More fic from the bitter_nakano summer exchange (now also a C2 community!). This one is written for kalliel. Warning: AU to an extent.
Reclamation and Its Discontents
Everyone is afraid of how much I love you. They should be.
Two weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Uchiha Itachi disappeared on the border of Earth Country in the midst of a skirmish with Iwa Hunter-Nin. Later, his partner would testify to witnessing the younger man snatched from his side by an unseen force, one minute a splash of red and black on the pristine landscape and the next only a pair of footprints in the innocuous snow. Had he possessed superior sight, Kisame would have seen the dark blur that had, in the blink of an eye, swept Itachi off his feet and carried him over the blue mountain-swell like some ill-fated maiden of fables, whisked away on a southerly gust to be made bride to the Wind God.
It had been three days since the last dispatch, and lying in his bunker with only a light bulb for company, Shisui was starting to think they had forgotten all about him. The instruction had been to lay low. Underground-low. He spent nearly all hours of the day next to the fax machine, sleepless and fractious. There was barely room for standing, and the overwhelming smell of moss and damp soil made him feel, ironically, like he had been buried alive.
He was chasing a round of REM when footfalls from above roused his attention. One person, by the sound of it. It was not a clan member because the secret signal had not been given. Just a passerby, or someone from Konoha? Better stay hidden and wait it out.
"Shisui-kun? Are you there?"
Before his name had hit the air for a second time, he was through the trap door and pinning the intruder to the ground. The scrawny, pale-haired boy calmly looked up at Shisui through round glasses, and did not appear at all anxious about the kunai pressed flush to his throat.
"Who are you?" Shisui hissed. "How did you know I was here?"
"I didn't really," the boy said. "Until now." He leaned back, putting distance between his neck and the steel blade. "And I think the question you meant to ask is how I knew to look for you here, when you're supposed to be lying in the morgue."
Cold, prickling dread slithered up Shisui's spine. "What a nice suggestion." He twisted the kunai slightly, nicking skin just enough to draw blood. "But first, tell me who you are."
The boy blinked in feigned amazement. "You don't remember me, Shisui-kun? It hasn't been that long since we worked together."
"The Ozu murder investigation? You gave us medics such a hard time."
A name slotted into place in Shisui's mind. "Yakushi," he said slowly, testing out the syllables. "You're the one who messed up the autopsy."
"Luckily for me, it seems I hadn't completely disgraced myself in the eye of the Uchiha clan," Yakushi said. "They even requested my service again for Konoha's latest homicide. Can you guess whose autopsy I was given the honor to perform this time?"
The picture was beginning to put itself together. Yakushi tilted his head, and Shisui could see that the cut on his neck had already started to heal.
"You know what's strange? Somehow I had the impression that your family didn't ask for me by name out of faith in my ability. In fact, it's almost as if they wanted someone incompetent. Someone who would, perhaps, overlook certain things."
"Fine," Shisui said. "So you're a bit more competent than I gave you credit for." He narrowed his eyes, and tightened his grip on his captive's shoulder. "But what made you think it'd be a good idea to nose around in our clan's business? Do you have a death wish, Yakushi-kun?"
"Please, call me Kabuto," Yakushi said. "I came to deliver a message." He paused briefly. "It's about your clan."
"And why the hell would they ask you to come talk to me?"
Kabuto gave him a strange smile. "Perhaps you should hear my message."
Fifteen hundred miles northeast of Kumogakure saw the end of the world. The craggy mountain with its alabaster-tipped peaks on one side, the sheer drop of the cliff on the other, gave the landscape the appearance of an unfinished painting through simple dichotomy. A fine crest of snow dusted the black rocks, deceptively gentle until the roaring wind gave it muscle to foam and rock the air. It was the white that stretched to the edge of the earth, overtaking the horizon.
The fragment of a town that lay at the base of the mountain had a population of under three hundred even in summer, so it wasn't a huge surprise that nobody noticed the towering structure that had, over the course of a year, sprouted up thousands of feet above their heads. Even the men who had laid down every brick and welded every sheet of metal in place drew blank expressions if asked for directions to the site. Those twisting trails led nowhere, they would say. If you saw people up there, they were probably snow spirits.
Shisui placed his forehead against the windowpane, drummed his finger on the chilly glass while he waited. Before long, a figure appeared in the distance, making his way slowly up the frost-heaved path. He went to the door when the buzzer rang and punched in the access code.
"What took you so long?"
"My Shunshin aptitude has always been rather limited," Kabuto said, shrugging off his traveling cloak. He cast his gaze around the base, and seemed impressed with what he saw. "I like what you've done with the place. It looks completely different from the last time I visited."
"Found myself a good construction crew," Shisui said smugly. "Willing to work for free, can you imagine? Very forgetful, too."
"Your persuasion skills never cease to amaze."
The room they were standing was the building's true heart, something like the switchyard of a railroad, a large octagonal space with several doors into it. From there you could pass through to the kitchen and dining room, or descend to the basement, where the control room and other facilities were situated. A spiral staircase sat in the middle of the room like a centerpiece.
"I didn't actually think we were at this stage in the plans yet," Kabuto remarked.
"Who cares?" Shisui shrugged. "I saw a chance, I took it. Heard any news down there I should know about?"
"The search goes on, naturally. But don't worry, Shisui-kun, you're very well hidden."
"Who said I was worried?"
Unbidden, both of them directed their gaze to the staircase leading to the upper level. Kabuto pressed his lips together in amusement. "A tower? That's a cute touch."
Under Shisui's glare, he backtracked obligingly, and said, "How are the suppressors?"
"Holding," Shisui told him. "Scary thing—they're even more impressive than in the testing stage." He smirked. "I should watch my back around you."
Kabuto pushed up his glasses, the lenses gleaming in the sharp, electrical light. "Don't make fun of me, Shisui-kun. You know I don't have the speed to apply those seals." He glanced at the stairs. "The sedatives should have worn off by now. What are you waiting for?"
Instead of replying, Shisui went back to the window and resumed tapping on the glass. Presently, he heard Kabuto say, "You can't put it off forever. I thought you were looking forward to this."
"Believe me," he said under his breath. "I am."
Fifteen hundred miles northeast of Kumogakure saw the end of the world. When the wind dropped, the air was so starved of oxygen, so shockingly, symphonically silent it could give you a headache. Elevation nearly 10,000 feet. If you pressed your ear to the window, you could hear wolves howling from faraway crags. At night, battalions of stars assaulted the clear, clear sky.
Shisui's reaction to learning that he was one of three surviving members of the Uchiha clan was to demand for evidence. He had, Kabuto supposed, opted for common sense before theatrics. Except the theatrics never really came. They didn't need to go any further than the village's outer wall to catch news of the massacre, the scale of which was such that even the civilian population was privy to the details. Even the children were twittering about it.
Having obtained the desired evidence, Shisui furrowed his brows and clenched his fists. He stood in silence assimilating the new information for about five minutes—and that appeared to be the end of it as far as bereavement was concerned.
Kabuto found this a bit alarming. Surely there had been at least one person in that entire clan Shisui had cared about. No siblings, but he'd had parents. Definitely kinsmen, presumably friends. Probably a lot of them—he seemed like a social kind of person. Not the kind who would understand that orphanhood was the first precondition of freedom.
Now was not the time to investigate The Grieving Habits of the Lesser Spotted Uchiha, however. Shisui had turned around, and was observing him with close scrutiny. "Aren't you going to report me to the Hokage?"
"If I wanted to do that, why would I have gone looking for you?" Kabuto said. "Let's call this my attempt to make up for my blunder in the Ozu case."
Shisui continued to look suspicious, but did not question him further. He craned his neck from side to side, spine stretching like a wary cat. "I don't suppose you'd happen to know the whereabouts of our primary suspect."
Kabuto had, in fact, spoken to Orochimaru only the day before, and could have provided Shisui with his target's exact location and possibly his itinerary for the next fortnight. Instead, he gave Shisui a benign shrug, and said, "There's one other person who escaped the massacre. You must know him—Itachi's brother, Sasuke?"
Shisui snorted. "Not surprised."
"Are you saying Itachi meant to spare his brother?" Kabuto said, eyebrow arched. "Now why would he do that?"
"Because that's the kind of person he is." Shisui's tone implied this was some sort of widely acknowledged fact.
"That's the kind of person he is," Kabuto echoed, feeling slightly dubious. Well, if the data supported the conclusion.
"Yeah," said Shisui. "But I'm a different kind." Without a further word, he wheeled around and began marching down the road that led away from the village. Kabuto quietly followed.
"Are you going to go after him, Shisui-kun?"
"What's it to you if I am?"
"Sure, why not?"
"I wouldn't recommend it," Kabuto said helpfully. "He's stronger than you now."
Shisui quirked the corner of his mouth. "You're certain about that, huh?"
"Well, there's also his new associates to consider—let's just say that they're not a bunch I would personally mess with."
The smirk was getting downright epic. "And how is it that you happen to know all this?"
"For now, just take my word for it." He looked at Shisui pointedly. "And even if you manage to track him down, what do you intend to do then?"
"I'll figure something out."
"Oh, well, good luck with your excursion then," Kabuto said cheerfully. "Let me know how it goes."
Shisui sneered, and made a comprehensive hand gesture. "I don't believe in luck."
"If you do want to catch up, I'll be passing through that trading post on the county line in about six months," Kabuto offered. "You know where it is, I'm sure. I'll be staying at the inn. Why not stop by for a drink?"
"I'll have to check my appointment schedule," Shisui said over his shoulder. He looked prepared to flit away into the trees.
"A word of advice?"
"Ditch that police jacket. Not that it isn't striking on you, but it might draw a little too much attention." He smiled, and added, "You are supposed to be dead."
There was a part of Shisui that, as the door clicked open, expected Itachi to scream and shout, to fly at him spitting and hissing like a cat, claws outstretched. This was irrefutable proof that his imagination had gone feral over the years and trampled all over his understanding of reality.
Itachi was, in fact, sitting up peacefully in his bed, looking smeary and sleep-smudged. The seal on the Sharingan had covered his eyes with a semi-translucent film, a faint sheen of charcoal striking out through the white. It wasn't a blind, though. He could see perfectly well, as evidenced by the fact that his eyes lifted sharply when Shisui entered the room. He looked rather unperturbed. Maybe people came back from the dead to abduct him all the time.
"Surprised to see me?"
"I knew it was you," Itachi said. His voice was a little rough, gritty from disuse. "I knew it was you the moment you appeared."
"Really?" Shisui said. "I'm flattered." He stopped just inside the doorway, and folded his arms. There was an itch in the center of his palm he didn't know what to do with.
