Being under house arrest at the behest of Hurricane Irene actually had some positive effects. I hope to finish this one soon, it's yet another oneshot that grew seriously out of hand.


Almost Was Good Enough

. . .

Part I

. . .

The late summer heat was battering Tokyo into submission, and the city was ready to cry uncle. Roppongi Hills was a shimmering mirage of technicolor glass paneling and the vicious glare reflecting off of Mori Tower alone made Shisui wonder if he would soon be requiring a full head CT. He slammed his car door and broke into a mad jog to get off the burning concrete, stumbled gratefully into the temperately controlled air of the Hydra office suite all the while lamenting the fact that he hadn't had enough coffee to think beyond elevator buttons.

It was Saturday morning and technically he wasn't even supposed to be here, but the last time Shisui hadn't gone to work on a Saturday he had been nineteen and had an eyebrow piercing and not been the cockiest fast-tracker of anybody's fancy advertising agency. When he had clambered out of bed at an ungodly hour this morning to assault the alarm, his bedmate hadn't even bothered rolling over to complain. This was a sign they were getting into that dangerously comfortable stage and that Shisui needed to end it. It was kind of a shame—Yuichi had nice hair and knew his way around a French press and physically speaking was a pretty close match, but there were only so many levels Shisui could take a not-relationship before it became absolutely necessary for him to get out of dodge.

He stepped through the sliding doors and beamed at the familiar faces that greeted him, the few, the proud, the psychotic weekenders. The atmosphere in the office was sunny and mellow, dark jeans and untucked dress shirts, even a pair of Converse sneakers strolling about, but any illusions he might have fostered about having an easy morning shattered when he saw the firm's chief creative officer—his ad hoc supervisor—striding into his office with a stormier than usual expression on his perpetually frowny face.

"Terumi-san wants a word with you."

Shisui immediately choked back a surge of kneejerk panic. "She's not here, is she?"

It was a silly question, and he wasn't surprised that Ao rolled his eyes. The last time the CEO of Hydra Group had done overtime was probably back in the heydays of the bubble economy; in these troubled times there were pedicures and luncheons and egg-harvesting appointment to occupy her invaluable weekends.

"It's about that thing with the Honda people tonight," Ao said. "Apparently, her date canceled –" Shisui winced, and braced for the inevitable. "– so you'll be accompanying her instead. Something about needing someone who looks pretty in a tuxedo and fetches a fine martini."

"Why does it have to be me?" Shisui protested. "She's got a personal assistant, doesn't she? That fluffy-haired kid with the glasses? Tell her to ruin his life instead. I'm a creative director—I have creativity flows to direct."

He waved in the general direction of his desk, which he could swear had more stuff on it than when he had left the office the previous evening, meaning either that he was finally succumbing to that overdue nervous breakdown or that his documents had developed the ability to breed.

"Junior creative director," Ao corrected. "There are kids your age building rocket ships. Don't get cocky."

Shisui suspected if Ao ever met those precocious rocket scientists, he would give them the same amount of crotchety crap he doled out to him on a daily basis. "Why don't you go with her?" he challenged, and the older man made a noise that sounded suspiciously like he was choking. His ears adopted a strangely rosy tint.

Ao looked right; Shisui looked left. They nearly collided into each other dashing for the door, and as Shisui fled into the common area, he nearly slammed into his own assistant.

"Slow down there, hot stuff," Akemi said coolly, handing him a lidded paper cup. As always she looked pristine and unruffled, a trait for which Shisui hated and judged her silently. "You're making the coffee nervous. What's the rush?"

"What are you even doing here?" Shisui said, but took a grateful sip. This beatific sentiment vanished when Akemi said, "I was just leaving," and shoved a tottering stack of alphabetized folders into his arms. The mystery of his self-aggregating workload was suddenly explained. "Unlike some people, I have a life outside the office."

Shisui grimaced. "I so wish I could fire you right now."

Akemi just gave him a dulcet smile. "So what was the CCO hounding you about so early in the morning?"

"The usual tragedies," Shisui sighed. "His hair succumbing to male pattern baldness, his burning love for the boss yielding poor fruit, his midlife crisis looming on the horizon… Sad, sad stuff. Mei really should put the man out of his misery, but I think she's enjoying it too much."

"I hear Terumi-san watches a lot of Mad Men," Akemi conspired.

Shisui figured this was likely true, since there were days he too was deeply convinced his boss was the female version of Don Draper, but she also paid him a cool twenty million a year to flatten the world with his revolutionary campaigns, not to stand around the water cooler discussing American cable television like some bored housewife. "In any case," he said, pushing aside a molehill of unopened DHL packages to make room for the new folders, "she'll have to find someone else to put through the wringer tonight, because I have a date."

"You don't date," Akemi said, wrinkling her pretty nose. "You made me draft a memo about it to pass around the office. It's like a policy."

"I'm completely serious," Shisui said grandly. "Tonight, I'm having dinner with one of the most beautiful women in Japan."

-x-

He was completely lying, of course. Aunt Mikoto was not his "date". Strictly speaking, she was not even Shisui's real aunt. She was the wife of his mother's older brother, and this was the first time they would be meeting face to face in more than seven years.

He pondered this fact and all the implications wherewithal all the way to the restaurant, some glitzy celebrity-endorsed affair that had just opened its doors and not yet made it into all the hippest lifestyle magazines. He had chosen it specifically to minimize the chance of running into somebody he knew who was liable to slap him in the face and spew comments like, "You're a piece of shit and I hope you rot in hell." It was a completely lost cause at this point, but he still hadn't broken himself of the habit of bending over backward for Mikoto's approval.

It was an October day sixteen years ago when Shisui had kissed his still-dozing mother goodbye and left for school and come home an orphan. When he returned to their tiny flat it was to stern policemen and buzzing neighbors and snatches of foreign-sounding words like "overdose" and "possession charges". After the police had taken his confused and hysterical statement, he had spent three nightmarish days in the custody of the disgruntled landlady, who was more concerned about the two months of rent Shisui's mother still owed her than whether or not his family could be tracked down. She was considerably happier when, on the third day, a well-dressed woman appeared on her doorstep asking for her nephew.

Mikoto, it transpired, had left her one-year-old in the care of the nanny and booked a ticket for Osaka immediately after receiving the call. To Shisui, she was an alien Madonna-like presence, an intruder into the life he was still desperately clinging to, but that first night when he curled up like a shrimp in his queen-sized hotel bed and couldn't seem to stop crying long enough to lose consciousness, she ran her long tapered fingers through his matted hair and sang him a whispering song, and as much as he wanted to keep her at a remote planetary distance, he knew now he'd never stood a chance.

"Listen, Shisui-kun," Mikoto said softly. "When I was twelve, my father and I were caught in an accident. We were driving home from a New Year party when another car swiped into ours, and we went off the road. My father died on impact."

It would be years before he learned the greater and more truthful details of these events. When the other car had t-boned theirs, part of the car door had actually broken loose and embedded itself in her father's chest, and Mikoto had watched, trapped by the seatbelt, as he had bled out in the gathering snow. She had sat in the freezing car with him for four hours before help had arrived, and had a long, jagged scar along the side of her neck where a shard of windshield glass had sliced her flesh millimeters away from her carotid artery.

Shisui raised his smudged face from the damp pillow. "D'ya miss him?"

"Every day," she told him then. "But it gets better, I promise."

Arriving at the restaurant, Shisui stopped at the entrance and touched the collar of his shirt in a slightly self-conscious way, feeling all of eight years old again. His keys jingled in his pocket as he walked through the door, and all he could think about was how seven years ago he had snuck out of Mikoto's house in the middle of the night and boarded a train out of town without a single word of thanks or goodbye.

