I'm really sorry that my updates have slowed to a standstill lately. I promise I'll try to do better in the future :)
One didn't have to be a master at reading people to tell that Madara was in a fouler mood than usual this morning.
Ever since Itachi reported for training (well before dawn), Madara, it seemed, had taken it upon himself to put the boy through hell. He made Itachi do every exercise he could think of (both familiar and obscure) without even giving him a chance to catch his breath.
Finally, Itachi could no longer ignore the burning in his muscles, and skidded to a halt while running the track that surrounded the Akatsuki hideout.
"That was pathetic," Madara drawled. "How many laps was that, only four or five hundred?"
"I...lost track," Itachi said between gasping breaths.
"Not only that, but while you were running you left a convenient trail for your enemy to follow."
Itachi looked behind him. Sure enough, there was a defined trail of footprints in the soft earth of the track. Ah, hell...
"Get on the ground and do push ups."
Immediately, Itachi dropped to the ground and did as he was ordered, sinking up to his wrists in the dirt. He did fifty- the burning in his muscles grew into an inferno. One hundred- His arms shook dangerously, sweat rolling down his bare back..
Madara watched him for awhile, with a vague sense of satisfaction. Then, he stepped down hard on Itachi's back, sending him to the ground with a cry of surprise.
"You can never let your guard down under any circumstances," He said, in a low, feral growl. "Your enemy won't put off attacking you because you are weak and tired."
Itachi pried himself out of the mud and tried in vain to wipe it from his face and eyes.
Madara's eye narrowed. He has never seen such a pathetic, defeated looking creature as the one kneeling in front of him now.
He delivered a swift kick to Itachi's side and sent him flying. Itachi flew through the air for a few seconds before skidding to a halt.
"I just told you to never let your guard down. When are you going to learn?"
Madara stepped forward, and, this time, Itachi sprung into a defence position.
"Back in Konoha, you may have been regarded as a prodigy. But you aren't special here, and you aren't some kind of genius. To me, you're just another brat."
Itachi nodded. Madara took to circling him like a vulture.
"But you're not an idiot. So stop acting like one."
This time, when Madara moved to attack, Itachi sprang out of the way.
Itachi evaded Madara until he was just too exhausted to do any more. When he moved to attack him, he fell unconscious against his chest.
Madara took a step backward, letting Itachi fall into the mud. He observes his little protogé, splattered with mud, shivering from cold.
Madara hoisted him up, flinging him over his shoulder, and brought him back inside.
The morning mist was clearing up, the sun peeking out through the gathering rain clouds.
"I think that's enough for one day."
Sasuke was still fast asleep, without a clue in the world. Blissfully naive. Madara tossed Itachi in the bed on the opposite side of the room, oblivious to the mess he was making of the sheets. He threw a blanket over him and left him to sleep for a few more hours.
It wasn't like he was doing anything wrong. Itachi had asked for this training, hadn't he? He had wanted to become stronger, so he could protect Sasuke. He wasn't doing anything Itachi didn't want.
So he kept telling himself.
Itachi moaned and turned over, a persistent shaking sensation filling his dream. It increased in intensity, and soon it was impossible to ignore.
He jolted awake and flung himself bolt upright in bed, his nerves set on a hair trigger.
His body relaxes the slightest degree.
"Nii-san, why are you all dirty?"
Itachi stretched his aching muscles and yawned.
"I was training with sensei."
Sasuke understood that. He knew how hard big brother was working in order to get stronger. He also knew he had to work harder if he ever wanted to catch up.
"Nii-san, can you train with me today? You never taught me that new shuriken jutsu you promised." Sasuke tugged at Itachi's shirtsleeve eagerly. "Come on, let's go eat so we can get started!"
"Hold on, Sasuke. I need to clean up first, okay?"
"Oh, fine. I'm gonna see if Sasori-nii will play with me while I'm waiting."
Sasuke gave Itachi a quick kiss on the nose before darting out of the room.
Sasori fumbled around for a screwdriver, completely focused on fixing Hiruko's broken tail. He jerked his head to the side when a tiny, warm hand placed it in his.
"I'm bored, Sasori-nii," Sasuke whined.
"Hand me that container of screws over there. These ones are rusted through."
Sasuke rustles around until he can hand Sasori his conquest.
"Why aren't you with your brother?" Sasori asked, with acid in his voice.
"He's taking a bath. He got really messy when he was training today," Sasuke replied, matter-of-factly. "We're gonna train when he gets done, but I'll be bored if I just wait for him."
Sasuke sat beside Sasori and watched him work out all the old, rusted screws.
"Sasori-nii, do you hate my Nii-san?"
The older man is surprised by the question, but he doesn't let it show on his face.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because every time I say Nii-san, or someone says Nii-san's name, you get all grouchy and you stop talking. Did Nii-san make you mad?"
Sasori furrowed his brow.
"If he made you mad, then you should tell him. Nii-san always says sorry when he makes somebody mad."
"Not everything is so simple that it can be fixed with an apology."
"Hand me that other screwdriver," Sasori said coldly.
Sasuke obeys him.
"Here you go, Sasori-nii."
He stays silent as he watches Sasori work.
"Sasori-nii, do you have a family?" He asks, after about five minutes had passed.
"They're dead," Sasori quipped, not taking his eyes off his work. "They died a long time ago. I don't remember it all that well; I was just a kid when it happened.
