A/N: So there are a lot of reasons Itachi/Shisui is a doomed venture in every way, but one of the prominent ones is that they were always on opposite sides of a war, for whatever reason. We know Itachi fulfilled his mission, but I always end up wondering how things might have gone had Shisui been the one to succeed instead. After all, he was The Best of the Uchiha Clan, Mind Control Man, etc., and it seems that if he'd really wanted to stop Itachi, he'd have been able to do it. Hence...

AU Elements: Shisui stops Itachi, and the coup goes through.

Warnings: Melodrama and purple prose, but you should know that by now :(

Enjoy.



It's raining when they wake up, but that doesn't change much. They fell asleep this way the night before, half-clothed, sprawled on a single cot after a long mission. Itachi can't find it in himself to relocate his friend to his own cot, because Shisui looks so tired, a dream still working itself around one quirked, easy corner of his mouth. Flowers of water on a pane of glass, the gentle grey of the morning behind it, a shade that turns itself over and over in Shisui's eyes as he opens them—Hey, you—soft, soft as the sheen of wetness across his bottom lip. Itachi lets him trace fingers over the ANBU tattoo on his shoulder, listening to his low chuckles—so now I see why kunoichi are so into these—and when he finally echoes the motion with a string of kisses, closing his eyes. In the warm cavern created by the voluntary loss of sight, everything else is magnified: the syncopated acoustics of raindrops; Shisui's lips, earnest, worshipful, so tender that Itachi is drawn towards them, leaning in to brush them with his own.

Nothing special. Two boys in a room in the rain. Theirs is a morning story told in drowsy half-lidded eyes, mouths that find each other without effort: hardly extraordinary—but they are acknowledged prodigies; there is little they have done in their lives that is not extraordinary, and the morning, too, loses this distinction almost immediately.

Still, he will remember it as such.

Sleepy fingers buffeting them backwards into dreams. Shisui's police vest tossed over Itachi's ANBU breastplate on the floor, carrying no significance beyond the quotidian sweetness of hastily discarded clothing. A moment in need of no justification beyond its own existence. This single point in time, rain-slick, shining with possibilities written in silver water, at once the ending and the beginning of everything.

~X~

Every rainstorm ends in the river, and so, too, does theirs.

"One last time," Shisui says. "I think I'm entitled to that."

Almost-fourteen and almost-a-murderer (for this is murder, this, above anything he has ever done on a mission, and he knows it), but Shisui has won already, the moment Itachi's hand halts over his ninjato. He knows he wants it as much as Shisui does. The wanting is enough for him to make eye contact for one careless second—a mistake, a colossal mistake, for this is all that is needed for the jutsu to break upon his brain and draw him closer to his cousin. Electric threads work themselves into his will and his stamina and his consciousness. Shisui places shaking fingers on his chin and tips his head up. With his thumb he brushes away a streak of sweat-soaked hair. "I'm sorry," he murmurs. And then—

Shisui's Mangekyou spin, gaining light and color like incandescent tumbleweeds inside Itachi's mind. He has one moment of recognition, one touch of Shisui's lips against his own, and then there is darkness.

~X~

He wakes up bound, blindfolded, and gagged, every avenue for possible sensory genjutsu blocked off with the typical efficiency of the Uchiha police force.

"Don't do this to him," Shisui is yelling. "Let me talk to him, he'll tell me—"

"You have incapacitated him as ordered, Shisui-kun," another voice cuts in. "He is under the jurisdiction of the police force at this point."

"I'm part of the police force, you—just let me talk to him! I'm his best friend, for god's sake! He's not a prisoner! "

"Let him," says someone else, and Itachi recognizes the voice of his own father. "He's done his part."

"Thank you, Fugaku-sama," and Itachi hears running feet, harsh breathing, before the wind is knocked from his chest and arms are around him, their tight, desperate circle so close that he can feel two hearts knocking against his helpless ribs. Shisui's hair traces thin wire trails against the side of his head. He turns his face away.

"I am so goddamn sorry," says Shisui miserably into his shoulder. "Don't—don't do anything stupid if I take this off, okay? I can't stand seeing you like this." A sharp tug, and the gag is off. Itachi gasps for air.

"As touching as this is," drawls one of the interrogations experts, "Itachi-kun is being detained under charges of treason, and should be treated accordingly. We expect results, Shisui-kun."

"I'll talk to him if you give us some privacy," snaps Shisui. "That's an order, Inabi-san." Itachi hears a rustle of clothing and knows that Shisui has flashed his police insignia, painstakingly maintained and as clear on his sleeve as Itachi's ANBU tattoo in the same spot. As soon as the door clicks shut in response to this, Shisui begins loosening his bonds, tugging at knots and smoothing cloth over his wrists with clumsy tenderness. The blindfold, however, he leaves intact.

"You already know," says Itachi shortly.

Shisui is quiet for a moment. Then there is an odd chuckle, bright and brittle as dying sunlight framed in a windowpane.

"I knew the second you attacked me," he says. "You wanted eyes like mine, didn't you?"

"Mangekyou."

"I'm not going to ask how you know that. What I want to know is—why?"

And even behind the blindfold, Itachi's eyes wrench shut, a visceral reaction against the rawness of that question in Shisui's voice. That word on Shisui's lips, lips he has mapped against the curve of his own, breath measuring every fluctuation of sound and rhythm contained in the space between them—years and years of learning, but for this, he is unprepared. For this, there is no memory.

"It must have been important," Shisui is saying. "What did you want to do?"

This, then, is the mathematics of sacrifice—hundreds upon hundreds of insubstantial souls, faceless names and nameless faces, each completely weightless against the beating blood of Shisui's five fingers against his cheek. Konoha, he tells himself. Konoha. But is there a Konoha, without this? He doesn't know, and even as he thinks of this he hears Madara's laughter in his mind. Danzo's mutinous admonitions. The Sandaime's pleas.

"Tell me," Shisui implores. "Please. Whatever you want—I'll help."

He is helpless, bound and blindfolded like a common criminal, but he understands that he was incapacitated long before this. Shisui has the advantage in this situation and always has, a little to do with the Mangekyou he gained after his sister's death, a lot to do with the relief pounding through Itachi's veins, loud and incessant as a heartbeat, the delirious reassurance that—whatever the reason—his friend is alive, and for now, for now, they have one more day.

"Are you going to talk to me?" asks Shisui. "I don't want to use it on you again, but you know I could get it out of you if I—if I had to."

"I will talk," says Itachi, and sets his story free.

~X~

The greatest of the sharingan users, indeed, but Shisui murders Shimura Danzo with his own hands. It is a clear night and the white cream of starlight is resplendent in his curls and against his bloody skin, all wet and viscuous. Jarring, because Itachi already knows that his technique results in no blood at all. The Mangekyou spins in his eyes. Crimson-eyed and crimson-skinned; this demon before him is not his cousin.

"War-mongering bastard," snarls Shisui. "He told me everything. So he couldn't wait for a diplomatic solution, could he? So it was easier to let Uchiha Itachi do it, was it?"

"Shisui—"

"I don't want to hear it!" shouts Shisui all of a sudden, spinning and fixing him with a vicious red stare. Droplets of blood are splattered across his face, macabre freckles. "Did you just not think this through, or what? Genocide? I'd expect something like that from him, not from you! You weren't even willing to try, Itachi!"

It's worse than anything else he could have said, because it's true. Shisui holds up his blood-spattered hands and points at him, the liquid mess on his fingers as clotted and profuse as vomit in a gutter. Itachi feels sick. He wants to look away, but Shisui's eyes are all aflame with angry luminescence, and he's never been able to look away from this, never.

"You were going to do this to me!" Shisui is screaming. "To everyone! So don't play the goddamn sacrificial lamb here, Itachi, because as I see it, all you've done is prove that you'd rather keep the village in hands like his—" a cruel twist of fingers, as if wringing a neck—"than give us a chance to make things right!"

Itachi doesn't know what to say.

"Sandaime-sama—" he begins, but that incandescence he has so long loved in Shisui flares up, bright as a flame and every bit as dangerous. Shisui has been the best of the Uchiha for so long that he is fire itself, now, a living sun in his own right—and Itachi has been bathed in warm light from that sun for his entire life; it is only fitting, he thinks, that now his skin should curl and blacken, slough off into the bonfire of his best friend's fury.

"Sandaime-sama," spits Shisui, the sharp consonants like breaking glass in his mouth, "would have had us all killed. Would have had you do it. You honestly think the Uchiha would be worse leaders than that? And—what were you planning to do about Sasuke? His friends? God, Itachi, it was probably easy turning on me, but—"

Something in Itachi's chest shatters, wrenches so painfully, so harshly, that he doubles over, clutching at his sides and wondering why it feels like this, as though he could open his mouth and cough up a red bleeding heart onto the paving stones. No, he wants to say, no, no, no, Shisui, it was the hardest thing, the hardest—

What he says instead is, "It was not easy," but this is inadequate, insignificant, and he knows it.

Shisui smiles. "Oh, right," he murmurs, poisonous, sweet curve of a mouth like the center of a bloodied flower. "I was your most precious person, how could I forget? For your Mangekyou eyes. Like my sister was for mine, except she died on a mission, remember? I didn't bring her to the Nakano and promise her—"

"I never promised you anything."

Shisui drops his weaponry. Ninjato and shuriken clatter on the stones. In two quick steps he is in front of Itachi and his hands are twisted in his hair, fierce, furious. Like this, and he can't look, because Shisui's eyes will break his heart.

"No,"says Shisui. "No, maybe that was the problem."

He doesn't want to kiss him, doesn't want to taste the blood on his skin—for this Shisui is not the one in that room in the rain, months ago, the one who brushed imaginary cobwebs from his shoulders with such unimaginable tenderness. This Shisui is all awful black slopes and angles, like the body of some great winged creature silhouetted against the spread of darkened sky. Familiar and at once not.

"We can stop it," he finds himself saying suddenly. "We have to. The clan doesn't need the village, Shisui—"

"We're not stopping anything," snaps Shisui. "Konoha isn't safe with this kind of tension. Sooner or later things are going to blow, and you can either make the transition as easy as possible or just get the fuck out. This coup is happening, with or without us. And you can't kill them without the Mangekyou, so what are you going to do?"

The choice was made for him the moment he hesitated on the bank of the river. Now, with Shisui's hands in his hair and his gaze in his, the moment for hesitation is over. It's too late. Everything has begun, and he is sick with it already, the blood that his cousin has coated himself with so that he does not have to plunge his own hands into its filth. But he will—he will. It's only a matter of time.

"I will do what is needed to protect Konoha," he says, finally, and Shisui's hands drop.

"Fine," he says. "I guess that's all I can ask for."

~X~

The Sandaime surrenders without a fight. He signs his name on the piece of golden parchment without so much as glancing at it.

"You are not going to read the terms?" asks Itachi. The eternal liaison, he is in the sun-dappled office again, this time wearing the fan on his back and long sleeves that hide the tattoo on his shoulder. The clan seemed to find this fitting. For his part, he feels as if he is watching the crumbling of a mountain—and in a way, this is exactly what it is, for he has seen Sarutobi's face enshrined in granite and rain-weathered shale since he was four years old, and the image will not recede, no matter how firmly he tells himself that the man in front of him is no longer Hokage.

Sarutobi actually laughs. "You aren't cut out for militancy, Itachi-kun. Just as well. I'm glad they sent you."

"You could destroy me," he bites out, words tumbling out one after another despite the iron clamp of ANBU discipline. "You could destroy so many of us, if you wanted. Why surrender?"

"If I stand against the entire Uchiha clan," says Sarutobi, "I will die, and it is very likely that most of my ANBU will as well. And then the remaining shinobi of the village will stand against you. An endless cycle. As it can be accomplished, I'd prefer a peaceful transition for the village."

He says for the village and Itachi hears for you. Taking the scroll, he bows to the former leader. Something should be said here, and Itachi has never been good at this, but he has been Sarutobi's man since he first tied on his Konoha headband and this deserves a commemoration, even if he is in no position to give one.

"It has been an honor," he says, ultimately. It sounds flat in his voice, not at all a fitting end to a life that was something more than a life, an inspiration.

"Itachi-kun," says Sarutobi, and he sounds amused. "I never thought I'd see the day—you're crying?"

He is.

The Sandaime leaves the office the way it has always been, hat tossed haphazardly over the edge of a chair, pipe-smoke still a rich sagelike scent congealing between the pages of books and the ticks of the wall clock. Itachi stays. He kneels on the faded carpet for a long time, looking at various pictures hung across the office walls, most of them Academy graduation pictures. He can see the class he and Shisui graduated in. He is blank-faced, with a slight pout, and Shisui is smiling as openly and as freely as the spill of sunlight over the Academy grounds. Behind them Sarutobi has his arms wrapped around the shoulders of their proud-looking teachers. Itachi's ears are filled with the clang of rusty triumph in the empty space, hollow, a kicked-over gong.

After he leaves the office, the capitulation scroll in his hands, he realizes what he should have said was I'm sorry.

~X~

When he hears of it, Madara throws his mask to the ground and laughs himself sick.

"Endearing, terribly endearing. I shall enjoy watching this play out. What is it you're looking at me like that for, boy?"

"You no longer plan to kill them, then?"

Madara waves his hand, so dismissive and nonchalant that it is actually insulting. "Our family's stupidity cannot be underestimated. Sarutobi has surrendered and stepped down, but trouble will come from other quarters. I see no need to expend my energy when they are so set on destroying themselves."

"You think there will be war as well."

"Oh, there will be. There has just been a regime change, have I taught you nothing? You knew other countries would take action, as did your former Hokage. All you must do now is wait."

~X~

The wait, as it were, is not long.

Konoha is seized with bewilderment at the Sandaime's abdication, particularly when instead of instituting a new Hokage in his place Fugaku sets up a ruling council of Uchiha, consisting of various clan elders, a few promising younger shinobi, and of course, the clan's prodigies.

"If you must have a council, appoint at least one person from outside the clan," Itachi begs, fingers splayed on the conference table with a desperation that grips him from the marrow of his bones, does not allow him to look down at his shaking hands. "This is asking for war."

"We have come too far to listen to a traitor at this stage," says Inabi silkily, before Fugaku can so much as open his mouth. In a flash of shunshin speed Shisui's chair is upended and he is halfway across the room, hand fisted in the collar of his superior's shirt.

"Say that again," he yells, sharingan eyes flaring. "Seriously, just try it!"

"Shisui-kun, sit down," roars Fugaku. "This is not how a council is conducted! Itachi, you are out of line."

"If you subject the village to this kind of totalitarian authority there was no purpose to the Sandaime's peaceful abdication in the first place," says Itachi all in a rush. "This can be circumvented so easily. Please reconsider, Father."

"If I didn't know better, I would say you were still attempting to undermine us, Itachi-kun," says someone else, a sly laughing undercurrent to the tone. Itachi's jaw tightens.

"This will be avoidable bloodshed," he says. "Please—please. You know it to be true. Someone—" His eyes fall on his best friend, who looks anywhere but at him. Somehow the sight is worse than the rest of the closed faces, as if someone has reached into his eye sockets and wrenched the pulpy globes from his skull, trailing tears and blood. A twist of that old visceral feeling serrates him from the inside again, and he only has strength to say, "Shisui?" before the lack of response overwhelms him and he is forced to storm from the meeting room, biting back the acrid feeling in his throat.

Shisui follows him.

"I don't want war either," he says. "Really. I don't—"

"You did a fine job of showing that already," snaps Itachi. "You knew this was a bad idea. You knew a peaceful transfer was never the intent. And you let me take that scroll to Sandaime-sama and—"

"Because I didn't want you to murder everybody!" Shisui yells back at him. "Is that so wrong?"

"So you will allow innocent people to die for the purposes of your—your vendetta, or whatever it is—"

"It's not a vendetta! Listen—you remember what it was like, ten years ago, during the Third World War. I know you do."

And he does; he remembers Shisui's ribs all sharp against the side of his face as he burrowed into his chest, the feeling of dirt and sweat and vomit caked on old blankets, the muddy darkness of the shelter, never enough water, never enough food, never, never, never enough. He remembers this. He closes his eyes. It's all Shisui needs. He crosses the space between them and grips his shoulders, tense lines and hopeless, crooked mouth; how long has it been since Itachi has seen him smile?

"Itachi—I am not going to let that happen again. Understand? If I have to keep every citizen of Konoha under house arrest until the situation's stable, I'll do it. If I have to lock you in a fucking jail cell—" he swallows—"I'll do it. If I have to participate in whatever the hell autocratic scheme Fugaku-sama wants, I'll do it. But the old ways haven't worked. The Will of Fire's bullshit, and you know it. If it'd worked, we wouldn't have had that war at all."

"You sound like Danzo," says Itachi, and Shisui bites his lip.

"It's just for a while," he says. "It's not—just let it stabilize, and things will be back to normal. I promise."

"Normal?" Itachi gasps. "Normal is—"

But Shisui clamps a hand over his mouth, leans in and attacks the exposed column of his throat, all teeth and harsh, pinprick bites. It's a parody of normalcy that Itachi does not want, and he pushes him away, but Shisui kisses him with such force he is bent over backwards, his head slammed against the outside wall of the headquarters building. The morning in the rain is so far behind them now that Itachi can barely remember it. In vain he searches for the sound of the rain above Shisui's desperate breathing, although it's a murky, cloudy day with nothing more than heat and dry-cotton air to break the unforgiving atmosphere. Perhaps they are past the stage where they can return to that silver, suspended place. Perhaps that place never really existed to begin with. But if he closes his eyes, here, at the moment before the fall, he is just a body in Shisui's arms, mouth melded to his as his tongue pries the words from his parted lips, and that is as it has always been, lost, adrift in a hopelessness that erases the world around him.

"Just a little longer," Shisui whispers against his lips. "We'll make it right."

For a moment, the old story is regained. For a moment, old threads are mended.

And then the war begins.

~X~

Suna attacks first.

Two hundred Konoha shinobi die in the first day alone, their blood raining down across the marketplace with gobbets of dirty sand. Itachi kneels in front of the ruling council and begs and begs and begs, and finally someone tosses him the insignia of a police commander and he is off like a flash, calling out orders and holding the badge above him as he buffets his way through the throng of crying citizenry. And then he sees the young boy-who-is-not-a-boy, expressionless eyes ringed in black skin as his outstretched fists wreak golden, powdery death upon Itachi's populace. It takes one look for him to understand the situation.

He turns and runs in the opposite direction. When he reaches the small hotel room on the opposite end of town he collapses to his knees, a stitch in his side and every limb screaming protest, but he has enough strength to gasp out the necessary words.

"Jinchuuriki," he pants. "Please."

Madara rises and sweeps out of the room.

By the time Gaara has been subdued by Madara's underhanded manipulation of the bijuu and the young ANBU captain Yamato's involvement, there have been three hundred and twenty-two fatalities, most of them civilian.

The Uchiha ruling council shuts down the marketplace and moves food and water into shelters, shelters Itachi remembers from his own experience of war, so long ago. His entire being is seized with a terrible lightness, a gutted and hollow feeling, when Sasuke asks him if they'll have to go down into the shelter as well.

"No," he assures his brother. "No, you will not."

The next attack is a coalition. Manpower is depleted; and despite Itachi's vote against it, the Uchiha ruling council votes to send Academy students into the fray. Kiri and Ame, however, have never been known for their kindness to the young, and one scream-rent morning Itachi arrives at the Academy schoolyard to find almost an entire generation of children murdered, some blue-lipped and still in their final convulsions from the mass death by drowning.

"Sasuke!" he screams. "Sasuke!"

But his brother is alive, huddled under a desk with several other children and weeping into the edge of his sleeve. Itachi sends them all to the nearest shelter and posts a chuunin on guard before it, but for the rest of the day he is unable to fight properly. He does not see Shisui at all, but after one week of relentless battle he finds his cousin blood-depleted and near-delirious with pain, crouching at the edge of a road with one arm hanging by a few ragged ligaments. Next to him is the corpse of a monstrous blue-skinned man, the fragments of a giant sword strewn about his prone form.

Shisui receives healing treatment as soon as the terrified medic glimpses the Uchiha symbol on the back of his shirt. Several others are not so lucky. Council voting and deliberation wastes so much time that one-fourth of the remaining civilian population dies of starvation underground, their food and clean water having arrived too late. Famine picks off the weak, and pandemic sweeps the rest. Itachi knows that if Kumo decides to attack at this point, Konoha is finished.

"Send for my old student," says Sarutobi, when he goes to seek out the old man. "You need a medic. I had always—I had hoped Tsunade would become the Godaime."

"What we need," says Fugaku, "is a leader to hold our position stable should there be another attack."

"People are dying in their own refuse every day," says Itachi coldly. "This concerns me rather more than holding our position."

"Then go," says Fugaku. "Go. We have no need of you."

And so it is that Itachi is in Kusagakure, following the trail of Senju Tsunade, when he learns by carrier bird that Godaime Hokage Uchiha Shisui has been inaugarated on the very same day of the Kumo attack.

~X~

"This was abysmal planning," snaps Tsunade, wiping sweat from her brow as they cross to the next impromptu medical tent. "There's a reason the Kage system was set up—councils take too long to issue decisions in wartime, and when they do, they're usually incredibly self-serving. A single trustworthy person is more reliable than a roomful of men any day."

"Shisui is trustworthy," says Itachi. He hasn't seen his cousin since his return, and so much has changed that he is no longer sure of how true this is—but the thought of Shisui sends a tremor through him, as sudden and sharp-sweet as a single note from a violin.

Tsunade snorts. The tent is full of amputees, so she beckons her assistant to her side and dispenses orders in a clean, efficient voice. "Itachi," she says directly, "I'll be honest with you. These Uchiha elders of yours—you understand that they don't want what's best for the village, don't you? Police force or not?"

He says nothing. It is no coincidence that each of the thirty-four Uchiha elders who feature prominently in the ruling council are still alive and unscathed after the conflicts, the only notable casualty being Shisui's near-severed arm.

"The Uchiha," says Tsunade, " are a cancer."

"No one can kill them, if that is what you are asking," says Itachi curtly. "Even with their ranks depleted, there are still almost two hundred sharingan users active. They control most of the supply lines within Konoha proper. It would be suicidal."

"Whatever you think, Uchiha," she says. "If you trust this—this boy, then I suppose we'll see what comes of it. Meanwhile, I'll have to ask Jiraiya to make sure Orochimaru doesn't do anything to take advantage of Konoha in this state."

"Thank you, Tsunade-sama."

"How old is he, anyway, this new Godaime? I've heard so much about the young scions of the house of Uchiha, how prodigious they are."

"Shisui turned seventeen last week," he says, in stunned realization. Two years. War has taken two years from them, two years that will never return.

And yet, when he sees Shisui again, head bent over a desk of paperwork with his flexible mouth all pursed in concentration, it's a little boy he sees—nine, or perhaps ten, scribbling away at Academy homework and sneaking glances at a younger cousin's paper. When Shisui sets his brush down and looks up, Itachi feels a wave, an endless rattle like the sound of rain, and he realizes it's his own breath, shaking shaking shaking in his chest and threatening to turn his legs to water underneath him as he falls. But Shisui is still as shunshin-fast as always, and there are firm hands on his back before he hits the floor, and a liquid voice in his ear, like a draft of cool water slipping under his skin from the inside out.

"Steady," murmurs Shisui. "Steady."

He is so tired. He is so tired of war, of threadbare traveling cloaks and nights spent praying under impersonal stars, so tired of issuing nothing but orders, so tired of begging, of pleading for lives other than his own. He is so tiredof being the savior. He is tired, tired, tired, butin Shisui's arms he is none of this; the war has not happened, the world still waits for him with all the promise it held when he was thirteen. He bends his head, rests it against his cousin's chest.

"Hokage-sama," he says, wanting to laugh, but too tired even for this. All he can think is—they are saved, all of them, and he was not the one who had to do it.

"Never for you," says Shisui, brushing his lips to the very corner of Itachi's mouth. "I'm glad you're home."

And enfolded like this, Shisui's skin flush against his, home is exactly where he is.

~X~

They spend their days in Shisui's office, filing paperwork and carefully redrawing plans for the wrecked marketplace, the decimated Hokage mountain, the old underground shelters. They attend council meetings as always—hugely unproductive, spent arguing over a complex organizational system that Itachi knows from the first glance is inefficient. But the days he spends like this carry their overtones of peace anyway, because at night he sleeps curled into Shisui's body, palming the new, jutting bones in his friend's back inside a silence that heals.

Shisui talks during these times—usually about things that by now are faded memories, after-school dango stops, or kites resplendent in the dazzling summer sunlight. Neither of them has seen a kite since the war began.

"Someday, when the war is over," says Shisui, absently tracing promises onto the planes of Itachi's chest, "we should get a kite. Like we did when we were kids. Just a nice red kite, a good one, and send it flying. Let it go, just like that. Free."

"You wasted so many of our kites that way," murmurs Itachi disapprovingly.

Shisui laughs, presses his face into the juncture of Itachi's shoulder. His naked skin is a smooth milky color that seems somehow innocent, which makes no sense, given what they are doing, but Itachi makes the association nonetheless.

"Sometimes," says Shisui, and his voice is something Itachi can feel, rather than hear, "that's the fun of it—just letting go."

There are always times when they don't talk at all, which is fine, because then Shisui pushes Itachi down onto the blanket spread on the floor of his office and slides his hands across his body as if he's smoothing away each weight and worry he sees there; his lips find the hollow of Itachi's collarbones, the pearly juncture of his jawline and his throat, the little dip in the center of his chin. He coaxes his own name from Itachi's mouth like a familiar song that rings and rings after all sounds have faded—Shisui, Shisui, always a word that eclipses everything else. As they rock against each other, old nights a cool starlit taste on one another's skin, war falls away, layer after layer like a flower opening to its tender heart.

Afterwards, when Shisui lies against him and whispers, "I told you we would make it right," it is almost—almost believable. But then, he has always been quick to believe the words framed by that beloved mouth, because if he doesn't, the ones sealed into his skin as Shisui moves inside him—love you, I love you—could be untrue as well, and this would break him, he knows, as surely and suddenly as lightning-fire in a broken, twisted tree.

~X~

Sasuke is not the same. His brother turns thirteen without formal training, for there has been no reinstated Academy since it was demolished during the Kiri and Ame attacks. Still, Sasuke, like Itachi and Shisui before him, is a wartime child. He does not know how to throw a kunai, but he knows how to slit a throat. He does not know how to make clean water with a jutsu, but he knows how to forage for food. When Itachi sits next to him, Sasuke says nothing, merely looks at him with a bone-white face that is too thin for the huge, haunted eyes framed within it.

"We have decided not to reinstate the Academy," says Fugaku, when asked. "Konoha is still unstable, and there are many who oppose Uchiha rule. It would not be sensible to equip them for combat at this stage."

Itachi's eyes widen. "You are leaving Sasuke defenseless? At least take the time to train him yourself—"

"I am busy with the governance of the village, as you very well know."

"Father, these are children! Without training, they will die—what threat can they possibly pose to you?"

"You were thirteen when you were recruited," says Fugaku pointedly.

"We are a shinobi village! Without livelihood, our entire infrastructure will collapse—"

"All shinobi who were active at the time of the Academy's closing have been assigned double duty. Missions are still being completed at optimal output—to our advantage, moreover."

"What do you mean by that?"

He stumbles upon Hyuuga Neji in the ration line and then he understands exactly what this means. Neji bows cordially, but his eyes are fixed somewhere over Itachi's shoulder. Fitting. He doesn't see Itachi. He doesn't see anything at all.

"Overexertion leads to blindness," says Hyuuga Hiashi when Itachi comes to pay his respects, bearing black-market rations and hollow apologies that he knows will never, never be enough. "The byakugan is a weaker bloodline than the sharingan, as you very well know." The Hyuuga prodigy's blindness has leeched the pride from this old man, bowed his weight inwards as if someone has slammed him in the chest and torn the breath from his body. "Neji was the best of our youth, so he received—he received many more missions than was appropriate."

"How can you do this?" Itachi says to Shisui, no longer able to summon the energy even to plead. "What have they done to deserve this?"

And Shisui's eyes narrow. Even seeing him like this, a proud and cruel figure silhouetted against a dying village, Itachi cannot help the arpeggios of pure sensation that break over his spine at sight of his best friend, this person he has loved and will continue to love until Shisui grinds his own body into the dirt, tears the heart from him with those cherished hands—and he hates himself for it, the certain knowledge that he is no longer fit to carry out his duties as a shinobi. Of all the things that have swept this village in the past years—disease, bitterness, famine, death—he knows now that it is love that has weakened him the most, and even amidst this the realization that none of this matters, because were it not for love, he would not have survived even this far.

"I'm not going to allow rebel elements to destabilize Konoha," says Shisui. "I said that I'd make this village peaceful, and I'll do whatever it takes."

"You must promote unity with the old clans," Itachi tries again. "You no longer remember how to rule—"

"Itachi!" Shisui snaps suddenly, and then Itachi knows what is coming, and he is powerless to stop it, even as the words hiss from between Shisui's teeth with all the venom and bitterness of an evil wind. He closes his eyes as he once closed them against Shisui's kisses, feather-sweet and perfect against his shoulderblades, but even as he wraps this memory tighter and tighter around him he can still hear the sound of Shisui's next words.

"I am the Godaime Hokage," says his best friend calmly, "and you are nobody."

~X~

One year later, Hyuuga Neji is killed in action. His killers are nowhere to be found, but a red cloud insignia is traced over his naked body. Before taking him back to Konoha, Itachi covers him with his own cloak, heals the dead wounds as best as he can. They are poor now. No one in Konoha has worn a pure color for years, just shades of brown and grey and dingy white—but dignity is something they can still afford, and he gives the boy this with all the strength left in him, his treacherous eyes presenting him instead with Sasuke's body lying broken on the road.

"Akatsuki," he reports to Tsunade, the only non-Uchiha within the village entrusted with any authority at all. She sighs.

"If they attack," she says, "it's over. Tell your Shisui—" and Itachi almost flinches—"that he needs to build a link with the old clans. You don't have time for power politics anymore, Uchiha. He needs to settle this."

"I will tell him," says Itachi. He does, two months later, as soon as he has secured the area and returned.

"It will be easy," he assures Shisui. "One mind-bending technique, a blanket jutsu, and—"

Shisui looks up and Itachi sucks in his breath, sharply.

"Oh," he says. "Shisui—"

For the Mangekyou is not infinite, and at twenty-two, Uchiha Shisui has sealed his own fate. Still, he is an Uchiha, and pride holds his body upright even as it is clear that the three linked rings in his eyes have lost their light, a karmic cycle that still renders Itachi sick with horror.

"I will settle it," says Shisui. "You may go."

~X~

He settles it the way the old clans have always done. Two months later, Itachi receives an invitation to his wedding.

It has been years and years since such things were commonplace, but someone has procured for him a kimono that flickers—all silver cloth and light-sensitive embroidery, grey ripples and water lilies blossoming across the expanse of silk and darting away again with the change of shadows. Seeing him kneeling on the formal mat, there is not one person in the hall who does not think of the shunshin and its glimmer, like the flash of fish in silver water, and of the moniker Shisui has been known by since he was a prodigious sixteen. Next to him, fifteen-year-old Hyuuga Hinata cries and cries. She does not look at her new husband at all, not even when Shisui ties the ceremonial knot between the strings of their obi and offers her the requisite sip of sake, which she accepts with impersonal hands.

It is Itachi whose eyes remain riveted to Shisui's face, as if he is the one taking that sip of sake, feeling Shisui's fingers apply that quick, burning touch to the insides of his wrists. But it is not, and he knows the thought is hopelessly maudlin even as it flits across his mind.

He says nothing when he files through the greeting line with the rest of the village. Sasuke is behind him and Shisui is across from him, even more difficult to look at up close, with the silver kimono a brilliant reality searing his retinas at the edges. But Shisui knows, and his mouth makes a small hard line. It is no longer the mouth Itachi remembers, so soft, so willing to meld into a smile or the supple shape of a kiss. Still, he longs to close the inches between them and cover that mouth with his anyway, coax it back into the three syllables it once held with such trembling sweetness—Itachi, Itachi, Itachi

"Thank you for attending," says Shisui courteously.

"My pleasure," says Itachi. "Hokage-sama."

Shisui's eyes narrow, but he is the one who has instigated this farce, and Itachi knows his cousin has better self-control than to end it here, in a public gathering, with the girl he has married at his side. Unforgivable, now, to break the last fragile peace between them.

Peace is something he cannot envision. His best friend has grown so far from him that he can no longer bridge the distance, just watch him, longing humming in every pore of his skin—longing sometimes for Shisui's body moving over his own in the darkness, but more often for the boy who touched his lips outside that long-ago clan meeting, whispering, whispering that together they would build the world they wanted to see.

When Shisui is led out of the hall to the ceremonial apartment someone has prepared for him, Itachi goes home to his old house for the first time in years. His room is covered in cobwebs, but this is nothing. Konoha has not been clean for a very long time. There is no reason why his dwelling should be any different.

He perches on the edge of the futon and places his head in his hands.

Kill him, says a voice from beyond ages, a might-have-been winding a passage through his memory on its way to the stars. Kill him, annihilate the Uchiha, give Konoha back its former glory.

But he has made a mistake, allowing his cousin to carve a raw red space for himself inside his chest; he thinks he can feel his heart, a liquid ache humming between his ribs and beating with what is left of his lifeblood. This is all that remains to stay his hand.

I am sorry, he says to his thirteen-year-old self, standing bravely at the riverbank with his hands fisted in his best friend's shirt, to the Sandaime, now lost somewhere in the dead that litter the mass graves at Konoha's borders, to Sasuke, crushed like a butterfly under these ambitions, to Shisui himself, fifteen years old and so beautiful Itachi's eyes still fill with tears at the memory. I have failed you.

He has, and he doesn't know if he is more sorry for Konoha's ravaged years, or for the fact that he always knew, somewhere in the space between waking and dreams, that he and Shisui never really had a chance at all.

~X~

One more year, one more failure. Akatsuki comes for the last remaining jinchuuriki, and what is left of Konoha is too weak to stand.

"The end has come," Madara tells him. "You see, none of them were meant to last this."

"Save us," says Itachi, too mangled too care that he is offering his pride up before the man he once hated. "I can no longer stand against them."

Madara is silent. Then he places his hand on Itachi's shoulder, ancient eyes alight with old wisdom and somewhere, glittering like the flag of a lost ship upon the sea, some small measure of sympathy.

"You have been a credit to the name of shinobi," he says. "Live. That is all you can do for your village now."

He lives.

He lives to see a swarm of brave chuunin teenagers throw themselves against the village gates like human bulwarks, so many of them effortlessly scythed down under the blade of a silver-haired immortal. He lives to see Shisui's young wife snuffed out as effortlessly as a candle flame, a flare of light and a katsu! and her short life is ended, faster than Shisui's shunshin can take him to her side. He lives to see a blond girl and her two male teammates huddled together in the face of a storm of razor-sharp paper, arms locked about one another as they wait to bleed to death.

"Itachi!' screams Tsunade, everywhere at once, healing chakra wild and ragged as she streaks past him. "Your brother—"

And then he is not living at all, because these words are a thousand small deaths in awful, drawn-out motions. He is running, faster and faster, sharingan scoping for the familiar chakra flare. He makes it as far as the old Academy street before he sees Sasuke, inexperienced untaught Sasuke whose childhood was stolen by a clan's impossible dream, and the cloud of dust kicked up by his fall at the hands of an unfamiliar red-haired man. A blond boy—Sasuke's classmate, the jinchuuriki—is screaming, railing against the man, but it's too late, it's always been too late. Every lost year sinks into Itachi's nerves like a hail of poisoned senbon and he reels, even as he runs, because this cannot be real, pain of this magnitude cannot possibly exist—

--but it does, it does, it does, and it is all he can do to ensure that Sasuke, feathery eyelashes shutting for the last time under his fingertips, feels no pain at all.

~X~

For the first time in a year and a half, he walks into Shisui's office. He places the roster of the dead on his friend's desk. The Hokage is sitting in his chair, staring into the sun setting over the medical tents that are the only safe dwellings left.

He is walking from the office when Shisui says something, so quietly he can barely hear him, but he is filled with white-hot anger and no longer thrills to the sound of his old lover's voice. The words are lost. He doesn't know yet that it will be the last time he is to see Shisui, except for in dreams, where he will encounter the laughing boy with curly hair for the rest of his life. But that boy no longer exists, and in fact, has not existed for a very long time. There is no more regret. There is nothing left to feel it.

When he wakes in the middle of the night, gasping as blood streams from his changing eyes, he realizes the lost words were "You win."

~X~

Two months later, the remnants of the poisonous Uchiha clan are dead, with one exception, and he stands quietly at the Rokudaime's side as she gives her inaugaral speech.

"It is true that I assume the mantle of Rokudaime," Tsunade declares. "But we honor two other heroes today. Men who were more powerful than I have ever been, and also—at the end—more brave. One, as you know, is Uchiha Itachi, who slew his clan so that Konoha could know peace."

There is no applause, for they have all known war, and the weight of their gratitude is too tremendous to be broken with sound.

"The other was the man you knew as the Godaime Hokage, Uchiha Shisui, who took his own life so that his best friend could gain the power necessary to keep each of you safe."

The silence gains a quality of gold as it grows, like a shaft of sunlight pooling on lake water. From somewhere beyond Konoha, the chinook comes blowing, carrying with it the surety of spring and of change, the sound of laughter, the wild gaiety necessary to send a kite billowing into the sky.

"A moment of prayer for his spirit," Tsunade murmurs, but Itachi says, "Wait."

Someone in the crowd helps him slash his cloak in half with a kunai, splint the cloth on two crossed sticks. From the pouch at his belt he removes something he has kept since he received the mortuary offerings and the little urn of ashes, a faded police emblem that has seen blood and sweat and horror in its time—but still, that he remembers best tossed over his breastplate on the floor in some forgotten hotel room, the single time in his life Shisui cast aside his duty for something that was more important.

He ties the police emblem onto the kite and tosses it it into the air.

It's been years since he's done it. At first he's afraid he's forgotten how—faltering, weakening—but then his mind lights afire with the feeling of summer afternoons, reassuring hands over his—like this, Itachi, like this!—laughter. As the kite gains height he layers it with memories in his mind, offering each touch of skin and sight to the little square of blue climbing higher and higher, until every citizen's head is upturned towards the view, sudden colors and intensity and an inability to look away. The wild wind comes down to them and soars back up to the kite, taking with it just the hint of cold, and—

someday, when the war is over

It's over, Shisui, he thinks. We're home.

The kite spreads its sails and soars to its unknown, glittering destinations, farther than the eye can see and farther still than that.

And finally, Uchiha Itachi lets go.

~X~

end