Written for technovanilla in the Summer Exchange at bitter_nakano on Livejournal. Check out the other entries, guys, they are godly. Don't let my lameness deter you.
There once was a man who met a woman in a dream and loved her so much that he decided to marry her and cease to wake altogether.
Itachi knows this: that all the things one tries to forget come alive and scream for help in dreams.
Shisui watches him all the time now. He always finds an excuse to see Itachi, to seek him out, snatch from him pockets of time that realistically speaking neither of them can afford. His eyes track Itachi's movement like a fly following a butcher's cart, but in the spaces in between, there is still Shisui's smile – not the grand, gleaming one reserved for his adoring public, but the lopsided lip-quirk, smaller but bolder. This is the smile of another time, from all those years they had lived by being each other's missing half. It has no place here in this game of who blinks first.
It doesn't matter. When the scores are tallied up, Itachi knows he will still be the more treacherous one.
It's not until he turns thirteen that Itachi learns to be afraid of dreams. It isn't that he's unaccustomed to nightmares – he's grown up with them, night after night legs snap-tangled in the sheets, throat parched, his heart running marathons his body can't keep up with. He wakes with the taste of smoke and cordite in his mouth – and under that, blood – and later when he's washing it away with a glass of water, he thinks that these flagellatory motions are rather like religious rituals, practiced to reinforce a certain faith. This is why it matters. Never, ever forget.
Then, he dreamed in vivid flashes like lightning, bold shocks of colors like an arterial spread, muscles laid open to the bone, but he isn't scared of them because they indicate nothing that hasn't already happened – burnt skin and battlefields haunted by the dead. Now, he dreams in one long continuous sequence, and that is perhaps the most frightening thing of all.
In his dream, the members of his clan parade before him in a seemingly endless single file under a rupturing sky. One by one they slouch past him, moving in twitching steps like living marionettes, all in a row. They gape at him with ruined, twisted visages, and their mouths form accusatory shapes as they all mutter the same dark prayers over and over:
How could you do this to us?
We're your family.
Those people you've saved, they're strangers.
Sasuke is the last in line. Tears blur his bright eyes to red smudges, roll down his still-round cheeks, and he can barely choke out his lines through ragged sobs. His betrayed misery smashes against Itachi like a storm. Guilt sneaks its way up the veins in his body, making him want to turn and run, scrabbling and tripping to the end of the Earth, but his muscles have been turned to stone by his brother's broken look and he can't move.
Shisui says nothing to him at all. He doesn't even look at Itachi as he marches past, eyes steady and staring straight ahead, spine ramrod. Sometimes, Itachi wishes he could follow him.
For lack of a better option, Itachi finds himself turning to Madara for reassurance. It's such poor comfort he wonders why he even bothers. This says a lot about the state of his deteriorating sanity, and may possibly be the first sign of apocalypse.
Don't be a fool. This isn't a game, it's a wager. It's not optional.
What are the terms?
You know them already. Now all you have to do is choose.
I have already chosen.
Do you know then if I will win or I will lose?
Both. You'll do both.
Itachi looks at the madness welling like ocean waves in his teacher's ancient eyes. Thinks, Is that what I will become?
(But his is a quieter curse.)
Shisui kills twenty-four enemy shinobi that day using nothing but Shunshin and a blunt kunai. Itachi takes out their main target using a C-level genjutsu. Afterward, Shisui accuses him of being boring, to which Itachi remarks that the practice of economy is something Shisui's never quite mastered, which isn't entirely true as Shisui is quick to point out. It's not awkward. Of course it isn't.
Itachi doesn't know why they even bother to book him for these types of mission anymore. It's indescribable, the feeling of living in a world that you shouldn't be living in, a world that's already rejected you. It's practically laugh-out-loud funny. Ha ha ha ha.
It's late summer, and the forest is a sere, sun-scalded yellow as they make their way back to the village. The journey back is almost entirely silent. It's not that unusual: they don't always talk. Well, Itachi doesn't talk much regardless of the occasion, but what would surprise people is that Shisui doesn't always like talking either. Most of the time, he's willing enough to shape the empty silence with his words, talk Itachi in circles until they reach an agreement. Other times, they don't bother with words, and it's perfectly fine.
