Chapter 16


Naruto shifted nervously, watching the man in black in front of him. Itachi seemed completely at ease, his posture deceptively relaxed, one arm resting in the vee of his partially-opened cloak.

Despite what Kurenai seemed to think, Naruto knew all about the Uchiha doujutsu. He'd known well before he came to Konoha, before he even met Jiraiya. His mother made sure he knew.

After all, the only human that demons were wary of was an Uchiha. Though Naruto wasn't sure that man was really human anymore anyways.

And now, the infamous Uchiha doujutsu would be turned on Naruto. It didn't matter that he'd never been uneasy around Itachi before. Didn't matter that this was just a training session his father had approved. Didn't matter that the Hokage wanted him to learn to fight the Sharingan, ostensibly so Sasuke could use the full range of his abilities against Naruto when they sparred. Simply knowing that he would be facing the Sharingan made Naruto anxious. No...downright scared.

The blonde's eyes widened a little as Itachi caught them with his own, and Naruto dropped his gaze, berating himself for not being more careful, even though the Uchiha's eyes were still black.

He heard Itachi chuckle. "What is wrong, Uzumaki-kun?"

Naruto spoke to the ground. "My mother told me to never look an Uchiha in the eye."

Another chuckle. "Your mother sounds like a wise woman. Was she from Konoha?"

The blonde shook his head, gaze caught by the motion Itachi made with his hand. "She spent some time here."

"Hn. It is good advice." A pause. "But, unfortunately for you, you don't need to look in my eyes to be trapped."

Naruto's breath caught and he snapped his head up, despite himself. All he saw was a smirk on Itachi's face and red eyes before the Uchiha Clan Head exploded in a flurry of black feathers and harsh caws.

The crows surrounded Naruto, beaks jabbing and wings beating against him. He threw his arms up in a defensive posture and tried to calm his breathing.

Just an illusion. Focus.

He closed his eyes and gathered his chakra. "Kai!"

The caws disappeared and he opened his eyes to see Itachi standing in the same place he had been...but...

Naruto's eyes narrowed. Something was wrong. His gaze roamed Itachi's figure. He looked the same, he smelled the same, he sounded...

That was it. Naruto's eyes widened again. Itachi's heartbeat wasn't in front of him, like it should be. It was behind him.

Even as the blonde gathered his chakra again, he was moving. He whipped around and leapt back, shouting "Kai!" once more.

Naruto found himself staring into red eyes again, three black tomoe spinning lazily. He quickly glanced away, though he could see Itachi's small smile on the edge of his vision. "Very good, Uzumaki-kun."

And he dissolved into a murder of crows again.

Damn it!

Itachi allowed a small smile onto his face as his brother's teammate broke yet another genjutsu. This was Naruto's first time facing the Sharingan, and already Itachi would need to increase the level of difficulty. But first...

"Let us take a break, Uzumaki-kun," the Uchiha said and deactivated his kekkei genkai. Naruto nodded and sank down under the nearest tree. He pulled a water bottle from his pouch and took a long swig. He offered it to Itachi, who had come to stand by him, but the older ninja merely shook his head. Though he was pleased that Naruto's initial nervousness seemed to have dissipated.

"You are doing very well," Itachi told him. "I think, with practice, you will be able to break almost any Sharingan illusion."

Naruto smirked. "Heh. Sasuke won't be happy about that."

The elder Uchiha chuckled. "No, I don't suppose he would be." He paused, thinking of a carved wooden box. "My otouto doesn't dislike you as much as he pretends to."

Naruto sighed and took another drink. "I guess. It's just...why does he make it so hard? I just want to be his friend."

Itachi nodded and settled into the grass next to the blonde. He was aware of Naruto's dogged determination to befriend his brother, and he knew that, slowly but surely, the blonde was succeeding. What he didn't know was... "Why?"

Naruto looked startled for a moment, but then thoughtful. "Because," he started slowly, "out of everyone I've ever met, he is the most like me."

Itachi thought this was an odd answer; his brother and Naruto were nothing alike. At least, not on the surface...but a ninja must look underneath the underneath, and he remembered the expression on Naruto's face the day of the festival all too well. Perhaps, beneath their respective façades, Naruto and Sasuke were more similar than they seemed.

He made a decision. "If you want to be his friend Uzumaki-kun, you must understand it is difficult for Sasuke to trust others. He has been betrayed more than once."

Naruto watched the elder Uchiha with wide eyes. "Do you mean the Rebellion?"

Itachi nodded. "That was a particularly profound one, yes." He gazed at Naruto. "What do you know about it?"

Naruto shrugged, clearly uncomfortable. "Just that the Uchiha were planning a rebellion against Konoha, and that the traitors were killed."

Itachi nodded again. "That is correct, but the betrayal went deeper than the history books say. Yondaime-sama was kind enough to keep the details secret, to protect Sasuke. And me." He gave a small sigh. "To truly understand, I must explain things from the beginning. I take it you have some knowledge of the history of Konoha?" At Naruto's nod he continued. "So you know the Uchiha and the Senju were enemies prior to the founding of Konoha, and that Uchiha Madara was banished after his refusal to accept Senju authority?"

Naruto nodded again.

"After Madara fought the Shodai at the Valley of the End, the Nidaime gave the Uchiha the task of policing Konoha. It was a proof of his trust, and he hoped it would prevent further defections. Relations continued to improve under the Sandaime, when my grandfather was Clan Head. They had been friends since the Academy. Unfortunately, Grandfather was killed near the end of the Second Great War, and I think my father, Fugaku, never forgave the Sandaime for that. Fugaku was greatly influenced by Madara's ideas. The Clan always came before the Village, even though we had agreed decades ago to be a part of Konoha. But I do not believe Fugaku was plotting rebellion initially; he was merely distrustful of the Hokage and the Elders. Then Yondaime-sama was appointed. There was friction between the Sandaime, Yondaime, and my father, mostly because of the Sharingan eye Kakashi had received. Before anything could be resolved, Kyuubi attacked. Sasuke was about two and a half months old. And Fugaku was presented with a singular opportunity for power. He took it, without hesitation. He offered up his son, my brother, not to protect the Village, but to gain power for the Uchiha Clan. That was the first betrayal.

"Sandaime-sama and Yondaime-sama were hesitant to use Sasuke, mostly because of the political ramifications. But, they didn't have any time, and no one else had volunteered their child. They also hoped that my brother would be strong enough to control the demon. We are a powerful clan, and the only ones able to command the Kyuubi. But it was that very fact that roused the villagers' suspicious and rumors started that the Uchiha were behind the Kyuubi attack. Fugaku and the other Uchiha Elders did nothing to allay these fears. Hokage-sama attempted to ease the tension by giving us our own district–something the Uchiha had been asking for since the Nidaime's time. But Fugaku and those that shared his views chose to see his actions as yet another example of Senju isolation and discrimination, instead of reconciliation. They began to plot rebellion. Sasuke and I were key components of their plans.

"But, by the time Sasuke was Academy age, Fugaku was forced to revise those plans. Sasuke had not progressed as fast as Fugaku wanted, partly because I let him experience the childhood I had been denied, and partly because Fugaku's expectations were unrealistic. Fugaku was also suspicious of Sasuke, because I had trained him, and Fugaku was suspicious of me. He had good reason to be–I had already informed the Yondaime of my clan's betrayal. Suddenly, the two weapons Fugaku thought he had were no longer solidly on his side. In fact, they could very well be used against him. He could not allow that. He should have abandoned the Rebellion and spoken with the Hokage. But instead, he and the Elders decided to eliminate the threats. Namely, myself and Sasuke."

Itachi paused.

His friend's smiling face. "Do you want to spar, Itachi? It's been a while." His own slight smile. "Aa."

"They sent my best friend, Shisui, to kill me."

Pain, like he was being ripped apart, the moment he understood his cousin's intentions.

Begging Shisui to stop. Realizing his friend was too far gone, believed too strongly in Uchiha superiority and Senju duplicity, to listen.

"He did not succeed."

His eyes burning in a way that had nothing to do with tears. His chest tight with repressed screams. Watching Shisui's body slip into the river that ran through the clan's training ground.

Forging a suicide note in Shisui's handwriting with perfectly steady hands while his legs were shaking too badly to stand. Hoping Shisui's name would be shielded from the judgement of the Village if it seemed as though his friend took his life rather than betray Konoha. He couldn't save Shisui from the darkness, but he could at least do this.

Loathing his clan, deeply, utterly, and completely, when those arrogant bastards had the gall to accuse him of murdering Shisui; when they tried to use his friend's death as a way to separate him from Sasuke, the only part of the Uchiha worth protecting anymore...

Itachi took a deep breath. Killing Shisui had been awful, but it paled in comparison to what happened next. "A little while after that, Fugaku himself tried to kill Sasuke."

Naruto was staring at him, wide-eyed. "Your father actually tried to kill Sasuke?" he asked, horrified.

Itachi nodded. "The second betrayal." He hated remembering that night (red, so much red) as much as he hated remembering what happened with Shisui, but he would never forget even the smallest detail of either incident, thanks to the Sharingan. "I was meeting with the Hokage when Sasuke activated the communication seal Yondaime-sama had placed on us."

A burning feeling on his arm. Chakra rushing to his eyes, activating his doujutsu. The Hokage's concerned voice. "Itachi?" His panicked reply. "Sasuke!"

"We arrived as quickly as we could..."

Blue eyes turned glacial. The strange tug of the Hiraishin.

"...but Fugaku had already killed our mother, as she tried to protect Sasuke."

His mother's body, lying in a pool of blood...

"Yondaime-sama killed Fugaku."

...his father's body next to her.

The lies rolled off his tongue so easily, although the truth was as hard as ever to bear. The truth was that it might not have been Fugaku who killed their mother. That it definitely wasn't the Yondaime that killed Fugaku. That Itachi had been, for the first and last time, truly afraid of his brother.

His otouto crouched behind them both, eyes red and feral, tomoe spinning wildly around slit pupils. Bloody claws and bloody stomach and red chakra.

Red. So much red.

He and the Hokage had decided, after Sasuke collapsed, to never speak those truths. Even Sasuke didn't know what really happened. When he awoke in the hospital, he said all he remembered was Fugaku attacking him and their mother trying to stop him. And Itachi prayed to any gods that might exist that that, at least, was true.

"After that, the rest of the rebels were quickly rounded up and executed." The elder Uchiha sighed. "Unfortunately, that was most of the Uchiha that were active ninja, barring some of the younger genin and myself. Also many of the non-ninja adults. We were left with a decimated clan, and only myself, Sasuke, and Kakashi with an active Sharingan. Even today, none of the other Uchiha have activated our kekkei genkai."

Silence, as Naruto absorbed this information.

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, finally.

"So you may understand my brother a little better. I want you to be his friend, too." Itachi gave the barest of smiles. "Come, Naruto-kun," he said, standing. "We will continue."

Minato paused outside the fifth gate to the Forest of Death. Kakashi and Sakura were gone on missions, and Naruto was using the break in team training to hunt and practice his kekkei genkai. Minato had shifted some things around on his schedule so he could join his son, since it was high time he saw exactly what Naruto could do instead of just hearing about it from Jiraiya.

Minato closed his eyes and pictured the younger blonde in his mind, then called his name. No answer.

They had practiced the new abilities the bond gave them a few times, but they had by no means mastered them.

Minato concentrated harder and called again.

"Hai, Hokage-sama?"

It was so strange to hear Naruto's voice in his ear when the younger blonde wasn't really there. It was equally odd to know that no one else could hear it.

"I'm coming in," Minato replied. "Stay put."

"Hai, Hokage-sama."

With that, Minato let the connection fade and jumped the gate into the Forest.

They were improving; it just took time. Unfortunately, he didn't have as much of it as he wanted to spend training with his son.

He bounded through the Forest, towards his son's chakra signature. It didn't take him long to reach Naruto, who was waiting for him in a clearing. His son bowed in greeting, then grinned at him.

"Ready?" Minato asked, although the answer was obvious. Naruto was bouncing on the balls of his feet a little in his eagerness.

"Yeah! There's a nest of rous not too far from here."

Minato cocked an eyebrow. Rous were large rat-like creatures. They were fierce fighters with sharp claws and a nasty bite. Any wound they inflicted was almost guaranteed to get badly infected unless promptly and aggressively treated. Like many of the animals in the Forest, they could use chakra on an instinctive level to help them do simple things like increase their speed and climb trees. Most chuunin could handle three or four at a time; a nest could have up to twenty individuals. But Naruto wasn't exactly 'most chuunin.'

So Minato nodded and let Naruto lead him to the place. They stopped in the branches above a huge, hollow log. The log would conceal the entrance, while the nest itself was underground.

"I'll probably change," Naruto warned him, "and you might feel a little youki. But don't worry; it won't be noticeable outside about a 100-meter radius."

Minato nodded, having expected something like this. He'd already commanded his ANBU guard to remain outside the Forest.

Naruto grinned–a sharp grin the Hokage was beginning to recognize as the expression his son wore for battle–and leapt from their perch, landing right on top of the log. "Helllloooo!" he called, stomping on the log with one foot. "Anybody home?"

Minato couldn't help but wince. Rous were highly territorial and either drove away or ate most things that disturbed their nest. "Do you have to shout?" he asked. "They must know you're there already." The rous would be able to sense the younger blonde's chakra if nothing else.

Naruto shrugged. "They know I'm here all right. But remember what I said about Akamaru? About animals fearing me? They won't come out at all unless I really rile them up." He started jumping up and down on the log.

"I see." Minato shifted into a more secure position on the branch and raised his hands. "Let me help you then. Hold on."

He began to move through hand seals, and Naruto obediently crouched down, using chakra to stick his hands and feet to the log. The Hokage finished with one hand in half a ram seal and the other facing the ground. He lifted that hand up, and a large hand made of earth rose out of the ground.

"Cool!" Naruto exclaimed.

Minato smirked. With a few gestures, the earth hand dug its fingers under the log, lifted it, and let it drop. It made a lot of noise and created vibrations that Minato could feel even up the tree he was perched in. That would get the rous' attention.

Naruto whooped and kicked his feet up into a handstand. "Ero-sennin used to do something like this to improve my balance," he called out excitedly. "The logs were a lot smaller, though."

The earth hand rocked the log again.

"So he did that to you, too, hmmm?" Minato asked. He distinctly remembered his genin team trying to balance on floating logs while one of Jiraiya's toads created waves at random intervals. The Toad Sage himself usually stayed on shore, peeping through the bushes at bathing women.

Naruto shifted onto one hand. "Aa. I fell in a lot."

Minato chuckled. "I did, too. At least at first."

Naruto dropped into a roll and popped up on his feet. "Did you make Kakashi-sensei's team do it?"

Minato smirked. "Of course."

Naruto laughed, but then paused, his head cocked to the side, listening. "That's good, otou-sama," he called. "They're coming."

Minato ended the jutsu, the earth hand melting back into the ground. The log settled with a final creaking crash, and it occurred to the older blonde that it probably wasn't only the rodents under the log that were going to be disturbed by all the commotion. He mentally shrugged. He could handle anything in the Forest, if need be.

Naruto had shifted into a ready position, weight evenly distributed and hands held at chest level.

The first rous burst from a hole in the log about thirty feet in front of Naruto, and the blonde immediately snapped his left hand forward, fingers splayed. He clenched his hand into a fist, and the rous dropped like a stone. A second and third rous stumbled as they ran headlong into the body and Naruto's right hand came up, while he opened the fingers on his left hand again. He tilted his hands forward a little, like he was pressing down on something. The two rous slowed and staggered drunkenly, somehow unable to regain their balance. They finally dropped, too, but Naruto immediately directed his attention to the four rous that already swarmed over their fallen nest mates.

He repeated the gesture and two of the four fell, but the other two were now uncomfortably close. Minato shifted slightly, frowning, ready to jump down, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

Without skipping a beat, Naruto's hands clenched into fists again, but this time they flicked open almost immediately.

The rous exploded.

There was no other way to describe it–the creatures just vanished into a bloody mist with a wet popping sound that made Minato's gorge rise. He swallowed harshly, staring as Naruto beckoned and the mist congealed into a bloody ball between his outstretched palms.

Minato watched, fascinated, as Naruto formed nets and chains with the blood. He made blood bullets and blood shuriken and even a small blood dragon. When two rous tried to sneak up behind him, Naruto dropped them without even looking. His eyes turned red and his youki flooded the clearing, but Minato found he was too intent on the fight to care.

Finally, it was over. Naruto stood in the midst of fifteen rous, hands empty. He wasn't even breathing hard.

Minato's grin hurt his cheeks as he jumped down to the log. "Nice job."

Naruto grinned and scratched at his neck, the red in his eyes vanishing.

"So," Minato began, looking around at the carnage. A handful of rous were dead, the others just knocked out or immobilized. "The very first rous. Did you make its heart stop?"

Nartuo's eyes went very round. "Hai," he breathed. "How did you know that?"

Minato's grin was wide and white. "Hokage," he said, pointing to his chest. "I'm just that awesome."

Naruto laughed, the awe and pride on his face making Minato's chest warm. "The next two..." Minato mused, mimicking the pushing gesture Naruto had used. That pair was still alive. "Hmmm. You decreased blood flow to the brain. Directly, or by manipulating their heartbeat?" he asked, looking at his son.

"Directly," Naruto breathed, still looking like Minato had hit him over the head.

