestly didn’t have any idea what kind of relationships he might have in his private life; he did definitely live with someone else…and there was the ring he always wore…but in the end that didn’t really tell her much of anything.

Calmly laying down the sheet she needed him to approve on his desk, she stood by and watched his shoulders relax gradually as he put the flirting out of his mind and focused on his work.

It really does bother him when women proposition him…I know this isn’t the first time…

“Are you married, sir?”

Rebecca didn’t even realize that she had asked the question aloud until he looked up at her, startled.

“Oh! Pardon me, sir. That’s none of my business.” She covered her eyes with one hand, embarrassed at her slip.

“Why do you ask, Miss Nayland?” His voice was not angry, just slightly puzzled.

She shook her head and looked back at him with an apologetic smile. “It’s nothing. I shouldn’t pry. I just wondered if that was why you always get angry when people try and flirt with you. Never mind me. Does that letter cover everything?”

He looked back down at the letter, and was silent for a long moment, left hand shifting on the desk.

“Not officially.”

“What?” Rebecca was confused. How could the letter unofficially cover everything-

“We’re not officially married.” He looked up, dark eyes distant and peaceful and happy. “But in every way that matters…yes.”

She blinked. “Oh.”

He looked down again, then shook himself and signed the letter before handing it back to her. “Perfect, as usual, Miss Nayland.”

She nodded, took it and headed for the door, where she paused and looked back. “Sir?”

He looked up again, attentive.

“Thank you, sir.”

Understanding clearly that she wasn’t referring to the letter, he gave her a small smile and nodded. “It’s nothing, Miss Nayland.”

Smiling back, she left.

Well, that was interesting. He did say that he trusts me, back when we first made this arrangement. Still, it’s good to know that it’s true. I wonder who his- Stopping, it occurred to her for the first time that her boss might be gay. That would certainly explain a lot. She shrugged. Either way, I’m glad he’s happy.

$$$

It wasn’t until Itachi was nominated for a promotion to Operating Senior Manager (a position right under the vice-president of the company) that anyone discovered that he had been hired as a complete unknown without a resume and without references of any kind.

“-honestly don’t know how it could have happened!”

Rebecca looked up from her computer, frowning at the loud voices that were coming closer. Itachi was busy with a very important report and had asked not to be disturbed for a couple of hours yet…

“May I help you?” She asked politely, but loud enough to cut through the argument as one of the other senior managers (followed by several other people from various departments) rounded the last corner and spilled into the open space in front of her desk, which sat in front and to the right of Itachi’s office door.

“We need to speak with Mr. Aoru immediately,” the senior manager addressed her, brushing off the continued excuses of a man she recognized from her old department down in the basement.

She kept a frown off her face. “Mr. Aoru asked not to be disturbed-”

“Mr. Aoru will see me now if he wishes to keep his job-”

“What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?”

Rebecca had yet to figure out how Itachi could silence a large, loud group of people so quickly when his own voice remained low and quiet. He stood in his office door, face attentive and dark eyes calculating.

“Mr. Aoru,” the senior manager huffed indignantly. “We have, as I’m sure you know, been reviewing you for the position of Operating Senior Manager. It is our policy, of course, to check for appropriate qualifications once one reaches this level of management, but when we went to go through your file, Mr. Aoru, this is all we found!” He held out a file folder.

Itachi slowly stepped out of his office door and across the room just far enough for him to reach the folder. He took it, opened it, and looked down at the contents for a long moment. His expression was blank, but Rebecca could see a nervous thrill in his eyes.

“Well,” he said at last, looking up at those assembled, “that seems fairly straightforward to me.”

“Y-You-!” The senior manager trailed off into further indignant sputtering. Everyone seemed shocked at this reply, and Rebecca quietly slid her chair back enough to see what was inside.

The folder in Itachi’s hands was completely empty, except for a small note taped to the back of the inside:

He’s got a Florida driver’s license and a good brain in his head. I’m hiring him. If you’re smart, you’ll keep him.
~Benjamin Anderson

Rebecca only just kept herself composed. I can’t believe old Ben would do that! No resume, no references…nothing! She looked up at her boss…then paused. On second thought…

“He advertised that he was looking for a new analyst. I answered his advertisement. He interviewed me for three hours, and decided that that was good enough.” Itachi’s voice was calm, but not flippant. “I have since endeavored to prove my skills and usefulness to this company through my actions, as opposed to mere pieces of paper.”

Silence reigned.

No one could refute that he was good. That was, of course, the whole reason they were considering him for another promotion anyway.

“I will, gentlemen, be happy to answer any practical question you have concerning the running of this business, and how I would handle a given situation or problem. That is what I did for Mr. Anderson.” Itachi paused, expectantly. “No questions?”

Silence.

“Then, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I really should get back to this report.” He handed the nearly-empty folder back to the senior manager. “Anything you need me for, Miss Rebecca?” Mutely, she shook her head (he’d started using her first name a few weeks ago at her insistence, but hadn’t quite managed to drop the “Miss” yet).
Nodding, he turned calmly to go back to his office. Only Rebecca caught the corner of his smirk before the door closed behind him.

Two days later, all of Akatsuki Enterprises was talking about how their new Operating Senior Manager, Itachi Aoru, had originally been hired by walking into the company with a brand-new Florida driver’s license and nothing else.

$$$

But even with all of that, it still might have taken him longer than his “year and eight months” to become the actual CEO of Akatsuki Enterprises, had not an unusual combination of circumstances pushed the issue some five months after he’d been made Operating Senior Manager.

The first event in and of itself probably wouldn’t have been an issue. The current CEO, Mr. Hebi, announced his imminent retirement. While this came as something of a surprise to most of the company, it was by no means a crisis, and business continued mostly as usual.

When their Vice-president announced that he was also going to follow his superior into retirement, despite the fact that he was many years younger than the CEO, caused a greater amount of concern, it was still nothing to worry about. There were several candidates within the upper levels of the company who could potentially fill the now-missing leadership, and the Board of Directors got right to work on choosing from those candidates.

The real trouble didn’t start until an anonymous tip was received indicating that corruption was running rampant on the Board of Directors.

“Hey, Nayland, did you hear?”

Rebecca looked up, ready to be exasperated with the interruption, until she saw that it was William Hunt. “Hear what, Bill?” Bill was one of the managers working a couple levels below Itachi, and she had gotten to know him fairly well over the past five months. He was fast becoming a good friend, so she felt she could forgive him the interruption.

Even if we are absolutely swamped, what with Itachi and the other high-level managers taking on so much work to compensate for our current lack of CEO.

“About the Board! You know, the corruption charge?”

“Oh, yes, I heard. There was an anonymous tip, wasn’t there?”

“Yeah, but,” Bill lowered his voice, leaning further over her desk, “don’t tell anyone, but I just heard this: the charges were completely true. Two-thirds of the board has just resigned!”

“What?” Rebecca stared at him. “They were true?”

“Yep. No question. Didn’t even take that much digging once it was pointed out.”

“Two-thirds…” she shook her head. “That’s a lot.”

“Yeah. Take awhile to replace ‘em, too.” Bill sighed dramatically. “But, what can you do?” Then, with a wink and the tip of an imaginary hat, he turned. “Well, I’d best let you get back to work, Nayland.”

“Good-bye, Bill.” Rebecca sighed at his antics, and hid a smile. All that from an anonymous tip, though. I wonder who-

Itachi’s office door opened and he crossed the room to her desk, absorbed in a sheaf of papers.

Rebecca paused, then greeted him with her usual smile. “Letters, Mr. Aoru?”

“Five, and one report, if you please, Miss Rebecca.”

She indicated a brewing pot of coffee before taking the papers from him. He gave her a quick look of gratitude and paused by her desk a moment longer.

“I just heard from Mr. Hunt that two-thirds of the Board of Directors has resigned over the corruption scandal,” she said nonchalantly, sticking the first of the letters into the paper holder next to her screen so that it would be easier to read. “It seems that the…anonymous tip they received was correct.”

Itachi was still for a moment before replying quietly, “Is that so?”

“Yes.” Fingers already flying through the second paragraph, Rebecca paused and looked up at him. “I do wonder where the tip came from, though.”

Itachi met her gaze with a bland expression and secretive eyes. He remained silent until she handed him his mug, then graced her with a brief smirk as he turned away.
“The world may never know.”

Rebecca could only stare after him for a moment, before shaking her head with helpless laughter. Itachi Aoru, you are something else.

Under the circumstances, of course, it was necessary for the remaining management to make some fast decisions. The company needed good, strong, efficient leadership, and it needed it fast. Their stock was plummeting in the wake of the scandal, and chaos within the company itself greatly increased their chances of going under entirely.

Not too many people could honestly admit to being surprised when it was announced that (with consent of their former president) Itachi Aoru was promoted to be the new CEO of Akatsuki Enterprises, Inc.

$$$

Rebecca knocked on the CEO’s office door for the first time, a sheaf of documents to be signed tucked neatly under one arm. At his “Come in,” she opened the door in time to see Itachi putting his cell phone away, and shut the door behind her.

“Ah, Rebecca. Is that the Thompson contract?”

“Just requiring your signature, sir.”

“Excellent. There are two more contracts to go out this week, I believe?” He looked up when she didn’t respond, to find her grinning at him, green eyes bright.

He paused, then slowly smiled back. “I keep my promises, Rebecca.”

“I know, sir. I know.” Then, taking a deep breath, she tempered her excitement, and nodded. “Yes, sir. Two more contracts this week, and three next week. You have a meeting later this afternoon with the representatives from…”

Did I once think it would be fun to work for him? She wondered absently, continuing to rattle off his upcoming appointments. Fun doesn’t even come close!

Chapter Text

“Itachi,” Kisame knocked on the partially open door to his lover’s study.

“Come in,” Itachi’s quiet voice replied and Kisame pushed the door open further and went to perch on the end of the long desk. The dark-eyed man turned away from his computer, his eyes welcoming and questioning.

“Well…there’s this conference coming up, for the National Chemists’ Association, and I was thinking that I haven’t been for a few years,” Kisame explained, showing the other man the notice that had just arrived in the mail. “Would you mind a trip to New York for a week?”

Itachi looked at it with interest, then turned back to his computer with a thoughtful frown, pulling up a calendar. “Which week is it?”

“Four weeks from now.”

His lover examined the schedule for a minute, then turned back with a satisfied nod. “I am doing nothing that cannot be rearranged, and I have some things that would be more easily taken care of in New York anyway,” he agreed. “I will tell Rebecca on Monday.”

“Cool,” Kisame grinned and leaned over to kiss the other man before sliding off the desk and heading for the door. “I’ll go see about hotel and plane stuff.”

***

The soft chime of his wristwatch alarm went off at seven thirty, and Kisame slid one arm carefully out of Itachi’s sleeping embrace to turn it off. Itachi himself merely shifted, rolling back to his side of the bed without really waking up. Kisame stretched languidly, running fond and appreciative eyes along Itachi’s naked back and loose hair, before tucking his hands behind his head and contemplating the ceiling sleepily while he woke himself up a bit more.

Early sunlight and the constant hum of New York traffic filtered dimly through the partly drawn curtains, and the blue-haired man maneuvered himself out of bed, careful not to wake his partner. They had arrived in the city yesterday, and had spent the rest of the day relaxing, at Kisame’s insistence. He had deliberately booked their flights so that they would have the day before his conference began and two days after it ended with nothing to do but relax and maybe do a little sight-seeing. He had no problems if Itachi wanted to work harder than any normal mortal could ever manage to make sure his company was running smoothly and at peak performance, but he was also going to make sure that his lover got vacations every once in a while. If left to his own devices, Itachi had a tendency to forget that stress relief was important too.

Ah well, Kisame thought, a fond, wry smile crossing his face, at least he’s sensible enough to let me talk him into it on a regular basis. And he was good yesterday – no work at all! He’ll make up for it today, though, I’m sure. Of course, I’ll be busy all week with the conference. He shook his head at himself. Heh. I really shouldn’t miss so many years in between – I always feel like I have to go to every panel and lecture possible to make up for it.

The blue-haired man perched himself on the windowsill and watched the sunlight slowly turn the skyscrapers gold from the top down. Then, a few minutes before eight (when he knew Itachi’s alarm would go off) he got down and went to take a shower and wash up so that he would be out of Itachi’s way when the dark-eyed man finally got up. The first panel he had to attend wasn’t until nine, and he had managed to get them a nice room in the same hotel as the conference, so he wasn’t feeling particularly rushed.

He came out a little while later in time to greet a still-sleepy Itachi with a kiss before letting the other man into the bathroom. When Itachi was ready and slightly more awake, they went down to the lobby to eat breakfast together before going their separate ways – Kisame to one of the hotel’s elegant conference rooms, and Itachi back upstairs to finish getting ready to go out for his business meetings.

***

Kisame went upstairs briefly at lunchtime, only to find that Itachi was still out. Sighing, but pleased to see a novel lying in wait on the table by the window, he decided to head back downstairs to eat and wait for the next lecture.

He finished eating with plenty of time to spare, and was heading for somewhere a little quieter than the hotel’s main lobby when a voice hailed him from behind.

“Kisame? Kisame Hoshigaki?”

He turned to meet the bright blue eyes of a tall, red-haired man, who was looking at him with surprise and starting to grin. Kisame’s own shock kept him from saying anything for a second, then he blinked, and slowly returned the other man’s smile, holding out a hand. “Kyle?”

“Yeah! Man, it has been awhile, hasn’t it?” The red-haired man took his hand in a firm grip that he remembered well.

“Kyle Bannock. It has been awhile indeed. What…it must be nine years now. Much too long,” Kisame was grinning fully now, and shaking his head in amazement.

“That long? I guess you must be right. Well, where are you off to?” Kyle asked, tucking his hands into his pockets and letting his shoulders drop into an easy slouch that didn’t seem to have changed at all with the years. “I assume you’re here for the conference.”

“Yeah,” Kisame said, nodding and stepping back a bit, looking the other man over. “Going to the lecture on some of the archaeological applications. You?”

“Same, actually, though I didn’t think you were much interested in the really old stuff. Didn’t you end up taking that police job?” Kyle quirked his head questioningly and Kisame nodded, following the red-head in the direction of one of the smaller conference rooms.

“Well, sort of,” Kisame gave him a wry grin. “Technically, I’m working free-lance, but yeah, most of that is for the police, and some for the Coast Guard.”

“Still down in Florida, then?”

Kisame nodded, discreetly eyeing the other man again and keeping a disbelieving headshake to himself. It wasn’t every day you ran into your only ex-boyfriend; though Kisame had to admit that they had parted on friendly terms, and had even stayed good friends for almost a year after their break-up before Kyle had moved away. He had been Kisame’s second serious relationship (the first had been a girlfriend during high school).

“That’s cool. I’m up near Boston, now, actually, though it’s been quite a trip to get there-”

Their talk turned quickly to more work- and conference-related topics then, and Kisame found himself remembering why they had been such good friends in the first place. Kyle was as gregarious as ever, and had quite a lot of interesting stories to tell about some of his jobs.

They parted after the lecture with another firm handshake. Kyle gave him a thoughtful look before letting his hand go, though, and asked what his schedule was for tomorrow. Kisame told him, and was glad to discover that they had a couple of other lectures and panels together.

“We should catch up,” Kyle suggested as he turned to leave, grinning over one shoulder. “Maybe over lunch tomorrow, if you’re not busy.”

Kisame thought over what Itachi had mentioned of his schedule for the week, and remembered the other man saying that he’d be gone over lunchtime on Tuesday as well as Monday. “Yeah, I think I’m free. I’ll let you know tomorrow morning, okay?”

“No problem!” One last wave, and Kyle disappeared into the crowd now gathering in the lobby.

Well, Kisame thought, nodding and turning to head in the other direction. That was nice. Unexpected, but nice. He smiled wryly, and admitted to himself that he was rather relieved that the topic of their former relationship had not come up. Now, let me go see if Itachi’s back yet. I’ve heard there’s a really good pizza place a few blocks over that we should try for dinner.

***

“…and the next thing I know, there’s this huge bang and I turn around and he’s standing there with a test tube in one hand and a beaker in the other, face blackened around his goggles, hair blown back and half-standing up – you know, the whole crazy chemist look, Hollywood-perfect – and he’s just standing there blinking at it, and then he looks up at me and starts trying to defend himself and make excuses and all.” Kyle watched Kisame dissolve into laughter again and finished his story, grinning himself. “Of course one of the girls in the class starts screaming, and everyone’s milling around, and man was it a mess to clean up, but…” he trailed off, chuckling. “It’s funny now. Can’t say as I didn’t warn him either – if he wants to think that some crackpot website knows more about chemistry than me, that’s his problem.”

Kisame caught his breath, but his strong, white grin didn’t disappear. “Too true. There are reasons I never got into teaching, but occasionally I think it would be fun, just for the antics.”

“It’s not a bad job,” Kyle said, and turned back to gathering up his notes and pens. “Which is why I finally settled down on it. I might go back to school myself, eventually, and get a degree so I can teach at college, but I’m cool with the high school for now. They’re pretty smart kids, generally, and a few of them really get into it. I’ve sent at least three off to college planning to major in something chemistry related.”

“You always were good with kids anyway,” Kisame acknowledged, gathering his own things up and still smiling. The blue-haired man rose, stretching, and Kyle kept his appreciative glance surreptitious. He had forgotten, in the years they’d been apart, just how charismatic his friend and former lover was; spending a great deal of time together over the past two days, reminiscing and catching up had forcibly reminded him of that fact. In response to the compliment, he shrugged, running a hand through his own red locks and giving the man a lopsided grin.

“Well, I’d best get back upstairs,” Kisame said then, a real note of regret in his voice, “and get a little rest until dinner. This conference is always fun but it takes a lot out of you. I’ll catch you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Kyle said easily, and turned back to his own stuff so as not to be too obvious about watching Kisame head for the door and lobby at an easy pace. He ran a hand through his hair again, and stared down at his notes blindly. Man, this has been a trip. I didn’t think I’d see him again…he hasn’t changed at all. The red-haired man hesitated, biting his lip a little and glancing towards the door. I wonder if…

Seeing that the rest of the attendees of this lecture were clearing out, Kyle got to his feet too and headed for the lobby, making up his mind as he went. It can’t hurt to ask him to dinner, anyway. He was fine with lunch yesterday, and this doesn’t have to be all that different. Not a date, exactly, just more catching up. Nodding to himself, he picked up his pace a little, searching for Kisame’s distinctive hair through the crowd.

Ah! There he is. Kyle threaded his way through the crowd, raising a hand to wave and catch the other man’s attention-

-and paused when he realized that Kisame was talking with another man who stood close to him where Kisame was leaning against a pillar in the lobby, trying not to be in the way of the people streaming by.

Kyle hesitated. He didn’t say he was seeing anyone now, but- He started to turn away, doubt creeping into his stomach, but apparently Kisame had seen him after all, because the blue-haired man waved in return and was beckoning him over.

Not sure how to leave now without looking awkward or rude, Kyle took a deep breath and continued on through the crowd, hoping that his smile didn’t look too tentative.

“…a friend you should meet. I hadn’t seen him for nearly nine years, and then here he was,” Kisame was explaining to the other man as Kyle drew near. The blue-haired man turned to him as he approached, though, and beckoned him again. “Itachi, this is Kyle Bannock. It’d probably take me an hour to list all the different jobs he’s had,” this was accompanied by a teasing grin, since it had taken Kyle that long, “but now he’s teaching chemistry at a high school near Boston.”

Kyle nodded, and Kisame turned to him. “Kyle, this is Itachi Aoru.”

Itachi Aoru was a small man, a good head shorter than Kisame, and had a slender build that was emphasized nicely by the dark, impeccable business suit he was wearing. Cool, dark eyes watched Kyle, set off by pale skin and a long ponytail of black hair. Asian, Kyle thought, managing a smile and offering a hand. “Good to meet you, Mr. Aoru. What do you do?”

The polite blankness on the other man’s face relaxed a bit, making him look a tad less inapproachable. He shook Kyle’s hand with a brief, firm grip. “I am president of a small company down in Florida, Mr. Bannock. I am pleased to meet you as well.” His voice was deep, and just as smooth and polite as the rest of him. Not a very expressive guy, is he? Kyle thought, wondering how he and Kisame got along. Could they really be dating?

“Not going to be small for long, with you in charge,” Kisame murmured, pride showing in his voice and eyes. Dark eyes slid back to Kisame, and Kyle caught a glimpse of a smirk curling the corners of the man’s mouth before he bowed his head in acknowledgment of the compliment.

They must know each other pretty well, but they could just be rooming together, or something. It does make travel arrangements easier. Kyle thought, not really aware of his rationalizations. He stuck his hands in his pockets, and brought his attention back to the conversation.

“Well,” Kisame was saying, “we should probably get upstairs. See you later?”

Realizing that this last was addressed to him, Kyle nodded, not having to force his normal grin too much, and left them with a wave. He did stop a little ways on, though, to look back and watch as the pair crossed the lobby and waited for one of the elevators. They stood near each other, but the shorter man held himself fairly stiffly, and there was none of the casual touching that might indicate they were more than friends.

I…don’t know. It’s strange. Kyle thought, frowning slightly and heading for the front doors. But Kisame would have said something, wouldn’t he? Surely he’d have at least hinted at it, if they’re dating.

The problem, he was beginning to realize, was that although he had agreed to their break-up at the time, Kisame had been the one to initiate it, and Kyle had never really wanted it to end. They had stayed good friends for awhile after that, and he had been able to fool himself into believing that that was enough, especially since Kisame hadn’t started dating anyone else. Distance after he had moved had made his regret easier to forget, but now that they had started talking again, Kyle realized that his feelings hadn’t ever really changed.

Well…and why not? he thought, a bit defiantly. We were good together! We had a lot in common – still do, obviously! – and I never really did think that we had drifted apart as much as he said we did. We were practically sharing my apartment for that last year! They had met on an early, just-got-out-of-college job, and had taken about a year to work into the relationship which had lasted just over four years.

And now there’s this guy, and it just doesn’t seem like Kisame at all. Kyle flopped back onto the bed in his hotel room, still frowning vaguely up at the ceiling. It doesn’t seem like they could have all that much in common – the guy isn’t even a scientist, just a businessman. And so distant, too! Not that Kisame’s a totally open book or anything, but he’s expressive enough and certainly liked talking with people. This guy doesn’t seem like he says anything beyond what’s absolutely necessary.

The uncertainty of it coiled through his mind. But, then again, it also isn’t much like Kisame to go on vacations with someone he’s not close to. Would he go with someone who’s just a good friend? He might, I think. We took a couple weekend trips together, and even one after we broke up.

Sighing, and still not sure quite what he meant to do about it, Kyle tried to put his doubts out of his mind. He rose and decided to go grab something quick for dinner and call it an early night.

It just doesn’t seem fair, somehow, he thought, shaking his head. We were so close, and we haven’t seen each other for nine years, and then when we finally do have the chance to get together again, he’s got this other guy taking up his time too. Maybe…maybe I should go talk with him. With Aoru. See what’s going on.

That decision tentatively made, he went to find dinner.

***

“What time do you have meetings today?” Kisame asked, coming out of the bathroom toweling his hair dry.

Itachi blinked sleepily at him from his half-reclined position in bed. “None. One more tomorrow over lunch.”

Kisame looked surprised and pleased at this. He sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over to give Itachi a very thorough kiss that did a nice job of waking him up the rest of the way. “Good,” the blue-haired man murmured as he drew away, chuckling at Itachi’s protesting grumble.

