Live Steel Child
Spoilers. Related to Sweet Waters. 'Live steel' is slang for a sharpened weapon.

There is a lie that has been going on for some time, and Kabuto Yakushi has been participating in it.

Ultimately, spies of any Village are taught to leave behind the sacrifices of themselves. To try and retain everything is to scurry like a fattened squirrel, too burdened by the nuts it clutches in its rat's arms to be able to fully escape. Greed is a death trap. So is sentimentalism.

They'll catch you like that, the hunters.

Manipulations must always be double-layered. You must peel away the fat of your own experiences and escape, lean, to regrow once more. You must be willing to shed the most precious of memories and loved ones, proud achievements and honors, and split who you were away without looking back to watch it torn apart. Being comfortable with suicide is what distinguishes the master spies from the mere liars.

If you want to be a professional, you need to be able to die every single time your face expires.

Kabuto thinks about the process of killing himself even as he looks for an instrument by which to do it.

Under any kind of pressure, the mind yields. That much the Villages already know. The very best instructors on torture are the ones who have already undergone it. They are intimately familiar with the ego degradation that accompanies systematic torment; those who survive pass their experiences down, that rival-brutality may become a Village's ally.

Stress shapes children early until, years later, older shinobi still wake with one hand on their kunai and the panicked rabbit-beat of their failing hearts, convinced that an enemy is on the horizon due to shifts of humidity.

Everyone finds their personal vent in a different way.

Kabuto gambles with faces.

Itachi Uchiha watches the sky.

Kabuto can't criticize. He can't speak ill of a habit so innocuous that it should, by all rights, be horrific. Kabuto Yakushi--the medical boy--has his own games and they keep him sane between all his jumps of deception, so he lacks the right to frown.

Instead, he forms estimations. That's his own job, as unable to stop investigating as a hunter-nin is to refrain from checking a trail. He observes other people. He guesses after motivations.

He looks for the weapon that will end his current face and mark the beginning of a new one.

When he arrives at the meeting spot on the Nakano River, Itachi has already concluded business.

The corpse lies with its face still submerged in the river shallows, hair feather-waving in the currents. One of its thumbs bumps against the pebbles. The afternoon sun that pours down leaves the illusion of warmth in a burr around the pale limbs, but Kabuto knows better than to be fooled.

Itachi's legs spoke out from a nearby tree.

In the distance, birds chirrup. The afternoon entwines itself in idyllic, pastoral bliss, designed for prolonged napping. Apart from the corpse half-bobbing in the waters, it could almost be a peaceful day.

Kabuto does not believe it. He circles the tree trunk, not approaching the quiescent Uchiha directly, but choosing instead a flanking maneuver that fetches him up in full view of where Itachi sits. The Anbu's back is against the bark, and the Sharingan eyes are mostly closed, imitating a summer drowse.

An empty lunchbox lies near Itachi's foot. Opened. Inside, Kabuto notes the signature wrappers that his mother uses to package the edible supplies for the Anbu, dumpling-paper printed with dragonflies. All three of the sabotaged treats are gone.

Itachi might be a victim of at least one of them, by the way he makes no response to Kabuto's arrival. He stares out over the river, hands folded in his lap. Strands of hair obscure one sleepy eye. A fly buzzes nearby, landing upon the corpse, and Kabuto smiles.

"There's something about today that bothers me."

Itachi rolls an eye over, an animal's contempt for being spoken to.

Kabuto ignores it. "That's what your expression says, Uchiha. Is the weather so unpleasant?"

"Clouds."

"What?" Kabuto's voice plays hopscotch in its surprise. Itachi does not laugh.

"I've been looking at the clouds." Dragged slow out of his meditations, the Anbu deliberates his words. "Rain floats in clouds. Like kids, when they're young. Clouds are simply unformed water... suspended in the air because it's too light to come down."

"Or too diffuse." Assuming Itachi's mannerisms to stem from post-homicidal bliss, Kabuto kneels down in the grass and unslings his medical kit. He hadn't been sure about which tools would be necessary when he'd packed it; there is no leeway for forgetting anything vital behind. The weight is heavy as a result, and Kabuto is circumspect, placing the kit across a tree root rather than upon grass that would mat and leave a trail behind.

"Same thing."

Kabuto unbuckles the case, tilting the lid open. His half of the nonsensical conversation exists only as rhetoric. "Then what does that make mist?"

"Mist is different." Itachi's denial comes slurred as the Anbu raises his arms up from his lap, spine stretching like a cat. Lazy. "So tell me--what was it like, being a child of its Village?"

Kabuto's smile is a frozen thing as he pauses in his unpacking. He turns his head to glance at Itachi over a shoulder. "Why do you ask something like that?"

Anbu mesh whispers as Itachi pulls up his knee to his chest. "I've been doing some research."The Uchiha's voice has not changed, enunciating in deadpan. "The records say you were found near the Water Country. I'd imagine that's because you're one of them."

Downstream, a particularly loud insect chirrs.

Kabuto listens to the notes. The tune is categorized, and reminds him of mockingbird songs.

"Your blood pressure must be high, Uchiha, to think of such things. Have you thought about having it measured?"

Red eyes lift. The firewheel of Itachi's impassive glare targets the medic squarely. "Don't test me."

Kabuto looks away first. Back to the body.

"I'm going to have the corpse ingest more poison," he explains aloud, with the unenthusiastic duty of a schoolroom teacher. "The secondary dose will cover the first, and will help create the illusion of suicide." Glass clicks against the tray as Kabuto thumbs the vial out; the contents roll dark and fluid inside. "I've tested it before--my father didn't notice on the last batch. Anyone who finds the body will think his death was a combination of both drowning and poison, but that won't avoid all suspicion. Have you thought about possibly forging something, coming up with a story..."

"There's a note on him already."

Interrupted, Kabuto releases the last of his breath, nebulous. "Ah."

Rigor mortis always causes facial features to stiffen first. When Kabuto rolls the body over from the river, its expression is squashed and dripping with water from where it lay in the riverbed. Liberal doses of chakra ease the tension; the stifled heart begins to pump once more as Kabuto runs his fingertips over the motionless corpse, its muscles relaxing like an animal finally convinced to calm.

The particular jutsu of the Dead Soul is a lucky find for Kabuto's training. People often overlook the uses for several cubic feet of flesh. At fifteen, he has already thought of three different uses for the jutsu than simply manipulating bodies for defensive weapons. Diagrams of suicide, in comparison, are child's play.

Mobile at last under his control, the body turns its head towards Kabuto. Obedient.

The medic finds himself smiling at its blank, docile eyes.

He feeds it like a mother to a child, urging the vial between the corpse's lips and waiting patiently for the full dose to be swallowed. When the poison finishes pouring, Kabuto nudges the body's jaw closed with his thumb, rubbing his fingers along its throat to encourage all the toxin down.

"You really should dispose of the body properly, Itachi," he volunteers as he waits, hand still massaging the corpse. Any metabolization of the poison is limited, requiring time to process. "You won't have much time before they start to suspect you. Do you want to be caught?"

"Don't mistake me for you."

"Sorry."

After the lash-quick exchange fades, Itachi suddenly offers more. "It's necessary," he says, staring out at the sun over the waters. "It's... necessary. Consider it a test. One so simple, even my pathetic family should be capable of solving it."

Kabuto--surprisingly, unbidden--finds himself inwardly deciding that Itachi is being an idiot.

"Suit yourself, Uchiha."

After sufficient time has passed, and the insect hum has whirred down to a low constant, Kabuto's thumbs touch the body's arms. He presses the sunwarmed flesh to test for consistency and the state of rigor mortis. When the spy has judged the results with satisfaction, he steps back, and wills the body upright.

Animated by chakra, spasmed corpse-muscles struggle. Full mobility has not entirely returned. Pressured into beating once more, blood flows sluggishly through the lower veins, carrying its burden of fresh poison to legs and feet.

Kabuto watches the body lurch into the river, weight swishing through the heavy currents.

Only when it begins to falter with keeping its footing does he finally have it bend, plunging its head into the waters. Chakra pulses marks his progress as he forces the corpse to open its mouth once more, gulp down fluid like a fish. It breathes in water. It becomes filled.

When he deems the body heavy enough to sink even in a stable stream, Kabuto finally releases his puppetry.

The cloth of the Anbu's jacket bobs once on the currents. Then it spreads out, growing sodden with moisture before it begins to sink.

"It's complete," Kabuto says, taking a step away from the muddy banks. Catching sight of a half-formed footprint, the medic then bends and presses his thumbs into the marks, smearing the guilt away.

Only when the tousled hair of the body has completely vanished underneath the waters does Itachi finally move. The Anbu uncoils. Up to his feet, half-coherency of gestures as he reaches up a hand and pushes the hair out of his face. Every act of the Uchiha implies a harmlessness born of sleep deprivation, or possibly relaxation.

Kabuto, watching him, wonders if he should be deceived.

The medic only glances away, beginning to repack the kit. His work is done. Unlike Itachi, Kabuto has no intention of letting his cards be revealed so soon.

Behind him, Itachi opens his mouth. "Just remember. You have no part in this, Yakushi."

Kabuto rolls his eyes up to the sky. "Sure." Droll. "I won't be a part of the team that your family will request from my parents to come check on the body. In fact, I've never met either you or Shisui before. Not once," he continues, side-stepping the tree root as he begins to stand, his palms measuring out the bark into spider-crawls, "despite the role of the Uchiha in monitoring the laws of this Village, and how often they require medical care."

Whispers of cloth are Kabuto's only warning. Then an impact hammers into him, and the medic finds himself thrust against the tree, Itachi's palm balled into his shoulder. Threat boils out of the Anbu's mouth with deadly indifference, even as he slams the point of a kunai a millimeter away from Kabuto's head.

"Don't play with me, Yakushi. If we ever run into each other again, you will pretend to have never met me before. Is that clear?"

Thirteen-year old breath burns into Kabuto's throat. He thinks he can feel the razor-edge of the blade brushing against his ear.

"Well?"

"Yes," the spy agrees, much too cheerfully.

Both of them know he is lying. Itachi, the summer-drowse bled out of him in one murderous instant, narrows his eyes and gives another shove with the heel of his hand.

"You should be careful, Yakushi. One of these days, you'll mistake live steel for a child's toy."

Kabuto cannot resist the insult. His dexterous brain clamors with the demand to retaliate. The pressure in his shoulder is throbbing; Kabuto can feel the tendons groan and the world begin to contract in tiny pin-pupils of light. Ignoring this, he forces his mouth into a fishhook smirk.

"Let me tell you something, Uchiha. When I was younger, my parents wanted to start training me in medicine early. I cut my finger on one of my father's scalpels, playing with it." Recalling the story in an amiable banter, the medic gingerly lifts his unpinned hand, demonstrating the empty palm. "If they found out, I knew they'd slow down on my lessons. But, look now. There's no scar. What does that tell you?"

Without hesitation, Itachi lashes out a second time. Fingers hard as whip-cords snatch Kabuto's hand, forcing it upwards until the roughened bark of the tree scrapes lines of fire against the spy's knuckles. The Anbu presses Kabuto's wrist until the bones whimper protest.

Unable to resist, Kabuto lets his arm be twisted until the cool touch of metal suddenly whispers against the meat of his thumb, and he realizes just what exactly Itachi is doing.

"It tells me you need more experience with getting hurt."

The blade of the kunai skims into skin. It cuts a winding trail into Kabuto's hand, sliding a strawberry swirl trail around vanilla cream flesh as Itachi shoves the spy's fingers into the weapon. Kabuto feels the corners of his mouth twitch as inchworm gashes of blood blossom like molten brands. Half the nerves are humming--warning signs of tissue damage, the spiral cut of the kunai-wound gone too deep.

He has smiled at two Uchihas today, and deep inside, Kabuto wonders if he uses the same exact expression on them both.

Itachi does not demand further absolutes. He jerks back, freeing the kunai in the same motion. A shake clears splinters from the blade, and then Itachi is spitting his last distaste as he turns to leave.

"Next time, Kabuto, be sure you know the difference between a sharpened weapon and a child."

Kabuto's fingers are shivering in shock as he brings them down to his mouth. The ruin of his tendons weeps crimson. Automatically, the spy touches the marks to his lips, licking at beading drops of blood.

He is all too aware of how they have left enough evidence behind to scream of foul play. From Itachi's kunai-divot injuring the wood, to stray hairs shed when the Anbu struck out--deep inside his shinobi's instincts, Kabuto can feel alarm. Danger. Now his bodily fluids are everywhere. He will have to remove them.

If the police who investigate Shisui's death happen to find any hints of Kabuto's participation, the spy will have to work quickly. Another string of tests must be failed, so that he will appear incompetent, incapable of being a suspect for murder. His current face is far too valuable to let die.

Not yet.

"Be my weapon later, Itachi," he whispers, watching the Anbu's departure. "You can kill me then."