"Must be harder to do that than simply stop a heart, or..." Minato mimicked the flicking gesture.

Naruto nodded mutely.

Minato smiled and clapped his hands together. "Well, the rest was pretty self-evident, but I'd still like to discuss it." He glanced around again. "Let's-" he stopped, eyes narrowed at the forest in front of them. Everything was silent and still. Too silent and still. "Naruto-"

A giant centipede burst from the trees, it's front half already descending towards the log. Minato leapt to the side, relieved when he saw Naruto had done the same. The centipede crashed onto the log between them, splintering the top half. Minato dodged flying wood and a rous, just as the bloody net holding it down disintegrated. The rodent chattered madly as it scrambled to its feet and disappeared down the hole the centipede had created, along with the rest of its able brethren.

The centipede had risen again, but hesitated, apparently unable to decide which blonde to attack first. Minato's hands were poised, ready to unleash a jutsu, but Naruto's voice made him pause.

"Hijin Ketsusou!"

Blood dripped from the claws of Naruto's right hand as he slashed it diagonally in front of him, and five bloody arcs sped toward the centipede. They severed a few legs and deeply scored its tough exoskeleton, and the creature reared back, mandibles clacking furiously. One more hit like that might kill it, but Minato had no intention of making his son do all the work.

He didn't have chakra-channeling metal knives like Asuma, but he didn't need them. A murmur and a final hand sign were enough.

Minato's wind blade sliced the centipede neatly in half.

The pieces fell with a thud, greenish fluids creating a puddle on the forest floor.

He was at his son's side in an instant, reaching for the young ninja's left arm and the bloody gash that hadn't been there before. "Naruto..."

"It's fine, Hokage-sama," Naruto said, licking blood from his skin. "See?"

He held his arm out, and Minato watched as the wound sealed itself.

The older blonde sighed, his heart returning to a normal pace. He glanced at the centipede, then back to Naruto. "Why didn't you feel it coming?"

Naruto shook his head. "It doesn't really have blood, or a heartbeat. There's lots of things that don't. Spiders, insects-" he grimaced "-centipedes. My abilities don't work on them. It's not the same."

"But you can use your own blood." Minato gestured to Naruto's arm.

"Hai," Naruto replied. "It's just like any other element. A doton or a fuuton user doesn't need to create their element because it's always around. Mine is like that. I always have a ready supply."

Minato nodded, thoughtful. "You mold your chakra, and it in turn molds your element to do what you want." He cocked his head. "But unless it's your own blood, it's separated from you, like a doton user on a ship. So there must be a way to block it. If your chakra can't reach your element, you can't use it."

Naruto looked wide-eyed again. "Hai. A chakra barrier can stop me. But it has to be really strong. My chakra can overpower weak barriers."

Minato nodded, thinking of how his son's chakra felt. "I don't doubt it." He looked around the clearing. "Let's get out of here before something else shows up."

They took to the trees, heading for the closest gate. Minato decided to ask a question he'd had for a while. "Why do you need to consume blood?"

Naruto turned towards him, surprised. "The same reason everyone else does."

Minato halted, his brows lifted.

Naruto stopped next to him and frowned. "All chakra-users need their element to help replenish the spiritual energy they use. Don't...didn't sensei teach you that?"

Minato's brows went further. "He taught you that?"

Naruto looked uncomfortable. "Well, no, okaa-sama did, but I thought..."

Minato shook his head. "I have never heard that. Spiritual energies are lumped with mental energies, and are thought to be gained through training and experience."

"Oh..." Naruto's eyes were wide. "Well, uh, that's not...exactly...right."

Minato was fascinated. "Tell me what is right, then." He settled on the branch and motioned for Naruto to sit beside him.

"Ano...mental energies are like what you said, but spiritual energies are something different. Absorbing your element is part of that."

"But how can we mold chakra at all, if we are missing a full third of our energies?"

"Well, human chakra-users absorb their elements all the time. Fuuton and suiton users have it easiest. Every time you take a breath, or drink, you're replenishing your energy."

"And the other elements?"

Naruto shrugged. "Most humans don't have nearly as much or as potent chakra as demons. They don't need to absorb as much of their element, or in the same way. Just walking on the earth is good for most doton users. But you'll find a lot of them like to get their hands dirty every once in a while, too. It's the same for katon and raiton users. I'll bet, if you ask Sasuke, he'll tell you the Uchiha like to burn candles or incense, or make roaring fires when it's cold. And Kakashi-sensei probably loves storms, ne? He stands outside in them and watches the lightning." Minato nodded and Naruto grinned. "And I'm sure he wears wool socks in the winter and touches as many metal doorknobs as he can."

Minato laughed, because, by the Sage, Naruto was right. "So, even though we don't know it, our spirits drive us to supply what they need, hmmm?"


"What about natural energy, then?"

"Like what Sensei can use?"


"That's the same thing. Only, it's not just energy from one particular element. It's all of them, plus plants and animals, all at once. It's the rawest, most powerful energy there is."

"It's a cycle, isn't it?" Minato mused, eyes distant. "Natural energy is all around us, an inexhaustible reservoir. But unless you have Sage training, you can't tap directly into it, so ninja siphon a little energy through individual elements, combine it with our own physical and mental energies, and create jutsu. When the jutsu is finished, that energy goes right back into the reservoir, along with the element it manipulated."

Naruto scratched his head. "Uhhh...sure."

Minato laughed. "Let's continue this conversation over dinner, hmmm?"

"Sure!" Naruto grinned, a slow, sly smile. Minato was instantly on guard. "Catch me if you can!" And his son was gone, vanished among the trees.

An enormous grin split the Hokage's face as he stood. "You're forgetting something!" he crowed into the empty forest around him, just before he disappeared–

–and reappeared behind Naruto, hand already outstretched to grasp firmly onto his son's black collar, the yellow glow of the Hiraishin seal just visible below it. The sudden halt in his momentum jerked Naruto off his feet and he fell back, spluttering, against Minato's chest. Minato automatically wrapped his other arm around Naruto's shoulders, steadying him on the branch.