Sasuke's voice wavered.
"You...you must miss them a lot, huh?"
Sasori raised an eyebrow.
Sasuke wiped tears away from his eyes with his small fists.
"...I miss my family," he whimpered.
Sasori raised an eyebrow.
"I...I wish I could have them back. I dream about them at night, a-and it feels real. B-but when I wake up..."
"They're not there anymore..."
Sasori set down his screwdriver and pulled Sasuke against his chest, stifling his sobs against the fabric of his shirt.
"I m-miss my mother-"
"Now, that's enough," Sasori hushes. "Crying won't fix anything, so calm down."
Sasuke sniffled and stopped sobbing. Sasori handed him a tissue from his tool bench to wipe his face clean.
Sasuke's sniffles calm down to shaky breathing. Sasori goes back to his work as if nothing happened.
"Nearly everything in this world is fleeting," he explains. "It'll be there one minute and it'll slip through your fingers the next. You'd best get used to that."
Itachi finished scrubbing off, washing away the last of the morning's filth. He dried himself off, looking over his new array of cuts and bruises, layering themselves over the faded ones. Pretty soon, he would have more scar tissue than actual skin. His fingers had been broken and healed so many times they were left hopelessly crooked. He can't help but think he's too young to have this many marks on his body.
He dresses his wounds with the first aid kit in the bathroom, trying to hurry.
Sasuke was waiting to train with him. He had no idea just what being a shinobi would hold for him. But Itachi would train him as best he could, and protect him with his life. That would have to be enough.
He clenched his bandaged fingers into a fist.
With these hands, I'll protect my little brother. Even if I have to break them a hundred more times.
"Sasuke, be careful!"
Itachi grabbed Sasuke's hand before he had the chance to throw the shuriken.
"You're going to cut yourself holding it like that. Didn't you pay attention in school?"
Sasuke stuck out his lower lip and pouted.
"Of course I did, Nii-san. I got perfect grades, remember? You took me out for melonpan when I showed you my report card."
He took the shuriken out of Sasuke's hand and showed him how to hold it.
"Like this, get it?"
"Yeah, I think I do..."
"I've also noticed that you keep your body still when you throw it. You get greater power and accuracy out of it if you move your body along with it, like this."
Itachi pantomimed throwing the shuriken in slow motion. Then he handed the weapon back to Sasuke, who took it in the proper hold.
"You do everything right, big brother."
"Well, not everything."
Sasuke fell onto the ground dejectedly.
"Yeah you are. You always do everything perfect. I'll never be as good as you."
Itachi knelt in the wet grass and gestured for Sasuke to come closer.
"Let me show you all the times where I haven't been perfect."
Sasuke sat on the wet ground next to him and watched. Itachi showed Sasuke the myriad of pale lines across his skin.
"I got these when I was learning to throw a shuriken like you are now."
He takes hold of his three most crooked fingers.
"I broke these on my first mission."
He rotated his wrist to show off the scars there.
"I fell out of a tree when I was ten, broke my wrist and got all these."
Itachi lifted his shirt to show Sasuke the raw, ugly burn scar clawing its way across his chest.
"I got this during the Chuunin exams. I forgot to get out of the range of my own jutsu."
"What about this one?" Sasuke asked, taking Itachi's hand and turning it palm side up. He traces the long scar that neatly bisected his palm.
"Oh, that's a good one. I was helping mother in the kitchen, and I cut myself trying to use the kitchen knife."
"Seriously, Nii-san? That's kind of lame."
Itachi shook his head and smiled.
"Really? It's my favorite scar. It's got the best memory behind it."
Sasuke cocked his head.
"You're weird big brother."
"I know. Remember what father said? I was born weird."
Sasuke shrugged his tiny shoulders.
"I like you anyway, Nii-san."
Itachi patted him on the shoulder and stood back up, dusting off the seat of his pants.
"Come on, Sasuke. Let's try to throw the shuriken again."
Sasuke leapt to his feet.
"Okay, Nii-san! Just watch-this time I'll do it for sure!"
Itachi corrected Sasuke's hold again.
"Now, remember what I told you, Sasuke," He reminded him. "Move your body with the throw, and make sure you release it at the right time."
"Got it, Nii-san."Sasuke gave it a couple practice throws before doing it for real.
"Good job. You're getting the hang of it now."
Sasuke grinned and jumped up and down in excitement.
"I can't wait to tell Oro-ojii how good I did!" He squealed, grabbing Itachi around the waist and hugging him. "I bet he and Sasori-nii will be proud of me too!"
Itachi ruffled his hair, staring off into the gaping maw of darkness lurking just beyond the trees.
"Yeah, you do that. But Sasuke...be careful around him, alright?"
Sasuke tugged at Itachi's shirt.
"Nii-san? Nii-san, what are you talking about?"
"Don't trust Orochimaru-san. Do you understand me? He's a dangerous man, and I don't know what he could do to you, and I don't want to find out either."
Sasuke mulled this over. It was painfully obvious that he didn't understand.
"Okay, Nii-san. I'll listen to you."
"Thanks, Sasuke. It means a lot to me."
Itachi held out his hand for Sasuke to take. They headed back inside together, the tiny, flawless hand of the younger brother in the scarred, imperfect hand of the elder.
Thanks so much for reading- please leave a review if you would feel so inclined :)