Almost Was Good Enough

. . .

Part III

. . .

You have infiltrated and overtaken me
even in your absence till
you've turned me into a language
I cannot speak without you.

—Zen Oleary

. . .

All in all, about half a year went by. It was the end of February, that slim month of strange, sentimental whims. Shisui's desk piled high with boxes of chocolate left over from Valentine's that he kept forgetting to toss out—against all reason his haul this year was bigger than ever, proving that abject scandal just made a person more desirable. The day was utterly disgusting, chilly and vaporous, a miserable rain dragging itself listlessly across the land, the sky bruised and spiteful. Shisui wrapped his scarf more tightly around his face, taking the stairs two at a time, looking forward to nothing more than crawling out of his damp clothes and into a thick blanket.

He found all the lights switched on in his room, and Itachi sitting on the edge of his bed.

Shisui stopped in the middle of the doorway, scowling. "We don't share a room anymore, y'know?" he said. "Maybe next time ya could try knockin'?"

Itachi remained silent, sitting there like a plum with who knew what condemning thoughts whirling around in his head. Shisui felt like plunging a hand into his hair, frustrated beyond words.

"Grandmother doesn't leave the house much these days," Itachi said, apropos of nothing.

"Hag's gettin' old. Yer point?"

"So you're much more at liberty to do as you wish, living up here."

Shisui blinked in confusion, then followed Itachi's gaze and found him looking at the wastebasket, its bottom lined with condom wrappers. A sudden heat flushed to his face.

In a savage motion, he ripped off his jacket and threw it on the floor. "Ya know what, I'm so sick of this shit," he snapped. "Ya want to bust on somebody, find yerself a girlfriend to bust on."

Itachi's shoulders jumped a little, like he'd been tasered. He dropped his eyes to the floor, and Shisui bit his bottom lip. Sometimes it just floored him that no matter how he was provoked, it still made him feel like total shit to put that expression on Itachi's face. He wheeled away into another corner of the room just to place as much temporary distance between them as possible.

"Ya don't hafta to do this," Shisui said to the wall. "I get it a'ready."

"But you have to understand why I did it."

"Because it was the right thing to do, I gotcha, a'right?" He didn't know how much more of this he could take, and if Itachi started telling him it wasn't like that and produced a flowchart to delineate the utter rationality in the logic of his actions, some degree of manslaughter would go down. "I shoulda known ya wouldn't make an exception just 'cos it was me."

"No," Itachi said, going a little off-kilter. "It wasn't the right thing to do. It was wrong. And I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to do it anyway. And you are an exception."

It hit like a bullet to the spine. Shisui caught his breath, and forced himself to turn around. He stared at the knobs of Itachi's knuckles, pressed tightly into the bed sheet, and saw for the first time that his best loved friend was shrouded in a loneliness darker than his eyes, quieter than his voice, of such salience an astronaut could have seen it from space.

"Itachi…" he said, strangled. "You…"

Itachi's head dipped even further, bangs falling to shield his eyes. "Does it gross you out?"

His voice sounded on the edge of breaking. Shisui felt a tender stirring inside him, his heart suddenly too heavy for one. In two strides he crossed the room and knelt down beside the bed, lifted Itachi's face, thumb brushing the ridge of his hairline, the sharp line of his jaw.

"No," he said. "No, it doesn't gross me out."

Time gelled and then skipped forward again, stumbling a little over the missed beat. Before he could say anything else, Itachi leaned forward and kissed him, a nervous diver going for that last beckoning pearl. He broke off almost as quickly, but Shisui pulled him back in, stroked his hair and tangled their bodies together, almost dragging them both onto the floor. He pressed his mouth to Itachi's and kept muttering, "See? It's okay. It's okay," and swallowed down every surge of panic that loomed up his throat each time he repeated the refrain.

Was it really okay? Fuck if he knew. Did that matter? Not in the least. If Itachi wanted it, it was as good as done.

And just like that, his heart was pounding, his pulse throbbing in his neck. He dragged himself up the side of the bed and sat next to Itachi, knee-to-knee, urging his head down to rest on his shoulder as they folded against each other. There was a long silence. On the windowpane, raindrops pattered a soft oblivious obbligato in accompaniment.

