I'm back! First off, I would like to apologize for the much longer than expected wait. My new job and the training that accompanies it has taken up way more of my time than I anticipated. The good news is, I have finally gotten back to work on The Guardian Trilogy. I hope I have not lost any of my old readers in the interim. If you have not already read The Guardian, please do so; this is a direct sequel. Hope you enjoy it.

As always, all source material belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.

Chapter One

It was all Itachi could do to stay on his feet. He braced himself against a tree, struggling for breath. He looked around at his team. They were all covered in the fine mist of blood that had resulted from their target's rather unique form of self-destruction. One of his men, a young man in a bobcat mask, was nursing a wounded thigh. Had it not been for Itachi's battle against his cousin Obito nearly a year ago, this would have been the strongest opponent he had ever faced. He had lost three men, including his team's medic pursuing the former Swordsman of the Mist, and in the end it had all been for nothing.

"Kagemi, how bad is it?" he asked the wounded man.

"Bastard took a chunk out of my leg, but I'll live." the ANBU operative replied through gritted teeth, "What kind of lunatic gets himself eaten by sharks on purpose?"

"A dedicated one." Itachi replied, "He was loyal, even if it was to the wrong people. Whatever else he did, there's honor in that."

"Whatever. We lost three of our own today. I'm not wasting my respect on the bastard that killed them."

"You're right." Itachi sighed, "We have our own dead to honor, and that starts with getting them home. It won't be an easy trip. Let's get started."

The three day journey back to Konoha was long and silent. Hauling home the bodies of their fallen comrades was bad enough, but hauling them home from what was, in the end, a failed mission made it that much worse. This had been the first solid lead since Itachi had taken command of the Anti-Akatsuki Task Force. Not only had they positively identified a member of the terrorist group, they had managed to track him down. Against all odds, they had even found him alone rather than in a two man team as the Akatsuki always seemed to operate. The mission had been to capture Kisame Hoshigaki and deliver him to the village for interrogation. The rouge had proven unwilling to be taken alive. With no chance of extracting any intelligence from a shredded corpse, the mission was a failure.

The loss was hard on the entire team, but it was a particularly heavy blow to Itachi. It was not the first time subordinates had died under his command, but it never got any easier. Making matters worse, the battle had left Itachi more drained than it should have. His illness was progressing quickly. He was not sure how long he would be able to stay in the field. He was pushing his limits already.

It was late in the evening of the third day when Itachi's team made it back to the village. Itachi sent Kagemi to the hospital to have his wounded leg treated while the others took what was left of their fallen comrades to the morgue. Itachi then had the unenviable task of notifying the families of the dead, He had long ago decided that this was the worst part of command.

Itachi made it home at nearly midnight after hours of speaking to grieving parents and sobbing widows. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. The last person he wanted to see was his father, so he should have known that he would be waiting for him when he walked into the house.

"It's late." Fugaku observed, sitting on the couch, "I wasn't aware you had a mission. How did it go?"

"Not as well as I would have liked." Itachi sighed.

"What was the assignment?"

"You know that's classified." Itachi replied, knowing exactly what was about to begin.

"I am the Chief of Police and the head of this clan. It is my right to know what goes on in this village, especially when it concerns my son."

"The Military Police have no jurisdiction over ANBU. The mission is classified."

Fugaku stood up, "Maybe you don't understand your position. I allowed you to join ANBU because I needed eyes and ears inside. I thought I could rely on my own son to do that for me."

"And why do you think you need 'eyes and ears' in ANBU?"

"It is my responsibility to defend this clan from all threats. That means having eyes and ears everywhere." Fugaku replied.

"You think ANBU is a threat to the clan?"

"Of course it is. Anyone who isn't Uchiha is a threat."

"Maybe that's the problem." Itachi muttered.

"I have been extraordinarily lenient with you, Itachi. I've let you make your own decisions, but in just over a month you'll be married and your sole responsibility will be to produce an heir with Mariko as soon as possible. We don't know how much time you have left. You must fulfill your duty to the clan by continuing the bloodline."

That was the last straw for Itachi. He turned on his heel and walked out.

"Where do you think you are going?"

"I have paperwork to do." Itachi replied flatly, slamming the door behind him.

Itachi could barely tolerate being home anymore. His mother had been a smothering presence ever since she learned of his terminal condition. His father had been similar at first, but soon had shifted to the opposite approach. He had all but completely detached himself from his oldest son, instead shifting all his plans and expectations onto Sasuke. On top of his parents' behavior, he was still expected to marry Mariko Uchiha in six weeks, the culmination of the arranged marriage that had loomed over him since he was thirteen. Every time he went home, he was met with wedding plans from Mikoto and lectures and interrogations from Fugaku. It left him little incentive to stay long.

ANBU Headquarters was a haven for Itachi. He could sit alone and write his mission reports in peace. This particular mission had left him with a great deal of paperwork to finish aside from the report. Intelligence had to be updated, injury reports had to be submitted, personnel files had to be altered, and post-mortem commendations for the fallen men had to be written. Itachi worked into the earliest hours of the morning.

It was only a few hours until dawn when Itachi finally finished his work. He was on his way out when he noticed light streaming out from under the closed door to the ANBU Commander's office. Hushed voices emanated from the room. Commander Rota should have been off duty many hours ago. Itachi knew it was none of his business, but curiosity got the best of him. He found himself eavesdropping.

"You said the same thing five years ago," said the voice of Commander Rota, "Nothing came of it. They've always been arrogant sons of bitches, but I've seen no evidence to suggest they would do anything this extreme."

"You see only what you wish to see." said a second voice Itachi recognized but could not place.

"Even if you're right, what you're suggesting is excessive and would only stir them up more. My men will have no part in it."

"Consider your position well, Rota. Consider whether or not you want to keep this command you are so proud of."

Itachi realized the conversation was coming to an end and someone would be leaving the office any second. He quickly continued down the hallway and out of the building before he could be caught. He was not certain what he had heard, only that he was not supposed to have heard it. Clearly someone had been threatening to remove Commander Rota from command, but who had that kind of influence, and why would they be threatening an ANBU commander? Itachi tried to put the entire incident out of his mind. It was clearly a headache he did not need.

As Itachi had hoped, the house was dark when he got home. He had nearly made it to his bedroom when Sasuke's door opened and the boy stepped out in his bedclothes.

"Hey." his little brother greeted.

"What are you doing up?" Itachi asked.

"What kind of shinobi would I be if I let somebody sneak into my house in the middle of the night without being caught?"

"Probably the same kind who can't sneak into his own house without being caught."

Sasuke shrugged, "I couldn't sleep." he admitted.

"You have training in the morning. You need rest."

"Dad was pissed tonight." Sasuke said, ignoring him, "He called you 'an ungrateful brat with no respect for the clan'."

Itachi sighed, "He wants classified information. He can get as angry as he wants, but I can't give it to him."

"…Why not? It's just Dad. It's not like he would do anything bad with it, and maybe you would argue less."

"I can't. You'll understand when you're entrusted with classified information."

Sasuke scowled, "If that ever happens. So far all I've been 'trusted' to do is chase cats and pull weeds."

"D-rank missions have their purpose. Prove yourself with the small missions and they'll trust you with the big ones. Be patient."

"Tell that to Naruto. He's been begging Kakashi-sensei for a real mission for weeks."

That came as no surprise to Itachi. Naruto had always been a bit too enthusiastic for his own good. From what Itachi remembered of Kushina Uzumaki, he had gotten it from her.

"This probably isn't what you or Naruto want to hear, but don't try to grow up too fast. Don't be like me. I got promoted young and I missed out on a lot. I don't want that to happen you."

Sasuke looked away, "I'll tell Naruto to cool it with the begging, but what about Dad? He keeps asking me when I'm going to take the Chunin Exams. He says he's going to confront Kakashi if we don't start getting C-ranks soon."

"He's trying to make you the new me." Itachi sighed, "I'm sorry. I never meant to put you through that."

"It's not your fault you're sick. I can handle myself. Don't worry."

"We both need to be up in a few hours. Try to get some sleep."

Sasuke nodded, "Goodnight, Aniki."

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