The pathologist frowned over Hiashi's body as it lay on the cold slab. "There's no way this was all from the sniper's bullet," she said, gesturing with a gloved hand to the purple bruises on the man's chest. "Absolutely no way. Look here, you can even see the outline of a shoe's heel."

"But the shot was what killed him?" the reporter asked, leaning over the body as well. He'd taken a few science classes as an undergrad, and had done work with forensics in graduate school. He had a basic understanding of trauma. The bruises did look extensive.

"Oh, a shot to the heart will kill anyone." The pathologist waved her hand. "These are perimortem, but since they're so dark there was still blood flow to interrupt when these were laid. I'd say they happened within a few days of death, if not the same day. And these..." she gestured to smaller, circular bruises along his torso and arms. "You know what these are?"

"No idea."

"Acupuncture points." The pathologist's brow arched. "We had to check because we had no idea what could produce this at first. These points, when stimulated at the same time, paralyze from the neck down."

"Someone gave him a blow to the chest, paralyzed, and shot him?" The reporter answered her arched brow with one of his own. "Far-fetched, don't you think?"

"Yeah, that's the problem." She went about cleaning the body. "That and his family wants him sent to the mortician yesterday."

"Wouldn't they want to know about this?"

"I tried to get in touch with the heir's husband, but he waved me off. Said the guy must have injured himself training in some martial arts, Hyuuga are fond of those." She snorted. "Guy comes back after years away and bosses the city around in months."

"Thanks," the reporter said, packing up his recorder. "Anything else interesting for me?"

"Nah, I'll call you if anything else comes up though."

They exchanged pleasantries about their families and the reporter left, buttoning his coat against the pervasive chill of the morgue. The cold grey concrete in here sometimes made him feel like he was really in a crypt.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor, and the reporter looked up from where he'd been fishing into his pockets for his car keys. Well, if it wasn't Madara's protégé. His face was expressionless, and the fluorescent light glinted off his uchiwa lapel pin as he paused, looking at the reporter.

"Uchiha Itachi, right?" the reporter asked. "Mind if I get a statement?" All the Uchiha gave him the jitters. They all looked the same, and they were all imposing when they wanted to be.

"You already spoke with my uncle," the young man replied, and they both turned and walked into the press room. "Did you talk to the pathologist already?"

"She agreed with you," the reporter said, handing over the recorder. "Something else happened in that room right before he was shot."

Itachi nodded solemnly, and pulled a folded stack of bills out of his pocket. "I believe this is the amount we agreed upon."


"No, thank you." Itachi bowed his head politely, and left. The reporter shuddered again as the door clicked shut after him. Those Uchiha really were a creepy bunch.

The temple was packed, reporters and family and dignitaries from everywhere filling the seats. From the dais, behind Hiashi's polished coffin, Itachi watched them file in and listened to the rustle of fine fabrics and sibilance of hushed voices or stage whispers. It was odd; at such things where they needed to give a show of solidarity, Hiashi had always been there beside his daughter. Silent, but radiating a calm assurance. Itachi had seen the toll that Madara's war upon him for Hinata's hand had taken on the Hyuuga, and as he had at the time, felt remorse for his part in it.

My actions are what will be the end of us all, he thought to himself, and had to keep himself from screaming.

Jiraiya leaned on his friend's desk. "So that's it, then," he said, putting the report back on top of the stack of others and watching as Tsunade crossed to the small bar hidden behind rich cabinetry and poured herself a very stiff-looking drink. "Mind if I have one too?"

"After reading those?" Tsunade laughed bitterly and poured a second. "You need it more than I do, it looks like."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"We're not left with many choices, are we?" she replied, sitting behind her desk and tenting her fingers. "Orochimaru is elbows-deep in this cracked out conspiracy he's hatched along with the other three. Itachi says that there is something big in the works—oh, he never comes out and says it plain, but it's obvious enough that Madara is up to something in Ame, something having to do with that mysterious big tower. But he's got no solid knowledge of what's going to happen, or if he does he's got Madara over his shoulder as he's writing his reports, making sure that nothing gets out that he doesn't want known."

"We've got to get Itachi away from his family." Jiraiya muttered. "He's much too good a man to be ruined like his father was when Madara came back."

"But there's no way for us to do this without angering the rest of the city." Tsunade put her head in her hands. "The people love Madara, with his beautiful pregnant wife and his high talk of uniting the two powers that divided the city for years. He's like their damn messiah."

