Disclaimer: I own Mikoto's hidden tomato patch. /misleading opening sentence
Note: I've seen well-researched arguments describing Itachi's disease as both microscopic polyangiitis and tuberculosis respectively, but I'm torn between the two, so I've decided to leave it nameless for now.
Dinner came round somewhat uneventfully, with his brother calling his name through the sliding door. Sasuke had tried to peek in, inching the door open with his fingertips, but black spokes of hair poking through the gap gave him away, causing Itachi to pry open the door to satiate his little brother's curiosity. The boy had almost tumbled into the room as the door gave way. A smile had coaxed its way onto Itachi's face then, and he didn't try to stop it.
The expression on Sasuke's face indicated that he treated Itachi's disorganized room like some kind of shrine, sacrosanct and unknowable, with the way he kept a curious distance from everything. Itachi had long disposed of the littered glass on the bedroom floor and cleared up the cluttered spaces to the best of his ability; he wouldn't have let Sasuke in otherwise. Though training to be a shinobi, the boy was still a child—a moment's unawareness or a single misstep could result in a ghastly accident. He remembered the first time Sasuke climbed a tree in the forest near the compound, attempting to imitate the way the Konoha shinobi leapt from branch to branch through the thick foliage, high up in the canopies. The boy had adorably hugged his way up the tree, his free climbing skills remarkably commendable for his age group, but instead of coming straight down, he had attempted to make a jump from one tree to another. Itachi had had to perform an exigent intervening save, and Sasuke had narrowly missed an early death, or worse—partial paralysis.
Promising his brother that he could finish browsing through the contents of his room later, Itachi led him out by the hand, causing his father to frown at the sight. The man had always hated the concept of coddling his children, as though such sentiments and flagrant displays of affection would lead to weakness. Fugaku reminded him of Danzo sometimes—even their scowls and expressions of stoic displeasure looked far too similar, so much so that it sometimes unnerved him. Seeing his father in the man who had ordered his death had always felt like the cruel injustice of karma offering up its most bittersweet taste.
He told himself that he wouldn't let the scowls get the better of him, but a deep seated growling rose in the pit of his stomach and the cave of his chest. It seemed like his body thought otherwise.
Helping his mother bring the food over from the kitchen, he watched as Sasuke endeavored to help out too, his small feet pattering around the table as he set the chopsticks and sauce bowls in place. His father seemed to pay them no mind, his eyes focusing on the local newspaper, though Itachi knew that he was still watching them, evaluating them from afar.
When the food was all laid out and the bowls of rice well prepared, they sat at the table, Mikoto folding her apron away as they began their dinner in silence. Fugaku had folded his newspaper away as well, while Sasuke leaned forward to help himself to the broiled chicken and tomato stew. Itachi settled first for the broccoli leaves in oyster sauce, before reaching for the steamed fish. He thought briefly of Kisame, but quickly stored that thought away.
Sasuke beamed as he devoured the tomatoes.
"Be sure to eat other vegetables too," Itachi broke the silence, reaching over the table to place some of the greens onto his brother's bowl. If his jaw wasn't stuffed with tomatoes, Itachi was sure he'd have made a face.
His parents were seated on either side of him, and he could feel them watching him. His mother, at the least, was attempting to be discreet, with the constant downward flicker of her eyes and the occasional furtive glances with a half-assuring smile. Itachi wondered if, back then, she had known that she had birthed a monster, an abnormality—an anomaly from the rest. Then again, she hadn't watched him so warily, all those years ago. She also hadn't been scarred, and never tried to keep a weary distance.
It had been him doing all the distancing. Now he was beginning to become aware of what it felt like, to be held at arm's length, despite doing nothing to warrant such treatment.
