About this story: This is the sequel to my AU One Small Kindness. I would recommend you read that first. If you'd rather not—you're breakin' my heart—here is an extremely flippant summary. Read on with the knowledge that you will be spoiling yourselves silly for the first story.





Still here? Awesome. Here goes.

Itachi—with a lot of help from his mother Mikoto, Kakashi, Shikaku Nara, and the Hokage—toasted Madara, saving half of his clan and ridding the world of a not-all-that-awesome villain. Seriously... the Moon Pie Plan? Try harder man.

A lot has changed in the meantime. Some characters (coughItachicough) may seem very OOC, since he does things like smile without looking like he wants to tear out your eyeballs. Not having to suffer through the agonizing guilt of offing your entire extended family will do that to you. Consequently, the only revenge Sasuke's after is payback for a decade's worth of forehead-poking, and he is generally less of an insufferable douche to everybody. Also, Mikoto did a succession of awesome things culminating in being named Clan Head and adopting Naruto.

This does not mean things will necessarily turn out better for our heroes. Arguably, things get worse. World politics has changed a lot in the five years Madara has been out of the picture. Some friends will become enemies, and some enemies will become friends. Characters you both love and hate will die, although mostly different ones than in canon. This story will not be a straight retelling of the events of the anime/manga. Just about the only major non-spoilery event that shows up in both continuities is the Chūnin Exams, and the participating teams, tests themselves, and outcome of the arena matches are all a little (or a lot) different.

Pairings: are not the focus of this story, but I know how touchy people are about this, so I'm listing them. Shipping wars continue to baffle the crap out of me. I'm sticking close to canon for most attraction. Hinata likes Naruto, who likes Sakura, who likes Sasuke. There are a few scenes that could be creatively interpreted as Itachi x Sakura if you really, really wanted to, although given that she's thirteen that's pretty icky. Mikoto got remarried to somebody you'll only care about if you read OSK. There are a few more, but they're characters so minor I doubt anyone has thought about the pairings long enough to hate them. I will also give you fair warning that not absolutely everyone in this fic has defaulted to heterosexual. There is, however, nothing explicit. If even acknowledging the existence of not-straight people bothers you, either read on and keep your mouth shut, or run on back to 1960.

Beta Credits: Go to the Dark Lord Potter forumgoers, chiefly Agayek, Axelgreese, The Berkeley Hunt, Datakim, Disposable Head, Drynwyn, and Luckykas.

Continuity Disclaimer: Most of the Daybreak universe was outlined/written before the Shinobi World War arc in the manga, which I sort of stopped reading anyway. For simplicity's sake pretend everything after chapter 500-some never happened while you are reading this. I tried to make this fic canon-compliant to a point, but when the goalposts keep moving fanfic authors just have to throw up their hands and scream 'I GIVE UP' in order to get anything done. Thank you.

.oO Chapter 1 Oo.

Eighteen pairs of eyes were fixed on the lectern, eighteen pairs of hands moistened in nervous anticipation. This was the day that decided their future. If they passed, they would no longer be schoolchildren, but soldiers. Umino Iruka's gaze wandered over their bright, shining faces, and...

Well, make that seventeen pairs of eyes. Uchiha Naruto was staring longingly out the window at the luscious summer sky, paying no attention to him whatsoever. With his eyebrows quirked in faint annoyance, Iruka ignored it—could've been worse. At least Naruto was physically present in the classroom and not out defacing the Hokage Monument or various other landmarks, an activity in which he used to partake on an almost monthly basis. He'd gotten a lot better since his first year under Iruka's tutelage, but 'a lot better' meant that he only paid no attention in class and consistently bombed his paper tests—not that he was Konoha's most hated juvenile delinquent, bane of teachers and law enforcement officers everywhere.

"Today is the last stage of your graduation exam," Iruka intoned, his hands clasped behind his back. "When you name is—"

"Crap! That's today?" Naruto burst out.

"Dumbass," Uchiha Sasuke muttered from the other side of the desk. His chin was resting against his curled hand, and he was wearing his customary classroom expression: the scowl of someone absolutely bored out of their skull. "Why did you think Mom started tearing up when she chased you out of the house this morning?"

"But she does that every morning. I mean, not the crying, but the chasing," Naruto muttered back. "You know alarm clocks are my sworn enemy!"