"There's always something," Jiraiya said, sighing. "We'll keep trying with Oro, hm? As much as he wants Madara dead, he's a genius, bound to see reason sometime."

"Geniuses are less bound to reason. Wouldn't you know that?" Tsunade made to punch him, and Jiraiya ducked out of the way. "Besides, who could blame him for wanting to go along with the plan that that Hyuuga corporate whore's come up with? We both know best as anyone what went down in Kiri."

"Best cover-up of the ANBU's career." Tsunade lifted her glass, then took a long swig. "The best-kept secret, that both of them were involved and we'd nearly had another street war over it."

Jiraiya was silent, then slid off the desk, smiling again. "I've got faith in you, Tsunade-hime—"

"Don't call me that!"

"—and eventually that pigheaded third of our rat pack will see reason."

"Before Madara uses his skin as a throw rug."

They embraced and Jiraiya left, his BMW pulling into traffic far below. Tsunade watched it go, until it turned toward the hill district and disappeared behind buildings.

"I suppose you heard all of that," she said. A man swathed in warm layers against the pervasive late autumn chill stepped from behind a decorative screen. His face was scarred, one eye closed permanently. "Danzou."

"You know what my solution is," he said simply. His voice was gravelly; he maintained a rugged handsomeness that even the scars couldn't hide. Briefly, she'd been attracted to him, until she realized he was even more of a belly-crawler than Orochimaru.

"I know, and I do not accept it."

"What happens when you run out of options, Tsunade-san?" Danzou's smile was twisted, the scar turning his lips up into a grimace. "Then you'll remember my suggestions."

He hobbled out, leaning on a cane, and left her to stare out the window over the rooftops.

Sasuke lay in bed with the sweat cooling on his body, listening to the slithering noises of the snakes on the floor and the soft hissing as Orochimaru slept beside him. He'd happily used every trick that he was learning (slowly) from Neji, and Orochimaru had laughed and they'd battered the pillows together until the older man was spent, and had submitted to being petted to sleep. Even now, Sasuke's fingers occasionally ran through the hair that was fine as spider's silk.

The sheets were a navy blue satin today. It was just as pleasing to the touch, and he felt plenty of it as he slid quietly away and reached under the bed. His fingers shook. The knife was one of his favorites, a honed tanto that was his first gift from Orochimaru. It had been presented on a violet pillow, and he'd picked it up.

What do you think of this blade? Orochimaru had asked. Sasuke, by now holding a great deal of knowledge in the proper handling of these small weapons, had put it through its paces.

I think it's heavy on the back end.

Orochimaru had smiled at him. And that had been one of the first times he realized that there was more to the pleasure he felt than that of being recognized for a job well done.

And now the man slept beside him, sprawled out like an indolent god on his massive bed, one hand flung across the sheets where Sasuke had been laying moments before. Sasuke knelt beside him with the blade in his hand, watching, counting the breaths. If he did it here, he would be safe from the eyes of the security guards. Orochimaru did not put security cameras in his bedroom. Sasuke's deed would not be discovered until morning.

The blade glittered in the light as he shifted it to the correct angle, lowered the point. Raising it would have been more dramatic, but applied properly, there was enough force from his current height to slice through bone. He always kept this one honed sharp, too. It would be a painless death, straight into the heart. He took a deep breath, let out half of it, and—

--flung the blade across the room. It wasn't yet Christmas; Madara could not fault him if he said he was trying to wring the last drops of knowledge out of his teacher's mind. Madara needn't know that Sasuke burrowed beside Orochimaru and slept fitfully until morning, his dreams invaded by the shining silver edge of a knife slicing toward him.

There are points in one's life when it seems that nothing can possibly get more complicated, that there is no more weight that can be placed upon one's shoulders; and then suddenly, there is more. The breaking point is hit, then it is passed, and the only thing that can be done is to continue going on as though everything is all right.

Itachi had come to this point. It was becoming increasingly hard to find enough time to sleep for the proper number of hours a night. He went to work, came home and took care of his duties around the tower, then went with Kisame on jobs some nights and to the warehouse to install some new machinery or take delivery of some needful things; and when he wasn't either of those places, chances were good he was following Madara around the city or spending precious time with Neji. There was not enough of that last, he thought, leaning his head wearily against the window of the limo. Not enough for him, and not enough for Neji, who bore it well. He deserved better.