Then it was Itachi’s turn to raise an eyebrow at him. “So now I am to be rewarded for not working?”

“No,” Kisame said, fondly brushing long strands of loose, dark hair out of Itachi’s eyes, “I just like it when you remember to relax.”

“I relax,” Itachi protested, frowning vaguely as Kisame rose and began to get dressed. The other man paused with his belt half-buckled to give Itachi a Look. The dark-eyed man held his gaze for a moment before looking away. “Sometimes.”

“Exactly,” Kisame said, grinning at him.

“It’s important that I make sure everything gets done,” Itachi insisted, sitting up.

“I know,” Kisame said, coming over to sit by him again. “Normally it’s okay – I think you do better when you’re just a little bit too busy anyway. Just so long as you take opportunities like now to relax, it’s fine.”

Itachi nodded, satisfied, and leaned forward to kiss his lover. Kisame returned it only for a moment, though, before pulling back.

“Tease,” Itachi muttered darkly, and a mischievous smile tugged at the corners of Kisame’s mouth.

“I’ll be late if I stay longer,” he pointed out, not without regret, and Itachi waved him off. “I should be back up for lunch, though. You’ll be here?”

Itachi gestured towards the book he had waiting on the table and nodded. Kisame smiled, and grabbed his notes and pen before leaving.

He sighed and looked at the clock: eight fifty. Going back to sleep was tempting…but he had also been wanting to read that book for almost a month now. Sliding out of bed, he padded softly into the bathroom to splash water on his face and brush his hair. Tangles taken care of, he pulled it back into a loose, half-ponytail and went back out to his suitcase to find suitable “lounging” clothes, of which he did actually own some now.

Kisame might grumble at him for working too much, but in all honesty, Itachi felt like he relaxed more now than he ever had working for the Uchiha Corporation. Maybe it was just that he had someone else to relax with and set an example, on weekends and sometimes during the evenings. He had rediscovered book-reading as a hobby (working through Kisame’s not-insignificant collection was going to keep him occupied for awhile), and had polished up his violin playing considerably.

Dressed comfortably in a pair of loose black pants and a loose, dark green shirt with an open collar, Itachi pulled the curtains open fully and curled up in the chair next to them to read. His meetings had gone well, the past three days, so he could sit and read with a clear mind and no intention to let anything disturb him until Kisame returned for lunch.

By the time Kisame got back, he had gotten through half of the book, and decided that the rest could wait until afternoon. They ate downstairs in the hotel restaurant, and upon hearing that his lover had a little over an hour before he had to be at another lecture, Itachi persuaded him back upstairs to finish what he had wanted to start earlier that morning. Kisame laughed, blue-grey eyes brightening, and did not protest.

Itachi lounged in bed for a little while after that, waiting for Kisame to shower quickly and wave good-bye before the blue-haired man went back downstairs. He had to admit that it did feel good to spend a whole day being lazy. Not very often, of course, but he thought he had earned this vacation. Finally he got up and showered, pulling on his comfortable shirt and a pair of dark jeans before grabbing his book and heading downstairs too. There was a small café with an outdoor porch off to one side of the hotel lobby that he had wanted to try all week.

Thinking that he could probably finish the book by the time Kisame was ready to go to dinner, Itachi settled down at one of the outdoor tables with a steaming mug of tea and a scone that had caught his eye. We should get back to England sometime, he thought, smiling inwardly at the very English habit he was practicing. Maybe see a bit more of the country than just London.

He had only been reading for about half an hour, though, when he became aware that someone was standing next to his table. He was startled to look up and find Kisame’s friend from yesterday. Kyle Bannock, he remembered.

“Kisame is in a lecture right now-” he began, but the red-headed man cut him off with a shake of his head.

“I’m not looking for Kisame.”

Itachi paused, startled, and then went on slowly, “I see.”

“Mind if I join you?” Bannock asked, gesturing to the chair across from Itachi. Itachi shook his head and put his book down as the other man sat, then waited patiently. The man stayed quiet, though, scrutinizing Itachi intensely. Not entirely comfortable with this, Itachi distracted himself by studying the other man in return. Short, unruly red hair that caught nice gold highlights in the afternoon sun and very blue eyes were definitely Kyle Bannock’s most striking features; he also had a smattering of light freckles across his nose and a charming, almost mischievous grin that Itachi remembered seeing yesterday. Handsome, intelligent, outgoing, Itachi catalogued him tentatively, wondering vaguely if he was a good teacher or not.

“So you’re in business, are you, Mr. Aoru?”

“Yes,” Itachi replied, meeting the still-intense blue eyes calmly.

“Do you work in a chemistry-related field?”

“No,” Itachi said, keeping his puzzlement and continued unease from his voice.

“Really? I’d have thought you did, since you’re here,” Bannock did not disguise his confusion.

“I am not here for the conference,” the dark-eyed man explained, “Kisame said that he was going, and invited me to come along for the trip. Since it has been awhile since my last vacation, and since I had other business to take care of in New York, I accepted.”

Something odd flashed briefly through blue eyes before the red-haired man nodded, sitting back in his chair. “I see. Have you known each other long?”

Itachi hesitated before replying. “Nearly eight years.”

Now it was the other man’s turn to pause slightly before nodding knowingly. “You must be pretty good friends, then.”

“We are very close, yes,” Itachi said, still trying to determine what the man’s intentions were. He didn’t seem to be flirting, but….

Blue eyes were scrutinizing him intensely again, and Itachi felt his shoulders tense against his increased discomfort.

“So, how did you guys meet?”

Itachi did frown ever so slightly now, the uncomfortable feeling settling further into his stomach, and ignored the question. “Mr. Bannock, why are you asking me these things?”

The other man blinked, but then relaxed into a small half-grin. “Sorry, I guess that’s rude of me. I’m just curious. You’re a very…interesting person, Mr. Aoru. Not quite what I was expecting of a friend of Kisame’s. But that’s okay,” he shook his head, eyes suddenly distant, “it’s not quite the setting I’m used to thinking of him in, is all.”

Itachi, feeling more uneasy than ever for reasons that he couldn’t explain, pressed on with a question of his own, trying to keep his voice disinterested, “How do you know Kisame, Mr. Bannock?”

This seemed to surprise the other man. “He didn’t tell you anymore about me? Huh. I’d’ve thought…but maybe not. He can be a pretty private person sometimes, as you probably know.”

Itachi did know, and couldn’t hold off a slight feeling of resentment against this man who so abruptly appeared and was now claiming intimate knowledge of Kisame’s personality and habits.

“What did he not tell me?” Itachi asked, hoping that his annoyance and nervousness didn’t show in his tone. He was abruptly certain that he did not want to know the answer to this question, but that he had to ask it anyway.

“Well, I guess it doesn’t matter much, if he didn’t want to tell you,” the other man shook his head, pushing his chair back and getting up. “He and I dated for nearly four years just after college. Talking this week…brought back memories.” He turned and headed for the door into the lobby, waving briefly. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Aoru.”

And abruptly, Itachi realized what the other man had been trying to find out.

He wasn’t flirting with me

He started up out of his chair, his eyes wide with shock, but the man was already disappearing back into the lobby. He stood there, wanting to go after him and do...something. Anything. He didn’t know what, and though he realized that a further confrontation would not do any good, the desire to at least warn the other man off was hard to fight.

Kyle Bannock wanted Kisame.

Kisame is mine, was his next, fierce thought. Squeezing his eyes shut and pulling in a deep breath, he returned to his seat, trying to calm down. It doesn’t matter what was between them in the past. Kisame is with me now.

This self-reassurance did not explain why he was still staring down at his teacup with more anxiety than he was willing to acknowledge, his hands clenched into fists so that he wouldn’t have to admit to himself that they were shaking violently.

It also didn’t explain the tiny, tiny thread of doubt that was still wrapping itself around his heart. But…he’s right that I’m not…we don’t…we’ve never shared interests like that. I’m not a scientist. And he and Kisame do obviously get along well… Frowning, he forced himself to pick up his book again, but could only stare blankly down at the words, another, more worrying question niggling at the back of his mind.

Why didn’t Kisame tell me?

He shook his head almost violently, pushing the unwanted thoughts away and forcing himself to sit back and start reading.

He didn’t get much more reading done that afternoon, though by the time Kisame came to find him, he thought that he had gotten his agitation enough under control to keep it hidden from his lover. Kisame still asked him if something was wrong about halfway through dinner, so Itachi shook his head calmly, kept his mouth full, and really clamped down on his swirling thoughts.

It was easier once they were back in their room and alone, and Kisame’s usual, passionate touches helped, but Itachi still lay awake long after Kisame had fallen asleep. He frowned up at the ceiling, and though he hated himself for the doubt, he had to wonder.

He waited six years for me, and I know he loves me. But…will he always? Our work is nothing in common, and if he found someone else that he can talk with about all of that, and was more comfortable with him…what if he hadn’t really wanted their relationship to end? What if Kyle giving them another chance is interesting to him? Would he stay with me? Feeling slightly sick at even the thought of losing Kisame, Itachi cut off the unwanted speculation by sheer force of will, turning over onto his side and curling up.

A part of him insisted that such assumptions were ridiculous, and with that help, he eventually fought off the cold feeling in his stomach long enough to fall asleep. But his sleep was fitful, and plagued by vague dreams that were not pleasant.

He woke late to find Kisame already gone, and had to hurry and get ready for his last business meeting, wishing that he could see Kisame now, and wondering if Kyle Bannock was with him.

***

Kisame rose and applauded with everyone else as the last speaker of the conference finished up, and then stretched before gathering up his notes.

He was sorry to admit that his mind had not been as much on the lecture as it should have been. Pleasant memories of lunch with Kyle earlier in the day had mingled the persistent feeling from the night before that Itachi was upset about something, combining to leave him with less concentration for the conference itself.

I hope he’s feeling better, whatever was bothering him, Kisame thought, wondering if his lover were back from his meeting that day yet. Perhaps that had something to do with it. He was fine even at lunch yesterday, but maybe some business thing came up after that. He does worry when he isn’t actually at the office. He let a brief, wry smile cross his face as he began navigating through the lingering crowd. He always takes care of any problems, of course, and usually without any real difficulty. Not that I should talk, though. I get the same way with my experiments sometimes.

Kyle had caught up with him by the time he reached the door. “Old man Halston’s a pretty good speaker, isn’t he? I’m glad they got him for the closing lecture.”

“Yes, he is,” Kisame agreed, smiling. “It was interesting.”

Kyle shook his head in admiration. “There’s some cool stuff going on in the universities these days, I tell ya. Makes me wish I were back in college.”

Kisame smiled, but shook his head. “Not me. I’m fine where I am. It is nice to hear about it, though. I should subscribe to a couple more journals, I think, just to make sure I’m getting all the news.”

Kyle nodded. “That’s how I keep up. And I try to make it here every other year, at least. You were always bad about conferences, though.”

“Still am,” Kisame admitted, grinning unrepentantly. They were out in the lobby now, and Kisame didn’t think to protest when Kyle dropped an easy hand onto his shoulder and steered him to the side a bit. They weren’t far from the open door of the now-closed café; apparently the patio was left available even in the evenings.

“Kisame…?” Kyle asked quietly, sounding more hesitant than he had all week. Kisame pulled his scattered thoughts back together and looked at the other man questioningly. The hesitant but unmistakable warmth in those blue eyes was almost enough of an answer, even without Kyle’s other hand coming up to rest on his other shoulder. “I’ve been thinking a lot this week, and I was…well, I just wondered if you’d come to dinner with me tonight…?”

He trailed off as Kisame bowed his head, closing his eyes against the anger and sadness rising in him. Damn it…I hoped we were past this…that we could just be friends…

“How are you asking, Kyle?” He said a few seconds later when he knew his voice would be under control. He looked up again.

Uncertainty flitted across the red-head’s face, but he did not move away. “What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean, Kyle,” Kisame replied, voice firm but not harsh. He understood how Kyle must feel, could even sympathize a little. If he’d been single, he might even have accepted the offer.

But he wasn’t single anymore, and he had no regrets about that fact.

“If you’re asking as a friend, and a friend only,” he went on, letting his voice soften, “then I would consider it. If this is a date, then no. I am not free.”

He was not surprised that Kyle let him go then, but he was surprised at the angry, almost mutinous expression that passed over the other man’s face as he looked away. “So you are seeing him then. Aoru.”

Kisame frowned a bit at the scathing murmur. “Yes, I am.”

Kyle didn’t quite flinch at that, but turned back to Kisame with a gaze that was half-angry, half-pleading. “Why? Why are you with him? What do you have in common?”

Kisame was taken aback by this question, and didn’t have time to cut in before Kyle went on, upset, confused and pleading.

“He’s just a businessman, Kisame, not even a scientist. Doesn’t even do business in our field! He’s so distant and polite…how can you be with someone who has so little expression? You like talking with people, I know you do, and he hardly seems the type to make casual conversation. I can’t begin to picture him at a…a football game or a bar. Why are you with someone like him?”

Through his anger, Kisame realized that this was probably the first completely honest picture of Itachi that he had ever been given by someone who didn’t know his lover. It was informative, if very upsetting at the moment.

“Stop it, Kyle.” He was glaring now, he knew, and his hands were clenched into fists. He wasn’t feeling quite ready to hit the other man yet, but he was getting closer. “Don’t presume to know him, or my reasons for being with him, after a few minutes of conversation. I can understand that you’re upset, but if you’re going to be insulting then we are done.”

Kyle looked away, his handsome face twisted by very real pain, and though Kisame wasn’t in a mood to feel sympathetic at the moment, he knew that Kyle was not trying to be catty. “Well, I guess that explains our break-up. If he’s the kind you want, then it’s no wonder I wasn’t good enough.”

Kisame shook his head. “It’s not that you weren’t good enough, Kyle, you just weren’t what I needed. There’s a difference. What we had was good, I won’t deny that. I enjoyed it; I still enjoy your company. You’re a good, intelligent man….”

Kyle did not answer that, and only the barest flick of his eyes over Kisame’s shoulder alerted the blue-haired man that he should turn around-

-to see Itachi standing a little ways behind them, closer to the café door.

His face was particularly blank, and only the slightly-widened dark eyes, filled with such a tangle of emotions that Kisame couldn’t begin to read them all at a glance, told him that Itachi had heard most (if not all) of the conversation.

“Itachi…” Kisame began, but Itachi just stared at him in silence, before turning abruptly and walking out onto the dark patio. There was a brusqueness in his movements that Kisame read as a signal that the other man wanted to be left alone, but the blue-haired man decided that that would be a bad idea right now. Damn it. He shouldn’t have to go through this either. All my fault…I should have made things clear to both of them at the beginning…

It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the lower light level out here, though there was enough of New York’s ever-present traffic to make it fairly easy to see. Itachi had gone to the far side of the porch and was standing with his back to the doorway, clutching the railing with both hands. The briefcase he had been carrying lay on its side at his feet, and Kisame could see the lines of tension in his lover’s back even through the dark.

“Itachi,” he began again as he approached, but Itachi’s next words, soft and completely unexpected, stopped him about ten paces back.

“He’s right, you know.”

Kisame gaped. “What?”

“He’s right,” Itachi repeated quietly, still not turning around. The softness did not hide the pain and fear in his voice. “We’re not so much alike. You might be happier with-”

No,” Kisame cut in, harshly. “Absolutely not.”

Itachi stiffened in surprise, and Kisame wanted to go to him, but held himself back. He had supposed they would have some conversation like this eventually, even though a part of him had hoped it wouldn’t ever be necessary. If it was to be now, so be it. No one else was around except for Kyle, who had hesitantly followed them out and was probably the only other person in the world who deserved to hear this anyway.

“No, Itachi, he is not right, because he doesn’t understand,” Kisame took a deep breath, knowing that this was not going to be easy. He had gotten so used to hiding his own uncertainties from Itachi…but the need for that was long past, and it was time to end it. There should be no need to hide things from each other; not anymore.

“I don’t blame him for that. As far as he knows me – and he does know me well – my relationship with you is not what he would expect. But he wasn’t there, and he doesn’t know why things have changed.” Kisame did not turn around, but he felt Kyle shift and start to leave. “No, Kyle, you stay too. I do not love you, but I do respect you and care for you as a friend. You should hear this, because I want both of you to understand. You both deserve that from me.”

A brief hesitation, and then Kyle’s voice, subdued, “All right.”

Kisame nodded. Itachi was to all appearances still staring out at the late evening traffic, but he knew that the dark-eyed man was listening. Addressing himself to his lover, Kisame took a deep breath and began.

“I met you, Itachi, in one of the last places on earth I was ever expecting to meet anyone. I go to Mardi Gras sometimes for the dancing and the costumes, but not for any kind of companionship. It is the perfect place to blend anonymously into a crowd and have fun, without having to worry about even speaking to the people around you, much less any more intimate interaction. That’s how it had always been before, and I was not expecting that year to be any different.

“But then I saw you, sitting there dressed all in black and watching the dancing with such intense eyes, and something about that called out to me. At the time I had no idea why you were so compelling, I just knew that I had to get you to dance, to help you move to the music you were obviously feeling and not quite understanding. Now, I think it was the leashed passion for life I could see in your eyes; normally, you keep it so well-hidden that most people don’t even guess at it. But that night, for whatever reason, your mask was down and I could tell that you needed to let that passion free.

“We danced, and I barely touched you. I couldn’t, because I knew that if I touched more than your hands I would kiss you, and that scared me. By the time the dancing was done, though, and I had gotten you away from the crowd, I wanted you too much for that to matter any more, and when you had accepted my offer and we had gotten back to my room, my doubts were gone. I’d never done anything like this in my life, had a one-night-stand with a total stranger; I’ve always been rather cautious and worked into intimate relationships with people more slowly. But this time, somehow, I knew that I wouldn’t regret it.

“And I didn’t. I woke up the next morning and realized that even if I never saw you again, even if I never knew your name, I would not regret that night, not ever. You had needed it at least as badly as I had, if not more, and I was happy that I had been able to give you that, a few hours’ worth of pleasure and joy. I also wondered who you were, that you would stifle your passion so much that this was the only way it could find escape, with a complete stranger that you never planned to see again. I wanted to take you away from whatever life made you that way, right then, and make you a part of my life. I suppose I was biased, having first met you when I could see the ardor that you normally keep hidden, but I thought that it wasn’t right that you should cover it with a mask.

“But I knew that I couldn’t ask you to come with me, or to tell me anything about you. If you lived with a mask such as that on, then you would almost certainly fight any attempt of mine to make a place in your life. I didn’t know anything about you or your situation; you could have been married and had three kids for all I knew. I did know that if I was the only enemy you had to fight, you would win – an outside enemy would be too easy to put up walls and barriers against. So I couldn’t pursue you, not in any way. I had to pretend to all the confidence I didn’t have, and leave you with the only enemy I thought you might not win against, an enemy that was already inside your defenses: temptation.

“I have never told you this, Itachi, but I think you should know it now; I walked out of that room in love with you and certain that I would never see you again. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

“Two years you held out, and your voice on the phone that day was one of the most welcome shocks I’ve ever had. I’ll admit, too, that I took quick advantage of some friends in informed places to find you, but it was worth it. All the hope I’d been trying to kill suddenly came to life again, and I knew that my chances had just increased, although probably not by much. So I came to you, and once again, you were just as desperate for someone to let your passion out with, some way to let yourself live a little, and I knew that I hadn’t been wrong about you.

“But I still couldn’t give you anything to fight me with; you had to fight yourself, because I hoped – prayed – that your truer self would win out over the façade you wore as protection. So, once again, I had to leave in the morning with a confident smile and the same temptation as before; the chance to let your real desires out, to be yourself with someone.

“And the same was true for every meeting thereafter. I know you only called on business trips because that was the easiest way for you to hide what was going on from your family, but I loved the opportunities it gave us both – I’d never traveled quite as much as I did those six years, and it gave me all sorts of chances to get you out and to try other things, things that I’m sure you wouldn’t have tried on your own. But every time you called, and with the time between calls growing consistently shorter, my confidence was less an act and more real. I knew you would call again; my worry came from the fact that I didn’t know what was going on in your normal life that might tear you away from me without warning. My problem all along was that I wanted more than just an affair – I wanted you to be with me, for life, and somehow I had to make you see that that would work.

“And I succeeded, because when it came down to the line and you had to make a choice, you chose me. I have never been happier in my life than these two years since the day you came to live with me.”

Kisame took a deep breath, closing his eyes briefly before going on. Itachi still had not turned around, but the tension in his back had eased into something else that Kisame couldn’t quite read. Kyle shifted a little in the chair he had taken, but made no comment.

“In a way, Kyle, you are right. My whole relationship with Itachi has been quite outside the norm for me, right from the very beginning, but perhaps in a way that is what has made it so important. With you, it took nearly a year of being friends and then dating before I was comfortable enough with our relationship to become lovers, and though I have never slept with anyone but the two of you, the other times when I have dated I have been similarly cautious.” He sighed, turning a little to give Kyle a sad half-smile. “And you’re also right that Itachi and I didn’t have much in common, at least to start. But I’m more than happy to try new things, from travel to food to music, and Itachi has done the same, and so over the years we have grown to have things in common, even if we did not start out doing so.”

Kisame closed his eyes again then, before leaning back to look up at the night-lit skyscrapers towering above them.

“I cannot think of anything else that I wanted to say. I hope that it helps, at least a little bit, for both of you.”

***

Kyle stayed still for a long moment after Kisame finished speaking, staring down at the ground and his clasped hands. It hurt, still, in a lot of ways, but…

I do understand now.

That Kisame had been so taken with this man from the very first did indeed mean something special. That he had since invited him not only into his life, but into his home…that was more telling than Aoru probably realized. Kyle had been to Kisame’s house, but he had never stayed there, not once, and he had certainly not been invited to share it. As lonely as Kisame had sometimes been after his parents died, he had still not been willing to open up that place to anyone.

It hurts, but…I understand. And if that’s truly how he feels, then I won’t get in the way of that.

Slowly, he rose to his feet. Kisame looked down from the sky and turned to face him fully. Further back, so did Itachi Aoru.

“I am sorry, Kisame.” He said, quietly, not really trying to hide the pain in his smile, but nodding to let his former lover and (he hoped) friend know that he meant it. “And I apologize to you as well, Itachi Aoru.”

“It’s all right, Kyle,” Kisame said, returning the sad smile.

“I accept your apology, Kyle Bannock,” came Itachi’s voice, soft but sincere.

Kyle turned his blue eyes to meet the dark ones that he could just barely make out. “Take care of him? Please? I see now that you’ve taken away the loneliness that even I couldn’t…please?”

The other man seemed startled by this, as did Kisame, but Kyle didn’t take his eyes away from Itachi. A second later, he got a sharp nod and a firm, quiet reply: “You have my word.”

Pushing the pain aside long enough to realize that, given time, he would be happy for them, he smiled again at them both, less sad this time. “I’d best be going then. See you ‘round?”

“Sure. Have a safe trip home, Kyle,” Kisame said, “and don’t let those kids run you too ragged.”

The mix of concern and teasing in his voice were genuine, and for now, that was enough. Kyle couldn’t help but grin. “I won’t. Don’t let the police run you ragged.”

Kisame chuckled, and Kyle nodded to them both once more before turning for the door, but Kisame’s voice stopped him one last time.

“Kyle?”

He turned back, curious.

