The bottom of Itachi's feet felt cold as he stepped onto the cool wooden paneling of the hallway floor. He kept one hand trailing along the wall beside him to keep himself steady as he made his way through the stifling darkness of the confined space. Around a corner up ahead, he could see a light, and curiously walked toward it. He could hear sounds coming from the lighted room. Small quiet ones that made the padding of his feet on the floorboards seem louder by comparison.

When he finally got to turn into the brightness he saw, it made him squint because he was so used to walking through the dark. He had known that would happen, even if he didn't consciously ponder it for very long. But even so, once noticed, he had been drawn to the bright light at the end of the hallway; his father had only recently taken his nightlight away.

His eyes hurt all the more when he stepped into the living room, and then from there, out of the shadows of the half-wall counter area that separated it from the kitchen, where the light spilled from, where everything was bright and reflective and incredibly tall. Every chair and tile collected the light, absorbed it, only to bounce it back at him and into his sensitive eyes. He didn't like it. It made it hurt to look at anything. Anything, except for her.

She was standing in a corner on the far left side of the kitchen with her back to him, unaware that he was there. He walked toward her quietly, tilting his head back as he came closer. She was tall enough so that she didn't have to stretch or ask others to help her get something when she wanted it, but even with that bonus, he knew she wasn't especially big. His father was bigger than her. Her hair was long and black, and she wore it in a ponytail hanging down her back, contrasting with the color of her periwinkle dress. Staring up at her, Itachi wanted to pull on the back of her dress for attention, but didn't. He didn't remember seeing her very often when his father wasn't nearby. He wasn't sure if it was okay.

When she finally turned around, in the process of doing something that he couldn't see from his vantage point, she reared up in surprise and nearly hit his head with her knee. Itachi stayed where he was though, staring at her and watching the process her reactions went through. First surprise, then the slight worry at almost hitting him as she retracted her knee, and then the smile that overrode everything else.

She had a bowl in her hands when she turned, but while she looked down at him, she put it back on the counter behind her, keeping her eyes on him. Then she kneeled down, and even then Itachi still had to look up to see her smile. She brought her hand to her chin contemplatively and said as if she were addressing someone older, "Good evening, Itachi." And then, "Shouldn't you be in bed right now?"

He blinked at her. In his mind, the question barely received minimum thought. Only one word registered before he began shaking his head from side to side.

The woman's smile widened. "No? I could have sworn your father tucked you in..." her eyes darted to the side, over his head, to where the clock hung on the wall behind him, "three hours ago."

This time, Itachi only looked at her in response, but she was able to read his answer all the same. Leaning closer to him, she raised an eyebrow and asked, "Wrong again, am I?" One hand ruffled his hair while Itachi waited for his lie to be found out. His father always knew when he was lying; he wasn't sure if the woman did too. Itachi held his breath, waiting to be told to go back to bed. But the same amused smile brightened the woman's face. "Do you want to help me?"

Again, Itachi blinked up at her.

The woman sat back on her heels, waiting patiently for his answer while he turned the question over in his head. He didn't know what she was doing. She might be expecting a specific answer, or correct him if he gave the wrong one. He wasn't sure. However, when he finally did nod his head in response, she didn't hesitate to reach out and pick him up before she straightened to go back to her work. He was set on the counter beside her bowl, which contained a sticky brown-ish substance that Itachi frowned at when he looked inside. Scattered on the counter across from him, he saw containers of sugar and flour and peanut butter left out with open tops and unscrewed lids.

The ruffling hand in Itachi's hair returned for a moment while he listened to the woman warn him to be careful not to fall. Then she stepped away from him, and Itachi watched her go to the refrigerator and open the massive door. She was holding a long gray carton in her hands when she came back to him, which she set down before going off to find something else.

A bottle was set down on the other side of the bowl, which Itachi looked toward curiously, but was not explained. "Give me your hand, sweetie." The woman popped open the little gray carton and took something out that felt smooth and cold against his palm. She arranged his fingers on it, hers molded to his to keep them in place while she tapped it against the bowl and then tore the shell apart, making sure that it was just clumsy enough to make it seem as if he were doing the breaking and tearing too. She repeated the process again with another egg, and then the carton was taken away to join the other used ingredients she left out on the far counter.

When she came back, he was still looking over the rim of the bowl at the goopy yellow spheres that nestled between the mounds of pale brown sugar she had poured in earlier. Taking his hands again, after she found a large plastic contraption that Itachi didn't recognize and plugged it into a power outlet in the wall, she wrapped his fingers around the thick handle and held them there while she dipped the metal attachments into the bowl's sticky jumble. A switch on the upper side of the handle was flipped, and then the metal pieces began to twirl.

Itachi stared. The woman, expression not revealed by her position above him, merely guided his hand to keep the beater's moving through the partially formed batter.

To the side, she keep another bowl well out of Itachi's reach, which she paused every few seconds to take large powdery spoonfuls from to be added into their unnamed mixture. While she did this, the woman spoke to Itachi, explaining things he didn't fully listen to while watching the spinning metal pieces beat the powder until it disappeared into the sticky mess, and asking him questions that he answered with either a nod or shake of his head.

When the woman turned the machine off, Itachi frowned up at her, and was told, with the same happy smile as before brightening her voice, that now they had come to the fun part. He stared blankly at her while she unhooked the beaters one at a time, offering him the one that retained the more sizeable amount of their mysterious concoction. He didn't understand what she meant when she motioned for him to take it.

"Try it," she said softly when he only looked at the batter matted on the object's outcrops. Sweets weren't allowed in the Uchiha household. Itachi knew that, even before he knew what to call the woman standing in front of him. Or even understood that the amused glint in her eye said that she knew very well that he should have been in bed at that moment and didn't care. He could see the pink bag on the counter of discarded ingredients, and though he couldn't read the words printed on its side with the exaggerated curving "Su" and the curling "gar", knew what it contained. But the woman reached out and gently wrapped his fingers around the stem of the beater, coaxing him into taking it. She smiled back at him when she noticed his look toward the bag on the counter, moving to block his view.

She watched him as he experimentally picked off a piece of the dough with his tongue. It tasted like peanut butter and sugar and few other things that he cared less about. He tried to chew it, then gave up with the substance was too soft, and merely held it his mouth, watching the woman to see if he was eating it correctly.

He liked her.

When he swallowed, he licked his lips, looking at the beater for a moment, and then again at the woman. He took another bite.

"I knew you would like it," the woman said when he swallowed. She picked up the bottle that she had left on the other side of the bowl and, wiping the rim briefly with her finger, turned it to her lips. While she was doing that, Itachi was busily licking his own beater clean and coming to the decision that he liked sugar. A lot.

"Cookie batter and sake," he heard the woman say above him. She was putting her bottle down and finally taking up her own beater. "Your father wouldn't like hearing about this," she said softly as she looked at him through the corner of her eye. She turned, and for years to come, Itachi would wonder whether her hand had dropped down to hover over her stomach momentarily before she began to laugh. "Neither one's his favorite, but you won't tell on me, will you?"

Itachi mutely shook his head, and returned her smile while he took more of the dough off his beater. He knew even then that his smiles were small, often unnoticeable things; already, he was identified as being a somber child by the grown ups his father showed him too. But he thought that she always knew how to see his smiles, no matter how slight or tiny they were.

When the woman went down under the counter to search for a pan in the lower cupboard, Itachi licked the last of the cookie dough off of his own beater. He looked at it for a second afterward, and then at the bowl which she had placed strategically on the opposite side of the sink before she went under.

A crash went up a moment later, and the woman's form shut up like an over energetic jack-in-the-box with the sound of a pan clashing against the kitchen tiles below. Then she saw Itachi, lying in the sink atop the pans that had been left out to soak during the night. She looked at him curiously for a moment, and he stared back at her, not crying, but reaching out wordlessly with his beater toward the other side of the sink in silent demand. Then she started to laugh.

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Human memory is a highly selective thing. Too often it is caught up in the senses, to be stimulated and brought out by an odd sound or smell from a time before. Even if the memory in question is old, and has been nibbled away by time and buried under new events, the impression of it can still linger. Itachi wasn't prone to having those moments when something on the back shelves stirred in his mind. He kept a vigil hold over himself almost constantly, which often caught and canceled out anything that might jar his mental status. A good shinobi had complete control over himself psychologically as well as physically. Things that came along with wearying head throbs and frustrating distractions were difficult to function with and had to be repressed; Itachi was fortunate enough to be only rarely overtaken by them, which was one of the reasons that he believed he had lasted as long as he had in the akatsuki organization. It could not be forgotten, after all, that even Sasori had been caught off guard when suddenly reminded of his parents at an inopportune time, and that that mistake had cost the Sand fugitive his life.

But in the case of a genius child, memories that were at one time coveted would not be easily dismissed when the child became an adult. Before the Sand traitor's death, Itachi had thought about approaching Sasori about the memory block technique he had created and asking to copy it for his own use. The idea had been dismissed after further contemplation, when Itachi came to the decision that he didn't trust the puppeteer not to question why he wanted to learn it. A minor inconvenience wasn't worth the trouble of tarnishing his image among his peers by taking such an extreme measure against it. And so he let the dustier corners of his mind go untouched whenever it was unnecessary to do otherwise.

It wasn't in him to be sentimental.

Itachi rolled onto his side, blindly staring into the darkness above him. He could hear Kisame's breathing across the room, each breath sounding reassuringly through the silence.

Inside the tunnels of the akatsuki base, the notions of day and night, and which one was meant to be given over to sleep, were forgotten. Daylight didn't reach inside the tunnels. The Leader assigned sleeping hours as he would guard duty, making sure that the base was never without a pair of agents resting and one patrolling for surprise attacks. Kisame and Itachi weren't on the present schedule, though knowing the Leader, they would likely be by morning. It had taken them two weeks to return from their last mission, when it had taken three to set out. The missing time, which had been shaved off at no small expense on their part, had become little more than a frantic dash after a team of ANBU from the Leaf had stumbled onto their trail, likely setting aside whatever mission they had been set out on originally to follow it. But rather than slowing them down, the rush to loose them had brought Kisame and Itachi to the akatsuki headquarters a full seven days ahead of schedule.

Kisame had fallen asleep almost immediately after their arrival, likely exhausted from the return journey. Missions that required minimum killing were always more tiring for the shark nin, but both he and Itachi knew better than to go against regulations when their Leader told them that a mission was to have absolutely no slip ups. If not, Itachi was sure that there would be several shredded corpses near the border between the Wind Country and the Fire Country, and suspicious glances being directed toward the wrong people.

Itachi had gone to bed a bit later than Kisame. While his partner slept, the Uchiha had taken a shower to wash the dust off his skin and out of his hair, then from under his nails and the inside of his ears. Kisame was used to his cleanliness. It was one thing that Itachi could honestly say that he missed from his old life in Konoha; as a relatively inexperienced ANBU captain, most of his missions had kept him close to his home. No long treks through hostile countries, or spending weeks at a time without a town or even a source of clean water in sight.

Now, after his cleansing rites had been completed and his toiletries set aside until the next night, Itachi laid waiting for sleep to take him. At the same time, staring toward the dark shape of his partner's back, and feeling the shifting pressure within his head that told him a migraine was threatening to extend his night. Itachi shut his eyes on the possibility, rolling over. There was a question lingering in his head, neglected and stubbornly unforgotten, despite the conversation that put it there having met and abrupt end exactly two weeks pervious.

"What's your first memory?"

Opaque darkness greeted Itachi's eyes behind their lids when he glared at something that wasn't there. When he opened them for a moment, frustrated, it took him a long moment and several blinks before the blurry form of his partner could be made out on the bed across from him, which did little to help. He knew that his eyes were failing him, had known even before the Leader ordered him to have them checked. The explanation that he was eventually given pointed to the extra pupils of his sharigan and claimed that their over-usage had, and still was, causing damage to his natural one. Whether the damage was permanent, however, had not yet been stated within Itachi's hearing.

Unacknowledgingly, Itachi's eyes closed again. The memory question echoed. It was attached to the clouded eyes and trusting smile of a nine year old girl, the only child of a Wind Country feudal lord that the akatsuki had agreed to deliver to a terrorist group stationed outside Suna. They were hoping to elicit a dispute between the shinobi village and the civilian leaders. In the past, Itachi knew that a mission in the Wind Country region would have been passed onto Deidara and Sasori's team, due to the latter's knowledge of the terrain. Sasori would have been able to coax the girl's body into motion without waking her, bind her with chakra string, and then disappear from the feudal lord's residence without leaving a trace of evidence behind him. But since the Sand fugitive's death, missions that would have called for his expertly subtle touch needed to be shouldered by others with less qualifying skills. Itachi had had to sneak into the girl's room to lure her out after a quick flash of his self-destructive eyes. Then later, he had heard her scream when he let the jutsu drop, and the illusion he created for her disappeared moments before their clients tore her tiny body apart with a massive wave of manipulated sand.

Neither Kisame nor Itachi actually touched the girl throughout the abduction. There had been no need to, with her following them blindly, seeing only the fantasy that Itachi's eyes propelled into hers. The killing, their Leader had told them, was to be left to their clients. The Wind Country group insisted that there was a very specific way that the girl needed to be killed to create the desired conflict, and for the fee promised, the akatsuki were glad to oblige.

In bed, Itachi sat up, feeling the warning flash of the looming headache and the heaviness in his eyelids that told him he really was as tired as his partner. Kisame's continuing breathing was the only sound when Itachi got up and crossed the gap between their beds. No padding sounds this time, unlike the clumsy memory of his early childhood. An arm wrapped itself lazily around Itachi's shoulders when he pressed himself lightly against his partner's larger form, similar to what a child did when they rolled over and unconsciously found their teddy bear lying next to them. Afterward, Itachi waited for a moment, listening for a warning change in the breathing pattern that didn't come. The arm on his shoulders settled in comfortably under the blankets, assuring him that the shark nin was still deftly asleep.