-x-

Beyond the requisite greetings, neither of them could really think of how to begin the conversation, and instead spent a disproportionate amount of time pleating their napkins into perfect triangles. Not exactly cold, but wary, as expected of estranged relatives. Finally, Shisui downed his aperitif in a practiced movement that had the servers looking at him askance, and cleared his throat before saying, "Is the family well?"

For some reason being in her company gave him the urge to break out in Kansai-ben; the coarse, melodic sounds were still there, lying dormant underneath years of posh standard dialect wearing on his voice box.

Presently, Mikoto put down her glass of sherry. She looked older, but still elegant and streamlined, a lady in tasteful black. A faint smile flashed across her face, vanishing completely when she threaded her mouth into a tense line and said, "Grandmother has passed away."

Shisui dry-swallowed, but kept his expression even.

"It was Alzheimer's," Mikoto continued. "She was diagnosed four years ago."

"Oh," Shisui said. "That's… fast." Much too fast, from what he knew of the disease, which was admittedly little.

Mikoto nodded delicately. "I know it's a lot to take in at once.

"No, Mikoto-san," Shisui insisted, waving his hand for emphasis. "I'm fine, really. Do you want me at the funeral? Is that why you've come up?"

At this, she looked slightly uncomfortable. "We held the wake last week, the funeral the day after. I'm sorry we didn't inform you earlier but it was her wishes."

That surprised him not at all. "I understand."

In the ambient light of the citronella candles, he could see Mikoto's throat working, a strained motion. A knot of horror twisted in his chest. He would never not know it, the expression that showed her emotions so close to the surface, the fraught and sincere affection she had for him. That this had happened—her again having to be the person coming after him—was a source of shame for Shisui, reminder that he was no more than a chasm in the hills and valleys of her life.

"We looked for you," she said finally, in a weak, tinny voice. "We really did."

Shisui cut his gaze away, and remembered that another reason he had chosen this restaurant was because it was French and ensured him an arsenal of utensils to nervously fiddle with. "It wasn't your fault," he said, fingering the salad fork. "I didn't want to be found."

"I had a feeling that might have been the case," Mikoto said. "But we looked anyway, and we did eventually succeed."

Shisui stopped picking at his appetizer and looked up in surprise. "You did?"

"When you were taking your university entrance exams, you contacted Masafumi-sensei for your high school records. He was the one who told us that you were in Tokyo."

"Oh. Right."

"Grandmother made us take a vow," she explained, speaking slowly and deliberately. "This was just around the time when we found out that she was sick and she—she had us make a vow that we wouldn't try to contact you until after she was gone."

It figures, he thought, and clamped his jaw just in time to stop himself from saying it. A side benefit of being on constant image-control duty: knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

"Toward the end, there was a brief period when she became lucid again," Mikoto said. "That was when she told us to make sure that you are present for the reading of the will."

And that was all there was to it.

They made determinedly airy chatter from that point on, and dinner ended soon afterward. Shisui shouted down Mikoto's protest and drove her back to her hotel. Traffic had dwindled by the time he was making his way back across town so he allowed himself a little recklessness, took a few turns faster than they liked it in driving school, relishing the way the Bentley handled under his hands. Pulling up at a red light, he stared at his knuckles taut against the steering wheel, his perfect two-ten-grip. The will, huh? Strictly business, but it necessitated going back. Going home.

Damn.

-x-

On the flight back to Nagoya all those years ago, Mikoto had explained to Shisui that it was his grandmother who had ordered her to go fetch him from Osaka. This was the first time in his life that Shisui learned his mother's mother was still alive. He was also just now coming to realize that it wouldn't just be him and his aunt living together—other people would have to be there too.

"What's grandma like?" Shisui asked, poking at his soggy fruit salad.

Mikoto was quiet for a moment. "Grandmother is… traditional." She gave him a reassuring smile. "But that's not all. You'll get to meet your uncle and cousins as well. We have two boys—my oldest is only two years younger than you. I hope you two will get along, Shisui-kun."

For some reason, her expression floundered a little around that last remark, so Shisui had to wonder if Mikoto's older son was some kind of obnoxious demon child. That would be the perfect cherry to top this cake of fear and dread.

"Konoha is a very small town," his aunt went on in the same uncertain tone, seeming to have lost her ease. "Nothing like Osaka, so it may take some getting used to, but we're only a hop and a skip from Nagoya proper. I'm sure that you will be very happy there."

Shisui mumbled an unintelligible assent, and forked a limp slice of honeydew into his mouth, staring out the window at the snowy blanket of clouds. He was all kinds of adjectives at the moment, but 'happy' wasn't one of them.

It didn't help his nerves any to see the house, a sprawling two-storied monstrosity, preponderant and shadowed, the kind of grand but fading pre-war mansion built by men whose family history spanned the vista of years. At the moment, however, the castle was without a presiding lord—the only son and heir apparent was a city councilman who was seldom home. For many years now, Uchiha household had been run by women—specifically, one woman, the sixty-year-old matriarch Uchiha Shizuka. She was the galactic center of their little globular cluster, the core around which they existed as satellites, bound tight as a tick.

An older couple met them at the door, and obviously Shisui had never had a servant but he knew one when he saw one. The man immediately swooped in for the luggage and wordlessly disappeared into the house. He hung back, shuffling his foot nervously while Mikoto held a whispered conversation with the woman, something about a baby and dinner preparation. After a moment, she turned and asked the lady to show Shisui to his room.

"Of course, m'am," the woman said haltingly. "It's just that… Shizuka-sama… she would like to see him. First thing, she said."

They exchanged a look. "I see," Mikoto said, and now her voice too had gone a little skewed. "Well, Shisui-kun, please follow Tomoe-san for now. I will see you later." Even her soft encouraging smile couldn't alleviate his growing apprehension, nor mask her own.

-x-

He was shuffled into a sitting room that, like every other part of the house he'd seen, was sleek, roomy, sparsely decorated but still ample with the galling evidence of plenty—embroidered sitting pillows, ikebana and jade ornaments on dark wood tables, a hanging scroll on the wall of the alcove. His grandmother sat at the center, limbs folded in strict seiza. The bleached sunlight filtered through the shoji doors struck one side of her face, presenting a severe dichotomy.

Shisui could only imagine how he must have appeared to her at that first meeting, a ratty coltish thing with knobby knees and elbows, brimming with cheek; an adenoidal-voiced nuisance.

Shizuka looked up at him blankly. "Well, sit down," she said, nodding at a cushion directly opposite from her. "And straighten up when you're being spoken to."

Shisui scowled. People who swept around being all disdainful at others always rubbed him up the wrong way. "I'm lookin' right at'cha, ain't I?"

His grandmother lifted a thin eyebrow unurgently. She picked up the teapot and filled a small cup before pushing it toward Shisui. He stared at the pale green liquid like it was poison.

"You took your mother's name in the family register," said Shizuka, sipping from her own cup.

Shisui nodded, somewhat dubiously. Who else's would he take?

"Kiyoko would do that," his grandmother said. "Clever of her. She always tried so hard to disown this family, but clearly wasn't above making use of the advantages it provides."

It would take Shisui a long time to work it out, but the fact of the matter was the battle lines of this war had been drawn long before he ever arrived at this house. Uchiha Kiyoko had not always been as her son knew her. Separated from her older brother by a nearly a decade, she had been the baby of the brood, favorite of her father and a darling in the extended family. They had thought her wise beyond her years, when in reality she had been young beyond her youth, sly and charming and spoiled, and when she had run away and left it all behind—for love, of all things—her betrayal had never been forgiven. As if forgiveness could have redeemed her.

The scary thing—the scary thing was that Shisui could see his mother in Shizuka. She had the same aquiline nose, tangled hair pushed away from her angular face in a roiling knot, dark wells of fatigue floating her sharp eyes. The other similarities were even worse. He'd loved his mother fiercely and irrationally, would have moved heaven and earth to have her back again, but even he had to admit that she had been anything but an easy person to be related to. She'd been far from a perfect mother, cried sometimes but mostly yelled and hit when frustrated, and she had been shrill and awful with people and made their lives more difficult than it needed to be. To witness all her worst qualities aged by three decades and cranked up to eleven was like a sick joke.

"And what's become of your father, child?"

"Dunno," Shisui muttered. "I never met 'im."

Shizuka's lips lifted in a scornful sneer, and suddenly the deep, plummy shadows under her almond eyes seemed cruel and grotesque, intent with malice. Shisui was momentarily glad, because even at her meanest that expression had never appeared on his mother's face.

"I should have expected as much," she said serenely. "Really, I don't know how I could have raised such a shameless whore."

Something in Shisui snapped.

Even though in the years to come he too would start to look back with less than reverent eyes, would trivialize, crack jokes and make blasphemous remarks—"My mama used to rub my back with alcohol when I was sick, unless she'd already drunk it all first."—it didn't change the fact that her absence stung like a spanking and the grief was still too raw and manifest for him to be sitting here listening to some supposed "family" cast aspersions on her character.

The tea cup flew with deadly accuracy. Shisui's mind held a precise flash of Shizuka's desiccated gray face wet and alight with shock, her absolute power for one instant diluted, and the next thing he knew Tomoe had him by the arm and was dragging him frantically down the endless corridor, up a narrow flight of stairs. A door slammed, and he was alone in the dark.

-x-

The room was in the servants' old quarters, two floors up, a former kitchen that had been transformed into a semi-storage unit with books stacked in the blackened stove and all manners of knickknacks piled in the sink. A single cot was wedged beneath the dormer window, the glass too grimy to look out from. Ten feet by ten feet, the room was the size of a prison cell and smelled of old charcoal, but Shisui didn't care. Fine by him. He could stay here forever. He would never come out again.

By nightfall however he was tired and cold and hungry and no longer feeling so brave. There was only a single naked bulb in the room, casting an oily yellow light, and the stripped dressmaker's dummy in the corner was beginning to look sinister. Shisui shuddered, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a click in the lock. Momentarily, the door creaked open, and he saw through the gap two very grey eyes flicked with charcoal, peering at him incuriously.

A silent beat, and then the visitor stepped fully into the room, carrying a tray laden with bowls and chopsticks. Shisui scooted back a little on the bed, half-certain he was facing an apparition.

"Who're ya?"

"My name is Itachi," the boy answered, which clarified exactly nothing. "Mother asked me to bring you this, since you missed dinner." He placed the tray on an end table and stared at Shisui expectantly.

"Are ya Aunt Mikoto's older kid?" Shisui ventured.

Itachi nodded. For a six-year-old, he was a very small, very intense child, but at least now he seemed more solid, not quite as ghostly. Just another hitherto unknown kin.

"Are you going to eat?"

"Oh, yeah."

While Shisui practically inhaled the food, Itachi sat himself down on the cot and continued to watch him with that steady, flatly nonjudgmental gaze. He looked like someone who had been taught it was impolite to stare, but staunchly believed it was only a matter of the proper approach.

"When you've finished, I can show you to your room," he said after a moment, sounding at once practiced and impromptu. His was a masculine voice, husky, unsentimental, utterly direct. "You must be tired from your trip."

Shisui swallowed a mouthful of chicken hastily and said, "Ya mean this ain't my room?"

"No," Itachi said, and gave him a weird look. "This is the garret. You'll be sharing a room with me, in the east wing."

"We hafta share?" Shisui asked. "Why? This house is huge. This room is almost as big as my old apartment." A vague ache flared in him for a second, but he resolutely forced it down.

Itachi shrugged; he had no explanation, and felt no need to devise one. Tough audience, Shisui thought. For no reason, it made him grin. Strange little dude.

As they made their way downstairs—Shisui insisting on taking over tray-bearing duty—his cousin looked over his shoulder abruptly and said, "I don't know if anyone's told you, but you've been enrolled at my school. It's very close to the house. I always walk."

"Okay," Shisui said. "Y'gonna take me tomorrow?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Tomorrow is Sunday."

"What grade are ya in?"

"Second."

"But yer two years younger than me."

"That's true."

Shisui blinked in silence, transfixed by the consistency of this deadpan delivery. The food had taken warm residence inside him, driving his mind into a glowy, amniotic stupor.

"Well, I hope ya don't snore."

-x-

Itachi didn't snore, but he did get up at six am to do radio calisthenics, a fact which horrified Shisui to no end. After the squats and the sit-ups and the jumping jacks he was basically ready to throw himself out the window to escape.

In response to Shisui's reasonable complaints about sleep-deprivation, his cousin said, "But it's good for your health." His eyes narrowed. "Don't you do any morning exercise?"

"Not really," Shisui said. "Um, I play soccer after school sometimes."

He wasn't thrilled about having another encounter with his grandmother, but in immense relief discovered that she had left town to visit a friend. Instead, Shisui was introduced to his uncle in a meeting that left no impression whatsoever. Secretly, he was grateful not to find any traces of his mother in her older brother, who seemed more disposed to blandness and stoic silence.

After breakfast, Itachi attempted to interest Shisui in his favorite thing in the whole wide world: his little brother. This endeavor yielded limited success, though Shisui was quick to assure him that while Sasuke was simply overflowing with positive qualities, it was a personal taste thing and babies were just not – his – thing. He couldn't tell if Itachi was satisfied with this half-assed justification or not, and fled the foul-smelling nursery before he could find out.

Scouting about, Shisui found his favored spot, and set up camp by the miniature pond in the far corner of the garden, under the shade of a gnarled-ancient willow tree. Something about the still green water filled him with a cleansed, cathartic calm. He dozed off in the cool breeze at some indeterminate point, woke up to a ham sandwich in his face.

"Yer a little spooky, ya know that? Like a sticky thing that won't blow off."

Itachi rounded his shoulders in a sedate movement that was becoming familiar, acknowledging this accusation without deference. He brushed crumbs from his shirt, patiently waited for Shisui to initiate conversation. The remainder of the afternoon was devoted to discussing the fact that everyone in Shisui's newly discovered tribe was related to a scientifically worrying degree.

"Wow." Shisui expelled an awed breath. "We're so weird. Ya'd think one of us woulda been born with, like, gills or something."

Itachi actually checked, slipping his spatulate fingers under Shisui's chin with a faintly consternated expression, blinking uncomprehendingly when Shisui protested that it tickled. "No gills there," he concluded, drawing his hand away.

It was as if he had already installed Shisui into his daily routine. An oddball, for sure, almost supernaturally quiet and wry, but Shisui had taken a shine to it immediately. He was easily drawn to quirks, fascinated by human puzzles.

-x-

He was glad to see Monday arrive, because it meant school. He'd done this before, changed schools at the drop of a hat and had taken to each upheaval like a fish in new-but-acceptable water. Besides which, he liked school, if for no reason other than that he was good at it. He'd always done his homework by himself and netted pretty decent grades. School was familiar territory; he'd conquered it before and would do so again effortlessly.

After suffering through the principal's corny speech about how each of them was a Little Leaf with a Will of Fire and zzzzz, everyone had fallen asleep ten minutes ago, Shisui was finally introduced to class 3-E. His new classmates were curious about Osaka. Most of them had never been outside the village. They also thought he talked funny, but he gladly went along with it and played up the quaint golly-gee bromides for all they were worth. Just little things, no biggie.

