Written for the 2010 Advent Calendar at bitter_nakano on LJ. In the future, my I/S fics will probably be posted there, since I'm getting too lazy to mirror-post.
The tautology of you and me.
. . .
All reality is subjective. The Uchiha take this futility one step further, because the Sharingan have made solipsistic men out of them. In illusions, objective ontology loses its meaning. The world in itself becomes unknowable.
Obviously that has to be the case, because otherwise Itachi has absolutely no idea how to explain whatever it is that's going here. The river that spreads dark and calm before his eyes is definitely not the Three Crossings, but is totally the Nakano, and his psychopomp, sitting on a rock by the edge of the burbling water, is no highway-robbing demon, but the only ghost to whom he would ever admit.
"No coins, no crossing, I'm afraid." A pause, a smirk. "Anyway, I guess that's two."
"My two promises," Shisui says. "I kept one then, and today, the other. Now we're even. Do I win some kind of prize?"
He is without his forehead protector, and the dark, incorrigible curls lie flat against his forehead, stark against his skin. Unpleasantly beautiful, with those long bones and imperfect wrists, the bold, geometric smile-line slung across his parted mouth. Disbelief stills Itachi's breath.
"Why are we here?"
"Why not?" says Shisui. "This is where it all began."
"No," Itachi says. "This is where it all ended."
And if that is so, perhaps he actually died then, that day, right here on this river bank, and everything that came after was simply part of a very long, very lifelike purgatory. The stream of time roared ahead, and some part of him, too small to keep, was left forever treading water, unable to decide if the shore he sought was the one before or the one behind him.
But he knows also that this is no revelation, just another kind of willful solipsism.
"That day. I lost everything that day."
Shisui raises his eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't mean you gained everything?"
There is a ruthless quality to his voice that smacks of never-been, and Itachi wonders if it's his own mind that has seated it there, applying new attributes just to accommodate his internal perception of the external. Maybe some cowardly part of him actually wants this, yearns for Shisui's anger, for him to shove Itachi down through the ice.
Shisui rises to his feet. He was always tall, taller than Sasuke is now, but Itachi finds he is the one looking down into his friend's face—but of course, he has had half a decade's advantage, twenty-one to Shisui's eternal sixteen.
"Let's see it then," Shisui says, resting his fingers on Itachi's temple, soft but firm. "This so-called invincible power that you busted your ass for—I think I of all people deserve a firsthand demonstration, don't you think?"
"It's no more."
"In order to repay his filial debts, Nataku flayed himself and returned his flesh to his mother, his bones to his father." He closes his eyes. "The Mangekyou Sharingan were a debt. It's now been repaid."
"Repaid?" Shisui echoes. "Funny, I don't remember getting anything back for my trouble."
Silence shrouds them, sloughing off of earth and stone. Itachi waits for whatever's coming next. Perhaps revenge, though intellectually he knows that isn't possible. There's nothing more that can be taken from him, and there is comfort in that. In infinite loss lies absolute exoneration.
"I guess you're right," Shisui says instead. "Regardless of who actually won or lost, I think we were both losers that day." His fingers fall from Itachi's face. "Was any of it worth it, Itachi?"
Were it anyone else, it would be different, but it's not. This is Shisui, and Itachi knows he could never, ever explain himself. He's not sure he wants to, because even though he has all the right reasons, none of them seem very true.
He thinks about the long road that leaves no record of coming or going. He thinks about waiting and forgetting, about always having to remind himself to wait, until he remembered that he had already lost what he was waiting for. He thinks about despair, because no matter how wretched it got, the only thing he had resolved to not do was taking his own life. In a way, the disease came as a blessing, fate granting him an easy way out.
What is a man? He that stands between earth and heaven, with strength enough to withstand the force of one, and bear the full weight of the other.
What is a man?
"Forget it." Shisui shakes his head. "A promise's a promise. None of it matters now anyway—I'm dead, you're dead, everyone's dead. Dead people shouldn't hold grudges."
Shisui shrugs. "Who knows? It weighs down the soul or something," he says philosophically. "I may have lost at winning, but in losing, I won."
"What does that even mean?"
"It means I'll just take this as my consolation prize."
And suddenly Shisui is right there, too close or perhaps not close enough. Kissing him feels like coming home. Nobody in their family had eyes like those, he reflects. Changeling eyes. Like living stars, they don't draw you into them but snap out in a bite, seizing you by the throat to make prey for the take-no-prisoner smile that people used to mistakenly characterize as 'infectious'—the only thing it has ever infected Itachi with is the desire to fall.
Shisui blinks, looking about as thrown as Itachi feels. He says, "I don't know," and brushes a thumb over his bottom lip thoughtfully. "It just felt like the thing to do. I wonder why that is."
"You don't remember?"
"Not everything. It's been a long wait, you know? Things slip away from you when you've been waiting for that long. But I remember us. I remember… have we done that before?"
"So, were we…?"
"No." A beat. "No, we weren't."
"Oh." Another beat. "Did you want to?"
"I don't know."
Shisui frowns. "I must have," he says uncertainly. "I think I must have. Yeah, I must have."
"Shisui, you don't…"
"I must have," Shisui says again, in a tone brooking no argument. The flicker of a grin, almost shy, head cocked sideway like an inquisitive bird. Affectionate already. "And… I still do."
The most attractive and consequently terrible thing about Shisui has always been that effortless sense of conviction, the way he makes up his mind about things and never stops to question the veracity of his conclusion, to check if the premises even add up. It's not in his nature to entertain skepticism; everything is necessarily a tautology when it comes to the things—and people—that he loves. If P then Q – Q – So P. If Itachi he loves Shisui, then he isn't a traitor. Itachi loves Shisui. Therefore, he isn't a traitor. Q.E.D. A heartbreaking sort of fallacy.
Something slides back into place within him, and apparently Itachi is dreadful at proofs himself because it seems like the most logical thing in the world right then is to lean over and kiss Shisui again, stealing from him a sharp intake of breath.
Shisui learned how to kiss from a girl. He owned up to it, once, sheepish and eleven shades of red. Shisui learned how to kiss from a girl—but he is the only person Itachi has ever kissed. There was no one else before, and there will never be anyone after.
"I think," Itachi says, though his head is empty, blank, a virgin canvas. "I think I enjoy having the height advantage over you."
"Pedophile," Shisui mutters. "And hey, who're you calling short?"
Itachi is beginning to think he ought to stop blinking, because if he closes his eyes, the metaphysical texture of reality will change again and he will go mad. In that tilting instant of ontological shift, he is formless and nameless, caught between the grinding fingers of liminality, but when it ends and the world settles, he finds he's looking up at Shisui again.
The way it's always been. The way it's meant to be.
Not even Itachi with all his vast talents can stop the universe, though he's tried, he's tried. Every step of the way was a step he willingly took in his struggle against fate, but here the road ends, and the slate's been wiped clean. Entropy happens. He's come full circle.
Shisui is smiling down at him, easy and timeless. He lays his fingers on the side of Itachi's face, stroking his thumb slowly over the newly-rounded curve of the cheekbone, the softened jaw line—perhaps to create memories anew to make up for all the things forgotten while waiting.
Then he says, "Welcome back, kiddo," and kisses Itachi again, confident and fast, like he's been doing it all his life and now in death has only further perfected the technique. His kiss is elegant and persuasive, the way all his ill-advised words never have been, the rapid efficiency of his tongue jotting down a stark promise in strokes and whirls, snap-click, calligraphy by touch.
It's enough to rouse something within Itachi, a primordial and savage something, hollowed with ambitions. It gnaws apart the bars of its cage, claws its way to the surface and rips through layers of flesh and muscles that have long unlearned tenderness. The inertia breaks, and suddenly all the cosmos is back in motion. The world tips over as the river bank resounds with the sound of Shisui's laughter, familiar and dear.
"Ow, ow, ow! Hold on a sec, I think I landed on a rock or something."
"Don't talk," Itachi mutters, and scrambles forward to press Shisui into the ground. "Please don't talk." Each long kiss is a cool draught, filling the dry well of his heart until it brims and threatens to overflow. Its beats thunder in his chest so loudly that he thinks even the gods from their celestial seats must have heard, must be able to see the shining hunger in his eyes. Why do dead people need to breathe, anyway? No more of this oxygen nonsense. Not so long ago, he was running out of time, and now, he has nothing but time, but he doesn't want to wait.
Shisui obliges him for a moment longer, and then pushes back and rolls them over, pinning Itachi's wrists. "Slow down there, maneater," he chides. "I'm not that kind of girl."
But the melting look in his eyes proves that he is totally that kind of girl, as do his teeth that drag roughly across Itachi's bottom lip, leaving imprints that haunt the hollows of his collarbones. Shisui slides one hand up his shirt and runs his palm over Itachi's ribs, chest, then slicking it down and down below his stomach, drawing from his throat an urgent hiss. He pushes up into Shisui, moving their bodies together in synced waves.
"Is this what you consider slow?"
"Oh, you think you're the only impatient one?" Shisui sighs dramatically. "I died a virgin too, you know. It's such a tragedy. You have to make it up to me." His lips brush over Itachi's temple, painfully chaste. "Unfortunately, it looks like we've got to get going. Let's pick up where we left off once we've crossed the river, huh?"