His father, on the other hand… the only difference between then and now was that his disdain was beginning to show a little too soon. Itachi figured that something drastic must have happened that resulted in him quitting the ANBU force—it would explain his father's treatment towards him. He had been the clan's prodigy, successor, and spy in the previous timeline—he was one of only two Uchiha who hadn't been washed out of the force by the time he made captain. Still trusted and still the best in the force, barring Hatake Kakashi who was an immortal legend among the spooks themselves, he had been tasked with the unholy duty of spying on the village for the sake of the clan. He had been the clan's only reputable source of information by then; their last vestige of hope. He couldn't have been ousted here—if he was, his clan would have sided with him against such an outrage, citing bias against members of their clan. No, he had to have quit. It was the only explanation that sufficed at this point, unless there was another reason as to why his father was glowering daggers at the side of his head.
He would just have to find out.
"You've made your decision then." His father started for him, and Itachi turned to study him impassively. It sounded like a question, though worded more as a statement that sought some kind of affirmation to validate it.
"My decision?" he asked, letting the confusion suffuse his guarded expression.
"To join the police force."
Itachi let the new information sink in quickly, deciding that it made sense.
And yet it didn't. He'd seen the way the other clan members had looked at him—most were employed by the military police force too. He wondered what his father was thinking—as the chief of the entire division, all employment and recruitment to the force had to be approved by him. And didn't he disapprove of Itachi anyway? Or was that for something other than the broken ANBU mask? Why was he recruiting him here? Had Itachi run out of options this early in his career? What about normal mission duty as a registered shinobi of the village forces? Was this merely nepotism at work so that his father wouldn't lose face? Was his father's question a trick? Was he testing to see if Itachi was an imposter (which in a way, he was)? The barrage of questions flooding his mind did little to appease his lack of information, and outright asking any of them was simply out of the question.
He decided to tread carefully. "What about normal missions?" he asked, and his father scowled at the question.
"We've been over this before, and you'll be joining the military police or nothing at all."
Like hell I'll join, said the internal voice. I won't be crushed under your thumb any longer.
Itachi suppressed his surprise, toiling to keep the undercurrent of rising emotions stifled under his breath.
"You misunderstand me," Itachi replied calmly, in a way to keep the longing disrespect from surfacing in his voice, "I was merely wondering if it was possible to juggle both. I'm aware that there are many in the clan who do, though more as a result of Hokage-sama's personal orders than by choice. I have no aversions to joining the force, if it is what's expected of me, but I simply wish to know all my available options beforehand, before I make the choice to do so."
He felt everyone's eyes on him as his father intensified his gaze, turning to Mikoto momentarily before settling on Itachi once again. He didn't miss the silent exchange.
"If you wish for the latter," his father began, "an arrangement will have to be made between Yondaime-sama and yourself. Considering your last… difference of opinion with his decision, you'll have to embark on mending that bridge on your own."
Itachi replayed his father's words in his head.
"Yondaime-sama?" came out before he could contain it, though he wasn't sure that he wanted to. Was his father going senile so early in life? The famed Hokage died close to a decade ago while sealing away the Kyuubi. He directed an almost incredulous stare at his father—a milder form of whatever the rest of the public used to display that emotion (he imagined he looked only startled, at that)—and the older man gave him an icy look.
"You'll drag yourself to his office and apologize for your behavior," Fugaku ordered strictly, "and you will present yourself in a manner befitting the status of your clan. I will not have you disrespecting us again." Echoes of his earlier conversation with Sasuke in the middle of the town square fluttered into his mind, chilling him as he looked down at his food to avoid his younger brother's gaze.
"Understood, otou-sama." He replied, tilting his head respectfully in the direction of his father. The man eyed him a little longer, as though questioning his sincerity, before returning to his food.
Itachi thought that the food felt a little colder now, but stomached what he could, reflecting that he missed the taste of his mother's cooking.
"Ne, ne, nii-san, are you staying here tonight?"
Sasuke's own shuriken-printed pillow was bolstered between his arms as he shuffled into the room. Itachi resisted the habitual urge of poking his brother in the forehead to get him to go, and with a steady nod, gestured towards the bed. Sasuke sat on the edge, his feet swinging over the side, and he felt the boy's gaze following him as he crossed the room.
His cupboards had been empty, devoid of anything he would normally wear. He found a spare set of pajamas he hadn't seen in years and opted that they would have to do. He was thankful for the mothballs in his drawers then. A half-length mirror ran along the inside of one of his closet doors. He eyed his reflection for a long time—now barely a teen—before latching the door tightly, while airing out his pajamas in his other hand.
Sasuke merely stared up at him and Itachi recognized his questioning gaze.
"What is it, otouto?" he asked, as he began to change.
The boy seemed to hesitate as he began, as though trading question for question in his head before settling on the one he deemed best. "Did something happen?" Sasuke's brow creased as he frowned.
"What makes you think that?" Itachi asked smoothly, reminding himself that Sasuke was always more perceptive than anyone gave him credit for.
"Well…" the boy buried his lips into his pillow, muffling his voice, "it's like you've changed."
Itachi barely caught it, but he wasn't a prodigy for nothing—listening attentively had been one of the things he'd caught on the fastest, as a child. Perhaps it was a natural disposition of being born as the clan head's son—the man was used to giving out orders for as long as he could remember, and it imprinted heavily on his immediate family. Few were daring or powerful enough to deny the elder anything he asked for.
"Have I?" he asked, sneaking amusement into his voice, though he worried at his brother's revelation. His mother had said the same. What had she called him—older, more composed? He reminded himself that he was barely a teen, but even his first time around, his disposition had been the same.
He wondered if it had to do with the vibrant emotions and the secret voice that plagued him, and contemplated if there was someone else in this body with him.
An embittered laugh echoed ghostly in his ears as Sasuke nodded slowly.
"Well, you haven't been back for some time, since you stopped entering the compound a while ago." The boy started, gaining momentum as he talked. "Then all of a sudden, you enter the house, visit your room, and eat with us like we're a real family again, and then you help out kaa-san, and suddenly you can cook, and then you're all respectful to otou-san when you normally can't stand being in the same room as him!" Sasuke seemed on the verge of tears. "Is something wrong? Are you sick? What's going on?"
The word 'sick' struck a chord where his heart had been, reminding him of the inevitable. He hadn't had long to live the moment the illness inundated his system, and even the various medications he had taken to prolong his life had done little other than that, barely keeping him sustained long enough for that one last final confrontation with his brother. Strengthening his resolve, he told himself that he'd do it right this time. His hindsight granted him the prescience that there was no such thing as having all the time in the world, and he wasn't going to waste a single second of it.
Itachi pulled the boy into a hug, stroking the back of his head comfortingly, as he whispered soothing words into his ear.
"Nothing's wrong," he assured him, "I've just been doing some thinking, that's all. It seems like I've gotten myself into some kind of mess and I need to figure out how to come out on top." He glanced at the broken shard from his old ANBU mask and the adjacent, ruined scroll. He needed to understand what happened there without giving himself away.
He turned to the boy in his arms. "If I did something wrong," he phrased carefully, "and disgraced our clan…" Sasuke's eyes widened attentively, and Itachi hated himself for manipulating his brother's emotions like this. He did it before and lived to regret it. "Would you think less of me?" A part of him knew the answer without having to ask, but the other part of him wanted to hear it anyway, and in this case, hopefully goad Sasuke into revealing a little more about his situation with their family and clan.
Sasuke took the bait. "They're wrong!" he declared, and Itachi had to hush him to keep his voice down. "You did what you had to do, every ninja knows that. It's not your fault and everyone knows that, they're just being so stupid about it. Everyone said you were gonna be the youngest ANBU captain and beat out that eye-stealer Hatake and maybe even Shisui and now nobody will know how good you really are."
So Kakashi-senpai still drew the clan's ire, though that was altogether unsurprising. The silver-haired genius had received the full-blown enmity of the clan the moment he returned from that calamitous mission during the war bearing his late teammate's surviving Sharingan eye. He had only worked together with the famed Copy Nin a couple of times, during a few S to SS-ranked missions that required the cooperation of several units to complete said assignments. He had always respectfully deferred all authority to the senior shinobi, though there was one time the man had declined, insisting that Itachi take the reins instead. He didn't doubt that Kakashi had been testing him back then, though he hid his intentions rather skillfully with his nonchalant, lackadaisical responses. A world class shinobi with a penchant for textual pornography, the man was an enigma—one he had never been able to decipher.
As for Shisui… his older cousin had joined the ANBU earlier than him—and it had certainly been his true element, with all his genjutsu prowess. Itachi often mused that the life of secrets had murdered them both the moment they signed over their souls, while the aftermath eternally damaged his brother, preventing a war but facilitating the ruin of something even greater. A flash of tussled blond hair came to mind.
"And is…" he had to roll his mind around the title a couple of times to familiarize himself with saying it, "Yondaime-sama also wrong about me?" From what he gleaned from the short conversation with his father, he figured that he must have had a very bad falling out with the village leader. Itachi wondered how that was even possible; he was always the epitome of courtesy and formality when it came down to interacting with others, regardless of circumstances. Of course, there had been a few notable exceptions which had resulted in him extending a few caustic words to make his point, but he always made it a point to do so without malice or incivility. There was no purpose in being deliberately unkind.
Except when you screwed up your brother's mind, the voice reminded, and he heard the echo of bitter laughter reverberating throughout his mind. He wondered if he was going crazy. Oh, I'm sure you lost your mind a long time ago, it replied with added conviction. Or at least when you were conceited enough to even think that you could handle reliving your past all over again…
"I heard he got fat," Sasuke replied with all the ardor of a well-versed gossiper. "And that's why he rarely leaves his office. He was supposed to come down to the academy to give us a talk, but Sandaime-sama came instead, so the rumors must be true." Itachi closed his eyes, wallowing out the tension creeping into the sides of his temple. He didn't know whether to cry or laugh.
"Believe only half of what you see and none of what you hear, until you make the confirmation yourself." Itachi recited sagely, noting his brother's quizzical gaze. He poked him gently in the forehead with a pair of fingers and Sasuke fell backwards onto the bed with a groan, one hand rubbing impetuously at the spot of attack.
"A shinobi must always be well prepared for the possibility of attack, regardless of situation."
He sidestepped the pillow launched at his head.
"You'll need to practice your aim, as well." Itachi remarked, catching the second pillow just as his brother catapulted towards his chest, tackling him onto the floor.
"I got you!" Sasuke squealed, as Itachi stooped to the most underhanded tactical maneuver known to man: the art of tickling. Sasuke was caught between laughing and trying to escape when the sliding door opened and their father stood there, staring down at them with eyes that could liquidize brain cells.
"Sasuke," he called stiffly, and the boy's smile faded as quickly as it came, "Return to your room. You have a full school day tomorrow, and you'll need to wake up early to train. Set your alarm for five."
Itachi's eyes narrowed slightly—waking up at five in the morning to work out before classes started had been his required schedule as a child. As far as he could remember, Sasuke had never been subjected to the same treatment.
His little brother wallowed dejectedly to the door with a soft "yes, otou-san", picking up his shuriken pillow as he went. Itachi reached for the remainder, replacing it onto his bed. His father hadn't moved an inch.
"How long do you intend to stay here?" Fugaku asked, as he began to fold back his comforter.
"Am I not welcome?" Itachi returned, keeping all emotion out of his voice.
"I believe you expressed your intentions clearly the last time we spoke."
Something splintered violently inside of him, and Itachi found himself seething a hateful, "Quit your bullshit; you were the one who kicked me out and told me never to return until I kowtowed and did everything you said without question, like some kind of mindless subordinate—"
Breathlessly, Itachi froze at his outburst. Where did that come from? Those weren't his words or what he wanted to say… and yet they held a ring of truth that he couldn't explain. He felt it, but he couldn't translate it to words. His hand clawed up instinctively towards his chest.
"You can spend the night," his father voiced frigidly, "but I expect you out before dawn."
He knew what his father meant and the hidden punishment it entailed—he was to leave without saying goodbye.
Itachi spent the night sitting meditatively on his bed, reflecting on all that transpired throughout the day. He wasn't blind to the nagging feeling of being in a place other than his intended, rightful home, but the prospect of losing his calm to this new, temperamental mindset frightened him more.