Soon though, the elders of the Hyuuga family would convene and choose Hiashi's successor, and Itachi would be in the retinue that Madara brought with him to the meeting. Madara, ostensibly, was going in support of his wife who was first in line, but there was some question of her eligibility due to the fact that not only was she married to someone else, that someone else was an Uchiha, and her children would carry the Uchiha name and be heir to that legacy, and not to the Hyuuga. That, he was sure, suited Madara just fine but was not ideal for the Hyuuga, who would be left without a successor again after Hinata decided to step down. There was that, and the question of her loyalty to her family, now that she was married to the enemy.

"Don't look so morose, Itachi," Madara said from across the limo. He lounged on the plush seat, looking far too serene. They'd come from a meeting with some business partners, who had assured Madara in shaking voices and nervous smiles that they would happily come under his purview, leaving their previous alliance behind for the betterment of their own venture. "After this succession meeting, things will become less boring."

How they were boring now escaped Itachi, but he didn't ask, too tired to deal with his great-uncle's smug expressions and his cryptic speeches. Much to his chagrin, he fell asleep on the way back to the Uchiha tower.

Freed from his duties for the rest of the day—he'd taken the day off work to follow Madara around on business, and Kisame hadn't called him to tell him there was any work to be done, he called up Neji and waited anxiously in the lobby until the Hyuuga came to get him. He would have driven off himself, and Madara's restrictions on his movement be damned, but at the moment, he wasn't wanting any kind of altercation. It would upset the tenuous balance he had in his life right now. He didn't want that.

Neji at last pulled up, and Itachi jogged through the light mist that was falling and got into the car. Brushing droplets from his clothes, he sighed in relief and leaned his head back against the leather headrest. Here, he knew he wasn't constantly being watched or listened in on. He had no idea if Madara actually listened to the recordings he knew were made from every room in the tower. He didn't want to take the chance.

"You look exhausted," Neji said quietly, over some piano concerto playing softly. "Have you been sleeping at all?"

Itachi kept himself under control. It had been a week since he'd seen Neji privately, and the first thing that the Hyuuga did was to needle him about not sleeping? If the Hyuuga had half of what he had to deal with…

"Not enough," he said simply. Neji glanced over, and Itachi knew he'd let slip something in his voice. The younger man was trained to pick up variations in tone and probably would have regardless. Itachi sighed. "Not nearly enough."

"And your dear uncle refuses to let you have a night off?"

"Madara doesn't know the meaning of rest. How he continues to swoop about as he does… he sleeps even less than I do now, he is still awake when I finally sleep and wakes before I do in the morning, and he does not seem to be the worse for it at all."

"Does he take time to see to my cousin?" Neji's voice was tight, and Itachi felt again a flare of annoyance but kept it in check.

"He is with her often enough, I think." Itachi shrugged. "I do not always shadow him."

Neji nodded. "Then he should give you that time to rest. You need it." Taking one hand off the wheel, he reached over and rested it on Itachi's leg. "I have seen the shadows under your eyes grow deeper since my uncle's death."

"Madara has me talking to your elders," Itachi said quietly. "He wants the leadership of Hyuuga to fall to Hinata."

"Someone who is easily manipulated, and who would follow his instructions. Someone not Hanabi." Neji's mouth tilted up a little. "Hanabi would turn us back to a militant group of thugs with her whims… but Hinata would be a fine leader, if she weren't married to Madara."

"Agreed," Itachi said, and relaxed again. It was the exhaustion picking at his emotions, causing him to become annoyed with Neji. "But there is little we can do to stop it. Can you petition your elders to choose Hanabi?"

"I have. You forget my place in the family, as apparently I did." Neji's voice was bitter here; one of the many times that his second-class standing had been a huge detriment to him. Itachi thought again of the scientific journals that Neji kept current, the textbooks on genetics—symbols of a life that was no more than a dream. He deserved better than to give his body to strangers, night after night. And he deserved better than Itachi, who could barely come to see him once a week.

"I see," was all the Uchiha could say, as they pulled into the garage that was slowly becoming the haven they wanted it to be. Naruto was already working on some cars; there were a couple at one end, parts strewn all over the floor. Sai's desk had several designs on it in bold colors. Building a client base was the hardest part of this ruse, but it seemed that the boys were doing a stellar job of it already. Neji led the way into the other part of the operation, the part of the building that sheltered the resistance when they met. Here it was quiet too, the glow from several computer screens on one wall lighting the room. He wondered vaguely what they were doing here—they'd done all they could that week, really—but it became clear when Neji tugged him over to a couch that had been set up as a bed.

"You need to sleep sometime," Neji told him, and there was an edge in his voice that indicated he wasn't going to mess around with this. "You look as though you haven't in days. A delirious, hallucinating Uchiha is no use to anyone."

"What about you?"

"You forget that in addition to learning the arts of pleasure, I was trained as a companion." Neji smiled, and sat at one end of the couch. "I am told by my clients that I make a fairly good pillow," he said. "Lie down and rest for a little while. I have covered your absence from your family." His smile only grew when Itachi was asleep the moment his head came to rest in Neji's lap.

On their way back to the Uchiha tower, after a few hours of much-needed sleep, Itachi sat up as a car passed them going the other way; not an unusual occurrence, but this car hadn't been ordinary. He checked his phone hastily; no messages at all. Definitely unusual.

"That was Madara."

Neji glanced in his rearview mirror, as the Superleggera stopped at a red light. "So it is. What is he doing not yelling at you to join him?"

"I don't know." Itachi looked over at the Hyuuga. "Shall we find out?"

"I believe we shall." Neji went around the block; the Superleggera had been turning left, and after a quick spin through the alley behind the Uchiha tower, they saw it zoom past. Neji pulled out and they followed at a distance. Traffic at this time was lighter, but not so light that they didn't have plenty of cars to put between the Lamborghini and Neji's Lexus as cover. If Madara noticed them he didn't indicate it.

"He's not heading for Ame, it's the other way," Itachi said, and pulled out Neji's GPS unit. "Wonder what's out this way. No rings of any consequence, so it's not business, unless he's got something else in mind."

"There's not much," Neji said. "Some small-time clients tied to Hyuuga, rings scrambling for the bottom rung. Not many calls for the Hyuuga's whore out here."

"I wish you would not call yourself that."

Neji smirked, but fell silent, thumbing the button for the stereo; Thievery Corporation came on, an odd change from the usual classical. It seemed to fit though, as the buildings got smaller and seedier. The Superleggera was increasingly out of place, as was the Lexus.

"If I remember correctly," Itachi said, breaking the quiet, "This area wasn't developed until a couple decades ago, and when it was, much attention wasn't paid to it. Kiri's a pretty poor district in general, with its own infighting just like Konoha. There used be a powerful family out here, the Kaguyas, but they were all slaughtered." He thought of what Kisame had said about Madara having a hand in the internal war. "Madara was involved out here, a decade or so ago."


"I've got no idea." Itachi watched the taillights of the Superleggera ahead of them. "The person I work with in his little organization mentioned it."

Neji made a little noise. They were quiet for a moment, until Madara turned into a cemetery. Itachi watched him drive down the tree-lined streets between fields of mausoleums and gravestones. "What is he doing here…"

"Know who's buried out here?"

"Lots of people from the time when Konoha was cleaning up, since none of this was very developed then… don't know any names."

"Let's head in." Neji drove around the side entrance and followed the little road there, parking behind a hill with a memorial to veterans atop it. While Itachi pretended to read the names carved into the black granite, conveniently hidden from the rest of the cemetery, Neji tucked his hair back and went around the other side, scanning the area for Madara. He saw the Superleggera parking at a prominent mausoleum, one of purest white stone, and go inside.

"He's gone into one of the mausoleums," Neji reported back. Itachi's brow furrowed as they sat in the car, out of the December chill.

"Wonder what he's doing…"

Inside the mausoleum it was cold, chilly as the stone it was built from. Madara walked past the other tombs, the one blank slab of marble waiting for the final occupant of this once-mighty family to claim it. His eyes were only on the single tomb at the back of the crypt, carved with the sigil of the family and a name that he knew well.

Long, pale fingers traced the letters, clearing away leaves that had blown in from outside. From a pocket of his coat Madara took candles and put them in the brass fittings at the head and foot of the tomb, two at each end, and lit them. There was a bouquet of withered flowers at the head, but he left them there. Picking up the single red rose he'd brought in, Madara placed it carefully with these withered, browned flowers, its soft petals and green stem seeming out of place.

"I have nearly done it, that thing you said was impossible, once," he murmured softly. "Your only heir cannot stop me."

He was quiet a long time, fingers running back and forth over the name engraved in the stone. So many memories, wrapped up in these letters. So many regrets.

"Would that you were here to see it."

A pause.

"Would that you had come with me."

Turning on his heel, Madara went out of the mausoleum, got into his car, and left.

"He's gone."

Neji and Itachi drove down to where Madara had been parked, weaving through crumbling, graffiti'd headstones until they got to the mausoleum. It was well-kept, the plants in the stone pots in front neatly trimmed and no trace of juvenile gang symbols anywhere. Itachi looked up at the name carved above the door.

"Senjuu," he said. They shared a look, and went inside. The candle flames fluttered as they entered, but stood straight again. The golden light did not dull the red petals of the rose Madara had left. Neji touched it gently, then leaned over to read the name.

"Senjuu Hashirama." He looked over at Itachi. "Does that—oh…" His brow furrowed. "The man who helped clean up Konoha, the man that Madara fought right before he left."

"Why would he come visit the man's grave?" Itachi touched the petals of the red rose. It was an odd enough gesture to come here at all, but to leave this?

"I'm not sure. But we can find out." On the way back to the car, Neji called up Jiraiya.

What is it, kid?

"I need information," Neji said, unlocking the doors so Itachi could get in. "Senjuu Hashirama."

The first head of the district. There's a lot on him—it's called the Internet, kid, and I—

"I need to know why Madara would visit his grave and leave a rose."

Well, sounds to me like a romantic involvement gone sour..

"Please take this seriously, Jiraiya-san. It's an unusual thing for Madara, and we'd like to know what their connection is."

Sure, I'll dig up what I can. Payment? I don't think Hiashi's signing your checks anymore.

"I'll negotiate terms with you when I pick up what you have. Thank you, Jiraiya-san, I appreciate it." He thumbed the end call button and looked at Itachi. "We'll know soon."

"Good." Itachi's brow was furrowed in thought. "I do not like it when Madara is unpredictable."

The hospitality of the Hyuuga family was never in question, even when they were playing host to the man and the family that had taken their preferred successor away. The Uchiha contingent was led to a well-appointed suite with one large room of comfortable couches and tables, a buffet was set up, and two junior members of the family were left to attend them. Itachi found it somewhat disconcerting how all Hyuuga had the same eyes—some shade of grey or pale blue or lavender. They floated about like ghosts, offering drinks, asking in quiet, cultured voices if everything was to their liking and could they fetch anything from the kitchen?

Madara lorded it over them all. Dressed in a black suit with a blood-red tie and the uchiwa pin on his lapel, with Hinata at his side, he'd taken over a private office in the suite of rooms and conducted business from his laptop, sometimes getting up to speak quietly on the phone, other times reading over documents on his computer, one arm around Hinata's shoulders as she read a book.

And all the while, in the head office above them, the fate of the Hyuuga Corporation was being determined.

Itachi had no doubt that regardless of whatever decision the Elders of the Hyuuga family came to, Madara would find some way to wrest things into his control. But if it were to fall to Hinata, then it would be all too easy to influence her. Hinata had been trained for the position before Madara had married her, and Itachi had no doubt that she could be strong, but she was young and inexperienced, and who better to ask for advice than her husband, who had presided over groups of people for thrice as long as she'd been alive? It would be an easy trap to fall into, one that Itachi himself would have made in the same situation. But now he paced, awaiting the announcement. The Elders would have a decision by the stroke of midnight—six hours from now. Outside, the city was lit up in golden streetlights, the glow from cars, the lights in the towers around them. In the distance, Orochimaru's tower held its purple beacon to the sky.

Ever observant, Itachi had noted that Sasuke's eyes darted to it often, and there was fear there. With Madara in the room he could not pry, nor did he want to. Whatever spat was going on between his little brother and the older man, let it remain between them. There was enough going on.

Neji came in clad in a kimono made of cloth-of-silver. It matched him well, Itachi thought, the champagne-colored obi a good choice. "My family asks if there is anything we may do to make your time here more comfortable, Uchiha-san," he said. Itachi had to suppress a smirk. Neji's voice did not indicate any of his loathing of Madara.

"Perhaps speed the hours until midnight?" Madara laughed. "No, boy. I am content."

"Then, perhaps I may have a moment with my cousin, Uchiha-san."

"Of course." Madara removed his arm from Hinata's shoulders, and she stood, a small but radiant smile breaking out on her face. "As long as you like."

"Thank you." Neji bowed low, then offered his arm to his cousin and they left the room. Itachi envied them; they were free to leave, and Neji was so near to him and yet he could not think that they would be able to be with each other now. He sighed, leaning his head against the chilly glass, and tried to relieve the tension settling over his shoulders.