"Why?" Itachi says. There's dirt in his hair and mud on his clothes, and the edge of the river is craggy with rocks—but they have the entire grassy bank to themselves. No one would come by.
"We're expected," Shisui says simply. "Everyone else's already crossed over."
"You got it. I met my parents. I met yours, too. They're just dying to see you again."
Itachi glances up at Shisui from beneath his lashes, and he must pull a face, send a look, must have let something slip past the gate, because Shisui's hand arcs into the air and slips under his ponytail to loop through his hair, gently stroking the skin at the back of his neck. "Dead man's humor," he whispers. "Death is hideously boring, you have to make your own fun. You should get used to it—oh, but that must be something else I forgot. You don't do humor."
"Perhaps I've learned."
"Yeah?" Shisui says archly. "Well, good, otherwise you're in for a rough time, buddy. Eternity is a long-ass time, and I've really got a bone to pick with you."
"Is that so?" Itachi asks. "What is the nature of these grievances?"
Shisui gives him a sidelong look that means he can't believe what he's hearing, and Itachi worries for a moment that he might choke on his own tongue. "For choice?" Shisui says, voice rising heatedly. "You tied rocks to my arms and legs and rolled me into the river. Forget about the morality debate for a minute, do I really have to spell out for you the crass humiliating depth of a man drowning in two feet of reedy water?"
That is not how Itachi remembers it, though he knows he'll never find the words to convince Shisui otherwise. Instead, what he does remember is his deceptively steady hands, dusting the flavorless powder over a strawberry mochi made by his mother. (Shisui had once declared that he would have nothing better for his last meal.) He remembers the day, which was overripe and sweet, redolent under a cloud-spattered sky. (It had been Shisui's idea to skip the clan meeting.) He remembers knowing, even then, that Shisui had been working for his father, how it never even occurred to him to seize upon that as justification. (Betrayal isn't measured in deeds.)
Mostly, he remembers Shisui: as carelessly flush with the confidence of golden youth as he ever was, secure in the knowledge of his own deadliness. The sweep of his pure throat. The dark spread of fabric across his shoulders. His hands sketching expressive shapes in the air, and the way his whole body moved when he laughed, jostling dark curls. Shisui, who was anything but fine-boned and delicate, nevertheless a bird on the edge of taking flight. There for the taking.
But he remembers also that when he lifted the pink rice cake to Shisui's mouth and said, "Open wide," Shisui had laughed so hard he snorted sweet tea up his nose. He was grateful for the strong late sunlight masking his face in some amalgam of love and serenity, a half-truth of sorts.
And he remembers: cutting the stones loose to let Shisui's body float away with the current, how heavy his steps were as he walked back up the slope of the Nakano's bank to where his accomplice stood in wait, a diffident watcher at the edge of the sky. It felt as though water was filling his own lungs. The giddy after-ache of brutality. The snapping of a bird's wings, so needlessly cruel. An intimate homicide, seen through the mundane filter of evil and love.
Theirs was a simple story, really—and it would hurt forever.
But he knows also that the water on his face that day was only from the river. His eyes were dry then as they are now, already trained upon an irrefutable future, for his was a purpose greater than his own existence, than anything that might have been worth the bitter ceremony of tears.
What is a man?
"—and because that wasn't shitty enough, you let everyone think I committed suicide! What gives?"
A mood swing of such velocity whiplash seems eminent. After a meditative moment, Itachi finds himself saying, "You always complained too much."
"This is true," Shisui says snidely. "But at least this time, I have a reason to, so you can't complain about having to listen to me complain."
"I never really minded having to listen."
Shisui's expression softens. Exasperation dueling with unbearable fondness—losing miserably, but too stubborn to throw in the towel. "But seriously, suicide? By drowning? Way to make a person go down in history as a gigantic loser."
"I just thought it would be fitting to your character," Itachi says. "Since you were always talking about how all manners of frivolous things made you lose your will to live."
Shisui makes a grim face, and says, "I'd like to take this time to point out that even after all these years on top of, you know, death, I still don't know why I'm friends with you."
"Do you regret it?" Itachi says. His voice feels stretched thin for a moment, tremulous in his throat, the consonants coming out blurred, all welded into one another.
Was the wait terrible?
Did it hurt?
Do you wish you'd never met me at all?
"No," Shisui says. "I don't do regrets." It's one of those lines so absurd in its unvarnished sincerity that it can't be anything but the truth. "And even if I did, you still have the rest of eternity to change my mind."
What does a person even say to that?
So Itachi says, "I don't know what to say to that."
"Rendered you speechless?" Shisui says, smug. "You know what they say. Still waters run deep."
"That proverb in no way whatsoever applies to you."
"You have no soul," Shisui mutters. "Whatever. Point is: this is it. Just the two of us for the rest of it all. Together forever. So let's get on with it already, I can barely contain my excitement."
"It's hard to be excited when you don't have any expectations," Itachi says. If he focuses on the peripheral details, perhaps it would keep his mind from latching on to the truly scary things.
Like: Just the two of us.
Like: Together forever.
"Don't worry," Shisui soothes. "Everyone's equal in death. There aren't any divine courts to judge our immortal souls—and good thing, too, because I'm pretty sure there's no one left on the other side to burn paper money for you." He slants Itachi a look. "Unless you count Sasuke."
"I don't think you can count Sasuke," Itachi confesses.
A shadow fleets across Shisui's face. "Then what was the point of going through hell and back like that?"
It's always the simplest questions that cut you to the quick. His plan was perfectly well-conceived in theory. Hatred has a way of simplifying things, you see. Hatred was to replace the conviction that his brother had always lacked and give him the strength to bear the burden that came with being an Uchiha. The same wave of despair that had crested for awhile comes surging back to suck Itachi under its tidal pull. Who could have anticipated the eventual messy and tasteless descent?
Seconds elongate into minutes. Shisui frowns. "Hey, don't make that face." His eyes hold an imploring look, achingly, astonishingly alive. "You did good, alright? Not perfect, but I don't think that's actually possible even for you. You did good. Now listen to me, and let it go."
Itachi lets his eyes fall shut on the last word, so that he doesn't have to see the expression on Shisui's face falter and collapse, see the lonely shadow that presses against the curve of his mouth, unmaking the fledgling hope that's only just nested there. "If you…" Shisui begins, in a voice fitful, scraped raw. "If you want to stay and wait for him, you could. You don't have to cross over right away. You could wait."
"No," Itachi says firmly, lifting his eyelids at last. "Sasuke will not be coming this way for a long time." He takes a breath. "And I've also waited long enough."
If he's learned anything at all from this exercise in repatriation, it's that waiting is dangerous. Tarrying gives way to forgetting, and he doesn't want to lose anything, not – another – thing. If he forgets, it will be as if Shisui has died all over again, and that is unthinkable. He knows now what destination he seeks, the shining, effulgent shore that has beckoned him all along.
Shisui gives him a searching look. "You're sure about that?"
"Yes, I am sure."
"Alright, then." Shisui jumps to his feet, and lopes forward, all long arms and legs, coming to a halt at an arbitrary spot by the river's edge. "Looks like this is it. Let's cross the river, you and I."
Itachi rises, brushing his clothes of moss and detritus. He stares out at the moonlit water. "And how are we supposed to do that?" he asks.
"I don't know," Shisui admits, rubbing the back of his neck. "There ought to be a bridge, or a boatman, or… uh."
Suddenly, 'together forever' gains a new, unsettling implication.
Not that he has time to do anything about it, because predictably, it takes approximately ten seconds for Shisui to come up with something like, "Maybe we could swim across?"
In life, Itachi was often given to understand that his expression of mild disapproval had the power to strip marrow from bone. This is the first time he's ever wished that were true, because it's not like he has Amaterasu to fall back on anymore.
"You're right," Shisui backtracks, catching his look. "Bad idea." He tilts his face up, mouth creasing into a grin, roguish and sharp. "The sky, then? Conditions are perfect for flying."
So Itachi looks up as well, and sees nothing, just a tableau of massive clouds, a cobalt sky bleeding into black. "Really," he says flatly. "How can you tell?"
Shisui's smile flashes quicksilver. "Come on. I thought you were a genius. Isn't the point of being a genius that you can see things normal people can't?"
"I believe you're thinking of the mentally ill."
"Same difference. Come on, I promise I'll get you to the other shore. Don't you trust me?"
The wind roars past. Bird. Psychopomp.
Nevertheless, he steps forward, and takes the hand Shisui offers. "Ready?" Shisui asks, and without waiting for an answer, jerks Itachi toward him. He wraps his arms around Shisui, props his head against his chest. He thinks he can hear heartbeats. So dead people have heartbeats. Everything is receding into the distance, even his regrets. Even Sasuke: now nothing more than a nondescript rock left on the far shore. Below them, the landscape is laid bare like a slab of meat, marbled grey and blue. He is the air. He is the ether. He is smoke, and right before he dissolves into the white flood of light, into the endless sky, he feels Shisui's lips flutter against his chin.
You did good.
. . . . .
It's well known that God and I don't get along together
It's just a view of the brass works for me, I don't care about the Moors
seen through you the great works of death, you are greater
You are smiling, you are emptying the world so we can be alone together.