He had not actually seen much of Itachi in the last four years. Kabuto had done most of the reconnaissance on that end, taking advantage of his preexisting connections. They had agreed on these arrangements. No, Shisui didn't need the distraction, and yes, his presence if detected would have given everything away. It made perfect sense.
Sure, he had caved and followed Itachi to Earth Country, but hadn't that turned out to be a windfall?
On the journey back to the base, however, he had had plenty of time to recalibrate the configuration of Itachi he held in his mind. His high cheekbones made pretty hollows underneath. Tears leaked out the corners of his eyes in sleep, rolling down his face and soaking into the pillow. Oh, poor consumptive wretch, a tragic figure through and through. Sitting up at night guarding Itachi, Shisui had found the sight profoundly irritating. Fuck him. What right did he have, getting all angsted out like that? You made your bed, you lay in it. Up until now he had been given free rein to ride out his precious martyrdom, but that was about to change.
Itachi continued to gaze at him steadily. His nail polish was chipped. Shisui inventoried this fact just for the sheer hilarity of it, and now they were watching each other watch each other. Just like old times.
"So. Here we are."
"Why did you bring me here?"
Shisui frowned. There was a compressed feeling in his chest, dense, like wrought iron. Words solidified in his mouth. He would be the one asking the questions around here. One, in particular, hung between them as though dangled on a hook.
"Why'd you do it?"
"Why," Itachi said flatly, as if it were a full sentence.
"I know why you did it." Briefly, he considered stomping on Itachi's face, just to see if he'd get a more favorable reaction. "But why'd you go after me first? Was I special?"
"Of course," Itachi said. "You were my best friend."
An ugly temptation billowed through him, the desire to backhand Itachi across the face, full-force, send his head lolling on his neck, snapped like a frostbitten stem. That would probably prove counterproductive, so he reined it in, modulated his breathing until the urge went away—slunk back into whatever psychotic corner of his mind it had sprung from.
After a moment, Itachi said, "Do you know about the Mangekyou Sharingan, Shisui?"
"Sure," Shisui said. "I know all about it." The secret of Itachi's newfound formidability; Kabuto had given him the one-oh-one. He didn't care either way. "I also know that wherever you got it from, you can forget about it, because you're not getting it back."
That—wasn't what he had meant to say at all. He didn't know what he'd wanted to say, but was pleased with the result anyway. Even after all these years, he recognized that expression. Itachi knew he was beat.
"You've always been thorough," Itachi said, face averted, throwing a deep purple shadow across the white of his neck.
"I used to think you were too," Shisui said. "It's a good thing I was wrong."
Kabuto sat at the kitchen table with a cup of unspeakably vile coffee. It had only been ten minutes since Shisui had ascended to the upper level for his bitterly awaited confrontation. Judging by the pachydermous sounds he was making stomping down the stairs, it hadn't gone well.
"First meeting in almost four years, and all we do is snarl at each other," Shisui said, blowing into the kitchen. He poured coffee into a cup with such vehemence the brown liquid sloshed onto the countertop. "Sometimes I forget how fucking delightful relatives can be."
Kabuto shrugged. "I wouldn't know."
"Lucky you." He sat down next to Kabuto, sipped his coffee pensively. "Maybe if I tell him the truth it'll be a little easier."
Shisui tensed visibly. He snapped his cup down on the table, and glowered at the refrigerator. It didn't take much to send him into one of his black moods. In the past, this could have meant anything from banged doors to broken chairs to mean, sloppy blowjobs. After a particularly explosive strop, Shisui would often vanish for days, relying on distance to bleed out his frustration—but now, he couldn't leave. All the components needed to brew the perfect storm.
Pity he couldn't stick around to weather it. "I have to be getting back," he announced.
"Why?" Shisui said.
"Orochimaru-sama is searching for a new vessel." And perhaps planning a minor invasion. "I must go back to assist him."
Shisui made an impatient noise. "Why are you still wasting time with that old bastard? Ditch him and let's get on with our plans already."
"You know that's not how this works," Kabuto said. "We're ahead of schedule, in any case. I'll be back as soon as I can. You should have enough supplies here to hold out for at least a year."
Shisui looked momentarily concerned. "It's not gonna take that long, is it?"
"Of course not," Kabuto assured him. "I have my work cut out for me as well, Shisui-kun. I doubt Orochimaru-sama would be pleased if he learned that I helped you kidnap and incapacitate his favorite candidate."
The ugly twist to Shisui's mouth worked itself out, unraveled into a more menial shape. "Bit off more than you can chew?"
"That's what I get for moonlighting," Kabuto said ruefully. "Perhaps you could make it up to me by volunteering for the job instead."
"In your dream," Shisui said sweetly. His expression turned thoughtful. "How old is Sasuke now? About twelve or so?"
"I would say so, yes."
"So he should be old enough to have unlocked the Sharingan." Shisui tapped the stained rim of his cup, smiled thinly. "Unless he's completely incompetent."
"Are you suggesting that we force your little cousin to hand over his body?"
"Who said anything about 'force'?" Shisui said. "The kid must have a bone or two to pick with his dear old nii-san. He could use an ally, don't you think?"
Kabuto couldn't help feeling slightly awed. "Aren't you just full of surprises, Shisui-kun."
Shisui shrugged. "Tit for tat." He drained his cup, and got up to rinse it out. "Lock all the doors on your way out. I don't want to wake up in the morning to find a pack of wolves tearing up the place. Got enough on my hand with the one upstairs."
In all honesty, Kabuto didn't know what to expect when Shisui actually turned up at the inn exactly six months after their last meeting. His hair was longer, his eyes more shadowed, but for the most part he looked the same, which probably meant he hadn't yet attempted to storm the Akatsuki headquarters or anything like that. He'd taken Kabuto's advice and abandoned the MP vest, opting instead for neutral black, shipshape, unassuming as you pleased.
But even in civvies, Shisui would be picked out immediately as an Uchiha in Konoha. Same soot-black hair; long, streamlined bones; the type of looks people would describe as 'clean-cut'. The 'cut' part, at least, was true. His was a handsome face, but if you looked a little closer, something about it was ever-so-slightly off. There was a certain lack of symmetry in the generous mouth, the glossy, animated eyes—something of a crude sensuality in the bow of those lips. Anomalies. Once you noticed them, they were all you could see when you looked at his face.
Over innumerable rounds of whatever filthy nameless liquid passed for alcohol at the bar, Shisui told him about his clan's bungled plot and the real reason behind Itachi's apparent psychotic break. In the spirit of quid pro quo, Kabuto related to him the nature of his true profession.
"You? A spy?" Shisui's eyebrow went up in an amused arch. "Do spies usually go around telling people they're spies?"
"You're not a person," Kabuto said pleasantly. "You're a dead man."
Shisui laughed into his glass. "Well, fuck me." He used the epithet like a child who, upon reaching the gateway of adolescence, made the thrilling discovery that he could appropriate the language of adults, mindlessly parroting 'grown-up words' as though frequent repetition could add years to his age. The one unique thing was that Shisui could inflect the word a hundred different ways, spreading it out over an entire spectrum of meanings. Shades.
He didn't remember inviting Shisui up to his room, and Shisui certainly didn't ask, but somehow they ended up there anyway, tearing at each other's clothes in the dark, teeth gnashing. Kabuto was twisting himself around a long knot of pleasure when he heard Shisui say, "What pisses me off the most is how I could have misread him for so long."
Shisui had obviously not done this very often, or he'd know that talking about other men was terribly bad etiquette when someone was sucking on your neck. Kabuto backed away a little and said, "What was Itachi-kun to you?"
Shisui's laugh came in a bark, harsh and ineffably bitter. "My very own best friend. Oh, we were chummy. Like brothers, people used to say. Isn't that lovely?"
Kabuto turned these words over in his mind. What made a best friend? He hadn't known Shisui—he had graduated from the Academy before Kabuto had been enrolled, returning to his tribe's enclave after a brief exile in the outside world—but he did remember Itachi from his school days. Once, he had seen him on the street, standing outside the Uchiha compound, that doomed craft he would one day run to wreck. He held his colicky brother in a blanket, like a sentry at his post waiting to be relieved. They were both attractive children, cloned from some perfect original prototype, but next to Sasuke's sweet-milk skin and the impish, buttery disks of his eyes, Itachi seemed somewhat stunted, bankrupt. The same basic model, misused and discarded, now guardian of its minted successor.
But Itachi seemed glad for the burden of his baby brother, clinging to that millstone with fierce, trembling love. It was this love that made you want to drive a blade through their twin white throats and put it out of its misery. That kind of love had no place anywhere.
So really, how did a person like that come to be entwined with someone like Shisui, so terrestrial and viciously dismissive, snug on the saddle of his high horse, galloping wildly on his highroad?
"So what's your deal?" Shisui said afterward. His hair was wet from the shower, dampening the pillow. "What's a smartass like you doing running around being a professional lackey? Haven't you got any ambitions of your own?"
"I'm not really cut out for immortality, or world domination," Kabuto said lightly. "Doesn't the same apply to you, Shisui-kun?"
"I don't know about that," Shisui replied. "Uchiha Shisui, King of the World has a nice ring to it."
"Great men conquer countries," Kabuto said to the ceiling. "But the truly great seek a higher breed of game."
"And that would be?"
"Other great men."
Shisui snorted dryly, and turned to face the wall. "Don't flatter yourself." The blanched light of indeterminate source coming in through the window spilled across his long back, a pale naked wash in the shadow, the blanket caught idling on the sharp rise of his hipbone. There was tension lurking in the ridges of his spine. Not bereft, just dissatisfied.
Kabuto smiled, and ran his hand along his slender curve, palmed the bony hill. "You know what I'm talking about. Whom I'm talking about." He wondered how many world-changing schemes in the history of the world had been hatched between the sheets.
"Fortune favors the bold, Shisui-kun."
Shisui rolled onto his back with a chuckle. "In all the time you spent coming up with that line, were you ever under the impression it would work?" But clearly it was working already, because his mouth was setting into a deliberating expression. He sat up, propped himself against the headboard, running his thumb over his bottom lip thoughtfully.
"And what's in it for you?"
Kabuto laughed. "Didn't you just call me a professional lackey a minute ago? Let's say I'm in it to challenge myself."
"You'd better not be equating me to that slithery bastard."
"You're right. Orochimaru-sama couldn't get the better of Itachi-kun himself." He pulled himself up, and nudged Shisui's shoulder with his. "But maybe you can."
"Me and what army?"
"You won't need an army. What's more powerful than a weaponized mind?"
Shisui tilted his chin and drew his legs up. His face caught the light, eyes shining like two open wounds.
"This was never about revenge for you, was it?" Kabuto said.
"No," Shisui said, voice steepled. "It's personal."
