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I’m tired of the duties—

 

Shisui’s suicide note is no longer with him. Minutes ago, he’d just handed the slip of paper over to the taciturn kunoichi in charge of the ANBU office dedicated to internal investigations inside Konoha. But the dark and bold slant of his cousin’s handwriting remains sharp and clear in his mind’s eye, as crisp and detailed as his memory of Shisui’s smile as he stepped backwards into empty air and let himself fall.

 

—There is no future for the Uchiha and for me

 

Those words may have been Shisui’s, but as they echo in his head, Itachi can’t see them as anything else than a portent of the very destiny that now awaits him. And with every breath he takes, something inside him feels like it’s breaking and going to pieces.

 

He had long been used to schooling his face into a demeanour of calm neutrality, but walking down the grey, featureless hallways of the ANBU headquarters, he feels the lump rise in his throat and hot liquid gathering behind his eyes. With effort, he breathes deeply and forces those emotions down. It’s three in the morning, and the hallway is mercifully, deserted. As it might not have necessarily been, for the schedule of ANBU missions often meant he and his colleagues kept irregular hours.

 

Still, he feels horribly exposed. The thought of running into someone around the next corner at any moment is too much. Itachi decides to duck into the locker room assigned to him to collect himself. He pushes open the door. He knew almost everyone who used those lockers was presently away on a mission, so it would conveniently be deserted—

 

He’d assumed wrongly. In his distracted state, he hadn’t paid attention to the familiar chakra signature behind the door.

 

Last he heard, Hatake Kakashi was out of Konoha, away on a two week-long solo mission to Lightning Country. But instead, his eyes meet the casual gaze of his commanding officer, who looked to have been in the process of sorting out some sort of mess in his locker when Itachi interrupted him. 

 

Captain, he greets awkwardly, trying to figure out how he can leave before Kakashi notices his reddened eyes and starts asking questions, but without looking like he’s rudely fleeing his squad commander. 

 

“Oh, hello Itachi. A bit late for you, isn’t it?”

 

Stiffly, he walks over to his own locker, trying to appear natural. Maybe he can hide his face behind the locker door while pretending to look for something, until his captain leaves—

 

At that very thought, he suddenly feels helplessly young in a way he hadn’t in a long time. He unlocks the combination for his locker with his chakra—ordinary locks were hardly obstacles for shinobi—and makes a show of sorting through the weapons pouches sitting at the bottom.

 

“Not really, Captain. Just realised I forgot some things,” Itachi says, hoping his voice sounds relaxed. “How did your mission go?”

 

“Not bad—I just got back half-an-hour ago. Mission went faster than I thought it would. Completely forgot to do my laundry, unfortunately—but thankfully, remembered I had some clean clothes stashed here.” Kakashi’s voice is casual and laidback, as he neatly folds several long-sleeved black shirts. “So. How are things at home? Everything alright?” 

 

He hadn’t intended to say anything beyond a polite Fine, thank you for asking, Captain. He truly hadn’t. He, in fact, said just those six short words in response, as he sorted through his kunai, putting aside those that needed cleaning into a separate pile. After all, even before Shisui had died, he had spent several weeks fatalistically steeling himself to the lonely path the both of them would probably have to walk, as he watched the atmosphere within his clan grow darker and more resentful. Now, it was a burden he would bear in silence and alone, all the way to the grave. 

 

But his captain’s words—casually spoken as they were—planted a seed of temptation in him.

 

And it grew.

 

Kakashi had been the one to test him when he was first accepted into the ANBU, and had effectively, been his mentor ever since. He’d been the one to lead Itachi through the positively labyrinthine ANBU regulations and procedures, to train him in the usage of the standard-issue tanto and to acquaint him with the unique code utilised by their squad. He’d also picked up a number of elemental jutsu from the deep well of his captain’s expertise.

 

Initially, he had braced himself for some awkwardness and wariness: there were some in his family who made no efforts to disguise their unhappiness that a non-Uchiha bore a Sharingan, even if it had been the dying wish of one of their kin. But his captain was a good teacher, his demeanour with Itachi always effortlessly calm and professional, even friendly, if in a reserved and laidback way.