The first time that this happened, Kisame had been startled to wake up with someone else curled against him (which Itachi suspected was only increased after he had rolled over and delivered a stare that could have stopped a lesser man's pulse). Itachi was seventeen then, fresh from their failed mission to bring back the kyuubi vessel and half drained from using his mangekyou on both the Copy Nin and his foolish little brother. Once his confusion had ebbed, Kisame had asked Itachi if everything was alright and received little more than a curt nod in response. Nostalgic attacks since then had been sparse, but a ninja learned to adapt quickly. At least enough so that Kisame's blood pressure no longer rose at the sight of a sable ponytail under his nose in the morning, or asked for explanations about how it got there from his sober-mannered partner. In the akatsuki, one had to ignore at least one odd tendency with every comrade, and whether Itachi's tendency had been shared with the other members was still uncertain. Itachi had once been shocked to see Tobi take off his jacket in the base washroom and discover that there was a fairly large chunk missing from the fleshier part of the older ninja's arm. "Have you ever heard of a condition known as 'sleep eating'?" Tobi had said to him flippantly when he noticed the Uchiha's stare. Itachi thereafter decided that compared to some comrades, his sneaking into Kisame's bed every now and again was hardly something to complain over.

But in regards to their mission, the assignment hadn't been that unusual. Kisame and Itachi had done worse things to younger children without flinching. When they walked away with the sound of wreathing sand behind them, there had been no regret. They had both heard of the strategy that the Sand terrorists were using before in different missions that the Leader had assigned them for the purpose of organization funding. But the girl's question outlived her, and now sought vengeance on his mind. When the jutsu was dropped, her head had been turned precisely toward him, though his illusion had been meant to blot out her surroundings entirely. He was supposed to have been a disembodied presence, a voice on the wind. An imaginary friend.

He didn't even know why she asked.

"What's your first memory?"

Itachi's eyes narrowed at the shape of his empty bed, now standing across the room from him. His hand came up to grip the wrist of the one of Kisame's arm that had found its way around him, pulling it tighter for a moment. It was unintended comfort that was offered without the shark nin's conscious thought or consent. The presence of another body to keep him from slipping too far into the past and coming back with feelings that were better left rotting behind the cobwebs of his memory.

His first memory might have been sitting in the kitchen across from his mother while she knowingly consumed sake and cookie dough during what may have been one of the earliest months of her pregnancy with Sasuke. If he had been in a mind to answer questions, he might have told the girl that before she died. But he knew better, and the part of his memory that knew that roared for attention. A genius would remember more. Muddled and worn down by time, and the fickle interests of a child, faces with names that he had forgotten or never learned lingered at the back of his mind. He remembered staring up at the woman who in retrospect, wouldn't be that much shorter than him now, and the reluctant pride that eventually replaced the warmth behind her smile. And the coolness of a lone leaf pressed against his forehead as he tired not to fall asleep during what he knew would have usually been his nap time. But more strongly than that, he remembered goggles.

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Breeding was a sensitive subject in the early years after the Uchiha clan's formation. The clan had started as a neglected branch of the Hyuuga that had managed to somehow break away from the byakugan bloodline through a seldom discussed mutation. As a result of that, for the first few years afterward, it had been a scandal. A yet to be established clan, baring little more than a new a bloodline ability that the head members fervently believed the slightest error in judgment could cause to lapse back into the Hyuuga byakugan. Marriage was closely monitored by the clanhead, and though by the time that Itachi had been born the restrictions were beginning to wane, the idea of the sharigan's frailty had still been lingering about the older members. Marriages to non-clan members had occurred before Itachi became heir, after the sharigan had existed and produced a few generations of successful, red-eyed shinobi, but he remembered that inner members were still heavily encouraged to marry within the family. It was noted, strongly, that the bloodline was often stronger in the children of mutual clan members rather than outsiders.

Along with the sharigan though, there was also a resemblance that ran strongest in the heart of the clan, where the code of inner-marriages was still strictly adhered to, between the Hyuuga and the Uchiha that interbreeding was incapable of stamping out. Outer members of the clan, with their foreign mothers or fathers, were able to overcome this irksome reminder of their heritage. They had the chance to be darker, or taller, or bear noses or foreheads or hair that made them distinctly stand out in family gatherings. But in them, the sharigan was also often less developed. Diluted, would be a more appropriate word. When he killed off his clan, Itachi knew that he had permanently crippled the sharigan. Even if Sasuke returned to the Uchiha estate and repopulated its deserted streets, the bloodline would never be able to reach the same level of purity again.

During Itachi's more powerful nostalgic fits, he could vaguely picture the outlining of a face that bore one of the non-traits of his family. The chin was the only part that he could clearly remember, which was most likely due to the fact that that was the part of the body most evident when someone leans over a very small child. He could remember the smoothness of its shape, in contrast to the slight point that Itachi knew was more common in the head family. He assumed that it might have been darker than was usual for the interbred clan members as well. He made the final decision that it must have been before his left his clan, when he found a drawing of the Uchiha family tree in his father's study. At that time he had been eleven, and the boy with the smooth chin had been gone for years, but he found his name on the tree all the same. It was at the end of a line, where one miniature branch of the family had apparently ended with his death.

Uchiha Obito (deceased).

"So that's him? He doesn't look like an egghead."

"Don't let Fugaku hear you say that. He's pinning everything we have on him making hokage by the time he's twelve."

On the chart, Obito had been more closely related to him through his father, but in his hazy recollections of the time when they must have known one another, had been more liked by his mother. Fugaku's name, by some twist of irony, had been connect to Obito's through a series of three simple lines, while seventeen confusing turns and angles separated the boy from that of his wife. But the confusing order of ranks within the family had been well beyond Itachi's understanding when he had met the outer clan member. He only remembered for certain, regardless of shape or color, a prevailing smile, and staring at his cousin's teeth, wondering why no one else seemed to have any that were quiet that large.

It was hard for Itachi to place his age for that time. He knew from a fuzzy handful of recollections that his older cousin had come to stay with the main family briefly, though he could not be sure of the cause. It was too early for the kyuubi's attack on Konoha to have wiped out the boy's parents, or for them to have been killed during the war with the Lightening Country that took place during his early childhood. He also knew that Sasuke hadn't been born yet, because he remembered the day that Mikoto discovered she was pregnant, and the boy with the strange goggles had definitely been there. He had been the first person to come inside after Itachi had heard the decidedly frightening sound of a plate shattering against hardwood flooring.

He had been sitting at the dining room table that morning with a stack of blank papers and a box of crayons, when he heard the plate drop. It had been after breakfast, and he remembered the woman settling him there because outside it was raining, and she didn't want him to be bored while she did her chores. When Itachi had turned around after the sound, she was leaning over the sink, back shaking, and he didn't know what she was doing, or why her hands were clutching the sides of the counter. He had just blinked at her, and watched as her back rippled. Odd splashing sounds came from the side of her that he couldn't see, as something dropped into the water in the sink.

By the time that Obito came in, dripping wet from being in the rain, she had already stopped convulsing, but was still leaning over the sink, breathing audibly as her body forced itself to unwind. Obito's expression, much like the memory of his face, failed to stay with him through the years. But the air had grown tighter after he came in, and then again after he went to get Itachi's father. Itachi remembered wondering during the commotion that followed, whether he was supposed to have done something, as if a three or four year old boy could have helped a convulsing, vomiting woman in some way. The woman had had to be taken away for awhile, and Itachi was left with his older cousin, who complained that he was going to be late for something but was largely ignored as Fugaku led his reluctant wife out into the wet morning.

Itachi had stayed at the table with his crayons while the woman was taken away. She had said that she didn't want to go, but his father was insistent. Itachi still remembered staring curiously toward Obito, who stood near the kitchen window uncomfortably as Itachi's parents walked away. Years later, when Mikoto told the story to Sasuke, he would be carefully referred to as "a cousin."

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Between Itachi's father and Obito, he knew there had been a tension that, at such a severely young age, Itachi could only barely sense, much less place the cause of. He had no doubt that it had been there, though. It may have been rooted in the differences in their personalities; Obito had been sensitive and animated, hailing from one of the lowest reaching branches of the Uchiha family tree, and if Itachi's memory served true, prone to mishaps and white lies. Fugaku must have hated him. Or it might have been because, on the pedigree in the back of his father's study, a line stretched from the center of the page, where Fugaku was connected to Mikoto, to reach a set of grandparents that Itachi had never met, who had produced two children before their deaths: one who had married an outsider and produced one son, who would later join the grandparents at the age of fifteen, and another, who would make one of the largest jumps in status that the clan would ever see.

His father's original status in the clan was another subject that Itachi would learn about from his mother's evening stories with Sasuke. The grandparents on the chart, the only family members that Itachi and Obito would have addressed with the same title, had died together in a poisoning that occurred near the start of a previous war. Fugaku, at age thirteen, was a rookie ninja by that time. After the tragedy, Uchiha Fugaku's progress through the shinobi ranks had picked up, and eventually caught the attention of the clan head. He met Mikoto when he joined the police force, where by chance, he had been assigned as the clanhead's daughter's partner for a brief period of time before he surpassed her.

That part of their history, regarding their partnership and how it may have affected their marriage afterward, was a portion of the story that Mikoto would coyly leave out of the bedtime stories she told her youngest son.

It was possible that his father's housing someone that he had clearly disliked had been the result of a concealed sympathy from one former go-getter to another. It wasn't an easy scenario for Itachi to picture. But whatever the reason, Obito had been there. There were a few details about living with him that still clung to the back of Itachi's mind like enduring cobwebs to keep the memory alive: he had had a habit of leaving the toilet seat up, for which Itachi, at that time barely a head taller than the bowl itself, couldn't fathom the reason to; his older cousin had also seemed to have a problem with remembering Itachi's name, which it only occurred to him later was intentional. Obito had likely picked up on Itachi reluctance to use words idly with others, and instead chose to lure him into using them unconsciously.

"What's going on, Itchy?"

"Itachi, not Itchy."

"What's that?"

"Itachi!"

Obito had spent most of his time outdoors. Usually, training; Obito had been a chuunin when Itachi knew him, and one that was bent on increasing his status at that. And there lied another possible reason for his presence in the Uchiha household: if Obito had been as boisterous as Itachi's memory led him to believe, then he might have sought Fugaku out himself. His time away from his team had been spent with Itachi's father, near a lake that was half on and half off the Uchiha property. Itachi had seen them there at one point, though how he had gotten to the lake, he couldn't recall. There had been a playground constructed on the side that wasn't a part of the family estate, which his mother may have taken him to, but how a toddler, granted, a prodigy toddler, could have noticed two figures on the opposite side and managed to walk away from a chuunin mother, seemed odd even to him.

Nevertheless, he remembered sitting in the untended grass at the lake's edge, and looking to where his father and his cousin were standing at the end of the solitary dock. Fugaku was explaining something to Obito, moving his hands slowly through a pattern of movements and then watching as the younger clan member clumsily twisted his hands in the same way.

Obito hadn't been gifted with the sharigan, Itachi had heard when he was older. In his entire life, Obito would only activate his bloodline ability once, and then shortly afterward pass away. But whether his failure to master the sharigan was due to a weakness in his diluted genes or ineptness in his abilities as a ninja as a whole had never been clear. When Itachi's father had finished the introduction to their family jutsu, he had gone through the hand motions one more time, this time faster, without speaking, and then turned to spew flames over the open water of the lake. Neither Itachi nor Obito moved while the jutsu was preformed, both watching as the flames circled in on themselves and formed what could only be described as a massive fireball. Itachi's eyes had widened as he stared at the swirling fire growing larger in front of his father's hunched form. When he was older, his mother's after dinner storytelling would reveal that his father had mastered the family jutsu at age eleven, during the training time given for Genin before the chuunin exam. For awhile it had been his trump card, before the sharigan replaced it. The longest stretch of time that he had ever been able to hold the jutsu was four minutes exactly, and regardless of what the future held, Itachi had never beaten it.

Fugaku straightened when his breath had run out, in a distinctive gesture that Itachi would remember long after his death. His father never slouched, and had hated it when others did. When he addressed someone, his spine was always a rigid line, and that didn't change depending on whom.

Before he walked away, his father waited for Obito to attempt the jutsu on his own. When he stepped off of the dock's planking, Itachi was almost certain that he had looked up and saw his father's eyes on him, which in the future would suggest the possibility of his father bringing him to the lake for the purpose of watching the jutsu practice. That wouldn't have been too far out of character.

His father left him at the foot of the dock, watching as Obito produced fiery spheres that could only have been a fraction of the size that Fugaku had achieved. Perhaps if his father's practiced rendition of the family jutsu hadn't been so stunning to a small child—who had not even master the pronunciation of the word "chakra"—Obito's early attempts would have held his attention more successfully. He couldn't remember how long he stayed there before Obito turned around and noticed him watching.

If Obito had paused for a moment, showing that he hadn't been aware of Itachi's presence at all, it would have only thrown Itachi into more questions about how he had gotten to the edge of the lake so far away from the main part of the Uchiha estate. As it was, he couldn't be sure that there was one. Obito had walked down the planking toward him and dropped down to his level when he came to the end, hands resting on his knees as he smiled at him. He remembered staring at the goggles on top of the older Uchiha's head, and thinking that the sunlight shining off them made him look odd.

"Hey, Itchy."

"Itachi."

"Wanna learn how to make a fireball?"

After Itachi's betrayal in the years to come, rumors had spread from the Leaf regarding his reasons why. Some people had thought that his actions were not his fault, that it should have been expected from the way he had been raised. Those people, he had been astounded to hear, pinned the blame solely on the shoulders of Uchiha Fugaku.

"That's what happens. Start 'em too soon, and they'll snap like firecrackers."

Whispers spread claiming that the Third Hokage was considering passing a law banning the training of children below a designated age. It seemed odd to him then, and had remained so since, because in actuality, his father had not been the first person to train him. Fugaku had pressed for his improvement and pushed him beyond standards that he might have set for himself as a starting ninja, until Itachi had achieved the status of one twice his age. But none of that had started until after someone else had pointed out that he had the potential to surpass his age group. The first person to teach him a jutsu hadn't been his father at all. Instead, it had been a wayward cousin who noticed a toddler's curious stare and decided to humor him until his parents came to take him home. Later, it occurred to Itachi that Obito probably hadn't meant for him to actually pay attention to the shapes he made with his hands, or to remember them later. After all, Obito hadn't thought of Itachi as a prodigy then.

"Hey, you're pretty good."

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Obito hadn't been lying the day Itachi's mother began retching into the sink. He had needed to be somewhere that morning, and when Fugaku and his wife left, they didn't return until three hours later. It was because of the rain, his mother claimed during her story. The injury rates tend to rise during the rainy season, when ninja training in the forests (Genin mostly, though she hadn't specified a particular group) might forget to channel a little extra chakra into their hands and feet to keep them from slipping on wet bark, or unknowingly perch on a branch that was about to snap. In the hospital waiting room, she was continuously turning to her husband and insisting that she could wait, that whatever she had was nothing serious and that the girl with the fractured shoulder, or the boy holding his teammate upright could go in front of them. Eventually, Fugaku had had to remind her that their nephew was waiting for them to return before she would go into the doctor's office quietly.

Itachi hadn't been old enough to gauge the passing time then. He remembered that he stayed in his place at the table where the woman left him for most of the time, shrinking his stack of papers and the length of his black crayon. Obito had come over and sat down across from him at one point, and was idly drawing clumsy orange swirls on the back of one of Itachi's earlier pictures after giving up hope of a speedy return. "Don't worry, she'll be okay," he had said, and Itachi remembered wondering whether he would get in trouble if he said that it wasn't the woman that was making him feel uncomfortable, but the boy's periodic growling at the clock. He knew that they had been waiting for Fugaku and the woman for awhile though, because Obito's team wouldn't have come looking for him otherwise.

Itachi had looked up from his drawing when he heard someone knocking on the front door, but facing a different direction than his cousin, he also saw the window above the kitchen sink slide open. Obito didn't notice. The older Uchiha got up and went to answer the door, while Itachi watched two hands appear on the windowsill, and then body hoist itself up and through the screen-less frame in a fluid motion that took all of three seconds to complete. The unknown hands planted themselves on the very edge of the sink as they pulled the rest of their body through, not making a sound, then the body straightened out upside-down, pressing its feet against the ceiling before the hands were allowed to let go. And to Itachi's astonishment, the person breaking in didn't fall.

The boy (because even as a child, the difference between a grown male and a teenager had been a relatively easy distinction) walked across the room, out of the kitchen, around the living room, and over toward the doorway where Obito was fumbling with the lock. If he had noticed Itachi gapping at him as he crept over the ceiling, he hadn't made it clear.

"Yo."

Obito had jumped, lending credit to the theory that his ineptness with the sharigan was a reflection of his abilities as a ninja in general. Even off duty, a chuunin was supposed to be relatively difficult to startle. Obito began to sputter something loudly after he turned around, but Itachi, eyes still on the magically sticking feet on the ceiling, hadn't paid it due attention. He remembered watching intently as the strange figure knelt down, patted the ceiling with his hands, and then flipped himself down onto the floor in front of his cousin, to which his only applause was, "You jerk, why didn't you take your shoes off before doing that? I'm going to get blamed for you're footprints!"

The silver haired stranger had walked around Obito to the front door and flipped the lock, letting the door slide open to greet two more people on the other side.

"Hello again, Kakashi."

"Morning, sensei."

"You know, Obito, we're all used to you being late, but if you're not going to show up at all, you can at least let us know so we don't spend the day waiting for you."

"It's not my fault this time, sensei! My uncle told me to stay"

Years after Obito's team dissolved in the harsh realities of the shinobi calling, Itachi would remember his cousin's teacher. It would have been hard to have forgotten him, after his face was carved into the mountain shadowing their village, and his name near permanently lost in his title. To Itachi, he had been...nice, if nothing else. Itachi only had a few memories that specifically involved him; as a child, it hadn't occurred to him that he should afford anymore interest to the blond haired man than he would any other grown up.

Obito's last teammate was a girl with dark brown hair and two strange markings around her chin. She had been the door knocker while her silver-haired teammate broke in, Itachi remembered seeing the rain droplets still shining on her hand when she stepped inside.

"Oh, who's this?"

"That's my cousin"

When the girl came into the room, Itachi was still at the table, still holding the shriveled black crayon.

"He's so cute! How old is he?"
The girl sat down across from Itachi. Obito was still standing near the doorway, next to his teacher.

"Oi, Obito. You could have at least unplugged the sink, it smells terrible in here."

"Aunt Mikoto said that she was only going to be gone for a minute. I thought she was going to clean it up."

"Are you that lazy?"
"Shut up!"

Itachi had straightened up and turned around to look at his cousin, who in turn was glaring into their kitchen to where his other teammate was leaning over the sink, probably closing the window that he had come through. The other teammate was a decidedly odd looking one, who would also survive in Itachi's memory, as well as in his chosen trade. He dressed darkly, and covered his face with a mask as if to hide himself as much from others as possible, though the attention-grabbing color of his hair spoiled the attempt. As a trained and overly-professional shinobi, he must have felt Itachi's stare, but chose not to acknowledge it. When Itachi and the masked boy were peers, he would understand that as a rule, the silver haired ninja chose not to encourage the attention of children; it was one of the things that had surprised him years later when he heard about what the mask boy had become in relation to his brother.

The girl across from him sighed, but when Itachi turned around to look back at her, she had only smiled at him and leaned forward, picking up a hot pink crayon from the neat alignment that he had arranged his colors into, and asked, "Mind if I draw with you?"

The team had still been there when Itachi's parents came back. By then, the girl had moved to his side, and her teacher across from her, seeming not care that instead of doing missions or training, or whatever else an individual of his rank might be inclined to do, his team was babysitting the heir to the Uchiha clan. He asked Itachi questions, mostly yes or no ones that could be answered with a shake or a nod of his head. The man didn't seem to mind the lack of speech. The girl beside him helped to pull the conversation along, making comments to him of her own, and smiling all the broader at him when he finally yielded a word, even if it was only a tiny, "No." He had smiled back at her a few times, unnoticed because she was probably used to wider smiles than he was in the habit of giving. Before she left to either meet her team again after lunch to finally start their training or go to some other location, he heard her whisper to Obito, "He's adorable, I didn't know you even liked kids."

She might have thought that Itachi wasn't listening or wouldn't hear her, but a warm weight that had settled onto his shoulder after she spoke immediately drew his attention. When he turned his head, it was to see Obito's large, dark hand resting there. Obito was scratching the back of his head with the other, still talking to his female teammate with the strange purple smears around her chin.

"Of course, I watch Itchy here all the time."

That was a lie, he remembered thinking that then. Too young to understand what would make a teenage boy act strangely and say things that were not entirely true around a teenage girl, he had sat watching his cousin, waiting for the reason why to make itself clear. A normal child might have barged into Obito's conversation and declared the lie outright, but there were few aspects of Itachi's life that could have been identified as "normal." When the girl finally got up and left, their other teammate long since gone, an answer hadn't come to him.

During the conversation with the girl, Itachi's parents had been in the kitchen with his cousin's sensei. Most likely, explaining why they kept his student waiting for so long. A few minutes into the conversation, the blond man had shaken his head, saying that he understood something completely, and nodding toward the woman. At that point in time, Itachi had already been scolded for going into places that he wasn't supposed to and learned that it was bad, and disrespectful, and something that only very naughty children did before a large, multi-tailed demon gobbled them up. He remembered being confused because nobody seemed to be angry or scolding the blond man or his team for breaking into their house through the kitchen window, or even notice the faint dirty footprints left on their ceiling.

Before he in turn left, the blond man had knelt down in front of Itachi and said that he hoped to see him again. Itachi only remembered blinking back at him, not yet at the point in his life where he would know how to respond indifferently to a stranger's attention.

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From the weather that Itachi remembered, it had been at least early winter when his mother went to the hospital. In the spring, Obito had moved out of the extra room in the main family's house. It might have been that he had accomplished whatever purpose that his training sessions with Fugaku had been meant to and gone back to live with his parents, who Itachi honestly couldn't remember if they were also marked as deceased on the family pedigree. More likely, though, it was because after his mother's hospital visit, the room was going to be needed for something else. And so Obito had packed up his belongings and left the room next to Itachi's when the weather began to get warmer, but he didn't stop coming by.

When Itachi thought about his father, he could imagine the scowl that he must have worn every time he heard that his nephew had just been seen carrying his son off the Uchiha estate. Fugaku had growled about it, but grudgingly allowed it at his wife's insisting that Obito was a good boy. Itachi later thought he could guess why she approved. Obito never came to see her after he left their house, nor did he seek out Fugaku for another jutsu. Instead, he would come spilling into the family dojo, where Itachi was periodically confined after the blond haired man's visit. His father had begun to put him there, telling him to concentrate on something inside him that he didn't understand yet, but was told that he ought to. He would sit cross-legged on the hard wooden floor with his eyes closed while he tried to force himself to figure out whatever the thing was. He was a genius, his father insisted, he could do it. He was his child.

But even the mind of a genius will wander, when said genius is only so old. He always heard Obito when he slid the door open. His footsteps would squeak on the polished floorboards, and he'd know that Obito's shoes were still on even though he had been mad when his teammate did that before. When Obito was in front of him, he would crouch down, watching Itachi for a second. Then...

"Hey, Itchy."

Itachi's eyes would open to the wide grin, white teeth that always seemed a bit bigger than other people's, and years later, would be the only part of his cousin to stay with him unblemished in memory.

"Are you busy?"

Itachi couldn't remember how many times he saw that smile, or why he gave into it the first time. If there had been any other moments with Obito prior to the dock and his mother's illness, they hadn't withstood the test of time. Later, it occurred to him that the same sounds that warned him when his cousin was coming might have also meant that he hadn't stopped at the front door when he came into the head family's house, and that that smile might have been there because his cousin was inwardly laughing at how easily he could sneak into the main family's house and abduct their heir. He knew later that Obito had been a troublemaker of some sort in the village, at one point or another. A nuisance, as some older cousins put it.

But still, even if he was being taken at odd hours and without warning, Itachi didn't remember his mother ever sharing his father's irritation.

"They're just having a little fun."

"He shouldn't be wasting his time teaching Itachi to cause problems"

"They're only pranks."

"That doesn't matter."

"Well, I think it's sweet that Obito wants to spend time with him, he must get lonely without anyone his own age around..."

"..."

"Stop worrying, Obtio's a good boy."

As far as Obito's motives for taking him out went, Itachi had one strong guess. He remembered seeing the girl, with her strange markings and the funny way they crinkled when she smiled at him. She must have liked children, and Obito played off that like with the only child at his disposal. Itachi wasn't sure if he had liked her back, but years later, long after the images her teammate had faded away, Itachi would remember the startled and pleased expression she would wear every time his cousin plopped him down in her lap unexpectedly.

Naturally, he saw the other two people included in Obito's team as well. The blond haired man had a habit of addressing him when he was still on his cousin's shoulders. He would ask him what he was supposed to be doing at home, but Itachi couldn't remember ever answering or being told to go back to the dojo.

Obito had probably brought Itachi along to training sessions, he realized later. After the team was gathered in the woods, he would be set down and left to wander between the trees while the girl and his cousin and the masked boy clustered around their sensei. Then after their session, on the chance that he had strayed out of ear or eye shot, they would split up and search for him in the forest. There had also been another place where they met outside the wilderness, where Obito had also brought him along to, but he remembered the forest better for the day that the blond man had looked at him on the girl's lap and asked him to try something for him. Picking a leaf off the ground, he held it to Itachi's forehead with one finger, and told him to concentrate on keeping it there after he took his finger away.

"Don't get excited about it, just think about the leaf and—no, no using your hands. Just concentrate."

"You sound like Uncle Fugaku."

"I'm not going to start training him, I just want to see if he can do it."

The other place that they would go was a bridge that was built over a river running through the village, one out of many so that Itachi wouldn't be able to confidently single it out when he was older. He remembered sitting in the girl's lap again, as her legs dangled over the edge. Her arms had been around his waist, holding him back like a seat belt while he leaned forward to watch his cousin and the masked boy spar on the river's surface, the act of standing on water at that point as amazing to him as defying gravity. Ironically, when he was older the fight hadn't stayed in his mind at all. Instead, he remembered the girl's arm resting across his lap, and how the back of his neck felt warm when she combed through his hair with her fingers.

"You have beautiful hair, Itchy. I wish mine looked like this. Don't ever cut it, okay?"

There was one day that the blond haired man was late, and though at the time it had seemed odd, his students seemed not to mind. They might have been used to it, for all Itachi remembered. The girl had been leaning against the side of the bridge when Obito set him down; usually he was the last one to arrive. The girl waved hello to both of them, her mouth full of something that Itachi didn't recognize. She had been holding a stick in one of her hands that had two round balls of different colors impaled on it, that drew his attention. He walked away from Obito and stood in front of her without a word, staring until she smiled at him and asked if he wanted to try a piece.

Wordlessly, he had blinked up at her in response, hand already reaching out for the unknown food object. Looking back, it was clear that it must have happened after the incident with his mother and the cookie dough if Itachi had required so little prodding to decide that he wanted to try whatever the girl was eating. When she picked the topmost ball off, a green one that had been in the middle of the stick, and offered it to him, he had taken it without hesitation. It had been gooey and faintly warm under his fingers when he held up to his mouth, biting into it curiously at first.

"I don't think Uncle Fugaku lets him eat sweets."

"Oh! Then should I...?"

"Nah, he'll be okay. We'll just not tell Uncle Fugaku, right, Itchy?"

"Hey!"

"Itachi, give that back! You have to ask before you can take...!"

Itachi remembered that Obito had been shy about taking him out on his own at first. He might have been nervous about entertaining a child, or have had trouble understanding why he wanted to at all without his pretty teammate there to help him. He knew that those outings hadn't started until after the dango incident on the bridge, because he remembered having it when his cousin carried him down the village main streets, for once not rushing to meet with his team, or friend, or something else of that category. He had tried to improve Itachi's aim at some point, by showing him how to throw a rock between a pedestrian's legs while they walked without upsetting them, and telling him that for every stone he managed to get through unnoticed, he would buy him a ball of dango. Obito had walked away from that offer after receiving multiple blows to the head from Itachi's miss-tries, but he had caught on after awhile. And when he was older, and Fugaku had started coaching him on his aim, he had experienced a momentary twinge of nostalgia, remembering goggles and the distinct taste of sugar in his mouth. Fugaku had praised his precision as a natural ability.

After awhile, Itachi had begun waiting for Obito to come for him in the family dojo. He still concentrated on his chakra, obedient to Fugaku entirely at that early age, but with his ears trained for the sound of the door, and the telltale squeaks of his cousin's shoes, and the cheerful voice calling out to him in the gloom.

Looking back, the entire length of Itachi's interaction period with Obito couldn't have lasted for more than a handful of months. He knew that. He knew there were hardly any of his neglected memories in which he even spoke to him. He had been almost muted in front of his cousin, but in that, Obito had been like his mother: he didn't mind, or seem to even notice. And perhaps that was where his strongest lingering impression about his cousin came from, as a response to that acceptance: he had liked him, too.

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When Itachi was in the ANBU, another member had once insisted that children never forgot anything. It was when they had been assigned as a team to investigate a murder that had taken place outside their village; the ANBU member he remembered had wanted to interrogate the victim's children, two six or seven year olds who had been sleeping in a different room during the attack. He had hoped that the children would be able to provide a motive, or at least state whether they had seen anything beforehand that they might be able to use. They needed a sound explanation for why the children's mother would suddenly turn on their father. A child would remember things of that sort better than an adult, the member had believed. Itachi had disagreed.

Children could remember actions, and even words in some cases, but he knew from his own experiences that a child's memories were just as confusing as they were helpful. A child couldn't remember reason, not when they were too young to understand it themselves. The motives and unspoken statements captured in their mind's eye would have to be guessed at later on, when they could see past the ignorance and fear they might have felt at the sound of raised voices, or the wet squish before a body hit the ground outside their bedroom.

Itachi didn't understand all of his memories until he was older. Particularly, when he became an ANBU captain, and an error in direction during his first days brought him into a restricted filing room, and he happened upon a file containing four mission reports, which were startlingly interesting to him because he knew that all four were inaccurate.

If Obito had moved out of the Uchiha household sometime in the early spring, then it was at some point in the early summer that Itachi was shaken out of bed and hurried into his clothes in the darkness of his nightlight-deprived room. Whose hands they were and how long they were with him, didn't last in his memory; there was a chance that, tired and groggy, he might not have thought too curiously about them at all. He had a memory, strictly not evident in any of the four reports he found later, of the blond haired man staring down at him, mouth in a grim line. He was used to seeing him smiling before that, and why it was different didn't stick in his mind. Instead, there was only a forbidding feeling attached to the image in his head, a lingering feeling that he had been somewhere or done something that he was not supposed to.

"What...?"

"...in the back, by the..."

"...can't take him back now."

"What we going to...?"

And then he remembered seeing the girl, and then the boy with the mask. He didn't remember where Obito was. Presumably, he had been the one holding him at the time. They were all talking to each other above his head, although their topic of discussion had escaped him then and continued to in the future. He had half dismissed the jumbled fragments as a dream built on an overactive, and a that point in his life, unchanneled imagination, until he found the mission reports at age twelve. None of them mentioned him, but that was far from surprising. Unless the hands he remembered urging him out of bed had belong to the former Hokage, he likely wasn't supposed to have been there at all. Obito might have grabbed him, despite the earliness of the hour that it would have happened, and if not for the niggling feeling that Obito wouldn't have been sent on a high level mission at the crack of dawn without first being told what rank it was.

What he remembered was being held tightly against someone, his cousin or the girl, outside a building that time had reduced to a single, olive-colored wall in an untended garden in Itachi's memory. The masked boy had looked at him, two cold black eyes then, in a stare that he didn't know he would one day be able to match.

He didn't remember where the blond haired man was at that time. In the file, one report said that the Yondaime had gone inside the building, immediately taking what he anticipated as the most dangerous role in mission to investigate claims that a certain jounin was passing classified information on to enemy nin. Outside the building, Itachi had been put down, led to hole in the wall that a large clump of bush managed to hide, and given three simple instructions: take this, go inside, leave it under the stairs. The arms that had been on him, reduced to a gripping hand on his shoulder, had pulled him back when he first went forward to do it, obedient in the way that all small children are to people who look and sound as if they know what they're doing. But ("You can't tell him to...! He's only...!") all the same, he had gone into that building and come out again unharmed. The masked boy must have said something, using cold logic to curve back the protection offered by his teammates to the unknowing toddler tagging along on their mission. After that he had been set up in a tree. From the reports he read later, Obito and the girl had stayed there either in the tree or on the ground (and here the reports curiously began to differ), while the boy with half of his face covered crept around to the back of the building to look for a signal. Itachi remembered the girl smiling up at him, but he knew she wasn't happy.

According to the reports, the mission had been to intercept the suspected traitor nin by trapping him inside the building when they believed he was scheduled to meet with his undisclosed allies. But in his memory, and then confirmed in the report, something had gone wrong. The enemy knew that they were coming, and had taken steps to arrange an ambush. They attacked in two groups, the reports all said in different terms. One was inside the house waiting to pounce on the Yondaime, the other waiting outside for the team's guard to drop.

Itachi's memory covered the latter.

He'd been watching the girl when the first kunai came. He suspected that the first kunai had been thrown with the purpose of drawing attention rather than drawing first blood; it had missed her by only a slender distance, embedding itself into the bark beside her head when she turned back after assuring him about something regarding their return. With her head turned, Itachi couldn't see whether her expression was surprised, and in the report that she filed later, the point was dryly ignored. Obito had also been hiding above ground to draw less attention from the people inside the house, sitting on the branch beside Itachi, when the kunai came. A moment later he was turned away giving only the hastily ground out order to stay put.

The two reports filed on the ambush outside differed on their details of the scene that followed. One claimed that there had been close to fifteen enemy nin in attendance and that they had all been defeated with in the space of twenty minutes, and the other that the number if attackers had been under ten and that they had been skilled enough to prologue the fight to well over a half and hour. Whichever one was lying, Itachi didn't know. He had watched the battle ensue from his place up in that tree, irresponsibly left alone (which extended the possibility that his cousin was not up to par with basic shinobi methods to his teammate as well), uncertain of what was happening, until a hand had clamped down on the entire lower portion of his face. Something cold and metallic had touched not too lightly on the side of his face, and he remembered how the fingers of the hand had been large enough to wrap around his face and jaw, preventing him from screaming if the thought had even entered his mind. If it did, he didn't remember it.

The girl had been the one closest to the tree. She turned around when his captor called out to her, and promptly froze, kunai in her hand. The mission report she wrote later had said she was cornered during that point of the fight, backed up against the tree without the excuse of protecting it. Regardless of which reported estimation of the number of attackers, Itachi realized later, she would have been overwhelmingly outnumbered for a chuunin of her level. She must have been terrified. What Obito had been doing was outside the bubble of Itachi's attention when he was watching her, violet markings stiff on her clenched jaw. He was in danger, and she probably realized that whatever action she took risked injuring him in the process. And as a student of the fourth hokage, that was not acceptable. And, she had been an obedient student. Looking back, his cousin must not have been, because he had been the one to save Itachi while he hung unmoving in the enemy shinobi's monstrously oversized hands. Something had made the man holding him scream, and then there was an impact behind them, and they both fell forward. Out of a kindness that his captor's hands acted on before his mind could tell him to resist, Itachi was thrown to the side rather than crushed under the man's massive weight. But during his own fall, Itachi felt a stinging pain slice through a place near his right ear.

At this point, the mission reports in the future were blurred and vague, the two writers seeming to be uncertain of how to work the story of their fight so that Obito ended up with the one man and the girl with the rest that were still standing without contradicting one another. Itachi remembered hitting the ground, feeling the rocky, solid impact on his untried body, and opening his eyes, unable to comprehend anything beyond the fact that his face hurt. He had curled there, half of his face scrapped from being thrown against the rocks and twigs that characterized the forest floor, and then the other half...

Itachi had sat up slowly, only distantly hearing the sounds of clashing metal around him, and touched the other side of his face. Both of his hands had been scrapped by the fall too. He recalled seeing the angry pink color of his palms. He could also remember seeing the kunai that his captor had been holding, thrown onto the ground a little farther away, and seeing the strange red wetness painting its tip.

He kept his hand over the wound by his ear, not thinking about infection or blood flow or what it could do to him, but acting on the impulse of a four year old child. It hurt, so he covered it. His body curled in on itself, making him a huddled C shape as he watched the red droplets splatter on his clothes. He had never seen blood before, he realized later. That day in the forest, amidst a battle that he didn't comprehend or even notice, was the first time. He didn't remember crying at the pain, or at the color that all animals instinctively knew to fear. He had only stared at it, and known that his body was trembling, and his hand didn't want to move away from his face, but at the same time not knowing what it meant.

He didn't know how long he stayed like that, curled up into a pitiful little ball that only a slender string of luck kept from being trampled on by the engaged shinobi around him. Reason said that he must have been afraid when he looked up from his pain. He had dimly noticed the flames that were engorged in the tree that he had been hiding in before the throbbing in his head. Obito must have used the family jutsu, and in reports filed on the incident later, the fire was indeed mentioned by both of the ninjas who had been present.

He had gotten up from his place on the ground shakily, and naively stepped into the denser part of the fray. The girl's report said that by that time, she was fighting one man, and leading him back to separate him from his remaining comrades, or maybe she was being driven away from hers. He didn't pay attention to her when he got up. There had only been one thought holding his attention when he looked around. He wanted to find Obito. He wanted to go home.

Obito by that point had picked up a second opponent. Knowing his teammate's skill level, he might have deliberately flagged the extra shinobi away from the girl when she was closer to him. The exchange wasn't mentioned in the reports.

Itachi didn't recall if there were any unconscious shinobi that he had to step over when he made his way to Obito. He did remember thinking that the dust floating around them was going to make his cut hurt worse, and that the woman would be upset with him later for getting his clothes so dirty.

The report written by his cousin and read nearly half a decade later, told the story of how his fight ended, surprisingly without anything that stood out too suspiciously. One of the enemy nin had been using a long spear-like weapon, the name of which his cousin had either grossly misspelled or Itachi had never encountered before, that had been used to trip him while he was deflecting a blow from the other shinobi. By chance, they were under one of the trees that the fire had spread to. Obito claimed that he had had few weapons left, and the other opponent, acting immediately, moved to pin him down. In the reported version, he had done something even a note in the margins admitted was utterly and astoundingly childish: he had bitten his captive's exposed fingers. At that same moment, his opponent with the spear (because that was what it looked like to Itachi then) had been raising his weapon to execute the finishing blow, unsuspecting that his partner would let go when Obito's teeth broke skin. When the man holding had started cursing, his captive had jerked free, dodging the blade slicing after him, and slashed through the withering, enflamed branch of the burning tree above with the retracted, but still effective blades of a shuriken. The branch reportedly landed on the standing enemy and kept him distracted long enough for Obito to take up his weapon, which had been thrown aside in the effort to put out the flames. The girl had won against her own opponent by then, and the defeat of the last two nin had been a combined effort; the girl against the burnt shinobi, and Obito against the one with the bleeding hand. It was a bit of a stretched story, but overall not an overly incredulous one for the hokage's first and only students. Strange occurrences like miraculously cutting a burning branch from a tree while a fully trained shinobi fussed over a bitten hand were possible if difficult to explain afterward. It was infinitely more probable than a four year old boy, who barely understood the workings of chakra through the prodding of a too expectant father and a curious blond haired man, walking up unnoticed behind a full grown shinobi and performing a series of seals that were barely memorable at that time.

The branch might have been there, Itachi thought later. A burning branch didn't need to be cut in order to come crashing down on whatever unfortunate soul happened to be standing under it. But he remembered the heat blowing out of his mouth, saying that regardless of the effectiveness, he had produced something. But he'd closed his eyes before the fire came down, and bent himself forward slightly, like Fugaku had been on the dock, but face angled down, as if he were vomiting. In spring or even summer, the leaves and twigs that carpeted the ground then may have been green, but he knew he would have still been able to set them on fire if Obito's mentioned tree branch had only been the work of fiction. He remembered hearing the scream as flames took root in the man's clothes, and seeing the flailing limbs, but not what was fueling the fire. Whether it was green leaves or a severed branch.

His hand had felt gritty and dirty afterward, still sore from skitting against the rocks.

If nothing else, Obito's report strayed from the truth after the fire. The man's teammate had not been ready to continue fighting when his partner collapsed into a smoldering, screaming pile. He had been lying on his side instead, with Obito tangled in his limbs next to him. His head had been turned, but his eye's were wide and glossed over, staring toward where his partner must have seemingly spontaneously burst into flames, before Obito attacked him with the shuriken that, in the reported version, would have cut the branch free. Itachi had thought it was strange to see someone sleeping with their eyes open.

It had taken him a minute to realize that Obito was watching him too. Under the shield of his goggles, the older Uchiha's eyes were trained on him, round and unblinking. He sat up where he had been struggling on the ground before his opponent stopped responding, the arm that had been slung across his chest by the other man falling limply into his lap as he did so, but Obito didn't seem to notice.

Itachi and his cousin stared at each other, and Itachi had gotten that feeling again, the inkling in the back of his neck that told him he had just done something wrong. Obito hadn't moved to come near him as the man between them began to whimper and roll to put out the remaining flames on his person. He couldn't remember how long he had stayed like that either. Arms had wrapped around him from behind when that staring contest ended, and he had been pulled against a soft body while the girl's voice spoke gently above his head.

"Oh, Itchy...what did you do?"

"I don't know how he did that."

"His chakra...he couldn't have been able to—"

"I saw him do it."
"Where could he have learned those seals?"

"..I don't know."

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The written records of the aftermath of the mission likewise came to blurry odds with Itachi's memory. The reports written by the two who were inside the house during the attack were dull and uninvoking enough to assure Itachi that he hadn't witnessed the other half of the ambush, and all four reports stated that the fire around the house had been put out by the time that the teammates rejoined each other in the forest. Minor injuries had been dully treated, and the events of both groups recounted outside the house before the hokage and his students set out for the village, with the Leaf traitor unconscious and bound. The routine end to a routine mission.

Itachi remembered watching leaves curl as they fell from the trees onto the embers below while the girl held him in her lap. She told him to stay still while she gently tucked his hair behind his ear and looked over the side of his face that had hurt so badly. Her hand had begun to glow before she touched him, and he remembered feeling the side of his face heat up around her fingers. She was a medic nin, Itachi later realized when he was an eight year old jounin, capable of knowing that a cut like the one he had should have left a scar. But it didn't. She had healed it quickly enough after the cut was made so that marks hadn't been left behind to remind him of the event when he was older, as well as the burns around his mouth that might or might not have come from a jutsu or standing to close to a enflamed fallen tree limb.

After he came back, and before wounds had been healed, someone had pressed the blond man into examining Itachi's burns. Beside him, Obito had been flailing, trying to get attention as he told what Itachi assumed was what he thought he saw. The blond man hadn't made a reply, but he nodded along to show that he was listening, consciously or unconsciously touching his face around the lips and chin. Then he had knelt down in front of him, and Itachi remembered waiting for him to start lecturing him, the adult of the group reprimanding the child. But instead, the blond man picked up a leaf off the ground and pressed it against his forehead, and said, "Hold it."

Itachi did as he was told. Then the man found another leaf on the cluttered ground and placed it directly over the first, and told him again, "Hold it."

Itachi didn't know how many times the man repeated the action, stacking one leaf on top of the other. He counted as high as he was able to and then succumbed to only staring at the man blankly as he focused on holding up his stack. It was only when the blond haired man grew tired of stacking that he let the pile fall, and then was asked the first of many questions that would come when he got home. "How did you know those seals?"

Itachi had only blinked at him, and then pointed silently to Obito, which turned into reaching for him, and then to clinging to his hand, degenerating in a four year old child who, after the fray and fuss, still just wanted to go home.

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Itachi didn't remember the return journey anymore than he did the departure. He knew that Obito carried him and that the girl talked to him, walking beside his cousin as they made their way through the forest on foot. The blond man had stay silently at the end of the procession, contemplating their mission, or watching for surprise retaliations from the enemy. Over his shoulder, he had carried the traitorous jounin. The masked boy had been at the front, keeping his back to his comrades throughout the walk homeward to the village.

Itachi knew that when the fourth hokage initially insisted on shouldering a portion of missions in the Leaf, security measures were often increased upon his return. It was considered too easy for an enemy to perform a henge to make himself appear to be the hokage returning safe and unharmed. A group usually awaited his return. ANBU members who were ready to perform dispelling maneuvers to ensure that the man they were welcoming back was indeed, their leader.

When they got there, Itachi had gapped at the people blocking their way. It couldn't have been more than five people, but by his standards then, it was a crowd. He had turned into Obito's jacket and tried to press himself as close to it as he could so not to be noticed. Then he saw the woman standing at the back of the crowd. Her body by then had grown inexplicably, so that she more barreled than weeded her way between guards. Her hair had been pulled back into the loose ponytail that she always liked when he was older, though more than a few of the strands around her forehead had managed to pull loose. He couldn't remember whether her face had been streaked, as a child he wouldn't have thought to look for that. It wouldn't occur to him until years later that whoever it was who had shaken him out of bed that one morning, his mother wouldn't have been told for obvious reasons. Why would she allow her first born to be carted off on a potentially dangerous mission? He wondered how she had found out about it later; whether a story had been offered to distract her at first or whether she had been waiting at the gates since the moment she discovered he was gone.

The woman's eyes touched on Itachi's form briefly while he huddled against his cousin's jacket, but without breaking pace, she stormed by her nephew. Obito had turned, walking after her, and Itachi heard him say the woman's name, but she went on walking past the girl and the silvery haired boy with his half covered face, until she was standing in front of the blond haired man himself. They had stayed that way for a second, standing eye to eye, because no one had ever made the mistake of calling the Fourth Hokage tall. The blond man opened his mouth to speak, but never did. Without warning, Uchiha Mikoto drew back her fist and struck him solidly in the center of his face.

"What kind of hokage steals a four year old boy for mission?!"

Itachi heard the woman scream at the blond man, even as the man's three students rushed back toward them. Before her marriage, and even for a while after it, Itachi's mother had been a kunoichi, and though not a particularly exceptional one, she knew how to throw a decent punch. In the file Itachi would read years later, all four reports would claim that the hokage had broken his nose during the mission. As a child, he had never heard her scream before.

It may have also been the first time that Itachi consciously thought singularly of the woman as his mother, while watching the Yondaime's head snap backward. His hand had subconsciously tightened on Obito's, and he had felt the answering squeeze in return. When his mother turned around and took him away from his cousin's arms, neither of them had protested. Obito was staring unbelievingly at his aunt. Without a word Itachi was pressed against her shoulder, and impulsively, his arms and legs wound themselves around her bloated form. But it was one of the few times that he could remember not being comfortable in her arms. He saw the blond haired man as she turned around and marched back through the crowd; he was cupping his nose with one hand while his brown haired student tried to gain his attention beside him. Obito was still watching them with the lax circle of his mouth expressing the same stunned intimidation that Itachi felt. It was the expression of a child who had just saw a normally patient parent enraged for the first time and didn't know whether to explain himself or run.

The blond haired man's guards were rushing forward to perform a clumsy version of the customary dispelling, likely abashed and ready to ask whether their Hokage wanted the seething pregnant woman pursued. Except for one figure who came trotting after them a few seconds later.

"Mikoto"

"What were you thinking when you said this was okay?"

"I didn't say he could go with them."

"Somebody did!"

Itachi's ear was pressed against the side of the woman's neck as she held him, making her words seem louder as he felt the muscles moving with each sound. He had wondered if she was going to punch his father too. They had stopped moving, and his parents stood facing each other on the street. A protective hand on the back of Itachi's head kept his face turned away as if pretending he wasn't there would make it so.

"Are you hearing yourself, Fugaku? He was dragged out on a mission without either of us saying that it was okay, and"

"The Hokage was with him, I'm sure he was perfectly safe."

"What do you mean safe? Don't pretend you don't know what these stains are!"

"..."

"Fugaku."

"What do you want me to say? Even if he was hurt, he's fine now."

"He's fine by your standards. THIS," one of his mother's arms disentangled itself from Itachi, when he turned his head a little, it was to see a finger hovering beside his head, "is not a shinobi. This is a four year old boy."

"Mikoto..."

"No, don't start. If this is what I have to look forward to again, so help me..."

The hand beside Itachi's head dropped downward. Instead it hovered over the swell of his mother's stomach, and as he watched, the fingertips began to glow faintly, as the girl's had done before when she used chakra to heal him.

She really had gotten larger, Itachi had realized as he stared down at Mikoto's body. He couldn't remember overly noticing it before then. It hadn't been important. But when his legs curled around her, they did so by working their way above the protruding bump, already adapted to the change in her shape without his conscious thought. As he stared down at the roundness of his mother's stomach and the glowing fingers beside it, he didn't know the meaning of the words "pregnancy" or "abort", but he did understand the rarity of Fugaku's silence.

Head still turned as much as it was able to with his mother's both restraining and supporting arm around him, he had looked up from her midsection and briefly noticed his father staring at it too before his eyes came to rest on Itachi. His mouth had opened.

"Uncle Fugaku!"

Fifteen years after the Yondaime's safe return to the village, Itachi still remembered the stilling effect of Obito's sudden appearance on the street. He had felt the warmth of gathered chakra vanish when his mother abruptly let it go, and seen his father's head turn, whatever promise or protest that he had been about to offer lost with the moment. Itachi's head turned back around.

Down the street, Obito was coming toward them, leaving the crowd of his blond haired teacher's attendants and bodyguards behind as he sprinted after the head family. His face had been red. When he spoke, it was with puffs of words that came out between breaths as he panted in front of them. Unable to follow what he said, Itachi had leaned his head back into the nook of his mother's shoulder and neck.

When Obito finished pushing out his words, Itachi's father was looking at him sharply over crossed arms.

"...Are sure?"

"I saw it, I swear!"

Over his head, Itachi remembered hearing his mother, sounding tired, possibly annoyed with her nephew for the first time because of the interruption in their discussion. "You can't be serious."

"I am! Test him, he can do it again. Right, Itchy?"

At Obito's prodding, and possibly due to a sizeable amount of suppressed interest on the part of his father, Itachi found himself at the lake that was both on and off the Uchiha property, standing on the very end where Obito had been before. His mother had set him down, and then reluctantly stepped back to stand beside her husband during the performance. On the planking beside Itachi, Obito had knelt down and began saying something that he didn't remember. Over his cousin's shoulder, he saw his father watching them with a sharp, expectant look that he would learn to recognize in the years to come. He had started to look toward his mother, but then Obito put his hand on his shoulder, noticing that he was losing the younger Uchiha's attention.

"Just do what you did before, okay?"

Itachi had stared at him, blinking for a moment when he was motioned to look down at his cousin's hands.

"Do you remember these seals? You did them perfectly earlier."

"I don't think he understands what you want him to do. Maybe you just thought that he"

"No! I saw him do it, I'm positive!"

At that time, Itachi's mother was right in saying that he didn't understand what Obito wanted. He registered the earnest tone though, and the way that his father's eyes never left him, more than he did the repeated seals.

If Itachi had been older, and understood what gateway he was opening for Fugaku in his future, he might not have done it. He would have pretended that he didn't recognize the seals that Obito formed promptingly under his nose, ignored the waiting interest in his father's eyes, and gone home safely wrapped in his mother's arms. But barely more than a toddler, Itachi hadn't known what his actions would bring, and whether he had been the one to light the enemy nin on fire in the forest or not, attempting the jutsu then, he scorched the remaining years of his childhood, because Uchiha Fugaku never pushed his son until he saw that there was something to push for.

The flames that Itachi produced were small in comparison to his father's, and even to what his brother would years later after four days of constant practice. What made his rendition of the family technique extraordinary was his age, the fact that his charka was already developed enough for him to produce fire at all. He kept his eyes open that time, and when the warmth inside began to died down, Obito had had to jump back to keep from being burned by the shrinking tongue of flame. The older Uchiha was beaming though, triumphant that Itachi had proven him right. When he straightened and turned around to look at the people behind him, his father was staring at him, face and mouth completely lax in what he would later interpret as surprise. His mother was also smiling at him; a small, meager smile that he wouldn't realize until years later was diluted with a look of submission.

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Uchiha Mikoto had always been talented as a female shinobi. Her abilities had been outmatched by her those of her husband, and later her son, but as the only daughter of a clanhead, she had risen to the required skill level. It was only after her marriage, when she stepped aside in favor of letting Fugaku take over as clan head, that recognition had eluded her. When Itachi was eight, he had been surprised to discover that he outranked his mother, still a chuunin after more than ten years. He would often wonder why she had stopped trying to advance her status, both before and after her death. He couldn't remember if Fugaku ever discouraged her participating in the few missions she accepted toward the end of her life, or whether she had shown any indication of regretting the self-imposed halt on her career. In thirteen years, he had only heard her address the subject once, with the feeble excuse that yes, she had tried to achieve jounin rank, but had finally given up when it became clear that every time she appealed for the exam she abruptly found herself pregnant with another child.

"I didn't want to admit it with your brother," she said once, answering Sasuke's questioning look after dinner. Sasuke was six years old at the time, sitting with Mikoto at the dinner table with a glass of milk and a small pile of cookies on a plate (Fugaku's rule against the presence of sweets in their house having dissolved after learning that he was the only member of the family adhering to it). Itachi over heard their conversation from the living room, where he was laying across the couch with a book explaining how to perform one type of jutsu or another. His ears picked up Mikoto's voice without effort, eyes still following the line of script on the page.

"I had been training for almost a year when I found out. It seemed like such a big thing back then..."

"Did you have to drop out?"

"If the examiners found out, I would have had to."

"Mom!"

Itachi heard their mother giggle. "I was very confident that I could still handle the exams back then, and I knew how much your father wanted to have children"

"And Dad still let you go through with it?"

Their mother had paused for a moment, during which Itachi's attention momentarily flitted upward in time to see her lean across the table. In a stage whisper, she said, "I didn't tell him."

Sasuke's eyes and mouth became wider in unison, the prospect of a wife hiding such an important secret from her husband doubtlessly as shocking to him as the nonexistence of the tooth fairy. A half eaten cookie had been clutched in the little boy's hand (because regardless of what his little brother would claim in the future, as a child his love for sweets had very nearly matched Itachi's).

Their mother sounded amused, and only partially apologetic, when she explained. "It's not that difficult for a woman to hide her pregnancy in the early stages. In some cases, a baby can even be seven months along before it becomes noticeable to other people. Itachi was almost four months before your father even knew he was there."

"How did he find out?"

"There's a medical exam you have to take before the examiners will allow you to go onto the third portion of the exam. The medic probably guessed that I was hiding it, because he went straight to your father without telling me anything. Then of course, he wouldn't hear of me fighting with our first born on the way. The medic told the judges, and then I was disqualified on the spot."

Sasuke was biting into a fresh cookie, a second one ready in his other hand. When he asked his next question, his mouth was still practically full, table manners being something that the future prodigy hadn't quiet mastered yet. "Why didn't you try again after nii-san was born?"

Itachi turned a page in his book, pushing his eyes to focus on the characters written there so that Fugaku would see that he was making progress through if he suddenly came in. Even so, his ears remained honed for Mikoto's response.

"I wanted to wait awhile before I started leaving him for longer missions," she said easily, "I didn't want my children being raised by a civilian maid while I was somewhere in a different country." She paused for a moment while she took a bite from her own cookie, and then casting a pointed glance toward the glass of crumb speckled milk at her son's elbow before she continued. "I did try to take the exam again after a few years, but that didn't work out well either."

Sasuke continued eating from the plate, dunking into his glass of milk without looking away from their mother. "What happened?"

Mikoto's voice was amused again, and when Itachi glanced back toward the dinner table, she was ruffling her youngest son's hair. "I had you," she said. As she stood up and began wiping the crumbs away with her napkin, Sasuke still looked as if he expected the story to go on. "You were a lot less discrete when you came along," she obliged, picking up the plate with what remained of Sasuke's desert. "Everyone in the clan knew you were coming much earlier, and knew to keep me well away from the exams."

"But I'm not that small anymore, you can still try!" Consciously or not, Sasuke was insistent then, as he always would be, that the shinobi lifestyle came hand-in-hand with a certain amount of underlying ambition. In that, he took after their father. One could not simply reach one point and then decide that that was enough. It was beyond their comprehension for a content life.

To his outburst, their mother had simply smiled, and asked half-jokingly, "Do you want another brother?"

Sasuke still looked confused when their mother stood up, but she didn't go farther with her story. Turning to take Sasuke's plate into the kitchen, she merely cast another pointed look toward the glass she left on the table. "Finish your milk, sweetie, then it's time to get ready for bed."

"Aww..."

As she passed by Itachi's couch, she stopped and tapped the side table where a second half-empty glass stood neglected under the shade of the lamp. "You too, Itachi."

The nature of his parents' marriage was something that Itachi would never entirely understand. Perhaps if Sasuke had been a girl the topic would have come up more often in Mikoto's after dinner stories, but as a six year old boy, Sasuke wasn't interested in hearing about what made his parents decide to spend their lives together, contented to merely know that it had happened. He preferred to hear about the strangers she saw when she took the chuunin exams, what had happened inside the secret compartments in the hokage monument when the kyuubi demon attacked, and the scanty details that she was allowed to tell him about her missions during the war with the Lightening Country. In his curiosity about the extent that Fugaku and Mikoto's feelings for one another went, Itachi was sure that he was alone.

Itachi's grandfather had been the one to suggest the marriage between the Uchiha heiress and the time-proven prodigy, after carefully examining just which outer members of the clan that the cousin rapidly ascending through the ranks of his police force was descended from. By that time, Itachi knew that the partnership between his parents had been terminated for more than two years, from what little Mikoto had offered in her stories. Which, Itachi had decided at some point in his early teens, was too long for the marriage to have been a love match. His mother never indicated any outside interactions after Fugaku was promoted, and so the other option seemed more valid: the marriage was arranged because Fugaku appeared more qualified to lead the clan in the future.

But at the end of Sasuke's bedtime story, there hadn't been any reminiscent sigh or disappointed tone at the loss of her inheritance. Even her final attempts at advancement after her marriage had been recounted with a calm, almost cheery acceptance that served to confuse her first born almost as much as it did her second.

The Fire Country wasn't barbaric enough to force any two individuals into marrying without the consent of both parties involved, even if the marriage were arranged with the best intentions for one's clan. And even if it was, Fugaku's standing in the gene pool would have been enough to discredit whatever pressuring Mikoto might have felt when the marriage was being decided. Why she said yes, and gave up the status that she had been raised for in favor of a husband who would overshadow her, and father children who would also overshadow her, was one of the things Itachi would wonder about after her death. The answer, Itachi knew, lied somewhere in the partnership that took place before he was born, before Fugaku's position threatened hers. However, the facts to what happened during the partnership were now lost in the realm of what might have been, to be contemplated at night after Itachi had finished scrubbing the blood out from under his nails, and Kisame's breathing became the only sound in their low-rate hotel room.

Fugaku never voiced an opinion on the stand-still in his wife's career. Or rather, if he had, it hadn't made an impact on their daily life. It was a different order between Fugaku and Mikoto than Fugaku and Itachi. Arguments were things to be carefully conducted and resolved well out of earshot of either of their children. There were never any secret looks or unexplained gestures between them, but neither were there conflicts. In his own mind, he wavered between two conclusions about his parent's relationship. That somehow, despite the time that passed after their partnership ended, an affectionate relationship had managed to survive two years of flimsy contact, or that he had killed the only member of the Uchiha family to successfully sever all ties with ambition.

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In the blurred and scanty timeline of Itachi's memory, he knew that after his performance at the lake, his life had changed. His father rose up over the weeks following it, hovering over lifeless images of trainings grounds and the family dojo like a bad luck spirit in a children's story illustration. But Itachi didn't remember protesting; his description of his father's presence during those days hadn't come until later, after his patience with the pressure and obligations that the Uchiha clan placed on its members had begun to grow thin.

His time with Obito was severely cut when his training began. The Leaf's alliance with the Grass Village was beginning to strain as the country fell into conflict with the Hidden Rock, which eventually resulted in countless missions for the Hokage and his three students. Enough to explain his cousin's absence, though at that age, the excuse didn't matter. Itachi would climb up onto the counter every morning while his mother was doing the morning dishes and sit with his legs dangling into the sink as he watched for Obito's sprinting form through the window. He knew by then that by an unspoken rule, Obito was always in a hurry.

Fugaku would sit at the table, finishing his breakfast and waiting enduringly for the morning appearance to be made and for Itachi to return his cousin's speedy wave, before he was picked up and taken off to wherever his father wanted him to be that day. Fugaku didn't ask him to hold leaves on his forehead, or to sit and concentrate on that one thing that was inside of him that he used to think was so important. Instead, on their first day together in the forest, his father handed him a kunai and explained to him the rules of a certain game he couldn't remember the name of. Colors would flash before him, and when he saw a certain one he was supposed to throw the kunai. It wasn't until he was eight and had mastered the ability himself that it would occur to him that while his father told him what color he was to aim for, he was activating his sharigan to make them appear. It was a game designed to sharpen the precision of his eyes, so that later he would be able to notice the briefest flicker in his surroundings and act upon it.

His mother also faded from his mind during that time. Itachi knew that when he sat at the window by the sink, she would have always been there doing her chores and making sure that he didn't leaned too far and take another spill into the sink. He had the image of her standing there, the watching him through the corner of her eye, ready to pounce should his underdeveloped sense of balance cause him to suddenly veer over the edge of the counter.

One morning staring out the window, Itachi didn't see Obito pass by. But because there was no spoken or unspoken agreement between Fugaku and his budding prodigy son that said he was allowed to sit at the window until his morning sighting was over, within the hour Itachi remembered being picked off the counter and set on his feet, his hand taken, and being led uncaringly out the front door. Sullen, unsatisfied, and too young to know the meaning of the word "rebel," he complied, head tilted toward the ground.

Itachi couldn't recall whether it was later that day or the one that followed that he saw his cousin again. He had been left alone in the dojo, his father's training area of choice during the eighth month of his wife's pregnancy, while he took a break to let himself digest after lunch. His arms had ached from doing something with his father, and when he sat down by the door his legs had been unreasonably tired. A breeze had chilled the sweat on his forehead as he sat just outside the doorway, absently waiting for his heart rate to return to normal. Then he saw him.

Obito had come skidding out from between two houses a little ways farther down the street, already turning to run down the street toward the entrance of the Uchiha estate when Itachi spotted him. There was a self-blazed trail there, leading out toward the lake by the park, which his cousin had labeled as a shortcut some point before their meeting. Itachi would remember vaguely when he was older, recalling more keenly the advice from one member of his cousin's team or another, to only take Obito's directions if he had hours to spare.

Itachi had blinked for a moment in the dojo doorway, before he shakily got to his feet (his legs were sore too) and took a step outside.

"Obito."

The older Uchiha had already taken several steps when Itachi called out to him. His voice must have carried, because his cousin stopped at his name. The sunlight had reflected off Obito's goggles when he stared at him over his shoulder for a moment, and then stayed there after the older Uchiha turned fully around.

Obito had smiled at him, a hurried smile because all of his smiles needed to be a little hurried when he was about to take one of his shortcuts.

"Hey, Itchy."

Itachi waited until his cousin walked back toward the dojo before making his response, blinking solemnly up at the older boy and holding out his arms to be picked up and carried off like he always was when they met in the dojo. But instead of taking him, Obito had knelt down in front of him, and even when Itachi's small hands rested encouragingly on his shoulders, did not lift him off the ground.

"I'm sorry, Itchy. I can't play with you today."

It would occur to Itachi, years later, that he might not have really seen Obito that day. He was new to his training, tired from the strain that it put in his too-small body; if he had been as exhausted as he remembered being when he sat down after lunch, he could have easily sat down to rest and then fallen asleep in the dojo doorway and dreamed that on the day he missed seeing Obito, his cousin ironically would come running down his street.

On the patio, Obito hadn't pushed him away after several minutes of crouching with Itachi's hands fisted in his jacket, and Itachi hadn't made any sign of letting go. If he had made a verbal response, he didn't remember it. Silent as he was as an adult, words were still scarcer for him as a child. Enough so that his own parents hadn't noticed his intelligence until the interference of a misfit cousin, who even as the Hokage's student, was at times more of a burden to the Uchiha name than an asset. Did he miss Obito over those days or weeks that went unmarked after the afternoon on the dock? He must have, Itachi decided reluctantly years later; he couldn't think of another reason why he wouldn't let go of his cousin's jacket when he finally had to stand up. He hesitated to call it clinging...

Half crouching over him, Obito had had to pry Itachi's hands away and hold them captive while he stood. Dealing with him as his younger cousin, Itachi thought later, not his future clan head. He was never that to Obito.

"I'll be back to see you soon, Itchy," Obito had promised while Itachi began to stared downward, possibly pouting. He remembered seeing how Obito's hands contrasted against his own. Big, dark, calloused. And there lied the one and only resemblance between Uchiha Fugaku and his odd nephew that Itachi could recall seeing: they had the same hands.

"I'll come visit you when I get back, okay? I've got a mission today."

Itachi had watched Obito turn and run down the street again, some minutes later, and childishly, he had still wanted to go with him.

"When I come back, I'll see you, okay? Just wait a little while!"

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In a shinobi village, families are very rarely told about the missions that their children take on. It is too easy for a family member to leak information that can endanger the success of the mission. That is why mission details can only be shared after the mission has been completed, and even then certain parts are often left exclusively to the mission reports. The rules applied regardless of whether the mission was a failure or a success. It was a shinobi's sworn duty to fulfill whatever task was set to them, and to that with no thought to personal endangerment or loss. Families, particularly those linked to a shinobi clan, were expected to know this, and understand when the darker aspects of their career came to pass.

A four year old wouldn't know that.

Whether Itachi had imagined his last meeting with Obito or not, his cousin disappeared from the village on a mission somewhere to support the alliance between the Leaf and the Grass. Itachi waited out the days on the kitchen counter and inside the walls of the family dojo. The weather was beginning to spike into record summer heat during that time, which led to Fugaku coaxing him away from the main house eventually, with the stiff assurance that Obito would know where to look for him when he returned. Looking back, Itachi knew that the wait couldn't have been that long. A kage in almost any village will rarely take on long-term missions that would keep them away from their people. Too dangerous. Another village's spy could hear about what day the kage left and to where. But their fourth Hokage had been known to go against the rules occasionally. Some of the villagers had thought it was madness, others that it was arrogance. Thinking back to the blond haired man, smiling encouragingly as he took his finger away from the first, single leaf on Itachi's forehead, he thought that it might have been a combination of the two.

Often, the return date for a kage's missions would only be known by a select few. Another precaution against spy ninja. And in the case of the Fourth Hokage, the same went for his students. In the Leaf, the safe return of a hokage wouldn't be announced until the day after. Long enough for their leader to have been healed, rested, and divulged the results of his mission to his closest council members.

The day before the return announcement was given though, Itachi's mother stepped into the family dojo, smiling in a way that he thought was only slightly odd when his head turned to look at her. She whispered something to his father over his head, and then he was told to continue practicing something while the both of them went back to the main part of the house. During the fifteen minutes that followed, Itachi went through his exercises exactly as he was told to. Then did them again. Then, tired, sweaty, and a little sore where he had shifted his weight too soon onto one of his ankles, he had slid open the door and gone outside. Sitting in the doorway, he had waited solemnly for his father or the woman with her still-mysteriously-enlarged-stomach to come back. He had been thirsty, and tired, and ready for his bath time, but also knew not to leave the dojo when his father told him not to. Not unless his cousin was nearby. So he went on waiting in the doorway, just as he had when he thought he saw Obito before his trip. But this time, someone else caught his eye.

Someone stepped onto the street leading away from the household of the main family, a boy with bright hair that stuck up in odd angles. Itachi recognized him because of the hair, even when his back was to the dojo and his head was tilted toward the pavement. There was dirt clinging to his pantlegs in withering streaks that might have been mud at some earlier point. As he walked, his shoulders were rounded in languished slopes, and Itachi remembered thinking, childishly, that the masked boy looked as if he had been melting earlier and then suddenly stopped before the process was done halfway.

He hadn't stood and called after the masked boy, but unlike with Obito, he hadn't needed to. The boy felt the eyes on him and turned around smoothly, with his shoulders only halfheartedly stiffening as if the casual persona that would characterize him in the years to come had already begun to settle into his posture. One dark eye fell onto Itachi's form, sitting unmovingly in the doorway of his family's dojo. The other was hidden under a heavy bandage wrapped diagonally around the masked boy's head.

They had stared at one another in the dying sunlight, the masked boy standing frozen on the street. And despite the times in the future when imagination prickled and tempted him to create add-ons to the memory, Itachi knew that neither of them had said anything. The only indulgement that Itachi allowed himself concerning that late afternoon when Obito's teammate came to tell his family about the blasphemy that their black sheep had committed was that perhaps it was the first time that they actually saw one another without some form of buffer between them.

Perhaps the other boy had thought about Obito.

At age four, Itachi didn't know what the bandage meant. He recalled the dark spots that he took to be more dirt on the other boy's shirt, and later wondered if they might have been something else. There were no accounts in Konoha's records that detailed exactly how the sharigan had come to be in Kakashi's possession. When he came back from the fateful mission that shortened his team by one, he had undoubtedly been questioned, but as the Hokage's student, had probably been relieved of the interrogations more easily than he would have been in different times. And then when he was no longer the Hokage's student, only a few months later, he was already a proven, loyal son of Konoha who no longer needed to be questioned.

Itachi would learn about what Hatake Kakashi hid under his hitai-ate on his own when he was older. The incident was rarely spoken of by either of his parents. It was a scandal; the secrets of their family passed onto an outsider with only a flimsy story of friendship and the support of the Fourth Hokage protecting him from the accusation of murder.

At his father's insistence, Itachi's training continued after the masked boy left the Uchiha estate. Fugaku had come back out of the main house, opened the door wider to step around his son's form, and then curtly told him to come back in. What Kakashi had come to tell his parents was not mentioned to Itachi, neither on the day that he left or the day afterward when the return of the Hokage and his team was announced to the village.

He assumed that his father had left the task of telling him why Obito didn't come back to the Uchiha compound afterward to his mother, who in turn put it off for as long as possible, because Itachi kept waiting. He watched the street running in front of their house from the kitchen window, until his father would pull him away, and then watched from the sidewalk as they walked off to their daily training. He trained when his father told him to, both in the forest surrounding their village and in the dojo. He did as much as he was told to, and then when he was alone, he did more. Always with his ears cocked toward the doorway or the surrounding trees, straining for the familiar words. "Hey, Itchy!"

But he never heard them.

It might have been during one of those days when Fugaku left him alone (noticing early on that his son took to his training exercises better when he didn't know he had an audience) that he began to understand. When he saw the brown haired girl and her sullen masked teammate back in the village, when his cousin wasn't. The knowledge might have been there, slowly sinking into him until it became a suspicion, then a worry, and then finally a fact. He knew before his mother finally put her hand on his shoulder one morning as he stared out the window, searching for the blurred form, and gently turned his face to hers.

He could almost forgive her for putting off that confrontation for so long. Most ninja wouldn't know how to coax a four year old child out of a steadily budding depression, or explain to him the concept of a good death. There was no such thing as a good death to a child. It simply meant that you had been left behind, and the words "he loved you" had no meaning, because love couldn't bring Obito back.

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Itachi sat up in bed when Kisame rolled over, turning to face the other side of the room and taking the comfort of his arms with him. Itachi waited for a moment, listening to his partner's breathing before he turned and let his feet slide to the floor over the edge of the bed. Of all his comrades, in Itachi's opinion, his partner was the most likely to be killed in his sleep. During the three years since the first of Itachi's stress-induced nostalgia, not only had the shark nin never once woken when his younger partner climbed into his bed, but in the years before he had proven that there was one fatal habit that no amount of training in the shinobi fields could dispel. When Kisame was on a mission, he hardly took time to rest; it had taken Itachi two years of subtle reinforcement to put a rein on the extent of his partner's stamina by providing other outlets. But he learned that once returned from a mission, Kisame's eyes would close, and only hunger and the deprivation of air could make them open again before their next assignment was given. It was one of the dangers that made Itachi uncomfortable during their guarding shifts when they were base stationed, because with this frailty the only way that he could be sure of their safety was to avoid sleeping too deeply to counteract his partner.

The little girl with her troublesome question had now faded, lost in the nostalgic flow that had stemmed from it. For many shinobi, memory was a weakness; in Itachi's case it was different. A weakness was something that needed to be suppressed; his past recollections were a nuisance, but one that was prone to surfacing hours after the trigger had been set off and hardly capable of interfering with his performance as a shinobi.

Pulling out his hair tie, Itachi began to shake his hair loose with his fingers to relieve the pressure coiling within his head. The migraine that had been threatening him earlier was still there, undoubtedly helped along by his staring into the darkness of the room around him. Itachi could just make out the tiles under his feet when he glanced down between his feet, hands combing under the locks of his hair to massage his scalp.

After Sasuke was born, Itachi knew that there were more memories lingering, left there by the solemn child he had been, who didn't understand that a bond had been formed, much less served. He knew that after Obito had gone away and before Sasuke had come, one more confrontation had taken place between his parents.

"I don't like seeing him like this. Suppose it leads to problems when he's older?"

"It won't, Mikoto."

"But what if it does?"

"It wont."

A confrontation that had set the stage for his future role in the family history by placing him with his future closest person: Uchiha Shisui.

Rising from the bed, Itachi took a second to get his bearings, then started for the bedroom door. He could hear Kisame shifting on the bed as he rolled over once more, likely settling into the warm spot that Itachi vacated.

The lighting in the hallway was indistinguishable from that inside the bedroom. Itachi navigated through it by walking close along side the walls and keeping his ears alert for the sound of a door opening ahead or behind him, preferring not to further help his headache along by straining his eyes. It was a longer walk to the bathroom than it would have been several years pervious, but not by much. Itachi was still a prodigy, even if that meant distancing himself from the power of his dual-bladed eyes. If he were one to believe in lesser minded nonsense, he might have been tempted to call the effects of his sharigan karma finally catching up with him after slaughtering his kin for what turned out to be a self-destroying ability. Unfortunately, very few of the akatsuki members entertained the thought that an unsee-able force wielding control over the events of their lives (Hidan was a rare breed.)

Once inside the bathroom, Itachi kept the lights off, not wanting to have to readjust to the darkness again when he went back into the hallway. He saw his reflection standing out faintly in the mirror as he closed the door behind him. In profile, the pointed chin was clearly visible, so different from the one that he remembered. In appearance, Itachi knew that he more closely resembled his mother than his father, the stubborn Head Family genes winning out against the more exotic ones of his father. The result of the blended traits was Mikoto's fair complexion and slender structure with Fugaku's eyes, nose, and chin discretely slipping into the facial features of their offspring. In Sasuke, the combination had been remarkably similar, which became almost shockingly apparent (on his part) when they had finally seen one another after the four year separation since the clan's disposal. Whether any of the traits that Itachi shared with Sasuke had also been with their long-dead older cousin, he didn't know. Itachi only knew that his chin was too pointy, and that his mouth was too small to match with the ones that he remembered from the grinning, tanned face. Any other traits that couldn't be traced directly back to his mother or father were open for possibility.

Turning a nozzle on the sink, Itachi began to wash his face, working more by feel than sight. He preferred to use hot water, knowing that even if he was giving up the possibility of sleep tonight, he wasn't idiotic enough to give himself a head cold by splashing frigid liquid on his face while the base was reaching winter-time temperatures. While bent over the sink, Itachi's eyes remained centered around the shadowy figure reflected in the mirror, watching.

Aside from his chin, Itachi couldn't be sure how much he resembled Obito. It would have been a distant possibility on his mother's side, Obito's relation to her being as complex as it was, but on his father's, they would have been closely related. He could have asked his parents, he supposed, during the last years of his life in Konoha. Their reactions may have been strange, but Itachi was sure that his mother at least, would have answered. But then, it wasn't until after they were gone that his memory fits became a problem.

Itachi never asked if Shisui remembered their older cousin either, or whether there was another memory figure of his own lurking behind the other's opaque eyes. The possibility had risen for a brief moment toward the end of their friendship, when Itachi was signing his cousin's name to a suicide note when he was thirteen. At the time, he had felt that the note wasn't completely false. He was certain that on some level, his cousin had been suicidal. At the time of his death, Shisui had been a markedly ideal member of the Uchiha clan, leading a satisfying life dedicated to the Leaf Village and the preservation of the sharigan, but Itachi had known better than to believe that. After all, he had been a model member too.

His suspicions were founded on an incident that occurred after both he and Shisui became rookie members of the Leaf ANBU, when they were alone together in the jounins' locker room just after their initiation. Their arms had still been bandaged from receiving the customary tattoo that came along with the rank. Itachi had been unwrapping his, knowing that his mother would be waiting to see it out in the hall with Sasuke. Shisui had been leaning against his own locker, also waiting for Itachi to finish so they could go back to the Uchiha compound. Shisui had been silent during the wait, until he asked, lowly, head dipped, whether he truly believed that anything they had was worth dying to protect. Itachi had paused, then turned. At twelve years old, and still young enough to pretend that he wasn't looking at the new mark on his arm in the mirror attached to his locker door, he hadn't known what to answer.

Shisui had been fifteen then. If Itachi's assumption that the comment had been an omission of a deeper disenchantment with the staunched life he had been leading in Konoha, then it would mean that Shisui's disillusionment started at some point sooner without his noticing, years before his own did. Over the year that followed, other comments had succeeded the first. Quiet, contemplative speculations that served to erase guilt when Itachi forged his cousin's hand in a note that he was certain would have eventually been written in actuality, if given more time.

The murder of his clan was a different matter. With Shisui, the death had been a carefully planned act that had been decided sometime after finding the second shrine hidden within the shrine of the Uchiha clan, and after Shisui's question in the lockerroom. The latter of which led Itachi to believe that if his first guess at impending suicide was wrong, then there was a t least a drastic change simmering in his cousin's future. Shisui might have been flirting with a missing nin lifestyle as well by the time he was sixteen, in which case the fatal difference may have been little more than the fact that Itachi was decisive enough to act first. Either way, spite had had no place in the murder on Itachi's part.

But in his plans, the slaughter of his clan had not been included. Wouldn't have even come about, if he hadn't overestimated his credibility in the clan. If he left after being accused of the murder, it would have complicated things. He couldn't have a scour of revenge-driven jounin pursuing him when his future outside the village was still uncertain. Respondingly, his plans had been alerted. There had only been one problem in the new course of action that he came to.

A drop of water, cooling against Itachi's skin rolled its way down the side of his face. As the drop made its way closer to his jaw, it picked up speed before finally losing its place and splashing against the counter top. Sight wasn't needed for him to find the towel folded on a shelf beside the counter, or to leisurely pat his face dry as his eyes studied the silhouette's movements in the mirror.

In his revised plans, there had been one problem. Sasuke. Older than Itachi had been when he first learned about death, but still too naive to comprehend it himself, Itachi had been reluctant to include him in the massacre. In large families, children tended to come in waves, as if the woman managed to meet at some point beforehand and pre-designate a year in which to have them. While Itachi had been born into one of those waves, if rather close to the edge of it, Sasuke had been alone in his generation. A sort of "oops" that seemed unnecessary to kill.

Itachi replaced the towel on the side shelf quietly, running his free hand through his bangs as he did so, then pausing to apply pressure to his temple. He exhaled slowly. The migraine was definitely not going to leave him alone tonight. In the mirror, a dark figure was leaning to one side as it rested its elbow on the counter. In the sink, where the bottom had been plugged before Itachi washed his face, he could sense the water rippling a short distance under his nose.

There had also been something else, a miniscule drop of irony that Itachi hadn't missed at age thirteen and didn't miss now. It was that, eight years to the day that Obito walked away and never returned, Itachi became aware of the fact that a pair of bright black eyes was now watching him.

When Uchiha Mikoto's water broke, and a tiny, squealing creature moved into Obito's old room, he hadn't known what to call it. He ignored it for the most part. Preoccupied with goals and expectations set by his father, Itachi had let the little boy grow unnoticed. It was nearly a decade later, while stopped by the front door to put on his sandals, that he looked up to see a little boy with big sable eyes and messy hair silently watching him from the breakfast table, striking an oddly familiar note in his then-tame memory. What else could he have said, staring back at the eyes and face hopefully waiting for the invitation?

"Would you like to come with me?"

In the bathroom, Itachi reached into the sink to release the plug. The sound of the water gurgling as it rushed downward temporarily banished the silence. The figure in the mirror loomed ominously in front of him, imposing in the way that it held itself even when lacking basic features. Taller than Uchiha Mikoto, though not by much.

Itachi made the offer to the little creature who had taken his place on the kitchen counter only once during the course of their relationship, and unknowingly opened the door for all of Sasuke's future requests for training. By that time, Itachi was no longer the one that Mikoto baked cookies with while Fugaku was asleep, or the one promising never to tell when she took sips out of the sake jar she kept hidden in the back of the fridge. Someone who didn't need to be read and interpreted replaced him, someone who smiled for her without prodding. Itachi didn't know whether she had still been able to recognize his smiles by the end of her life, or whether she had noticed that they grew less and less frequent.

Itachi lingered in the bathroom doorway, one hand resting on the handle as he thought of going back to bed. In his head, he could feel the dust resettling, the cobwebs in his mind grudgingly beginning to still now that the wind let in by the little girl's question had passed. His eyelids blinked twice in a slow, heavy recession. The thought of walking back down the hall and climbing into either Kisame's bed or his own and at last falling into a much desired sleep dangled in his mind appealingly. In front of him however, the hallway stretched out in a solid unyielding blackness that seemed all the more muffling to him, because of the fact that not too long ago, he was able to see through the same hallway without the lights almost as easily as he could with them on.

As he stood there, the irritating ache residing between his temples swelled persistently, picking up again. Menacing.

Sometimes Itachi wondered whether anything would have changed if Obito hadn't died. He'd never associated his cousin's death with the discontent he had eventually felt for the Uchiha clan and the Leaf. But, as a future inheritor of the clanhead status, it would have been impossible for Itachi to miss seeing his ambitious older cousin as he grew up, had the other survived. How his future would have been affected, without the extra push that brought him to Shisui, was a mystery. Would Itachi have grown tired of him when he was older, as Fugaku had seemed to? Or would it have been Obito that he held under water until his last breath bubbled out in defeat?

Itachi left the bathroom door open as he walked away, so that when one of the other members patrolled the hallway later (either Deidara or Tobi) they would be able to see that it was empty without going inside. He moved close to the wall again, almost but not quite touching it to estimate his direction.

Of Obito's team, the only member that remained by the time Itachi's memory developed into the sharp tool Fugaku demanded, was the member that he least remembered as a child. When he had briefly returned to Konoha at age seventeen, it occurred to Itachi that perhaps he should have killed that last survivor as well when he disposed of the Uchiha clan. When they saw one another, on the man-made river where the training match that Itachi vaguely remembered may or may not have taken place before, he thought that recognition had sparked for a moment. Obito's eye had shone out at him from the masked boy's face. Developed, more so than Sasuke's was, but still nonetheless out of place in its user's body. Itachi had had his first excessive memory output the night afterward, triggered long before his little brother had come barreling into his mission. But, rather than searching for the surviving member of Obito's team when he was thirteen, Itachi had stopped his massacre with Sasuke, the little boy who had entered the world so quickly after Obito left it, and left the masked boy as the only one breathing who would still remember the smile that he couldn't get out of his head.

Itachi pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, turning a corner at the end of the hall. His eyelids closed on his slowly deteriorating eyes, thinking. He was tired, his head still hurt, and to himself, he was quietly wondering whether he would be getting any sleep at all before the leader put him on guard duty.

This was precisely why Itachi hated taking on missions with children.

After Obito died, the girl and the blond haired man had each faded from his life in turn. The Fourth Hokage had been easy to remember, with his face roughly etched into the mountain overshadowing the village, but somehow it was the girl, with her odd markings and easy affection, whose image was more soundly fixed in his memory. Obito's female companion; she remained anonymous, even after reading her report. Stubbornly saved in the back of his mind among the cobwebs that refused to decay, along with the taste of cookie dough being gingerly eaten for the first time, the odd hiss that fire made for a brief second when it whipped through the air, and the gooey texture of dango in his mouth while a girl just as unchangeably gone as his cousin told him that if he ever cut his hair she would hate him forever.

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Tobi knew that people in the akatsuki had a tendency to be strange. And not only the type of strange that made someone avoid standing next to any of the members in a crowded room, but over-the-top, never-gonna-change, in-your-face strange. Zetsu was a plant man, Deidara had an affinity for big, fiery explosions, Hidan was a religion fanatic and Kakuzu, well...he sewed. First coming to the akatsuki with Zetsu, Tobi had been half convinced that his master had unknowingly checked himself into a hospital for the criminally insane. However, the other half, which eventually repressed the former, had been completely fascinated. When he joined himself, finally, he had come to know something about the pack of fanatical miscreants known as S-class criminals. Things such as what to expect from which crazy and why, and when to either keep his mouth shut or duck. Living as Zetsu's pupil beforehand had given him plenty of time to build up a callous against curious and sometimes frightening traits anyway. By the time that he finally got a red speckled cloak of his own, the urge to fire off questions whenever he met a new person who could shoot whatnot out of their wherever had been mostly subdued. Mostly, however, was not completely.

When Kisame and Itachi had made their premature dash into the base earlier, he had been on the guard watch with Deidara, as he would be until the next team took over at dawn. An early return from a mission in the akatsuki could mean a positive or a negative thing, depending on the agents involved. For Kisame and Itachi, it was usually nothing to be worried about. Itachi was tactful and swift moving, and Kisame, from what Tobi knew about the former Kiri ninja, seemed the type who would be the tiniest bit impatient. In the past, the two had managed to shave time off their deadlines with little incident. But, after Kisame and Itachi had stepped into the light of the akatsuki's inner tunnels earlier, Tobi noticed something off about the slighter member of the team. Both agents had clearly been tired, but Tobi had seen Itachi tired before, and from what his memory provided, an unfocused, stiff-moving demeanor was not a characteristic that he adopted even at the point of exhaustion. He had looked...Tobi didn't think his comrade would like him using the word "shaken."