"Cheater!" Naruto accused, looking up at him with narrowed blue eyes.

Minato just laughed.

I'll always catch you, musuko. Always.

Itachi knelt on the forest floor, hands empty, eyes closed.

He took one slow, even breath.

A breeze rustled the treetops, and a few leaves drifted down.

Itachi exploded into motion, only a blur as he leapt straight up, one hand diving into his kunai holster and the other grabbing a brace of shuriken from the strap across his chest. He released the weapons at the peak of his trajectory, then slid his katana from the sheath on his back and twisted in midair.

He landed in a crouch, facing the opposite direction from his initial position.

He watched as two of the leaves fluttered to the ground at his feet, each sliced neatly in half. Then he stood, black eyes scanning the targets arrayed around him. A leaf was pinned dead center to every one.

He frowned a bit and went to retrieve his weapons. He'd have to tell Isamu's sensei to arrange the targets in a more difficult pattern the next time the genin team cleaned up the Uchiha training grounds.

Itachi paused in pulling his kunai from the target at the feel of Sasuke's chakra approaching. He looked towards it, then in the opposite direction. He smirked.

"Foolish little brother," he remarked under his breath, before he disappeared into the trees.

Watching from above, he saw Sasuke enter the clearing and look around. His smirk widened as he casually threw the shuriken he'd retrieved at his brother's back.

Sasuke didn't see them, and they hit home, digging into the flesh of his shoulder.

At least, they would have, if Sasuke didn't disappear in a puff of smoke.

Itachi was already turning, his kunai sweeping up to block Sasuke's blow.

He smiled at his real little brother before aiming a kick to Sasuke's knee cap that the younger Uchiha had to leap back to avoid. If Sasuke wanted to spar, Itachi would happily oblige.

Itachi watched his brother warily from across the clearing, Sharingan detecting every movement, no matter how slight.

Right now, Sasuke was perfectly still down to his toes, save the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed and the slow spin of tomoe in his eyes.

Still, Itachi was ready. Sasuke had been fighting with a muted eagerness that had the elder Uchiha alert. Very few things made Sasuke excited anymore, but having a new jutsu that may let him best his brother was certainly one of them. And Sasuke had been working hard for a while on something he refused to talk about. Itachi had respected Sasuke's privacy, but he had an idea what his otouto was doing.

Sasuke was very good with fire by virtue of his Uchiha blood, but his true genius lay in lightning. It was his primary affinity, and he excelled at it. It made Itachi proud.

And Sasuke was proud of it, too.

But, since his first fight with Naruto, the Uchiha had been frustrated by the uselessness of his raiton against the blonde. The only time Sasuke scored a hit was when Naruto misjudged the type of jutsu Sasuke was using or wasn't quick enough to counter.

Sasuke had never complained, but Itachi could tell it bothered him.

The secretive trainings had increased after Sasuke's return from Wave, and Itachi had caught him staring off into space, lost in thought, on more than one occasion.

Sasuke had acted just this way when he'd been trying to master Chidori, and again when he incorporated it into his kenjutsu. So, Itachi had some basis for his suspicion that Sasuke had a new raiton and wanted to test it before using it on Naruto.

He was destined to be his otouto's guinea pig.

Thus far in their fight, Sasuke had stuck to taijutsu, but Itachi knew it was only a matter of time.

In the next moment, Sasuke moved, charging his brother in the way he always did when he got impatient. Itachi evaded his strike easily and delivered a blow of his own, which Sasuke blocked. The younger Uchiha turned the block into a hold and kicked at Itachi's side, which the elder Uchiha avoided by twisting away.

They fought as they had a thousand times before–a familiar rhythm of fists and feet, of blocks and bruises.

Until Sasuke made a mistake–shifted his weight too far from center–and Itachi took advantage. It was instinct, automatic. He grabbed Sasuke's arm and hooked his ankle around Sasuke's leg. A quick push-pull and Sasuke was falling, Itachi's weight bearing him to the ground.

Itachi just caught the flash of chakra and Sasuke's suppressed triumph before–


–he was landing awkwardly, muscles twitching, and Sasuke was rolling them, kunai at Itachi's throat, lightning still sparking across his skin.

Itachi blinked once, twice, and smiled up at his otouto.

Sasuke smirked back.

"Very good," Itachi said, his pride evident. "I am impressed."

The younger Uchiha's smirk morphed into a genuine smile–small, but there. "Thank you, onii-san."

Sasuke rose, tucking his kunai away, and Itachi sat up. He was fine–only a tingling sensation and a bit of muscle fatigue lingered from the shock.

"What do you call it?" Itachi asked, looking up.

"Chidori Nagashi," Sasuke replied with a proud tilt of his chin.

Itachi nodded. "An appropriate name. How high can you adjust the amperage?"

"It can kill."

Itachi nodded again and smirked. "Naruto-kun will never see it coming."

Sasuke blinked and looked down. "I had to do something," he grumbled. "The idiot can counter any long-range raiton."

"As I said," Itachi replied, his smirk growing. "It's an innovative technique. It will serve you well, and not only against your teammate." He paused, his expression becoming serious. "Come, sit, Sasuke." Sasuke looked puzzled, but did as Itachi asked, settling next to him on the grass. "How do you feel about Naruto-kun?"

Sasuke blinked, surprised by the question. Then he frowned. "Why?"

"I am curious."

Sasuke scoffed. "I don't feel anything."

Itachi narrowed his eyes. Don't lie to me.

Sasuke looked away. The feelings he'd acknowledged in Wave hadn't gone away, as he'd hoped. That didn't mean he had to tell his brother about them. "He's a teammate. A loud, idiotic, annoying teammate. Nothing more."

Itachi's dark eyes studied him closely. "As you know, I've been spending time with Naruto-kun," he began slowly.

