Watch out for logorrhea, experimental writing, really experimental characterizations, implausible plots, Uchihacest (but only a little) - and Itachi's POV, my personal fucking nightmare. Title is stolen from a poem by Adrienne Rich.

Writing this was like taking a butcher knife to my guts. I would appreciate ANY input, even if it's, "You are a weird weirdo who writes weird shit." Which, really, I kind of already know.


The Burning of Paper Instead of Children

-o-

Consider this photograph of Uchiha Itachi, taken in his seventh year. A thin but wiry boy, wearing a shirt so new you can practically smell the starch on his collar, stiff around his neck like a cowl. His father, mother, and baby brother are also in the photo, and two-year-old Sasuke, fretful from missing his afternoon nap, is almost drowsing against Mikoto's neck. In one glance, you can see that young Itachi is standing a little apart from his family, a small but marked distance separating him from the space they occupy. All of his family portraits are the same but one, and the difference in this picture is the way Itachi's head is tilted at a sort of thirty-five degree angle, his line of vision caught on some point slightly beyond the photo's perimeter, like he's looking at someone just out of frame.

-o-

Shisui's face is the first he sees after the war ends, when he pulls Itachi out of what used to be the wall he had previously been crouching under. Later, he will learn that Shisui had been looking for dead bodies when he found him, and for those first few seconds before his fingers brushed Itachi's cheek and jarred him back into awareness, his cousin had already added him to the list he'd been tasked with compiling. Had Itachi not opened his eyes and coughed the blood-tinged dust out of his lungs, he would have been entry number thirty-one. He doesn't know how long he's been under the rubble – minutes, hours, days – but it's long enough that when he's unearthed, the white light bracketing Shisui's face is so strong and bright it nearly shreds his retina. That's what he remembers thinking, that the light hurts his eyes – not that his bones are broken in three different places or that one of his ribs has punctured his right lung and he can't really breathe. A flap of his scalp is ripped clean from his skull, hanging dejectedly over the side of his head. It's the slipperiness of the blood that draws his attention, not the pain.

He thinks he might be in shock. A kunai slips from his fingers when Shisui scoops him up none too gently and runs for the medic tent, and Itachi never finds it again. With that same kunai, he made his first kill. It didn't occur to him to deliberate when he saw the shinobi kneeling above the crying girl, pressing her legs open. He didn't stop to look at the man's uniform, to check his insignia, just snuck up behind him while he moved over her struggling body. Using no more stealth than what he'd been born with, he looked for the soft inlet at the base of the skull, slid his weapon in hilt-deep. It sank with surprising ease, the shinobi was dead before he realized what had happened. His body lurched a little, heaved over on top of the girl's stomach. She screamed, a high-pitched sound, a banshee sound, flailing her white arms. Her mouth gaped open: Itachi could see right down into her pink throat, the jumping shadow of the uvula. Before he could do anything to help her, a new round of explosions tore up from the distant, and his body flung itself instinctively under the wall. The sky fell on his head. He doesn't know if the girl survived the raid. He never sees her again.

"I thought you were a deaf-mute at first," Shisui will later confide. "When the medic had me hold you down so she could set your bones, you were so quiet I thought you were a deaf-mute. You bucked like a horse, but you never made a sound."

Itachi's version of events is slightly different. He remembers not in sequences, but in sharp, concise snatches. The stench of the medic tent, stewing in the unforgiving heat. The humming of the grimy bulb that doesn't shed enough light for such intricate operations. The cold, cold, cold of his body as the medic yells that he's bleeding out, they're losing him, somebody fetch the head surgeon and for god's sake where's the damn anesthesiologist, and if he's bucking it must be from the shakes, seismic, bone-wracking convulsions that drive his spine arching clean up off the ground. As his throat fills up with what are probably the first murmurs of a death rattle, he catches, out of the corner of his eye, one brief, precise flash frame of Shisui's nine-year-old face, pale and impossibly wide-eyed, a stripe of Itachi's blood smeared across his mouth.

-o-

It's inevitable that they would be friends after that, though Itachi doesn't know this right away. Peace comes in a whirlwind. Between the construction of the new compound and the relocation of the clan, the flash flood of people in and out of his life makes it easy to lose track of one. Then, some anonymous Monday, he returns from the market and enters the sitting room of his new home to the sight of Shisui's back, his boyish spine curved in a deep bow, legs folded beneath him in full seiza. "Thank you for your hospitality, Uncle and Auntie," Shisui says, head pressed flat against the tatami mat. "Please take good care of me."

It is then that Itachi learns the full extent of his good fortune. When they met, Shisui had already been an orphan for three hours and eleven days. Now he is a charity case, a ward of the clan. Shisui loses his family. Itachi gains a roommate. Maybe that was where it all started, he'll later reflect. His mind, ruthlessly methodical in its capacity for compartmentalization, has never made a mistake but once, and that was when it made the error of associating these two unrelated facts. That tinge of misplaced guilt is the culprit: it peeled open the edges of his skin for the fraction of a second it took for Shisui to slip into his bloodstream, where he has never left – where he lives still.

-o-

The first photo taken of Itachi is actually from that hazy period of newborn peace. A black and white of the recovery ward, it shows him sitting on a hospital cot, legs braced against the rusty railings, slightly pigeon-toed. Face in delicate profile. Brutal-looking scratches all down his arms, scabbed, idly picked. Swathes of bandages. The wall behind him is dingy, paint peeling. A high-definition work of speed flash and shutter control, artistic yet candid. In truth, it's a reaction shot: you can see in the photograph that his lips are tilted softly upward, as though amused by a comment someone's just made. A someone who might have been visible had the image not been cropped – but it was necessary to preserve subjective purity, to focus on the photogenic child-survivor. This picture is one in a series, organized for an exhibition commemorating the end of the war. Future students of history dissecting its sociological purpose will grapple with phrases like: 'the grim visage of war'; 'wrack and ruin of the body'; 'the resiliency of the human spirit in the wake of atrocities'. Captions provide a way for the viewers to orientate themselves, but it's the unwritten ones that speak the truth. Child Soldier Recovers From War Injuries. Concerned Cousin Cracks Bad Joke. Visualization Of A Nascent Friendship. A Crossing Of Fates.

-o-

Shisui's presence in his household means that there is someone around to sweep the yard, scrub the walkways, and cook dinner when Mikoto is occupied with the baby. Someone is there to fetch Fugaku his inks and paper, bring him his favorite tea and light the reading lamps in his study. But most importantly, his presence means that there is someone to monitor Itachi's kunai-throwing progress (he still aims high), to apply clumsy first-aid when taijutsu sessions get out of hand (pale skin bruises), and to explain to him the difference between trajectory and launch angle (one is converted to the values of the other). On his first day at the Ninja Academy, Itachi's father gets tied up in a meeting and cannot do the honor, so his ten-year-old cousin ends up being the one to clasp his hand and introduce him to his teachers, bowing politely and asking them to please take care of his young relative.

Itachi's matriculation ceremony is a single snapshot, sunny and overexposed. His face does not come out well, graded almost entirely into motion blur, as the camera has captured him in the act of looking over his shoulder. His dark hair and thin arms are about all that can be identified; only the photographer hired for the event will ever know that, in that instant, Itachi's face is caught in an awkward grin, the kind you have to be surprised into.

("I'm kind of like your servant," Shisui jokes once, hands clasped in front of his chest. "Please be kind to me, oujisama." This jest is never brought up again after Itachi rises silently from the dinner table and barricades himself in their room, refusing to emerge until late into the night, when Shisui has ceased pleading to be let in and basically fallen asleep against the door.)

