|The Colder Water
Author: Quillslinger PM
The devil is in the details. Shisui. Itachi. A sorta love story. Novella.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Suspense - Shisui U. & Itachi U. - Chapters: 6 - Words: 52,784 - Reviews: 109 - Favs: 145 - Follows: 48 - Updated: 08-23-10 - Published: 01-27-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5701279
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: The Colder Water (1/?)
Summary: The devil is in the details. Shisui. Itachi. A sorta love story.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Important: I'm using the same characterization and background I created for Shisui in Who Died and Made You Lolita? which I know you may not have read. It's better this way, really, because if you consider this fic a sequel to that story, you're in for some serious mood whiplash. Also, Lolita was gen! Gen, I tell you! This is... not. Come on, look at that winner of a summary, you know you want to read this and witness me lose what little sanity I had left.
At this point, I think it has clearly been established that knowing something is a terrible idea has never stopped me before orz
The Colder Water
And so it is
The shorter story
No love, no glory
When Shisui returned from a week-long mission and found Itachi's little brother drowning in the Nakano River, all he could think was, "What the fuck?"
By the time the thought parsed, he was already halfway across the bank. He had just enough sense to drop his armor and gear by the edge of the water before diving in, cutting through the waves in quick free strokes as the rough current jostled his body, buffering progress. He reached Sasuke just as the boy's head went under, and hauled him up to the surface with Sasuke's back pressed flat against his chest.
"Hey," Shisui shouted, hooking one arm tightly over Sasuke's torso to hold him up. "Are you okay?"
Sasuke answered with a series of sputtering coughs. Good enough.
"Relax, and don't struggle," Shisui ordered, and began sidestroking back to shore.
They collapsed on the river bank, struggling for breath, and while Sasuke choked up what seemed like a minor lake, Shisui sat back and pondered the percentages and possibilities of mental illnesses running in the extended family. To his best knowledge, no one in his clan had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Regrettably, his ANBU training had not prepared him for the delicate task of talking down suicidal cases, but since he was an unparalleled genius it shouldn't be difficult to improvise something.
He cleared his throat, and pasted a suitably somber expression onto his face. "How could you do this to your family?" Guilt-tripping: the method of champions. "You still have so much to live for."
"I wasn't trying to kill myself, stupid," Sasuke yelled indignantly. If the kid was already this mouthy at the age of eight(-ish), Shisui wondered if it would have been better for the good of the world just to let him drown.
"Were you reenacting a one-man version of The Kappa and the Shy Maiden, then?" he asked facetiously. "Because I know a guy who could give you a killer deal on stage makeup."
"I was swimming," Sasuke said mulishly, eyes sliding somewhere to the left. Shisui could hear his inner dumbass alarms go off.
"In the Nakano? Near the river mouth, where the currents are strongest? What, did you miss that day of preschool when they taught water safety or something?"
"No," Sasuke snapped. "I started out upstream, but then I got swept down here, and I couldn't get back to shore." He scowled. "Stupid river."
Shisui quickly connected the dots. He looked down at the spiky dark head with pity. "You're not a very good swimmer, are you?"
In a refreshing display of candor, Sasuke dropped his head and mumbled a barely audible, "No." Then he looked up, and added emphatically, "I'm trying to get better, though. Nii-san promised to help me practice and everything."
"Well, where the hell is nii-san then?" Shisui demanded. "Is he supervising you via astral projection?"
"He couldn't make it," Sasuke said quietly. "Something came up."
"Geez," Shisui muttered, "I bet he's going to feel like a real winner knowing his baby brother nearly drowned while he was off doing his usual hyper-workaholic thing."
"You can't tell nii-san about this," Sasuke said, wide-eyed and panicky. "You can't tell him I went swimming by myself."
"Why?" Shisui asked sarcastically. "Are you planning on doing it again?"
"He's going to think I'm stupid if he finds out," Sasuke said. He sounded completely demoralized. "He'll think I can't take care of myself when he's not around."