Sasuke's jaw clenched. Yes. He knew. Teaching Naruto to break Sharingan illusions, taking away yet another of Sasuke's advantages in a fight–before he'd even been allowed to use it.

"I like him."

The declaration snapped Sasuke from his thoughts and he stared at his brother. "What?"

"He can be loud and idiotic and annoying. But he is also brave and kind and loyal. Not to mention amusing." Itachi smiled–smiled! "He reminds me of you, when you were younger."

Sasuke stiffened. "I was never like him."

"No? How quickly you forget. Shall I remind you?"

"No." Sasuke bit out. He knew he was different than how he used to be. He didn't need reminding. Naruto's smile reminded him every day.

He hated it.

Hated the memories the blonde evoked–memories forever tainted by pain and red. Hated how easy happiness and trust seemed to be for Naruto, when Sasuke had lost that same ease long ago.

His brother's words only made it worse–only reminded Sasuke that he was different.

But everything was different after that night.

And why was Itachi bringing this up? Did Itachi want things to be like they were before? Did he want Sasuke to...?

"He reminds me of you now, as well," Itachi mused. "In some ways."

Sasuke made a strangled sound. "No one in Konoha is like me."

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn't it? Sasuke had always been different, not just since the night his father had tried to kill him. Since an earlier night of pain and death and red. He'd known nothing else.

"Naruto-kun does not believe so."

"I don't give a shit what Naruto-kun believes!" Sasuke spat.

One of Itachi's eyebrows rose slowly in the way that indicated he thought Sasuke was being particularly foolish, and Sasuke grit his teeth. "But, otouto, isn't that what you want?" Itachi asked quietly. "To be treated like any other person?"

Sasuke sucked in a breath. Yes. By the Sage, yes, but...but... "But I'm not," he hissed. "I'm different." All the bitterness and anger poured forth into that one, venomous word.

Itachi's face softened, so subtly that no one but Sasuke would have noticed. "I said the same thing to Naruto-kun once. I told him you were different. And he told me, quite vehemently, that I was wrong. That you really weren't different at all." Itachi smiled, just a little, and poked his stunned brother in the forehead. "And I agree with him."

Sasuke stared. He didn't know how to respond to that. Not different? But if he wasn't different, then why -

Whispers, looks, fearhatredawe -

A father's betrayal, a mother's scream, red -

An empty smile and poisoned promises - "We all belong to Danzo-sama. Don't you want to belong, Sasuke-chan?" -

- just...why? And he knew life wasn't fair, and sometimes things just happened, least being different was a reason.

"Naruto understands you, otouto," Itachi said, dragging Sasuke from his confused thoughts. "Life has been cruel to him. I recognize the same pain and loneliness that I see in you. Yet, he has not given up on people entirely."

Sasuke's breath caught. He heard the unspoken words - Like you did - and they hurt.

I didn't! I didn't give up–they gave up on me first–how could you–what was I supposed to do? Let them hurt me?

He'd never be that naïve and foolish child again. Who smiled and laughed and thought his father would love him if only he worked harder and did better. And the thought that Itachi wished he would be...

Wished he would be like Naruto...

He couldn't stand it.

Am I not good enough for you either, aniki?

"It's late," Sasuke said, standing abruptly. "I'm going to bed."

He turned away from his brother's concerned look.

"I will make tea-"

Sasuke didn't stop. "No. I'm tired."


He pretended he didn't hear as he broke into a run.

Something was wrong with Sasuke.

Not that Naruto had any idea what, since his only clue was his teammate's elevated heart rate. The Uchiha was just as cold and quiet and stiff as usual–maybe a little too cold and quiet and stiff.

Well, a good fight might loosen Sasuke up.

"I'll spar with Sasuke today!" Naruto piped up, raising his hand and interrupting whatever it was Kakashi was saying.

The Copy Nin's eye crinkled. "Alright Naruto."

Sasuke got even more stiff.

That wasn't what Naruto wanted, but he plowed ahead. When Sakura and Kakashi took off, he asked. "What's wrong?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, but he remained silent.

Naruto sighed. He didn't really expect an answer, but still...well. Fine. If Sasuke didn't want to do things the easy way–and really, when did he ever?–they'd do them the hard way. Naruto grinned and cracked his knuckles. That was alright by him. He was better at fighting than talking anyway.

He launched himself at his opponent with a cry, and Sasuke blocked him easily. Naruto found himself staring into crimson eyes, tomoe spinning madly.


Sasuke gritted his teeth, furious with the blonde in front of him. He'd hit Naruto three times with Chidori Nagashi, and the damn dobe would not stay down.

Worse, he wouldn't stop smiling.

Even now, Naruto was pulling himself up from the ground, still twitching. "Oy, tone it down a little, bastard," he gasped, but he was grinning like getting shocked was the best thing in the world.

If your life was so hard, how can you smile like that? How can you smile...

Itachi's voice sounded again. "...He reminds me of you, when you were younger..."

...when I can't anymore?

The words were out of his mouth before he even really thought about them.

"Tch. I'm not the bastard in this clearing," he said coldly. "Do you even know who your father is? Your mother abandoned you when you were four, so she probably never told you. Or did she not know, either?"

The look on Naruto's face was priceless as he stared at Sasuke. The smile was definitely gone now, but…Naruto looked shocked and…hurt.

They had never brought the others' family into their verbal spars before. The guilt Sasuke was determined not to feel reared its ugly head. He didn't know what to call Naruto (comradeteammaterivalfri-), but he did know he'd gone too far.

And it only made him angrier.

With a snarl, he turned and leapt into the trees.

Itachi found his brother mauling wooden training dummies in their Clan grounds. He watched the destruction for awhile, attempting to understand the flavor of Sasuke's anger. His brother had been upset since their conversation the night before, but Itachi still didn't know why. As good at reading people, Sasuke in particular, as he was, he was not a Yamanaka.

Venting his feelings through physical exertion had always been Sasuke's coping mechanism, but his team training had only seemed to make the problem worse. Considering what they had been discussing last night...