"If you flunk, she's going to kill you."

Iruka cleared his throat very loudly and the whispered bickering subsided. "When your name is called, you'll go into the side room and perform a henge no jutsu into either myself or Mizuki-sensei. Both of us will judge it on accuracy. If it is up to our standards, you'll pass." He paused to take hold of the metal plate riveted to his headband and beamed at them. "And I'll be giving you one of these."

The students were called in for their exam back to front, putting the rest of the class above the two brothers in the corner. Sasuke went in next-to-last, as if he hadn't a care in the world. He came out with exactly the same expression and a shiny new hitai-ate tied around his temples. He was at the top of the class—had been since he was enrolled—and no one expected otherwise from the second Uchiha prodigy. "You're lucky Iruka-sensei picked a jutsu you can actually do," Sasuke said, as he slid back into his seat. "Your bunshin always look like they have the flu."

"Not anymore! Do you know how long Nii-chan spent showing me how to—"

Iruka stuck his head out of the exam room. "Naruto, would you get in here already? It's the last day of class and everyone wants to go home... including me."

Naruto made a rude face at Sasuke and pushed back his chair. Henge was a piece of cake. In fact, Iruka had probably seen so many, Naruto suspected he was getting bored of the things. He strode into the examination room and grinned a little too widely at his two examiners. He put his hands together to form the appropriate seals and transformed into Iruka.

If Iruka had been a busty woman, wearing nothing but an unzipped chūnin vest and a pair of navy-blue panties. 'Iruko' leaned over and blew Mizuki a kiss, her ample assets swinging. Personally, Naruto thought the swirly orange tassel things were what pushed it over into the realm of genius.

There was a beat of mortified silence. And then...

"NARUTO!" Iruka thundered, going crimson. As one, the entire class winced over in the next room.

Naruto released the transformation, still grinning like a cat over an open fishbowl. Iruka was, without a doubt, his favorite teacher. None of the others screamed anywhere near as loud, or turned all those different shades of red. He was vastly more fun to torture than, say, Suzume, or Mizuki.

"Well, do I pass or what?" Naruto asked, tucking his arms behind his head.

Iruka glanced at Mizuki for support, still blushing furiously. "We both know his henge is flawless when he bothers to do it properly," the pale-haired teacher said, sounding annoyed. "Just pass him before he does me. I'm never going to get the image of you in pasties out of my head. Ever."

"Fine, you pass," Iruka said crabbily, handing him the last hitai-ate. "But remember, you pull something like that on your new jōnin sensei and he'll throw you back here so fast the door'll close on your butt."

"So when do I get to meet him?" Naruto asked.

"Tomorrow," Iruka said, with finality. "Now go home. You're giving me a worse headache than usual."


"The Hokage is a cruel, cruel man. How can he live with himself after this?" Kakashi asked, and took a long swig of his beer. He'd gotten to the bar first, always a sign of trouble, and had started with something a lot stronger than beer, yet another sign of trouble.

"He assigned you another genin team, I take it?" Itachi said. He had never been as enthusiastic about intoxication, and was still nursing his second bottle.

"Yes!" Kakashi exclaimed, bringing his drink down hard on the table. "Dashing their hopes 'n dreams so soon after graduation? Can't you imagine the heartbreak on their cute little faces when they learn they got me? He's a monster."

Itachi sighed inwardly. It was a conversation they'd had every summer, since resigning from ANBU, and Itachi was getting rather tired of it. The two men were sitting at their table in the corner of Kakashi's favorite bar, a cluttered, haphazardly swept dive in one of Konoha's seedier neighborhoods. Most of the really serious nightlife had been chased down the road into Otafuku Gai, but the private hostess club upstairs still retained certain employees who would perform certain services for certain fees. When Itachi had turned sixteen, his former captain had made an embarrassingly big show of introducing him to one of them to provide, to quote Kakashi, an 'education'. It hadn't been one of his proudest moments.

There was only one seat in the tiny place where Kakashi could drink without his face being seen by the other patrons, and that one seat exposed his back to the open street. Itachi was preternaturally perceptive. The first time Kakashi had invited Itachi along for drinks, the implications of their seating arrangements hadn't been lost on him.