Kabuto declined to point out that nothing was more personal than revenge. Instead, he leaned into Shisui's neck and whispered, "So I've heard a lot about your special technique."
When Shisui came back into the room, Itachi was asleep again, curled up under the cover with a tuft of dark hair sticking out from beneath, loose strands in disarray across the pillow. It must be the lingering effects of the suppression seals, which by now should have let up on the heavy sedating influence and mellowed into the vapor of fatigue that characterized their general state.
Still, he looked hatefully comfortable.
Shisui went into the en suite bathroom and drew a bath. Then he came back and jerked the cover off of Itachi's inert form.
"Take a bath. You're starting to reek."
Itachi cracked his eyes open lazily, and managed to drag himself to the bathroom without incident. Shisui flung himself onto the vacated bed, and came very close to sniffing the pillow before deciding to check in on Itachi to see if he had perhaps drowned. He had not, but only because he was still standing next to the tub, fully clothed. Catching Shisui's inquiring glance, he shifted sluggishly and began undressing.
Shisui stayed in the doorway just long enough to make sure that Itachi didn't get any bright ideas. When he came back with a change of clothes, he found Itachi sitting motionlessly in the tub with his head propped against the wall. His face was wet, and that appeared to be the extent of washing up he had managed to accomplish. Water trickled slowly down his throat, pooling in the hollows of his collarbones. Gullies formed in the spaces between his ribs when he inhaled. He was clearly brilliant at taking care of himself.
Itachi's discarded clothing lay in a pile at Shisui's feet. Tentatively, he nudged the dark garments with his toe, and discovered them to be dingy and amorphous. Not even remotely salvageable. He should have just burned them right along with that sinfully hideous coat that had apparently made up Itachi's work uniform. Definitely a step down from his ANBU getup.
He wondered if the water was too hot when he noticed the flushed red of Itachi's skin. His hair was matted limp, vaguely oily. There was something very, very wrong about the sight. Shisui dropped the bundle of clothes onto the counter, and grabbed a bottle of shampoo, wondering if insanity was contagious.
Itachi stared at him blankly.
Shisui frowned. "I'm not going to attack you with the shampoo bottle." He squirted some of it into his palm, and began to work up a lather. "Do you want to do this or not?"
He worked slowly, carefully undoing each sleep-twined knot. It felt strangely pleasant to run his fingers through the heavy black mass, thick and silky and damp, clinging to his skin. For a moment, he was acutely reminded of his mother, all the sun-soaked afternoons Shisui had knelt at her side, massaging her scalp through her long tangled hair. The only difference being that Shisui was twenty instead of ten, and Itachi did not reward him with an onslaught of verbal abuse each time he tugged too hard or neglected to prevent suds from getting into his eyes.
"I'm going to rinse it out. Lean forward."
Itachi did, obediently. The knob of his curved spine looked defenseless under his fair, translucent skin, vertebrae all in a row. Shisui let his fingers linger on the soft nape. Would it be poetic justice if he were to grab Itachi by the neck and shove his head under the water?
"That's as good as it's going to get." He grabbed the bar of soap lying on the edge of the tub and tossed it into the water. "Don't expect me to give you a sponge bath too. Now hurry and finish up in here, I'll bring lunch up in a bit."
Itachi raised his head, and parted his wet bangs to look at Shisui. Water dripped comically from his long lashes. It even looked sort of pretty, which as an idea was quite laughable due to how very ridiculous it was.
"Thank you, Shisui."
It was hard to tell if there was any sincerity under his flat tone. Nothing Shisui hadn't anticipated. Sometimes, he hated that he knew his subject so well.
Things didn't change for better or worse over the next few weeks. Itachi continued to operate in a state of suspended animation, always seeming to be posed exactly how Shisui had left him each time he came into the room. He ate lackadaisically, bathed at acceptable intervals, and mostly spent his days lollygagging about the upper level, exhibiting no real signs of freedom-yearning behavior. Shisui tried to force himself not to wonder too much about it. Maybe the self-sacrificing lunacy that had once substituted for murderous lunacy had been marinated into fine indifference over the years. Maybe. Who knew.
Nearly a month passed without a word from Kabuto. This in itself wasn't anything out of the norm. At any given time, they could be on opposite ends of the continent, each doing his own thing, only meeting up every couple of months to check on each other's status, reassess their plans, distribute new tasks. Maybe the occasional fuck. It was a working relationship—the only kind you ought to have with a man who changed benefactors like a snake shredded skin.
Shisui would strangle himself before admitting that he was hurting for company, but that was before he had effectively allowed himself to be whaleboned into this fortress of metal and glass. It was now July, and the days were relatively long. Itachi slept all the time, Shisui almost not at all. It made his job a lot easier, but didn't do anything for his mood. The thing about Kabuto's smarmy canniness was that it invited you to let into it, to attack guiltlessly. His anger was in withdrawal, with no ready recipient. The only available option was Itachi, but Itachi was also a terrible person to pick fights with, because he never reciprocated, always preferring to deflect. A conscientiously applied genjutsu resolved conflicts more effectively than a knock-out drag-out.
Even as a child, he had always known how to choose his battles, to wait and see. Never wise, but shrewd. Diffident. When tickled, he wouldn't laugh, just froze and went into some fit of hysterical muscle spasm.
Where was Sasuke when you needed him?
"You're fucking crazy."
Matsuko wiped her hand on her apron, shifted the pile of fresh sheets under her arm. She crouched behind the door, careful not to disturb it, and peeked into the room through the crack.
"You're talking about rewriting a mind. Not just wiping it out, not burying it under something, but going in there and actually, actually reconfiguring the thing from start to finish? That's not difficult—that's fucking impossible."
"You shouldn't write it off until we've considered all the resources at hand."
The speaker of this statement was the grey-haired boy who had rented the room. He had been staying at the inn for almost a week, and was always polite to Matsuko when they ran into each other. The bashful way he pushed his glasses up his nose was rather endearing, but it was not he to whom she was drawn. Her eyes tracked his visitor—the boy with the melting dark eyes and clean sharp jaw, pacing the room restlessly.
"Look, I think you've got the wrong idea about what this technique can and cannot do. For one thing, it works best when the mind I'm trying to bend is relatively weak. The stronger the mind, the greater the amount of mental resistance, understood?"
The grey-haired boy made a demurring noise. His friend apparently found this offensive, because he immediately snapped, "I haven't had a lot of time to work on it."
"Nobody's perfect," said the other boy, which only seemed to agitate his companion further. Perhaps they were not such close friends after all.
"Please don't be angry. I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't know a way to get around the limitation." The grey-haired boy got up and disappeared from view. He returned bearing a chart of some sort, and proceeded to spread it across the table.
"This is where I come in," he said, holding up a strange-looking knife.
Matsuko jumped, almost dropping the sheets when the slick blade plunged into the table, driving into tired wood with a thump. The dark-eyed boy didn't turn a hair.
After a moment, he began to laugh. "You've got to be kidding. That'll never work. We're talking about completely different things."
The other boy sighed. "Genjutsu users are always the strongest opponents of materialism." There was so much nonsense in this sentence Matsuko wondered if she'd heard him right.
"Don't get bogged down by the categorical distinctions," he went on, making no more sense than before. "Just think of it as a different way of looking at things. The brain is matter—a machine—and the mind is the interface where it interacts with our mental substances. By allowing the machine to do the heavy lifting, it becomes much easier to maneuver the ghost within."
The dark-eyed boy was silent. Even from this distance, Matsuko could see the tension in his broad shoulders. "Are you sure you're good enough for that?" he said, after a long pause.
"That's just the thing." The grey-haired boy grinned, showing teeth. "I'm already good enough. Are you?"
"I will be."
"It'll take time."
"I have time." "
"That can be worked out too."
"Then do we have a deal?"
The dark-eyed boy didn't speak. He removed something from his hip pouch—another knife, bigger, cruder—and stabbed it into the table, next to the other one. His companion smiled.
"Now what are we going to do about the cute little fly on the wall?"
"Way ahead of you."
The door abruptly jerked open, making Matsuko stumble and nearly fall on her behind. Standing before her was the boy with the dark, slanted eyes she had found so captivating—but how had he reached the door so quickly? Embarrassment flooded her chest cavity, and with it, a tinge of fear: this was evidently not a conversation she should have eavesdropped upon.
But the boy was smiling such a bright, sweet smile, and his eyes looked so dark and rich in the soft morning light. Matsuko's heart thrilled. The fog of relief floated through her entire body, buoying it. Maybe it was alright. Maybe she had been forgiven, and really nothing much mattered as long as she could stand here and gaze into those alluring eyes, nothing ma—
Matsuko woke up in her bed. She had overslept, and it was already half past ten. She should have been up hours ago; she had to change the sheets in all the rooms. Quickly, she jumped out of bed and grabbed for her apron, draped across a chair. It was a new day.
They were entering the sixth week. Thirty-six days. Thirty-seven in about three hours.
Thirty-six days, and the itch in Shisui's palm had spread into his every muscle. Nights like these, the silence of snow falling through space made the air vibrantly still. The only sound was the dry chugging of the radiator, regurgitating warm air. If he closed his eyes, he could taste the sharp bite of the whiskey from dinner on his tongue.
It provided a cushioning effect that he had come to depend on, like living with a low-grade fever or under the influence of a weak drug, the world kept at a distance. Silence and slow time. He was a medicinal drinker—better drunk than to let his thoughts cannibalize his mind. It was the kind of categorization that he was becoming frightfully good at these days.
Itachi was, of all things, reading a book. Closer inspection revealed it to be a literature anthology. Kabuto had left a pile of them during one of his visits, with a smirking suggestion that Shisui tried to pass his time by immersing in softer culture. As if he had ever harbored any interest in such things. Nor, for that matter, had Itachi, but apparently that was no longer the case.
Shisui was deeply weirded out by this, but he wasn't in any position to judge. He was, at the moment, twirling a kunai between his fingers, just to have something to do other than gnawing on his thumbnails. If he slipped—of course he wouldn't slip.
In a moment of deranged boredom, he heard himself saying, "What's that you're reading?"
"Yeah? What's it about?"
"It is. Would you like to read it?"
"Forget I asked."
Itachi turned his paled eyes onto Shisui. "You used to like stories," he said, and then shook his head. "No, that's not quite right. You used to like telling stories."
Ah. The stories.
Sometimes Shisui was convinced that Itachi had only accepted his friendship because of those damn stories. Nothing would have happened between them had Itachi not visited his father at the MP headquarters that day, floating past the break room where Shisui was holding court over a gaggle of enraptured colleagues. Life was played by the same classroom rules—who had the loudest jokes, the most winsome smile, who could lay it on thickest. Winners took all. The key to beating the system was telling convenient untruths: Shisui used to do it to his advantage, then to amuse himself, and finally, as camouflage. No one had ever called his bluff until that day.
