Notes: Apologies for the delay! It's honestly 100% because of the obligatory fight scenes. They are definitely my least favorite scenes to write, and it probably shows. Also, since a few people have asked: there will be no more reincarnations! Everyone else in KHR! is alive and well. Takeshi was the only one to come through.

I. [after one month of training, sasuke vs. gaara]

The stadium is huge, and it's filled with spectators both civilian and ninja. The cheers at his arrival would be deafening at any other arena. As it is, there's likely some sort of seal dampening the sound of the crowd and amplifying the words of the competitors.

"I thought you chickened out, Sasuke!" Naruto yells from his designated spot among the others.

Takeshi scratches his cheek, sheepishly. "Sorry!" He mouths back.

"I won!" Naruto grins, feral. "You'd better not lose, or I'll kick your ass!"

He'd said the same thing right before the preliminaries and that he wanted to fight him in a serious match. Takeshi had been curious how they'd match up, too, so they'd promised that they'd both make it to the finals. Now that Naruto has held up his end, it's Takeshi's turn to pull through, and he definitely intends to.

He smirks in answer, and Naruto chuckles approvingly.

Kakashi vanishes with little fanfare, but Takeshi has spent the entirety of his allotted training time with the man hatching out strategies against Gaara. His sensei thinks he can win. That's all the encouragement Takeshi needs.

He turns around, and upon meeting the wild stare of his opponent, he suppresses a frown. Gaara's mental state only seems to be getting worse, and - he spares a glance at the other Sand genin - even his allies are uneasy. Ever since his team was ambushed by Orochimaru, Takeshi has had the sense that there's more to these exams than anyone is willing to let on. Gaara's borderline madness is only increasing his suspicion.

As the Chuunin looks them over, Takeshi shakes his head and falls back into his battle mindset. Whatever his reservations, his objective is the same.

"Begin!" The Chuunin barks, sensibly flickering away from the center of the ring.

Gaara's sand pours out of the giant gourd on his back and hovers just above him, ready to be called upon at a moment's notice, and Takeshi jumps back out of immediate striking range. He hasn't actually seen any of the Sand genin's fights for one reason or another, so he only has Kakashi's account of said battles and possible tactics. Apparently, he's a long range fighter, preferring to stand still while his sand attacks and defends, and until the prelims, he's never been injured by an opponent.

Lee was able to do just that or at the very least shake Gaara's confidence, and had he not been limited to only his taijutsu, Kakashi had inferred, Lee might have even won. Incidentally, Takeshi had 'recorded' Lee's taijutsu during their confrontation as a result of activating his eyes, and so Kakashi had him imagine those moves and attempt to copy them. It had been... a strange experience.

Takeshi still isn't used to his Sharingan, isn't used to recording and remembering absolutely everything he sees when they're activated. His brain is that of an Uchiha, and thus it's genetically predisposed to not only taking in all of that information but understanding it without being overwhelmed. It's a heady thing, that ability, and he can kind of see how most of his Clan came to be so arrogant with that much power at their fingertips.

Nevertheless, part of his month with Kakashi was spent mastering Lee's taijutsu and speed and acquainting himself with more aspects of the Sharingan than simply enhanced vision. Everything else? He grins in anticipation.

Suddenly, Gaara clutches his head and moans, "Please! I beg you..." His mouth curves into a disturbing grin, despite the apparent pain. "...Mother."

Takeshi drops his own smile, quietly disturbed. Mother?

Gaara continues muttering to himself, "All right, I know. I made you taste such awful blood. I'm so sorry." He lifts his gaze to Takeshi, voice raspy and excited as he promises, "But this time I'm sure it'll taste so very good."

"Maa, sorry to disappoint, but I don't feel like letting you taste my blood today," Takeshi quips.

Gaara ignores him and seems to go through another bout of pain. After a moment, he drops his hand, and when he looks at Takeshi again, the insanity has visibly receded. "Come on," he prompts dispassionately.

Takeshi shrugs, unsheathing his sword. "All right." In one smooth movement, he withdraws three kunai from his pouch and throws them at his opponent. At the same time, he dashes forward. Sand surges up into the path of the kunai, taking the shape of Gaara and absorbing the weapons - and also obscuring Gaara's direct line of sight. Takeshi puts on a burst of speed and appears behind him soundlessly. Gaara tilts his head toward him, but it's too late.

Shigure Soen Ryu All-in-One: Rainy Metamorphosis!

Rain Flames don't so much pour as burst out of his sword with all the force and swiftness of a tidal wave, completely covering a shocked Gaara - and all of his sand - within seconds. It takes a lot out of him, conjuring that much of his flames, but it's worth it. Before Gaara can fully realize what that attack was meant to do, Takeshi switches seamlessly to his favorite form, Shigure Soen Ryu Eighth Form: Pelting Rain.

