Itachi-centric, contemplative, gen-fic, set after the events of the manga. In which Sasuke was brought back to Konoha by Naruto, the good guys won, Itachi survived the Edo Tensei somehow, etc. There's mentions of ShiIta, but just little bits and pieces here and there. More importantly, Happy Birthday to my favorite character, Itachi.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, but if Kishimoto had a heart, he'd somehow make it canon for Itachi's sake.


The white noise of the Nakano River reminded him that he was still living. The valley-like cracks on his skin – irreversible, but at least he hasn't disintegrated like everyone else resurrected by the Edo Tensei – reminded him that he was once dead. Waking up on a futon in a bare cottage, alone, reminded him that he finally had a home, even though he was exiled from the hub, the actual village, the heart. Rather, he was a nerve on a finger – sensitive, insignificant, important. All his life, Itachi played that role. Fitting that it should continue.

It had been Sasuke's decision that he remain within Konoha boundaries. Otherwise, Itachi would have continued as a nukenin, tracked by ANBU teams he once commanded and comrades he once protected. He'd accepted this fate so long ago that he nigh considered it a betrayal to have it wrenched away from him. But his little brother refused to remain in the village without him nearby, and he couldn't deny the pleading eyes of both Sasuke and Naruto.

The Godaime and certain patrol squads that may stumble upon his quaint abode were made aware of his removal from the bingo book. The latter listened to the Uchiha's bloody truth with a tired look. Brilliant ninja, back from the dead like zombies. A masked doujutsu master attempting to rule the world. Tsunade-sama could believe anything told to her at this point. The general public remained blissfully ignorant. With the Sharingan on the opposing side of the war, the Uchiha had already been shamed enough. Itachi lauded his brother's courage. Even after he was forgiven, he could still hardly look many of his old acquaintances in the eye.

Itachi ran a hand through his hair, combing out the sleepy tangles. Save a trim or two, he hadn't properly cut it since he was thirteen. Its length surpassed his spine and tickled his hips. On weekends, when Itachi wasn't so busy, his mother would brush his hair with her own brush. They'd sit and watch the koi pond together, in silence. Silence was the only method of communication between the two, so much so that it became a guessing game of intentions. The silence that engulfed the room when Itachi neared her with a bloodstained chokutou said it all – she wouldn't fight back, no, not against her eldest son whose hair she brushed with her own brush on the weekends, when Itachi wasn't so busy.

Ten years, and he still thought about it all too often.

"Nii-san, I'm coming in."

The door rolled open with a snap. That woke Itachi up.

"Sasuke. Why so early?"

He was still sitting upright on his futon, his hair a semi-tangled mess along his back, and his eyes slightly glazed from the brightness rushing in behind his brother's figure. As a shinobi, Itachi knew his weak moments, and morning was one of them. Perhaps it's because he felt vulnerable with his hair unbound. In his first few weeks of partnership with Kisame, he felt uncharacteristically edgy when he rose late to the illegally tall man waiting for him. At least Kisame was polite. He knew better than to stare.

Sasuke removed his shoes and sat cross-legged beside his brother. "What day is it today?" he asked conversationally.

Without hesitation, and without meaning: "Saturday. June 9th."

There was a pause to let it sink in. Itachi wrongly interpreted it as a lull in conversation.

"Today's your birthday, nii-san."

Itachi was tempted to argue, but clearly, there was no winning it. No doubt, he was born June 9th. Ages ago. The last time he celebrated a birthday in earnest was when he turned twelve. At thirteen, he had been far too busy. He shared something like a party of two with Shisui at a tea shop, but they'd split the check. Itachi was hesitant to count it as a celebration.

Disappointed, Sasuke registered his quietness as a negative response. "Unless, you want to be alone, then I can leave…"

"No, stay. Just let me get ready."

Sasuke owed the village a great debt for the forgiveness of his crimes. Half his mission earnings were redirected to relief efforts and, being a very capable shinobi, he had embarked on an exhausting number of them. Any free moment was precious. Itachi, of all people, understood that.

"So what do you want to do?" Itachi asked, pulling a clean shirt on and carefully tying his hair back into his signature low ponytail.

"No, I was going to let you decide…"

"This feels like a first date gone wrong, otouto."

There was no easier way to put it. Things were awkward between them. They loved each other deeply – Itachi had spared and protected Sasuke, and Sasuke sought revenge for Itachi's sake. In times of peace, however, words grew louder, greater in importance. There was just…so much to say.

"Actually," Itachi reconsidered, not wanting their brotherhood to fall victim to the plague of aloofness. "I wanted to visit the village. In disguise, maybe."

Sasuke shrugged, toying absentmindedly on the zipper on his chuunin vest. Naruto and Sasuke, the two pivotal figures of the war who could qualify as jounin, were excused from the ordinarily obligatory exam. Though, Sasuke's cooperation skills are admittedly lacking, Konoha could not deny his raw shinobi talent. "We could, so long as nobody finds out. Maybe I should be in a disguise too – people keep staring at me."

There were days, in their youth, when Sasuke adored attention. Whatever looks he could get that weren't directed in awe at Itachi, he swallowed up and took full advantage of. He was born loud and crying, protesting and emotional. He was born many things that Itachi was not.

Things have changed. Although Sasuke was – and always will be – undeniably, verily, oh-so Sasuke, Itachi began to see more and more of himself in his younger brother. Perhaps it was because he'd grown into the habit of measuring the passing of time by the growth in him instead of looking in the mirror and noting the work of time on his own body. He still remembered the encounter in the cave, where he tested Sasuke's ability before redirecting him to the real battle at the old Uchiha hideout. Now, they are equal in height, and the gap in skill switched in Sasuke's favor. Itachi felt both proud and envious of his youth and opportunity.

It was strange, being second best. Was this how Sasuke felt all those years?

No, surely worse.

"Itachi? Are you listening?"

He was ashamed, but admitted that no, he was not.

"I'm sorry. I must be bothering you." Sasuke hesitated, waiting expectantly for something. When nothing happened, he stood to leave, with an ill-hidden dejected expression on his pale face.

"Sasuke, please, sit down."

He turned, slightly, contemplating. In the end, he could not disappoint his older brother. He returned to his spot beside Itachi's futon, blank-faced but leaning towards the blue.

"I think for my birthday," Itachi began, hoping that a smile could clear the clouds between them, "I just want to sit and talk with my otouto."

How much talking have they done, anyway? The Uchiha, by nature, were never big on spoken communication. Instead, they conversed with their fists, their red eyes, their upward-tilted chins, and the diameter of their Katon jutsus. Fugaku's longest sentences were always somehow involved in a scolding or explanation of a doujutsu. Mikoto could have been a real talker – had she not worn such a suppressed look all the time. Itachi…well, he couldn't remember why, but he enjoyed speaking in circles, brushing on scraps of information, laughing at his own, new form of dramatic irony. He remembered talking about illusions and reality…he remembered talking about illusions and reality while being impaled with Sasuke's electric sword –

Sasuke, though his spine visibly slackened at the lighter tone of conversation, squirmed under his elder brother's scrutiny. "What do you want to talk about?"

Itachi leaned his head back, scanning mile long lists of things he'd wanted to say to his brother as he grew up, things he'd wanted to experience with him, things he'd wanted to show him, things he'd wanted to teach him, things he'd wanted to know about him. Knowing that Sasuke was a handsome teenage boy, Itachi ventured: "So, Sasuke, do you have a girlfriend?"

In the span of five seconds, his face turned from blank, to tomato red, to searching, to unsure, to awkward, to smiling. "…No."

"That took you long enough. You're lying," he insisted.

"It's true," Sasuke argued, clearly growing uncomfortable. "Yeah, a lot of girls like me. But they're annoying. They think I'm oblivious to their stalker-ish and obsessive antics. I've just never liked a girl that way." Opportunistically, Itachi opened his mouth – but Sasuke interjected, "No, no, I'm not gay."

Itachi laughed, genuinely – when was the last time that happened? "Whatever you say."

"What about you, nii-san?" Sasuke leaned forward, curious. "Madara…when he told me the truth about you, he mentioned you had a lover."

Bemused, he raised his eyebrows. Yes, he could remember the days he spent training with Madara, studying the secrets of the Sharingan, preparing for the massacre, and learning all he needed to know to survive as an S-ranked nukenin. The mysterious man seemed very intrigued with his personal life; he liked to pry, figure out what, exactly, made him tick. Itachi wasn't aware that Madara knew so much about him.

"Yes…what of it?" Itachi answered vaguely, dangling his true response just barely out of Sasuke's reach, as though he were playing with a cat.

"I'm saying – you were, what, thirteen? 'Lover' is a bit of a scandalous word at that age."

Scandalous, indeed. Itachi had to laugh. "Do you have a guess?"

Sasuke's face darkened. They were breaching unwanted territory. "Well, the person you had to kill to awaken the Mangekyou—"

"That's enough, otouto," Itachi interrupted, feeling pain bloom behind his blinded, right eye. With the ache, he felt a keen awareness of the river he resided by, and what, exactly it meant to him. It meant summer days in the Academy, skipping rocks and spitting watermelon seeds into it. It meant tossing sticks into the current and running fruitlessly along the river to test their speed against the rapids. It meant drowning, with hands clutching curly fiber underneath the water. It meant chasing the body, and being unable to catch up to it, as always. It meant having his mentor wash the blood from his face every five minutes as he writhed, scratching at his eyes. It meant Shisui.

He berated himself for bringing up the subject of lovers, as they submerged, once again, into melancholy awkwardness. Say something – anything –

Sasuke took it upon himself to break the silence with a playful quip. "So my nii-san is gay. I can't believe it."

"Don't tease me too much," Itachi said, grateful for his younger brother's effort. "You've had wonderful kunoichi at your side all these years and you've done nothing but shove them off."

"I had goals. I blindly followed them." Sasuke's gaze lowered to his hands, resting on his knees. "Look where that got me."

"That got you here, Sasuke. Under any other circumstance, I'd still be dead." Itachi wanted, more than anything, to reach out and hold him, or at least grasp his hand. Physical gestures of reassurance weren't his cup of tea – never was. So if Uchiha were no good at words, and if Itachi was antsy about physical contact, he was left with life and action, self-sacrifice and his philosophical rants.

Somehow, he'd make do.

"The Sharingan," Itachi continued, attempting to soothe his brother a little, "as you probably know, is a blessing and a curse. It renders its users blind, both literally and figuratively. Madara was blind, I was blind, you were blind…and our entire clan ruined itself. That's why we share this bond with the Senju."

"We don't need to depend on some other clan," Sasuke interjected, irritated by the mention of their natural competitors, the Senju. He had grown understandably proud of the Uchiha, as Itachi expected – maybe a little too proud. The classic arrogance he once partook in when he was younger still shone in Sasuke, at times admirable, and other times repelling.

"I never said the word 'depend.' I'm sorry to have resorted to this terrible cliché, but to have darkness, there must be light. To have light…darkness must exist as well."

"The Uchiha are not dark."

"I wasn't saying that. Oh, Sasuke, Madara must have had a blast trying to explain everything to you." Itachi smiled at his stubborn brother. "Who was your sensei back in Konoha? Copy Ninja Kakashi?"

Sasuke huffed, evidently reliving some strange memories. "Yeah. That guy. Kakashi."

"He's a good man."

"If good men like to stick their fingers up twelve year olds' asses."

Itachi's face contorted at the image of Kakashi aggressively violating underage genin. "In his defense," he said, though conceding victory to the prosecutor in this case, "It was his father's signature move."

He snorted, "Some father."

The White Fang. "Another good man." An uncelebrated, highly underrated hero of Konoha, and one of Itachi's personal idols. While straddling the respective roles of a double agent – big brother Uchiha prodigy by day, an integral captain of his own ANBU squad by night – he learned about Hatake Sakumo from a buzzed Kakashi at a hazy bar. Never mind his age: his teammates learned to treat him, in every manner, as an adult. As mature as he was, Itachi felt honored, special, to be included among folk like Kakashi.

Even if the Uchiha didn't quite like Kakashi (he was an outsider who had, by some dramatic turn of events, gained a Sharingan eye), Itachi did. He was a man who made mistakes and learned from them, who faced the harsh reality of shinobi life, and still grinned underneath that mask of his.

"Was our father a good man?" Sasuke asked, biting through Itachi's thoughts with ice-cold, bated breath.

Itachi leaned his head back, eyes tilting upwards in a struggle to recall. Not that it truly was a struggle – everything in his peaceful days gleamed a vivid, saturated, glorified yellow color. But the goodness in Fugaku was clouded by his own resentment, by the night after consecutive night of fingers itching to point at him for selfishly devising the whole damn coup d'état, for pressuring Sasuke so, for thinking Itachi a monster – for making Itachi a monster.

Like father, like son, he figured.

"Uchiha Fugaku. Where do I begin?"

Cynically, Sasuke added, "Don't sugar coat anything for me."

"You're far beyond the point of me babying you, otouto," Itachi said sadly. "But yes, our tou-san. In a way, once you look past his faults, he was a good man…granted, pressured and quick to distribute that pressure. Proud, just like you. You were weaned on the concept that the Uchiha were unconquerable, perfect even, but reality wasn't so generous to us. Here we were, blessed by such powers, yet suppressed because of conspiracy and fear. Fugaku wanted to be the one, the next Madara, maybe. It doesn't help much that his best friend, Namikaze Minato, had become a celebrated war hero and the Yondaime Hokage."

"But what was he really like? He never really talked to me," he pushed, voice revealing a slither of his old childish self.

"I wouldn't be able to tell you. His kinder parts were privy to kaa-san. Although she did tell me that when she finally mustered the guts to tell Fugaku he'd begun to snore, he was so flustered and embarrassed that he'd treat her to dinner whenever he saw bags under her eyes."

A longing haze glazed Sasuke's eyes. "Tou-san would do that?"

"For kaa-san, yes. From what I've heard, he was very determined to have her."

Save for Sasuke and Shisui, Itachi remained uncomfortably aloof from his family, whether it was because of his deviation from the clan, or because he frightened them. Whenever Fugaku was assigned a not-too-strenuous mission, little Itachi would tag along and would execute any of his father's orders flawlessly, with the expertise of genin-level shinobi. The first time lukewarm blood staining his skin, his father looked at him, piercingly, with fear. No, they were never close.

"Did they meet in the Academy?" Sasuke leaned forward in interest. Naturally, after having lost his parents, he gained a true respect for his heritage. It manifested only now, once the pain associated with the memories dissipated. Now, Sasuke was healing.

"Kaa-san was an excellent kunoichi, yes."

"So she quit because of us," he frowned, disenchanted. "Or did Fugaku force her to quit?"

Itachi glanced out the window, at the horizon scraped by Konoha's carved mountainside and the occasional tall building. "Sometimes, I feel your generation doesn't acknowledge exactly how much commitment being a shinobi entails. Yes, you know it means physical violence. Yes, it means killing your emotions."

"So?" Sasuke interjected, offended by Itachi's attack on his duty to his own vocation.

"So imagine how different it might have been if we grew up with both our parents constantly busy on missions? Fugaku couldn't make the sacrifice – he ran the Police Force. Mikoto wanted to stay at home, with us."

Once, he had spotted her, a butterfly near a summer lamp infested by moths, at a training arena. Fingers intertwined with the fence, lips parted, clenched fist, and a slow pivot away, back home. She moved with the practiced precision of a shinobi. Posture perfect, she never dropped a dish or wasted a gesture. Mikoto, he imagined, was excellent. Beautiful. A fright on the battlefield.

Not that Itachi ever knew. Here he was again, guessing at things that, with his own hand, he ended.

Sasuke's eyes, ever expressive, slid downwards. "She was unhappy. I see that now."

"She loved us. All of us."

You especially, he subconsciously added, swallowing his envy. The day screaming Sasuke was born was the day luminescence reappeared in his mother's dark eyes. Unlike this newborn, Itachi never required any real care or babysitting once he grasped the basics of independent living. This infant would stumble, blither, ask stupid questions, touch the heated stove, shriek, and cry like normal children do. At age four, Sasuke had learned how to read basic books and began the art of writing; on the other hand, Itachi had mastered traditional calligraphy and leisurely read informative scrolls on genjutsu.

In a way, he felt robbed.

Following his eyes, his younger brother's face lowered, hiding his upset eyes behind his bangs. "Is that the price to pay for love? Her own happiness? That's…that's stupid."

"Yes," Itachi replied, bowing his head to his own fate, the fate shared by thousands of other shinobi. Mikoto, torn between the job she loved and her own flesh and blood. Shisui, rendered blind by his own brilliance and others' greed. Pein, crippled by war and inescapable loss. Kisame, secretly burdened by his own monstrosity. "Yes, it is stupid."

"I feel so damn stupid. In hindsight, I mean," Sasuke mumbled, uncharacteristically humble. "I just remember being so angry all the time. Everyone smiling and acting like everything was okay…I hated people for that. And…you and Naruto have done too much just to wake me up and bring me home." He shifted, sheepish. "Don't tell him I said that."

Itachi agreed, "Of course. Though I'm sure he already knows." Charmed by his brother's strange connection with the hyperactive blonde, he was vaguely reminded of another fair-faced, earsplitting member of the Akatsuki. Like most of the other members, Deidara joined without a real purpose, but enlisted with a peculiar notion of belonging. The slash across their foreheads symbolized how the world rejected them. Despite the lack of face-to-face encounters, Deidara managed to bind the organization together purely with his unwanted triple-loud-mouth gusto. It certainly lifted the constant gloom surrounding most of the members.

Though he had to admit, he enjoyed Hidan's dirty mouth: it reminded him vaguely of the ever rebellious Shisui. And Tobi – while he pretending to be off his rocker – provided a few smirks here and there with his uncalled for quips and childish jutsu. The rest mostly remained reserved. Their black cloaks and colored rings were no true confirmation of allegiance, after all. All nukenin knew that. And, being something of a double agent once again, Itachi considered their monopolizing cause despicable and troubling. Had he not managed to smuggle information to one of the Legendary Sannin, the Akatsuki might have gotten an upper hand too early in the game.

And yet, Itachi found himself looking forward to their meetings. Most of them, like him, just needed a place to belong, no matter how temporarily.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Just some old friends." He chuckled; how could he share these musings to his brother, or to anyone, for that matter? The Akatsuki plagued Konoha, killed many an honorable shinobi, and was the epicenter of the war. To express his appreciation for them would be blasphemy.

"Like who? Tell me," Sasuke negotiated, "I'll tell you whatever you want." If they were going to do brotherly bonding, they'd better do it the right way.

"Hmm, well, I spent six or seven years with the Akatsuki. We were a motley crew, to be sure," Itachi said, grinning nostalgically.

Eyes lighting up, Sasuke said, "You just reminded me. What in the world did you do to that 'art-is-a-bang' guy to hate the Sharingan so much?" Shoulders slacked, he leaned back, reminiscing. "He was a pain, but it was a good fight."

"I recruited Deidara," Itachi explained, remembering the naïve and young the long haired blonde who detonated bombs as easily as he threw around catchphrases. "Maybe he was a little bitter that I beat him at his own game."

In truth, Itachi often experimented with genjutsu techniques while in the Akatsuki. He'd developed a partiality towards such methods as switching positions with his opponent, psychological stress, clouds of black feathers, and the crow in which he'd hastily implanted Shisui's eye. He liked his adversaries' stupefied trances, and how they'd struggle to escape as though they were trapped in nightmares – whether it was due to his own fascination with that area of jutsu, or a strange show of revenge.

He did remember that day, as Deidara stared up at him, eyes squinting in the glaring light. Itachi felt like a bodhisattva, standing before him majestically, amplifying the presence of his Sharingan. Deidara's blue eyes widened in – want? Fear? Awe? In the end, he'd underestimated the impact his genjutsu had on Deidara. He must have died cursing Itachi – cursing the Uchiha clan in its entirety. Proven guilty once again, Itachi.

"He was furious. We were both completely out of chakra, and he started yelling. Something about hating our Sharingan. Maybe it wasn't a smart idea to turn them off, then – he blew himself up after that."

Itachi shut his eyes, in remembrance of Deidara. "It's a shame."

"Nearly annihilated me," Sasuke snorted, unsympathetic.

"Don't complain," he said, teasingly, in return. "You're still here, after all."

"By some stroke of luck." No matter how briefly, Itachi did believe that his brother really had passed in that explosion. He consciously knew better, and yet his instinct demanded his mourning. Kisame, as usual, was courteous about it; he was the best companion Itachi could have asked for in that blurry stretch of years.

Kisame excused his bleariness in the morning. Obeyed his gentler orders. Respected his privacy. Questioned nothing. Ignored his nightmares. Kept him company as he coughed up blood by riversides. First impressions aside, Itachi couldn't pinpoint why, exactly, Kisame respected him so much. Perhaps it was to atone for his previous lack of camaraderie. After all those years sharing hotel rooms together, they still knew little to nothing and everything about each other.

It was a strange era indeed.

"It's your turn now, otouto. Tell me something," Itachi asked, persuading him with a gentle smile.

Sasuke scratched his head before jolting up excitedly. "Nekomata!" That huge ninja cat?

"Are you referencing that paw game I set you on a long time ago?" Privately, Itachi was a sucker for those furry felines, their catwalk and their aloof superiority. The plethora of cute memories concerning his younger brother and countless cats still brought a smile to his face. "Did you get his print?"

"Baa-chan made an encyclopedia of it all," Sasuke nodded. "We should visit sometime. She'd be thrilled to see you."

"I don't know about that. But I will, of course."

"We had to wear these demeaning cat ears to infiltrate Nekomata's base," Sasuke explained, sourly, yet enthusiastically. "Naruto and Sakura helped out, too. 'Helped out' might be a little strong of a phrase for them."

"Who was it that brought you back to Konoha?" Itachi shot, wanting to knock his brother's ego down a few notches. As much as he loved him, Sasuke could bear to be a little more acknowledging of his peers and teammates.

Grumbling, "Naruto did. Don't get me wrong, nii-san, I'm not saying he's useless. He's just—"


"Naruto, why do you always sneeze so loud?"

"Someone was talking about me. Probably Sasuke-teme, cause you know, he secretly thinks I'm awesome. Open up, teme and teme's nii-san!"

"—a total dumbass," Sasuke finished, dumbly.

The door slid open, introducing aforementioned hyperactive blonde, teammates Sai and Sakura, Kakashi, and an old comrade, Tenzou. Sasuke's words hung in the air a mere five seconds before Naruto exploded in a rage, shouting things like: "I'm the dumbass who brought you home" and "You lost an epic battle to this dumbass" accompanied with a myriad of other unsavory words. He was shortly silenced by Sakura's generous fist.

"Sorry for the uncalled for entrance, Itachi," Kakashi said, unphased by his own pupil's antics, "Happy birthday."

"Thank you, Kakashi-san, but there really is no need for any celebration." Being in the presence of these fresh-faced Konoha shinobi was almost saddening; Itachi didn't ask for a pity party. "Surely you all have something better to do," he said, obviously far too acclimated to solitude.

"Oh, shut up and take it," Naruto said, kicking off his sandals and nonchalantly plopping down beside Sasuke. "You deserve a huge ass party, but you know, Tsunade-obaa-chan wants to keep it on the down-low. Plus I've been meaning to have a real conversation with you – to get some blackmail on Sasuke's childhood, you know." He winked charmingly, flashing a toothy grin that reminded him of the Yondaime Hokage.

Like many others, Itachi was instantly drawn in by his friendliness. "I have plenty of that," he admitted, recalling all those times his toddling brother left wet footprints on the tatami mats as he ran around, insubordinately butt-naked.

Sasuke sneered at the turn of conversation, and hurriedly steered it in a more pleasurable direction. "Kakashi, did you bring the food I ordered?"

Smiling with his one eye, he raised a large bag filled with delectable sweets. "How could I forget?"

Extracting plate after plate of flavored dango, onigiri, lettuce, and more, Tenzou asked, "Still nursing that sweet tooth, eh, Itachi?"

"Tenzou-san," Itachi inclined his head in respect for his senpai. "You still know me too well."

"Tenzou?" Naruto chirped, temporarily distracted from the overwhelming aroma of the food.

After some flailing and mumbling noises, Itachi belatedly received the memo that Tenzou was now renamed Yamato for the purposes of his working with Team Seven. Kakashi, on the other hand, happily ignored the alias and continued to affectionately call him by his original name. No matter how many times he slipped up, the members of the team remained blissfully ignorant of 'Tenzou.' Itachi couldn't fathom why, exactly, it mattered so much, but played along with a grin.


The other boy, codenamed Sai, a gray-faced shinobi dressed in the signature uniform of the disbanded Root organization, inquired politely, "Did Long-Hair-san and Yamato-taichou work together in ANBU once?"

"Long-Hair-san?" Naruto chirped, this time with mouth overflowing in dumpling.

"Sai likes to make up nicknames," Sakura hastily explicated, flustered in the presence of not one, but two handsome Uchiha bachelors.

"Yes, we worked together on a few important missions," Yamato said proudly. "They were highly successful. In fact, I have a really good story about that one mission—" Upon seeing the panicked look on Itachi's shaking face, Yamato faltered and decided against relaying his story. "But that's for another day," he ended, robotically, hiding behind the mask of his signature 'scary expression.'

In the meantime, Sasuke and Sakura cooperated to stop Naruto from consuming all the food before anyone else could partake in the sweets. "Eat all you want, nii-san," Sasuke said, so cheerfully that the blonde trapped in his death grip cringed. Everyone knew that Sasuke's disposition considerably changed in the presence of his brother; he never used honorifics for anyone but him, and usually tended towards the haughty.

"Sasuke's actually nice," Naruto squeaked, "Pinch me."

"Can you two get along for just one night?" Sakura screeched, wrenching the two away from each other and promptly dropping them on opposite sides of the food-draped table Kakashi set.

Protesting and bewildered, Itachi was ushered to the head spot of the table while Sakura attempted to conduct a verse or two of 'Happy Birthday,' which resulted in Sasuke's tentative grumblings, Kakashi's total unwillingness to participate, and Naruto's boisterous tone-deafness. "I am – so – sorry," Sasuke hissed from the corner of his mouth, prepared to skewer his teammates with his chidori.

Itachi burst into hearty laughter; at the sound, the party silenced, including the especially astonished Sasuke. At the awkward silence, he stopped and said, "No, it's alright. I've never felt this welcome in years. Thank you for giving your time for someone like me."

"I haven't heard that laugh in ages," Kakashi teased, raising his eyebrow good-naturedly.

"So can we eat now?" Naruto asked, and, without an answer, he clapped his hands together, cried Itadakimasu! and plucked all his favorites from each platter onto his plate. Stomachs a-rumble, everyone followed suite, even tentative Sasuke, who avoided all the sweet foods and scoured the meal for tomatoes. Even though Itachi was characteristically a sparse eater, he reveled in this unique opportunity to dine with friends. As snarky as Kisame was, he could hardly count as entertaining company. The last time Itachi joined folks around a table was – well – the last breakfast at the Uchiha house.

"So, nii-san," Sasuke said, evidently eager to continue their previous heart-to-heart, "What are you going to do from now on? Just stay here?" By the tone of his voice, he considered it a waste of Itachi's ability to remain an idle hermit in the boondocks.

"Honestly," Itachi said, mulling it over just as he spoke, "I haven't given it much thought. Right now, I'm grateful to be alive."

"You'd still be a great shinobi, blind in one eye or not," Naruto chimed in in-between mouthfuls of rice. "It'd be real cool to go on a mission with you!" Itachi, though honored, wasn't one hundred percent certain if he reciprocated those feelings. The boy was, after all, called the Number One Most Surprising Ninja.

Sakura added, "Tsunade-sama has mentioned before that she'd like you back, too."

"Guys—" Kakashi began.

"It would be too scandalous," Sai refuted, something of a downer. "Should anyone discover that Konoha has accepted and forgiven, without trial, Uchiha Itachi, it would be an outrage. Shinobi, as ignorant to the truth as they are, still bear a grudge to you, Long-Hair-san. It would be unwise, should you wish to survive." Upon observing the crushed expressions of his three colleagues, he said with a sad smile, "I'm sorry. I must have said something bad again."

Yamato, taking advantage of the hush to put his two cents in, corroborated, "Sai is right. Although, I think we ought to get through the dinner before we talk about touchy subjects, right, Kakashi-senpai?" Itachi thanked his old teammate profusely. He'd delayed his return to the violent shinobi life for a month now, and nigh dreaded the inevitable retrogression. This peaceful period did much to calm him, to wash away the blood that seeped through his skin and caked his bones.

"Let's just break out the gifts," Kakashi suggested, "My appetite's ruined with the suspense anyhow." He stood up, removed a multitude of wrapped boxes from his bag, and lined them up, neatly, on the floor. Queued up like that, Itachi could only view them as an intimidating firing squad; assessing the tense air in the room, he deduced that some present could be potentially controversial. A one-dimensional slate, a tiny cube, a long box, a fat box, a delicate-looking box, and a messily wrapped form that probably came from Naruto.

"Do I just pick one and open it?" Itachi hesitated, pressured by the intense stares of those around him.

Naruto, gesticulating impatiently, exclaimed, "They're presents, not bombs, open 'em!" When he instinctively reached for the horribly swathed one, Naruto flapped his arms like an awkward bird, squawking, "Not mine, it's such a bad present – please – ugh, Sasuke-teme's going to kill me—"

The box, enveloped lazily like a tootsie roll, was tiny, and fit perfectly in Itachi's palm. Delicately, he unhinged it at its edges, extracted tufts of tissue paper, to reveal a small slip of paper. After plucking it out with his fingernails, Itachi unfolded it, and, much to Naruto's mortification, read the note aloud. "Present this to Teuchi at Ichiraku Ramen, and he'll give you a free meal! (Can be used as much as you want!) Courtesy of the great Uzumaki Naruto, Number One Hokage Candidate." There was also the exclamation, 'dattebayo,' but Itachi considered it unwise to say such a thing louder than a whisper.

"Thank you, Naruto," Itachi said earnestly.

"Usurutonkachi," Sasuke snarled, "He can't even go into the village." Naruto stammered an objection, Itachi shot his brother a reprimanding stare, thanked him again, and moved on to the next gift.

Curiously, he selected the very flat one, and presumed it must be a print of some sort. With one careful peel of the packaging, Itachi revealed a wide oil painting, depicting a traditional house at sunset, a courtyard featuring a koi pond, and two blurry figures sitting together in the background. This was, undoubtedly, an interpretation of the old Uchiha house, and the silhouettes, judging from their size and posture, represented the two brothers.

Sai stepped forward, scrutinizing his own artwork over Itachi's shoulder. "Sasuke dictated to me what he remembered of this scene," he illuminated, running a grey finger across the canvas surface. "Sasuke even named it," he smiled mysteriously while brandishing a small, engraved plate to place underneath the image. Always.

I will always be there for you as an obstacle you must overcome.

"This is beautiful," Itachi said, stunned by Sai's attention to detail (Sasuke's spiky hair, the scales of the fish, the report card on the wood, Itachi's bandaged ankles) and the dreamy, sepia quality of the late afternoon. Little did he know that a small conversation regarding a report card would lead to questionable hints at what he intended on doing a mere few months later, blood on the stones outside, police suspicion, and the clan crest impaled by his kunai. It was the day after Shisui's death, the day after the day of no turning back, the day he nearly burst with pressure.

This last moment with Sasuke was, for years, his most precious memory.

"I'll cherish it. Thank you, Sai."

"My pleasure." With a static smile, Sai also managed to shove something of a business card into Itachi's pocket. "If you ever feel the need to commission anything," he slyly said before returning to his original seat.

Sakura stepped forward, plucking her pink giftwrapped box up and extending it towards him. "Mine next," she requested, bowing, red with embarrassment, "Compared to Sasuke's and the sensei's, my gift is nothing."

Taking it from her offering hands, he Itachi meticulously unwrapped it (Naruto coughed, impatient as usual) and unfastened the container. With two fingers, he drew out a bottle of eye drops, labeled with ingredients by Sakura's own hand. Itachi tilted his head, curious. Quickly, she elucidated, "I heard from Sasuke that the Mangekyou Sharingan can be painful for the eyes. I managed to compound a solution to help soothe the pain and bleeding, if only temporarily. Sasuke tested it out and everything. If you ever need more, just ask, okay?"

"You really put a lot of thought into that, Sakura-chan," Naruto declared, impressed and hoping to gain some brownie points from his long-time crush.

"It's not like you did anything so special!" Sakura retorted, whacking her friend's shoulder before returning, straight-faced, to Itachi. "Let me know if you have any problems with it."

Itachi squinted at the tiny bottle nestled in his palm, uncertain what to make of it. This girl, no matter how close a friend of Sasuke's, was as good as a stranger, no more than an acquaintance. "I'm sorry, Sakura-san, but I'm having difficulty understanding why you would go to such lengths for me. I'm…honored and grateful."

"Take it," she said, gently. "You deserve much more than what you are getting."

At that, his fingers enclosed the bottle protectively, because he did, after all, endure much pain in his eyes. Over the years, he'd swallowed painkiller after painkiller until he'd grown basically immune to the numbing effects of every pill. In a cold sweat and with blood on his cheeks, he'd jolt awake from nightmares with an excruciating force tugging at his eyes, as if his brain was attempting to yank them deep into their sockets, to drown them in his skull.

To his brother, Itachi asked, "You, too?"

Blank faced, Sasuke nodded. His eyes hurt him, too. He woke up, screaming, from nightmares, too. He dreamed in red and black, too. He was afraid his brother would try to kill him, steal his eyes again, too. He was shocked that the jumble of incoherent words and memories finally lead to this pacific denouement, too.

During the silence, Kakashi prodded the remaining presents forward. "They sort of complement each other. Tenzou's first."

"Senpai! Say Yamato! Please."

Underneath the wrappings and papers lay thin, folded armor, glinting and grey, black pants, a black undershirt, and black sandals. The uniform of ANBU Black Ops. Itachi tapped the clothes, aghast, and looked at Yamato searchingly. This outfit alone sent memories rushing through his head, of good times, bad times, questionable times, murder and honor somehow meshed into one. Vividly, he recalled when he first donned the uniform, when his father beamed at him proudly, when the sting of the needle inked his symbol of allegiance on his shoulder. Compared to his thirteen year old self, Itachi felt incredibly wearied, old, even.

Wordlessly, he continued on to Kakashi's gift, the fragile-looking form. With slightly unsteady hands, he revealed a mask, painted with a professional hand; red, white, and blank designed to resemble a narrow-eyed crow. Itachi traced the contours of the visor with a finger, visibly conflicted. He remembered, on mission requiring his Sharingan eye, he hadn't even worn his mask at all. But this, this would be his expensive little ticket into Konoha again. "You had a Noh-style mask back then," Kakashi commented, flipping a page in his Icha Icha book, "I think this is more fitting."

Sasuke formally exhibited his gift, a wrapped, long rod, extended on the palms of his hands. "It's a chokutou, isn't it?" Itachi deduced by his brother's fashion of presentation, but carefully opened it anyway. Perfectly straight, razor sharp, polished, and as long as Itachi's own arm. On its hilt, like a charm, dangled the Uchiha clan symbol, the fan, and a rabbit's foot. Sasuke never struck him as a superstitious one.

"I travelled to the Land of Iron a week or two back," Sasuke said as Itachi watched his own reflection in the clear blade, "and I managed to barter a bit with a few of the samurai there. A few bets here and there, and the chokutou was mine. It's too beautiful for me to use. I think it suits you more, nii-san."

Naruto, quick to destroy the mood with his smelly opinions, declared, "Ehh, it's just a sword!"

"Shut up, dobe. Unlike disposable kunai, swords require a connection with the user. You wouldn't know that."

Biting the bait, Naruto stood up, fists clenched and reared for a punch. "That's 'cause all I need are my two bare hands!"

"Thank you, Kakashi-san, Yamato-senpai, Sasuke," Itachi interrupted their squabble, sheathed the blade, and set it down before him. The uniform, the mask, the sword. The three presents and the three gift-givers looked at him, expectant as hungry kittens. If he didn't accept this offer, these lavish offerings would gather dust somewhere in his skeleton closet. What a dirty trick, he thought, frustrated. "I have to think this over. I don't appreciate this form of blackmailing."

"I didn't think it was blackmailing." Another page turned. Kakashi could be a real bastard sometimes, Itachi remembered. Essentially, he was a good man, dedicated to the village, reformed in his strict ways, compassionate, and quirky. When he wasn't on your side – that's when he was a bastard. His nonchalance, disregard, and indifference towards this touchy matter bothered him more than it ought to.

Sasuke, a little more sympathetic, said, "Even if you don't ever use it, I still think you should have it."

"We'll see, otouto."

Naruto leaned forward, suddenly interested in this new development. Eyes, as blue as blue as blue, squinted at him penetratingly. "Why don't you wake up a little, Itachi?" he asked, not cruelly, not judgmentally, as though he asked about the weather. "You've got this eternally zoned-out look on your face."

A metaphorical snap in the face – Shisui's face when he'd blink and see what his eyes transmitted to his brain. "Sleeping with your eyes open?" he'd say, half joking, half concerned.

Not facing Naruto, Itachi countered, "What does this face look like, may I ask?"

Without missing a beat: "Like you're still caught up in the past. I mean, I'm real proud of Sasuke for coming back and stuff – don't give me that look, teme – but with that look on your face, you're heading down a bad path. I mean, you're trying to convince yourself that you're happy this way, living all the way out here like a criminal for the rest of your life. Sure, I've heard you're a pacifist and you're tired and all, but what the hell else are you going to do? Let Sasuke carry on the Uchiha without you?"

"I've destroyed the Uchiha," Itachi said, firmly.

"—So I've heard—"

"I have no right to bear the name 'Uchiha' any further."

Naruto slapped his forehead and spoke as though the answer were as clear as the reflections of that knife-edge. "That only means you have to bear it even more, idiot. You keep pulling the 'I've done enough' card and you keep arguing that you got no more reasons left, but has it ever occurred to you to live for your own damn self instead of screwing yourself over for everyone else all the time? And I never thought I'd meet an Uchiha that was a pushover. Gosh, maybe Sasuke-teme might be cooler than you after all."

At that, Sasuke cursed loudly at him, Sakura promptly whacked him on the noggin, Sai cleared up the table, Kakashi sighed and packed the boxes away, and Yamato evacuated as quickly as an uptight student on a drill. Save Sasuke and Itachi, the cottage was empty once again, plagued by silence and breathing and the white noise of the Nakano, southbound.

"I'm sorry," Sasuke said, standing up to leave, an extra tone in his full voice. "Happy birthday, nii-san."

"Seconds!" Naruto barked, flourishing his empty ramen bowl and suppressing a satisfied burp. "Hurry up, old man, you're getting slow!" He beat his chopsticks against the table, providing a drum roll for poor, overworked Teuchi. If anything, Naruto was good for business, especially on a fine June day as today.

"Hey, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said, staring blankly at her own hearty, untouched bowl. They hadn't been able to properly finish their meal two hours ago. After that fiasco of a birthday celebration, everyone but Naruto hadn't the stomach to ingest anything too solid. "Do you think we might've been a little too cruel to Itachi-san? He didn't look too thrilled back there…"

"Ojii-san, I get a free one today."

"Oh really? Oh yeah, that is Naruto's signature. Have a seat and dig in!"

Cloaked, masked, charmed and charming, black, grey, glinting, red, long haired. With a scrape of a stool, Itachi sat at Ichiraku, cautiously removed his Crow mask, thanked Teuchi politely, and cracked open a wooden pair of chopsticks. His features, though obviously Uchiha, were outshined by the wide smile on his face, a smile Sasuke had only seen at his first death. Protecting his forehead, unscarred and proud, shone a brand new leaf symbol, personally presented to him by the Godaime Hokage.

It was his birthday, and Itachi was home.

Naruto, in the meantime, asked for thirds.