Kakashi was willing to turn his back to the potential threats because he trusted Itachi enough to watch it for him. After Uchiha Madara's death at his hands and the promotion to ANBU captain that came with it, Itachi had first assumed Kakashi would find one of his own teammates to perform this sacred duty. But Kakashi kept on inviting him, to what Itachi finally realized was his relief. Despite his perpetual tardiness and rather adolescent obsession with pornography... Kakashi was the only shinobi in Konoha that came close to understanding him. They had a lot in common, most of it painful.

"You could always try passing them," Itachi observed. "They might grow on you."

"You mean like a fungus?" Kakashi asked morosely. "You have this... this way with the little buggers. I don't. They whine and bitch constantly, if you don't keep an eye on 'em they trash everything, and you can't take 'em out drinking unless you want to get arrested."

"You got along well enough with me when I was thirteen."

"Tha's completely different," Kakashi insisted, gesticulating with his bottle. "You were more mature than I will ever be by the time you hit puberty–look how much you're not drinking right now. Planning to get plenty of rest, and to the school on time, and... everything. You're so responsible it hurts. Hurts." He drained his beer and waved at the waitress for another. Itachi was actually beginning to feel a trickle of pity for Kakashi's assigned students. Not only would they be facing a jonin instructor who had no intention of passing them, they would be facing one who had no intention of passing them and a hangover.

"Have it your way," Itachi said, with slight shrug. It was the same conversation they'd had last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. After six years as his best—and only bipedal friend, leaving aside Pakkun—Itachi knew better than to press. As much as he professed to dislike children, Itachi suspected the truth was that the older man was terrified of them.

Genin were so... fragile, and theirs was a dangerous line of work. A jōnin sensei was expected to do more than simply instruct his charges in ever more advanced fighting techniques. Far from the comforts of home, he ate from the same pot of rice, slept around the same fire. He cared for them if they became injured or ill. The awkward questions about growing up—more often than not—fell to him to answer. It was too easy to become attached, and becoming attached frightened Kakashi more than the deadliest of mission assignments.

Being friends with Itachi was safe, because Itachi could take care of himself, and was the only person around better than Kakashi himself was.

Itachi tensed slightly when he felt one of the anonymous presences from the street narrow their focus onto them, but relaxed just as quickly when he realized who it was. The woman smiled at him and ducked under the flags hanging from rafters. A few of the other patrons cast her longing gazes—which she ignored—as she picked her way to their corner table. She had long black hair, enormous green eyes, and incongruously perfect makeup for someone dressed in combat fatigues and a flak jacket. The zipper had somehow slipped down as she had walked over, revealing a small Uchiha fan pendant dangling above generous cleavage. She also wore the white sash of one of the Daimyo's elite bodyguards. Like most of the best shinobi, she lived for misdirection, and anyone who assumed she'd been hired entirely for her figure was in for a lethal surprise.

"Anzu-san... I thought the Daimyo's retinue already left," Itachi said, by way of greeting.

"God damn cat got loose again," she said, rolling her eyes. "His wife refused to leave until we found him. Mind if I sit down, Kakashi-san? I was hoping to find him before I went back to the capitol."

"Oh, be my guest," Kakashi said, crinkling his only visible eye. Close proximity to Uchiha Anzu's bustline usually put him in a better mood. One of the ubiquitous Icha Icha books had appeared as if by magic in front of his face, and he was taking slightly awkward sips of his beer behind the cover.

Instead of pulling up a chair, she rested her hip heavily on the table, leaning over Itachi. Although it wasn't in his character to withdraw at the first sign of a confrontation, he was forced to do so to prevent having his nose buried somewhere entirely inappropriate for a public venue. His former neighbor was only the cleverest and most persistent of several female hopefuls; Uchiha of his lineage tended to collect them, like corners tended to collect dust.

"I heard you bought Yūhi Kurenai-san a bottle of some very nice wine the other night. Very, very, very nice wine." She narrowed her eyes. "Why didn't you just out and tell me you were dating an older woman?"

"Because I am not," Itachi answered. "And I fail to see why who I buy wine for is any concern of yours, since I am not dating you either."

"You took me out to dinner a few weeks ago," she countered, her fingers toying with the clan pendant and the perfect white skin beneath. "I thought that meant something to you. To us."

"That meant I was congratulating you on becoming one of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. Not that I was dating you," Itachi corrected. "I thought I was fairly clear about the reason for the invitation."

She sighed with exasperation and sat back upright. "Gee, thanks. I'm glad we cleared that up. You may be a once-in-a-generation genius in the field, but I swear there are Academy students who know more about women than you do."

"Hey Anzu-chan! Forget about him! I'm free any Friday you are!" someone called drunkenly from the opposite side of the bar.

One of his buddies pulled him back down by his sleeve and he toppled from his perch on the barstool. "Kotetsu, you moron," he grumbled over the clumsily vacated seat. "What did I tell you about saying that around Itachi-san? You're lucky he thinks thinks you're too pathetic to take seriously and hasn't genjutsu'ed your brain into custard pudding."

Anzu crossed her arms beneath her breasts, ignoring the drunken propositions. "So if you're still not dating me, and you're never dating anyone else... I think I finally understand. You've been sleeping with Kakashi-san this whole time, haven't you."

Kakashi's rebuttal to this charge was lost in a fit of coughing, as he had just inhaled a mouthful of his beer. "I'm not gay!" he finally gasped out. "Itachi... why the hell aren't you backing me up here?"

"It's more amusing to watch you squirm," he replied, before answering Anzu's question. "And I am about to take my first genin team, in between my political obligations. I do not have time for romance. With anyone."

"Well, excuuuse me for drawing a really obvious conclusion," Anzu huffed. "People talk. You drink together. You go out for dinner together. You show up in each other's hospital rooms without fail." She looked over her shoulder at Kakashi. "And I have seen you wandering home from his apartment in the morning. Myself. With my own eyes."

"I was really drunk and passed out on his couch. Is that some kind of crime?" Kakashi protested.

"I am not convinced it was his couch," Anzu replied with a sly smile.

"You'n your amazing tits are no longer welcome here," Kakashi said crossly. "Don't you have cats to herd or something?"

Anzu slid off the table with a knowing smile still pinning up her lips. "I'll catch you next time I'm in town, Itachi. Write me if you change your mind. Later."

Kakashi picked up his beer and drained it as quickly as he could, ignoring the gaping from several of the other patrons. "The hell'd you say to her, to make her say that to me?" he asked.

"I... have no idea," Itachi admitted. Complete ignorance was not a feeling that sat well with him. His strategic acumen against enemy shinobi was legendary. Against teenage girls... less so. He was familiar with the process of seduction as it related to achieving mission objectives, but those courses had been less clear on how to get the targets to stop. He'd spent the last six years mostly ignoring them in the hopes they would all go away, a cunning ploy that had revealed itself as a complete failure.

"Figures. Women, understanding, impossible, so on, so forth," Kakashi mumbled. He had never entered a steady relationship with a woman that didn't involve payment by the hour; if anyone could aid Itachi with this dilemma, it wasn't going to be him. "So if you're not doing Kurenai—which I would fully support, by the way, since she is smoking hot—what was the wine for?"

"A small token of gratitude, for not filing a formal complaint about the new team distributions. I poached one of her prospects. One Haruno Sakura."

Kakashi looked at him blankly.

"I believe you've been referring to her as 'Pinky'."

"Her? God, she's got it for your little brother ten times worse than Anzu does for you. At least she puts a lid on it when she's on a mission. Why not let Kurenai take Pinky? She used to be a teenage girl, right? She made it to jōnin without gettin' gutted 'cause she was too busy putting on her lipstick."

"Sakura's written scores were tied with Sasuke's. And I think she would balance Naruto nicely. He's probably more of a heavy-combat type, and the team needs someone with a more delicate touch."

"Hey, didn't the Hokage put him on—" Kakashi muttered. "Oh. Wait. You stole the brat from me."

"Considering you didn't plan on teaching him anyway, I didn't think you'd mind."

Kakashi waved it away. "I don't," He dropped his voice conspiratorially as he leaned over the table. "But between Minitachi, Minato-sensei's kid, 'n Pinky... your team's seriously stacked. Like the second coming of the Sannin or some crap." He let out a low whistle. "Being Candidate Hokage has its perks, huh."


Iruka checked his watch for the twelfth time, sighed, and pushed back his chair. True, the two elite jonin outstripped him in every measurable way, but that didn't mean his time was theirs to waste. They were supposed to have picked up their teams an hour ago.

"That's it," he announced. "It's almost noon, and I have somewhere to be. I may not be able to give you detention anymore, but if you trash the room as your parting gift to me, I can still have you fined for the damages. Naruto, this means you. Everyone else, good luck with your new sensei. I'm sure you'll make a good impression."

There was a polite chorus of goodbyes from five of the students left in the classroom and an indignant whine from Naruto.

After his teacher's footsteps had faded down the hall, Sasuke yawned behind his hand and glanced at Naruto. "No eraser in the door? Glue on the frame? Salad oil on the floor?"

"Nope," Naruto said.

There was a pause.

"So what did you do?"

"Absolutely nothing. Don't you think it's brilliant?"

"That is brilliant," Sasuke said sarcastically. "I am blinded by your brilliance. I wish I had my sunglasses."

"No really, I thought this through!" Naruto protested. "Iruka must've warned him about me, see. So he'll be waiting for something horrible to happen the entire time, and the longer it doesn't the more worried he'll get, until he can't take it anymore and his head, like, actually explodes."

"Wait, let me get this straight," Sakura put in, turning around from her desk in the second row. "Now you're pranking people by being perfectly well behaved?"

"Yes!" Naruto agreed. "Evil, isn't it? Now please, please, please don't ruin it, I hear somebody coming. This'll be great."

The heavy footfalls belonged to two men, and they seemed to be arguing. Both of the voices were familiar, although Naruto could only immediately attach a face to one of them. He grinned wider than ever.

"...sad day for ANBU when my sempai needs more babysitting than my little brothers," Itachi said under his breath, and pulled open the door—although not before checking for stickiness or potential falling objects. He also made a careful inspection of the tiles before putting his sandals down on them. "We apologize for being so late."

"What's this 'we' stuff?" Kakashi muttered, his hands stuffed sullenly into his pockets.

Itachi shot him a warning glance, but continued. "Haruno Sakura, Uchiha Naruto, and Uchiha Sasuke, please come with me."

Sasuke and Naruto rose immediately to comply. Sakura did not. Not because she had any intention of disobeying the request, but because she had the feeling she'd fall flat on her face if she tried getting to her feet. Probably half the girls in her class had Uchiha Itachi's picture thumbtacked to their bedroom doors. Hell, some of the female teachers probably did. He was the unholy trifecta of talented, attractive, and rich, and then there was the tragically heroic part he had played in stopping his father's rebellion against the Hokage. She swallowed and carefully pushed herself up.

"And you three are with me," Kakashi said, gesturing vaguely at the three boys in the back row. They were solidly in the middle of the class rankings, not from prominent clans, and all had a really, really bad feeling about this.

"You're Hatake Kakashi. You didn't even bother looking up our names, did you," one of them said glumly. "I heard you've never passed a single team you were ever given."

"Correct," he answered. "The faster we get this over with the faster I can have lunch. Chop chop."

The three boys filed out behind Kakashi, wearing identical expressions of dejection.

Itachi motioned for the rest of them to follow him out. Sasuke did, but stopped just out of reach. "No. Way," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "I know that look. I'm a shinobi now, and the 'maybe-later-Sasuke' forehead poking thing stops. Today."

"Uh, Sasuke-kun..." Sakura began, and didn't finish. What part of her wanted to say was 'I know he's your brother, but talking to your jōnin sensei that way is insubordination'. But this was Sasuke, the man of her dreams and definite future husband. She wasn't going to correct him.

"Of course it will," Itachi said, feigning hurt. "My primary duty is now to train my team." He extended his hand towards the open door. Sasuke unlaced his arms and his expression of suspicion, and took a few steps forward. Two fingers hit him squarely in the center of his hitai-ate' plate.

Sakura slapped her hand over her mouth, before a giggle could escape at her beloved's humiliation. Part of one did anyway.

Naruto started laughing so hard he choked on it. "You fell for it again!" he said between gasps. "That never gets old!"

"Your first lesson. Listen to what is being said, not what you want to hear," Itachi said, and added. "And that was the last time, Sasuke."

"I don't believe you," he said sourly, readjusting the band.

"Ah, now we seem to be getting somewhere," Itachi replied. "You shouldn't, because I am the best liar in Konoha."

Sasuke followed his brother out, his face locked in a scowl. Itachi led them to the shade of a large tree in the corner of the Academy grounds and instructed them to sit. They went through the basic introductions exclusively for Sakura's benefit, and, once they had finished, Itachi prepared to announce their first mission.

"So it's going to be incredibly cool, right?" Naruto asked, rolling forward into a crouch and resting his chin on his knees. "And super dangerous?"

"I would hope not," Itachi answered. "One of my neighbors lost an earring."

"But, like, inside one of the tiger-infested ANBU training grounds?" Naruto persisted.

"On her way home from the bakery," Itachi corrected, smiling faintly at Naruto's unbridled, if premature, enthusiasm. "It apparently has sentimental value. Please meet me and the client at the park in the northeast corner of the Uchiha district at eight-thirty tomorrow morning, and be prepared to provide a selection of search patterns. Just as a reminder, we will be taking team pictures at the school at seven-thirty, so please wear clean clothes."

"Excuse me, Itachi-sensei," Sakura said in a small voice. "There isn't going to be some kind of... test?"

"The final test administered by a jōnin sensei is optional," Itachi explained. "I selected you because I have confidence in your abilities."

"All right, then it's lunchtime," Naruto announced, collecting his things. "See you tomorrow!" He fell into step beside Sasuke, who promptly picked up the threads of an old argument as they began the walk home.

"Sakura," Itachi began, stopping her as she moved to trail after the two boys. "I would like to have a word with you, before you go."

"Of course, Sensei," she said, her eyes firmly on her toes.

"I know Sasuke and Naruto's abilities fairly well, but yours only secondhand from your instructors. If you choose to enter a combat role, your aptitude tests indicated you are most likely to succeed as a genjutsu specialist. Can I assume you haven't received anything more than basic instruction on how to counter it?"

"No, sir. All we learned was how to recognize when we were trapped in one, not how to do the trapping."

"I have some books on the subject you may find useful. They are probably too advanced for you, but..."

"Oh, no, I'll take them," she said quickly. "Like I said during introductions, I really do like to read. I'm sure I'll manage."

"If you have time to come by my apartment, I can give them to you now. It isn't far."

"You want me to, to... your apartment? Already?"

"I would like to give you several books," he said, with exaggerated patience. "If I brought them tomorrow you would have to carry them with you during the mission. Some of them are old and rather fragile and I do not want them to become damaged."

"Right. Right! You're completely right. Sir!"

"I live a little south of the Hokage's Tower. This way," he said, with the air of someone hoping desperately he hasn't just made a terrible mistake.

Sakura fell into step with him. On the surface, she acted like many of her female peers, the ones who stumbled through the Academy and completed just enough D and C-rank mission to keep them occupied until they were old enough to marry. If that was the extent of her personality, Itachi would never have bothered with her, but he was nothing if not skilled at reading between the lines. Despite her outwardly meek and vacuous behavior, there was fire there, and a mind so sharp even she seemed afraid she might cut herself on it. Aside from her high written scores, her academic file was unremarkable, although the brief psychological evaluation administered as part of the school physical was... odd. The examiner's notes were incomplete, but his initial findings indicated a split personality. The outer personality: feminine, obedient, and highly distractible—emphatically not shinobi material. The inner personality: fiercely intelligent, stubborn, passionate... even violent. Now that... that had promise.

Sakura looked like she wanted to ask him something, but kept her lips clamped obediently shut. Itachi was well aware how intimidating his presence was, even to people otherthan flighty teenage girls, and spoke first.

"I realize you may feel like something of an outsider, for several reasons. I have been training Naruto and Sasuke for years, and their skills in ninjutsu and taijutsu are far above average for freshly graduated genin."

Sakura sighed almost inaudibly, and took a sudden, intense interest in the wax desserts piled up in the window of the cafe they were passing. She was already aware how good they really were, even Naruto, as much as she professed to find the blond boy a pain.

"I want you to understand that does not make your contributions to this team any less valid," Itachi said. "Being born into one of the shinobi clans does not destine you for greatness, any more than being born into a civilian family resigns you to mediocrity."

But..." she began. "You and Sasuke have the sharingan. My family doesn't have any kekkei genkai or even special techniques like the Nara or the Yamanaka. The ones that become ninja mostly end up at desk jobs or in the Medical Corps."

"That is all very true. It is also true the Yondaime graduated nowhere near the top of his class, and spent much of his time in the Academy washing dishes at his parents' pub. I have it on good authority he was also frequently beaten up by a girl."

"He... wait, what?" Sakura sputtered.

"You didn't know?" Itachi asked nonchalantly. "The Namikaze family were not ninja. The Yondaime achieved his fame and developed his signature jutsu largely through being smarter and working harder than his competition. It's this one, on the end," Itachi said, indicating a tall building painted muted blue. He let them in through the narrow door next to the tailor's that took up the ground floor.

"Wait there for a moment," he instructed her, after opening his apartment door and replacing the keys in his pocket. "I need to update the seal around the door to approve your chakra signature or it will knock you unconscious and give you a splitting headache when you finally come around."

Sakura made an apprehensive noise and rooted her feet to the carpeting in the hallway. Itachi stepped over the threshold and performed a sequence of handsigns, his back to her. She felt a charge pass through the air that made her hair stand on end, then it disappeared. "Done. Come in."

She smoothed down the wayward locks, stepped inside, and pulled off her sandals with her toes.

"Would you like anything to drink?" he asked.

"No, thanks, I'm fine," she murmured, nervously cupping her elbows behind her back as she looked the place over. His apartment was neither as large, nor ostentatious, as could be expected for someone from a clan as wealthy as the Uchiha, especially since his mother was Clan Head. The only concession to real luxury were the high ceilings and tall windows, open to let in the pleasant summer breeze. There were a few books and empty glasses scattered here and there, and a fine coating of dark animal hair on most of the upholstered furniture and rugs. It was no wonder he was wearing black. That stuff seemed to get everywhere.

The source of the fuzz was an enormous black cat, sprawled in a sunbeam behind the armrest of the couch. She took a few steps toward it, while Itachi turned his attention to the bookshelves. "You're a pretty kitty, aren't you," she cooed, kneeling and extending her fingers to let the cat sniff her. "Mind if I pet you, girl?"

It opened its one visible eye and blinked at her, unimpressed. "I was asleep, and I certainly do," he said, in a deep and unmistakably masculine rumble. He raised his head, and fixed her with an intense green stare. Half of his left ear and most of the same side of his neck was a knotty mass of sparse fur and pale scar tissue. Around his throat was a collar of black leather plates stamped with the Uchiha fan, and in place of a name tag was a silver charm in the shape of Konoha's leaf. "Nor am I female," he added unnecessarily.

Sakura yelped and fell back on her palms.

"Hm," he grunted, his tail undulating in irritation. "Not even an apology for waking me up? It's just as rude to start rubbing your grubby hands all over me as it is to touch a human you've never met before," the cat complained. "Bring some fresh tuna next time and I might reconsider letting you pet me."

"Hyōkuro is not a housecat," Itachi chided, his fingers brushing the spine of a book from his large collection. "He is under blood contract with me and serves at my partner on missions that require scent tracking in return for room and board."

Sakura picked herself up from the floor, red in the face. "Sorry, Hyōkuro-san. I didn't realize people did that with animals besides dogs." She bowed to the cat, feeling silly, then backed up and sidled over to study the bookshelves as her teacher began pulling out volumes. The cat grumbled something unintelligible and put its head back down on its paws.

A lot of the books seemed to be as old as he was, with well-cracked spines, and were stuffed with scraps of paper serving as bookmarks. Part of her was surprised the great Uchiha Itachi seemed to enjoy reading as much as she did—and that he had to do it at all. She'd always assumed shinobi like him were above practice and studying, that everything they did just came as naturally as breathing.

She giggled softly to herself when a framed photograph, propped up against a pile of scrolls, caught her eyes. Itachi looked about eight or nine, and was standing waist-deep in a mountain stream with a gleefully shrieking little boy clinging to his chest like a monkey. "That's you and Sasuke-kun, isn't it?" she asked, lifting it carefully. "He was adorable!"

Itachi put the books he'd collected on an end table. "Although he isn't the most approachable, quite a few people seem to think he still is. You more than most, perhaps?"

Sakura blushed again, even more furiously than when she'd insulted Hyōkuro. "When would you like me to return these? I promise to be careful with them until I do."

"Consider them to be on indefinite loan. Ask me about anything you don't understand after practice. I'll see you tomorrow, Sakura."