Do I unnerve you? The voice piped up from the gathering silence. He considered the question seriously, reasoning that the disconcertment mostly stemmed from recognition of the voice itself—though it always sounded differently from an external viewpoint, it was without a doubt his own, the very one that complemented his current body.
He'd considered the repercussions of time travelling many times before, and had known that something akin to this could possibly happen, but the consideration of the theory had done little in preparation for the actual occurrence. His younger counterpart had phrased it rather accurately—unnerving painted a precise portrait of the invasive sensation. He could only imagine what his other half was feeling, as the supposed host.
"I'm sure the feeling's mutual," he mused lightly, "and I imagine that there's a lot of explanation that needs to be done, on both our parts."
Oh, you'll be the one doing the explaining, it replied assuredly. Itachi was briefly reminded of Shisui; when faced with a showdown, his cousin had always favored the presumptuous taunt. The older boy's playful cockiness never failed to induce a rise from his opponent, and the genjutsu prodigy always bent it to his advantage. Itachi, on the other hand, had always favored erring on the side of caution, underestimating no-one, even when he clearly outmatched them. He'd seen desperation one too many times before, and knew what miracles a cornered soul could conjure given an opportune moment.
"If you are who I believe you are… how is it that we are able to co-exist?" he mouthed wordlessly, knowing that it would still hear him. Its communicative capabilities seemed encephalic, after all.
Well now, why don't you step right in and see for yourself? It chortled venomously. Come on now, don't be scared. I want to get a good look at you too, you know.
His counterpart was right—why delay the inevitable? His hands formed the seal.
During one of the recurring ANBU psychological exams in his previous timeline, Itachi had had the organization of his mind described to him as a zen garden of rocks, tea, flora, and the occasional filing cabinet. The description hadn't fazed him, as the depiction seemed fairly accurate in and of itself.
His external surroundings faded away as he felt the physical draw that sent him spiraling into his own mind, which had evolved from a zen garden to some kind of highly secured training facility in the middle of an endless, ragtag jungle.
If you manage to find your way out, all you'll see is an arid desert of sand dunes and the occasional sand beast. Itachi looked up to see the mirror-image of his preteen self standing on top of the base, a kunai twirling expertly in one hand. The boy was decked out in the oh-so-familiar ANBU gear, and the chipped crow mask rested casually on the side of his head. Itachi recognized the missing piece as the one he found in his room.
"Sounds like a prison." Itachi remarked dryly, and the tall electrified gates swung to a close behind him, locking him in.
Isn't everything? He heard the disillusionment in the mirage's voice, as a set of three-tomoe Sharingan flickered into existence, watching him piercingly. He might've smiled at the sight if the ANBU's chakra hadn't taken on a hostile approach.
"Do you intend to keep me here?" Itachi asked, activating his own. He felt the familiar thrum of the rotating pinwheels eclipsing his eyes, and looked down at his hands. They were larger and more familiar. In his mind, it seemed his usual body was his own. The Akatsuki coat was nowhere in sight. Then again, he no longer associated himself with the group.
The boy on top of the facility seemed startled at the sight. How did you—? The Mangekyou? No… So that's how… That's how you killed the clan. A haunted look glazed over his features, like he was recollecting a memory that wasn't rightfully his.
Itachi looked to his right, spotting a few battered filing cabinets, dented and burned, but otherwise undamaged and unopened. He mused that the younger entity must have uncovered them somehow and tried to force them open, but to no avail. It was understandable—his mental barriers were among the best.
"Did you think they would fall so easily? In times of great need," he replied cryptically, "there are always devils waiting to lend a hand, as there are some tasks that no man can perform alone."
The boy said nothing for a while, taking in the revelation, and Itachi could almost picture how his mind worked—he knew that his younger self would analyze the statement from every possible angle before drawing his conclusions. Seeing some scattered papers by the unbroken shelves, he picked them up carefully, only to find blank space where they had been a moment later. He considered the implications and pondered how much the boy really knew.
Why are you here? The ANBU asked, after an eternity had passed.
"You invited me here," he said wryly, "don't you recall?"