Hinata's room had been kept just as though she'd never left. The flowers in the vase on the table were fresh, iris and statice a muted spot of color in the room. There wasn't any dust to be found on any surface. "H-have you been having the r-room kept up?" she asked softly, catching her cousin in an embrace.

"The staff always keep it clean." Neji returned the surprisingly strong hug. "For when you visit."

"If I visit i-it'll be with Madara." Hinata giggled. "I don't think we'll both fit in the bed!"

"He may sleep on the floor." Neji smiled, looking at her belly. "How are you feeling?"

"I-I get sick every n-now and then. Not j-just in the mornings. And I e-eat a lot. I'll be getting fat…"

"You must eat to nourish the baby, too."

"I k-know." Hinata smiled, looking at her cousin. "You look tired, Neji-nii."

"I've been working hard." He sat on one of the armchairs in the small living area, and sighed. The whole action made him look even more exhausted. "On various things. Projects of my own."

"Neji…" She sat on the couch near him, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt. "I-I've been thinking… no matter which of us g-gets the position, I will get you r-released from your duties." He looked up, but already going, Hinata couldn't stop. "You can apply to all the universities around here—or ones outside the city, maybe you w-want to get away—and finally get all that you deserve. I a-always f-felt bad, how Father used y-you, Neji, you deserve so much b-better. I-I'm really nothing, my life i-is defined by others regardless of who I am married to or what I do, b-but you… you m-may not think it, b-but you are truly free." She took a deep breath, and looked at him. It was much more than she usually said, and she'd spoken rather quickly. "I j-just—you deserve a chance, too, Neji!"

"Hinata…" He half-rose, but she shook her head.

"I'm fine," she said. "The h-hormones must be getting to me. But I m-mean it, Neji-nii. You did such a good job of h-hiding it, when you came up with the acceptance letters from nearly every university in the city and Father t-told you that you could not. I don't want you to be unhappy. You've been the only one who r-really understands sometimes. And when you're there…" her smile brightened even more. "You and Itachi-san…"

Neji colored a little. "We—"

"I haven't told anyone and I won't." She smiled. "It s-should be obvious to anyone who looks."

"That's a comfort." Neji grumbled, but he was smiling.

"Don't w-worry about what happens, Neji-nii," she murmured, but she knew that he would.

At the stroke of midnight, they assembled in the lobby of the Hyuuga tower. The place blazed with lights, to keep everyone awake, and more young Hyuuga circulated with cups of strong coffee. The press was in front, the others behind them, as the twelve Elders assembled on the dais erected for this announcement.

"We have reached a decision," the foremost among them said when he stepped up to the podium. His skin was wrinkled, his long hair pure white, but his pale blue eyes were clear as a boy's, and his expression serene. He had served Hiashi's grandfather as his right-hand man, and when the old man had died, this Elder had become a Zen monk, and joined the Elder council. "It was not made lightly, nor without much deliberation. We are in a most unusual situation. The heir intended has been married, and carries another's name; her children will go to that family, not to ours. And yet the other eligible for consideration is very young, and untrained. Ultimately we feel our decision is made with merit and in the spirit of what Hiashi-san would have wanted for his family."

The journalists were looking bored. Madara was not fidgeting, but his eyes were narrowed. Hinata looked pale. Hanabi had a very set look on her face.

"It is the decision of the council to give Hyuuga Hanabi the position of family head. But until such time as she turns seventeen years of age, the position will be held in regency for her by Hyuuga Aki."

A thin-faced man stepped forward, his brown hair tied back neatly. He bowed to the room, and then went to stand behind Hanabi. Neji glanced at Madara; the man's expression was set as he applauded politely. There was a spark of something in the depths of those dark eyes, but Neji wasn't close enough to tell what it was, and didn't want to get close enough to try.

The Elders were escorted from the room, and the crowd dissipated. Some reporters turned to the Uchiha members as they left, but Madara turned them all away and slid into the limousine beside his wife, Itachi following his uncle after a quick glance back at Neji, silhouetted on the steps of the tower.

While Hinata was showering, Madara let his anger show. Brow furrowed, eyes flashing, he snarled and paced, considering the options he had available to him along this path. He had come up with many contingencies in case Hinata did not get the family leadership, and there was one way that he knew was easiest. It would have been better if Hinata had gotten the position, of course, and cheaper, but one simply had to take the cards one was dealt, and Madara was an excellent gambler.

