I ended up not posting the prologue here because it broke the flow of the chapter but for those who want to see Gin arriving back in Oto, I will stick the scene on my Tumblr and maybe the forums when I have the time.

I'm also thinking of editing and moving this stuff to A03 as it's easier to organise there but that will probably take a while.

Big thank you to RuneofLuna for beta-ing this too!


Sunshine in Sound – Sunshine slips through

Three weeks later Itachi is trying to negotiate the release of his sandal from a snow cub and feeling swindled.

The cub had not only survived but thrived.

Itachi does not flinch anymore as Kumori slips into his room. She's holding a milk pouch at the ready, and the snow cub immediately abandons the slipper to pounce into her arms.

Itachi does not pout. Felines have always liked him, but this one is firmly enamoured with his pseudo-partner. Perhaps it senses he had been ready to kill it when they first met.

He watches as it plays with Kumori's hair, her shoulders less tense, and the ghost of a smile flits across her face.

"Have you come up with a name yet?" he asks.

She shrugs. "I've been calling him Shiro in my head."

Itachi cocks his head. Well, it seemed Nara really were legendarily literal in naming things.

Shiro is now playing with a bit of fluff, pouncing and stumbling over its own paws. Itachi tries his luck again now that he's been fed, but as soon as his hand is within biting distance, Shiro swipes hissing.

Itachi sighs.

Kumori looks nearly embarrassed and taps the snow cub on its head. It mewls pitifully and seeks refuge on her lap, looking at Itachi disdainfully.

"I'm sure he'll warm up to you. He likes Kisame now, and Shiro bit him when they met.

Itachi gives her a supremely unconvinced look and changes the topic.

She saved his life and his eye, and he can survive a bloodthirsty kitten if it means she continues to open up.

He knows he is not a very good teacher.

Lessons and jutsus came too easily for him to understand how to teach it to others.

But Kumori is a very good student. She never complains, just listens quietly, taking copious notes.

Her genjutsu improves from passable to good enough to fool someone who doesn't have a doujutsu. Somehow, neither mention it when her questions veer from genjutsu to a range of other subjects. He doesn't try to steer the conversation to her Master yet. It would be too obvious for one. But also…

He had not realised how much he missed human company until she started showing up at his door with a stack of books and a determined expression.

Somehow, somewhere between saving his life and adopting a snow cub, Kumori had decided he was an acceptable source of knowledge. Itachi doesn't understand her motivations yet, but he is tentatively sure this is not the Snake Sannin's scheme. He's gone over the assassination attempt countless times, and if Kumori had been a mindless pawn, she would not have acted as she did.

He keeps a wary eye on his actual partner, wondering if his plot is too obvious but Orochimaru's presence is rare and although Itachi is sure he has noticed, he does not interfere. Itachi tries not to dwell on what that means.

He knows the Sannin does not torture her.

But the first time she slips into his room with a broken arm she's not allowed to heal and matter of factly tells him she was getting weak on her left side, his pen snaps in two.

Itachi realises he may be in over his head.

Meanwhile, the list of questions she brings to his room evolves, conversations stretching further into the night.

The first startling discovery he makes through those long hours is something he has suspected since she offhandedly mentioned she'd reversed the barrier during their escape in Snow.

Kumori is… a genius.

He doesn't use the words lightly, he is intimately aware of what the label means.

It's not the taijutsu, the ninjutsu or even the sealing he's seen her flowing through in missions. Orochimaru would not tolerate adequacy – any child raised by him would be lethal – but her mind is her most dangerous weapon yet.

As the months trip by, and her guard slips down while he desperately tries to cling to his, her conversations get bolder, ideas bubbling through.

Soon her questions require technical demonstrations, and they find themselves in the arid surrounding terrains. She recovers some of her wariness the first time he is facing her there, alone, under a starlit night.

Itachi carefully ignores the way she suppresses a flinch as he touches her arm to showcase a hit. He also ignores his own misgivings. Training an enemy is never a good idea.

But Itachi is having a hard time staying convinced that Kumori is an enemy.

For the first time in his life, he tries the mantle of teacher. It is… not an unpleasant experience.

Itachi may have a clear advantage when it comes to battle, but she takes intuitive leaps, thinking sideways, unpredictable. He wonders how long he can be sure she is neutralise-able.

Their conversations do not remain geared around training.

Kumori is a voracious reader, and he doesn't even realise he has started looking out for interesting books on his solo missions before he's leaving one on her habitual seat in his room.

She doesn't say anything when she sees it, but the small curve of her lips is strangely satisfying.

A week later he wonders if he made a mistake after she makes another frightening breakthrough using the sealing book he stole and nearly blows them both up in the middle of a fight with a competing group of missing nin.

But Itachi hears her laugh for the first time, strands of hair singed, soot on her face and eyes bright. He feels an irrepressible smile growing on his own face as he shoves his katana through the dazed enemy nin.

Itachi feels like he is living two parallel lives.

One requires him to anticipate every step he makes, repress any emotions, be the blade he was fashioned to be for as long as he can remember.

The other is bewildering, requiring him to exercise his ideas and thoughts in a way he hasn't before, awakes protective instincts he had thought long buried and threatens to destabilise him.

But like the moths he used to see burn in the compound lanterns on long summer nights, he cannot stay away.

Six months in, as he watches her very seriously try to teach his uncooperative snow cub a trick, he decides that she at least cannot be a plant. These are not questions she would ever have asked the Snake Sannin.

Curious questions about the philosophies of different villages, and odd ones about the state of technology, all carefully written down in one of her countless notebooks.

He glimpses the diagrams she sketches absentmindedly and wonders at the mind that imagines such things. They speak of what brings war and how to avoid bloodshed. Her ideas are odd, and he wonders how the Snake Sannin could have raised such a child. How much was innate?

Those discussions sometimes erupt into fully-fledged arguments, her peculiar ideas making him uncomfortable, upending every truth that makes him who he is. This isn't the warring era of clans but what she speaks of is unthinkable… impossible.

"All of it is pointless, a never-ending cycle of pain and hate," she murmurs. "We will never progress if we focus on strengthening the wrong people."

"Who would you strengthen, then?" Itachi asks.

She blinks at him as if she's half forgotten she was speaking to him at all. She does that sometimes. Or perhaps the answer is obvious to someone like her and she can't see why he doesn't understand. "The civilians of course. The inventors and artists and thinkers."

Itachi scoffs, "That is what Shinobi are."

Itachi is considered a genius, but he never had eyes that looked as old as Kumori's then.

"No Itachi, they are not," she replies. "Shinobi… are wasted on violence."

Itachi is left speechless, old echoes of suppressed thoughts long abandoned threatening to rise before he rallies. "That has always been their purpose… to fight and to defend and–"

"Well, maybe it shouldn't. Maybe we should wonder what they would be able to achieve if they weren't brainwashed into it from toddlerhood."

Nearly indecipherable, she adds, "Maybe someone will come along and break the cycle."

Her words scrape something in him, something unnamed and bitter and the words revisit him periodically over the months.

The turning point occurs a year later, and of course, it has to be in the Land of Snow. Itachi is starting to hate the cold.

By now they work like a well-oiled machine, words hardly needed as they dispatch orders, murder targets and sabotage villages.

Missions are something Itachi both hates and looks forward to. It is never clearer what he has become than when he kills, cheats and lies for a terrorist organisation. But… there is a weight lifted when he is out with Kumori. A lightness in his heart he cannot find at the base. He can nearly pretend…

They stop in Taika for intel. As one of three main cities supplying Yukigakure, the Village Hidden among Snow, there is a strong ninja presence on the outskirts. Itachi and Kumori don't try to use genjutsu in case a sensor is on duty – this is one of their… quiet missions.

They don't need any jutsu though, their faces unknown and unremarkable in the busy stream of civilians coming in and out of the city. They stick to their usual background: two civilian siblings visiting their aunt after their parents' death.

Kumori had once dryly said he was too pretty to be related to her and Itachi had merely given her a look, staying quiet about his disagreement.

She changes on the outskirts of the city, a frilly blue dress and two pigtails utterly changing her. She looked young before but now, with the wide eyes and cherubic smile; she is miles from the serious-faced ninja who killed their last target with a hairpin.

Once within the city, Kumori waves him off, no doubt off to infiltrate Taika's library while Itachi meanders through the streets to the furthest bar – both good ways to gather intel.

It only takes two rounds of drinks he carefully siphons out of his cup to gauge why Kasuga Hiro is dying today. The man is one of seven advisors; all holding sway over the governance of the city and Hiro seems to have had one too many … revolutionary ideas.

The gossip indicates a man with charisma who has advocated for the abolishment of the ruling system and greater power for civilian structures. Even Itachi at his most idealistic would dismiss his ideas as impossible.

With rumours of a powerful bloodline and the money to back his policies, Akatsuki could have been hired by any number of rivals and associates.

Itachi glances at the slowly setting dusk and decides he's learnt enough, exiting the… establishment unseen.

Kumori, still dressed in that ridiculously frilly dress, is walking towards him with a satisfied expression on her face.

He is wondering what tangent of research her latest efforts will lead to when he hears a high-pitched shriek to his left and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end even as his hand twitches to his kunai.

He turns away from Kumori towards the sound, a large gaggle of girls eyeing him and approaching, the Shrieker leading the charge.

"Ano, I'm sorry but - Jin-sama – when I saw Darkest Moonlight, I cried so much when your lover died – please – please can I take a photo?" she rushes out, and Itachi can see literal sparkles in her eyes.

He is threatened by ominous flashbacks.

He sees the commotion has attracted a few stares, one of which he recognises as the gate guard's.

His best bet is to diffuse the situation before making a tactical retreat. Sweat trickles down his back.

"I'm afraid I –"

He doesn't jolt when Kumori loops her arm around his, but it is a near thing. For all the time they spend together, there is very little physical contact.

"Of course Nii-san would love to be on the photo," she smiles winningly, eyes crinkling in the corners.

The older girl shrieks again as Itachi stares at Kumori in poorly-hidden surprise. Itachi has a heavy suspicion he won't be able to get out of this. Her smile is daring him to try something.

They both turn at the flash of the instant camera, and he blinks at the giggling and eyelash-batting directed at him. He bows slightly and drags a smirking Kumori away as fast as possible.

(He carefully slips the photo he retrieved in a smooth sleight of hand into his pocket.)

By nightfall, they are both sober and dressed in dark colours as they set out to the outskirts of Taika. Kumori's hair is tied back in a bun, which is unusual, her half mask covering her face, which is not.

He pauses as they reach the extensive grounds of the manor and sniffs.

He smells blood.

Kumori tenses on the other side of the wall but gives the signal for all clear. He clears the gate and sees what has caught her attention; five bodies, poorly hidden but throats slit professionally – obviously the night sentries.

Kumori looks at him, eyebrow quirked, question evident.

"The mission continues," he says before taking the lead as they make their way to the imposing house.

They come across fourteen more slaughtered guards before encountering a perpetrator; too busy sliding his kunai slowly into the final guard to notice them before Itachi's katana is slicing his head off his shoulders in one smooth movement.

Kumori's foot nudges the dropped head to get a clearer look but only shakes her head. Their victim is not part of any bingo book then.

One of Kumori's more acceptable quirks is memorising Bingo books, so if she doesn't recognise him, Itachi is pretty certain he isn't on any.

They both freeze as the faint screams of a woman reach them.

Itachi follows the sound easily to a spacious bedroom and pauses again.

"Last chance Akane – where is the boy?" a raspy voice is saying.

Kasuga Hiro was noted to have a wife and child, Itachi remembers. Kumori at his back, he steps into the carnage within.

It takes him a fraction of a second to analyse the situation.

There is a man impaled on a bed of crystals, blood dripping down sluggishly.

Kasuga Hiro.

Tortured before he died, Itachi clinically notes the lack of hands. Evidence of a fierce fight but he had been overpowered by the two nin – one probably an ice user from the Yuki clan, the other now laughing over a woman with dark braided hair, both her hands speared to the floor with kunai, an ice crystal lodged deep in her torso, likely fatal. Only a few scraps of her bloodstained white dress remain as she shakes her head frantically.

Kumori is still beside him, staring at the woman with wide eyes, her kunai half loose.

This was not part of the mission, Itachi swears inside, and he definitely doesn't want Kumori exposed to this so early, but there is no time to do anything but launch himself at the ice user, most likely the more dangerous of the two targets.

The shinobi is good, probably a veteran of Kiri before he went missing nin and is turning in defence before Itachi reaches him.

Itachi cannot spare a glance for his partner as he tries to dispatch the ice user quickly, deftly ignoring the swearing and insults levelled at him.

He would usually have no difficulties with this level of attack but by the first strike he realises his opponent is blind under those sunglasses, and he needs to win a close contact fight with a man who can throw barrages of ice shards with barely a pause.

He ducks another attack and knows Kumori has snapped out of her inaction as she hears Laugher give a keening cry of pain. It distracts his opponent for a fraction of a second – enough to avoid the launched ice stakes and stab the nin straight through the heart, blood immediately gurgling out of his mouth.

He pauses enough to ensure the nin will not be getting up again and avoids the last death-driven attack the ice user launches at him before finally turning to the second nin.

It seems he is… superfluous after all. The nin lies spread-eagled on the floor.

He can only see Kumori's back as she sits astride the fallen heavy nin. Her mask is broken in two on the side, along with both the enemy's hands, severed at the arms.

Her kunai-holding arm is moving determinedly on him as her opponent screams in pain – perhaps because he is missing his arms.


He takes a careful step forward to see exactly what she is working on.

The man's chest is being flayed open, Kumori's expression blank as she leans forward and whispers something in his ear that only makes him beg harder. Her kunai continues steadily moving across his chest.

"Kumori," Itachi repeats carefully.

For the first time, he sees a real resemblance with the Snake Sannin. The way she carves without hesitation, her movements sure while her face remains detached from the slowly widening pool of blood around her.

"Kumori!" he says, louder.

He has gone on countless missions with her; he has never seen her indulge in torture. It's bloodier and messier, but he's seen the bodies coming out of Orochimaru's lab, and this is his technique of dissection, his way of extracting information – not that Kumori will be extracting much from this man.

Itachi is not sure what she'll do if he touches her, so he aims his senbon and lets it fly, ending the nin's pained cries once and for all.

She continues to stare at the corpse blankly as if wondering why it had stopped screaming.

Itachi plans to ignore everything that's just happened and focus on covering their tracks first. They need to get rid of all evidence hinting at the presence of other nins.

After all, the payment would not be made if their client figured they had not been the ones to accomplish the mission.

Itachi has never failed a mission given to him until now but even so, he can tell Pein is unlikely to be a leader that accepts failure gracefully.

There are too many ice structures in the room. The easiest might just be to burn the manor down. Suspicious, but it would send a message in its own way.

While Itachi decides on the best place to start a fire, Kumori finally turns – not towards him but to the rasping voice of the dying civilian woman.

"My…so…" she gasps.

In the next second, Kumori is on her knees, scrabbling towards her, one hand smoothing the woman's hair away while the other is sputtering green, hopelessly trying to knit the skin around the fatal wound together.

The woman lunges at Kumori's healing hand, tearing her own apart even further, her eyes burning in their ferocity. Itachi reflexively takes half a step forward.

"Promise… protect… my son."

This is not the first time Itachi's victims have begged him for something. Starting from that night, he's been begged for mercy, for protection, for loved ones to live. He has lost count of how many times he has watched the light leave his victims' eyes impassively, silently.

But this time, the victim of happenstance – as Itachi avoids killing if it is not in the mission brief –is clutching Kumori's hand. Brown hair dipped deep in her own blood, face deathly pale but hazel eyes intensely burning.

"Promise…me," she repeats.

"I… I p-promise," Kumori whispers and Itachi holds back a sigh.

The woman keeps her eyes focused on Kumori's until her grasp loosens and she stutters her last breath.

Kumori stops stroking her hair, tenderly closing the unseeing eyes.

There is a long second of silence, before Kumori's face turns towards the burnished oak closet with slats all the way down.

He had dismissed it, not noticing anything there, but Itachi is not a sensor.

The doors creak gently back to reveal the wide dark eyes of a child.

The boy looks older than Kumori, perhaps eight – but also impossibly younger. Arms clenched around knees and uncontrollably shaking.

Itachi is once again left flatfooted. The boy had obviously witnessed everything.

Killing him would hardly worsen the situation, but Itachi feels strangely reluctant after Kumori's promise.

Besides that, what are you supposed to do with little boys you've traumatised, he thinks bitterly.

"Hey," Kumori says softly, hands held out in a way that would be more comforting is she wasn't drenched in the blood of the man she tortured. "My name is Kumori."

But the child's eyes lock onto her.

"They're dead now, they can't hurt you anymore."

"Mama and Papa are dead." It's not a question, and Itachi turns his eyes away from one more child's haunted ones.

Kumori doesn't soften the blow, voice serious, "Yes, they can't be hurt anymore."

The child doesn't reply, eyes focusing on his mother's corpse over Kumori's shoulder before flicking to the mutilated corpse of her attacker.

"Do you have somewhere you can go? Do you have family that can take you in?" Kumori asks, moving in slowly to block his field of vision. But it's too late, and the child has turned unresponsive, the shaking only worsening.

Kumori sighs as she swiftly raises a chakra covered hand and knocks the child out, smoothly carrying the heavier body. Then she turns towards him, body telegraphing expectation.

Itachi tries to voice his disagreement with the plan. "The boy might talk."

Kumori raises an eyebrow and Itachi realises with a jolt she has learnt that from him. That is definitely an Uchiha raised eyebrow. It's bittersweet and fits her like a glove, and perhaps that is why he merely sighs.

"The boy's name is Kasuga Kaoru, and his father's aunt is still alive. She lives in the northwest city quadrant besides the market."

She nods, and then hesitates, looking around the room.

Itachi sighs again. "I'll take care of this. I'll meet you outside the gates in an hour.

The mission changes things.

Itachi retreats within himself in the following days.

This… is not what Akatsuki is supposed to be.

His training tells him they both have potential blackmail over the other. His mission carries on.

The mission above all.

But he had been ready to bend his mission directives for her. She is dangerous, and Itachi cannot afford this mistake.

He nearly burns the filched photo; her subtle smirk and his impressed amusement clear, before shoving it under a pile of books instead.

That night, his door remains locked.

He feels her pause in front of it after trying the handle. One second… two seconds, her footfalls are lost in the distance and Itachi looks away, strange guilt holding his insides hostage.

He loses himself inside his own head for two weeks, carrying out back-to-back solo missions as well as two with her, working in silence. Even his crows seem to be silently put out with him, probably bribed to her side through her constant treat-giving.

There is a tenseness between them Itachi cannot help but welcome, another weaponisable brick to add to the careful restructuring of his walls.

He pointedly ignores Kisame's grunt of disapproval in the communal space as he grills fish while Itachi stays pointedly perched behind his book.

It is for the best, his mission too dangerous for attachments of any sort.

The base is nearly empty that night.

The Snake Sannin has been in a mood and taken Kumori with him on an off-the-books mission. Itachi is pointedly not thinking about them and their incomprehensible relationship. She's been taught well – he assumes due to the Snake Sannin, even if his lesson plan seems to involve breaking bones.

His eyes flicker up as the object of his reluctant thoughts slides in fresh from her mission, then freezes as he takes in her state.

Kumori is drenched in dried blood, the ends of her loose hair clumped together, red liberally streaking her cheeks as she walks in, an absent look in her eyes. It is not the glaze of Taika, Itachi analyses, but it is not far off either.

Itachi and Kisame share a glance before the shark-like man raises his voice, "Where is your partner, Kumori?"

He doubts Kisame has an interest in the man who he dislikes intensely. But it seems as good a question as any.

Kumori doesn't turn her head as she ruffles through a pile of her books that have accumulated in her kitchen corner.

"He's harvesting."

Itachi has never been in Orochimaru's lab, but given his track record, he has a good idea what that means.

Kumori is out of the door before he can say anything.

Itachi is frozen, unable to commit to his resolution. It would be foolish to risk all the sacrifices he has made to be here for one insignificant girl.

He was right to cut whatever was growing between them.

Kisame flips his fish and grunts again.

Itachi stands up.

He won't break anything, he's just… gathering information. He doesn't rush as he makes his way to Orochimaru's quarters. His walls need to be ready to withstand the constant assault Kumori inspires.

He crosses the trap-free room he had first met Kumori in. With the piles of books and abandoned plate, it looks lived in, in a different way than his quarters do. Itachi realises what he sees are the footprints of a home, lived in and comfortable. And is that not natural when Kumori has never known another home?

But that is not quite accurate. She remembers something from Konoha, as hard as it is to accept.

He makes his way down a corridor to a simple wooden door. He can smell the blood behind the door, hear the breathing he now recognises instinctively as hers. He pauses, knowing she can sense him outside the door. He would rather speak to her before the Sannin appears and he has to explain his presence.

But no voice tells him to enter, even after he knocks tentatively on the door.

Itachi is unsure how far he wants to push this.

He wouldn't be surprised if she's booby-trapped the whole entrance. She can be impressively vicious with her enemies on missions.

After another minute of silence, Itachi breathes in deeply and pushes forward. It is unlocked.

His first glance around the room shows nothing unusual.

Kumori is cross-legged, back against the wall and eyes closed on a surprisingly comfortable looking bed. There is a large desk drowned in papers near the bed while the rest of the walls are covered with shelves, crammed with books of all sizes.

A second look at the object of his warring emotions ratchets up his concern. Kumori's eyes do not open at his unexpected presence.

There is an odd chill to the room, and Itachi's guard goes up as he notices tiny icicles forming on her eyelashes. Both of their breaths are misting over.

But she does not seem to be powering a jutsu or seal to create this environment.

"Kumori!" he says in alarm, as a powerful gust of wind comes from nowhere, papers ruffling and falling all around them in a tornado of white.

It is then that he notices the cover of a small book, half hidden under the bed covers – a truly eye-soring shade of orange. The one she had retrieved from the kitchen.

It's not one he recognises but turning over the ancient book with its pages yellowed over, he reads Animal Spirits and Summons.

Itachi swears.

Surely, she wouldn't be so foolish – Itachi thinks, then pauses, revises his opinion, yes, yes she would be this reckless.

They had briefly touched upon finding animal summons. Itachi had idly wondered if Orochimaru valued her enough to pass on his snake summons and had concluded the Sannin would not allow a weapon that could be used against him out of his own hands.

Kumori didn't seem very interested in the topic when it was raised, immediately jumping to the possibility of summoning weapons. But the evidence is damning.

Stupid girl.

Itachi remembers being intrigued by the possibility of finding your own summon but had quickly abandoned the idea. Very few ninjas, even highly skilled ones, returned from the journey alive, let alone successful. There was even an old clan tale of an Uchiha who had disappeared for decades only to return empty-handed, after his wife and children had all passed away, without having aged a day.

Itachi somehow, without quite noticing, ends up on the floor, kneeling by the bed, book clutched in his hands, eyes tense.

There is nothing he can do now, no way to follow her into those realms.

This is his fault.

Somehow, he knows this is his fault. He shouldn't have invited her closer only to push her away. He shouldn't have taught her anything. He shouldn't even have debated and argued and disagreed with her.

The minutes slip by as the night deepens.

She is the closest thing to a peer he's ever had. In another world, he could have been for her what S-Shisui had been for him.

He cannot lie to himself anymore.

Somehow, in the heart of the cesspit that is Akatsuki, raised by a traitor, surrounded by criminals, a little girl had grown up to be kind, to be curious and to own a peculiar set of morals.

She still… cared when Itachi had long excised his own reserve, one murder at a time.

Had never even questioned it, until a pint of a child had glared at him with disappointment in her eyes and a raised eyebrow.

What did it say about his village that Kumori had questioned the ideals of war and mercy in a way that no one in Konoha had ever done? What did it say about the village, that it raised Orochimarus and Itachis? That he had to come to Akatsuki and become a missing nin to find hope?

She was a girl born centuries too early. In an age that Itachi cannot imagine.

He thought he had been teaching her, sneaking in Konoha principles into their discussions. All the while she had been teaching him.

Of an impossible world.

Itachi wonders how she would have thrived in the sun if she weren't in the shadows with him.

Deep inside he wonders how he would have fared in Akatsuki without her quicksilver mind and the mercy she thinks she hides to distract him.

He knows, selfishly, secretly, he is glad she was kidnapped.

He had fleetingly thought of going to Shikaku Nara then but had resolved against it. Why would the Nara clan head help when he had done nothing while the Uchiha were slowly pushed to the outskirts of the village?

There is a distant wave of regret for the life Kumori will never live. She would have shone brightly in Konoha. A Nara with a drive who embodied the ideals Konoha pretended to uphold.

His focus sharpens as a scratch appears on her cheek, blood trickling down. He had read wounds in the Summons realm would show up on the person, but his fists clench helplessly anyways.

"I… promise… I promise… if she lives…" Itachi finishes the vow silently.

He had been stupid. But no more.

Kumori is not the reason his mission will succeed or fail. He will never forget the blood on his hands, the duty he has to fulfil – but why not snatch the little bits of happiness that have filtered through so unexpectedly?

Itachi has lost count of the hours, but he knows dawn is not far off when she stirs.

His breath catches as her eyelashes flutter open.

"Ita…chi?" She says, voice raspy with disuse as she takes in his position.

Itachi takes in a deep breath, a heady mix of relief and quickly-returning anger.

"You-" he stops himself, tries to lower his tone, hide the rawness coating his throat, retreats to his logic and releases the impulsive hold he has on her shoulders.

"Why would you ever try to risk reverse summoning yourself – have you any – do you know just how many nins – cleverer, stronger nins than you – never come back?"

Her eyes are round in surprise. Then her face tilts down, hair still clumped with blood half hiding her features.

There is a heartbeat of pause, and then she replies.

"Why would I not try?" There is a mocking inflection to her whisper. "What am I really risking, Uchiha Itachi?"

He is struck silent. Had he not asked himself the same question during those first few weeks riddled with nightmares?

She gives a humourless bark of laughter, features half hidden in shadows, "What is the point when even the clan killer himself, the murderer of blood and children, cannot bring himself to look at me?"

Itachi flinches at the epithet.

"I was wrong to–"

She ignores him, her voice musing, her eyes unseeing. "What is the point of anything really?"

Itachi feels dread creeping in.

"Am I to survive for a brother whose face I cannot remember anymore? For a family safer in my death than in my survival? For a mercenary village I have never loved?"

Her eyes flit towards him, and they are desolate hopelessly dark things. "Tell me Itachi, why?"

"…I…" he starts and stops, then abandons the sentence. He is not sure anymore. What role is he playing here? What can he say? What will ruin his cover after her revelations? What does he need to say to remove that dangerous glint in her eyes?

Instead, another question bursts forth from his lips, unplanned but lurking in his mind all the same.

"Why have you not escaped then? Why not make it back to Konoha?"

Her eyes startle.

She is not beholden to anyone, no unjustifiable crimes in her past and she is skilled enough to reach the village. Is she afraid of facing the people left behind? Does she think Konoha would risk losing an asset or hold her accountable for the Snake Sannin's crimes?

Kumori scrutinises him before she utters, half whisper, "You think I've never thought about leaving?

Hearing the stark honesty in her voice, Itachi realises the last walls she hides behind have finally crumbled.

"I have nearly escaped half a dozen times. But what would be the point?"

Itachi doesn't interrupt as the words unfold.

"What would be the point?" she repeats to herself softly. Her gaze is fierce when she looks up into his eyes, "The day I was kidnapped, it was the Nara heir that was being targeted – not the spare."

She swallows reflexively.

"I saw him. Before I was written off as a failed mission and handed over to Orochimaru-sensei, I saw his face."

Itachi no longer wastes time disbelieving the memories she's retelling with a bitter smile.

He remembers his half-thought conjectures and feels his own dread rising.

"Shimura Danzou remains as powerful as ever, and my presence would only be putting them in harm's way."

Itachi feels his own bitter memories threaten to engulf him. Danzou remains a frequent presence in his nightmares.

"But you –"

She shakes her head, somehow knowing his rebuttal already. She is regarding him with something akin to pity and Itachi does not like it.

"You should have burned all the bodies."


There is no hesitation in her eyes as she intones, "You left your entire clan's doujutsu defenceless that night."

Itachi's voice is hard. "What are you implying?" No one has ever asked about that night, some taboos still holding even on the outskirts of civilisation.

But Kumori's voice is harder, as she mercilessly elaborates.

"Love makes us all blind, but yours sealed my fate. What do you think happened to your clansmen's eyes?"

Itachi feels impossibly naïve as he stares at Kumori's weary face.

"Who do you think owns Uchiha Shisui's Kotoamatsukami?"

Itachi's mind is rushing too fast, and he cannot quite figure out the words to end this conversation.

"I don't know –"

Kumori interrupts him again. "Don't. You may want to deny the truth but don't lie to me."

Itachi gives a panicked glance around them, wondering how many ways they could be spied upon. This is not something he had anticipated, and he should be better at reacting, regrouping but there is something about her eyes that freeze the lies in his throat.

"The whole place is sealed up against humans, animals and plants – we're not being overheard if that's what's preventing you from admitting you're a mole for Konoha," Kumori says dully.

Plants? He briefly wonders before the rest of her words sink in. He cannot breathe.

He has just been made. How?

Does it even matter? He had planned for such eventualities – but they usually involved killing the source as quickly as possible before evacuating the premise and sabotaging the area. He does not know what his protocol should be here.

Indeed, did she not guess what his first plan of action would have to be?

With shock that is surely visible in his widening eyes, Itachi realises she does know.

It is in the triumph of her gaze, as she neatly pins him into place like a hapless butterfly, his mission parameters making him unable to follow any other path.

The mission.

The mission above all.

No. No.

He is at the edge of a precipice, desperately clinging to the side.

He will have to face the consequences if he is wrong. He is not one who takes such risks, calculating and reducing it has always been his way, and it has served him well.

But Itachi remembers the past few weeks of emptiness, and he feels a heady sense of recklessness, the one that characterises the girl in front of him.

He thinks of everything he has learnt about her, about himself, of her ideas and intelligence and goals. He thinks of a late night where she had mused what she would build in her ideal world, making plans with his interjections.

She could be an asset.

She could be a liability.

But beyond all that, she is a kindred soul.

Itachi lets go and jumps off the cliff.

He feels strangely weightless as he slices his thumb and activates the invisible blood seal on his arm. It had only been possible based on the metrics she had given him a while ago, only able to be activated by blood and intent. It is the most secure thing he owns.

A puff of smoke and the treasured photograph slips into his fingers along with the two silver hoops.

He gently takes Kumori's hand and puts the photograph into her hands. He has long memorised it even without the use of his cursed eyes, so he represses the reflexive twinge at parting from it.

Kumori takes it wordlessly and stares at it, hungrily taking it in.

It had been the birth of the Hokage's grandson, and all the clan heads had been invited to the party. In the photo S-Sasuke is adorably churlish, pouting at a toy stolen by Tsume's son. The little Hyuga girl is watching in the background half hidden by her mother.

But what makes Kumori's breath catch is the little boy yawning behind Sasuke, hair spiky and sleepy expression on his face as he props himself against the Akimichi heir. Her finger traces the face.

"He looks like me," she whispers.

There is indeed a strong resemblance despite the boy's sweet expression showcasing his innocence to any observer. Kumori's innocence had been ripped away a long time ago.

"This. This is the face of your brother. This is what you survive for. This is the point. This is what you fight and lie and murder for," he says firmly, his truth in every word.

He takes her other hand, dried blood slowly flaking off.

"You let these hands be drenched in blood for a reason. This reason. You protect him from the monsters."

Kumori is staring at him like she has never seen him before.

"What if I become the monster?" She says in her quietest whisper, lips barely moving.

"Then we'll be monsters together. Protecting the ones we love." He infuses as much certainty as he can in his voice.

Finally, he drops the silver earrings into her hands and closes her fingers over it. A sense of rightness washes over him. She is a worthy inheritor.

"These are Uchiha Shisui's earrings," he says softly.

She stares at him, one hand clutching the photo, the other around the precious silver and eyes wider than he's ever seen them.

"He also saw the bigger picture, but like you, he didn't forget the little things that keep us human." He pauses, then allows himself to continue, "I forgot you see... that life exists beyond the mission. That I can protect more than those that I have vowed to. You reminded me there is still good that comes out of Konoha at a time I had lost my faith."

"Itachi…" she says helplessly.

"Keep them. As a reminder." He smiles lightly and adds, "After all, it is Nara tradition to give a pair after you become a genin, so this is merely a very late gift."

He finishes, "Remember, whatever else happens, you were born Nara, a clan that existed in the shadows long before Konoha became a village."

Itachi is nearly thrown backwards as the girl has both her arms around his middle. She is awful at it, pressing too hard with bony shoulders jutting in but he hesitantly places his own around her.

She can at least blame a lack of hugs for how bad she is at it.

The next day Itachi enters the kitchen to see Kumori perched on a stool with a piece of paper and pen, enthusiastically explaining to Kisame how he can beat Kakuzu at Shogi, earrings firmly fixed to both ears.

All three seem to have wordlessly agreed not to mention the night before, and Itachi spends his morning finding counter moves to all of Kumori's moves while Kisame eggs her on.

There is a lightness to her mood, and she easily teases the both of them, even getting Kisame agree to teach her the water jutsu she's been mooning over for the past three weeks.

By the time Konan comes in, there is a full spread for breakfast, and she pauses, silent question evident in the tilt of her head.

Itachi blames Kisame who does not know how to truly cook fish whatever his moniker and Kumori who had slyly encouraged both by asking who could make the best breakfast.

Kumori goes silent, small smile dying off at Konan's presence. Itachi inwardly sighs as the camaraderie ends and reality sinks in, Kakuzu entering behind her and grunting before falling on the food like a starving man.

Itachi tries to breach the subject of the blue-haired nin later in the week as they are both comfortably ensconced in his rooms, Kumori scratching away at paper while Itachi half reads a book on jutsu, mind flitting between thoughts.

Konan for all her faults – being a mass murderer in a group of merciless mercenaries for one – is surprisingly level-headed. But even with Itachi as the comparison, she fails badly at communicating.

It is obvious she has a soft spot for Kumori. Itachi had noticed it within his first month and had carefully noted it as a potential weakness to exploit.

But Konan's way of expressing herself was apparently leaving flowers in Kumori's room.

The little Nara explains all this in a grieved tone, notes forgotten for a moment as she explains the seal she had created around her room as a defence against Konan's obscure intentions.

Itachi decides not to comment even as his amusement threatens to show on his face.

Of course, Kumori had felt threatened and therefore created an unbreakable seal (as much as he'd dared test it when she had offered to do the same to his room) to protect herself from paper flowers.

"What are you working on now? It doesn't look like seals," he asks instead, graciously moving the subject to calmer waters.

Instead, he watches in fascination, as Kumori blushes red.

"I- nothing."

Itachi feels comfortable enough to steal her notebook in a quick switch. If it were really something she didn't want him to read, it would be in that code he still hasn't managed to break.

"Itachi – no – give that back," she says half-heartedly.

But Itachi doesn't answer, forehead creased.

It definitely isn't sealing notes.

"You wrote this?"

She is blushing even harder, eyes vulnerable.

His eyes are skimming over the page with interest. The prose is lyrical and somewhat foreign to the established norms of fiction he's seen before.

He remembers the range of plain books he had seen above her desk that looked identical to these ones.

"It's… a hobby. When I can't focus on learning," she says quietly, as if ashamed of her pastime.

Itachi does not use compliments because she would only mistrust those, but he hums before asking, "May I have the honour of reading this."

Kumori pauses, eyes internally debating something before she gives a jerky nod.

He was impressed when he had seen the thick tomes painstakingly handwritten even if slightly bewildered by how many there were, indicating just how young Kumori was when she started.

Indeed the one he starts with shows slightly shakier, childish calligraphy. The ideas interspersed with imagination are, however, decidedly not childish.

It is like nothing he had ever read before, and yet it speaks to him, with endearing characters in a fantastical world, with problems so foreign they are entertaining.

He is gripped by the developing storylines even if Seberusu Suneipu Kyōju makes him slightly uncomfortable. He has to close the book and remind himself Kumori is not a seer when Seberusu dies.

Every time he believes he understands Kumori's psyche, she unbalances him, showing him things he had never considered or imagined.

It takes him a few weeks to get through all her writings which vary from worlds filled with fantastical creatures to a treatise about winning a war. He can definitely see Orochimaru's influence as he reads rule number 45, 'One may not bribe the enemy nin's snakes to attack their master as it is only likely to result in said master's extreme and unreasonable anger.'

His favourites are the fairytales, filled with whimsy and so different from the few he had heard in his childhood. Here monsters are defeated, and the characters live happily ever after, learning honesty, forthrightness and goodness win the day.

Utter lies, of course, but comforting someone has bothered to put the lies to paper.

He doesn't realise he has opinions on the story until he's on his second read of the small civilian who has to destroy a cursed ring in a Mountain of Doom and he murmurs something loud enough for Kumori to hear.

The girl looks up, a pen behind one ear, ink dotting both cheeks and sitting crossed-legs amidst all her papers.

A week ago they had acquired a new member. A missing nin from Yugakure. Itachi had been glad she had not been on the mission when the nin had managed to destroy one of Kakuzu's hearts and fight Konan to a near standstill.

Itachi had watched warily as Pein offered Hidan a place in Akatsuki, but it is nothing compared to how Kumori pales at her first glimpse of the nin. He resolves to never leave her alone in his presence. The man is annoyingly present at the base, shadowing Kakuzu and switching between religious fervour and psychosis with disturbing ease.

Meanwhile, Kumori had immediately camped out in his rooms, feverishly absorbed by sealing work while absentmindedly petting Shiro who was growing alarmingly big but had settled in an uneasy peace with his food provider.

Itachi who keeps his quarters clean with exact precision had stared at his invaded space mournfully, crumpled paper dotting the carpet and covering every seating place.

His role appeared to be forcing food on her when she got lost in her own head for too long.

Yesterday Itachi had gone on a short resupplying trip – the Akatsuki base was getting increasingly crowded – and he had come back to Kumori in the exact same position, crouched over a scroll, writing frantically.

He wonders if it is an acquired behaviour, her version of Orochimaru's obsession applied to seals and healing and whatever else strikes her interest at that particular moment. He knows she is taking advantage of Orochimaru's absence (who is officially on a trip to contact his spy network) to focus less on her taijutsu, so he leaves her to it, answers whatever esoteric questions she asks out loud and indulges in rereading her stories.

She's been in her own world for so many hours, her gaze startles him when he murmurs his comment, and she turns her head towards him.

"Furodo doesn't have to be a powerful nin to destroy the ring. Civilians can achieve great things too when given the opportunity," she says, thoughtful.

Itachi doesn't disagree, but he can't think of anything great he's seen them accomplish either and she must read the thoughts on his face.

"You'll see, one day, you might be surprised."

"Do you plan to publish these?" he asks, unconvinced but unwilling to have the old discussion again.

Kumori shakes her head. "Not really, it was never for anyone else to read."

"Why not?" Itachi is ready to bet the unusualness of the themes and cadence of the stories would be popular. It would be another source of income, making her less reliant on the Snake Sannin.

Kumori stops twirling her pen in her fingers and silence stretches for so long Itachi thinks she doesn't mean to answer, only for her to speak.

"My father used to read me stories."

Itachi stills. Neither of them ever really share anything about then. Her voice is tentative, even as her words unfold.

"I can't remember his face, but I remember that he used to read my brother and I stories," she says. "It's …comforting to write my own."

Itachi does not say anything as she fixes him with such old eyes.

"But I think it hurts less… if you don't remember," she says, wistful.

They lapse into silence before Kumori visibly rallies, and her eyes crease into a small smile. "You obviously have strong feelings about Furodo. I look forward to reading your notes about it."

He wants to shake his head, ready to scoff a denial but stops and tilts his head. He would actually like to correct some of her copies. It could be his… hobby – how long has it been since he'd done something so simple? – so he merely hums thoughtfully.

It will give him a break from all his scheming.

Somehow, in between a hundred smaller conversations they have, around mission camp fires and the large kitchen table, Itachi has come up with a Plan.

It is not a perfect plan by any means but he has long learned to prepare strategies before the storm breaks, and the calm disappears.

He is constantly monitoring Akatsuki, but it is Orochimaru who he keeps the closest eye on. He may not be the most powerful of the missing nin, but he is the most dangerous man for Itachi.

The only one who knew Itachi before Akatsuki. The one who still owns Kumori.

He is cautious about assuming he understands the… bond that holds the two together. There is something there, beyond the casual cruelty the Snake Sannin deals regularly, beyond the broken bones, the orders, and the missions he gives her, that he hasn't been able to pierce.

Kumori can be so clear-eyed about the people she is growing up around but they have never discussed the Snake Sannin, and as much as he trusts her with his life, he is unwilling to risk the bonds on the Snake Sannin.

So he plans and watches and finally decides on the easiest course of action.

Killing Orochimaru.

Well, it is a little more complex.

If Itachi wants to continue to spy on Akatsuki, he first needs to build up his network and eliminate the Snake Sannin's. Pein will not like losing one of his spymasters.

Once that is done, he can go on to gleefully murder the Snake Sannin. It would even benefit his own mission.

Orochimaru is too dangerous to let live, it would only harm Konoha in the long run.

Only then could he acquire his top operatives, kill the ones who can't be ordered and send Kumori off, officially as a spy, an informant or anything else that can free her from Akatsuki.

She doesn't have to be in Konoha for her surroundings to be better than this.

Kumori, of course, notices his absences in the following week, but for once, the Snake Sannin is useful, keeping her busy training his other recruits.

There is a general shake-up in their ranks as Itachi is called to once again swell their ranks. He beats the blonde bomb maker with ease, barely a twinge of pity at the lack of real choice offered to the defector of Iwagakure. The base seems to get impossibly crowded with the annoying blonde Deidara going around crowing about his art.

Akatsuki members are not required to live at the base, but the manner of his induction within the group has Pein wanting to keep a closer eye on Deidara.

Itachi carefully ignores his irritation when he sees him watching Kumori with a gleam in his eye.

Kisame is the culprit, letting it slip that the girl is good at explosions.

Kumori doesn't seem to treat him with the same caution she treats Hidan with either, scoffing at Deidara's claims of powerful explosions and blithely needling him after his spectacular losses at the weekly poker game.

The poker games were instated by Kisame out of sheer boredom and now regularly consists of the shark-like man, Itachi, Konan and Kakuzu. The other members rarely pass by the base, but Itachi had played against Daibutsu (before Kakuzu killed his partner, again) and the poker games were a good way to solidify his infiltration into Akatsuki.

Even the Snake Sannin had played a few hands in the past.

Sometimes… in the middle of a game, when Kakuzu is accusing him of cheating and Kisame smirks at his losses, Itachi can – for a split second – imagine he is only on a mission with fellow ANBU, playing deep into the night during a particularly boring rotation. A flicker of sound and he is back, with only Kumori's watchful gaze on him, looking like… she knows exactly where he was.

Kumori never plays with them, but often curls up next to the fire with Shiro, pretending to read a book. She had, of course, insisted Itachi teach her how to cheat at poker as recompense after he unwisely accepted a bet over her ability to solve a resupplying problem.

When she had come in a few days later, proudly showing the seal she wanted to paint inside his mouth, the snow lion looked like he was laughing at him.

The fully adult Shiro now comes and goes as he pleases, often only showing up to be fed snacks by hands that are not his official master's. He seems supremely uninterested in the Akatsuki members in his surroundings, which is the only reason Kumori is able to convince Konan to allow Shiro on the base. Her doe-eyed pleading look as she hugs the hulking snow lion also helps.

He is snapped back to the poker game as Kumori pipes up.

"It's not Deidara-kun's fault he's so bad Kisame-san, poker is just not artistic enough for him."

"Who do you think you are to call me kun, pipsqueak?" Deidara calls out.

Kisame chuckles and Itachi raises a fraction of an eyebrow in question, but she ignores him as she snaps her book shut and saunters to the kitchen table.

"Perhaps Deidara-kun exaggerates his art skills the way he does his poker," she wonders out loud.

"No way, my explosions are works of art – you have no appreciation for true skill –"

"Prove it then Dei-da-ra-kun," Kumori replies sweetly.

Itachi is getting flashbacks. This isn't good. He's wondering if he should step in.

Then again it's not like he is actually invested in Deidara's survival.

"What?" Deidara looks taken aback.

"I bet you I can beat your explosions with my explosions!" Kumori says airily.

"Impossible!" Deidara fires back, standing up. "But – wait – I can't – Pein said no fighting."

Pein had indeed wisely banned fighting after the unfortunate death of Daibutsu who had officially died in a friendly spar according to Kisame. Kisame had also been sharpening Samehada fondly as he had said it, so Itachi had not pushed.

"Pein said no fighting between Akatsuki and I'm not Akatsuki."

"Kumori," Itachi says wearily.

"What? Friendly spar, I promise."

"So what are the stakes," asks Kisame, getting to the heart of the matter.

"Wait, I didn't say I agreed to fight a little girl," Deidara squawks.

Kumori gives him a look, and Itachi is not surprised it has Deidara slamming a hand on the table, cards flying everywhere while Kakuzu grunts in annoyance.