Then it was lunch time, and apparently their little hick town school didn't do set lunches so the children brought their own bento. This was awesome except for the part where nobody had bothered informing Shisui about it, but it was fine anyway since he could make do with Fumi-chan's omelette and Kyoko-chan's fried chicken and Nagisa-chan's curry bread. He was about to go halfsies with Keita-kun on an onigiri when he felt a light tap on his shoulder.

"Here," Itachi said, this time holding out a bento wrapped in a navy blue furoshiki.

"Did yer mama give you this job?" Shisui asked, grinning. "Bringin' me food?"

"You should bring it yourself, starting tomorrow."

"No problem. Hey, wanna join us?"

Something flickered through Itachi's eyes. He glanced over Shisui's shoulder, to where his classmates were gathered, staring at them in ordinary curiosity. Shisui had thought him unflappable, but all of a sudden and for no apparent reason he seemed to have been thoroughly flapped. Lapsed silent, he crossed the schoolyard in a hurried, staccato gait. And Shisui, gripping his lunchbox and gawking like an idiot, only nascently coming to comprehend the tenderness this boy could bring forth in him. What he had taken for droll, placid cheer might actually be the subdued behavior of one who had never been properly socialized. It should come as no surprise. He had after all (Shisui thought with distaste) grown up under Grandmother's noxious influence.

When they got home Shizuka was back and had "company" over. For reasons indiscernible to the sane, she wanted Shisui to attend tea with them, and it took no time at all for her to show her bitch colors and him to run his mouth off and cause another scene. Predictably he got sent to the garret again, where hours later Itachi fulfilled his duty and brought Shisui his dinner.

-x-

"Shisui. Wake up."

He shook his head, groggy. His skin was clammy and cold, and just felt so wrong. A shadow like death stood mutely at his bedside.

"You were yelling in your sleep."

Just Itachi, then.

"Wha'? I was?"

Itachi gave a tiny nod. Shisui uncurled from his usual prawn impression and rubbed at his eyes tiredly. His cheeks felt alarmingly wet. Above him, the fan loomed like a giant starfish glommed ominously to the ceiling.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Itachi tuck his elbows into his sides, hugging his fine-ribbed chest over his t-shirt. His breathing slowed, like he was trying to work out a problem. He inhaled, as if to speak, then resolutely closed his mouth and flattened his palm over Shisui's eyes.

"What're ya doin'?"

"Mother told me you were having a hard time and that I should try my best to help you adjust," Itachi said matter-of-factly. "Is this helping?"

Actually, it weirded him the hell out, but after the initial startle of resistance, he relaxed easily enough. Something about the human palm, that smooth waxy surface, was so perfectly suited for calming a fevered brow. You can't bandage a palm, his mother had once said, after getting a shard of broken glass embedded in hers. The skin won't allow it. It's a freaky callus left over from the apes. It occurred to him she might have been the worse for drink, but the memory seemed to have gained a dimension of humor post-loss. Stubborn, fickle, apish skin. He wasn't one for grief-stricken prostrations. His mother was dead and he was eight, absolutely entitled to succumb, but he wouldn't. No matter what happened, he would live.

"Uh," Shisui said. "Yah. Little bit. Thanks." He shifted awkwardly. "Ya don't hafta stand there. I'm okay now, go back to yer bed."

"I'm fine right here."

"Then lie down a'least," he slurred, already drowsy. "I'll be asleep lickety-split."

For the second time that day, there was that flicker of hesitance. This time, however, Itachi complied with his suggestion—possibly because it was framed like a request. He felt a weight on his foot, then his calf. Itachi's hair was soft and hot and his hand balled beside his cheek smelled like baby shampoo; after finishing homework, he had spent the evening playing with his brother.

"…this is a very small bed."

"Mm'kay," Shisui mumbled, drifting off. For the first time in days, when he closed his eyes and felt longing deep to the marrow of his bones, it wasn't for the past.

. . .

TBC