Shisui's presence also means that there is someone to crawl into bed next to Itachi when he is dragged from sleep in the dead of night by violent paroxysms, glistening in the cold sweat of aftershock. He never recalls the contents of his nightmares. Possibly there are none. Nevertheless, they dog his heels, chase him into wakefulness bent-double and gagging, face-flushed, mouth gaping in a silent scream before the teeth-chatter sets in. Nights like that, the only way he can go back to sleep is with his torso wedged between the wall and Shisui's chest, their bodies crowded on his narrow bed. Knobby limbs lumped together like sacked fruits, going numb. Night after night, he falls asleep to Shisui's heartbeats, the sound of his voice shushing inane promises into Itachi's neck: "I'll fight them. Don't be scared. If they want you, they're gonna have to fight me. They're gonna have to fight me. Don't be scared. I'll fight them. Don't be scared."

Eventually, Shisui figures out that the only way to prevent Itachi from succumbing to his night terrors is to stem the ceaseless flow of his thoughts. Itachi doesn't know how the idea first entered his head, but now, after lights out, it's an open window laddering to the night sky. They take to the backstreets, then circle out into the semi-wild spaces that separate the village and its borderlines. For years to come, Itachi will remember that there's something in the quiet of the night air, something light and difficult to pin down, too vague to define, too real to dismiss. Fireflies scattered in constellations. A taste like pomegranate – one bite and you'll never go home again. For years to come, he will conflate the gentle press of the dark sky and the musk of summer grass with the reflected glimmer in Shisui's eyes, brighter, fuller, his easy smile carelessly flush with life. Now irrevocably tied to those rambling walks that leave him dew-wet and boneless. It ends in bed, with the sweep of Shisui's hands over his eyes – "No nightmares, okay?" – and just like that, he sleeps, dreamless.

-o-

After that first year, Itachi no longer has nightmares. He and Shisui graduate from the Academy with honors, and soon after, Shisui is sent to live with one of his distant relatives in another part of the compound. They are assigned to different Genin cells, and do not see each other as often. This is how Itachi finds himself watching Shisui with a kind of dogged awareness, fearful that if he doesn't, he will go into withdrawal. How can you know for certain that you can do without something you've always taken for granted? So he watches, takes Shisui in, saves up the details of him for later so he can live on them in times of dearth. He watches Shisui, and sees:

Shisui has, little by little, begun to change. His bones sprout a new geometry, rays and angles surfacing where before there were just the soft rounds of puppy fat. Elbows more acute. Sharp nose like a keen-edged knife. His long back evens out, broadens, a floodplain. One memorable summer, his body grows so fast inside his skin that Itachi actually closes his fingers around Shisui's shoulder one day just to map the shifting topography. He remembers tapping the inside of Shisui's wrist, asking, "Does it hurt?"

"Of course it doesn't hurt," Shisui says with a surprised laugh, and ruffles his hair. "You'll see when it's your turn."

Shisui, too, is growing in ways that have little to do with the physical. His star rises swift and far, outstripping the momentum with which they first fell across each other's skies. The missions he takes on become riskier and riskier; necessarily, the marginal returns of success are correspondingly great. He hopskotches his way up the ranks, quick and nimble, predatory grace. All speed: very apropos. He gains a name for himself, then two, then three – endless monikers gleaming like merit badges, gold stars. No longer the poor little orphan boy trotting behind the Clan Head's son carrying his lunchbox. Itachi doesn't mind, though. In fact, he's glad. The pride that flares and surges within him is so real and immediate that sometimes, when he turns to a stranger and says, "Yes, that's my brother," he forgets that it isn't true.

After that first year, Itachi no longer has nightmares, but about twice a week, he still rises from bed and follows Shisui out the bedroom window. He's so used to waking to the sight of Shisui flickering into his room that some nights, when the ritual is interrupted – say, when either of them is away on a mission – it's hard to sleep with only the dappled moonlight for company. It's also around this time that he realizes these walks are more for Shisui's sake than his. These changes in Shisui are somewhat less comforting. He frowns more, he smiles less, eyes always needled ahead, following some distant object that seems to be constantly moving out of reach. Itachi doesn't know what Shisui is looking for at the end of these aimless paths. Lonely roads are for lonely people, so at one point, he decides that this restlessness has arisen because Shisui is an orphan. Itachi is an orphan too, but he is an orphan of circumstance. His childhood was stolen by the war, and now even the people who are obligated to love him do not understand him. As such, he has acquired the air of orphans, the distinction and distance they're entitled to. He goes through all the orphaned motions, but he doesn't understand the motives.

One starless night, under the cover of the dense river fog, he turns to Shisui and asks, "How do you think your life would be different if your parents hadn't died?"

Shisui stares at him for a moment. Then he shakes his head, resignedly, and says, "No one but you would ask a question like that, seriously."

He lopes a little ahead, gazelle-like, landing easily on a river stone before looking back over his shoulder at Itachi. "I don't really think about it much, to be honest," Shisui goes on. "I'm content." His voice is guarded, as if he's afraid the admission will jinx it. "There's nothing wrong with my life. I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm alive. I have the clan. I have you."

"Is that enough?"

"I don't know. Do you think it is?"

Itachi frowns. That is a question he has yet to unravel. But he finds himself thinking, Maybe it is. Maybe in a world consisting of mostly ones, two is a perfectly adequate number. It certainly seems true enough when, at the end of each night, Shisui still reaches out with one hand and brushes the uncertainty from his eyelids, just before he crosses his fingers and fades into air.

-o-

At the age of ten, Itachi passes his Chuunin Exam. His parents are overjoyed. The clansmen are overjoyed. His brother, a tottering five-year-old yet to learn the feel of a kunai handle, would be overjoyed as well if he weren't sulking in understandable pique, having been shuffled into temporary abandonment as his family clamors over the latest development in his sibling's continued saga of brilliance. There is to be a celebration. The guest list is selectively extensive. The crème de la crème. The who's who. It has all the pomp and gravitas of a political statement.

None of it means a thing to Itachi, who's made a point of adding only one name to the list. This, he decides, is still dissatisfactory, so the day before the party, he goes to Shisui's house and delivers the invitation in person.

"Of course I'll be there," Shisui says brightly. "I'll come with bells on – you'd better not ignore me just because you're going to have so many other guests."

The next installment in a series of broken promises.

The evening parses in blur. Itachi ruins several photo ops, unable to tear his eyes from the door long enough to make contact with the camera. Eventually, he has to be pulled aside by his father, who explains about the extended post that's opened up in Kirigakure, very high-stake, requiring tremendous delicacy. This is the Village of the Bloody Mist, after all, still seething with prejudice against holders of kekkai genkai. Such a mission requires a candidate of the highest caliber, someone like, say, the ward of the Clan Head, gifted ninja, Jounin at fourteen, does Itachi understand? Itachi says yes, he understands. Itachi sips at his little cup of sake with dutiful ease. Itachi slips out in the middle of Fugaku's second round of toasts and navigates rooftops until he arrives at Shisui's house, entering his bedroom through the second-story window.

"You didn't come to my celebration," he states without preamble.

Shisui blinks at him widely, and without any comprehension. "The celebration…" he says uncertainly. "Right. Shouldn't you be over there right now?"

Itachi doesn't answer. He lets his eyes wander, scanning the room, taking in the disarray. Looking at Shisui, who apparently took his silence as cue to go back to trying to stuff more things into his traveling pack.

"Hey, do you want this scroll? I can't fit it in here—"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Shisui continues to struggle with his knapsack. "Well," he starts, "it was kind of short notice, you know?"

No, he doesn't know. "How long?"

At this, Shisui finally looks up. He works his mouth. Says, "Indefinitely."

A swell of current shivers through Itachi's body. He can't seem to put a name to it. "And when were you going to tell me?"

Shisui rises slowly to his feet. He makes his way over, and starts rearranging the collars of Itachi's kimono. "What's with all the questions?" he says softly. "Of course I was going to tell you." Fingers fluttering over Itachi's clavicles, smoothing over his tight-lipped displeasure. "I wanted to wait until the celebration was over. Didn't want to spoil the mood, that's all."

"It's dangerous."

"When is it not?"

"Do you really want to go?"

"It's not a matter of preference," says Shisui. "It's duty. They say jump, we say where's the trampoline. You know this."

"And there're absolutely no exceptions?"

"What do you mean?"

For years, Itachi will remember regretting what he's about to say. He will remember regretting not knowing how to take it back. Looking back, he will think, That was the beginning of the end.

"I mean that perhaps I'm not an exception either. Perhaps you really meant it when you said you were a servant. Perhaps all that you've done for me is just part of your duties to the clan."

The long slants of Shisui's eyes flare open in shock. His fingers still frozen around the dark, silky material of the kimono. Then he pulls them away, hitchingly, body jerking in tight bursts. He drops to the floor, and begins folding up a shirt with ruthless intent, halves, quarters, eighths.

"Go back to your party, Itachi," Shisui says coldly. "I have to finish packing."

There's nothing more to be said. Itachi leaves the same way he came. His face feels wet, cold when the wind hits it. It's not the photographs, he thinks. It's us. We're the living relicts of war.

-o-

Itachi's most vivid memory from the time of the Kyuubi's siege is walking through a battlefield empty of bodies. Instead, the vast expanse of fine black dirt is populated by whitish, man-shaped imprints in all manners of contortion depictable on a flat plane. A lash of demonic chakra can wipe out an entire battalion in the blink of an eye. The shockwave knocks them onto their backs, and then the heat obliterates their bodies – the skin peels off, the flesh melts, the bones instantly incinerate. Liquefaction, followed by evaporation. Their team leader tells them not to look, which Itachi thinks is rather pointless because the ground is so riddled with sharp debris and fallen weapons that they all have to watch where they're going, and with your eyes turned downward there's not much else to look at. A six-foot man of heavy build leaves behind only a film of white ash. Maybe a few dozen grams. Not enough to fill a burial urn.

Some of the other children are crying. The rest have a funny look on their faces, curiosity laced with nausea. Most are making barfing noises. Only one other is silent. A girl. Her name is Satori, about two years older than him. Their gazes meet a little as they walk. He notes that they have the same eyes. That night at camp, they end up on first watch together. Over the flickering light of the fire, Satori pulls out a crumpled color photograph and points to a smiling woman. "That's my mother." A young boy clinging to her arm. "My brother." Her voice is steady, matter-of-fact. "I came home from school one day, they weren't there. My whole street was burned down. In the front yard, there were these two shapes on the ground, just like back there. Like chalk drawings little kids make on the sidewalk." Itachi says, "It's not just demons that kill people." Satori nods, looks him dead in the eye. "Now, whenever I see something like that, I hate everybody."

-o-

"Are you going to come out and say goodbye, or do you plan on following me all the way to the Water Country?"

It's his first official morning as a Chuunin, and Itachi is crouching in the branches of a tree. It's early, the road out of the village half-hidden behind silver mist. He could be in bed. He could be training. He could be making preparations for his upcoming mission. He doesn't have to be here.

He certainly doesn't have to drop out of the tree and jog awkwardly up to face Shisui, who is watching him in expectation, head canted slightly. The morning fog is thick around them, condensing in pearly droplets on the shoulder flaps of Shisui's flak jacket.

"Shisui," he begins lamely. "Last night…"

"I've conveniently and totally forgotten all about it," Shisui says. "Now the real problem we have to address is, since I'm going to be gone for so long, how are we going to prevent you from forgetting about me?"

Itachi blinks. He doesn't know how they've slipped so smoothly away from the subject of his mean mouth to Shisui's weird maudlin tendencies. He's still trying to track the transition when Shisui steps forward, smiling wide and bold. "No, of course not," he whispers, and wraps himself around Itachi, warm, characteristically generous. "You'll never forget me."

His mouth brushes briefly against the skin of Itachi's neck, and he realizes that he hasn't felt that sensation for years, not since those nights when he slept with Shisui's body folded over his, forcing down the tremors. All too soon, it is gone, and then Shisui is pulling back. Slowly, he reaches up, swipes the palm of his hand over Itachi's eyes. Their personalized farewell.

"No nightmares, okay?" Shisui says. Mouth quirked. Eyes soft. He shoulders the heavy knapsack, and continues, "Now chin up. I'll be back lickety-split."

As he stands by the side of the road watching Shisui disappear into the white fog, Itachi wonders to himself if this is all that they will ever amount to, maybes and impossible promises. The middle way is long, and even though Shisui seems to have a destination in mind, Itachi has never seen it. Without Shisui to lead the way, he doesn't think he ever will.

-o-

He tells himself that he won't miss Shisui too much. No one can say that he doesn't give it his best. But in the world of two, one is only half, and for those first few weeks, Itachi cannot help but feel like he's only half a person, chopped clean down the middle and left to hobble through life on one ungainly leg. Eventually, he decides that this notion is a fallacy. This is not amputation, but mitosis, a separation that allows for growth. By and by, he stops living incompletely, and just lives. It's easier than he thought. Life goes on, following its own blithe rhythm, and other things come up that demand his attention. By the time Shisui's first letter reaches him, Itachi is surprised to find that almost three whole months have passed.

-o-

Did you know that they throw dead people into the sea in Kiri? It's true! The mountainous terrain makes it hard to find burial grounds, and there aren't enough trees around to build funeral pyres, so most of the time the corpses just get tossed into the water. Better be careful if you ever decide to visit, these are some of the most haunted seas in the world. Shisui, April 2nd.

-o-

The months eat at his old life in great, eager bites. Nearly half a year rolls by, and Sasuke is old enough to attend the Ninja Academy. Up until now, his brother has always been something abstract, less tangible – a pinkish, oddly wrinkled baby or a chubby, babbling toddler is easily accounted for, explained away, categorized. Harder when he's this frightfully energetic kid hopping all over the place, clinging to Itachi's shirttail, gazing up at him with intelligent eyes, unabashed adoration swimming in their wide, glossy sockets. Sasuke: feisty, affectionate, moody, tender, sullen, bright, is unwittingly engaged in a quest to overcome his brother's defenses, and making short work of them. The idea of him is coming together spectacularly. Filling out. Gaining substance. No longer content with pure abstraction.

It takes Itachi a long time to identify the feeling that he has for Sasuke, and when he does, he realizes with quiet astonishment that it is: love.

It must have been building up inside him for quite some time now, but nevertheless, catches him by complete surprise. In all his life, he's never known that love could be this easy, that love could be effortless. What he knows of love is the heavy weight in his chest, the carefully-held burden, but this, this is something else entirely. It's as though there's an emptiness inside him, and Sasuke is moving in, chasing out the shadows. After awhile, when he looks at his brother's smiling face, it's easy to forget he's ever known anything but this.

In his third month at the Academy, Sasuke doesn't come home from school one afternoon. Itachi tears through the village looking for him, skips meals, misses debriefings, ignores mission orders, leaves no stone unturned. One sleepless night later, he finds his brother at the bottom of a ravine in the wood behind the school, face spattered with dirt. An ill-advised solo training session is to blame for this predicament. Other than a twisted ankle and a spray of red insect bites, he's no worse for wear, but nevertheless, Itachi could have cried with relief. He thinks, This is it. This is what love feels like. Unobligated. Unbidden. A revelation of this scale cannot be kept to oneself. It is imperative that he shares it with the only other person who might understand.

The response he receives is like a slap to his face.

Be careful. It's not a good idea to place your brother on a pedestal that he's never even asked for. Shisui, December 5th.

The anger that spins out from inside of Itachi tastes of bile and acid. It frustrates him. He almost snaps the pen in half trying to write his reply. Thousands of miles in between, but he's itching for a fight. How dare Shisui try to dictate the terms of Itachi's love for his brother? Shisui, who has walked away from the only thing he claimed to have. How dare he? What does he know?

But Shisui's returning letter proves that he is, indeed, the only one who understands.

Don't be angry. I only meant to say that your feelings for Sasuke are characterized by the fact that you associate him with peace. In a way, he symbolizes the part of your life that's untouched by the war. You've seen how loss can change people. Sasuke doesn't know that. You and him are not made of the same stuff. If he has a nightmare, you can tell him to go whisper it to the nanten bush first thing in the morning so it won't come true, and he'll believe you. He's never dreamed of things that have already happened. Shisui, January 8th.

Itachi sits on the roof of his house in the frigid night, Shisui's letter crushed in one fist. Nothing but the empty hush of the winter air all around him. It's late and his toes and fingers have gone numb; it wouldn't stand to get sick the night before a mission. He rubs absently at his arms. The sweater he's wearing is loose around his shoulders, unraveling. Warm. Clean. It smells of safety, of belonging.

Whenever I see something like that, I hate everybody.

Sasuke must never come to know that feeling, Itachi decides. His eyes will never know that look, the look dead of surprise. He'll do everything in his power to shield his brother from it. This is what love feels like, he thinks again, and this time, the thought fills him with resolution, but also – a strange kind of loneliness. When he looks up at the star-freckled sky overhead, he can almost hear Shisui's voice, determinedly patient as always, speaking to him from across the wide ocean.

My brother in arms. My friend in isolation.

-o-

Happy Valentine's Day. Thought you might want to know, I've developed a new jutsu. Shisui, February 14th.

-o-

Even if Shisui's letter fails to elaborate on the details, Itachi ends up hearing all about his new technique anyway.

The tales of his exploits brave their way back to Konoha on the wings of seabirds, of the salt-tainted easterly wind. Did you hear about the young emissary of the Uchiha? Did you hear what he can do? What inventive spirit. What groundbreaking genius. While the world sits enthralled, Itachi is left to trace the pathology of this development, and finds that it fills him with dissonance. He remembers – though sometimes it feels like he's the only one who does – the fighting styles Shisui used to favor, and he knows what Shisui is about. Speed. More specifically: motion. Bursts of kinetic energy. Exterior. His new technique, in contrast, is all about the interior. The closest and most appropriate analogy is holding down one's breath, pushing and pushing that bubble of air lower until it burns in your chest, hot and arid, numbing the entire thoracic cavity in a process not unlike cauterization. That is what a mind technique does. It compresses. Every passing second is one you must count until you can breathe again.

It's not that he doesn't approve. He just finds it somewhat out of character. Disquieting.

I have to admit, I'm surprised. I'd have thought you, of all people, would understand. It is a truth we must all come to accept that bodies are fallible. Bodies can be broken, destroyed, exposed and dismantled, laid bloody and bare for all to observe. The last frontier to conquer is the mind. In fact, I believe that the human mind is the only truly eternal thing in this world. Shisui, June 9th.

PS: Happy birthday. Your gift should arrive by courier post shortly.

Whatever Itachi's feelings on the matter, he has learned to keep them to himself. Even if he doesn't, it's not like anyone wants to hear it. As reports both official and anecdotal fly through the door of the Military Police headquarters, so rises Shisui's reputation with the clan, and all of a sudden, it's as if there's not enough of him to go around. Yes, Itachi has read Shisui's latest report. No, he doesn't know if Shisui will be coming back for a visit. Yes, he will pass on their best wishes in his next letter. The tune everyone sings these days, you'd think they're all starting to regret sending Shisui so far from home. It's a little too late for that, Itachi thinks, gazing at his father over the dinner table.

But after that one year, all the news comes to a stop.

Itachi would be tempted to think that something has happened to Shisui, if not for the fact that he still receives letters from him. Since Shisui makes a point not to bring up the matter, he has never seen fit to ask. The mission reports still arrive at the Police's headquarters at regular intervals, clockwork. These, too, Itachi pores over obsessively, but finds in them nothing of interest, no telltale signs of disturbance. For some reason or other, everyone has suddenly stopped talking about Uchiha Shisui's invincible eye technique. Deductive reasoning suggests that he has ceased to use it. It's simple as that, which means of course that it isn't at all.

-o-

Thanks for the birthday wish. You know, I've been spending a lot of time thinking lately, and I'm starting to understand the nature of the weakness of our clan. It's like a tumor that's been growing in our flesh for many decades. For the sake of our future, it must be autopsied and examined, and eradicated with haste. By means of microscopic observation, we can extract the cancerous body that's been eating away at our legendary strength, and from that foundation, arise upon the ruins. Shisui, September 7th.

-o-

Once, they sparred with kunai and shuriken. Fists, elbows, knees. Illusions and dirty tricks. Now, they spar with words, wielding ideas in clumsy articulations that never come close to approximating the grace they make of the killing art.

While there are always two sides to everything, there is no 'good' side or 'bad' side. There is only 'us' and 'them'. And then there is 'you'. You are either with us, or with them. For or against. Shisui, September 24th.

Shisui has never been much of an ideologue, but he writes now in the tongue of one who has wrestled with the interlocking layers of the universe and come out on the other side clutching their bare, glistening remains. Such an evolution is impossible in such a meager amount of time, and that is a mystery that Itachi wants to take and split to the bone. After all these years, he's still trying to map the distance from A to B, and it was hard enough before with Shisui-the-orphan, Shisui-the-zealot-for-duties. Now, it's Shisui-the-philosopher, Shisui-the-dojutsu-scholar. The most troubling part of all is that his so-called beliefs starkly mirror those that many of the clan's elders are beginning to espouse – and yet, at the same time, seem to oppose them.

For example, Fugaku says one day: For too long we have been trampled upon by those who appointed themselves leaders of this village. It's time we took back what is rightfully ours.

And Shisui writes: Things, as they are, cannot stand. A change is in order – but whether it will come in the form of a fire or a flood remains to be seen. To change is to conquer.

So Itachi asks: What of history?

History is written by the victors. History can be revised.

You are speaking in the language of tyrants.

No, I am speaking in the language of gods.

The devil is in the details. These ideas – ideals, really – cannot possibly be Shisui's own. It's as if someone has cracked open his skull and tipped them into his head. Someone has changed the axis around which Shisui spins, and the very thought makes Itachi want to reach one hand across the sea, grip his best friend by his shoulder blade and redraw his wayward ley lines. He wants to counterstrike, give back as good as he gets, but every effort he makes feels more futile than the last. He's a genius of the blade, not of words – and even if he could fight Shisui, he couldn't fight the ghost of him. For lack of a fulcrum, he can't overcome that handicap.

On the first day of spring, Itachi enters his father's office at the Military Police headquarters as a Chuunin of the Leaf. Two hours later, he emerges a traitor.

He goes home and pulls out the box housing all of Shisui's letters. By this time, they aren't writing as often, and his last letter is dated some three months prior. It consists of one line.

They are treading the path leading to their own doom.

He's been telling himself that he would reply when he's ready, but it's now apparent that he never will be. They've fallen out of sync. Somewhere along the A-to-B line, they have lost each other's hands in the merciless sea of semantics. Shisui speaks now in glossolalia, and Itachi's tongue cannot slide around the syllables.

He can hear the front door sliding open. Momentarily, his brother stumbles into the sitting room, schoolbag tipping to the floor in an ungraceful heap.

"Nii-san, you're home," Sasuke says excitedly. "Can you help me with my kunai throwing today?"

Itachi squeezes the pen between his fingers, snug like the handle of a knife, and lets the tip dangle above the blank page. He thinks of chalk-colored imprints, burnt into the earth. He thinks of the mission he's about to undertake. He thinks he might be outgrowing Shisui. The only thing that bothers him is how little he's bothered by it.

"Nii-san?"

"Yes, Sasuke," he says, laying the pen aside. "I will be right there."

-o-

The last known photograph of Itachi is from his ANBU initiation ceremony. This time, he is looking directly into the camera, white light pooled in the rounds of his dark irises like little crescent moons. It is said that every photograph captures a moment of someone's consciousness, and whatever the photographer saw through his viewfinder that day must have gripped him in a stark and direct seizure, compelling him to expose his negatives right at that exact instant, so that this particular expression, no other, was imprisoned for all time on a square of eight-by-ten cut film. Uchiha Itachi. Boxed-in. Caught.

-o-

Three weeks after his thirteenth birthday, Itachi is sitting in the ANBU headquarters with a sheaf of files four inches thick on the desk before him. He hasn't been home in two days, and now, with five stacks of mission reports filled out and mountained impeccably around him, he's running out of excuses. Paperwork is neutral territory; these days, dotting I's and crossing T's is the only time he feels remotely like a human being, and not some kind of buffer state, a tenuous strip of land existing solely for the strategic purpose of maintaining the power balance between two warring nations. He flips through the files in his hands. Reconnaissance reports from all over the continent – prolonged drought in western Oto decimates crops; religious protests in Iwa brutally subdued; the economy of Kusa teetering on the edge of meltdown; a volcanic eruption in northern Kumo kills thousands; death toll in Suna rising. Other people's problems. In theory, reading about them is supposed to remind him that terrible things are happening elsewhere in the world as well, that he isn't the only one sitting under a sky threatening to collapse.

It never really works.

He turns another page – and here's something interesting. Recent decisions made by Yondaime Mizukage Yagura stir further doubts among noble class. The content of the report itself is irrelevant: it's the postmark that catches his attention. Kirigakure. An ocean seems to roll over him then. A sense of incredible loss, incongruent, unexplainable.

-o-

The expedition to one of the outer Kiri islands is only a ruse. They wrap up a day early, and Itachi leaves his squad behind to indulge in whatever meager sport they can find – liquor, gambling, women – while he takes a ferry to the main island. He's sent a message ahead. Standing on the deck watching the landmass of Kiri emerge from the fog, stranded in the lonely navel of the sea, he wonders if it might have been a better idea not to announce his arrival.

The first thing he sees stepping off the boat is Shisui's face, mummified in rolls of white gauze. All that's visible are his mouth, left eye, and one blotchy yellow-green cheek. His arm is broken, held at an unnatural angle inside a clumsy-looking cast, and something must show on Itachi's face then, surprise or concern or both, because Shisui immediately explains, "I had a run-in with Kiri hunter-nin."

"Why would they attack you?" Itachi asks.

"Just a misunderstanding," Shisui says. Something evasive in his demeanor. "Anyway, this isn't that bad, it just looks that way. You should see the other guy. I could have done much worse."

Intellectually that may be true, but nonetheless, Itachi finds himself wondering how it can get any worse. The problem isn't that the bandage around Shisui's head is so old and poorly wrapped that the side of it is caked in thin, brackish pus, or even that his skin seems paler than the curdled watercolor sky above their heads, paper-thin, blue veins showing through. The problem is the boy who walked away from Itachi that morning in the fog is standing right in front of him, almost perfectly preserved, with only minor alterations – and none of them of the good kind. Shisui is sixteen now, almost seventeen, but he stands scantly half a head taller than Itachi, who's just barely scraped past the threshold of adolescence. He's filled out a little, but the effect is so minimal that it actually makes him look reduced. Even the flak jacket he's wearing appears to be the same one he'd left Konoha in, now ill-fitted, worn and faded at the shoulders.

Shisui gives him an appraising look. "You don't look good, kiddo," he concludes, and slots one bony knuckle playfully into the hollow of Itachi's eye socket. "What've you been up to, huh?"

"I could ask you the same question," Itachi says.

"I have good reasons. What's your excuse?"

"Living."

"Living," Shisui repeats, and closes his eyes in a rueful smile. "Yeah. Living."

Silence slices in between them. There's a thin light straining down from the sky, filtered through cheesecloth clouds. "Let's not talk here," Shisui says. "Come on, I know a place we can go."

That's how they end up out on the spiral jetty, a deceptively simple arrangement of brown, lichen-churned rocks spinning out into blue, shoaling water. Shisui, who has always had a knack for searching out seldom-trod paths, likes to keep his shortcuts to himself. As they walk, he keeps glancing over his shoulder, peering cautiously into the thickening mist.

"What are you looking for?"

"Nothing. Just – I don't want us to be overheard."

Overheard by whom? "Why the need for such precautions?"

"There's been a bit of unrest in Kiri recently," Shisui says. "Apparently, there's a rumor going around that the Mizukage is being controlled by some outside influence." He pauses, gives a short, fragmentary laugh. "Crazy, huh?"

There it is again, that awkward flutter of evasiveness. His words are coated in the slick-sweet nectar of secrets. Not that Itachi's one to talk. Still, the shimmer of it seems to hide between Shisui's lips, peeking out at the parted edge, and Itachi has a strange thought that if he were to press his own lips there, right at that intricate corner, it would slip right into his mouth.

The rock pier is a tricky spot, nestled on a cluster of treacherous sand dunes. Surrounded by a stagnant sea, still as glass. The mist is too dense now to see much of the surrounding, and if you stand very still and look carefully out the corner of your eye, you can see little balls of white light flickering behind the haze. Soul lights. Haunted waters.

"So," Shisui begins, "they're really going to go through with it, then?"

"How much of it do you know?"

"The barebones gist. Can't be too explicit in long-distance correspondence, right? Letters can be intercepted. But I know that much. I know it's bad."

"And how do you feel about the situation on the whole?" Itachi asks. He likes the steadiness of his voice, clipped and smooth. Immaculately deceitful.

"It's hard to say," Shisui replies. He looks over his shoulder again, before saying, "Everything is riding so much on outcomes of things that haven't panned out in any particular way yet. But I don't really have to tell you that, do I?"

Peripherally, Itachi is aware that Shisui didn't actually answer the question he asked.

"In a way," Shisui goes on, "I'm almost glad not to be home."

Itachi frowns. None of this is unfolding the way he expected it to. He expected – well, he expected the person who's been writing him incomprehensible letters. He expected loud, blustery words, the kind he's become accustomed to hearing at clan meetings, fanatical ideologies that would tear them to pieces. But no. Just him. Just Shisui, something too real for categorization, a conglomerate, a chimera with his head tilted and smile slow. He's lost that soft, tinny glow that used to trace the edges of his outline, but it lives still in the dark of his eyes, rich and full and easy, and for a moment, Itachi wants to sun himself in its warmth.

"Is something wrong?" Shisui asks, frowning a little. "I know a little about your assignment. Are you going to be okay? Do you need my help with anything?"

I could ask you the same question, Itachi thinks again, looking at the mottled bruise on Shisui's cheekbone. His heart feels heavy, stretched tight in his chest.

"No, I didn't come here to speak with you about that."

"Then why did you come?"

He presses his mouth together, worries his bottom lip. Now that he's come this far, he is hesitant. Once you say it, there's no coming back. Doubts rise like sourdoughs in his mind, fermenting. Perhaps he is not the only one Shisui has been writing to, and come to think of it, they haven't been writing at all, have they? Who knows what secret mission reports Itachi hasn't been privy to these past months? He hasn't been keeping track, has long lost his place on the A-to-B line.

In the last three years, Itachi has learned to unravel the chronology of his infatuation, and this is the conclusion he's come to: Shisui is not his idol. He is not some gilded star on a foggy morning, so near yet infinitely far away. Maybe he was never meant to be. He is, however, beginning to think that Shisui might be his paramour, someone whose painted portrait is meant to be carried around in a secret golden locket, maybe with a woven knot of hair – treasured and dear. This is love, but not the kind where you know for certain you'd walk through fire for the other person. This is a selfish kind of love, a love that asks for something back. A love that can know betrayal.

The problem with paramours is that they are never quite as beautiful in reality as in one's thoughts.

"Is there something you want to tell me, Itachi?"

The tide is coming in fast now, smashing against the side of the pier and leaving trails of frothy sprume. The rock pools are choked with rubbery shreds of sea wrack, floating like old orange peels in the wash. The guts of the water churning restlessly. A storm gathering.

"I don't really know why I've come," he says honestly.

"So this isn't a social call? You haven't missed me, then?"

There are things he wants to say to Shisui, things about double lives and exhaustion, things about politics, about fear and worry and loneliness. Things about foreign ideas, about ruined tongues and an ache that won't leave. Instead, he reaches up and sweeps his hand over Shisui's eyes.

That's about all it takes. Language is a failure. I. You. Yes. No. Love. Hate. Useless signifiers. No amount of cheap words from his lips can coax the smile out of Shisui like that, sifting aside the faint debris of separation to reveal the pulse underneath. He misses Shisui – of course he still misses Shisui. He's the only thing Itachi's ever needed to long for. He learned how to long for things just to miss Shisui. They're now nearly eight years away from those summer nights among the fireflies, but from time to time, the heat and levity of those days can reach even this far. That night, when Shisui carefully takes him into the cradle of his body, it seems as though all the long years have suddenly been converted into negative time, the distance between A to B contracted to finger-lengths, spatial nothingness. It's easy to give in to that illusion if it means prolonging for just an instant the shivery brush of Shisui's lips across his top vertebrae – soft pressure, warm against the cold, rain-drenched night.

But the reality is that the smile Shisui gave him that day was only an echo of the brightness he used to love. The reality is that you can't stop entropy, and the both of them have, for whatever reasons, mastered the art of disappearing into their bones. Not even the press of skin to skin can change that. As he lies awake listening to Shisui shift and sigh in sleep, their fingers still interlaced, Itachi realizes that the hollow ache of longing is with him still. He misses Shisui more right at this moment than when he'd just left Konoha, back when he thought he'd never be done with missing Shisui.

He thinks he will always miss Shisui now.

-o-

The next morning, Shisui sees him off. As his boat pulls out of the harbor, Itachi stands at the gunwale and watches Shisui's thin silhouette blur and recede into the distant. It's a rare clear day in Kirigakure, the sky pale and wide open overhead, and as the sea pours distance between them, Itachi allows himself a brief illusion of simplicity. In this snapshot, his best friend is just a boy in the breeze, stenciled against the enormous clouds. Perhaps it is better this way, he thinks. With Shisui hidden away on that island behind the mist, it will be one less choice he will have to make. He sails home, leaving Shisui with only a bruise on his neck to forget him by.

-o-

When the order comes down for the elimination of the Uchiha clan, Itachi does exactly five things, and they are, in order: bowing to the Hokage; nodding to Danzou; saying goodbye to Mamiya at the front desk; walking into the heart of Konoha's forest; and dropping to his knees in the dirt as he screams a deep rending primal animal scream, a scream that sends birds scattering out of the treetops over his head and rips a hole in the fabric of the universe that sucks everything into its void, a void with so much density not even light can escape because it is the remnant of a brilliant star that has died, the result of gravitational collapse during a supernova event. Afterward, he sinks into the forest ground, gasping, spitting, clawing soil and dead leaves between shaking fingers, and he doesn't know if it's the scream or the sound of his heart rolling like thunder in his chest – just that something inside him must have been shaken loose, freed to plead its way across the ocean, because the very next day, he receives a letter.

I'm coming home.

-o-

One day, it will occur to Itachi that he has all this time been standing at a crossroads. He is frozen in a state of inertia, waiting for someone to come along and shove him into the next phase of his life. As such, he has no one but himself to blame for what is about to come to pass.

-o-

Shisui's homecoming, unlike his departure, is heralded as a special occasion. The Exile is ended. The Good Son has returned. The first thing he does upon arriving in Konoha is not going to see Itachi, but to deliver a report to the Military Police. After that, he seems to vanish off the face of the Earth. In the mean time, Itachi is left to document the slow process of his entire world crumbling piece by piece around him. He spends all his waking hours stalking the grounds of the ANBU headquarters, reading reports, filing papers, drawing inane patterns on reconnaissance maps over and over, as if these are the skills that matter, the skills he will need to save everyone, to make everything right, which is in itself is a ridiculous notion.

Three days later, however, Shisui appears on his doorstep.

"Hey," he says, acting for all the world like the flow of their conversation has never been interrupted. "Do you have some time? I wanted to see you."

"We were bound to see each other at the meeting tonight," Itachi says, and is surprised by how scathing he sounds. Nevertheless, he's a bit gratified to see Shisui flinch.

"Itachi," Shisui says quietly. "Come on."

Immediately, the anger seeps out of him, replaced by a nauseous rush of guilt. Just because the world is ending is no reason to be undeservingly cruel, he thinks miserably. Life is hurting him, and he wants to hurt it right back, but this is the wrong fight.

"Walk with me."

That's all we ever do, Itachi thinks. The sense of disquiet in him growing and undulating, pressing up against his skin in an effort to escape. Two months have passed since they last saw each other, and even though Shisui seems to have recovered from his injuries, he looks worse now than ever. There are dark grottoes in his cheeks, under his eyes, all the places where the tide of his flesh has pulled out. His body a shrine to waste, emaciated and ironed-flat. If they could have just a moment to themselves, Itachi thinks he would like to peel off Shisui's clothes and examine the unseen elements of his metamorphosis, what withdrawing abdomen, what protruding hips, what ribcage cutting clear outlines that are yet invisible to him. Bones creak wearily under his pale, rustling skin when Shisui moves, and walking beside him, Itachi is suddenly possessed by the old urge to touch his shoulder, to ask him if it hurts.

He's almost afraid that this time around, the answer might be, "Yes."

(And years later, when his body too is drawing thin and dry, tightening the rope around itself, Itachi will wonder if this atrophy is merely the result of some painstaking process that has taken place in the laboratory of his mind, recreating a replica in flesh from pure visual memory. Sympathy pains – almost a decade too late.)

They find themselves on the bank of the Nakano, green water rushing silently past. It's a revoltingly beautiful day, the breeze soft and weightless, cicadas trilling all around, bidding summer goodbye. The sunlight that streams luxuriously from the sky spills along the edges of Shisui's face, following the sharp bone of his temple and jaw. His cheeks metallic in the glare.

"You must be wondering why I came back."

Itachi digs his teeth into his lip, and says nothing, watching Shisui's fingers twitching slowly like little sticks, lacing and unlacing in front of his chest.

"The truth is, I've been summoned," Shisui says. His voice has a dry, brittle texture, crackling leaves, paper catching on fire. "Your father's decided to move forward with the next phase of the plan, and the clan needs all the manpower they can get."

Shisui wets his parched lips nervously, and then goes on, "They're on to you, Itachi. They told me to watch you – I think that's the real reason I've been called back. They want me to find out what you're going to do." He stops, gives a dry little snort. "As if I don't know already."

And Itachi thinks, That's it, then. Shisui knows. Perhaps this is an arrest, or perhaps Shisui will try to persuade him not to go through with it. What surprises him the most is that he could probably succeed. After all, he has never learned to deny Shisui.

Instead, Shisui says, "You want to be the one to do it, don't you?"

Yes. Yes and no. He needs – he needs time to deliberate, but time runs through his fingers like rainwater. Summer days get shorter the older you grow. He looks up, and sees Shisui watching him intently. His face is so gaunt, the skin of his cheeks stretched so far back that his mouth doesn't quite close and you can almost see a sliver of teeth between his open lips. The skull beneath emerging, slowly, sinisterly.

"But you can't do it alone. Not as you are."

"What are you trying to say?"

"There is a man," Shisui says quietly. "If you can call him that. I've been working for him."

This, he will remember, is the moment when Shisui reveals the identity of the invisible opponent Itachi has been battling for the last three years.

"Time was, I thought he was the answer, the true way to life," Shisui says. His voice is no longer raspy: now brute, flat. "I know better now, though. What I'm saying to you is: you can accept his help, but you can't trust him. Are you listening to me? You must never, ever trust him."

Before Itachi can formulate any kind of response, Shisui sucks in a pained breath, and says, "I left without telling him. He's away right now, out of the country, and I don't think he knows I've left Kiri yet, but when he finds out, he'll come. He won't come for me, I'm less than useless to him now. He'll come – but not until after I'm gone. Do you understand? Do you understand?"

No, he doesn't understand. He says as much. He says, "What do you mean 'after you're gone'?"

And this, he will always remember, is the moment when Shisui tells him about the Mangekyou Sharingan.

-o-

Here is a dream he has never remembered:

He dreams that he's still buried under the fallen wall, and no one comes along to dig him out of the rubble for a long time. He waits in darkness and pain, waits for what seems like an eternity, until finally, they uncover him. But instead of treating his injuries, they bring his body to the edge of a mass grave, and ignoring his screaming protests, throw him into that gaping maw. The stench of waste and rot is unbearable. Bodies upon bodies, eyes upon black, bulging eyes. If he still had any water in his body, his eyes would tear. If he still had any food in his stomach, he would vomit.

It takes nearly a full day before he manages to claw himself out of the deep trench, and by then, it's high noon, the sun beating ruthlessly down on his blistered back. The landscape is terrifyingly flat under that seething sky. A carrion crow lands nearby. It is waiting to eat him. With the last scrap of his strength, he hurls a rock at it, but the bird doesn't fly away. It is waiting for him to die, and suddenly, the idea seems awfully tempting.

Then, he hears a dry, crunching noise, footsteps moving slowly across the desiccated earth. Someone is approaching. A man. The crow takes flight, fleeing into the sky with a screeching caw. He can't see all of the man's face – the sun is in his eyes – but he can just make out the shine of the teeth, gleaming like glazed ceramic when the lips pull back into a narrow smile.

In the dream, Itachi hears himself say, "I'm thirsty. Can you give me some water?"

And an ageless voice answers, "Yes, I'm going to give you water."

The man bends to his knees. The shadow glances, and his eyes catch the sunlight, shattering into chips of broken glass. Geometric shapes. In his hand, he is holding a cup out to Itachi.

"Drink," the man says. "Drink and go."

He takes the cup gratefully, but inside, it isn't water. It's blood, filled to the brim.

"Drink," the man says again. "Drink your brother's blood and go."

Itachi lifts the cup to his cracked lips. He drinks.

-o-

"You have to do it," Shisui says at first. "You will need the strength to carry out the order."

Then he says, "You're stronger than me. You can do it. It'll be just like that time in the medic tent, remember? Back then, you just endured the pain without making a sound. I was scared out of my mind, and it wasn't even me under the knife. I was never as strong as you."

And when that doesn't work, he tries, "What is it to you anyway? I'm just one more body for you to throw on the pile," which nearly succeeds in making Itachi break his jaw.

"If you don't do it, I'll join them. I'll take part in the coup. I'll – I'll turn you in to the police."

"Shisui."

"Do it for Sasuke," Shisui says finally, a drowning man clutching to his last lifeline. "You're doing this for him, remember? Do it – do it for Sasuke."

Itachi feels his hands ball into fists at his sides. "You're my brother, too," he says through gritted teeth. It's the truth – it was true then, it's true now, and it will always be true. He doesn't get why Shisui doesn't get that. He wants to claw his hands into Shisui's shirt, bite the words into his mouth, write the understanding into him with tongue and teeth. It's as if they've slipped into some kind of fucked up parody. Shisui is forcing Itachi, who has been tasked with killing him, to plead for Shisui's life from himself. It's almost enough to make him hate Shisui, and a part of him wishes that he would, that he could, longing for the way that hatred simplifies things.

"It doesn't matter anyway," Shisui says, hoarse. "I don't have much time left."

"What are you talking about?" Itachi says. Despite the late summer heat, something cold slides down the back of his neck, chilling, refusing to fade. Shisui's teeth flash white in a dreadful grimace, and Itachi realizes, sick to his stomach, that he might be trying to smile.

"You always loved being right," Shisui says hollowly. "Would it please you to hear that you were right all along?"

"Right about what?"

"My mind technique. The invincible jutsu. You were right. I shouldn't have used it. I should never have invented it to begin with."

Itachi narrows his eyes. "But you've stopped using it."

"No," Shisui says with a halting, shaky laugh. "No, no, no, I haven't. On the contrary, I've been using it every day – oh god – every single day. You can't even imagine, you can't, you can't. All those thoughts, all those thoughts I stole – I was so stupid. I never wondered, never even thought about where they would go."

Without warning, he lurches forward and grabs Itachi by his wrists, presses both of Itachi's hands flat to his clammy temples. "They're in here, Itachi," Shisui says feverishly. "They're all crowded together, compressed into a ball. I can feel it growing, getting bigger every day. It presses against my brain, makes my head heavy. I can't eat, I can't sleep – some days, I can barely form thoughts of my own."

It's too much to take in at once. The knife-sharp mind he's always been so proud of deserts him. He can't identify the feeling inside him: shock, rage, nausea, or perhaps a mixture of all three. In front of his face, Shisui's lashes flutter rapidly, the movement reminding Itachi oddly of a wasp trapped inside a jar. He thinks that he can almost hear the sound of the insect throwing itself against the glass of its prison – thump, thump, thump – but no, that's just the sound of his heart slamming against the inside of his chest, louder than a drumbeat.

"I'm tired," Shisui whispers. His lips almost unmoving, the words breathed out through the narrow crack between them. "I'm so tired. Help me, Itachi. I want it to end."

Enough. That's enough, he's had enough of this farce. He wrenches his wrists back with such force that Shisui stumbles backward and almost loses his balance. The feeling inside him is nameless and formless, but there's no stopping it or bottling it or quelling it, and he doesn't want to. He wants to uncork its power. He wants to scream at Shisui that he's wrong, he's out of his mind, that thoughts can't kill people and if he wants proof then Itachi will be happy to smash his skull open and show him that there's nothing in there but cerebrospinal fluid and a pink, mangled brain, all 1300-odd grams of it, mixed with shattered bone chips. He'll do it, and that would at least solve one of his problems, wouldn't it? So he opens his mouth to say just that, only not a single noise comes out. Trapped. He feels trapped. Trapped by his body, trapped by his family, trapped by this horrible world that makes no sense, that kicks you in the teeth when you're down.

He takes a step back, wild with panic, but Shisui just follows him, falling, falling, falling into Itachi's space.

"Lift this burden from me," Shisui pleads, his voice a ragged gravel, scraping out of his dry throat. "Lift this burden from me, and I will lift yours."

Shisui's so close now all Itachi can see of his face are the pale lids of his eyes and the dark lashes quivering against his cheeks. His breaths are hot and shallow on Itachi's skin, and for a moment all the blood in his veins almost ceases to circulate – but then those slanted eyes are snapping open, red and black, red and black, and Itachi feels as if something's struck him full in the throat, something hard and fast and with deadly aim. The air squeezes itself out of him, and all he can hear is a softly whispered, "Forgive me," as Shisui flickers from sight for the last time.

-o-

The only reason the police's accusation angers him is because it's preposterous. He wants to take a wrecking ball to their fallacies, tear gaping holes into their assumptions, chop their lies to pieces. Murder. Murder presupposes motive and premeditation. No murderer in the history of the world has ever shuddered to consciousness on a riverbank with wet clothes and burning eyes welling up with blood. No murderer has felt the muscles of their hands seizing in echo of an involuntary action. No murderer has ever retched in revulsion at the sense memory of thumbs pressing down on a thin windpipe, forearms braced against the delicate bumps of bone at the base of a pale neck. No murderer.

Preposterous.

Despite losing half an hour's worth of memory, Itachi knows immediately what Shisui – what he has done. The jutsu has suppressed all details of the act, but they live still in the deep recesses of his mind. Shisui might have wanted to spare him the memory, but he couldn't spare him the knowledge – or maybe that was the point. When that realization hits Itachi, the world stills on its axis. Even the wind has stopped blowing. The Nakano's bank is a two-tonal landscape, the sunlit reaches of it so vast, so much land all around. The only sound is that of the cicadas humming their funeral elegy as his heart tries to lift itself out of his chest, pounding into his bones so hard that if he heard another sound it would be that of his ribcage cracking, and it would be loudest sound he has ever heard, resounding all the way across the river. Bones break the same way that friendships do, the only difference being that one set mends and the other doesn't.

Half an hour, give or take. Not long enough even for an afternoon nap. Half an hour of his life he'd never get back. Thirty minutes. While he slept, the world's changed, and now he doesn't recognize it anymore.

-o-

He takes the scrap of paper. It's technically evidence in a criminal investigation, but it's only fair. It's his, after all. It was written for him.

Not until he goes to add the note to the rest of their correspondence does it occur to Itachi that this is all he has left of Shisui, who had apparently left all his belongings in Kiri, returning to Konoha with nothing but the clothes on his back. Those will probably be his funeral dress. There is nothing left of him, only words, lines of text on crumpled yellowed sheets. Itachi dislikes having his photo taken, but even he has a few. He knows for a fact that Shisui is in none of them.

He thinks about this later, watching the fire fracture over Shisui's handwriting, shreds of cinder jagging like fireflies. Maybe he's burning more than just letters – maybe he's actually burning the remnants of the life that they never had together, burning Shisui himself. But this, too, is a fallacy. The dark flecks of ash that fall at his feet are just that: burnt paper. He feels vindicated by this revelation, because it proves once and for all that Shisui was wrong. Children of illusionary powers they may be, but it would be foolish to believe that mind can triumph over matter in the end. The human body is absolute. One body can only bring pain to another.

From Sasuke he learned that love is natural and selfless, but all that Shisui managed to teach him is that love hurts, and love dies. The death of the body is analogous with the death of the soul, and when it's done burning there's nothing left over but an imprint and a pinch of ash, and that is a truth that no amount of philosophizing can unmake.

-o-

I'm tired of the duties... There is no future for the Uchiha, and for me… I cannot walk the path any further. Shisui, August 27th.

-o-

Uchiha Itachi is thirteen the day that the cherry-nose cicadas sing his best friend's soul to sleep and the river ferries his body away. It's a blue and cloudless day, an August day, a guileless day, the wind strong and to the north, carrying the sweet smell of forest and tomorrow's rain. Maybe it's a good day to die, and maybe it isn't, but no one in the history of the world has ever been able to make that distinction, and Itachi will not try. He will remember stepping away from the scene of the crime (laughable) with clothes still heavy with the Nakano's water and twin streams of blood drying on his face. He will remember walking into the big black heart of his homeland's forest, trampling aimlessly through the thick undergrowth, which carves grooves into his bare ankles and calves. Blood fades from the sky. Darkness drapes itself around him like a burial shroud. Still he walks, deep into the night, until at last the man of smoke and sulfur rises out of the ground before him, a solidifying phantom with geometrical eyes.

Madara-sama, he says.

I've been sent to seek your help, he says.

My name is Itachi.

Which reads, implicitly:

My name is Itachi, and I am Shisui's successor, the inheritor of his will, which is also my will, and we are one but not the same, and the path he abandoned is now my path and I will tread it to the end or until my bones give way to dust, whichever comes first, for one is static, motionless and dead, but two is growing, capable of velocity, and I live now for two. His death has willed it. This is the curse that he has placed upon me.

And what Itachi knows is that he will never forgive Shisui, not for as long as he shall live. It matters not at all, because forgiveness means nothing in death. Shisui made him a lot of promises – made them with the quirk of his smile and the efficiency of his quick hands and the steady plane of his back. His vows are measured in words, syllables and hollow sounds that Itachi made the mistake of putting too much faith in. Shisui made him a lot of promises, but only kept one. He promised that Itachi would never forget him, and he won't. He can't, and he doesn't want to. A part of him is trapped, caught frigid and stationary in that memory, a stagnant stream choked with reeds and stones. A boy in a photograph, distracted, always searching for someone just out of frame. A part of him will always lie on the bank of a river and go on believing that, when he opens his eyes again, he will wake up in his bed, and Shisui will be there, skin sweet and warm from sleep, leaning over him to whisper, "Bad dream?" Gently, he will reach over and wipe the traces of terror from Itachi's eyes, and they will rise and walk, side by side, down the familiar road that cuts through the fog, to find the island where all orphans go to sleep.

Years from now, when he too is courting death from the hands of his brother, Itachi will remember this, and realize that perhaps it is something Shisui had already known.

-o-

The End


A/N: Okay, so the deal with this story is that I had a conversation with someone who told me that it was possible Shisui actually did commit suicide, in order to give Itachi the Mangekyou Sharingan. And then, I read this other theory on some forum saying that Shisui could have been working for Madara in Kiri, using his mind-control jutsu to manipulate the 4th Mizukage. So I thought to myself, cool, I wonder how I can totally and utterly fuck these ideas up. As always, I trample all over other people's brilliance with my ability to be fucking insane.

If you liked this fic - and are a fan of Ita/Shi - you might be interested in joining the new livejournal community bitter_nakano, where fans of this pairing gather to engage in flailing, squeeing, and other such intellectual activities. Post your fanworks! We have to build this fandom up from the ground, y'all.