“I hope you find him someday, whoever’s right for you,” Kisame said.

Kyle stared at him for a minute, then gave up with a slightly pained laugh and nodded. “I thought I had…but maybe I’ll start looking again. I hope so too.”

With that, he left them. He was hurting, and would be for some time, but he had a good job to go back too, and that helped.

And who knows? Maybe I will meet someone, someday.

***

When Kyle had disappeared back into the brightly-lit lobby, Kisame stayed facing the door for a long moment, gathering…courage or strength, he wasn’t sure…before turning to face Itachi.

Itachi had turned around at some point during his exchange with Kyle, and now he met Kisame’s blue-grey eyes unflinchingly.

The taller man’s breath caught at the depth of emotion he read in those onyx eyes. “Love, I-”

“I know,” Itachi said, deep voice barely more than a breath, catching a little at the endearment that Kisame hadn’t ever used before, “I understand.”

Kisame closed his eyes against the mixture of joyful laughter and tears that threatened, and silently held out a hand that Itachi accepted seconds later.

They went back through the lobby to the elevator, touching only their hands. It was only moments before they were back in the privacy of their room, though it felt like much longer than that to Kisame.

“I love you.” A quiet murmur from both of them around a kiss that had Kisame closer to drowning than he had ever been in the ocean.

Those were the last words they exchanged that night. For what they shared now, no words could ever be necessary.

***

Kisame woke fairly early the next morning, somewhat to his own surprise. He had set no alarm, and it’s not as though they had gone to sleep early…

The thought and the memory were enough to finish waking him, and he opened his eyes slowly to find that Itachi had shifted out of his arms sometime during the night and was lying with his back to Kisame in the middle of the bed.

The mere sight of his lover’s long dark hair, spread out over the pillow, was enough to have him aching again, even after making love more than once the night before. But Itachi was still sleeping, and Kisame didn’t want to wake him just yet…swallowing, he turned away. Sunlight seeped around the edges of the room’s curtains, and Kisame eased himself out of bed to open them a bit, letting a little of the golden light in so that he could see better.

He stood in the bright rays for a moment, keeping his eyes closed against the light, before finally turning back to the bed.

The early light caught the silky edges in Itachi’s hair, giving it shimmering highlights and contrasting it all the more with the smooth, pale skin of his naked back…

His breath catching in low moan, Kisame was easing himself back into the bed seconds later, forcing himself to move slowly, gently, even though he was aching more than ever now. Burying his face in the loose strands of dark hair on the pillow, he shifted to lie behind his lover, not quite touching, letting one hand run lightly down Itachi’s back to his waist, and then around to press lightly against his stomach, fingers stroking gently.

Mine, he thought, not fully coherent, just knowing that he never, ever wanted to let this man go.

“Nnn,” Itachi shifted a little, beginning to wake up but not quite there yet. Kisame couldn’t stop another soft moan, and pressed closer, letting the hand on Itachi’s stomach move lower while he threaded his free hand through more silky hair.

“Itachi,” he breathed, low in his lover’s ear, swallowing hard when Itachi responded to his touches, arching against him. “I want you…” he nuzzled at the back of Itachi’s neck, just behind his ear and the other man shivered. Want this…just this…

“Ki…same…” Itachi shifted, turning his head a little, half-open black eyes still unfocused with sleep and growing desire. Kisame leaned forward to kiss him, running his hands over as much of his lover’s body as he could reach. Itachi moaned a little then, arching back against him and reaching to thread his fingers through Kisame’s, guiding him sleepily. Burying his face in Itachi’s hair again, letting the feel and smell of it overwhelm him, Kisame rocked against the other man at Itachi’s unspoken urging, building the sweet, hot ache up higher and higher…

Until my dying day…

Itachi gasped his name aloud, tensing under Kisame’s hands with his release, and at the sound and feel of his lover’s ecstasy, Kisame gave himself up to his own, his cry of Itachi’s name muffled against dark hair.

They both lay, breath gradually slowing, still tangled together.

“That,” Itachi murmured at last, shifting so that he could turn around in Kisame’s arms, tilting his head back for another kiss, “was a very pleasant way to wake up.”

“Good,” Kisame replied, granting the requested kiss and smiling happily. “It’s early, I know, but I couldn’t…”

“It’s all right,” Itachi said, tucking his head under Kisame’s chin and snuggling closer.

Kisame lay there silently for a long moment, at a loss of what to say, but at last realized that “Thank you” probably suited best what was in his heart right now, and murmured it softly.

Itachi blinked at him, puzzled. “You are welcome. But, what for?”

“For you. For this morning. For last night. For everything,” Kisame explained, his words sounding helpless and jumbled in his own ears.

But Itachi simply nodded, dark eyes calm with love and understanding, and Kisame knew abruptly that they would never doubt each other again.

They lay in bed and dozed for awhile before rising and showering together. They didn’t fly home until the next evening, and Kisame was hoping to go do some proper sightseeing today, a plan to which Itachi had agreed, promising to show his Florida-born-and-raised lover around the busy city.

This has been quite a week, Kisame thought, not entirely rueful, as they headed out into the morning sun. Not quite what I was expecting, but the conference was good, and I’m glad I got to see Kyle again. And that we got everything cleared up for good. He’ll be happier in the end, I think.

He let his gaze drift to Itachi, who was waiting patiently a few paces ahead of him, looking back calmly, a smile hovering in his dark eyes.

And now Itachi is mine, for certain and for always, and that’s the best thing of all.

***

4 years later…

Depositing his suitcase near the wall, Kisame stretched and looked back at Itachi, who had shut the hotel room door behind them and was doing the same. “Shall we get changed and go get dinner?”

Itachi nodded, already unzipping his luggage.

They were back in New York for the chemistry conference. I might be getting a little better about these things, Kisame decided. It’s only been four years since I was last here instead of…over ten. He sighed, shaking his head at himself in wry amusement and waving off his lover’s questioning glance.

They left the hotel for dinner, and came back to find the hotel lobby packed with the first crowd of the conference. The opening lecture wasn’t for another hour or so, but people came early to get good seats and catch up with old acquaintances.

Speaking of which… Kisame glanced down at his lover, gesturing towards a familiar head of unruly red hair. “Mind if I go say hi to Kyle?”

Itachi shook his head and followed Kisame through the crowd. The blue-haired man was glad that Itachi had forgiven Kyle the misunderstandings of their first meeting. Not that Kisame had been in touch with him since then; he had decided to give his former lover some time to deal with the final conclusion of their break-up, but was hoping that by now Kyle might be ready to pick up their friendship again on steadier ground.

“Kyle!” He called out over the noise of the crowd as they drew near, and was encouraged when Kyle turned around and gave him a surprised, welcoming smile.

“Kisame! You actually got back to another one within five years?” His smile didn’t even hint at changing upon seeing Itachi, he merely nodded his head in greeting. “Mr. Aoru. How are you?”

“I am well, Mr. Bannock, thank you,” Itachi replied politely, inclining his head in return greeting.

“Yeah, I though I’d try and be a bit better about coming,” Kisame answered his friend’s initial teasing question, grinning. “Plus, Itachi had some business stuff to take care of in the city.”

“That’s cool. How’ve you been?”

“Pretty good. Yourself?”

“I’ve been good,” Kyle replied easily, but after a glance over Kisame’s left shoulder, something in his eyes shifted and he went on, voice quieter, “well…better than good, actually.” He looked back at Kisame with a very wry grin. “And you might as well get the ‘I told you so’ out of the way now.”

“What for-” Kisame started, but cut himself off in sudden astonishment and understanding when a young man came to stand at Kyle’s side, resting a hand on the red-head’s shoulder.

“Kisame, Mr. Aoru, this is Jake Stanford,” Kyle introduced, an oddly mixed undertone of pride and almost-shyness in his voice. “Jake, this is Kisame Hoshigaki and Itachi Aoru.”

Emerald green eyes, filled with a deep sense of what Kisame could only call “serenity,” examined them both with interest. After a long moment of careful study, Jake Stanford smiled slightly, approving. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said in a low tenor voice, his words slow and deliberate. He shook hands with that same air of measured purpose, his grip firm.

“Good to meet you too, Mr. Stanford,” Kisame replied honestly, and Itachi nodded, face still carefully blank but his dark eyes were curious.

Jake’s face wasn’t much more expressive than Itachi’s, at first glance, though in his case it wasn’t a blankness of emotion so much as an overflow of that impressive calm he seemed to have towards…well, everything, as far as Kisame could tell. His eyes were bright and laughing, though, as he shook his head. “You may call me Jake,” he explained. “How do you wish to be addressed?”

“Kisame is fine,” replied the blue-haired man easily, quirking a questioning eyebrow at his lover.

“Hmm,” Itachi said, eyeing the boy even more sharply than before. “You are a chemist, I assume?”

“Yes,” Jake answered, some undertone of his voice making this an unshakeable fact. “I have been interested in it ever since high school. I have now been teaching with Kyle for two and a half years.” The undertones of possessiveness that accompanied Kyle’s name, in spite of the continued polite, even tone of Jake’s voice, were particularly interesting.

Clearly, I’ve been around Itachi too long, if I can pick up on all this having only met the kid five minutes ago, Kisame thought wryly. He had long supposed his lover to be the master in subtler-than-verbal forms of communication, though it seemed that that assumption might have to be adjusted somewhat.

And Itachi appeared to be enjoying every second of it. “I see.” They watched each other closely for a long moment, green eyes and black, and it was clear to Kisame that some sort of communication was going on here, though he couldn’t for the life of him tell what.

“Would you care for a cup of tea, Mr. Stanford?” Itachi offered quietly a moment later, a smirk now hovering around the corners of his eyes; it matched the humor Kisame supposed he could catch in Jake’s quiet, “I would like that very much, Mr. Aoru.”

Apparently they had come to an understanding about something. With quick, nearly identical glances at their respective lovers, the two men slipped away through the crowd in the direction of the café.

Kisame and Kyle looked at the two men, and then looked at each other, and then back again.

“Do you have any idea what just happened?” Kyle asked a moment later, a bit plaintively.

“No,” Kisame answered bluntly, “but they’re getting along, so it should be fine.”

Kyle sighed and shook his head. “Want something to drink?”

“Yes.”

They headed for the bar, and were soon settled in with a beer each.

“So, how did you meet him?” Kisame asked, curious, after a few minute’s comfortable silence.

“Well, he was one of my students at the high school some years ago-” Seeing Kisame’s eyebrows shoot up, Kyle stopped and shook his head. “Don’t worry, it was nothing like that. At the time, he was just one of my more brilliant students. He’s extremely smart, but had been drifting a little, I think, for lack of anything that really caught his interest. He found that interest finally, in my class,” Kyle’s voice was not without pride, and Kisame thought it well-earned. “After that, he really blossomed, both in chemistry and in all his other subjects, and then went on to major in chemistry in college, which he finished in…two and a half years, I think? Less time than usual, I know. He’d gotten his teaching degree during his summers, having decided that he wanted to teach too, and when he discovered that there was an opening for a second chem teacher at our school, he came back.

“That’s when something more happened between us. He joined me the January after you and I last met here, actually, and then starting that summer we really got to be good friends; just hanging out, you know? And after awhile I realized that I…well, he’s very determined, and when he wants something, he won’t let up until he’s gotten it. And he wanted me.”

Kyle’s voice dropped again, quiet enough that it almost hid the amazement in his voice.

Kisame said, “I told you so,” grinning unrepentantly at Kyle’s grimace. “But really, Kyle, I’m surprised at you; you’ve never been one to suffer from self-esteem issues; you’re smart and handsome and good at a subject he enjoys. Why the surprise?”

“I don’t know,” Kyle admitted after a long moment of staring thoughtfully down at his drink. “I guess…he’s just so…so him, so brilliant and…and everything. He could have had so many other people, someone his own age…and he wanted me. Maybe I’m just grateful,” and here he shot Kisame a wry grin. “But I think I understand how you feel now. To have someone that you wouldn’t give up for anything.”

Kisame nodded, smiling fondly at his own memories. “I’m glad for you, Kyle.”

“Thanks,” Kyle said softly, then raised his glass with a brighter grin. “For good friends and good lovers and good jobs?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Kisame replied, returning the grin, and they drank.

A glance at his watch told him that time had flown. “Man, if we don’t hurry we’re going to be late for the opening lecture. Shall we go grab Jake?” Kyle agreed and they hurried over to the café to find Jake listening intently to whatever Itachi was explaining quietly to him.

Kisame took a moment to examine the young man as they approached. In his mid-twenties, most likely, Jake had brown skin, neatly spiked brown hair and a strong, white smile, all of which served to emphasize the vibrant green of his eyes. Deciding that the younger man’s calm was probably good for Kyle, Kisame’s initial approval of him was reinforced, and he was interested to hear if Jake had been doing any research outside of his normal teaching.

“We’re not moving to Florida,” Kyle said as they got nearer, apparently having deduced that Itachi was making a business proposition.

“No, we’re not,” Jake agreed, standing to greet his lover. “Mr. Aoru was just wondering if I’d be interested in some long-distance consulting. I am.”

Itachi, who had also risen and come to stand next to Kisame, kept a satisfied smile to himself and nodded to Jake. “I am pleased to hear it, Mr. Stanford. I am sure we will have further opportunities to talk later in the week. However, at the moment I believe you have your lecture to attend.”

“Yes,” Jake returned the not-quite smile and hesitated only a brief second before bowing correctly to Itachi in the traditional Japanese style. Itachi, startled, looked pleased and returned the bow, breaking down enough to give both Jake and Kyle a proper smile.

“Well, we’d best be off,” Kisame said, covering his amusement. Itachi looked quite different when he smiled openly, as Kyle and Jake had just discovered, and to be shown that face was an honor indeed, which both men seemed to realize. “I’ll see you upstairs later?” he asked Itachi, who turned the smile on him and nodded.

“I have my book.”

“Good,” Kisame said, smiling back (how could he not?). “How about we all do lunch together tomorrow?”

Nods from the other three, and Kisame led the way to the conference room with a light heart. I never expected this to turn out so well for all of us, but it really has. Friends and lovers, for all of us.

And so it was.

Chapter Text

Kisame peered more closely at the bit of parchment fixed to a glass plate. Ah, so that’s what it’s supposed to look like. Good.

The blue-haired man grinned and straightened. He was finally getting the hang of this chemical dating procedure. He wanted to practice a little bit more, but then he figured he could snip a tiny piece off of Itachi’s papyrus scroll from their trip to Egypt all those years ago and see if it was real or not.

“Kisame,” Itachi’s quiet voice came down from the open trapdoor at the other end of his basement chem lab, “there’s a phone call for you.”

“I’ll be right up,” Kisame called back, heading for the sink to wash his hands and pulling off his apron and goggles to hang by the stairs on his way out. He climbed the steep cellar stairs with the ease of long practice, and took the phone from his lover once up in the kitchen proper.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Hoshigaki, this is Reynolds.”

“Oh. How soon?” Kisame stilled at the name and voice of his sometime-manager at the CIA.

“As quickly as you can get up here, Mr. Hoshigaki.”

“Sure. I’ll take the next flight out. Routine?”

“It should be.” Reynolds never could lighten up.

“Okay.” Kisame sighed when the line went abruptly dead, and turned with a regretful look to Itachi, who was watching with a slight frown. “Sorry, Itachi. That’s official business in Washington talking. I’ll have to go.”

Itachi nodded slowly and glanced at the table he’d been setting. “Will you be able to stay for dinner, at least?”

“Yeah. I’ll go find a flight that leaves in a couple hours. They can wait that long, and it’s a pretty short flight.”

“All right.” Kisame picked up his lover’s underlying relief, both for the fact that the dark-eyed man wouldn’t have to cook, and that the business wasn’t too urgent.
“He said it’s routine, anyway, so I should be back in a day or two.”

Itachi nodded and came over to give Kisame a quick kiss before going back to the table. “You’d best get your flight.”

“Yeah,” Kisame held back his regretful sigh until he was out of the kitchen and heading up the great staircase leading from the main hall of his house up to the bedrooms and his study. It’s been what, three and half years since he came? I’m still not over the fact that I actually won him… He shook his head, smiling fondly.

Finding an evening flight up to Langley took but a few moments, and then the blue-haired man headed back downstairs to actually start cooking their food. Itachi was in the process of learning how to cook, but he wasn’t quite there yet, and still preferred for Kisame to make the substantive portion of their meals.

They ate in relative quiet. Work for Itachi had been going well lately, and Kisame wasn’t ready to tell his lover about the chemical dating just yet. Not that it mattered. Just being there together was good enough.

Later, Kisame kissed Itachi thoroughly before heading out the back door, trusty black suitcase in hand. Itachi stood in first the back door and then the side window of their bedroom until Kisame waved one last time and then turned into the trees heading away from the beach and lost sight of their house.

Well, it should only be for a day or two, like Reynolds said, and then I’ll be back.

***

Itachi waited up for Kisame’s quick phone call to say that he had landed safely before going to bed. Their bed was large for just one person (hell, it was large for two people), and although he took the opportunity to sprawl a bit, he really didn’t like sleeping alone anymore. All the wonderful sex aside, Itachi had had three and a half years to get used to just having another person there, a warm body to curl up against. Kisame’s presence had ever been reassuring to him, in its own way, and that was truer now than ever before.

It took longer than usual, but eventually he fell asleep, and thankfully did not dream.

The next day was Sunday, and he spent it mostly upstairs. Kisame had renovated one of the unused bedrooms into Itachi’s own office/study the first year after the dark-eyed man had moved in with his lover, and he liked it there. It was quiet, and all of the dark antique wood and old books were a soothing presence not at all diminished by the very modern computer and accoutrements on his desk. It was a place where he could focus solely on work, if he chose, and therefore it made a good haven for when Kisame was gone and he was alone in the house. It was really too big for just one person; he still didn’t know how Kisame had lived alone here for so many years. Not that he’d asked. He had a suspicion that Kisame had often been lonelier than the usually-cheerful man let on, but those days were past and Itachi had never been one to look back.

So he stayed in his office except for a couple of trips to the kitchen for food and drink, and got quite a lot accomplished. Around eight that evening, and feeling better, the dark-eyed man went downstairs to practice some more cooking. If it didn’t turn out there were always leftovers he could eat for dinner, but there was little point in making Kisame suffer through too much of his early attempts at cooking, so he took advantage of meals when his lover was absent to practice.

Kisame’s call came later than he was expecting; it was nearly eleven o’clock before the phone rang.

“Hello,” Itachi answered softly, waiting for his lover’s usual, cheerful greeting.

“Hi Itachi,” Kisame replied, voice sounding tired and serious.

Itachi paused. “What is it?”

“Something came up, and they’re going to need me for awhile.”

“How long?” Itachi frowned but kept it out of his voice.

“At least two weeks.” He heard Kisame take a deep breath. “And…I’m not going to be able to call you at all, either.”

They were both silent for a long moment before Itachi went on, voice dropping.

“Where will you be?”

“Honestly, I don’t know, and I couldn’t tell you even if I did. Out of the country.”

Itachi drew in a deep, slow lungful of air, pushing memories of a certain night in Chicago out of his head.

“All right,” he whispered.

“I’ll be home as soon as I possibly can, I promise.”

“All right.”

Kisame must have heard the underlying tension in his voice. “And I’ll be careful. No worries. Okay?”

“Not really. But all right.”

Kisame chuckled helplessly at the dark-eyed man’s honesty. “I love you, Itachi.”

“I love you too, Kisame.”

No good-byes; that was more than enough.

Itachi hung up the phone with a determined click and took another deep breath.

Two weeks.

Just two weeks. I can do this. We went much longer than this between visits back before I moved in with him. He nodded sharply to himself and went to get ready for bed. Just two weeks.

He wouldn’t let himself think the rest of it:

Two weeks…in which my lover might get hurt. Two weeks in which my lover might die.

***

Rebecca Nayland was worried about her boss.

She knew his work patterns pretty well, at this point: they’d been working together for nearly three years, and he’d been the CEO of Akatsuki Enterprises for a year and a half of that.

His normal schedule was to come in every weekday between seven or eight in the morning, and leave between five or six in the evening. He’d work long overtime hours if they had important deadlines coming up and during rush times (when he could be found working weekends and all hours of the day and night) but those were not common and stopped as soon as workloads went back to normal.

If he was upset or angry about something (she assumed) then his schedule became very strict: he walked in the door at seven and walked out at five, no questions and no exceptions. There had been only a couple of times like this, (she surmised their cause because he was particularly stone-faced and even more quiet and anti-social than usual) and they had never lasted long.

But this did not fit either category, and she was worried.

This was…well, she really couldn’t say. It was like his schedule during busy times, except that they weren’t in a busy time – if anything it was slow – and now he was practically living in his office. As far as she could tell, he’d been going home for a couple of hours during the afternoon (for food and clean clothes) and that was it. He did have a couch in his office, so hopefully he wasn’t sleeping in the chair, but she knew that he wasn’t sleeping all that much.

And she had no idea why. It had started on Monday without warning, and it was now Thursday and showed no signs of letting up. Maybe something happened at home? I hope he and his lover aren’t fighting… She had learned for certain that her boss’s partner was also a man, but knew nothing else about him, except for the fact that Itachi was rather madly in love with him. Not that he’d said that, of course. It was just the look he got in his eyes on those infrequent occasions when the subject was mentioned at all….

He didn’t seem angry right now, though. More…worried. Anxious. Rebecca frowned at the letter she was supposed to be typing, and tried to push her own worries aside. There wasn’t much she could do, in all honesty, though she resolved to come in for at least a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday this weekend too, if he hadn’t stopped by tomorrow. He shouldn’t be here alone all weekend, and he might need her help.

Not like I’ve got much else to do, she sighed, and he will pay me for the overtime.

With that somewhat reassuring thought in mind and a glance over her right shoulder to the closed door of Itachi’s office, she forced her mind back to her work.

***

The boy couldn’t have been more than ten.

Remnants of blisters covered his dark skin, which was now bloated and stretched from lying in the sun for a couple of days. Long-dried blood covered his small chin, likely coughed up in his last few minutes or hours of life. The flies had already begun their work, of course, though at least bigger animals hadn’t gotten to this body yet like they had to some of the others.

Kisame forced himself into the most remote, clinical corner of his mind and tried not to think too much. Tried not to think that just two weeks ago this boy had been running around the small village that stood just a few hundred yards away, playing, and while sure his life hadn’t been the best, at least he’d been aliveStop!

Kisame placed the latest tissue sample into its appropriate slot in his test kit and let the tarp drop back over the body. He rose, stripped off the horribly out-of-place surgical gloves and managed to walk calmly to the other side of the dirt road before collapsing to his knees and being violently sick.

When his stomach was finally empty and he had gotten the last few dry heaves under control, he spat out the acidic taste in his mouth…and decided that he really didn’t want to stand up yet. He knelt there, sweat dripping down his face, closing his bloodshot eyes against the burning afternoon sun.

Images of the bodies, lined up under that tarp, rose behind his eyelids, though; bloody and blistered from the effects of the gas, and already bloated from lying under the open sun for days before the troop had found them, fallen where they lay in the streets of their small, remote, mud-and-thatch hut village.

Feeling his stomach rise again, he shook his head sharply and opened his eyes. He’d have bothered to swipe away the tears that filled them if the wetness didn’t help wash them clean of the ever-present dust and sand.

Gods… He took deep, gasping breaths, trying to see something other than the drought-ravaged, death-stalked plains around him. So much death. This has got to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done…

Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain in his chest, he paused suddenly. No…not the hardest…

Mardi Gras…he remembered Mardi Gras…bright and glittering and full of life.

He remembered waking up in a small attic room in an old boarding house, long raven hair still tangled with his on the pillow and the sun just beginning to peep through its curtains. He remembered lying there for a long time, looking down at the owner of that raven hair.

He remembered trying to deal with the realization that he had just fallen head over heels in love with a man whose name he didn’t even know.

He remembered walking out of that room, leaving behind that man with only one, fragile piece of paper to connect them.

He remembered trying to deal with the fact that he would probably never see that man again.

Kisame, kneeling on a dusty road in the middle of war-torn Africa with a row of thirty rotting bodies lined up behind him, let out a laugh that was little more than a breath. No…walking out of that room was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And it was worth it.

The memory of that same man, now his partner and lover, lying in their bed in his home in Florida bolstered him enough to stand up, his left hand sliding up to grip the silver ring that was hanging on a chain around his neck for the duration of this assignment.

“Hoshigaki?”

Kisame turned to face his commander, straightening as best he could. “Sir?”

“You okay?” The older man’s voice was gruff, but not unkind.

“Yes sir.”

“If you’re not, say so. No one expects you to go non-stop. Frankly, I’m surprised you got through all of them. You’re not trained for this.”

Kisame smiled wryly. “I know, sir. I’ll be fine in a bit. Now it’s just lab-stuff.”

“Those field kits of yours are real handy, Hoshigaki, I won’t lie. But they can’t be that hard to use, can they? Surely they can train military guys for this?”

“Yes sir. It’s partly a cost thing, I think. I haven’t quite figured out how to get the cost down, so it’s still cheaper for me to make my own and for them to send me, when they really need it.” Kisame sighed. He was rather proud of the field kits he created for testing for chemicals and drugs, but he needed to find a more efficient way to make them.

“I see,” the commander shook his head, graying brown hair buzzed to almost nothing under his cap. “Well, what’s your call, then?”

He shook his head and couldn’t quite hide the weariness in his eyes as he looked back over at the long tarp. The soldiers had taken care of the unpleasant task of dragging them all out of the village and lining them up. All he’d had to do was examine them to confirm the cause of death.

“Chemical warfare, just as we suspected, sir. Nitrogen mustard gas first, sometime about a day before they died. It’s an older gas – hasn’t been used heavily since World War I – but cheaper on the black market than a newer, more destructive one would cost. That’s what caused the blisters and other skin damage. An autopsy would reveal severe damage to the throat and lungs as well – hence the coughed-up blood. You said the whole area was engulfed in fighting? It was probably set off somewhere nearby and blew into the village by chance, which also explains why a few didn’t get much or any of it, if they stayed inside.”

“That’s not what killed them, though?” The commander asked, frowning.

“No. Sarin – nearly odorless, fast-acting, and very, very deadly. They’d have been dead within minutes.” Kisame said, forcing himself into detachment again. “That’s why they were herded into the headman’s hut. A few managed to stagger outside, of course, but the damage was already done.”

The commander was now looking at the long line of tarp-covered bodies with narrowed eyes. After a long moment he looked back into Kisame’s dirty, tired face and bloodshot eyes. “Sorry to put you through this, Hoshigaki.”

Kisame paused, then shook his head. “Glad to help you catch the bastards who did it, sir.”

“Yep. We’ll catch ‘em now for sure.” The commander gave him an approving nod, then tossed him a canteen. “There. Have some of that, and I’ll set my men to digging some kind of grave for them, if you’re finished.”

“I am,” Kisame rinsed out his mouth gratefully, then took a couple mouthfuls of the cool water.

“We’ll move on then, and get you home as soon as possible. We’ve one more location to check.”

Kisame took a deep breath and nodded, handing the canteen back. He looked at his hands, covered with small cuts and scrapes, his nails split and caked with dirt and blood, and swiped his arm across his forehead instead. The heat was nearly unbearable, and he was used to a warm climate.

He took one more deep breath, gave his ring one more brief touch through the Army fatigues, and then grimly got back to work.

Home. Soon he would be home…he could get through just about anything as long as he had that to hold on to.

***

When Kisame had been gone for a week and a half, Itachi decided that being at home as much as possible was better, so that he would hopefully be there whenever his lover got back. He knew that Rebecca seemed relieved, too, when he switched back into his stricter, seven-to-five schedule and realized that he must have been worrying her but didn’t have too much room in his mind to spare for it at the moment.

All I can remember is how upset he was in Chicago… He shook his head and forced himself to focus on his driving. He didn’t like staying in the house alone, which was why he’d been practically living at work, but now that Kisame would be back soon, it wasn’t so bad.

Soon. Though, if he wanted to be optimistic, he had gotten some new expansion plans for the company drawn up solidly during all the extra time he’d been spending at work. He couldn’t resist a small smirk at the thought. It will be good for business, definitely.

So he went home and waited.

One day, two days, three days.

On the fourth day, Sunday, he was starting to be truly worried, but he forced himself to stay home anyway, though he could really have used the distraction of work just then. He wished, for the millionth time, that he could at least call his lover…but pushed the wish aside, for the millionth time, as being useless.

He went out to the greenhouse to trim and water the neglected plants instead.

He got in bed early, around ten, since he would need to go to work the next day. His sleep was fitful, though…and thus was easily broken by the faint noise of a car coming up the drive and pulling into the garage.

***

 

The full extent of his own weariness didn’t hit Kisame until he stumbled while coming up through the garden and dropped his keys twice at the back door before it swung open of its own accord to reveal Itachi, his dark eyes wide with anxiety and relief.

Kisame took in the sight of his lover and immediately felt the numbness begin to recede. He could feel here…wasn’t numb, did have to become numb just to protect his own sanity. So much death…

He had dropped his suitcase and was reaching out to hold Itachi, to bury his face in the long, silky black hair before he even realized what he was doing. So much death…

“Kisame?” It was barely more than a whisper, a breath against his ear as Itachi’s slender arms slid around him, holding on just as tight.

“Itachi…Itachi…god I missed you….”

“What can I do?”

Kisame pulled back enough to lean down and catch Itachi’s mouth in a hot, deep, nearly desperate kiss.

“Wait,” he murmured a moment later, though, as a new thought occurred to him. “Come.”

Itachi followed him up to their bedroom for the few moments it took to drop his suitcase and grab a large blanket out of the closet.

“Come,” he said again, taking Itachi’s hand to pull him down the stairs and out the front door.

He immediately breathed more easily here, out on the beach. It was a warm, clear night, with stars and a nearly full moon combining to provide plenty of light. The tide was beginning to come back in, so he went all the way down the beach and spread the blanket out just shy of the high tide line before turning back to his lover, who had followed without question or protest.

“I’ve seen far too much death,” Kisame whispered, moving to hold Itachi again, “help me remember life.” He slid his hands down Itachi’s bare sides, pausing to tug the waistband of Itachi’s black pajama pants down and off the smaller man’s slender hips. “Help me celebrate living….”

Itachi was already working on the buttons of Kisame’s shirt.

When they were both standing naked in the moonlight, Kisame kissed Itachi again before leading him into the ocean. They swam out past the breakers; out to the shallow, clearer water above a long sandbar that ran parallel to the beach about a dozen yards offshore. They stayed there for a long time, while the warm ocean water swelled around them, kissing and touching and swimming a little more, and Kisame could not have said whether the familiar water or his lover’s hands were more soothing.

Eventually they made their way back to the blanket lying empty on the beach, to finally make love. Itachi, knowingly and unexpectedly, forced him to be slow about it, made him draw it out for as long as they could possibly stand, but Kisame didn’t protest. It helped…all of it helped him to put the horror out of his mind, and that was what he needed most right now.

Itachi dozed when they were done, and Kisame lay half-awake, looking at his lover and wondering if Itachi hadn’t been made out of the moonlight he was lying in. His pale skin was lit so perfectly by the cool, silver light that light and skin seemed to flow seamlessly into and out of each other without break or pause, and surely the long black hair lying tangled over pale skin could be no less dark than the night sky overhead…

He roused himself and Itachi long enough to get out of the cooling air and up to their bed before allowing himself, at last, to sleep long, deeply, and without dreams in Itachi’s arms.

***

Itachi’s alarm went off at five forty-five, which is when he had been planning to get up before Kisame had gotten home.

Scowling, he turned over and flicked it off quickly. He lay still for a moment before turning over and starting to curl back up around Kisame, only to find his lover blinking sleepy blue-grey eyes up at him in partial confusion.

“‘Tachi? It’s early, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I was going to go in early today before I knew were getting home. Go back to sleep.”

“You gonna stay home t’day?”

Itachi stroked Kisame’s face, and frowned slightly. “I should, I think.”

“But you don’ want to.” Kisame was surprisingly perceptive for having only gotten three hours of sleep.

“Well….” Itachi couldn’t deny that the thought of taking a day off work didn’t sit well with him, but Kisame was definitely more important right now. Rebecca had everything well in hand, and if he called later they’d do fine without him for one day. Unless…

He hesitated. He’d been very, very careful to keep his work life and his personal life separated since he had started working at Akatsuki Enterprises, partly as a habit left over from the time before he’d left his family, and partly because it was just generally a good idea. He was wary of breaking that rule…but Kisame really needed to be with him right now.

Slowly making up his mind, Itachi looked back down at his lover, who was watching him patiently through sleepy eyes.

“Come in with me today.”

That woke Kisame up.

“What?” The blue-haired man sat up too.

“Come in with me today. That way you don’t have to be alone, and I can still be at work.”

“Are you sure, Itachi?” Kisame searched his eyes carefully, reaching up to thread a hand through his hair. “Don’t do this if you don’t want to-”

Itachi shook his head slightly. “It will be okay. I’ve certainly proven myself a competent employee and president. If I can’t deal with distractions occasionally, then what’s the point?”

“I guess,” Kisame said, smiling wryly, but Itachi could see the relief in blue-grey eyes. The other man really did not want to be alone right now.

“I’ve got a couch in my office, so you can sleep on that, if you like.”

“Okay.” Kisame smiled at him, then glanced at the clock.

Itachi glanced at it too, then down at the still-warm bed. “We can sleep for a couple more hours, if you’d prefer.”

Kisame, obviously tempted, slowly shook his head. “Nah. We’re awake. Let’s go now. I can sleep there, like you said, and then we can come home earlier.”

Itachi nodded and they got up. Half an hour for them both to shower and get ready, and then Itachi drove the forty-five minutes out to Akatsuki Enterprises, Inc.

***

Rebecca had come in at her usual quarter-to-seven, relieved to find that Itachi had indeed not spent the night in the office. That means he’ll probably be here at seven, then. Hopefully things are getting better, whatever was wrong.

At seven o’clock, precisely, the door into the CEO’s reception room opened and Itachi came in, impeccably dressed as usual, his briefcase in one hand-

-and behind him was a taller man, with deep-set, blue-grey eyes and a spiky shock of blue hair.

Rebecca couldn’t quite hide her confusion as she looked from her boss to this stranger…and then she caught the ocean-like gaze, and everything made sense.

Oh, Itachi…

She rose to her feet and smiled at them both as they approached her desk. “Good morning, sir. Are you well?”

Itachi looked at her with mild surprise, then nodded back, his dark eyes calmer than they’d been for two weeks. “Yes, I am. Thank you.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “Rebecca, this is Kisame Hoshigaki.”

Rebecca looked back up at the taller man, and smiled at him, extending a hand. “It’s good to meet you, Mr. Hoshigaki.”

“And you, Miss Nayland. Itachi speaks highly of you.”

“He does not speak of you, Mr. Hoshigaki…but sometimes the things he doesn’t say are more telling than the things he does.” She grinned at his surprise, ignoring how Itachi’s eyes widened. The silver ring, this one set with a small ruby, glinting on Kisame’s left ring finger had been all the confirmation she needed, having seen its twin on Itachi’s hand every day for the last three and a half years.

“No meetings or conferences today, Rebecca, unless it’s an emergency.” Itachi reverted to his old habit of changing the conversation, hastily turning to unlock his office door and flicking on the lights as he went inside.

Kisame, however, lingered for a moment at her desk. His eyes were very tired, now that she looked more closely, but beneath the weariness she could see intelligence and the same astuteness that she had associated with her boss for so long, examining her carefully.

“Mr. Aoru will want a cup of coffee. Will you be wanting one too, Mr. Hoshigaki?” She asked, turning to get the machine in question going.

“Not right now, thank you, Miss Nayland. In truth, I’m going to go back to sleep.”

“Very well. Let me know if you change your mind later.”

“I will.” The blue-haired man paused. “I can see why he likes you,” he commented quietly after a moment.

Rebecca looked up at him with her own assessing glance for a second. “I’ll admit I had wondered what kind of a man you must be, Mr. Hoshigaki. But now…” She met his eyes frankly. “I can see why he loves you.”

Kisame paused in turning toward the office door, startled again, then gave her a slow grin full of strong white teeth. “Thank you.”

“Now, go get some rest. You look like you could use it.” She shooed him off, and he went, chuckling and closing the door behind him.

Well, that definitely answers a lot of questions, she thought, sitting down and getting back to arranging Itachi’s schedule. A lot of questions indeed. I like him.

***

Kisame spent the rest of that day in Itachi’s office, usually stretched out on the couch and dozing periodically while Itachi worked and kept an eye on his lover. It was…restful, in ways he hadn’t expected it to be.

Though that probably has more to do with the fact that Itachi’s here than anything else, Kisame admitted, watching through half-closed eyes as Itachi conferred with Rebecca about something.

It was good to finally meet her too. She was one of the few aspects of work that Itachi had talked about at home, and Kisame had gotten to like the woman even without ever meeting her. He could definitely see why Itachi had asked her to stick with him all throughout his climb to be the company’s president.

Still, as restful as the day had been, Kisame was still feeling far from well, and his naps later in the day were plagued with memories of the past two weeks. He was glad when they could go home, eat a small supper, and then spend the rest of the evening out on the beach again, where the crashing ocean waves helped calm him more.

“You should come in again tomorrow,” Itachi murmured to him later that night, up in their bedroom.

“You sure? I’d be okay here….”

“Come.”

He would be all right at home…but he’d rather be with Itachi. “All right.”

He spent most of Tuesday in Itachi’s office, too, though did wander out to talk with Rebecca and try some of her coffee about midafternoon.

On Wednesday he came in again, but was feeling less raw today, and a little more ready for normal human contact. After lunch he asked Itachi if it was all right, and at his lover’s appraising look and nod left the office to go wander the building.

He was impressed with the efficiency of everything. Impressed…and not all that surprised. Lack of efficiency had always been one of Itachi’s biggest complaints about the Uchiha Corporation before he left, so it made sense that he would do everything to avoid that particular problem now that he had his own company. The employees often looked after him curiously, but he just smiled and waved and moved on without giving anyone time to ask questions. He wasn’t sure how Itachi felt about the company at large knowing their true relationship, and decided it was best to keep quiet.

He went back upstairs a couple of hours later, nodding to Rebecca and grinning at his lover.

Itachi quirked an eyebrow at him questioningly.

“Nice, very nice.” He gave Itachi his shark-grin again. “Looks like you’re planning to expand some of that manufacturing?”

Itachi blinked at him. “Actually, yes, though I hadn’t really told anyone yet.”

Kisame nodded. “Ever think of doing some chemical-related stuff?”

“Is there a market for it?” Itachi’s voice and eyes had sharpened, shifting into what Kisame was beginning to recognize as his “businessman look.”

“Depends on what, specifically, you manufacture, of course, but yes. I’ve got a couple ideas and designs I could let you look at. Then you could ask around a bit. I’ve got one thing already that I can’t mass-produce enough to make profitable, but maybe you could figure out a way. The military would pay well for it, I know that for sure, and probably other people too.”

“Show me the plans later and we’ll see.”

“Sure.” Kisame didn’t really know anything about running a business himself, but if he could combine his chemistry skills with Itachi’s business acumen….

Worth a shot, anyway. Feeling mischievous, he took a moment to kiss Itachi breathless before pulling away with a teasing grin and settling back on the couch. Itachi gave him the little glare that was as close to pouting as the dark-eyed man ever came, before shaking himself and answering the phone on his desk that had begun to ring.

Kisame grinned to himself and lay down, tucking his hands behind his head and yawning. His body had decided that it was still catching up on sleep, and he didn’t fight it.

Good to finally see where and how he works, though… Feeling fully safe and whole for the first time in two and a half weeks, Kisame let himself drift into peaceful sleep.

Chapter Text

There’s something off about this contract proposal, Itachi narrowed his eyes at his computer and began to scroll back up to the top of the document to read it again. I’m beginning to think that this company isn’t worth contracting with. There’s something shady about their president, too…I should look into that…

The intercom on his desk buzzed briefly and he hit the button absently.

“Sir?” Rebecca’s voice came through. “There’s a man here to see you.”

“No appointment, I presume?” Itachi highlighted a point in the second paragraph that was phrased too ambiguously.

“No. He says he knows you, sir.”

Itachi paused, and turned his full attention to the intercom. “Who is he?”

“He won’t say. Just that he needs to see you, now.”

Itachi was still for a long moment.

“Sir?”

The dark-eyed man took a deep breath, and replied quickly, “Let him in, Rebecca.”

“Yes, sir.” Her tone was neutral, with an underlying cautiousness but no outright hostility. That helped Itachi relax a little more, so he minimized the contract and settled back in his chair as the door opened.

And Sasuke walked in.

“Hello, Niisan.”

Itachi, much to his chagrin, could only stare in wide-eyed shock for about thirty seconds, before pulling himself together enough to reply.

“Sasuke- What are you- How-” He stopped, and held off a scowl of annoyance.

Sasuke, to his credit, did not smirk, just smiled at his elder brother. It was a complicated smile, full of relief and hurt and helpless mirth. “How did I find you? Hn.”

Itachi, now that the first shock was gone, felt his tension drain away and he rose, coming around the desk and holding out a hand to the younger brother he hadn’t seen for over four years. Sasuke took his hand and hesitated only a moment before pulling Itachi into a tight hug.

Itachi was startled and tensed again, but at Sasuke’s quiet whisper of, “I missed you, Niisan,” he sighed and unbent enough to hug his brother back.

“You look well,” Sasuke said when they pulled away a couple seconds later.

“I am.” Itachi gestured for them to sit down on the couch. “And you? You seem tired…”

“Yeah, a bit.” Sasuke grimaced and shrugged. “Father’s hours are as insane as ever.”

Itachi nodded slowly, actually thinking of his old life for the first time in…months, at least. Sasuke was watching him with sharp, dark eyes.

“Not that you keep much saner hours yourself, I’m sure, but that’s your fault.” Sasuke smirked at the wry look that earned him, then went on seriously. “Niisan-”

“Have you spent four years looking for me?” Itachi interrupted, guessing what his brother was going to ask. Sasuke looked ready to push his question for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. “No. Father was so angry for the first…year or so, I didn’t dare let him catch me looking for you. I looked a little after that, but it’s not like you left much for me to go off.”

Itachi didn’t react to the implied criticism. “I hardly wanted to be found, Sasuke.”

Sasuke eyed him again for a minute, then nodded slowly. “So I assumed. Still. Even just a note would have been nice. Father wouldn’t say anything at all…it was like you’d just disappeared off the face of the earth.” He looked down at his hands. “Mother was worried too.”

Itachi had to frown at that. He had always gotten along well, if somewhat distantly, with his mother…. “Well, you can tell her now that I’m fine.”

Sasuke nodded, then looked up with a smirk that was half amused and half exasperated. “So how did I find you? Well, in truth, I didn’t. Naruko did. She was on a quick business trip to L.A., and was browsing through the business section of the local paper, and saw an article about you buying out the Highlands Corporation.”

Itachi raised an eyebrow, impressed. “Even with the name change?” He’d known his brother’s fiancée was good, but even so….

Sasuke nodded, looking proprietarily proud. “Yeah. She’s sharp.”

They were both silent for a long moment, Itachi looking blankly at his feet, Sasuke letting his dark gaze wander over the office. Itachi glanced at the clock, and saw that it was getting on five.

“Niisan…” Sasuke trailed off hesitantly, but Itachi already knew what the question would be. “Why did you leave?”

He stayed silent for a moment longer, then sighed and looked up at the younger man. “Do you have anywhere to be tonight?”

“Well, no, not really.” Sasuke looked startled and mildly disappointed.

“Come home and have dinner, then. I’ll explain on the way.” Itachi rose and went to the door to explain things to Rebecca at Sasuke’s eager nod. He gathered up his things, then introduced his brother to his secretary briefly before nodding good-night to Rebecca and heading out. It didn’t surprise him quite so much these days when he got lots of nods and “Have a good night, Mr. Aoru,” from his other employees as they wound their way down through the building to the front door. He had made an effort over the past two years to keep or bring in only the best people for each job, and it had definitely had a positive effect on the workforce of his company.

He stayed quiet all the way through collecting Sasuke’s suitcase from the front receptionist and getting out to the car, and only after they were well out of the parking lot did he begin to answer his brother’s question.

“Father told you nothing?”

“Not a word,” Sasuke replied, rolling his eyes. “He just announced that you were completely disowned, and was angry enough to blow up at the slightest little thing for the first month, and it was another six months after that before it was anywhere close to safe to bring up anything that might remind him of you.”

Itachi would have found the whole thing quite satisfyingly amusing had his mother and brother not had to actually deal with it. “I must apologize, then, for leaving you to deal with the fallout.”

Sasuke gave him a searching look, then shrugged.

Itachi nodded and took a deep breath. “Do you remember back about…” he paused, startled, before going on, “about ten years ago, now, when I had to go to a last-minute business conference in New Orleans?”

Sasuke frowned, thinking, then nodded vaguely. “A little. I was still in college then.”

“Yes. Well, it was Mardi Gras, and I had an extra night with nothing to do, and I wandered out into the city. And, well…I met someone.”

Sasuke raised his eyebrows. “You had a one-night stand in Mardi Gras?”

Itachi grimaced at him. “Yes, if you must know.”

“Niisan!” Sasuke sounded caught somewhere between scandalized and impressed.

Itachi sighed. “Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Sorry,” Sasuke muttered, not meaning it in the slightest. Itachi let it go.

“So, yes…except that it wasn’t a one-night stand. Not really. I- I lasted two years before calling again, but after that, after Singapore, it got to be more and more frequent. Every time I went on a business trip, we would meet…” He trailed off, the happy memories of Egypt and Moscow and Vienna flashing briefly through his mind. “For six years.”

“I think I can see where this is going. Father found out?” Sasuke asked quietly.

Itachi sighed again and nodded. “Father found out. Needless to say, he was not pleased, especially since that was right around the time he decided I needed to get married.”

“I do remember that,” Sasuke said, his eyes flicking to the silver ring now adorning Itachi’s ring finger. “Who is she?”

Itachi opened his mouth, glanced at his brother, then shut it again. “I- Well-”

“Someone Father didn’t approve of, obviously.” Sasuke went on, curious.

Itachi nodded and finally said, “Wait and see.”

Sasuke grimaced at him in annoyance, but accepted the delay. They were silent for a few moments, before Itachi picked up the conversation again. He asked the question reluctantly, not entirely sure he wanted to know the answer, but knowing that he did need to ask.

“Sasuke…how have things been, really, now that you are the heir?”

Sasuke looked over at him, startled, then gave him the same complicated smile he had earlier and sat back in his seat. “They’ve been…different, I suppose, but not too horrible. Why?”

“I wondered if Father began pushing you the way he had been pushing me for so many years,” Itachi replied quietly.

“He…wanted to, I think,” Sasuke answered slowly. “But the worst he ever really did was make some noises about sending me back to school for business. He dropped that idea pretty quickly, though. I never did find out why – I sort of suspect Mother had something to do with it – but I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up again.” He rolled his eyes. “Other than that…well, Naruko and I got engaged only a couple of months after you left, and he really couldn’t do much about that, so it’s not like arranging me a different marriage was really a possibility. I got more work, of course, but with Naruko around to keep me sane, even that was manageable. There just…I don’t know. I was doing so much already; it was kind of hard for him to push any more on me. And, too, I think he was a little afraid that I might run off too, if he pushed too hard.” He looked over at his brother curiously.

Itachi let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. “Good. I am glad that it was not as bad for you.” He managed a ghost of a smile for his brother, and Sasuke, looking relieved, nodded and went on to ask him about the company. Itachi picked up the new topic with gratitude, and the rest of the drive back passed quickly.

Sasuke was suitably impressed with the beautiful old plantation house. “Wow.”

“Yes,” Itachi murmured, glancing at it proprietarily as he negotiated the curve of the driveway into the garage. It might not have been his originally, but it certainly felt like home now. “It’s quite lovely.”

Sasuke nodded, still staring unashamedly.

They got out, and Itachi was glad to see Kisame’s car in the garage too, only then realizing that he probably should have called ahead to let Kisame know they’d have a guest for dinner.

Oh well. We’ll manage. At least I can help more with the cooking now, Itachi thought, leading Sasuke up the back walk through the garden and greenhouse to the kitchen door.

“I’m home,” he called as they walked in.

***

There was no answer to his brother’s call, but Itachi didn’t seem surprised.

“Come in,” he told Sasuke, slipping off his shoes and crossing to the hall door. Sasuke took off his shoes too and followed his brother through the huge kitchen.

“Is it just the two of you here?” He asked, looking around.

“Yes,” Itachi said absently as they got into the main entrance hall. Sasuke’s eyes widened, impressed, then turned with even greater surprise when he saw that his brother was truly smiling up the great staircase at-

“Sasuke, this is Hoshigaki Kisame.” Itachi didn’t take his eyes off the blue-haired man who was descending the staircase. “My lover.”

Sasuke’s mouth actually dropped open in shock. The other man seemed nearly as surprised, but collected himself and held out a hand as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Sasuke shook himself and returned the handshake reflexively.

“P-Pleased to meet you-”

“Pleasure’s mine,” Kisame replied politely, then gave Itachi a quick, wry grin. “Now, Itachi, that wasn’t nice. You could at least have warned him.”

Itachi did shoot Sasuke an apologetic look, but shrugged. “I wasn’t sure how. It seemed easier to just let him meet you.” He straightened again. “Well, this is Uchiha Sasuke, my younger brother.”

“So I surmised,” Kisame grinned at the younger Uchiha, who was still unsure how to react. “He looks quite a bit like you.”

“So we’ve heard,” the two brothers muttered at the same time, then blinked at each other. Kisame chuckled.

“Well, there you have it.” Itachi went on quickly, finishing his explanation. “Father was…displeased with the idea of me being with another man. By that time I had realized that I really couldn’t live without him, and since I was unhappy with the Uchiha Corporation anyway…” he shrugged. “Father said I could cut off all contact with Kisame, or no longer be a part of the family. I left the next morning, and…well, I’ve been here ever since.”

Sasuke was nodding slowly, and giving Kisame an assessing glance. “I…well, I know what I would have chosen if it had been me and Naruko, so I guess I can’t blame you. Still…” then he shook his head and smiled openly at the blue-haired man. “Definitely good to meet you.”

“And you,” Kisame returned sincerely. “Staying for the night, are you?”

“Well, actually…if it’s not too much trouble….” Sasuke trailed off, realizing that he hadn’t actually gotten a hotel room or anything. I was so worried about getting here and seeing Niisan again that I didn’t think that far ahead.

“No trouble at all,” Kisame returned, and turned to lead them back upstairs. “I’ll fix you up a room. You can put your bag in Itachi’s study for now. Then we’ll have dinner.”

“Dinner sounds good,” Sasuke admitted.

“Anything in particular you’d like?” Kisame paused long enough to see Sasuke’s head shake before heading for a linen closet.

“We have some pasta sauce still, don’t we?” Itachi asked, coming out of his office and beckoning for Sasuke to put his suitcase there. The younger Uchiha took a moment to look around the room at all the beautiful old wood shelves and books before heading back into the hall. “Sasuke is fond of tomatoes, as I recall.”

“Yes,” Sasuke murmured, trying not to look too eager at the possibility of pasta.

“Sounds good,” Kisame said, and they all went back downstairs.

Dinner was excellent, and Sasuke was glad to get a few more details out of Kisame about how the two had met and kept in touch, and to hear that his brother had indeed been doing much better over the past four years. In return, he explained how he had located his brother again and filled them in on how he had been doing. He went to bed and slept quite soundly; with the relief of having found his brother and knowing that there were no hard feelings between them lightening his mind, not even strange surroundings could keep him awake.

In the morning, Kisame skillfully made pancakes for breakfast at Itachi’s request, and Sasuke dug into them with relish after the first bite.

“Would you mind terribly if Kisame drove you back to the airport, Sasuke?” Itachi asked as they finished. “I really should get in to work….”

“No, that’s fine. My fault for dropping in unexpectedly on you,” Sasuke ducked his head, slightly sheepish.

Itachi pinned him with dark, knowing eyes. “Afraid I might disappear again?” He asked quietly.

Sasuke nodded. “Well, I had no idea why you’d really left – it could have been my or Mother’s fault, for all we knew. I didn’t think that very often – mostly I supposed it was something Father had done – but every once in a while I wondered.”

Itachi was quiet for a moment, then put his hand to Sasuke’s shoulder. “I won’t disappear. Not again. You’re welcome to come visit whenever you like.”

Standing quietly near the counter, Kisame nodded. Sasuke closed his eyes to hide his relief, and smiled.

“Oh! Speaking of visiting…” he dug into the outer pocket of his bag and pulled out an elegant-looking white envelope and handed it to his brother. “Naruko would throw a fit if I forgot to give you that. I know you’re busy, Niisan, but if you could find a little time….”

He watched, holding his breath a little as his brother opened the envelope and pulled out the wedding invitation with a startled expression. “Oh.”

“It’s getting to be a bit short notice, now, I guess, but,” Sasuke shrugged. “Kisame is invited too, of course.” He nodded to the older man, who grinned and nodded in return.

“Thanks.”

“Sasuke…” Itachi looked up, “I am grateful, but…I do not want to see Father again, and he is most certainly going to be present for the wedding-”

Sasuke snorted. “So come to the reception – he’ll stay for half an hour of that at most, and no one else will care. It’ll be fun. Please, Niisan?”

“I-” Itachi glanced at Kisame, who gave him a mild look in return and shrugged.

“Why not? Sounds like fun. I haven’t been to a wedding in years.” The blue-haired man gave his shark-like grin. “Wouldn’t mind meeting your lady.”

Itachi hesitated again, then gave in with a sigh. “Very well. But just for the reception, mind. And we most likely won’t stay long.”

“Niisan, I don’t care if you only come in for five minutes to say ‘Hi’ just so long as you come,” Sasuke told him frankly.

Itachi nodded, and took Sasuke’s hand once more before picking up his briefcase and heading out the back door. “I will see you in a few weeks, then.”

“See you, Niisan.”

When the door had closed behind him, Sasuke turned to Kisame with a questioning look.

“Well, get your stuff together and we’ll get you to the airport. Anywhere you want to go beforehand?”

“Well…any interesting souvenir shops? Naruko likes odd trinkets…”

“I know just the place,” Kisame grinned, and shooed him off up the stairs. “Let me finish washing the dishes and then we’ll go.”

Sasuke turned his grin into a smirk and left the kitchen.

***

Sasuke looked surreptitiously around the banquet hall for the fiftieth time since his father had toasted them and left, taking his mother along. That had been nearly an hour ago, and most of his other family members had also drifted out, leaving his younger cousins and friends to get the party going for real.

“Do you think he’ll come?” His wife asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke sighed, leaning back in his seat and smiling at her happily. Naruko smiled in return, her bright blue eyes lit up even more with happiness. “I hope so. He said he would.”

“Ah, I hope he does. And his lover. Sounds like an interesting guy.” Naruko’s smile turned mischievous and Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Oh! There’s Sakura-chan and Ino-chan! I’d better go say hi. And you should go greet people too. You’ve been lurking up here at the table since the party started!”

“I’ll go,” Sasuke promised, and waved her off to greet her friends. One more glance around the room, then he sighed again and pushed back his chair. Well, moping around wouldn’t bring his brother any faster.

Time to enjoy this party!

***

Itachi hesitated just inside the door of the banquet hall, sharp eyes darting around quickly for any sign of his father amid the light and noise. Kisame rested an encouraging hand on the small of his back and gave him a gentle nudge forward.

Itachi shot him a look caught between annoyance and gratitude over one shoulder, and slipped further into the room, moving off to the side, switching his search to finding his newly-married brother.

“Whoa!” A blonde woman, her arm slung around the shoulders of a pink-haired woman, had just bumped into Itachi. The two women, who were obviously not entirely sober, managed to stay upright and looked up curiously. “Well now! What have we here?”

“Eye candy, Ino m’dear, eye candy,” giggled the pink-haired one, and Itachi’s eyebrows rose. Rather blunt…

“True, Sakura, very true,” giggled the first, giving Itachi an appreciative once over. “If I didn’ know any better, I’d say you’re related to the lucky man,” this was accompanied by a nod in the general direction of the main table, “‘cause you sure do look like him. Naruko snagged that one, though, lucky thing.”

“Sorry ladies, but this one’s taken too,” Kisame put in quietly at last, ignoring Itachi’s Look at the obvious amusement in his voice. Both girls blinked at the newcomer, then giggled again when they caught his meaning.

“Ah well, we’ve got ours, ne, Sakura?”

“Definitely.” Itachi relaxed at this statement, firm even through the alcohol.

“In that case, you have my congratulations,” he said quietly at last. “I don’t suppose you could direct me to Sasuke…?”

“Hmm…” the one called Ino straightened a little, peering around with an astuteness that indicated she wasn’t quite as drunk as she seemed, and then pointed with her free hand toward the dance floor off in the corner of one room. “Dancing with the bride, I believe, jus’ like he’s supposed to be. Good idea, actually. Let’s snag our men, Sakura, shall we?”

“Yes,” replied Sakura, shooting Itachi and Kisame another appreciative look, and grinned before moving off with her friend. Itachi looked back at his lover to find Kisame grinning at him amusedly too.

“Only you, Itachi.”

The dark-eyed man glared without venom and began to wend his way through the boisterous crowd. Kisame followed closely, still grinning.

“I did not realize that my brother had this many friends,” Itachi murmured to Kisame as they threaded their way among the crowded room.

“Some are probably his wife’s, too,” Kisame replied.

“True,” Itachi nodded. “Still.”

It was a happy crowd too, he realized, and for the large part not nearly as drunk as he might have expected. Nearly everyone was tipsy to some extent, but very few were out-and-out drunk. He made this observation to his lover as they slipped around a tall man with dark spiky hair and the very pretty, long-haired young man who stood next to him smiling happily. The older man was explaining something – Itachi caught a hint of legalese – to a pair of effeminate twins with nearly white-blond hair.

As they neared the dance floor, Itachi spotted two Hyuugas in the crowd – only Hyuugas had those pale eyes – and was surprised that his father had okayed them on the guest list; the Hyuugas were probably the biggest rivals the Uchihas had for business, at least within Japan.

Then again, Itachi thought, there are probably quite a few people here that Father doesn’t actually know about, Kisame and me included. He nodded to the Hyuuga boy (couldn’t recall his name), who was accompanied by a slender girl with her hair up in two buns and wearing what Itachi was beginning to recognize as the bridesmaid’s dress. The two girls that had bumped into him earlier had been wearing the same thing, as was the Hyuuga girl, who was shyly clinging to the arm of her partner, a grinning young man with dark brown hair done up in wild spikes. The Hyuuga boy looked startled for a moment at the acknowledgment, then nodded back thoughtfully.

At last, they reached the dance floor itself, at which point it wasn’t difficult to spot his brother dancing enthusiastically with his new bride, who was grinning and laughing.

“You want to talk with Sasuke, right?” Kisame bent down to murmur in his ear.

“Yes, for now,” Itachi replied, then followed with a quizzical look when his lover grinned and took his hand.

“May I have this dance?”

“I- here?” Itachi had no problems dancing with his lover under other circumstances, but this was not the privacy of their home, nor the anonymity of a Mardi Gras crowd.

“Sure, why not?”

Itachi had never been able to fight that mischievous grin well, and this time was no different.

Kisame maneuvered them quickly through the crowd towards their goal, though, and then pulled away to tap Sasuke politely on the shoulder. “Mind if I cut in for a bit? Someone wants to talk to you.”

Sasuke, obviously startled, turned to see his brother, who nodded solemnly to them both.

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” he said, just loudly enough to be heard over the music.

“Niisan!” Sasuke smiled at him, taking Itachi’s extended hand gratefully. “I’m glad you came!”

“Excellent,” Naruko added, grinning more than ever. “Go have your talk. He’ll keep me company, right?” She looked up at Kisame, who nodded, amused.

Itachi and Sasuke paused briefly, looking at their respective partners and abruptly wondering if letting the two meet was a good idea…but the moment passed and Itachi followed gratefully as Sasuke led them out of the worst press of the crowd and up to the banquet table.

“So you did make it! I’m glad,” Sasuke repeated, getting them each a glass of wine and sitting down in a random abandoned seat. Itachi sat as well, glad to be out of the crowd and still surveying the room with interest.

“Yes. You have quite a lot of friends, between you.”

Sasuke looked around, seeming mildly surprised himself. “Now that you mention it…yeah, I guess we do. It didn’t seem like quite so many when they were all sitting down. Did you meet anyone else yet?”

“A couple of young ladies bumped into us…Sakura and Ino were the names, I believe?”

Sasuke smirked. “Ah, yes. Those two and Naruko, and Hyuuga Hinata, have been best friends since high school. They had a crush on me for awhile freshman year in college, back when Naruko and I weren’t on speaking terms yet, but they backed off when we got together. They’ve both got fiancés now, and are pretty happy.”

“I saw the Hyuuga children too, but could not recall their names.”

“Neji’s the older one. He’s in medicine, actually, and doing quite well. Hmm…” Sasuke peered around, then pointed to the pale-haired twins Itachi had passed earlier. “See the twins there? Sakon and Ukon – also brilliant doctors. They’re talking to Momochi Zabuza and his partner Haku, who are both associates of mine.”

Itachi nodded, picking out the indicated guests, then sipped his wine. He was about to ask how work had been lately for his brother – though he knew what the answer would be – when a new voice spoke up off to his left.

You.

The brothers turned to find one of their cousins, his nearly white hair as neat as ever, frowning at Itachi. “Uchiha-sama would be displeased if he knew you were here. What do you think you’re doing, Sasuke-kun?”

Sasuke grimaced. “He’s my brother, Kimimaro. I’m not going to keep him away from my wedding just because Father has a stick up his ass. It’s not like he killed someone.”

Kimimaro scowled further, tugging on his tuxedo jacket absentmindedly to make sure that it was straight. Of all their numerous cousins, Itachi had always liked Kimimaro the least.

“Don’t think Uchiha-sama won’t hear about this, Sasuke-kun. I cannot, in good conscience, allow such a gross violation of his orders to escape his attention.”

“Tell him whatever you want,” Sasuke waved, affecting great disinterest. “He can’t do anything about it now.”

Kimimaro, realizing that Sasuke was right, scowled and stalked off, heading for the doors of the banquet hall. Itachi was silent for a moment, watching him go, then shrugged and turned back to his brother. “I was going to ask how work is, but I can guess well enough.”

Sasuke grimaced. “Yeah. Same as ever, really. Not much new. I wish there were something new.” He sighed. “Honestly, Niisan, I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to be able to put up with it.”

Itachi raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re not thinking of walking out too, are you?”

“No…not really. I was just going to ask Father if maybe I could go work with Naruko at her great aunt’s company for awhile. For some ‘training’ or something, I’ll make up an excuse. Just to get out of the Uchiha corporation for awhile.”

“I see. He might allow it, if you phrase it carefully.”

“Yeah.”

“Excellent. I was looking for an opportunity to get you by yourself, Sasuke.”

The brothers turned to find a tall man with brilliantly blue eyes and a wild shock of gold hair standing behind them, eyes narrowed threateningly.

“I have come to warn you to never cause my daughter pain or humiliation.”

“Yes, sir,” Sasuke replied, rising and looking torn between serious and confused.

“Because if you do, then it will be on the understanding that I shall repay it in full to you, with severe bodily harm, and/or financial ruin, and/or death.”

“Yes sir.”

The man paused for a minute, locking eyes with Sasuke, before finally breaking down and grinning wickedly, holding out a hand. “And now that that’s out of the way, I’ll extend my congratulations. Took you two long enough.”

Sasuke shook his head and smiled back, shaking the offered hand. “Well, Father wasn’t sure, and-”

“Tch. Your father’s an old fogey. Don’t listen to him any more than you have to. Are you still going to request a stint of work with my wise, beautiful, and loving aunt?”

Sasuke produced something between a grin and a grimace at hearing their father referred to as an “old fogey,” and nodded in answer to the question. “I’m going to try, sir.”

“Good, good. Naruko will be pleased, and it’ll do you good to get out of there for awhile. Speaking of Naruko, where is she?”

“Dancing still, I think,” Sasuke replied, peering briefly towards the dance floor. “I would, too, except that I wanted to talk with-” He turned back to Itachi, who was still sitting in his chair, sipping his wine and watching the exchange with interest.

Blue eyes met his own, sharp and assessing. “You’ll be the older one, then?”

“Aoru Itachi,” he replied, nodding and rising. The man – Naruko’s father – looked at him intently for a minute more before nodding in return and shaking hands.

“Namikaze Minato. Naruko’s father, if you hadn’t picked up on that yet. It’s good to meet you.”

“And you, sir.” Itachi replied sincerely, realizing that he didn’t actually know any of Naruko’s family even though she and Sasuke had been dating for years, even before he left.

“You’ve been doing rather well for yourself of late, if what these two tell me is true,” Minato said, accepting both a chair and a glass of wine when Sasuke offered them.

Itachi couldn’t entirely hold back a smirk. “Yes. I do my best, and have been fortunate enough to find some good people.”

“Hmm,” Minato said in a manner indicating his thought that “fortune” had very little to do with it. “Still, to walk out on everything you had and start from nothing, and still end up where you are now…very impressive.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly start with nothing,” Itachi said, looking at his wine glass and thinking of a plantation house on a Florida beach, and the man who owned it. Minato gave him another sharp look, but nodded and let it go. All three men fell silent then, sipping their wine and watching the crowd.

***

Kisame smiled after his lover and Sasuke, then turned back to his new dance partner. He bowed to her, grinning. “Hoshigaki Kisame. May I extend my congratulations?”

“You may.” She grinned back, blue eyes dancing with laughter. “Uzumaki Naruko. Pleased to meet you. Sasuke said you were cool, and I think he’s right.”

“You barely know me, though,” Kisame pointed out, taking her arms politely and moving easily into the steps of the current dance.

“Ah, but your hair is blue,” she countered cheerfully. “That alone makes you cool, quite aside from the fact that you managed to seduce Itachi into leaving the family.”

That made Kisame laugh. “I suppose that is something of an accomplishment. I’ve never met any of them except for Itachi and Sasuke, though, so I don’t have good first-hand knowledge.”

“It’s an accomplishment, trust me.” She rolled her eyes, shaking her head carefully to avoid undoing the complicated knot of long, golden hair that adorned it. “If you thought Itachi was uptight before, you should meet their dad.”

Kisame nodded slowly, part of him sorely tempted by the idea. That part of him really wanted to rub his success in the older man’s face, just to pay him back a little more for messing Itachi up so badly, and thereby keeping his lover away from him for so many years longer than should have been necessary. “I don’t think Itachi would like that idea, though.”

“Mm. You’re probably right. He’s always been a bit of sourpuss, though he definitely got worse the longer I knew him.” She sighed, then grinned again. “I was glad when I heard he had run off, even if Sasuke was worried.”

Kisame smirked, and swung her energetically into the next song that started, making her laugh delightedly.

“So how did you two meet anyway?” She asked when the music slowed down again.

“Mardi Gras,” Kisame replied with another grin. “The last place on earth I was expecting to meet someone. I go every once in a while for the dancing and fun, but one-night-stands aren’t my thing.” He shook his head, laughing helplessly. “But that night…there was just something about him, sitting there dressed all in black and watching everything so intently, like he was feeling the music but didn’t know how to dance…I was glad, even though I left the next morning pretty much thinking I’d never see him again.”

Naruko looked at him, startled. “That took guts. Not sure I’d have been able to walk away, in your place. Sasuke and I got into things a bit more slowly, though. We couldn’t stand each other at first.” She grinned wickedly. “It’s funny, though, the more we ‘hated’ each other, the more time we ended up spending together – fighting all the while, of course – and then one day we got into a horrid row and I was shouting something at him, can’t remember what, and the next thing I knew he was pinning me up against the nearest wall, kissing me. The next thing I can remember thinking is, ‘Well, at least he’s better at kissing than he is at poker,’ and, well, things kind of went from there.”

Kisame laughed. “I don’t know him very well yet, but it sounds about right. Good things come from unexpected places, I guess.”

“Yep,” she agreed cheerfully, and their conversation moved on to less personal topics for a little while.

They paused at the end of the next song, and Naruko glanced around to find her husband. “Ah, so that’s where they’ve run off to. Oh, and Dad’s there too! You have to meet him, come on.” And Kisame found himself being summarily dragged off in the direction of the banquet table, where a tall man who looked far too much like Naruko to not be a relative was talking with Itachi and Sasuke.

“There you are, Dad. I was wondering where you’d run off to. Aren’t you supposed to give me a dance too?” Naruko demanded cheerfully, walking around the table and plopping herself proprietarily in Sasuke’s lap. The younger Uchiha took this in stride, winding an arm around his bride’s waist and looking content.

“Hmm, I suppose I am,” the blond man said, grinning at her in return, then turning sharp sapphire eyes on Kisame, who had opted to lounge against the edge of the table near his lover.

“Hoshigaki Kisame,” he offered politely, extending a hand.

“Namikaze Minato,” the other man replied, shaking his hand firmly. “This one’s father.” He pulled a thumb at Naruko, who promptly stuck out her tongue.

Kisame nodded, deciding to let Itachi explain further if he chose-

“He’s the reason Itachi left,” Naruko went on, grinning and winking at the two of them. “Can’t blame him either.”

“Hey,” Sasuke put in, frowning at her.

“Well, he’s not cooler than you, idiot.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Why do you think I married you?” Sasuke, mollified, just hugged her tighter and made no further comment.

Minato had raised his eyebrows at them, and gave Itachi an amused look. “I guess that’ll be explaining a lot of things, then.”

Itachi sighed, and nodded.

“Well, congratulations for the two of you as well, then,” he grinned at them, and Sasuke and Naruko followed that up with echoing nods.

“Thank you,” Itachi murmured, offering a small smile when Kisame caught his eyes.

“Ah, so here’s where all you brats have run off to,” a strong female voice spoke from the other side of the table. They all looked up to find an older woman with pale blond hair, light brown eyes and a large chest grinning at them.

Naruko looked up with another grin and mischievous eyes. “Obaachan! Come meet my brother-in-law!”

“There’s another one?”

Itachi would have raised an eyebrow, but he had heard stories about Naruko’s great-aunt, Tsunade, who ran one of the most successful law firms in the country. “Beautiful, brilliant, and blunt,” was how Sasuke had once quoted her husband, Jiraiya, as describing her.

“Yes, Tsunade-san,” Sasuke said politely. “This is my older brother, U- Aoru Itachi.”

Tsunade looked him over with sharp eyes, then held a hand out over the table. Itachi took it, reciprocating the firm handshake.

“Tsunade.”

“I am pleased to meet you,” Itachi returned quietly, subsiding back into his seat.

“And you are?” Tsunade turned to Kisame, who bowed.

“Hoshigaki Kisame.” He grinned. “I’m here with Itachi.”

“Hmm. And what do you do?”

“Freelance chemical analyst. We live in Florida.”

“I see.” She gave them both another searching look, then turned to Minato. “I don’t suppose you know where that delinquent husband of mine has run off to?”

“Sorry, ‘Ba-san, but no. Last I saw him, he was chatting up a couple of the bridesmaids, but that was awhile ago.”

“Hmph. That man really is impossible…” Tsunade scowled half-heartedly.

“We’ll go look for him!” Naruko jumped up, tugging on Sasuke’s hand and then turning to Itachi and Kisame. “You’ll come too, won’t you? Then you can meet more people!”

Kisame glanced at Itachi, who was looking askance at this, and then grinned. “Yeah, we’ll come.”

That earned him a half-glare from his lover, but Kisame didn’t think he’d regret it. “Come on,” he murmured, “you should meet people other than me and your employees.”

Naruko was already moving away, Sasuke in tow, so Itachi rose and followed when Kisame moved after her. “But I like being with you,” he whispered back, frowning.

“I know. I do too, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t meet other people from time to time.”

“I suppose,” Itachi sighed and gave in, realizing that his lover probably had a point. Not that he thought he was really going to meet too many people here he would want to keep in touch with.

“Kakashi-sensei!” Naruko called cheerfully as they neared a group of adults who had seated themselves off to one side of the dance floor. A silver-haired man looked up, his eyes twinkling good-naturedly at the sight of them. He grinned. “Anything I can do for you, Uchiha-san?” he asked, pointedly emphasizing the last name.

Naruko grinned, winding an arm around Sasuke’s waist. “Wondering if you’d seen my Ero-jii-san anywhere.”

“Hmm. Not recently, no. I hope he hasn’t gone, though, I was hoping to ask him when his next book would be out-”

Naruko sighed and Sasuke rolled his eyes.

“What does he write?” Kisame wanted to know.

Itachi searched his memory for a minute. “Rather risqué romance novels, if I am remembering correctly,” he murmured back.

“Ah. I see.” Kisame chuckled. “Going to introduce us, kid?” This last was directed at Sasuke, who looked back, then shrugged and nodded.

“These are various professors of ours: Hatake Kakashi – we both had him for law,” the silver-haired man waved lazily, “Maito Gai was our psychology professor,” the man with an interesting bowl cut and very large eyebrows gave them a wide, white grin and a salute, “Yuuhi Kurenai was Naruko’s art professor,” the dark-haired woman with reddish-brown eyes nodded, “Sarutobi Asuma teaches physics,” this man, lazily smoking a cigarette, waved, “and Mitarashi Anko was another of our law professors.” This woman, her hair dyed an interesting shade of muted purple, gave them a rather predatory grin. Sasuke smirked back. “She specializes in prosecution.”

“Mmm,” Itachi replied, nodding to everyone.

“This is Aoru Itachi, my older brother, and his partner Hoshigaki Kisame,” Sasuke finished up.

“Nice to meet you,” Kisame said, and Itachi nodded.

“Well, we should get on,” Naruko said regretfully, turning to peer around the room. “We still have to find Ero-jii-san.”

“We’ll see you later,” Sasuke said to their teachers, who nodded easily and waved them off.

Turning and taking a few more steps around the edge of the hall brought them abruptly into a circle of floor that had been cleared of tables, and had a large, rather chaotic group of people milling at its center while others lined up around the edges with every sign of an appreciative audience.

The four of them stopped, and even Naruko’s face showed confusion briefly. Then her expression cleared and turned instead to a sly grin that Itachi couldn’t help but eye warily.

“Yosh! Let’s do our best!” A young man with a dark bowl-cut and amazingly thick eyebrows extricated himself from the crowd and declared enthusiastically.

“Why are we doing this again?” Asked Hyuuga Neji, standing with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Because it’s artistic, un!” proclaimed a third man. He had long, blond hair half up in a ponytail, and wore an eye-patch over his left eye. “And Naruko-kun will enjoy it, un!” He turned and winked at them.

“Of course!” Naruko said, still grinning her fox-like grin.

“Do you even know what they’re doing?” Kisame asked, curious.

“No,” Naruko replied immediately, turning her grin on them. “But it’s bound to be entertaining, whatever it is!”

Kisame raised an eyebrow at this, but did return the grin. Itachi sighed, and gave the blond man a warning look as he scrutinized them. That got him a disarming grin in return, before the man turned to Sasuke.

“Sasuke, we need one more, un! Care to join?”

“Join what?” Sasuke wanted to know, looking appropriately wary.

“Building a human pyramid!” the young man with the bowl cut explained, joining them. “We’ve got nearly enough. Come on, Sasuke-kun!”

Sasuke started to shake his head, but Naruko turned to him with the most disturbingly cute puppy-dog eyes that Itachi had ever seen. His younger brother’s face went from wary, to briefly frightened, to resigned in the space of a few seconds.

“Only for you,” Sasuke mutter, scowling, and stalked off to stand by Neji, ignoring the cheers from the gathering crowd.

“Excellent!” Naruko grinned again, then turned back to Itachi and Kisame. “Gentlemen, this is Rock Lee, my friend Sakura’s fiancé,” she gestured to the dark-haired man, “and Hanabi no Deidara, my former Art TA.” The blond man gave them another grin and wave. “Boys, this is my brother-in-law, Aoru Itachi, and his partner, Hoshigaki Kisame.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you!” Lee saluted. “But now, we must begin!” And with that, he turned and marched back to the assembled group.

“Partner, huh?” the blond, Deidara, asked quietly, eyeing the two of them with an intelligence that his manner belied. He waved off Itachi’s glare, though, grinning. “Good to meet you, un! Sure you don’t want to join in?”

“No thanks,” Kisame answered for them both with a wry grin. “Hanabi no…?”

“‘Cause he does fireworks,” Naruko explained. “Among other things. Ne?”

“Un! The ultimate beauty of explosion…” he drifted off with a dreamy sigh.

Itachi raised an eyebrow. He’s quite a character, isn’t he? He turned back to Naruko.

“He’s a little weird,” she confided in a stage-whisper, grinning. “But no less an artist for all that. Actually, he does graphic design, mostly. Or would, if he had a job.” She poked the blond, who stuck his tongue out at her and grinned.

“Deidara-san! We need you!” Lee called, and the blond left them with a last wink.

“Well. That was new,” Kisame said with his usual imperturbability and settled in to watch the pyramid go up. So far they had Lee, the professors Gai and Asuma, and a chubby young man with brown hair on the bottom.

“Graphic design?” Itachi murmured to Naruko. “What kind?”

The next layer was Deidara, the spiky-haired boy who had been accompanying the Hyuuga girl earlier, and one of the pale-haired doctor twins.

“Well…all kinds, I guess. But the job he had a couple of years ago was marketing. Why?”

“Why isn’t he working there anymore?” Itachi was only distantly watching the pyramid, an idea beginning to grow in his mind.

“The company went under. I’m convinced it only lasted as long as it did because of him, but that’s just me,” Naruko answered, still looking at him curiously. “Why?”

“Hm,” Itachi replied, ignoring Naruko’s eye-roll and his lover’s knowing grin at the enigmatic response.

The pyramid was on its third level now, the Hyuuga boy and the lawyer’s pretty tag-along (Haku, was it?) and looking fairly steady. It looked as though Sasuke was going to get the top spot (in honor of it being his wedding) so Itachi put his musings aside briefly to watch.

“Who else don’t we know?” Kisame asked Naruko quietly. She smiled at him.

“The last one on the bottom there is Akimichi Chouji, my friend Ino’s guy. In the middle is Inuzuka Kiba – he’s dating Hyuuga Hinata, Neji wasn’t too happy about that at first! – and then,” she peered at the pale-haired boy, “Sakon. I think. I can’t ever tell the two of them apart. The doctor twins I told you about before.”

“I see.” Kisame nodded and went quiet again with every appearance of enjoying himself.

Sasuke, still looking highly skeptical, stripped off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He shot Naruko a clear ‘You owe me for this one’ look, to which she returned a very suggestive grin. Itachi, amused, watch his brother’s face color slightly before the younger man turned away from his wife and eyed the human pyramid in front of him. Then, carefully and obviously calling on his martial arts training, he clambered up to kneel as lightly as possible on Neji and Haku’s backs. There was much grunting and groaning from those on the bottom, and the whole thing shivered for a moment…but Sasuke stilled and it held.

Naruko nearly cackled with glee as two dozen cameras went off simultaneously.

“All right?” Sasuke asked quickly as soon as the flashes stopped, shifting his balance so he could get down safely-

“Hold it!” A new man skidded right between Itachi and Naruko, so fast that Itachi didn’t see his face, and dropped to one knee a few feet back from the pyramid.

Sasuke, startled, shifted his weight quickly back to get centered, but with everyone else already startled and off-balance.

“Two more seconds!” The man begged, quickly pulling up a beautiful old camera and snapping three quick pictures as the pyramid somehow froze itself in place.

“This isn’t going to hold, un!” Deidara warned as the flash went off for the last time, sounding quite cheerful about their impending doom.

Sure enough, as soon as the man lowered his camera, Sasuke relaxed just enough to throw his balance off-

-and the whole thing came down in a great tumble of mixed-up limbs, shouted curses and laughter.

Naruko, the new, dark-haired photographer and a few others darted forward to help them up and make sure no one was seriously injured. No one was, and they got themselves straightened out rapidly. Itachi glanced at his lover before moving forward too…and then stopped when he saw how oddly his brother was looking at the photographer.

“Sorry about that, guys,” the man was saying, “but I just got here. Plane got in a bit later than I expected and I had to run.”

Itachi stared at him too, understanding his brother’s shock.

“O-Obito?” Sasuke finally managed a couple of seconds later, drawing everyone else’s attention to his shock.

And Uchiha Obito laughed, giving them his full, happy grin and nodding. “Indeed, Sasuke. You’ve gotten quite a bit bigger than when I saw you last. It was, what…” Uchiha black eyes narrowed in thought, then he shook his head, chuckling ruefully. “Can’t remember, exactly, but you couldn’t have been more than eight.”

“How did you know?” Sasuke was beginning to smile in return, stepping around a couple of the other pyramid-builders who were still sitting and holding out his hand to his cousin. “I didn’t think to send-”

“Your wife is quite a resourceful young lady,” Obito said, turning and giving the woman in question another grin. Naruko winked in return and went to thread an arm through her husband’s.

“You talked about him once, remember? That he had been your favorite cousin when you were small, but then he disappeared. So, I thought that since we were inviting the other black sheep of your family, I might as well try and find this one too!”

“The other black sheep?” Obito gave her a confused look. “Last time I checked I was the only one they’d disowned…” He trailed off and turned when Naruko pointed behind him.

Itachi met him with a calm look when he turned around, eyes widening in surprise.

“Itachi?” He asked, moving over to offer his hand. “What did you do?”

“I found myself a lover Father didn’t approve of,” Itachi explained quietly, his voice wry and amused, “and then decided that while I was turning the rest of my life upside down, a new job might help too.”

Kisame chuckled. Obito looked over at him blankly for a moment, but then comprehension dawned in his eyes and he grinned at them both. “Well, you’ve certainly got guts, I’ll give you that. And amen about the job!” He patted his camera with a grin. “It’s been a rough road sometimes, but anything was better than a desk job in the family company. What’re you doing now?”

“CEO of my own company, actually,” Itachi said, not without pride. “But I earned it.”

“Damn straight,” Kisame said rising and joining them. “Worked himself to death for two years to do it, but he did.” His smile was proud and happy.

“Good,” Obito said, nodding approvingly. Then he held out a hand to Kisame. “Uchiha Obito. I was the one they don’t talk about, but apparently I’m no longer alone with my black sheep status.”

“Hoshigaki Kisame,” the blue-haired man grinned. “Pleased to meet you. Photographer not exactly in line with family plans?”

“Not particularly, no,” Obito shook his head, sighing. “That’s all right though. I’m much happier this way.” He smiled again, thoughtful, and nodded slowly.

The moment passed, though, and he was grinning around at them again. “Well, I won’t keep you. But, Naruko, Sasuke – I’m doing portrait shots for you later.”

“Excellent!” Naruko brightened, and Sasuke managed a pleased smile. “But, first we have to find Ero-jii-san. Come on you two.”

Itachi and Kisame exchanged a glance at her peremptory beckon, but humored her.

They slid through the crowd still hovering around the tumbled pyramid, and Itachi gave Deidara one last speculative glance over his shoulder before following his sister-in-law. Skirting the edge of the room, they soon came across another small crowd, this one as quiet as the other had been boisterous.

Two young men, both with brown hair pulled up in high ponytails, faced each other across a chessboard, and looked to be deeply engrossed in their game. One, his skin tanned to a deep brown, was examining the board carefully. Making up his mind, he smirked slightly and made his move. Itachi assessed the board quickly, then looked at the other man, who was studying the new arrangement with deceptively lazy eyes.

They’re good, Itachi thought. The observers waited with patient silence. The young man wearing sun-glasses and sitting against the wall looked as though he would be perfectly happy to stay there for hours yet. It was difficult to ascertain whether or not he was even awake, behind the dark lenses, but an occasional shift of his hands every now and then indicated that he was. Next to him stood a short man with pale skin and shock of red hair; his pale, nearly turquoise eyes were fixed on the board. He might have been a statue, for he stood still as rock with his arms crossed over his chest. Leaning on the lazy player’s shoulder was an older girl who looked as though she might be related to the red-head. She had sandy-blonde hair and darker blue-green eyes. She was grinning like a cat, but kept quiet. A third man, slightly older than the others, with brown hair that reached to his shoulders and a light scar across his nose, also watched the board with quiet interest.

At long last, the lazy boy straightened from his slouch, narrowed his eyes down at the board one more time, and then shifted one of his pawns deliberately. “Check and mate,” he declared with a note of finality.

His opponent blinked, gaped, grimaced, and then shook his head, pulling out a rueful grin. “Last time I challenge you, Shikamaru. Damn.”

“Good game,” the other, Shikamaru, said sincerely, holding out a hand across the table.

“You should know better than to challenge him anyway, Kidoumaru,” Naruko said, grinning at him.

“Hn,” Sasuke said, shaking his head.

“Yeah, yeah,” the darker man stretched and rose, grinning back. “Who’re these guys?”

“My older brother, Aoru Itachi,” Sasuke said, “and his partner Hoshigaki Kisame. This is one of my business associates, Kidoumaru.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the other man said, holding out a hand.

“The lazy one is Nara Shikamaru,” Naruko went on, “and his girlfriend Sabaku Temari.”

“The world chess champion?” Kisame asked, raising an eyebrow.

Shikamaru grinned, still lazily, and nodded, waving the blue-haired man’s surprise off. “Yeah.”

“Only ‘cause he’s too lazy to do anything else,” his girlfriend said, smacking him lightly across the top of his head.

“And the two skulking over there are Aburame Shino,” Naruko point at the boy in sunglasses, who nodded stiffly, “and Sabaku Gaara. He’s Temari’s brother and a good friend.” Cool green eyes looked them both over for a moment before the red-head nodded too. “And the last one is our history professor, Umino Iruka.” The brown-haired man smiled.

“Have any of you seen Ero-jii-san?” Naruko asked them. Head-shakes all around, and she sighed. “This place is only so big…. Ah well. Guess we’d better get on then. See you guys!”

The group nodded or smiled at her, and they moved on.

They circled more of the room, and Itachi let his thoughts drift, realizing that he would be of little use in searching for a man he had never met.

Advertising, Naruko had said of Deidara’s occupation. I wonder… Itachi frowned thoughtfully. He had been increasingly dissatisfied with his own marketing department of late; they had done an okay job before, but now that Akatsuki Enterprises was branching out into more consumer areas of business, that “okay” was no longer adequate. And Itachi had rarely been willing to settle for the mediocre anyway; he demanded excellence, of himself just as much as his employees, and the good ones never let him down. But will this Deidara be capable of keeping up that standard? He is intelligent, I can tell, but seems…flighty, almost. Can he stick it out?

“Penny for your thoughts,” Kisame murmured quietly in his ear, and Itachi realized that they had stopped walking. Sasuke had helped his bride up onto a chair so that she could scan the room from a higher vantage point.

“Hm,” he replied, still preoccupied. “I am thinking of improving my marketing department.”

Kisame looked at him blankly for a few seconds, before raising his eyebrows in surprised understanding. “With Mr. Fireworks? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Itachi nodded absently and shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I was going to speak with him further as soon as this search is over.”

Kisame looked skeptical for a moment longer, but shrugged too and let it go.

“Aha!” Naruko exclaimed then, clambering down from the chair and tugging Sasuke along impatiently. “Hurry, before he disappears again!”

They followed her darting path through the crowd, emerging at last behind the banquet tables and the buffet. There, in a quieter corner of the room, two men had sat down with a bottle of sake between them and every appearance of indulgent contentment as they surveyed the room.

To Itachi’s surprise, Naruko murmured “Shishou,” respectfully and dropped a slight bow in the direction of the first, a tall, very muscular man with long black hair and sharp eyes. He returned the honor with an arrogantly charming grin and a nod.

“Naruko’s kendo instructor,” Sasuke muttered to them by way of explanation before Naruko turned to the second, an older man with long white hair pulled back in a ponytail and stuck out her tongue at him.

“Ero-jii-san! We’ve been looking everywhere for you!” She complained, pouting.

“Which is precisely why I’m back here,” he returned, giving her a half-grin and taking another sip of his sake. “And don’t call me that.”

“Just telling the truth, is all.” She grinned at his scowl, and dropped Sasuke’s hand to tug her great-uncle into a standing position. “Obaachan wants you. Come on!”

“I’ll finish the sake, Jiraiya, if you don’t hurry back,” warned the other man in a deep, amused voice.

Jiraiya waved him off. “Duty calls, I suppose.”

“Reasons I’ve stayed single,” his drinking partner replied, and they moved away at Naruko’s insistence, introducing Jiraiya to Kisame and Itachi along the way. He looked them over carefully, and Itachi was forced to remember that whatever sort of books he wrote in his free time, the man was a brilliant lawyer in his own right. All they got was a brief nod of approval, though, and then they were back at the main table, where Tsunade had stolen Sasuke’s seat and was listening to a story of Minato’s.

“O beautiful one, I have come,” Jiraiya announced, dropping his wife a melodramatic bow and scooping up her hand to kiss it. Rolling her eyes and smirking wryly, Tsunade rose. “Good. We need to talk. Come.” She led him away again, slipping around the others and disappearing into the crowd. Itachi exchanged an uncertain glance with his lover and Naruko pouted after her great-aunt and uncle.

“All that work to find him and we don’t even get to know what she needed him for?”

“Business, I think,” her father said, rising. “Besides, this gentleman says you’re needed elsewhere.”

They looked across the table to find Obito grinning at them and holding up his camera. “Portraits! It looks like there’s a nice grove of trees outside that’s fairly well-lit. Will that suit?”

“Oh, yes!” Naruko smiled brilliantly, first at the photographer and then up at her husband, her annoyance forgotten. “Let’s go now!”

Sasuke didn’t say anything, but nodded, looking pleased with the idea.

“I’ll go with you,” Minato decided. “Do you want shots with the bridesmaids too?”

“That’s an excellent idea!” Naruko grabbed Sasuke’s hand and tugged him off. Minato raised a hand in greeting to the other two men before following his daughter and son-in-law.

Kisame turned to Itachi and raised an eyebrow questioningly. “Want to join them?”

“Not just yet,” Itachi murmured, peering through the crowd. Finding the man he was looking for, he set off, knowing Kisame would follow or not as he chose.

He stood nearby, waiting until Deidara had finished telling some story to the Hyuuga girl and her boyfriend, before quietly getting the blond man’s attention.

“Ah! Itachi, un?” Deidara greeted him effusively, his handshake strong and confident.

“Yes. May I speak with you for a moment, Deidara-san?” Itachi gestured to a quieter spot near the wall.

“Un! What do you want to talk about?”

“Naruko tells me that you work in graphic design, and have some experience in marketing, and also that you are presently unemployed,” Itachi began, and Deidara nodded to each point.

“Nearly six years’ experience, un. Why?” One bright green eye peered curiously at him from behind the half-curtain of blond hair the man used to hide his eye patch.

“I run my own company, you see,” the dark-eyed man explained, wondering how the man had lost the other eye, “and I have been less and less impressed with my marketing department of late. Would you be interested in a job? It would require you to move to America.”

“That sounds interesting, un! But I’ve only been in America a couple of times – they do some fantastic fireworks, un! – is that all right?” Deidara’s excitement was better suited to a child, but once again the sharp intelligence in his visible eye reassured Itachi of his decision. He may be melodramatic, but he does know what he’s doing.

“It shouldn’t be. Do you speak any English?”

“Some, un. Enough to get by.”

“That will be enough to get started with, then. If you need an advance on your pay to get an apartment or a car I can see to that. Can you fly over for an interview and a tour within the next week or two?”

“You sure move fast, un!” the blond man grinned at him. “I’m a bit busy this coming week, but the one after that is free, so I can come then, un!”

“Excellent,” Itachi said quietly, holding out his hand again to seal their bargain. He then fished a business card out of his pocket. “Call this number and you’ll get either me or my secretary, and we can get travel arrangements worked out.”

“Sounds good!” Deidara shook hands and took the card, grinned, and then turned away when someone called his name. “I’ll get that department back on its feet in no time. It’ll be a bang!” he called over his shoulder, giving Itachi a last, wild grin. “Un!”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Kisame’s voice said from a few feet behind him, and Itachi turned to his lover, sighing.

“I hope so too.” He went over to stand with the blue-haired man. “His manner is not reassuring, but I think that he is quite a bit more intelligent than he lets on.” Itachi shook his head. “So long as he does not actually blow up the department, I think I can handle it.”

Kisame chuckled, then gestured towards the side door where the others had gone out for photographs. “Shall we?”

“Some fresh air would be nice,” Itachi admitted, and followed the taller man out.

The picture-taking took a long while, and by the time Obito was done taking the last few of Naruko with her family, everyone else had pretty much drifted back inside. Itachi, who had found a comfortable, out-of-the-way tree to lean back against, had no inclination to move, and Kisame had stayed at his side, also seeming content.

At last, even those pictures were done, and Obito waved the group to go back inside before pausing to check his camera. Then he looked over at the two of them, half-hidden in the shadows, and beckoned them forward.

“Would you like some?” He asked when they drew near.

Itachi blinked at his cousin, startled, but Kisame replied immediately. “Yes. Please.” Itachi looked up at him, but whatever protest he might have thought to raise was swept away at the deep ocean look in his lover’s blue-grey eyes.

“Very well,” he whispered, and Obito smiled, waving them to stand in the center of the lighted clearing. They straightened out their tuxes, and the photographer spent a few minutes positioning them for the best lighting. Finally, they were set, with Itachi standing just in front and to the side of Kisame and turned a little towards each other. Obito took two shots, adjusted his camera minutely, and finished with a third shot. They relaxed, and came over to shake his hand.

“No problem,” he replied to Kisame’s thanks, “I’ll send them separately to Sasuke – he can get them on to you. Besides, it’s not like you’ve had much of a chance for something formal like this, I’d imagine.”

Itachi shook his head, smiling a little wistfully. Frankly, I’m grateful we made it to the point where we can take pictures together at all, no matter how informal they are. I’d never have dared have any with me back before I left the family for fear of getting caught, and Kisame never indicated that he wanted anything either… He pushed the thoughts away. That was all in the past now, no sense dwelling on it; not when the present was so much better.

“Well, it’s been good seeing you again, Itachi, and good to meet you, Kisame-san.” Obito grinned at them and turned to go inside. “Keep in touch, if you can!”

“We will,” Kisame promised, then turned back to Itachi, raising a hand to brush dark bangs back from the shorter man’s face, and then continuing on, letting his hand fall to trace the length of Itachi’s ponytail, which hung nearly to his waist. “Let’s get back to the hotel,” he murmured.

“Shouldn’t we say good-bye first…?” Itachi, catching sight of the look in Kisame’s eyes, caught his breath and trailed off.

“They’ll understand,” Kisame whispered, before pulling Itachi into his arms and kissing him hard.

When they broke apart several minutes later, Itachi let his head fall back and his eyes open slowly. “Yes,” he panted, “let’s go.”

During the much-too-long taxi ride back to their hotel, Itachi supposed that he should have been jealous of his brother; Sasuke got to keep his place in the family, his inheritance, and marry the woman he loved.

But, as he and Kisame fell into bed, still tugging off shirts and belts around a deep, slow kiss, he found that he wasn’t jealous at all. Because there’s nothing that I wouldn’t give up for this, he thought, smiling brilliantly up at the love and lust in Kisame’s eyes. Nothing in the world.

And even though the wedding night wasn’t theirs, they went on to celebrate it just as passionately as if it had been.

Chapter Text

Itachi stood in the door of Deidara’s office, looking around at the chaos therein with a blank expression that succeeded admirably well at hiding his growing frustration.

The graphic designer (or “artist” as he insisted), had been officially working at Akatsuki Enterprises since January, just a few months after their first meeting at Sasuke’s wedding the previous October. It was now late May, nearly June, and although Itachi had generally had no complaints about Deidara’s actual work (which was quite good), dealing with him personally was an unusually frustrating challenge for the dark-eyed man. He knew that they didn’t communicate well, but really wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“Something you need, Itachi?” the blond man asked, spinning his chair around to face the door, a quizzical expression on his face.

“I would like to see your drafts for the initial chemical line promotional material,” Itachi replied, wondering how the other man could work with so much…clutter. It wasn’t that the office was dirty, it just had a lot of stuff in it, and scattered everywhere.

“The inspiration,” Deidara spun his chair around again, flinging his arms out, “has yet to strike me, un.”

Seeing Itachi’s frown at this melodramatic pronouncement, the other man stopped spinning and leaned forward, his expression turning serious. “Itachi, I can’t do ads when I don’t even know what the thing is supposed to look like. It’ll be at least two weeks before that department’s up and running, you said so yourself, un. And it might be longer!”

“Deidara-san-” Itachi began, still keeping his frustration barely under control.

“I can’t work with what I don’t have!” Deidara cut him off with an openly exasperated shake of his head. “Art needs inspiration, un, and if you want good work-”

“I expect your best work, Deidara-san, which admittedly you do give me, but that does not mean that you can slack off simply because you perceive that there is nothing to be done at this moment-”

“I’m caught up and ahead on everything else I’m supposed to do, un,” the other man stated, spinning back to his computer. “I can try a bit on the new ads, but they won’t be any good.”

Clearly, the blond considered their discussion to be over.

Itachi closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm his rising temper, then turned and stalked away from the door, realizing that further efforts to push his somewhat wayward marketing director would be useless.

Back in his office a few minutes later, he took a moment to lean back in his chair and close his eyes again. His frustration with Deidara was not unusual in itself, although right now it was also symptomatic of his feelings about his company in general. Certainly it was true that the whole economy was in a bit of down-swing right now, but really that was no excuse.

If there’s any chance that our slow time is because I’ve overlooked some way to fix things then I have to figure out what it is. I’ll just have to keep pushing and working at it until things get better.

While realizing that this would make the people in his life (mostly Kisame and Rebecca) not very happy, he still couldn’t see any other course. We haven’t had a slump this bad since…I don’t think we’ve ever had a slump this bad. It’s inexcusable that I should overlook anything that might help, no matter how small.

And with that thought as his new guiding principle, he opened his eyes and went back to work.

***

Kisame climbed the main staircase to the master bedroom of his house. He yawned slightly, but was feeling more hopeful than tired. Itachi had come home a bit early tonight, so maybe they could…

They hadn’t actually had sex for nearly a month, and Kisame couldn’t remember needing it this badly since back before Itachi came to live with him. It wasn’t either of their faults, really; he’d been gone a week and a half in Washington, then nights all last week working on a tough case for the local police that had to be cracked, and this week Itachi had been coming home very late from work and tired. But it not being anyone’s fault didn’t make him want it any less badly. At least tonight was looking more promising.

He was surprised and dismayed, therefore, to find that Itachi had already turned off the lights when he got into their bedroom. Usually the other man at least read for awhile before going to sleep, but it appeared that his lover was skipping even that bit of relaxation tonight.

Kisame grimaced unhappily, but sighed and pushed his hopeful thoughts away. He got ready quietly and slid into bed. A bit more sleep won’t kill me, I guess…

But still…it had been a really long month, and maybe Itachi just needed a little coaxing… the blue-haired man hesitated, then slid a questioning hand across Itachi’s waist, reaching to at least pull him closer and asking if he wanted more.

He could almost feel Itachi’s frown through the dark, though, as the other man pulled away. “Not tonight. I have to get up early.” His voice, though sleepy, was noticeably sharp, and Kisame drew away, stung a little and definitely not in the best of moods himself any longer.

“You always get up early,” he muttered uncharitably. “It’s never been an issue before.” I know he’s tired and stressed out, but this would help him relax, at least! How long is he intending to abstain? This isn’t like him…

There was no reply to his comment, though, and soon Itachi’s breathing evened out. Kisame continued to lie awake, frowning up at the ceiling. Things must be worse than I’d imagined at work. He’s never been so stressed out that he didn’t want sex. I wonder what it could be? Maybe he just needs to get away. It’s been awhile since our last vacation…

The vague plan forming in the back of his mind was not at all clear when he finally fell asleep, alone on his side of the bed and still frowning slightly.

In the morning, though, after being plagued by frustratingly tantalizing dreams all night, his plan began to take much firmer shape, and by early afternoon he had made up his mind. Grabbing the phone, he dialed the number of Akatsuki Enterprises, Inc., adding the extension that he knew would get him Rebecca Nayland’s desk.

“Akatsuki Enterprises, how may I help you?” Rebecca’s voice was as polite as ever, though Kisame didn’t think it was his imagination that gave it an undertone of frustration and over-work. Well, it’s not just me then. Good.

“Hi Rebecca, it’s Kisame.”

“Oh! Mr. Hoshigaki. Hello. Mr. Aoru is in a meeting right now, I’m afraid, but-”

“Is he? Good. Then he definitely won’t overhear. Listen, Rebecca, I need your help. I don’t know if you can pull this, but…can you arrange Itachi’s schedule so that he has absolutely no reason to be at work next week? I know it’s tough…”

There was silence on the other end for a long second, and then Rebecca’s voice, sounding both vindicated and relieved, “It’ll be done within the hour. I know he’s upset that things are slow, but it really is out of our hands. All next week, you said?”

“Yes. It’s high time he had a vacation, but I don’t think he’ll take one voluntarily at the moment,” Kisame grinned wryly.

“Just don’t get yourself picked up for kidnapping or anything,” Rebecca returned, just as wry but sounding much less stressed herself. “When shall I tell him?”

“Tomorrow’s Friday, right? Good. Tell him right before he leaves work tomorrow.”

“Certainly.”

“Thanks a ton, Rebecca. You’re an angel.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hoshigaki,” he grinned at the emphasized relief in her voice, and they both hung up.

All right, he thought, grinning wickedly. Now to go make those reservations. And then all I’ll have to do is convince Itachi that this actually is what he wants to be doing.

***

Friday had finally arrived, and Itachi wished it hadn’t. He had no real excuse to come into work over the weekend, though he supposed that that didn’t have to prevent him if he wanted to.

There’s always future planning, he thought. If I get that done now it will make things easier once the economy picks up. And if things are better on Monday then at least we’ll be all set to go…

Still musing and trying to ignore the tension that had settled into his back and shoulders days ago and refused to leave, Itachi reluctantly packed up his briefcase with as many reports as it could reasonably hold and left his office, turning off the lights as he went. The clock on his wall read 5:00.

He paused outside next to Rebecca’s desk, and waited for her to look up from her typing before asking, “What is on the schedule for Monday?”

“Nothing,” she replied calmly.

Itachi stared at her. “What?”

“There is nothing on your schedule for Monday, sir. Nor for any other day next week. You’ve gotten everything taken care of well in advance.”

“Are you suggesting, Rebecca, that I should not be here at all next week?” Itachi watched her through narrowed eyes, his voice soft to hide his sudden anger.

Rebecca, however, matched his stare calmly, though there was a hint of underlying steel in her voice as she replied, “I am saying, sir, that there is no need for you to be here next week. Whether or not you do come is entirely your choice. You wanted to know what your schedule is, and I have told you: nothing, unless you have arranged some meeting that I do not know about.”

Itachi narrowed his eyes again, started to reply to this, and then outright frowned at her as he realized that he couldn’t think of anything to say. Of course there were no meetings that she didn’t know about - Rebecca was his right hand, she knew all of his appointments…and she also didn’t lie to him. Therefore, it must be true that he had nothing on his schedule for next week.

But that didn’t mean that not being here was acceptable.

“I will be here on Monday as usual, Rebecca. Good night.” His tone remained cool as he turned and headed for the elevator.

“Of course you will, sir. Good night, sir,” Rebecca replied.

Her tone matched his, so Itachi had no idea why he thought he could hear an undercurrent of laughter running through it.

***

Needless to say, Itachi was not in any better mood by the time he got home. Unexpected amounts of traffic and a very slow train made the trip out of town take longer than usual, and though he made up some time by going faster than he ought to out on the back roads, it only soothed his temper slightly.

He stalked in the kitchen door, nodding curtly to Kisame’s greeting, and not really hearing the other man’s words until he was nearly half-way across the room. He stopped, then turned around slowly. “What?”

Kisame raised an eyebrow at him. “I said, I’m glad you’re back. I was getting worried. We have to leave for the airport in half an hour to catch our plane and you need to pack.”

“Pack,” Itachi repeated slowly, the words “plane” and “leave” being the next two to filter into his mind, which was still very focused on work and his general anger. “Kisame, I am not packing. I do not have time to take a vacation.”

“I disagree,” the blue-haired man replied, his voice mild but something harder flickering through his eyes.

Itachi’s gaze narrowed, and he frowned outright at his lover, more displeased by the moment. “Do not think that I can drop everything at a moment’s notice just to-” He stopped abruptly as Kisame drew himself up a little and looked him dead in the eyes, ocean gaze deep and, unusually, not happy. It occurred to Itachi that Kisame - who had dropped everything at a moment’s notice to come meet him all throughout the first years of their relationship - was probably the only person in the world who could rightfully ask that of him.

But that didn’t make it any less discourteous now. At least Kisame had wanted to go on those trips. Itachi’s anger reasserted itself as he realized that that would mean he would not be able to even work on things at home tomorrow, much less go in to work. Slightly calmer but just as decided, he continued.

“I would not object to a vacation, Kisame, but not now. There is too much to be done.” It was as much of an apology as he could manage right now.

“Itachi, the economy of the entire country will not pick up just because you spend a lot of extra hours at work this weekend. That’s not how it works, as you really ought to know.” Kisame was leaning against the edge of the table, seemingly casual, but his hands were clenched tight around the edges. “You need a vacation, badly. I intend to see to it that you get one, since you’re being too stubborn to see to it yourself. There’s no reason for you to be at work this weekend or even next week; I asked Rebecca to make sure there wasn’t.”

Itachi blinked at this revelation, and then his eyes narrowed again in true displeasure. If there was one thing he would not tolerate from anyone, even his lover, it was interference with his work.

“I do not need a vacation, and I am perfectly capable of looking after myself,” he hissed, turning away. “Go yourself, if you are so eager to get out of here. I will take my leisure at an appropriate time and by my own decision.”

He was through the door, out in the main hall and on the second step of the staircase before he realized that Kisame had followed him out of the kitchen.

Anger flaring again, he spun in place on the stairs, fists clenched and snarling-

-only to meet a pair blazing blue-grey eyes inches from his own-

-and then Kisame’s mouth was burning against his, the taller man using his greater strength to push Itachi back against the railing. Large hands tangling through Itachi’s hair, Kisame slid a leg in between Itachi’s, bending him back over the railing to fit them both as close together as possible.

Itachi dropped his briefcase, both hands scrambling for a firmer hold on the railing. He held out against that burning kiss and the feel of Kisame’s body against his for only a handful of heartbeats before groaning deeply and responding, his anger abruptly swept away under a sudden, passionate need for his lover’s touch.

But, just as he was reaching up to catch hold of Kisame’s shoulders, the other man pulled away.

Gasping at the sudden loss of contact, Itachi could only grab vainly for the banister again as Kisame’s support disappeared, and then slide shakily down to sit on the stairs when he found his arms too weak to hold himself up.

Kisame’s words, delivered in a low, shaking voice that told Itachi the other man wanted more just as badly as he did, took a moment to sink in:

“We now have fifteen minutes. Pack. No work. Warm weather clothes for a week. Your violin. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

Kisame,” Itachi groaned, needy and not caring.

He saw his lover shiver at his tone, but still he stayed where he was at the bottom of the steps, turned half away from Itachi. “When we get there. Not before.”

And with that, he turned and walked away.

Itachi sat there for another moment, staring uncomprehendingly at the closing kitchen door and trying desperately to get his breath. Then, as his lover’s last words sank in fully, his anger surged up again, greater than before. He- He’s blackmailing me!

Closing his eyes and pulling in a deep breath, Itachi pasted on an outward veneer of calm that allowed him to rise, collect his briefcase (without acknowledging how much his hands were still shaking) and then turn to stalk up the stairs. Tossing his briefcase none-too-gently into his study, he started to slam the door when he caught sight of a bag lying mostly hidden under his desk. An idea forming in his mind, he grabbed it quickly before stalking back down the hall to their bedroom, glaring venomously at the pointedly open and empty suitcase on the bed. He straightened his mussed hair quickly, trying not to remember why it was messy in the first place. Stalking into the closet, he threw the bag and the first acceptable clothes that came to hand into the suitcase, shut it, and (more gently, for no anger could ever make him do harm to his beloved instrument) picked up his violin case.

With that, not even bothering to change out of his office clothes, he stalked back downstairs to the kitchen.

He scowled openly at Kisame, who was sitting calmly at the table, reading the paper, and acting as though he hadn’t been ready to have Itachi right there on the stairs just a few minutes before. The scowl was returned with a cool, fairly blank look, though the smirk Itachi imagined hovering around Kisame’s mouth did nothing to improve his mood.

Fine. Let him think what he pleases. Going behind my back about work and then blackmailing me…he’ll get nothing more out of me tonight, even after we get…wherever the hell we’re going. Itachi ignored the part of his mind that raged in protest at this and stalked outside ahead of Kisame’s mockingly polite bow at the door. Mind made up, he proceeded to remain silent through the whole trip out to the airport and getting onto the plane.

Kisame, for his part, didn’t try to get Itachi to talk. Once they got on the plane, he settled down and to all appearances went to sleep, leaving Itachi to fume in the window seat, looking out over the darkening land and sky. Part of him still ached for more of what Kisame had given him earlier, but a greater part continued to be furious at the other man, and he held on to that anger with greater resolve than he might otherwise have.

***

Kisame stretched and woke himself up from his half-pretended doze when the pilot announced that they were landing in Bermuda, taking a quick glance at Itachi.

The dark-eyed man was still ignoring him, looking pointedly out the window and not deigning to acknowledge that Kisame was awake. Normally, he would at least have turned around.

Kisame held back a sigh and a small frown, hoping that he hadn’t pushed Itachi too far. He could understand that Itachi would be upset, but…

Really, this will be for the best, I think, the blue-haired man thought, his own resolve not wavering. If he’s reacting this badly to everything, it’s just one more sign that he really needs to get away from work, calm down and relax for a little while.

But still the other man remained silent, barely even glancing at Kisame through all of disembarking, collecting their luggage, and the taxi ride out to the very private, beachside condo that Kisame had rented for the week.

It was just as beautiful as the advertising had suggested, which pleased Kisame. Separated from its neighbors by small hills and some near-jungle-thick tropical forest, it was a low, one-story building. It wasn’t huge, by any means; the grounds around it (manicured lawns and carefully attended gardens) were at least half again as big as the house itself. It had a living room and a kitchen, a large bedroom and connected bath, and a Jacuzzi in a room of its own. The front door opened inland, while the back faced the beach, a stone path leading past a small outdoor shower and pool, through the gardens and then down out to the sand dunes themselves. The night air was warm and humid, heavy with the smell of tropical flowers blooming around them, and by day their colors would provide a vivid accent to the life-rich green of the forest itself.

Itachi stalked by all of it as though he didn’t even notice, and responded to Kisame holding the door for him with all the aristocratic arrogance he could summon up in his body language. Kisame was slightly disgruntled to discover that even Itachi’s manner of snubbing turned him on, but decided that it wasn’t worth getting upset over.

The outside walls of the house seemed to be composed almost entirely of huge sheets of glass, that could be opened or have curtains drawn over them, depending on how much extra privacy you wanted. Trellises with real flowering vines were hung over the ceilings, letting the plants drape down along the walls, and Kisame noticed a small lizard or two scampering for cover when he put the lights on in the living room.

Now, Itachi had stopped and was contemplating the building, still with that same haughty manner, but his eyes held a hint of reluctant approval. Then he caught sight of Kisame watching him, and turned away sharply, moving towards the open bedroom door. Kisame followed, turning the lights on to their low setting as he came in.

Itachi moved with a very economical grace when he was angry, not a single breath or twitch of a finger more than was necessary to complete whatever he was doing. Now, he paced to the far side of the room and set his suitcase down next to the dresser, to be unpacked later. His violin case (Kisame was glad that Itachi had actually brought it) went onto the loveseat near the back window-wall, carefully.

Watching him move, Kisame damned himself yet again for his brief loss of control earlier. Of course, it had probably been a good thing, since he was sure that that was the only reason Itachi had actually come, but he had not been intending to touch Itachi at all before they got here. It made it all the harder to wait, and had also fueled Itachi’s anger.

Swallowing, he put down his own suitcase, opened it, grabbed a pair of loose dark pants and went to go change in the living room before investigating the kitchen. He heard the bathroom door click shut, and was pleased that Itachi was at least deigning to finally change out of his suit.

The kitchen appeared to be well stocked. Kisame hesitated for a moment over a bottle of dark red wine in the fridge before shrugging and pulling it out. Pouring two glasses, he left one in the bedroom for Itachi (who was not done changing yet) and then decided that a brief walk outside might clear his head a little. Taking his own glass, he went to have a closer look at the pool and back garden.

I’ll give him a little time to himself, and maybe he’ll be in a better mood when I come back.

***

Itachi slipped out of the bathroom a few minutes after he heard the back door open and then shut out in the living room, and then a quick peek told him that Kisame had indeed gone outside.

Relieved, he went back to the wardrobe to hang up his suit and then finished unpacking his suitcase before stepping back and taking a deep, calming breath.

His anger was less intense now, simmering instead of blazing and feeding itself into the mischievously vengeful mood he was currently feeling. Not only was he most definitely not going to sleep with Kisame tonight, he was going to make it as uncomfortable as possible for the other man in the process.

Discovering the wineglass on the nightstand and swirling its ruby-red contents approvingly, he felt a smirk hovering around the edges of his mouth as he turned the lights off all the way and paced carefully over to stand next to the window.

He was wearing something new tonight, something that he hadn’t shown Kisame yet; a beautiful robe of thin, blood-crimson silk, with wide black silk hems and cuffs, and an intricate, fiery-winged phoenix worked around the bottom in gold thread. His hair was completely unbound, brushed into neatness; shorter strands fell to frame his face and shoulders, while most of it lay in a long, silky curtain against his back, its ends falling to just below his waist.

He looked like a fallen angel, sinfully beautiful and tempting, and planned to take full advantage of that fact.

He sipped his wine, looking out over the moonlit garden and admitting to himself that the place was beautiful. Kisame definitely had good taste. He would not admit to himself that the painful tension that had been plaguing his back and shoulders for nearly a week and a half was already starting to unwind a little.

Just the wine. It’ll be back by morning. He debated whether he should make an attempt at barring Kisame from the bedroom (after letting him see what he was missing, of course) or if he should leave the other man alone in bed, and make do with one of the couches out in the living room (which had looked nearly as comfortable as the bed). The first, though perhaps more difficult, was admittedly more appealing. Itachi knew that his rarely seen and not-entirely pleasant mischievous streak was beginning to come out, and a smirk curled his mouth again.

But a small noise from the bedroom door made him turn, and at the sight of Kisame, he felt the smirk fall away. It seemed abruptly unfitting, and he felt…angry still, and defiant, but not mischievous. Not now.

Kisame wore only a pair of dark pajama pants, which clung to him a little, explained by the still-shimmering water droplets visible on his chest and in his odd-colored hair. The pool must have been too much of a temptation, Itachi supposed, and he would not admit that his desire was beginning to make itself known again. It occurred to him that his plan was going to make it an uncomfortable night for himself as well as Kisame.

But he deserves it, for interfering, and I probably do too, for getting so distracted by all of this. So he stood still in the moonlight streaming through the window, face carefully schooled and eyes too intense, still holding his wineglass.

***

Kisame stood in the door to their bedroom, nearly awestruck at the sight of his lover standing in the moonlight, wineglass still sparkling in his hand and silk the color of fresh-spilled blood flowing over his pale skin, shimmering. His hair was completely loose, framing his face and flowing down his back in a neat, dark waterfall that made Kisame’s breath catch with want.

Gods help me… Any good his brief dip in the cool water of the pool might have done towards cooling his desire was gone in an instant, as he was sure Itachi had intended. What he wasn’t sure of he was what that meant.

But his body seemed to have a mind of its own right now, and he was already crossing the room, reaching out for the tempting red silk and the smooth, pale skin it covered, when Itachi stopped him with narrowed eyes and a quiet, commanding “No.”

Kisame stopped, hands hovering inches from the other man, blue-grey eyes locked in pleading question with black.

“You may not touch me tonight,” Itachi answered aloud, turning and setting his wineglass on the windowsill, apparently gazing out at the moonlit garden.

“Itachi,” Kisame whispered, half plea, half admonition. “Why not?”

“I will not be blackmailed, Hoshigaki Kisame,” the other man said, voice low and silky and just a little too calm. He turned back a little, dark eyes glittering in the silver light. “Not even by you.”

The blue-haired man blinked, almost startled. Is that how he sees it? I suppose I was blackmailing him, though that wasn’t really my intention, he thought, sorry that his lover had taken him the wrong way, but…

“You want this too,” Kisame said, his own voice rougher than usual, and it was not a question. He could see his own ache reflected in those dark eyes, and the robe did little to hide the fact that Itachi was nearly as aroused as he was. “You want me to touch you and kiss you and take that robe off so slowly it hurts and then make love to you until you can’t see straight…”

Itachi’s breath hitched, and he swallowed heavily, licking dry lips. Kisame nearly had to close his eyes to keep himself from darting forward and grabbing the other man right then and there, but managed to control himself.

He caught his lover’s eyes, putting all his desire into one glance, and Itachi turned towards him, dark eyes starting to hold that softer, almost lost look they got when Kisame looked at him like that-

-but then he caught himself, and stopped, half turned toward Kisame, torn between his still-apparent anger and his all-too-obvious desire.

“Itachi,” Kisame breathed, “I want you.”

Another heartbeat of hesitation, and then something shifted in Itachi’s eyes, and he turned fully to face Kisame.

“You want me,” he repeated, voice dark and wanting and touched with the barest hint of some kind of amusement. Then, abruptly, he was drawing himself up, dark eyes blazing with anger and lust and something else underneath, and Kisame couldn’t look away…

“Beg for it.”

That sent a shock through him, followed almost immediately by another wave of heat as the realization of what Itachi was demanding swept through him. He won’t ask for this… but if I ask, and he is granting me a favor, then maybe he’ll…

He let out something between a laugh and a moan, at last stepping forward. “Itachi,” he breathed, bending so that his mouth hovered a scant inch over Itachi’s, their breath mingling, “please.”

He held himself back from kissing his lover - Itachi had not yet withdrawn his injunction against touching - and instead began to sink to his knees, letting his lips skim down Itachi’s neck, following the collar of the robe. He reached out to gently tug the silk open further as he not-quite-kissed his way down Itachi’s chest and stomach, letting only his breath touch the pale skin. “Please, Itachi, let me touch you?”

He was fully on his knees now, looking up at Itachi, hands hovering just over Itachi’s waist.

Itachi’s breathing had become fast and shallow, the dark-eyed man swallowed, trying to regain some of his composure, at last managing a low “yes.” He swallowed once more, took a deep breath, and tried again. “Yes. Touch me.”

Immediately he had hot, silk-clad skin under his hands, and was tracing down Itachi’s stomach with his tongue, feeling the other man shiver involuntarily.

“Let me taste you, Itachi,” he groaned, letting his hands move to tug at the robe’s belt, “please…” He could not think of anyone else on earth that he would do this for...but this was Itachi. They both wanted this, and that was all he had to know.

Itachi’s “Yes” this time was still fairly calm, though the long-fingered hands tangling eagerly through Kisame’s hair belied that.

With a breath of relief, he pushed the robe completely out of his way and set to work at giving Itachi all the pleasure he could stand, holding the other man still with firm hands on his waist.

Gods I’ve missed this, he thought, feeling Itachi bending over him a little more, involuntarily, his fingers curling harder through Kisame’s hair, breath coming in harsh pants in his efforts not to moan aloud.

He did groan, though, when Kisame pulled away early, trying to regain his control. “Don’t…don’t stop…”

“I want to kiss you, Itachi,” Kisame replied, still on his knees, looking up into half-closed onyx eyes that didn’t look as though they could see anything else in the world right now.

Itachi couldn’t seem to find his voice, but his hands tugged Kisame up in acquiescence. Rising, Kisame tugged the other man into his arms, at last tangled his hands into dark silky hair, leaned over and kissed him hard.

And continued to kiss him, hot and deep, thirstier for this than he could remember feeling about anything for a long time. Even as he pulled Itachi back with him towards the bed, managing to finish undressing along the way, they clung to each other, needing touch more than air. Itachi made no move to finish shrugging off his robe, though, so when Kisame lay down with the smaller man straddling his hips, he was surrounded by a deliciously sensual curtain of silk, red and black. Even as he kept one hand free to help guide his lover, he let the other run through as much of Itachi’s hair as he could reach; he didn’t know when this particular fetish about his lover’s hair had first developed, but it had long since ceased to be something he could fight.

And at last, with Itachi moving over him and around him and with him, he could finally let the ache spiral up to the breaking point, finally let it spill over to give them both long-needed release.

Itachi slumped over him then, pillowing his head on Kisame’s shoulder, pressing the bridge of his nose against the taller man’s neck as his breathing slowly evened out. Kisame relaxed with him, stroking up and down his back gently

“Shower?” He offered quietly awhile later, sensing that although his lover’s breathing had slowed and deepened, he was not asleep.

Itachi was silent for another moment, then replied softly, “I am still angry, Kisame.”

“I will listen to you and explain,” the blue-haired man replied, tilting Itachi’s head up to meet his eyes so the other man would see that he was serious, “but perhaps morning would be a better time?”

Itachi hesitated, then sighed silently and nodded. Kisame kissed him gently, then coaxed him out of bed and into the shower.

Back in bed a little while later, Itachi fell quickly asleep, and that more than anything told Kisame that he’d been right to push this. He really does need to unwind. I haven’t felt his back this knotted up in long time… Even his gentle massaging away of the last tension in his lover’s back didn’t wake the dark-eyed man, and when that was done, Kisame stretched out next to him, and let sleep take him away as well.

***

Itachi woke first the next morning, and saw that the sun was well up into the sky already. Sliding quietly out of bed, he pulled on a pair of pants and padded out of the bedroom to properly look over the little beach house, leaving Kisame still asleep.

It was just as pretty and exotic by daylight as it was at night, with the myriad vines and flowers, growing both inside and out and barely separated by the glass walls, giving the whole place a jungle feel.

He went out the front door to prowl around the outside of the house, ending in the back garden. He followed the path all the way down to where it faded into the beach, then turned back, approving of the house’s isolation.

He had stopped to examine the small, blue pool when Kisame’s voice spoke from the back door.

“Like it?”

Itachi turned to see his lover awake, dressed also in his loose pajama pants, and leaning in the doorway. Looking around again, the dark-eyed man nodded slowly. “It is very beautiful.”

Kisame nodded, also taking in the view, then looked back at Itachi, questioning.

Itachi hesitated, then frowned slightly and turned to sit down on the low wall that encircled the pool area. He said nothing, waiting until Kisame came and sat beside him, putting his thoughts in order.

“I should start,” Kisame said then, in a quiet voice, “by apologizing for what happened at home; it was not my intention that you should be blackmailed into coming. Tempted, perhaps, but not blackmailed. I just wanted to make sure that we actually got here. I should have made that clearer.”

Itachi shook his head. He was annoyed about that, but his real upset came from a different source. “It is the fact that you interfered with work that I am angry about.”

Kisame glanced over at him, blue-grey eyes a touch surprised, then he turned thoughtful and nodded slowly. “I see.”

“You may have been doing what you thought was necessary; I am sure that is how Rebecca saw it when she agreed to help you. Perhaps I was being unreasonable. But do not go behind my back about work.” Itachi stared out at the pool. He did not like being angry with his lover, would have preferred to let it go, but this was one thing he couldn’t overlook.

They were both quiet for a long moment before Itachi felt Kisame’s fingers under his chin, gently turning his head to face the blue-haired man.

“I apologize for going behind your back, Itachi. I did do so because I thought it was the right thing to do, so I cannot apologize for interfering. But for doing so behind your back, yes.” He waited for Itachi’s nod of understanding before sighing and going on with a wry smile. “I also promise not to do it again. But, maybe you could make a bit more of an effort to listen in the future, if both Rebecca and I think something’s wrong?”

Itachi thought that over, then nodded. “I will try.”

“And if you don’t, I’ll just find other ways to make sure you relax,” Kisame said, grinning. He sobered then, though, and picked up Itachi’s left hand to run his thumb gently over the silver ring glinting there. “This means that we have to try and work with each other about hard times, not against or around each other.”

Itachi bent over to kiss the hand holding his. “Yes.”

When he straightened, Kisame was smiling and leaned over to kiss him slowly.

“Now,” the blue-haired man whispered as he drew away, “can we enjoy the rest of the week?”

Itachi let a small smirk quirk his mouth in return. “Yes.”

***

“Kisame,” Itachi murmured, his lips stained red, “you are spoiling me.”

“Mmm,” Kisame hummed in acquiescence, propped up on one elbow and drinking in the sight of his lover sprawled with lazy sensuality out across the blanket he had brought down to the garden right where it began to thin into the beach. He picked another pomegranate seed out of the neatly sliced fruit sitting next to him on a plate, and brought the small red morsel to Itachi’s mouth. The other man ate it, closing his eyes and licking the remaining juice off of Kisame’s hovering fingers.

Shivering at the sight, Kisame pushed the fruit away and bent to have a taste himself, straight from Itachi’s lips.

They lay a long time in the sunshine like that.

***

“Now you,” Kisame murmured two days later in the moonlight, “are spoiling me.”

Itachi smiled quietly. His violin, safely back in its case and well away from the pool, lay on the back patio where he had left it after giving a private concert. Now, he leaned back against the edge of the pool’s stone seat, running slow fingers through Kisame’s hair even as his own floated out lazily around the other man. Kisame, half-laying, half-floating on his back with his head in Itachi’s lap, gathered the long dark strands around himself, sighing in content.

***

“It’s your birthday today,” Kisame said two days after that as they ate breakfast in the living room under the living ceiling of vines. “Want to do anything?”

Itachi thought about it for a moment, tapping his fork against his lips. “Can we go into town tonight?”

“Sure.”

So they did.

It wasn’t quite Mardi Gras, not quite that vibrant, but it was still bright and crowded and glittering. They wandered through the streets, Itachi in front and Kisame a step or two behind, watching.

The dark-eyed man had let an inquisitive mood take over him, so he poked into shops and down alleys, looking at what was there and, ultimately, trying to find the source of the music he could hear in the distance. They finally reached it, and the beat of a live steel drum band had Itachi’s blood stirring immediately. He turned to Kisame, only to find the other man looking off at something else.

“Wait a moment,” his lover murmured a second later, and disappeared into the crowd. Itachi blinked after him, then sniffed and turned to the dancing.

He knew that a lot of eyes were on him as he crossed the open space between watchers and dancers; he was wearing black leather pants and a loose shirt, midnight blue and silver, that he had tucked in to the waistband of his pants but had not really bothered to button. He also didn’t care. It had been months since he had danced, even at home.

So he danced, with unconsciously easy grace, letting the beat move his feet into fitting steps. He didn’t pause at first at the feel of hands on his waist, assuming it was Kisame, but when he glanced back over his shoulder, he started, drawing away a little and stilling.

A man stood there, a little taller than Itachi himself, wearing pants that fit him even closer than Itachi’s and a white silk shirt that nearly shone in the low light here. He had brown skin and a wide, inviting white grin. “You looked like you needed a partner.”

Itachi eyed him, wavering between being offended, disdainful or amused. “Perhaps,” he replied at last, voice neutral. The man’s grin widened, so he added “Perhaps not,” in the same, neutral tone.

The grin turned to a grimace, and the man moved towards him again. “Come on now, lovely, no playing hard to get. You’re wanting to dance, so don’t lie to me now.” Itachi stayed where he was, eyes wary, but unable to back away without running into someone and not wanting to admit how much the beat was calling to him.

The other man was close now, though not actually touching him. The grin was back, suggestive and inviting. “I can show you a good time-”

And Itachi had to laugh, a low, dark chuckle, tilting his head back a little and giving his admirer an intentionally seductive smirk. “You?”

They had a bit of an audience now, and the man scowled at being so publicly doubted. His eyes narrowed. “Shall I prove it to you?”

“No need,” Itachi murmured, still smirking, “I can tell you the answer already.”

“And what might that be?”

“That there’s only one man who can show me a good time,” Itachi mimicked the man’s accent, “and that he’s not you.”

He started then, at the feel of a strong, very possessive arm around his waist, and Kisame’s growl in his ear, “Damn straight.” The equally possessive glare being directed at his admirer was not something the man seemed interested in contesting, and he turned away to blend into the dancing crowd.

Itachi tried to turn around, but Kisame held him still and began to move him slowly into the beat again. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“I wanted to dance,” Itachi said, tilting his head when Kisame’s lips found his neck.

Kisame chuckled, his jealousy apparently forgotten. “And I wanted to get you something.”

Itachi’s inviting look over one shoulder made the blue-haired man chuckle again, and then something silver dropped over his head to settle around his neck. Letting Kisame guide his steps, Itachi looked down, raising a hand to examine it.

It was an intricately worked silver chain, and hung on it was a shark tooth, its base wrapped in silver wire.

“Hmm,” Itachi hummed his approval, turning to face Kisame. He got an ocean look and a kiss, and then Kisame took his hands so they could dance properly.

It was the only thing he left on later that night, standing naked in the moonlight next to their bed, letting Kisame gaze hungrily at him for long moments before finally joining him, the silver still glittering in the cool white light.

***

Itachi walked back into work the following Monday morning feeling better than he had for two months and able to look at his problems with a much clearer mind. He was grateful that Kisame had thoughtfully refrained from any “I told you so’s,” though he would have been right to say it.

After a brief talk with Rebecca about her part in Kisame’s plan (which ended with a similar exchange of promises; she wouldn’t interfere if he would be more reasonable), he headed into his office.

Fifteen minutes later he was engrossed in the first of what turned out to be two very interesting and well put-together resumes. Two hours after that, he hung up from his second phone call, and turned to the (unfortunately small) stack of things to do that had built up in his week long absence with a lighter mind.

If these two are as good as their resumes say they are, things will go much more smoothly. He had interviews scheduled with them, one tomorrow and one the day after. He turned back to his computer then, pulling up the Stock Exchange and noting with pleasure that it was already beginning to pick up again. Maybe this slump is finally going to end.

By the end of the day, Itachi had gotten through his “To Do” pile, conferred with Rebecca about the upcoming weeks, noted the steady rise of the whole stock market throughout the day, and went home that night in a better mood than he’d been in for weeks.

***

The next day, he was drafting a new contract proposal for a company he had discovered a couple weeks back when Rebecca paged him.

“The man you’re to interview is here, sir,” she said, voice neutral but with an undertone of hesitant approval. Itachi glanced at the clock and was pleased to note that the man was right on time.

“Thank you, Rebecca. Send him in.”

A brief courtesy knock and then the door to his office opened to admit his first applicant.

The man was about Itachi’s age, perhaps a little bit older, and wore a suit that was slightly worn but kept in good shape. His resume said that he was a chemist, with experience in both field work for the science department of one of the country’s top universities and some later work in chemical manufacturing, both of which qualified him impressively well for the job Itachi had open. He also had brown eyes so light they were nearly gold and short hair that Itachi could only classify as “green.”

Well then, he thought, rising and coming around his desk to greet the man, let’s see what he has to say. Having a lover whose hair was blue made him less inclined to judge people out of hand simply because their appearance was a bit odd.

“Zetsu Saboten?” he asked, holding out a hand.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, his voice quiet and his handshake careful.

“Your resume is rather impressive, Mr. Saboten, but I have some further questions I would like to ask,” Itachi went on, gesturing for the man to sit down across from his desk.

“Of course,” the green-haired man replied, and they got down to business.

Forty-five minutes later, Itachi was convinced. The man was quiet, and although he had hesitated a little bit over some of the questions, his pauses had been spent genuinely thinking of answers.

“Well, Mr. Saboten,” Itachi said, glancing through the man’s resume one last time before turning away from his computer and meeting the nearly-gold eyes directly, “I am interested in hiring you. Would you accept a position here?”

The man blinked, then nodded slowly. “Yes…yes, I would.” He paused a moment, then a hint of a wry smile touched his face. “You move very quickly, Mr. Aoru.”

“It is my preference to not waste anything, whether it be time, resources or people,” Itachi explained. “If, in the course of your work here, you ever think of a way to do something better or more efficiently, please speak to me about it.”

Zetsu nodded again. “I will keep that in mind, Mr. Aoru.”

“However,” Itachi said, rising again, “before you make your final decision, let me show you the new wing where you’ll be working, and explain in a bit more detail what I would expect of you.”

“Certainly.” Zetsu rose and followed him.

On the way down to the new section of Akatsuki Enterprises, Itachi filled his new director in on the details of the current project he wanted to get underway - manufacturing the chemical field kits that had been adapted from Kisame’s original design - and then spoke briefly on a few future plans that he had just begun to work on. Zetsu listened carefully, and then poked around the new lab and offices with ill-concealed but still quiet approval.

“It is a very good set-up,” was his first comment when he had finished, “and the work sounds good. The pay you offer is generous. I believe I will accept your offer, Itachi Aoru.” He held out a hand, which Itachi shook, keeping his satisfied smirk restrained.

“Thank you, Mr. Saboten. I pay well because I expect your best work and nothing less…but I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“No, sir, it will not.”

Itachi nodded. “Then if you will come back upstairs, we’ll get a contract printed up and signed. Can you start next week?”

“I can start the day after tomorrow, if you wish.”

Itachi was surprised, and pleased. “That would be excellent. Come.”

They got most of the way back up to his office before the other man spoke again, his voice thoughtful. “It is strange; I had a friend in college who spoke of making field kits very similar to those. We have unfortunately lost touch.”

“Do you remember his name?” Itachi asked, thinking that if there were another chemist out there interested in this sort of work, he might be contacted at least in regards to some consulting, or possibly even coming to work here. I’ll need several more people for this department, and soon, if it is as successful as I hope.

The other man was silent for a moment, thinking, then said, “Kisame. Kisame Hoshigaki.”

Itachi stopped dead in his tracks in surprise. “You knew Kisame in college?”

Gold-brown eyes blinked at him. “Yes. I take it then that you know him now?”

“Yes,” Itachi said, shaking himself and letting a wry look cross his face. “He is the one who designed the kits, which is probably why they seem similar to you. He has been using them personally for some years now, but they were not cost-effective that way. He and another chemist worked together to modify them so that they could be made in bulk at a much lower cost without losing any of their usefulness.”

Zetsu looked interested and pleased at this. “I should be glad of the chance to meet him again. It has been many years.”

“I am sure you will have that chance; he will be in more often now that the department is officially open.” They reached the outer room of his office suite, and stopped by Rebecca’s desk while she got the contracts ready and printed. “I have a couple of other employees hired, and a few more lined up to interview, but from now on I would prefer that you be involved in that process for any new people, since you will know better what skills will be needed most.”

“That is sensible, and I will be glad to help,” was his reply, followed by a few other questions to clear up remaining details. Contracts finished, they went into Itachi’s office to go over them in detail and then sign them. That done, Zetsu rose, shook Itachi’s hand once more, then left.

That was quite satisfactory, Itachi thought, allowing himself a pleased smirk as he sat back in his chair. Now, if the interview tomorrow goes as well, we shall be in good shape.

***

Akasuna Sasori was quiet as well, though he had a much more commanding presence than Zetsu had. He was, as it turned out, the uncle of Sabakuno Gaara and Temari, the siblings Itachi had met at his brother’s wedding last fall. It was through them that he had heard of Akatsuki Enterprises, and since he had been tired of his current job working for an art gallery in England, he had applied for a position in Itachi’s marketing department.

Since his resume showed that he was amply qualified for the co-manager position that Itachi was hiring for, the dark-eyed man entered into the questioning part of the interview with well-concealed eagerness, and was not disappointed.

“Very well,” he said, once he had finished explaining the specifics of the position and they had agreed on wages and hours. “Then the only thing left is for you to meet the man who will be your co-manager.”

“I suppose it is good to know who my colleagues will be,” Sasori agreed, eyeing Itachi curiously, “but is it really so necessary?”

“Yes,” was all Itachi replied. “Normally, I would let you decide if you wished to do so or not, but Deidara is…unique, and not always easy to work with.”

“Deidara?” Sasori had stopped a couple of feet back and was staring at him, eyes a bit wide. “You don’t mean Kirameki Deidara?”

“Yes,” Itachi said, raising an eyebrow. No one, including Deidara himself, used his proper last name. “You know him?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Sasori said, recovering himself and gesturing for Itachi to go on. Itachi paused a moment longer, looking at the man carefully, but then followed the prompting and continued down the hall without asking any more questions.

He knocked briskly on the door to the office that Deidara currently occupied by himself.

“Come in, un!” came the blond man’s call, and Itachi took a breath before opening the door, hoping that this went well. He really did want to hire Sasori….

“Deidara-san, do you have a moment?”

“Sure, Itachi, un. What do you ne-”

The blond cut himself off mid-sentence as he spun his chair around and saw who had come in with Itachi, his visible eye widening. “S-Sasori-danna?”

“No, I’m a replica. Of course it’s me,” Sasori replied acerbically, but with an underlying note of exasperated fondness that took any real sting out of it. “How on earth did you end up here?”

But Deidara had jumped out of his chair, dashed across the room, and caught the smaller, red-headed man up in a bear hug, shouting “Danna!” gleefully.

Itachi, taking a careful step or two back, eyed this exchange with wariness.

“Put me down, oaf!” Sasori complained, but his wryly amused smile belied his tone. Deidara did let him go, backing off a little and grinning fit to burst.

“May I assume that you have no objections?” Itachi asked Sasori quietly, and the man nodded.

“None at all. Deidara and I have worked together before; back when he was in high school and early college, in fact.” Sasori replied, Deidara nodding in agreement. The red-head looked around the still-cluttered office with a familiar, critical eye, and then waved Itachi away. “We can take care of a contract tomorrow.”

“You’re sure…?” Itachi trailed off with surprise as Deidara went calmly and without protest back to his computer when Sasori shooed him in that direction.

“Absolutely,” came the reply, firm and confident. “You go do what needs to be done. I’ll handle him. He does good work, as I’m sure you know, but he needs looking after.”

Itachi could come up with no reply to that except a firm nod, so he turned and headed out of the office, the banter of his marketing directors following him out and down the hall.

“Sasori-danna, I’m so glad you’ve come!”

“Yes, I’m glad to see you too. Now, first things first, this office must be cleaned up.”

“But, my inspiration-!”

“Your inspiration will have to content itself with less clutter. I have to work in here, too.”

“If you say so, danna…”

“I do say so. And while we are doing that, you can fill me in on how you got here and what you’re working on now.”

“Okay!”

“And those had better not be firecrackers I see under your desk…”

Amazing, Itachi thought as the elevator doors closed behind him. He barely listens to a word I’ve said for six months, and then Sasori shows up and ten minutes later he’s cleaning. He shook his head. But no matter. As long as they work well together. And this way, I can speak with Sasori, and he can speak with Deidara, and we will all be much happier.

He headed back up to his office, glad to note that he was looking forward both to the rest of his afternoon and to going home that evening to be with Kisame.

Life is good, he thought, giving Rebecca a pleased nod as he stopped at her desk for a fresh mug of coffee. Very good indeed.