Chapter 39

It was actually quite interesting fighting an Aburame who was not using their bugs, Itachi thought as he idly dodged a knee aimed squarely at his groin.

Most of the time in Itachi's experience of one-on-one matches (and there had been more than a few Aburame huter-nin he had evaded or left locked in genjutsu back in the Akatsuki days), high-level Aburame tended to fight a bit like Uchiha. In that the best fight was one where they simply set a trap via the family jutsu and then let the family jutsu flatten their opponent.

No muss, no fuss.

It tended to lead members of both clan to develop a lot of ways to fight from a distance, attempting to force their opponents to stand back and let the jutsu hit them. The Uchiha Grand Fireball technique was a Clan favourite because most opponents would instinctively look directly at the burning mass of death being spat directly at their faces, and thus inadvertently establish eyecontact with the fireball spitter.

(Itachi still fondly remembered the first time he had managed to do the Grand Fireball Combo, where one spat a Grand Fireball, established eyecontact, locked the enemy in a genjutsu, and then let the fireball knock them back out of the genjutsu for maximum effect – his older cousins sometimes giggled and called it the Spitroast Attack for some reason– he had always found that a little odd honestlt... Oh. Oh maybe that was-)

Itachi bent backwards at the waist to avoid catching a knife-hand strike in the throat.

Right. Should probably be paying a bit more attention rather than reminiscing.

Muta was, after all, a tokubetsu jounin, and if the slight tightening of his mouth was anything to go by, probably not amused by how Itachi was almost zoning out during the fight.

Indeed, Muta was showing a level of precise taijutsu that Itachi could not help but be somewhat impressed by. Not a single motion was wasted.

Itachi dodged a punch aimed for his left ear, and dropped, lashing out with a leg sweep.

Truly, a methodical and disciplined opponent.

Very different from Anko.

Muta almost lazily jumped over the leg sweep and dove straight for Itachi's chest, aiming to knock the wind out of him.

"Grappling? Really?" Itachi said, trying to divert the Aburame's momentum into the ground. "Cribbing from the Inuzuka playbook?"

Muta huffed as he managed to put Itachi in an armlock. "Yes. Why? Because I have fought Uchiha before, and unexpected tactics tend to be those that work best."

It had been a while since Itachi had fought against someone who managed to be both logical and creative.

Itachi smirked as he lashed out at Muta's face with the kunai in his free hand, forcing the Aburame to release him or get stabbed in the eye.

Muta retaliated by forcing Itachi to dodge a sudden barrage of shuriken, that, had he been any less aware of his surroundings, would have caused him to run headlong into a tree.

Really, Itachi admitted to himself, he was probably enjoying Muta's parries a little too much.

"Ah, so you are aware of my clan's weakness," Itachi said in response as he threw down a smoke bomb to hide his flash step to a spot to Muta's five o'clock.

Muta was already turning to face him as Itachi tried to trap the Aburame in ninja wire.

Muta dodged by sinking into the earth, and Itachi went airborne to miss the hands that immediately grabbed for his ankles…

Only no, it seemed that Muta had decided against the obvious tactic, because now Itachi could detect his chakra from the treeline to his right.

Itachi almost smiled. It was oddly refreshing to not be right all the time.

"You talk as though it is not blindingly obvious that the greatest flaw in any Uchiha is hubris," Muta said, punctuating his words by setting off the explosive tags he had buried beneath Itachi's feet.

Itachi executed a textbook kawarimi with a convenient log (blessed be the log, for the log is your saviour) and barely concealed a wince as the log became a mist of splinters.

Flashstep, duck the punch, push him up against the tree.

"And do you find me typical of my clan?" Itachi wondered, as he held a kunai to Muta's throat.

Muta dissolved into mud.

Itachi felt a light pricking sensation at the nape of his neck, and then felt his world grow a little hazy.

"I do not know, if you are typical of your clan, Uchiha Itachi," Itachi heard as though from a long way away, "but you are certainly full of hubris."

Itachi sighed.

And then whirled and punched Muta in the jaw, catching him before he collapsed.

Itachi sank down to sit at the base of the tree, cradling the Aburame. He mused that despite the slight swelling from the last hit, the man looked quite peaceful, struggling on the edge of consciousness like this.

"You may not be wrong," Itachi admitted, "but I came by my arrogance naturally."

Muta groaned.

"How typical for an Uchiha," he said a little muzzily as Itachi removed his goggles to check for signs of concussion.

Itachi looked into Muta's slightly unfocussed amber eyes and smiled.

"If you like," he said, lightly running his fingers through Muta's long brown hair.

Muta did not smile back.

But he did grab Itachi by the ear and kiss him.

Itachi's subsequent collapse from the contact poison applied to Muta's lips probably should have been something he anticipated.

Damn, he thought. It seemed that the Aburame might have a point about Uchiha hubris. Itachi had definitely underestimated his opponent.

