Title: The Colder Water (6/6)
Summary: The devil is in the details. Shisui. Itachi. A sorta love story.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
A/N: Before anything, let me just mention that the Livejounal ItaShi community, bitter_nakano, is hosting a summer exchange. Yeah, you know what that means: nothing but fic! And art! Postings begin tomorrow, so for those interested in an extra strong dose of murderous cousincest, yonder lies your poison.
The Colder Water
Cinder and smoke
You'll ask me to pray for rain
With ash in your mouth
You'll ask it to burn again
It was a surreal experience, walking out of that office. The main hallway was just as quiet as before, but there was something new and unspoken in this dense hush. Shisui could sense it when Yasuo flashed him a small smile as he passed—the men grouped around him following suit—but the full reality of what he had done didn't sink in until he was almost at the door and Yuudai came flying out from one of the side offices. He ran up to Shisui, and dragged him into a bone-melting embrace.
"I knew you'd come around," said Yuu, pummeling his fist into Shisui's back like he wanted to knock the breath out of him. "I just knew you would. You're way too smart not to realize what's what."
He let go of Shisui and took a step back, eyes brimming with genuine affection. Shisui gave him a grin, feeling it pull tightly at the skin of his cheeks.
A soft expression settled over Yuudai's face. He clamped both his hands to Shisui's shoulders, and looked him straight in the eye. "Hey. All that stuff between us—it's water under the bridge, alright?"
"Yeah," Shisui said weakly. He tried to do something with his hands that didn't involve them fisting into the material of his pants until the knuckles turned chalk-white, but it didn't work.
"This is going to be great, you'll see." Yuu's voice was thick with excitement, gaining vim and vigor as he spoke. "Now that you've made the right choice, I mean. Everything will be just fine. More than fine. It'll be great. Just really, fucking great."
Shisui still couldn't think of anything to say, so he just nodded dumbly, and let Yuu's voice wash over him, much like the silence of before.
"Shisui, you know that's all I wanted, right?" Yuudai said, strong wrists propped earnestly by his neck, a steady, even weight. "For you to make the right choice? You're like a brother to me, you know?"
Yuudai had three younger sisters, ages thirteen, nine, and four, all of whom worshipped him like the sun and moon in their celestial dome. He was a model son to his parents, a solid comrade in a tight spot, and for the most part had been nothing but good to Shisui. But Yuudai was also wrong. He was not Shisui's brother. He had never taken a hit for him. He had never followed Shisui into the mountains.
You never let me bleed on you, Shisui thought. You're not my brother, and this is not the right choice.
But he had no right to think like that anymore. Slowly, Shisui unclenched his fists, and smiled at Yuudai in the way that he knew made his eyes laugh—like this was no big deal and that he really believed what Yuu had said about how things were going to be alright, great, really fucking great. So what if the hypocrisy of it clawed its way into his heart and rent his ventricles apart?
"So I better go," Shisui said with a prosaic shrug. "Got my work cut out for me and all that, right?"
Yuudai nodded, and gave his shoulders each a firm squeeze before letting go. His smile followed Shisui to the door, bright with trust. Shisui almost felt sick again, so he quickened his pace, practically ran out into the open air. He took several deep breaths to quash down the suffocating feeling rising inside him, the air scorching his lungs on its way down. The afternoon was quickly draining as he made his way down Main Street, the desire to be anywhere but here burning a hole through his chest.
He saw Sasuke running toward him even before he heard his voice.
Shisui considered leaping off in the opposite direction. He didn't have any information to give, and if Sasuke was calling his name in such naked desperation then obviously neither did he, and therefore they had no business talking to each other. But apparently Sasuke was a lot faster than he'd previously given him credit for, because he reached him before Shisui could make a decision.
Shisui said, "Skipping school's not going to put you on the fast track to becoming a great ninja," which coming from him must be eleven kinds of rich, but whatever.
"I'm not…" Sasuke sputtered, clutching at the strap of his schoolbag. "I didn't." His bottom jaw settled itself, and he said in a tight voice, "Nii-san still hasn't come home."
"I think I'm aware of that, yes."
Sasuke stared at him mutely. His expression seemed dangerously brittle, full of a hungering need. It was unacceptable. Some sort of delusion was at work here. They might share a favorite person, but that didn't make them kindred spirits, and it sure as hell didn't make them friends.
"Come here," Shisui said. Sasuke came to him, willing and completely unguarded, like he was expecting a hug, some gesture of comfort, a friendly touch. Instead, Shisui took him by the shoulder, leaned down, and said, "I'll tell you a story, okay? Listen."
"It's a pretty short story," he said pleasantly. "It's about this guy, right? He lives in a village, and as far everybody else is concerned, he's a decent guy. A decent guy with a younger brother. And it's about this girl, who also has a brother. And this other guy, also a brother, an older one. And one other girl, now she has a sister. And you know what all of those people have in common?"
Silently, Sasuke shook his head.
Smiling very slightly, Shisui said, "I killed them all this year. Really, I'd show you my mission log, if it weren't completely confidential. I never met any of them until the day I cut their throats, or broke their minds, or whatever. All I knew about them, I learned from recon reports. All this in a three-week span. Impressive, right? Now you know why they call me one of the best. That's what you want too, isn't it?"