They go directly to a restaurant for dinner. There's not a speck of blood on either of them, and they're both used to the way violence shades into mundanity. People look at them and smile. Such good friends, they think. It's so rare these days to find maturity in those so young.
If only they knew.
Shisui continues to watch him closely over their steaming bowls, but the line of his neck is relaxed, trusting, like he's concluded his investigation and is pleased with the findings. Itachi, for his part, is watching the ice cubes melt in his perspiring glass, and all he can think is that he can think of nothing else to want.
They emerge into the oaky air of the newly fallen dark. A storm lurks in the silvered edges of the gathering clouds overhead, coaxing out an ache from his tired bones. Sleep is coming for him in leaping steps, bearing in its arms the dreaded dreams. He looks up when he hears Shisui's voice, asking a question that Itachi hasn't heard in a long, long time.
Would you like to stay over?
He would, so along they go.
The landscape of his dreams changes one night, and it goes thusly: he's walking through a scene of devastation, miles and miles in all directions. Everything looks smashed, displaced, and dusty, like it has been abandoned for decades, centuries. It isn't until he sees the faded emblem on a half-crumbled wall does he realize that this is – was – the Uchiha compound. There's a crack running right through the fan's middle, a thin line neatly separating the white from the red. He runs his finger along the crease, and the edge cuts his skin.
Like what you see?
Shisui is sitting splay-legged on what appears to be a fractured pillar (even these columns didn't survive what they once supported). The first shred of reality that rends through Itachi's dream-daze is that Shisui is wearing the high-collared flak jacket of the Military Police. In life, he was never a member of the corps. It's a shame, really, because Shisui would have been good at police work, and might have even enjoyed it. He does, after all, possess a strong sense of justice, and his temperament is well-suited for performing public service.
A coup d'état, Itachi supposes, is sort of like public service.
The jacket looks wrong on Shisui, and yet, right. Perhaps this is Shisui as he should always have been, Shisui in the best of his capacity, rinsed of earthly limitations. A Shisui who could never have loved Itachi, who would look at him and see only the flaws, the glaring pockmarks left by treachery.
You always think so negatively, Shisui says, as though he can read Itachi's thoughts. His smile is vicious and sharp, cruel enough to be beautiful. It's very bright here, Itachi notes, light everywhere, artificial and revealing – a light that isn't kind to liars and traitors.
This is a revolution. You should rejoice with the rest of us.
We've died for this village, and look how they've repaid us. Aren't you sick of the silence? Of being voiceless? Don't you feel the storm raging inside your ribcage?
We will not be moved.
Join us, he says, and leans over to kiss Itachi.
This is where he wakes up, sprawling face-down in the garden next to his mother's scrupulously-tended koi pond. He's fully clothed, so evidently he must have dressed himself at some point between crawling out of bed and walking out the door. It feels like he's been pushed from a great height, and when he licks his lips, they taste like dust.
When he walks into the bedroom, running a towel through his damp hair, Shisui is already curled up in his futon, reading a scroll. His genius is as effortless as oxygen, but the reason people like Shisui so much is because he doesn't coast on his gift, but makes a point to work as hard as everybody else. His is a diligence with a purpose, telling others: Hey, even I have to try for it too.
More than a scholar, however, Shisui is an inventor. He tries to follow in the footsteps of Yondaime, his idol, and dabbles in seal-invention, but most of his creations turn out dreadful. Nobody needs a seal that will allow them to eat several times the amount their stomach can conceivably hold, and even Shisui's had to admit that. He's much better with ninjustu, and has made something of a name for himself for it. Give it a few more years, who knows?
In another life, he could have been anything – a healer, a musician, a politician – and he will have excelled all the same.
Itachi himself will always have been a shinobi. That's life. You're always handed exactly what you desire the least. In one particular dream, Shisui is the handsome son of the manager at the inn that Itachi comes to stay after a long, exhausting mission. They meet in the warm, bustling dining room, and with the air of a wayfaring storyteller, he will say, I kill people for a living. This one time, I even killed my whole family.
