Disclaimer: Naruto still ain't mine.
Author Notes: This is…version three of this chapter. Versions one and two can be found in my livejournal, there's a link in my profile. Thanks to J and Lily for helping me out.
Dedicated to Emmy, thanks for putting up with my bitching honey.
By: Tea Leaf
Naruto stared at the ceiling as the water spread.
It was pouring outside. The roof had collapsed in spots and the water leaking through gathered over the drywall of his ceiling. It was steadily seeping through, creating warped puddles above his head. As the drywall saturated, beads of water started to gather, hanging on tenaciously.
A sudden boom of thunder shook the building; the drops fell, splashing onto the scuffed wooden floor.
Flaring lightning ripped through the sky, seeming to steal all of its power from the wires in his wall. The room flickered into darkness as the building shook again as the thunder boomed. The water picked up speed as it raced towards his floor.
Containers needed to be set up to catch it. The thought dripped sluggishly into his brain but as much as he wanted to, his body wouldn't move.
He was surprised he could breathe.
The swelling around his black eye and split lip throbbed in time with the rain. His scalp felt cold where the blood was seeping through his hair and pooling on the pillow beneath it.
He shifted his eyes, numbing pain shooting up from the effort and blurring his vision. When a mockery of focus returned, he stared at the water steadily spreading across the floor.
He was helpless to stop it.
The rhythm of the rain was intoxicating. So quick, so heavy, it hit the window pane, hit the rail and splashed, hitting her. The exposed skin of her thigh shivered, shuddered as the cold drops landed on her.
Haruno sat on the window ledge, slouched with her feet against the frame. The cold glass of the open window vibrated lightly against her skin as the sounds and smell of the storm poured in.
She suspected that that was what she liked the most about the rain, the smell and the feeling that everything was being pushed back down into the earth.
An open sketch book sat upright against her thighs. Her hands lay dead against her stomach, her wooden pencil resting against her palms. The weight of it pressed down into her flesh, nerves strangely aware of its solid mass.
Her drawing was getting wet. She liked how it looked.
The smooth, gleaming sheath of the katana pressed heavily into his hands, his palms caving to accommodate it like water.
He felt the weight acutely, as much physically as psychologically. So heavy, it had been steadily drowning his sanity since he was a child. This was the extension, his mean to the end he'd been working so hard to reach for so long.
Sasuke had been six when his world crashed irreparably to the ground. Over a decade later, he was still trapped in the ruble. But this, this would save him.
He closed his hands around the wood, knuckles white as he tightened his grip. How simple his salvation would be, how simple his brother's punishment.
He stood, sword held horizontally in front of him as he moved towards the rack on his wall. He set the sword back in its place reverently. He had never unsheathed it. He only would once.
Wood against wood; it was an overly familiar sound that still managed to raise the hair on the back of his neck. Maybe it was the sudden awareness that he was unarmed. Maybe it was the sudden awareness that it was only temporary.
As the dark wood of his katana's sheath made contact with the rack mounted on the wall, he shook his head slightly, trying to clear the strange echoing the sound made in his mind.
Whatever it was, he ignored it, not bothering to justify his natural reactions.
The chair in front of the large windows creaked. It was a strange sound, but would prove useful one day. It would give someone away one day; it would save his life one day. Maybe.
He planned to be dead long before that day.
Red eyed, he stared, steadily focusing on the rain tumbling down the side of the apartment building. Looking past, his attention focused on the window two floors lower and slightly to the left of the building opposite his.
That was his apartment. This was where he lived.
The back wall of the apartment was blank, clear of messages and missions.
There was no work tonight; nothing to keep him occupied other than the patterns he saw in the rain as insomnia continued to plague him.
It had been worse lately.
Uchiha Itachi hadn't slept in five days.
The sharp wail of his alarm clock sliced through the air. With a groan, Kakashi pulled his thick pillow tightly over his ear.
He wasn't ready to get up yet. He'd been dreaming for the first time in years, or maybe remembering was more accurate. His mind was still lost in the fog rolling in with the ships, and the soft smell of cinnamon drifting up from her hair.
The alarm persisted, steadily growing in volume.
A hand crawled out and groped at the contraption, hunting for the right button to shut the shrieking. Finding it, the hand dropped limply before he rolled onto his back stared blearily at the ceiling.
Sunlight filtered through his windows. The clouds from the day before had rained themselves out finally.
Slowly he sat up and checked the time, lips pulling into a grimace before he crawled out of his bed far earlier than any sane person ever would.
Damn school. He'd gotten on just fine without it when he was a kid, why had she been so insistent on going?
What did she see in this second rate, recycled garbage he and every other teacher in that school spewed on her every day? He had never understood, and she had never explained.
Awkwardly, he made his way into the bathroom and twisted the faucets for the shower. Something red flashed in the mirror, catching his attention. He turned, and stared at the tattoo on his shoulder, the mark that would forever dictate his life and his loyalty.
That was the reason he'd never asked, never pressured her. If she needed to be at school, then he needed to be at school to look after her. Because that was what he'd sworn to do.
Steam started to rise from behind the shower curtain. He watched it fog over the mirror, erasing the swirling red lines, erasing him.
If he were the type to be distracted, it would have been that elusive gleam of cold steel against the pitch black of the room that would have been his undoing.
So many nights, like this night, that sharp gleam, sliding easily down the edge of his katana as he swung, was the last thing he wanted to see.
The blade he carefully polished everyday bounced the light. The spark, that one spark, blinked at him a million times over as glossy blood arched through the air and reflected it. Was it poetic?
He couldn't tell.
It was just an idle observation.
Face hidden behind cloth as dark as his eyes, he flicked the blood from the katana sharply, before he sheathed it in the wooden case strapped to his back. He'd clean it once he was back.
The darkness in the room was impenetrable now; whatever the light's source had been was lost now that the steel wasn't amplifying it.
The realization stayed with him on the long walk from the city to the barracks.
It wasn't the bodies hidden in the darkness, it wasn't the blood staining his weapon or splashed on his clothing, it was that illusive, unreal spec of light.
He looked up as he walked, staring at the stars. How bright they were, how close. They were always like that in the winter though.
The cold went unnoticed, despite the exposure his uniform left. He rarely felt anything more that mild curiosity these days.
It was that curious feeling that slowly halted his progress along the frozen dirt road and distracted him from the white fog his breath caused in the air.
Dimly, he was aware of the roar of an engine but he ignored it, dismissed it and the car slowed to a stop beside him. There was a slight squeaking noise as the window rolled down.
"Sempai." The voice was cold, professional, the only voice to be heard now even if the speaker changed. "You're late." So it was feminine this time. He could barely tell.
"Ah…" Cold, professional, and bored. He sounded like the rest of them only worse.
"Get in; the boss wants to see you." She was getting impatient, her voice tightening just so.
He stared at the stars for another minute; strangely involved with the steady numbness the cold was impressing on him.
Finally he turned to her, eyes cold, professional, bored. "Were you sent to fetch me, Yuugao?" he asked the girl, recognizing her dark hair, dark lips, and determined stare.
The color drained fractionally from her already pale skin; she was afraid of him. Maybe it was the blood. Maybe she hadn't fully desensitized herself to her work.
Maybe he would be lucky enough to be dead before she did.
She swallowed, once, shallow, and nodded.
He moved with the grace and direct lines of a predator unconsciously. They'd never taught him how to turn it off.
Pulling open the passenger side door, he slid into the car, slouching and staring out at the road.
Yuugao shifted the gear and took off like the hounds of hell were on her heels. She was still new.
They drove, further and further down the dirt road, deeper into ignored territory as he stared out the window. The stars seemed fainter now, the darkness of the night more consuming as they sped down the road towards the ANBU compound.
They passed the deceptively rusty gates, following the serpentine driveway to the main house. Yuugao dropped him off there, telling him the boss was in his office.
The harsh glare of the electric house lights drowned out the subtle brilliance of the sky.
Another pointless observation.
The house reeked of old money, and could easily be qualified as a mansion. It was meant to intimidate, he supposed, in a grand 'I'm better than you' kind of way. He'd always found that it reminded him of a person with lung cancer who didn't know about it yet. On the outside, it looked perfectly normal, beautiful and well cared for. On the inside, it was rotting and steadily eating away at itself. And every now and then, people like him were coughed up like black blood and spat onto the sidewalk.
He avoided the main house as much as he could. His missions were usually delivered to the barracks, and he was good at his job so it was rare that the boss ever complained. He'd never been ambitious, had no interest in the business part of what he did, and so had never sought to participate in the main house activities.
His was a simple existence. Sleep, eat, train, and occasionally do what he was told to do. He'd never wanted anything more from life.
His feet were heavy as he walked up the steps leading to the main door, solid, polished oak that swung silently and gracefully as he pulled it open.
He didn't bother wiping off his shoes or changing out of his uniform or even just into one that wasn't covered in blood. He didn't care to impress anyone, and the house impressed no sense of respect on him.
When he thought about it, nothing really did anymore.
The main entrance led to staircase and lazily, he wandered up. At the top of the stairs, the carpet led left, and ended at another closed door.
He didn't knock; he was expected.
The room was too big, too stylized, and too dark, like the rest of the house.