"Um. So. What do ya wanna do now?"

"I want to touch you."

Shisui deliberated for a moment, and then stopped, and made a decision. "Okay." He reached over his shoulders and pulled off his t-shirt, then got up, unbuttoned his jeans, and dropped them to the floor. His underwear followed, and then he was naked, taut, bared for whatever was coming next. "There. Touch whatever ya want."

They started with slow, tentative touches, then fell into deep explorative kisses. Itachi slid his hand down Shisui's back, pressed him closer in. His face did something complicated, and all of a sudden it was overwhelmingly clear that he was fourteen, which made the fact that Shisui was on the point of unzipping his uniform trousers some kind of terrible. At least he'd locked the door.

It wasn't as if they could stop, what with the way Itachi's white shirt was rucked up over his fair, smooth stomach, the dark fan of his lashes quivering over his flushed cheeks. Determined not to turn this into a disaster like his first time (both of them), Shisui rolled on top and helped Itachi throw one leg over his hip, showed him how to move so that they were in sync, rolling and riding against each other. A vapor filled up his head, terrifyingly vertiginous, and he almost couldn't breathe through the errant heat and the invisible intoxicants in the air.

But there was a single crystallized moment amidst the rocking motions when Itachi's face achieved such a beautiful, heartbreaking rictus under him that Shisui knew, with a final resigned ache, that it would matter fuck all how many lectures he gave himself about the dangers of mixing friendship with sex. That thrilling frisson running up his spine was the whorled beginnings of something powerful – grand and sweeping and utterly agonizing. In him had formed an unswerving internal compass, its polarity set at immovably at magnetic north. From the moment his gaze fell on this face, he would never lift it.

It was over in a matter of minutes, shaky and heated and needy. Itachi's breath hitched; he bucked and lifted his hips frantically into Shisui's thigh, and Shisui could feel him coming hard, feel the flex and release of his own cock a few seconds later. He eased their bodies into a more comfortable position, still intertwined on the twisted sheets, glowing with the flush that had sprung to their skin.

When they finally disentangled, the rain outside had escalated into a shower. Shisui fetched a box of tissues to clean them both up, and then they were back in their clothes, rumpled and awkward, scrubbing at dubious stains. He thought about grabbing a comb and redoing Itachi's hair as well, because if he walked out of here looking like that, they were as good as busted.

"Thank you," Itachi said abruptly, taking a half-hearted totter toward the door. "I—you didn't have to. I know this wasn't your idea, and it won't happen again. You can—"

Shisui stalked over and pulled Itachi back against him. Grabbed his face and kissed him firm, feeling angry and possessive—and maybe that was what this had always been about.

"Hey," he said tightly. "Hey. This ain't just a one-time thing. I wanted it too. Ya do not get to feel ashamed about this, alright? Are ya in this with me or not?"

Itachi's breath exploded outward with relief as he returned the kiss, sealing the pact. The blissed-out glow on his skin still hadn't faded. Soon enough, they were out of their clothes again.

"We'll have to go soon," Itachi murmured against his shoulder, not sounding terribly pressed. "Dinner."

Shisui laughed softly. "That's plenty of time," he said, "plenty of time," and at the time it really did feel that way, it really did.


That day stayed with him. Through all those years where his life kept falling spectacularly together while everything in his head fell spectacularly apart. Days of an unknown dialect forcing itself on his voice and dusky-haired ghosts flashing by the corners of his eyes, nights spent sucking cocks and licking cunts and jerking off to the image of his erstwhile best friend the first time they had had sex. At times it even spilled over into the bedroom—consequently he had lost so many lovers, at least back when he'd still harbored delusions of committed relationship grandeur. He didn't do it the whole time, never called out the wrong name, yet somehow they were always able to tell. After awhile, he gave up on trying to make things last.

One memorable exception happened in his sophomore year, when he met and dated a non-traditional student five years his senior who had returned to university after an extended break. She called him out on it almost immediately, while they were sacked out on the floor of her messy apartment recovering from an epic fuck-a-thon.

"Don't lose your shit," Anko said, forestalling his kneejerk denial with an amused smile. "I was doing the same thing."

"Who were you thinking of?" Shisui asked. He flopped over onto his stomach, suddenly curious.

"My old professor," she said, and laughed meanly when he pulled a face.

"I hope the 'old' part there is just figurative."

"He wasn't much for looks," Anko said. "But he had a very talented tongue."


"Ew is right," she said, somewhat sourly. "That man wasn't good for me—or for anyone, really. Some guys are plain assholes and I can deal with that, but this one, he just has a bad soul. I hate that it took me so long to realize it." She tilted her head at him, shifted her breasts against her arms. "Was it like that for you?"

"Nah," Shisui said. "Mine was practically a saint. Canonized by the Vatican."

"Then why?"

"You know," he said. "The typical stuff: family, society, irreconcilable personal differences."

Anko lifted her eyebrow skeptically. "And you let that stop you? Why didn't you just ask her to run away with you or something?"

Shisui didn't feel like clarifying the whole 'it was a he not a she' thing, so he just said, "Tried it."


"No go."

Anko clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Them's the break, huh?" She threw her bra at his head. "Hey, stop getting emo all over my duvet. You want a blowjob or something?" When she graduated and moved back to Beppu four months later, he was expectably devastated.

"I was gonna pop the question, you know," he told her in the airport bar, their farewell party of two. "Had a ring picked out and everything."

Anko snorted, swilling her glass lazily. "If I were the marrying type, you can put a soda tab on this finger."

"Now I think I'll save up to buy a speedboat instead."

"What is it with guys and boats?"

He laughed. "How can you not love something that goes from zero to sixty in less than 10 seconds? I like fast things—fast planes, fast boats, fast cars."

"Fast girls?"

"Not in particular."

"So I'm an exception?" Anko took another sip, curving a wry, fragmented smirk around the rim of her glass. "You know, I never gave a shit before but what's your type, anyway? That chick who broke your heart, what was she like?"

Turning away from her, Shisui stared out the massive glass window and saw another plane taking off in the distance, the lights on its wingtips brighter than the emerging stars. Explaining things in full seemed awfully complicated, so he said, simply, "I like the ascent."


Only that wasn't even close to the truth.

What he was into was far more like midair collision. The defining characteristic of a free spirit was a taste for disaster, for a life always one fatal misstep sway from falling apart. You were up for whatever—but in the event of an emergency, secure your own mask before assisting others.

At the time, the only thing he knew was that their relationship was undergoing a metamorphosis. First to go were the conversations. They used to talk endlessly, waged intense university-level debates on every subject under the sun. Now that time was a rare commodity, who could spare any for words? When you loved somebody, your flesh loved theirs: they would meet, fumble shyly a bit, and gradually let their bodies find each other, letting whatever information they needed to convey filter through the shared silence. Time together, however brief and meaningless, always left something under his skin.

On New Year's Eve, almost a year into the affair and nine since their stars first crossed each other's sky like two fragments chipped directly from the empyreal mosaic, Shisui snuck a bottle into his room and the two of them sat cross-legged on his bed in t-shirts and boxers toasting each other in silence, heartbeats almost audible in their chests. When midnight came Itachi leaned over and gave him a deep kiss, mouth burning and sweet with champagne, his mysterious hair finally loosened from its restraint and twined exquisitely in Shisui's fingers. They hoisted their glasses one last time, let the sparkling liquid spill onto the sheets over which they later made love.

He remembered lying awake afterward watching Itachi's sooty lashes fluttering shut to rest against his cheeks, glinting the barest hints of deep red under the soft lamp by the bed, a haunting contrast. Love a fog in his head, a drunken undertow. Never once imagining that someday, that feeling might find its dark twin.

But standing in his former abode now, facing the empty, frugal bed and the writing desk he had long ago liberated from his grandfather's study, Shisui was struck suddenly with anger. He went to the rust-flecked window, through which the east wing of the house was visible. He had stood at this very spot night after night staring out into the gathering dark, hoping to see a single window still lit. Now that he was here—and just like back then—Itachi was everywhere.

Why did he ever do it? Intimacy pained Itachi—that he knew. For this reason, he never encouraged his brother's clinginess, not that it helped any. What, then, had he hoped to get out of their relationship? Why had he let Shisui be the one first through his lips, his heart? What ludicrous romantic notions had he clung to, and, when they had failed him, immediately rejected? Because it was like that, and it must have been like that—Itachi, the brilliant scientific mind, taking on love, the unproven theory. That it had managed to defeat him could be no more than a silly fluke. Once his hypothesis had proven false, it was time to throw it out and start over.

Shisui shook his head, trying to rid himself of the disturbing thought. Bitterness was getting the better of him; he was being unfair, unkind. Probably the truth was much simpler. Perhaps even as simple as that those early romances, incendiary and thrilling, eventually must all be extinguished. They were going at an unsustainable rate, like they just couldn't get enough, hell-bent on wrecking themselves on each other's body. Plowing headlong into the kamikaze terms of their roughshod love—a love they childishly perceived to be at once fated and half-baked, private and untouchable and tragic as the white teeth of winter that secretly loved the last red shreds of fall.

But a secret of that scale was like a needle in a cloth sack, and as fate would have it, the first person to suss them out was the one person who should not have been allowed to know.


He knew he couldn't hide from his relatives in the carriage house forever—so he left, and went to see Hinata. She was one of the last people he had talked to before leaving town, and possibly the only person in the village who might be willing to speak to him now.

The servant who greeted him performed a perfectly crisp lift of the eyebrow and ushered him into the sitting room, announcing in an even more flawlessly condescending tone that Young Miss will be down presently—proving once again what crazy mirror lands they lived in, despite the fact that the Hyuuga house was spacious and bright and filled with people who looked like ukiyo-e subjects, whereas the Uchiha mansion was gloomy and dark and inhabited by creatures plucked out of European gothic literature.

"Shisui-san," a voice said from the doorway.

Hinata had always been pretty, but the last time he'd seen her she had still been wishbone thin and slump-shouldered, sleek dark hair chopped bluntly around her neck. Now? Well, Young Miss indeed. She took two steps into the room, and Shisui leapt to his feet and swept her into a whirlwind hug, dragging her clean off the floor.

She yelped in surprise and returned the embrace, laughing helplessly into his shoulder as he brushed her long hair. Growing up did her a lot of good, he though, in a totally non-creepy way.

"Hey, you," he whispered. "Want to go see the windmill?"

"It's a little late in the day. How about a walk? I have so much to ask you."

They scattered fireflies along the dimly-lit path of the Hyuuga's enormous garden. Shisui listened, pleasant enough, as she quizzed him intelligently about his new life. When it was finally his turn to ask how she had been, Hinata instead replied with, "Neji-niisan went to Tokyo too."

Shisui glanced at her sidelong. "Did he?" he said carefully. "What for?"

"University. He applied to Keio." She paused for a significant moment, and before Shisui could give his congratulations, said, "I don't think he's coming back."

"I see."

"And Mother came home." Two pieces of contradictory news, delivered with the same troubled expression. Shisui couldn't help marveling at that, until he remembered there was nothing particularly marvelous about having to see someone you loved every single day but be unable to look them straight in the face, for fear of seeing once-familiar eyes now glazed with depression and the medications used to suppress it. Awful as it sounded, psychiatric facilities existed for a reason: to ration down that experience, portion it into high-concentrate easy-digestible bites.

"Shisui-san," Hinata said, after an awkward pause. "Have you ever thought about settling down?"

"Settling down? You mean getting married? Spawning?"

"Well… yes," she said, slightly flustered.

Shisui slowed his steps to a more deliberate pace. This was a personal current he didn't tap into a rule, but like a lot of his other personal rules, it didn't apply to her. "Hinata," he began earnestly. "Do you know that feeling, that wonderful, magical feeling people get when the whole world goes quiet and they look into the eyes of the one person they just know in their heart of heart that they're going to spend the rest of their life with?"

"Yes?" she said, hopeful.

"That's how I feel about a Koenigsegg commercial."

Hinata looked horrorstruck. "You don't mean that."

"No, it's true," Shisui said, laughing. "It's who I am. To question my absolutes is to question the meaning of my existence." He forced his face to hold together a serious expression long enough to say, "Tell me the truth, Hinata, how many perfectly happy, stable marriages do you know?"

"Perfect is a lot to aim for," Hinata said mildly.

"Not for me."

Hinata just gazed at him with big, sad, how-can-I-save-you-from-yourself eyes. Shisui bit back a laugh. "Oh, you think I'm a terrible person now."

"No," she said, to his surprise. "Actually—actually I think it's great."

Shisui nodded sagely. "And I think it would be great if you joined me for dinner. Well, by 'great' I mean 'morbid and uncomfortable' since it's a family reunion dinner that pertains to a recent death, but that's ever more reason why I need you there."

"I can't impose on your family like that," Hinata said.

"I hate my family," Shisui said blithely. "You can tell by how I ran away for seven years. Come on, nearly the entire tribe is there, there's got to be enough food to feed a minor colony. And besides," he pretended to flick her nose, "you eat like a bird."

"Some other time," she said with an easy smile on her face. "But I will walk you back."

Shisui smiled to himself, taking her arm into his. This was how they had been then, and now, it was how they were. For the first time since his arrival, he was starting to feel human again.

By the time they neared the mansion, the conversation had turned to the trials and tribulations Hinata faced as a high school student, the worst of which Shisui felt had to be enduring Sasuke as a classmate. He had his head tossed back in laughter, and thus didn't see the person striding toward them until it was too late to do something like, say, scampering in the opposite direction.

Then he heard Hinata squeak, "Good evening, Itachi-san," and thought, oh, shit.

And it was indeed Itachi who walked silently into the bright spill of streetlight. He looked—like he had looked in high school, clad in a white cotton oxford and tragically boring pants, and only incidentally like the spitting fucking image of Shisui's default erotic fantasy. Even in this chalky lighting, his stupid hair looked glossy and rich and bold and goddamn it, longer than ever. The exposed hollow under his neck was eminently lickable.

At this point, Shisui might have made a spirited run for it anyway if Hinata hadn't edged herself delicately in between them, nervous but determined. "I-I've been meaning to speak to you," she said, clearly improvising. "Would you mind terribly going over my last calcu—English exam with me? T-there were some parts that I didn't quite understand."

Itachi's unreadable eyes were still laser-guided on Shisui, but when he answered Hinata's question, it was with perfect equanimity: "I would be happy to, Hinata-san."

"Itachi-san has taken over as my tutor since you, uh, l-left," Hinata explained.

"Oh, is that right?" Shisui said, and laughed unnaturally. They were the worst comedy duo in stand-up history. He was far too rich and successful to be this verbally incontinent. If anyone at Hydra saw him now, he would have to suicide-bomb the office.

"It was very rough," Hinata said, vaguely distressed by his subpar acting skill. "My test scores dropped so horribly after you, um, l-left."

"Through my fault, through my most grievous fault," Shisui said with cringing cheer, and then made a sharp, obvious turn for the gate. "Well, you kids have fun now! I'm going to go wash up for dinner. I'll see you later, Hinata-chan."

Irony. All those years ago he had allowed Hinata to hide behind him only so that years later, he could hide behind her.


The thing was Shisui had left for a very good reason.

At Todai, he had declared History as his major for a lark, and one of his senior seminars had been something called Strat, Tech, and War. He'd followed the brilliant antics of famed dictators through the ages, and learned over and over again that a favored strategy was divide and conquer. If he had known this when he had been seventeen, he would have understood why his grandmother had chosen to separate he and Itachi when the time had come to put the fear of God into them. Shizuka was nothing if not all about conquest and rule, the vulgar taste of submission.

"In my own house," she said, every intonation spiking with subterranean rage. "Never in my wildest dreams would have I imagined that something like this could happen in my own house."

She was playing the martyr to the hilt. Shisui had to marvel at the consistency of her dramatics, how anyone managed to grow up into sane functional human beings with her as a defining force in their life. He had a sinking feeling they didn't—they just faked it well enough for a couple of decades before succumbing to the murderous meltdown. If anybody ever wondered about the genesis of his hard-drinking, commitment-shunning workaholism—well, wonder no more.

"Yeah, yer one to talk," he said, going for a low blow. "Ya married yer cousin."

Shizuka flayed him with a look. "You think this is a laughing matter?"

"No," Shisui snapped, sick of diplomacy. "No, I don't think it's funny at all." He was feeling this conversation like it had been in the work since the day they had met. "What didcha say to Itachi?"

Shizuka just laughed at him, sharp enough to cut glass. He slammed his fist on the ground and bellowed, loud enough to blow their secret to the rest of the household: "What did ya say to him?"

"That I'm sending one of you away," she said finally.

"Big surprise," Shisui said, assuming the obvious. "But I'm gonna leave for college in a couple of months anyway so what's the point kickin' me out now?"

"Not you. Him."


"You're going to stay," his grandmother said. "I'm sending him away."

"That's what ya told Itachi?" Shisui said, shocked.

"That's right," Shizuka said sternly. "He goes. You stay."

"But why?" Shisui demanded. "Ya hate me. Ya hated me since before we even met. I never listen to ya and I fight ya at every turn. Why do ya want me to stay here so badly?"

"Because you're Kiyoko's son," said his grandmother. "You're not allowed to leave me."

Shisui shook, seeing scarlet fire rush into his field of vision. "Just when are ya gonna to stop punishing me for being born?" He got to his feet, anger churning in his dry throat. "Stop treatin' us like yer playthings. Either we both stay, or we both gonna leave."

It didn't rile her one bit. "And what will you do then?" Shizuka said, smiling thinly. "After you cut ties with your family and waltz out there into the big world, just the two of you against everyone else. Following in the proud footsteps of your mother. Is that what you have in mind?"

"That's exactly what I have in mind," Shisui said, saw on steel. He was fearless and terrible, like heaven bearing down upon humanity; he was larger than life. "Yer can't stop us."

"But I think somebody might have something to say about that," Shizuka said, victorious, and gestured at a point somewhere behind him.

Shisui wheeled around, and saw Itachi leaning against the shoji door that he hadn't even heard opening. He was breathing harshly, shoulders narrowing and moving with his chest, face drained of blood, as if fearful that being in the same room with the double helix of spite and dysfunction that was Shisui and Shizuka would transform him into a toad. Immediately Shisui made to reach for him, take his wrist in his hand, but Itachi jerked back and snatched away from his touch.

"No, Shisui." He shook his head firmly, his hair loosening with the motion, coming apart. "No."

The ground went out from under him. Years later, even after time and excessive grain liquor had blunted this memory that had once cut like a knife, he would still remember, be able to access like jukebox music the stinging ache sinking deep into the roots of his teeth.

Itachi's eyes were looking everywhere but at him. "I can't," he pleaded, miserable. "I'm sorry."

So there you had it. Shisui had left for a very good reason, and every time he needed a reminder of it, all he had to do was shove aside that rainy day and replace it with the sound of those seven words and the feeling they had inspired: shattering ice, snapping ropes, and cold, cold water.


Dinner was a hideous affair. The dining room that had always felt huge and absurdly over-proportioned was suddenly packed to the gills, sardined with uptight, unnaturally attractive people. The old fart to his right kept pontificating about the many and varied failures of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Shisui couldn't even feign polite interest, not with Itachi at the other end of the table shooting mystifying glances in his direction at increasingly short intervals.

To his vast relief he managed to strike up a promising conversation with his second cousin Obito, a fellow renegade who had had the audacity to pursue the disgraceful rebellious career path of—wait for it—social work. But then Obito started waxing poetic about his cardiologist fiancée, and Shisui had to leave, because healthy committed couples made him homicidal.

"Well," he muttered, fleeing the room, "this has been sufficiently painful and awkward." The last time he'd had an experience this punishingly awful at least he had gotten a fuck out of it.

Five minutes later he was creeping under the old willow tree in the garden bumming a smoke and hissing death threats into his phone at Sugimoto, who was predictably already disaster-bound. It was admittedly petty, because even though Sugimoto was truly a moron who got into the gene pool when the lifeguard wasn't looking, this tirade of verbal abuse wasn't entirely well-directed.

This lasted for approximately another five minutes. He heard footsteps, and knew that, finally, here it was. He couldn't run anymore.

"You didn't eat very much at dinner," Itachi said, joining him under the tree.

"God, after all these years, you're still monitoring my caloric intake?" Shisui said good-naturedly, and hung up his phone, cutting Sugimoto off in the middle of another feeble, fallacious excuse. "It's not a body image thing, I promise. Let's just say that congregations of self-satisfied asshats make me lose my appetite."

"Forbearance was never one of your greatest strengths," Itachi said, leaning against the tree trunk so they were standing side by side. There was a flinty quality to his eyes. It plunged into Shisui's chest, but he forced himself not to get fidgety.

"So," Shisui began. "Gunning for your first doctorate, huh? What the heck is Environmental Engineering anyway?"

Itachi lifted his shoulder, recognizing a factitious question when he heard one. "I read an article about you," he returned, and clarified, "In a magazine." It was a strange conversation gambit, awkward but heartfelt.

Shisui snorted. "Did Sasuke show it to you?" he asked, because there was no way, no way that Itachi read Seventeen of his own volition. "So. What do you think?"

"You are," Itachi said, with an air of clinical critique, "very different."

Shisui cocked an eyebrow in challenge. Well, he wouldn't outright lie and say that a part of him hadn't perversely anticipated this. That he hadn't examined and reexamined his reflection scrupulously in the mirror before departure, hadn't planned on preening at least a little bit upon arrival. Hello, my shameful past, how'd you like me now?

"Is that 'different-good' or 'different-in-a-medically-concerning-way'?"

"Different-good," Itachi conceded, but then was a jerkwad and added, "For the most part. You changed your dialect."

Shisui couldn't help stumbling, just a little. "It's what us modern boys do when we enter the corporate world," he said feelingly. "We don't have the luxury of quirky individuality like you dinosaurs in academia."

"It can't be easy," Itachi condescended, slow and arch. "It's just that, when I think about you, 'conformist' is not a word that comes to mind."

Shisui almost blurted out, "Do you think about me a lot?" and had to bite his lip to stop himself.

He moved out from under the willow's shadow. It had been years since he'd lived somewhere free of light pollution; overhead, the stars were like salt crystals strewn across the evening sky, like heaven was trying to sieve itself through, disperse like fine powder over the earth.

"Am I bothering you?" Itachi asked, voice no louder than the rustling of the leaves above him.

"I don't really know what that means anymore, Itachi," Shisui admitted, looking away.

Those things that lay between them all these years, they were more or less victimless crimes. The gut-wrenching pain was gone and even the lingering echoes were growing fainter by the day. What remained constant was this invisible kite string that connected them. It didn't have to be so anguishing, if he didn't allow it to be. Every self-help manual would teach you that it was pointless to hold on to things that couldn't be changed—could never have been changed.

Shisui made an expansive gesture. "I'm a big girl, it's a big world." He smiled deprecatingly. "I'll get over it. Anyway, I think I'll make a detour to the altar room before turning in. Haven't paid my respect. It makes me feel like I might get struck by lightning any moment now."

Itachi failed to stop him.

The Uchiha family chapel was, for lack of a better description, kind of a work of art. There were antiques in there that would fetch millions on the market; if it were open to the public people would want to come and take pictures of it and use it as background in movies about traditional families with dark, dangerous secrets. Reigning over the elaborate lacquered altar was a large portrait of a handsome old man, silver-haired and kind of face: the grandfather Shisui had never met and whose heart his mother had irrevocably broken in her flight for freedom.

And next to him: Shizuka, severe and imperious.

"Well, old bitch," Shisui said, facing her memorial tablet. "Here I am. It looks like you couldn't hold out after all." He lowered his head, placed his hands into his pockets. "I'm sorry."

. . .