 

And so, overtime, despite his own usual inclination to reticence, Itachi found himself growing comfortable around his commanding officer. In between missions, he found himself easily falling into conversations with his captain. The kind of conversations he was unable to have with Father, where every word felt stiff and laden with the rigid formality and respect expected of him. Over the months, he soon found himself talking about his family. About his little brother.

 

Maybe it's also the fact that he saw Shisui die only just two days ago and his eyes are still burning with the terrible, newly-bestowed power of the Mangekyō Sharingan. The fact that he had completely lost it just over being accused of murdering Shisui, and that he's beginning to question if he can even bear the terrible weight of doing the actual deed itself if this alone is too much for him.

 

Kakashi hadn’t left once he was done retrieving all his belongings, politely opting to wait for him.

 

And so, when the two of them exit the building and step out onto the quiet street, he finds his mouth opening.

 

The words come, and once he starts, he can't stop.

 


 

He's shaking by the time he finally finishes, in a deserted training ground at five in the morning, his captain seated next to him on a fallen log. They’re surrounded by a cloaking genjutsu Kakashi had cast to prevent eavesdroppers.

 

It's when he finishes that he feels the panic rising within. What had he just done? Had he lost his mind?

 

"Please forget everything you just heard, Captain. There's nothing you can do in any case." He says rigidly, his knuckles white, fingers digging into the palm of his hand, trembling.  

 

“Itachi,” His mentor and commanding officer says grimly, his single visible eye angry, the line of his jaw tense under the black of his mask. “You forget that I was the Yondaime’s student. I may not be Minato-sensei or as politically influential as those old codgers sitting on the council, but there is plenty I can do to try and stop this shitshow.” 

 

His captain is not a normally tactile person, so he is surprised to feel Kakashi’s hands, strong and warm around his trembling fingers. They're rough with calluses that speak of the years and years of experience he has over Itachi. 

 

And then, he remembers that the man in front of him fought in the Third War when he was Itachi’s age, lost a teammate on his very first mission holding command and that his other teammate killed herself by running into his famed assassination technique, all for Konoha. This is a man who understands the weight of it all. 

 

The horrible, cold feeling in the pit of his stomach hasn't vanished. But, staring at the firm, unflinching expression on his captain’s face, he feels the tiniest flicker of…hope.

 

He swallows hard. It's a feeling he hasn't had in a long time: being permitted to say that something was too much for him to endure, to rely on someone else. To say I don't know what to do to someone older and more experienced, without being judged for not being the perfect prodigy that he was supposed to be. 

 

He still doesn’t know how it will all end, and he still doesn’t see a way out.

 

But it’s the unyielding anger in his captain’s countenance that gives him something to hold on to, that lessens the hideous feeling of going to pieces he had been feeling for the past few hours.

 

The anger that says I will not allow them to make you do this.

 


 

“First, we are going to buy time.”

 

“How so?” His mind is already flying through complicated plans about how he should couch his words the next time he speaks to his father or the Hokage or Councillor Danzou, perhaps Kakashi could help him with that, he probably knows more about diplomacy and politics by virtue of being the Yondaime’s protégé, anything to delay—

 

“Oh, nothing quite so convoluted.” His captain fixes him with an ironic gaze. “I have some ideas, if you're agreeable to them, that is. If you don’t prefer those, we’ll think of something else. In any case, it may...hurt—so I apologise in advance— but sometimes the best solutions are also the most simple ones.”

 


 

His father’s face is positively thunderous as he looms over Itachi’s hospital bed.

 

“Just how did you injure yourself like this, in what was supposed to be a friendly spar?” Uchiha Fugaku’s eyes are furious, as he takes in the numerous bandages that now swathe Itachi’s body.

 

“I ran into Captain Kakashi, and he…persuaded me to assist him in the development of one of his new lightning jutsu. We have frequently sparred in the past, and it would be out-of-character if I refused.” He says blandly, reciting the story they’d cooked up. “I misjudged the strength of his attack due to my own ineptitude, and in addition to the burns from taking a fortunately indirect hit from his jutsu, I was injured by the resulting avalanche of rocks caused by the explosion—”

 

Father’s face is disbelieving.

 

“You must be seriously slipping, if you were unable to dodge an attack despite your Sharingan,” he sneers. But there is tiredness saturating his tone too. Itachi knew his father had misgivings; as Clan Head, he himself was mediating amongst the different factions in their family. He very much hoped his...accident helped to further stir up said misgivings.

 

He sees the flicker of wariness in Father’s eyes and he knows what the older man is thinking, the paranoia that must be creeping into his thoughts. Hatake Kakashi is no run of mill shinobi but an ANBU captain, one close to the previous Hokage and reasonably well-respected by Konoha’s political establishment, after all.

 

Fugaku continues, expression severe. “You realise what your injury means, I should hope. Such timing. You realise how utterly careless this was of you—”

 

“Captain Kakashi is strong, Father. But like me, he too makes mistakes. He poured rather too much chakra into his jutsu, being at the experimental stage as it was.” Itachi says calmly, though his heart is hammering in his chest. “And regardless, what is done is done. We can find some other solution to…put the plans in order.”

 

Electrical burns, four broken ribs, a shattered collarbone, a broken right femur and multiple fractures in his right hand. He couldn’t make hand seals. He would be out of commission for quite a while, even under the care of the best medic-nin. Which was exactly what he wanted. 

 

They had…somewhat overdone it, he conceded. It was difficult to make things look like a jutsu accident in a completely safe way, as always. This, Kakashi had readily admitted, was quite reckless.

 

But Itachi had insisted.

 

He was so tired of being used.

 


 

“So, there is another level of Sharingan beyond the third tomoe?”

 

“Yes. I can show it to you.”

 


 

The main reason his father doesn’t believe that Kakashi intended to kill him was because of the messiness of it all. It helped that his captain had gamely singed off some of his hair, sported several nasty-looking cuts and bruises—as well as very impressive-looking chakra burns on his Chidori-using arm. All of which lent credence to the whole “failed to properly control a new technique I was trying out” story. For his father knew that Hatake Kakashi was an expert in ending the lives of others, and the clumsiness of this whole incident did not quite match up with murderous intentions. 

 


 

 “The things I do for my baby subordinates,” his captain had grimaced. “This accident is probably going to be a black mark on my record when it's time for promotion. Recklessly injures subordinate after persuading him to help out with untested experimental jutsu never looks good. Calls into question my judgment and leadership skills and all.”

 

"I...well. I apologise for that—"

 

"Just kidding. I've been thinking of leaving the ANBU, to be honest. Maybe you should join me." 

 


 

Kakashi had also put on a very convincing show of being utterly distraught when he personally accompanied an injured Itachi to the hospital. Well, actually Kakashi ended up having to carry him the whole way, embarrassing as it was for Itachi. The last time he had to be carried like that, he'd been two and had tripped and fallen down an entire flight of stairs at the Naka shrine. Mother’s eyes had been cool and assessing as she met his captain's guilty gaze, but she said no more other than to politely thank his mentor for getting him prompt medical attention. That is, after she had sternly chided them both for their recklessness. Next time, Mikoto offered, Kakashi ought to feel free to ask her for some pointers on using lightning jutsu with a Sharingan, instead of trying anything as stupid as this, since she too had a lightning affinity in addition to fire.

 

("Mother is...complicated. Unlike some of the angrier factions in my clan, she is not motivated by pride. But she too believes that change is necessary. That pointless suspicion and fear prevented the Uchiha from lending their strength to truly protect the village.")

 

Seven-year-old Sasuke had promptly burst into tears at the sight of Itachi’s extensive injuries, and Kakashi had seamlessly adopted the demeanour of a kicked puppy as he apologised profusely for “hurting big brother so badly” due to his unforgivable carelessness. By the time Sasuke stopped crying, Kakashi had been roped into a promise to buy several boxes of cherry tomatoes for the boy and into giving him at least five shuriken-throwing lessons.

 

For once he had been assured that no, his elder brother was not about to die and would get better, Sasuke had decided that Kakashi was clearly an impressive shinobi if he managed a jutsu powerful enough to hurt his till-then invincible big brother. The horrified expression on his captain’s face as he spotted the beginnings of hero-worship in Sasuke’s admiring eyes had been priceless. He had been woozy on painkillers and wincing in pain all day, but felt the lightest he had in a long while.

 

And ultimately, it also doesn’t really matter whether his father buys this stunt or not. It’s enough that Itachi can’t do anything more strenuous than twirling a kunai with his uninjured hand. He can’t fight. He can’t spy from his position in the ANBU to pass confidential information to his clan or to the Council.

 

He can’t assist in the coup.

 

Of course, they still had plenty of other people who could fight. They had still planned to go ahead even with Shisui’s death. But all the same, he knew even the most vocal supporters of the coup were not suicidal fanatics. They wanted to succeed, and for it to be as smooth and bloodless as possible. They wanted to take power, not to burn the village their family had founded to the ground. And the former required significantly more delicacy and careful planning.

 

So, sometimes you just needed to slightly knock the pieces off balance a little more. Give them cold feet. Worsen the odds a little more, just enough to give them pause. If his father was suspicious that Itachi had intentionally injured himself, perhaps even better.

 

All the better if Father paused to consider that maybe the Hokage and the Council knew everything, and had ordered Kakashi to do this. Let him worry that other plots and traps were afoot.

 

Let him wonder whether Itachi’s accident was perhaps a warning shot across the bow.

 

Sometimes, simply letting people’s imaginations run wild was the most effective tactic.  

 

As to Danzou—Kakashi’s reasoning had been that this would throw enough of a wrench into things because the man needed Itachi to be the one to finish off his clan. Promising young prodigy snaps was a recurrent incident in their profession, and probably the convenient, grotesque narrative that would be fashioned in the cover-up. From the Councillor's point of view, the whole thing, as his captain analysed, needed to be a self-contained affair.

 

(“Danzou was manipulating you, Itachi. An Uchiha would slay the Uchiha right down to the last child and old man, and be branded a deranged traitor. Awfully convenient for him, isn’t it. No one would ever believe you if you had regrets and tried to tell the truth someday. Didn’t the Sandaime himself say he would try to work out a diplomatic solution? It looks to me that Danzou is going around behind his back.”)

 

So, involving other people outside of the Uchiha clan would unravel the whole enterprise, not to mention the fact that it was best to fight a Sharingan with a Sharingan. Itachi’s knowledge of his family’s strengths and weaknesses was also something no non-Uchiha could ever hope to match. They were also banking on playing off Danzou's paranoia. Let him worry about whether the Sandaime was himself giving orders to Kakashi, and exactly what Kakashi might know.

 

Danzou could of course, think up something else. Kakashi had been darkly certain that if push came to a shove, the Councillor was not above ordering several Root operatives to do the dirty deed, and to then frame Itachi for it. The whole thing had to be an intra-clan affair after all, if it were to prevent a civil conflict in the way Danzou hoped to avoid.

 

For Konoha's other clans would not exactly react passively to the knowledge that a Councillor had ordered the execution of an entire clan thought to be a threat before they had even put their plans into motion—even those who presently jockeyed for influence with the Uchiha. Because, the question would be: who is next? Who else might fall out of favour and be marked for extermination simply because they ran afoul of a Councillor like this? Perhaps, next time it wouldn’t even take the whispers of a rebellion but something far more minor, and Konoha would go the way of Kirigakure.

 

On the other hand, the word of a thirteen-year-old ANBU would not stand up against that of an elderly, respected and powerful Councillor who had been the Nidaime's own student. Lies, of course, from a twisted young man who had finally gone off the deep end, everyone would say. 

 


 

“Listen, Itachi. You taking the blame is an essential component of this fuckery. I have no doubt that there are very real problems and that many in your own family are ill-intentioned in supporting this coup—but am I to believe that Councillor Danzou, for all his experience, cannot contrive a way for you to spare even some of the unknowing children, even if there must be a grotesque cover up? An Academy-led field trip somewhere? An out-of-village mission for those of your cousins who are already genin, for them to fortuitously not be around when the mad prodigy finally loses it?”

 

As he listens, he feels stupid for not realising this. He had always been praised for being intelligent beyond his years, yet he had missed out on what was blindingly obvious to his commanding officer. He had only felt an overwhelming, paralysing fear when the Councillor mentioned the prospect of Sasuke’s death, the prospect of Konoha being torn apart and thousands upon thousands more dying because of something his family started.

 

He’d been emotionally compromised, and the Councillor had taken advantage of that.

 

“He said that if the children knew the truth, they would grow up resentful and threaten Konoha someday.” He feels hollow, the words tasting like ash in his mouth. “And that it was regretful but they had to die with their kin. He told me that the Sandaime himself believed this, that he too believed the situation already beyond saving, but that he simply did not wish to say it to me. The Councillor told me that if I did it myself instead of waiting for things to go further, then I could at least save Sasuke.”

 

Kakashi’s eyes are cold, and that icy fury isn’t directed at him. “A curious thing for him to say. When, as a former Hokage’s student and senior ANBU captain, I am privy to quite a lot of things that you would not be, thanks to the much higher security clearance I have. And one of those things is that the Sandaime has been looking into having your clan move back to a district closer to the centre of the village.”

 

He feels hope, but also sick. That he had for so long believed there was only one way it could all end, and had been prepared to follow that script to its awful conclusion. All for the greater good

 

“Itachi, this eye was gifted to me by someone from your family who woke me up to several important truths.” His captain’s voice is resolute. “And that is why I will not allow them to make you do this.

 


 

So, as it was, Itachi being severely injured and hospitalised took him out of the equation—whether to carry out the deed or to be scapegoated for it, at least until he recovered. He couldn't even stand, after all, with his injuries. Neither he nor Kakashi were optimistic enough to assume the danger was past, but—it was something. 

 

He and his captain couldn’t work miracles. But they could buy time and push the calculus in favour of something less destructive by putting all the parties involved on the back foot with this unexpected development.

 

And it also gave Kakashi time to get a private audience with the Sandaime about the fact that Danzou had attacked Shisui. A serious allegation, but one that would be bolstered by the fact that his ninken smelled the blood of Uchiha Shisui on the elderly Councillor. Dogs had extraordinarily sharp noses, ninken even more so and conveniently, Kakashi had worked with Shisui before on a tracking mission.

 

Anything to weaken the hand of Danzou, and strengthen that of the Sandaime. Itachi was not naïve enough to assume that the old Hokage would not act harshly if he was left with no choice, but he was nonetheless, interested in resolving the situation in ways that the Councillor was not. He knew too, that it was the Councillor that many in his family believed to be overtly hostile to them.

 

At least, they had more cards in their favour now. It had been a shocking but welcome surprise for them both to discover Kakashi had in fact already awakened his own Mangekyō Sharingan, after Itachi had explained the mechanics of activating it. Kakashi, without access to the scrolls and generations of knowledge within his family, had quite literally been unaware of it all.

 

And, with the matter of Danzou—as Kakashi pointed out, he did have some cachet politically by virtue of being one of the longest-serving members of the ANBU and Namikaze Minato’s protégé. It’s one thing for Itachi to accuse Shimura Danzou of attempting to kill Uchiha Shisui and of stealing his bloodline limit.

 

It’s another thing for Itachi to say that—and for his mentor to back him up—instead of him standing alone.

 


 

“That’s the problem with you, Itachi,” Kakashi had sighed, as he took stock of their intentionally inflicted-injuries, fingers carefully feeling out Itachi's broken bones. “Your absurd idealism and martyr complex assuming that you have to bear everything alone. Didn’t I tell you teamwork is essential the very first week you joined my squad, Uchiha?” He admonishes drily.

 

He tries to smile, but winces at the pain in his chest, swallows the painkiller Kakashi presses into his uninjured left hand. “You did, Captain.”

 

The other man’s gaze is reflective. “I was like you at age thirteen too. Prodigy, genius whatever. But also unbelievably stupid, always trying to take things on alone. Making a royal mess. And by the Sage, I am going to do my best to make sure this works, because that intricate web of lies you were planning to construct around your brother in order to protect him from the truth is the most fucked up thing I have ever heard.”

 

He feels the dampness of the grass under the palm of his left hand, the smell of the morning dew in the air. Closes his eyes. Yes, it sounds utterly insane, now that he has shared it with someone else. There are hundreds of ways that elaborate plan of his could go completely wrong.

 

He speaks, despite the sharp pain that comes with every breath. Fractured ribs tended to do that. “I thought it was the only way, at that time. I...I know Sasuke looks up to me. He would not believe that I would do this unless he saw it himself. And I was...afraid. That he would be silenced, if he ever found out the truth. So I had to convince him beyond any reasonable doubt, so he would never start asking dangerous questions.”

 

His captain is a dark silhouette against the lightening sky, as he bandages and splints Itachi’s injured right leg with his usual brisk efficiency. Itachi had earlier suggested that he should help, but Kakashi had ordered him to sit still in a tone that left no room for argument.

 

“As you know, I became a jōnin at thirteen. A command rank that young—granted, it was wartime—but all the same, I was promoted because people said I was a genius." Kakashi's voice is contemplative, as he now fashions a sling to avoid aggravating Itachi's broken collarbone further. He chuckles darkly. "Bullshit. I wasn’t even ready for it. I could take down men twice my age but the burden of command and decision-making demands rather more than that, doesn’t it? At thirteen, I lacked the emotional intelligence and patience to lead my two teammates, let alone to make the kinds of decisions affecting hundreds of people being asked of you. I've found that knowing the right path to take is something that tends to only come with experience and maturity.”

 

Intellectually, Itachi knows this, of course. Experience always counted in their profession, despite the hopes people heaped on brilliant child prodigies like himself. Having his commanding officer tell him that he isn't ready and that yes, this is too much to be asked of you nonetheless feels subversive.

 

For that was not something he had ever heard from Father within the high walls and cloisters of the Uchiha compound.

 


 

They still had to tread carefully; Itachi had explained the nature of Kotoamatsukami and the dangers of confronting the old Councillor to Kakashi. He knew he was taking another risk simply by being in this incapacitated state—but it was a calculated one, and he still had his Mangekyō Sharingan in any case. Nonetheless, Danzou was slippery, he had survived far more than the two of them had, and had probably silenced many who got in the way of his plans. And there were also other things to worry about, like that strange masked shinobi he had seen slipping into the village, which he described to Kakashi—

 

But it was something.

 

And importantly, it had…cleared his own mind. Before, he had only seen a binary choice, and no way out of it. Either he could close the book on his family with his own hand and let Sasuke live, a traumatised avenger but alive—or there would be a civil war, other nations would attack and Sasuke would die—or Konoha would have to put down the rebellion forcefully and again, Sasuke would perish.

 

(“He presented the situation as the stark choice it actually wasn’t. He knew exactly the buttons to push with you.”)

 

He’d always prided himself on being cool and logical, and he now knew he failed to recognise that the threat to Sasuke had completely skewed his perception of the calculus. The fear for his little brother's life had knocked him off his balance. Left him open to manipulation. And to a degree, he assumed that if he didn’t see a way out, then there wasn’t one. For everyone had always praised him as a prodigy who saw what no one else did.

 

Now, he saw the countless other options that hovered between the extremes.

 

In the present, Sasuke runs into his hospital room, beaming and excited, clutching a paper bag containing his favourite flavour of dango. As he listens to his little brother babbling excitedly about what he had learned that day in the Academy, Itachi thinks back to how he had been preparing for weeks to throw his old life away, to become someone else, to twist and warp the relationship with his brother, if all so Sasuke would live. To wrench apart his very identity and personality, to warp it into one that would befit Uchiha Itachi, twisted kinslayer and missing-nin. 

 

To allow himself to be unmade

 

He can’t bear that thought now. The thought that he would cut down everyone, from his elderly grandaunt who sold rice crackers and whose interest in politics chiefly consisted of gossip about the Fire daimyo's wife, to the cousins of his that were even younger than Sasuke and who hadn't even learned to write their names, all for the sake of the greater good. That he would craft a most complex deception that would crush and twist his relationship with Sasuke, that he would bear the burden of his brother looking at him with fear and hatred instead of adoration and trust.

 

It seems the height of insanity to think he could ever bear the weight of all that.

 

Shisui too is still on his mind. In his nightmares, he still sees his best friend falling over and over, as he lunges forward and grasps only empty air. But it's okay, he tells himself. He'll deal with everything one step at a time. And he doesn't have to do this all alone anymore. 

 

His captain is a tall figure leaning against the doorway, in that lazy slouch he always favoured whenever they were off-duty, a white flash of bandages under his right sleeve. 

 

“I’ve been to see the Sandaime.” Kakashi’s tone is casual; Sasuke has temporarily retreated to the attached bathroom to wash his hands. "He'll be along soon, I imagine. Since I have today off, well I can wait with you." 

 

“Thank you,” he says quietly. The older man simply nods, and Itachi can imagine the usual dry expression on the face under that mask. 

 

Kakashi has given him a chance—it’s not the end of all their numerous problems, just a chance—but it's a valuable one. 

 

And Itachi will take it.