Itachi knows from the moment he completes his first assassination that he likes it, and that the adrenaline that follows the spilling of blood is the least of reasons for it. The slight resistance before a kunai pierces his opponents' skin, and how easy said skin is to scar - (it begins that way) - to the viscous film glazing their eyes and the protests glazing their lips. Everything that's been done and all the things that haven't manifest in these mortal wounds, in their throes and in their demise. All of it is an art, Itachi comes to decide, an art he has taken upon himself to execute, the moment he kills his first. (It is a ragged old man, rocking back and forth with a child's corpse crushed against his bony ribs. He is crying, that his children are dead, that his children are dead - and Itachi doesn't tell him that the girl he's holding is half-rotted and weeping maggots, because he knows that the old man cannot see it.)
It is easy to slit his throat, laughably so, and there is a strange emotion that accompanies the gurgles - the man will be dead, with his dead children, whose maggots the old man cannot see. He is helping someone, isn't he? He is doing the old man a final favor, and there is a certain sense of pride and self-admiration that comes with the knowledge. (He is not the cause of this: he is the solution.)
When Itachi returns home the next morning, Sasuke is eating his breakfast, his small cheeks puffed out with food and looking at his older brother with wide, intelligent eyes. Itachi ignores his brother as he stops to sip at his tea, reluctant to admit to himself that he should have known better than to join ANBU.
The day he turns seven, Itachi is no longer allowed the illusions of childhood. His father leads him to the dock where he's learnt his first fire element jutsu, where he earned his surname. There is silence between them, as always, and Itachi takes the opportunity to slip his sandals off and dip his feet into the cool water, patiently waiting out his father's stolid stance. (He has been patient a very long time.)
"You are to be a genin beginning tomorrow," Fugaku says, arms crossed over his chest and mouth firmly fixed in a frown, though his brows are relaxed and he is looking upon his firstborn somewhat kindly. "D-Rank missions may seem pointless and silly, but I will not tolerate you shaming me. You will accomplish your assigned tasks as a worthy member of the Uchiha Clan. Is this clear?"
It was clear, and Itachi says so, clutching at the rough bark of the dock as his father nods and returns to the house. He watches the figure of the elder man as it fades into the district, and idly begins to splash his feet in the water. His father would not have approved of such useless movement, though Itachi thinks it gives the otherwise still waters some flavor. He does not return to the house until he hears the faint chime of bells from the shrine, to which his mother goes after preparing the evening spread. (It is like this every day.) He is ready to eat by the time she arrives.
In Shisui, Itachi finds a friend that suffers the same talent. (They are both meticulous.) They spread themselves over the grass by the Nakano after training each day, and watch the clouds, before they return to their homes. It is a small amount of time each day they allow themselves, but only because it is with the other.
"What is the nature of tensai?" Shisui asks one day, eyes red and blaring at what sunlight penetrates the tree canopies as fiercely as the sunlight blares at them. "Is it that we are stronger than others that makes us better, or is it that we are labeled as such because we see the world tinted in different colors than most?"
Itachi knows that Shisui's world is misted red. "I don't think you have to be tensai for that." He shuts his eyes as he feels the weight of his cousin's eyes on him, and chooses his words carefully. "I think tensai is just another name for an illness, Shisui-kun. We're sick, but our bodies are healthy and our minds are intact. We can perform at the standards of society, but we perceive the world differently than others and it is a wrong way." He pauses. "You don't have to be tensai for that, but if you are, it is easier. And more likely. And everyone knows it."
Shisui does not reply for a long moment, and turns his head away, back to face the sun. "It will burn, won't it, once it gets the better of us?" (Arrogance settles itself comfortably between their shoulders, and it is saturating.)
He is Sasuke's idol and he is not sure whether he likes it. (He remembers looking at Shisui with wide eyes, himself, before his younger brother is born - after which he realizes that those wide eyes are a responsibility that tensai, especially, dislike undertaking.)
He feels an obligation to the boy who knows nothing of the darkness that wrought their clan dead and that is why he lets him live. When Sasuke last asks him why, he must pause where he stands, amidst the corpses and blood of their mother and their father. He remembers a moment later, the answer, and says it, thoughts well-worn and words newly birthed. There is horror and devastation in every pore of Sasuke's still-delicate features and to his surprise, there is a gentle press of shame that weighs him before he takes one of the final steps necessary to accomplish his goals.
"You must kill your best friend." (Like I killed mine.) He has been patient a very long time.
Itachi watches his mother when it is time for dinner. He thinks she has smooth features, and there is something warm in those clear, dark eyes, but he is not sure what the reasons for this are anymore. (He does not spend much time with her because he is busy being an Uchiha and she is just his mother.) She has returned from the shrine, same as always, watching him as even as she enters the room last. Sasuke is with her, because she does not often let him out of her sight, even though he can walk and talk - he is still a baby, four years old and seven months.
He is still a baby, but Itachi is not, when he is four years old and seven months, because that's when he first learns about chakra and how to throw kunai. His mother did not clutch him to her as she does Sasuke, and for that he has become powerful and strong, a tensai and a killer. It is what his father wants of him, and he knows as a child that though his mother will be proud of him no matter what, his father will not be - and that is what prompts him to be still in face of his mothers' affections. He will absorb her warmth, but emit nothing in return (and his father will approve, because the finest of shinobi have no such thing called emotion).
His first mission upon becoming a member of ANBU is not an assassination. It is an easy mission, though with that simplicity comes a barrage of complications. He is called into the Hokage's office, at dusk, and knocks before entering. The room is musky with the scent of paper and ink and smoke, and Sarutobi sits at his desk like a grand relic of the past. (Itachi is aware of his power, and wants it.)
"Take a seat, Itachi-kun," Sarutobi says, looking up from his texts to readjust his frames, and leans back to survey the Uchiha from over knitted fingers. There is something knowing in his gaze, and Itachi feels patronized for being looked at in such a fatherly way. "You have been an excellent shinobi of Konohagakure," he begins, and Itachi immediately understands that there is something more to this than he anticipates. "There is something that I will ask of you, however, and you have the right to accept or refuse as you wish, as long as you keep to the utmost secrecy."
Itachi feels himself nodding. "Hai, Hokage-sama."
Sarutobi pulls out a scroll from beside his throne and spreads it over everything that litters his desk. It is a series of photos - of shinobi - a bingo book in scroll form? "This is sealed, and forbidden, to all but me," Sarutobi says, knowing that Itachi wonders. "These are the faces of the current members of an organization called Akatsuki."
That night Itachi begins the preparations for his very first and most important duty. He decides, after some thought, that Sarutobi is only lucky that this mission coincides with the illness that is taking hold of him, and that it will not take very long for him to finish rotting.
It is a small thing, but he is assigned to protect it along with another in his unit. (He vaguely wishes it were Shisui, because there are no others that he has patience with.) Hatake Kakashi is far from unsatisfactory, but Itachi does not like the gleam in the other man's single eye as they reside over their subject. It is not sad nor is it pleased; it is an objective lilt that sees everything and does nothing, and that is exactly the type of person that, more and more, Itachi is sure he does not want to become. (It is those ripened with a decrepit sense of action that rile Itachi the most. He is a man of the art - of life, death and rebirth - and sitting back is too supine a role for him.)
The boy is all blond and blue and though his eyes are clear and his face is serene, there is an undeniable air of misery about him. Young, moreso than Sasuke, huddled by the window with a strange cap tugged smugly on his head and and a blanket clutched in his hands, he watches the world outside. It is the night of the festival that celebrates the sealing of the Kyuubi, and Itachi knows that Hatake Kakashi hates the boy in front of them for breathing while his sensei is not.
The boy's fingers are small and chapped dry, as are his lips (and when he yawns and dozes off on the floor, Itachi wants to lean over and tighten his hand around the small, slender neck, because this is not existence).
He finds in Akatsuki others of his talent, and wonders at the fact that other tensai that bear his illness exist. (He also wonders whether it was necessary to slit his mother's throat, when she only ever looked at him warmly, before tucking such thoughts into neat bundles and tossing them into his memories of the Nakano, to lie in the depths and keep Shisui company.)
He finds that Sasori and Deidara share an interest in art, but he does not participate in their debates. He knows that his art is a higher calling. Existence may be defined by length or intensity but may not be comparable; everlasting and ephemeral, Itachi's art walks hand in hand with both, and he has nothing to add to their discussions because they are both, by his default, correct.
Itachi is revered at the academy for the minimal time he spends there. His classmates are several years older than himself and stay away, because they are jealous and they are scared, and Itachi does not know what to do to fix it because he is still a boy. So he learns what his teachers teach him and excels, and does not care that there is no one that will stand by him because he is tensai and does not need anyone to stand beside him. (He wonders what teamwork is and why it does not apply to him.)
His father tells him that being an Uchiha will set him above his classmates, but that he should not underestimate the strength in others, either. "You can always learn from others in order to better yourself," the elder Uchiha tells his son, "and that is part of being a ninja of the tree that is Konoha. The village is our trunk and each shinobi is a leaf. Some leaves are in better parts of the tree - they get more sun, more rain - and other leaves are not. That does not mean to say that they do not have something different to show."
Itachi remembers this throughout his time in the academy, because he supposes that if he is any leaf, he is the highest leaf on the highest branch of the highest tree - so far above the others that none can rival the sun and rain he sees, and that he does not care to know of what is below his station. (If he did, it wouldn't matter, because even if other leaves have something to show that he would care to know, they are jealous and they are scared, and he does not know how to fix it.)
They are by the Nakano, as always after training, lying in the grass and close enough to the stream to feel droplets of water cooling their skin. He has not told Shisui yet, but Itachi knows that he must leave soon to seek Akatsuki. (He knows what it is they want and like the slight resistance before a kunai cuts skin, Shisui lays beside him, world misted red.)
"Itachi-kun," Shisui says, breaking the stagnant air, and there is a strangely breathless quality to his strong voice, "I don't think I want to live this pathetic way, and I don't think I have what it takes to do anything about it." He rolls his head to his left and stares Itachi in the eyes. "My sharingan tell me that you do." My sharingan can predict better than any other Uchiha, because I am the best. I see what moves you will make. And I want a part of it, even in death.
Itachi understands what Shisui means to say because as tensai that suffer the same talent, they suffer the same illness, as well. It is a lazy and lethargic, graceful and graceless way that they crawl to the river, that Shisui slips in, that Itachi holds him down and watches him die. Their eyes mirror and Itachi is glad that the water is cool enough to distract him from the heat that emnates from the hands he is clutching.
When there is no longer a pulse and the intelligence in those eyes has flown, Itachi lets go.
(This is a promise not to fail.)
Birds of a feather flock together,
And so will pigs and swine;
Rats and mice will have their choice,
And so will I have mine.
Disclaimer: Naruto isn't mine.
Notes: Itachi is among my favorite characters of the series, so this was a study in 10 parts. Hopefully enjoyable :)