MISSION REPORT: D-0
0124 HOURS reported breach of walls. Multiple assailants, origins unknown.
Operative Cat-15 on standby.
0132 HOURS headquarters received reports of heavy assault on targets: Hokage Tower; Uchiha Compound; Hyuuga Compound; Inuzuka Compound; Sarutobi Compound, Lower Market District, West Gate.
0138 HOURS Protocol 73-I initiated.
Cat-15 deployed to escort high-risk targets from Hyuuga Compound to Rendezvous Point E-7 (RPE7)
Arrived at Hyuuga Compound.
Primary target Hyuuga Hinata located with escort Hyuuga Neji, unranked.
Secondary target Hyuuga Hanabi located with escort Hyuuga Makoto, chuunin.
Both targets secured. Proceeded to RPE7 via East Gate.
Ambushed in forest en route to rendezvous, 2km N 1km E of RPE7.
4 assailants killed. 1 casualty, Hyuuga Makoto.
0357 HOURS arrived at RPE7, initiated lockdown. Both targets secure.
At the seasoned and jaded age of thirteen, Uchiha Itachi had seriously considered only a few possible ways his life might go.
However, life as a shinobi of course meant one had to expect the unexpected. Life and death, war and peace balanced delicately on the edge of a kunai. A village could be born or simply cease to exist overnight.
But honestly? Itachi had always known he’d live and die as a loyal shinobi of the Leaf. Whether as Anbu, Clan head, or simply a jounin (because there had been no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’d reach jounin rank, though he’d on occasion wondered if he’d reach as high as the Kage hat itself) he would die in the service of Konoha.
And now, at the considerably wiser and worldlier age of fifteen, Itachi could safely say that his thirteen-year-old self would never have thought he’d be ever be a fugitive sitting down to a cup of tea within the same boundaries of the nation he’d sworn his life to. And especially not with his present company.
Across from him, the ex-Swordsman of the Mist treated him to a pointy-toothed grin over a gently steaming cup of green tea. “Hi no Kuni ain’t so bad,” he drawled, tapping a large finger along the edge of his cup. The fragile white porcelain looked almost absurd next to his calloused hands.
“Hm,” Itachi responded absently, letting his eyes drift outside the bijou tea shop. Rain was pouring down in steady sheets, cloaking the town in a hazy mist and churning the mud into a gritty slop. The villagers went about their business with ducked heads and plodding steps, huddled into their clothes for warmth or protection.
“I mean,” the man across from him continued undeterred by Itachi’s non-answer, “the sun, when we first got here? That fuckin’ sucked. But this?” he waved a hand carelessly at the rain-splattered storefront. “I can get on board with this.” He threw back the tea in his cup in one go like it was a shot, heedless of its heat, and thumped it back down on the table with a satisfied sigh.
It must be the rain, Itachi decided detachedly, that was making the normally taciturn nuke-nin so talkative, when none of them really felt the need to talk at all. He eyed the other man blandly, who had reached gracelessly across the table to pour himself a refill. Ruthless, twisted, and a killer without a village to hold his loyalty. But weren’t they all, in the end?
Itachi lifted his own cup to his lips for a sip. The tea here really was excellent. A strong flavour without being overwhelmingly bitter -- the perfect drink for a rainy day. It helped that the innocuous teahouse was located on the edge of the village center, really just a few bigger buildings and a sizeable market. Close enough to any action that might occur, far enough to serve as a vantage point with several viable escape routes. A good vantage point always made his tea taste better.
He listened with half an ear as his partner picked up a new thread -- the criminal lack of fresh fish -- when he caught a glimpse of light on metal. He paused, gave the man with the Konoha hitai-ate a discreet once-over as he walked past the teahouse. Itachi set his cup down gently, tapped it twice with two fingers as the man passed out of his sightline.
Any halfway mediocre ninja knows better than to turn and look and obviously Kiri’s elite would be no different, but a slight narrowing at the corner of his eyes was clue enough to Itachi that the other man had a lock on their target. His stream of rather one-sided conversation continued uninterrupted, however, and only petered out with a grumbled “...what a man has to do to get some decent goddamn sashimi around here,” when Itachi fished a few coins out of his pocket and placed them on the tabletop.
Itachi rose smoothly, mirroring his partner, and followed as the other man lumbered out of the booth in a gross contrast to his usual hunter’s prowl.
Which he was, which both of them were -- hunters.
There weren’t many ways for a nuke-nin to be at least semi-legally quasi-employed, and generally the more illegal methods of earning money (robbing and/or looting) tended to attract substantially more unwanted attention. So for now, they hunted down bounties and turned them in.
Itachi’s first step out of the teahouse sank him ankle-deep into cold, sodden mud. He slogged onwards, glaring dispassionately at the ground as he trailed his partner through the streets. The rain had not let up, but the wide-brimmed hats that helped hide their faces also kept the water from their heads so they were reasonably dry.
He hadn’t yet caught sight of their target after he’d passed by their teahouse, but he could easily find him again if they’d lost him -- it’d just mean a couple hours longer in the rain and mud. He really preferred that they didn’t, but more mistakes were made by ninja in a hurry and Itachi had not been sloppy since he was six and sliced his finger on a shuriken during target practice. So they’d take their time and when they’d caught their prey and retreated to headquarters, Itachi would resist the urge to moan and complain the way his partner did when they did missions in Suna.
Fortunately, the other man in question walked purposefully despite meandering through the muddy streets. In fact, there was a restrained glee as he waded through the mud that had nothing to do with the weather -- more the thrill of a shark who’d caught the scent of blood. Ten meters later, Itachi’s eyes caught his partner’s hands flick two signals, lightning fast.
There was no need to discuss now, only the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of the rain between them now. No questions this far in the mission, only trust that the other would do their part. Itachi peeled off to the right, into the narrow alley between two grocery markets, and after a quick glance behind him, leaped straight up to land lightly on one of the roofs. He cut south, leaping easily from building to building while keeping low on slippery straw and tile alike. Finally, he perched on the roof of a bakery to wait, half-obscured by the steam puffing up from the vents. From there he had an excellent line of sight to the motel room where a Konoha team, sans one, huddled to take shelter from the rain.
It would be so easy.
He knew who they were, faces in files, abilities and other details listed dispassionately in paper and ink. None of them were a match for him. The three of them together would hardly give him a workout, especially not with them unawares and isolated.
“Those who kill their own comrades are sure to die a terrible death,” he remarked absently to his partner.
“Sure, kid.” The other man wasn’t grinning his usual shark-toothed smile, but there was an air of satisfaction and a limp, incredibly bloody body slung over his shoulder. “We good here?”
“No movement. His team will not know that we have him.” Itachi turned to eye the other man critically. “Assuming you do not leave them a blood trail to follow. Get it cleaned up and meet me at the north road out of town.”
“There’s rain, it’ll wash away,” grumbled the older man, rolling his eyes, but vanished off the roof the way he’d come nevertheless.
Itachi cast a last glance at the motel window before dropping lightly off the roof. He took his time, wandering through the town, and by the time he reached the road leading out of town his partner was already there, this time with a slightly-less-suspicious oversized rucksack hanging off one shoulder.
Without a word, Itachi took the lead, sprinting into the cover the forest offered. Here, away from the town, his movements melted back into their easy grace, strong and surefooted as he pointed them back towards base. Even burdened, his companion kept up easily.
“Boss wanna ask this one a couple questions?” he asked, not winded in the slightest.
“Yes,” Itachi answered shortly.
An expectant silence followed. Itachi, not feeling especially charitable, did not indulge it.
The silence turned somewhat resentful, but Itachi had no wish to speak of anything until the pair were safely out of Hi no Kuni, even though they had not ventured more than half a day’s run inside the borders to begin with. He may feel safe in the trees, but Konoha shinobi were at home up in the branches as well. It left the pair in a prime position to be ambushed.