He remembered pausing for dramatic effect or something like that, and looking over the head of some—some nobody, to see a vaguely familiar face. It was his first cousin, the one everybody and nobody liked. His gaze was blunt and opaque, large dark eyes innocent of fear and passion, like he had been indoctrinated to reject the world's charms. That damaged air he exuded, of someone early and irrevocably abandoned, was irresistible. Where everyone else saw a reason to retreat, Shisui saw a challenge. What others perceived to be aloof arrogance was to him a disguise that, like the ANBU armor of the following year, aided a child trying to sucker people into believing him an adult. Only the abjectly stupid would fall for it, which amply covered the majority of the population.
That, along with the goading of his peers, motivated him to descend from his throne and walk over to Itachi, curling two fingers to brush the fine veil of black hair from his ear. In that moment, he felt larger than life. Now everybody was staring at them. He liked it that way, soaked up the attention, dipping his head into the crook of his cousin's frail neck to ask:
What were you looking at, twerp?
You. I was listening to your stories.
Oh yeah? Well, what do you think of them?
One of the other officers said something then, a jeering remark, ill-informed and nondescript. Shisui shut the scumbag down with a look—he didn't take lip from anyone, even back then, at fourteen. Itachi, for all intents and purposes, looked as if he might as well be in outer space. Head inclined, a heavy, sentient glance in an empty, abstracted face, begging to be undone.
Entertaining, huh? And what is that supposed to mean?
Are even half of them true, Shisui-niisan?
If I can prove that they are, what are you gonna give me?
Oh, he'd received something, alright. More than he'd ever asked for, but only hindsight was 20/20. You couldn't predict the outcomes of interstellar collisions.
Somehow, everything always managed to circle back to that first instant, the spearhead that had pierced his heart. But that in itself was important, because if he didn't remember that—if he didn't keep his head up all of the time, he was afraid he might start to think of Itachi as nothing more than a fellow survivor. Or worse: his friend, the brother returned from a long separation.
And that wouldn't do, would it?
Shisui closed his eyes to test his inebriation. He wasn't nearly drunk enough for that.
In the intervening pause, Itachi had gone back to reading, licking a finger to turn a page. The silence was stifling, but he didn't want to return to the topic of Itachi's newfound hobby like it was anything other than intensely creepy—nor was he in the mood to hear Itachi recount his fascinating years of being an international terrorist while Shisui had run around like a stray dog chomping at the bits. The novelty of these tête-à-têtes had worn off about five weeks ago.
Were we really friends? Shisui boggled. Best friends, even? How could we have been friends if we can't even carry a conversation?
"Been home recently?" Shisui said. He especially liked the way he said the word 'home' like it was nothing.
A prosaic shrug. "I haven't been back to Konoha since I left."
Neither had Shisui, but that was beside the point. "Not even to see Sasuke?"
There was the faintest suggestion of an edge in Itachi's voice when he replied. "Why would I?"
He didn't speak like this to other people—duly compliant with his parents, coolly affectionate with Sasuke, crisply polite with everybody else. It was as if he understood that only with Shisui, he could push and know that Shisui would push back, hard, perhaps crossing the line. He had dared Itachi to eat paper once, telling him it was a vegetable because it came from a tree. And Itachi had done it, not because he had believed Shisui—he was eleven, not four—but only to make him freak out and admit that he'd lied.
Shisui said, "I just had this weird idea that he was the one thing you couldn't bear to part with. I wonder why that is," and yes, he'd meant to wedge that barb.
"What if I told you that it was you?" Itachi said suddenly.
Shisui blinked. "What was me?"
"You were the one thing I knew I couldn't bear to part with. What if I told you that?"
Shisui could have smothered him with the pillow, right then and there. He settled instead for jamming the kunai into the wall: it didn't go in entirely, just left an ugly tear in the white paint. He pulled it out and slipped it back into his pocket, saying, "Then I would say you're a fucking liar." He could feel his own anger fanning its cold breath over the room, trying to slip down Itachi's throat and throttle him from the inside.
It became necessary at this point for him to leave, so he got up and walked out, slamming the door after him.
He could let his memories run together into wistful, confused streams as much as he wanted, but it couldn't make him forget. What conversation could he expect to have with the unrepentant killer of his family? Itachi might have failed to murder him, but he had still taken Shisui's life—the boy who had emerged on the other side of that night wasn't the same one who had met his cousin's eyes in the break room on an otherwise unremarkable day in September. That boy was gone for good; the silted water of the Nakano had washed him away.
The first thing that struck Kabuto upon his return was how neat the place was. In addition to a housemaid extraordinaire, Shisui had, as expected, evolved into a walking explosive just waiting to go off on somebody's face. He'd taken to using Shunshin to travel around the base, like the ten feet separating the kitchen from the common area were simply too immense for human steps. His black mood wasn't so much a mood anymore as a bleak miasma that had settled permanently over everything like a storm cloud—a cumulonimbus of wronged petulance.
Other than that, however, Shisui was a remarkably competent jailor, a fact which impressed Kabuto until he remembered that Shisui had been a policeman. Sworn to serve and protect. That must be where all this self-righteous entitlement had come from. He who stood for justice—or at least the legal license to slam a man's head into the pavement. Come to think of it, the alcoholism probably came with the territory too.
He had barely settled in before Shisui said, "I need you to watch the base for a couple of hours." He was practically vibrating on the spot—any harder and he'd make a crater in the floor. "I'm going out for some fresh air."
Kabuto stared at him. "You haven't gone outside since I left?"
"Of course I have," Shisui snapped. "Just not for any extended period of time. In case you forgot, I have this tiny little problem on my hand."
"That's why the security system is in place."
"He might smash open a window and escape."
"Under the influence of the suppressors?" Kabuto asked. "Are you afraid he might weave a magical rope out of his own hair?"
Shisui scowled at him. "You could always slip something into his food," Kabuto said, and the scowl deepened.
He wanted to suggest something about going back to his roots and exercising some excessive force, but then took a quick glance at Shisui's fingertips, the raw, bitten cuticles, nails chewed to jagged stubs, and decided against it.
So now Shisui was somewhere out there in the ice-mass mountain, a rapier shadow swooping through the land, reinforcing the ley lines of his domain. He was acting—exactly like someone who'd watched someone knock down his entire world. It was as if he was undergoing a strange sort of regression.
At one point near the beginning, Kabuto had asked Shisui if he'd really meant to do it. Wouldn't it be better to let sleeping dogs lie? Why try to reclaim the past, when the only place where the past was ideal was in your memory?
And this had been Shisui's incredulous reply:
"Being a beloved memory is no good to me. I want to set things right."
So it was all about correcting a wrong. That, Kabuto supposed, must be the central conceit Shisui expected him to swallow, confident in the universality of his desire. Hate the sin but love the sinner, and all that. There was a certain awe-inspiring ruthlessness in the way he so fervently believed that he was right. The beautiful thing about it was that it was so innocent—a stunningly disastrous innocence, innocence with a bloody smile. You could be a selfless hero or a roving tyrant but you couldn't be both, and trying would only ruin you. Already, he could see the cracks.
It was a filament-fine line between ambition and greed, and whereas luck often smiled upon one, she had a tendency to merrily tromp all over the other.
On the other hand, Shisui had also said that he didn't believe in luck.
With this in mind, Kabuto climbed the spiral stairs. He had not been given the access code to the upper level. Shisui didn't trust him, which was the right thing to do because Kabuto wasn't trustworthy: it was the only thing about him that was relatively consistent. Even if he could observe Shisui entering the code firsthand, it would still be impossible to follow the movement of his fingers with mere human eyes.
Of course, those fingers still had to touch the buttons.
Kabuto took a small bottle out of his pocket and sprayed the liquid content over the keypad, watching with satisfaction as the desired numbers slowly appeared in neon green. The order of the sequence could be deciphered from the gradations of the color. He carefully wiped off the evidence before punching in the pass code. The door glided open soundlessly.
The second level was much less capacious than the first, with space enough only for a small suite of rooms. Two bedrooms leading right into each other. No lock. The only thing standing in the way of whoever lived in the innermost room and the door was basically whatever sphinx-like presence occupied the outer bedroom, which in Shisui's world must be proof of confidence but in everybody else's just indicated psychosis.
Shisui, when asked, had made some garbled allusion to Itachi's constant listlessness, a self-flagellating regiment of some kind. Either willful blindness was a side-effect of cabin fever, or the person he was referring to was someone entirely different from the man currently standing in front of Kabuto. Here was no wan, guilt-ridden prisoner meekly accepting his punishment. Here was a steel-muscled tactician quietly biding his time.
"I already knew someone must have been helping him, but I didn't think it would be you."
Kabuto allowed himself a chagrined smile. Trembling in the face of my rival. It was only human to be intimidated by the unknown, and Itachi was 'unknown' incarnate, an enigma of the highest order. Here was a man who had thrown away everything he'd owned and loved in the name of some abstract, intangible ideal. Kabuto, in all frankness, found that difficult to accept. He himself had never had much, was used to making his own way in the world. Shisui had been born into royalty, and then in one fatal strike had lost his princedom. This poverty was something they had in common—the cynicism of practical paupers.
He suspected that Itachi held nothing but contempt for the likes of him.
"I know you," Itachi went on, matter-of-fact. "You work for Sasori—but he's not your true master."
Kabuto was fairly certain Sasori himself didn't know that—for one thing, he was still alive. "It appears I'm not as good at my job as I previously thought. How embarrassing."
"Are you planning to turn me over to your master?"
"No, Itachi-san," he said, smiling. "Shisui-kun, for one, would never allow that."
It was difficult to get a read on what that deliberately blank expression might mean. The bleached irises didn't help. "Orochimaru-sama doesn't know about your present… circumstance, and in any case, you're less than useless to him now."
Still no response. He'd have to try harder than that. "For the time being, I'm acting as a free agent… which means I'm allowed to help whomever I like."
A crease appeared between Itachi's eyebrows, near-imperceptible. The ocular seal gave you migraines, at least according to Shisui's reports from testing the temporary version on himself. That… was as close to an advantage as he could hope for.
"I could, for example, open the doors and set you free right now. If that's what you want. The problem is that—as you are—you'd never make it back to civilization."
Itachi's mouth curled. "As I am," he repeated in a neutral voice. Subtext: As I am, I am still better than you.
Kabuto blinked widely. "Am I wrong, perhaps? Could it be that leaving isn't your highest priority?" It wasn't a question. "Shisui-kun can be very good company when he wants to be, and you haven't seen each other in years. There must be a lot to catch up."
Itachi narrowed his eyes. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Please don't be offended. I'm on your side, Itachi-san."
"If you don't like Shisui, why do you help him?"
Straight for the throat. It was astounding how someone so brilliant could be so trenchantly black and white. Perhaps Shisui was right. They really were made of different stuff.
"That's not true. I find Shisui-kun to be a very pleasant person. In fact, I like him very much."
"What in particular do you like?" Itachi said.
"I like the little birthmark on the inside of his left thigh," Kabuto replied. "You've seen it, of course? Really, it's almost indecent. Once you've seen it, it's all you can think about."
Itachi's face clouded over, mouth setting in a line. "I don't need your help," he said, a razor-edge of ice in his voice. "You will, however, tell me exactly what Shisui is planning. For what purpose is he keeping me here?"
"I could tell you," Kabuto said amiably. "But knowing wouldn't really do you any good if you can't do anything to stop him, would it?"
When Shisui returned to the base, he found Kabuto in the common area, rearranging the contents of his travel pack. "You're going somewhere?"
"Yes, I'm leaving tomorrow morning. My business isn't finished yet. I'll be back in a few weeks."
Shisui scowled. "So you just drop by every so often to do what, inquire after my health?" He was pretty sure Kabuto did this on purpose. "Make sure I haven't lost it and torched down the place? If you're trying to back out of this, just say so." So I can snap your head off.
"I don't know what you mean," said Kabuto, who always seemed to know a lot about things he didn't know anything about. "I for one would love to move on to the final stage, but as I recall we still haven't decided on which course of action to take." He looked Shisui straight in the eye. "Or should I say you haven't decided—even though you've had plenty of time to do so."
"That's easy for you to say."
"It should be easy for you too," Kabuto said. "Or have we gone through all this trouble just for you to reunite with your childhood sweetheart?"
Shisui shot him a faintly murderous glare. "Don't start."
Kabuto lifted his shoulder. "Avoidance isn't going to make the problem go away, Shisui-kun. If you want to reach your goal, you'll have to make a decision sooner or later."
They had had this argument before. Again and again and again, always coming back to the same impasse. The last time had been a mere four months ago. They had, he remembered, been "field-testing" the suppression seals, and hadn't that taught him a lesson about multitasking.
"You're being stubborn," said Kabuto.
Shisui glared at him, and immediately regretted it when sharp pain exploded out from between his eyes, which by now should have faded to a dishwater grey. The ocular seal was always the first to activate. It was a huge risk to test all the suppressors at once, even with the tempt versions, but big risks were what this operation was all about.
Which just made this conversation that much more aggravating.
"I'm not going to compromise on this," he said flatly.
"Think about it for a moment," Kabuto said. "Once you start messing with the greater body of memories, there's just no way to preserve psychological continuity. The most you can hope for is psychological connectedness, and even then you have to get the calculations exactly right to achieve the degree of sameness you're shooting for."
He sounded almost stern when he said, "Settle for a more realistic goal, Shisui-kun." Like this was in any way about him.
Shisui shook his head firmly. "That's not good enough."
"Is the personal identity of the subject really that important to you?"
"If he comes out of it a completely different person then what's the fucking point?"
"I've laid out all the risks for you," Kabuto said nonchalantly. "Between the two of us, I think you have a lot more to lose."
The remnants of lunch lay on the table next to the charts and scrolls. Shisui grabbed an empty bowl and hurled it at Kabuto. It hit the wall about ten inches to the left of his head, shattering in a poinsettia pattern. The bastard didn't even flinch.
"More?" Shisui made a derisive noise. "More? Try everything."
Everything he had was riding on this, and if it weren't for that then what was the point in flying up and down the continent all these years making daimyos and merchants and other rich assholes empty their estates into his coffer? What was the point in throwing himself into research, into training—always, always training, need to get better, faster, more, now. All that, and if he couldn't have it all then why would any of it even matter?
The chakra inhibitor chose this convenient moment to kick in. Something was wrong—it was too intense, too fast. His organs began dissolving, turning formless, messy and confused inside his assemblage of bones. Vital substances drained from his body through the soles of his feet, and oops, there went his backbone, slip-sliding into the ether. His eyes wanted to roll into the back of his head. The wave hatcheted across his femurs next, and suddenly the floor was a lot closer than it had been a second ago.
The seal, originally a tiny glowing drop over his heart, was spreading, thin bright lines drawing themselves over and over, coiling over his chest in figures of eight: a map of his failures.
Shisui gripped the edge of the table for support. "Get this fucking thing off me!" he growled, trying not to black out. There was a good chance he wouldn't wake up if he did.
If you close your eyes you couldn't see the world, but that didn't mean it had gone away. It was just hidden behind your eyelids, it would still be there when you looked again. He had to believe that. He had to believe that certain things would still remain even if he couldn't remember them. He had to believe that the whole was more than just the sum of its parts.
Four years ago, Shisui hadn't believed that Itachi would actually kill him. Poor lonely, martyred little Itachi, he'd thought, all he needed was to get his misguided head sorted out, preferably by someone with a modicum of sense in their own head. Since this trait was admittedly rare in their clan, Shisui, out of sheer magnanimity, would volunteer his services, lavish Itachi with the largesse and affection of his friendship. Surely that would win him love, or gratitude, or at the very least a confirmation that he'd been right all along, which was just as good if not better.
In retrospect, that had been appallingly shortsighted of him, and stupid to a criminal degree, but what could you do? He'd been young and stubborn. Naïve. Possibly even a bit blinded. He was older now and not nearly as naïve, and he was starting to think that he'd never really been blinded at all—that on some level he had known the score all along. Dogmatism, however, was a lot harder to kill. Some things never changed. Four years ago, he had resolved to sort Itachi out; four years later, he was ready to finish the job. Nothing could stand in his way, not time, distance, death—certainly not Itachi himself.
Shisui wasn't really sleeping, so when he heard the doorknob turning, he just went from 'not sleeping' to 'rigid and fully alert'.
Bare feet padded across the floor. This was an unexpected development, but he stayed in the same position and waited. He felt the mattress depress. The muted light coming in from the hallway was just enough for him to make out the face of his late night visitor.
"Going to finish the job?" Shisui said snidely. He would wait to see where this would go. If Itachi so much as moved a finger in his general direction, he'd be flung into the far wall so fast he wouldn't even register his spine cracking.
But instead, Itachi crawled onto the bed and practically on top of him. He leaned back, and still straddling Shisui's hips, reached up and pulled his shirt over his head.
Shisui blinked. Was he actually asleep? Surely this kind of thing only happened in highly illicit fantasies.
Without pinning Shisui's hands, without even resting his whole weight on Shisui, Itachi angled his body downward, and before Shisui could properly rationalize why the fuck he was allowing this to happen at all, Itachi's mouth was right there and he was tossed into a close encounter of the cousin-kissing kind.
Itachi tasted like faded mint and kissed like a twelve-year-old, clumsy, single-minded, teeth clicking against Shisui's. None of that changed the fact that their hips were grinding together in a way that made Shisui's next breath come out in a low hiss. Heat pooled below his stomach. His hand skated over Itachi's fine-ribbed torso, sharp and warm against his palm, and wouldn't it be just the easiest thing in the world to slide it over the small of his back and drag him closer, roll their bodies over and press him into the mattress—
Shisui wrenched himself from the kiss. "Oh for fuck's sake, put your clothes back on!" He shoved at Itachi's shoulders until he slid off Shisui's hips, and pushed himself up, groping blindly for the lamp switch and trying to act like he wasn't as out of breath as he felt.
"What the hell's gotten into you?"
Itachi quietly pulled himself up. His breaths were heavy, obscenely loud in the silence of the room, and if it wasn't for that Shisui might have thought he was having a particularly ironic hallucination. It wasn't funny and it wasn't cute, and Itachi should and did know better than that. It was so hard to keep track of the crazy sometimes.
"There's one thing that's always bothered me about that night," Itachi said solemnly. His hair fell into his face; in that bruised-yellow light, he looked utterly possessed. "I keep going back to it, over and over. Something just doesn't seem to add up."
"What?" Shisui said, something tepid rising in his chest. "What doesn't add up?"
Itachi kept staring at him without a word. Then again, he was a complete lunatic.
"How did you escape, Shisui?" he said after a moment. "Why didn't you die?"
Itachi moved in, closer and closer. Shadows moved on his throat, his chest. His mouth fluttered.
"Why didn't you die?"
"Why, Shisui, why?"
His face was almost at Shisui's throat, the cool air shifting with the slow bob of his Adam's apple. Shisui was acutely aware of their breathing together, the way their shoulders lifted and fell in tandem, and felt a sudden pang of need for what they weren't about to do. His own hands were betraying him, wanting to reach up and press his palms flat against Itachi's neck, sliding up the smooth skin. Seek out the lines under his eyes where troubles had carved out their niches in twin runnels, as if his tears were a corrosive substance.
Shisui leapt off the bed. "Get back to your own bed before I tie you to it." He stalked out the door, all the way down into the basement, his arousal a burning ache between his legs. He went into the practice room and set into a punching bag, went at it until his knuckles bled, until he finally collapsed onto the blue mat, sweat searing his eyes, a raw scream fighting its way up his throat.
Deputy-Chief Uchiha Hama had a secret. He fancied himself a collector of them, more connoisseur than repository, and this particular secret was the prize of his collection. He would share it now with his most precious possession, and that was the boy standing in front of him.
His son: sixteen, courageous, outstanding, attractive, would be the key to undoing Hama's lifelong discontents. He didn't carouse, didn't chase tail, would never be found neglecting duty to chew on some girl's lips. He was, in short, more or less exactly like Hama's older brother at that age: a born leader. The only good thing Hama and his bitch wife had made together—but there they had outdone themselves, producing a child who had inherited all of their best traits. Over the years, as his boy had grown up tall and grown up right, Hama had felt a growing certainty that he would triumph over his brother and mild-mannered sister-in-law.
But nothing was ever that simple.
I just don't see why this is necessary.
Haven't you listened to a word I said? We can't allow the leak to go unplugged any longer. Fugaku would rather drag his feet forever than give the order. Your uncle is a hard man, but he's soft when it comes to family.
Is that supposed to be a bad thing?
Watch your tongue, boy.
The boy fell silent, and diverted his gaze, but not before Hama had caught the look flitting across his face. That look spelt trouble. Deputy-Chief Hama was very good at his job, he knew trouble when he saw it. Sixteen years wasn't very many, but it was still one more than fifteen. Fifteen, now that had been the perfect age: charming, malleable, eager-to-please. Sixteen had complications. Somewhere in the last year, a duplicitous human-shaped wedge had come to reside between father and son.
There's got to be some other way. I mean, how is this going to work? We don't even know that he's really planning to take me out.
You wrote the report yourself. Are you saying you made a mistake?
The implication of blunder nettled, and now Hama knew he had his son on the defensive. Good, because the boy was long overdue for a reality check. He hadn't wanted to take on the assignment, but his desire for perfection would not have allowed him to turn it down. In this regard, he took too much after his uncle as well, both caught in the spell of that little rat. A liar and a snitch—what did the boy see in him? Fugaku, at least, was handicapped by fatherhood. Hama would spare no measure to exorcise this weakness out of his boy.
He's a traitor. Why are you shielding him?
I'm not, the boy protested. But. His eyes slanted to the floor in a sullen grimace. It's not like he can do anything all by himself.
That remark scraped out from within Hama a flare of anger. Stop playing dumb. He's not working by himself. You know exactly who's pulling the strings.
It's for his own good, he went on, voice softening. Keep him in our sight and out of trouble. It's not permanent, son, only until our plan comes to fruit. You'll do it, if you're really his friend.
The boy was silent for a long time. Then he lifted his face, expression hardening in resolve.
Alright, father. I accept.
Hama smiled. Here's what you're going to do.
Itachi listened with almost clinical indifference as Shisui recounted, in leaden words, the whole sorry tale of his betrayal. "And that's how it happened," he finished lamely. "And then I was sent to the abandoned stronghold to wait it out. I stayed there until after—"
"Until after the massacre," Itachi said. "How did you replace the body?"
"Flesh clone standing in as a body double," Shisui explained. "And a modified Shunshin. It was tricky, the timing of the switch had to be perfect, and the clone had to be good enough to fool the Sharingan. It wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been—"
"An inside job," said Itachi. He was taking all this remarkably well.
And why should that be a surprise? The only reason the scheme had succeeded at all was because Itachi had planned to do Shisui in anyway. Had the note written up and everything. And then he had gone on to accomplish exactly what they had been trying to prevent, and done a pretty spectacular job. In comparison, a botched frame job seemed almost pathetic. What else was there to talk about?
Except now that everything was out in the open, Shisui wanted to talk about it. He wanted, for example, to talk about how much it had hurt—submerged in that violent water, feet scrabbling against sharp, slippery rocks, windpipes collapsing. It was a tough job, faking your own death, people just had no idea how much work went into it. He wanted to recount every awful minute detail of the experience, how it had been a really close shave and for a moment there he had even been touch-and-go, at death's door, didn't that count for anything at all?
"I still didn't really think it was going to work," Shisui ended up saying. "I was sure you'd have checked the body afterward." He paused, frowned. "Why didn't you?"
Itachi actually smiled at him. Sleepily, a little sardonically. "I was a little distracted at the time."
It certainly hadn't seemed that way at the time. The face he had gazed up into while his lungs had choked and floundered had held no trace of distraction. Mouth snarled, eyes red slits. Trim, serious, intelligent, brutal, and Shisui had found himself thinking, deliriously, it would be alright to die if this face is the last thing I get to see.
Theirs had been an insular friendship. That was the reason he would always regret conceding to his father: not the fact that they had been framing an innocent, but that it had allowed all those interlopers to be let in on what should have been an intimate affair. What right did satellites have to interfere in the business of stars? Because that was what a prodigy was: a minor sun, each a radiant centerpiece caught in the stagnance of their clan's globular cluster. Even Itachi, mild and cool as far as heavenly bodies went, was a nucleus in the dark immensity of space.
They still hadn't spoken about the other night. Shisui wondered idly what strange impulse had overtaken Itachi then, whether he might momentarily be seized by a similar urge.
But instead, Itachi just said, "Thank you for being honest with me," and lay back down on his bed. He was receding into himself again, a boat drifting out to the edge of the horizon. Shisui felt suddenly the old, unbidden urge to reach out and draw him back.
"Have you always eaten like this?" Shisui said, frowning. "Like some diseased cat?
Itachi looked up from his book, glanced over at the nearly untouched tray on the bedside table, and gave Shisui a blank expression, like he simply couldn't comprehend why anyone would ever suggest that he might be harboring some kind of secret eating disorder.
"Here's a crazy idea. Maybe if you didn't leave half the food on the tray all the time you wouldn't have visible ribs, how about that?"
"I only eat as much as my body requires," Itachi said. "Being this inactive doesn't give you much of an appetite."
Well wasn't that sweet. "You could try to be a little more appreciative," Shisui muttered, tucking a half-eaten roll into his mouth. No sense wasting good food. "I never even cooked for my own mother, and I grew up waiting on that woman."
Shisui's mother had been a paraplegic, permanently disabled in the war. The woman who had sprawled on the mats screeching at her son and husband right in the middle of a clan gathering—the only thing she had ever been known for had been that withering tongue. Confined to a wheelchair, the ball and chain of her discontent, she must have been one of Itachi's easiest kills ever.
Itachi uncrossed his long, long legs, and rearranged them in front of him on the bed. "You could try making something I like," he suggested coolly. Spoiled brat.
Shisui took another bite out of the roll. "And what would that be?"
Itachi actually tilted his head, like he was giving this a great deal of thought. "Sukiyaki seems appropriate for the season," he said finally.
"Sukiyaki?" Shisui said, nearly spitting crumbs all over himself. "Seriously?"
The ridiculousness of this suggestion had catapulted him back into good humor. He plopped down on the bed, and ignored the way Itachi's toes poked into his calf.
"Alright. Sukiyaki it is. If I make it, you'd damn better try to finish the whole thing."
Since sukiyaki didn't actually involve cooking, the challenge turned out to be procuring the ingredients. Shisui wasn't morally opposed to indulging childhood tendencies, but he also lived thousands of feet above the nearest market. He pitched the appealing prospect of fresh produce versus the weakening sense that he should maintain vigilance before deciding that, really, Kabuto was right. The system was secure—he was just hyper-paranoid.
The beef he bought ended up being a little tough and for the life of him Shisui couldn't find any mushrooms, but by the time he had finished slicing and dicing and the iron pot was steaming gently on the dining table, he was ravenously feral and couldn't care less. This would be the first time that Itachi would be allowed on the first level. Shisui couldn't very well bring the pot up to the bedroom. That would just be inconvenient. He had no other choice. Obviously.
On a whim, Shisui dug out some candles from the storage room and placed them around the table. The light they cast had a molten quality that made the meal shimmer like a mirage. He looked around for a reflective surface to check his appearance, and then felt stupid and stopped.
Itachi was barefoot when he came down the stairs. He wore a set of the loose-fitted muslin pajamas that Shisui had stocked in bulk, a kind of floaty all-purpose sleepwear that perversely and hilariously doubled as his prison uniform. His newly washed hair draped loosely about his shoulders, unbrushed and heavy with dampness. With the white seal over his eyes, he looked more like a ghost than ever.
"You did all this?" Itachi asked, with what might have been a smile on someone else's face.
Shisui tried to glare him into submission, recalled that this was physically impossible, and instead said, "No, what happened was that I saw a yuki-onna walking around outside earlier, and I sort of promised her a mortal soul in exchange for a home-cooked meal. After dinner, I'm marching you over to meet your snowy wife." God, was he twelve?
He was pettily stockpiling beef slices when Itachi said, thoughtfully, "Your birthday is in September."
"So it is," Shisui said, and began picking out vegetable.
"If we had waited a few more weeks, this could have been your birthday celebration."
Shisui snorted. "What's the point? According to official records, I died at sixteen. Dead people don't celebrate birthdays."
He knew exactly what that sudden burst of cold through his chest meant. Liar and thief, murderer and traitor scum, but there they were. There was no escaping it. It lay like a bomb on the table, next to the bottle of soy sauce, between the tips of their chopsticks, ticking in time with their pulses.
But did he learn? Oh no, learning from your mistakes was for other people.
He got up and unearthed the whiskey bottle, trying to borrow heat from its warm, rosy flare. "You drink too much," Itachi remarked, as though after two months of cohabitation this astute observation was only now occurring to him.
"Runs in the family," Shisui said. "Among other things." This must be what dinner conversations in hell were like.
"Shisui," Itachi said. "You are not your father."
Shisui rolled his eyes. "Good. I don't ever want to be that pussy-whipped."
"And you are not your mother," Itachi went on, undeterred.
"Thanks," Shisui said, sincerely. "You don't take much after Mikoto-sama either." Only where it counted.
He blamed what happened next on his habit of responding positively to compliments.
"Want to hear a story?"
"Is it about my future snowy wife?"
"No. A true story. I've finally got one for you."
He could have his pick. Shisui had an arsenal, from those years he had gone vagabond, led a gadabout life, guessed his way across oceans in search of new game for his insatiable hunger. Months of unsteadiness made his feet skittish; cheeks sunburned; clothes stiff and salty from sea sprays. Ears filled with mermaid songs that drowned lovesick sailors. Every word distilled into his fingertips. From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes that I have passed.
"There're so damn many of these," Shisui said, twirling a chopstick between two fingers. "I can't even remember them all now."
"Maybe you should have written them down."
"There's an idea. Then you'd have something better to read than those pulp novels, huh?"
"Shisui," Itachi said, quietly.
Not this again.
"Don't try to pull that crap again," Shisui muttered, dropping his eyes. "It's not funny."
Itachi angled his head delicately. "Shisui," he repeated, patient as a smiling bodhisattva. "Come here."
And this time.
This time he was on his feet before he even realized it. That voice had cast a hook into his flesh and was now reeling him in. His heart hammered desperately in his chest, but his mind was at absolute peace, stone-cold sober. Without breaking eye contact, Itachi took Shisui's hand and pulled it to his cheek. His skin was soft, cool to the touch, the dimmed light of the candles turning his clouded eyes a blind silver. Moonlight—or a flashing fin.
"You don't have to believe me," Itachi said, lips moving softly against Shisui's fingers. "But I'm glad that you're still here."
Something clicked inside Shisui's head, a cognitive solution, like the answer to a math problem. "Liar," he said, without a trace of contempt, and leaned down to kiss Itachi's lying mouth.
Their food went cold.
Kabuto could tell things had changed between Shisui and Itachi without having to speak to either of them. For one thing, the base was a lot messier. The lower level held an appearance that suggested the inhabitant it housed was not a habitual slob, but simply hadn't gotten around to picking up after himself yet. No longer rank with alcohol, the rooms now smelled of something else. Kabuto smiled to himself. It appeared Shisui had traded in one vice for another.
"There was a power outage last night," Shisui reported by way of greeting. "Not a huge deal, but the whole system did shut down for, like, thirty minutes. Lights went out and everything. I checked on the main generator this morning—seems to be working just fine now, but maybe you should take a look at it later."
Kabuto gave him an appraising look. He had flung himself gracefully into a chair, legs splayed, one arm thrown over the backrest. He hadn't seen Shisui this relaxed and well-rested in months. His voice was once more roomy, generous. It was really such a shame that life was so often against him, because when things went his way, Shisui was a very likable guy.
"Was there any difficulty?"
"Nah," Shisui said. A smile crept slowly onto his lips, as though he was recalling a fond memory. Probably of the creative way he had kept himself warm the previous night. "So, how are things with Old Snake Face? You got that body-switching business sorted out yet?"
"More or less. The outcome wasn't optimal, but sometimes you have to cut your losses." He took his glasses off and made a show of cleaning them. "You might be pleased to hear that, thanks to your advice, we've managed to persuade Sasuke-kun to agree to… lend his services in the future."
Shisui gave a faint laugh. "Always knew that kid was a dumbass."
"In any case, I'm here now. Shall we move forward with the plans?"
Shisui's face darkened. "Yeah, about that—there's something we need to discuss." He waved his hand in a dismissive arc. "Let's talk about it over dinner. I'm making steak. Which reminds me, gotta get down to town before the store closes."
There was a bounce in Shisui's steps as he climbed the stairs to the upper level. Kabuto had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. When Shisui came back down with his cloak, his hair was a little mussed, his lips shiny, and he was humming a cheery tune under his breath.
"Mind the fort while I'm out?"
"Certainly." He yawned. "The train ride over was terribly unpleasant. I think I'll take a nap."
The smile Shisui tossed him as he walked out the door could have laid flat a normal man. Kabuto removed the bottle of tracer fluid from his pack, and went to work.
Shisui's room was a certified disaster zone, clothing scattered all over the floor, draping off the edge of the bed. Garments discarded in haste. Itachi's, in contrast, looked pristine as ever, but that in itself was quite telling. There was no question where he made his bed these days.
Itachi, he saw, was sitting in the armchair directly facing the door, legs crossed. In the cold block of seasonless light coming in from the window, he looked slightly gauzy, almost see-through—a numinous figure shrouded in thin white muslin.
Up close, however, Itachi seemed solid enough, disheveled hair framing an alert face. An inky bruise peeked out from under his shirt collar when he moved. He didn't look like someone who was particularly fussed about (whoring) using his body as a bargaining chip, so Kabuto could only surmise that Itachi was pleased with this development as well. Not nearly as transparent as Shisui, but the newly loosened scaffold of his shoulders spoke volumes. He couldn't say that he was surprised. It was sweet, really. They fitted into each other, like a hook in an eye.
A fish hook. An open eye.
"I was hoping to learn if you had reconsidered my offer."
Itachi's smile was small and wintry. "What makes you think I would have changed my mind?"
"I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about your Sharingan," Kabuto lied. "But the chakra inhibitor can be lifted. That should be enough to get you off the mountain."
"Is that all?"
"Maybe you should let me finish."
"I'm all ears."
So much confidence. Having secured a survival clause, he evidently believed he had won. Depending on the battle, he might not be wrong. Love really was a lot more left-brained, a lot more quantifiable than people gave it credit for. Bitter as an ailment, sweet as a nutrient, it couldn't come into being unless certain conditions were met. A cerebral act of will, like deciding to dive into a howling sea: its terms were such that it precluded all the requirements essential in other kinds of relationships. Like happiness. Or reciprocity. Betrayal couldn't end it, betrayal was just another ingredient, a cog in the machine.
But even so.
"I've just come from Orochimaru-sama's place," Kabuto began slowly. "There's something you should know about your brother."
There was only one thing in the world capable of sending the blood boiling in Itachi's extraordinary skull, and that thing was very regrettably not Uchiha Shisui.
He opened his eyes when he heard footsteps descending into the basement. Momentarily, Shisui entered the room, his hair dusted with pallid flakes. "Do you feel better?" he asked, with what might actually be concern. The changes in him were simply staggering.
"Yes, thank you. Is it snowing out?"
"Blizzard. Came out of nowhere. Those last few miles I was practically crawling."
Kabuto sat up on the bed as Shisui bounded out of the room, just as cheerful as before. He could hear the white fume outside smash against the windows. Things were about to get entirely too interesting for a quiet night in.
There was a loud series of crashing noises, like furniture being upended. Kabuto went up to the first level. "Shisui-kun, is there something wrong?"
Shisui rushed down the spiral staircase, face bloodless and eyes wild. "He's gone."
"Itachi's gone." He leapt into the basement. Kabuto followed him into the control room, where Shisui scanned all the monitors furiously.
"Gone," he mumbled, and then whirled on Kabuto, livid. "Where the hell were you?"
"Here, of course. In my room. I—" He schooled his face into an expression of—moderate—distress. "I don't understand. Did something happen to the lock?"
Shisui was gone in a blur the moment the sentence left his mouth. It was like a scene out of some cartoon. Kabuto dutifully trotted up the stairs after him, thinking that if nothing else at least he would get a good exercise out of this adventure. At the front door, Shisui was punching in the code so fast nothing could be distinguished but a long 'beep'.
"Nothing's wrong with it," Shisui said. "Everything works just as it should."
"Did you reboot the system after the outage last night?"
"Of course! Do you think I'm stupid?"
"What about the pass code sequences? Did you remember to reset those?"
"I—" Shisui's expression floundered for a moment. "I did."
"Maybe it's some kind of glitch," Kabuto said, conciliatory. "But are you sure you didn't forget?"
The mad gleam in Shisui's eyes became a little subdued, as though he was falling into thoughts, retracing his actions, panic and possibilities crowding his mind. Was he sure he hadn't forgotten? Had he been too distracted? Maybe too preoccupied kissing a bare shoulder, tracing the sculpted line of a collarbone with his tongue, drowning himself in silk-black hair. Something proximate.
The vaguest seed of doubt, but it was there, already sprouting a feeble root, taking hold, ready to infect. The bait cast.
"I didn't forget."
"I'm sure it's not your fault, Shisui-kun," Kabuto said. Setting the drag, letting the catch run. "But it's possible… do you think the generator itself might have been tampered with?"
Shisui stood stock still, jaw clenched, convulsive. He was showing remarkable restraint. Still.
Kabuto turned to the window, affecting a thoughtful demeanor. The blow had been struck, but he couldn't resist taking the knife by the handle and giving it one last, exquisite twist.
"Going out in this weather in his condition is the same as walking into certain death. He must have been desperate to leave." He put a smile on his face so that one would be in his voice. "Did you do something to him, Shisui-kun?"
Shisui didn't seem to hear him. He stared straight ahead, out beyond the thick black glass, where the gale-force wind devastated the land.
"That little shit."
With a swish of his cloak, he was gone in a vengeful snap, and Kabuto was left staring at nothing.
There was nothing left for him to do, so Kabuto decided to brew some coffee while he waited. It would take a supernatural power to canvass the mountain in this blow. Itachi could be dead already. Shisui himself might be as well. He wondered if he might have overplayed his hand. It would be such a waste, having gone this far.
About twenty minutes to midnight, the buzzer yowled frantically.
Backed by the wailing blizzard, Shisui cut an impressive figure—the Mountain King returning to his iron hall after a wintry hunt, carrying in his arms the lifeless form of his latest mortal conquest. The illusion shattered with the thud of Itachi's body when Shisui dropped him in an unceremonious heap, only to slump over himself and spit black blood all over the floor. The tips of his fingers had turned a dark purple, and so had the veins under his sheet-white skin, the blood inside running sluggishly, sludge-thick.
"No," Shisui rasped when Kabuto knelt down to support him. The tomoe of his Sharingan were still swirling dizzily, sick with madness. "I'm fine. Check on him. Do not let him die."
"He's alive." Barely. "I'll take care of it."
Shisui nodded silently. Flecks of snow melted off his eyelashes when he blinked. He clutched his chest, made a horrible retching noise, probably choking back another surge of bloody vomit, and then managed to pull himself to his feet and stagger away toward the stairs.
"It's too bad," Kabuto whispered, brushing ice-crusted bangs away from Itachi's ashen forehead. "I was really rooting for you, Itachi-san. Things are going to be very hard for you now. Maybe it would have been better if you had died."
An hour later, he went looking for Shisui, and found him in the control room, slouched in the chair like a bear on its throne. In the scant light cast by the various monitors, his eyes shone savagely. Colder, but brighter. The wind bellowed outside, faintly audible through unseen cracks.
"Do you want me to have a look at your injuries, Shisui-kun?"
"I told you I'm fine," Shisui said, flexing his bandaged fingers. He must have performed the healing himself.
Kabuto leaned against the edge of the console, facing Shisui. "His condition is stable. Give it a few days, and he should be fine. It looks like you made it there just in time."
Shisui didn't look at him. "This will never happen again," he intoned, voice clipped and precise. "We're going to do it." His hand formed a tight fist over his mouth. "Now. No more delays."
Stick around long enough, Kabuto thought, and you can win any argument. "Does that mean you've made up your mind?"
"Yeah. You were right. We've come too far to get caught up in the details. I can't be sentimental about this."
"It's not the best idea to rush," Kabuto said. "The procedure puts a lot of strain on the body. We should give him time to recover."
This was, of course, all so much grade-A bullshit. He was no Tsunade of the Sannin, but he knew he was good: one of the best in decades. That kind of handicap meant nothing.
Shisui rose abruptly to his feet. "I can wait," he said, and swept out of the room.
Kabuto bit back a smile. So it was true what they said. Anger was a highly effective fuel. Properly induced, it could burn for years.
On a color wheel, red and green were at opposite ends. This was the reason why surgical scrubs were often green: it helped the doctors re-orientate their vision, because under a blazing flood of white light, every open body cavity looked the same, a big red, glistening blur.
Kabuto closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath. His body was coursing with adrenaline. He had to force his hands to still before reaching for the last and smallest scalpel, the blade reflecting the electrical light like a chrome mirror.
What had he expected to find? Wires, perhaps, sleek machinery, or maybe the substance of courage, something beyond human. What was it about men like Itachi that made you want to cut them open to see what was inside? One would expect the battle cry of crusaders and martyrs to run in his veins, to find whatever rare dust that he breathed in daily, that spread its way into his bones and lungs. But no. Warm blood, milk white bone, pale pink flesh. Ash, ash—you poke and stir, flesh, bone, there is nothing there.
He closed the skull flap and sealed the hairline incisions with healing chakra. Perfect. Not a sight to forget. He placed a blanket on the body, cracked his neck, and removed the scrubs and cap before going to wash his hands. His glasses were tied to his face; he removed them and wiped the lenses on a piece of gauze.
Shisui was waiting in the control room. He got up silently when Kabuto entered.
"I've closed him up. Now it's your turn."
Shisui nodded, and strolled past him without a word, master of his empty castle. His body was coming down from the rush, remembering that it had needs: food, sleep. Nevertheless, he followed Shisui back into the room. He didn't actually have to be around for this part, but nothing could have kept him away—he had to see.
