"Mama. Mother. Hermione."
"Uh, yeah, definitely," Hermione said absently, not looking up from her book. Harry sighed, and jumped up onto the desk, sitting cross-legged on the desk in front of her. After a minute, Hermione glanced up briefly, then sat up straight and stared.
"Harry!" she hissed, and looked quickly around the quiet room to make sure nobody was watching. There were only a few people around, and the only sound was the rustle of pages turning and the scritch of pen on paper. "This is a library."
Harry smiled at her, and made a show of settling more comfortably. "It's lunch time," he said.
Hermione snapped the book shut with a thud, which did get the attention of the other scholars. Harry waved apologetically at the dark looks and jumped down off the table as Hermione rose, gathering up her papers and pens. They skulked out of the room under the weight of disapproving silence, but as soon as the door closed behind them Hermione punched him in the arm.
"You brat, act your age," she said, but stretched out her arms above her head and sighed. "Well, I guess I had been sitting still for a while. Where's Ron?"
"He went ahead to order and save us a table. And watch the punches, hey? You'll get pulled up for child abuse."
Hermione grinned at him. Harry had pulled the short straw this week – Ron and Hermione were both under different variations of an advanced Henge technique, masquerading as a married couple in their early thirties. Harry, unfortunately, got to be their son. For reasons Hermione had speculated about at length, people found groups of three adults much more suspicious than two – even more threatening than a large group of six or seven.
Well, whatever the cause, a couple with a child was the least noticeable grouping of three people they had hit upon. (A teenage older sister with two young brothers was best for eliciting sympathy and free food, though.)
Harry stuck his tongue out at Hermione and slipped his hand into hers. "Mama," he whined, making his voice as high-pitched and annoying as possible. "I want ice cream."
"You brat," Hermione muttered under her breath – they were walking past some occupied offices. "I'll pinch you, see if I won't."
"Child abuse," Harry reminded her.
They kept bickering lightly as they exited the library and headed down the road to the BBQ house Ron had taken a fancy to. If nothing else, it provided good cover. Ron raised an eyebrow when they arrived holding hands, though.
"Hello, honey," he said to Hermione, and to Harry, "good job, kiddo."
Harry's eyebrow twitched, but he smiled at Ron, perhaps showing a bit more teeth than necessary.
"Did you order for us?" Hermione asked, heading off the impending argument.
"Yeah, it'll be here soon."
They filled the minutes until the meat arrived with small talk. Harry had long since decided that the easiest way of staying in character as a child was to keep his mouth shut, and so he stared out the window as Ron and Hermione discussed the weather and a funny old woman Ron had run into that morning.
After the meat had arrived, though, Harry dropped his hands under the table and put up a few discrete anti-eavesdropping charms. Well, genjutsu, technically, since they required handseals, but they were similar enough to standard charms that it made no difference. Any one who tried to listen in would suddenly find some other conversation fascinating and feel compelled to listen in on that one. Anything they did manage to overhear would be impossible to remember – it would slip through their memory like water through a sieve.
"What's wrong?" Ron asked, keeping his body language relaxed, as if they were still discussing the weather.
"I got a message from Konoha this morning," Harry said.
"I didn't know that," Hermione said accusingly. "You should have got me earlier."
Harry shrugged. "It's nothing urgent, I think, and it was addressed to me. He wants me to go back. Apparently there's some problem with my family."
"What sort of problem?"
"No idea, but it's probably political. Knowing that guy," Harry added dryly.
"Huh," Ron said, and lifted a piece of meat of the barbecue in the centre of the table and nibbled on it. "The meat's ready."
"That takes me back," Hermione said absently as she neatly scissored a piece of meat with her chopsticks and popped it in her mouth.
"Yeah," Ron said nostalgically. "It hasn't been that long, I guess, but..."
"Well, two years," Harry said, but sighed. "I don't particularly want to go back yet."
"I wonder how... our former team-mate's doing?" Hermione mused. "I guess he's still in the same line of work." She suddenly snorted. "Can you imagine him taking a genin team?"
Ron snickered behind his hand. "Any kid with him as a teacher would be scarred for life."
"I can't imagine it myself," Harry admitted. "But they'll probably move him out of ANBU at some point, so they can get full value out of his reputation."
"Yeah, but this is off the subject. What are you going to do?" Ron asked.
Harry picked up another piece of meat, but didn't immediately eat it. "I guess... I'll go back. If it turned out to be something serious and I wasn't there, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself. There's no need for you guys to come, though."
"Hey," Ron protested, but Hermione said matter-of-factly,
"Good. I want to finish my research here, and then in Kamiyama. I think I'm really on to something."
"Don't tell me about it. Please," Ron muttered, and Hermione scowled at him. Although her research had started out as a simple search for materials for wands, when that proved futile it had soon degenerated into an academic study on the manipulation of chakra through handseals compared to foci.
Honestly, even Harry found it difficult to get excited about it. He had been perfectly content to leave research behind when he graduated from Hogwarts, and had no desire to take it up again now. He and Ron usually entertained themselves, and they all met up for meals to compare stories.
"Well, I'll be safer in Konoha than Hermione will be here, so why don't you stay with her?" Harry suggested to Ron. "I'll rejoin you guys once I've sorted out my family mess."
Ron looked reluctant, but agreed, and so Harry set out after lunch for Konoha. It was strange to think that it had been almost two years. The holiday had done them all good. For the first few months, they had approached it with the grim practicality they approached missions, but as they realised that there was no pressing objective, they had all relaxed. It was... fun, to be able to choose your destination on a whim. It was fun to create different characters at each town, to briefly get involved in the lives of ordinary people.
While Hermione was conducting her research, Harry and Ron had made a bit of a name for themselves – well, not as themselves, as such, but they'd cleared out a few gangs of bandits and low-ranked missing-nin under false names. It was useful to have a reputation to trade on when you needed it, but mostly it was just fun. There were some really strong guys out there, and if you were pretending to be freelance ninja yourselves, you were almost expected to pick fights with them, just to see who was stronger.
The answer was Harry and Ron, always, but they'd had some close calls. And about half the time, when they were fighting decent guys, they'd beaten their opponents up, kicked them out of town and left them alive and cursing. That was a luxury you didn't get on missions. If someone saw you, you killed them, and you just tried not to think about the state of your soul.
When the scenery began to change into the dense woods and rolling hills of the countryside that surrounded and hid Konoha, Harry found his heart lifting. He'd never really felt attached to Fire Country or the Hidden Leaf before, but this felt suspiciously like coming home.
Once inside Konoha, Harry paused at the turn off to the Uchiha District. He had intended to go speak to Dumbledore first, but being so close, he wondered if he shouldn't have a poke around and see what he could find out for himself.
In the end, it was more a whim than anything that took him towards his ancestral home. He kind of wanted to see how everything had changed - maybe whether anything had changed. It really didn't feel like they'd been away for long at all.
This part didn't feel much like coming home, but it did feel amazingly familiar to walk under the arch and onto the land that was officially designated Uchiha territory. It was late afternoon, almost dusk, and he admired the deep golden sunlight as it lit up the district that was his by blood-right. As he continued to walk, though, something began to niggle at him. He couldn't quite put it his finger on it, but there was definitely something wrong here.
He stopped, and looked around, forcing himself to consider the situation with shinobi eyes. There were none of the telltale signs of danger - no flaring chakra, no killing intent, no glints of light off metal, no sound of suppressed breathing. Everything was quiet.
Everything was silent. Between one heartbeat and the next Harry slid into the frame of mind required for business. He considered briefly going for help, but if the Uchiha district had been attacked then the military police would have been as well, and he couldn't exactly walk up to ANBU headquarters and say 'Yo, give me a hand.'
Instead, he advanced warily into the district. There was still nothing out of place - no fires, no broken windows. Nothing to suggest a battle, and he began to relax, wondering if he was overreacting. Maybe there was some big event on?
Those thoughts were wiped clear when he turned the next corner. Although he knew as soon as he saw the crumpled figure, he still had that same, ingrained human reaction - that can't be a person. The body looked deceptively harmless, like a doll thrown carelessly onto the road by a young giant's hand. The only sign of violence was the few clean lines of blood that marked death by fast sword.
As Harry approached the body, its face resolved into that of a woman. He saw that it was his father's cousin. She had run the bakery on the corner and had once scolded him for disrespect, then given him a free currant bun to make up for it.
In the implacably slow world Harry was inhabiting, her slack face didn't surprise him. He felt as if he had walked this street a thousand times before. He was walking in one of his nightmares, where the past melded with the present and he walked in the company of enemies and ghosts. It was the closest he had felt to the Wizarding World in eight years - as if just around the corner he would see a black robe and green light, or the body of a friend, and he couldn't decide whether he wanted it or feared it more.
Harry kept walking. There was still no sign of danger, which he was vaguely thankful of, because he wasn't sure that he was in any state to fight. Without thought, as if his destination was preordained, his feet led him towards his parents' house.
The house was dark, and he approached it calmly, with only a faint prickle down the back of his neck reminding him that he was very lightly armed and walking into a place that was dark, cramped and could well contain an ambush.
The house itself was empty, and he walked silently along the narrow path to the dojo and slid the door open. His father was holding his mother, head fallen forward, hair shadowing his face. Her pale face caught the light, and Harry wondered distantly how they had died. Had Fugaku been trying to protect his wife when the sword slid home? Had he died as he rocked her, lost in grief? Or had the killers arranged them like this, in a mocking parody of a loving embrace?
Harry could have sworn he was alone in the room, but a dark figure abruptly loomed out of the shadows. Harry stepped back, then relaxed when he saw it was Itachi.
"Who did this?" Harry asked. "What's going on?"
"I did it," Itachi replied. Harry couldn't see his face in the shadows caused by the late afternoon sun. All he could see was Itachi's slowly revolving Sharingan.
"Don't be ridiculous," Harry retorted, but he felt goosebumps rise on his arms, and a very clear voice at the back of his head was saying, you're only lightly armed. "Do you know who's behind this?"
"I wanted to test my capacity," Itachi said. "You're the last one."
Harry's hand was moving slowly back for a storage scroll. He had his own Sharingan activated, but he said, "Bullshit. I don't know what you're trying to pull, but you may as well-"
The world dissolved in red and black, and Harry barely bit back a scream as Fugaku was suddenly right there, alive with red eyes and weapon drawn.
"Itachi!" Fugaku roared, and then staggered, as clean steel appeared through his chest.
Cousin Azuko was carrying four bags of groceries, looking cross, when suddenly her head was rolling across the floor.
Uncle Sado was reaching for the bottle of sake when he slumped forward-
- Keiko was shouting at her children, and lived long enough to see them die -
- Haruhiko was sleeping with Keisuke's wife -
- Keisuke was half way home from work -
- Takane was doing the dishes, and dropped the soapy plate as the tanto crunched through the base of her skull -
- Mikoto opened the door and smiled. "Itachi! Welcome home - we didn't expect you until -"
Harry reeled as the world spun around him, red with blood and black with shadows, and suddenly Fugaku was right there in front of him, with red eyes and weapon drawn. "Itachi!" Fugaku roared -
"Oh god," Harry whispered, as he watching all his hundreds of relatives begin to die again. "Itachi."
He wasn't sure how long he spent trapped in Itachi's illusion, fighting against shadows and running from death scene to death scene. It felt like ten thousand years, and when the world resolved itself back into Itachi's eyes, he felt as if he had died every one of those deaths himself.
His knees gave way beneath him, which was probably the only thing that saved him as Itachi's tanto whistled above his head. He managed to catch the second stroke on a kunai, though, then forced Itachi to block himself by throwing the kunai hard at his stomach.
That won Harry enough space to pull himself back to his feet, and he steadied himself on the wall, desperately trying to pull his shattered mind back together. He saw Itachi's next attack coming and deflected it with another kunai. This time, instead of throwing it, he slid it fast down the blade towards Itachi's hand, and although Itachi pulled back nearly as quickly he only escaped with a long shallow gash across his knuckles.
That steadied Harry a little. Even if he had just survived something very close to hell, even if he felt more beaten and weary than he had felt in years, even if his brother was freakishly, terrifyingly strong for a thirteen year old, Harry was still faster. He could work with that.
Itachi approached more warily this time, and Harry used the time to think, keeping his eyes on Itachi's torso. Harry had the edge in speed, but Itachi was better armed and probably didn't feel like he'd been trampled by a herd of elephants. Harry could use fire-based ninjutsu, but Itachi could probably use it better, though Harry wasn't sure. Genjutsu was useless for both of them. The only advantage Harry had was that Itachi didn't know he had the Mangekyo Sharingan, but Harry didn't have the chakra to use it more than once.
As he had many, many times over the last eight years, Harry wished with all his heart for a wand. It was only a fleeting wish, though, because then there were two swords coming at Harry from opposite sides. Harry looked through the genjutsu, and then the one behind, and then on a hunch looked even deeper and saw through the third. It was purely out of instinct that he threw up a few genjutsu of his own - half-hearted things, which had Harry trying this attack or that attack. Harry didn't put much power into them. Instead, he waited until a bare second before Itachi had broken the last one, and threw all his weight behind his favourite genjutsu, an illusion that showed the subject whatever they expected to see.
That did catch Itachi for a moment, and he leapt back warily. Harry took the chance to escape out the door, heading for Dumbledore and assistance.
He ducked - there was no thought involved. His body moved of its own volition, and Itachi's sword sliced through his hair, scoring a line of pain across his scalp. He was back in the room, and Itachi was right fucking there.
As Itachi's weight changed to pull back - and the world was moving more slowly than Harry had ever seen before, and even the smallest twitch of the smallest muscle in Itachi's leg was lit up in Harry's vision like lightening - Harry drove a kunai through his wrist, snapping the tendon, and just ducked out of the way as the tanto fell. Three kunai used, two remaining. Harry blocked Itachi's left-handed kunai strike with kunai number four, then used his own left hand to send three shuriken singing towards Itachi's head. Itachi moved out of the way easily, slid out of the paths of the chakra strings Harry had attached to them, and Harry hit him with his best Fire Dragon technique, focusing it so intently that it was barely the diameter of an orange and blue flames flickered at the core. Even with all his control, the heat was intense. It hit Harry like a physical impact, and his eyes automatically tracked the beads of sweat which began to roll down Itachi's face as he dodged. Itachi's eyes flickered up to Harry's in preparation for another genjutsu, but Harry was ready this time.
Tsukuyomi, he mouthed, feeling the burn of eyes pushing beyond their natural limits, and Itachi froze, eyes glazing over.
Behind Harry, Itachi's tanto finally clattered to the floor.
The chakra drain of Tsukuyomi was so immense that Harry felt as if he was falling, even as his feet remained steady on the wooden floor. Only three seconds passed for him; two breaths and Itachi was staggering back, and in Harry's mind rested the visual transcript of the three days he had just spent torturing his brother.
He finally understood why the Uchihas were so obsessive about mental training, but that understanding was only a brief flash of distraction through a mind that had only one purpose. Itachi only took one step backwards as he staggered, but Harry was there. He didn't mess around this time. He had used more chakra in the past three minutes than he had in the previous three months, and he wasn't quite sure how much more he could call on before he killed himself, but Harry had never believed in playing it safe. He hit Itachi with his very best genjutsu, backed by nearly all the chakra he had left.
For a moment he thought Itachi was going to throw the genjutsu off - because it simulated an environment exactly the same as the real one, it was hard to make it stick. It was a fiendishly difficult little trick, but Harry had never regretted the countless hours he had devoted to it, and he had no cause to regret them now as Itachi faltered. Harry was aware in the corner of his mind which was holding the jutsu that Itachi believed that Harry had lunged for him with a kunai, and Itachi was now countering, but none of those messages were reaching Itachi's limbs. Itachi had already been stumbling, and without conscious control of his body he fell heavily against the wall.
Unfortunately, the pain of hitting the wall woke him from the technique, but that was okay. Harry hadn't been waiting around to see what would happen. By the time Itachi's eyes flew open in shock, Harry had him bound to the wall with ropes of chakra, near impossible to break, had cut the tendons in his remaining good wrist, and was disarming him - fast, and thoroughly.
When he was done, Harry back away a few steps and sat down hard.
Itachi looked down at him. His Sharingan had faded to black, and Harry suddenly realised that his own Sharingan had deactivated as well. He was out of chakra. He'd gambled his strength on that last move, and it had worked, and now he just had to hope that reinforcements showed up before he couldn't hold Itachi any longer.
"Sasuke..." Itachi said quietly.
"Yeah," Harry replied. It was hard, but he controlled the anger that was rising over his mission focus enough to keep his tone equally quiet as he said, "Aniki."
"You've become strong," Itachi said, voice as unreadable as ever. Harry wondered if he'd even noticed that his blood was trickling down the wall.
"I've always been strong," he said, baring his teeth in an unfriendly smile. "You, on the other hand, have never been stupid before."
"I have often been stupid," Itachi said.
"Shut the fuck up." And so much for controlling his temper - Harry breathed deeply. His head ached so much he could barely think - his heart hurt so much he could barely think. "Who did this?"
"I did," Itachi said.
"Bull-fucking-shit," Harry said, resorting to profanity when eloquence failed him. "I couldn't take out the entire clan by myself, and I'm not the one tied to the wall here."
Itachi made no reply. Christ, Harry had neither the strength nor the objectivity required for an interrogation, and it was his brother, god, his family-
He pulled himself back together with sheer force of will. "I'm prepared to accept that you... condoned this," he said, the words sour in his mouth. "Perhaps you even took part in this. Who else was involved?"
Itachi remained silent.
"I said, who- no, fuck that. Why?" He looked up at Itachi in silent, uncomprehending appeal. "How could you? Do you understand what you've done?"
"I have done what was necessary."
"Who decided it was necessary? Were you ordered to do this?"
Itachi's eyes said yes. Not obviously, not blatantly, but Harry was no slouch as a Legilimens, even without a wand.
"Was it someone from Konoha?"
Itachi looked away, which mean Harry couldn't read him but was a confession in itself. Seized by a sudden, horrible premonition, Harry whispered, "Was it the Hokage?"
There was no reply. Harry couldn't breathe, but at last Itachi looked back at him. "No," he said softly. "Not directly." And it was true. Harry's heart started beating again, and with it came the guilt that he had doubted Dumbledore, but he pushed it away.
"Who, then," he said, leaning more of his weight on his hands. He was almost at his limit. He couldn't even get any threat into his voice, and when Itachi didn't reply, he gave up on getting answers.
Instead he said, "You know, you've done something unforgivable," and his voice was low and rough with emotion. The words made no impact on Itachi's inscrutable face. Harry looked at him, ran his eyes over that young, pale skin - Itachi probably didn't even need to shave. Prompted by that thought, Harry said softly, "You're resolved. You think you're a man, made older than your years by pain and experience. You think you've made the only choice available to you, and chosen freely to bear the sin of killing your own parents."
There was no reaction of Itachi's face, but Harry saw all the confirmation he needed in Itachi's eyes. Harry breathed out slowly. "You're wrong," he said, the weight of experience making the words heavy. "No matter how resolved you are now, you will regret this day for the rest of your life. The pain of regret... you won't be able to escape it. You won't be able to turn back from your path." He paused, tasting the words, letting them fall with all the weight of a curse. "You've done something that can never be undone."
Like stones into still water, the words were swallowed by the silence. There was still no sound of discovery, or pursuit. Itachi was as pale as a ghost, though Harry suspected that was from blood loss rather than emotional disturbance.
Eventually, Itachi said, "My duty is not done yet."
Harry smiled cynically. "You'll forgive me if I'm not inclined to let you kill me."
Itachi shook his head slightly, then closed his eyes as if at sudden pain. "No," he said softly. "My... associate is still in Konoha. He won't leave without me."
"Good," Harry said. "We'll catch him too."
"No," Itachi said insistently. "You mustn't. He will destroy you."
Harry tilted his head. "He'll destroy all of Konoha?"
"Yes," Itachi said. The lines in his face were more deeply engraved than ever. He looked drawn and in pain. "With pleasure."
"Konoha is not that weak-"
"This man is that strong," Itachi said, and at the very least Harry believed that Itachi believed it.
"His name?" Harry asked softly, but Itachi only shook his head. Harry pressed, "If he is a threat to Konoha, then Konoha should know."
"They won't believe you," Itachi said faintly.
"At least they'll be warned."
Itachi swallowed, and let his head fall back against the wall. He'd lost a lot of blood. Harry looked him over with a professional's eye, and judged that he needed medical attention fast if he was going to survive. He didn't move, though. Finally, Itachi whispered, eyes closed, "Uchiha Madara."
The name meant nothing to Harry, and with Itachi's eyes closed he had no way of knowing whether it was the truth, but he tucked it away in his mind anyway. "Where will you go, if I release you?" he asked.
"I will go with him," Itachi said. "I will watch him. I will serve Konoha as best I can."
There was still no sound outside, and Harry cursed Konoha's guards for fools and incompetents. He was starting to see double. The constant drain of maintaining the chakra bonds that held Itachi to the wall had reduced Harry's strength below nothing. He had less than a minute before he passed out from chakra exhaustion, and when he did the bonds would disappear as well. Acceding to the inevitable, he released the bonds.
Itachi's arms fell to his sides, but he made no attempt to stop the blood still seeping from his wrists and his ankles. He stood and looked at Harry, and Harry told him conversationally, "If I ever see you again, I'll kill you. No - if you ever set foot within a hundred miles of Konoha again, I'll kill you. Do you get it? From the minute you step outside this room, you are no brother of mine."
Itachi didn't acknowledge the threat. He looked away and began to limp towards the door, straight past Harry without so much as a glance down at him, holding his broken body together with chakra. Harry didn't watch him go.
The limping footsteps paused at the door behind him, though, and Harry tensed. No attack came, and he looked back over his shoulder.
Itachi was silhouetted in the doorway by the faint moonlight outside - night had fallen. He was looking back at Harry, and he looked like a stranger for the first time tonight. He looked nothing like the brother Harry had grown up with. "Sasuke," he said, and all Harry could read in that voice was pain and exhaustion. "I never intended to kill you."
And then he stepped out of the room. Harry watched him across the porch, gingerly down the steps, and along the path until he disappeared into the shadows. Then he let out his breath explosively and fell back, so he was lying flat, staring at the ceiling. It was an interesting sensation. He was right on the verge of fainting from exhaustion, but with no further drain on his chakra, he seemed to be maintaining consciousness somehow.
"As if you could," he told the absent Itachi. There was thankfully no reply. Harry watched the pale moonlight cast on the ceiling by the open door, and at some point, without realising it, he passed out.