He kept his senses on high alert, steering them away from the routes commonly patrolled and the paths returning teams favoured when travelling to and from the Hidden Village. The patrols were easy enough to evade. Even when there was no set schedule, there was always a pattern to find, and those patterns were high priority for him to keep up to date with. It was the teams returning from outside missions he was more concerned with.
Moreover, his partner was much less one for subtlety and much more for kill first, questions later. Itachi didn’t doubt they could handle any individual team that stumbled upon them, save perhaps an Anbu task force if it surprised them, but he disliked unnecessary casualties. Additionally, the disappearance of a team known to be within Fire’s borders would doubtlessly attract attentions, which they needed to avoid.
They ran until dawn, when the rain petered out and the sun’s warm glow could be seen between the trees. The border for Hi no Kuni disappeared rapidly behind them; they’d deftly slipped between two border patrols with neither the wiser.
Itachi stopped in a small copse of trees and stood patiently. He could hear the rush of the swollen river twenty meters ahead, and his partner’s labored pants as he dropped his burden from his shoulder with a careless thud.
Moments later, a narrow white muzzle nosed its way through the undergrowth. Its owner emerged fully from the bushes, stared at the pair, and turned. Itachi followed, and with much waspish muttering, so did his partner.
“Caught you a live one,” growled the older man, ducking into the cave after Itachi and tossing the sack to the ground. He folded his arms belligerently and glowered as if it had done him some personal insult. Itachi couldn’t relate, but then again he hadn’t been the one dragging it across two countries.
From his seat on the ground, beside which lay a pile of unsharpened kunai, Kakashi regarded the two calmly. The hound they’d followed in, Uhei, settled comfortably by his master’s feet. “Report,” Kakashi directed at Itachi, even as his hands resumed their task with a whetstone and a blade.
“Hai,” Itachi responded. Zabuza shifted impatiently behind him, but he ignored the other nuke-nin. “We arrived in Iitate six days ago and established ourselves as travellers en route to Kawa no Kuni. Two days after our arrival, the team from Konoha arrived as expected. One jounin, Fukada Juro. Three chuunin; Haga Riko, Sekiguchi Yori, Tabata Minoru. Fukada remained with at least one of his team for two days, but on the third he left his team and made his way across town to the informant’s location. I watched the remaining team while Zabuza-san --”
“I took him out behind the butcher shop,” the Swordsman cut in gruffly, not-quite-glaring at Kakashi. “Didn’t give him a chance to use ninjutsu or genjutsu. Hit him around. Cut him up a bit. Knocked him out. Tied him up. Met back up with Itachi.”
“The teammates were unaware of what happened,” Itachi continued. “We departed the village at 1000 hours yesterday.”
The grey-haired nin eyed the body dubiously. “He’ll survive?”
“Long enough,” Zabuza grunted.
“None the wiser,” Itachi answered smoothly.
Kakashi nodded sharply. “Good work. Get some rest; I’ll take care of this one.”
“Hai, taichou.” Itachi moved past Kakashi, deeper into the cave. The glint in Kakashi’s eye was one he’d learned the be wary of -- even Zabuza behind him, with all his bravado and tendency towards alpha-dog posturing, followed him quietly, subdued.
Zabuza would never take orders from someone weaker than him. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t managed to best Itachi once in a spar. The ex-Swordsman hadn’t been deterred. “Next time,” he’d always growl around a bloody grin and the bruises mottling his bare skin. That, at least, was something Itachi admired about him.
He rounded the bend, and a figure emerged from the shadows thrown by the solitary lantern. “Itachi-san. Zabuza-san!”
Itachi inclined his head. “Haku-san,” he greeted, then turned away to find his bedroll.
“Hey, kid,” the Swordsman said behind him. “I hope you practiced that ice senbon.”
“Hai!” Itachi could practically hear the younger shinobi beaming. “I was able to extend my range to ten meters before the ice begins to crumble.”
“Hn.” The nuke-nin didn’t sound impressed, but Itachi sensed his grudging approval. “I want that tripled by next week.”
Zabuza grunted dismissively. “All right, shut up and keep watch. I need some sleep.”
As always, Itachi gathered his bedroll to the far corner of the cave, adjacent to the tunnel leading out. No sooner had he settled then a pair of quiet pawsteps padded towards him. A cold nose nudged the tips of his fingers and vanished, and a second small body situated itself at his knees.
It took a month of sleeping in the same room for Itachi to stop startling awake at any slight movement with just Kakashi and his ninken, and now sleep was even longer in coming as he lay not five meters from two nukenin from the village with the bloodiest history, who had willingly slaughtered their own comrades.
But slowly, grudgingly, the other nuke-nin were becoming part of the team.
Ah, what would his mother think of him now? Hunting shinobi from his own village with a team of nuke-nin who had turned against theirs as well? Itachi had chosen peace, but Konoha had fallen into war anyways.
All he could do now was live, and hope that one day it would be safe to return home.
Shisui woke him six hours later, dripping rainwater unhappily onto the stone floor. Zabuza and Haku were both gone, but in the dim glow of the lantern he could make out the shapes of Bisuke and Guruko sprawled at his feet, bodies rising and falling slowly.
“Shisui.” Itachi’s voice was rough with sleep, but he hauled himself into a sitting position mercilessly.
“Ohaiyo, Itachi,” Shisui smiled crookedly. “Good mission?”
“Aa,” he confirmed. “No complications.”
His cousin raised an expectant eyebrow. “And?”
Itachi scowled faintly, an expression only those close to him would recognize. “...the weather was unpleasant,” he added reluctantly.
Shisui hummed in agreement. “I think the storm system caught up to you. It started raining two hours ago and hasn’t let up yet.” He reached up to peel his sodden hitai-ate from his head, then sent a hum of warm chakra through his body that Itachi could feel even from a meter away until he and his clothes were completely dry.
Itachi watched him retie his forehead protector, still proudly bearing an unmarred leaf symbol, and crooked to mirror Kakashi-taichou. None of them had slashed their village symbols, not even the Kiri pair. After all, it wasn’t as if the civilian villages they visited would know if they were missing-nin.
His cousin would call it sentiment, but Itachi was too practical for sentimentality.
Shisui didn’t feel the need to talk, especially not around Itachi. The cousins sat in companionable silence. He knew it wouldn’t last; their respites never did last. One would think that not having a village would cut down greatly on responsibilities, but he couldn’t be more wrong.
The two ninken sat up abruptly, startled out of dozing. Guruko wagged his tail as Kakashi strode into view, trailed by two other dogs. “Itachi, supply run,” he said without preamble, tossing a scroll to the teen. “And turn in the bounty for Fukuda-san while you’re at it; I believe Iwa has the highest reward at present. I’ll be leaving in the morning for ten days or so with Pakkun and Bisuke. Shisui, you’re in charge while I’m away. Give Zabuza another day to rest, then send him and Haku to check on their contacts in Kusa.”
“Hai,” murmured Itachi, echoed by Shisui.
The older man nodded at them, then turned away to find his own sleeping roll, shadowed by his ninken. “Uhei caught a couple rabbits, if you’re hungry,” he tossed over his shoulder.
Shisui heaved himself up with a sigh. “I’ll get some food cooked, then. Itachi? Taichou?”
“That would be appreciated,” Itachi responded, rising gracefully to his feet.
Kakashi waved a hand at them. “I’m fine.”
Shisui scowled at the older man, who had already bundled himself into his blankets under a pile of dog. “I’ll save some for you, Hatake-taichou. Eat it when you get up,” he said pointedly, and whirled out of sight before he could respond.
Amused, Itachi found his sandals and slung his discarded cloak over his shoulders before following his cousin to the mouth of the cave. Uhei was already there, his narrow tail thumping the floor in interest as Shisui built up a small stack of wood and spat a tiny flame at it. It took a couple tries to light up; the wood was damp.
Once he had a small if smoky fire going, the hound dropped a large rabbit in Shisui’s lap with a wolfish grin and was rewarded with an ear rub. The dog was clearly already sated, if the traces of red around his mouth and round stomach were any clue. There were two other rabbits by his paws.
“Make sure we don’t suffocate?” Shisui suggested as he pulled out a kunai.
“Aa,” Itachi acquicised, folding his hands into a sign and breathing out slowly. The smoke gathering at the ceiling drifted out, dispersed into the air outside rather than trailing skyward in a single column. He kept it up as he watched his cousin shuck and gut the rabbits with sure hands before throwing them into a pot with water, a handful of tubers, and salt.
Maybe twenty meters out, he could feel the chakra signatures of Zabuza and Haku -- both muted, but the former still and steady while the latter flitted and fluctuated. Aside from them, the forest was calm and silent.
The nearest village was four hours running, and hardly anyone travelled through this patch of woods. Still, Itachi hadn’t relaxed, not truly, since he’d left Konoha. He’d taken the protection of the village for granted, he knew now.
“Ryo for your thoughts?” Shisui cut in, quirking an amused eyebrow. He covered the pot with its lid and sat back.
Itachi shook his head dismissively. There was no use dwelling on useless musings. His cousin narrowed his eyes disbelievingly but didn’t press.
Uhei’s ears pricked, swivelled in the direction of the forest for a moment before the hound relaxed again. Zabuza and Haku emerged, the former bleeding his customary languid grace, the latter with a flush belying the exhilaration he tried to hide beneath a proper shinobi’s nonchalance.
The other teen was just a few years younger than Itachi, yet Haku was still innocent enough to find excitement in training, to delight in his own capabilities and marvel at what he could accomplish. In him, Itachi remembered Sasuke’s eager eyes and drive to learn.
“Good morning,” the younger shinobi greeted politely as they approached. Zabuza graced them each with a brusque nod before brushing past, but Haku didn’t follow.
Itachi tilted his head inquisitively when Haku fidgeted, twisting his fingers into his sleeve.
“Itachi-san, I -- I was wondering if you might like to spar with me?” he asked hopefully, eyes bright despite the fact that his hair had been all but plastered to his head.
Purposefully shoving aside the invasively bittersweet memories that threatened to come to the forefront, Itachi glanced over at Shisui, who made a lazy shooing motion with one hand. “I can handle the fire without you,” his cousin reassured, mouth twitching in an amused smirk.
“Aa.” Itachi rose to his feet and nodded to Haku. “Lead the way, Haku-san.”
He caught the tail end of a genuine smile before Haku turned, haori fluttering, and leapt back out of the cave mouth. Itachi ghosted out after him with silent, sure footsteps and followed him to the same clearing he’d sensed his and Zabuza’s chakra before.
The rain was coming down as though he’d never left Iitate, hampered only slightly by the leaves and branches overhead. Itachi bore it with a grim stoicness, walking lightly on top of the mud.
“Would taijutsu only be alright with you, Itachi-san?” Haku asked as Itachi slipped out of his cloak.
“Acceptable, yes,” he answered, beginning a few stretches to warm up muscles gone stiff in the cold, damp cave. “Do you wish to include tools in combat?”
“If that’s okay with you?”
It was difficult to dislike Haku, who was always unfailing polite and painfully earnest. He was the one who made an effort to connect to the Konoha shinobi, always helpful and friendly -- and he meant it. Where Zabuza was suspicious and spurned friendly overtures, Haku was open, and as far as he could tell, honest. Doubtlessly those qualities made him all the more deadly when he turned around as a killer with empty eyes and a fistful of ice, but he was pleasant as a teammate.
“Aa, that’s fine with me,” he answered, turning to face Haku. Immediately, he ducked under the trio of senbon hurtling towards his head, neatly sidestepped a kick, and gave Haku an open-handed shove behind the shoulder to propel him past when the younger boy lunged.
Haku was fast, but not as fast as Itachi had been at thirteen -- at least, not without his Hyoton.
Even so, he recovered quickly, and Itachi jerked back as Haku’s roundhouse kick displaced the air in front of his face. Two steps back out of the way of the continued onslaught, then he whipped out a kunai in time to deflect Haku’s senbon with a loud clang.
The younger’s eyes were alight and focused, intent on Itachi as he whirled in and then away. Itachi pressed his advantage, following Haku’s retreat with a hurled kunai that the other twisted to avoid. He lashed out with a kick that Haku ducked, spun around with the momentum in time to block a punch and exchanged a flurry of blows before landing a kick that sent the younger teen skidding back in the mud.
Itachi didn’t push this time, instead using the respite to draw another two kunai. Haku sprang from his crouch to meet him, three senbon spouting from each hand like claws.
They met in a clash of metal, and Itachi took advantage of his superior strength to bear down on the Haku. The younger twisted hard with one hand, and rather than allow his kunai to be torn from his grip, Itachi turned with it, flipping sideways, and yanked their locked blades towards himself when his feet touched the ground.
Haku didn’t allow himself to be yanked forwards; instead, he let one of his senbon take the brunt of the force, and it was sent flying off to the side as he leapt after Itachi. Itachi evaded neatly, ducking under Haku’s arm and landing a twisting kick to throw him back a couple steps.
He sent one kunai spinning at Haku, then the other, but each was met by a senbon and both deflected off harmlessly to the sides. But it was enough to give him an opening.
Itachi pounced with the finesse of a panther, one hand catching Haku’s wrist before he could hurl his senbon, the other smoothly drawing a kunai and pressing it to Haku’s throat in one swift movement.
For a few seconds they froze, a tableau grossly contrasting the veritable blur they had been just a few moments prior, and then Itachi let go and stepped back, slipping the blade back into its holster.
Haku straightened, his hair sopping wet and in slight disarray, and his clothes splattered with mud. “Again?” he requested, eyes sparkling with anticipation.
Itachi considered, blinking the rain out of his eyes. “Aa,” he consented, and then they were off again.
Itachi enjoyed combat in that it was simple. Straightforward. He did not desire to injure his opponents, but there was a sort of satisfaction to be gained from his mastery of his own body, his chakra, validated not simply by emerging victorious, but from the knowledge that hours of hard work and endless dedication had indeed paid off. Sparring was a different chessboard from the politics of everyday life, and Itachi had enough control that he could afford to relax his mind during a match.
He had never been a denier of reality, but afforded himself the luxury of a brief escape every now and then -- though he was careful to curb his speed and reflexes. Despite their cordial interactions, Itachi would be a fool to display anything near his full abilities, and a greater fool to assume Haku would either.
But as long as their arrangement remained beneficial for the two ex-Kiri nin -- and so long as Zabuza’s strange sense of honor remained intact -- Itachi knew he could generally trust the two at his back in battle. And no matter how ironically Zabuza called Kakashi ‘Boss,’ Itachi amused himself by noting that they were growing on the Swordsman, so to speak.
Just the other day, he’d abruptly and somewhat begrudgingly shared with Kakashi a jutsu that could keep his mask (or bandages, in Zabuza’s case) dry for a long period of time without a constant drain of chakra, to the copy-nin’s slight bemusement. And he was finally allowing Haku alone with the other members of their team without his supervision, when in the beginning he’d glower and skulk in the shadows every time Haku so much as looked in someone else’s direction.
As far as Itachi could tell, allowing him to spar with his apprentice alone was the pinnacle of a trust display, for all that Zabuza insisted Haku was simply another tool in his belt.
Itachi managed to pin Haku another handful of times before he called a halt. The younger nin’s chest was heaving slightly with exertion, and his face was flushed. Itachi himself was still quite fresh, but Haku had been training already while he slept, and he certainly didn’t need Zabuza to scowl at him for the next week if he returned his apprentice half-dead from exhaustion. Especially if Haku caught a cold -- both their clothes were heavy and soaked through from the downpour, and he would be shivering if he hadn’t been moving about.
“Thank you for the spar, Itachi-san,” Haku said, bowing slightly.
Itachi inclined his head. “It was no trouble,” he replied, and meant it.
While Haku retreated back to the cave, Itachi detoured to the river to bathe and clean his clothes, flecked with mud and sodden plant matter. The rain was cold, but the river was glacial. Itachi bathed quickly, sending shocks of warm chakra through his body to combat the freezing waters. He dried his clothes the same way as best as possible, then made his way back to their headquarters.
Inside the cave, Shisui and Uhei had been joined by the hulking Bull, whom the former was currently using as a backrest. He hummed a greeting as Itachi approached, sending one last burst of chakra to dry his clothes once he was out of the rain.
The small fire was out now, the pot nestled in the glowing coals of its remains. Itachi met Shisui’s eyes and tilted his head towards it inquiringly.
“It’s ready,” Shisui confirmed. “I thought we’d wait for you to get back. Haku’s getting the bread.”
Itachi frowned slightly. “You didn’t need to.”
His cousin shrugged, a careless smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “We didn’t mind. Haku didn’t think you’d be long. We’re not waiting for Kakashi, in any case.”
“I imagine if we waited for taichou, we would have to call it breakfast,” Itachi deadpanned, and was gratified to see Shisui smirk.
“The disrespect. He’d be heartbroken if he heard you.”
They ate their stew in trenchers made of stale bread that Zabuza bought it in Iitate sometime before completing their mission (possibly because Zabuza had a soft spot for the ninken, who loved gnawing on the used trenchers). And they still hadn’t replaced the metal set lost when Kakashi used the storage scroll they were sealed in as a decoy to steal a scroll out from under the noses of a Kumo team. Itachi made a mental note to look for replacements during his supply run.
Zabuza and Haku sat on the dusty floor across from him and Shisui, the pot of rabbit stew between them. Uhei had since migrated to the Kiri-nins’ side, as he had found out early on that Haku was more than willing to give him the pets and ear rubs that Kakashi claimed would spoil his hounds rotten.
They didn’t talk while they ate, but the silence was considerably more comfortable than the first few tension-charged weeks of their cohabitation. As ever, the stew was nowhere near filling enough for three teenagers and a grown man -- especially not shinobi -- but it was at least more satisfying than the dry, tasteless nutrition bars they ate otherwise.
Kakashi breezed out with a pair of ninken at his heels when Itachi was finishing up and Zabuza had pulled out his sword and an oiled cloth for maintenance. He was dressed for travel already, with a plain brown travel cloak over a battered flak jacket and a pack slung over one shoulder.
Shisui intercepted him with a trencher already filled with stew before Kakashi could make it out of the cave. Kakashi glanced at the food, then Shisui’s expectant face before taking it, slouching against the wall to eat.
And because Kakashi was Kakashi, he turned his head away to eat, to Zabuza’s disappointed interest.
By the time Itachi departed for Iwa, the sun would have been bleeding out over the trees if it hadn’t been for the persistent rain. Instead, a light grey glow settled with the mist in between the trees as he leapt from branch to branch. Beside him ran the winsome Shiba, whose companionship on the trip Itachi had apparently won when he’d given the ninken his bread trencher.
Itachi had never considered himself a ‘dog person,’ not with his clan’s frequent contracts with the ninneko. But since Itachi joined the team, Kakashi’s ninken had always been forward in a way that their summoner was not, nosing up to all five teammates with blatant disregard for personal space and an ineffable affability. Even Akino, the most aloof of the pack, would randomly wander up and simply sprawl on his side near Zabuza, which Shisui for some reason found hilarious.
As friendly as the ninken were, however, and excluding their apparent leader Pakkun, they never spoke to anyone except Kakashi though Itachi knew for certain that each was capable of it. Around the other members of the team, they simply behaved like, well, dogs. Ninja dogs, but still dogs.
Itachi eyed Shiba out of the corner of his eye. The ninken grinned at him, tongue lolling from his mouth. The company, albeit unusual, was comforting.
While Itachi had never been especially...social, his sense of loneliness had increased exponentially since he’d left Konoha. At least in the village he’d had his comrades, his parents, and his clan. Until he, well. The less he thought about that, the better.
Most of all, he missed Sasuke. Was he happy? Was he even alive? He wished he had taken his brother when he fled.
The sun had set and risen again by the time Itachi and Shiba reached Oshino, a small town in Iwa inhabited only by civilians save for a rickety bounty office. It would be at this office that Itachi turned in Fukada’s body, but first, he checked in a room at the local motel. He was in no rush and had stopped only once along the way to rest and eat.
Shiba had wandered off as soon as they entered town. The ninken undoubtedly had his own reconnaissance to perform, and association with a shinobi would grant him unwelcome suspicion should there be another visiting shinobi among the civilian inhabitants. He would find Itachi again when he was ready, but until then he was unbothered should the dog to do as he wished. Itachi set traps at the door and window, then let himself collapse into the sagging bed. It had been a long journey.
When he next opened his eyes, the sun had passed its zenith. Here, there was no trace of the clouds that had dogged Hi no Kuni or the hideout, and when he made his way down to the street he was greeted by clear blue skies and a warm breeze. Incongruous in the henge of a middle-aged man in a sturdy, worn cloak, Itachi observed the bustle of the town from a table at a noodle shop. Picking placidly at his meal, he watched with some amusement as Shiba trotted into view, whining hopefully at a pair of boys holding meat skewers.
Neither boy proved willing to cede their meal to an ostensible stray, and took off giggling towards the residential part of town. Itachi let a smile tug the corner of his mouth as Shiba drooped in disappointment, thwarted. He paid the bill, snagging a bit of leftover chicken in his hand, and strode over to the ninken, who glanced up with a wagging tail.
“Incorrigible,” he told the dog, who eagerly licked the food from his palm and snuffled happily. In the span of an afternoon, Shiba had somehow managed to find enough dirt that his light coat now was speckled with brown, and for all appearances he was just another stray begging for scraps on the streets.
A passerby chuckled, shaking his head. “You’ll never get rid of ‘im now,” the man warned with a good-natured grin. “Mutts around ‘ere, feed ‘em once and they never forget you.”
“Ah,” Itachi feigned sheepishness, glancing down at the ninken’s wolfish grin. “Is that so?” And thus Shiba had reason to follow him back to the hotel, though the dog stayed skulking in the shadows while Itachi went up.
In his room, he dropped the henge and retrieved the scroll containing Fukada Juro’s body. A sighting of him in Iwa would keep Konoha’s current leadership wary and guessing if word of his presence ever got back there; if not, there was no harm done in garnering a reputation even here.
Scroll in hand, Itachi stepped out of the doorway and glanced around for Shiba. Sudden movement caught his eye among the usual flow of traffic along the street, and he cast a perfunctory look at its source, a pair of dark-haired street urchins dashing across the cobblestones.
One had bandages wrapped around his eyes, towed by the hand by the the younger. And just as Itachi was turning away, the second boy turned in his direction, and Itachi caught his breath as the pair vanished into an alley.
Heedless of the annoyed grumbles of the villagers in whose paths he was standing, Itachi stood, frozen, his gaze distant as his mind worked in endless loops and possibilities and Shiba whined and nudged increasingly urgently at his hand. His mouth opened and closed around a soundless word.
Itachi’s world started turning the day he held his baby brother in his arms for the first time, and he knew he would slaughter entire nations to keep him safe.
He was eleven and reeling from his cousin’s death when he was took the weight of his village’s future onto his shoulders.
Two years later he stood in the clan compound with the blood of the girl who had loved him on his blade, and too late he realized he had loved her too; his world was awash with crimson and black as the village came to pieces around him.
It would be another six months before they found Shisui, an empty socket where an eye used to be, and he had felt hope flutter to life.
But none of that compared to the way the world fell away completely when Itachi was fifteen, staring at the boy with his brother’s face in a small civilian town in Iwa.