"Hey! Sasuke, cut it out!"

Sasuke giggles and splashes Itachi again.

"I'll stop splashing you if you get in the water with me, Nii~san~" He says in a sing-song tone, grinning from ear to ear.

"I've already had a bath today!"

"But I want you to play in the tub with me. We haven't done it in a long time," Sasuke whines, pouting and turning those huge, innocent black eyes on him.

Itachi grumbles and gives in. He strips out of his clothes and gets in the warm water.

"Fine, fine. You win. Happy now?"

Sasuke jumps up and hugs Itachi tightly, his wet, slick skin pressing against Itachi's chest. Itachi yelps at the sudden naked closeness.

"Something wrong, Niisan?"

Itachi squirms briefly in discomfort.

"Are you okay, Niisan? Your face is all red."

Itachi nods slowly.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."

Sasuke trails his fingers down the ugly, rust red scar on Itachi's chest, frowning.

"It looks like it still hurts," he whines.

Itachi smiles softly at him and takes his hand away.

"It's alright, Sasuke. That one stopped hurting a long time ago."

Sasuke leans up and kisses the tired lines on Itachi's soft face, drawing a soft sound from his brother's throat.

"Niisan, I had fun training with you today," he murmurs. "I wish I could do it with you every day."

Itachi strokes Sasuke's wet hair.

"I'll do my best to spend as much time with you as I can," he promises. "But remember, I have missions to do, and I can't neglect my own training with Madara-sensei. It'll take up a lot of my time."

Sasuke casts his eyes down and whines.

"I know..." (Some things never changed, did they?)

"Don't worry, Sasuke. I'll do my best to be with you every night before you fall asleep."

This seems to soothe Sasuke, and he settles back against Itachi's chest. He is lulled by Itachi's steady heartbeat. He smiles against his soft pajamas.

"Nii-san, can I ask you something about mom?"

Itachi grimaces. But if it makes Sasuke happy...

"Sure, Sasuke. Anything."

"Do you think she loved us?"

Itachi tightens his grip on his beloved little brother.

"Of course she loved us. Loved you. Very much. Don't think anything different."

Sasuke nods in understanding. Itachi cradles Itachi

"Go to sleep now, Sasuke. Konan-sama asked me to find some special herbs for Sasori-san tomorrow. I'll let you come with me."

"Thanks, Nii-san."

Sasuke's breathing slows, and soon Itachi knew he was asleep. His heart skipped a beat, and he tightens his grip on his little brother, waiting. After Sasuke fell asleep was always when HE came...

A dark, mirthless laugh fills his soul with dread. He tries in vain to control his shaking.

"Relax a little. I'm not going to do anything to you tonight. I just want to talk."

Itachi takes a sharp breath and stops shaking.

"W-what do you want to talk about?" He asks meekly.

"Why do you do so much for Sasuke? What has he ever done for you that makes you want to protect him?"

Itachi thought about this for a few moments.

"It's not anything he's done, per se. It's what he means to me." He runs his fingers through Sasuke's silky dark hair. "He's my family. He's my world. He's everything to me."

Madara doesn't seem to understand that answer. Itachi keeps close to Sasuke, as if to shield him from the man. He keeps his dark eyes on Madara, filled with determination and the fierce desire to protect.

"I love him. So I'll protect him. No matter what."

Madara shakes his head.

"You're awfully stupid for someone so smart," he says softly.

Itachi turns his eyes away from his mentor and sighs.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I am stupid. But maybe that's not completely a bad thing."

Madara touches Itachi's forehead with surprising gentleness. Itachi flinches, but relaxes when he realizes he isn't going to be hurt.

"If he really means that much to you, then make sure you protect him. No matter what, you keep him close. If he's really important to you, then never let anybody hurt him. Do you understand?"

Itachi nods, wide-eyed.

"Get some rest. I'll wake you up for training early tomorrow."

Madara is gone just like he came- like a shadow, and Itachi is left to himself again, with all the thoughts and feelings he hated. He almost wished Madara had chosen to have his way with him. He preferred that over his petty insults and biting questions.

Still, it was nice that his battered body could be given a rest, at least for tonight.

If he's really important to you, then never let anybody hurt him.

Itachi wished he understood what that meant.

Orochimaru knows his current body won't be able to last for much longer. He's going to have to make the switch soon. And that means he can't put off the obvious any longer.

He didn't much care to be stuck in an adolescent body again- been there, done that, hated every minute. If he had a choice, he would have waited for Itachi to mature a little more. But he didn't really have much of a choice. Time wasn't something he had in excess anymore, and he certainly couldn't wait around for the boy to finish puberty.

Orochimaru rubs his aching shoulders and smiles in anticipation. Tomorrow. He would do it tomorrow. He wondered if cute little Sasuke would cry when his beloved Nii-san went away. He didn't care much- Sasuke was young. Sasuke was weak. There were far more important things to worry about than the little nursling Uchiha who cowered behind his precious big brother. It was the older one, the stronger bird who had learned to fly, that he was interested in.

He'd waited for his prey for long enough. It was time for him to strike at last. And who knew? Maybe Sasori would finally forgive him after Itachi was out of the picture for good.