"So that's the story." He let go of Sasuke's shoulder. "And the moral of this story is that you can't depend on other people to lick your wounds. The sooner you learn that, the easier it'll be for you down the line, understand?"
The expression on Sasuke's face, already unstable, finally collapsed like a tent bereft of its poles, quietly but suddenly. Shisui couldn't help but think bitterly that all this just happened to dovetail so nicely into the odd little pattern their relationship had fallen into these past few weeks. All for the best, really.
"I hate you," Sasuke screamed, scrunching his eyes up in an effort to push back tears. If the sky weren't so wide, his voice would echo. "You're supposed to be his friend. I hate you. I hope you die."
Shisui reined in a bitter smile, watching Sasuke wheel away from him and run in the opposite direction, wiping his eyes furiously. In Sasuke's place, maybe he'd want the same thing.
There was time enough for that. His decision was nothing more than insurance for the future; at this moment, he still had the present to contend with. Sasuke was only eight. He still had both of his parents, clean hands, a nice pat future, he'd get over it. With any luck, so would the rest of the eight-year-olds in the clan. Made the right sacrifices, and you wouldn't have to make too many of them.
That was why it mattered, right?
He needed to be doing something. It was a bad day to be a certain training post, because it was about to get the shit torched out of it in T-minus 5 minutes. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Something prodded the back of his mind. He looked up at the sky, to the west, where a flock of birds were flying in a circle.
If he hadn't been so preoccupied with certain new developments in his life, Shisui would have remembered that he had meant to investigate the mystery of the forest. Now was as good a time as any. He took the shortcut by way of the river, cutting through the reed beds on its far bank, still verdant in late summer. Blood hit the sky. The evening wind was beginning to pick up when he entered the mouth of the trees, and it took him approximately two seconds to realize that he was probably walking into a trap.
But all the old books had it right. You couldn't nab the cub without entering the tiger's den.
Warily, he stalked through the underbrush, expecting at any moment an attack or the freaking sky to be dropped on his head.
And came it did, in the form of a small black blur zipping through the space that, hadn't he moved out of the way, would have been occupied by Shisui's head.
What the fuck was that?
Two seconds later, another shadow went whizzing past. Then another. And another. Soon he was dodging fulltime, assailed from all directions. It felt like being shot at, except as far as he could tell there wasn't a sniper in the area, and anyway, a sniper couldn't be everywhere at once, right?
Another flurry rushed him—the bullets, for lack of a better name, seemed to be multiplying by the second—and he didn't launch himself away quickly enough. One of the shadow bullets sliced right through his upper arm, leaving a stinging burn. He stumbled, just for a fraction of a second, and barely snapped his head back in time to avoid another direct headshot, which grazed across his eyebrow instead. Blood trickled eagerly into his eye. Shisui wiped it away, and let his Sharingan flare to life.
There. Now he could see.
It was, all things considered, pretty embarrassing to be caught in a genjutsu without even realizing it, but in his defense, it was a pretty unusual one. Shisui licked the swipe of blood off his knuckle as he reassessed his situation. Realistic genjutsu he'd dealt with in spades, but this wasn't it. Neither was he incapacitated, lying somewhere on the forest ground while his mind was violated. No, he was still in possession of his senses—it was the environment that had been altered.
The shadows had him surrounded, spawned from the very darkness that shrouded the forest. Hostile chakra all around, the air saturated with it, alive with a buzzing sound reminiscent of hungry locusts.
Yes, he could see now.
This was a maze.
Currently, he was on the outer edges, and these… things, whatever they were, were no more than sentries keeping guard. So there must be something that needed guarding. Somewhere at the heart of this elaborate puzzle lay the answer to his mystery, and from the looks of it, the answer was determined to make things a little too interesting for him on the way in.
But then? He was pretty sure he'd fought worse.
And? Reading chakra flows was practically his specialty.
The mass of shadows roiled restlessly like a wave, and exploded outward without warning, sentient shrapnel hungry for blood. Shisui bent double, clawed out a quick seal—and he was in the air. A bullet sliced right through his body, which flickered and vanished. Just a mirage with a fake chakra signature. He was about a dozen yards ahead.
And then there was nothing but the motion of his body, more natural than breathing, more perfect than oxygen. Nothing fancy. Take it back to basics, Uchiha. Take it back to basics. Inside the silence of his flesh, his blood was roaring, every nerve in his body singing the shrill, frenzied song of fight or flight, fight or flight, fight or flight.
It all came down to speed and instinct. This was the move that'd earned him his name, the last image that many of Uchiha Shisui's enemies had seen—or rather, hadn't seen—right before they'd died. Shadows were peppering him left and right, but he was beyond their reach now. His body left a trail of afterimages, a smear of decoys that dissipated upon contact with the bullets. A simple, but useful modification.
But the swarm didn't give up. They were annoyingly persistent. Shisui counted his leaps as they came. His highest record up until now had been 350 consecutive Shunshin steps—currently, he was pushing 400, and starting to feel it. Soon, he'd have to stop to catch his breath; something told him his pursuers did not share this limitation. If he didn't figure out the way to the center of this artificial space, he'd never be able to throw them off, and it was only a matter of time before his stamina gave out…
The ground dropped out from beneath him.
Not a problem. His body shifted into automatic semi-controlled fall and braced for impact…
…which was approaching much faster than anticipated. He was being jerked downward by a sudden immense gravity, and had zero time for preparation. The ground he hit felt more like concrete than any cushy forest floor, and not even his adjusted stance kept him from dislocating his shoulder, but he just shifted quickly to his side and slammed it into the ground, once.
Felt it pop back into place.
He would definitely be feeling that later when the adrenaline wore off, but right now…
Right now the physics of his surroundings were changing again. Shisui leapt, but didn't get very far before his body fell flat to the ground, dragged down by the stupendous force of gravity. He tried to push himself up, and cried out in pain as the muscles in his bad shoulder snapped and strained. It was like being caught on a sheet of flypaper, fastened in place with hot glue. I'm just an insect here, Shisui thought furiously. Strapped down with nowhere to fly.
Footsteps sounded somewhere to his left. Shisui's spine stiffened, his heart thudding wildly in his chest.
"Very impressive," said a cold voice, sexless and disgustingly conversational. "You move like a phantasm, and you can even read the energy flow well enough to navigate within my illusion. A highly commendable effort."
The new arrival was now standing right next to his ear. If he could just turn his head, just a few inches…
"But this is still a controlled environment. As a genjutsu user, you should have anticipated that."
Shisui tried to raise his head and something hard—a heel—slammed flat across his nape, sending little flowers of pain blossoming on the back of his eyelids as his face hit the ground. A coppery taste filled his mouth, wet and raw.
"That's enough now. When you know that you can't win, it is wiser to stand down."
"That's what you think," Shisui growled, and drew his consciousness into himself, let the Sharingan swirl. Reached out for a foreign strand of consciousness, for a sign that would prove his opponent was even human and…
The pressure removed itself from his neck, and with it, the choking hold of gravity. Shisui rolled onto his side, and a foot smashed into his solar plexus, doubling him over like a shrimp. Before he had time to catch the next shattered breath, down it came again, stomping square across his outstretched wrist. Started grinding. He heard rather than felt the crunch of bones.
Yeah, that was no genjutsu.
"So you think you can do better?" the voice asked mockingly. "I'll give you another chance. Let's see what you'll make of it."
A flash of movement off to his peripheral right. Shisui lunged, faster than humanly possible but still – too – slow. His body jerked into immobility in midair, and plummeted to the ground again. Even strengthened with chakra, his bones gave a sickening crack.
"Was that all? I feel let down. Surely you can do better than that."
He was being toyed with, like a mouse that couldn't even see the cat's paw coming down until its spine had already been crushed. "Fucking coward," he hissed. "Show yourself. I'll take your head off."
Eyes wide open, nerves singing, Sharingan burning through his chakra reserve like a bushfire, but still he couldn't see anyone around. Either his enemy was invisible, or he was blind. Whatever that presence out there might be, he was at its complete mercy. It wouldn't even need a weapon. Just one kick, one blow to the throat, one something and he'd be…
The skin of Shisui's knuckles split open as he slammed his fist into the ground. Push. He had to push for it. It had to be there, that strand of consciousness. He just had to look harder. He had to find it, and grab hold of it, because in this fight, it didn't matter if you were strong enough or fast enough or clever enough. Finding that elusive wisp was all it'd take to turn this battle around.
And once again, he was floating in the sweet cool of that deep, black water. He let it wash over him for a moment, a cool balm over his injuries, and then began to seek out his opponent. There would be no mercy shown today. Once he had wrapped his fist around that mind—and it wouldn't take long, with no other minds around to distract him—he would crush it to bits.
Below him. A very faint presence. Weak.
Shisui smiled to himself, and started to follow the wavering trace. Can't get away from me now. Let's see who needs to do better, you bastard.
He sank deeper and deeper, sensing the signal grow as he approached. It was like deep-diving for pearls, and the pearl wouldn't know what hit it.
Closer and closer…
The signal growing stronger, practically jumping out at him now…
The realization slammed into Shisui's chest like a stone fist, nearly knocking the breath out of him. He floundered in the water, trying to halt his descent, but there was nothing to hold on to. His legs kicked back and forth uselessly. Oh God. Oh God. What he had taken for a weak, crushable thing was actually a behemoth, a monster lurking in the shadowy depth of these treacherous waters, and he had to get away, get as far away as possible before it noticed his presence. Because when it did…
When it did, the sharp, foul claws would reach for his tiny, insignificant essence, and tear it to shreds.
Shisui's heart quivered and recoiled. He had made a gargantuan mistake. He was no Susano-o, he had not been called upon to slay the serpent in the deep. He was just a boy, a weak, pathetic little boy who couldn't even protect those he loved, how could he possibly triumph here? He was the inferior one, he had to escape before his mind was cut into quadrants, and then he was swimming frantically, rising through the darkness, but instead of breaking through the surface of the murky water, emerging to sunlight and open air, he was caught, he was being dragged down, down, down into the deep…
He made the mistake of opening his mouth in a silent scream, which drove all the oxygen out of his lungs.
The mind within him shrank in on itself, screaming.
He was face down on the ground, but he was still in the water, sinking fast, got to fight it. He was still in the water, but he was on the ground. Why was he still in the water if he was on the ground? How could he be on the ground if he was still in the water? How? Why? How? Why?
(Why am I so weak?)
He couldn't move. There was no way out. He was trapped, like a cornered rat. Oh God, I don't want to die, please, no, I don't want t—
(If I were stronger, I could have gotten out.)
The death of the mind was analogous with the death of the body. The death of the mind was analogous with the death of the body. The death of the mind, the death of the mind, the death of the mind…
(If I were stronger, I could have protected them.)
Not enough. He was so weak, still so weak.
(If I were, were, were, were, were…)
"Not enough," Shisui rasped, in a voice he barely recognized as his own. His fingers clawed into the hard ground, skin shredding, slippery with blood and grit as his nails broke off one – by – one.
"I need… I need more."
He coughed, and pain stabbed into his chest. A red, bubbling froth welled up over his lips, blending into the red mist in his vision, then fading, to purple, then black. He could feel his consciousness cracking under that immense pressure, threatening to shatter into a million bloodied shards. Soon, his mind would be crushed, and he would be lost. His skin was sloughing off, flaking off like a chrysalis, making way for something new to emerge, something alien and grotesque—inhuman.
(More. More. More. More, more, more, more, more…)
It was over.
He was not in the water. He was on the ground, gasping for breath, and it was over. All was still. There was a pressure in his head, like when you had to sneeze but couldn't, and it just built and built and built.
"You want more power," said the faceless voice. Shisui could barely make out the words through the ringing in his ears. "That's what you're thinking, isn't it?"
"I understand how you feel. You lived like a blind man for most of your life, complacent in your own meager ability, thinking you were invincible just because you knew a few cheap tricks. Then one day, you opened your eyes and realized that the world was much bigger than you."
His opponent was standing over him once more, and this time, he didn't try to fight. This time, he stayed down and kept his head low in total surrender, prone and flightless.
"That's why you decided to become what you are. You trained until you puked blood, you went further than any limits you'd ever set for yourself. You finally learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, to see what's truly important—and for that, you only had to barter a piece of your humanity. You made yourself something above that, and in doing so, you set yourself apart from the rest of them."
A long pause, and then the voice continued, "I admire that. And I understand."
"What?" he heard himself mumble, his voice thick with blood. Could be internal bleeding. Wonderful.
"I know that you feel it too. Don't you?"
What the hell was going on? What was being demanded of him?
"But what you can do is not as important as what you choose to do. All the power in the world won't save the blind. Water is measured by thirst, glory by want. Do you know what it is that you want, boy?"
Yes, his battered mind screamed. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes...
He had one wish, only one wish, a wish he would weigh the entire world against, and he couldn't die until he had let it free.
"Please… Please tell me… tell me where he is."
The kick came out of nowhere, smashing into the side of his head. The tenuous breath rammed out of him. His neck flopped—why was it doing that, was it broken, had the muscles been turned to jelly?
He blacked out momentarily.
No more than a second or two, because he could still hear that high, cold voice, pronouncing his sentence as it slowly faded away.
"But I suppose you've earned it."
There were cicadas in the afterlife. Interesting.
Blackness. No movement. Blood seeping from his nose. A mossy, wallowing smell, like… moss?
As if overcoming tremendous resistance, his heart flipped over—in slow, uncertain beats—and kicked back in. The sound of it reverberated like thunder in his ears. Da-dunk. Da-dunk. Shisui rolled himself onto his back, gave a sharp, loud exhale of breath, and shuddered back to life. His mouth gaped open, dragging down air in large, broken gulps. Like resuscitation. Like birth.
He was alive, and his brain was already triaging the situation. He was a) still in the forest and b) lying in a way that made sharp twigs cut into the skin of his neck. Okay. He could work with that.
Shisui struggled to sit. Tried to move his left shoulder as subtly as possible. Not subtly enough, because it made a thread of pain shoot up the length of his neck, but it was acceptable for now. Serviceable. His hands were a total mess, of course, all the old scars burst open across the thatched palms and a bunch of new ones waiting to form, but flesh wounds hadn't been worth fretting over since he'd been six.
Examined his wrist—and if he'd thought his shoulder hurt, this was a whole other world of pain. Probably a distal radius fracture, which meant a month in a splint at the very least. He reached into his weapon pouch and groped around for the packet of emergency pain-killers. Dry-swallowed the whole thing, and pretended it was just the taste that made him wince.
It'd take something a hell of a lot stronger to dull the hammering in his head—but frankly, he was damn lucky to still have a head at all. He had feelings in his legs. Whatever the hell this was, he would survive.
A muscle twitched suddenly in Shisui's cheek, breaking open a cut that had had enough time to start healing. He—no, it wasn't a mistake. He'd felt it. That chakra signature. Out there beyond the trees.
Shisui tore through the field of reeds, using no more stealth than what had become natural to him. Being noticed was the point. He ran on foot, fearing that if he took a Shunshin step his heart would rupture in his chest. He barely had the chakra to feed the Sharingan anymore, but pushed for it anyway, ignoring the pain that splintered out from behind his eyes. He had to watch out for movements—any movements at all. The trail was so faint and he was so exhausted, it would be so easy to miss…
He shifted course, doglegged forty-five degrees to his right without slowing his pace, and hoped to God that he wasn't hallucinating from the adrenaline rush to his brain. His feet skidded to a halt as he reached a clearing in the reeds, and…
And standing in the middle of it, awash in cool moonlight, was Itachi, the point of Shisui's compass, looking as though the Earth had just reopened and spat him back out again.
