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Forest Fire III

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FF III

January:  The first week


It had been three days since the attempted kidnapping, and Sakura was still suffering from her injuries. They were less severe than originally presumed, thankfully, but her movement remained inhibited. The fractures along her hands and wrists from the airport plexiglass pounding had started to heal, but remained tender. The hypothermia had been bad enough to damage her nerves and even split her skin in some places. After spending two days with Itachi recovering—with him hovering, tending, and fussing more than she imagined even her own mother would have—she was grateful to have Ino around now that she was back in her own apartment again.

Mostly.

"Stop scratching," said Ino.

"It's annoying."

"You know what's more annoying? Scars."

Sakura grumbled but stopped massaging her arms beneath her cotton, long-sleeve shirt.

"It's gross. I feel gross," she complained. The frostbite she incurred during her escape from Uchiha Madara was healing very well, but it had, unfortunately, hit its disgusting scab stage, leaving Sakura feeling like a troll.

"If you leave it alone and do your physio, it's going to fade away and leave you without a scratch. That's what Shisui said, right?"

Sakura looked up at Ino and frowned.

Ignoring her, Ino leaned down to pop a small plate of chopped vegetables and some ranch dip in front of Sakura before heading back to the kitchen.

The boiling water on the stove and the light conversation distracted Sakura, not that she was trying very hard to focus. She poked the plate before choosing a juicy cucumber. It made her smile as she remembered their 'spa' day several weeks past.

"Yeah," sighed Sakura before she took a bite. Delicious.

Hmmm, would the cucumbers work their cooling magic on her scabs? With a quick glance at Ino, Sakura lifted her sleeve and snuck a veggie slice on top of one of her itchiest scabs. The cooling balm went to work immediately, and she sighed with relief before sneaking another cucumber slice onto her other arm...

"I just want them to heal already."

From the kitchen, the sound of repetitive chopping bounced off the bamboo cutting board. "Then stop scratching them. Also, since when am I the medic? That's your job."

From her seat on her couch, Sakura pouted. "You're making sense again."

"Because one of us has to be a mature adult. I resent the fact it's me right now when I should be gracing the masses with my immaculate presence," said Ino from her spot in front of Sakura's stove. Her Criminology 102 textbook was propped up beside her on the counter as she read and stirred the noodles in the boiling water. "How's biology coming?"

"Mine or the class?"

"Either or," said Ino. "Stop 'massaging' your arms, I can hear you."

Sakura swallowed a cucumber slice—a non-scab-touching one—and gave in to a good, solid, pouty whine.

"This is so frustrating! It's so sore and itchy and blistered. Do you still have some of that body scrub?"

There was a satisfying slap-hiss as something hit Ino's sauté pan, and suddenly the room was filled with the scent of garlic, ginger, and onion.

"Yes, but you can't use it all the time. The skin has to heal first, that's what Shisui said. So hurry up with your studying, do your finger exercises as you go, and then we'll run you your oatmeal bath to help with the itchiness!"

The timer on the steamer went off with an electronic beep, and Ino turned away to attend to it.

"You sound like such a mom," said Sakura, though she performed her finger-therapy exercises to improve her circulation and dexterity as she read, since she knew Ino was right.

"High-waisted jeans are back in style, I could do worse," sang Ino, flipping a page in her textbook. "Have I mentioned we have an entire unit on deviant psychology this term?" Ino squealed with excitement.

Sakura sighed. "I'm already your case study again, aren't I?"

"Thank you, and yes."

"I want partial credit for my opportune misfortune."

Ino waved at Sakura as she pulled the steamed veggies from the microwave. "Already ahead of you. I spoke to the prof and explained a little bit what was happening, and he's asked if he can interview you—"

"Ino—"

"—and is offering you an audit credit if you agree and make it out to three classes."

Sakura paused her finger exercises.

"Really?"

"Mmm-hmmm."

She considered Ino's offer. "It would be fun to take another class together… When is it offered again?"

"Flip to the end of your notes for this chapter, I added it to your current schedule."

"... your initiative and cunning know no bounds…"

"Not when it's in both our best interests."

"I'm so glad you work for our side."

"You take care of the sick, I'll take care of the criminals," promised Ino with a smirk.

Sakura looked up at her friend and grinned. "You've been planning this."

Ino shrugged and tossed her bangs out of her eyes; the rest of her moondust, silvery-blonde hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.

"One of us has to make sure we're ready to save the world. Also, supper's ready."

"I'll clear the table," said Sakura. "Just give me a minute to organize things."

Slowly and with much care, Sakura stood, breathing as evenly as she could as pain coursed through her feet and up her legs to her spine. Exhaling through her mouth on a five-count to muster her control, Sakura began piling up her books and papers on one end of the table. All the while, she made sure to be attentive to how much stress she placed on her finger joints with each heavy textbook. The frostbite rehabilitation would take at least a few more weeks, Tsunade had said, however she was in good shape and was healing quickly. She just had to be patient.

Just like she was being patient with the fractures from her hands and wrists. Just like she was being patient with the healing nerve damage that left her unable to maintain her grip on coffee cups too long. Just like she was waiting for some of the stitches on the bottoms of her feet to dissolve, once the skin was mended and she would be able to wear proper shoes again instead of very loose socks and slippers. And she would be able to practice kata again. Her hair, recently cut courtesy of Ino, would also regrow. There were only a few inches lost due to the frost. It looked better this way, too. She'd been needing a trim. Overall, she was going to be even stronger, better, by the time she was healed.

And she would never run away again.

"Sasuke made it back to work okay?" asked Ino.

Sakura nodded. "Safe and Sound. He gave me plane tickets to go visit him," she added, though very quietly. She wasn't sure how she felt about that, or what he expected.

Glasses clinked in the cupboards as Ino collected a matching pair; obviously she hadn't heard Sakura. "Juice or water?"

"No wine?"

"Your shitty manual manipulation skills combined with wine would only lead to disaster all over the carpet at the moment," said Ino. "Do you need your gloves?"

Sakura sighed. "Yes."

"Time for your mittens~!"

"If you start reading that kitten-mittens story again, I swear—" began Sakura, but Ino was already lifting the children's picture book up in her best parody of a kindergarten teacher, facing its colourfully illustrated pages outward at Sakura.

"Someone needs to remember to wear her mittens at all times while she's healing, and I'm here to rub it in her face until she does." Ino cleared her throat. "Three little kittens, they lost their mittens…"

Sakura sighed and ate her supper—and listened—as Ino read the story with gleeful abandon.

But she knew why Ino was doing it, and appreciated every word that distracted her from the irritation of her healing skin, leaving her to enjoy the meal.


Navigating the streets in his Audi, Itachi admitted his concerns aloud to Shisui.

"There's someone on the inside, somewhere, feeding information to him," said Itachi, fingers tight on the wheel.

"Itachi, the police, your own family, are giving this everything they can—" tried Shisui.

Itachi's eyes hardened.

"But it doesn't help when there's someone actively trying to break us down from the inside. You've always been more social; has anyone said, or implied, anything? Anything at all that would point to them favouring Madara?" he asked Shisui earnestly.

"Whoa, whoa, eyes on the road!" Shisui cried, grabbing his seat and the door as Itachi sped through a changing light. "You need to pull over if we're going to talk about this!"

"I had plenty of time," said Itachi.

"No, you didn't! Itachi, this isn't like you," said Shisui as, much to Shisui's relief, Itachi pulled into a parking lot. He was quiet while he waited for Itachi to engage the parking brake. The engine rumbled lowly, idling to maintain the heaters. "Okay, okay," breathed Shisui, "just let me think about this for a second. You know, plenty of people don't talk to me, specifically because I am close to you."

"Who?"

Shisui gave Itachi a look. "And that's why!"

Itachi glared at Shisui.

Releasing the door, Shisui adjusted his position in his seat and ran a hand through his hair. Then he closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath.

"You're on edge, and I understand why," he began, voice calm. "But you need to ease up, Itachi. You're not helping when you're like this. When was the last time you slept?"

"Irrelevant."

Shisui returned Itachi's glare, his fingers still knotted in his short, curly hair.

"I've known you since we were kids, Itachi. I know how important this is to you. But you cannot be like this. It's only going to turn people away from you. Believe me," said Shisui. He scraped his fingers down his scalp, tugging on his dark hair. He shook his head before continuing.

"You need to keep control of yourself, or you're going to end up playing into someone else's hands." Shisui sighed. "When did you last have eight hours of sleep?"

Itachi remained expressionless.

Shisui tried again. "Seven?"

He waited a tick before confirming his suspicions.

"Six? Five?"

Itachi turned his handsome, weary face towards the windshield, avoiding Shisui's knowing gaze.

"Four. Four uninterrupted hours?"

Itachi let out a low, irritated breath.

"Get out of the car," ordered Shisui, undoing his seatbelt.

Itachi's head snapped around, but Shisui had already unlocked and opened the passenger door. Above them, the interior light blinked on, illuminating the inside of the Audi with a soft glow.

"Get out and go sit in the passenger seat. I'm driving you home," said Shisui. He rounded the front of the vehicle and opened Itachi's door.

Itachi's hands remained on the wheel. "There's no—"

"There absolutely is, and it's called public safety. You get out of the car or I'm impounding it and writing up a medical note to indicate you are not mentally stable enough to operate large machinery. That's all it would take to temporarily suspend your license, and then not only would you be unable to get to work or campus without public transit, but you wouldn't be able to help Sakura, either."

Shisui grit his teeth to keep from swearing at his cousin. He'd known Itachi was worked up, but this was beyond the pale. Itachi could have killed them easily a dozen times over in his sports car, and Shisui wanted to scream at the unnecessary risk. How did Itachi intend to protect Sakura if he was smeared across four lanes of asphalt?

Itachi's knuckles turned white as he squeezed the steering wheel, but Shisui yanked the driver's side door open wider.

He leaned over his younger cousin, quieting his voice and emotions to regain Itachi's trust. The metal exterior of the car bit into Shisui's fingers with the night's bitter cold, but still he held on, beseeching Itachi with his wide, dark eyes.

"You know I'm right. And you know I'm trying to help you. But we are not doing it like this. I won't let you do this to yourself."

"I just need her to be safe, Shisui," said Itachi, voice detached.

"I know. I'll drive you home. We'll grab take out on the way," sighed Shisui as Itachi turned off the engine and handed him the key. But Itachi made no move beyond that.

A thought occurred to Shisui. Was this withdrawal? Did Itachi miss Sakura already? They'd only just seen each other the day before.

But then again, Shisui thought, Itachi hadn't let Sakura out of his sight for the first forty-eight hours after New Years. Mentally, Shisui sighed.

"Where's Sakura tonight? Think she'd like takeout?" he tried.

"Hn."

As Itachi got out of the driver's seat and Shisui took his place, they were quiet. Shisui started the car again, handling it far more gently than Itachi had. Some of Itachi's restless behaviour began making sense to Shisui.

"Ino is with her tonight. They're studying," said Itachi despondently. "We shouldn't interrupt."

"Is Ino the blonde friend?" he asked.

"Hn."

"We can always bring dessert?"

Itachi looked at Shisui, who gave him a light grin. "That would make them extra happy to see us," wheedled Shisui.

"... there's a café by my apartment… Sakura likes their chocolate gâteau…"

And if there was dango in it for Itachi, all the better, thought Shisui.

"That's the spirit! You'll be happier once we've seen Sakura again," assured Shisui, driving them away from the restaurant they'd been aiming for and instead towards Itachi's apartment.

"Hn."

Itachi went back to staring out the window of the car, at the ice and snow that still covered the city.

"And you'll have time to put away your pouty face before we go see your girlfriend again," added Shisui.

Just for that, Itachi gave Shisui the stink-eye.


The knock surprised both Ino and Sakura, and Ino's eyes widened at the preternatural stillness that seized her best friend.

"It's Shisui and Itachi!" called a familiar voice through the door. "We brought dessert for two lovely ladies!"

Sakura's bone-taut body half-slumped across the table, and she braced herself on her elbow while Ino gave her a small smile and stood.

"Do our delivery boys offer any other services than dessert?" called Ino saucily, giving Sakura a wink.

"Ino," murmured Sakura, but laughed weakly. "You never stop."

"I'm too good to stop," whispered Ino before she opened the door. "Hello, tall, dark and handsomes, thank you for the treats, you may now go," she said, closing the door in their faces. A faint scoff and a not-so-subtle 'oomph!' rebounded off the door as it hit them.

"Ino!" Sakura laughed aloud.

"Oh, I'm sorry, are these the strippers you ordered? I thought that was for Friday! My mistake," said Ino, ushering in the pair of Uchihas. "Okay boys, did you bring your own music or should I cue up my phone?"

Eager to play along, Shisui arched a brow at Ino and gave her an up-and-down appraisal.

"I make my own," he said softly, leaning into Ino's personal space as he undid his top button—

—until he gave a choked gasp as Itachi grabbed him by the back of his collar.

"Be a gentleman," said Itachi. Meanwhile, he held up a poly bag with a fancy logo.

Sakura lit up as soon as she saw it.

"The café!"

Whipping to the side to dodge Shisui's mock-wandering hands, Ino danced out of reach and hawk-eyed her best friend.

"Oy! Have you finished your vegetables?"

"Yes!"

"Oh okay, then go ahead. Do you need cutlery," asked Ino, sweeping neatly around Shisui and Itachi and collecting the desserts. She set them on the table and grabbed a handful of forks when Itachi nodded at her.

"Thank you so much," said Sakura, smiling at them all.

It was with gentle warmth that Itachi drew a chair for himself up beside Sakura and shared a small, private smile with her.

With Ino and Shisui teasing each other across from her and Itachi at her side, Sakura relaxed and let herself lean into him. The calm she sought immediately spread through her mind and body like a warm, comforting blanket. She had never realized how much she took her sense of safety for granted until it was taken away, and now she never wanted this closeness to end.

The first day away from Itachi would have been terrifying had it not been for Ino already being at home when Itachi and Fugaku had dropped her off. Sakura's apartment had been cleaned and not a pillow was out of place, though several items had been removed. She hadn't asked why.

As Itachi served her a piece of cake, Sakura breathed in the faint scent of his cologne and chocolate, two scents she was quickly learning to expect together when it came to him. It made her heart soften.

Surrounded by friends, she cherished every moment with the people closest to her.

As Shisui looked over at her, she smiled back at him.

She'd never felt safer.


"You're living with a girl!?"

From his bed in his room that night, Sasuke let out a low breath through his nose as Naruto's voice exploded through his phone and shattered his eardrum like a shrieking ordnance attack. He immediately switched to speakerphone.

"She's… like a housekeeper and personal assistant," said Sasuke, glancing at the closed door to his room. Down the hall, Karin was showering. He'd taken to calling Naruto during those brief moments of privacy in an effort to actively retain more of his humanity. His visit home had taught him a few important lessons, and reminded him of who he wanted to be.

It was just that as useful as Karin was, Sasuke didn't know if he could trust her half as far as he could throw her.

He glossed over Karin's personal life, though, when he spoke with Naruto.

"She looks after the domestic side of things so I can focus on business. We both work for Oto Corp." Sasuke's fingers tapped the laptop that rested on the cushioned desk across his lap, in bed.

"Wait… wait, was she the one that Sakura spoke to? She said you were with someone," said Naruto, his words running together as he put together his memories.

The air in Sasuke's chest vanished, as if a vacuum had suddenly sucked his life away.

"Hn?"

Then he remembered Sakura mentioning the call when they talked at Christmas, when she'd tried to talk to him about how bad a friend he'd been to Naruto…

Ah, that call.

The aiway reopened, if a bit sluggish. Sasuke's shoulders felt heavy as he counted, again, how much he had to make up for.

"It was probably Karin, yeah…" he admitted as the pieces fell into place. Which reminded him, he still needed to talk to Karin about that conversation with Sakura, since Karin had failed to advise him of it even happening.

"Karin? Is she cute? Would Sakura be jealous?" teased Naruto in a childish voice, making kissing noises.

"Sasuke, do you have any spare—"

Sasuke looked up in horror as Karin, wrapped in her oversized, fluffy bathrobe, her wet hair freshly dyed crimson, stopped and stared at him from the doorway of his room.

Naruto's very male, if squeaky and young, voice continued making kissing, panting noises—among other disgusting, lecherous sounds, including, "Oh yeah, Sasuke", and "Just like that!" and crowning it with, "Do you miss me, big boy?"

Karin spun on her heel and left the room, slamming the door behind her as Sasuke tried to shove the computer aside and stop her.

"It's—it's not—" tried Sasuke, voice tight.

"I'm putting a hanger on your doorknob!" she shouted through the door. "Just… take it down when you're done. And put it on when you need—ugh—privacy!" scoffed Karin.

"It's Naruto!" he tried to explain, badly.

"Don't care! And people call me a pervert…" Sasuke heard Karin mutter as she stomped away.

How was it, Sasuke wondered as he slumped onto his bed again with a muffled groan, that even across different countries, Naruto's mouth managed to get him in trouble?

There was a brief pause.

Then the stomping got louder as Karin barged through his door again.

"I can explain—" began Sasuke desperately, lifting a hand.

The hand with the phone.

(From the speaker on his phone, said-mouth continued making unfortunately intimate noises).

"For the record," interrupted Karin, jamming a finger in Sasuke's face. "You being gay—or bi—doesn't bother me. It's that it sounds like you have a thing for kids. You sick, sick pedo!"

Sasuke's eyes nearly burst out of his head as he choked. "I'm not a—!"

The door slammed shut as Karin stormed out again, this time for good.

Then there was silence.

"...Are you and your domestic having a domestic?" asked Naruto curiously through the phone.

Sasuke's shoulders tensed for a beat, then slumped.


The next morning, Karin deliberately ignored Sasuke at breakfast, though she had still prepared his meals and gym bag for the day.

It was just that all his food was cold that day, and he found he actually missed the extra tomato dish she usually put in his lunch bag for a snack.

However, if he had any doubt as to why, the elegantly scrawled, 'YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF'-note left beside his fruit cup summed up why she hadn't indulged him that day.

He ignored it and ate the rest of his food in peace.


Itachi looked over at Sakura as he drove her home from the grocery store.

"What?" she asked, curious. "You've been wanting to say something for a while. I can tell. I can read Uchiha really well, you know."

He smiled softly at her.

"I would like to ask you a question."

Some of Sakura's good mood chilled, but she pasted on a smile, shrugging. "Go for it."

"I will be meeting Kisame soon to draft the list for the participants for the Oto Tournament soon. How is your physiotherapy progressing?"

"Really well! Shisui said in a few weeks he would give me the all clear, as long as my nerve damage is fully repaired, which it looks like it's doing."

Itachi nodded, silent.

Sakura half-turned in her seat.

"That isn't all you're asking when you ask how I'm doing, though, is it?"