When he entered, Shisui was standing by the operating table. His chakra saturated the air around his body. He was glowing like the sun. The expression on his face as he bent to cradle Itachi's head, line their eyes up evenly, was reminiscent of a religious fanatic. Faith versus science in medias res, coming to a poised balance.
Kabuto waited. The air so blaringly still he wanted to stuff his fingers into his ears. His eyes hurt, but he didn't want to blink, couldn't miss a second of this.
A seismic convulsion rippled across Shisui's shoulders. He took a stumbling step backward, clawing at his eyes with his fingers.
"I can't." His voice shook, and the red flare of his eyes quivered and faded behind a film of moisture. "I can't do it."
The breath he'd held exploded out of his lungs. Triumphantly.
"We've taken him apart. There's nothing in there now. If you don't put him back together, it's the same as murder. Is that what you want?"
He kept talking, citing rationalities, even though he knew Shisui couldn't hear him, too busy raining kisses on cold, unresponsive skin between earnest, heaving sobs, breaths coming in harsh bursts. His face was twisted into a rictus, frozen in some amalgam of horror and regret. He was mourning, all the anniversaries from first glance to last kiss—each and every memory, vanished, gone. Open and laid-bare, like a flayed animal braying for mercy.
Such a pitiful end to a great obsession.
Quitter, Kabuto wanted to say, you were never going to do it. Of course, he'd known that, too.
"This is the end," Shisui said. The tremble seeped into his voice. "It's the end of everything."
Kabuto heaved a long sigh. "And what are you going to do?"
"I'll burn it all down," Shisui said hollowly. "With the two of us inside. I had it all prepared… for… for after…"
He had been wondering what those barrels of gasoline in the storage room were for. Shisui's sense of showmanship was really quite commendable.
"So that's it, then."
Shisui's face snapped up abruptly. "You did this," he snarled. "You talked me into it. You made me do it."
Denial was swift on his tongue—he had every right to it. But.
"Yes," he said. "I did."
He'd won everything already. For once in his life, he could face up to his actions without guile.
Shisui's eyes were pure scalding hate, coming at him like arrows. He was vibrating with power and rage, and Kabuto couldn't decide whether he looked more hungry or dangerous.
"We'll die," he said, "but you'll go first," and launched himself at Kabuto, teeth bared in a wolfish snarl, fury and bloodlust ripping across his contorted face.
Momentum let him make it. It was all that let him make it. It was an artless move, without the tiniest bit of skill—he had even forgotten his signature move, forgotten that he could move faster than sound. Just an animal's desperate leap, crazed and wounded and mad.
Kabuto struck clean.
He drew back the chakra-infused blade, stepped aside and let Shisui fall.
"Please try to be a little dignified about this, Shisui-kun," he said. "I never took you to be a sore loser."
Shisui gaped up at him from the floor. Blood poured from the wound in his throat. His body jerked violently, and was still.
This was it. The end of the matter. Nothing left to do but walk away. Yes, he had to walk away.
He went to the front door and punched in the code, stepped outside into the cold air. The ground before him was so vast, so startlingly white that it stabbed pinpricks into his eyes. His heart quivered in his chest. There was no cloud, and a bright light flooded the edge of the world, pouring over the blunt bones of the mountain as they reached for the sky. The sky was bigger here, he remembered, and somewhere in its sheerness was a soaring, trilling song, telling him that, regardless of the final outcome, he had accomplished something great.
The moment the door slid shut behind Kabuto, Shisui jumped to his feet and examined the cut on his forearm. It had already stopped bleeding. He went quickly to the window
"Five…" he counted under his breath. "Four…"
On three, he saw Kabuto waver on his feet. Two, and he crumpled to the ground, twitching. At one, the twitching stopped.
Shisui was beside him in a single leap. The snow underneath Kabuto's face was already reddening with blood. He checked for a pulse, smiled when none was found.
"Thought you could pull one over me, didn't you, Kabuto-kun?" Shisui whispered. "You know, they don't tell you to beware the Sharingan in Genjutsu 101 because they're pretty little lanterns that help you see in the dark. Should have left the room the moment you saw them." Well, that still would have been too late.
To be fair, it wasn't Kabuto's fault Shisui had neglected to share with the class his ability to plant sleeper illusions. Nor was it his fault that he had been struck by a blow so quick and precise the eyes couldn't follow and the body didn't have time to register the trauma. He flipped the body over and dragged its shirt up over its torso. A telltale handprint right over the heart, bruised-red, one that he could have likened his own hand to.
All the medical knowledge in the world, and he hadn't even noticed his own heart rupturing inside his chest in the end. Poor idiot.
Night was already falling. The lack of impurities in this frigid northland air allowed smells to travel far. Something as pungent and sharp as this metallic tang could carry for miles. The wolves would make short work of the corpse, if not then the random bear. Details. He had more important business to attend to.
He went first into the bathroom to wash the tear powder out of his eyes. Seeing the agitated blood vessels in the mirror, Shisui was tempted to laugh. Always knew I'd cry over you some day.
Now, where was he?
Back in the operating room. "Alright then," Shisui said, brushing his fingertips over Itachi's cold cheekbone. "Your turn." The desire for a drink surged through him like a flood, but he easily resisted it. After today, he would never need to touch another drop of alcohol again.
"Just wait a little while longer," he whispered against dry lips. "I'm about to write my masterpiece. The truest story you will ever know."
It was with an icy, cathartic calm that Shisui let his Sharingan flicker to life. Nothing lived in him but this clear, sharp sense of understanding. He could see now that he had all along been laboring under the influence of a grave category mistake. There was no need to compromise, because what he wanted was right there under his nose. Identity and self. Sameness and survival. Different names for the same essential things. They weren't so different once you had taken them apart, peeled each layer off and remade them in your own image.
Just another way of looking at things.
It took two hours to lay down the groundwork, five more to move everything into place, one and a half to wrap things up. He had never been anything less than meticulous. By the time he stepped away from the table, everything in his field of vision had melted into a white blur. For a moment, he thought that he was back in the blizzard again, stumbling blindly through the cold, slicing dark, wracked with uncertainty, exhilarated with apprehension, fervently searching for something in the snow.
The feeling passed.
His task thus completed, he sagged down into a chair to wait for morning. He felt exhausted, but couldn't sleep—rather, sleep would not come. No sounds in this sealed room. For the first time, he noticed how cobwebbed the ceiling was. The grey fluorescent lights burned starbursts into Shisui's eyes. He put his hands over his face, pressed his fingers against his eyelids. Stars went waltzing out in blue and red. Shut your eyes: all the world dropped dead. Open them: all was born again. Repeat ad nauseam. The hours ticked away. He could feel the approaching sunrise flaring in his wearied bones, the draining night leaving pockets of soot.
Just as the first strands of dawn shredded the dark, he heard a low whimper. Pained moaning.
"Is anybody there?"
"Yeah," Shisui said, stumbling out of his chair. It took a moment for his legs to work right, but he finally managed it. "Someone's here."
Itachi blinked at him groggily. The white had receded from his eyes, leaving them clear and dark, the same hermetic eyes that had once been enchanted with tall tales. Flawless restoration. The clock in Shisui's head stopped ticking—not because it had died, but because, almost half a decade to the day, it was starting all over again.
Trim. Serious. Intelligent. Brutal. All there, right?
"My head's dizzy," Itachi murmured. "I can't remember anything." His right hand went up in the air, hanging there for one uncertain moment, a star waiting to finally be caught. "Have you been away?"
"No," Shisui said, crushing Itachi's fingers in his grip. "You have. Welcome back."
For a moment, it seemed like Itachi would close his eyes and slip back into sweet oblivion, but then his fingers were pressing back tautly against Shisui's, tight enough to feel the bones. His smile was dreamy and beatific, still half-drugged. Shisui allowed his eyes to linger on it for a brief moment before directing his gaze out the window, where the sun was pouring a golden grace over his newly reclaimed kingdom.
Tamaki had spent nearly two decades with the Northern Railway Company. He was a conductor, and took great pride in his job. And why shouldn't he? He didn't know about elsewhere, but up here, in this harsh, barren land, his was a noble profession. He served the greatest of all causes: the railroad, a single black stripe snaking its way through desolation like an artery, sustaining life in the highlands.
"Heading east, I see?"
The young man smiled, handing his ticket over to Tamaki. He had very regular features, almost aristocratic, a rarity up here on the barebones edge of the world. "All the way to the end of the line," he said, and lifted his shoulders with the kind of rakish, loose-limbed elegance that Tamaki himself had never quite managed, even in his own distant youth.
"That'll be Izukaya," Tamaki said. "Nice little harbor town, everyone always tells me. Going to see the steamships?"
"That's the plan. My cousin hasn't been feeling well. The doctor recommended a lot of rest and a bit of salty air, so away we go."
A seaside holiday. There was a highhanded quality of archaic romance to the idea that Tamaki couldn't help but admire. You met all kinds in this line of work, and every once in awhile, it didn't hurt to live vicariously through his passengers.
As he walked further down the platform to take someone else's ticket, Tamaki saw another person join the young man he'd just spoken to. It was evidently the cousin he had referred to, and indeed Tamaki could see that there was a vague stiltedness in the newcomer's movement, signaling languor or illness, perhaps both. A very handsome pair.
The older boy held his cousin's elbow and helped him onto the train. He caught Tamaki's eyes across the platform and gave him another smile, bashful. Tamaki tipped his hat in their direction. Your humble servant at your service, oujisama.
The whistles sliced the air, and the express roared into motion. Tamaki strolled up and down the corridor, checking on each compartment but really seeking out just one. Something about the cousins captivated him, drawing his steps toward them. He found the right compartment—and there they were, standing side by side next to the wide window with their backs to him. The sun was rising high, gold morning light pouring in, and their slender forms were backlit against that bright flood, burnt into the radiance.
The older boy—his oujisama—dipped his head low to murmur something into his cousin's ear, fingers curled to brush back a fall of black hair, gentle as a breeze. A gesture so intimately distillate in its simplicity: it made you startle, made you want to look twice.
The sight stole Tamaki's momentum, and as he stood frozen by the door, the young man turned around. His gaze split Tamaki from the bone. He remembered suddenly something his grade school teacher had said, many decades ago. Eyes are the windows of the soul, Tamaki-kun. They weren't made of one-way glass, you could see right in. Where was the—
The train lurched suddenly, shocking him awake. Tamaki dropped his head and scuttled down the corridor as quickly as he could, fearing that if he remained a moment longer, his soul, too, would escape, be sucked out through his gaping mouth.
The train couldn't arrive at Izukaya soon enough.
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
(Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah)