Chapter Two

Hijikata Renji: Goodbye my Friend

Itachi did not stop running until he reached his house, opened the front and slammed it shut behind him. He leaned against it and panted, feeling the sweat trickle down his face in the oppressive summer heat and his heart thudding against his ribcage.

It was hard to think, hard to focus, so Itachi didn't. He simply breathed: in, out, in, out; one breath after another.

When he finally achieved some simulation of calmness, Itachi groaned to himself and slowly slid down the door until he was sitting in a crouched heap against it. He closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids fiercely. What was wrong with him? He'd been a shinobi for as long as he could remember and the moment he stopped officially being one he'd forgotten every little thing he'd ever learned.

Hatake should not have caught him. He shouldn't have even seen him to begin with. Over the years Itachi had learned to spot a Leaf shinobi a mile away. You simply couldn't survive as a missing-nin unless you were aware of your surroundings at all times.

What made the whole thing so much worse though was that even though he'd been caught by surprise, Itachi still hadn't been able to pull himself together. He'd fled like some half-trained brat who still attended the Academy. Everything: all the jutsus he knew, the evasion techniques and the fighting skills that he'd almost ingrained into his mind in the process of learning them hadn't even occurred to him.

He'd run and run until he'd tripped over that stupid flee-bitten animal and then he'd been caught and babbled like an idiot before he'd finally gotten together enough sense to get the hell out of there as fast as he could.

What the hell did Hatake think?

He was probably absolutely mystified by the whole puzzling event but Itachi knew Hatake. He knew how the Leaf shinobi's mind worked. Hatake would now be running through his mind everything that had happened and assembling it into some sort of order. He wouldn't forget a single detail and if he learned anything else, Hatake would start putting two and two together and coming up with four. The Leaf shinobi was sharp and thought in ways most other shinobi didn't and that was dangerous to Itachi.

The question was what was he going to do about it? His momentary lapse in personality would cost him; he had little doubt about that fact. He didn't understand why he'd gone to pieces like that. Maybe it was because he had gone into deep hiding for the first time or perhaps it was because Hatake had genuinely surprised him. He really hadn't been expecting to see a ninja in Ransawa village so soon. Either way, his cold persona of the emotionless killer was shot. Hatake would never view him the same way again. He knew Itachi could get scared now, just like everybody else and he could make mistakes too.

Itachi pressed his hands a little harder against his eyelids and clenched his teeth but it was no good. He didn't know what to do about any of it. He couldn't kill Hatake and he didn't want Sasuke to hear about this. But he couldn't tell Hatake anything either. That was out of the question.

Sensing a presence approaching the house, Itachi's head jerked up, his senses stretching out to examine the other being. After a moment though, he recognised his friend, Renji and he relaxed. For a moment he thought it had been Hatake.

However, although he was relieved it wasn't Hatake, he really didn't want to see Renji right now though. Hatake would waste little time looking for him. It wouldn't take long for the Leaf Jounin's nin dogs to track his scent. He had a few hours at best to pack up and move out.

Before Itachi could make any decision though, Renji banged his fist against the same door Itachi was leaning against. Itachi said nothing and after a moment, Renji banged again, this time sounding a little irritated. Renji didn't like having to do anything more than once.

Itachi hesitated. He needed to leave but he liked Renji. He'd grown to appreciate his company. Hatake though, was someone Itachi wanted to avoid at all costs. Itachi had too many secrets, he knew that and Hatake would undoubtedly want answers Itachi couldn't give him.

"Oi! Ichiro! I know you're in there!" yelled Renji through the door. "Ichiro!"

0-0-0-0-0-0

"Excuse me?"

Itachi stared at the group of youths who smirked back. They were probably a year or two older than he was. They couldn't hurt him but there were five of them and only one of him and this was an extremely crowed bar. It seemed it'd been a mistake to come here after all but he'd been bored and perhaps a little lonely. A week didn't sound like a long time but it'd felt like an eternity to Itachi. He'd only just moved into the house at the top of Ransawa Village and already he missed Kisame's company – not that shark-face needed to know that. Kisame was amusing but his taste for war and bloodshed was revolting. No, Itachi didn't miss Kisame that much.

"I'm sorry," Itachi replied. "But I don't think it's a good idea."

"Come on," prodded the speaker for the group. "One little drink won't hurt. Join us."

"No thank you," replied Itachi stiffly. Alcohol did things to men. He knew that just as well as anyone else and any half-decent missing nin was always extremely careful about the place and the company in which he chose to get inhibited.

"Che, who are you anyway? I haven't seen you around before."

"It is customary to give your own name first," pointed out Itachi, irritated by the group of youths. "But if you insist, my name is Ichiro."

"Ichiro? That's it?" asked the youth. "No last name? Sounds a bit suspect to me." He glanced at his fellow drinkers and they nodded in agreement.

Itachi shrugged lightly. "It is just Ichiro. Leave it at that Takagi-san."

The youth blinked at Itachi, surprised. "Hey! How did you know my name?"

"I know a lot of things," replied Itachi lightly. "If you must know though, I overheard your friend call you that earlier."

Takagi scowled. "You know, I don't really like your attitude Ichiro."

Not sure how to respond, Itachi chose to remain silent.

"You ought to watch yourself - "

But Takagi got no further. A tall man appeared and clapped a heavy hand down on Takagi's shoulder, almost knocking him off his chair.

"Oi, oi Takagi – cut the guy some slack."

After a moment of panicked wobbling, Takagi managed to right himself and turned around to glare at the other man.

"Watch it Renji!" he growled. "You almost knocked me off my chair."

The said man in question smiled lazily. "Like I would have. Leave the guy alone."

Takagi bristled for a moment and finally seemed to deflate with a breathy sigh. "Yeah, yeah, alright."

He brushed off Renji's hand, turned around and moodily stared into his beer.

Sensing the matter was closed; Itachi saw his chance and quietly slipped away. He left the bar and made his way to a small stand across the road. The comforting aroma of food greeted him as he stepped out of the darkness and into the warm light within the stand. There were four rickety stools lined up in front of a small counter. They were currently all empty so Itachi picked the stool just to the right of centre and sat down. It was only when someone sat down next to him that Itachi realised he had been followed.

He looked up and stared at the man beside him. The man named Renji appeared to be completely oblivious to the stare. He simply gazed listlessly ahead, a single unlit cigarette hanging loosely from one corner of his mouth.

A little startled, Itachi remained silent. It was the first time anyone had willingly sat next to him in several years. The action was so unfamiliar that it completely froze Itachi for a moment when he realised the significance.

Looking at Renji, it was impossible to note anything out of the ordinary. The other man appeared to be like any other normal civilian and hadn't seen anything wrong with sitting next to Itachi. He could not possibly know the significance of the person he sat beside, the true identity that lurked beneath the false persona named 'Ichiro'.

Itachi observed him, noting that Renji was half a head taller than he was, with an unruly mop of strawberry blond hair that looked like it hadn't been brushed once in his entire life. His eyelids dropped heavily, almost completely shielding his pale green eyes and giving him a rather listless look. He wore a navy blue gi that hung open at the front to reveal strapped ribs. He didn't appear to carry any weapons and by noting the heavily calloused fists and the armband strapped around his left bicep, it became apparent Renji was one of the protectors of the village. Ransawa only employed a garrison of 50 men but most of them didn't know how to use weapons and relied on their fists to keep trouble out.

Eventually realising he was staring (although it was only out the corner of his eye); Itachi redirected his attention away from the man sitting next to him and ordered a bowl of soba from the stall owner. Renji declined when asked a moment later, lit his cigarette and then there was silence, broken only once by the arrival of Itachi's order.

Itachi settled for ignoring Renji's presence as he ate but it was difficult. He couldn't fathom why the man had followed him. What could he possibly want?

He finished his bowl eventually and gently pushed it away as he stood up. He paid and turned to leave when Renji suddenly spoke.

"Hijikata Renji. What's your name kid?"

Itachi paused, contemplating whether he should reply or simply leave.

"…Ichiro," he answered eventually.

Renji smiled, apparently amused by something and stubbed his cigarette on the counter.

"Well, guess I'll see you around then, Ichiro-chan."

Itachi allowed the slightest downward turn of his lips in disapproval of that particular remark.

"I will," he replied and then added, "and I'll be 21 in two weeks."

"Huh?"

The suave, slightly laid back air Renji had conducted himself with since Itachi had met him abruptly vanished. The man hunched his shoulders and scowled at him.

"21? You're joking right? I'm not even 20 yet and you look like a little kid."

Itachi glared frostily. He did not look like a child! Most people in fact thought he looked a lot older than what he really was. This was the first time someone had accused him of being a child.

"Goodbye Hijikata Renji," he said, turning on heel.

"Oi! Wait!" growled Renji, hurriedly running after him. "Wait damn it!"

0-0-0-0-0-0

Itachi stood and opened the door. Renji wasn't a ninja and he wasn't a friend but for the first time in many years, there was a person standing on his front porch banging on his door to see him and that meant something to Itachi.

It somehow made up for all that he'd sacrificed for Konoha and more and all the lonely days and nights he'd endured since.

"About time," growled Renji as he stalked inside, invited or not. He dumped a grocery bag on the table and continued straight through to the back room. Itachi closed the door as he listened to Renji opening the supply cupboard in the next room and searching for the jugs of sake Itachi kept there.

"What are you making for dinner?" called Renji.

Itachi didn't answer him as he moved over to the table and peaked inside the bag. It was half full of peaches, no doubt picked straight off the tree from Renji's mother's garden. Once Renji's mother had become aware of Itachi she had a habit of bullying her son into taking little bits and pieces to Itachi every time Renji went to see him.

"Man, you're gonna have to buy some better stuff then this," Renji complained as he came back into the main room, eyeing the jug of sake in his hand distastefully. He seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Itachi hadn't answered him as he rattled through Itachi's cupboards, looking for two sake dishes.

Itachi watched him for a moment and then slowly, he heart feeling like lead, he retrieved his battered travel pack from a cupboard and began to pack.

Renji finally found the sake dishes but when he turned around and noticed what Itachi was doing, he paused, watching him. Itachi moved mechanically, collecting bits and pieces: scrolls he'd squirreled away, weapons concealed all over the room, food supplies and all his clothing. He laid it out on the table, ignoring Renji's presence as the man sat down solemnly in one of the chairs. Eventually Renji poured the sake into the two dishes and sat there, watching Itachi as he sorted out what he could and couldn't take. Not all of it would fit in his pack and some of it would have to be left behind. He was grateful that Renji said nothing as he worked. He still wasn't sure exactly what he should say.

"When are you leaving?" asked Renji softly. Itachi halted for a moment as he moved to pick up a kunai set to put in his backpack.

"As soon as I'm done," murmured Itachi, his answer expressionless as he continued his task.

"I see," answered Renji. It was equally as difficult to detect any feeling in Renji's tone of voice as it was his own.

"You coming back?"

"Probably not," replied Itachi. He halted again. A second presence was now outside and this time it was definitely Hatake.

"Well that's alright," said Renji. "I wasn't really expecting you to hang around for long anyway, being what you are and all."

"You knew I was a shinobi?" inquired Itachi as he set down the clothing in his hand. Hatake hadn't advanced any further but he wasn't going to leave.

He looked at Renji who smiled back crookedly at him.

"My pop was a missing nin. I know all about 'em," answered Renji. "He died a long time ago but I know the type anywhere. They're hard to miss once you know."

"How did he die?" asked Itachi, picking up a large windmill shuriken.

Renji laughed softly, a little bitter. "His past caught up with him. He ran pretty far but you can never run far enough."

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Despite the oppressive heat, Itachi could feel the temperature dropping as the storm rolled in from the east, off the ocean, while the sun slid behind the mountains in the west.

"That's true," agreed Itachi. He'd run for much longer than most other missing nins that he knew of but he had never been able to run far enough. "You never can run away."

Renji picked up his sake and drained it ruefully as Itachi shed his green kimono and strapped on his last weapons pouch. Dressed now in a plain black singlet and pants, he was ready. He wasn't going to take Hatake lightly.

He moved to open the door but paused to look back at Renji. The protector watched him, a lazy smile, more like a grimace, tugging at his lips as he sat in the deepening gloom. Itachi hadn't known Renji long but perhaps in a different life, they could have been good friends. In this life though, it was never going to happen.

"Arigato Hijikata Renji. My name is Uchiha Itachi and it was nice to have had you as a friend."

Itachi didn't look back as he opened the door and stepped out to meet his fate.


Author's Note: I was going to write more but I decided I'd leave Kakashi and Itachi's confrontation for the next chapter. Hope you enjoyed this one and reviews of any kind are most welcome. I love hearing what people have to say so if you manage to get to the end of this chapter, drop me a line and let me know what you think. i'm always looking for advice and constructive criticism. Ja!