Shisui was on the point of saying something like, "Nothing wrong with a little honesty," but didn't, since ultimately he had no real desire to see the kid cry. He glanced up and down the river bank, saw that there were no potential witnesses around, and heaved a longsuffering sigh before saying, "You really want to get better at swimming?"
Sasuke nodded at him morosely. It was almost painful to watch. If some direly needed testosterone didn't get injected into this moment, and soon, Shisui feared he would pass out from deprivation.
"Then come on," he said, rising to his feet. "The best place to practice is just inside the bend behind that hill over there."
"I didn't ask for your help," Sasuke said, but didn't sound sure. He was clearly weighing the pros and cons of the enterprise to himself.
"Suit yourself," Shisui said lightly. "Offer's still on the table—but not for long. I'm a busy, busy man." He was actually supposed to report to the Hokage's office for a debriefing hours ago, but was finding ways to delay it as long as possible. "I just thought it'd be too sad if someone isn't able to enjoy a nice, cool swim on this bright, hot summer day due to their crushing ineptitude, that's all."
Sasuke gave him a look that could have killed a deer at twenty yards, but Shisui could tell he had already caved. Like taking candy from a baby.
On the plus side, Shisui reasoned with upbeat resignation, Sasuke definitely wouldn't need to eat supper tonight, provided he didn't contract any terrible and deadly water-borne pathogens from all the delicious river water he had consumed in the last hour.
Their progress ranged somewhere in the poor-to-mediocre spectrum. To Sasuke's credit, he had jumped right back into the water without any sign of trauma-induced hydrophobia. They had breezed through survival floating, but hit a roadblock when it became evident that Sasuke was flatly incapable of coordinating his arms and legs to facilitate stroking and kicking simultaneously. After the third kick he took to the ribs, Shisui decided that they needed a break, and so they were once again sacked out side by side on the river bank, watching puffy clusters of cloud crawl across the blue, blue August sky.
"I'm getting better already, aren't I?" Sasuke chirped enthusiastically, and because Shisui didn't have the heart to inform him otherwise, he murmured noncommittally, and went back to studying the cumulus formations hanging right over his head. Heh. Poofy.
"It's probably a good sign that you can keep your head out of the water now," he said, striving for positive reinforcement. "For the most part, anyway." They'd been focusing on the breaststroke, which Shisui had previously considered impossible to fuck up, but children were such joyful bundles of surprise.
Sasuke beamed. It was a shame he had such a rotten personality, Shisui reflected, because the kid could be pretty cute, in a poster-child-for-cancer-research kind of way.
"Now if you just spent more time—" he began, but was cut off by Sasuke's excited cry: "Nii-san!"
He leaped up and sped up the slope of the bank like a chased gazelle. Shisui craned his neck around just in time to see Sasuke fling himself into his brother's arms in a reunion scene suspiciously reminiscent of sappy endings in certain low-quality theatrical productions of which Shisui absolutely had no knowledge.
He watched with awestruck fascination as Itachi set his brother back down on the ground, where Sasuke immediately proceeded to wrap his arms around his brother's neck again and—God—was he actually whispering into Itachi's ear?
The amount of touchy-feely-ness on this river bank was suddenly approaching alert levels. It gave Shisui the heebie-jeebies. He had to chalk this up to his being a) an only child, b) the only child of an absentee father, and c) such an exemplary specimen of virile manhood that any display of male physical affection he might find himself engaging in must be accompanied by a lot of exaggerated back-thumping and a good five inches of space separating the participants' hips.
Shisui didn't have a brother to speak of, but if he did, he wouldn't be embracing him like that, dude.
In fact, Itachi was probably the closest thing to a sibling that he had—a fact that was as depressing as it was perplexing—and Shisui had definitely never hugged him. This brought on a whole new tangent of thought wherein he tried to count the number of people he had hugged in his lifetime. The fact that Itachi was his longest-slash-closest friend, and yet Shisui had hugged other people but not him spoke volumes about the both of them, and all of sudden, Shisui felt maybe he was not okay with that.
Then again, the entire venture was doomed to end in tragedy anyway. He could already imagine how it would go. The outcome was limited to one of the following:
1. Itachi would kick his ass.
2. Shisui would develop a myocardial infarction brought on by humiliation.
3. Itachi would do nothing, would stand there like a fucking plank of wood while Shisui attempted to wrap his arms around his shoulders and give him halfhearted pats on the back. This would go on for all of three dead silent minutes, at which point Itachi would kick his ass and/or Shisui would develop a myocardial infarction brought on by humiliation.
Shaking his head, Shisui pulled himself to his feet and began to collect his belongings, scattered all over the grassy bank. The black tank-top he'd spread out to dry was still slightly damp, but serviceable. He strapped his breastplate back on, but didn't bother with the armguards. There was admittedly a possibility that he could be attacked en route to the Hokage's office, but that possibility was very slim. Lastly, he dragged a hand through his wet hair: the coarse strands stuck up like pine-needles.
All in all, he probably looked like a bedraggled sewer-rat, which guaranteed to piss off Mamiya the Old Bag when he went in for his debriefing, so all was right with the world.
When he looked up, Itachi and Sasuke had made their way down to the water-edge—there was hand-holding involved, to his unending horror. Itachi met his eyes with his usual impassive gaze. Shisui cocked his head, flashed his best smile.
"Hey," he greeted. "Long time no see."
The corner of Itachi's mouth lifted, and he was on the point of saying something when Sasuke tugged on his hand. The kid seriously had some attention-seeking issues—he had all the twitchiness of an exceptionally hyperactive puppy with twice the neediness. "Nii-san, guess what?" he said, rash and bright-eyed. "I learned how to do the breaststroke."
Itachi, who despite prodigy status clearly couldn't tell when his brother was lying through his teeth, leaned down and brushed wet bangs out of Sasuke's face. "That's very good. We should work on it together some other time." He flattened his palm against Sasuke's head. "Isn't it time for you to go home?"
"Oh yeah," Sasuke said, and frantically grabbed for his shirt, pulling it roughly over his head. "Bye, nii-san," he shouted, waving, "Bye, Shisui, thanks for the lesson," and shot off before Shisui could give him a lecture about proper use of honorifics.
It was weird to watch Itachi, whose entire demeanor screamed DON'T TOUCH, interact so easily with his brother, when Shisui had seen people in the street purposely veer out of his way to avoid contact, keeping a respectful, even fearful distance. Even though Shisui himself was adamantly opposed to PDA, he couldn't help feeling a little of jealous of Sasuke. He was the sole exception to the rule, whereas Shisui, who had in fact known Itachi longer, had only been able to work himself up to clapping his friend's shoulders and, on particularly adventurous days, slapping him lightly on the back of the head.
The only exception was when either of them were injured on a mission (a rare occurrence, but known to happen), but he wasn't desperate enough to resort to self-harm just to get some attention, and being jealous of an eight-year-old was just scraping the barrel. He was too cool for that.
"I was just over at the Hokage's office," Itachi said, finally giving Shisui his full, undivided attention. "Mamiya-san told me you were supposed to go in for debriefing three hours ago."
"Was I?" Shisui said innocently. "Must've slipped my mind."
"I'm heading that way again," Itachi went on, rolling over Shisui with his usual aplomb. "Walk with me."
Shisui held his hand up in surrender, and gathered up the rest of his gear. He settled into step beside Itachi, and tried to think of something interesting/impressive to say, but what he actually said was, "So, it's been awhile, huh?"
"Yes, it has," Itachi replied. "How long were you away this time?"
Shisui did some mental calculations. "Well, this was a week, but before that there was that two-month mission in the next county—oh, and I went on reconnaissance in Grass for a week and a half before that, so…" He jerked his head up in surprise. "Wow. That means I haven't seen you in almost three months."
There had once been a time when Shisui and Itachi had spent nearly every single day in each other's company. But that was when they had been partners, and ever since they had split up into specialized divisions at the end of last year—Shisui into Field Unit, Itachi into Intelligence—their lives had suddenly, and for the first time ever, diverted from their formerly parallel paths.
The thought stirred up a curl of guilt. Shisui knew perfectly well his mission load wasn't that intensive for no reason, but then again, it wasn't as if Itachi was making much of an effort either. On the few occasions he had been home in-between missions, he had made a point to seek out his friend, only to learn that Itachi had been wrapped up in assignments of his own. He supposed he should just accept it. This was probably that growing up thing people kept making noises about.
"I heard about your mission," Itachi said serenely. "Another assassination?"
For no reason, Shisui felt a certain heaviness settle into the pit of his stomach. "What? It's in the job description."
"But it's not all that this job entails," Itachi said. His tone was mild, flatly nonjudgmental, but it still set Shisui on edge.
"Well, I'm good at it," he said defensively, and began to parrot the Sandaime in pitch-perfect mimicry, "Proper resource-management is all about finding a niche for every skill set, isn't that right?"
In return, Itachi gave him a long, searching look, eyes half-hidden under dark lashes. "Do you think it wise, making so many enemies, Shisui?"
Shisui bit back a snarl. Perhaps spending time apart had caused him to forget that Itachi had a penchant for asking oblique questions that seemed more about making you feel small rather than requesting information. Added to his uneasiness, there was now a twinge of frustration.
He and Itachi did not have long heartfelt conversations about hopes and worries and dreams of a white picket fence. Some time ago, Shisui had decided that, if Itachi had a heart at all, it'd be so extensively and rigorously compartmentalized that any aspiring navigator would quickly find himself lost in an endless maze. Shisui could see himself wandering through those labyrinthine corridors, turning useless knobs and falling through trapdoors. At best, he might be able to find the room called "Sasuke", and maybe the one called "Hair Care For The Shinobi On The Go", but as for the rest he was completely fucked.
He sure as hell wouldn't know how to find his way to the "Shisui" room.
So he said, "They're not my enemies," spelling out the words with over-the-top earnestness just be to an asshole. "They're the Daimyo's enemies, and seeing as he's the one writing our paychecks, I don't think we're in any positions to be picky about our assignments."
"There's always a choice," Itachi said quietly. It was one of those cryptic but entirely meaningless remarks that Shisui found so irritating. He pretended not to have heard.
"Besides," he continued, only very slightly reproachful, "it's not like they'll ever be able to trace it back to me." He cleared his throat, and affected a dramatic voice:
"Headline news: Murder-Suicide by The Lake! Linghu Chong, proud leader of the dreaded Nine Swords Sect, was seen stabbing wife of ten years Liu Zhenghua to death in the presence of five eyewitnesses, before turning the blade on himself. In a letter found on his desk, Linghu confessed to having lost all will to live after discovering his wife's salacious affair with his second-in-command, who was later found strangled to death in his personal chamber. The authority has concluded that no foul play is suspected."
He stopped for breath, and sneered. "Best suicide note I've written yet. Wanna hear it?"
"No, thank you," Itachi said curtly. He sounded tense, for no reason Shisui could discern. "I understand that you have high confidence in your preferred method, Shisui, but have a care. Eventually, someone is bound to catch on to that technique."
Shisui seriously doubted that was the case, but he didn't really want to start an argument he would inevitably lose. "You know," he said, forcing a smile, "if you're worried about me, you can just say so."
The hedge could go either way. Today, it went right. The set of Itachi's jaw eased itself of tension, and his lips rearranged themselves into some semblance of a smile. Shisui felt rather gratified.
"But enough about me," he said, smiling in a much more natural way. "Tell me what you've been up to."
Itachi shrugged. "Just a standard investigation. I've been working in close collaboration with the clan's Military Police Corps."
Shisui could feel himself glaze over. The politics of intelligence work bored him stupid. "That sounds like a world of fun," he commented, barely suppressing a yawn. "Hey, is it just me or did you grow taller in the last three months?"
"I'm so glad you noticed," Itachi replied, in a voice just this side of tart, and it caught Shisui by such surprise that he burst out into laughter. He slung his arm around Itachi's shoulder, unthinking, and only became aware of it when he realized his gesture hadn't been rebuffed. He grinned to himself, absently palming the warm curve of a narrow shoulder.
Not quite a hug, but it would do for now. After all, this relationship was and had always been a work in progress.
"You're late," Mamiya said by way of greeting the moment Shisui stepped into the room. "Didn't I tell you the last time that your pay would be docked if you didn't start being more punctual?"
"Oh no," Shisui answered, rolling his eyes. "That would totally destroy my gold-chip retirement plan. Whatever should I do?"
Mamiya glared at him, and held out her wrinkly hand for the post-mission report, which Shisui realized belatedly had been kept in his back-pocket the entire time and was therefore drenched into utter illegibility. He gave the Hokage's assistant a sheepish smile, which did nothing to lessen the scorn etched into every line of her ancient face.
"So I see you're still doing your best to avoid having to be home," Mamiya said testily, jotting something undoubtedly scathing down in his mission log.
"What does that mean?" Shisui asked, though he had a sinking feeling he knew where this was going, partially because this was the second fucking time today that someone would be bringing it up.
The old bag leveled him with a look. "Shisui," she said, grinding out the syllables in his name, and sure enough, continued with, "According to your record, you haven't been in Konoha for more than three days at a time since you were reassigned to Field Unit." She paused, and went on in a meaningful voice, "I also can't help but think the timing of it all is a little suspect."
Shisui scowled. It had been over nine months already, and he wished people would just let it go. He himself had long moved on. Why was that not patently obvious?
To put in bluntly, in late November of last year, Shisui's father had been found gutted like a fish just outside the village's border where he had presumably been on his way back to Konoha after his annual pilgrimage. His eyes had been gouged out and removed, and the autopsy revealed that he had put up a great deal of struggle before his death. This evidence indicated that, even though the scene had resembled a rogue-nin attack, the murderers were most likely enemies of Konoha who had targeted an Uchiha traveling alone for the purpose of stealing the secrets of the Sharingan.
Shisui had been away on a mission at the time, and upon returning, had been expressly forbidden to participate in the follow-up investigation by both the Hokage and the Uchiha's Military Police—as if he'd had any intention of the kind. In his heart, he had always known on some dreadful level this would happen someday. An even more horrible part of him had also thought that, really, his dad had brought it on himself. If he'd only been more careful, if he hadn't been so stubborn, hadn't ostracized himself from the clan and their protection…
This thought, more than anything, had brought home to him the reminder that the world had just become that much more dangerous to be Uchiha Shisui.
"You opted to be a field agent even though your partner went into Intelligence," Mamiya was saying, eyes grim. "You made the decision a month after the funeral."
The funeral had been small and quiet—the clan had offered to take on the responsibilities, but Shisui had politely declined. For one thing, his father would not have approved, and for another, he hadn't been certain Fugaku wouldn't have started insulting his dad in the middle of delivering the eulogy. He had been grateful, however, to see a significant number of clansmen showing up to give their respect. Despite his dad's insistence on cutting all ties with the family, it was clear he hadn't been forgotten.
But all throughout the ceremony, all he had been able to think was: At least you can be with her now. I hope that makes you happy. I'm sorry I never could.
"Is there a point to all this?" Shisui found himself snapping, fists clenched at his sides. "If not, I'd like to get on with my debriefing already. I'm sure you're very busy and all. There must be some other father who died this week for you to fuss about." For all he knew, this was true.
Mamiya gave him a stinging look of baleful distaste, before shaking her head and waving him on through.
The minute Shisui walked through the door that led into the Hokage's personal office, he immediately choked on the noxious fumes of tobacco smoke. The quite-spacious room had the look of a dingy opium den. Unless the Sandaime was harboring plans to join his predecessors six feet under, Shisui thought, some kind of intervention should be swiftly effected.
Through the toxic haze, he heard Sarutobi's deep voice, saying, "I'm glad you've finally decided to show up, Shisui. Have a seat."
Shisui blinked—his eyes were beginning to water—and saw that a chair had been placed in the middle of the room, directly beneath the Hokage's raised desk. "Uh," he said. "Is this going to be a long session?"
"That depends," Sarutobi answered, emerging from the fog, "on how willing you are to be cooperative."
Shisui knitted his brows together. "I thought I was here to be debriefed."
"There's no need," said the Hokage. He continued to puff on his pipe in a way that made even Shisui worry about the likelihood of developing cancer. "I've already heard all about it from the other ANBU on your squad. Not everyone feels the inclination to be fashionably late, you know."
Shisui sank a little further into his seat. He realized suddenly the purpose of the chair—it increased the height difference between the person sitting in it and the Hokage's desk, which probably came in handy when Sarutobi felt the need to haul a subordinate over the coals. Like he was doing right now.
"Okay," Shisui prevaricated, steeling himself for the reaming he knew would inevitably follow. "But at least the mission was a success, right?"
For some unknown reason, Sarutobi's lips threaded into a tight line. "Yes," he said brusquely. "The mission was a success. A flawless job, without a single loose end. Just like the five assassinations you participated in before that."
Shisui's jaw dropped in sudden insight. "Is this a psych evaluation?" He looked around frantically, half-expecting to see men in white coats melting out of the wall. "Are you actually worried that your ninja who had been specifically trained to be good at killing people was becoming too good at killing people?"
Sarutobi made a noise of faint exasperation, and fixed Shisui with a level, no-nonsense stare. "I worry about nothing of the sort," he said sternly. "However, I did call you here today to discuss a matter that could be considered—relevant."
A pregnant pause descended onto the room. For lack of something to focus on, Shisui found himself twiddling with the edge of the wooden mask in his hands. Why did he choose the weasel design again?
"I would be lying," Sarutobi said at last, "if I said that your performance in the ANBU has been anything but outstanding from the start." Before the self-satisfied smirk had properly crawled onto Shisui's face, he went on seriously, "However, I can't help but notice that, since you became an agent in our Field Unit, your rate of success in killing missions has spiked significantly—and that you seem to have developed a selective preference for these kinds of assignment."
For a moment, Shisui was tempted to repeat that line about resource management, but one look at the Hokage's face informed him that, for once, he would do well to resist the siren call of his Very Bad Ideas.
"I have spoken to the shinobi who accompanied you on these missions," said Sarutobi. "And every single one of them has confirmed that the reason for your increased proficiency has much to do with your, how should I put this, overreliance on a certain technique."
Shisui suddenly felt like a pitcher of ice had been poured down the back of his shirt. In his head, he heard a quiet voice, saying, "Eventually, someone is bound to catch on to that technique."
"You know what I'm talking about," Sarutobi said gravely. "That genjutsu, said to be the most powerful in the five nations." He lowered his voice significantly. "Your Doryoku."
An unflagging effort. The last great exertion. The invincible technique.
"Your Sharingan were fully formed before you were inducted into the ANBU," the Hokage stated coldly. "And you've always excelled at genjutsu. However, you did not start using that particular jutsu until you entered Field Unit. Reason dictates that you could have only developed it within the last year."
Shisui's lips curved into a bitter sneer. "You know what they say, sir. Necessity is the mother of invention."
When Shisui's dad had died, he had quit the ANBU for two weeks. He had packed enough supplies to last a month, and traveled into the mountains outside Konoha, already capped with snow in early December. There, he'd found a cave, and had barricaded himself inside.
Thirteen days later, he had stumbled out, shaking, exhausted, blood pouring from his mouth and so depleted of chakra he'd had to be hospitalized for a week afterward. But in spite of the dry-heaving, the excruciating pain, the temporary loss of vision due to excessive use of the Sharingan, the only thing Shisui could remember was the vicious, burning taste of victory in his mouth as he'd savored the sensation of a blinding, agonizing power raging behind his eyes, emptying his head of fear and doubt.
In the fifteen years preceding his father's death, Shisui had perfected every deadly art the human body could conceivably master, pushing his limits further and further until he'd thought himself untouchable, that he'd acquired more power than any one man could ever need in a lifetime. But what he hadn't factored into the equation was the fact that bodies were fallible.
Bodies could be broken, could be destroyed, could be exposed and dismantled and laid bloody and bare for all to observe.
The last frontier to conquer was the human mind.
His father might have been a family disgrace—or whatever passed for their fucking stupid notion of disgrace—but once upon a time, he had been one of the best, one of the elite, the invincible, and Shisui knew for a fact that underneath the veneer of disillusioned eccentricity his dad had acquired to fend off his debilitating grief, that power had still been there, rippling beneath the skin like a hidden whirlpool.
The fact that it still hadn't been enough to save his life just proved that there was no such thing as enough power, let alone too much.
And if there was some kind of line he would be crossing, Shisui had thought, lying awake at night listening to the wind and the howling of hungry wolves beyond the mouth of the cave, he would just have to learn to live with it, find a place for it inside his heart, next to his anger and his huge, swallowing grief.
It was nothing big, really. He'd just grown sick and tired of losing, of always going down.
Something flicked inside him, like a light switch, and when Shisui looked up again, he saw that the Hokage's face was fixed in a deep frown. It emphasized every wrinkle-line, every crowfoot, every thumbprint time had left on his wizened face, and Shisui found himself thinking, "Someone with as much knowledge as you should understand my decision."
Instead, he said, "If you want me to explain the inner-workings of my technique, sir, I'm afraid I can't comply. It's an Uchiha family secret."
Something passed darkly through Sarutobi's brown eyes. "Is it really?" he asked, lifting the pipe slowly from between his lips. "So I gather your relationship with the Uchiha Clan has improved."
"What do you mean by that?" Shisui said, frowning.
Sarutobi continued to gaze at him with that dark, inscrutable expression. "You did not go to their last New Year Banquet."
"I never go to the New Year Banquet!"
"Why not?" pressed the Hokage. "As I recall, the ban was lifted for your family a few years back."
What family, he thought derisively. "They've sent an invitation every year since I was ten. So what? That's not the point."
Sarutobi gave him a blank look. "Then what is the point?"
Shisui felt an overwhelming desire to drag his hand over his face. He settled for a low sigh, and said, in the least whiny voice he could manage, "The Head of the clan doesn't like me. Which is fine, I'm not very fond of him either, but it does make formal social gatherings a bit… awkward."
The severe look on the Hokage's face softened fractionally. "I understand how you feel."
No, you don't, Shisui thought furiously, the faint pity in Sarutobi's voice pushing his anger to its boiling point. "Come on, Hokage-sama," he snapped, leaping to his feet. "Let's cut straight to the part where we stop pretending this conversation is somehow about me."
Sarutobi's gaze remained even. "How do you mean?"
Shisui felt trapped: cornered, for no reason he could understand. Something was being demanded of him, but he had no idea what. "I'm not trying to estrange myself from the clan. Sure, Fugaku hates my guts, but as for the rest of them—I'm no Mr. Popular but they treat me alright."
Why wouldn't they, a part of him thought snidely, considering all the pretty shiny associations he kept reaping for them, like "The Mirage" and "Uchiha Shisui, Most Feared Shinobi in Three Nations" and "The Uchiha's Phantom Genjutsu Master, Scourge of the Underworld".
"I don't hate them," he continued. It was pretty hard to hate a hundred odd people, most of whom had done nothing to you. "Not like my dad did, and I don't… I don't blame them for his death, either."
"Then," Sarutobi said with a piercing gaze, "who do you blame?"
Shisui opened his mouth, then closed it again. "No one," he bit out, glaring at his feet.
There was a long silence, bleak with tension and misery. It figured that the moment you thought you were in the clear, life would merrily dig up a fresh circle of hell to toss you in.
"I'm not trying to pry into your personal business, Shisui," the Hokage said finally. "In fact, I find it comforting to know that you've been spending a lot of time abroad. Sometimes, distance is what one needs to set one's mind straight—and to avoid the reach of harmful influences."
Sarutobi stopped speaking abruptly, and began shuffling a sheaf of paper on his desk. Then he looked down at Shisui, and said, in an almost casual tone, "Have you spoken much to Itachi since your partnership was dissolved? How do you think he has been faring in his new position?"
"Why are you asking me?" Shisui asked, furrowing his eyebrows. "Like you said, I've been away. You've probably seen more of him than I have in the past few months."
"I suppose that's true," Sarutobi nodded. "And why do you think that is?"
"Well, clearly it must be because I've been out of the village working off my grief by mind-controlling people into killing themselves," he retorted, slipping into the easy comfort being a belligerent brat.
It failed to rile Sarutobi. "Shisui," the Hokage continued, in a voice pitched low. "Would you say that you consider Itachi a close friend?"
When Shisui's dad had died, Itachi had taken a two-week leave from the ANBU, and followed him into the mountains. He had brought his own supplies, and set up camp outside Shisui's cave, pitching his soldier's tent some thirty yards away. They hadn't spoken one word to each other since the funeral, and during the entirety of those two weeks, Shisui had seen neither hide nor hair of Itachi, even on the few occasions he'd made himself come out of the cave for a draught of badly needed fresh air.
Still, he knew Itachi had never left, and he had been the only one present when Shisui had staggered out of the cave on the thirteenth day and dropped into a dead collapse in the thickening snow. His had been the first face Shisui had seen upon returning to the world of the living, and though he hadn't been able to remain conscious for long, in that brief, wavering moment, he had looked up into a grey sky flaking with snow, and seen the closest thing to a concerned expression that Itachi had ever been able to manage.
That image had stayed with him, filed away inside the hollow of his chest, right next to his father's scar-roughened hands and his mother's beautiful smile, gleaned from a yellowed photograph.
Slowly, Shisui shook himself out of his reverie. "Yeah," he said blurrily, working around the sudden lump in his throat. "I would say that."
For a long moment, Sarutobi just looked at him. Then, he sighed softly, and said, "That's all for today. You are dismissed."
"When I can have my next assignment?" Shisui asked eagerly.
"Come back in a week. For the time being, you're on leave."
"But I don't want to go on leave!"
"You don't have a choice," the Hokage told him breezily. "You've exceeded the maximum number of hours allotted for consecutive service. According to regulations, you have to take time off before we can send you out again."
Shisui made an indignant face. "There's no such thing!"
"There is now," Sarutobi said flatly. "Overworked shinobi pose a danger to the success of the mission, and to their comrades. Consider this a forced furlough."
He paused, and gave Shisui a long look, solemn but not unkind. "If I were you, Shisui, I would take this time to take stock of my situation and think about what I might want to do next with my life. You can't use work as an excuse to put it off forever. Sooner or later, you're going to have to make a decision."
Shisui thought he also knew a number of things he would do if he were the Sandaime, but figured vocalizing them would be a sure ticket to the afterlife. Glumly, he stuck his hands into his pockets, and got ready to leave.
"When are you taking the Jounin Exam?" Sarutobi asked suddenly.
"End of September," Shisui promptly replied. "Right before my sixteenth birthday."
Sarutobi raised one questioning brow. "And how do feel about it?"
"I don't feel anything about it, sir," Shisui said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "It's just something you do."
"I suppose, in your place, I would be confident, too," said the Hokage with a charitable smile. "See you in a week," he added. "And don't come back before then."
End of Part I
Notes: For some reason, listening to Tori Amos always makes me want to write Itachi. No exception.