He sighed slightly as blood arched through the air, flying past the body that had been standing a few feet in front of him, and spattered the side of his masked face. He felt a few drops land, still warm, in his pale hair. Idly, he wondered if it would stain.
The body slumped to the floor, dark, thick blood pooling on the polished hardwood floor. But that wasn't what he was looking at. The fall of the body revealed the crouched form and glowing red eyes of the latest to be inaugurated to the rank of ANBU captain.
The boy stood frozen for a second, sword still extended, in the perfect finishing pose. He watched him intently, watched him hesitate between sheathing his blade and continuing his attack.
Finally, Uchiha Itachi straightened and pulled a cloth from the dark pocket of his uniform. Slowly, he wiped the blood staining his katana then sheathed it fluidly in the wooden casing strapped to his back. Sharingan remained locked to coal black.
"Hatake. You're late." The cold voice of their boss cut the tension between the two captains better than any weapon could have.
Kakashi dismissed the younger man and stepped around the body and the murderer, moving to stand in front of the boss.
Despite the straight lines and sharp angles, his face always managed to seem smooth and polished. It had taken Kakashi longer than usual to get used to how well his boss used his facial mobility, get used to expressions that looked like they were held in place by wires pulling at his skin. They still vaguely disturbed him but they no longer caught him by surprise.
His slow blink hadn't been caused by the boss's 'friendly' smirk or by the familiar greeting, but rather the little girl sitting in his lap. She was new.
He couldn't tell how old she was, she was small and dressed in lace and ribbons which made her seem young. But there was something in the way her skin had drained of color but her eyes remained steady as she stared at the dead man on the floor that made her seem old. Maybe the look had something to do with the way the boss's hand seemed to be just slightly lower on her hip than was appropriate, or in the way it dug into her slightly, forcing her closer to him.
He mentally shrugged it off. She was no concern of his.
He met the boss's eyes, daringly languorous. "Mm…" he agreed blandly.
A pale eyebrow arched on the older man's forehead. "Mm? That's all you have to say?" There was a dare in there, a challenge maybe.
Kakashi sighed mentally, noting how Itachi moved to stand at anticipatory attention behind the right shoulder of the boss's chair. He really didn't care for these games.
"Mm…Haruno-san," he amended.
Haruno laughed, suddenly and harshly. The little girl cringed, ever so slightly, her pink eyebrows drawing together nervously over sea foam green eyes. Uchiha didn't flinch.
Neither did he for that matter.
His shoulders slumped back into a slouch as he slid his hands deep into the pockets of his black uniform pants. Simply waiting.
"See darling," Haruno began, nuzzling the little girl's ear. "I told you he had a sense of humor."
The girl looked up at him apprehensively, studying him with eyes far older than they should have been. He arched a pale grey eyebrow under her scrutiny. Her eyes hesitated on his white vest and the paleness of his hair.
She met his eyes for a second before her gaze scampered to the floor by Haruno's feet. She nodded slightly to the man's comment and his thumb ran lightly along her side, pleased.
She looked uncomfortable.
He remained silent; his boss would get to the point eventually, and the less he said the faster that would be. He wasn't in any real rush; it wasn't like he had anywhere to be or would have cared if he had, he simply…disliked being here. He would have far preferred his long walk back in the cold under the night sky.
"Hatake, do you know who this is?" His boss asked, jostling the little girl slightly to draw attention to her. She bit the inside of her lip, the skin at the corner of her mouth dipping in like a dimple where her teeth pulled.
"No, I do not, Haruno-san," he replied, following the proper formula blandly. He didn't care for formalities; they were trivial to him. But his boss insisted and bending was just so easy.
He was pleased, Kakashi could tell from the way his attention shifted slightly out of the malicious spectrum. Haruno's attention was focused almost fully on him, but he remained well aware of Itachi at his back. It was the child he ignored completely, treating her like an inanimate accessory rather than a living being. He shoved the girl out of his lap.
She stumbled but caught herself quickly, like she was used to it.
"This is my daughter, Sakura." He introduced her grandly, like she was an award he had won. The girl curtsied immaculately.
"Someday, all of this" he gestured grandly to imply the house and the lands "Will be hers."
Kakashi frowned mentally at Haruno's tone; something wasn't quite right in it. His outward expression remained one of extreme boredom, he simply watched from half-lidded eyes.
The mob boss's eyes settled on his own, smugness sparking in them.
"Someday, all of you will be hers." He continued, not so subtly reminding Kakashi of the bond he had walked into, the contract that had been tattooed in red ink on his left shoulder. The same contract every ANBU member signed.
He looked down at the girl; she was staring at him from beneath her eyelashes, trying not to get caught. He nodded to her, acknowledging her.
Color crept back into her skin, ever so slightly.
He turned his attention back to the men behind her.
"Your next mission starts now." Haruno told him, finally getting down to business. "You are to take Sakura to our apartment in the city and care for her for the week."
Kakashi didn't blink, didn't question or ask for explanation. He simply held his hand out to the girl. She hesitated, looking back to her father for his approval. He nodded slightly to her and she moved slowly, her small, trembling hand engulfed in his much larger and gloved hand.
Without a word, he turned and left, taking her with him.
Black spots swam behind her widened eyes as sharp pain shot through her body. She coughed violently, choking on the air that had been pushed out of her lungs. Blood splattered on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse.
Sasuke stared at her, waiting for her to recover rather than pressing his advantage.
That was the third solid hit he'd landed in the past half hour.
When she recovered enough to speak, Haruno called off training for the day.
His fists slammed with muted thumps into the punching bag, the reverberations of the collision echoing up his arm satisfactorily. Sweat slid down the side of his face, down the curve of his spine as faint pains shot through his muscles.
When they had started, he'd gotten this much of a work out training with Haruno. But he had outgrown her, with remarkable speed, and found himself needing to add to their routine once he was home again.
Sasuke had reached the extent of what he could learn from Haruno, he knew it and it frustrated him. Finding someone new to help him, who would quickly push his abilities to the level he needed, was a daunting but now necessary task. The only person he could even think to ask was their deceptively mellow English teacher, but instinct told him that that would be a dead end and a waste of time.
A final hit sent the bag swinging and he turned away for the day, picking up a towel to mop the sweat from his face and neck.
When he'd arrived here, Ino had told him that there were many organized crime groups in the city. All he had to do was find one strong enough that would be willing to bargain.
He threw the towel into the laundry hamper in the bathroom before his drenched clothing followed.
He'd already managed to hack a few criminal records without really knowing what he was looking for. He was sure that now that he had a better idea, he'd find someone soon enough.
He fiddled with the taps until he found a comfortable temperature and stepped beneath the spray, appreciating the pressure of the water against his skin.
The water pouring from her leaky kitchen sink was cold, the hot water tank having already been exhausted by the other residents of her apartment building. Haruno didn't care though, cold water was more appropriate anyway.
She filled a large glass, and then carefully filled the grooves in her plastic tray with varying amounts. Satisfied, she turned off the tap as tight as she could and carried the two containers to the table.
A large, thick sheet of Fabriano Artistico traditional white cold press paper had already been laid out, an extensive set of watercolor paint tubes and a case of soft bristled paint brushes with it. All supplies she'd pilfered from the art room earlier that day.
With a very hard pencil and a very light hand, she sketched the general outline of her work, basing it on the preliminary layouts and sketches she had strewn around the table.
Perusing her colors, she settled on a tube, dripping it into various grooves on her tray, mixing the consistency she wanted.
Finally, she picked up a large, clean brush, and dunked it into the glass of water before washing the surface of the paper as the steady drip from her kitchen faucet filled her ears.
Itachi stumbled, tripped on the first step leading up to her apartment. He'd used up his coordination for the day earlier on the commission he and Kisame had been sent on. His body wasn't used to going this long without rest.
The keys shook ever so slightly in his numb hands; his body heat had shut itself off. Once the door was open, he headed up to the third floor, the top floor. Turning to the only door on the right side of the hall, he unlocked it; he always had to unlock it.
She had her back to him, crouched over some work that was taking up the entirety of her kitchen table. Again.
He closed and locked the door behind him. She hadn't even looked up.
He shrugged off his dark coat, hanging it beside her red one by the door, before untying his katana from his belt. There was an odd clacking noise that made him grimace as the hilt hit the bare brick wall. It was an undignified sound, an unfamiliar sound no matter how often he heard it. It was just not the sound he was supposed to hear when he retired the extension of his arm for the day. He hated that sound.
She refused to put up a rack for it.
He moved around the table, collapsing into the chair opposite her. Her green eyes flicked up for a second, seeing him but not looking at him.
Her hands switched paintbrushes, switched colors and she set to work on a new level to her painting, looking up every now and then.
He was too tired to ask what she was working on; he was too tired to ask about anything. Steadily, his eyelids cemented themselves together, like someone had drawn a line in superglue along his bottom eyelid.
Haruno watched him as he fell asleep, each glance turning into a new layer in her painting.
She'd chosen watercolors for Itachi, building him in shifting, translucent layers.
She'd tell him in the morning. If he remembered to ask.
She hoped he didn't.
She wasn't sure what he was going to ask her to do once he knew Sasuke had outgrown her abilities.