Whatever it was, Deidara seemed to have noticed it too; after the shark and the sharigan user were out of earshot, he turned back to Tobi and commented, "Man, Itachi looks stressed, un."

When their returned comrades decided to join Kakuzu and Hidan on the sleeping shift, Tobi had been relieved.

Two hours later, however, that relief was dead when Tobi paused while patrolling the dormitory hall at a faint sound somewhere in the corridor.

One of the reasons that a mountain base had appealed to the akatsuki was the tunnel network; the stone that made up the walls had a tendency to echo, and because the number of people occupying those tunnels was rarely more than ten at a time, a noise traveled a good distance before it died out. The sound of a door slamming on one floor could, for example, sometimes be heard by all other members of the organization. In ideal conditions, of course. In Zetsu's case, the tiny, walled-in location had been an unsettling feature. On the few occasions that they ventured into the deeper, mustier tunnels below the core of the base, Tobi had seen his master grow duller, even stumble on the steps between levels, as they went farther into the stone compartments. Fresh air, Zetsu had offered as his only excuse. Plants, it seemed, didn't do well underground, and Zetsu's genetic makeup made him just enough of a plant to feel the echo of that effect.

But in the hallway, well above those lower tunnels, and with Zetsu miles away from the River Country base, Tobi stood frozen for several moments before he took a few steps back to look toward a hallway that he hadn't been planning to check during his patrol. He stood there a for a moment, wondering whether he should go back to the entrance level and get Deidara or wake up one of his sleeping comrades incase the sound was made by one member of a larger ambush.

The exasperated, "Coward" look that Deidara would give him later if he followed either course of action made him decide against both.

The hallway was one of the few within the base that could justly be call "spacious," thanks to Hidan's insistence that it was important some of their larger members be able to move through them comfortably. Going down it, ears alert and one eye focused dimly ahead, he was a bit unsure whether he had chosen the right direction that the sound had come from, largely due to where he knew the hallway led. But doubt lasted only a moment longer, when a second sound, identical to the first, came echoing down the corridor; the swift, distinct sound of a cabinet door being ruthlessly slammed shut.

A little farther down the tunnel he was relieved to see the bright outline of a pair of double doors in the dark. The thought of turning around and hurrying up to the higher levels to get Deidara receded a little. No enemy ninja in their right mind would turn on the lights, even if they were stupid enough to go around slamming things and making a royal racket. Still, he paused for a moment outside the door, cautiously scanning the air for a whiff of sinister chakra on the off chance that this was a decoy for a larger attack. However, the dogged sounds coming from behind the door, akin to dragging footsteps, assured him despite the purposeful blankness of the chakra coming from the other room, there was nothing to worry about.

Well, the chances of someone making it down stairs without either he or Deidara noticing them was rare to begin with anyway...

The base's kitchen had been one of the least expected features when Tobi first came along to the organization with Zetsu. He supposed it was mainly due to the fact that there was something about cooking that was not usually applied to an S-class criminal. But nevertheless, it was there. It had been built during the days of the first few akatsuki members, still being finished when Zetsu and Tobi raised the members count to five, plus one scout. The purpose, he assumed, was to provide base-stationed members with a source of food that wouldn't risk an outside party noticing one of their decidedly more recognizable members buying take-out. Gas and water was made functional through a series of pipes and wires and things that Sasori had painstakingly worked out before being partnered to Deidara. It was beyond Tobi's expertise, and likely the same for more than a few of the other members, which raised the question of how the kitchen was going to be maintained now that the former Sand nin was gone, but that problem was yet to be discussed. Over the years, Tobi had seen Kakuzu and Hidan bicker over who prepared meals, sometimes ending them more violently than sane human beings should; on one occasion, Deidara had even been banished from the room's confines by the kitchen's protective creator, long before becoming Tobi's partner, after discovering the beauty of the culinary "arts." (It had taken Sasori a week to get the stove working again).

Pushing open the one of the doors that he knew wasn't given to squeaking—a development that had come after Sasori's death that the other members preferred to think of as a new way of telling when someone unfamiliar with the base was wandering through their corridors instead of something that needed fixing—Tobi began to step into the room, then stopped, gapping behind his mask at the disarray before him.

There were two counters inside the small kitchen, fit together to form a large right angle against the wall. At the end of one there was the stove, at the other the oven. In the past, both had been kept constantly clean for fear of a vengeful puppet master, and out of habit over the last few months—but now a multitude of items was scattered over the two surfaces, taking more space than even Deidara during his brief experimentations ever did. Cabinet doors indeed were open and stretching out into the walking space where they could easily be kicked in by someone unobservant walking by, and with the majority of their contents removed to the mess above. Most of the bowls on the counter top were empty, as if they had been taken out, glanced at, and then fallen short of some standard and left forgotten, piled and strewn out amidst sacks of white powders of different consistencies.

Tobi could read the labels on the sacks that had been left out from the door way: white sugar, brown sugar, flour, salt, baking soda. Each one was slumped over onto its side, lids still dutifully closed, as if behind tossing them aside, a flicker of responsibility had managed to weed itself into focus in time to prevent a single grain from spilled out despite the disorder. In the corner on the right, the one nearest the stove, a carton of eggs was left out with its lid pulled back to expose the delicate white shells. Next to it, on the burners above the oven, there were two long, flat pans stacked and waiting for use, unlike the abandoned assortment of kitchenware left out on the counter. A little red light on the oven under them proudly brought attention to the current rising degree of the oven.

Tobi glanced at it all in gapping confusion a he stepped into the room, before his eye was caught on the man standing at the center of the uncharacteristic mess. Back turned toward the door as he struggled to rummage through one of the higher shelves of the pantry, there stood the akatsuki's youngest member to date.

If Itachi noticed Tobi come in, as past experiences with the smaller ninja indicated he would have, he didn't show it. For his part, Tobi could only stare at him mutely from across the room as Itachi stood on tiptoe to nudge stacks of canned goods around on a shelf above his head. It was only after the younger shinobi gave up looking and let his feet flatten on the tile flooring that Tobi felt comfortable enough to chance speech.

"Itachi-san?"

Another secret that Tobi had learned about his master before his apprenticeship had ended was in regards to his feelings toward Itachi. Once when they were on their way out again after a particularly long base-stationed period with Kisame and Itachi, Zetsu had admitted that even he preferred not to be the sole object of one of the Fire Country murderer's stares. With or without his sharigan, Itachi knew how to focus his eyes on someone in particular way that made them want to freeze and hastily check their exit routes for safety. Though Tobi was sure that that comment had never been hinted at or acted on—Itachi was, after all, a trusted and reliable comrade—they had reached an agreement: Kisame was a brave, brave man to be able to sleep with Uchiha Itachi sleeping in then next bed.
Itachi had begun pawing through a second shelf closer to his eye level, but after Tobi said his name the sound of glass jars softly clinking into one another as they were moved died away. Itachi turned to look at him, moving stiffly so that Tobi wondered for a moment whether he had been too presumptuous in thinking that Itachi had already known he was there. He scanned the counter again while Itachi stared at him, frowning at the items that had already been taken out and the combination that they seemed to make in his head. "...Are you baking cookies?"

"Hn." Itachi's eyes blinked once, slowly, bringing attention to the dark, sunken spaces underneath and the faint redness that surrounded them, not due to his bloodline ability for what may have been the first time in Tobi's recollections of him. But Itachi hardly paused, even under Tobi's open stare. He moved one hand that had remained resting on the edge of the shelf, letting it dangle by his side, and dully asked something under his breath.

"Pardon?" Tobi said politely from where he stood, one foot inside the kitchen and the other still in the hallway.

Itachi gave Tobi a look that bordered suggestively on annoyance, and then stated a little louder, but still in the same flat drawl that he was known for, "I asked you if you know where the peanut butter is."

"Oh." A moment passed while Tobi blinked, looking again at the mess on the counter, and then at what appeared to be a flour smear on his comrade's pantleg. "Um...with the bread, maybe?"

The air around Tobi seemed constricting as Itachi continued to stare at him, face unchanged to all appearances. A moment passed, and then Tobi coughed behind his mask, not quite subtly, as his eye darted away from the still form. "It might be in the fridge." A pause, Itachi blinked. "Deidara likes to have it on bananas in the morning."

Finally, Itachi's expression showed a sign of change. Turning away from the pantry, he said softly, "Thank you." He was dressed in only a pair of loose-fitting pants that hung low on a pair of narrow hipbones. Next to some of the organization members, Tobi knew, Itachi's thinness might have been troubling. There had been one point during his adolescents when Zetsu had commented that the former Fire Country prodigy seemed to be rapidly losing weight each time they came back from longer missions, but after time it was dismissed as nothing to be worried over. Itachi was a naturally thin person; one only needed to look into the Uchiha clan's history to see the trait passed down in his family. And, on the one occasion that the matter was brought up within the shark ninja's hearing range, Kisame had assured them that the Uchiha prodigy was not playing with an eating disorder.

In addition to pants clinging to his slender form, Itachi's hair was also hanging loose, the tie that usually restrained it at that moment being worn like a bracelet around its owner's wrist. Looking over the younger agent's appearance, Tobi waited until Itachi was craned down to look into the fridge before venturing, "Couldn't sleep?"

A non-descriptive grunt back to him, uttered as a bunch of yellow-green bananas were held in one hand, just where Tobi could see them over the door. When Itachi turned away from the refrigerator, the Uchiha's eyes didn't even flicker toward Tobi as he crossed the room again, instead, focusing on twisting the cap off the small light brown jar before he came to the counter. Deidara's favorite breakfast fruit were tossed lightly toward the cluttered counter top, the pitcher not even glancing sidelong to see if the bunch landed safely. His interest in Tobi, if it had been there at all, had apparently dropped after the peanut butter's location had been revealed.

At the end of the counter closest to the stove and left out eggs, Tobi noticed that there was at least one bowl out that was being used, a large plastic one with a powdery white film covering the countertop around it. Itachi stopped to pick a butter knife out form the jumble of scattered measuring cups and broken eggshells by the sink, setting down the cap and leaving it there before he finally went back to the bowl.

For another long moment, the sound of the knife scrapping the inside of the jar became the only sound Tobi heard as he waited awkwardly in the doorway, watching his comrade's back again as he worked.

"Do you need any help?"

Itachi waited until he was finished with his knife before he answered, setting it down on the counter as he looked at Tobi over his shoulder—which may have been meant to convey a message to stay or leave, but one that could only be understood in the language that Kisame alone had mastered over the course of several years.

Tobi went to the other counter and began to restack the bowls in their original order before Itachi shrugged and turned back around, deciding on his own that it would be a better idea not to repeat the question to the higher ranking, and apparently isometric, organization member. It was a relief when Itachi turned on the electric egg beater and drowned out the silence. Through the corner of his eye, Tobi saw Itachi reaching out for a second bowl every so often, adding in the last ingredient to the batter with one hand while he handled the beater with the other. Every so often Tobi looked back again, as he crossed the room to put away discarded ingredients and gathered up the eggshells, careful not to make a sound to disturb the other.

Tobi was on his knees in front of the cupboard underneath the counter, putting away his two perfectly fitted stacks of bowls, when the egg beater's sound was switched off. Immediately the silence picked up again, broken only by the insignificant sound of the cord being yanked from the wall, and Itachi's feet as he took the empty dry ingredients bowl to the sink. The deep voice surprised him, hitting his ears clearly after the barely audible utterances from before.

"Tobi."

The stack of bowls that Tobi had been holding clattered gracelessly inside the cupboard, where he had been about to set them down before Itachi's interruption made him jump. Turning around, he saw the younger ninja standing back at the end of the opposite counter again, coiling the cord of the egg beater around his fist.

"Yes, Itachi-san?"

When the cord ran out, Itachi pulled the loop around his fingers free and threaded the plug through it, pulling it tight to form a knot, which he rolled ideally between his fingers while Tobi waited.

"Do you have any family?"

A chill settled menacingly into Tobi's shoulders. The former heir of the Uchiha clan, black eyes focused on Tobi's mask as he stood waiting for his answer, unblinking, didn't show any sign of noticing. Tobi was sure that he saw one thumb stroking the thin neck of cord between the plug and the knot; he had to shake himself before he could speak. "They died," he offered tentively, deliberately looking up into the Uchiha's face rather than at the plug. Then added, after a pause, "A while ago."

Itachi's voice was still surprisingly crisp for his bedruffled state when he blinked disinterestedly and said, "I see,"

Several seconds ticked by while Tobi waited for a more elaborate response. At the counter, Itachi tossed aside the knotted cord and picked up the egg beater again.

Watching him for a moment, he pressed, "Why do you ask?"

Itachi curled a slender finger around the stem of one metal beater and absently jerked it out. The florescent lights fell harshly down on Itachi's face as he removed the egg beater, still leaning back against the counter. The contrast between his natural paleness and the dark splotches under his coal-black eyes was highlighted. "No reason," he said quietly. Tobi could almost hear the shrug in his voice.

"Oh."

Itachi traced a finger along one bracket of the egg beater, collecting the dough clinging to it and then popping it in his mouth. Despite Tobi's sense of preservation, as he stood up and began to turn toward the door, he couldn't resist stopping one more time in front of it to look back at the other ninja and half-uncertainly try, "You're sure?"

The dark eyes darted upward, finding and landing on Tobi's mask again, and even with his finger stuck in his mouth and a light streak of peanut butter on his cheek, a hard, wordless 'What?' was clearly indicated. Tobi coughed again, not so subtly. "Okay. Well, goodnight."

It occurred to Tobi, once he was well away from the kitchen and making his way to the stairs to meet Deidara, that maybe he should consider telling Zetsu about the question as soon as he saw his former master again. Itachi didn't seem like the kind of person who would ask anything unless there was a reason behind it, but then, he didn't think Itachi was the type to have trouble sleeping at night either.

Climbing the stairs, Tobi scratched the back of his head, the tips of his fingers running over the single reassuring strap that held his mask in place. Speaking to Itachi, even with his partner present, was always unsettling for Tobi. If Deidara ever noticed, he wasn't sure how he was going to explain it without giving away too much; if anything, he knew that Deidara was a mouth (or several), and Zetsu had already taught him that some things were better left decaying under cobwebs. He didn't need to know why Itachi was up at two in the morning making cookie dough. Just like he didn't need to know what made the little boy he remembered by the kitchen window grow up to be a murderer.