Naruto. Something to do with Naruto.

But this was more than the usual annoyance and frustration. High-pitched chirrups filled the air and a dummy exploded in a shower of splinters and sparks. Much more.

Something to do with Itachi, as well. Something he had said triggered this. He had only been trying to illustrate Sasuke's similarities with the blonde–point out common ground they shared–to encourage his little brother in the friendship Naruto so obviously wanted. But Sasuke had taken something else from that conversation, something that caused him pain, caused him to lash out...

Itachi replayed his words in his mind, again, paying particular attention to the end, just before Sasuke had left. What had Sasuke heard...?

"Naruto reminds me of you...Naruto understands you...Yet, he has not given up on people entirely..."

Itachi wanted to hit himself. Sasuke had a hidden vein of insecurity, stemming from the loneliness of his childhood and Fugaku's harshness. Itachi knew this. Yet, he had still compared Sasuke to Naruto. To Sasuke, it must have sounded like Itachi thought Naruto was better than Sasuke. Itachi meant no such thing, of course, but unspoken words could always be misunderstood.

Itachi stepped forward. It was past time to end this.

"I don't want any tea," Sasuke said scornfully, his back still to Itachi.

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "I am not offering it. I wish to talk about why you are upset."

Another dummy shattered.

"I don't want any talk, either."

Dark eyes narrowed further and pale lips turned down, ever so slightly. "We will talk. I must explain what I intended to convey during our conversation last night, since you have obviously misunderstood."

"Tch. Obviously? So I am an idiot like Naruto, too."

"You're not an idiot. But you are acting like a child."

Finally Sasuke turned to face his brother, his lips pulled back in a snarl. "A child?!"

Itachi nodded. "I understand your need to purge your feelings, but haven't you done enough damage?" He gestured to the field around them. "It is time to talk now."

Sasuke paled at his words and looked away, shoulders visibly sagging.

Itachi frowned. Sasuke never felt guilty about destroying dummies–something else had happened. "Otouto," he murmured, stepping closer to the younger Uchiha.

"I...said some things I shouldn't have," Sasuke finally said. "To Naruto."

"Tell me," Itachi said simply.

And Sasuke did.

"Foolish little brother," Itachi sighed when he was finished. "There was no need for cruelty."

"I know."

"And I'm certain you have a very good idea who Naruto's father is, do you not?"


"Then your words were even more poorly chosen."

"I know."

"Why did you say them?"

Silence. Then Sasuke whispered, "I was angry."


Sasuke turned fierce, pained eyes on his brother. "Because you want me to be like him! I won't! I won't...why isn't how I am good enough?"

Itachi grimaced, his suspicions confirmed. "Gomen, otouto," he said, settling his hands on Sasuke's shoulders. "My words were poorly chosen. That is not what I meant. I would never wish you to change. I love you, just as you are."

Sasuke sucked in a quavering breath and buried his face in Itachi's shoulder. Itachi held him and said nothing about the dampness seeping through his shirt.

"What did you mean?" Sasuke finally asked, voice muffled in Itachi's neck.

"I only wanted to point out your similarities. I want you to be friends."

Sasuke lifted his head, surprised, and stared at his brother. "Why?"

Itachi stared back, unperturbed. "He is good for you."

"Good for me? How?"

"Do you not see?" Itachi gestured to the clearing around them. "He pushes you to be better than you are. He challenges you, when so few others do, to grow, to improve. He makes you stronger." Itachi looked at his younger brother. "He is a wall, otouto." And Itachi smiled, like he did a long time ago, just before their lives were irrevocably changed. "Do you remember what I said about walls?"

"It's just the two of us. I'll always be there, like a wall you need to climb over. But, Sasuke, a wall isn't just an obstacle to overcome. When you are weary, a wall can offer support, shelter, protection."

Sasuke's eyes widened and he shook his head sharply.

"Why not?" Itachi's voice was quiet, calm.

Sasuke looked horrified. "He'll one will you..."

Itachi chuckled. "Of course not, foolish little brother. But, that does not mean you cannot care for him, too." He placed a hand on Sasuke's chest. "You hide it well, but I know that you have more than enough room, here. Why not let Naruto-kun in?"

Sasuke only shook his head again.

"I know it's hard," Itachi murmured. "But I think you should try."

"It's a weakness," Sasuke protested.

"Aa," Itachi replied seriously. "But it is also our greatest strength. Bonds force us to become strong, in order to protect them. They fuel our Will of Fire."

Sasuke stared at him for a moment, then whispered, "Where true Leaves dance, one shall find Flames..."

Itachi's lips quirked. "Aa."

The Hokage often said that. Perhaps Sasuke was beginning to understand it.

They stood in silence for long moments.

Sasuke nodded, once.

Then he turned on his heel and blurred out of sight.

Itachi smiled at the empty clearing. "I shall keep your tea warm, otouto."

Sasuke began at Ichiraku's. Naruto wasn't there, but Sakura was.

He hesitated, undecided. Then, he squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and entered the shop.

He sat next to Sakura, took a deep breath, and turned to face her. She was staring at him, wide-eyed, a noodle dangling from her lips and chopsticks frozen in mid-air. He almost smiled.

Instead, he asked, "Where is Naruto?"

She slurped the noodle into her mouth, turned bright red, and started coughing. He waited while she grabbed her water glass and half-emptied it, trying to get her blush under control.

He sighed impatiently and considered using the Sharingan. He could see chakras with it, and, while the Byakugan was much better for that sort of thing, surely Naruto's chakra would be easy to spot...

"Why do you want to know?"

Sasuke blinked and realized Sakura had recovered. Faint red still stained her cheeks, but her voice was steady.

"Do I need a reason?"

She sighed and looked at her bowl. "You left practice early, and Naruto...Naruto was really upset. But he wouldn't tell me or Kakashi-sensei what was wrong. Just tried to pretend he was fine." She shook her head, a faint smile on her face. "He's terrible at hiding his feelings, though." She looked back up. "What happened?"