"I believe that I win," Muta said, catching Itachi and preventing him from hitting the ground hard. "I noted the other day that you do not appear to have a strong resistance to poisons. This is something you should perhaps work on," the Aburame chided him.

Getting knocked out in a spar, Itachi thought vaguely as the edges of his vision began to go dark, should probably not be so hot.

…..

"What do you think should be done about Itachi?" Mikoto asked, as she calmly readjusted her kimono after a pleasant afternoon in her lover's company.

Minato, straightening his own white and red robes, grimaced.

"I have not made a decision yet," he said, as he replaced his hat, neatly hiding the somewhat dishevelled state of his hair.

"Honestly, I am unsure how to proceed," the Hokage admitted. "Itachi has clearly shown that he could easily put down a tokubetsu jounin if inclined – more than one source has reported back the results of his spar with Anko, who I'd honestly rank S-class should she ever go Missing – but I'm hesitant to put him back on the roster considering the reports I've been receiving on his psyche from Sho."

Mikoto nodded slowly, and cast an E rank fire jutsu on the kettle to warm the water.

"That is reasonable," she said, reaching for the jar that held her favourite sencha blend, "although you know you will have to give him something to do, and soon. In the past month alone he has had a hand in digging up a number of Orochimaru's spies, as well as taking the time to train both Sasuke, your son, and that pink-haired girl… what is her name again?"

"Haruno Sakura," Minato replied absently, kneeling on the other side of the low table from her. "Highest ranked kunoichi in her class, even before your son started giving the three of them tips to improve. I have high hopes for them."

Mikoto hummed to herself as she busied herself with the tea preparation. A few minutes later, and two cups had been poured, fine steam rising from them.

She took a slow sip. "So you aren't going to bother with the old lowest-score/highest-score team tradition that your predecessor set up?"

Minato blew the steam off his cup and scoffed. "I honestly never saw the point of that. Poorly balanced teams tend to have internal problems that can shatter the squad. You know what happened between Kakashi and Obito before they managed to nearly get their entire team killed working against each other." He took a swig of his tea and grimaced, thinking about how much of a catastrophe the Kannabi Bridge incident had been.

If it hadn't been for Sakumo tracking down the presumed dead Obito when he had, who could say what kind of mess Kakashi in particular would have ended up being? Minato might have been forced to dump Kakashi into ANBU until further notice, to ensure that his self-destructive behaviour was at least used for the benefit of the village. As it happened, Kakashi's complete reversal from concerning aloofness into co-dependence upon Obito's return and rehabilitation had been more than a little disquieting, but certainly at least since then Kakashi had finally seemed to have stopped being so resistant to the teamwork culture which put the Leaf Village ahead of its rivals.

It was not the sort of object lesson that Minato was happy that his team had been forced to undergo, but he could certainly not complain about the results. His Team 7 might not be as illustrious as the Sannin, but they were definitely one of his most effective and versatile exfiltration squads.

Mikoto nodded. "I understand," was all she said, but Minato could see that his lover was pleased from the way that her lips twitched minutely.

"Besides," Minato said, "considering the fact that there's a Nara and a Yamanaka in the class, the rankings are all off anyway."

Mikoto's head tilted to one side. "I understand the comment regarding the Nara – I well remember my own experience having Nara Shikami as a classmate, I know how they tend to throw their grades – but the Yamanaka?"

Minato huffed a laugh. "Yamanaka techniques split between interrogation and infiltration, and both require a certain level of understanding of human nature that makes them work to seem less threatening or more likeable. And what a coincidence," he said sarcastically, "people are less threatened by those they perceive as less intelligent than them." He looked at her pointedly and added, "You might have some insight into the effectiveness of that technique, considering how Yamanaka Kuchinashi managed to get the drop on you."

Mikoto smiled serenely in a way that told the Hokage he would probably be paying for that jibe later. Probably in public, in the middle of a Council session.

Ah well. If it caused his arrogant Uchiha to take a little more care, then Minato would take his lumps with grace.

(Besides, Mikoto in a snit was vicious in bed in a way that uh… Minato resisted the urge to smile in a way that would reveal the direction of his thoughts and thus invite swift and no doubt painful retribution prematurely. He shot a glance at Mikoto and could tell by the cant of her shoulders that his preoccupation had not escaped her. Ah well. There were worse ways to go.)

Delicately pouring herself a new cup of tea, Mikoto changed the subject back to her original topic. "So? What do you intend to do with my elder son? I gather that you wish to keep him close to the village then."

Minato grunted in agreement. "After that little display out the front of the Academy, I've been considering sending him to work for Ibiki. That was an impressive display of intimidation. I never would have thought him capable of it, before."

Minato and Mikoto exchanged a long look. There was no need to elaborate on what Minato meant by 'before'.

He shrugged, continuing. "Otherwise, perhaps he could spend some time in the Police Force. Left to his own devices Itachi seems to trip over all manner of conspiracies, which might be useful there."

Rather than acting as a loose cannon, Minato did not say aloud. If Itachi had managed to be even somewhat subtle, the opportunity would have been there to pressure some of those spies into becoming double-agents. At the very least, they could have simply ensured that they were fed misinformation. Some time working in T&I might have the benefit of impressing upon Itachi the benefit of being subtle.

It was not that Minato was ungrateful for Itachi saving his son – quite the opposite in fact, Minato the father was nothing but satisfied at how Itachi had protected Naruto – but even though the results of Itachi's actions had ended largely positively in the short term, he had effectively shut down the possibility of using any of the spies as pawns in any long-term intelligence strategies, which halved their usefulness.

Thinking a Hokage who had to consider all future ramifications of any of his shinobi's actions, this was not an ideal outcome.

"With respect, Minato, are you not currently down an Academy teacher?" Mikoto asked, diverting his thoughts.

The Hokage did not need her to elaborate to understand the drift of the Uchiha matriarch's suggestion.

"You think Itachi would make a good addition to the Academy staff?" he asked, a little surprised.

Mikoto leaned slightly forward, her mostly-shut yukata sliding open a half-inch in a move that Minato was entirely certain was deliberate. The unsubtle manipulation tactic was practically his lover joking with him – he knew that she knew that he saw through such obvious things – and yet, Minato could not help but smugly admire the developing bruise from a lovebite that was revealed by the shift in Mikoto's neckline.

"Have you not been pleased with how he has been training our sons?" Mikoto asked rhetorically. "I believe that the Academy would be well-suited to my son's talents."

Minato considered this for a moment, staring into the space beside his lover's head.

On the one hand, Itachi was a psychological mess, who Minato had absolutely not been letting near his son unsupervised. (Hyuuga were so very useful for covert long-distance observation. It had not been difficult to hide the presence of Hyuuga Hitomi who could settle several training grounds away and observe the interactions between Itachi and others and give reports regarding any odd behaviour. As a single mother with young children, Hitomi had been very pleased to receive the long-term in-village assignment so that she could spend more time with her family.)

On the other hand, seeing as the Academy was at the base of the Hokage tower, it would mean keeping a close eye on Itachi would be a lot easier. The sheer number of ANBU who passed through the tower on a regular basis, as well as the Academy instructors themselves, would be well-placed to keep a close eye on the Uchiha.

And there was the added benefit that it seemed that Itachi had at the very least the ability to be patient with children and pass on his skills…

Perhaps it was worth checking if he also had the inclination.

It would not be the first time he had placed a pacifist in the Academy in order to get maximum value from them as a ninja. Umino Iruka was another one, and come to think of it, might be a good influence on the largely aloof Uchiha.

Although, from what Minato had been hearing from more recent reports from Hyuuga Hitomi and Sho Suzume, it sounded as though Itachi had been (re)forming social connections largely on his own recently without prompting.

Chances were that Mikoto had a second, more hidden agenda for suggesting that Itachi be placed in the Academy, (look underneath the underneath, as Minato had always told his subordinates) but Minato was sure that the two of them had similar enough goals at present that whatever her less obvious purpose was it probably was not specifically set up to bite him specifically (although he suspected that any backlash would nonetheless give him a headache because sometimes being Hokage was like being a swan sharing a pond with a flock of cantankerous ducks – although the ducks were individually not a threat, their squabbles could be extremely annoying).

Hmmm. Maybe this suggestion was worth a trial.

"You make an interesting suggestion, Mikoto," Minato admitted.

Mikoto smiled politely, but it did not reach her eyes. "Of course I do."

The Hokage placed his cup down, and took her free hand, holding it until she looked him in the eye. "That was not me diplomatically putting you off. Honestly. I will need to speak to some of the Academy instructors, and there will most certainly be a probationary period, but I really think your suggestion has merit."

Mikoto's smile became more real. "I forget sometimes how straight forward you are," she said, putting her own cup down and leaning forward over the table.

Minato brushed a loose strand of hair behind one of her ears, and laughed. "I blame proximity to Kushina," he said. "Next to her, everyone seemed subtle," he said a little wistfully.

Mikoto smirked, leaned forward and kissed him.

"She would be proud of what you have accomplished," she said, pulling back slightly. "Especially with how you have raised your son." She smiled softly. "He and Sasuke already make each other strong. I look forward to what they accomplish."

Minato grinned. "Pure havoc, no doubt," he joked.

"Living up to Kushina's legacy then," Mikoto teased. "All the better to inflict on our enemies." She picked up her tea-cup and raised it in a toast. "May they have long and successful careers."

May they survive more unscathed than Itachi, Mikoto prayed silently, as Minato laughed and light-heartedly returned her toast with his empty teacup.

At least she was sure that the boy who had returned to her wanted the same thing.

Regardless of whether he was truly her son or not.

...

A/N: Proof of life. Next chapter on the usual schedule of updates occurring completely without warning and at seemingly random intervals. But if you're still with me you're probably used to that by now.

Hope everything is great with you people who've been sticking around. See? Your hope for a new chapter was not completely in vain.