The patented Uchiha scowl surfaced on the boy's face, his red eyes flashing agitatedly. You know what I mean, dipshit—you don't belong here! This is my body, my mind, and I won't let you impersonate me any longer—
Itachi snatched the kunai in mid-flight, spinning it into grip as he flickered over to its owner, pressing the tip against the base of the boy's throat.
You kill me, you kill you.
"One way to test that—" Itachi slid the blade in, knowingly dispelling the clone.
This is still my mindscape, you know. You cannot touch me here.
The boy surfaced outside the gate, peering at Itachi critically.
"You cannot hold me here either," he responded, the pinwheels dancing as black flames engulfed the iron bars. The other beheld the sight in terror, retreating backwards into the thick jungle. "There is too much at stake for me to be playing these mind games with you."
Who are you, really?
Itachi cocked his head sideways. "I think you know, just as well as I do."
You're a disease that I'm trying to purge—
"Don't make allusions to what you don't know." Itachi interjected, his voice softening as he added a resolute, "Not yet, anyway."
Why did you do it?
"You'll have to be specific—I don't know what you're referring to." A fluent lie; he knew that the boy was referring to the escaped memories about the massacre, but he wasn't going to reveal that. For all he knew, the boy was attempting to mislead him into revealing other uncovered secrets—it would be just like him to do so, though the boy didn't quite pull it off with as much finesse as expected of an Uchiha heir.
The murder of the clan! And what you did to Sasuke! How could you—? Why—would you?
Itachi balked at the divulgement. By his present age, he should have been well aware of the plot to end the clan's coup d'état. Then again… if things had altered so much that the Yondaime still held his office… perhaps the circumstances were different now? He considered the numerous possibilities. Would it mean that the massacre was no longer necessary, hence enforcing his counterpart's lack of knowledge?
Feelings kindred to hope surfaced longingly in his chest, before another consideration hammered it into the ground.
Had there been a miscalculation on his end? The points of divergence were anchored so strongly here—things were far too different from his original time stream to make any computable sense. Had he been projected into the right stream, if at all? Or was this just another nightmare that surfaced for sinners after their deaths? Was this even his proper past? If not, then where was he—in a different reality? He debated the existence of an alternate universe, and shook to free his head from the thought.
I'm glad you're not immune—it gets worse, the longer you stay trapped inside your own brain. Which is why you need to go. His younger self laughed bitterly, weeping as he stared down at his own hands. They both saw the blood dripping from the gloved hands.
This is all your fault, the voice shook, you brought the blood and the murders…
His younger self stared at him with an intensity to rival his younger brother's a lifetime ago. He could feel the hatred bleeding through the ANBU's gaze.
Itachi had grown used to the word.
—I will end you here.
He caught the incoming blade with an open hand, moving to break it, but the boy was equally fast, withdrawing it quickly before swooping in from the side. Itachi deflected the blade, launching the boy into the pathway of a well-timed clone that had come in from behind. The simulacrum dispelled itself, crumbling to dirt, as another rose only a few feet away.
"I'd rather not fight you," Itachi said earnestly, keeping his palms open in a clear demonstration of sincerity. A cut extended across his right where the blade had pierced his skin.
It's still my mindscape, the preteen insisted, this place operates by my rules. I'll fight you for as long as it takes, Mangekyou Sharingan or not.
"A person's mindscape is a very subjective thing," he explained calmly, "which is why sensory-affecting techniques like genjutsu become all the more powerful once they find their foothold. For high level techniques, normally it takes a good infiltrative jutsu or two to penetrate the subject's mind field, in order to plant the anchor that hooks the illusion into place, rather than relying on external sensory manipulations that might not always take." He eyed the younger boy speculatively. "So how do you expect to end me when you've already invited me into the key center of your brain?"
Round eyes widened at the epiphany, and Itachi caught him by the neck, disintegrating the on-looking body double with a dose of black flames.
"In time," Itachi informed him, the pinwheels in his eyes shifting like clockwork gears, "we'll have a proper discussion. But for now, you're going to let me out."
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