Turning in his own seat to face her a moment, Itachi raised his brows.

"I can handle a tournament, Itachi. I… To be honest, at this point I feel like I can handle almost anything."

At his narrowing eyes, she smirked.

"I promise I won't go looking for trouble."

"Hnnnn," he said, in a 'you better not' kind of way.

"You are dating Captain Kidnapper-Gonad-Killer Haruno, you know. Not only do I foil other people's kidnappings, I foiled my own."

Itachi's fingers tightened on the wheel.

Her shoulders softening, but not backing down, Sakura reached out to squeeze Itachi's hand on the leather steering wheel.

"Itachi, I'm not running away any more. I am not going to let him get me, any part of me. I'm also not going to let him haunt me. The sooner we can accept what happened, and what didn't happen, the sooner we can laugh about it. The sooner we control it. Okay?" She squeezed his hand again, stroking the skin of his wrist with her pinky. "I have too much good in my life to give anything up without a fight. And I fight hard. You signed up knowing that."

She gave him a crooked smile.

"I'm not giving anything up anymore."

"I don't want you to give anything up," said Itachi.

"But," began Sakura, leaning back with a sigh.

"I want you to be safe."

"What better place for me to be safe than fighting beside you at a very public tournament?"

Itachi frowned.

"I have a point," said Sakura confidently.

"Hn," sighed Itachi.

"Also, this way you get to see me in my new gi," she needled. "It looks really good."

In his seat, Itachi was silent.

"You know you want to see me wear it," she said, smirking.

His jaw clenching, Itachi focused on the road.

"Can you imagine how awesome it's going to be when I kiai and take down my first opponent, wearing that gi?"

His breathing quickening, Itachi wet his lips.

"And you know what I'm going to do after I do that?" she asked, leaning closer again and whispering.

"Hn?"

The pulse in Itachi's neck was visible, his knuckles taut as he clenched the wheel.

Sakura smiled, then leaned back, turning to face the road again.

"You'll just have to see at the tournament, won't you?" she said on a sigh.

Itachi turned to glare-pout at Sakura, and she smiled serenely.


Quietly entering Fugaku's office in their home later that evening, Mikoto surveyed her husband's stiff posture. He'd been quiet all day.

The day before, when she asked how the cleanup of Sakura's apartment was going, he'd turned stone-faced and ashen. Cameras. Video recording equipment. Audio recording equipment. Timers. Motion sensors. Stains and body fluid samples indicating repeated intrusions into her home. Mikoto's stomach had curdled as he listed the privacy violations, one after another, and the fact that her window and door frames had been so damaged from break-ins they'd outright replaced several of them.

"I still don't know if we got them all. Every time we sent someone through, they'd find something else," he admitted.

"But you put a blocker on the transmissions. No one can access anything from that apartment unless they're inside it now," reassured Mikoto, knowing how good her husband's technical surveillance ops were. He tapped his fingers on the desk and shook his head.

With quiet grace, she set the plate of re-warmed food beside her husband as he stared at the three screens before him. Heavy bags underscored his normally sharp eyes, and his folded arms and low chin were only enhanced by the nearby lamp.

"No news," she stated knowingly.

Fugaku frowned at the news ticker which ran along the bottom of the news window streaming in the left-most screen, detailing how many more of the cemetery serial killer's victims had been identified that day.

"We're setting up a grief task force," he said quietly. "We needed to set one up to provide grief counselling for how badly we've failed Konoha."

She shook her head, moving behind him and circling him with her arms. "You haven't failed—"

He held up a finger before increasing the volume on the news feed.

"—where there is no suspect in custody at this time. It is believed that this individual is the same suspect who bombed the private residence of Konoha Police Chief, Uchiha Fugaku. Chief Uchiha had the resources to flee Konoha at the time to protect his family from the suspect earlier this summer, suffering no casualties. This has led to unrest within the populace of Konoha who are demanding to know when the suspect will be apprehended, as their losses pile up. This comes on the heels of the police chief's oldest son coming under scrutiny for acts of public violence and vandalism at the Konoha airport in late December, where he broke through a plexiglass security window."

On-screen footage of Itachi, and somewhat hidden beside him, Sakura, attacking a shadow through the cracked glass played as Mikoto stood rooted in place.

Her mouth went dry. "Shisui said it was a—"

"Shisui covered for him, Mikoto. And if that gets out, then Shisui's reputation is garbage, too," said Fugaku flatly. He rubbed at his face as the newscast continued.

"These events have brought a lot of negative attention to the prestigious Uchihas, who seem to be struggling in their personal and professional lives at the moment," continued the reporter. "Some are calling for the Uchihas to be more transparent and accountable, namely that Chief Uchiha take a leave of absence or even resign if the killer isn't caught soon."

Mikoto's eyes sharpened. "That's rid—"

Fugaku sighed, lowering the volume and reaching up to rest his hands on his wife's around him. He shook his head.

But Mikoto refused to back down. "We aren't giving him what he wants. He planned this," she said harshly.

"I agree. But we need to be very careful with how we go about this," said Fugaku. He waited a moment before admitting, "I think Itachi's paranoia has some merit."

"Itachi is not—"

"He is lucky to have the supports he does," interrupted Fugaku. "But at the moment, he is highly stressed. I've asked Shisui to keep an eye on him and to let me know if he needs a break. But Itachi has said before that he thinks Madara has someone inside the family, or inside the force, who is feeding him information."

The room was quiet as Mikoto sighed and leaned down over Fugaku's shoulder. He held her arms closer to him and let his head fall back against the crook of his wife's shoulder. With large, capable hands he rubbed the feeling back into her arms and fingers, then gave them a squeeze.

"If he has even a single member of our family on his side, he has a powerful ally," Mikoto said quietly.

"Ah," murmured Fugaku.

She squeezed her husband closer.

"Good thing we're stronger," she said.


The playground closest to Kisame's home was snowed in following the recent storms. It made for perfect snow fort building that afternoon.

"No, put that one here," said Dake, stomping his booted foot. He pointed with his glove at the gap in the snow fort's wall.

"It's heavy," gasped Tomo, cheeks red as he heaved the monstrous snowball closer. "Can you help me, Dake? Please?"

"You said you wanted to do it by yourself," said Dake.

"I meant… yeah, but that wasn't what I meant!"

"I'm working on the turret, I'll come help in a second," said Dake, patting down the snow and smoothing it. He ignored his brother's complaints and whining as he focused. It was going to be the best snow fort they'd ever built! So much better than the one Yuji and his friends had made in the yard. The playground had so much more snow to use. It was perfect!

Tucked behind the snow fort wall as he was, Dake didn't see the stranger that approached, though he heard the adult's footsteps.

"Would you like some help?" asked a deep, patient male voice.

"Hi Uncle Ita… You aren't Uncle Itachi. But you look like Not-Quite-Uncle-Itachi. Are you their brother?" Tomo asked, looking up at the tall stranger.

"They're my nephews," admitted the man. He knelt beside Tomo and his oversized snowball. "You must be very strong to move this all by yourself."

"I moved it this far already!" exclaimed Tomo, opening his arms wide. "This far!"

The man chuckled.

"Would you like some help to get it up onto the wall?" he repeated kindly.

"Yes, please."

With a bit of help, the snowball fit in place and together the stranger and Tomo patted more snow into the cracks to smooth out the wall again.

"There, perfect!" exclaimed an excited Tomo. "Thank you Mr… uh… Sorry, I forgot to ask your name. My name is Tomo!"

The man chuckled again and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Tomo."

He smiled.

"My name is Tobi."

TBC.


AN: MANY thanks to purple-possibilities for her beta help with this fic! You made it 1000x better! I REALLY, REALLY MEAN THAT.