Picking up his phone, he dialed Pein, and rattled off a very specific set of instructions. They had rehearsed this scenario many times, and as he set the phone back down in its charging dock, Madara knew that whatever came of it, Pein would handle things. The man was simply trustworthy, and no mistake about it.

Hinata emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a fluffy robe. Madara was waiting for her in bed by that point, the covers turned down. She slid in and nestled against him, one arm wrapped around his middle.

"I-I'm sorry I didn't get the leadership," she murmured, fingers stroking his skin. He turned out the light and ran his fingers through her hair, to keep from hitting her in his frustration.

"It's no matter," he murmured. "Their reasoning was sound. In any case, this way I get to keep you to myself."

He felt her smile against his chest. "I love you."

Madara was glad that it was dark; she couldn't see his wicked smirk. "And I you."

They met during the day, while the garage was in operation. Naruto's skill as a mechanic was attracting customers quickly, and every bay in the garage was taken. They'd hired on assistants—some of them happened to be malcontents from Uchiha and Hyuuga, along with some from other more minor rings, that Neji swore up and down he had no part in attracting to their cause. The good thing was that their popularity was a slow burn, not a sudden blaze, something that would attract attention.

"We must not think that Hyuuga is safe," Orochimaru was saying. "A regent can be easily bought."

"Aki is an honorable man," Neji said. "He would not accept bribes, no matter the price."

"We've already seen that Madara will go to any length to ensure his interests are furthered." Itachi leaned forward, taking a sip of his tea. "It is not past him to do anything he must in order to see his plans through to completion. We must assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised if aught else happens."

"An excellent viewpoint," Orochimaru nodded. "One I must agree with, Neji-kun." Neji nodded his head, but didn't seem convinced.

They nonetheless moved on to other topics. When they finished it was late, and Sasuke was complaining he'd miss a race he wanted in on. As Orochimaru's GT500 roared out of the garage after Sasuke on his bike, Itachi ran a hand over his face. Not enough had been accomplished, and Neji's Hyuuga pride had kicked back in. The frustrating thing was that Neji was partially right in that there wasn't any reason to believe that Aki would accept a bribe—but there wasn't any reason to believe he wouldn't, either. Madara had a knack for getting his way.

Neji was leaning against his car, looking at something under the hood with Naruto. Their heads were close together, and they talked in hushed tones as Naruto pointed an oily rag at various pieces of the engine. From what little he could catch, Itachi gathered they were talking business, but the way they were so close rankled him irrationally. Naruto was too pure-hearted to poach, of course, but the voice in the back of his head told him Neji would leave if he had a good enough reason. A lover in absentia was as good as no lover at all, and Neji deserved better than he would ever get from Itachi while Madara lived. Sliding into his car, Itachi left, and didn't look back.

The leaders of the various smaller rings listened with rapt attention as he spoke, and watching their eyes follow him, Danzou had to keep his elation from showing. This would be a delicate operation either way, needing to be done right.

"The Uchiha muscled you out," he said, raspy voice carrying through the whole crowd that had answered his call. "Under Madara they will crush you like bugs, because that is all you are to them. They don't see the necessity of a diverse group such as yourselves, your people. Without a second thought they will wipe you out and take your businesses for themselves. Madara was only the accelerant to their already too-hot flame."

Not a sound. Danzou loved when their attention was all on him, loved when he could see that they were heeding his words, taking them to heart. "Uchiha is greedy, and it's time we put a stop to them. What you don't hear about in all the press releases, all the things they let the glossies and the newspapers see, is all the infighting. Uchiha is ready to fall, my friends."

A murmur of assent, rippling back from the men and women in the front. They'd all been screwed when Madara had taken power; Fugaku had seen the importance of many smaller groups, if only in that they could be used to take the fall for Uchiha when the time arose, but Madara saw only competition for whatever scheme he'd cooked up, and it would be his downfall. If he could not get Tsunade to agree to his plan, Danzou thought, this was a good contingency plan. One that they all should have had when everything happened the first time, and Hashirama had nearly died.

He hadn't had the balls to kill Madara. But Danzou had no such reservations. It was all for the greater good.

"It is not yet auspicious to try and stop them," he said. "By New Year's Eve, you will know. What better way to slaughter them all than when they are reveling, in one of their opulent chambers, while you all shiver and fight over scraps from their table?" Someone cheered, and that was taken up by the rest of them. Danzou smiled thinly.

Things were coming together nicely, indeed.