"Fine. But when I win, I want double the amount I lost today!"

Itachi watches as Kumori merely raises an eyebrow, "And when I win, you need to answer questions about your explosive clay for an hour."

It's always nice to see her box someone else in a corner, Itachi thinks fondly. Even if Deidara doesn't make it very difficult.

The blonde ninja only scoffs, and Itachi sighs as they all troop outside into the starlit night. Their base is in the middle of a desert, and they don't have to walk far to find a suitable arena.

The two don't waste a second as Deidara takes to the air while Kumori's shadows extend. He sees she has mastered the Nara books he had brought her. It had been a pain to infiltrate the village again during his last mission in the Land of Fire.

He hadn't managed to break into the Nara library without raising the alarms, but a few books in some clan members' houses were easy game. The widened eyes she had graced him with had been well worth the effort.

He sees Deidara launching explosion after explosion without success until she is suddenly behind him, engaging in taijutsu even as a touch brings his clay mount to explode in a spectacular fashion. There are literally coloured fireworks.

Kakuzu is trying to interest Kisame in a bet, but the latter only grunts as he nibbles on pocky. Itachi is not even going to ask where he smuggled those from.

He is not worried for Kumori, he's seen her fight enough to know she is safe.

Besides, he is watching.

But his muscles tense as Pein and Konan appear, as if on a leisurely stroll even though they must have done some rapid Shunshin to get here in time after hearing about this.

He watches, hands hidden and tense, as the explosions in the air illuminate the thoughtful expression on Konan's face.

This isn't good. Of course Kumori is the one careening through his slowly constructed Plan. He will not have her inducted into Akatsuki, as another failure on his conscience, if he can help it.

He watches Kumori's triumphant expression a few minutes later (Deidara an unconscious heap behind her) and realises he must accelerate his plot.

In the end, most of his strategies for plausible deniability are useless because Orochimaru conveniently attacks him.

Itachi is mildly surprised at the laziness of the henge the other missing nin takes. Kumori is on a supply run, and it is unlikely Orochimaru would have sent her on a mission in the Land of Fire anyways.

"Fufufu… She is good at disarming people, is she not? When did you guess?" Orochimaru asks, thankfully letting Kumori's features slip to show his own serpentine ones as Itachi incinerates his snake.

"Shiro ignored you at the base," Itachi replies dryly before they're crossing swords again.

The fight is brutal and short.

Itachi has been planning this for months, and Orochimaru does not know as much about the Sharingan as he thinks he does.

He could have done without the Snake Sannin rhapsodising over his eyes, acquiring a few wounds or having Orochimaru injured and escaping rather than dead but by that point, Itachi has acquired a whole team of ANBU on his tail.

It is not the time to be seen by Konoha, and he prioritises losing his trail. This is the end of the Snake Sannin, and Itachi can finish him at the base.

He is not limping when he makes it back three days later, but it is a near thing. Perhaps he has pushed himself too hard.

Somehow, he is not surprised to find her in his rooms.

Kumori stands up from where she is petting Shiro in the growing darkness. Her movements betray nervous energy, but she does not ask him any questions as she raises a hand of green chakra to his face.

Huh, his eye is bleeding. He had not noticed.

There is a lot to put into place, including his version of events to Pein. Although considering Kisame's comment on his arrival, it seems the snake had not waited to meet him again.

It would have been an even shorter fight against the now one-handed nin.

They do not speak as she goes over his cuts and Itachi will later blame his exhaustion for not noticing the rising tension in the room.

"Itachi…" she starts, and he finally notices her eyes… her eyes are sad.

Everything clicks into place, and he is snapped out of his thoughts.

"You are leaving." It is not a question, and he has a hard time recognising his voice.

She does not speak, but her chakra flares and she gives a small nod.

It is the expression on her face, the sad acceptance that makes Itachi stand up. Her hand is roughly pushed aside, and he rounds on her, suddenly incandescently furious in a way he cannot remember ever being.


Not her. He has sacrificed much for his village, nearly everything, but she is not part of the bargain. He is supposed to be able to keep her.

This small grasp of happiness he never expected to find.

"You must have known this day was coming," she finally speaks.

Itachi glares at her, eyes spinning red and for the first time in years, she flinches when looking at him.

"Why would you do this?"

"It's for the best."

Itachi scoffs.

Nothing the Snake Sannin does is for the best.

"He's going to form a village in the Land of Sound," she explains, speaking fast as if it will make what she says more palatable. "I'll be able to help people, I'll be allowed to try out my ideas."

"And you trust the snake?" He fires back?

She flinches again. "You don't know him."

"I know why he was chased out of Konoha," he fires back.

His voice softens, "Just let the Snake go. Don't follow. You don't owe him anything."

"It was never about owing," Kumori replies just as softly.

"Then stay. You don't have to go back to Konoha. You don't owe them anything either."

"Itachi…" she stops, grasps his hand to stop his pacing.

"You don't owe him anything," he repeats, softly, as the hand she isn't holding rises of its own accord to trace the side of her face. His eyes are blood red, and he knows he'll remember the expression in her eyes for however long he survives.

It is deep and dark and unfathomable in its sadness.

She grasps the hand holding her face as she says slowly.

"There are storm clouds approaching, and I cannot see them from here." She whispers, "I have done all I can, but I need to protect them."

"Protect who?" he says, fingers clutching uselessly. She is slipping like shadows before sunlight.

"My brother. My family. Anyone. Everyone. The most effective shield I can be is by Orochimaru's side."

Itachi feels the frustrated rage rising again. That is not what he meant for her to take from him. What can she do to stop the Snake Sannin's worse impulses?

He gives a bitter laugh.

The words slip out, uncontrolled: "Do you mean the brother who doesn't know you exist or the family that never looked for you?"

Her eyes widen, and a soft noise escapes her throat. Direct hit. Itachi has always been good at those.

"Better he doesn't remember me than he fears and loathes," she whispers, voice low, and it is his turn to flinch. She stands up, and Itachi has never seen her cry, but her eyes are wet and distantly, he hears Shiro whining in the background.

"At least my brother isn't a ball of bitterness, destined to mental trauma by killing me because I'm too dramatic to just commit suicide for all the blood of the innocents on my hands."

She has learnt to cut to the bone too, and he doesn't even have time to question her knowledge as she tears her hand from his grasp and leaves him facing her back.

"You could have been… so much more, Itachi," he hears her low murmur as if from far away.

There is something lodged deep in his throat, and Itachi can only remain locked in silence as she slips away.

He sees her shadow disappear from the corner of his eyes, but he is the one left in the dark.

Would love to hear ideas for this verse. I'm tempted to continue and write more Oto from a civilian POV this time, which I've never done.