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Who Loves Thee Best

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The Uchiha compound sprawled through the forest, its lands large enough to contain a small town—which, indeed, it did. A town that consisted solely of Uchiha uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. The ruler of their little town and head of their clan was a man named Fugaku, a man of stern visage and upright bearing: he had once been a knight in the service of the great Hokage, until an incident with the nine-tailed demon fox Kyuubi—an incident yet whispered by mothers to their children in the dark of night—had killed him, and sent Fugaku limping home to tend his ancestral lands.

He soon took a wife as was proper for head of their clan—her name was Mikoto, a lady of consummate elegance, etiquette, and sweetness; her hair was black as a raven's wing and her eyes like pools of ink. She was, they said, the best cook in all of the Uchihas' town and certainly the loveliest of all the ladies. And if she occasionally looked over their sprawling lands with sorrow fixed on her gentle features, well, they were each and every one of them bound to duty and blood before love, and none thought her the weaker for it and indeed, admired her for the dedication she showed to her gruff, distant husband.

Some time after Fugaku had married, he and Mikoto were blessed with a child. The pregnancy was hard on the poor woman, and it was only through the great efforts of the clan's healers that she survived the birth of their son. There was great celebration when the boy was born, and Fugaku in threw a grand feast to celebrate the continuance of his line. He even invited the great tailed beasts of legend to join the festivities, even—and this caused whispers all 'round, you may be sure—the newest incarnation of the nine-tailed demon fox. Oh, it was such a festival—tables groaned beneath the weight of the feast the clan provided (for what one member of the clan had, they shared for the good of all, this was a fact), and wine from all corners of the country flowed free as river water. All were at ease and filled with laughter and as the head of their clan rejoiced, so did the entire clan. And if some looked askance at the beasts who had taken human guise to join the mortals for this one night, well, the Uchiha were born with blood in their eyes and flame in their blood and kept their katanas and kunai at hand.

At the stroke of midnight Fugaku and Mikoto proudly presented their son, and gave his name to the gathering: Itachi, they called him, as the babe gazed at them from his cradle with eyes too old for his round chubby face. The tailed beasts circled his cradle, and stepped forth one by one to give their blessings to the child, heir to the Uchiha clan and its legacy.

Scarcely had the eight-tailed ushi-oni Hachibi spoken when a blast of unmerciful flame seared through the banquet hall. From the shadows and smoke emerged a man—or at least a monster in the guise of one, for where his face should be was an orange spiral, and where his right eye should be was a black hole, and where his pupil and iris should have been burned all the flames of hell.

"So you thought to hide the next scion of my line from me, eh?" the man-creature rasped, for he was Madara, first of the Uchiha—first to lead, first to be exiled, reminder of the sins of generations past. "Well, well, well. We'll see about that."

Fugaku stepped before his wife, sword in hand, but Madara froze him in place with a single baleful look. Only the beasts stood strong before him, as the rest of the clan healed the wounded and stood stunned as puppy-dogs faced with the wolf who had sired their line eons ago.

Madara leaned over the cradle. Itachi gazed calmly back, too young to know his danger, too unearthly—for had he not been blessed by eight of the tailed beasts of the land?—to show his fear. "Tch," the monster said. "The blessings of mere animals are nothing before my power." He turned to the cowering guests and raised his voice, his words layered by the echo of rattling bones, the howls of unquiet dead, the crackle of burning bodies. "Let your heir grow strong, oh yes, let arrogance and pride be his due. And when he comes of age he will search for power, and in his greed he will prick his finger on a needle and die." With a laugh, Madara vanished back into the shadows from whence he came.

Fugaku collapsed as if he had been a puppet with sudden-cut strings and Mikoto buried her lovely face in her fine, pale hands, for she could not bear the thought of losing her only child when she knew she could birth no more. "What shall we do?" she wailed.

"Don't cry," the ninth beast broke in. In this new incarnation, Kyuubi was kinder than any tailed beast had ever been in known history. His skin was tanned by the sun and his hair the color of sunflowers; now, in the most mortal of his guises, his eyes were the blue of a summer sky. His whiskered cheeks stretched in a reassuring grin. "That old man thinks he can undo all our hard work? Hah!"

Kyuubi turned to the little babe and laid his callused fingers over the child's forehead. "I can't undo all his work, sure, but don't cry. Instead of dying, he will fall into a deep sleep, to be awakened by the kiss of one who loves him." For a moment orange fire engulfed the cradle, vanishing as abruptly as it had been summoned and the great Nine-Tails smoothed the child's blanket with callused fingers. "Don't cry," he said once more to the weeping Mikoto. "With a family this big around him, you shouldn't have any trouble breaking the curse when it comes, eh?"

Despite his reassuring words, all present felt the weight of Madara's wanton cruelty like a cloud over their heads, thick baleful smoke choking and smothering all who stood beneath it. The other beasts murmured their congratulations and reassurances and dire predictions, and left.

Fugaku slowly gathered his child from the cradle. "From this day forth," he said, his voice heavy and slow, "let all needles be banished from the Uchiha lands."

The clan guests murmured their assent and bowed their heads, for as their leader felt pain, so did all.

---

Tailors and seamstresses were put under heavy guard. Their needles were limited in number; the hidden warriors of the clan were forbidden to use needles in their secret work. And Itachi—he grew up oblivious to all that had occurred.

As heir to the clan, Itachi was quickly given over to lessons upon lessons in the arts of both war and politics, for as head of the clan he would contend with the heads of other clans in order to hold on to the Uchiha lands. He was isolated, kept away from any who might put thoughts of needles into his head, and in isolation there was no one to curb the pride Madara had cursed him with. But the Uchiha clan heir was not entirely alone, for Mikoto knew well the loneliness of an only child, and if she could not bear him a brother, well, there were other ways to find a companion for her beloved son.

Thus, Itachi had a single manservant, a boy of poor family whose father had married into the clan in recent years and been allowed to stay out of pity when his Uchiha wife had died in the service of the clan. He was older than his master by two years; a diligent worker who was cheerful in the face of the less kind of the village rumors and his precocious master's blank visage, made sterner by the lines Madara's curse had carved beneath his eyes. Masataka was his name, and for all the genius bestowed upon him by birth and blessing, Itachi found that this earnest boy had become his only—and thus his closest—friend. Masataka was no warrior, but he learned his lessons alongside Itachi and spoke eagerly of history and medicine and literature and very little of duty and family and war, all of which made Itachi enjoy his company all the more. The heir allowed no one closer, not even his parents: at night, they slept side by side in Itachi's room, Masataka nestled in blankets beside his master's bed.

Time passed. Masataka never left his master's side, as Itachi grew into a warrior feared by men twice his age, a slender boy-child who gazed at the world through solemn red eyes, discomfiting to all save his servant, Masataka.

Now, Itachi had long sensed that there was a secret being kept from him, a sense he had had all his life and even when he hinted at it to Masataka he saw his friend's gaze shift down and away and knew that he spoke true, if not of what he spoke. The feeling only heightened when he turned eleven, for that was the birthday he donned the white armor and white mask and white sword of the clan's hidden warriors—and still, no one spoke to him, and still, Masataka's eyes would not meet his when he asked.

And so Itachi took to spending time in the old clan shrine, ordering Masataka away in a voice pitched cold to mask the hurt. He peered at its faded wall hangings, examined the faded paintings, and explored the secret room he had discovered when a floorboard and sounded slightly too hollow beneath the scuff of his sandal. The secret room was packed with scrolls—scrolls of forbidden techniques, of forgotten techniques; scrolls to summon ravens from the sky and black flames that burned for seven days and the ghostly warriors of his ancestors. He devoured each one, for while his body was young his mind had never been, and the quest for knowledge—especially knowledge that led to power—was one that burned eternal in his heart. And as long as he concentrated on learning, he did not need to think, letting thoughts of secrets and betrayals fade away.

One day—the day when he would become in the eyes of all a man—in a corner where the largest of the scrolls rested upon dusty racks—he found a box. It was a very small box, long and thin and narrow, and he could not think of how to open it, nor of what it might contain. He rattled it in his ear but heard nothing; tapping it against the worn wooden racks only told him that it was not, as he had first suspected, empty at all.

When the time came to leave the shrine Itachi slipped the box into his belt and stepped back into the shrine proper. The sun had begun to set, red and swollen as it sank beneath still water. Itachi hurried back to his home lest he be missed for dinner and forced to endure yet another scolding from his father, the snap of a whip he no longer feared. Just as he crossed the bridge over the Nakano River, however, he met Masataka coming the other way.

"Where have you been?" the servant asked.

"At the shrine," Itachi replied coolly.

"Your birthday—everyone's waiting—"

"I did not ask for anything," he said and made as if to step around Masataka. The older boy did not move, but grabbed his arm as he made to pass.

"What's that in your belt?" he asked.

"Something I found," Itachi said dismissively, but when Masataka snatched it from his clothes he immediately snatched it back.

"You don't know what it is. It might be dangerous!" his servant said tersely.

Itachi snorted. "I highly doubt it," he scoffed. "I can't even—"

The box suddenly clicked open in his palm, its lid propelled by springs to reveal a single object nestled on a bed of velvet: a long thin spire of steel, of a shape Itachi had never seen before.

"It's a needle," Masataka breathed, his face locked in terror. "Don't—Itachi, it's dangerous, throw it away, please listen to me, Itachi—"

Itachi glanced at him quizzically before reaching for the strange object with his free hand. Scarcely had he moved when Masataka snatched the object from the box and flung it into the river with a shout of pain. Itachi saw that he clutched his right hand in his left, his finger bleeding from a tiny puncture.

"Tried to…warn you…" Masataka said weakly, and slumped forward on to Itachi's shoulder.

He tried to wake his friend, but to no avail; the wound in his finger was hardly large enough to bleed him out so quickly, and Itachi knew of no poison that put the victim to sleep: for that was what had happened to Masataka; his friend, his brother. He slept, each breath deeper than the ocean and slower than a glacier, and no matter what Itachi did, he would not wake.

Itachi carried his friend back into the mansion. He noticed how his parents relaxed as he told the tale of Masataka's strange sleep. He heard the tale of his birth, of Madara and Kyuubi, and listened to them praise Masataka for bravery and sacrifice and honor and that dirtiest of words, duty.

He sat there and contemplated all this, and the sight of his friend slumbering pale and wan beneath the blankets of Itachi's bed, never to wake until one who loved him could be found. His father was long since dead; his blood-brother, rotting in jail.

Itachi contemplated all this, as the relief and babble of his parents whirled around him. He stood and bowed to them. And then he killed them.

He donned his white armor and white mask and grasped his white sword and stepped into the streets of the Uchiha's town and slaughtered every single lying man, woman, and child who had crossed his path and dared to look him in the eye—killed and killed and killed until the streets of the town were paved not in stone but in the blood of his kin.

And then he left, to find one who loved Masataka and could wake him.

---

Itachi's travels took him far. One of the last things his parents had told him was that the curse had been weakened by the intervention of the Nine-Tails, and so he reasoned that if the tailed beast could weaken the curse, he must surely know how to break it.

He was thirteen, with nothing to his name but his white armor and white mask and white sword, none of which were very white any more.

Rumor said that the newest Kyuubi preferred to lurk far to the east, in the land of flame, and so that was where he turned his toes. The last thing Itachi did before leaving was activate every defense that the Uchiha's town had had that did not rely on men for of course there were none left to man them. Masataka would be preserved in his eternal sleep, until Itachi returned with the one who loved him to set him free.

The journey to the east was long and arduous. Itachi encountered many monsters, and indeed became one himself, donning their red-cloud cloak because they had told him they could help him search for Kyuubi in the east. When the time came for him to leave, however, the monsters refused to let him go and so Itachi slew each and every one, though they were each of them cunning and powerful, gathered from every corner of the world—a monstrous shark-man, a skeletal immortal, a boy in the body of a wooden doll. The last of the monsters was a strange man in an orange spiraled mask, one whose visage was familiar to Itachi for some reason he could not name. He was the last to die, and took the longest to kill; before he fell, he cursed Itachi with blindness and died laughing. Itachi bound his bleeding eyes and moved on: his new found monstrousness allowed him to see without seeing, and that was all he needed.

He found the Kyuubi at long last perched on a cliff as it watched three tow-headed children gambol in a field of leaves.

"Itachi Uchiha," the beast greeted him.

"Tell me how to lift Madara's curse," he replied.

Kyuubi stood and turned to face him, its muscular body wreathed in its nine flaming tails. "First, tell me why a servant's life matters so much to the heir of the Uchiha clan, their pride and their demise."

"He is my best and closest friend," Itachi replied. He had considered his words for a very long time, considered how to sway the Kyuubi to his cause. "My brother in heart if not in blood. Tell me what I must do to wake him."

"Only the kiss of one who loves him best will do," the beast told him. "But you knew that already, didn't you."

Itachi gazed over the cliffs. "Then tell me who that is, so I may find him."

The Kyuubi grinned at him. "You call him your best and closest friend, your brother in heart if not in blood. You traveled across three continents and became a monster and were blinded in order to find a way to wake him and save him. And you ask me who loves him best?" The beast laughed, not unkindly. "Itachi Uchiha," it said, clapping him on the shoulder, "I think you should ask yourself."

Then the Kyuubi winked one sky-blue eye at him, and vanished in a puff of flame. Itachi sat on its stone seat for some hours, and finally left, silent as he had come.

---

When Itachi returned home three years later, he found wooden buildings of his youth were overgrown with ivy and roses, huge thorny ropes of tough briars wrapped around roofs and snaking through the streets. Itachi summoned the black flames of Amaterasu, which burned for seven days. He summoned ravens to tear the charred remains from his path. He summoned ethereal warriors to hack a path through the briars that twined thicker and thicker as he neared the heart of the compound: his old home, where Masataka yet lay sleeping.

His feet took him down a familiar, half-forgotten path. The skeletons of his parents lay where they had fallen: no one had been left alive to bury the dead. The sound of howling wind echoed as he walked, though the night outside had been stuffy and still. He ignored them. Finally he stopped before what had once been his room, where he and Masataka had slept side by side for many nights. He slid open the door, and entered.

The preservation of the room was perfect: not even dust had settled on the shelves, the desk, the rumpled clothing left behind when he'd donned the white armor and mask and sword one final time. The preservation of Masataka was less so. Itachi stood in the doorway and watched the figure who slept still as death beneath the blankets, where he had left him with nothing but a vow. It seemed Masataka had not grown into adulthood, stopped dead at the age of fifteen. Even so, his nails curled long and yellow over the blankets and his hair was knotted around him as the briars were knotted about this unquiet house. His face had hollowed, as if Masataka had not eaten in some time, and his skin stretched wan and waxy over his brittle young bones.

Itachi entered the room, and knelt at Masataka's side. Itachi paused to consider how one went about kissing one's best friend and brother in heart if not in blood. Eventually, he leaned down and brushed a kiss to Masataka's forehead: for he was now the eldest brother, and Masataka the younger. The boy shifted beneath him, but did not wake.

Itachi bent his head again and brushed a kiss across Masataka's dry, chapped lips.

This time, Masataka's eyes fluttered open, brown eyes hazy in the moonlight. "Ita..."

"You have been asleep for eight years," Itachi told him.

"But…how…?"

"I broke the curse," he said.

Masataka blinked up at him and raised a hand, before he realized the weight of his nails and lowered it once more. "Your…your eyes…are they…?"

"We should leave this place," Itachi said brusquely. The vision his monstrousness granted him was imprecise, a world of black and white, red and grey; he would never see Masataka's face in truth again, but he could still see his pain. "Can you sit?" He watched as Masataka struggled upright, young muscles withered by a near-decade of sleep.

"I dreamed you killed them," he croaked, as Itachi hacked away the mass of his hair, trimmed the excess from his nails. "Your parents. Shisui. Everyone."

"The curse has left you ill," Itachi told him. "We will need to find you a healer." He wrapped Masataka in blankets and gathered the boy into his arms.

"Why did you do it?" he whispered, as they left the room. It crumbled into dusty behind them.

After a moment, Itachi replied, "They kept too many secrets, and I did not like what I found out."

Masataka nodded, and closed his eyes to sleep the sleep of the weary, rather than the bespelled. "Thank you…for coming back."

Itachi could think of nothing to say to that, so he said nothing.

His last act as Uchiha clan heir was the set the wooden town ablaze—not with summoned fire, but with the mundane flame of match and candle. He stood there, as the heat played over his blind face, and felt nothing. All that had ever bound him to clan and compound lay sleeping in his arms.

Eventually he turned away, and was swallowed by the night.