The heart inside Shisui knitted itself together so quickly that it felt exactly like it was breaking all over again. He reeled toward Itachi, to hug him or hit him or kiss him or something, anything at all to prove that he was there and real and not a figment of Shisui's fevered imagination. His mouth was already forming the shape of a word—a name, a curse, a confession—when Itachi turned around, and saw him.
Later, Shisui would think that, had he not had the shit beat out of him in the forest earlier, he would have been quick enough to move out of the way. Had his mind not been too busy sending off prayers of gratitude to God and Kami and Buddha and a host of other deities whose names he couldn't pronounce, he wouldn't have needed to move out of the way, because he would have already noticed.
He would have already noticed that Itachi was wearing his ANBU mask, that his sword was unsheathed and clutched in his hand. That the stalks of reed around him had been cleared in a wide swath, as though somebody had spent a good amount of time systematically cutting them down in cold, methodical rage.
The kind of anger that could, say, propel a person to charge at their perplexed best friend and crash into him with savage force, sending the both of them flying backward, and for the nth time that day, Shisui found himself on the ground, with the fun new addition of Itachi straddling him. Nice.
Shisui had at least fifteen pounds on Itachi, who was comparatively slight and frankly built like an anorexic girl, but the moment he landed on his back, he knew he had lost the advantage. With Itachi's knees digging into the side of his ribs, he could neither reach his weapon pouch nor move his hands to form a seal, and with the slick katana blade pressed against his throat, his chances of physically disarming Itachi and freeing himself were significantly reduced.
It wasn't that he'd forgotten what Itachi could do. It was just that, outside of sparring sessions, Shisui had never expected that strength to be used against him.
He'd do well not to make that mistake again.
"Itachi," Shisui said slowly, "would you mind getting that sword away from my neck?"
Itachi seemed not to hear him. The moon shone clear over his shoulders, the strong wind blowing clouds like skeins of dirty cotton across the sky. The hand not gripped around the sword's handle was on Shisui, forcing his shoulder to the ground. He could hear his bones creak as a dull pain crept across his body—and now he was officially pissed. Now he had had enough. He had put up with way too much tonight, and he wasn't here to play games. If it were anybody else, he would have already had the person writhing on the ground clutching their head, or gasping from a sharp blade driven up between two ribs.
If it were anybody else…
Maybe it was just the painkillers making his head all fuzzy, but that thought sure didn't seem to have come from him.
Do it. You know you want to, you know you should.
Do it, and he'll never be out of your sight again. He'll always be safe, and he'll do whatever you want. Your every wish. It's the right thing to do.
He'll be yours.
That's what you want, isn't it?
Something wet and hot hit his cheek. Shisui blinked, and his mind was clear again.
"Shisui," Itachi whispered. "You came for me."
With a slow blink, Shisui deactivated his Sharingan. He stared unwaveringly into the dark slits presumably shielding Itachi's eyes, willing their gaze to lock.
"Of course I came for you. I'll always come for you."
Itachi's entire body convulsed in a heavy, spasmodic shudder. He slid bonelessly off of Shisui, and threw his sword aside. In a frantic movement, he ripped off his mask, bent double, and vomited green bile on the dry dirt.
Shisui pulled himself up, minding his various injuries. He shook the numbness out of his body, and carefully edged toward Itachi, who was still sailing the Good Ship Puking to My Death, making horrible retching sounds as his shoulders seized. For no reason, he picked up the mask Itachi had discarded. The inside of it felt wet against his fingers, the lacquered surface slick with water—and so was Itachi's face when the moonlight caught his skin, skating off his sweat-daubed forehead.
"Hey," Shisui said softly. "Hey, look at me."
He reached out and cupped Itachi's chin, tilting his face up. His skin was stark white, and there were dark areas under his opaque, unfocused eyes, swollen like bruises. Shisui unhooked Itachi's breastplate and dropped it to the ground, next to the katana and the mask—all the deadly toys that they had accumulated in their attempts to outrun each other to adulthood, now as good as junks. All the accoutrements gone, and then there was just his best friend, unshackled and whole, returned to Shisui by the fates.
All the darkness that had been injected into him dissolved into nothing, poison sucked out of a wound. He was trapped in a gravitational field—caught in Itachi's orbit, inexorably drawn to him regardless of the distance in between.
Feeling positively unhinged, Shisui leaned forward and carefully pressed their foreheads together. Itachi's breath felt warm on his cheeks. He was grateful that he'd left his hitai-ate at home today, because in terms of comfort skin beat metal, hands down.
"We need to get you cleaned up," he muttered. "I think the river is just down that way. Let's…"
He changed his mind mid-sentence. Given the way Itachi's body was wilted like a broken lily-stem, that course of action probably wouldn't work out so hot.
"Put your arms around my neck," he said quietly. "Go on, just do it."
Itachi complied without a word. He stopped shaking, but did not stop holding on.
"Ready? Up we go."
Itachi stumbled a little when Shisui scooped him up to his feet. Shisui caught him, and then they were sagged against each other, holding fast. His face ended up buried in Itachi's right shoulder, which should have been highly awkward but wasn't, just their bodies slotting together like old puzzle pieces. Edges worn to fit. It was kind of amazing, Shisui reflected, that his face hadn't formed a permanent dent in the shape of Itachi's shoulder blade by now, given the sheer ridiculous number of times he had awoken from a lazy cat nap to find his head pillowed there: during soporific lectures, on interminably boring stakeouts—once, in the sultry hollow beneath a tree, with a north country storm roaring across the sky.
"Geez," Shisui said, "who'd have imagined our first hug would be like this, huh?"
It must be a sign that he still understood his target audience, because his words elicited from Itachi a wry laugh—a soft, broken, slightly hysterical sound muffled into the juncture where Shisui's neck met his shoulder. The choked tremor sent a trill of shivers rippling down the length of his spine. He thought he could feel Itachi's heartbeat, faint and uneven against his chest.
It made something inside Shisui crack open and overflow, warm and profuse, like all of the scars inside him had been ripped clean open. He tightened the circle of his arms, crushed Itachi's smaller body against his. He should have done this forever ago. He should have done this the moment he'd laid eyes on Itachi. He should never have let go.
"Welcome back, kiddo," Shisui whispered, voice going a little throbby. He couldn't help himself from pressing his nose briefly into the soft crook of Itachi's neck, inhaling the warm, familiar scent of his tired skin—tipping his grateful smile down onto that graceful curvature like an imprint.
Then he bent his knees, and used the leverage to hoist Itachi's body up halfway over his uninjured shoulder, like a laborer heaving a sack of grains. For a moment, he was worried that his body wouldn't be able to handle the single-shoulder carry, but it was a nonissue. Itachi felt almost weightless in his arms—and fittingly so, because Itachi was not a burden, and would never be, regardless of how much baggage he brought into Shisui's life.
Gathering himself carefully, Shisui steadied his steps, and began to follow the distant sound of water.
The river opened up behind the last curtain of reeds, dyed in silvery moonlight. The light almost hurt Shisui's eyes, which still hadn't recovered from Sharingan-abuse. The water was sequined with it, dripping with the liquefaction of colors that summer nights produced. Shisui set Itachi down on the lip of sand that kissed the river edge, and gently peeled off his gloves, then the sweat-soaked turtleneck, which he balled up to dip in the river. The water felt cool and soothing on his tattered hands.
He worked quickly and efficiently, wiping Itachi down from head to torso, moving the wet cloth lightly over his back—which, as Shisui had surmised, was also covered in bruises, now faded green and yellow. Shisui stared at them for a moment, and then pulled off the v-neck he was wearing over his undershirt and tossed it into Itachi's lap. When Itachi just stared at it, fingering the dark material thoughtfully, Shisui grabbed the shirt from him, dragged it over his head and manhandled his unresponsive limbs into the armholes, readjusting the wide collar that threatened to slip over the slope of his shoulders.
"This feels weirdly familiar," he muttered to himself, wiping Itachi's cheek in slow circles with the wadded up shirt.
Itachi's lips tilted softly upward. I kissed him there, Shisui thought, his face heating slightly at the memory of lingering warmth. It felt like something from a whole other lifetime.
"You've gotten better at this," Itachi said. Shisui knew he was thinking of that first day, when they had run to the river after the scuffle with Douchey Classmate 1, 2, and 3. God, had he really used to think that busted lips hurt?
"Practice really does make perfect," he said blandly. "You didn't even help. You just sat there. And then the raid siren went off, and you ran. Didn't even let me introduce myself."
"Emergency response protocols stated that children were to report to a parent or guardian in the event of a raid," Itachi said. "I found you again the next day."
"Yeah, I remember. You already knew who I was by then."
Had he now? That must have been an interesting conversation. Shisui wondered how Fugaku might have reacted to his son's question. Perhaps the seed of defiance had already been planted in him even at the tender, milk-toothy age of four—and really, that surprised him not at all.
Done with his nursing duties, Shisui tossed aside the wet shirt and settled down next to Itachi on the bank. Silence fell around them, thick and heavy. There were a million questions he wanted to ask, but looking at Itachi's tired face, the listless slump of his shoulders, Shisui found he couldn't bring himself to voice them. Later, he told himself. I'll have time to ask later. There would be time.
What could he say instead?
Guess what? Kagura-san asked me out, and I turned her down.
So we'll be working together again soon. Got any cool mission in mind?
I fought a demon or something today. Almost lost my life. Don't suppose you care.
He said, "You want to hear something freaky? I used mind control on Danzou."
Any other person would have at least raised an alarmed eyebrow, but Itachi barely even looked up.
"Well, he sort of asked for it—no, like, literally," Shisui explained. "But here's the thing. When I was in his mind, when I had control over him—I really wanted to kill him, Itachi."
He stopped and stared at his hands, red and blistered. "I came so close to doing it. I don't know what came over me, and I don't even really know what stopped me in the end, but for a moment there, I just wanted to snap the bastard's neck. Or you know, make him snap his own neck. Or something."
His voice consolidated in his throat. "I tried to murder one of the village's leaders." And I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
But that's not even the worst thing. That's not even skirting the tip of the Bad Things iceberg. The worst thing is that I went to the clan. I sold you down the river, you and everybody else in this village—but mostly you. You probably won't forgive me, will probably hate me for it, but I don't think I care, because at least that means you'll still be around to do it.
You, you, you.
"Shisui," Itachi said. "Would you ever use that technique on me?"
"Very funny, you jerk," Shisui muttered, crabby. "Don't think I'm not tempted to. Maybe then you'll keep your ass out of trouble, huh? Free will's overrated anyway."
Itachi was unfazed. "So you're saying that you would," he said matter-of-factly, and Shisui was once again filled with the urge to take him by his stupid bony shoulders and shake, shake, shake.
"Of course I wouldn't use it on you," he snapped. "Damn it, what is wrong with you?" When he had time, he would try to make a comprehensive list. "Probably wouldn't even work anyway. You're so pigheaded you'd probably just do whatever you want even if you were under mind control."
Itachi said nothing in return. Again, they sat in uncommuning silence, each alone with his thoughts.
If he were totally honest with himself, Shisui had to admit that he was afraid. He wasn't sure if he would have enough strength to drag Itachi away from these dark forces, all the amassing demons and ghosts that flocked around him, raking into his flesh with their foul claws and leaving imprints in the shape of flowering bruises. He wasn't sure he was up to the task, and that slithering doubt scared him shitless, because for perhaps the first time ever, this felt like a fight he wasn't going to win.
Once more, Shisui could see himself standing on the far side of a desolate no-man's-land, wreathed with smoke, the smell of rot and cordite. Itachi was on the other side, and when he broke into a run, so did Shisui, leaping over bodies and fallen weapons to clear the distance. At midway, their little, not-yet-calloused hands found each other, and together, they sank into the earth.
"One day," Itachi said abruptly, "perhaps not far from now, I will ask you to do something for me."
Shisui stared at him in question, but Itachi didn't seem to notice. His eyes fluttered shut as he sucked a short, ragged breath in through his nose, quietly let it out again.
"Promise me that, when that day comes, you will do exactly as I ask."
"Do what?" Shisui said. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Itachi shook his head. "I can't tell you," he said. "But I need you to promise you will do it."
Itachi's eyes snapped open then, dark and endless in the ghostly light reflecting off the water. "Shisui," he said gravely. "Have I ever asked you for anything before?"
Shisui opened his mouth to speak, but closed it with an audible click. He knew Itachi was right. He had never asked anything of Shisui for as long as they'd known each other, and even though Shisui likely owed him favors enough for this and future lifetimes, he had never come to collect on those either.
But why couldn't he shake the feeling that—given the way the question had been phrased—Itachi was actually asking him for some kind of permission rather than making a request?
"You're right," he said. "I do owe you." The words were practically tripping out of his mouth now, losing foothold over the tip of his tongue. "But, look. I can't—I can't just agree to something I don't know anything about. I mean, how do I even know if this is something I can do, you know? If I promise to do something that turns out I'm not capable of doing, it would be the same as lying to you."
At this, Itachi gave him a look of such pronounced weariness that Shisui felt something hard back up in his throat. His head was filled with noise, an angry voice that sounded suspiciously like his dad, ordering Shisui to give it up and just make the damn promise already, he'd been taught better than that, didn't he see what an asshole he was being?
With inhuman resolve, he forced that voice back into the dark of his mind, and slammed the door on it. He held his gaze, waiting for an answer.
"It is," Itachi said at last, "a very difficult task." His voice was thick, almost slurring around the words. The density of it devastated the still, still air.
"Well, no shit if you're being such a spook about it," Shisui said, frustration whetting his tone. "Look, I don't care how hard it is, just tell me outright if this—this task you're going to ask me to do—is it something that I can do?"
There was a long silence, punctuated only by the ceaseless trilling of the cicadas. Shisui waited, holding his breath, and presently…
"Then alright!" Shisui said, a little too emphatically, wild about the edges. "I promise that if it's something within my power to accomplish, I will make sure to do whatever you ask. I swear. On my mother's and my father's graves."
Itachi turned away from him. "You don't have to do that," he said. "I just wanted to hear you promise."
"Well, there you go," Shisui insisted. He wished Itachi would look at him, but then didn't, because he wasn't certain he would like what he might see. "So everything's okay?"
In response, Itachi gave a faint snort—mostly an outward rush of air. Ineffably bitter. "Yes," he said, almost too softly to be heard. "If you promise, then everything will be okay." A smile ghosted over his lips, faint and unbearably remote, a fleeting trace of moonlight. "Thank you."
Drowning in Shisui's sloppy, overlarge shirt, Itachi seemed so strange and solemn with that intense light spilling all around him. A silver negative that lived in a space of his own absorption, somewhere Shisui couldn't touch. The ripple of the water made moving shadows on his white throat. Though nothing about him had notably changed, he nevertheless seemed like a whole different person from the boy Shisui had known all his life. His eyes were vivid and sharp, like dots of ink. The gods of old paintings had eyes like those, eyes that saw only visions of another realm.
Once, Shisui had believed that theirs was a changeless friendship, which would persist even if they were old or maimed or dead. The realization that maybe he had been wrong hobbled him, cutting off his every tack of thought. Snapping ropes, rending sails, striking down his mast. His heart heavy with dread. Things had changed, were changing still, and even though he had gotten Itachi back, Shisui knew they would never be able to go back to the life they'd had before.
But the tenderness unfurling within his chest was the same, and so was the memory of Itachi's heartbeat, a faint, fluttering, possibly-imagined tremor against Shisui's breastbone. And if these things were the same then everything else had to be the same—the same as they had always been since Shisui had at the age of six wiped blood from his lips and decided that, really, taciturn four-year-olds with prematurely-lined eyes weren't so bad. Everything was the same, even if it didn't feel that way, because that was how the story had been written, right? In his bone, in his flesh, in the arteries and chambers of his heart—an internal map—and as long as it was there, he could never stray.
It was still summer, but late night brought the chill, and Shisui shivered in his flimsy shirt, felt goosebumps mushrooming across his skin. Behind them, the stalks of reed rustled eerily in the soughing wind. His ears were still ricocheting with the shrill song of the cicadas—did they ever fucking stop?
He'd better go take care of that wrist if he planned on ever using it again.
"Let's get out of here," Shisui said, rising to his feet and brushing his clothes of imaginary dirt. He looked down at Itachi, and added uncertainly, "You want to stay over again?"
Itachi met his gaze blankly. For reasons unknown, Shisui began to feel flustered.
"I mean, you definitely have to go home and let them know you're alright," he prevaricated. "But it's pretty late, and if your mother or Sasuke sees you like this, they'll lose their shit."
Itachi's brows furrowed. "I'm not injured. My family has seen me in direr states than this."
Shisui frowned back at him. "Yeah, and so have I, but that's not the point, is it?" He stuffed his hands into his pockets, and went on awkwardly, "So you following me or what?"
Itachi's eyes widened. "What did you say?"
"I asked," Shisui said, "if you're going to follow me."
The sand at Itachi's feet scattered as he scrambled forward. "Yes," he said, in a choking rush, like the word might be snatched away if he didn't give it substance fast enough. "Yes, Uchiha Shisui, I will follow you."
Shisui's mouth fell open, but before he could say anything, Itachi had dipped his head, stress-limp hair falling to shield his face. His shoulders shook in a faint, low-grade tremor. Shisui thought he might be laughing soundlessly to himself, but it was hard to tell for sure. He certainly couldn't find any humor in this situation, and that made a cold breath of fear shiver through him.
Another minute passed. When Itachi looked up again, his face had smoothed back into impassivity—yet when he opened his mouth to speak, it was to utter a statement even more asinine than the last:
"Will you wait for me?"
Shisui wanted to yell, "I'm waiting right now," but realized suddenly this wasn't the question he was being asked. He wasn't sure what that question was, but he had a feeling that it wasn't his place to know.
So instead, he nodded and said, "Yeah, I'll wait. I will wait for you."
The weight of two blind promises sank down into his bones, filling the fleshy linings of his heart with lead, but it seemed to lift a heavy burden from Itachi, because he slid fluidly to his feet, with all the grace Shisui had come to know so well. Tossed his hair back, shook out his weary limbs, and said, "Alright then." Precise as a paper-cut, every wrinkle of disturbance ironed flat. "Let's go home."
Shisui nodded silently. He began walking up the bank, but made terrible progress because he couldn't seem to stop glancing over his shoulder every couple of seconds just to make sure that Itachi was still there, that he hadn't vanished, been swallowed up by the ground again while Shisui hadn't been looking. After a few minutes of this, Itachi finally noticed his anxiety. He quickened his pace, until they were nearly abreast, and silently took Shisui's wrist in his hand. Leading, but at the same time allowing himself to be led. This was it, the swaying give-and-take rhythm that had always traced the veins of their friendship, giving life to its pulse. It made something flare up within Shisui again, a kind of solemn, blossoming warmth that made him feel for the first time that maybe, just maybe, he could do this.
In his heart of heart, he knew that this was far from over. Dark days lay ahead of them, and tomorrow morning there would be things to worry about—Danzou, his deal with Fugaku, the malevolent entity in the forest. But for now, with the light curl of thin fingers around his wrist holding down his place in the universe, steady as the earth, all-enveloping as the sky, all of that ceased to matter. He was Uchiha Shisui, Shisui the Mirage, Scourge of the Underworld, and as long as he still had something to fight for, not even an army from hell could make him stand down.
So let them come, Shisui thought, squaring his shoulders as they walked together into the unwavering darkness ahead.
Let them take their best shot.
I felt soft fingers at my throat
It seemed someone was strangling me
The lips were hard as they were sweet
It seemed someone was kissing me
My vital bones about to crack
I gaped into another's eyes
I saw it was a face I knew
A face as sweet as it was grim
It did not smile it did not weep
Its eyes were wide and white its skin
I did not smile I did not weep
I raised my hand touched its cheek
(Harold Pinter, "Ghost")
A/N: And that is how it ends. With them walking home together, holding hands in the pale moonlight. Yup. If you wish to imagine that after this they're going to take Sasuke and run away to farm tomatoes by moonlight and chant sutra to goats for the rest of their lives, you are highly encouraged to do so.
Actually, for all the clichés and schmaltzy moments, I'm pleasantly surprised by how gen this story turned out. Yes, that is gen by my standards, okay? Thank you all so much for reading. If you've stuck around this long – and what brave souls you must be – would you mind letting me know what you think? I know this fic raised more questions than it actually answered, so I will be around to answer any queries you may have. And please, if you have to throw rocks, be gentle :(
Oh, the "presence" in the forest that Shisui fought? It's supposed to be Madara. Was that too vague? :|