The young man looked up from where he'd been contemplating his reflection in the blade of one of his favorite tanto. Sasuke had been taught the proper care of a blade, and for one made of the finest folded steel, he made sure it was kept up well, oiling it and cleaning it. Moreover, lately the cleaning of his weapons kept his mind off the task Madara had given him, off the one time he'd tried, off the many ways he'd contemplated the task but…

He couldn't do it, and yet he had to, otherwise the treachery of his brother would be discovered and they would all fail. Everything he had been taught told him that the death of one could benefit many—logic told him that Orochimaru's death would keep Madara blind to their plots a little longer.

"What is wrong?"

But it was difficult, when his lover had that look on his face, that one that Sasuke had only seen directed at him. He slid the tanto into its sheath, and stood. He couldn't look at Orochimaru now. His turmoil would be seen and raise questions he wouldn't want to answer. "I've got to go," he said quietly, and left. Out on the streets, racing at reckless speeds, things were so much simpler.

"You're doing us a great service, Itachi," Tsunade said, putting the report in the growing file. She took a good look at the Uchiha, then another, in surprise. The Uchiha were famed for their beauty, and even now Itachi had lost none of it, but his skin had sallowed and dark circles had appeared under his eyes. He looked ten years older. "If there's anything we can do to aid you on your assignment—"

"No." Itachi's voice was hoarse. "I have everything I need."

"Your information points to something happening on or right after New Year's Day."

"I am not yet sure what—"

"You don't need to know. We have everything we need to continue with the investigation."

"Are you releasing me from the assignment?"

Tsunade paused, and schooled herself to keep her eyes on Itachi. Danzou was in the room, as he always was lately—behind a screen, lurking behind a door, always listening somehow, and if it wasn't him it was his loyalists, listening at keyholes. It would drive her mad. She wanted to release Itachi, she truly did, he looked terrible—but if she did, Danzou would drill her as to why, when Itachi was in a position to strike down Madara himself. Danzou himself had something in the works, she was sure of it, but until she knew she couldn't let Itachi be dropped for the other man to use as a pawn.

"Not yet," she said. "We've got a little more work to do yet."

Madara sat in the huge black chair, staring out across the city. Hyuuga still stood, four days after the judgment of the Hyuuga elders—if Hinata had been chosen, it would have been gone by now, and the preparations for the move to the new building in Ame underway. But that had not happened, and in reality, a large part of him hadn't expected it to. Hinata was no longer the logical choice for the heir, now that she carried his surname and his child.

That last made him pause, the phone in his hand, and curve his lips up in that mysterious little smile of his. That had gone exactly as planned. These great families brought their women up for great fertility, knowing the kind of ties a child of two rivals could bring, the cooling of the fires of hatred. Fires he knew would only grow hotter once things really got underway, after the New Year. Sasuke would have done his duty to the family by then, and brought back into the fold. But that was all in the future, something to think about while he waited for current events to resolve themselves in some fashion.

He dialed a number, and put the sleek phone to his ear. Madara could have called from his cell phone, but why hide Uchiha's intentions? Calling from the tower itself would put this under the aegis of the entire family—which it was.

"Hello, Tsunade."

You again. What do you want?

"You know what my demands are."

I don't think you'll carry through with the threats. There's no reason for me to give up the city. Tsunade's voice sounded tired over the phone, and Madara could see her in his mind's eye, pacing the floor of her office, looking out through the windows toward where Uchiha's tower loomed above the buildings, the uchiwa blazing away in the dreary light of the day. My grandfather wouldn't have wanted it.

"Your grandfather was a fool," Madara said. His voice did not betray how faraway his gaze was. "He would have the city run this way in perpetuity, thinking it the best course of action. We know he was wrong on many other things, and I know he was wrong on this."

Who are you to speak of my grandfather this way? Her voice was sharp now; he'd hit a nerve. Good. It was you, not he, who was run out of town, Madara. Lest we forget.

"But I came back, didn't I?" He spun in his chair, gaze changing from Hyuuga to Hebi, far across the cityscape. Sasuke was there, perhaps even now performing his act of loyalty to the family. The connection that boy had with his teacher was simply unhealthy; it clouded his judgment and slowed Madara's own plans. If it had been his hand on the knife, the disgusting old snake would have been dead weeks ago.

But he'd been there before, hadn't he…

You came back and you'll fail again. This time, we'll finish the job.

The line went dead, and Madara set the phone back on the cradle, his mouth still curved up in a tight, cold smirk. The pieces were set, waiting only for the first move. He intended to be the one to make it this time.