Reaction slowed considerably via the Tranquility Factor, not even Gaara's sand moves in time to defend him from it, and as a result, he takes the full brunt of the attack. Four pillars of blue fire crash into the walls of the arena, the smaller cuts they made tearing through what must be Gaara's sand armor and leaving shallow gashes in his chest. His face scrunches up into visible terror as he falls gracelessly to the ground and his armor crumbles away, and then he notices the grisly x-shaped injury.

Gaara gingerly lays a hand on the wound and pulls it away, wet. "Blood! iT's My BlOoD!" He shouts disbelievingly.

Takeshi listens to the instincts screaming at him to back away, and not a moment later, a sand spike erupts from the ground where he'd been standing. Gaara's crumbling armor begins to morph the side of his face, and the left side of his body grows a huge, monstrous arm of sand with blue veins running down it. He chances a glance at the other Sand genin, and they look to be even more frantic. So this obviously isn't supposed to be happening. That's reassuring.

As Takeshi watches, the sand forms and reforms, dripping down his body like mud, and even still, he manages to force Takeshi back with more of those deadly spikes. He hadn't been sure how long he could slow Gaara down, considering his ridiculous power and chakra levels, and the answer is apparently not long enough. He's also getting the sinking feeling that he doesn't want whatever that transformation is to reach completion.

Decided, he dodges out of the sand's reach and lands near the wall, and Gaara doesn't chase him. Good. Takeshi settles into the familiar stance and calmly calls forth both his chakra and his flames. Although his fighting style is named for and uses water, in the other world, he'd often been forced to conjure flames instead because there were rarely convenient bodies of water lying around in the middle of a battle. That usually meant he'd tire himself out faster since his flames are basically his life energy. In this world, however, everything is made of chakra, including his favored element, and he can pull it from the air.

He wraps the newly summoned water and no small amount of flames around his body, the two opposites intertwining around one another in a way impossible to replicate in nature, and he charges toward the still groaning Gaara, too fast for the sand and its master to react. Shigure Soen Ryu Tenth Form: Clash of the Swallow!

A harsh gust of wind suddenly attacks him from the left, and utterly unprepared, he's knocked of his feet and thrown away to the far side of the arena where he manages to twist and land on his feet. He glances up and spots the other two Sand genin towing Gaara away as Sand and- Sound? ninja begin attacking Konoha ninja and giant snakes appear and decimate the village's outer wall.

Another look reveals that the Konoha nin aren't particularly surprised by this (and now he realizes that if Takeshi had felt something was going on, then obviously his superiors would have caught on), and Takeshi makes his decision. He follows Gaara into the forest.

II. [half an hour later, in the Hashirama trees surrounding Konoha]

"Sasuke-bastard!" Naruto growls as he lands on the branch next to him. "What the hell was that all about?!"

Takeshi spares him a wry grin. "Knew you'd come after me."

Naruto mutters a curse, unable to refute his claim, and Sakura, only a step behind him, crouches beside them a moment later. "Kakashi-sensei told us to bring you back, Sasuke," she informs him with a huff of breath.

"Maa, we can't just leave this guy to do whatever he wants," Takeshi is quick to retort.

"That's what Naruto said." Sakura rolls her eyes and then focuses them on the still ranting figure of Gaara on a separate tree below. "Sensei didn't say we couldn't bring you back after we subdue the threat, though," she says dryly.

Takeshi laughs. "The old Team 7 logic, huh?" Many of their simpler missions would likely have remained mundane had the three of them not used said shaky logic to convince themselves to go through with whatever lead they'd managed to find while on said missions. "I like it."

"Sasuke...!" Gaara groans, shaking and tail swishing around wildly. "You were waiting for your... friends?" He cradles his head in his hands and snarls, "That's why you're weak! Love only yourself... Fight only for yourself... That's what makes you strong!"

Takeshi frowns, at a loss. The familiarity he's felt ever since he laid eyes on Gaara has grown stronger with that last speech, but he doesn't understand why.

Naruto, never one to stand by while someone dismisses his beliefs, shouts back, righteously angry, "You're wrong! You can only grow stronger if you have something to protect! My precious people made me strong!"

Gaara rasps something back and claws at them with his giant sand arm, and Sasuke brings Sakura with him as he escapes the line of fire.

While Naruto argues with Gaara (and really, what a Naruto thing to do in the middle of a battle), Takeshi dodges more sand and counterattacks with his sword - minus any flames because he exhausted those in his fight earlier - and as many fire techniques as his chakra pool will allow. The shuriken are only absorbed and thrown right back, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult to push back the slithery tendrils of Other from his curse mark. He winces when Sakura goes down, having gotten too close with her Storm coated punches, and he sets her down where she won't get hurt. Then, he's back into the fray.

It's as Gaara rebukes Naruto again that it finally hits him. The strange feeling he'd been getting from Gaara is the same as the one he'd gotten from Mukuro in the beginning. Mukuro had scoffed at friendship and bonds then, too, and even despite that, Takeshi knew that Mukuro had come to see all of them as family before Takeshi had been reborn here. He wonders if Naruto senses it as well and if that's why he's trying so hard to convince him.

The revelation - while important - costs him. In his distraction, Gaara's tail manages to hit him with full force, and he slams into and through a few trees before Naruto is there to catch him.

"Sasuke!" Naruto yells, worriedly. He moves them to an untouched branch next to an unconscious Sakura and sets Takeshi down beside her gently.

Takeshi coughs up some blood - Not good - but he merely wipes it off and smiles. "M'okay. Might not do much good right now, though." And damn if it doesn't sting to admit it.

Naruto nods and then stands up. He makes a fairly recognizable hand sign and announces, "You just sit back and take it easy, Sasuke! I'll take care of this guy!" And with that, his whole body is engulfed in bright, blue chakra. More than that, however, Takeshi can feel the determination pouring out of him.

"Maa, I'm no match for you, am I?" He murmurs to himself, as he watches Naruto and his clones launch the Naruto Uzumaki Combo, careful to keep he and Sakura out of harm's way.

III. [two weeks later, otafuku gai]

"Itachi!" He breathes out disbelievingly, eyes riveted on the cloaked figure ten feet before him who is undoubtedly his sibling. Takeshi has crap chakra sense, but he can feel Flames, especially when they're this close and the flames themselves are so familiar to him.

Itachi, who had likely sensed him from miles away, merely turns his head to the side slightly, enough that Takeshi is in his peripheral view - which is more than enough for an average shinobi, much less his genius of a brother.

His eyes are cold, distant, and Takeshi feels a moment of doubt- but he's no coward. And more than anything, he's learned to trust his gut.

"Little brother," Itachi greets him, as unfeeling and stoic as anyone who didn't know him had always mistaken him to be.

Very cautiously, Takeshi allows his meager Mist Flames to flow into the air, invisible and undetectable by all but experienced Flame Users. For all that Itachi had indulged Takeshi with his flames, his brother had never had the time to dedicate to mastering them. He might notice something is off, but he won't be able to break the illusion. That's what Takeshi's counting on, anyway.

Takeshi's never had a penchant for Genjutsu, despite his legacy and his very blood being inclined toward it. His imagination is pretty boring, and illusionists (not including those in his famiglia) had always rubbed him the wrong way. It's almost funny that he was born into a Clan full of them.

Regardless, all of the Guardians had been 'encouraged' to learn secondary flames by Reborn, and to his surprise, Mist had responded to him more eagerly than any of the others. So he'd begun training with Chrome and Mukuro, which had been fairly amusing in its own way. Mukuro's taunts and threats mixed with advice had gotten through to him more easily than Chrome's more patient, tentative attempts. Rain will forever be his go-to and foremost flame, but he's decent with Mist - so long as he's stationary.

("Your 'decent' is someone else's 'best'," Tsuna explained to him with exasperation.

Takeshi laughed and scratched his cheek sheepishly. "Maa, I don't know about that."

Tsuna slumped, shook his head, and turned away. "Never mind.")

"I know you were forced to do it," Takeshi blurts out, all of his finely worded persuasions and carefully thought out plans evading his grasp now that he's confronted with the real thing. "Our Clan was planning a 'coup, and someone ordered you to- neutralize them." He winces at his own wording.

Itachi half-turns toward him, eyes widened in shock. Takeshi - perhaps stupidly - meets that gaze, pouring all of his regret and heartache and hope into his expression, blindly believing this will work. (He's best friends with Naruto, after all.)

"You did it to protect me," he says, forcing himself to make it a statement and not a question. If he hesitates, he's sure Itachi will try to take control of the conversation, make himself out to be the bad guy - because he's ridiculously self-sacrificing that way. Takeshi's not about to let his brother martyr himself.

"You did it to protect me," he says again, unwavering. "And now, you want me to kill you to- to repent or maybe to force me to become strong enough to protect myself." He sets his jaw and glares. "I won't do it."

