The Hazards of Amity
Note: I felt compelled to write something lighter to counteract my writer's block and the gloom of Sky Runs Red, so I came up with this. I don't even know how to classify this genre-wise. It's more of a genfic than a romance, and it's not really a comedy. But it's as light-hearted as one can get when canon Itachi is involved.
This was also supposed to be a oneshot, but it got so absurdly long that I spent two weeks agonizing over whether or not to split it up into two parts, because I really did want it to be read as a whole. But after finishing the first half, I realized I couldn't possibly post the whole thing at once. The word count spoke for itself. D:
So yeah, this fic is pretty much done, with only some fill-in-the-blanks to be done on the second half. In the mean time, I really, really hope you guys enjoy this first part. As for technical notes, it's got an obvious dose of AU in that Itachi survives and both he and Sasuke return to Konoha after the war. Reviews, as always, are tremendous amounts of love. :D Enjoy!
The Hazards of Amity ch.1
In the darkness of the room, his only distraction was the crack of light in the bottom of the door. He focused on it, listening to the low, indistinguishable murmurs emanating from the other side. A shadow paced back and forth in front of it.
"Take a deep breath and hold it."
He did as he was told, lowering his eyes from the crack and counting the seconds before he could leave the room.
He never truly had gotten over his apprehension of hospitals.
The eerie echo of his heart sounds only exacerbated the feeling. He lay still, staring up at the ceiling as the transducer moved over his chest. The sluggish murmurs on the monitor rose and fell in pitch, broken by the intermittent click of snapshots.
Ten minutes later, the monitor was wheeled away and he was given a paper towel to wipe the gel off his chest. Itachi sat up, pulling his shirt back on as Tsunade tinkered with the machine.
"Go have a seat in my office. I'll be right out."
He stepped soundlessly onto the floor and turned the doorknob. When he emerged into the lobby, the pacing stopped.
Itachi smiled tiredly at the sight of his brother's face. "It's all right, Sasuke. Tsunade-sama will see me shortly."
Sasuke cast a look in the direction of the room before peering anxiously at his brother. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder and steering him out into the hall. "You worry too much."
Sasuke's concern turned to annoyance. "I wouldn't be worried if you let me sit in on some of these tests."
Itachi shook his head, opening the door to the Hokage's office and ushering him in. "There is a policy about doctor-patient confidentiality. And the examination room is cramped enough as it is."
Sasuke fell silent, at least for the time being. Itachi doubted it was because of his explanation as much as it was being back in Tsunade's office. The animosity did not show on Sasuke's face, but he stood tense, ignoring the chairs and standing by the window.
It had been eighteen months since their return. In that time, it was still disheartening to see the bitterness in his brother's features.
Itachi took a seat and looked pensively out the window.
He supposed he had a reason for feeling uneasy during the tests. The shock of waking in the hospital after he'd fully expected to die eighteen months ago had nearly been enough to put him into a coma again.
The memory reminded him that he still needed to thank the pink-haired medic. It was the appropriate thing to do after she'd shocked his decimated heart into movement out there in the rain-drenched rubble. But it was mere courtesy on his part than actual gratitude, as he'd woken in the hospital room to a crushing sense of horror and dismay.
Thanking her then would have been a lie. A part of him knew thanking her now would still be a lie.
But it had worked out in his favour eventually. The news of his survival had failed to convince Sasuke, but it had enraged the boy enough to charge both Kakashi and Naruto at once. For all his shortcomings, Danzou had earned Itachi's gratitude for tiring his brother enough for Team 7 to subdue him and bring him home.
Two months of hospitalization and delirium stemming from his constant feed of morphine blurred whatever happened afterward. Investigations were launched. Koharu Utatane and Homura Mitokada were indicted. Shinobi hovered outside his closed unit; mistrustful, awed, horrified. His blindness was treated with a corneal transplant.
He did not speak. Nor did he care.
It was only when murmurs of his survival reached the room three doors down from his that the enraged shouts broke him out of his stupor. Alarmed cries filled the corridor. Something clattered to the floor. Frantic footsteps filled the hallway.
Then the door burst open and Sasuke stepped into his room, stopping dead at the sight of him.
Itachi had only had to take one look at that pale, tortured face to realize his little brother knew everything. He'd stayed silent, staring expressionlessly up at him as Sasuke's eyes slowly filled with tears. Somewhere between the wretched screams that had followed and the cacophony of breaking furniture, he'd found himself clutching the boy to his chest, fingers and IVs caught in his hair as Sasuke sobbed the same question over and over again.
"Why did you let them do this to you?"
He'd never given him an answer. Madara's war was looming and every able-bodied shinobi was drafted into the allied forces, regardless of station or legal state. He did as he was told, using the precious few days he had alone with Sasuke to convince him this was bigger than them both and that the free world needed their allegiance.
Laws, after all, were just concepts, open for revision the moment the status quo changed. The decimation of Konoha's shinobi forces was enough to change the new council's opinion on the rogue Uchiha. Losing the last Sharingan-users would be disadvantageous when weighed against the possibility of having their loyalty again.
So they'd fought, alongside comrades who didn't trust them and with nations he'd only recently robbed of their bijuu.
Part of him expected for any one of the shinobi villages to try and execute him for his crimes after the battle. Another part just waited for him to succumb to his illness. Either way, he was quite certain he was going to die.
But the war had done its part in dissolving old grudges. The nations returned home, dazed and reeling from their losses. All pending charges were frozen. Some placed permanently on ice.
He had a brief stint in the hospital. Then he was discharged, permanently relieved of duty, and told to go home. He'd stood around a bit, unsure what to make of that statement until Sasuke took him by the arm and escorted him out. The first day back at the Uchiha compound, he'd stood in front of the gates looking out at the empty mansion. After a while, he'd gone inside on his own.
Sasuke found him hours later in their parents' room. He vaguely remembered his little brother's arms encircling his shoulders, trying to coax him out as he knelt by their bed and cried.
Sasuke tried convincing him to move to another wing of the mansion. He'd refused.
Instead, in the days that followed, he visited every room in the house to offer belated prayers, taking moments to beg forgiveness in between.
Time passed, slow and surreal. He meandered aimlessly through the ensuing days, wondering why he was alive. His first veteran's pension arrived shortly after he turned twenty-two.
Sasuke stayed by him constantly, not caring about his outcast status amongst the villagers. Itachi often wondered how his little brother could even stand to look at him, let alone shoulder such a burden.
The rest of Team 7 dropped by now and then, never staying longer than a half hour at most. Sasuke's contempt for his old team had withered into apathy, and a part of Itachi knew his little brother could not stand to be around them for all the shame and bad blood. Naruto had long since forgiven him, but it would be a long time before Sasuke could forgive himself. Post-war optimism and eighteen months weren't enough to mend that friendship.
But it was time enough for Tsunade to live up to her reputation and help him cheat death a little longer. She developed a medication tailored specifically for his illness. It was far from curing it completely, but it treated the worst of it until he could more or less live normally again. The moments of weakness and chest pain subsided. He stopped looking for blood in the sink. He could take a deep breath without fear of breaking into coughing fits.
She was far kinder to him than he felt he deserved, insisting on monthly physicals to chart his progress. If he remembered correctly, this was check-up number eight. And like the previous seven times, he came only to assuage Sasuke's concerns. It was also the only reason he hadn't resigned himself to death yet. Sasuke could not be put through such grief again.
His brother suddenly shifted by the window. Itachi raised his head in time to see Tsunade open the door and stride in. Her gaze fell on Sasuke, turning cold before she looked at Itachi.
The older woman did nothing to hide her dislike of the younger boy. The feeling was mutual, and oftentimes he found himself caught in the middle as they glared each other down.
"Good news," she announced, taking her seat and opening his medical chart. "The last surgery took care of the damage to your artery walls. The echo checks out and the past five holters show no arrhythmias. You're low on iron, so I'll be prescribing you a supplement to take with your current medication."
He nodded, glad the news would at least serve to lessen Sasuke's anxiety.
"We've come this far," she continued, looking through the charts now. "It's important you take what I say into account to help the rest of your recovery. Take it easy on yourself. Minimize stress. Your lungs are still weak, so don't go out in the cold. And most importantly," her voice turned stern, "do not skimp on your medication, Uchiha."
He mustered the will to look apologetic. "I won't."
"All right, that's it for the medical part," she said, closing the folder and setting it aside. "I'm short on time, so I might as well bring this up now."
Sasuke turned his head to look in their direction, curious. Itachi did not react. He waited for her to finish the cup of sake she'd fished out of her drawer and continue.
"It's obvious we can't spare any working shinobi right now. Projects like trade agreements and mining operations are on hold because our numbers took such a hit." She paused, meditating over her cup of sake. Her face looked drawn and tired. "The trade of our exports are pretty much the life's blood of the village right now. We need someone to negotiate the setup of additional trading posts along Suna, Ame, Kusa, and Tani's borders. They won't bend to us alone, so we need Suna's support."
She looked at him. "I understand you were relieved of shinobi duty."
"Yes," Itachi confirmed, already seeing where this was going.
"That's fine, because this sort of mission falls outside the jurisdiction of shinobi work. You have experience dealing with these villages and you know the terrain." She stopped, taking a deep breath and downing the rest of her drink. "It's a three month job."
Tsunade raised her head, glaring at the figure standing near the window. Itachi followed her gaze, silently beseeching Sasuke to stay civil.
Sasuke kept his eyes focused firmly on the Hokage's face. "He can't go. Not without me."
"Do I need to remind you you're on indefinite probation?" Tsunade said icily.
"From shinobi work," Sasuke retorted. "Not delegate work."
Itachi attempted damage control when he saw the cup splintering in the woman's hand. "I will take the mission," he said, "but I request Sasuke be allowed to come with me."
Tsunade looked at him, features fixed in a deep scowl. "I'm counting on this to be a success. If he screws this up, I'm holding you responsible."
Sasuke bristled, about to speak when Itachi interrupted. "Very well."
Tsunade frowned at him a little while longer before the look faded into one of weary acceptance. "Consider it three months of medical leave. The dry air will do you good."
He lowered his head gratefully. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as possible, if I can help it. You'll be travelling with a caravan." She sifted through the papers on her desk and found a schedule. "There's one leaving two days from now. Another next week."
"We will leave in two days, then."
Tsunade and Sasuke glanced at him in surprise.
Itachi didn't waver. "I am fit to travel. There is no need to wait."
Tsunade regarded him thoughtfully before nodding once. "I'll be expecting a report every week."
Itachi bowed once more before sparing his brother a look and leaving the room. Sasuke stayed close on his heels, not speaking until they'd exited the building.
"Two days? Is that enough time to prepare?"
"It's adequate," Itachi replied, starting down the path home. "Sasuke, be more respectful before the Hokage. You should be grateful we've been granted back citizenship, let alone allowed permission to leave the village."
Sasuke froze, his voice growing incredulous. "Grateful?"
Itachi opened his mouth to speak, only to be drowned out by Sasuke's furious shout. "They owe us! How can you say that? How can you possibly say that after everything you've done for them?" He turned to him, sounding pained. "After what they made you—"
"A shinobi is owed nothing for his duty," Itachi cut in, keeping his eyes on the footpath. "I did what I had to do for the village. I did it because I care for Konoha."
Sasuke glanced at him, features twisted in consternation. Then his eyes narrowed and his voice grew bitter. "Konoha doesn't care about you."
Itachi did not slow his stride or reply. Instead, he raised his head, looking out at the village he'd thrown away his life for. People streaked by, civilians and shinobi alike sparing them a wide berth.
He caught their glances, taking in their resentment and mistrust. Sasuke glared right back, fists tightening by his sides when one of them muttered a passing remark. Before he could raise his arm, Itachi gripped his wrist, stopping him.
Without speaking, he lowered his eyes back to the pathway and pulled him away to take the back roads home.
Neither had time to dwell on the villagers' acerbity. Suna was known for being an unforgivable landscape and it took Sasuke the better part of an hour to find the appropriate travel wear.
He didn't show it, but Itachi sensed a sort of eagerness about him that reminded him of their younger days. Back then, he'd never made time for Sasuke because of his duties, so this mission would mark the first time they carried one out together. Itachi was grateful he did not have to apologize and make an excuse for disappointing him this time.
In the foyer, Sasuke dropped their travelling bags with a muffled thump and gathered some last-minute essentials.
Itachi remained in his room, changing into something comfortable for the long trip. He slipped on a long-sleeved shirt emblazoned with the Uchiha fan and turned to the side table. His forehead protector shone vividly in the light. He traced his thumb over the insignia, finding it peculiar without the slash.
Both he and Sasuke had been re-issued new ones when the war had ended. He wore his as a formality now that he was no longer a shinobi. Sasuke hadn't worn his once.
He reached up and tied it around his forehead, straightening it before looking at his reflection. The sight was surreal. He touched the steel plate again, fingers lingering there before drifting to the collar of his shirt. He never thought he'd wear either vestment again.
Now that he was, he didn't know what to make of the fact that he felt absolutely nothing.
He dropped his arm back to his side and turned to gather his bag. Sasuke met him in the foyer, a small smile flitting over his face when he saw the Uchiha emblem flash out from his brother's back.
The smile lingered for the next two days as they made their way out of Konoha and crossed River Country. The caravan drivers were civilians, fortunately oblivious to the identity of their company. They carried a miscellany of items: herbs, spices, leather goods and the gifts Tsunade had included for the Kazekage and his entourage. Itachi shared her sentiment, making it a note to thank the young leader if he got the chance. In the latter stages of the war, it had been Gaara who'd intervened and saved Sasuke from a bijuu attack.
Despite that, he held no illusions about what to expect upon their arrival. Redeemed or not, he had still been part of the same organization that had nearly destroyed their village and murdered their Kazekage. He was fully prepared to accept a punch to the face if they felt it necessary.
Security, too, was tighter ever since Deidara's attack years earlier. The guards' reception turned frosty when they read the names on the paperwork. But after a few minutes of perusing the rest of their papers and checking the caravan, they relented and allowed them entry, watching their backs until they disappeared into the village.
Itachi kept a thin shawl wrapped around his face, more out of concern of being recognized than the dust flying around. Sasuke kept close, assaying the bustling public and buildings with a keen eye.
A guide met them at the visitors' centre, splitting them off from the oblivious merchants. The guide, too, seemed blissfully unaware of who they were as he cheerfully showed them the apartment where they'd be staying.
"The Kazekage's headquarters is located in the centre of the village, four blocks north from here. If you have any further questions, please drop by the visitors' centre."
Itachi nodded his thanks and bid the man goodbye at the doorstep, letting Sasuke unlock the door and step into the apartment first. It was plain and tidy, with enough furniture for two people to live comfortably. Sasuke dropped their luggage in the middle of the den, disappearing into the bathroom to wash the dust off his face.
"What time do you meet with the trade committee?" Sasuke asked a minute later, striding out of the bathroom with a towel around his neck.
Itachi drew out his schedule and glanced at it. "In two hours."
Sasuke muttered something about their obvious haste and sat down on the single sofa. "Enough time for a shower, at least."
"Not quite," Itachi said, preparing himself when Sasuke looked at him questioningly. "You have your meeting in an hour."
Sasuke blinked. "What meeting?"
"With the branch post of the trade committee."
At his perplexed look, Itachi finally relented. "Tsunade-sama felt it would be best if you contributed something to the mission."
As he expected, Sasuke's face withered into a glare. "That old hag didn't mention any of this in her office."
Itachi fought the urge to smile at his expression. "It was an afterthought."
In anticipation of the curse words about to fly out of his brother's mouth, Itachi calmly turned away and started unpacking.
Sasuke had managed a quick shower before leaving, muttering epithets along the way as Itachi watched amusedly from the den. After his brother left, he took his time putting their belongings away and washing the sand out of his hair. Donning a clean shirt identical to the first, he waited until he had thirty minutes before the appointment to leave the apartment.
He was prepared for their reception, whether it be of indifference or righteous fury. Three months would be a long time to endure if their treatment gravitated towards the latter, but he would not complain. The mission was on par with the rest of the routines that ran his directionless life. Waking. Eating. Sleeping. Working. He did them out of obligation to his brother. It would be no different if he made himself useful out of obligation to Konoha.
He kept the shawl wrapped about his face on the way to the building, well aware he stood out in the sea of tan and beige. Reception accepted his appointment slip even when he arrived fifteen minutes early, directing him to follow the stairs up to the Kazekage's meeting room.
The hallway outside the room was deserted save for a few chairs. The door was closed. He double-checked to see if he had the right place before taking a seat furthest from the room. Muffled voices could be heard through the cracks.
Fifteen minutes went by before he heard the scrape of a chair and a distinctly young voice undercutting the others. Moments later, the door opened and a stream of men and women filed out, speaking in low voices as they exited the hall. None of them took notice of him. He waited till the group disappeared down the stairwell before rising and making his way to the door.
It had been left slightly ajar, and he raised his hand to knock until another voice spilled through the crack. He paused, listening for a moment before letting his hand drop. Through the crack in the door, he could make out the young Kazekage's profile from his seat at the table. A woman stood next to him, speaking in a low voice.
Her hand came to rest on his shoulder and her brow furrowed in concern. He didn't have to hear her to know she was worried the boy was pushing himself too hard.
Gaara shook his head and murmured something in return. She said a few more things and smiled suddenly. It had the same effect as sunlight on a patch of ice. The stern facade disintegrated, revealing a warm, caring expression, and he suddenly felt uncomfortable witnessing the slip of masks shinobi reserved for their private moments.
He looked away.
She emerged from the room a minute later, slipping seamlessly back into that impassive visage.
He only had to take one look at her to conclude she was no-nonsense and all practicality. Her clothing was austere, consisting of a dark, three-quarter sleeved shirt and pants, and a jounin flak jacket she'd left open in the front. The only thing differentiating her from the other shinobi were her fingerless gloves and the massive fan she held on her back.
He rose to his feet and she nodded. "My name is Temari. Please follow me." With that, she turned on her heel and started down the hall.
They didn't speak along the way, traversing the long hall in silence until she stopped at another door and beckoned him in. He entered, finding himself staring at rows of file cabinets and a single desk.
He handed them to her and she took a seat, reading over his information. Without asking any further questions, she drew a small scroll from the desk and unfurled it.
"You can sit down. This'll take a minute."
He did, settling for observing her as she copied his information onto the scroll and drew a peculiar looking seal at the bottom of the parchment. Five minutes later, she raised her head.
"I need your signature."
He rose and moved over to the desk, pausing only momentarily when she handed him a sterilized lancet instead of a pen. Realizing what it was, he pierced his finger and allowed a single drop of blood to fall onto the parchment. She quickly rolled it closed, emblazoning it with an activation seal before handing it to him.
"This is your security clearance," she explained, rising and moving over to the cabinets to file away his paperwork. "If anyone asks, this is all you show them. Only you can open it, and it'll disintegrate if anyone else tries. So don't lose it."
She slid the drawer shut and turned around. "You got all that?"
He pocketed it and raised his head. "Yes."
She remained silent, looking at him a moment. Then she reached into another drawer and pulled out a bandaid.
He stared at it.
"It's standard procedure," she deadpanned.
He accepted it and she walked past him, gesturing for him to follow. She spent the next hour explaining where to find the relevant offices and where to hand in status reports, never straying from the topic. Her mode of conduct soon became clear. Informative but not overly helpful. Courteous but not quite friendly. Taciturn but not hostile.
He counted himself fortunate considering she only knew him as the one-time affiliate of the terrorist group that had killed her brother. With that in mind, he responded when necessary, keeping to a series of monosyllabic answers as she led him back down the street leading to his apartment.
"There are a couple of cafes in this district that'll serve as meeting places for work, so familiarize yourself with the neighbourhood."
Itachi finally ventured a question, wondering why she hadn't addressed the most important part of the topic yet.
"Where is the trade committee?"
She stopped suddenly and turned around. "You're looking at it."
He stared at her, nonplussed.
"Your Hokage's short on shinobi," she pointed out. "So is our Kazekage. As far as a committee goes, we're it."
That explained the prospect of meeting in a tea shop, he surmised. Reserving a legitimate meeting room for only two people was out of the question.
"We'll be meeting a few times a week," she continued, "but it depends on how fast the branch workers are getting their jobs done. My brother Kankuro heads that committee."
"What is their assignment?"
"Manual labour. We'll be planning the placement of trading posts and they'll be building them."
Itachi fell silent, imagining Sasuke's reaction to what was practically three months of D-rank missions. Temari glanced at her watch.
"Once the posts are built at our borders, we'll be working out the plan for branching out to the other villages. By the end of the three months, we'll be presenting it to the council for approval. Do you have any questions?"
"Good. Our first meeting's tomorrow. Check your schedule for the time and place."
She turned to leave, then, and he suddenly remembered the items he'd left up in his apartment.
She stopped and glanced over her shoulder.
"The Hokage sent a package for the Kazekage as a token of gratitude. I can bring it now."
She raised an eyebrow. "Why didn't you just give it to me earlier?"
She considered him a moment before turning around, expectant.
He turned and headed into the apartment to retrieve the items. A few minutes later, she glanced up from where she was watching the children play down the street. Mild surprise flickered over her features as she saw what he held in his hands.
"A specimen for your medicinal collection," he explained, holding a potted plant out first.
She slowly took it from him, a look of keen interest in her eyes as she examined the small green leaves and purple stalks.
He offered her the second item next; a cooler containing powdered deer antler from the Nara clan and various medical tinctures.
When she glanced at him again, it was with a cool, assessing look.
"You're a weird one, Uchiha."
He looked at her, unsure how to respond.
"A little difficult to figure out," she continued, lightly fingering the small leaves. "Getting some payback would've at least been justified if you acted like your brother."
It didn't take more than that for him to figure out what she meant.
"You wanted to hit me," he stated.
"Yes," she admitted. "But what kind of shinobi would I be if I couldn't stop myself from punching an ally delegate?"
"I was under the impression it was a personal grudge."
"It was," she said plainly. "At first."
He remained silent, somewhat curious as to what she meant. Seeing his look, she shrugged. "You're nothing like I thought you would be."
She paused and looked thoughtfully up at the sky before continuing.
"Kankuro and I had this impression of you. I think we were both hoping you'd give us a reason to knock your block off. But then you show up and you're as demure as a lamb." She shook her head at the absurdity of it all. "It'd just be pointless."
"...thank you," he said, not knowing what else to say.
"You were also instrumental in winning the war," she added as an afterthought. "Saved us a lot of casualties. I suppose that evens things out."
There was a long, awkward moment of silence.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She just looked at him. He felt no need to explain himself. He was sorry for everything. Sorry she'd nearly lost two brothers. Sorry she'd lost her comrades. Sorry that she couldn't even punch him for the sake of diplomacy.
To his surprise, a faint smirk curved her lips.
"I only said I wanted to hit you," she said, sounding amused. "I never said I was petty."
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started off down the street. "Tell the Hokage I said thanks."
Sasuke returned to the apartment several hours later. Itachi was mildly surprised to see his brother wasn't as angry as he'd anticipated, looking more put off than anything else.
"It's not funny," Sasuke muttered, frowning when he caught sight of Itachi's lips twitching. "It's the same D-rank mission for three months. Plus that puppeteer guy is almost as obnoxious as Naruto."
At that Itachi became more sober. He looked carefully at his brother's expression before venturing the question that had been concerning him the entire day.
"How did they treat you?"
Sasuke didn't reply right away. That would have been a bad sign except for the slightly bewildered look on his face.
"Like everyone else."
His confusion was understandable. Missing-nin were generally not well received, even if their citizenships were reinstated. Itachi lowered his eyes in thought. Part of it had to do with the war. People were exhausted of their hatred and biases. Malignity seemed needless and wasteful when there was rebuilding to be done.
The other part, he felt, was more personal. The Suna shinobi would be the last to judge them for their histories when the Kazekage himself had found redemption after committing crimes on par with S-rank criminals.
Itachi recalled the ironic smile on Temari's face just before she'd left and relaxed a little at the thought of spending the next three months working with her. Suna had always had a reputation as a harsh, unforgiving place. He was beginning to feel they weren't talking about its people.
"How about you? How was the meeting?"
Itachi raised his head, noticing Sasuke looked slightly wary of hearing his answer.
"It was fine," he replied. "I'm working with only one other person."
"Temari-san, the Kazekage's sister."
That seemed to put Sasuke at ease. "When's your first meeting?"
Itachi glanced at the schedule he'd left on the coffee table. "Tomorrow morning at ten."
Sasuke grimaced. "I have to be at the border by six."
The look on his face was so petulant that Itachi couldn't resist. He reached forward and poked Sasuke in the forehead.
He spluttered in shock, about to react until Itachi placed a hand on his head.
"I'm glad you came with me, Sasuke."
The annoyed look faltered, replaced by one of mild embarrassment. Itachi saw clear through it and ruffled his hair, inwardly grateful he could see his brother's small, drawn smile despite all they'd been through.
"Be good to our hosts," he said after a while, thinking of how the next twelve weeks would transpire. "They've treated us well."
For once, Sasuke didn't argue.
The first meeting place listed on the schedule was a small tea shop located just five minutes away from his apartment. He got there early, taking a seat near the back as the waitress served an old couple nearby.
He settled for studying the map they'd be using, ignoring the prolonged stares he got from some of the customers. When a series of muffled laughs and whispers drifted over to his ears, he raised his head and glanced at the windowpane next to him.
In the reflection, he made out a small group of academy students huddled around their own table, pointing in his direction.
He ignored them and returned his attention to his map. They'd probably noticed his forehead protector and pegged him as some chuunin emissary. It was not uncommon for outsiders to be made fun of, especially ones from Konoha.
He glanced back at the window. One of them had just picked up a fruit pie. Itachi refrained from sighing and placed his hand on the menu in preparation to deflect the oncoming projectile.
Just as the kid reared his arm back, a gloved hand reached down and gripped his wrist.
"Hey twerps," Temari said lightly. "Aren't you supposed to be in school?"
A palpable tremor ran through the group. There were a few beats of tense silence before the leader stammered out. "Temari-sama, we were just—"
"About to whip a pie at a Konoha delegate? Yes, I can see that."
"We're sorry. It was just a dare. It won't happen again."
With slow, deliberate movements, she turned him to face her. The others followed, faces pale.
"The Kazekage's been working on a new A-rank jutsu," she said calmly. "If you don't feel like going to class, I can volunteer you as target practice."
They just stared at her, too frightened to speak.
"Get out of here," she ordered.
They promptly ran past her.
Temari shook her head and watched them run down the street. Then she strode over to where he was sitting and slid into the booth.
"Feel free to scare them off next time."
He shook his head. "It doesn't bother me."
She made a face. "Maybe not, but I don't feel like sitting around someone who smells like boysenberry all day. Maybe I should've picked a better meeting spot."
"Did you have breakfast?"
"Don't mind me, then. I need to eat before we get started."
She beckoned the waitress over and ordered tea and a sandwich. They seemed to know each other well, as the woman discreetly dropped off a tray of chestnuts and winked.
Temari flashed her a grateful smile and cracked one open, filling the booth with the scent of freshly roasted nuts. "Want one?"
"No, thank you."
He felt her gaze linger on him as he examined the map. Thinking she wanted something, he raised his head.
"You're pretty quiet," she commented.
He remained silent at first, about to consider apologizing until she raised a hand. "It's fine. With most visitors, you can't get a word in edge-wise."
The waitress came by with the tea and set two cups on the table. Without asking, Temari poured him a cup and pushed it forward.
"So you're on medical leave."
"Yes," he said, accepting it.
"My condition is improving."
"If that's the case, I don't understand why they'd send you here, of all places."
"The dry climate suits me."
She made a sound of affirmation while taking a sip. Then she lowered the cup, idly swirling the contents around.
"How's Konoha suiting you?"
He paused, considering how to answer that. The fact that he had to think about it was answer enough.
"I get it," she said after a while. "Being an outcast would be pretty bad if you had to shoulder it alone, but at least you've got family." She shrugged, looking out the window. "Family makes it bearable."
He observed her pensive expression and didn't speak.
"But anyway," she put the cup back down. "They'll get over it."
Her forthrightness was a little shocking. Had the comment come from anyone besides the sister of the Kazekage—one of the very few people capable of understanding what he was going through—it would have come off as grossly presumptuous. In spite of himself, he felt a wry sort of amusement. "You seem certain of that."
"What?" she said dryly. "You mean saving the world from a psychotic, mass-murdering tyrant isn't enough?"
That actually got a small smile out of him. She smirked amusedly in return before turning her attention to their work pile.
"We might as well get started. The stuff this week is straightforward enough."
The transition to work went smoother than he'd anticipated. She was well read on the subject and dedicated to the task at hand. Most importantly, she didn't stray from the topic the entire two hours they were there. Itachi was glad of it. He'd been caught off guard by her openness in the beginning and was admittedly still unsure how to react if she chose to continue on that tangent. He'd expected a few discrepancies upon meeting her, but hearing her summarize his alienation in Konoha with a few flippant, strangely empathetic words was not one of them.
Fortunately, she didn't bring it up again. Like she'd said, the first assignment was simple enough, consisting of mapping out potential trading post locations at the borders of the neighbouring villages. They worked quietly and efficiently, with her breaking stride only to glance at her watch every now and then.
The downturn in her brow and her tapping fingers told him she had somewhere to be after they were done, and he didn't delay her when they finished and she tossed a few bills onto the table.
"The next couple of days are pretty much the same," she said as she sheathed her fan on her back again. "In a few weeks, we'll be going out in the field. Try to find something to do in the mean time, since we'll probably be ahead of schedule."
He nodded once, rising to gather his things as she turned to leave. She took a step away from the table, then turned back around.
"Want a suggestion?"
He paused what he was doing and glanced at her.
"If you want to blend in, take a walk while the sun's still out." Her lips quirked. "You look like a ghost."
Then she turned with a wave and walked away, leaving him staring bemusedly after her.
The first two weeks transpired in much the same fashion. His workload was minimal compared to Sasuke's, and as she'd pointed out, he'd had a lot of time to do nothing in between meetings. So he'd taken her up on her suggestion and started walking aimlessly through the village in the afternoons.
The villagers paid him little attention, carrying about their business as he familiarized himself with the neighbourhoods. The long walks gave him time to think and gradually he found himself enjoying the simple freedom of walking through the village without being heckled.
Sasuke left early in the mornings and came home late in the evenings, having just enough energy to greet him, eat dinner, and bathe before he collapsed into bed. The work, as menial as it was, was having a noticeably beneficial effect on his little brother. The guarded overcast in Sasuke's eyes gradually faded. He no longer appeared restless or irritable. He'd even noticed him smiling more often. And oddly enough, despite first impressions, he was getting along surprisingly well with the puppeteer. Itachi had the inkling it had something to do with him being similar to Naruto.
For his part, he'd found himself meshing well enough with the Kazekage's sister. Temari was as consistent in her work ethic as he was, but unlike him, she didn't have the time to take long walks after their work was over. Their assignment was just one of the many duties she carried out in a day if her frequent watch-checking meant anything. She was a creature of habit, always starting off their mornings with a tray of roasted chestnuts and a pot of tea on the table. She worked diligently, but always took enough of a break to make the occasional, unexpected comment that changed the meetings from something mundane into something more personable. Almost friendly.
Today was no different. She cracked her knuckles and folded her hands behind her head, raising an eyebrow at him when he glanced up from the maps.
"That's some tan you've built up, Uchiha. Are the walks around town that interesting?"
Though he never intended it, his replies tended to amuse her for some reason.
"It wasn't a conscious effort," he said. There was a pause. "I got lost."
She burst out laughing. He didn't expect that. But he didn't mind it, either, because there was something undeniably pleasant about getting someone other than Sasuke to spare him a smile.
There was still an amused smirk lingering on her face a few minutes later when she flipped her ledger around and pointed at their final placements.
"This is the last one. Kusa have been pretty anal about getting the post on their side of the border. At this point we're willing to just give it to them. But for the sake of professionalism, pros?"
"Safer conditions," he said, recalling the terrain. "Taki's end is prone to flooding."
"Hm. Less political tension."
"Kusa has a lower crime rate."
She nodded, mulling it over. Then she glanced at her watch again. "Fine. Then we're in agreement. Last post goes to Kusa. Congrats, Uchiha. The boring part is over."
He stood up, helping her roll up the maps and file away the rest of the papers. She looked to be in a greater hurry than usual, so he carried half the folders for her until they got outside.
"Field work starts next week," she said, taking the rest of the papers from him once she'd jammed her half into her bag. "I'm busy the rest of the week, so take some time off."
She'd just managed to stuff the last binder into her bag when the piercing cry of an eagle rent the air. They looked up in time to see it flap down towards them. Temari blinked, looking a little surprised at its appearance before she held her arm out.
The bird alighted on her forearm and ruffled its feathers before offering her its leg. Her expression clouded slightly.
"Give me a minute," she muttered, turning away to read the message.
He watched as she unfurled the paper. Her face darkened.
He considered leaving it at that and going home, well aware he had no business inquiring into the affairs of Suna shinobi. But when the binder she'd half-tucked into her bag toppled out and spilled its contents everywhere, he figured she wouldn't say no to his help if he offered it.
"What is it?" he asked, stooping to help her gather the papers.
She cursed and glanced at her watch.
"I'm giving guest lectures at the academy this week. My partner got called out on a mission last minute." She stopped trying to be neat and roughly crammed the sheets into her bag. "It's just political stuff. Raising morale and glamorizing the shinobi lifestyle to convince the kids it's their calling."
He knew well enough of that. Before he'd left Konoha, the clan had paraded him around at the academy as the poster child for shinobi achievement. He contemplated his options as he placed the rest of the papers back into the binder. She needed help, that much was obvious. Sasuke would not be home for another six hours. And there were only so many times he could wander around the village without arousing suspicion or looking like an escaped mental patient.
He closed the binder and handed it to her.
"I can substitute," he offered.
She blinked in surprise. "You?"
"If you'll have me."
She had not expected that. Her eyes flitted over him, sceptical. "What's in it for you?"
He held her gaze. "A start at restitution."
The scepticism dissolved away into consideration. She glanced at her watch again. Slowly, a smirk spread over her face.
"Well, when you put it like that, who am I to stand in your way?"
Their arrival heralded pandemonium. A group of about twenty children broke free of their teacher's hold and ran squealing to the training grounds when Temari stepped through the gates of the school.
"Who's that with her?"
"Temari-sama, is that your boyfriend?"
The clamour was deafening, made even worse when the teacher rushed over and struggled to get them back in line. Itachi chose to stay a few meters behind and watched from afar. Ahead of him, Temari took their excitement in stride, flashing them a grin and looking minutely relieved to see she was on time.
They were ecstatic to see her and it wasn't hard to miss the looks of adoration on their faces as she ruffled a head here and there.
"Hey guys, stop giving Taro-sensei a hard time. I have a real surprise for you today, so back in line if you wanna see."
"Okay!" they chorused, and immediately formed ranks again. Their teacher stumbled away from them, looking harassed and extremely relieved to see Temari. She was an older, fuller woman, with a gentle face and dainty fingers. He didn't have to look twice to realize she was a civilian teacher, probably substituting for the short shinobi staff.
The kids obviously knew it, too, and took full advantage of it. He felt a twinge of sympathy for the older woman as she swept tangles out of her red, sweaty face.
Temari turned and beckoned to him, then, and he made his way over. Taro bowed her head in greeting and smiled, quickly moving aside as he stopped before the line of curious faces.
"This is Uchiha Itachi," Temari said, gesturing to him. "He's a shinobi visiting all the way from Konoha. He'll be helping me out today, so treat him well, got that?"
As she turned away to share a few words with the teacher, the kids took the opportunity to stare up at him with shrewd eyes. He knew he didn't make an impressive sight, standing there in his non-descript clothing without a single weapon or even a shinobi uniform. It wasn't long before one of the boys raised his hand and spoke.
"Uchiha-sensei, what's your rank in Konoha?"
Itachi looked at him. The boy looked back, resolute. The other kids followed his example, waiting expectantly.
Temari had been mistaken when she'd introduced him as a shinobi. He'd been revoked of that title a year ago. He mulled over his response before finally answering.
They stared at him incredulously. "That's it? But you're so old!"
Well, he thought, to a bunch of seven year olds, twenty-two must have seemed positively ancient. It had the desired effect, though, and they quickly lost interest and looked away.
A few minutes later, the students were seated in four rows, waiting attentively for Temari to begin. Taro stood off to the side, mopping her face with a handkerchief as Itachi looked on from behind. Temari glanced at their expectant faces and paused, wondering how to go about doing this. Her partner was supposed to cover the pep talk portion of the lecture, as she'd never been that great with public speaking. It wasn't as though she couldn't give a decent exposition into what it meant to be a shinobi. The problem was that most of it would either put them to sleep or scar them for life.
Clearing her throat, she began.
"Being a shinobi takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and discipline. There's a lot more to it than just learning by the book, so trust me when I say it's not easy getting to the same ranks as Uchiha-san and me."
A few of the kids sniggered.
"What else? Uh..." Temari blanked out for a second, wondering what else she could possibly say to a bunch of seven-year-olds.
She was spared the need when Itachi stepped over to her and murmured something in an undertone. She blinked when he finished, giving him a nod before turning back to the class.
"Right, so let's start with something advanced since Taro-sensei tells me you're too smart for the small stuff." She grinned when they beamed at the compliment. "To become a strong shinobi, you need to become one with an element to master nature transformations. There are five basic elements. Anybody know what they are?"
A hand shot up in the back.
"Um, wind, fire, water, earth, and...uh..."
"Lightning!" someone else piped up.
"Exactly. Come closer so you can take a look at this."
The kids immediately surrounded her as she drew a diagram in the dirt, illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of the chakra types against each other. They crowded around it, prattling excitedly and breaking into arguments over which was better.
"Temari-sama, which one is the strongest?"
"The strength of the chakra type depends on the skill of the user. But certain elements are weaker against others. Take wind for example..."
She pointed to the symbol. "Wind is strong against earth. Anybody know its weakness?"
"Um..." one of the girls cocked her head at the diagram. "Fire?"
"Right. Wind acts as fuel to fire, which makes the fire bigger and stronger."
"So fire beats wind?"
"It depends on your level of skill. If you work hard enough, you can overcome the weaknesses of your chakra type."
She paused before glancing over at Itachi. "Hey Uchiha. You're a fire type, aren't you?"
The kids went silent, turning scrutinizing eyes to the quiet man standing behind her.
They looked unconvinced and somewhat resentful of what that implied and looked at her questioningly. "Does that mean Uchiha-sensei is stronger than you?"
She grinned. "Now that's a good question, isn't it?"
Itachi gave her a curious look when she suddenly rose and moved to stand beside him.
"True, every element has its weakness, but it doesn't always have to be about who's stronger or weaker. Sometimes different chakra types can even help each other."
With that, she turned to him and spoke in a whisper. "Typically we save practical demonstrations for older students, but..." her lips formed an impish smile, "care to help me with an example anyway?"
His gaze lingered on her uncertainly before flitting back to the hopeful faces of the students. He hadn't used ninjutsu for several months and there was a very real possibility of Tsunade having his head if a stray breeze happened to set the school on fire. But...
Itachi released a breath to ward off his misgivings and nodded. "All right."
Satisfied, Temari turned back to the class. "Okay, form a horizontal line, single-file, and Uchiha-sensei and I will give you a demonstration."
They immediately erupted in a mad dash to get into line as Taro looked on in trepidation. "Um, Temari-sama, is this safe? I heard something about fire—"
"Perfectly safe," Temari called back to her, already loping a fair distance away. "Just keep them in line and no one should get hurt."
Itachi had already taken up a position a few meters ahead of her where the students could see him clearly. She gave him the signal to go ahead and drew out her fan in preparation.
She honestly wasn't expecting much when he raised his hand and formed a single seal before his lips. But she nonetheless twirled the fan to generate a gust the same instant he took a deep breath.
The explosive fireball that resulted nearly knocked her onto her behind. Incredulous, she adjusted her footing and continued to feed the wall of flame, a little amazed by the sheer size and heat radiating off of it.
The astonished cries of the class sounded distantly in the roar of flames, interspersed with Taro's shouts to keep still. Temari caught his eye and winked. Catching on, he condensed the flame into a sleeker form, intensifying the heat as she added more fuel to the fire.
The temperature climbed until the flames were white hot and the sand began to melt. Even from where she was standing, the heat was incredible. The kids broke into wild applause when he extinguished the flame a moment later.
Taro barred their way to stop them from running too close to the pool of molten sand and Temari smiled in amusement as Itachi leisurely made his way back to her.
"Check it out," she said, pointing to the group of boys gazing at him in awestruck wonder. "You have fan boys."
"That one is an academy favourite," he acknowledged, "though this was the first time I supplemented it with a wind jutsu."
"At least it proved the theory right," she chuckled, wiping out the diagram in the dirt. "Even I'm impressed."
Before he could reply, the group broke loose and Itachi found himself surrounded. Six voices began talking and asking questions all at once, pulling on both arms and legs. Temari smirked at his surprised expression and waved as he was herded off.
The ruse of being a lowly old genin backfired on him with the fire stunt and the next three hours found him trapped in a classroom with twenty-five new adoring fans. The lesson wouldn't have been so overwhelming if they'd followed the usual academy curriculum, but with a civilian teacher like Taro substituting, kunai practice was replaced with arts and crafts and stamina building with snack time.
Temari had no problem letting him bear the brunt of it and breezed through the rest of the day helping Taro in the supply room. It was only when the bell rang, three hours later that she opened the classroom door to see how he'd fared.
The kids rushed out of the room in a blur of noise and laughter, their voices echoing down the hall until they vanished out the double doors. Shaking her head, she turned around and entered, stopping short when she found Itachi sitting in the empty room. He raised his head and Temari had to stifle a snort of laughter.
The kids had forced him into one of those too-small plastic chairs. His legs were bent awkwardly in front of him since his knees were too high to fit under the desk. Artwork lay scattered over the remaining tables and a smudge of blue paint was visible on his shirt. It was a wonder how he still managed to look so dignified.
"Still alive?" she drawled, strolling over.
In response, Itachi lowered his eyes to the surrounding mess of toppled chairs and scattered paper and scratched the dried paint on his shirt.
Temari sat down at the edge of a desk, her eyes flicking over him in amusement. "Looks like restitution's coming a little harder than you thought."
"They were a little..." he searched for a word, "exuberant."
Truth be told, he'd forgotten how much energy seven-year-olds were capable of. It'd been like twenty-five little Sasukes all yelling his name and trying to get him to play and train with them all at once.
"That's cute," she said dryly, pointing to the smiley face sticker stuck to his shirt. "They've accepted you into their society."
The corners of his lips twitched. "The schoolyard demonstration seemed to win them over."
"That's putting it lightly," she said with another pointed look at the surrounding mess. "But it worked out. Even if Taro had to call the fire department..."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, then, listening to the muffled laughter of kids through the windowpane. Temari glanced at her watch before she leaned over and began collecting the strewn artwork. He silently joined in, retrieving the scattered paper from the floor as she gave him a side glance.
The half-smile she gave him this time had a mark of sincerity that hadn't been there before. When she broke the silence, the teasing note had dropped from her voice.
"Thanks, by the way. For helping me out."
There was an imperceptible pause in his gathering. After a few seconds, he stacked the pile and handed it to her.
"It was nothing."
She accepted it and put the stack with hers, setting it on the table next to them. There was another brief moment of silence. Temari glanced out the window before looking back at him, feeling another flicker of amusement at his awkward position.
"I'm back here again the rest of the week," she finally said. "I guess there's no point in asking if you're free..."
Itachi reflected over his condition before considering her offer.
He was exhausted. His ears were still ringing. He was sticky with apple juice. But he was only half-aware of those things. His recollection of the day centered more on the memory of their oblivious, beaming faces and the way they'd treated him; without knowing who he was, without knowing what he'd done, alongside someone who knew it all and still managed to treat him with a kindness and normalcy he did not feel he deserved.
Temari watched him as he reached up and peeled the sticker off his shirt. The smiley face glittered up at him from the palm of his hand. His lips slowly curled into a resigned smile.
"You can ask."
Sasuke had been taken aback at the idea of his brother spending the next week substituting as a teacher at the local academy, but he hadn't opposed it. Having Itachi spend hours alone in the apartment had been the more worrisome alternative, and he had the feeling something like this would work well to stave off the ennui. Even if it was weird to come home and find his brother covered in paint and kids' stickers.
Itachi found the new occupation somewhat easier to deal with now that he knew what to expect. The students, besides being impressed with him, were glad to finally have teachers that were competent shinobi. Taro was ecstatic to get a break and Temari was appreciative of his help. It was a welcomed, if not fleeting distraction.
The fourth and final day at the school provided a break in the routine. Taro had planned a field trip to learn about the local flora and Temari had turned it into a survival lesson. Itachi watched from the sidelines as she led the class between varying species of cacti and arrived at the final specimen.
"All right, step away from this one," she announced. "This cactus is called Euphorbia candelabrum. Never, ever go near this one. It bleeds a white sap that's poisonous if eaten or inhaled. If you eat it, it'll make your intestines and stomach swell until they burst. If you inhale it, it'll fill your lungs until you can't breathe. It can also make you go blind if it gets in your eyes."
Itachi imperceptibly shifted away from it.
"Shinobi use the latex on their weapons to poison them, but that's chuunin-level stuff," she finished, indicating their worksheets. "You guys just worry about drawing it right."
A hand shot up in the back. "What's that bumpy grey stuff?"
Temari blinked before turning to look at the cactus. Her brows drew together when she bent closer to examine the bumps on the green skin.
"Fungus," she muttered distastefully. "Don't worry about that. Just draw it as you see it."
As the kids hunched over in the sand and began to draw, Temari moved away from the plant and shook her head. "Foreigners bring the spores in on their clothes. This crap grows like crazy, even out here in the desert."
At that, she looked up at Itachi with an accusing frown. He blinked.
She expected him to say something, he realized, and had to wonder at the mindsets of Suna nin to get worked up over such an abomination of nature. He glanced at the cactus again, face unreadable.
"Will it destroy the plant?"
"Yes," Temari replied, throwing another disgusted glance at the fungus. "This species is on the endangered list because of those spores."
"I see," he said after a moment. "In that case, I'm not sorry."
Temari looked baffled. "Why would you—?"
"Because they sound horrible," he said, voice deadpan.
They looked at each other for a few seconds. Then Temari reached up to rub her forehead in an attempt to cover the grin spreading over her face. She failed.
"You..." she tried to stop laughing long enough to get the words out. "You're just..."
For some reason she found the sight of his face hysterical and had to turn away. He wasn't offended as much as he was mildly confused. And a little pleased, because he'd be lying if he said he hadn't grown fond of the sound of her laughter.
She composed herself a few seconds later and turned back around, still smiling in a disbelieving sort of way. "You're really weird, Uchiha, you know that?"
Without waiting for him to respond, she shook her head and strode past him, beckoning for him to follow. He turned and trailed after her, glad she hadn't waited for a reply. He had no idea what to say to that comment.
She led him to an occlusion of rocks overlooking the students and sat down. He took a seat beside her, waiting for her to speak, but she only sipped water from her canteen and gazed out at the rows of children in the distance.
Itachi watched her and remained silent. To an outsider, the scene wouldn't have seemed anything special, but he was perceptive enough to notice the minute changes in her attitude. Over the past weeks, her curt responses and blunt manner had dwindled into something more easygoing. She now turned her back to him where she'd been reluctant to before. She spoke of things that had nothing to do with the mission to make conversation. And she was content to sit in silence and be in his company. Just because.
It felt like seeing an old ghost from Konoha, one that evoked a feeling that was as nostalgic as it was comforting. A feeling of camaraderie.
There was no outward change in his appearance as he realized this. He only sat a little straighter and raised his head a little higher, settling for the dim surge of contentment stirring inside of him.
He followed her gaze briefly to the horizon before looking back at her—as though he wanted to say something. Before he could open his mouth, she crossed one arm over her knee and he caught a glimpse of something on her forearm.
It was a raised, crescent-shaped scar. He recognized it as a burn mark, though it was small, thin, and singular enough to bar any ninjutsu as the cause of it.
"It's not what you think."
He raised his head, realizing she'd caught him looking at it. She seemed amused. "It was pretty stupid, actually."
She stopped, seeming to consider whether it was worth telling him about it. After a few seconds, she relented and touched her fingers to the scar.
"When Kankuro was graduating from the academy, it was a really big deal for him because our dad was overseeing the ceremony. He wanted to make a good impression—had his dress shirt laid out and everything—but it was wrinkled and our maid was out sick. He was freaking out and I knew where they kept the iron, so I decided to take care of it." She smiled wryly. "I guess you can figure out the rest."
Itachi recalled Sasuke's eagerness at having their father attend his graduation and felt his features soften. "He must have appreciated it."
"Not really," she grinned, "I burned the shirt."
She paused long enough to take another sip of water before continuing. "But he felt bad. He still hates it when I bring it up."
Itachi mulled over this tidbit of information, absentmindedly tracing a similar scar on his index finger. Temari noticed and glanced at it, looking slightly curious.
"That's unique," she remarked, raising the canteen to her lips again, "did you almost lose it on a mission?"
"Sasuke bit me."
She nearly choked on her water. "Are you serious?"
"He was only four," Itachi said, smiling slightly as he looked at the scar. "Our mother wouldn't let him play outside unless he ate his vegetables, and he tried to swallow one whole."
"Don't tell me you—"
"I did," he admitted. "I was afraid he would choke, so I tried to get it out of his mouth. He didn't like that."
She grimaced at the sight of the bite mark before looking back at her own scar. "The bane of being the oldest. It's a curse, but they grow on you."
He thought of Sasuke's petulant face and how it hadn't changed one bit even thirteen years later. He smirked. "Uncontrollably."
She chucked, following his gaze out to the children and rows of cacti.
"Like a fungus," they said at the same time.
She blinked, staring at him in surprise before giving into another bout of genial laughter. He stared back at her blankly. There was something both familiar and strangely unfamiliar about the situation he'd found himself in. He floundered, wondering what it could be, when the feel of his own lips forming a smile answered for him.
He only felt like this when he was with Sasuke. A quiet, restrained sort of contentment. A fleeting spell of peace. A warm, slow burn.
There was a strange, flipping sensation in his chest. For once, it wasn't accompanied by the urge to hack up blood.
Taro's voice suddenly rent the air and they looked up to see her waving them over. Temari clambered off the rock and stretched, raising her arm to glance at her watch.
"Our work's done here. You can head home, if you want. I can handle the rest."
He stood up and dusted himself off, allowing a rare bit of mirth to slip into his voice. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
She nearly did a double-take at the joke. When he fell into step beside her, she managed to contain her shock and turned it into a wry smile. "Depends. Does taking advantage of your help outside of mission work count as extortion? Because I don't want your Hokage mad at me."
"It's only extortion if you abuse your authority."
"Right," she amended, rolling her eyes. "I forgot, the restitution thing."
They were silent for a few seconds before she spoke again. "And what if I say you've already paid your dues?"
He didn't reply right away, watching the sand move past their feet with an expression she couldn't place. At last, he tucked his hands into his pockets and answered. "Then you still have nothing to worry about."
She stared at him, realizing what he was implying and briefly wondering if he was crazy. "So am I supposed to believe you're doing all this...just because you want to?"
He looked up at her, sounding perfectly serious. "Yes."
She had not expected that, and for once, she couldn't think of a reply. Taro called her from beyond the school gates and she spared him one final, odd look before sauntering off. Itachi remained by the gates, watching as Taro rounded up the class to sit on the bleachers. She smiled when Temari appeared and asked her to sit in for a picture to commemorate her last day at the school.
Temari humoured her and took a seat, asking the nearest kid if her forehead protector was shiny enough. As they eagerly crowded around her and got into place, Taro's voice cut through the jubilation and called his name.
"Uchiha-san, what are you doing?"
He looked up, finding Taro watching him quizzically. She gestured to the camera, and then to the bleachers.
He was taken aback when he realized what she was referring to. Shaking his head, he politely declined. Taro pursed her lips and the class erupted in protest.
"Uchiha-sensei, come on!"
"Come be in the picture!"
"Don't be a chicken!"
He lingered by the gates for a few seconds before realizing he couldn't possibly refuse. Outnumbered, he reluctantly made his way over. The children quickly scooted out of the way on the bleachers, making room. Temari was doing nothing to hide her amusement over his predicament and pretended not to notice when he settled awkwardly next to her.
"On three," Taro called out, readying the camera. "One..."
Itachi looked at some point in the distance, wondering at the situation he'd found himself in. Some classroom would be looking at this photo in a school yearbook years from now and be completely unaware that among the innocent, smiling faces of Suna's children and the Kazekage's esteemed sister, the mass-murdering, ex-Akatsuki defector of Konoha would be sitting with them.
An unsettling feeling prickled the back of his neck. Granted, he hadn't anticipated a lot of the things that had happened to him recently, but this went beyond unexpected.
This was flat-out surreal.
Taro raised her finger to the shutter release button the same moment a warm weight leaned against his side and a whisper skimmed the shell of his ear.
"If I'm supposed to convince anyone you're here because you want to be and not because I'm a tyrant, it would help if you smiled a little, Uchiha."
He turned his head to her as she drew away, the comment managing to evoke a faint quirk in his lips the same moment she aimed a practised smile at the camera.
The shutter snapped.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent indoors. With their assignments done and Temari free for the rest of the day, the class had taken advantage of the rare opportunity and eagerly asked about her missions and shinobi life. Taro brought out a tray of green tea and distributed crackers and fruit to the students as Itachi sat at the back of the room, nestled in the niche between the pane and windowsill.
Needing some time to think, he'd decided to sit the final day out and let Temari take the helm. She demonstrated basic defensive taijutsu moves to the eager group sitting closest to her, trading her grapes for orange pieces and correcting a limp wrist here and there. Her expression was firm but not unfriendly, and whatever intimidation the shyer ones felt around the Kazekage's sister vanished when she gave them that wide, silly grin of hers.
It was only when Taro came around to ask if he wanted some tea that he realized what had been bothering him.
The woman smiled and handed him a fresh cup before heading back to the others. He sat with his back to the window, allowing himself a moment to absorb the feeling of warm ceramic in his hands. The children talked loudly and happily and the room smelled of citrus. The sun warmed his back through the glass.
Itachi lowered his gaze to his tea, watching wisps of steam rise over the rim.
He felt no pain. He felt no animosity, either. There was a lightness of being that almost felt uncomfortable. There was a little guilt, and then a little more when he realized he felt no remorse. Then that, too, was gone.
He felt content.
He'd forgotten what it felt like, to be happy. It felt foreign and new. And now that he was letting himself feel it, freely and without restraint, the rush of serenity that came with it brought the sobering realization that this had probably been one of the best days of his life.
Itachi slowly set his half-finished green tea on the sill. He gave himself a moment to absorb the blend of citrus and laughter, filling himself on it before he leaned his head back against the warm window and closed his eyes.
The final bell sounded amidst groans of dismay as Temari was cut short in her weapons demonstration.
She smiled apologetically. "Time's up, guys. But be on your best behaviour tomorrow night and maybe I'll finish what I started."
They seemed mollified with that and rushed out the door, talking excitedly in anticipation. Temari pocketed her kunai and turned to glance over at the window.
"I'm heading home for the day. You coming?"
Her voice brought Itachi out of his reverie. He raised his head to see her waiting expectantly and slid off the windowsill. Temari gave him a curious look before leading him out of the school and onto the street.
"You're quieter than usual, Uchiha, and that's a feat in itself. Something wrong?"
He realized she was right when he noticed they'd been walking in silence for fifteen minutes. He shook his head.
There was another brief silence as he tried to find something to say.
"What's happening tomorrow night?"
"Another field trip. Taro knows nothing about teaching navigational skills so I'm taking the kids out to see the constellations."
When he didn't reply right away, she smirked knowingly. "You can come along, if you want. Taro and the kids love you."
He didn't fall for it. "You need my help again."
"Fine," she relented, "maybe I do. But don't feel like you have to come just because I—"
She blinked. "What?"
"I'll come along."
She threw him a mixed look of gratitude and disbelief. "I can't figure out if you're really that helpful or just a doormat."
He restrained his look of amusement and slowed to a stop at the fork in the road. "I'd prefer it if you think of me as the former."
She gave him that small, sincere smile again; the one that reminded him of sun on a patch of ice.
"I appreciate it. Tomorrow night at nine, by the school gates. I'll see you then."
He nodded and she turned to walk away—only to come to a sudden stop. "Oh, before I forget..." she reached into her pack and rummaged around until she found what she was looking for. He instinctively reached up and caught the small object she tossed to him.
"A memento," she explained, rolling her eyes good-humouredly. "The kids were going crazy over it."
She waved and left him, then, and he looked after her departing form before lowering his gaze to the object in his hand. It was an irregularly shaped hunk of glass. The sharp edges had been polished smooth and the surface was warped and cloudy with bubbles and lines of demarcation.
He ran his thumb over the glossy edges, turning it to catch the light. His lips lifted in a faint smile.
Sasuke came home three hours later, dead on his feet and covered with dust. Itachi watched amusedly from the sofa as his brother sneezed and sent a plume of dust flying into the air.
"Don't ask," Sasuke muttered, rubbing his nose and frowning at the dirt smudged on his palm. "Kankuro challenged me to a spar and we broke the new wall installation. They made us stay behind and build it all over again."
He rubbed his nose once more before looking over at his brother. The frown faded away into a curious look.
"How about you?"
"It went well," Itachi replied without looking up from his status report. "The trade work resumes Monday."
"Hn," Sasuke muttered in response. He lingered there until Itachi raised his head again and gave him a questioning look.
"You're not going to take a bath?"
"I am, it's just—" he stopped, pausing awkwardly before letting a relieved smile creep onto his face. "I was just thinking...you look better."
Itachi understood what he was trying to say and smiled back. He closed the report and set it aside, gazing thoughtfully at the cover.
"I feel better."
They were quiet for a few seconds. Though Sasuke didn't say anymore, Itachi knew every second he continued to stand there was a silent show of support. Even if he was covered in filth. At that, he felt a flicker of amusement and raised his head.
He looked over at him. "Yeah?"
How different he looked, Itachi thought, musing over the calm set of Sasuke's features and his regal bearing. The image looked ludicrous compared to the memory of a younger, chubbier, more poutier Sasuke.
Itachi found himself smiling suddenly. "Do you remember when you bit me?"
It was hilarious how quickly Sasuke's face transformed from calm to mortified. "You still remember that?"
"It was difficult to forget," Itachi reminded him, holding up his scarred finger.
Sasuke stared at it as though the sight of it hurt his eyes. "I can't believe you're bringing that up right now. I thought you forgot about it."
"You still remember," Itachi pointed out, "and you were quite young at the time."
"That's because there was blood everywhere and I got yelled at!"
The sight of Sasuke standing there covered in dirt and looking agonized over something so trivial was beyond absurd. His little brother, after hating him for the better part of his life and engaging him in a bloody battle that nearly killed them both, still felt bad about biting his finger. He suddenly felt like laughing.
"What are you smiling at?" Sasuke demanded irritably.
He finally glared at him, a look of betrayal in his eyes. "You promised you'd never bring that up again."
"That part," Itachi said guiltlessly, "I did forget."
Sasuke tolerated the silent teasing into the next day, keeping calm even though his brother's small, knowing smiles made him want to throw a pillow in his face. The fact that Itachi was smiling at all was enough of a reason to endure it.
He grudgingly bid him goodbye in the morning, halfway glad he'd be asleep by the time Itachi got home. He loved his brother to death, but goddamn it if Itachi wasn't incredibly irritating when he wanted to be.
For his part, Itachi spent the remainder of the day finishing off his status report, glancing up at the clock every so often as the sun sank out of sight. He'd never had qualms about spending time alone before, but the prospect became less and less appealing when compared to the thought of being among Temari and the kids again.
When the clock struck eight-thirty, he pulled on his coat and left the apartment, ready for the half-hour walk it took to reach the school. He was aware of how cold the desert got at night, but he hadn't anticipated what the first breath of night air would do until he stepped outside and the chill seared his chest.
He flinched and brought up his sleeve to muffle the coughs that followed, shoulders seizing in an effort to stop a potential fit. As the coughs subsided, he thought ironically of Tsunade's warning and how out of all the cold weather gear he'd packed, he'd forgotten to bring a scarf.
Reaching down, he felt for his medication in his pocket. The bottle of pills met his fingers and he tightened his grip on it, assured just in case the coughing got worse. With that, he started down the street alone, turning left at the junction to continue on to the school when he came to an abrupt stop.
A familiar set of pig tails shone beneath the light of a street lamp, rustling in the breeze before the figure turned and noticed him standing there.
"Hey," Temari greeted, breath misting in the night air. "Thought I'd catch you going this way."
He stared at her in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"We split off this way yesterday," she pointed out. "I figured you'd be coming back this route."
When he didn't say anything, she rolled her eyes and moved over to him. "I thought you could use some company, Uchiha."
He was disconcerted by the rush of warmth he felt at her waiting for him and at the fact that he didn't know what to say in response. She saved him the trouble and continued teasingly.
"It's not safe for a foreigner to walk the mean streets of Suna at night, you know."
He managed a smile at that and fell into step beside her. "I appreciate your concern."
"You can tell them that when I'm getting charged with extortion," she said dryly. "But seriously, aren't you supposed to be on medical leave?"
He opened his mouth to reply, only to wince when another bolt of cold air lodged itself in his chest. The stream of coughs that followed this time was stronger than the last. His grip tightened compulsively on the bottle in his pocket.
The fit subsided after a few seconds and he lowered his arm. She was watching him from the corner of her eye. He did nothing to show he noticed and eased the bottle back into his pocket.
"Are you okay?" she asked neutrally.
He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth and steadied his breaths before answering. "I'm fine."
They started walking again and continued on through the next block in silence.
"It's an auto-immune condition," he said after a while.
At his questioning glance, she smiled sardonically. "The guards wouldn't have let you past the border if the paperwork said you were bringing some weird, contagious disease with you."
Despite himself, he smiled inwardly. There was an informality and unspoken assurance there that put him at ease. Her voice had quieted some but hadn't lost its lightness, and she spared him the discomfort of asking further questions about it.
They continued onwards in amicable silence until the school gates came into view and Temari raised her hand to wave to the class. Taro happily entrusted the rambunctious seven-year-olds to her hands and took up the end of the line as they trekked out into the desert.
Once they'd gotten far enough from the city lights, the kids hunkered down in the sand below a clear expanse of night sky. Temari handed him a stack of worksheets to give out while she put them into groups. Itachi raised his head to get a look at the sky, inwardly impressed by the clarity of starlight.
In a land of change and impermanence like Suna, the shinobi had grown especially adept at navigating through their only constants. Temari was no exception and he listened with interest as she began pointing out the constellations.
Taro supervised half the class while he watched over the other, each group working to draw out the constellations Temari pointed out. Some finished sooner than others, and in the five minutes they had remaining to finish their drawings, Itachi was pulled out of the lecture when he felt a tug on his pant leg.
Lowering his eyes, he found one of the girls peering bashfully up at him.
He blinked, about to ask if she'd lost her worksheet when he caught sight of the group of girls huddled close by. Suddenly concerned, he looked back down at the girl in front of him.
"Did you lose something?"
She shook her head, her smile growing wider. "No. Me and my friends just wanna ask you something."
Itachi cast a wary glance in their direction. He remembered enough of his elementary school days to know the sorts of things seven-year-old girls talked about. Fighting back a sigh, he humoured her.
"What is it?"
Her eyes brightened and she looked excitedly back at her group before blurting it out.
"Are you and Temari-sama married in real life?"
"All right, guys, into a circle," Temari called, casting a bemused look at the giggling group of girls that rushed past her. They settled next to the others, chattering excitedly, and Temari raised her head to see Itachi making his way over.
"What happened?" she inquired, catching the peculiar look on his face.
He shook his head. "Nothing."
The last of the kids settled into the circle and she moved over to join them. He sat down nearby, listening as she explained how to use the stars as a compass even as occasional giggles floated up from behind him.
Taro eventually shushed them and they spent the next twenty minutes listening as Temari methodically went through the navigation techniques. Her breadth of knowledge was impressive, and he would have liked to listen more if the stitch in his chest wasn't worsening with every passing moment.
When she stopped the lecture to assign them another activity, he took the opportunity to smother another fit of coughs into his sleeve. By the time his chest cleared, he raised his head and found her looking at him. Her eyes swept critically over his frame. Before he could speak, she was unwinding the scarf from around her neck and holding it out. He shook his head and made to push it back, but she insisted until he was holding it awkwardly in his hands.
"Cold can't be good for your lungs," she said, looking at him like he was an idiot. "Cover your face."
He thanked her and waited till she looked away before donning the scarf. She was right, of course; the annoying stitch in his chest dissipated the instant the soft wool overlapped his face and warmed his breaths.
He tried to re-focus on the sky and her occasional comments, quietly listening as she answered the class's questions. It was a hapless attempt. He felt distracted and strangely out of touch with himself. He briefly wondered if his aggravated condition had anything to do with it, but quickly discarded the thought.
The rest of the lesson passed by in a haze of bemusement and aimless thinking. He heard it all but absorbed nothing, preoccupied by the softness and scent of the fabric surrounding his face. He subconsciously reached up to touch it every now and then, making sure it was still in place. When they rose thirty minutes later and started their trek back to the village, he tried to hand it back. She shook her head.
"Keep it. I've got a spare."
The walk back was noisy and crowded as Taro chaperoned most of the kids on their way home. A quarter of the students still remained by the time they reached the fork in the road, and amidst the kids' shrill goodbyes and frantic waves, he managed to see her mouth the word 'later' before the group split off and continued down the opposite street.
He watched them disappear before turning around and heading back to the apartment. When he made it inside, he found the room dark and Sasuke asleep. His brother hadn't even changed out of his work clothes. The blanket lay rumpled on the floor.
He soundlessly removed his coat and changed into his night clothes, taking a moment to drape Sasuke's blanket over him. Then he moved over to his bed and sat at the edge of it, not lying down right away. Instead, he stared at the floor trying to figure out where this unwarranted and intense rush of happiness was coming from.
It didn't work. He was drawing a blank until he raised his head and caught sight of the scarf again. Without fully realizing it, he rose to his feet and retrieved it, returning to bed with it in his hands.
He reclined against the pillows, holding it up in front of him. It was merino wool. Excellent quality. Very warm. He liked it. He'd have to thank her again—maybe pick one up for Sasuke.
After a minute, he set it aside and turned his head on the pillow, trying to sleep. The attempt proved futile.
In the silence of the room, remnants of voices and the whisper of sand crept back into his ears. Afterimages of stars glittered in the back of his eyes.
He soon opened them and lay awake in the dark, listening to his brother's soft breathing.
Another ten minutes passed. Then he slowly turned over and reached for the scarf again. Something stirred in his chest when he drew it close and held it against his lips. His eyes slid closed, lulled by the soft, soporific scent. He felt himself drifting off.
His last waking thoughts circled on the idea that he was in serious trouble and that it all had something to do with the green fabric twined in his hands. Strange, because he really did like it.
He liked it a lot.