Sasuke didn't meet her eyes. "Hn."

" should apologize."

His gaze snapped to her face. "What?"

"Whatever you did, it really affected Naruto. I know...I know you don't like him much, but he's still our teammate. He deserves an apology."

He stared at her, shocked. Sakura never spoke like that to him. She was like the rest of the village–always acting like he could do no wrong. "Why are you so certain it was my fault?" he asked.

She sighed again. "You were upset before practice today, and when you're upset, you get angry, and you take it out on the people around you. I'm not Shikamaru, but I can put two and two together."

His jaw dropped slightly. He'd always assumed she didn't know him, didn't care to know him; that she liked the idea of him, not who he truly was. But apparently, after eight years watching him, Sakura had learned a few things.

"So," she said, "are you going to apologize?"

He met her gaze squarely this time. "Why else do you think I'm looking for him?"

She smiled. "He said he was going to the top of the Hokage Monument."

He nodded at her and stood. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," she replied, eyes shining. "Good night."

Sasuke paused at the curtain and looked back. Sakura had dogged his heels since the Academy; an unwanted shadow that declared its love at every opportunity–as though she knew anything about it at 8 or 12 or 14. But she hadn't really done that in a while, even when their team was reformed. And now, she was speaking to him like an actual person...perhaps, if she kept it up, there was room for her, too. "Good night, Sakura."

The top of the Hokage Monument was a big place, but it didn't take Sasuke long to find Naruto. He was sitting on top of the Yondaime's stone head, hugging his knees to his chest, gazing out over the village.

Sasuke landed lightly behind the blonde, certain Naruto knew he was there. His teammate had an uncanny ability to sense people. Not even Kakashi could hide from him. But the blonde made no move, didn't acknowledge his presence at all.

Sasuke shifted uneasily. Now that he was here, he didn't know how to begin. It's not like he did this all the time…or ever, really. And Naruto was just sitting there, ignoring him. But he forced himself to wait. He was the one in the wrong, not Naruto.

Finally, Naruto patted the ground next to him. The dark-haired teen scoffed under his breath, but walked over to his teammate and sat down.

The two sat in silence for awhile, just looking at the village spread out below them. It was quite beautiful, Sasuke had to admit. And kind of…peaceful. He felt himself relaxing.

"Naruto," he said, finally. "I…I'm…"

"Don't," the blonde said quietly. Sasuke glanced at him in surprise. Cerulean eyes pierced Sasuke's onyx ones. "Don't say it unless you mean it."

Sasuke was silent for a moment. He'd never looked, really looked in Naruto's eyes before. He'd never noticed how intense they were. Like Naruto wasn't just looking at him, but through him. It wasn't a very pleasant feeling, but Sasuke ignored it. He was an Uchiha, and Uchihas knew all about intimidating gazes.

So, he met the penetrating stare with one of his own and said quietly, but clearly, "I'm sorry."

Naruto watched him a moment longer, then nodded once and went back to looking out at the village. "It's ok, Sasuke," he said. He smiled, sadly. "What you said was true anyway. My parents aren't married, so I am a bastard. And my mother did abandon me." He half-shrugged. "It's because it's true that it hurts so much."

Sasuke stared at him, completely taken aback. He'd expected Naruto to angrily deny everything and maybe pout a little, not accept what the Uchiha had said and admit how deeply it had pained him. The guilt he felt earlier roared back a thousand times stronger.

"It doesn't matter if it's true or not. I shouldn't have said it."

Naruto's only reply was another half-shrug.

Sasuke frowned. He didn't like it. Didn't like it one bit. As painful as Naruto's smile was, him not smiling turned out to be infinitely worse. And since when did Naruto give up like that? Sasuke narrowed his eyes.

"What about your mother? Was what I said about her true?" he asked abruptly.

Naruto whipped his head around, his sombre demeanor replaced by anger in an instant. "Damn it Sasuke, NO!" he yelled. "My mother is NOT a whore and if you ever say anything like that again, I'll beat you to a bloody pulp!" He glared at the Uchiha until he noticed the other boy's smirk. "Teme," he muttered, looking away. But the edges of his mouth were curved upwards, ever so slightly.

Sasuke was satisfied. This was the Naruto he knew.

Now that the blonde had snapped out of his unnatural funk, the raven-haired teen had a question. "How can you smile all the time?"

Naruto glanced at him, surprised. "Why wouldn't I? I have everything I've ever wanted, right here." He gestured out at the village. "I've never been happier."

"What about before you came here? Did you frown then?"

Naruto laughed. "Baka. 'Course not." His expression dimmed, his eyes focused on something Sasuke couldn't see. "Before, well, I learned pretty quick smiling is more fun than frowning. And people...they aren't so afraid, if you smile."

Sasuke hummed, thoughtful. He remembered the first time he'd seen Naruto, in the mountains. He remembered the feeling of danger. And he remembered Naruto's bright, open smile, and how he'd never felt threatened again.

The Hokage was just the same. Nobody in Konoha feared him, even though everyone knew how dangerous he was. How could you be afraid of a person who smiled at you like that?

They watched the sun set in silence, brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows slowly blending into the dark blues and purples of night.

"I don't think you've ever been quiet for so long," Sasuke remarked. "It's refreshing."

"Shut up, teme," Naruto growled, elbowing the other ninja in the ribs.

Sasuke smirked–his version of a smile.

Author's Note:

Hijin Ketsusou - Blades of Blood, or airborne-blade blood claw. Yes, another Inuyasha reference. Interestingly, 'hijin' can also translate as 'inhuman.'

The bit about ninja needing exposure to their element to replenish spiritual chakra was inspired by an Avatar: The Last Airbender fic called 'Embers,' by vathara. It's truly brilliant. Go read it.

Thanks to everyone who reviewed or sent messages asking if I'd update. I finally did!

And thank you to everyone who has read and is still reading this story.