Itachi had been listening intently the whole time, visibly troubled, and now, he's scrutinizing Takeshi, clearly mulling over everything he's heard and making connections of his own.

The black of his cloak only serves to highlight the paleness of his skin, and Takeshi is eerily reminded of the last time he'd seen his brother. Even though Itachi is almost the same age as Takeshi had been when he'd died, even though he's an S-Ranked missing-nin and as deadly as he is intelligent, his brother still looks just as tiny and fragile as he had that night. Takeshi's heart aches.

"...Your illusion, it blocks us from all senses?" Itachi eventually breaks the tense silence, somehow having aged in the few minutes since Takeshi spoke to him.

Takeshi's not really surprised his brother figured that out. "Yes."

Itachi, fully facing him now, sighs inaudibly before divulging a name, "Madara."

"Uchiha?" He asks, but it's mostly rhetorical. He's heard stranger things. "He's the one who...?"

The barest shake of his head. "Danzo, the Sandaime's old teammate and closest adviser, contacted me in secret and presented an ultimatum, one that I could not refuse. A civil war or your life?" Itachi tells him, mask firmly in place but cracking around the edges, likely at finally sharing his burden. "I chose the latter and sought out a man who I had been keeping an eye on. He revealed himself to be Madara. He had no small amount of hatred for the Clan and agreed to assist me."

Takeshi steps forward and- stops. Breathes. Swallows. Voice small, he asks, "And then?"

"I fled the village as a nuke-nin. I could no longer stay. Madara promised a position within an organization under him, Akatsuki." Itachi remained still and outwardly stoic. "There, I can gather information and divert some attention from the Leaf Village."

His mind flashes back to Naruto, then, who one of the Sannin had requested join him on a secret mission and who is the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki. Takeshi is only here because he bugged Jiraiya into letting him come. Things start clicking. Takeshi surmises, "You mean from Naruto?" Then: "And to protect me," because that's what all of this is about in the end.

"Yes," Itachi admits readily.

"But you don't need to be a nuke-nin anymore!" Takeshi can barely contain himself. He wants to grab his brother and shake him, make him see, make him realize, pull him out of that pit of self-hatred and solitude. "Come home, nii-san. We'll- we can take care of Danzo and Madara and whoever - together. You don't have to do everything by yourself."

The conversation rings familiar, and he remembers, distantly, trying to convince Gokudera of the same thing. It seems he'll always be surrounded by blind idiots who don't realize their own worth.

His words manage to elicit more of a reaction out of Itachi than anything else so far.

Hesitantly, Itachi ventures, "You would... forgive me?" As if the notion itself is inconceivable.

"I already have," he says easily, having come to terms with his feelings on the matter long ago.

Itachi must realize this, but he presses on stubbornly. "I cannot return with you. The only proof of my loyalty would be in possession of Danzo, who is a bigger threat than you know. Were we to confront him, I am uncertain of my victory."

Takeshi frowns, stymied, but he's just as stubborn as his brother and won't back down when he's so close. "So you won't confront him, not alone. I don't know about the new Hokage, but we can try to convince someone. Jiraiya of the Sannin is in this village, too, and there's Kakashi-sensei and- and Naruto. I think they'll listen if I get the chance to explain it to them."

But Itachi is regarding him with that Look again, the one he gave him before his world was turned upside down, the one he wore when he'd seemed so small and, and he hates it. So Takeshi falters, backtracks, "Then, I'll go with you, and you can train me and- protect me, right?"

The very thought of effectively abandoning the village - his team - when he'd been so vehement about not doing so stings, and he can already imagine Kakashi's disappointment, Sakura's tears, and Naruto's hurt. It roils like physical pain in his chest, but he roughly pushes it aside and focuses solely on the lonely, broken figure of his brother. He has the horrible feeling that Itachi will slip through his fingers if he doesn't dig his heels in here. He knows they would eventually understand.

"Take me with you," he repeats when Itachi doesn't say anything. It's starting to make sense in his head the more he thinks about it. "I know you can get away from Akatsuki if you actually try, and with my Mist flames, we can stay hidden even from other S-Rank ninja. The guy who came with you hasn't found us yet." He's felt him poking around the area, but the other shinobi hasn't set foot in the alleyway.

"No one else can show me how to use my Sharingan," he throws out, and it's true. Kakashi can only teach him so much with only one eye and a few genjutsu.

Resolution burns within him, and his flames wait obediently beneath the surface, ready to be called upon at a moment's notice. He has no need of them at this moment, and it's a testament to how committed he is to this decision that even they are reacting. "I'm going with you."

Itachi holds out admirably, but he caves, as he always does. "As you wish," he says, fond exasperation and disbelieving wonder on full display.

Takeshi grins, so hard that it hurts, and he flings himself into his brother's arms and buries his face into his shoulder. Itachi, who must have half-expected it, merely returns the hug stiltedly.

"I missed you," he confesses, and he only realizes he's crying when Itachi's shoulder grows damp.

Itachi squeezes him a little more tightly. After a moment: "I missed you, too, otouto."

Takeshi laughs- or tries to, and it comes out a sob.

IV. [later that night, a shared hotel room]

"Yo," Sasuke greets him as soon as he walks in the door.

Naruto starts, not having expected his teammate to still be awake at this hour. Nonetheless, he grins back tiredly. "Hey, Sasuke."

He stumbles forward and falls face-first onto the bed next to Sasuke, and he breathes a sigh of relief at the sheer comfy-ness of it after so many hours training. He's drifting off to sleep when Sasuke speaks up.

"You shared your biggest secret with me," he begins, and when Naruto peeks at him curiously, there's a frown marring his face. "So I want to share mine with you."

At this, Naruto sits up and says, "You don't have to just 'cause I did." He's happy that Sasuke would trust him with something so important, but he didn't share his for any kind of leverage. His nose scrunches up in distaste at the thought.

Sasuke's lip quirks up, a bit. "Maa, I know. I want to tell you, Naruto, because it's you."

He tilts his head to the side, bemused. "O-kay," he responds, dubiously. Then, he nods to himself and says, putting on his best Wise face, "Okay. Lay it on me."

Sasuke lets out a shaky breath. "I know that someone forced my brother's hand that day. He was acting on someone else's orders to protect me."

Naruto had never paid much attention to the news about Sasuke's family beyond what it'd meant for his friend - becoming an orphan, just like him. He wouldn't wish it on anybody, and at the same time, he can't deny the kinship he developed toward Sasuke as a result. Still. He'd never given much thought to Sasuke's brother's motives or anything like that. That kind of thinking is stuff Sasuke's good at, and because of that and his faith in his best friend, he believes him without a doubt.

After all, the villagers think he's a demon, a threat to the village, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. Sasuke's brother not being the bad guy isn't so far fetched. And if he did something so unthinkable to protect Sasuke? Well, Naruto knows himself, knows what he'd do to protect his precious people. Killing is his last resort, but it's still something he'd resort to. He can kind of understand Itachi a little, and that's good enough for him, too.

He pulls himself out of his musings and notices Sasuke's nervousness, and he's confused a second time until he gets it. No one else knows about this; that's why Sasuke said it was a secret.

"I believe you." He says, after a moment of Hard Thinking, "But the village thinks he's a bad guy, and they think you're gonna get revenge on him."

Sasuke visibly relaxes. "Yeah, that's the problem." He scratches his cheek a bit sheepishly. "Also... I ran into him today."

"Eh?!" Naruto blurts, shocked.

"I know, I know!" Sasuke tries to wave him down. "I just- I cornered him, and I got him to talk to me. He confirmed my suspicions, Naruto. Finally, I..." He trails off, excited and saddened in equal measures.

Naruto can't imagine what he's going through- because he's an orphan and an only child, and he thinks Sasuke's having trouble dealing with it, too.

"That's great!" Naruto tells him, deciding suddenly that this is a good thing.

Sasuke blinks at him, then smiles brilliantly. "Thanks, Naruto."

"Hehe, no problem!" Naruto chirps, pleased.

Sasuke stands up and heads for the door, somehow lighter now. "I'm gonna take a walk, clear my head. I'll see you later, Naruto."

Naruto yawns and waves a hand lazily. "See you."

Sasuke steps out into the hall, and as he's closing the door, he gives Naruto one last Look - a funny little smile that sets off all kinds of warning bells in his brain. But after a moment, it's gone, and the door is closed, and Naruto decides it was his imagination before falling asleep.

(Later, when Sasuke is long gone and Sakura is sobbing inconsolably into his shoulder, he'll kick himself for dismissing that strange expression - full of regret and guilt and fondness - so easily.)

End Notes: Yes, I copped out of the Naruto v. Gaara fight, but there's no way Takeshi is strong enough - especially after throwing everything he had into his match - to defeat a jinchuuriki right now. Also, fight scene. Enough said. I hope the Itachi & Takeshi reunion was a pleasant surprise! You know, despite the angst. Takeshi leaving with him was so not the original plan, by the way. It's the ultimate example of a scene writing itself. However, I do prefer it this way. (I only just realized this chapter is almost entirely in Takeshi's point of view. Whoops?)

The next chapter will be the last one! I'm going to be really happy once this over, haha. Let me know what you think!