And Shisui will say, Really? That's fascinating. Would you like more rice?
Only, that doesn't sound very much like reality at all, and more like something out of those paperback novels of which Itachi has no knowledge, and perhaps after dinner and a round of complementary drinks Shisui will brush his mouth along the shell of Itachi's ear, breath searing and damp. If you don't have money for room and board, you can pay me with other things.
Then again, perhaps that's why they call stories like those 'fantasies'.
When he goes back – and of course he goes back, the dreams are both poison and food, he can't get enough – the scenery has changed again. This time, he is standing in a large field populated by statues, plaster-white and flawlessly crafted, but he can't tell whom they are meant to depict because all of them are missing their heads. In a moment, the reason for this becomes clear: Shisui is some way ahead, weaving his way through the statues and smashing their heads with an iron club. He looks like he's having a lot of fun, surrounded by the beauty of perfect neglect.
Oh, you're back, Shisui says casually when he sees Itachi. He drops the club, which vanishes into thin air. Well, come along then.
Itachi follows Shisui, treading on the fringes of his long shadow. These frustrating conversations among the ruins have a hold on him, as though they possess some addictive ingredient. There are cures, he knows, draughts he can take, means to save himself, but every night he still makes the sleeping journey to Shisui's side. He is the skeleton key that has the ability to bypass all the careful wards Itachi puts up, unlocking doors inside him that shouldn't be unlocked.
Have you made up your mind yet?
What else? Shisui's impatient snort is pitch-perfect, even in dreams. The wager, of course.
I've always had my mind made up about the wager.
And there's no changing it?
Shisui turns around, and slowly cocks his head to one side. Well, he says, cracking his knuckles. That's too bad.
Itachi knows that he will be outmaneuvered before he's even made a move, but does anyway. He hits the ground on his back, raising a small dust-cloud. Shisui rests his full weight on Itachi's hips, leaning over him, close enough for Itachi to catch his scent – he even smells the same. His fingers curl around Itachi's throat, tight against the bump of bone, not yet exerting pressure but promising it. Beneath his belt, Itachi can feel himself going hard, arousal dragging a slick trail along his lower belly. Shisui nudges it with the sharp jut of his hip, a smirk curving slowly over his mouth like a crescent moon. He tugs roughly at Itachi's waistband, freeing his erection.
Go on. Don't let me stop you.
Itachi's mouth is dry, his face burning. He swallows, once. Grips his cock and begins to move at the same time that Shisui's hands clamp down on the sides of his neck, vise-like, palms cupped over his trachea, fingers choking an artery. The pressure on his larynx throws Itachi off his rhythm, his eyes pinpricking, the world melting into a fluorescent blur, stars dancing at the edges of his vision. It's unbearable, painful and exquisite. He chokes and gags, hand slackening, losing his grip. Shisui rolls his eyes, a gesture so achingly familiar that Itachi wants to scream at the apparition above him, You can't have that, that doesn't belong to you, but he has no breath.
Shisui slaps Itachi's hand away, closes his own fingers around his cock and begins to jerk – it's too rough, he starts out too fast and it hurts, following a violent, single-minded rhythm born of a life wielding weapons. His other hand is still on Itachi's throat, gripping it sideways in a professional strangling hold, loosening and tightening like he isn't even thinking about it. Itachi can feel the bruises forming, and maybe when he wakes up they will still be there, livid and shameful, but he can't think about that now. His head is threatening to split in two, the world exploding into a supernova of sharp white light. He wants to close his eyes against the glare but every time he does, Shisui's hand crushes brutally into his neck – Look at me. – and he snaps them open again.
A soft film shrouds his vision. Red. The color of anoxia is red, the same as Shisui's narrowed eyes when he looks down into Itachi's face, lip bitten in acute concentration. His legs seize and spasm, writhing desperately through nonexistent breaths as his pelvis pumps and thrusts helplessly into Shisui's fist. Fighting against the roaring flood of red as the pressure builds and builds and builds and finally, finally, his body convulses – release – and he comes with the first sweet burst of air into his lungs, splattering all over his stomach and Shisui's hand.
As his senses rush back into his body, Itachi is aware that he can still smell Shisui, even through the heavy musk of his sweat and discharge. Shisui wipes his hand coolly on Itachi's shirt, cranes down to lick the tears that have materialized on his face and whisper against his cheek.
I don't forgive those who betray me.
These words, too, are stolen from reality. Itachi had been there when he had said them. Shisui hadn't been smiling then; he had had tears in his eyes. When did this happen? How? Why? He tries to reach for the memory, but it slips away from him as Shisui's calloused fingers close around his throat once more, press and crush down firmly, and the world dissolves again into red.
The wind grows robust, carrying the cold, mossy smell of rain. Itachi goes to the window to close it, a strangely sour taste coating his mouth. His hands twist into fists over the dark glass, quietly and viciously. It's so much easier to be angry than to be sad or guilt-ridden, so much easier to act the part of the wronged party. Why? Why can't I ever have anything for myself?
Stay away, he thinks to the coming storm. Keep out. Don't come here, I won't let you in.
"Earth to the airhead by the window."
He turns around to find Shisui quirking an eyebrow in his direction, the scroll rolled up and laid aside. "You coming to bed or what?"
"You haven't laid out my futon."
"Go get it yourself. You know your way around this place."
Itachi stays by the window, his gaze carefully blank.
"What?" Shisui says. "What?" he asks again, mouth quirked. "You want to share? What are we, five?"
"We didn't do this when I was five."
"You're right," Shisui says, eyes glittering. "First time for everything," he continues, and casts the cover aside like an invitation.
The weight in Itachi's chest grows heavier, deadlier, as he undresses and lies down beside Shisui, nestling in as close as he dares. They are both lying on their sides, facing each other. Don't blink. Do it, and the world will change while your eyes are shut.
"Aren't you going to blow out the lamp?"
"I think I'll leave it," Shisui says, voice low and husky. Shadows paint his face like a chiaroscurist's canvas. The air smells like rain and kerosene oil, ready to ignite.
Another minute passes in unbearable silence, and then Shisui's fingers are skimming across the tiny distance between them, coming to rest on Itachi's arm. Itachi remembers then that his best friend is a lot of things but sultry he is not. His pale cheeks are flooding with color, like spilling wine. Love is a nervous habit. Of the body, like a muscle spasm, a tic—but all that means is that you can't control it. You let it overcome your defenses; you let it ruin you.
Shisui, who despite a life of privilege has good manners, quietly asks, "Is this alright?"
"Yes, it's alright."
It's alright for you to love me.
Love me, so I may love you back.
And Shisui kisses first his neck, then the sharp, dramatic angle of his shoulder. Traces the tattoo on his arm with a careful tongue, then the firm promise of his jaw line in another indolent kiss, long and slow and languid, as though they have all the time in the world. As though nothing exists outside of this room, no family, duty, or obligation. Soft desire comes to drape over their twined bodies, diluted with adoration.
These incendiary beginnings, Itachi knows, are effervescent. No matter its heat, the thrilling flare will one day be extinguished. It's not perfect and it's not enough, but he'll take it. He'll take it, so that at least for one night, his hands will have better things to touch than the cold kiss of steel. He can't take Shisui with him, but he can take this, can pour into Shisui all the love that he can't take with him, so that even years from now, he will be able to think back and remember the boy who had made Itachi his own. He will be able to tell everyone, were there anyone to tell, that Shisui was a great first love, the best anyone could ever ask for.
He sleeps that night, dreamless, Shisui's fingers still resting on his spine.
Tomorrow, nothing will have changed, and they'll be right back exactly where they started. Tomorrow the future will come surging again like a dark flood, crashing noisily against the window demanding to be let in, and Itachi will throw himself up against the glass with all his negligible weight, knowing the bolt won't hold.
Tomorrow, they will complete their bitter story.
But for now, this is acceptable. For now, he loves Shisui back, and the wager is left for another day.
The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.
—Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy