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Yet, Mad I am Not

Chapter Text

When Itachi woke up, he was chained to a wall.

This confused Itachi.

Less because he was chained to a wall (although that was not exactly something Itachi had much experience with, funny thing, being extremely good at being a ninja tended to limit one’s experience with being detained) and more because he had woken up.

The last thing he remembered before waking up had been Sasuke’s face, feeling himself succumb to chakra exhaustion and the disease that had been slowly eating him away for years. He remembered asking his little brother to forgive him.

He also remembered being somewhat disappointed that he was literally going to drop dead from a terminal illness rather than going out the way he had wanted, with Sasuke gaining them both some closure by killing the man who had killed their parents, but really, maybe it was better this way. At least he had managed to do his foolish little brother one last favour by saving him from the Orochimaru parasite that he had managed to pick up in his quest to become more powerful.

The problem, however, Itachi mused to himself as he tested the give of the manacles around his wrists, was that he had been pretty reasonably sure that that was his last act. After all, he had been in extreme chakra deprivation, he had been coughing up blood, blood had been coming out of his eyesockets around his sharingan, oh, and that electrical attack… Kirin, it seemed that Sasuke and he shared a taste for grandiose names for their original jutsu… catching the edge of that had not been fun either.

So Itachi felt that he had pretty good reason to assume that he should be dead.

Oddly, he actually felt comparatively pretty good.

Sure, he was chained to a wall. That was… annoying.

But otherwise? He could see more clearly than he had been able to for ages. He was hungry, thirsty, and felt like someone had been using him as a punching bag recently, and was a little low on chakra… but compared to how he should be feeling? How he had been feeling for the last couple of months?

This was highly suspicious.

Itachi eyeballed his manacles, and decided that he could probably slip out of them if he dislocated both of his thumbs. That would be irritating, as it would limit him in the number of jutsu he could do, but Itachi thought that so long as he managed to not run into any S-ranked nin he would probably be fine to get out of here.

Wherever the hell “here” was…

No matter. Itachi might not be overly used to being chained to walls specifically, but exfiltrating unfamiliar dungeons made him nostalgic for back in the old days when he had been ANBU. Amazing what one could find nostalgic in retrospect. Itachi supposed that it said nothing good about his life that some of his happiest moments as a child had been when he had been sneaking out of enemy strongholds full of people who would more than happily torture and kill him and pluck out his eyes...

Itachi was just about to proceed with his plan of dislocating his thumbs when he heard a noise outside the cell door.

The door opened, and a rather large shinobi wearing a Sound hitaiate walked in.

“Awake, are you? Tougher than I thought you were, Konoha, I thought for sure after that last session that you’d had it for good.”

He sneered at Itachi, and pressed a lever, that caused whatever mechanism that was holding the chain of the manacles over his head was released. Itachi considered the fact that he was still cuffed, but now had about a half-metre of loose chain between his wrists.

Well, as much as he always questioned good luck when it occurred to him (just in case it was a trap, Itachi hadn’t gained his S-ranking by being complacent) sometimes Itachi had to remind himself to never underestimate the stupidity of his enemy.

It was the work of seconds to wrap the chain around the Sound-nin’s neck and to then use it to silently choke him to unconsciousness. Itachi considered holding on a bit longer, to kill him, and then did so. It didn’t pay to leave live enemies behind oneself. They tended to try back-stabbing, and dodging preventable attempts on his life was an irritation that Itachi tended to avoid when he could.

Civilians had a saying, that a stitch in time saved nine.

Ninja had a saying that one didn’t have to practice vigilance against dead enemies.

Itachi liked the second saying better. It spoke to him.

Dropping the corpse, Itachi proceeded to loot it for weapons and useful equipment. Itachi was irritated to note that not only were the corpse’s boots far too big for him (Itachi was wearing a baggy grey jumpsuit and no shoes) but the corpse was not carrying the key to his cuffs. Still, he was able to leave the cell now, and he could probably get out faster if he was able to use jutsu, so he decided to just put up with the chain for now, and leave his thumbs intact.

Besides, as he had just displayed, the chain made a useful weapon, in a pinch.

Not that there were many things that Itachi couldn’t use as a weapon, come to think of it, because he was nothing if not creative, (civilians might play “I spy” when bored, but most ninja of Itachi’s acquaintance barring Tobi had always preferred, “Death by teacup”, in which the winner was the one who could come up with the best way of killing someone with a random object,) but Itachi decided that was beside the point.

Having acquired a brace of kunai, some brass knuckles and some chakra pills from his enemy’s corpse, Itachi left the cell and moved for the exit. He assumed he was underground, going by the smell and ambient light levels, so he went looking for a set of stairs. He killed everyone he encountered along the way, generally before they had time to do more than blink in surprise at him.

Well a few gave him some minimal trouble, but Itachi was almost starting to feel offended.

Did none of them know who he was? Did they never leave this dungeon? Was that what rock they’d been living under?

And what the hell was he doing in a Sound stronghold? Itachi had thought that they had mostly disbanded after Sasuke killed Orochimaru’s last host-body.

Ah well. It wouldn’t be the first time his intel had been wrong.

Finally, Itachi felt fresh air on his face.

Unfortunately that fresh air was from the door to the outside opening, and seven shinobi walking in.

Fortunately, two of them looked Itachi right in the eyes.

He cast a quick genjutsu on the fly to make them think that they were surrounded by enemies, tossed his remaining kunai into the throats of two others, and ducked behind a handy pillar.

A bare minute later, and the two shinobi he had turned were both dead, but only one of the original seven was left standing, and he was bleeding from a rather deep belly-wound.

Itachi picked up a handy rock from the ground and nailed the shinobi in the temple with it. He collapsed.

Itachi, knowing he had very little time, looted the cleanest-looking jacket that looked like it would fit him, retrieved his stolen kunai and added a few to a pouch he had lifted from one of the shinobi, and picked up a tanto that was of at least serviceable quality.

One of the shinobi looked to be about his size in sandals. Itachi was pleased to find that the sandals were indeed about the right size, and the shinobi did not have athlete’s foot.

One of the other dead shinobi even had a pack with some travel rations still left in it. Itachi took this too.

Much better.

Itachi stepped outside, not bothering to pause to breathe in the fresh air, although he did enjoy being outside the dingy compound.

His hands were still bound with the chain, but otherwise, things were looking up.

 

Chapter Text

….

Itachi decided to test out his pilfered sandals by putting some distance in between himself and the Sound stronghold, and so did so. Judging by the terrain he was in Ta no Kuni.

How the hell had he got all the way over here?

No matter. First things first, Itachi needed to find a blacksmith who could be threatened or cajoled (Itachi wasn’t all that picky) into removing Itachi’s manacles. If he was where he thought he was, there was a little village a few clicks to the south. It was in the direction of Konoha, but Itachi decided that was where he wanted to go, anyway. After all, Konoha tended to be interested in Sasuke’s actions, and so Itachi thought it was a good place to start to find out what his foolish little brother was up to.

Also, Itachi supposed he should probably catch up with the current Hokage. If only to have words with her about letting Sasuke out unsupervised where he could be corrupted by evil snake-summoners. Itachi had yet to voice his displeasure about that to anyone from Konoha barring Naruto, and Naruto had been just as displeased about the whole thing as Itachi. Itachi was glad that Sasuke seemed to have good taste in friends, even if he had the people skills of a rabid porcupine.

It occurred to Itachi (and not for the first time) that the plan he had come up with when he was thirteen, to make Sasuke tough and strong and able to take revenge for their clan was a stupid one. By the time Itachi had met Sasuke again though, and had had enough time to grow a little more in experience, it had been too late. The trauma had turned Sasuke hard, like Itachi had wanted, but also brittle. The brittleness was what had allowed Orochimaru in, and what had caused Sasuke to run away from anything that might have given him any happiness.

Itachi considered that if he had a chance to redo things, he would not put Sasuke in a genjutsu that made him watch the clan die at Itachi’s hands over and over. He would still encourage his brother’s homicidal impulses (after all, homicidal impulses could be very useful for shinobi), but he would take care to direct them somewhere more useful than at himself. Telling Sasuke that there was a conspiracy that Itachi would later explain would have been a whole lot smarter than attempting reverse psychology.

As self-destructive as Itachi had been feeling for the past eight or so years, attempting to use Sasuke as the tool of his suicide had been… unkind. He resolved that since he was feeling a good bit better, he would track down Naruto and offer to help him track down Sasuke and keep him in Konoha. Then Itachi would… do something. Probably offer to help kill the Akatsuki. Though he would give Kisame at least a running head start. He owed the fishy-looking man that much. In a group full of fanatics, rabid crazies, psychopaths and general sadists, Kisame at least had been a reliable partner, who had treated Itachi with professional courtesy.

Itachi did appreciate that, but if ordered by Konoha, he would not hesitate to kill him. He had killed his own parents for Konoha. A mere colleague was nothing compared to that.

Such were Itachi’s thoughts as he travelled through the forest. Itachi found himself stumbling a little, which was confusing. It was as though his legs had been shortened by a few centimetres. Itachi could think of no rational explanation for this sensation, and so assumed there wasn’t one. Maybe he was just more tired than he felt.

He decided that once he got free of the chains, he would go to Konoha. It was about time that he talked to the Godaime in person. Sandaime should have left her files that would tell her about him, but Itachi felt that the personal touch would help his case in ensuring that she knew his price for providing all of the intel about Akatsuki was still Sasuke’s continued well-being and assured place in Konoha.

A bare half-hour after Itachi had made this decision, he detected chakra signatures.

Itachi sighed. He was really not in the mood for this.

He continued striding through the forest as though oblivious, but to his surprise, the ninja he detected did not attempt to ambush him.

Instead, Hatake Kakashi lazily walked out from behind a tree.

“Yo,” Kakashi said. “Good to see you made it out, Itachi.”

Itachi blinked. Kakashi sounded sincere.

How odd.

“Are you injured?” Kakashi asked him.

Itachi frowned internally (externally, his face was a bland mask, he was a professional, after all).

They might both be loyal to Konoha, but the last time they had met, Kakashi had done his best to kill him. However, Kakashi was currently questioning him like he was a comrade. Itachi was naturally suspicious. Had Tsunade decided to inform Kakashi about his real role? Was Kakashi trying to manipulate him?

If so, he was going about it from a somewhat bizarre angle.

Still, Kakakashi was generally known for being good at what he did. Not as good as Itachi, since Itachi had beaten him with Tsukiyomi that one time, but then, Itachi’s grieving process involved a whole lot less time spent sitting next to cenotaphs talking to ghosts, and a lot more killing anyone who got in his way.

So Itachi figured he probably should cut Kakashi some slack, even though he hadn’t been able to keep Sasuke in the vill- oh wait no, no slack to give. Itachi was still pretty upset about that.

“Where’s Sasuke?” Itachi asked.

Kakashi eye-smiled. “Your baby brother is fine. I had to get Naruto and Sakura to practically sit on him to stop him from coming.”

Itachi almost blinked.

“He’s in the village?”

Kakashi’s expressions were difficult to read with the mask, but a long time ago, Kakashi had been the captain of Itachi’s ANBU squad. Because of that, Itachi could read the rising concern in Kakashi’s shoulders. When everyone was wearing masks, being able to tell the more subtle signs of body language became an important survival skill.

Concern for Itachi’s wellbeing? Or that Itachi was asking about Sasuke?

“I’m glad,” was all Itachi said.

There was a slight pause, and then the sources of the other two chakra signatures stepped forward.

This time Itachi did blink.

“Kai!”

One of the hallucinations inclined his head, obviously worried.

“You alright there baby cous?”

Itachi gritted his teeth, and tried again to dispel the obvious genjutsu.

“Kai!”

“Why do you think this is a genjutsu?” came the calm voice of the other hallucination.

Itachi gave up on attempting to dispel, and decided to address the probable caster.

“Uchiha Madara, huh. I had hoped to be finally free of you,” he said. There was only one person who could conceivably make genjutsu work on Itachi at this point, so it was not hard to figure out the most likely culprit.

The hallucination who looked suspiciously like his deceased cousin Obito blinked.

“Wait, Uchiha Madara from the founding of Konoha Madara?” he asked incredulously.

“What is the point of this, Madara?” Itachi demanded dully, ignoring the figment of Madara’s imagination.

“What is the point of what?” Kakashi, or Itachi supposed “Kakashi”, asked calmly.

“Trapping me in this genjutsu and showing me dead people. Who’s next, Shisui?” Itachi shook his head and laughed darkly. Maybe he owed Madara thanks after all. He didn’t remember his cousin Obito well, since Itachi had only been 4 when he had died. It was almost… nice to see what the older cousin who had always been up for a game would have looked like. Itachi noted distantly that Madara had taken the effort to include significant scarring on one side of Obito’s face, including a dark-orange eye-patch covering where the eye that he had given to Kakashi had been. Itachi supposed that attention to detail like that was part of what had allowed Madara to become so strong.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Madara no doubt was attempting some form of elaborate manipulation, Itachi might even be somewhat grateful.

He wasn’t one hundred percent sure why Madara had included Rin though. Itachi had met her only the once… maybe. His Aunt Fumiko had kept Obito’s team photo, which was the only reason why he even remembered what she might have looked like.

The (three, Itachi supposed, since if the other two were part of the genjutsu, then so must Kakashi be) hallucinations looked at him oddly.

“…Itachi, I’m sorry we didn’t come fast enough. What would I have to do to prove that I’m me?” the Obito-hallucination asked.

Hallucinations trying to prove that they were real. Now Itachi’s day was complete. Well, maybe if he played along Madara would tip his hand.

“What is Aunt Fumiko’s favourite flower?” Itachi asked.

Obito’s brow squinched. “Uhhhhhh…”

Kakashi had an expression that Itachi interpreted as, “If only this wasn’t so serious I would be rolling my eyes right now.” Itachi was surprised that Madara had at some point apparently paid enough attention to Kakashi to know what that expression looked like.

“Itachi,” said Kakashi in a serious tone. “On your third mission on my team you went AWOL. I tracked you down and found you buying a festival mask for Sasuke’s birthday.”

Itachi almost blinked. No one knew about that. Kakashi had talked him out of the festival mask, because he had thought that it would give away where the mission had been. Itachi had also lucked out, because for some reason Kakashi had decided not to tell on him, saying that Itachi had been doing reconnaissance when their other team-mates looked askance at their youngest member by almost a decade. When Itachi had asked Kakashi about it later, Kakashi had muttered something about “child prodigy solidarity” and ruffled his hair, telling him that if he ever did it again Kakashi would tell their team-mates that Itachi still wet the bed.

“What mask was I intending on buying?” was all Itachi said.

“A cat,” Kakashi said in bland tones. “And you ended up getting him a tomato plant instead, which didn’t make sense to me until years later.”

This time, Itachi did blink.

“…Either Madara’s spyring is incredibly better than expected, or you’re really Hatake Kakashi,” Itachi admitted. He paused. “But it is more likely that Madara was just watching me for longer than I thought.”

“Why?” Kakashi asked him.

Itachi shrugged. “Because Obito has been dead since I was 4. A Rock nin caught him in a landslide. And you killed Rin.”

Kakashi frowned. “Why would I kill my team-mate?”

Obito scoffed. “Yeah, like hell that would ever happen. Bakashi might be a bit of an asshole sometimes, but he wouldn’t kill someone on his team.” He grinned. “The only time I’ve caught him quoting me was that line, ‘those who break the rules are scum, but those who abandon a comrade are worse than scum.’”

“A broken clock is still right twice a day,” Kakashi eye-smiled.

Itachi shrugged. “From what I gathered, she asked you to. I never got the whole story, because it was classified, but apparently she had to die or else something on the scale of the Kyuubi attack was going to hit the village, so it wasn’t murder, it was assisted suicide.”

The three team-mates looked at one another from the corner of their eyes. That sounded oddly plausible. Well, except for the part where Itachi was talking about a long-dead ancestor casting genjutsu on him. That was just plain crazy.

After a pause, Rin spoke up.

“Have you considered that this is not in fact a genjutsu, but a drug-induced hallucination?” she suggested. “That would widen the pool of people who would be able to make you believe you were hallucinating.”

Itachi considered this. “You have a point,” he allowed. “I did wake up chained to a wall in a cell surrounded by Sound nin after all. Madara would probably not have bothered with that particular Hitaiate, since he considers Orochimaru to be a traitor…” he paused. “Though I don’t know who else would have bothered to patch me up just to feed me hallucinogens. Probably an extremely skilled med-nin though, since the last thing I remember was dying,” he said candidly. Suddenly he was hit by a wave of exhaustion. “Huh. Must have used up more chakra than I thought,” he mumbled to himself, as he felt his vision starting to tunnel.

“Itachi? Are you alright?” Rin asked him, sounding concerned.

Itachi waved one hand vaguely, and then proceeded to collapse as everything went dark.

Chapter Text

“He was talking a lot more than usual. And he was talking complete crazy. Rin, I think you might be onto something with the drugs,” came Obito’s voice.

“Whether I am or not, we need to get him to a Yamanaka,” Rin replied. “If nothing else, they’d be able to figure out what he thinks is going on.”

“That goes without saying,” Obito said, his tone concurrent with a probable eye-roll.

Itachi did an assessment of his surroundings. He was blindfolded and on someone’s back, as they leapt through the trees. Sensibly, whoever it was (he assumed Kakashi, simply because Obito and Rin’s voices sounded off to one side) had tied his hands, wrist to elbow, and then looped ropes from his arms to his thighs. This made him easier to carry, and made it next to impossible for him to attack the man carrying him. Well, if he used Jiraiya’s hair jutsu then maybe he would be able to attack, or if he had some kind of mouth-based attack… actually no, his face up against Kakashi’s flak jacket for the most part, so Kakashi would probably be able to fling him off before he managed to lift himself to attack.

(Probably. Itachi considered trying to find out, but then quickly discarded the idea. If nothing else, the other two would probably attack him if he tried to injure their comrade.)

Apparently the hallucinations had been unable to remove the manacles, (or had decided against it,) as the coarse metal was still rasping on Itachi’s wrists, with the chain jingling with every movement that Kakashi made.

Itachi found it mildly irritating, actually, as he thought that Kakashi should be making more effort to move silently.

Then again, perhaps he felt complacent with two team-members to watch over him.

“So you’re awake then?” came Kakashi’s voice from just in front of him.

So Itachi had been right. He was on Kakashi’s back.

“Yes,” he replied. He didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise. No doubt Kakashi had felt him stiffen as he awoke.

“You passed out from a combination of bloodloss, chakra depletion and general exhaustion,” Kakashi said. “Rin was rather put out when she figured this out. She thought she should have noticed you were at the end of your tether earlier.”

Itachi didn’t really have anything to say to that, since he wasn’t sure he trusted that figments of someone else’s imagination would actually care about his wellbeing. Instead, he decided to ask where Kakashi was taking him.

“To Konoha, of course,” Kakashi replied.

Konoha?

Itachi exhaled slowly.

“It’ll be good to see home,” he said. “Even if…” he trailed off.

“I’m not sure how to convince you that this is all real,” Kakashi said bluntly.

“Good,” said Itachi. Though he had been thinking less about whether or not this was an elaborate genjutsu, and more about the fact that he was, last he had checked, a wanted missing-nin to 99 percent of Konoha’s populace. Sure, the Hokage should know that he was technically undercover. And the Elders, if those old vultures were still about. But everyone else? Itachi would be lucky if they didn’t attempt to kill him on sight.

Come to think of it though, the last time he had seen Kakashi just that had occurred, so this was a significant departure from expected behaviour. Especially since Itachi had hit Kakashi with Tsukiyomi, in which he had subjectively tortured Kakashi for three days. Objectively three seconds, but in the mind, the subjective experience was more important. Ask any psychologist or Yamanaka.

Whilst Itachi was not precisely complaining about Kakashi not getting his revenge for that little episode (though even Itachi would admit that he richly deserved it,) the lack of reprisal confused the living fuck out of him.

Well. If this was real. Which it wasn’t. Obviously, because otherwise Rin and Obito would be dead, and Kakashi would be trying his best to kill him just now, rather than piggy-backing him in the general direction of medical attention and a place he still thought of as home, despite everything.

“Is it really though?” Kakashi asked rhetorically.

Itachi had lost track of the conversation, distracted by his thoughts.

“Is what really what?”

“Is it really good that I can’t convince you that this is real?”

Itachi shrugged as best he could in the position he was in. “Is it ever a good idea to completely believe what someone is saying?”

Suddenly, he was reminded of what his parents in the moments before he killed them. His father saying that he was proud of him. His mother hadn’t said as much, but she hadn’t disagreed. Both of them had been unsurprised that he had been standing behind them with a sword, ready to kill them.

Did he believe that his father was truly proud of him? Was it even a good thing if he had been?

Itachi didn’t know.

All he knew was that he had failed his father’s final request, to look after Sasuke. If Itachi had done his job as big brother properly, then Sasuke would never have defected, would never have considered Konoha beneath him.

Itachi didn’t know how he could have done things differently, all he knew was that he somehow should have.

Should have made sure that Sasuke was not ripe for the picking when Orochimaru had gone sniffing about for a replacement body with a Sharingan.

He had beaten the Sannin so easily when he was only 13, he had forgotten that for most people, Orochimaru was an adversary that they would hesitate to annoy.

And what had he done? Taunted him.

Whenever Itachi felt exasperated at his little brother’s, or his clan’s hubris, he would remind himself of that moment, and realise that even though he could cash the checks that his mouth wrote, his little brother? Not so much.

Sasuke had paid for Itachi’s mistake when Orochimaru turned his attention onto him.

Sasuke paying for Itachi’s actions.

That seemed to be a trend.

“Oi cous, you’re awake!” Obito shouted suddenly, distracting Itachi from his morbid thoughts.

“Obito, shut the hell up!” hissed Rin. “Do you want to alert every enemy for twenty kilometres of our presence here?”

Obito snorted, by the sound of it skipping lightly from branch to branch.

“Like hell,” he said. “We’re nearly at Konoha. If we meet any enemies at this point, then the sentries aren’t doing their jobs right.” But Kakashi noticed that he said this a good deal more quietly.

“Idiot,” said Kakashi in a fond tone.

Twenty minutes later, and they were going through the gates.

Kotetsu and Izumo (Itachi remembered them as peers at his very brief stint in the Academy, even though they were a good 6 or so years older than him) seemed their usual cheery selves, though to Itachi’s mild surprise (and yet not, because thus far nothing since he had woken up made sense with what he knew about the world, so this was just more evidence of an elaborate genjutsu) they seemed to be concerned about his wellbeing.

“Good to see that you managed to find him,” Izumo said.

Itachi blinked. They had been sent to find him specifically?

And yet they had not attacked him, and were taking him to the hospital before Ibiki’s domain?

Genjutsu. It had to be.

Itachi wasn’t sure that he would be able to fathom the alternative.

Because what other explanation could there be?

Maybe he had just gone mad.

Actually, that would explain a lot.

Itachi nodded to himself.

Yes. If this turned out to be not a genjutsu, then the only other logical explanation was that he had had a psychotic break at some point.

Frankly, Itachi was a little surprised he had not had one earlier, but he supposed that these things came on in their own time.

Ten minutes later, and Kakashi was depositing Itachi on a hospital bed, with concerned-looking med-nin fluttering about them.

The first thing that the med-nin did was to tell a nurse to bring a hacksaw so that they could remove the manacles.

Itachi had not expected that.

Rather than interrogation, he was receiving care.

Good care. Care that was far better than any he had received since he was thirteen.

The med-nin clucked over his bruises and chakra depletion. And a wound in his back that Itachi had not even noticed- according to them, it was a miracle that he had not bled out from it.

Itachi just shrugged, which caused the two of them (male and female and near-identical-looking, which weirded Itachi right the fuck out) to cluck even harder.

It was around two hours later, that a knock came at the hospital room door. One of the med-nin answered it.

“Oh, Hokage-sama!”

“Yes, hello Tanaka-san. Is Itachi fit for debriefing?”

The conversation continued after that point, but Itachi wasn’t listening.

He was too busy staring in shock at the man in the doorway.

“Y-yondaime-sama?!” Itachi gasped.

Now he knew for a fact that this was a genjutsu.

Chapter Text

Namikaze Minato, Yondaime Hokage, was more than a little perturbed to see a kid he had watched grow up stare at him like he was a ghost.

It would seem that his team had not been exaggerating when they had said that Itachi seemed to have been brainwashed into believing some strange alternate version of reality in which most of them were dead. Minato could think of a few motives for doing such a thing, but the likeliest one was that Itachi’s captors had attempted to break him, though for what longer-term plan he could only speculate.

He needed more information.

But the way that Itachi was staring at him, he had a feeling that he might not be able to get it, as the kid (sure, he was a chunin, but Minato still remembered when Itachi had been about to enter the Academy, so he was always going to remain a kid in his eyes) looked like he was a breath away from shutting down completely.

“Hello Itachi, it’s been a while,” he said, instead of starting with the standard order to report.

Itachi nodded warily. “Yes it has.” Itachi had been around 6 when the Hokage had died, so “a while” was a bit of an understatement, considering he was now 21. Idly he wondered if he should keep counting his age if he was dead. Did it count if he were no longer growing and changing? Was it now as though he were frozen in amber? Or did the fact that he was obviously able to retain new memories mean that mentally at least he was still getting older?

Itachi shrugged inwardly. It hardly mattered. Dead was dead.

If that was even what was going on.

“How are you feeling?” the Hokage asked him.

Itachi allowed himself a wry quirk of his mouth. “Physically? Like I was beaten up, and probably tortured before breaking my way out of an underground prison and running a good five kilometres before Kakashi and the others picked me up.”

“’Probably’ tortured? You don’t remember?”

“Mentally,” Itachi continued as though that was what the Hokage had asked about (and implicitly, he had), “I’m starting to get the impression that the only explanation for what I’m seeing is that I’m dead, drugged, under a really, really elaborate genjutsu, or…” Itachi trailed off, but he could see that the Hokage could hear what Itachi hadn’t said. That a likely explanation for his mental state was that he had succumbed to the Uchiha family brand insanity in a new and ‘interesting’ way that might get him grounded for a very long time, if not forever, recommendation pending results of a thorough psychiatric examination.

Assuming that routines were followed in this bizarre world Itachi had woken up in, he had almost certainly ticked all the boxes to get himself sent up for that one anyway, just as a precautionary measure.

There was a pause.

Hokage and shinobi stared at each other, each considering the implications of the other’s expression.

“You know why I’m here,” the Hokage stated finally.

Itachi nodded. “Timeframe?” Itachi asked.

Minato filed that away. That question was only ever asked by people fresh from the Academy, people who were missing time, or people who were disoriented. This just added more evidence that Itachi was most likely psychologically compromised.

 “The last few days,” he responded aloud.

Itachi pondered for a moment.

Might as well tell the truth.

Couldn’t make anythings more complicated for himself at this point.

“I remember fighting Sasuke, and then dying,” he said flatly.  “Then I may have lost some time, but the next thing I remember is waking up, chained in a cell in what I surmise was a Sound stronghold. I fought my way out, leaving… 23? No, 24 casualties behind me. I didn’t stop to confirm any of my kills, not enough time if I wanted to avoid being mobbed, and I’m not exactly in the best shape, so some of them might still be alive.” Itachi’s tone however implied how likely he thought that was. He proceeded to tell the Yondaime about running through the forest, encountering Kakashi’s team, and hearing their conclusion that Itachi had probably been drugged.

“How are you really?” the Hokage asked him then, his expression searching.

Itachi gave him a wry look. It was kind of the Hokage to sound so concerned, whether he be a figment of Itachi’s imagination or not.

“Confused,” was all he said.

The Hokage nodded as though this was an illuminating answer. Itachi wasn’t to know, but it actually was. Namikaze Minato had been dealing with Uchiha for a long time now, through his genin Obito (though Obito himself was not exactly typical for his clan), and his wife’s best friend Uchiha Mikoto. More to the point, because of that latter relationship, he had known Itachi since he was a child. He was well aware that the word “confused” from him was used in similar contexts to which another shinobi might me screaming something along the lines of, “What the fuck is even happening to me nothing makes sense here oh kami why kami why!?”

“You look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” was all he said.

“Technically, I’ve seen several,” Itachi replied. It sounded like a joke, but Minato knew that he was being dead serious.

Actually, Minato mused, that might explain a lot. Especially considering his statement that he, Itachi, thought he had died. He considered for a moment at the point of causing a shinobi to think that they were dead, and then realised – Itachi was not exactly being loquacious for someone in general, but by his own standards, he was being positively loose-tongued.

“Ghosts, huh. Myself included?” the Hokage asked shrewdly.

Itachi blinked at that, and then started to laugh.

It was not a happy sound.

“Did I die, after all?” he said finally, relaxing back on the pillows. He seemed almost relieved. “I was unaware that Kakashi and Kotetsu and Izumo had passed on, but it’s the explanation that makes the most sense.” He sighed. “Though this isn’t what I thought the afterlife would be like. Frankly I was half-hoping for oblivion. At least then I could get some rest.”

The Hokage watched him, and Itachi wondered at the emotion he could see behind those blue eyes. He noticed that they had laugh-lines mixed amongst the expected stress-lines. Itachi frowned (outwardly, not inwardly. If he was dead, it hardly mattered, did it?) a little at this.

“You look older than I remember,” he admitted, when the Yondaime looked at him questioningly.

“When is the last time you remember seeing me?”

“Naruto was yet to be born, so I must have been about six.” Itachi grimaced. He considered his next thought before he said it aloud, and then decided since he was either dead or in a genjutsu it didn’t really matter if he said it. “I know you died to save Konoha, but it would have been better if you had managed to set up a successor. Sandaime-sama was…tired.”

Minato wondered if the Sandaime Itachi was picturing had looked anything like Itachi himself did now.

This situation seemed delicate. Minato had been Hokage for 12 years now, and even before that time, he had had to debrief many ninja who were nearing the end of their tether.

Itachi had the look of a man who had reached that point a while ago, with the only thing between his sanity and curling up and falling into whatever his equivalent of a screaming heap being… well actually, Minato wasn’t sure. It was exactly because of that though, that he didn’t tell Itachi that he wasn’t dead. He had no idea what effect that would have on the man, and he hated to lose a good shinobi like this. Hopefully with some time off to heal and some counselling, he would be able to make a full recovery. If nothing else, the efficiently ruthless side of the Hokage whispered, he needed to learn exactly what Itachi had been subjected to, to bring him to this point. Otherwise, this could happen to other ninja in his ranks.

Psychological weapons were more insidious than physical ones, and sometimes even more effective. Minato needed details, so that he could talk to his advisors about strategies to deal with this. More resilience training perhaps? Minato was almost distracted by considering the possibilities, but he turned his attention back to one of his village’s most loyal ninja.

The Yondaime nodded seriously. “Itachi, I would like you to talk to a Yamanaka for a full debrief.”

Itachi nodded. He had expected as much. He supposed that expertise in life carried on into death.

And if he wasn’t dead… (he had noticed that the Hokage had neither confirmed nor denied his theory)…

If he wasn’t dead…

Well, he would explode that bridge behind him when he came to it. 

Chapter Text

It was only a brief while after the Hokage left that the Yamanaka showed up, with a silent Aburame guard who would be there to watch her body. The Aburame looked like any of his clan- tall, with short dark hair, dark glasses, and a voluminous jacket with a high collar that hid the majority of his facial expressions. He took up a position beside Itachi, and stood in that relaxed but alert pose that Itachi knew meant if he were to try anything, he would probably be fighting for his life before he had time to do more than twitch.

Whether or not he would win would depend on a number of unknown factors, but Itachi thought that whilst he could probably take the Aburame, it would be a (potentially literal) pain in the ass (well, probably a more debilitating place than that if the Aburame had anything to say about it, but still, the point stood).

The Yamanaka was a woman in her mid-twenties, with the usual fair hair of her clan, tied back slightly idiosyncratically into a bun, rather than left to hang loose in a ponytail. Itachi wondered idly if there was any significance to that, but supposed it might have come about due to some manner of hair-pulling incident in the middle of a fight. He himself tied his hair back because of just such an incident, which had happened when he was a mere genin.

That, and the hitaiate alone was insufficient to keep his hair out of his face. Sometimes he wondered how some nin put up with it. He’d considered cutting his hair before, but refrained for two reasons. The first was that his mother hand liked his hair long.

The second was that when his hair was short, it stuck up stupidly at the back.

“Uchiha Itachi. I am Yamanaka Tsubaki, and I’ll be doing an assessment of your mental state,” the Yamanaka stated somewhat redundantly.

Itachi wondered what his expression looked like. Probably the usual bland expression he saw in the mirror. A long time ago, when Inuzuka Hana had been his comrade, she had called him an “expressionless bastard”. The fact was, Itachi knew that his face didn’t really tend to show well to people he didn’t know what was going on behind it. His jounin sensei back in the day had told him that it meant he would have to be careful when creating any cover story, careful that he didn’t try to pretend he was gregarious, because it would come across as false.

Itachi had originally been offended at the thought that there was anything that he would not be good at, but whenever he had experimented with such expressions, people had looked at him sideways, or, (most memorably in the case of Inuzuka Hana actually,) had outright started laughing at him.

In response to the Yamanaka’s statement, he simply nodded.

“Alright. I’ll start with a few questions.”

The questions were fairly standard. Itachi had answered them before, when he had had to go through the annual mandatory psych review that all ANBU were slated for.

He gave his usual answers, and they all amounted to the same thing.

He was fine.

He was loyal to his village.

He was happy to kill or die for it.

He loved his family.

These things were still as true as they had ever been. Especially since he was 9, he had always defined his family as “Sasuke”. His love for his little brother had always been uncomplicated.

Unlike his love for the rest of the clan.

These days it was more complicated, Itachi admitted to himself (if not the Yamanaka), since his brother had betrayed Konoha.

But Itachi still loved his little brother.

After the verbal questions, came the inevitable mindwalk.

Mind walks were odd.

Itachi could feel the Yamanaka poking about, but was not always aware of what specifically she was looking at. His life flashed behind his eyes, generally a little too fast to really catch more than a few snippets.

After a while, the Yamanaka came back to herself, with a mild crease between her brows. Itachi thought she looked a little disturbed. He wondered what that meant for him, but resolved not to worry about it.

Whatever it was that was worrying her, there was no point asking. All he could do was await the results.

His fate was out of his hands, for now.

Nothing new about that, he thought to himself a little darkly.

“Thank you Uchiha-san,” was all she said, before she left, with the Aburame in tow.

....

“So?” the Hokage was pacing behind his desk whilst a clone signed documents. Or perhaps it was the other way around. It was hard for Aburame Mushimaru to tell.

Tsubaki stood to attention, and reported. “From what I can tell, he believes a number of things that cannot be true. It is a genjutsu unlike any I have seen before, as I cannot tell how it has been rooted to his chakra network. Perhaps it is a new form of brainwashing, maybe it is due to some form of elaborate hallucination. I have never seen anything like this before.”

The Hokage’s brow furrowed. “Things that cannot be true? Like what?”

Tsubaki shook her head. “For one, he believes that he is the one who killed a large proportion of the Uchiha, including his parents, and that other than Sasuke, all others of his clan are dead.”

Both clone and original stared at Tsubaki.

“What? What purpose could that possibly serve?” the Hokage was flabbergasted.

“Perhaps they were trying to break him,” the Aburame said dully. “Perhaps they were somehow able to tap into his latent survivor’s guilt.” The Aburame shrugged. “Either way, I recommend that he be taken off the roster for now. Why? Because I doubt that he can currently pass the minimum psych requirements. His loyalty to the village is intact as far as I can see, but I consider his current levels of confusion and… distress to be not conducive to him performing to anything like peak efficiency.”

The Yamanaka nodded. “I concur.”

The Hokage nodded. “Very well then. Do either of you believe him to be a danger to himself or others?”

Yamanaka Tsubaki shook her head. “Hard to say when it comes to himself. From what I can see, he doesn’t value his own life. However, the one thing that appears central to his personality apart from loyalty to the village is his love for his younger brother Sasuke.”

Namikaze Minato nodded. “Ah.” Leveraging Itachi’s love for his younger brother to keep him alive for his own good was so low on the scale of shinobi manipulation that it was not even remotely worthy of comment.

“So, you recommend we release Itachi to his family as soon as possible then,” he stated.

Yamanaka and Aburame nodded in unison.

“Indeed, Hokage-sama,” replied Aburame Mushimaru. “Why? Because from what I have previously observed of his behaviour, seeing Sasuke will set him at ease. And perhaps seeing that there are other surviving Uchiha will help to break this… conditioning that he seems to have been put through.”

The Hokage’s clone popped, and Yamanaka Tsubaki was mildly surprised to discover that the original was the one that had been sitting at the desk doing paperwork.

“Very well,” the Yondaime nodded. He waved one hand, and one of the ANBU on duty in his office flipped from what a civilian would have assumed was an empty patch of wall. Neither the Yamanaka nor the Aburame reacted.

“Pass this message on to the Uchiha. Uchiha Itachi is to be released to them. And I want a conversation with Uchiha Mikoto at her absolute soonest convenience. Tell her…” Minato grimaced. “Just tell her that it’s important.”

….

Itachi lay back in his hospital bed meditating.

It was a more useful usage of his time than counting the cracks in the ceiling (7), or the number of petals in the flower arrangement on the bedside table (89) or the number of holes in the ventilation shaft openings (24, there were 6 in each shaft).

If Itachi were any less disciplined a shinobi, then perhaps he would have admitted to boredom.

And so it was with no small measure of relief that he heard the door open.

He turned, and saw something that he had never thought to see again.

Something he had never even dreamed of seeing again.

“Aniki!”

Sasuke’s smile.

Sasuke… his foolish little brother… was actually smiling at him.

Maybe he was being rewarded in the afterlife after all.

……

Chapter Text

 

“Sasuke…” his little brother’s name left his lips before he was fully conscious of saying anything.

The figure standing in front of him was clearly his younger brother, but it was a version of Sasuke that Itachi had never seen- he looked to be about thirteen years of age, but he had the same range of expressions that Itachi had seen on him when Sasuke had still been tiny, and innocent. Well, perhaps not quite as innocent as he had looked then, but it was at the very least much closer to that range of expressions than the quiet brooding loathing that Itachi had seen when he had checked in on his brother around that time.

Wait, thirteen? Did that mean that Sasuke had died when Orochimaru had lured him away?

The explanation seemed unlikely. Itachi might have put some stock into its plausibility had it not been for the very simple fact that Orochimaru had attempted to take Sasuke over in the middle of their fight. Well, that and the fact that Orochimaru was just not that good an actor.

Maybe the afterlife wasn’t chronologically linear?

Maybe this wasn’t the afterlife?

Maybe this wasn’t Sasuke.

“Aniki, what happened?” Sasuke’s eyes were wide with concern, an expression that Itachi hadn’t seen for a decade. His horrible suspicion grew.

“What were you doing, worrying Kaa-san like that? You know she said she was going to gut you if you came home less than intact after last time. You didn’t push yourself too hard again, did you?”

Was this… how Sasuke would have been if Itachi had not hurt him so very badly?

Then what Sasuke was actually saying filtered through to him.

A wave of cold washed through Itachi’s insides.

“Last time?”

Sasuke looked at him in confusion. “Yeah, last time. You know, when you came back from Ame.” His nose wrinkled. “You never did tell me exactly what happened, but I know Yondaime-sama awarded you a pretty big bounty…. Which means you had better have got me a badass present for my birthday, because that’s the only excuse you get for missing it,” he continued with a pout. “I mean, it’s not every day I turn 12.”

Itachi’s confusion level had just gone up several notches.

Actually, more like several hundred notches.

A number of different responses ran through Itachi’s head. The one that managed to win however, was:

“What?”

He sat up suddenly, and the instantaneous pain from the too-quick movement as he tore his stitches brought his thoughts into focus. The pain of lying on his stitched-up back had previously been negligible, and easy enough for Itachi to ignore. This was… not.

If he was dead, then why did he feel pain?

If he was dead, then why would the Yondaime be the one debriefing him?

If he was dead, then why have his story checked by a Yamanaka?

If he was dead, then why would Sasuke be talking about events that had never happened, including a conversation with his mother?

Why would Sasuke be talking about his birthday?

Why wouldn’t he be talking about things they had actually experienced together?

Why wouldn’t Sasuke be blaming Itachi?

Why?!

So this wasn’t Sasuke?

Itachi was vaguely aware that he was starting to hyperventilate.

The pain from his back as he shudderd suddenly made him focus.

He was in pain, and there was no supernatural source. This didn’t match any conception of hell that Itachi could think of (although some ninja joked about waking up in hospital and not being able to tell the difference…no, that was ridiculous).

So he… wasn’t dead?

Itachi could hear his heart thundering in his ears, and his own sharp gasps. These physiological sensations, when coupled with the pain, added weight to his newest hypothesis.

Though that did lead to the next pressing question.

Then what the actual fuck was happening?

What other explanation could there be for all of the dead people walking about?

 His first theory, genjutsu?

No, it was far too elaborate. And the events that had occurred were far too random. If this was supposed to put Itachi at ease for information purposes, then putting in random events that had never happened would be highly inadvisable. Putting in dead people that Itachi had never been especially close to in life made no sense either. Was he at the mercy of someone who was insane?

Or was he the one that had gone completely insane?

Actually…

That was uncomfortably plausible.

Had he somehow managed to lock himself into some kind of…

“Itachi? Itachi? It’s okay. Itachi? Please tell me that you’re okay.”

Itachi came back to himself, and saw that Sasuke had backed himself up against the wall, and was pressing the emergency button, whilst calling Itachi’s name in a calm voice, despite his clear expression of worry. Basic procedure as taught by the Academy for how to deal with someone undergoing a PTSD flashback- move out of range, stay calm, and call their name. Sensibly, Sasuke was looking everywhere but Itachi’s face- it wouldn’t do for Itachi to catch his eyes and accidentally put him under some sort of panic-induced genjutsu.

Oh the irony.

Itachi consciously slowed his breathing down, laced his fingers together and put his hands behind his head in the ‘I mean no harm’ position. (Civilians always got this wrong when they did it, because they forgot that holding empty hands in front of oneself was the ‘ready’ position for making handseals.)

The door swung open, and three med-nin leapt in.

They relaxed slightly when they saw Itachi’s pose.

“Report,” one snapped.

“I was talking to him, and he suddenly started hyperventilating. Then I couldn’t get him to respond to his name, and he was tearing the sheets with his hands, so I backed off and pressed the Emergency Button, ma’am,” Sasuke replied. “It was only a couple of seconds ago that he came out of it.”

Itachi looked down at the sheets about his knees, and saw that Sasuke was right- the parts that had been in his immediate reach were torn to shreds.

“Uchiha Itachi? Are you with us?” one of the other med-nin asked in a tone that sounded almost bored. Itachi might have been almost offended, were it not for the fact that she was an obvious Nara.

“Yes,” Itachi replied.

“Will you allow me to check you over?” the med-nin asked.

Itachi swallowed. “I think I tore some of my stitches,” was all he said.

The med-nin obviously took that as assent, as a few seconds later he was checking Itachi over, listening to his heart-beat and checking the stitches.

“Well the bad news is that you popped your stitches. The good news though, is that your chakra levels have risen enough that I can use a jutsu to close the wound without endangering you.”

Itachi nodded once in response, and did his best to ignore the green glow of the med-nin’s hand reaching behind him.

The bored-sounding Nara then spoke. “You appear to have had a panic attack. Are you aware of why that might have happened?”

Itachi inclined his head almost jerkily.

Oh yeah. He could think of a few reasons…

“Care to share with the class?”

“No,” was all he said.

But he flicked his eyes over to look at Sasuke, to provide a plausible explanation of why he didn’t want to talk about it.

Itachi needed… time. Yes.

He needed time to regroup.

To recover.

To gather more data.

Because, if he wasn’t dead…

And this wasn’t a genjutsu…

Then what in the hell was going on?

 

Chapter Text

It was only an hour after his… episode… that Itachi was told he could go home with Sasuke.

“Home?” he repeated stupidly.

People were giving him sidelong glances.

Especially Sasuke.

Thankfully though, he refrained from saying anything. Itachi had no idea what the med-nin might have told him, but whatever it was, he was grateful, because it meant that he didn’t have to come up with a plausible cover story.

Though that said, he could make a fair guess at it, considering the panic attack he had had just before.

Probably had him diagnosed with some kind of post-mission psychological fatigue.

Which was true, if Itachi was honest with himself, but not exactly for the more obvious of reasons.

Sasuke had brought Itachi clothes that looked a lot like the ones Itachi had left the village in back when he was thirteen- plain, dark blue, and emblazoned with the Uchiha fan.

Itachi felt an odd wave of nostalgia as he put the clothes on.

They fit him perfectly, and yet…

Silently, Itachi promised himself he would find something else to wear.

After all this time, wearing his clan’s crest felt… wrong… considering the circumstances.

Ah well. Still, better this than a hospital gown.

It had been many years since Itachi had had to deal with fangirls (slaughtering one’s entire clan and going missing-nin tended to… thin the herd more than a little, and the ones who that didn’t bother… well, there had been this one time in Iwa where Kisame had had to intervene. Itachi didn’t know what Kisame had said to that particular lady, but she’d said something about ‘not getting in the way of true love’ with starry eyes before dashing off. Judging by the way Kisame couldn’t stop laughing for weeks afterwards, Itachi knew he didn’t want to know) but the thought of walking down Konoha’s main street in something backless…

It really didn’t bear even thinking about.

Walking through Konoha with a chattering Sasuke was also strangely nostalgic.

The shops all looked about the same. The people too. Well, those that Itachi vaguely recognised all looked a little older than he remembered, but considering the last time he had been in Konoha he had only been a little older than Sasuke currently looked…

Actually, there was a thought.

“Sasuke,” Itachi said slowly, interrupting the constant chatter, “you said you’re twelve, right?”

Sasuke looked at him sideways.

“Yes,” he said, an odd tone in his voice as his expression went from cheerful to blank. Itachi blinked. He hadn’t meant to upset him, but he supposed that it made sense that he would be, if this really was his little brother who apparently didn’t hate for killing their parents and a significant proportion of their clan.

“Does that mean I’m 17 then?” he mused aloud. How odd. He had been 21 when he died. If this wasn’t real (could it be real, could it? Did he want it to be? Did he not want it to be?) then it seemed like a strange detail. Why would he suddenly be younger?

Though he supposed that it made about the same amount of sense as anything else since he had woken up in a Sound basement.

Sasuke’s expression remained blank, but he looked away.

“…yeah,” was all he said, quietly.

Then Itachi remembered why he knew how old Sasuke was. Assuming it was the real Sasuke… oh hell, Itachi wasn’t sure he even cared that much at this point. He didn’t really have anything of worth left to lose, and really, any version of Sasuke in pain made his heart ache.

Especially when he was the one who had caused it.

At least this time he was able to figure out how to fix it…

“Oh right, I missed your birthday, didn’t I. My bad. I’ll make it up to you…”

“That’s not it,” Sasuke said flatly. He was suddenly sounding a lot more like how he had sounded the last few times Itachi had spoken to him. Angry, and miserable. Others might have read it as “emotionless”, but Itachi knew it was no such thing.

But if Itachi temporarily forgetting about Sasuke’s birthday wasn’t what had set his little brother off, then Itachi had no idea what he could have said that would upset his brother to this degree.

Itachi was lost.

“…What did I do then?” he asked.

Sasuke spun and stared at him like he had declared himself to be Tsuchikage.

Itachi sighed. “You’re upset. The only thing that has happened in the last few minutes before you became upset was me talking, so obviously I’m the one who just upset you. How did I upset you?”

“…”

Well that wasn’t exactly helpful. “Use your words little brother,” Itachi said, poking him in the head, ignoring Sasuke’s subsequent adorable flailing at his hand. “I know they say that high-level shinobi can read your mind, but unless we’re talking Yamanaka, usually that’s an exaggeration.”

Sasuke snorted, seemingly despite himself. “Like chunin is that high.”

Itachi froze.

Okay, now that was just plain insulting.

“Chunin?” Itachi asked incredulously, then started to laugh. “Like a chunin could have broken out of that prison the way I did. That doesn’t even make any sense. Not that any of this makes any sense. I’m walking down the streets of Konoha, and I’m not…” he trailed off as he registered Sasuke’s expression.

Sasuke had abandoned sulking in favour of gaping at him.

“What the fuck did they do to you, aniki?” he asked softly.

Itachi blinked.

“I… I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I should be dead. I was supposed to be dead,” he said mostly to himself, but judging by the sharp intake of breath, Sasuke had heard him loud and clear.

Itachi turned and stared at him.

“Are you even real?” he asked, before he could think better of it.

There was a sudden sharp pain across his cheek, and Itachi blinked.

“Did you seriously just slap me?”

Sasuke looked somewhat guilty, but he lifted his chin stubbornly to look Itachi in the eyes.

“Couldn’t slap you if I wasn’t real, now could I? Besides,” he shifted his stance a little uneasily. “You were talking all crazy.”

Well there was another vote for the ‘insanity’ option, though perhaps, Itachi mused, possible figments of his imagination shouldn’t get a vote in that particular poll.

Though really, if figments of his imagination were calling him crazy, then maybe they had a point.

“Technically,” said Itachi in a patient instructing tone he had almost forgotten how to use, “you could still slap me, and I’d think I’d feel it if this was a genjutsu.” He snorted. “Though seriously, what are you, a pre-teen civilian girl? Slapping? Seriously?”

Sasuke smirked a little shakily. “Yeah? Well if this was a genjutsu designed to cause you pain, then wouldn’t I use something a lot more hardcore than a slap?”

Itachi shrugged. “Well yeah, unless you wanted to lull me into a false sense of security,” he said, like it didn’t matter.

He started walking again, and Sasuke jogged to keep up with him.

The thing about genjutsu was that it messed with your perceptions. Of any sensory stimulus. But there were a few things that only the very greatest of genjutsu masters could get right, and even then, only if they had been paying very close attention indeed.

Especially when it came to taste, since that was subjective, and involved both the tastebuds and the olfactory sense…

Suddenly, Itachi had an idea.

A wonderful, perfect idea.

“Hey Sasuke,” he said carefully, “is that dango stand still there around the corner?”

Itachi wondered if exposure to him was going to get Sasuke’s expression stuck on “what the fuck!?”

He wondered if it made him a bad person that that thought made him feel a little warm inside.

A half-forgotten emotion was starting to arise in Itachi. It was the joy of harmlessly tormenting a younger sibling.

Five minutes later, and Itachi had a plate of fresh dango in front of him.

Sasuke had fortunately had some money on him.

It had been some time since Itachi had eaten dango from this particular stand.

So when it tasted even better than he remembered, he was rather startled.

More proof that this wasn’t just a genjutsu. As taste-based genjutsus were generally known to be ridiculously hard to create, the few ninja who specialised in them tended to only do these. Some genjutsu cheated and used memories of the sensation, but since this actually tasted better, then Itachi had real reason to believe that this was a genuine first-hand experience.

Especially since he also sorta almost burnt his mouth with the first one he tasted.

“…wow. I knew you had a sweet tooth, but dayum…” Itachi looked up to see a shinobi he only barely recognised.

“Hello Shiranui-san,” he said.

Shiranui Genma’s brows raised. “Uhhh since when were we that formal?”

Itachi shrugged non-commitally, ignoring Sasuke’s stare.

Shiranui Genma half-heartedly shrugged in return. “Well, just was going to say that I’m glad you came back alright. I heard a rumour that shit got pretty real.”

Itachi barely restrained himself from laughing.

“Things got a little… interesting,” he said.

Shiranui Genma smirked. “They tend to do that. Still, glad you’re okay.”

Itachi shrugged. ‘Okay’ was relative.

Still, he wasn’t dead, and that was generally a good start…

“I’m starting to think that this is maybe not a genjutsu,” Itachi said in a purposefully bland tone to see how Genma would react.

Genma blinked and rolled his ever-present senbon needle from one corner of his mouth to the other and back as he considered the implications of that statement. “Well shit, I thought your cousin was exaggerating.”

Itachi ignored the vehement shaking of Sasuke’s head that was going on just to one side.

“You seem… surprisingly calm, all things considered,” Genma offered after a pause.

Itachi shrugged.

“I’m told I don’t have a very expressive face,” he said. Let Genma take that as he would.

“…no shit.” Genma didn’t really seem to know what to say to that, and Itachi was unsurprised when Genma made his excuses and left soon-afterwards. No doubt to spread the word that Itachi had cracked.

Itachi realised then that he was starting to honestly think of all of the people he had encountered as being real.

As he and Sasuke left the dango stand for what Itachi could only assume was the Uchiha district, Itachi mused over this.

Not genjutsu, not dead, unlikely that he had gone mad… Itachi knew what the Uchiha family madness looked like. Unless he was somehow special, his distinct lack of need for a stage for his monologues was a good key clue that he hadn’t succumbed to the family megalomania.

So what the hell had happened to him?

“Oh, you made it back then, Itachi.”

Itachi turned, and saw two people he had never honestly expected to see alive again.

Even though Sasuke had said that they were alive…

The sight of his mother and Shisui standing at the gates of the Uchiha district, obviously waiting for them. Shisui smiling, his mother more reserved, but her stance relaxed and welcoming, just like she had always looked when he had come home from missions.

Sasuke broke out into a smile, and ran up to chat excitedly to Shisui, who apparently had just returned home from a mission. His mother’s eyes sparkled as she ruffled the hair of her youngest, before beckoning to Itachi to come closer.

What followed then was a blur of small talk, and getting Itachi “temporarily” settled in his old room until he felt “better” (apparently he had an apartment somewhere normally), and a dinner that was comprised of favourite dishes that Itachi had almost forgotten he had, since he had not eaten many of them since that day when he was 13.

Later, as he lay in the bed of his childhood room, listening to the sounds of his brother sleeping in the room next door, Itachi decided.

Maybe this wasn’t real.

He was starting to not care.

….

Chapter Text

Itachi eventually gave up on trying to sleep at about 3am.

Insomnia wasn’t a new thing for him. It never happened on missions, because on missions every second of sleep was essential, crucial, and other words that all amounted to ‘an unrested shinobi is a sloppy shinobi, and a sloppy shinobi is a dead shinobi’.

After missions though?

After mission insomnia was a rather different story.

At the near-silent dinner the night before, the near-silent dinner that had been full of his mother not asking what had happened, Sasuke occasionally opening his mouth, getting out half a syllable but then thinking better of it, and Itachi not bothering to open his mouth at all, Itachi had taken care to note where his mother kept the tea.

It was a minor detail, but it had felt like an important one, especially since the place hadn’t changed since he was a child.

More evidence that this was real, especially since the tea had been in a canister that Itachi didn’t recognise. Why have one detail the same, and the other different? Especially since the canister looked a few years old at least, and obviously well-loved by his mother since it had a small chip on one corner, though it was in a colour Itachi knew his father favoured more- a dull crimson not far removed from blood or the Sharingan.

He had yet to see his father. Itachi was honestly more than a little guiltily relieved about that. The relationship between his father and himself had always been… complicated.

But paying attention to details like that, and the way his mother still very slightly hesitated when rising from the seiza kneel due to the leg injury that had ended her jonin career (Itachi had never asked for the exact details of it, because whenever it came up his mother’s practiced unexpression tended to start appearing as though it had been carved from marble), and the fact that the drapes had all changed colour, but the little figurines were mostly the same, barring a few new ones and...

Itachi was getting more and more indication that this really was real, what he was seeing.

Genjutsu just weren’t this…

Fifteen minutes later, Itachi was sitting on the roof, letting his teacup keep his hands warm as steam rose up into the night sky.

Since he hadn’t really bothered to hide his outline on the roof, he was unsurprised when he was joined a few minutes later.

“Can’t sleep?” Shisui’s voice was sympathetic, and oh so nostalgic.

Itachi shrugged.

Shisui sat next to him, and they sat together silently for a while.

“I’ve missed you,” Itachi admitted after about forty-five minutes of looking up at the stars and sipping his tea.

“Can you talk about it?” Shisui asked him, meaning, ‘is it classified?’

“No,” said Itachi, meaning, ‘If I told you about it, you’d think I was completely stark raving mad.’

Shisui, being Shisui, caught his second meaning from Itachi’s tone. Itachi could tell by the way he stiffened, ever so slightly.

Itachi sighed inwardly. He had almost forgotten how perceptive Shisui had been of his moods.

“I don’t want to talk about it just now,” he said firmly, still gazing out over the dark roof-tops.

“Alright Itachi. I’ll let it go,” Shisui replied. The unspoken ‘for now’ sat loudly unacknowledged between the both of them. “If you try and get some sleep.”

Itachi nodded, but didn’t immediately move.

Shisui sighed. “Now, Itachi. Aunt Mikoto is worried.”

Itachi scanned for chakra signatures, and found that his mother was, indeed, awake, judging by how he could feel her pacing in the room below.

Itachi felt an odd wash of guilt. His mother had attempted to make conversation after dinner, but he had brushed her off. He wasn’t sure how one made small talk with someone who you had beheaded when you last saw them.

Especially when it was his mother.

“I’m not a child,” he retorted, to distract himself from that line of thought.

Shisui almost smirked. “You’re whining like one.”

“Am not,” Itachi replied with a ghost of a smile and an exaggerated whiny tone that would have probably made some of Itachi’s acquaintance do a double-take. It was an old game of theirs that they had played sometimes. Since his father had been so strict with Itachi’s emotional training, Shisui had taken it upon himself to make sure that Itachi a) knew what normal children sounded like so that he could properly mimic one when undercover on missions, and b) to give Itachi a chance to vent every once in a while.

Shisui’s smile was a little more genuine this time- Itachi could see a measure of relief in his cousin’s eyes.

“Go to sleep Itachi,” he repeated. “We can talk tomorrow, if you like. I for one need some rest after my latest mission.”

This time, Itachi just nodded, and shunshinned down to his room.

He lay on his futon, and went to sleep, hoping futilely, as he often did, that he would not dream.

Though if this were a dream, and then he experienced a dream within a dream… Itachi scoffed at the circular pattern of his thoughts.

He settled himself with a breathing exercise he had perfected on missions, and this time, thankfully, he dropped off to sleep.

Back on the roof, Shisui blinked. As an expert on the shunshin, he tended to half-consciously pay attention to peoples’ techniques when doing the jutsu.

Since when had Itachi been able to focus enough on the shunshin to do that without handseals?

Still, no one had ever accused his cousin of being anything but clever. Shisui had always known that if pushed, Itachi could have been a far more skilled shinobi than he already was.

But something had always held his cousin back.

Putting these thoughts aside for later, Shisui went in search of his own bed. Mission: Pry Foolish Younger Cousin Off Roof Before Aunt Mikoto Starts Fretting Properly (and that last bit was important, because when Aunt Mikoto started Fretting Properly, then so did everyone else with a sense of self-preservation,) was an unqualified success. So Shisui could afford to get some rest before attacking his next, more long term mission.

Figuring out what the hell had been done to Itachi so he could start planning out how exactly he was going to rip the perpetrators limb from limb.

With input from Aunt Mikoto, of course. She might not be an active field jonin anymore, but if he left her out, then she would make him Regret it.

With Prejudice.

 

Chapter Text

 

Uchiha Mikoto was Worried, said the whispers.

And they were whispers, because no one was brave enough to talk about the Uchiha matriarch behind her back if they thought she could hear them.

One day, Mikoto thought to herself, she was really going to have to explain to a few of the clan that a) whispers were actually far easier to hear than quiet murmuring, and b) regardless, she could read lips.

Or perhaps not. After all, it was so useful knowing exactly what the gossips were saying at any given time.

Suffice to say, Mikoto heard the whispers, and saw no need to correct them.

The fact was, Mikoto wasn’t worried, per se.

Mikoto was close to frantic.

Her eldest son, her son that she had tried so hard to support, to keep together and sane all of these years despite stiff opposition, her firstborn who had taken to heart her early words that Sasuke was his to protect and cherish…

Someone had hurt him.

Dear Minato had briefed her personally in his office over tea. The two of them had bonded after Kushina’s death as the two who had known her the best, and so missed her the most. When she had seen him struggling a little with juggling his Hokage responsibilities with taking care of a newborn, she had offered advice from one parent to another, and eventually had talked him into hiring one of her elder cousins as a nurse-maid and bodyguard.

At the time, Fugaku had told her how impressed he was at her manoeuvring. He was pleased that his wife was close to the Hokage, because he thought that that meant that she would leverage dear Minato to do his bidding. All for the good of the Uchiha clan, of course.

Mikoto had thought it adorable that Fugaku thought he knew anything about manoeuvring. He might be the Head of the Uchiha, but that was because she had chosen him. He was a good leader, with a charismatic way of speaking, (for an Uchiha) and a fine shinobi, and back in those days, he had shown no signs of the family madness.

Perfect for siring children, or so she had thought.

So when her father, the previous Clan Head had started talking about how it was time for Mikoto to be married off to an appropriate cousin (the Uchiha clan was thankfully large enough that there were plenty of second-cousins and cousins by marriage to choose from so they could more easily avoid the Hyuuga problem), her mother had taken her aside, and shown her the ways to ensure that she had chosen wisely. The most important thing, her mother had cautioned her, was that though in public she must always appear the dutiful traditional wife, her most important duty was the preservation of the Uchiha clan.

By whatever means necessary.

In another world, another lifetime, there had been another Uchiha Mikoto who had not been good friends with the Hokage. That Mikoto had seen an agent of the enemy Senju in the Hokage seat, an agent who was old, wily, and had re-seized power rather than giving it up to someone younger and more able. That Mikoto had seen a Hokage plotting against her clan. So when her Fugaku came to her saying that the elders thought that a Coup was the only answer, she had supported him with everything in her being, until she had realised that she had over-reached, putting her son in an untenable position, and so had accepted the consequences of her actions. Hoping the next generation would be able to fix her mistakes.

But this was not that Uchiha Mikoto.

This Uchiha Mikoto was a widow, because when she had questioned her Fugaku’s reasoning, had pointed out that the clan was not as alienated as he said, that Minato had offered them concession after concession at her bidding so long as they led to integrating the Uchiha better with the rest of the village after those… rumours after the Kyuubi attack…

 Fugaku had shown her that he had forgotten that she wasn’t some civilian.

His death had not been by her hand, but to say she had no hand in it would be… misleading.

She had done it for her sons. Her sons that she obviously loved better than Fugaku had, for he had tried to turn Itachi into an unfeeling weapon. He might have succeeded, had Mikoto not had such a staunch ally in dear Minato. Why, she only had to confide in him that she wanted better for her eldest than for him to be another iteration of that poor Hatake boy, and she had not needed to explain further.

Truly, Kushina’s taste in men had been exemplary- Mikoto would have to congratulate her when they met again in the next life.

In any case, Mikoto had worked so hard to ensure that her sons would be able to grow up strong, but well-rounded, so that they would have hopes and dreams, and not just be mindless killing machines. She wanted a strong Uchiha Clan, not to be in charge of a family of Root.

But now someone had done something to her Itachi. Dear Minato had said that the current theory was some kind of advanced brainwashing.

Mikoto would never have believed it if she had not seen the lost look in her son’s eyes when Sasuke (and even he had looked uncharacteristically grim- he too could see the changes in his brother) had walked him back from the hospital. She knew that sometimes missions went bad. She had been a jonin kunoichi herself, she knew the risks.

But all of the rationalisations and foreknowledge in the world could not have prepared her for how haunted Itachi had looked when he had seen her. He had gone through the motions over dinner, and then when she had tried to draw him aside, he had made motions that in another person would have involved flinching and running for their room.

Mikoto was startled.

Her boys had never hesitated to talk to her after a mission, no matter how bad it had been.

For Itachi to have shut down entirely like this…

At least he was still talking to Shisui. She had felt them both on the roof the night before, and the next morning, Shisui had come discreetly to speak to her.

He had reported without her prompting him.

Shisui was a good boy. There were good reasons why he was her favourite nephew.

“Whatever happened has thrown Itachi for a loop. He acted like he hadn’t seen me in years, despite the fact that he saw me off on my mission six weeks ago. I know you’re worried Aunt.” Shisui had paused then, clearly choosing his words. “I think it’s warranted.”

Mikoto nodded grimly, and served them both tea, using the blue ceramic that she knew Shisui favoured.

“I don’t have to tell you to keep an eye on him,” she had said in reply.

Shisui nodded, and stared moodily out the window as his tea cooled.

“When I have something to tell you, I will,” he promised. He didn’t mention the seal-less shunshin, yet. There might be a logical explanation for that yet, which didn’t involve whatever had Itachi walking about looking as though he was surrounded by ghosts.

Some might not have noticed, since Itachi was not naturally expressive, but his family could tell.

“Have you thought about what to tell Sasuke?” Shisui asked.

Mikoto sighed, something that she would never do in public unless for dramatic effect. “We tell him what he needs to know. Someone hurt his brother, and he needs his support. He needs to know that all of us will support him.” Mikoto drew herself up, eyes flashing, and Shisui had to resist a flinch when her teacup cracked in her hand. “We will find out who did this to him, and then there will be retribution,” she stated baldly. “Help me Shisui.”

“With pleasure, Aunt,” Shisui replied. “In the meantime, though, I think perhaps Itachi needs his own space. He looks like he keeps expecting Fugaku to walk in the door. He’s not relaxed here, and that’s what he needs- relaxation.”

Mikoto frowned. “I don’t want him alone in that apartment of his. What if something happens? What if he…” she trailed off, rather than say what she really feared.

Shisui thought on this for a moment.

“Well, we could always have Sasuke stay with him. That way there’s someone there, but Itachi won’t feel like he’s being watched.”

Mikoto regarded her nephew for a moment and then nodded. It went without saying that Sasuke would be in no danger from Itachi, no matter how confused he seemed.

Taking care of Sasuke was part of who Itachi was.

No amount of brainwashing could possibly change that. Itachi would never do something to Sasuke that he didn’t think was for Sasuke’s benefit.

“It’s decided then,” said Mikoto. “I’ll insist they have dinner here every night, but otherwise, I’ll give him some space. You think it’s for the best?” she asked, the expression in her eyes telling Shisui that she already knew the answer.

“Yes, Aunt.” Shisui didn’t have to tell Mikoto that for some reason Itachi was doing his best to specifically avoid her. Even if she had been only a civilian mother, that much would have been obvious.

“Very well. I’ll give him at least some space, but if there’s no improvement after a few weeks, we’ll speak again.”

As Shisui left, Mikoto carefully set aside her cracked teacup, and poured herself fresh tea into another cup.

She would do anything for her sons.

No matter how long it took, she would make sure that Itachi remembered that.

….

Chapter Text

 

The apartment was strange, and Itachi had never lived there before (he knew this, despite his family’s assurances that he was wrong). Since he had no memories of such a place, it was rather odd being led to an apartment that perfectly matched his tastes. Some of the knick-knacks Itachi even recognised as his belongings that he had left behind him when he had fled Konoha after the massacre – heirlooms and keep-sakes that looked older and slightly more worn than the last time he had seen them, though the things neatly placed about (not scattered, Itachi was more precise than that) were not limited to these. In particular, Itachi noted a slightly wobbly example of calligraphy with Sasuke’s hanko signature framed on one wall (a haiku that Itachi had long been fond of), a sinfully-soft blanket on the corner of a very comfortable couch, and a very nice fan with a flock of ravens painted onto it in red and black. Itachi had no recollection of these items whatsoever, and they were not things he would have procured for himself. They were however, things he could easily imagine being gifted or encouraged to buy by people who knew his tastes. Again, Itachi was struck by the fact that this level of detail added evidence that his experiences here were real, and not the product of his own, or someone else’s mind.

 The oddest thing however, was that Itachi was not unfamiliar with the building. Before, he knew that it had contained one Uzumaki Naruto’s apartment (back when Itachi had been in ANBU, the Uzumaki Protection Detail was a consistently standing mission that those who required a bit of downtime were rotated into). Considering that in this reality (wherever it might be sourced,) Namikaze Minato was still alive, Itachi was unsurprised to discover that the jinchuriki was not his neighbour. To his carefully concealed delight, he did not even need to subtly interrogate Sasuke as to the location of the kid, as “That Idiot Namikaze” frequently came up whenever Sasuke talked about his Academy classes. Apparently Sasuke had a long-held rivalry with the Hokage’s son, and freely started complaining in an informative way about how even though Naruto rarely paid attention in class, and occasionally skipped, he was still able to keep up “annoyingly” well with Sasuke, (who as in Itachi’s memories was still the top Academy student in his class).

Itachi was even more delighted when he figured out that Sasuke’s annoyance was mostly for show, and that unlike the often bitter but close rivalry he had seen before, here, Sasuke and Naruto seemed to fight for the fun of it, and to drive everyone else around them a bit insane.

(Itachi was especially amused when he realised later that some of the rivalry was actually played-up to cover for the fact that Sasuke sometimes acted as an alibi for Naruto when he was pulling off a particularly elaborate prank – apparently none of the Academy teachers had yet cottoned-on that the two were partners in crime.)

It was good (a relief really,) to see his normally foolish little brother actually showing some taste in his associates. Naruto was the one person that Itachi had always trusted to have his brother’s best interests in heart, and Itachi suspected that with his father the Yondaime being around to be a good influence, Naruto might even be better for his brother than he remembered. Last time, Itachi knew, Naruto had only cared so much for his brother because they had been team-mates, and the kid was nothing if not clingy like a particularly brightly-coloured burr when it came to people that he liked.

On the other hand, this time, it sounded like Naruto was almost as popular as Sasuke. So the fact that Sasuke and he still had a friendship, (his brother could call it rivals all he wanted, but Itachi could tell the difference,) even now, before they were likely to be put onto a team together…

Itachi was very pleased indeed.

Memories of the building in his past life aside, Itachi had initially been somewhat surprised that his mother and Shisui had apparently conspired together and decided that it would be best for him to live in “his own” apartment. Their logic did not at first quite make sense to him, as he knew that both of them wanted to keep an eye on him- after all, the consensus seemed to be that he was unstable, with the agreed-upon story apparently being brainwashing (Itachi had his doubts about this explanation, but saw no need to correct those who believed it, for now).

However, once he realised that Sasuke was moving in with him for a while, he felt a little grudging respect at their shrewdness. It was well-established in both worlds apparently (and backed up by his most recent psych-eval from his debriefing with the Yamanaka) that protecting Sasuke was one of Itachi’s core principles. Thus, Itachi could see that they intended to set him at ease, and have someone who would report immediately if his behaviour began to deviate from the norm. By watching his mother’s expressions, and reading in between the lines of her words, Itachi could tell that Sasuke was supposed to be his anchor.

Itachi knew all of this, and yet, this did not make the strategy any less effective. Itachi had almost forgotten how good his mother was at manipulation.

Having Sasuke practically within arm’s reach, being able to watch over him, even as his little brother carefully watched him was a luxury that Itachi had desperately missed. Actually having the time to teach Sasuke all the things he wanted, whenever they wanted, was a luxury that Itachi had never had before, even in his previous life, barring one time when he had been put on leave until his broken collar-bone healed when Itachi was eleven.

Itachi had always loved teaching his little brother things, just for Sasuke’s adorable expressions.

(Just like he had remembered, only more vivid, and mixed with occasional semi-successful attempts to revert to a controlled Uchiha mask- again, Itachi realised that this level of detail meant the theory that this was all a genjutsu made no sense).

Itachi loved Sasuke’s adorable expressions.

Sasuke’s smile whenever Itachi could say ‘yes’, (yes, he would teach him, yes, he would spend time with him, yes, Itachi valued his little brother more than anyone else in the world, no matter if he was entirely convinced it was real or not).

Sasuke’s gritted teeth of determination whenever he struggled to acquire a new skill.

Sasuke’s smirk whenever he accomplished a new hard-won skill (and it was always hard-won, because Itachi was an exacting teacher who expected perfection before he would say, “well done”).

Sasuke’s eyes glinting whenever he (foolishly) thought he had pulled one over on his big brother.

And of course, Itachi’s not-so-secret favourite expression.

Sasuke’s scowl whenever Itachi tormented him.

Foolish little brothers could be so much fun to poke.

 Sadly for Itachi, he was not able to properly enjoy the next time Sasuke pouted.

“But Kaa-san,” Sasuke whined, at dinner four days after he and Itachi had moved to the apartment, “I want to spend more time with Itachi! He’ll get lonely if I’m not around all day.”

“Sasuke,” his mother said calmly, “you skipped three days of the Academy already last week. This is the year you are supposed to graduate. If you keep skipping, you’re not only going to lose your top spot at the Academy, you might also have trouble graduating at all.”

“But…” Sasuke protested, looking half-hopefully, half-worriedly at Itachi.

As pleased as Itachi was that Sasuke wanted to spend more time with him, he knew that if he ever wanted to get any peace whatsoever, he was going to have to put his foot down now. He knew his temptation to cling to Sasuke would be seen as potentially suspicious, and the last thing Itachi wanted was to be watched even more closely than he was already. More than that, he most certainly did not want to be the one to hold Sasuke back. No. Never that.

“Sasuke,” he said calmly, speaking for the first time at dinner that night, and causing the entire table (his mother, Shisui and his little brother) to turn to look at him. “I’ll be fine. I don’t want you skipping class for me.”

Sasuke’s pout grew more pronounced, but Itachi remained firm.

“Besides,” he added, “I start my… counselling,” (sympathetically-phrased interrogation really, but now was not the time to be hair-splitting on that point,) “sessions soon anyway.”

Sasuke’s lip trembled a bit, causing all three senior Uchiha to carefully hide their amusement that he thought he could pull one over on them with such a civilian trick.

Rather than bothering to tell him to pack it in, Shisui pointed out that he had decided to take some leave, since he “was about due for a holiday anyway.”

Upon realising that Itachi was unlikely to be left alone in his absence, Sasuke relented.

A little, at least. He looked as though he might have whined if he had thought it would be an effective tactic, but their mother had given Sasuke a look and he had quickly subsided.

It was so strange, Itachi thought, to have members of his family showing such concern for him. Even before the massacre, Itachi had always felt as though his own family had bought too much into the propaganda that his father had spread about him- that he was a genius. A perfect shinobi. The pipeline between the village and the Clan.

Sometimes he had thought perhaps his mother worried, but she had always seemed mostly resigned to his child-eyes (and yes, he realised now that despite his experience and skills with murder and subterfuge at the time he had nonetheless still been a child). Now, perhaps because he was a lot better at reading people, perhaps because she was not attempting to hide it as much, (or even, he thought in the darkest most secret corner of his mind, because for some reason his mother just loved him better when someone else was writing the world he experienced,) he could see the deep concern that leaked around the edges of her proper Uchiha matriarch mask.

He still was not sure if he believed in the events happening before his eyes. It all seemed too good to be true, in the very worst of senses. Itachi knew from experience that the world did not exist to give him nice things. Expecting good things to happen to him was something that he had learnt long ago was a dangerous thing to do, because it gave him hope.

Considering that the last time he had really hoped for something before his death it had been for Sasuke to grow up to be a worthy, strong shinobi who could kill Itachi and find closure…

Well, suffice to say that Itachi was used to profound disappointment.

Chapter Text

Perhaps because he was waiting patiently for the trap to spring, despite (because) the growing evidence that Itachi was in an impossibly idyllic scenario that he could not have hoped for beyond his wildest dreams, Itachi could not relax, and had frequent insomnia, the likes of which he had rarely suffered before.

Because of this, drinking tea in the dark of the too-early morning hours with Shisui on the rooftop was an almost-nightly ritual.

The same night that Sasuke was told that he would have to return to the Academy, Itachi took a chance and did something that he had badly wanted to do for a number of nights before.

Opening up to Shisui.

Before Shisui’s suicide, Itachi had always trusted him. His elder cousin was his only confidant, and they had grown especially close in the time when they had realised that they might be the last two loyal fighting-age Uchiha left.

So, Itachi decided to test this Shisui. See if he could trust him like the one he had known before.

He had considered the plan over the last few days, and decided that there was little risk in this plan.

The worst case scenario would not put him in a worse position than he already potentially was in, be this real or not.

The two of them had been sitting together companionably for a good twenty minutes when Itachi decided to go forward with his little test.

“Hypothetically,” Itachi said without preamble, “if you woke up in a foreign dungeon with your last memory being of dying, and then you keep seeing people that you know for a fact are dead, some of whom you know you killed, because you killed them with your own two hands, then what do you assume has happened?”

Shisui, who had clearly been expecting another hour of the two of them sitting mostly silently together on the rooftop together, had not twitched or tensed like a civilian or a genin might have, but Itachi knew he had still taken him pretty thoroughly off guard.

Good, Itachi thought. This way there was a better chance that Shisui’s reactions would be more honest, since if he intended manipulation, he would have to think up a strategy on the fly.

“Hypothetically?” Shisui questioned him, his tone carefully flat, looking him straight in the eyes.

“Hypothetically,” Itachi returned, tone equally measured as he held his elder cousin’s gaze.

Shisui considered him for a few long moments, then looked back out across the dark silhouettes of the nearby rooftops.

“The theory that I was briefed with is that you were brainwashed by the enemy,” Shisui said bluntly.

Itachi sighed. So that was how he wanted to play it. Still, that answer was not necessarily only consistent with Shisui lying to him. Thus far no theory that Itachi had come up with was without flaws. The brainwashing one was an idea he had discarded earlier, and he decided that it would not hurt to explain his reasoning.

“That had occurred to me as an option,” he thus admitted to his cousin, “but then there’s a slight problem with that theory.”

“Ah?” Shisui raised an eyebrow.

“Detail,” said Itachi. “I assure you, that the sheer level of detail that is involved in this genjutsu, if that is indeed what it is, including details that no one could possibly think of as important- I know how Hoshigake Kisame takes his tea. I could give you a list of villages where it’s impossible to get pocky, and I know Ame like the back of my hand. Things like this, and I have 8 years’ worth of it in my head, Shisui. I can remember what Konoha would be like if the Yondaime had died when the Kyuubi attacked, and the Sandaime was reinstated. I remember Sasuke being…”Itachi inhaled a slightly choked-off breath, and realised to his shock that he was crying. He hadn’t cried since he was 13 and he had murdered his parents and damaged Sasuke permanently… and watched as Shisui had torn out his own eye before throwing himself from the cliff into the river.

And now, since he had woken up, after he died, after Sasuke had tried (and failed, poor foolish little brother,) to kill him, it was like none of that had happened.

Well when he put it like that, Itachi supposed that he had reason enough for feeling a bit… emotionally turbulent. Moreover, he realised with the part of his brain that was dedicated to all things shinobi, including manipulation, showing weakness here suited his purposes far better than not.

If this wasn’t Shisui, then they might think that he had broken, and thus be less careful around him, or even cut to the chase.

If this really was Shisui…

His cousin was one of the few that Itachi had ever trusted enough to show his deeper emotions. His honest reaction solidified his cover if this was false, and was something he would have allowed anyway if this was true.

(Sometimes, Itachi wondered what it was like to not hide his suspicions with lies based on honesty, or half-truths, or outright bald-faced bullshit. It had been so long since he had had the luxury of a situation like that, where he could just be honest with no other intentions or plans or agendas to further, no underneath his underneath that Itachi wasn’t sure he actually remembered how to just have a reaction without a voice in the back of his head comparing it to his cover. Sometimes, Itachi had to admit to himself that he was more than a little bit fucked up.)

“Kami above,” Shisui breathed, his eyes widening in alarm as his normally stoic cousin went from crying silently to chuckling hysterically, the most disturbing part being how quiet he kept himself, unconsciously keeping himself from waking those sleeping (especially Sasuke, always Sasuke, Shisui knew that no matter how twisted up his cousin had become, Itachi would cheerfully cut out his own eyes if he thought Sasuke needed it).

Shisui reached out (slowly, so as not to startle him,) and pulled Itachi against his shoulder in an awkward embrace.

“Breathe, little cousin,” Shisui whispered, using a term of endearment he hadn’t used in years as he gently rocked Itachi against himself. “Breathe.”

“Have I gone mad, Shisui?” Itachi asked him, in between gasping breaths. “Is this a dream? An illusion? None of it makes any sense. It’s like I lived an entire life, and now I’m in someone else’s. Some other Itachi’s life…” Shisui felt Itachi suddenly stiffen.

An inkling of a thought had occurred to Itachi then. And like all inklings of thoughts that Itachi had, it took milliseconds for him to explore the idea in its entirety, compare it to his previously held hypotheses, and then reject or hold onto it based on the evidence he had available to him.

Shisui waited patiently as his cousin got distracted. Itachi had been acting particularly erratic since he had returned, and if he needed a moment to gather his thoughts, Shisui would give it to him.

Perhaps given a chance to gather his thoughts, Itachi would tell him something that would allow Shisui to help him.

Meanwhile, Itachi’s brain practically buzzed with inadvertently realised implications. A stupid, impossible idea had occurred to him.

But as Itachi had learned, sometimes, the world did not make sense, because one did not have vital information.

And in a situation like that, the only thing one could do was be open to possibilities and new intelligence.

This was a mindset that had saved his life more than once, because it allowed Itachi to be infinitely adaptable despite his tendency towards carefully controlled logic.

(It was also a mindset that had occasionally got him into a great deal of trouble, but that was more because Itachi sometimes completely missed cues that an individual with a more normal upbringing might find obvious.)

Itachi had not often had time to read fiction when he was a child, but as a missing-nin, he had often had long periods with little or nothing to fill his time with except for training. Especially when his illness had begun to creep up on him, he had developed a more passive hobby to while away the time with, and that involved reading whatever books he could get his hands upon. Itachi preferred technical manuals and histories if given choice in reading material, but there had been that one time he had ‘borrowed’ a science-fiction novel from Tobi, which had included a number of short stories.

One of those stories had introduced the concept of alternate universes. ‘If’-worlds. Worlds that were extremely similar to the known one, differing only after lynch-pin events had occurred.

What if…

What if…

It was a completely insane thought.

Itachi knew this. He knew it like he knew that all things considered, he was not exactly a good picture of mental health.

But Itachi realised that the more he considered it, the more it felt right.

It explained… everything. The hypothesis fit the facts as he knew them.

He had no idea of how this could have happened. He had no idea why this would have happened.

But all the same, Itachi suddenly realised, that this? This was the only explanation that made sense.

After all, once evidence had been collected, and other theories discarded, then the remaining explanation for the facts must be the best one available.

Somehow, he had taken over the life of another Itachi.

This wasn’t his world.

“What is it, Itachi?” Shisui asked him, sounding worried, bringing Itachi back into the moment.

And Itachi realised then that he could never tell anyone of this theory, because then they would know he was mad, because there was no way to prove this something that he felt, gut-deep, was true. Not even his favourite cousin, who in this world (this new world, this second chance, ripe with possibilities), was alive.

For the first time, possibly in years, Itachi relaxed, resting his forehead against Shisui’s shoulder.

“Shisui, I’ve been too full of hubris,” he said slowly. “It must be that there’s something or being out there that is stronger than a mere bearer of the Sharingan.” Itachi, like all good liars, knew that the best lie was one with truth in it. If he wanted to avoid being declared mentally incompetent, then he was going to have to play this one carefully. “Because I feel like I’ve lived a whole other life.” True. “Maybe I was an experiment.” Potentially true in both worlds- he didn’t know what had sent him here. “Maybe I was an accident.” Potentially true. “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to escape then.” Definitely true, from Sound’s perspective.

But when taken together? All of those sentences created the lie that Itachi was going to have to swear to until his deathbed, in front of all manner of concerned counsellors and interrogators.

(And what luck, his first counselling session was tomorrow. Itachi could now relax even more, because he finally had figured out the underneath of the underneath of his cover story – he was damaged, but going to be fine, and now Itachi had hope, dangerous hope that this might even be true.)

Oh, and doubles of his family members. They would be the ones watching him the closest. Itachi’s cover was going to have to be perfect and in part, it was because he did not want them to worry.

(Second chance, second chance, Itachi was not going to waste this.)

Shisui patted his back awkwardly, but Itachi could feel the tension that his carefully chosen words were inciting.

“…I think I’m going to need some time off,” Itachi admitted. Time to recuperate. Time to gather information, so he could pretend to be this other Itachi. Time to learn about why this world was so different from his, and to learn things that he needed to get right to ensure he didn’t blow his cover.

And most importantly:

Time to regain the confidence that had no doubt been lost in how mentally competent he appeared, as no doubt he had appeared deranged over the last few days to these people.

“Yamanaka Tsubaki spoke to me,” Shisui stated, and Itachi could hear the relief in his tone since Itachi had calmed again. (Yes, relax cousin/not-my-cousin-but-close-enough-I-don’t-care-because-I-missed-you.) “She said that it was unlikely that you would be allowed back on duty until you had undergone months counselling and mandatory psych testing.”

Itachi nodded against Shisui’s shoulder, and then looked up into his cousin’s face, a wry smile on his lips.

“That may be for the best,” he allowed, and truly, he was not just saying that, for it dovetailed nicely with his freshly-made plans. “How long did she think it would take?”

Shisui shook his head. “She said considering the depth of your trauma,” he said rather bluntly, “it would at least be six months before they would let you take the testing.” He smiled suddenly, though his eyes remained concerned. “But just think, that way you know for sure that you’ll be around when Sasuke graduates the Academy, since that’s only about four and a half months away.”

Well there was an unexpected and unlooked-for bonus.

Last time, he had missed that particular milestone event.

(And considering that even before, to get his father to Sasuke’s acceptance ceremony, Itachi had needed to resort to being very blunt indeed to push a family member into acknowledging Sasuke on an occasion that he needed it, and after, Itachi had removed all chance of there being someone who might remember and be able to go… suffice to say, it would take a rather important emergency indeed to keep Itachi from attending Sasuke’s graduation this time around in person, rather than with a meticulously henged kage-bunshin.)

This time…

Itachi’s smile shifted from wry to slightly more genuine.

Shisui smirked. “See? This is how I know you’re going to be alright. You’re still Sasuke’s overly-doting big brother.” He stood, and offered Itachi a completely unnecessary hand up.

“Come on, little cousin. We both need some sleep. With luck, things will look clearer in the morning.”

Itachi accepted the hand, and allowed Shisui to escort him back to his bedroom, not bothering to pretend that he didn’t notice that as had happened the last few nights his cousin was making sure that was where he was actually going.

As Itachi laid back down and began to drift off to sleep though however, he had a dark thought.

Perhaps Shisui was correct in that Itachi would be alright, and more importantly, be able to convince others that he was so.

But there was one thing that Shisui had wrong.

Itachi might still dote over Sasuke, in any form.

But he knew that he wasn’t the same brother.

Did it matter? Should it matter? Second chance, second chance, don’t fuck it up this time.

These thoughts and others in a similar vein ran through Itachi’s mind, but he squashed them ruthlessly.

Poorly-timed epiphany aside, this conversation was a test, to see if Shisui would keep his confidences, amongst other things. Itachi would have to wait and see what the outcome was.

It was then that he realised something that made his control over his already turbulent emotions (both real and exaggerated for Shisui’s benefit – as usual, the best lies had a grounding of truth to them,) nearly slip.

Itachi had started to hope again.

And that terrified him.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, when Itachi woke up, the first thing he saw was Sasuke’s smile, a sight that still startled him, a sight that made him want to smile back. This was an innocent Sasuke. A Sasuke who didn’t know what it was to expect the world to hurt him. A Sasuke who had not had his spirit or heart broken.

A Sasuke who didn’t realise that his big brother had been replaced with a stranger.

Despite this, Itachi could see the small shadow in Sasuke’s eyes. The shadow of worry.

Worry that Itachi realised was entirely on his behalf.

Worry that was dimming Sasuke’s smile.

Having caused the smile to go forever away once, Itachi had no desire to do it again.

If Sasuke ever realised that he was not the same big brother Itachi, then maybe…

Oh Kami. The consequences did not even bear thinking about. Best case scenario, Itachi would have to go on the run again as a missing-nin, or be imprisoned as an imposter.

It was then, as he realised this, that Itachi made a decision.

If this was real, he needed to ensure that no one ever doubted he was really Uchiha Itachi.

If this was real, then this Sasuke needed the support of his big brother.

Itachi convincing everyone he was Itachi would thus kill two enemies with one jutsu.

Itachi’s favourite kind of plan – a mutually beneficial one that achieved multiple goals.

Itachi was going to get the role right this time if it killed him.

For both their sakes.

Having come to this conclusion, Itachi accepted the cup of tea that his little brother had so thoughtfully poured for him, (so few people realised that Itachi was not a morning person without his first cup of tea, since his sullenness tended to blur into his usual reserve,) drank it, and then offered to make breakfast for them both.

Sasuke’s smile grew stronger when Itachi made him miso soup and onigiri with a diced tomato and parsley salad on the side.

(Itachi was onto his third cup of tea by the end making the food, but he could literally handle knives in his sleep, so it was no big deal.)

Good, thought Itachi. Sasuke’s favourites were still the same. Now to figure out if Itachi’s favourites were also the same, before he tripped up on some vital fact he should know.

It was in this context, that Itachi heard a knock on the door, received a genin-delivered message, and learned his first counselling session was going to occur in two days.

Itachi didn’t panic.

He didn’t.

Panicking was for civilians and genin.

No, Itachi did not panic, but he did realise that he needed to get his cover story right, and yesterday.

Unfortunately, Itachi could not go about asking questions about his cover.

He was going to have to be… subtle.

Somehow, he was going to have to figure out all the things that were common knowledge, without actually asking about it, because that would be a dead giveaway.

“Itachi? Are you…”

Itachi looked up from the message to see Sasuke hanging in the doorway, brow wrinkled.

Itachi tried not to find it too adorable, and then realised that Sasuke was concerned about him, and the urge to find the wrinkled brow cute immediately vanished.

“I’m fine. Just…” what would be a good word to use to describe how he felt about the impending counselling session that would not cause Sasuke to worry more? Itachi decided to not try to find one, and instead went for honesty. “It has been a long time since I last went to counselling.”

Sasuke’s brow-wrinkle deepened. “But, I thought… but you went to counselling after Father’s death, and that was only five years ago.”

“…” Itachi didn’t respond to Sasuke aloud, and quickly looked away so that his brother couldn’t see his face as one word ran through his mind.

WHAT!?

His father was dead? His father had been dead for five years?

Well, Itachi had wondered why they had not run into each other yet.

Death was a pretty good reason for absence, he thought half-hysterically.

Wait, five years ago. Sasuke had just turned 12. Five years ago Sasuke was 7, which was when the Massacre had happened.

So wait…

What did this mean?

Was it significant that his father had died in the same year on both worlds?

Had the Coup been attempted?

It can’t have. Itachi had seen how many Uchiha were walking about, and the citizens of Konoha did not seem to treat Uchiha like lepers (like they had at times just before the Massacre) so obviously there was no stigma. So no Coup.

But then why?

How?

So many questions, and Itachi could not ask a single one of them, because if he did, then Sasuke would immediately be suspicious, or worse, he would immediately know that Itachi was an imposter, and not the brother he had grown up with.

It was beyond frustrating.

“Itachi? Big brother? Are you alright?” Itachi looked up to see Sasuke reaching out a hand to him, but pausing, as though he knew better than to touch Itachi when he was upset like this.

Itachi supposed that maybe he did.

Itachi slowed his breathing, and then realised that he had been on the edge of a panic attack. Again. He really had to get a handle on this shit before he got branded as being unstable.

If he was honest with himself, (though with this at least, he tried not to be,) Itachi knew that he was not a good picture of mental health even at the best of times.

But there was a difference between being not quite right in the head, and being out of control.

“Sorry,” he said, looking down. “I…” inhale, exhale. “I’m fine.”

Sasuke looked unconvinced.

“I can stay home from the Academy for a few more days...”

Itachi scoffed, and ruffled Sasuke’s hair, entertained by how his brother slapped at his hands and squirmed like a cranky kitten trying to get away.

“No you can’t. Mother would fillet me for letting you skive off,” Itachi retorted. Then he shrugged. “Want me to walk you there?”

Itachi expected Sasuke to scowl at him, to tell Itachi that Sasuke wasn’t a baby, and other such things.

Instead, Sasuke opened his mouth as though he was about to do just as Itachi had predicted, but then he paused, closed his mouth, and then after a moment, smiled.

“Sure. Come on Bro, or you’ll make me late.”

Huh, Itachi thought. It would seem that he had underestimated how little Sasuke wanted to let him out of his sight.

He carefully suppressed the smile that accompanied the sudden warm feeling in his chest at the thought.

He supposed that it didn’t matter that Sasuke had called his bluff.

For one thing, time was something he had a great deal of at the moment.

For another, the Academy was in the exact opposite direction to the Records Library. Itachi needed an alibi, and if he sent a shadow clone under henge to the Library, his real self being in a place surrounded by people who could say he was there, including sensors, was simply sensible thinking.

He needed to figure out what the hell was the history of this world.

What was the same? What was different?

He needed to know, and yesterday.

On the way to the Academy, Itachi let (subtly encouraged) Sasuke to run ahead around a particular blind corner. Itachi knew that he was being watched, but also knew that if he timed it right, he could drop a clone in the bushes, and unless he was unlucky enough that his watcher was a Hyuuga, his watched wouldn’t notice.

It was a risk, but it was a risk Itachi was willing to take.

He dropped the clone without missing a step, and kept walking as though nothing had happened as his clone masked itself, changed its appearance to that of a bland-looking chunin Itachi had seen at the hospital wearing a medic-nin patch, and shunshinned off to do Itachi’s bidding.

Shadow clones were a pain, but oh-so useful.

Itachi was a little perturbed though when he realised just how much that jutsu had taken out of him. That felt like almost two thirds of his chakra, and it had only been one clone.

Right, that settled it.

As soon as he’d dropped his brother off at the Academy, Itachi was going to solidify his alibi by going to the training grounds and checking his conditioning.

Because he remembered how Sasuke had called him a chunin (which technically, he had never risen above in his other life, except that making ANBU captain meant that once he had left ANBU he would have been given an instant promotion when he left).

He hoped that his intuition on this was wrong.

But he was starting to get a sneaking suspicion that this body was not as badass as his previous one.

If that was so, then he would be fixing that.

Because even though this body felt a thousand times better than his old disease-ridden one, not being in the best condition that was within his ability to achieve irked him.

“Bye Big Brother, I’ll see you later!” came Sasuke’s voice, distracting Itachi from his thoughts.

He let a smile hit his face, and waved to his brother, as he entered the Academy with a gaggle of what looked like an entire generation of clan heirs.

Itachi wondered how much of that had been strategic, and then wondered if a civilian would find it weird that ninja clans would try to synch up giving birth to ensure their offspring had the best chance at being in a cohort of strong peers.

Speaking of peers…

A woman, about his age (well, his body’s age at any rate,) with Inuzuka triangle tattoos on her face, wearing shorts and a white med-nin jacket was shooing an Inuzuka boy about Sasuke’s age towards the Academy building. Itachi took a moment to admire her legs, which those shorts she wore displayed to perfection, and the long brown hair that was almost as long and well-kept as a Hyuuga’s (an unusual trait in an Inuzuka- usually they tended towards short scruffy spikes).

Itachi nearly tripped over when he realised who it was- he hadn’t seen her since they were children.

“Itachi?”

Moments later, he was engulfed in a furry hug that smelled like wet dog.

He resisted the urge to sneeze.

Then, before he had time to eel his way out of her grasp, she punched him.

Well, she tried to. Itachi caught her punch with slightly more effort than he remembered needing, (oh he was so going to train, this had the potential to be infuriating,) and barely resisted the urge to smirk as she growled at him.

“You asshole!”

Itachi raised an eyebrow.

Now this might be interesting.

Chapter Text

Inuzuka Hana seethed as she attempted to extract her hand from Itachi’s.

“Damnit Itachi!” she spat. “Let go of my hand and let me punch you!”

The bastard, who had previously raised a single eyebrow when she had attempted to hit him was now giving her double-eyebrow.

That made her pause.

Hana had known Itachi for years, and so was better-versed than most when it came to reading his so-called “expressionless” face.

Sure, Itachi’s expressions were subtle, but when you were able to pick-up scent clues as well, most Uchiha became a lot easier to read. Of course, they knew that, and so tended to employ scent-masking jutsu once they had reached a certain level of proficiency, but since Hana had known Itachi since they were in the Academy together, she had had time to figure out what each micro-expression meant.

Single eyebrow, she had expected. Single eyebrow raised tended to indicate surprise. Depending on how much it was raised, and the angle Itachi’s head was tilted at, single eyebrow could mean everything from “Huh, alright, you have my attention” to a flat “what the fuck do you think you’re doing.”

Hana was well aware of this, and so she had been more than a little irritated. Itachi had been home for days and he had neglected to tell her that he was alright. She knew that he had a habit of secluding himself when he was injured, so a long time ago, when they had been on a genin team together for a season before Itachi had been promoted, she had made him promise to come and see her after missions, just so that she could check on him.

Itachi had originally tried to be a male about it, but she had worn him down. Inuzuka were nothing if not patient. It came of being a clan of hunters. You followed your prey until they were tired, frightened, and making mistakes, and then you pounced.

So when she had seen single eyebrow, she had been insulted. He was the one who had broken their deal.

Double eyebrow though… double eyebrow was something she had not been expecting.

When both eyebrows were raised, Itachi was genuinely taken aback.

And Hana could not think of a reason why that would be so.

“Come on,” she said finally. “You owe me barbeque.”

“I… do?” Itachi said, obviously lost.

Kami, what the hell had happened to him? Hana had heard a few rumours, and the word “brainwashing” had featured, but to her, this looked more like amnesia.

“You skipped out on the bill last time, remember?” she said, instead of asking him what the hell was going on.

“I… did?” Itachi’s confusion did not seem to be diminishing, but his tone was mildly sceptical.

Hana nodded, baring her teeth in something that was decidedly not a smile.

What the hell was going on here?

If it was anyone else, she would think that he was faking ignorance to blow her off, but this was Itachi. He never bothered with that kind of ploy. Normally he was reliable, to the point that this sudden scattered confusion was…

 If she didn’t know better, then Hana would think that this was an imposter, but she knew that was ridiculous.

The rumours said that Itachi had been debriefed by a Yamanaka and an Aburame (and Hana had reason to suspect that these rumours were accurate, because otherwise members of both families would have objected most strenuously, to ensure that if a mistake had been made, it did not reflect back on them). Especially if it was the pair she suspected, (likely, because it was known that the Hokage was on rather good terms with Itachi’s terrifying mother,) there was no chance that someone who wasn’t Itachi would be able to get past them. Assuming she had not walked it before, the Yamanaka mind-walker would have been briefed on the “feel” of Itachi’s mind (in terms that made no sense unless you were a Yamanaka – Hana had dated one a while back, and she had tried to explain what walking through a mind was like, and Hana had sudden complete empathy for how others must feel when Inuzuka tried to explain a scent profile,) and the Aburame’s kikai would be able to taste Itachi’s chakra.

“You got called away for an urgent mission when we were half-way through our food,” she reminded him, and saw his hands relax very slightly, which told her that he had accepted her explanation. However, there was no accompanying dawning light of remembrance in his eyes. Itachi had accepted her explanation because it made sense to him, not because her words had allowed him to retrieve the memory.  

“You really don’t remember, do you,” she stated. “You don’t even remember why I’m angry with you right now.”

Itachi inclined his head in agreement, and Hana ignored that he was suggesting that she get on with it.

Hana could not believe that she had to do this. Itachi normally had a mind like a steel bear-trap baited with cyanide-laced honeycomb and armed with exploding tags.

For her to actually have to remind him of something…

Hana caught the glint of despair in Itachi’s eyes and decided that she needed to move this conversation forward. Itachi didn’t need scrutiny just now. (Not from her at least. He would be getting enough scrutiny for several lifetimes from the rest of the village, especially his mother. Uchiha Mikoto made Hana’s mother Tsume look downright laidback when she was in pursuit of a goal, and Tsume was known for being “dogged” even for an Inuzuka.)

So, in true Inuzuka spirit, she decided to throw him a bone, so that he could start grovelling.

“You made me a promise, years ago, that you would always visit me after missions, so that I could check if you were alright," she said, watching his face closely.

Well there was an “oh shit,” expression if she’d ever seen one. She caught his sidelong glance, and could tell that he was trying to figure out what to say to her.

Eventually, it seemed that he settled on something. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Huh. Now that she had not been expecting. Uchiha were not known apologising.

Though Itachi at least had almost always been at least polite, even before they had become battle-forged comrades (as opposed to just comrades, which was what every other nin in Konoha was until they had been on missions together – people you would die for, as opposed to people that you would trust with your life).

“…What have you even been doing since you came back?” Hana demanded. “You look physically fine.” She had a theory, but she wanted to see if he would confirm it, or if he would try to slither out of it. She wasn’t sure which one would bother her more.

Itachi sighed, and Hana was taken aback. She had never heard Itachi sound so tired before.

He looked her in the eye, and told her, “I’ve been taken off duty, pending psychiatric assessment.”

Holy shit he actually admitted it.

Hana gaped.

As long as she could remember, Itachi had always been a little… touchy about the topic of mental health. (One too many “jokes” about the Uchiha family insanity, she supposed, especially after what had happened to Fugaku.)

To hear him sounding so… resigned about it…

“Kami Itachi, what did they do to you?” she demanded, unconsciously echoing words he had heard more than once since waking up in this bizarre world.

Itachi let a bitter chuckle escape his lips, and Hana’s worry only increased.

“I’ll tell you over barbeque,” he said.

Hana nodded. “Fine. Your shout, since I got the last one,” she insisted.

Itachi just shrugged slightly, and started walking towards their favourite barbeque place.

Behind him, Hana was torn between smacking him in his stupid calm face, and grinning that at least in this, Itachi was acting normal.

Typical really. All Uchiha were notorious cat-people. (Some of them even had cat-summons, in case the impression needed any reinforcement).

Graceful, aloof, sadistic, sarcastic…

And Itachi was revered amongst them as some kind of prodigy, so he was extra Uchiha-like.

No wonder he drove her up the wall sometimes.

 

Chapter Text

Itachi could feel the eyes on him, and it made his skin itch.

It was unfortunate that Hana had confronted him in a public place like the front of the Academy, but since it had been obviously spontaneous (it wasn’t that Hana was incapable of scheming and manipulation, it was more that she generally didn’t bother when she was off-duty… at least, that was assuming that the Hana he remembered from when he was 13 hadn’t changed all that much in four years, and that the Hana from this world wasn’t all that different from his one, and damn it, he really needed to stop making assumptions about these people because he had no way of knowing what of their experiences would be different enough to change their behaviours, especially around himself…) Itachi couldn’t hold it against her.

Still, he was uncomfortably aware of Nara Shikaku dropping his son off, watching him through lazily half-lidded eyes, of the Hyuuga retainer not facing him, but standing as though daydreaming, and of various others, some subtly, some blatantly (especially the children from Sasuke’s class, but some civilians and older ninja who were too well-cemented in their good reputations within the village to bother with tradecraft when they didn’t have to were just as obvious,) but all watching him like he was a target.

He refused to acknowledge the stares, and spoke to Hana as though he was unaware of them. He knew that she was focussed only on him, and wondered what it must feel like to be able to relax that much, to trust one’s own village to the point that one wouldn’t bother to keep track of who was watching, weighing, judging when one was at home.

Itachi couldn’t remember if he had ever been able to do that. (Even amongst his family? Especially amongst his family. He was the Uchiha Heir, the “pipeline connecting clan and village” and then finally, “the one suspected of Shisui’s murder”. The fact that he was also apparently attractive or something meant that even when people didn’t know who he was, unless he was under a particularly thorough disguise, he never escapted scrutiny.) He supposed that some might think that was a bad thing, but it had come in too useful for his survival again and again over the years for him to ever really relax his vigilance.

  (Though honestly, the first time he had worn a big hat and farmer’s clothes to get close to a target, and had hidden his face with a thick scarf, he thought he had an inkling as to why Kakashi had always said that masks were extremely comfortable.)

It was so strange seeing Hana again, especially in the context of her being happy to see him. He had no frame of reference for the “promise” that his other self apparently made her in this world- he wondered when that had happened, and what had triggered it. He considered his options, and decided that it might be a very good idea to convince Hana to throw a party amongst their old comrades. If he could subtly encourage them to reminisce about things, at least he would be able to start getting a bit of a frame of reference for things he should know, and things that he needed to know.

But to start with, he was going to need to get Hana relaxed and unsuspicious. Her demand for barbeque was thus fortuitous. He would have to pause soon, to look at something, to ensure that she took the lead to “their favourite” barbeque place. It had been simple enough to point himself towards the restaurant district and walk like he knew where he was going, but he needed her to take the lead soon so he could maintain the illusion.

It was also fortunate that Itachi had found where his other self had stashed his cache of money (there was a lot more at the bank, but any ninja who was silly enough to keep all of their money in one place was just asking for trouble,) because otherwise it would be a little embarrassing to explain to Hana why exactly he would be unable to treat her after all. He could always stiff her with the bill, but he wanted her onside, and ducking out of paying twice in a row, especially if one of those times was on purpose was certainly not a good way to keep Hana onside.

Itachi didn’t really have all that many social skills that didn’t involve extracting information or keeping from insulting his team-mates to ensure team cohesiveness, but even he knew that basic one.

Itachi was wondering if he’d have to get a rock in his sandal to get a good reason for the pause in, when suddenly the two of them were interrupted by a girl in a way-too-tight cut-down kimono with purple hair that Itachi didn’t recognise.

“Itachi-babe! It’s so good to see you!”

Itachi blinked.

Oh hell.

This was awkward.

He glanced at Hana out the corner of his eye, and was half-relieved to see that she apparently didn’t recognise the girl either, judging by how flabbergasted she looked.

The wind changed, and Itachi was suddenly hit with a blast of over-scented perfume that practically screamed JASMINE. It nearly made him sneeze, he couldn’t imagine how bad it must be for Hana.

Fortunately, he didn’t need to come up with a brush-off that wouldn’t get him into trouble later if he actually did know the woman, because Hana (he was starting to really appreciate Hana) asked the question that Itachi was thinking.

“And who the fuck are you, exactly?”

The woman executed what she probably thought was a cute pout, but which came out more like a hungry pug’s expression.

“Oh Itachi, you didn’t tell her about little old me? I’m Murasaki Keiko.” She attempted to twine her arm into Itachi’s but he stepped back in instinctive horror.

Oh Kami help him, she was a fangirl. A fangirl that his other self had possibly slept with, judging by how smug she seemed. Itachi cursed inwardly, wondering just how drunk his other self must have had to be to encourage a woman like this. Or maybe his other self just had really, really trashy taste. Itachi decided then and there that it was fortunate that he had been given a blood-test at the hospital, because if he had had to go in to get himself tested for sexually transmitted diseases that he could not remember earning, he would have been mortified.

And from what the med-nin had said, his bloodwork was clear. Thank Kami for small favours. And now to ensure that the repellent woman went away and never came back. Cover be damned, he refused to be involved with… that.

“And why would I tell her about you?” Itachi asked flatly, as he continued to step away as the woman continued to try and touch him.

At this statement, Hana went from looking flabbergasted to curious.

Murasaki’s pout grew more pronounced. “B-but, Itachi, we had that wonderful night together!”

Itachi was not happy to have his worst fear confirmed. Well, second-worst fear. His worst fear had involved a long-term relationship, which would have been a serious problem. He might have had to apply judicious amounts of genjutsu to sort that particular nightmare out.

“And what was wonderful about it?” he wondered, softly enough that she might think that he did not mean for her to hear that.

Hana, with her Inuzuka hearing, of course heard him loud and clear, and looked like she was barely resisting snickering.

Itachi sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, uh… Mushigaki was it?” he said, hoping against hope that it had been a drunken one-night stand so that he could use that to explain why he had no recollection of the event.

The pout dropped, and was replaced by a furious glare.

“Don’t you pretend you don’t remember me in front of your girlfriend, Uchiha!”

Hana actually snorted aloud at this point. “Oh, he wishes.”

(Itachi was relieved that that possibility was off the table. As a good friend, Hana could be invaluable to him. As a lover, well… the situation right now was such that it would have been impossible for a lover to not notice that Itachi suddenly had no recollection of their relationship, and he really  didn’t want to deal with that level of drama.)

Murasaki ignored her and continued, “I know you know my name- you certainly called me by it often enough when you were escorting my father’s caravan to Grass last spring.”

Oh thank Kami and all the spirits. Itachi was going to have to go burn incense at some temples after this, because he knew he was not this lucky.

“Ah, mission,” Hana said, her expression for Murasaki one of realisation and almost-pity.

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?” Murasaki demanded shrilly.

Hana gave Itachi a speaking look, and he knew he had to handle this at least somewhat tactfully, or he would be in trouble.

He sighed. “I apologise if you thought our night together meant anything more,” he carefully didn’t include any details in his words, because the last thing he needed was to reference any events that might not have actually happened or give her (or Hana) any ideas, “but it was necessary for me to complete the parameters of my mission. It was nothing personal.”

“B-but I don’t understand!” Murasaki wailed. “You were so nice and polite to me, and you held my hand, and asked me about my problems, and then you held me until I fell asleep, and it was, it was…”

So. Much. Incense. Itachi was going to buy as much incense as he could carry, and burn it at as many shrines as he could think of. Because this? Itachi had to make a strong effort not to show the sheer relief that his other self had not slept with this woman. And this was why he needed intel, fast, to nip issues like this in the bud. It was a shame that he had never been the diary-keeping sort (in either world- he’d searched every possible place and come up relieved, frustrated and resigned when he found nothing), because that kind of intel in advance was the kind he would kill for right about now.

“Wait, wait, wait, so let me get this straight,” Hana said, her tone gleeful. “Your ‘wonderful night’ involved a glorified sleepover? Did you and Itachi braid each others’ hair? Kami, girl, the way you were talking, I thought that you’d slept with him or something, although honestly, this makes a lot more sense.”

The girl blushed, and along with her purple hair, it made her resemble an eggplant.

What!? What kind of lady of the night do you think I am! I will go to my marriage bed chaste!” Murasaki screeched.

“Oh sweetie,” Hana’s expression was torn between amusement and sympathy. “So you’re that kind of civilian, huh? Well I’m sorry to say it, but you never had a shot with him. You don’t have the right… equipment,” she waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Behind her, Itachi blinked. Did she just say…?

Murasaki apparently didn’t immediately get the message that Hana was delicately (for her,) trying to get across, as her brow wrinkled in thought as she attempted to find the meaning in Hana’s words.

Murasaki’s thinking face was considerably more attractive than her attempt at a cute pout, but Itachi was nonetheless relieved when the ryo dropped.

“Wait, you prefer men?” she demanded, turning to Itachi.

Sensing a possible end to this horrible incident, Itachi nodded jerkily.

Frankly, he would have admitted to having a taste for the fresh heart-blood of purple-haired babies if it would get this girl to go away.

Hmm. Maybe that could be the back-up plan.

“Oh,” Murasaki said, deflating.

“Apologies if I lead you on,” Itachi said calmly.

“N-no, that’s okay,” the girl said with a slight sniffle. “So I guess you’re going to reject the marriage contract my father was going to offer?”

Oh sweet Amaterasu.

“…” Itachi tried to think of a tactful way to say what he was thinking, but fortunately before he could start laughing hysterically, Hana stepped in.

“That would be a ‘no’, sweetie,” she said, not unkindly. “Now, Itachi and I have somewhere we have to be, so if you’ll excuse us…?” Without waiting for a response, Hana grabbed Itachi by the elbow and drew him away, walking quickly.

As soon as possible, she pulled them into an empty training ground.

And then started laughing so hard she nearly fell over.

“Baaahahahahahaha oh kami my sides!”

Itachi looked on, torn between amusement and mortification, before he sank down into a squat and put his face in his hands. If he was a different person, he might have been crying from sheer relief.

“That,” he said flatly, his words half-muffled by his hands, “might have been the most awkward conversation of my life.”

“Oh, I gathered, believe you me,” Hana chortled. “Your ‘I can’t remember you’ act was so good that you even had me fooled. For a second there I thought you might have had a drunken one-night stand with her or something.”

Itachi raised his head from his hands, and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh? But I only sleep with men, remember?” he said, deadpan.

Hana snorted. “Sorry, it was the first thing I could think of that would save her ego and get you out of that fix, and explaining to her that you’re equal-opportunity with your lovers was very much not going to convince her to leave you alone.”

Well thank kami that was the same in both worlds. It would have been more than a little awkward if he had discovered that his cover had different sexual preferences to him- and all things considered, despite how embarrassing that incident with the Murasaki-girl had been, at least now he knew.

“Still, a sleepover? What were you doing, trying to extract intel from her?”

Itachi shrugged. He honestly had no idea, and he had never tried that method before for information extraction. He supposed however that it made sense. He could fake charming when he needed to, and could see how that might have backfired with a girl like that, considering how she had looked at him.

“Mostly trying to distract her,” he replied vaguely. It could even be true.

Hana snickered. “Well I can see that it was a little too effective. A marriage contract? You’re lucky that the Uchiha Clan is loaded, well-connected, and that Mikoto is able to terrify the Council into leaving you be. Otherwise you might be stuck with that.”

Itachi nodded with a light shudder. He had been thinking along the same lines. The girl might be perfectly nice, he supposed, and maybe she might be even pretty under the trying-too-hard, but she had been so civilian that it burned.

Hana grinned at him. “I’m impressed though. For a second there I thought you were going to channel your cousin and shunshin your butt out of there, leaving me to pick up the pieces.”

“I was trying to figure out what was going on,” Itachi said in all honesty, “because I couldn’t think of anything from out interaction that would have given her that idea.” Strictly speaking in a sense true, since one couldn’t think of what one didn’t know, but Itachi knew that was splitting hairs.

“I suppose that that’s reasonable,” Hana replied. She concentrated for a moment, and then nodded. “Right, I can’t hear or smell her anymore, so I think the coast is clear.” She shook her head. “Though honestly Itachi, I thought you knew better by now than to encourage fangirls.”

Honestly, Itachi agreed. If he could talk to the other Itachi just now, then he would be rather blunt with his assessment of his other self’s judgement.

Honestly. Holding her as she fell asleep?

That was practically begging for trouble from a fangirl.

His other self was an idiot.

Chapter Text

 

 

Fangirl crisis averted, Itachi followed Hana, and was delighted to see that “their” favourite barbeque place was actually one he could remember going to. The shop next-door to it was, however, not familiar to him at first, until he realised that it had the same name as a little place that had been well off the main drag in his memories. Ichiraku Ramen. He wondered what might have changed to make them more prosperous in this world.

Once inside through the beaded entryway, the two of them were quickly seated at a corner table with its own grill-plate. Hana took charge and quickly ordered all of their favourites, along with a small bottle of sochu for the two of them.

Itachi was a little surprised that she wanted to drink this early in the day, but supposed that this was probably some attempt to get information out of him. Liquor did tend to loosen his tongue slightly, so he usually didn’t indulge.

He would have to be cautious- Hana would notice if he drank none, but he should still be able to surreptitiously “lose” about half of it if he was careful.

Before the friendly interrogation could resume, a familiar voice called out.

“Itachi-kuuuun~! I’m so glad that you’re back in the village!”

Itachi looked up, and was mildly surprised to see that the person greeting him was Mitarashi Anko.

Well, that was what his expression said.

Internally, he was swearing.

Of all the people in all of Konoha, why the hell did he have to catch the attention of this murdering psychopath?

(And considering who Itachi had been spending time with since the Massacre, he was well-acquainted with a high standard of murderous psychopath, and so did not use the term lightly.)

“Soooo,” she said, drawing the word out, “when are you going to take me on that date?”

Itachi considered it fortunate that he had not been consuming anything, for if he had been, he would have sprayed the liquid across the table.

“Date?” he nearly squeaked. (Nearly. He was a not-exactly-proud member of the Uchiha Clan, and Uchiha did not squeak. A very close observer may have noted a very slight widening of his eyes, but otherwise, Itachi’s expression remained neutral.)

Anko’s bright smile dimmed, and she pouted. “Awww you forgot? I’m hurt.”

Fuckingfuckwhatthefuckohkamiwhy…

“You promised to take me to the Uchiha outfitters with that family discount of yours, remember? When you lost that IOU in the poker game two months back.” Anko continued, blissfully unaware of the internal panic attack she had caused. She pulled a piece of paper out of her cleavage and waved it in Itachi’s face, and he could see something that looked suspiciously like his writing promising usage of his discount at a weapons store owned by one of his second-cousins.

Itachi resisted the urge to place a hand to his chest as his heart-rate started to ease. He had always promised himself that he would never get involved with a woman scarier than his mother. He had only vague memories of Anko from back in the day, soon after Orochimaru’s betrayal of Konoha, but he had heard… stories from some missing-nin who had run into her in the years afterwards. Suffice to say, some of those stories had made Kisame turn paler than usual, and that was saying something.

On the other hand…

“Actually, could I ask a favour?” he said blandly.

Anko tipped her head. “You want a favour?” from me was the unspoken tagline to that sentence.

Itachi nodded. “Yes. From both of you actually. I’m out of shape, after my… experience, and I would appreciate sparring partners.”

Anko and Hana both looked at him weirdly.

“What?” he responded.

You want to spar with Anko?” Hana asked him like he was crazy. “You’re only a chunin, she’ll kill you!”

“Hey!” Anko protested. “I can pull my punches!”

Hana rounded on her. “Oh yeah? What about Joshin Tatsumaki?”

“Bitch called me a whore.”

Hana considered that for a moment, and then muttered something about people committing suicide by psychopathic jonins.

Anko did not seem to be bothered by this, so Itachi ignored it.

Mostly because he was a little startled.

He was… seriously a chunin here?

Seriously?!

Sasuke had said as much before, but he hadn’t thought anything of it. Sure, his official rank back before had been chunin, but that was because he had been recruited into ANBU. It was an understood that as soon as he had gotten out, he would be automatically promoted, should he wish, especially since he had been a captain.

This body didn’t have an ANBU tattoo. It had been one of the first things he had noticed, but he thought that that might explain somewhat why there were still so many Uchiha running about alive. If he had never been in ANBU, then Danzo would not have been in any position of authority over him (though Itachi would not have put blackmail past the man…) and so he would not have been able to order Itachi to execute his clan for the good of Konoha.

(He still needed to figure out what had actually happened in this time line. He knew his father was dead, but he had no idea what the circumstances had been… was it even connected with the planned Coup? But no one looked sideways at the Uchiha, so probably not, and Itachi had yet to notice anyone significant missing from the ranks of the alive. Why were they alive? Why was cousin Obito and Shisui alive? Itachi didn’t know, and he couldn’t help but wonder, even as he was so glad that they were still around…)

But if he had never been in ANBU, then what the Bijuu Balls was he doing still as a chunin? What the hell had his other self been doing with all that extra time from not having to run covert ops and assassinations, sitting on his hands?

Itachi had noticed a bit of a… lag in many of his jutsu when he had been escaping the Oto base. He had thought that that was because he was tired, beaten up and nearly out of chakra, but what if…

The thought was galling to have to even contemplate, but…

What if his other self wasn’t as strong as Itachi was?

Itachi couldn’t imagine why that would be so.

Well. Perhaps he had underestimated how much conducting covert ops in ANBU and avoiding hunter-nin and sparring with the other members of Akatsuki…

Oh. Obviously.

Small wonder this body wasn’t as strong. Without being forced to adapt to constant life threatening situations for the better part of a decade, it only made sense that this body had not been trained as hard. Nothing like imminent death to provide motivation for honing reflexes and chakra control.

Still, it was a little… annoying to realise that he had gone from being an S-ranked threat to being a B-ranked one, at the outside.

On the other hand…

Itachi would need some time to consider the implications of this information.

All of these thoughts had flashed through Itachi’s head within the space of a few moments, so Hana and Anko only noted a somewhat odd expression during a brief pause before Itachi formulated an appropriate response to their collective disbelief that he wanted to spar with Anko.

“I was captured once. I have no intention of being captured again,” was all he said, keeping his expression carefully schooled.

Hana blanched, and but Anko merely nodded in comprehension, and didn’t ask if he was sure. Itachi was unsure what they thought they were reading from his expression and his words – he had merely stated facts, as far as he was concerned – but since the interpretation had caused him to get what he wanted, their agreement, he decided for now that it was irrelevant what they thought of him. He could gather more data and decide whether it was an impression he wanted to change or cultivate at a later time, but for now, the most important part was getting this body up to scratch.

“It will probably be a while before I’m in shape enough though,” he admitted with a hint of irritation.

Hana thought that he was referring to getting over the effects of his captivity, but Anko wondered. There was a certain look in Itachi’s eyes that she had never seen before. She had not often had much to do with the quiet Uchiha, since she generally was only fond of quiet people that she could rile up or embarrass, and Itachi was infamously almost apathetic to almost everything that wasn’t his little brother or his few friends.

Still, in the few times that Anko had encountered Itachi, he had always struck her as having a certain zen-like calm.

This Itachi though… Anko had heard rumours that his mother Uchiha Mikoto was Upset, and that Shunshin Shisui, known to be Itachi’s closest friend as well as his relative, was stalking about like a particularly speedy thundercloud.

She was starting to get an inkling why.

Because this Itachi, no matter how he hid behind his stone-faced façade, was quite blatantly not in a state of zen-like calm. Anko had worked with enough Uchiha over the years to know how to read between the lines of their practised reserve, and she knew that it was all in the eyes. The other Itachi had been, if not intimidated, then at least wary of her, and respectful of her skills.

This Itachi though… he looked driven and haunted in a way that reminded her of a veteran at the end of their tether. It reminded her of…

Anko smiled widely, and said that whenever Itachi wanted to spar, she would be more than happy to beat him into paste.

Then she went straight to one of her old team-mates, a man who worked with poisons, and a man who had married a Yamanaka.

He would know what to do, or failing that, his wife would know what to do, and he would know what to tell his wife so that she took Anko’s concerns seriously.

She found him working in the still room, crushing seeds. She seemed to recall that the poison made from these was the base of a sedative that was enough to put a mark out for three days.

He didn’t bother to look up, but he greeted her, calmly continuing to crush the seeds. She didn’t take offence, she knew how he was.

She explained the situation, and her team-mate, the man with the dark-blonde hair and the glasses, about what she knew, what she had observed.

“He looks just like he used to, Nobuo, before he started to become reckless. Before he went off on that mission that everyone knew was…” suicide, Anko didn’t have to say. Nobuo knew as well as she did how their late team-mate, Shigami, had fallen.

It had happened a long time before that last mission.

So when Anko said that she saw the same look in another’s eyes… especially with the rumour that Itachi was not going to be allowed back on duty until he could pass the psychological baseline test, and what that implied…

Nobuo knew that this was serious.

“I’ll pass the word to the right ears,” Nobuo said, looking at her, though the way the light hit his glasses, it was hard to see the expression in his eyes.

Anko nodded, and left.

Nobuo returned to grinding his seeds, and considered the information he had been given. He wondered what it was that Orochimaru had been trying to accomplish with the Uchiha.

No matter. Nobuo would pass on what Anko had said to those he felt needed to know.

Whoever was handling Itachi’s case would be one, and Nobuo knew if he asked his wife Kuchinashi, he would be able to find out fairly easily. He even had a good excuse now, to find out.

So yes, he would pass on Anko’s message.

Both to the people she thought needed to know, and someone he knew she would be devastated to hear he was still in contact with.

Their old sensei would no doubt be a little upset that the Uchiha was apparently a bit suicidal.

Nobuo shrugged a little to himself.

He didn’t know what Orochimaru wanted with the Uchiha, but either way, he was pretty sure that his sensei at least wanted the moody little chunin to be within his grasp before he breathed his last.

Chapter Text

Itachi rolled onto his back, breathing heavily, and scowled at the sky.

He was a lot more out of shape than he had thought. It was mortifying. In the original sense of the word, because if he had ever been this out of shape when he was Missing, then he would have been dead years ago. Even with the significant handicap of terminal lung disease, at least his muscles and chakra control had been at their peak.

The fact that he currently didn’t have terminal lung disease meant that there was no excuse. Not for the first time, Itachi wondered what his other self had been thinking.

Sure, Itachi admitted to himself, he was in better shape than your average chunin (and oh how that rankled,) but in his previous life he had been S-rank, there had been flee on sight orders when it came to some of the punier villages’ bingo books. Being less than at his absolute best set his teeth on edge like someone was scraping two rusty kunai together and grinning madly.

(Honestly, some people just had no class.)

Though Itachi supposed that it wasn’t all bad. He figured that with his current skill level and crap fitness he was probably somewhere around tokubetsu jonin level, at the worst. And he knew for a fact that he could probably take almost anyone that had known his previous self, because (as anyone who had encountered the Uzumaki Naruto he had met before knew,) the element of surprise was a sadistic bitch.

True, he’d only have so many opportunities to use that until word got around (ninja gossiped worse than civilian housewives, though most of them called it “intelligence gathering and counter intelligence”) but still, the point stood.

He knew that there was at least three people watching him, but he couldn’t really bring himself to care. He was ostensibly on his home turf. He was allowed to train. He hadn’t pulled out any of his cool jutsu (though he would never call them that aloud), and hadn’t even let his Sharingan out. He figured showing how many push-ups, pull-ups, laps and kata he could do with a few chakra control exercises thrown in for kicks wasn’t exactly going to arouse suspicions.

(Little did he know, but the very fact that he was pushing himself to exhaustion was causing more than one eyebrow to raise. The reasons for it would be quietly and hotly debated, and the conclusion that most would reach would be mostly erroneous- that he was training so hard to forget his trauma. The latter when it happened was really more of an added bonus, rather than Itachi’s intent.)

A few minutes later, Itachi rolled back to his feet, and started to stagger back to his apartment. He desperately needed a shower and a drink of something refreshing and full of electrolytes (probably not in that order) and he needed to do both before he picked Sasuke up from the Academy.

Sasuke probably (definitely) didn’t need Itachi to pick him up from the Academy, but Itachi didn’t exactly have anything better to do, so he figured he would do it anyway. His little brother would be happy to see him anyhow.

It was naturally, when he had only got about two more steps when his Kage Bunshin decided to pop itself, and Itachi was suddenly hit by a barrage of information that nearly made him sit right back down again.

The good news was that his clone had outdone itself, and had read not only Itachi’s file, but also the files of a number of other people. (Itachi was privately appalled at what that said about the level of security in the Records Library.) Itachi, like many other Uchiha, was “blessed” with an eidetic memory, (a very handy thing if one wanted to actually use the Sharingan to its fullest capacity, but it meant that Itachi’s nightmares were always in full technicolour and with surround sound,) so that was a fair amount of information to assimilate.

He stood still for a moment or two, blinking, and attempting to process what he had just learned.

On the one hand, he now knew the bare-bones details of his shinobi career. It was about what he had expected from what he had gathered – apparently in this universe someone had interfered (he suspected either his mother, the Hokage or both) and ensured that he was not allowed to graduate the Academy early. He had done a wide variety of missions, that were mostly C-ranks with a few B-ranks thrown in, a few rare A-ranks from when the intel had been bad. Apparently he had once been offered ANBU (“coincidentally” after a mission that he had done with Kakashi’s team, that no doubt had been at least partly for evaluative purposes, and how ironic that he had proceeded to do the same thing in both worlds, buying Sasuke his mask from that little market stall, though from what he remembered the actual mission parameters had been different).

 His file was marked with comments that seemed to average out to “plenty of potential, but no ambition”, depending on whether those assessing his performance were trying to suck up to the Uchiha Clan, were neutral, or hated them on principle. Itachi wondered how much of that had to do with the fact that (reading between the lines) apparently in this world, the previous owner of this body had not been forced to be the living embodiment of Fugaku’s ambition.

And speaking of his father…

Now he knew how his father had been killed.

To his complete shock, it had been one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.

That was information that had come rather out of the left field, as far as Itachi was concerned.

Whatever he had suspected, it hadn’t been that.

At least it wasn’t Kisame who had done it, (though Itachi wondered what it meant that he was actually relieved about that – he highly doubted that it was a good sign, whatever that meant).

No, his father’s killer was a psychopath that Itachi had thankfully never had the misfortune to be in the presence of, named Kuriarare Kushimaru.

Itachi had heard of him of course. Even if Kisame had not been the type to constantly tell old war stories that included detailed descriptions of his previous comrades, like any ANBU Captain, Itachi had been well-acquainted with Konoha’s Bingo book.

Kuriarare was known for his cruelty – he and his comrade Munashi Jinpachi had been the two members of whom Kakashi had called back in his ANBU days “the heartless pair” (and in those days, coming from Kakashi, that was really saying something).

Well, Itachi couldn’t say much about Munashi, but apparently Kuriarare might not have been as entirely heartless as advertised.

Well, for a given definition of not heartless. A twisted romantic might think that Kuriarare’s heart might have been involved when he had (and Itachi’s clone had read and re-read the passage of the report, and then checked for genjutsu, because what the actual fuck) apparently announced to all and sundry that he was going to challenge Fugaku for Mikoto’s hand.

The report had only given the blandest of facts. Kuriarare had been in the village during the chunin exams, playing bodyguard to the Mizukage, since (Itachi was a little shocked by this) there had been talks of a peace treaty. Kuriarare had challenged Fugaku, saying it was over Itachi’s mother.  Fugaku had been incensed, arrogant, and had accepted. Kuriarare had proceeded to show a transfixed audience the fact that the Sharingan didn’t mean jackshit against kenjutsu if the wielder was fast enough, especially when it was kenjutsu wielded by someone who was Seven Swordsmen Calibre.

The fact that Fugaku had no doubt been more out of shape than he would be willing to ever admit, having not been an active-duty shinobi for a good five years by that point, unless one counted riding a desk at the Police Department as active, had certainly not helped him.

After Kuriarare had eviscerated Fugaku, apparently Mikoto had walked up to him with a smile (and here the handwriting of the report had become suspiciously shaky) and promptly stabbed him right in the heart with a poisoned senbon needle.

Itachi admitted to himself that he could see that happening.

He was however, suspicious as to why a random Kiri-Nin had decided to fixate on his mother.

Also, the timing being ‘coincidentally’ near when he remembered the Uchiha Massacre occurring…

That was extremely suspicious.

Add in the little tidbit of how Kuriarare had apparently just let his mother walk up to him and stab him, without showing a hint of suspicion until it was far too late…

Itachi was considering the facts as he knew them, and his gut instinct was rather insistent when it screamed that all signs pointed to Kunoichi.

He supposed that most sane people would consider it to be a really bad thing to be impressed that one’s mother had decided to kill one’s father for what was no doubt the good of the clan. The fact that she had managed to neatly remove the incriminating evidence (re: anything that Kuriarare could have said) in a way that would terrify those unfamiliar with how such things worked and issue a pointed statement to those who were  in the know…

That kind of manipulative ruthlessness was, Itachi knew, why no one ever crossed his mother if they had a healthy survival instinct.

Maybe one day he would actually confirm his suspicion, but Itachi had a feeling that he was probably better off not knowing about whatever his mother had done to ensnare the senses of someone like Kuriarare.

For one thing, plausible deniability.

For another, some things one just really did not need to know about their parents.

Itachi shook his head hard, and decided that what he needed to do now was get mind-numbingly drunk.

He then discarded that thought immediately. It wouldn’t do to get loose-tongued and tell someone something unfortunate.

The sake still called to him, but Itachi forced himself to turn a deaf ear. He had enough of a headache already without the hangover that he would no-doubt thoroughly earn himself if he started drinking now.

Itachi sighed. And he had that fucking therapy session in two days.

He’d wonder what he had done in a past life to deserve this kind of drama, except, well, he remembered what he supposed was his past life (did it count if he’d apparently started again as a teenager?), and if massacring a good half of your family (even if it was out of loyalty to one’s Village) wasn’t enough to create the kind of Karmic debt guaranteed to fuck him over for the rest of eternity, then some of the shit he had done in ANBU and for Pein no doubt certainly hadn’t put him in Kami’s good books.

If it wasn’t for the fact that he had a Happy Sasuke to balance things out, then Itachi would suspect that he was, in fact, in a circle of hell.

And speaking of Sasuke…

Itachi started moving again. If he still wanted to be washed and rehydrated before he picked his little brother up, he was going to have to get a move on.

Chapter Text

Sasuke used to resent his brother.

“Why is it that you are only at the third kata? At your age Itachi was at the eighth! He was a year younger than you when he gained his Sharingan!” was a typical sample of things his father used to say to him.

When Sasuke had been five years old, he had wished that his brother was less strong, less capable, if only so that he would not forever be in his shadow.

That had only lasted until the first time his brother came home injured from the Academy, from a “too-enthusiastic spar” (Sasuke was told, but he didn’t believe, and his mother’s eyes had smiled approvingly at his instant scepticism,) between Itachi and someone who should not have been in the village (the last part Sasuke believed).

Sasuke had clung to his brother, angry and scared that someone had dared to hurt him. He might not always like Itachi, but the first rule of being an Uchiha, (the real first rule, not the one about keeping Clan business within the Clan, or the one about not showing off private emotions in public, or the one about stealing as many jutsu from enemies and rivals and friends who wouldn’t be too horribly offended as possible…) was that the Clan must be strong, and strength came from the Clan being united against those who would stand against it.

Or, as Sasuke had once heard Shisui say when he thought Sasuke couldn’t hear:

“Fuck with one of us, and you fuck with all of us.”

There was a reason why the Konoha police force was so effective, and though some looked at the Uchiha with suspicion, no one ever doubted their embodiment of the core value of the Will of Fire that was Teamwork.

(Sadly for relations with the rest of the village, most of the Uchiha also internalised the rule that Uchiha was synonymous with pride. Diplomacy might have run a lot more smoothly if the average Uchiha was just a little less smug and condescending when considering those outside the Clan.)

Of all the things that Sasuke had ever learned about being an Uchiha, loyalty to the Clan was the one thing he had most embraced.

Being Itachi’s brother however, was something he never had to learn.

Even if he didn’t always like his brother, it didn’t mean he didn’t love him in that bone-deep way that transcended any petty rivalries or disagreements they might have. And there was also the part of Sasuke who couldn’t help but idolise his perfect elder brother, even as he despaired at ever showing their father that he could be just as good, and thus just as worthy of their father’s attention.

(As time passed, the hero-worship outstripped the jealousy, as Sasuke began to understand the kinds of pressures that being their father’s favourite brought, and just how much his brother shielded him from the worst of their father’s temper and ambitions. Fugaku wanted what was best for the Clan, and was more than willing to sacrifice his sons for it. Unfortunately for him, Mikoto disagreed that sacrificing their sons’ happiness was going to create any material good for the Clan, and that was where their disagreements started… Sasuke had a few dark suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s death that he was more than happy to never ever dwell on, because once the initial shock and grief had died down, he realised how much more Itachi smiled.)

Itachi of course, could read Sasuke like a particularly simple text-book, and tried to reassure him.

“Don’t worry about me. Foolish little brother, don’t you know that I’m perfectly able to look after myself?” Itachi had smiled, and poked his forehead left-handed, as on the right side he had a broken collar-bone from that enemy attack that no one would tell Sasuke the details of.

Sasuke overheard soon after (practicing eavesdropping was an important ninja skill, so if people were going to have secret conversations, they should really do it somewhere where a small child couldn’t hide quietly in the next room and listen through the thin rice-paper screen dividing them) that the enemy shinobi who had broken Itachi’s collarbone was laid up in a quiet cell with two broken arms and two broken legs, all of which having occurred after Itachi’s collarbone had been broken.

Sasuke was glad, because so far as he was concerned, people who were willing to hurt his big brother deserved what they got.

(Sasuke was only five, and knew that this meant so far he was too little to avenge his brother’s hurts. But he would grow, and train, and train, and then, and then…)

Sasuke never stopped worrying, but after that time, he was glad that his big brother was able to take care of himself. It didn’t even bear thinking about what shape Itachi would have come home in, (if he had come home, a dark whisper from the back of Sasuke’s mind made sure to point out,) had he been even slightly a less capable shinobi.

And Itachi always tried to make time for him, to teach Sasuke himself skills that Itachi had picked up, skills that he thought would keep his little brother alive. It took years for Sasuke to really realise the latter- at the time he thought his big brother was just teaching him cool jutsu that would make him an awesome ninja- but later he realised the underlying practicality, and the hero worship that he had already lavished on his elder brother only grew stronger. There was one thing that Sasuke knew without question that he could depend on, and that was that his brother loved him, and would do anything in his power to protect him.

Even hold himself back from promotion.

The first time their father was thwarted in getting Itachi graduated from the Academy early, Sasuke was startled at how unbothered Itachi seemed. Even in front of their father, faced with the scathing disappointment, he seemed incapable of pretending that what he really wanted to do was to graduate and become chunin like The Hatake Thief (as he was known in their house).

Itachi just nodded insincerely and didn’t bother to pretend he was upset about the lack of promotion whilst their father ranted and raved.

Sasuke had originally thought that their mother agreed with their father, but after a while he noticed how whilst her smiles seemed sincere when she nodded along, even though his mother was the best when it came to convincing anyone, when she took him along with her so that he could play with Naruto whilst she talked to “Dear Minato” as she called him, she never even broached the subject of Itachi being promoted. In fact, the one time the Hokage brought it up in Sasuke’s earshot, she thanked him for making sure that Itachi was able to have “a proper childhood”.

Sasuke was only a little kid then, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that that meant that his mother didn’t want Itachi going off and getting himself injured worse, getting more of that awful look in his eyes than he already had.

Now he was almost a genin (just a few more months, then the exam, and it was going to happen,) and the awful look in Itachi’s eyes had suddenly got at least fifty times worse.

Whatever had happened on that last mission… it had changed his brother, and not for the better.

Sasuke didn’t know what to do.

Sakura, despite being known to be one of the smartest in the Academy had the worst advice: “Why don’t you just give him some space?” she asked, innocently.

Sasuke had winced. The very last thing Itachi needed was more space. Giving Itachi space meant Itachi would have more time to get lost in his head. Sasuke didn’t know what was in there, but he knew that it was bad, and knew instinctively that drawing Itachi out of his head and into focussing on the world was important for his brother’s wellbeing.

Naruto, despite being a complete idiot, had had the best advice: “But he smiles when you’re there, right? So maybe you should just keep doing that.”

“Doing what?” Sasuke had asked.

“Being there.”

From what Sasuke could tell, that really was the best thing he could do. Itachi clearly didn’t want to talk about whatever the hell had happened to him. Sasuke didn’t understand, but on the other hand, he had read and listened enough to learn that sometimes, when a mission went bad, talking was not what the ninja wanted to do, and pushing them was the opposite of help.

On the other hand, being there, and reminding Itachi why he was wanted, needed, required…

That was something Sasuke could do, and he did it as much as he could. When Itachi needed more space than living with their mother would allow, Sasuke was more than happy to move into Itachi’s apartment for him. When Itachi suddenly had the odd need to escort Sasuke to and from the Academy despite the fact that Sasuke had been walking quite happily there alone for the better part of three years, Sasuke didn’t so much as blink, merely exhibiting happiness that his Aniki wanted to spend time with him.

And he was happy, really. It was nice to see so much of his brother.

He just wished that awful look would leave Itachi’s eyes, wished that he would relax.

Sasuke knew that that was unlikely, but still, he hoped, and did whatever he could to let Itachi know that it was okay, that Sasuke still loved his big brother, that no matter what Itachi had seen (or done) Sasuke would still be there for him.

It should probably not have surprised Sasuke as much as it did that his teacher at the Academy, Umino Iruka figured out that he was worried about something.

“What’s the matter, Sasuke?” Iruka-sensei asked, when they were alone, after Iruka had asked Sasuke to stay back to talk about his trapping test results (which were good, but not stellar –  clearly he needed to pick Naruto’s brain before the next test happened).

Sasuke had initially hesitated, but then decided that he might as well speak his mind. Iruka-sensei had a good reputation when it came to keeping confidences and generally just being there for his students.

“Itachi-niisan came back from a bad mission. He’s hurt,” Sasuke said, not bothering to specify the type of hurt. He knew that Iruka was almost definitely aware of the gossip that was running through the ninja ranks about how the Uchiha heir had snapped.

“Ah,” was all Iruka said in reaction to Sasuke’s admission. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“No,” said Sasuke flatly. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Iruka-sensei, more just that he didn’t feel that talking about his feelings would solve anything.

It never had before.

(Well, there was those times he had talked to Naruto about things, and Naruto would make some random comment that would put things in perspective, but that was different. That was Naruto, who defied logic or logical categorisation with no small measure of glee.)

Iruka just sat there patiently, looking sad, and Sasuke started to feel vaguely guilty.

(Later, he would realise how he had been had, and would be resentful and impressed at how his teacher had used advanced interrogation techniques against Sasuke with such ease.)

“I’m just… worried about him,” Sasuke blurted out. “He gets this, this look on his face, like his world has ended, and he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. He looks at me like he thought I was dead or something, like I’m something unexpected and incredible, and it’s…” it almost physically hurts to admit it out loud, “really scary.”

“Have you said anything to him about this?” Iruka asked calmly.

Sasuke shook his head. “No. Kaa-san said to let him be, and even if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t know how to say it to him.”

“Say what, exactly?” Iruka asked in that voice that made it clear that he was asking not because he didn’t know, but because he thought Sasuke needed to say it out loud.

(Sasuke wasn’t sure if he loved or hated that.)

“Come back, Aniki,” Sasuke said, without really thinking about the words meant.

Iruka merely nodded.

“I don’t think I should say that to him,” Sasuke said, when Iruka didn’t comment.

“I agree,” Iruka said. “But it’s important that you know that’s what you want to say.”

“Is it?” Sasuke asked. “It’s going to make it harder to not just say it to him.” He shook his head. “I think that might make him worse, Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka made a movement, and if Sasuke hadn’t known better, he would have thought that it was some abortive move to give him a hug.

Iruka opened his mouth to say something further, but suddenly, Itachi was in the doorway.

“Aniki!” Sasuke exclaimed. “You don’t have to pick me up!”

Itachi just shrugged, his expression as carefully blank as it ever was, but he still poked Sasuke in the forehead like he always had, just because he knew Sasuke hated it.

Itachi nodded respectfully to Iruka, but didn’t ask why he had kept Sasuke back after the rest of his classmates. Instead, he merely started walking, obviously expecting Sasuke to follow.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Sasuke-kun,” Iruka said almost pointedly.

“Yes Iruka-sensei,” Sasuke replied absently as he trailed after his brother. Itachi seemed even more tense than usual (since he had come home), and he seemed to be ignoring Sasuke’s chatter about his day at the Academy.

So Sasuke tested it.

“…and then Sakura said to me, ‘the Akimichi Clan have decided to go on a collective diet, the Yamanakas are cutting their hair, and the Nara are feeling motivated.’”

“And then a pig flew,” Itachi answered smoothly.

“Huh, so you were listening,” Sasuke retorted.

“Of course,” Itachi said, ignoring Sasuke’s tone. “I always listen to you.”

Sasuke didn’t dignify that with an answer, but he was sure his expression eloquently said what he thought about how true that was.

Itachi snickered.

Sasuke huffed in irritation.

He might love his big brother Itachi, and be worried about the sad look in his eyes...

But that didn’t mean his brother wasn’t sometimes a complete and utter jerk.

Itachi poked him on the forehead.

“Come on, you must be hungry after your long day at the Academy. I’ll buy us something tasty.”

Sasuke’s annoyance levels lowered slightly.

Only slightly.

Jerk had poked him in the forehead. Again.

“Only if it’s omusubi,” he replied.

Itachi rolled his eyes.

“Fiiiiine,” he said. “But we’re stopping at the general store for pocky afterwards.”

“How old are you again?” Sasuke demanded.

“Old enough to kick your ass, shrimp.”

“Hey!”

It was times like this, Sasuke reflected, that he knew his brother was eventually going to be okay.

Even if it was infuriating.

“You wait Itachi, I’ll train hard, and then I’ll be the one kicking your ass,” he retorted.

“Pft. You’d have to wait until I was dropping dea…” Itachi trailed off, his eyes suddenly dark.

Sasuke waited for him to finish, but he never did.

“Aniki?” he prodded, worried.

Itachi breathed in slowly, in, out, and then he visibly shook himself.

“Never mind. Let’s just get some food.”

Sasuke did his best not to watch Itachi too suspiciously, but knew that Itachi knew he was watching.

He decided to be blunt.

“You’re not okay, are you Aniki,” he stated.

Itachi chuckled darkly.

“No, no I’m not,” he admitted. But then he turned and smiled. “But don’t worry Sasuke, I won’t let anything happen to you. I’ll protect you, otouto.”

Sasuke smiled back, but he couldn’t help but wonder.

Protect him from what?

What was Itachi worried about?

Sasuke had a bad feeling about all of this. So he did what he always did when he felt powerless.

“Aniki?”

“Yes Sasuke?”

“Could you teach me a cool jutsu?”

His brother’s immediate proper beam was worth the gruelling training session that Sasuke knew he was about to be put through.

“Show me you’re ready, otouto, and I’ll teach you whatever you want.”

Sasuke grinned.

And this was why Itachi was the best big brother ever.

Itachi poked him in the forehead again, and Sasuke rubbed his head and scowled.

Even if he was a total jerk.

 

Chapter Text

The last time Itachi had endured any kind of therapy session, it had been about five months before the Massacre.

And ‘endured’ was the exact verb that Itachi meant. It went against the grain to open up to people, and the problem with being well-known as “The Uchiha Heir Prodigy” was that even before being basically given a mandate to ask him rude and intrusive questions, most people wanted to know how he ticked.

The last time he had therapy, it had also been mandatory, and it had been taken by a second-cousin of his. Cousin Sadako had not been easy to fool, as she was Uchiha and knew how to see through his Uchiha mask, but she had been easy to misdirect because she was Uchiha, and had thus made more than a few assumptions about his patterns of thinking. Cousin Sadako had thus learned mostly only what he wanted her to- that he was loyal to the Clan (though by then he was mostly privately defining ‘Clan’ as ‘Shisui and Sasuke’) and that he was ‘coping well’ with being part of ANBU (he knew how to hide how he had quietly shattered inside, and he forced himself to rest and eat enough that he could still function… oh and he still obeyed orders. Yes. That was coping well.)

However, due to the severity of the ‘brainwashing’ that the Yamanaka had decided was the most-likely explanation for what could only appear to her to be some kind of product of genjutsu and a psychotic break (Itachi understood how she had come to that conclusion, for truly, it made a lot more intuitive sense than him coming from a parallel universe) this time, his clan could not keep his therapy session in-house.

This… concerned Itachi. Uchiha counsellors were known quantities. Even the Yamanaka scanning his head in the hospital had been a known quantity – he knew that as it was a preliminary scan checking mostly for his loyalties and functionality, by definition it was less detailed than it could be, and he had undergone Yamanaka scans before, long ago.

(Besides, whoever said that complete sanity was a prerequisite for being a good ninja had obviously never met a jonin.)

But (his mother had reassured/warned him) this counsellor was going to be one of the best the village had to offer. That meant an unknown quantity, who no doubt had excellent people-reading skills. An unknown quantity who was no doubt an expert in figuring out what made other ninja tick, who was going to be paying very close undivided attention to Itachi’s answers, to discover everything that they thought relevant for making decisions about his future combat readiness.

Itachi knew that he was going to have to be very, very careful.

And he was.

The counsellor was, to his surprise (and relief), not a Yamanaka. Instead, a kunoichi perhaps ten years older than his mother sat in a comfortable-looking chair, wearing a slightly worn yukata that looked as though it must have been expensive when new. (Itachi knew top-quality silk when he saw it, he might not care about most of the fancier-trappings that were associated with being a member of a wealthy clan, but noticing details like that was something he had been able to do as long as he could remember.) She wore no jewellery, and her features were entirely forgettable, barring a light wine-stain birthmark on her right cheek that was shaped vaguely, not bringing any particular image to mind. Itachi wondered if she ever covered the mark with a henge or thick make-up. In either case, the fact that she had not bothered to cover it up now suggested to him that vanity was not something that this kunoichi worried about in front of her patients.

Itachi carefully hid his reactions behind his very best Uchiha mask.

The unknown kunoichi smiled kindly at him, like he was a sweet child.

(Itachi was almost startled at that expression, for he had not seen that directed at him since he had been in the Academy.)

“You’re surprised I’m not a Yamanaka,” she stated in a faintly hoarse voice.

(Itachi wondered if she smoked.)

“No, I don’t smoke.”

Itachi almost blinked.

If he was a different shinobi, his eyes might have narrowed at this point.

But Itachi had more control than that.

Still, he acknowledged to himself that he was going to have to be careful with this one.

The kunoichi smiled at his lack of reaction.

“Oh good, you’re not a stupid one. I like challenges.”

Itachi raised an eyebrow, somewhat contrarily.

In response, the kunoichi’s smile only widened.

Itachi was reminded of a similar expression he had seen his mother use.

This put him even more on guard.

“My name is Sho Suzume. What can you tell me about myself?”

Itachi found himself on the back foot (this was a sensation that was starting to become annoyingly familiar since he had died and woken up in this parallel universe). This was not how he had expected this first meeting to go.

He suspected that that was exactly the point.

This kunoichi might be even more of a problem than he had anticipated.

Rapidly, Itachi considered a number of responses to Sho’s question.  

In the end, he decided to play her game. It was no secret that he was a genius, and in the end, it would probably hurt Itachi more in the long run if she had reason to believe he was lying to her.

He had gleaned that Sasuke looked up to him in a similar way to the version he had previously known. He guessed (hoped, assumed,) that he was known to be a genius in this universe as in the last one.

Hiding his intelligence would (again) probably hurt him more than help him at this point.

So Itachi gave an honest answer.

“I don’t recognise your name,  but gossip regarding Konoha’s top counsellors (as I’ve been assured you are, and as it only makes sense for you to be, considering my presentation after my last mission and other factors tied to my status in the Uchiha Clan) has always been rather thoroughly discouraged. In part because that would paint a target on your back for any infiltrator looking for vulnerabilities, in part because the fact that ninja as a general rule do not like even thinking about being mentally vulnerable, or of the consequences of failing the mandatory psych evals. So the fact I have never heard of you means that you are entirely new to top-tier counselling (unlikely), or you have been doing it for longer than I have been aware of gossip (highly likely). This latter case is even more likely because you look to be somewhat older than my mother,” (Itachi knew better than to call attention to a woman’s age in a more direct way than that, he might be occasionally blind to the point of a few social conventions, but he wasn’t stupid,) “and again since the Yamanaka who scanned me was visibly alarmed, they no doubt want someone with well-established experience dealing with me.

“Sho is not a name of any clan I’m aware of, so it is likely that your origins are from a smaller civilian family. You’ve obviously decided that I’ll respond well to a motherly figure, and you both want me to think you’re intelligent, and observant. You have thus far not bothered with small-talk, so you have decided that I do not require such things to set me at ease – an accurate decision, as it happens. You have told me that you do not smoke, but you speak with a hoarse voice. Either you just lied to me (doubtful, since you no doubt want to establish rapport with me, and you do not have the smell, or nicotine stains on your teeth or fingers,) or something else has caused some sort of damage to your vocal folds. Because of this damage, you would probably prefer to not talk for extended periods of time.”

“Anything else?” Sho looked merely curious. At no point in Itachi’s monologue had she nodded acknowledgement concerning any of his points, but neither had her body language indicated that he had gotten anything wrong. She was not so much a blank slate as a receptive sounding-board. Itachi admitted to himself that he found her skill to be somewhat impressive.

“You are wearing a yukata made from what looks to be pure silk, but it is old. I could make a number of assumptions about why you are wearing it, but considering that I detect no deference from you, I assume it is not because you are impressed by me being a wealthy Uchiha, and are dressing up because of that.”

Itachi said nothing about having been groomed to be the next Clan Head. He knew his father was dead, and that amongst other things meant that he was not one hundred percent sure what the current political climate was within the Clan. He suspected many things were similar to what he remembered, but he had thus far had no way of confirming this without raising far more questions than he was comfortable with or had prepared answers for (same difference, really). He was pretty sure that his status was similar in this world, but since he could not be certain, he admitted only what he was certain of.

 “With that in mind,” he continued, with no pause longer than a normal-length inhalation, “I think it is likely that you are wearing something that you think will set me at ease, since it is similar to the sort of casual-wear my mother might wear.”

He stopped there. That was more than enough to go on for now, he thought.

Sho smiled at him again.

“Very well done, but don’t think that I haven’t noticed that you’re holding back somewhat. That’s alright. This is only the first session. It will take time before I gain any measure of your trust.”

Itachi did not react to the praise (he expected it, as it fit with Sho’s persona(lity? Was it real, fake or something more complex in between?) as well as being one of the normal responses to him admitting his intelligence to those senior to him who did not feel threatened by it) but he did wonder if she knew he was holding back something due to experience, or some tell of his.

He had a suspicion that she knew he was wondering. He wondered how clever Sho really was.

“Would you like to tell me why you think I asked you to make an assessment of me?”

An assessment within an assessment. Obvious.

Itachi had expected something like this, but he had to admit, her precise method was not one he had anticipated.

“I suppose because you want to establish that you acknowledge my intelligence. Also, since this does not fit the usual schema for a counselling session, I am less able to depend on pre-prepared answers,” Itachi said after a moment’s reflection. “Also,” he realised, “you want me to acknowledge your intelligence.”

When he didn’t expand, Sho waved a hand for him to continue. “Don’t stop now, out with it.”

Itachi said nothing.

He did not see the point.

Sho sighed a little. “Ah well. It was a good start, anyway.” She pulled out a shogi board. “Do you ever play?” she asked him, as she set up the pieces.

Itachi shrugged. “I have in the past,” he said. “It is a common way people use to test strategic thinking, after all.” And people loved to test Itachi. That more than anything else was something he was used to.

Sho paused, and then put the board away.

“In that case we will do something else,” she said.

Itachi blinked.

Sho grimaced. “As you remarked earlier, I am attempting to put you at the greatest level of ease I possibly can. I pulled the board out because I have got used to Naras, who consider strategy games like shogi to be a good way to relax.”

Itachi half-frowned.

“Why would you treat me like a Nara?” he asked.

Sho shrugged. “Just a hypothesis I’m testing. Are there any games you would rather play?” she asked him. “Any that you do not associate with someone testing you?”

Itachi thought for a moment...

A few seconds later, he realised that there genuinely weren’t any. The closest was poker, but he had played that with the Akatsuki for increasingly unsettling pots. And generally that had involved all other playing members trying to get past Itachi’s poker face. (Eventually, they had all decided that Itachi was banned from playing, because he always won. Itachi had considered losing on purpose, but then Orochimaru hd contributed a “does not have to contribute bodily fluids for science” card, and Itachi had decided that that was something he had to have. Orochimaru had been rather upset when Itachi had won that card, and had attempted to not honour it. Itachi had taken exception, and had pleaded his case to Pein, and then that was the time Itachi got Orochimaru kicked out of Akatsuki because the sannin didn’t understand that “no means no”. Oddly, Konan had taken Itachi aside for what Itachi could only assume was a pep talk afterwards, out of what she said was “solidarity amongst all these psychopaths”. Itachi had not really known how to respond to that.)

“I see,” said Sho after a while. Itachi could not read her expression. “Is there anything you like to do just for the sake of it, just to relax?” she asked him.

Itachi shrugged. “Sometimes I meditate. And…” he paused.

“Yes?” Sho prompted him.

“I used to sketch, sometimes,” he admitted. It had started as a way to test himself, to see if he could reproduce with his hands what he remembered so clearly in his mind’s eye, but then he had found it enjoyable enough that he had continued to do it, including back before his eyesight had deteriorated to the point that he could barely see the paper in front of his face, anyway. Though it occurred suddenly to Itachi that since he had woken up in this strange reality, his eyesight was fixed, so if he wanted to…

“Would you like to spend these sessions drawing?” Sho asked him.

Itachi blinked. “Why?” he queried.

“So that you have something to do. I’ll chat to you whilst you do it, but if you have days when you only feel like small-talk, or ignoring me, this way, you’ll have something productive to do, so it won’t be a complete waste of time.”

Itachi considered her suggestion. It made a certain sort of sense. And it was not as though she could read much into his drawings anyway, so long as he selected subjects that would not get him locked in a comfortable cell. So he might...

“Okay,” he said.

Sho beamed. “Good. Then that’s all for today.”

Itachi nearly blinked again, but this time he restrained his reflexive reaction so as to not give her the satisfaction. However, that was not what he had been expecting.

 “Yes,” she said simply, as though he had made some sort of comment. “I want to give you time to digest this session, and come to your conclusions about it. Now off you go,” she said.

Alright then.

Itachi left Sho’s quiet office unsure of what to think of that.

Ah well. He would worry about what odd things she was saying about him in her reports later (and steal and alter them if he had to.)

Chapter Text

 

Time passed. Itachi continued to visit Sho for counselling three times a week. He trained Sasuke whenever Sasuke asked him, and somehow that also turned into training Sasuke’s little friends Naruto and Sakura.

Itachi had been greatly amused to learn that in this reality, rather than the scenario where Sakura chased Sasuke, Naruto chased Sakura, and Sasuke pretended to ignore both of them, Sakura and Naruto were dating. Apparently with the Yondaime still alive, Naruto was the opposite of a pariah and so when he had asked the little pinkhead out, she had jumped at the chance. Sasuke still had fangirls, but not quite as many (perhaps because he did not have the tortured soul thing going this time. Itachi considered once again the many and myriad ways that he had failed his little brother. Accidentally tuning him into a giant fangirl magnet was, in his opinion, one of the more egregious ways that he had failed his little brother.) In any case, he seemed content to have Sakura as a friend, rather than a love interest.

The problem was however that other than the counselling sessions, and training the kids, and the regular awkward family dinners where Itachi did his best to avoid the subtle interrogations of his mother, and the somewhat more straightforward interrogations from Shisui and Sasuke, and occasionally (shudder) socialising with Hana and Anko, who had both taken it upon themselves to drag him out at least once a week (it would be more, but the both of them had missions that often took them out of the village, to Itachi’s relief,) Itachi didn’t really have any real demands on his time.

Of course, there was also the training that Itachi was engaging in in secret to bring himself back up to scratch, but there was only so many hours in the day that he could do that. He was working on it, but in the meantime, if he pushed himself too hard, he would just destroy his body, rather than conditioning it to perfection (privately he had always thought that Gai and his odd little student must have some secret muscle and joint regeneration bloodline, as there was no other explanation that made sense for what it was that they had not crippled themselves with their training regime years ago.)

So Itachi, for the first time in his life (lives) was something that he had never been when not keeping watch.

Itachi was bored.

He was off the roster until Sho cleaed him, so missions were completely out of the question. He couldn’t get a job doing anything in the civilian sector, because frankly, if he even offered to apply, they would think he was part of some elaborate joke. (He did consider for a moment disguising himself as a civilian and then infiltr- he meant applying for a job as waitstaff or something, but in the end he decided it would not be worth the hassle if someone figured out it was him.)

He had asked his mother if she or any of the other clan members could give him something to do, but she had responded that he should just focus on getting better. (Shisui had laughed at Itachi’s woebegone expression at this, when he had retold it, but had not had anything useful to offer in the way of advice, apart from suggesting that Itachi get a hobby.)

After a while, Itachi hit upon something new to do.

No one was giving him missions, so what he should do is give himself missions. Nothing violent, of course- Itachi didn’t want to upset Ibiki and end up in a cell or something- but there was no reason that he couldn’t give himself fact-finding missions (and if nothing else, he could figure out a few more differences between this world and his last one- it would not do to get blindsided with something like his father’s death again (Itachi still did not know how he felt about that, apart from the emotion that was uncomfortably close to relief.)

But what to discover?

At first, it was what people thought about the Uchiha. There had been no coup in this world, so Itachi wanted to learn why.

After a while, he realised that apart from the criminal element, most people really liked the Uchiha, because they saw them as an important part of the village- the backbone of the police force that arbitrated between the civilians and the ninja. Also, when he went to investigate the police, he was startled to realise that there was a far larger proportion than he remembered that were not Uchiha. A little further investigation showed that this was because his mother had apparently decided that it was a good way to ensure that the village owned the police force. Most of the positions of power were still Uchiha, but that was more because they were the most experienced. The last three promotions to officer had been non-Uchiha, and from what Itachi could tell, the positions had been offered on the basis of genuine merit, not as a sop to the rest of the village.

The investigation into the police force had taken him the better part of two weeks, but once he was done that, Itachi decided to focus on something a bit more personal, something that was starting to piss him off.

What the hell was going wrong with the Academy?

Because now that he had time to really focus on Sasuke, to spend time with him and do more than occasionally show him a flashy trick, Itachi had started to realise that someone had been systematically sabotaging his brother’s education. Spending some time with Sakura and Naruto had only shown him that the problem was not confined only to his brother’s education.

So Itachi decided to investigate.

Hiding in a tree across from the Academy, Itachi watched the fitness and martial arts portions of the class. The chunin with the ponytail and the scar on his nose… Iruka… he seemed to be doing his best. Itachi nodded in approval as he saw him correct stances and show methods that were how Itachi himself remembered them to be from his very brief stint in the Academy.

So the problem was not him.  Good. Sasuke liked Iruka. Itachi liked how Iruka made an effort to be a good teacher to Sasuke. Itachi was glad that he would not have to have a conversation with Iruka.

The other teacher who took Sasuke’s class however… the grey-haired one named Mizuki.

Now he was someone that Itachi might have to have a few words with.

It seemed that whenever Iruka’s back was turned, Mizuki was causing trouble. Sowing discord by playing favourites, teaching poor forms and flashy moves that were worse than useless in the scheme of things. Once, Itachi saw him actively sabotage some developing team-work.

Itachi was not surprised that Iruka had yet to notice. After all, dealing with a class of 20 pre-teens who had been armed with sharp weapons and managing to keep them on task most of the time was a feat that Itachi could respect.

Also, Iruka had no reason to suspect that his co-teacher was undermining him. When Itachi looked up Mizuki’s file (once again using a clone to infiltrate the Records- the level of security on that place was shocking, and once he got to the bottom of this passive attempt to get his little brother killed, that would be his next target, Itachi decided,) he could see that the two of them had been working together for almost five years. When Itachi pulled up the records of the graduating classes, he saw that the standards of graduates, and the length of survival of those graduates had been declining at an almost infinitesimally slow pace. But when Itachi collated the results, and drew some lines through it, the trend was clear, especially when he cut out the clan kids (because clan kids all got specialised training from their families, obviously. They had every advantage over the civilian kids. Unfair? Of course. They were ninja. Life was never meant to be fair, which was why you had to stab it in the back from the shadows, and kick it in the balls to make sure it stayed down).

Once Itachi had all his information, he wondered who it was worth going to.

Who would take him seriously? The rumour mill was vicious. Itachi knew that most thought he had cracked, and he had no interest whatsoever in spending time trying to convince people to pay attention to what he wanted to say, rather than just pointing at the facts and letting them speak for themselves.

In the end, he realised (and it felt a little ironic) that the one person who was most likely to take him seriously was Sho.

“You asked me what I’ve been doing lately,” he said in his session with her.

“Yes,” Sho acknowledged. “And you fed me some bullshit about training and relaxing and catching up on your reading,” she said a little tartly.

Itachi shrugged inwardly. He had suspected that she would not believe him about that. It was a pretty poor lie anyway, by his standards. (Almost as though he had been confiding in her by lying, telling her what he wasn’t doing to show how not okay he was… sometimes, Itachi mused, maybe he should consider relating to people using less layers of meaning. It might be more relaxing. Well, no time like the present.)

Itachi pulled out his notes.

“I’ve been training my little brother and some of his friends on occasion in the afternoons,” Itachi stated.

“You have mentioned this before,” Sho affirmed.

“What I did not tell you was that I had started to suspect that someone was sabotaging Sasuke’s training.” Itachi told her.

Sho blinked, and then leaned forward.

“That’s a very serious accusation,” she said mildly, but Itachi, to his relief, saw that she was taking him seriously. “Could you explain how you came to this conclusion?”

Itachi gestured towards his notes. “I wrote it up as a report, but…” he outlined it all, using technical explanations that he was pleasantly surprised Sho was able to follow, because as far as he knew, Sho was not a taijutsu specialist. (Sho’s understanding of the psychological ploys he had noted went without saying.)

“I see,” she said when he had finished. Then she looked at the pile of notes. “You did do some digging, didn’t you,” she stated rhetorically.

Itachi nodded anyway.

Sho closed her eyes.

“Can I assume that you got you information from channels that were not exactly free to the public?” she continued, her tone mildly exasperated.

Itachi smirked.

“Yes, yes,” she flapped her hand at him. “Stupid question, I know, especially considering some of the missions that you’ve had to do. You probably wouldn’t know a legal channel if you tripped over it.”

Itachi snorted. “You forget, I’m an Uchiha. We are the legal channels.”

Sho facepalmed.

“If I did not know that you were attempting to be funny, Itachi, I would be outright concerned,” she said. “Now. You’ve done your investigation. Obviously you found something, because otherwise I have a feeling I never would have heard a word about this. So,” she leaned forward expectantly. “What did you find?”

Itachi outlined his findings. He showed her the graphs.

Sho visibly stiffened as she listened, and read.

After Itachi had run out of things to tell her, she sat back for a few moments, considering.

“Whilst your obsession over your brother’s well-being borders on unhealthy, yes it does, don’t interrupt me,” she said, holding one hand up, “this time, it has provided some important dividends. I take it you took this to me because you know I carry a bit of clout in high places, and I am likely to be immune to any fall-out.”

Itachi nodded. “And I could be sure that you would listen to me,” he admitted.

Sho smiled a little sadly at him. “Don’t sell yourself short. I’m sure that if you had taken this to your friends, or Shisui, then they would have listened. You aren’t mad Itachi, just hurt and hurt badly.”

Itachi blinked. Well that was something that she had not said to him before. Normally, Sho refrained from making any comment about his condition. How about that. Something to mull over later.

“In any case,” he said, in a deliberately bland tone, “I trust you to ensure this gets to the right people.”

“Nice try,” Sho said, “but if you think you’re dumping this in my lap and walking away, you’ve got another think coming, mister. Come on, we’ll go run this by the Hokage. See if we can’t get this all wrapped up by dinner time.”

If Itachi had had any doubts as to the amount of clout that Sho carried in the village before, he would have been forced to change his opinion after watching how the layers of security and interference that usually delayed people from seeing the Hokage immediately without being ANBU or speaking emergency codes seemed to crumple like so much paper in front of Sho as they walked arm in arm into the Hokage’s office. (Sho had insisted. Something about wanting a pretty escort, but Itachi suspected that there was rather more to it than that. In the end, he counted it as inconsequential, and so let it by.)

When they reached the last secretary, they finally encountered some resistance.

“The Hokage is busy.” The chunin at the desk said.

Sho looked her in the eye. “Is he dealing with an emergency? Is it of national importance? Is it time sensitive?”

The chunin blinked.

Sho rolled her eyes.

“Then he’ll see me now,” and walked straight into the office.

The Yondaime looked up from debriefing a somewhat-battered looking jonin.

“Hello Sho,” Minato said, his brow furrowing slightly. “And Itachi-kun. What is it? Oh,” he turned to the jonin. “You, get to medical, and then come back tomorrow morning. Pull an Obito on me, and I’ll put you on D-ranks for a month.”

The jonin blinked, but then hurriedly shunshinned out. She didn’t know what the hell was going on, (she had never seen that lady before) but it apparently involved Uchiha Itachi and just that was enough to tell her that whatever it was, it was going to be interesting. She was almost sorry she had had to leave, but she suspected that if this was as serious as it looked- Itachi had not looked apathetic for the first time in recent memory, and if that was not worthy of remark, she didn’t know what was…- then she was going to probably be hearing all about it in the jonin lounge tomorrow anyway.)

“So,” said Minato, once they were alone. “Sho, you have your serious face on. Last time you had your serious face on like that, three jonin cried.”

Belatedly, Itachi realised that at least part of the reason that the way had cleared in front of them so quickly was that Sho was leaking killing intent on an insidious level. He had been trying to figure out why she suddenly felt so familiar. He was no expert in mental health, but he was pretty sure that the fact that he felt more comfortable around her now that she was leaking Kakuzu levels of Killing Intent was probably something most would find distinctly worrying.

Sho nodded. “Itachi here has uncovered sabotage in the Academy.”

Minato stilled. It was a little like watching a cobra freeze just before it struck, Itachi mused.

“What,” the Yondaime said flatly.

Sho nodded. “itachi, show him the report you so helpfully wrote up.”

Itachi handed over his notes, and the Yondaime quickly skimmed them.

“I see,” said the Yondaime after a few minutes. “We will be having a discussion about how you got your hands on the confidential files, Itachi, but considering the gravity of your concerns, I think we can safely say that you will not be receiving any censure. This time.” He made a handsign, and two of the four ANBU that Itachi had detected from the instant they entered the room dropped down.

“Please observe my son’s class today. I would like independent opinions and observations. Then the moment the school-day ends, take Mizuki into custody. He will be awaiting Ibiki’s pleasure tonight. We are getting to the bottom of this now. Then collect up the other Academy teachers. We need to see how deep this rot goes.”

Needless to say, the fact that the Yondaime’s own son was currently at the Academy was more than enough reason for Namikaze Minato to be taking reports of educational sabotage rather personally. Considering how impressed that Itachi imagined he would normally be (i.e. furious,) Itachi reflected that today was a very bad day to be an Academy teacher. Especially an Academy teacher named Mizuki.

Oh. There was a thought. “One thing,” he said.

“What is it?” the Yondaime asked him.

“Umino Iruka. I observed him interacting with Mizuki. From the way that Mizuki took care to ensure Iruka’s attention was off him, I would assess that they were not working together, and in fact, I would suggest that Iruka has no doubt been doing some serious damage control.”

Minato nodded thoughtfully.

“That is good. Naruto would be devastated if I had to execute his favourite teacher,” he said blandly. “I’ll keep your assessment in mind,” he said. But the Yondaime would be getting independent opinions as well, and relying on them possibly more, he did not say. But he had at least acknowledged Itachi’s opinion, which Itachi appreciated.

“He is Sasuke’s favourite teacher as well,” Itachi admitted.

To his surprise, that drew a smile out of the Hokage.

“You’re a good brother,” was however all he said.

Itachi did not outwardly react, but inwardly, he winced.

Sometimes, he really wondered.

Still, at least this time it had worked out in Sasuke’s favour. Or it would in the long-term.

“I will call you back for a debriefing after we have more information,” the Hokage continued, “but in the meantime…” he stretched. “Sho, Itachi, would you both join me for some ramen?”

Itachi blinked. Seriously?

“What, I have to eat too,” Minato said blithely. “And it has been a while since we talked, Itachi. Usually it’s all business between us, which is a shame, since I’ve known you since you were a tiny thing.”

Itachi was not quite sure what to make of this.

The Yondaime Hokage apparently thought that their relationship meant that the two of them having lunch was nothing all that unusual (although it sounded as though it had been a while). The Yondaime was asking Itachi and his counsellor to a meal.

Sure, why the fuck not.

If nothing else, it would be interesting.

Itachi nodded his consent.

Causing a scandal before lunch.

Going to counselling.

Lunch with the Hokage.

Weird day, and it wasn’t even over yet.

 Itachi shrugged inwardly.

Well, at least he wasn’t bored anymore.

Chapter Text

Naturally, they ended up at Ichiraku Ramen.

Itachi was not sure why this was “naturally”. Only that it seemed that apart from Anko and Hana, and most members of his family, most people of his acquaintance sort of gravitated towards it.

Even Shisui liked it.

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with ramen, per se. Especially during the winter months, it could be quite pleasant to eat one of the hot noodle soups with the thick meaty broth with bits of seaweed, corn, bamboo shoots, boiled egg, shimeji mushrooms and other such toppings, and a bowl of ramen was really quite cheap in the scheme of things.

On the other hand, Itachi didn’t really consider it anything worth raving about. Nor did he understand why one would want to eat more than one bowl in a sitting. He would have thought that one would have to have the stomach of an Akimichi to do that and gain any kind of enjoyment from the experience, but he had seen more than one ramen fanatic consume two or even three bowls in a row.

If he didn’t know any better, he would think that Teuchi the Ichiraku Ramen stall owner was putting something addictive in with the pork stock. Something like poppy juice perhaps. That would certainly explain the food comas that so many seemed to seek at the bottom of the noodle bowls.

Sho slid into a stool near the middle of the booth, feet dangling. Itachi sat to her left, and the Hokage sat to his. They ordered shio ramen, negi miso ramen, and kagashi ninniku ramen respectively.

“So,” began the Hokage in a mild tone that put Itachi immediately on his guard. “I think today showed at least part of how you have been keeping yourself busy in your recovery, but what else have you been doing?” he asked.

Itachi kept his face carefully blank.

“Training,” he stated. He did not bother to elaborate. They both knew that the Hokage was perfectly well aware of what he had been up to for the most part. On the one hand, Sho no doubt had to give regular reports of his ‘progress’ (she had assured him that non-security related private information that he related to her would be kept entirely confidential, but he had yet to actually confide anything real to her, and he knew that she was well aware of that).

On the other hand, Itachi had not failed to notice how in this world his mother seemed to visit the Hokage with more regularity than one could attribute to mere business meetings. He was not entirely sure of what their relationship was, but considering how the Hokage had referenced knowing him as a child (and truthfully, he had some dim recollections of meeting the man

“Yes, Naruto said that you had been taking the time to train him and Sakura along with your brother,” Namikaze Minato agreed with a breezy smile, as though Itachi had not grunted out a mere one-word answer. “I’ve noticed that since you have, Naruto’s skills have improved in leaps and bounds.”

Not sure how to respond to that, Itachi merely nodded. He thought the reason for that was fairly obvious- nothing like a bit of individual instruction to pick out all the bad habits and wrong-headed ideas and chip them away until only a strong skills base remained.

“What made you decide to start teaching him?” the Yondaime asked, his tone casual.

Itachi was not fooled. He knew that a wrong answer here had the potential to spell his certain doom, as though most of the Konoha civilians considered the Yondaime Hokage Namikaze Minato to be a kind man, who loved his village and who always had time to listen to their concerns, the shinobi knew better.

Namikaze Minato might be a kind man by preference. A man who smiled and laughed easily, in spite of the lingering touch of sorrow that had rested like a light cloak upon his shoulders ever since the death of his wife.

The Yellow Flash was a ruthless one man weapon of mass destruction.

And the Yondaime Hokage would do anything, anything to ensure the safety of his village.

Of the three personas, Itachi had few illusions which one he would be faced with if the Yondaime thought for one second that he was a threat to Naruto.

For one thing, Naruto was his son.

For another, Naruto was the jinchuriki of the Kyuubi no Yoko, the nine-tailed fox.

The first thing would mean that Itachi would be shown no mercy.

The second thing meant that even the most unsentimental of shinobi would be more than happy to back the Hokage on whatever level of overkill he decided to engage in on his son’s behalf.

Fortunately for Itachi, the truth in this case was almost entirely innocuous.

“Naruto and Sakura,” Itachi made sure to mention that the Hokage’s son was getting no special preference over a girl from a civilian family, “have this habit of following my little brother around everywhere. They begged me to show them ‘cool ninja tricks like what I was showing Sasuke.’” That was an almost direct quote, and from the expression on the Yondaime’s face, Itachi felt sure that he recognised it.

“I started to get suspicious when I realised how all of them had very similar bad habits that they had obviously practised. I had to start almost from scratch to get some of them rectified. It seemed… extremely sloppy at best, downright negligent at worst for the Academy sensei to have not noticed this, so I… investigated,” Itachi stated, keeping his report concise. He wouldn’t incriminate himself if he could avoid it— he had already had to admit to some of his tactics when handing in the report, and he suspected that were it not for the result of his actions, he might be in a bit of trouble.

It was less because sneaking into confidential files was against typical shinobi behaviour, but more because perpetrating such behaviour in a way that could be construed as against one’s own village was generally rather seriously frowned on. There was only so much “white hat” espionage that would be forgiven, and generally that had to be justified as looking for a promotion into keeping the security of certain files.

Since Itachi had very little interest in acting as a guard for a bunch of musty scrolls, it was fortunate that the Hokage’s son was going to be one of the direct beneficiaries of his little extra-curricular foray into the archives.

“So,” said the Hokage in a casual tone, “have you managed to regain any of the memories of the time you lost?”

Itachi almost blinked at the sudden change in topic.

“No,” he said flatly. It was true. It was, after all, pretty much impossible for him to recover memories that he had never had.

The Hokage looked over Itachi’s shoulder to meet the eyes of Sho.

“I have checked him for seals. There is nothing physical holding back his memories,” she reported in a professional tone.

This time Itachi actually did blink. When had she checked him for seals?

Sho smiled a little. “Honestly, Uchiha. You didn’t think my only skill was listening, did you?”

Itachi decided that question was rhetorical, and so did not deign to answer her.

“What does that mean?” the Hokage asked, ignoring the byplay.

Sho inclined her head, pausing before she reported. “Considering the genjutsu that it is believed that he was under, it is almost certainly psychological trauma that has caused some sort of block on his memories. Either that, or the genjutsu itself produced some sort of block, but from the Yamanaka report, my current theory is that this is Itachi’s mind attempting to protect itself, albeit in a somewhat maladaptive way,” she said. She then addressed Itachi directly. “What is you theory?” she asked him.

Blindsided, Itachi took a moment to gather his thoughts before he responded. This lie was going to have to be a good one. Fortunately, he had had time to formulate something that would be entirely plausible, and would distract most quite nicely from his “forgotten” memories.

“I have a suspicion,” he hedged.

The Hokage and Sho watched him expectantly.

“There is a particular interaction that the Sharingan has with traumatic experiences,” Itachi said carefully, “but any more detail I give you would involve divulging Clan Secrets.”

Sho looked distinctly concerned, whereas the Hokage seemed to be looking just behind Itachi with a somewhat trepidatious expression.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Itachi?”

Itachi’s head whipped around, and he only barely restrained the instinct to apply a genjutsu the second he got eye contact with the speaker.

It was his mother.

Itachi was not normally one for swearing aloud (it struck him as unprofessional) but he briefly considered the types of words that Kisame might have been saying in this situation, and considered most of the fouler ones to be rather apt.

He didn’t wonder how his mother had managed to sneak up on him— he knew that when she had been an active kunoichi, one of her specialties had been stealth. On the other hand, it was galling to realise that the familiarity of her chakra was enough for him to not register her as a threat.

Considering that he was in no way sure that she would be on his side if she discovered he was not the same Itachi she had raised, he knew he had to play this carefully.

Most importantly though, she did not look surprised.

“You told her,” he stated to the Hokage, unsure why this surprised him.

Considering how close they seemed in this universe, he really should have suspected something like this he supposed.

He looked his mother in the eyes and saw that though her public mask was as perfect as ever, her eyes showed a mix of emotion that was both accusing and devastated.

Alright then.

He looked his mother in the eyes and told her half a truth.

“I didn’t want you to worry.”

Because it would be seriously inconvenient.

Because Itachi was not sure what her reaction would be.

Because Itachi didn’t want her to figure out that he was not the son that she had farewelled before the mission that had brought him, the Itachi who had died and then been reborn into this strange world.

Because even before he had killed her, it had been a very long time since he had felt safe confiding in his mother.

From the hurt expression in her eyes, he could see that she could discern at least part of his reasoning.

Sometimes he underestimated his mother. It was a mistake he was going to have to learn to stop making.

“I am sorry,” he said, his tone carefully bland, as though he was commenting on the weather.

“Sorry?” his mother’s tone was incredulous.

“Yes,” Itachi said, his tone indicating a shrug. He knew he was irritating her. He hoped that that would distract her from questioning him more closely.

Out the corner of his eye, he saw that the Hokage was looking a little uncomfortable. He turned his head slightly so that Sho was in his peripheral vision, and saw that she was merely interested. Both reactions were in line with his experience of them.

“Itachi,” his mother said, her voice thick with tension. “When were you going to tell me that they tried to induce the…” she trailed off, but Itachi knew what she was talking about. Apparently his lie was already the hypothesis she was working from.

It was convenient, but the worried look in her eyes left him feeling more than a little dirty.

Still, he had been ANBU, and then a missing nin. Feeling dirty was disturbingly familiar.

“I haven’t tested it,” he said flatly. This was true, but mostly for the same reason that Itachi didn’t feel the need to test if he could still walk every morning. It was just something he knew he could do.

“Haven’t tested what?” the Hokage asked, after the silenced between the two Uchiha had stretched for a few moments.

Itachi sighed, and inclined his head towards his mother, communicating that he would follow her lead on this.

Since she was, after all, his mother and Clan Head.

“Test it,” she said flatly.

Huh. He’d known that she trusted the Yondaime, but still…

Itachi supposed that there was no point in pretending at this point. It was going to come out eventually, and this excuse was a lot more convenient than trying to explain what friend he might have killed.

“Mangekyo Sharingan,” he said, before activating his doujutsu.

His mother actually gasped.

Itachi could not remember the last time she had reacted verbally to shock. He supposed that was a measure of her discomfort and surprise. She might have suspected, but to have it confirmed…

 

The Hokage, Sho and the two ramen stall-holders just stared, uncomprehendingly.

(Itachi had almost forgotten about the last two. He supposed that that was something he would have to remember for later. He suspected that Teuchi and his daughter Ayame were probably not exactly the civilians they appeared to be.)

“That…” the Hokage stated a little cautiously, “appears to be a little more elaborate than the Sharingan I am familiar with seeing.”

“Yes,” confirmed Uchiha Mikoto, looking as though she had just seen her dead husband.

She did not elaborate.

Itachi decided to do so.

Because really, what was the worst that could happen?

Besides, if his mother wanted him to not divulge Clan Secrets, then she shouldn’t have asked him to activate his Mangekyo Sharingan in front of so many witnesses who knew his backstory.

“The Mangekyo Sharingan is an evolution of the Sharingan that occurs when one kills a close friend or family member,” Itachi said. “Although, apparently,” he said this with an ironic tone, “I did not kill any of the above, and yet I have it. Apparently memories count.”

Lying by telling the truth was something Itachi was used to doing, but it never ceased to leave a sour taste in his mouth. He resisted the urge to break out into sarcastic laughter.

 “Itachi, do you know what this means for the Clan?” his mother demanded.

Itachi paused.

Now there was an angle he had not stopped to consider.

“Considering the fact that I have been on psychological leave for the last few months, is it really a viable option to try and reverse-engineer what was done to me?” he asked rhetorically.

His mother grimaced. “The second the rest of the Clan learns that you have the Mangekyo, you know that someone will try.”

Itachi nodded. The Uchiha Clan were not known well for their forward thinking and careful contemplation of the consequences of their actions.

Now that the implications of his cover story had been brought to his attention, he could see how his mother was going to be experiencing some ongoing headaches.

“It’s a foolish plan,” was all he said.

His mother nodded, and he could see the sadness in her eyes. He wondered if she was mourning for the Itachi he had been before he had been pulled from the Sound dungeon. Probably. She had no way of knowing how right she was to be mourning.

Guilt twisted his stomach, but he ruthlessly ignored it. There was little he could do about the situation. No matter what, he could not be the Itachi she had lost. He was himself, the sum of his experiences in the other world he had been in before this one.

There was no going back.

Itachi stood from his stool. He had no desire to deal with this, and for now, he had an excuse.

“Sasuke will be finishing class soon. He will be worried if I do not collect him.”

Without asking for permission, he bowed, and left, straight-backed, pretending that he was not running.

He had a suspicion that this conversation was not finished, but for now, no one stopped him.

….

Uchiha Mikoto watched her son’s back as he left, until he turned the corner and vanished from sight.

“Mikoto…” Minato sounded as though unsure where to start, careful not to poke at obvious wounds.

It was sweet of him, but unnecessary.

Mikoto admitted privately that the fact that he insisted on treating her like she had feelings that might be easily hurt was something she liked about him. Too many treated her like she asked them to— like she was made of the calm stone that the Uchiha tried so hard to emulate.

Mikoto decided to put him out of his misery before he bent himself in knots trying to tactfully interrogate her.

“The Mangekyo Sharingan is a Clan Secret. It works exactly as my son said,” was all she said.

Before she could blink, Minato’s arms were around her, ignoring the public setting.

Mikoto considered shrugging him off, but feeling the start of tears welling in her eyes, decided that of the two spectacles, the Hokage embracing the Uchiha Head would be a lot less embarrassing than her crying in public.

“I feel like I’ve failed him,” she admitted quietly.

“More than you know,” came the voice of the woman Mikoto knew to be Itachi’s counsellor, “but in your defence, it’s something he has tried at all costs to hide. Probably for good reason at the beginning, but it’s been causing increasing amounts of pressure on him. It’s a wonder your son has not outright snapped.”

Mikoto abruptly raised her head from where it had been resting against Minato’s chest to look the woman, Sho, she remembered, in the eyes.

“What do you mean?” she demanded. “What do you know about my son that I do not?”

Sho grimaced.

“A few things,” she demurred, “but the biggest one is going to come as a shock.”

Mikoto straightened, but did not leave the circle of her secret (potentially not so secret anymore, the street was not empty, and dimly, she could hear the buzzing of rumours already) lover’s arms.

“Just tell me.” Mikoto was never one to gingerly attempt to set a limb when it was broken.

It was better to just get it over with in one go.

Sho inhaled quietly, visibly bracing herself for Mikoto’s reaction.

(Mikoto wondered how much of Sho’s body language was deliberate, to set her on her guard, and imply that she should brace herself. Probably all of it, considering Sho’s occupation.)

“I have reason to believe that your son is a pacifist.”

Mikoto’s eyes shot wide.

She wanted to contradict the counsellor.

She wanted to be able to tell her with entire certainty that she was wrong.

Her son? Her Itachi?

But he was an Uchiha, through and through.

He had never balked at a mission. He had never paused when ordered to violence.

But the more she considered it, the more the pieces fit.

The look in his eyes when he had seen the aftermath of the War.

The look in his eyes when his father had wanted him to rise in the ranks.

The look in his eyes when Shisui had come home after a particularly hard mission, his own eyes desolate.

The look in his eyes when he had realised that Sasuke too, was learning to kill.

Which meant…

Mikoto felt ill.

“Oh Kami,” she breathed.

Half-consciously she leaned more fully into Minato’s embrace, as she felt his arms tightening around her.

“What have we done?”

Minato had no answer for her.

Chapter Text

As Itachi moved swiftly towards the Academy, or, more importantly, away from his counsellor, his Hokage, and his mother (and didn’t that sound like a congregation from a vision of well-meaning hell?) he did his best to suppress the urge to curse aloud.

They knew.

He felt fairly sure that they had all bought his cover-story, of the genjutsu being what had induced his Sharingan to evolve into the Mangekyo form, but he couldn’t be certain. Thankfully, his mother had corroborated his story, but Itachi wondered how much of that was because she could think of no better explanation for how her son could have attained it.

Since Mikoto was the resident expert, the Hokage and Sho had taken her at her word that his eyes had changed due to the trauma of the Mangekyo, but Itachi knew by now that Sho at least was uncannily good at figuring out when he was holding back information or telling outright lies. He only hoped that the combination of her lack of familiarity with his Clan’s doujutsu and the fact that here, the truth, that he really did remember killing his parents and many others of the clan would be enough to muddy her perception and let his technical truth through.

It was fortunate that he was a genius with experience with living under the intense and constant scrutiny of other violent geniuses just waiting for a chink to appear in his armour, otherwise the fact that he was surrounded by extremely intelligent people watching his every move might have been unnerving, rather than oddly familiar.

(The fact that these people actually cared about Itachi’s wellbeing was not so familiar, but Itachi was not quite broken enough to not know that that was pretty depressing and not a little pathetic, so he did his best to ignore it.)

The obfuscation to cover the origin of his Mangekyo Sharingan wasn’t the worst of it though.

Naturally, the second Itachi was around the corner and out of sight, he had created a clone, which stealthily crept back to listen to what they were saying about him.

It wasn’t paranoia if he knew for a fact they would be talking about him.

And it was just as well he had.

They knew.

Itachi was grudgingly impressed. The only one to figure out his… philosophy in his previous life had been Pein, and mostly because Pein himself shared it.

Well, maybe Madara had figured it out. It was hard to know.

(It was always hard to tell with Madara, or “Tobi” as he preferred to be known to the majority of Akatsuki. He was crazier than a bag of rabid foxes, and twice as wily.)

He supposed it just went to show that Sho truly was one of the best in her field.

When his clone had discreetly dispersed itself to alert him of what it had overheard, Itachi had nearly tripped over.

Naturally he was going to pretend that he had never overheard them talking, and wait to react when he was eventually confronted, but now he was going to have to figure out how to react.

He was not sure how he felt about one of his closest-kept secrets being divulged like that.

Maybe he should have felt betrayed, but really…

Itachi was almost grateful to Sho.

Maybe… maybe he would be able to refuse assassination missions this time around.

Itachi hated assassination missions. He was appallingly good at them, and because of the Sharingan, he remembered the hardest ones in full technicolour, high definition, surround-sound detail.

(Itachi had once heard those words to describe a cinema experience, when he had snuck into a late session in the Land of Snow. They had stuck with him because it described the difference in qualities of his Sharingan vs non-Sharingan memories almost perfectly.)

Ironically, one of the reasons why Itachi had trained so hard to become so good so early had been so that he wouldn’t need the Sharingan. It meant that he had fewer horrific memories stored up than he might otherwise, but on the other hand, his “Just Like Hatake” skill level had just caused him to be sent on more assassinations, and other such bloody ANBU work.

Oh, and it had caused him to catch the interest of Danzo and Madara, (he always had his father’s attention, and would have no matter what his skill level was) which had led to the course of his last life, being forced to murder his family for the sake of the village, and joining Akatsuki… and then he had been forced to use the Sharingan constantly, just to stay alive, and to keep his edge over his fellow missing-nin, and then his sight had started to deteriorate through over-use, so all that training to not use the Sharingan had been really fortunate after all…

There were reasons why Itachi had been almost relieved to die at Sasuke’s hands.

Sometimes his life truly resembled an extremely cruel joke.

As he approached the Academy, ignoring the occasional stares he was gathering, Itachi quickly shoved aside such thoughts. He would worry about what being outed as a pacifist that had the Mangekyo Sharingan meant later.

Right now, he had Sasuke to pick up. Unless Itachi compartmentalised thoroughly, Sasuke would immediately realise that his big brother was troubled, and would worry.

Itachi didn’t like it when Sasuke worried.

The more he saw of this cheerful Sasuke who reminded Itachi so much of the Sasuke he had known before the Massacre, the more Itachi realised just how badly he had damaged his little brother in his quest to make him stronger. He had known, intellectually, before that he probably was the reason for his foolish little brother being the way he was- a ruthless, cold avenger who would spit in the face of any ally who wasn’t willing or able to help him on the way to power… but to see the comparison with this Sasuke…

Itachi had to admit it to himself.

He had fucked up, and fucked up royally where Sasuke was concerned in the other world.

Thirteen year old him might have been a genius shinobi, but when it came to emotional intelligence, and knowing how to make his little brother into a future worthy foe capable of taking him out…

He had apparently been a drooling idiot.

Itachi liked to think that he had gotten a little better since then.

But suffice to say, now that he had a second chance, there was no way he would ever do anything to deliberately hurt Sasuke again.

And he would brutally maim anyone else who did.

(Except for training purposes. Training purposes didn’t count. However, if Itachi were not satisfied as to their reasoning for doing such a thing, then there would be words. And a few things that were significantly sharper than words, but then, no sensible ninja should expect otherwise.)

It was just as he rounded the corner, that suddenly, he heard shouts.

Itachi switched immediately into alertness, and saw to his horror (and not a little exasperation) that the commotion was Mizuki, who appeared to have snagged himself some random child as a hostage, and was speedily making his way out of the Academy. Itachi noted that the child was conscious, and distressed, but not visibly injured. In fact, the child was struggling wildly and shrieking their head off (good kid, remembering that lesson one was ensuring that help knew to come), until Mizuki hissed something into the child’s, ear, and they stilled, eyes wide with fright.

Honestly. What useless clod had tipped the traitor off? If it had been someone under Itachi’s command, he would have hung them up by their ankles from a tree outside a public bathhouse, and genjutsued them into thinking they were a randy bat.

(When you were captain of an ANBU squad and the teammate closest in age to you was seven years your senior, a certain level of creativity tended to help keep discipline better than merely being able to beat seven shades of shit out of them, if only because funny revenge…no, discipline, honestly, he meant discipline… tended to entertain the others and get them onside (and wary, also very wary). It was something that Kakashi had quietly passed onto his “cute little kohai” and Itachi had found it to be one of the more useful things he had ever been taught. )

Itachi considered his options, and then Mizuki paused for a split-second, checking to see if anyone outside the Academy had been alerted yet before he picked a direction to start running in.

That was all the time Itachi needed.

A quick kawarimi, and instead of a small child over his shoulder, Mizuki had Itachi’s unexpected weight knocking them both to the ground.

Before Mizuki could figure out what had happened, Itachi was sitting on his back with the business end of a kunai pressed to the base of the traitor’s neck, knees firmly planted on Mizuki’s triceps.

“Move, and this goes directly into your spinal cord,” Itachi stated in a purposefully bland, quiet tone (it wouldn’t do for the children to hear what he was about to say). “I cannot possibly miss at this range.”

He could feel Mizuki considering it anyway, through the tensing of his muscles and so Itachi continued as though conversationally, and started to weave a mild genjutsu in with his words, to make the traitor more suggestible, and more docile. Fear was a useful thing for him to make the traitor feel. Outright panic might be a pain. “I hear if the spinal cord is severed, it’s next to impossible for anyone without, say, Tsunade-hime’s skill as a medic-nin to fix it. And if I were to do it here, then, you would be probably be able to breathe unassisted. Probably.” Mizuki let out his breath in a slight hiss, but Itachi kept going, cementing the genjutsu and pressing the kunai into the skin of Mizuki’s neck so that a bead of blood began to well up.

“Naturally, you would lose all function in your legs, and most if not all of the function in your arms. Oh, and naturally you would have no control of your bowels. Ibiki might be a little annoyed that you wouldn’t be able to feel everything that he intended to do to you, but then, Ibiki has never needed something as simple as mere pain to extract information from someone. He has more finesse than that. On the other hand, I once heard a story of a Mist-nin who flayed the skin from a man’s feet whilst he watched. If I pushed this kunai in just a little harder…” he very slightly increased the pressure. “Then I could do it and you wouldn’t feel a thing. The first time, it would be a genjutsu. Maybe also the second time. But the third time? When I apply a little flame, and you smell something cooking, and you’re starving, because they haven’t fed you in days, and you wonder what that delicious smell is, and then the blindfold comes off and you realise that you’re salivating over your own barbequed toes…” Itachi paused for effect. “If you struggle, I’ll shove this kunai in just far enough to ensure you don’t die, and then ask Ibiki if I can experiment.”

The combination of Itachi’s words and the genjutsu worked, and Mizuki broke. “No! Please, no. Ohkamiohkamiohkami I’LL COME QUIETLY I SWEAR!” he sobbed.

Itachi looked up, and saw that he had an audience. Several of them had expressions on their faces that made it clear he might have been whispering, but he had been heard loud and clear. Those who weren’t experienced ninja who had been able to discern his words were looking distinctly green.

Those who were experienced ninja were looking at Itachi like they had never seen him before.

“He threatened the children,” Itachi said, offering the explanation none of them were asking for.

Several faces relaxed somewhat, and he even got a few approving nods.

(Surprisingly, one of those nodding was a civilian woman with a headscarf, leaning heavily on a crutch. Itachi hoped that they knew that he seriously would never actually do that to a person. It was inhumane for one thing, and downright messy. Kisame might have told the story of his old comrades with a respectful gleam in his eye, but Itachi had always found such butchery plebeian. Psychological torture was a lot more civilised, and more effective in the long run, he found. You could only stab someone so many times before they simply bled out. On the other hand, even without resorting to Tsukiyomi, he could make someone think they had been stabbed a thousand times and they would still be there awaiting his patience.)

“…”

Itachi felt a gaze, and looked up to see two ANBU staring at him in a silent but emphatic fashion.

“Well, are you going to take him off my hands, or what?” he asked, tone carefully polite.

Moments later, Itachi was watching the ANBU leave over the rooftops, Mizuki dangling between them.

He noted a stench in the air, and looked down.

Hmm. It seemed that he had caused the traitor to piss himself.

Itachi discreetly stepped away from the mess, and turned to see that the child he had switched places with was being currently held tightly by a weeping, obviously civilian parent.

Oh good. The kid was probably fine then. Otherwise at least one of the ninja in the area would have dragged them both to the hospital.

“Whoo Aniki! Yeah! That’s my big brother!”

“Yay Itachi-niisan!”

Itachi turned to see Sasuke and his little friends jumping up and down and cheering.

What was this oddly warm feeling in his chest?

Oh. Right. This.

This was why he had actually wanted to become a ninja.

To protect people.

“…Itachi?” Hana stepped out of the crowd.

Uh oh.

She looked perturbed.

Maybe his last act had been a little out of character for the Itachi he had replaced?

 “Care to explain what the fuck that was?” she asked him in a carefully calm voice.

“What?” Itachi replied, scratching the back of his head. “I’ve been training.”

Chapter Text

 

“Training?! Training!?” Hana whisper-shouted at him. “Who the fuck have you been training with who taught you how to do shit like that?!”

“Hana,” said Itachi, his eyes shooting a meaningful glance at where Sasuke and his little friends were (thankfully well out of earshot of what Itachi had been telling Mizuki, Hana didn’t even want to consider what reaction the kids might have had to hearing that,) “you’re causing a scene.”

“…I’m causing a scene!” Hana fumed, throwing her hands in the air. “Seriously Itachi, it’s like I don’t know you anymore! Since when do you have the chakra control to pull off a kawarimi like that when the target is in motion? Since when do you make threats like that?” The actual pin he had used was fairly basic, and to be expected to be in the repertoire of any chunin, but the speed and the way that he had applied it was… not.

Itachi lowered his head so that his hair hid his expression from her gaze.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he stated flatly, in a dead voice that sounded nothing like the Itachi she used to know.

He lifted his gaze and looked her in the eye, features carefully arranged into a typical Uchiha mask, but she could see the slight stress-lines in the corners of his eyes, and an almost pleading (and wasn’t that strange?) expression deep in his eyes.

She hoped that meant that the Itachi she remembered was still in there, but she couldn’t be sure.

Hana wanted to pin him down, to force him to answer her, to tell her what it was that was running through his head these days that made him look so world-weary all the time.

So, so…

Not-Itachi.

The Itachi that she remembered had been a little reserved, sure. But behind his careful Clan mask, Hana had always perceived a generally cheerful persona. And though dropping the Clan mask was extremely rare, it happened just often enough that sometimes, Hana got to see what she had always thought of as the real Itachi— a boy who was not, (as many thought,) a lesser kind of prodigy, but rather a chronic underachiever. A boy who had a wicked sense of deadpan humour, and who teased his little brother constantly.

Sure, she had seen brief glimpses of the old Itachi every once in a while, but ever since she had seen him for the first time after that mission, she thought that he was going through the motions.

It was troubling.

And this new unapologetically violent side of him?

This was downright frightening, as far as Hana was concerned.

Itachi had always seemed somewhat reluctant to hurt anyone. When she sparred with him in the old days, he was skilled, sure, but there was always this sense that he was holding back, and not putting his whole heart into the fight.

To see him brutally and efficiently take down a fellow chunin, no, not just a fellow chunin, a fellow chunin considered to have a broad enough skills base to be an Academy teacher…

Hana was not afraid to admit that that was a shock to the system.

And that threat…

Sure, Hana had played the game before. She knew that when one was trying to intimidate, one technique that was tried and true was to talk about violent acts that one would barely even contemplate committing under orders, let alone enjoy…

But the most chilling part of Itachi’s threat had been the matter-of-fact way in which it came out. He sounded bland, bored. As though such things were pedestrian, and the sort of thing he regularly thought about.

As though he had used that sort of threat before, to the point that it was almost rote.

But bored as his tone had been, there had been not the tiniest waver that might have suggested he would not have carried out that threat. In fact, when he had cut Mizuki, and the blood had started to run from where the kunai pierced the skin of his neck, for a split second she had feared that he was actually going to carry it out.

And then Mizuki had caved, and the tension was mostly gone.

In another shinobi, she might have applauded him for his spectacular acting skills.

She might have applauded him for his creativity.

But in Itachi?

The Itachi she knew wasn’t a good actor.

The Itachi she knew wasn’t known for his creativity.

Sure, he could say a whole range of things and keep that deadpan Clan mask entirely intact, but that was quite a different thing to what she had just seen here. Itachi had sounded blank as though he honestly didn’t care, as opposed to the wooden tone she had heard him adopt in similar situations before.

If she didn’t know any better…

But, he had been checked out by Yamanaka, right?

And the Hokage would not have let him loose in the village if Itachi was some kind of danger, right?

His family would be able to surely tell if the Itachi she had always known had been replaced…

Right?

Right. Of course.

It was a ridiculous notion to think that Itachi might have somehow been replaced by an imposter.

If it wasn’t for the fact that he still smelled like himself (albeit a chronically depressed, stressed and somehow periodically bewildered version of himself) though, Hana might have given her own theory of Itachi being some other nin under a henge or something more credence.

(Especially since most ninja impersonating others had a tendency to focus on the looks of their disguise, rather than their scent. And it was extremely difficult to fake the individual scents that Inuzuka could use to differentiate one human or dog from another. In fact, it was close to impossible… especially over a period of days, let alone weeks or months.)

Really, if it had not been for the evidence from the Yamanaka, Hana might have thought it possible though that Itachi had been body-snatched or something.

As Hana thought all of this, she could feel Itachi watching her. His posture was a study in nonchalance, but she could smell his tension. And she could sense that he was well aware that she knew that he was not as unaffected by her scrutiny as he pretended.

This right here was why Hana was so shocked by Itachi’s “act”. Because frankly, Itachi had never been as able to hide from her as from others. She knew him too well, from their years together at the Academy, and then from when they had been on a Genin Team together.

So what Hana really wanted to know was this:

What the hell was going on?

Since when had Itachi become so blasé about that level of violence?

Since when had Itachi become willing to commit that level of violence?

What had happened to him?

Why had he changed so drastically?

These questions and others that were variations on the theme of why, when and how crossed Hana’s mind, but before they could cross her lips, Itachi shook his head meaningfully.

Hana blinked, and then recalled where they were- in front of the Academy, surrounded by civilians, other ninja, and children.

This was certainly not the right place to interrogate Itachi.

Hana nearly growled from impatience, but knew to resist that urge if she ever wanted to get any answers from him. One thing that had remained consistent between this Itachi and the old one was that he was not above simply running away if he did not wish to deal with a confrontation.

Speaking of…

Hana blinked, and then realised that Itachi was already leaving, his brother, the Hokage’s kid, and that little pink-haired girl that Kiba liked to bother ringing him, asking him questions, and generally seeming entirely unaware of the predator that walked among them.

Well, to be fair, Hana supposed, there was probably no one on this Earth who were safer from Itachi than those three. Itachi would rather die than hurt his brother, and since he had… changed, he had become almost suffocatingly overprotective of him.

(Naruto and Sakura seemed to be considered extensions of Sasuke since they spent so much time around him, and not just by Itachi, Hana had to admit—the three of them were seemingly inseparable, and it would be an outright shock if they were not put on the same genin team.)

Except, Sasuke seemed to be delighted by the attention, and Itachi seemed to be mostly exhibiting the overprotectiveness by turning his little brother and his friends into ninja able to defend themselves in case he was not around.

Normally, this might have been seen as a good things, but there was something… uncomfortably intense about the way Itachi seemed almost driven to improve their skills. The kids lapped it up, but Hana worried. It was fortunate that the kids so far had managed to maintain their seriousness and dedication towards Itachi’s training of them, because she worried what reaction he might have if they had clowned around, or generally not been diligent.

Fortunately, it seemed that (unnerving as it could be to watch at times) Itachi had an almost endless supply of patience when teaching them. He didn’t mind if they didn’t get a concept or technique the first time around, and would explain, again, and again, in slightly different ways, trying different analogies and ways of showing the thing he was trying to teach them, until they first understood what he was asking from them, and then that they mastered it.

The Itachi from before had been patient when he felt he had to be (all ninja learned the skill, if only so that they would not be bothered by having to wait for targets to pass them by at the optimal opportunity, or so that they could endure long hours on watch), but this level displayed was almost laughably out of character for Itachi.

Patience had been something he saved for missions, and acquiring pocky.

Not training his little brother.

As Itachi had stood there, unrepentant, Hana had wondered, and worried, and wanted to know what the hell was going on.

She watched him as he left, turning the corner, taking his small entourage of children with him.

“…that was the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Anko, staring after Itachi.

Hana (resisting the initial urge to jump into the nearest tree from surprise) turned to stare at her friend.

“…I don’t even.”

“What?”

“Here I am, freaking out about how much Itachi has changed, and you just want to get into his pants because he’s gotten better at channelling a complete psychopath!” Hana shook her head.

Anko shrugged. “Hey, I’ve neither judged nor analysed why you like them hairy, so what if I like them a little dangerous?”

“But that’s just it!” Hana exclaimed quietly, as the two of them began to walk out of earshot of other bystanders. As soon as they were far enough away that she felt secure in not being overheard, Hana continued, “Since when has Itachi been dangerous!? He was always such a sweet guy, a career chunin we thought, and now…”

Anko sobered.

“Hana, there is a simple explanation for all of this. The obsessive training, the way he’s withdrawn, the way his over-protective thing for his brother has gone on Akimichi pills…”

Hana frowned. What could Anko mean?

“Hana,” Anko sighed. “What happened to Itachi?”

“That’s just what I’m asking!” Hana retorted.

“Hana,” Anko scowled. “Think. What happened to Itachi on the last mission he was on?”

“He was… oh.” Hana realised what Anko was trying to tell her.

She remembered just who it was that had hurt this friend too, badly enough that she had changed from someone who was eager to please to just plain vicious.

She remembered the stories she had heard, of secret dungeons, and tortures unusual and cruel, of medical experiments that were spoken of only in whispers.

She remembered that of all the people in Konoha, Anko probably knew the most about all of that.

Orochimaru had a lot to answer for, Hana thought.

But…

Despite Anko’s suggestion that this could be all pinned on Orochimaru and his treatment of Itachi, Hana wondered.

Was mere trauma enough to cause changes this drastic?

Hana realised what she was thinking, and nearly scolded herself.

Of course it was.

Trauma affected everyone differently. There was absolutely no reason to assume that a drastic personality change couldn’t occur because of it.

But, Hana thought, Orochimaru had only had Itachi for a week.

Was that truly enough to basically rewire a person’s personality?

Hana knew that there was no logical reason that she felt this way. She knew if she asked anyone with a specialisation in ninja psychology, that they would tell her she was being unreasonable.

Still, she could not escape what her instincts were telling her.

Her instincts were telling her that Yamanaka seal of approval or not, this was not the Itachi she had known.

And she didn’t mean that metaphorically.

She knew the Hokage was taking personal interest in his case.

Hopefully that meant that the Hokage was paying close attention.

Because if she hadn’t known any better, she would have thought that Itachi was an imposter.

Sure, he smelled basically the same as he always had.

Sure, he still remembered things that they had done in the Academy together (she had tested).

But somehow, she had the feeling that her childhood friend was a stranger.

The sensation did not sit well with her.

“Soooo….” Anko said after Hana had been quiet for too long.

“I’m worried,” Hana admitted.

Anko sighed. “You’ve been worried, woman. And the thing is, he’s not as bad as he was. In fact, if you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said he was starting to recover.”

Hana winced. “And now?”

To her surprise, Anko grinned wolfishly.

“I think he’s decided to become someone quite different. And I for one am finding the change delicious. Mildly worrying,” she conceded, as Hana looked at her incredulously, “But really, is it a bad thing that he’s apparently decided to start training towards the Badass promotion exam?”

Hana couldn’t help it.

She facepalmed.

Chapter Text

 

“That was seriously the coolest thing I’ve ever seen you do, Aniki!” Sasuke enthused.

This had been going on ever since they had left the Academy.

A good half hour ago.

Itachi was still not sure how to react.

Mostly because he could not get away from one important factor.

He had screwed up.

He was almost entirely sure he had just blown his cover with Hana at the very least. He should probably be even more worried about that than he was— her suspicion could cause real trouble for him if she talked to the right people. It was only because he knew for a fact that Sho and his mother at the very least (and no doubt Shisui too) knew that something was off, but had thus far not managed to figure out an explanation beyond trauma (thank the Sage for Yamanaka identifications providing obfuscating evidence that he was Itachi, otherwise they might have resorted to listening to their instincts about him, and then he would have been sitting in a special cell at Ibiki’s pleasure before you could say “imposter”), that he was not overly concerned, yet.

The nice thing about being surrounded by ninja was that most of them had been taught how to think critically and logically. It was illogical to assume that any of them would reason that Itachi must be from some other kind of world.

The problem with being surrounded by ninja was that most of them had also been taught how to be flexible and open to new data when it was presented to them, as intel could be the difference between life, death and success of the mission, and disregarding intel because it merely made no sense with one’s worldview was not a winning survival tactic in their world.

More likely to be a problem however, were the more likely explanations for a person to suddenly and drastically shift in their personality. Trauma was a useful explanation, but Itachi knew it was starting to wear thin. Thankfully the fact that he had been checked-over by a Yamanaka meant that it had been confirmed that there was only Uchiha Itachi between his ears. That however opened up all sorts of conspiracy theories, with the worst case scenario being that there was some sort of outside agent controlling Itachi’s behaviour.

It was difficult to view the Inuzuka girl he had grown up with as a threat, but in this case, with how well it seemed she had known the other Itachi, the danger was clear.

(Maybe it was because he could still remember when the Haimaru triplets had been adorable little fluffballs rather than the hulking beasts they had later become… hang on a moment. Itachi couldn’t remember actually ever seeing the Haimaru triplets with this Hana. This was something potentially worth looking into. Maybe it meant nothing. Maybe it was something he should be worried about. Itachi would definitely investigate this.)

Depending on how she acted on her suspicions…

Well. He would just have to watch her, and react to the trouble if it came, as there was little he could do to stop her from stating her suspicions aloud to the wrong people without really setting off alarm bells with everyone.

On the other hand, apparently his brother and his little friends had all decided that Itachi’s little display of violence made him worthy of exuberant exclamations about how ‘awesome’ he was.

It had been almost nice to begin with, but now it was starting to get almost… embarrassing.

“Yeah, Itachi-niisan, it’s so cool how you took out Mizuki-sen…” Sakura bit off the honorific, “I mean, that traitor after he got Iruka-sensei with his fuuma shuriken and then slipped past the ANBU.”

“Itachi-nii, how come you aren’t an ANBU? You’d be able to kick their asses!” Naruto enthused.

(Not entirely accurately, Itachi mused with no little irritation with himself. This body still had not been built up to his standards. It was in vastly better condition than when he had started with it, but still…

Though on the other hand, his eyesight was fine, his lungs were clear, and his body didn’t ache all the time. There were some definite upsides to having this younger body from before he had inadvertently half-destroyed it with overuse of the Mangekyo Sharingan and the disease he had managed to pick up in Bird Nation on that kamiforsaken mission.)

From what he gathered from the excited babblings of the trio, one of the ANBU had been a little careless, and the Inuzuka kid in their class, Hana’s little brother, had inadvertently alerted everyone to their presence. Itachi half-hoped that the kid wouldn’t get into too much trouble over the incident… though obviously someone would have to explain to him why it was a bad idea to point out ANBU who were trying to avoid attention. If the kid hadn’t realised it was ANBU it would have been another story altogether, but honestly, it didn’t take much common sense to realise that perhaps the presence of black-ops surveillance was not something one yelled about at the top of one’s lungs in any situation.

(Sometimes Itachi really worried about the younger generation. Thankfully Sasuke did not seem to be entirely infected with whatever it was, and since Itachi had taken his education in hand, he had vastly improved.)

That said, Itachi sincerely hoped that that ANBU was stripped of their mask. Imagine, forgetting the fact that there were multiple clan-kids in the classroom whose Clans were valued within the village for being able to detect or track enemies. Itachi would bet good ryo that the Aburame kid at least would also have been well-aware of the ANBU sneaking about, but he at least would have had the sense to keep his mouth shut.

(Itachi’s surveillance of Sasuke’s class had familiarised him with all the members. Partly just out of habit— it was not as though there was such thing as useless information that could be gained out of surveillance, only information that was not useful yet— and partly because Itachi remembered the reputation the Rookie Nine had gained. It only made sense to keep tabs on all of them, especially since they were Sasuke’s peer group.)

In any case, any ANBU who wasn’t able to keep below the notice of pre-genin should be downright ashamed of themselves.

Seriously, was Itachi the only one he could count on to keep his little brother (and his little brother’s friends, he supposed) safe?

At least Umino Iruka had tried, and from what Itachi gathered from the babbling, he had been injured protecting his students.

(The more Itachi learned about his little brother’s favourite teacher, the more Itachi’s respect for the man grew.)

Mizuki had apparently only succeeded in grabbing a student when one of the civilian-raised had thought it would be a brilliant idea to charge a much-older, much-more-experienced opponent who had literally taught her almost everything she knew about taijutsu.

Full points for bravery.

Zero points for good thinking.

If Itachi had not already know then answer through his weeks of surveillance, he would have been tempted to ask:

What had they been teaching these kids in the Academy?

It was professionally embarrassing that it had come to this point. The Academy was turning kids into shuriken fodder rather than the diverse warriors they should have been.

Clan kids were (best case scenario) being taught that the only worthwhile lessons were the ones that came from home, and that kids from civilian backgrounds were naturally less able. That could be outright deadly in the field, and would only worsen the consistent friction that always existed between some elements of the ninja and civilian populations in Konoha.

Civilian kids were being taught how to get themselves killed.

It infuriated Itachi.

It was such a waste for one thing.

 But more than that, it was undermining his village.

(If Itachi found any inkling that there was anyone other than Mizuki deliberately harming his brother’s future potential as a shinobi, then Itachi would facilitate them and Ibiki having an in-depth conversation.)

“So,” he said, cutting through Naruto’s excited babble. “Who wants to learn the hold I used on the traitor?”

Three pairs of eyes widened.

Itachi smiled inwardly. It was like offering a treat to a bunch of puppies.

“Me! Me! Itachi-niisan pick me!”

Itachi nodded seriously, as though they weren’t behaving like a pack of hooligans.

“Very well. But first, what did I make you promise about things I teach you?”

“Things Itachi-nii teaches us are for enemies, not for showing off,” the three of them chorused obediently.

Itachi resisted the urge to smile with pride, and nodded gravely.

(The first time Itachi had showed them anything that he thought they might be able to do some real damage with, he had made it quite clear that he had zero-tolerance for them using anything they learned from him to show-off and/or potentially endanger their classmates.

“This is not a game,” he had said sternly, looking them all in the eye, “and if I think you’re treating anything I teach you like it is less than serious, then I will stop, and not teach any of you anything for a very long time, because little kids are not ready to learn these techniques. Am I understood?”

Fortunately, all three of them had taken him at his word.)

“Good,” Itachi responded.

Twenty minutes later, Itachi was letting the kids practice one by one on one of his kage bunshin.

“That’s not quite right, Naruto,” said Itachi. “You need to push his face into the dirt, but lean as much of your bodyweight on the triceps as possible… yes, that’s better,” he said, as Naruto shifted his weight in response to Itachi’s advice.

“Right, now, Sasuke and Sakura, can either of you tell me one of the problems with this hold?”

“Is it because the legs are left free?” Sakura asked, wrinkling her brow. “I guess I can see how maybe your bunshin would be able to buck Naruto off if he could swing his legs up high enough.”

“Very good, Sakura,” Itachi praised her, “which is why…”

“Which is why you used the kunai on the back of his neck!” Sasuke exclaimed, interrupting Itachi excitedly.

Rather than getting annoyed at the interruption, Itachi just nodded, giving his little brother a slight smile. There was nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about learning, after all, and it wasn’t like Sasuke’s interjection was out of disrespect. Itachi valued manners, but mostly as the function they played in getting things accomplished. More kikai could be distracted with honey than vinegar after all.

It was then that Naruto pressed just a little too hard on Itachi’s clone’s head, and it popped, dumping the Hokage’s son on his rump.

“Oops,” said Naruto. “Sorry Itachi-niisan, I didn’t realise that sharp rock was there. Can you make another, or are you too tired?”

Itachi shook his head ruefully. “Unfortunately that was all that I had chakra for today.”

(Considering he had made another kage bunshin earlier to spy on his mother and the Hokage, Itachi was running just a little low. Not enough that he wouldn’t be able to still protect his… his students, he supposed, but more than enough that making kage bunshin like some kind of jinchuriki would be a bad idea.

Actually, there was a thought. Had anyone thought to teach Naruto how to make kage bunshin yet? Itachi had been distracted enough by how bad their taijutsu was that he had yet to really check how Naruto and Sakura were skilled in terms of the Academy Three. At least he knew Sasuke was adequate at them— Itachi would never have taught him how to blow fireballs otherwise.)

“Here, practice on one of mine.”

 

Itachi did not nearly jump out of his skin.

 

(It was a nearer thing than it had been for a very long time though.)

 

“Hokage-sama,” he bowed.

The Hokage appeared amused. So did his clone.

The clone walked over to where the kids were, Sakura pushing Naruto aside and insisting it was her turn, and the Hokage turned to Itachi.

“You have had a busy day, Itachi.”

“A busy day being awesome!” Naruto enthused.

All present turned to look at him a little incredulously. Naruto folded his arms and scowled.

“What?”

Itachi refrained from rolling his eyes and nodded to the Hokage. “Do you wish to debrief me?”

The Yondaime nodded, an expression in his eyes that Itachi had difficulty reading.

“Please.” The response was polite, but it was clearly a command rather than a request.

It was a little unconventional for Itachi to be debriefed out in the open like this in front of a couple of half-distracted genin…

And that was how Itachi knew.

Moments later, Itachi’s thrown senbon had popped the shadow clone, and he had placed himself bodily between the kids and the imposter.

“Itachi-nii?” Sasuke’s voice was confused.

Itachi noted that the imposter was very carefully not meeting his eyes.

He settled into a defensive stance, kunai raised, Sharingan activated.

“This is not the Hokage. Run.”

Chapter Text

“So, you saw through my illusion,” the imposter said, smiling benignly. Unlike the Yondaime’s real smile, this one did not reach the imposter’s eyes.

Itachi responded to this by throwing a kunai straight at the imposter’s throat.

The imposter caught the kunai millimetres in front of their trachea in one swift but lazy movement, and eyed it thoughtfully, turning it from side to side.

“How rude, Itachi-kun. I would have thought that your mother would have taught you better manners than that,” the imposter continued.

Itachi responded this time with a brace of senbon. Behind him, he could hear the running footsteps of the genin.

Good, he thought. If they had disobeyed him and tried to stay back and “help”, then he would have refused to teach them anything again until they were chunin.

Obviously realising that Itachi was not going to engage in banter, the imposter smirked, and sent a barrage of senbon right back at Itachi.

Itachi did not fail to miss the light gleam of oil on the senbon, suggesting that they were almost definitely poisoned.

Nothing he hadn’t handled hundreds of times in the past, but poison meant that he probably could not afford to make any mistakes.

This was not a good day for his cover.

Itachi’s Sharingan were spinning before he was really consciously aware of the fact. The effort it took to activate them was less than what some ninja would use to start a campfire with a mild fire jutsu, and it was a long-practised instinct. He could fight without them (and often trained without them) but right now, with him three quarters of the way to chakra exhaustion and against an unknown opponent?

Itachi was not pulling out all stops (a good ninja always saved their best for last unless there was a certainty of no survivors and no witnesses) but he was definitely showing a higher calibre of skill than he had reason to suspect anyone from this world would expect from this body.

Today was really not good for his cover.

To his annoyance, his opponent was seemingly unbothered by Itachi’s show of skill.

“Does it grate you to be in that body?” the imposter asked, airily, still throwing senbon.

A typical shinobi might have flinched, then.

A typical shinobi might have stopped, and demanded what the imposter meant.

Itachi had never been a typical shinobi.

Instead of taking time to wonder or demand what the imposter thought they knew, Itachi stopped trying to take the imposter alive and switched tactics.

Whatever the imposter thought they knew, Itachi had to shut them up before the inevitable witnesses showed up.

The imposter seemed to know to avoid eye-contact, but that did not save them from the cluster of kunai that appeared where he was about to be.

The imposter was only barely fast enough to avoid having them hit anywhere vital, but the extremely difficult to detect poison on the weapons was in their bloodstream, so it was only a matter of time.

 (Sasori had been a twisted bastard, but if there was one thing he was good at proving, it was that poison was a very efficient tool to have in what Deidara had once referred to as the murderbag, and Itachi was nothing if not someone who embodied the Uchiha talent for shamelessly stealing other people’s tricks, especially if they were effective.)

Undaunted, the imposter continued to attack, pelting Itachi with barrage after barrage of poisoned senbon.

Itachi dodged where he could, and used kawarimi the rest, trying to conserve chakra as best he could.

He was fortunate that his attacker appeared to be a one-trick pony… oh wait, no, Itachi detected the genjutsu and dispelled it without a thought.

He was almost offended that his opponent had even tried that. No Uchiha worth their eyes would fall for… oh that one was a little trickier.

As far as Itachi was aware, that particular one was a Yamanaka specialty.

(Itachi felt almost nostalgic. He hadn’t had someone try to put him under that particular genjutsu since before Konoha had given up sending hunter-nin after him.)

Suddenly, Itachi could feel a familiar chakra signature, coming in fast.

Before he could properly register this though, the imposter was already on the ground, knocked out.

There was a reason why his cousin used to be known as Shunshin Shisui in all the bingo books.

This kind of moment, this sudden bolt-from-the-blue, not unlike the Hokage using his Hiraishin, only at a shorter distance…

This was why even Mist-nin found Itachi’s elder cousin mildly terrifying.

 “Stay the fuck away from my cousin,” Shisui scowled, holding a kunai to the unconscious imposter’s throat, just in case they were lying with their body about their state of consciousness.

 (Like all sensible ninja, Shisui waited until after his opponent was down before letting out the quips. Itachi approved, even as he began to worry about what it was that the imposter thought they knew.)

Moments later, the real Hokage appeared, along with several ANBU.

Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage locked eyes on the imposter who had got within arm’s reach of his son.

 To Itachi’s eyes he appeared decidedly unamused.

“To Ibiki,” the Yondaime barked.

Two of the ANBU were moving before the final syllable crossed their Hokage’s lips.

Itachi hardly blamed them. The killing intent was practically rolling off their Hokage in waves.

Moments later, and the ANBU had shunshined away with the imposter.

Itachi internally shook his head. The imposter should have known better than to threaten the Hokage’s son, Konoha’s jinchuriki.

(Sometimes Itachi wondered if part of the reason for the “sacrifice” of Minato’s own son as the demon container had not partly had to do with having a far more practical reason than mere sentiment to crush any enemy who threatened Naruto. A father’s desire for vengeance was a terrifying enough concept when it was only out of love. Add to that a Hokage’s sense of duty, and the sense of duty at every ninja at his command and… Itachi shuddered, despite himself, at the very thought.)

Itachi wondered who the imposter was, and then decided to worry about it later. Right now, he had several thoroughly upset people to deal with…

Oh wait.

That sudden woozy feeling.

This was unsettlingly familiar.

Tunnel vision.

Chakra exhaustion.

His mother was going to kick his ass, but this was…

Itachi half-smiled at his cousin, and felt his knees starting to buckle.

He felt arms wrap around him before he hit the ground, but to his surprise, it was not Shisui who caught him, but the Hokage himself…

“…believe that this could happen! Minato, what kind of useless fools are you employing to keep our children safe?!”

Itachi swam back to consciousness to the harsh smell of antiseptic cleaning agents, the crisp feel of over-starched sheets, and the sound of his mother’s harsh whisper, clearly mid-tirade, interspersed with the beep of a heart monitor that he could feel attached, along with a drip, probably just saline, he judged, as he was almost certain he had not been poisoned in the earlier attack.

Obviously, he was in Konoha Hospital.

Carefully, he pretended to still be asleep.

“Twice! Not once, but twice today, the only person between my youngest son and a traitor was Itachi!” Mikoto continued.

“I agree,” came the Hokage’s voice, sounding grim. “You forget that it was also my son he was protecting, Koto-chan.”

(Itachi carefully didn’t react to the Hokage using a pet-name on his mother! He was not sure how he should react to this information. Itachi was glad that he was supposedly asleep just now, as he had time to figure out whether he should have a reaction to this information.)

“There is no excuse,” the Yondaime continued, “and I am meeting with the ANBU captains directly after this. I am going to find out where the breach was, and I am going to seal it.

For a moment, the only sound in the room was the heart monitor attached to Itachi, and then his mother let out a harsh breath in what might have been a sigh in another woman.

“You are going to find out who endangered my boys, through dereliction of duty or treachery, and you are going to make them wish they had never been born,” Mikoto stated bluntly, in a tone that was neither questioning nor commanding, but merely matter of fact.

“Have no doubt that I will,” Itachi could hear the vicious smile in the Yondaime’s voice.

“I have none. Go,” Mikoto retorted.

There was a slight breeze, and the Hokage’s chakra signature left the room.

“I know you’re awake, Itachi,” his mother stated.

Itachi considered continuing his pretence, calling her bluff, but decided that the consequences would not be worth it.

He didn’t know how it was that his mother always knew. In his experience, she just did. She had known instantly why he was there on the night that he had killed his parents, and had even told him that she understood.

“We understand, Itachi,” she had told him, not even turning to look at him.

How?

This was something that Itachi in turn had never himself understood.

How could she understand?

How could she do that to him?

How could she do that to Sasuke?

Why?

Why had she said that?

Why would she have put herself in that position?

Why would she force him to be her killer?

Why did she not look at him?

Why had the two of them, his mother and father, been kneeling before he had even got there?

Sometimes, Itachi had wondered…

But no. Such things were not worth wondering about, when Itachi could never know the answers.

Not in life, anyway.

And yet even after he had died, still no answers, because somehow he was still alive, having stolen the life of another Itachi…

He wondered if this mother even realised that he was not the same son she had farewelled all those months ago.

How could she not know?

Itachi felt a wave of anger pass through him at this thought, and the irony and irrationality of his emotional reaction did not escape him.

Itachi compressed these thoughts into a small ball, and shoved them to the back of his mind.

He could not afford to be distracted when facing any incarnation of Uchiha Mikoto.

He blinked his eyes open, and saw his mother’s face staring stonily down at him.

“If I did not know any better, I would never believe that you were Fugaku’s son,” she said.

Itachi blinked, despite himself.

What?!

“Fugaku, after all,” Mikoto continued, “always had the good of the clan in mind. He would never have condoned you, his heir, endangering yourself for a mere civilian.”

Itachi shook his head.

“I did not attack Mizuki to save the civilian child, I attacked because the civilian child might have, but for the grace of Kami, been Sasuke,” Itachi retorted bluntly. He did not enjoy watching children die, but had Sasuke not been tangentially involved, he would have at least hesitated, and some other fool would have gotten the glory, and Itachi’s cover would be intact. The crowd had been full of ninjas, Itachi had merely been the fastest to react, in part because Sasuke being in danger tended to short out the long-term planning portion of his brain.

It was a terrible weakness for a shinobi to have, but since he usually killed anyone who poked at it, Itachi had never been overly concerned about it.

Itachi would not pretend to be a better person than he was.

(Few ninja, in his experience, respected kindness, least of all those that were of Uchiha blood.)

Mikoto inclined her head.

“Even so,” she stated.

And then smiled.

“You have done our clan a great service today. Word has already spread from one end of the village to the other of how the brave Uchiha heir took out a traitor and saved a child from one of the Old Civilian Families from almost certain death.” Her tone made it clear that she was paraphrasing, and she sounded... not so much proud, but smug, Itachi decided. Though there was a little pride there.

Now there was a tone he had not inspired in his mother for a long time.

 Even before he had realised that he would have to kill her.

Itachi was not sure how he felt about this.

“Chaikawa Nagisa, the child you saved, is the second child of Chaikawa Obito’s younger brother,” Mikoto continued. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you who that is.”

Huh. Itachi had saved a relative of a preeminent civilian contract lawyer, who had been known to be a close contact of the Sandaime Hokage.

No wonder his mother was pleased.

This really would do wonders for the clan’s reputation.

“I would, however, suggest that if you thought you were going to get away with stealing my son’s body, it would have been better if you had been more discreet.”

Itachi froze.

 

Chapter Text

Itachi froze.

This was so uncharacteristic of a normal reaction from himself, that he realised what had happened almost immediately.

Somehow, Mikoto had incapacitated him.

Poison?

A paralysing jutsu?

Itachi could not immediately tell.

 “Something that you may or may not have known is that when I was an active kunoichi, for a brief while I considered becoming a med-nin,” Mikoto stated, face expressionless, tone calm. A different kunoichi (Anko) might have taken this opportunity to clean under her fingernails with a kunai, to emphasize the potential threat.

Mikoto managed the same impression with her presence and killing intent alone.

Suddenly, Itachi had insight into why he had always both liked and felt repulsed by Konan.

They had rarely spoken, and only interacted in a professional sense, but something about the sole female member of the Akastsuki had always set Itachi at ease, but in a way that he had found deeply unsettling.

It was like being fond of a flower used to make a deadly poison- one could admire its beauty, but at the same time, would be extremely wary in handling it.

Itachi pondered idly the fact that he had probably been repressing rather heavily for him to not have realised the similarity between his mother and Konan before.

He felt the urge to laugh at himself (perhaps a little hysterically,) but in the end decided that such a loss of control in this situation, with Mikoto so… upset…

It would be counterproductive to his life goal of not being stabbed in the face.

Itachi tried to avoid manoeuvres that would cause him to lose weapons.

It was inefficient.

“During my time of studying medical jutsu,” Mikoto continued, “I found that I had a particular talent for anaesthesia, and chakra restraints.” She did not elaborate.

She did not have to.

Having had his theory confirmed, Itachi was content to wait.

All that he knew for sure was that he was helpless, due to a combination of chakra exhaustion and whatever she had done to him….

His situation was not exactly good.

Helpless and in the power of Uchiha Mikoto.

Uchiha Mikoto, who had been one of the most deadly kunoichi of her generation.

Itachi didn’t even bother to struggle.

There was no point.

If she wanted him dead, then there was very little he was going to be able to do about it.

Perhaps this would be justice of a sort, Itachi mused.

He felt a part of himself relax.

It would be nice to be able to stop worrying about being found out.

Now that things were beyond his control,

If Mikoto was talking to him, then she either wanted information, or she wanted him to know exactly why he was about to die in agony.

Knowing his mother, it was most likely a combination of these scenarios.

“At first, I assumed that it was just trauma. After all, the Yamanaka seemed sure that you truly believed yourself to be Itachi. Maybe this is even true. Maybe you have been brainwashed into thinking that you are truly my son,” she said, spreading her hands elegantly.

Her sarcasm was nearly palpable.

“Or, and I must admit that I find this far more likely, you have been well aware of the part you must play for some time, and in your effort to ingratiate yourself to Konoha, you have overstepped.” Her smile grew colder. “It was, I admit, not a bad plan. After all, gaining the favour of the Chaikawa Clan and building up the public image of the Uchiha Clan at the same time would be a winning scenario for you on both sides. The Uchiha Clan would be slower to doubt you, and the Chaikawa Clan is honourable enough that they would consider themselves in your debt, which would give you some degree of protection, should you ever need it. And Sasuke would be devastated if anything happened to his elder brother.”

Itachi waited for the other geta to drop. His mother rarely gave compliments without a sting in the tail, even when she was not threatening enemies.

“However, you made one small miscalculation. If I kill you now, I will be able to say that you succumbed to your wounds. Arguably, this would benefit the Uchiha Clan more. The Chaikawa would have a debt that they could never repay. The Hokage too would have a debt, and so too the Haruno family.” She tilted her head, considering him. “Explain to me why I should not just kill you now, and start my mourning properly. I can see no way in which your death would not be of greater benefit to the clan just now than your survival. So. If you want to survive to see another sunrise, I suggest you start talking quickly.”

From her words, Itachi could only assume that whoever they were, the imposter had talked.

Itachi had no way of knowing how long he had been unconscious, but clearly, it had been long enough.

Long enough for the imposter to talk.

Long enough for Mikoto to learn the truth.

Or a version of it.

Depending on what Mikoto thought she knew, Itachi was either already effectively dead, or Mikoto was being honest with him, and he genuinely had this one chance to convince this version of his mother that she would prefer him to live.

It was a difficult decision.

Itachi was not sure if he deserved to live, after all.

He had been so ready to die.

But….

A vision of Sasuke’s face came to mind. The smiling face that Itachi had become used to in this strange universe he had existed in since he awoke in Orochimaru’s dungeon, juxtaposed with the expression his little brother had showed when

Itachi considered his options, and took the one that would maybe get him out of this situation alive.

After all, Sasuke would be horribly upset if he died.

Sakura and Naruto too, probably.

And Hana and Anko.

And Shisui.

Even Sho might miss him, somewhat.

It occurred to Itachi that that was more people that might miss his presence than he had had in a very long time.

“You are, of course, correct. I am not the Itachi you knew,” he stated bluntly.

Mikoto immediately snarled, the expression almost alien on her typically elegant face.

“What happened to my son!?” she demanded, a scalpel suddenly pricking the skin below his eye.

Itachi sighed. “I don’t know.” Inwardly, he frowned. It was unlike Mikoto to lose composure like that. Especially when she was under pressure. His mother’s fury in his experience always ran icy cold, rather than burning hot.

“Then who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you take over my Itachi-chan’s body?”

Itachi’s feeling of uneasy suspicion deepened.

Itachi-chan? His mother had not called him that since he was two.

But…

Itachi, despite his extremely low chakra, activated his Sharingan, just enough that it flickered on and off for a moment.

As he had expected, the scalpel dug deeper for the millisecond that his eyes were red, but Itachi ignored this in favour of what he had just discovered.

This was clearly Uchiha Mikoto.

She had her chakra signature. That could not be easily faked, and he had been able to tell from before he even opened his eyes that his mother’s chakra was in the room.

Also, Sharingan was quite able to detect Henge, and this? This was no henge.

 “Trying to use your stolen eyes? Rude. But fortunately for me, impossible with your level of chakra depletion,” Mikoto scoffed, dropping even further into odd (for her) speech mannerisms.

So it was definitely his mother’s body standing in front of him, so…?

Itachi almost rolled his eyes at himself.

The answer was obvious, once he stopped to think.

It was just then that the door opened, and a nurse stepped in.

Like most nurses who worked in Konoha Hospital, he was the type who looked as though he was used to ignoring ninja trying to give him nonsense. Standing at a good six feet in height, and muscled as though he was used to hard labour, Itachi did not doubt that though the man appeared to be a pure civilian, he knew how to handle himself in a fight.

“Excuse me, nurse,” Itachi stated flatly. “I think I’m going to be needing some assistance. My mother appears to have a headache.”

The nurse, recognising the ANBU code for what it was, immediately hit the emergency button by the door.

It took less than five seconds for the ANBU on call to have shunshinned into the room and ensured that all present were immobilised.

Itachi, motionless on the bed nonetheless had a kunai held poised above his carotid artery, whilst Mikoto was pinned by what looked like Kagemane no jutsu- the signature jutsu of the Nara clan.

Itachi took a moment to be glad that the general response to the ANBU distress codes was immobilise all in the room now, ask questions later.

“Who made the call?” the ANBU captain, whose mask resembled a Horse, demanded.

The nurse indicated Itachi.

“Report,” Captain Horse snapped.

“I have reason to believe that my mother has been compromised. Even ignoring the fact that she put a scalpel under my eye,” Itachi, still unable to move, rolled his eyes downwards in the direction of the cut, “her behaviour shows evidence of having been taken over by a mind-control jutsu.” He took a gamble. “Isn’t that right, Yamanaka?”

Abruptly, Mikoto looked startled, and then winced and raised a hand to her head.

She shook her head, blinked, and then suddenly her trademark Uchiha blank face was back intact.

“Itachi was correct. I was overtaken by Yamanaka Kuchinashi.” Her tone was grim. If Itachi were in the habit of feeling sympathy for his enemies, he might have felt some just now.

Captain Horse made a gesture towards his subordinates that Itachi understood to mean act on intel received and two of them left immediately.

“If you would remain here Uchiha-san, we will reconcile this matter shortly,” Horse stated.

Uchiha Mikoto inclined her head, and Itachi would have shrugged if he were able.

Unless a med-nin specifically came to his aid, he would not be going anywhere unaided for some time, no doubt.

He said as much, and the nurse frowned, and picked up his chart, before clicking his tongue and muttering something about stoic shinobi not knowing what was good for them.

“Excuse me, whilst I call someone to ensure that you have not been exposed to something that might stop your respiration,” the nurse said scathingly, as he pressed a different call button to the one that had summoned the ANBU.

It turned out that Itachi had been poisoned, but fortunately, the effects would wear off on their own, and not cause him any long-term damage.

“It would seem that the perpetrator wanted you intact, Uchiha-san,” one of the med-nin, a man with silver hair who appeared to be about Itachi’s age said calmly, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

“That is fortunate,” Mikoto said lightly.

Itachi blanched.

He recognised that tone on a visceral level.

It did not tend to mean anything good for those targeted with it.

“Now, if you could excuse us, medic-san, I would like some time to speak with my son in private,” Mikoto continued.

The two med-nins bowed, and left the room.

Itachi eyed his mother, wondering if he should be alarmed.

Either way, there was very little he could do about it.

He decided to take his impending probable doom like a man, and kept his face carefully blank as his mother approached him.

“Well, at least I have confirmed that you keep your story straight,” she said, sitting down on a chair beside his bed.

Itachi blinked.

What?

Mikoto’s mouth had the tiniest hint of a matronising smirk in the left corner.

“Did you really think that Minato would not have passed on the information that my son was sure that he had died- killed by his own brother, after killing his entire clan? That you were thoroughly confused and disorientated when you were brought in by your cousin Obito’s team?” Mikoto shook her head gently.  “I’ve known all along that there was something strange going on with you, and the man we caught posing as Minato merely confirmed it…. After a little encouragement, anyway,” she concluded with a mild deepening of the smirk, undoubtedly at the… efficiency that Ibiki and his subordinates tended to show.

Itachi’s mind raced.

What to do?

What to do?

What to do?

What could he do, immobilised as he was?

Fortunately, Mikoto decided to put him at least somewhat out of his misery before he had too long to conjure up how fucked he was.

“I don’t know who you are, but I have no quarrel with you,” Mikoto said bluntly.

Itachi’s eyes widened.

Seriously?

He didn’t believe it.

He couldn’t believe it.

How could this even be a possibility?

“Consider the facts,” Mikoto stated firmly, correctly reading his incredulous expression. “You have had ample opportunity to hurt me and mine. You spend a significant amount of time with Sasuke, and you have proven on multiple times that you are willing to put yourself on the line to protect him and his friends, to the point of teaching them, and putting effort into investigating the Academy.

“I know that you are aware of the surveillance, but you have never complained, not once. A trusted and vetted,” Mikoto scowled, “Yamanaka verified that you are Uchiha Itachi. I know you know you cannot possibly be stupid enough to think that Sho Suzume does not report back the pertinent facts of your sessions with her, but most importantly…” Mikoto looked him dead in the eyes, “not once have you ever been anything but honest. You were more than happy to let people make their own assumptions (that Inuzuka girl may never forgive you,) but you told your cousin’s team and the Hokage your story upfront, and with the corroborating evidence from the traitor who pretended to be Minato…” Mikoto sighed. “I admit it took me some time to believe it, but…” she trailed off for a moment, and drew in a steadying breath. “I am willing to listen to your story. Tell me.”

Itachi wondered what the dampness on his cheeks was.

He ignored it, and started to talk.

 

Chapter Text

 

The first thing that you need to know about me, is that I am dead.

Or I should be.

You probably know this. I did tell the Hokage in almost as many words.

I am not blind. I know that the two of you have a close relationship.

The nature of it is frankly none of my business unless you choose to make it so.

And I suppose if you end up killing me the point is going to be moot.

In any case…

My last memory of my previous life is dying in front of Sasuke.

Sasuke promised to use his hatred to turn fantasy into reality.

He promised me that my reality was death.

He was right about that.

I died.

I died in front of him, just like he said, though he wasn’t the one who killed me… that honour goes to whoever it was who coughed on me on a mission in River Country and gave me the lung disease.

Funny thing, it might not have killed me if I hadn’t ignored the cough for so long, but then, I honestly wanted to die then, be it by Sasuke’s hand to give him some closure, or by someone else’s.

It was all over.

I could finally rest…

I’ve been tired.

So very, very tired…

I just wanted to sleep.

But then I woke up in the Sound dungeon.

That was not part of the plan.

What was my plan?

To take my rightful place in hell.

Everything, I did, I did for the village.

For my Hokage.

For Konoha.

For the Will of Fire.

For Sasuke.

For Konoha, I kept its secrets, of why the Uchiha Clan had to die.

The village does have its dark side and its inconsistencies, but I'm still Konoha's.

No matter what world I’m in.

So when commanded, for Konoha, I killed every Uchiha I could.

I killed you, and Tou-san.

It was strange.

The two of you knew that I was coming.

Both of you kneeling on the tatami.

Father said that he was proud of me. Called me a gentle child.

You merely said that you understood.

I made sure that it was quick. Efficient.

I was used to killing for Konoha by then.

I was an ANBU captain. I had been for only a few months when I got the order.

I had been in ANBU since I was eleven.

Are you surprised?

Maybe your Itachi wasn’t a genius like me then.

If that is true, and even if it isn’t, I think I might…

Envy him. Yes.

I think I might envy him.

Serving Konoha is not a thing I regret.

Even though Konoha made Shisui commit suicide.

Even though Konoha ordered me to kill my Clan.

My family.

For Konoha, I covered the tatami mats of our home in the arterial spray of my parents.

I did it to preserve peace.

I saw what war looked like, and any order I was given to prevent it, I always knew I would carry out wholeheartedly, no matter what.

Or so I thought.

I betrayed my order.

Father’s last request was that I took care of Sasuke.

He did not need to make the request. I could never have killed my little brother.

Not even for peace.

I betrayed my vow to Konoha for Sasuke.

He alone of all the Uchiha was left alive.

Well, him and Madara, but I was only ever half convinced that he was alive after all.

There are some kinjutsu that should never see the light of day. Orochimaru was not the first to seek immortality through jumping from body to body.

Necromancy is disgusting.

…Where was I?

I killed for Konoha.

I would have died for Konoha.

For Sasuke, I lived a long and unsightly life.

For Konoha, I acknowledged that I was a traitor, and lived as a missing-nin.

Oh yes. After I betrayed the last order I was given, I left Sasuke alive, and then left.

I was an S-ranked missing nin. Even had a flee on sight order.

Are you proud?

I wonder if my real mother was proud.

She said she understood, but I wonder if she really did.

Tou-san said he was proud of me, but I never understood why.

I suspect that I would have hated the answer. We never did see eye to eye about what was important.

I wonder if they knew just how many of the Clan would die that day.

Not even the children were left alive, except for Sasuke.

Madara’s doing, but nonetheless, I bear full responsibility.

Sasuke was called the Last Uchiha.

I suppose that’s actually true now, back there.

I hope that makes him happy.

I ran away, clinging to my pitiful life, so that he might find closure, so that I might find absolution.

I hoped that one day, when he had the same eyes that I did, he would come before me and kill me.

He didn’t quite manage it.

He came to me, told me that he saw me dead at his feet.

I told him to make it happen.

I died.

But, my goal vanished like a dream upon waking.

Each of us lives dependent and bound by our individual knowledge and our awareness.

All that is what we call reality.

However, both, knowledge and awareness, are equivocal.

One’s reality might be another’s illusion.

We all live inside our own fantasies.

And yet, my dream, my fantasy… no, not just mine, Sasuke’s fantasy… was for me to die.

But I apparently live to be an endless disappointment of an elder brother.

Because I woke up.

Pathetic, isn’t it.

That I should be so disappointed.

I should be used to disappointments like this.

It happens when I try to bear everything alone.

It’s something that the Sandaime once told me.

"However strong you become, never seek to bear everything alone. If you do, failure is certain."

He was correct. I do not think that he appreciated how I applied that advice.

Joining Akatsuki made my dirty hands filthy.

But at least I separated Orochimaru from their ranks. If his genius and spy network had been joined with Sasori’s rather than infiltrated by it, then Konoha would have been in a far worse position than it was by the time they asked me to join the hunt for the jinchuriki.

I always liked Naruto. He was a good influence on Sasuke.

He was everything I hoped that Sasuke would become.

I tried to protect Sasuke, and give him a reason to become strong.

But I was thirteen, and stupid, and so I only barely understood myself how it was that strength worked, and I lacked the vocabulary to explain it.

Us Uchiha have never been all that fluent in conversing about our feelings.

I failed Sasuke.

I failed.

He became everything I never wanted him to be.

A loner.

An avenger.

A traitor to Konoha.

Completely and utterly miserable.

I thought as I died that it would be all right if he never forgave me.

I still loved him, broken as he was.

It was my fault.

Perhaps not all my fault.

But nonetheless, the fault was mine.

It has been so strange to get this second chance.

I wasn’t sure I could believe it, before.

I thought it was a genjutsu, or a dream.

Or perhaps I had simply gone insane.

Now I’ve decided that I just don’t care.

A second chance to make Sasuke strong.

A second chance to see my family alive, and beloved by Konoha rather than being sidelined and growing resentful.

A second chance to see the Konoha I have always loved intact and unravaged by war.

I don’t deserve this second chance.

I don’t deserve anything.

But know this: I would die again with a smile on my face to preserve what I have seen here.

Sasuke smiling.

Shisui still alive.

Friends, family, comrades, all happy and well.

Well, apart from Tou-san, but considering what could have happened with the coup, I believe you did the right thing there.

I understand.

To preserve the peace in Konoha, you arranged for your husband to be killed.

I have already told you how much I was willing to do to preserve that same peace.

What I would do if I was ordered to again.

Because I am nothing if not loyal to Konoha.

Only Sasuke has ever superseded that.

Does that make you proud?

Maybe I am wrong to ask that.

Please, don’t cry.

Please?

I am sorry.

I am sorry I am not really your son.

I wish I was.

His life seems almost perfect.

He has everything I ever wanted.

Being able to borrow his life for a while has been… nice.

If you decide to kill me, I won’t blame you, but I doubt it would bring your son back.

Maybe you should kill me.

Considering what I did to my mother, perhaps it would be justice.

I don’t know what happened to your son Itachi.

I woke up in this body in Orochimaru’s dungeon.

It would not be the first time I have heard of Orochimaru experimenting with souls.

Whatever his intention was, I am certain that transplanting me here was not it.

Maybe if you could interrogate him, you could find out something.

I am sorry for your loss, but I don’t know how you can get your son back.

But I am so glad that I got this one last chance to see Sasuke smile.

Can you forgive me?

Sasuke couldn’t.

I can’t forgive myself.

Maybe if you hate me, I will feel better.

Maybe if you hate me, I will feel like less of a fraud.

I deserve nothing.

I deserve death.

But even that was taken away from me.

And that almost made me happy for a time.

Funny. I had almost forgotten what that felt like.

This has been such a nice dream.

I know I don’t deserve it.

But it was almost starting to feel… real.

It’s okay if you don’t forgive me.

I don’t deserve your forgiveness.

I don’t deserve anything.

I am less than worthless.

But I am so very sorry that I made you cry.

I am sorry.

I am sorry.

I am sorry.

I am sorry.

Chapter Text

Uchiha Mikoto was having an emotional day.

It had started quite well, with a leisurely breakfast with dear Minato.

They had discussed politics, both international and local, and jutsu creation over a simple meal of miso soup, onigiri and green tea, whilst watching the sun rise over the village. Mikoto loved beginning her mornings like that, and Minato appreciated this time when she would relax and play his confidante, as though they were merely old friends as opposed to Hokage and Clan Head.

Naturally there were times that they were all too aware of their respective roles, and the ghost of Kushina sometimes hung between them, whispering of things that no doubt should have been, but all things considered, that was a point of connection for them too- both of them had loved Kushina, and to see her die at the claws of the Kyuubi along with poor Sakumo… both of them had lost one of their most precious people on that day. Reminiscing about the red-haired troublemaker had kept them from drifting apart, and then, after Fugaku had… died…

Despite their very different personalities, Mikoto and Kushina had always bonded over their common tastes.

But after breakfast, the day had started to be significantly less pleasant.

First and foremost, Mikoto had found herself hosting a delegation of the Uchiha elders for tea. Apparently they were feeling their irrelevance again, and so wished to remind their leader that they could irritate her at will.

Mikoto had always been taught to revere her elders.

Mostly by the very people who gave her considerable headaches on a regular basis.

“Really Mikoto, we are starting to worry about young Itachi,” her elderly balding uncle Riku had said.

“How so?” she had asked politely, smiling.

Her aunt Kaoru had responded with, “Isn’t it about time that young Itachi thought about getting married? The Clan won’t continue itself, you know.”

Mikoto was too restrained to smack her face with one palm, but she briefly entertained herself with considering what Kushina might have said in response to that.

Eventually, having: listened to the Elders’ concerns (mostly petty); reminded them that the Uchiha Clan’s current place of prominence was almost entirely due to the careful manoeuvring of herself, her cousin Ryoko (who had taken over the Police after Fugaku’s… unfortunate… demise had left the position open), her favourite nephews Shisui and Obito (the dear things were just so good at winning over public opinion in their own distinct ways) and her son Sasuke playing with the Hokage’s son; and most importantly, put them all thoroughly in their places when they attempted to overstep by reminding them that she had ears everywhere and knew what they were up to (nothing she couldn’t control for)…

Mikoto ended the meeting with one last sip of her tea, and a polite smile.

(And if she took a nice quiet half hour to work on her target practice afterwards, then well, it was important that she trained to avoid losing her edge. It wasn’t catharsis, oh no. No Uchiha Clan Leader would need such a plebeian thing.)

Mikoto then wandered the Uchiha compound, to check on her other family members. She had to do some minor mediation between two sisters who had never got on, and a mother-in-law and her son-in-law who were arguing about how the house should be decorated (Mikoto had been amused to note that the daughter/wife was meanwhile quietly purchasing a third colour to paint the kitchen with, and had neglected to point this out whilst she told the other two off for airing their dirty laundry in public).

Her rounds took her the rest of the morning, and it was nearly midday when she received a message that a certain Yamanaka Kuchinashi wished to speak to her. Mikoto gave the messenger, a fresh genin girl with her long hair gathered into buns on top of her head, a small coin, and asked her to tell the Yamanaka that Mikoto would meet her midway through the afternoon.

Lunch was a business affair with a few members of the civilian council. Sorayama Wakana was being a bore as usual, but Mikoto knew better than to offend the tetchy woman. Though widely disliked in personal terms, Sorayama Wakana also happened to be every influential, due to her ties with the Old Civilian Families, and the newer traders. Fortunately, though Sorayama was dull company, the others, Mitsubishi Yuji and Satou Naoko were pleasant enough, and even better, were more than happy to trade acceptance of her plans to increase the number of caravans to Bird Country in exchange for invitations to the next diplomatic function she was planning- an arranged marriage between one of her civilian cousins and a young lordling who seemed to be doing well so far in building his reputation in the Fire Lord’s court.

Fortunately, for once everyone had better things to do than to linger over their food once the deals had been made, and so Mikoto found herself with a little spare time.

She decided to hunt down Minato.

To her complete lack of surprise, she found him sitting at Ichiraku Ramen.

To her complete and sincere surprise, he was apparently having lunch with Itachi and Sho Suzume, (a woman that Mikoto held a deep and healthy respect for, in part because she had seen what happened to people who crossed the psychologist.)

To her utter and absolute shock, she heard what they were talking about.

In a brief conversation, she:

Learned that her son had somehow acquired the Mangekyo Sharingan.

Learned that her son had almost certainly acquired it in that “other life of hell” genjutsu that Sho and the Yamanakas had pieced the evidence together for.

(Sho had reported that she had started treating him as though he had actually lived through what he remembered, because she had discovered that he responded a lot better to working through the guilt for various memories rather than denying that they had ever happened. Mikoto had originally been sceptical as to the validity of this plan, but had trusted Sho’s expertise, and then had come around when she had seen the slow improvement in Itachi’s general demeanour.

He was still a far cry from the relaxed, smiling teenager she remembered, but at least now he wasn’t outright suicidal. That he had decided to actually open up to her and Minato though, had come as a complete surprise. She honestly had not thought him there yet.

Inadvertently in her shock, she had encouraged Itachi to reveal to her Hokage and a complete outsider (albeit an extremely discreet one) exactly what the Mangekyo Sharingan was, and how one achieved it.

She had a suspicion that she would regret that later, but meanwhile she supposed she could use it as a test to see if Minato was truly the pragmatist she thought he was, and if Sho could truly be trusted to keep confidences.

(She didn’t have to worry about the two ramen chefs- Ichiraku Ramen prided itself on being truly neutral ground. An enemy jinchuriki could have sat at the stand, and so long as they paid, the ramen chefs would not say a word about it, and serve said jinchuriki with a smile. They would not continue to have that reputation if they blabbed about any of the many secrets or gossip they would have inevitably overheard (well, apart from the rumoured rumours they passed on to Ibiki when he came for his weekly bowl, but that was just common sense) and the only reason why they had not been assassinated yet was because of the sheer number of people who truly appreciated being able to offload their worries with a bowl of noodles and not have to worry about any of their company passing the information on.)

At the point where clan secrets were gleefully, bitterly revealed by her eldest son, Mikoto had thought that the conversation could not possibly get any more upsetting.

She had been so visibly distraught that Minato had hugged her in public.

(Which had been, admittedly very nice, and something she would politically capitalise on later, but her Elders were going to have collective strokes over it. Mostly from fiendish delight, but that was beside the point.)

Itachi, having dropped his exploding tag, had excused himself and vacated the premises with a vague comment about picking Sasuke up from the Academy.

She had been still reeling, and so she had not stopped him.

And then…

And then, Sho had told Mikoto her theory about Itachi being a pacifist, and it all made a horrible amount of sense.

How could she have missed this?

How?

Minato had sat with her until she managed to compose herself, whilst Sho, having an appointment, had left.

She was just about to leave to speak with Yamanaka Kuchinashi (could it be about Itachi? Mikoto could think of no other business some minor member of the Yamanaka house might have with her) when an ANBU messenger had appeared in front of the Hokage, signalling with handsigns that Mikoto remembered well that there had been an attack at the Academy.

Mikoto’s blood froze.

Not Sasuke.

Not-

“Uchiha-sama? Did you hear what I said? Sasuke-kun is fine! Itachi-san apprehended the traitor!”

Mikoto blinked.

What?

She spun her head to look the messenger, a young shinobi who she thought she recognised as one of Itachi’s classmates.

“Thank you for informing me,” she said calmly, rewarding the boy with a slight smile.

She turned to Minato, but he was already gone, the chakra marking of Hiraishin still fading.

Well, it wasn’t as though she couldn’t get there nearly as quickly with a shunshin (but he would be hearing about this later).

By the time Mikoto reached the Academy, Minato was directing his ANBU to take the traitor, (who Mikoto immediately recognised as one of Sasuke’s instructors, and that outright incensed her, oh there were going to be words) to Ibiki (good).

Itachi and Sasuke were nowhere to be seen.

It would be unprofessional to walk (stomp) up to Minato and demand where her boys were, so Mikoto practised (with no little difficulty) restraint, and collared an ANBU instead.

“Where did my sons go?” she demanded, looking the Stagbeetle ANBU straight in the mask.

The ANBU pointed towards a training ground that Mikoto knew was a favourite of theirs.

In that case…

Mikoto hid her chakra, and shunshinned over to the training ground.

And let out a silent, deep breath.

Itachi was using a clone to train Sasuke, Naruto and Sakura in grappling.

They were all safe.

Thank Kami.

She could relax.

Mikoto contemplated stepping up to speak with them, but decided against it at the last moment.

After all, she would see Itachi and Sasuke for dinner that night.

She checked the clocktower, and realised that she still had time to meet Yamanaka Kuchinashi.

She still couldn’t think of what on earth that woman might want to talk to her about, but Mikoto knew better than to alienate someone for no good reason.

Mikoto made her way to the small home not far from the market district, wondering why the kunoichi had wanted to meet her here.

Probably she thought she would have some sort of psychological advantage. Hah! As though a ploy that simple could possibly perturb the Uchiha Head… Mikoto smirked a little as she noted no less than seven species of plants growing in the front garden that could be used to make poisons.

If this Kuchinashi thought she could get one over on Mikoto, then she would be greatly disappointed.

Eight minutes later, and Mikoto was a passenger in her own body.

Well. This was somewhat embarrassing.

Mikoto consoled herself with the knowledge that she was not losing her edge, she was just having a really… emotional day.

And this situation could be salvaged.

Mikoto had been taken by surprise when the Yamanaka woman had suddenly launched her mind into Mikoto’s but she could have broken free at any time. (The woman was good, but she was not nearly as good as her cousin Inoriko, whom Mikoto had routinely sparred with since they were children.)

Really, anytime that Mikoto chose, she could kick this presumptuous little bitch out of her head.

But no. That would be counterproductive.

If Mikoto merely had the patience to wait, she could find out what it was that this Yamanaka Kuchinashi (if that was in fact who it actually was in her head, the only thing for complete certain was that it was indeed a Yamanaka) wanted with her body.

There was a slight risk, both because  she could be lead into a more difficult situation, or the Yamanaka might have enough of a headstart, but at this point, Mikoto thought, intel gathering was the most important thing she could do.

Naturally, she poked and prodded a little at the Yamanaka’s hold (it wouldn’t do to go entirely quiescent at the start, or perhaps she would suspect something) but nothing that she didn’t think her invader couldn’t handle.

You’re a fool if you think you are going to get away with this, Mikoto told her invader, deciding that playing up to the old cliché would put her invader in her comfort zone.

Hah! We’ll see who the fool is!  Her invader retorted.

Mikoto stifled an inner sigh. Honestly, it was a waste to enter a battle of wits with someone so unarmed, but on the other hand, it was also well-aligned with the ninja philosophy.

If only her invader had something of interest to say.

To her slight consternation, the Yamanaka, rather than going anywhere in particular, seemed to have decided that now would be a good time for window-shopping.

Really? Mikoto thought aloud. You take over my body to go window shopping of all things?

Shut it, bitch. Just you wait. I’ll wipe that smug smile off this face.

Ugh, how pedestrian.

She was about to get properly annoyed, when suddenly a small girl with pink hair came running up to her.

Ah. Sakura.

She looked upset. Mikoto had seen her not a half hour before play-training with the boys, and all had seemed fine, so what could have happened?

“Uchiha-sama, Itachi-niisan is in hospital!”

“What!?” Mikoto and her invader said at the same time.

“Hokage-sama said that it was probably chakra exhaustion,” Sakura added, twisting her hands together.

That little fool. Mikoto was going to have words with him about this. He should know better than to overstretch like that.

Her invader must have been similarly irritated thoughts, as little Sakura blanched.

Then she gasped. “Oh! Don’t be angry with him Uchiha-sama, he did it to save all of us!”

“From what?” the invader asked. “What happened?”

“Well, first there was Mizuki-“

“Mizuki!?” the invader seemed upset. Mikoto took note.

“Yeah. Itachi took him down with this really cool move! You should have seen it!” Sakura exclaimed, stars in her eyes.

Mikoto was amused to note that Itachi had a budding fangirl.

“But that wasn’t all!” Sakura continued. “Then, he took me and Sasuke and Naruto away to train for a bit, and then the Hokage showed up! Only, Itachi-niisan popped his clone and got between us and him, and told us to run, and then he was fighting this imposter, and then Shisui-niisan and the real Hokage and some ANBU showed up, and then right after Shisui-niisan knocked the imposter out!” She paused, and then frowned. “And then Itachi collapsed, and the Hokage caught him, and he told me to tell you that he was taking him to the hospital.”

DAMNIT! Shrieked the Yamanaka.

Mikoto didn’t even bother to hide her mental smirk.

Pathetic, she agreed obnoxiously, borrowing a bright tone that she had always heard from Kushina when she really wanted to get up someone’s nose.

The Yamanaka had enough control to thank Sasuke’s little civilian friend, and then she was striding towards the hospital on the warpath.

Mikoto was amused to see that people practically dived to get out of her way. Normally, if she was angry enough to be using this sort of body language, she tended to get a little singleminded. It was a show that cheered her right up.

When she got to the hospital room, she saw Itachi lying on the bed, drip already inserted, with Minato standing over him, looking stressed.

She stepped close to Itachi, running her hands over his body, discreetly applying a poison that Mikoto could recognise from the smell. She played her part though.

What did you just poison him with!?

Relax, it’s just a mild paralytic. He’s too valuable to kill. Yet.

Kami help her, she had been invaded by a 4th rate actress from the sort of melodrama they played at midday for the bored housewives.

He turned to her with a light, tired smile, and started to say something, but the invader immediately went straight into screeching harpy mode.

“I can’t believe that this could happen! Minato, what kind of useless fools are you employing to keep our children safe?! Twice! Not once, but twice today, the only person between my youngest son and a traitor was Itachi!” she ranted.

Inwardly, Mikoto started to chuckle at Minato’s startled expression, quickly hidden. He of all people knew that she never ever shouted when she was truly angry like the Yamanaka was doing.

Honestly, if the silly bitch had wanted to infiltrate using her body, she should have paid a bit more attention to how Mikoto actually acted.

“I agree,” he said simply in response. “You forget that it was also my son he was protecting, Koto-chan.”

Mikoto smiled. That was the code phrase. Minato knew she hated pet names. Apparently she tended to make a particular facial expression whenever he tried them on her, and so she had suggested that it be one of their identity checks.

Naturally, the invader had no idea about that, and so she didn’t make the right expression.

Mikoto caught the light flicker in Minato’s eyes, and congratulated herself for allowing such an intelligent man into her affections.

“There is no excuse,” Minato continued, as though he had not paused to check if Mikoto was really Mikoto, “and I am meeting with the ANBU captains directly after this. I am going to find out where the breach was, and I am going to seal it.”

There was a pause, and then the invader decided to seal her grave.

“You are going to find out who endangered my boys, through dereliction of duty or treachery, and you are going to make them wish they had never been born.”

“Have no doubt that I will.” Mikoto considered her lover’s smile and got a thrill at how outright ruthless he looked in that instant. She knew then that he had this under control, and the perpetrators were going to pay.

The invader made some lame response, and Minato pretended to leave the vicinity.

The invader fell for it hook, line and sinker.

She took the opportunity to start talking to Itachi.

Stay away from my son! Mikoto hissed at her.

Now, now, you’ll be wanting to hear this little conversation, the invader smirked. You might find it most enlightening.

Mikoto inwardly smirked right back. At least now she knew what the invader’s purpose was. If she actually attempted to do more than talk to Itachi, then Mikoto would be ready.

“I know you’re awake, Itachi,” the invader said.

“If I did not know any better, I would never believe that you were Fugaku’s son,” she added.

If that is what you are going with as a tactic to upset my son, I assure you there are more effective ways, Mikoto said in a faux-helpful tone she liked to use on annoying members of the Daimyo’s court.

She couldn’t help but notice though, how wrecked Itachi seemed. Chakra exhaustion, yes, all the signs were there, but there was something else, even above and beyond the usual signs of depression he had been wearing ever since he had allegedly dragged himself out of that cell in Orochimaru’s stronghold.

He looked tired, and weak, and it hurt her, to see her boy looking like that.

“Fugaku, after all,” the invader continued, ignoring Mikoto’s facetious advice, “always had the good of the clan in mind. He would never have condoned you, his heir, endangering yourself for a mere civilian.”

Which was true, but really, Itachi would have ignored Fugaku anyway were he around to offer his opinion (and Mikoto had especially assured that he wouldn’t be) and Mikoto had for years been conducting thought experiments with both of her sons about how to make the Uchiha clan seem more civilian friendly. She thought this would be the point that Itachi would realise that she was being impersonated, but apparently not, as he explained himself.

“I did not attack Mizuki to save the civilian child, I attacked because the civilian child might have, but for the grace of Kami, been Sasuke,” he retorted.

Words that warmed the cockles of Mikoto’s allegedly ice-like heart, but she was surprised his thinking had been so simplistic.

The invader proceeded to waffle on about how well Itachi had served the Clan, and something about the civilian he saved being an important civilian- of course, the Chaikawas, Mikoto thought. However, since she had not actually seen the child saved, she wondered how the invader had gotten her information.

(Perhaps the child grabbed had not been chosen at random after all. Something to remember for later.)

Then the invader used a medical ninjutsu to immobilise Itachi, and dropped her exploding tag.

“I would, however, suggest that if you thought you were going to get away with stealing my son’s body, it would have been better if you had been more discreet.”

Mikoto and Itachi blinked in unison.

What?

Did she just say…?

What in the name of Kami was going on here?

Ridiculous. Mikoto knew her son. Well. She had known that he had changed rather drastically since the incident, but he was healing. She could still see his old sense of humour, and his principles buried under all the hurt.

She could still see his devoted love for Sasuke.

(It was so nice to see how her boys got on and looked out for each other.)

The invader decided to wax lyrical about Mikoto’s experience with medical ninjutsu. So apparently she had done at least some research before invading a clan head’s body.

A pity for her that it was hardly enough.

Mikoto was going to enjoy putting her back in her place.

“At first, I assumed that it was just trauma. After all, the Yamanaka seemed sure that you truly believed yourself to be Itachi. Maybe this is even true. Maybe you have been brainwashed into thinking that you are truly my son,” she said, spreading her hands in a gesture that Mikoto found overly theatrical.

 “Or, and I must admit that I find this far more likely, you have been well aware of the part you must play for some time, and in your effort to ingratiate yourself to Konoha, you have overstepped.”

Honestly, did this bitch think Mikoto talked like a character in a soap opera? How demeaning.

“It was, I admit, not a bad plan. After all, gaining the favour of the Chaikawa Clan and building up the public image of the Uchiha Clan at the same time would be a winning scenario for you on both sides. The Uchiha Clan would be slower to doubt you, and the Chaikawa Clan is honourable enough that they would consider themselves in your debt, which would give you some degree of protection, should you ever need it. And Sasuke would be devastated if anything happened to his elder brother.”

Not a bad assessment, all things considered, but Mikoto could tell from the way Itachi had talked about the civilian child that he had saved the child simply for being a child, and Sasuke’s classmate, and not because he had any deeper political machinations in mind.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t think like that, it’s just that usually, Itachi tended to be rather singleminded, and unless he had a specific mission goal, he just didn’t really care about things like who owed a favour to who.

She had however, not missed that Itachi wasn’t refuting the invader’s claim that he was not, in fact, Itachi. Which was a little strange. Either he was playing along or…

Mikoto had a sudden sinking feeling, but she shelved her instinctive denial in favour of paying attention to what was unfolding.

 “However, you made one small miscalculation. If I kill you now, I will be able to say that you succumbed to your wounds. Arguably, this would benefit the Uchiha Clan more. The Chaikawa would have a debt that they could never repay. The Hokage too would have a debt, and so too the Haruno family. Explain to me why I should not just kill you now, and start my mourning properly. I can see no way in which your death would not be of greater benefit to the clan just now than your survival. So. If you want to survive to see another sunrise, I suggest you start talking quickly.”

Over. My. Dead. Body.

Shhhhh, it’s just about to get good, the invader giggled.

Seething, Mikoto waited to see how Itachi would respond to that.

“You are, of course, correct. I am not the Itachi you knew,” he stated bluntly, and as far as Mikoto could tell, honestly.

She decided to see if she couldn’t trick the invader into performing an identity check for her.

Leave my Itachi-chan alone! She mentally shouted, inwardly rolling her eyes at the melodrama.

Hah! You have had a cuckoo in your nest this whole time! I’ll show you!  The invader palmed a scalpel from a nearby table (very careless whoever left that out) and held it dangerously close to Itachi’s eye.

(It might have been a better move for intimidation if it were not for the fact that almost all doujutsu users had an instinctive tendency to not go for the eyes, because it felt like a behaviour that would not be in their best interests to model. Mikoto was pleased to spot that far from intimidated, Itachi seemed more thoughtful at the appearance of the scalpel.)

 “What happened to my son!?” the invader demanded.

“I don’t know.”

He seemed… resigned. Apologetic.

Oh Kami. No. No.

 “Then who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you take over my Itachi-chan’s body?”

Conveniently, it was then that a nurse stepped in, and Itachi sounded the alarm on Mikoto’s possession (sweet but unnecessary) using an ANBU alert code that he should not have known.

She clutched her head as the invader left, in part to hide her reaction to this information.

It was that piece of evidence, more than anything else that had come before that made Mikoto begin to doubt, because her Itachi had never been an ANBU. She had made sure of it.

But…

It couldn’t be true.

Could it?

How could she not recognise when her own son was being impersonated?

(Mikoto did not miss the irony of this situation.)

She waited until the ANBU had cleared the room, and then she used the gentler aspects of her interrogation repertoire. She needed to know.

She bluffed a little, pretending that the imposter had talked. Classic technique, pretending that one knew more than they really did, and blaming it on a source that the target of interrogation did not trust.

Never had she wanted anyone to call her bluff more, but he didn’t.

So she changed tack.

She outlined, logically, why she was so sure that he was her Itachi. Told him what Sho Suzume had told her, about what he believed he had lived.

She hoped that her son would finally open up to her.

It worked, but she could see that it mostly worked because the boy lying in the bed had reached the end of his reserves, and just broke.

The words tumbled out of him.

And the things he said…

Mikoto realised, that she could see what Sho meant. Itachi truly believed that he had been born in a different world. He truly believed that he had been forced to kill the bulk of his family.

 Was it true?

Was it a delusion?

Uncharacteristic tears filled her eyes as she listened to Itachi talk.

As she realised, that really, it was irrelevant whether his story had fact behind it or not, whether he was somehow (ludicrous as it sounded) a transplanted soul of a different Itachi.

He believed it. With every fibre of his being, Itachi believed that he was a different person to her Itachi.

She listened, and realised, that the words escaping raggedly from his lips were as much pleas as confessions. She listened as the bottled up pain was slowly spilled.

It hurt her to hear this. To see her son suffering like this.

To hear him say he remembered dying.

To hear him regret that he hadn’t died, as though death was his final reward, to end his misery.

The story grew worse as she listened to it. She realised quickly that it was a what-if scenario.

What if she had allowed Fugaku to have his way when it came to Itachi joining ANBU?

What if she hadn’t intervened, and then realised how little (how unforgivably little) her husband respected her?

What if the Uchiha Coup had grown from mere disgruntled mutterings and into a plan?

The outcome narrated by Itachi was grim. The Clan, murdered down to the last child and Elder, barring Sasuke, by Itachi following orders. (Along with Madara? Perhaps that was the sign she needed that this was all a genjutsu, as Madara had been dead for many many decades now.) Itachi, cast out of the village, infiltrating one of the most dangerous groups of missing-nin in the world.

Sasuke, growing cold, vengeful, and desiring to see his brother dead at his feet.

But she listened.

And what she heard, was that regardless of the fact that this was clearly a nightmare, was that this was still her Itachi.

He still was loyal to Konoha.

He still wanted to have her approval.

He still felt conflicted over his father.

He still loved Sasuke.

But she cried.

Because she knew that even though this was still Itachi, in a way, she truly had lost her own.

Because this damaged boy, who looked up at her with that thousand-yard stare.

That was not the boy she had farewelled before he had been carried home on that last mission.

He apologised to her, again and again, seemingly not even noticing the tears running down his face.

She didn’t need his apology.

She didn’t want his apology.

If he had killed his mother, it had not been her. If he had only dreamed of killing her, then it had only been a dream. And he was clearly regardless of the reality wracked with guilt.

It would only take a few carefully chosen words to destroy him. She could see this. Words chosen carefully to wound, and he would shatter into a million pieces and never recover.

It was at that point that Mikoto made a decision.

It was a hard decision. It was a ruthless decision.

But she was a Clan Head, and she was a mother, and she was used to such things.

She leaned forward, and brushed the tears from his face.

She looked into this tortured boy’s eyes, and forced a smile.

“Whatever you remember doing, you did not do it here. But even if you had, your other mother told you that she understood. Since I am your mother, I can tell you that she would not lie to you to make you feel better. You know this about me.”

Itachi blinked in agreement.

Mikoto held his face, ensuring that he was looking directly at her.

 “As your mother, I forgive you.”

Itachi was so fragile now, but she hoped that with the poison of his thoughts leeched a little, perhaps, perhaps she could do her part in making him a little better.

She leant forward and held him as he continued to cry, shedding her own mourning tears.

Sasuke had lost a father through her actions. She would be damned if he lost a brother too.

This Itachi might not be the son she remembered.

He might be a changeling, or he might be more than a little broken in mind, or even both.

But that did not mean that she did not love him.

“You’re still Itachi. And that is enough for me.”

 

Chapter Text

It took three days before the medic-nin were satisfied enough with Itachi’s condition to let him leave the hospital. Even then, it was only because his mother insisted that she would be keeping a very close eye on him that Nara-sensei relented and allowed him to return to the clan compound.

Sasuke had stuck to him like a particularly determined type of leech, and Shisui had been hovering in a way that, had Itachi been possessed of an entirely different personality, might have induced him to teasing his cousin for being a mother-bear.

Apparently his cousin had been upset to see him collapse in the training ground after defending the children from the Hokage imposter, and Sasuke had apparently had a nightmare or two about what might have happened had Shisui been even slightly slower.

Itachi thought that it would never matter how long he existed in this reality, he would never take people being concerned for his wellbeing for granted.

The fact that his mother, even after he had admitted the truth to her, even after he had broken down, had not begun to treat him like some usurping cuckoo…

It was a gift. Itachi might not know what exactly to do with gifts (it had been so long since he had been given one without a fisherman’s trawler-net worth of strings attached) but he did know that it was important to receive them graciously and gratefully, and to examine them from all angles to determine the motives of the giver.

(Apparently civilians had a saying about not looking gift-horses in the mouth. Itachi had little doubt that they had learned that particular turn of phrase from a shinobi running a scam.)

A small but deeply-rooted part of Itachi insisted that he shouldn’t take his mother’s forgiveness at face-value. That he should wait, and watch, and be wary, (the three W’s that he would have learnt in the Academy had he not tested out of the class because he didn’t need that obvious explained to him,) and never let down his guard.

Itachi knew that the best way to lie to someone was to tell them something that they wanted to be true.

That was not enough to stop it from working.

For the first time in a long, long time, Itachi wanted.

He wanted to believe that Sasuke, that Shisui, that his mother would never stop worrying about him, defending him, wanting him to be okay and loving him.

He wanted to believe that Mikoto would never change her intent towards him, and that she would decide that he was an asset rather than a threat, even if he was not truly her son.

He wanted, but he did not believe that it could happen.

Itachi had learned long ago how dangerous it was to want things.

But regardless, he rationalised to his well-formed, well-ingrained, well-justified paranoia, if Mikoto wanted him dead, he had already decided that of all the people in this strange reality he had awoken in, she was the one whom he would allow to take his life.

He had chosen Sasuke Before as the means of his death, to achieve revenge for the Uchiha fallen.

With the benefit of hindsight, he could see that that had been a mistake.

Avenger had not been a good look on his foolish little brother, and even at 13, the age that Itachi had been able to kill a considerable proportion of the Clan, Sasuke’s skills had been disappointingly barely above average. Itachi had literally dropped dead of sickness before Sasuke had managed to land any sort of decisive blow on him in their final fight. The stunting of his brother’s development, and the inefficiency of this mode of suicide both factored into his decision that since he had multiple other options for defending the family honour and taking revenge for his actions in this reality…

Well suffice to say, if it became necessary, there were a number of Uchiha candidates after Mikoto that Itachi would prefer to goad into killing him over his foolish precious little brother.

No one could say that Itachi never learned from his mistakes.

(He was, after all, a genius.)

It was just that unfortunately, Itachi was incapable of doing anything without setting the standard, and that extended to the level of his fuck-ups in comparison to normal people.

Even by shinobi standards, his failures tended to be epic in scope. Sometimes, Itachi thought it must be so relaxing to be mediocre. In retrospect, perhaps everything he had heard about his predecessor in this body (chunin, seriously!?) had been due to better life choices.

On the other hand, his predecessor had apparently died in the basement of Orochimaru and so Itachi could not help but think that whilst Other Itachi had probably been a lot happier, he had also been kind of a chump.

There had to be a happy medium in there somewhere.

Maybe his senpai Kakashi and Gai were onto something with the way they acted total fools in their down-time, despite being legendarily deadly opponents.

He wouldn’t go as far as Tobi though. There were limits, and Itachi was already indefinitely locked into appointments with Sho, no need to convince Konoha that he needed to be indefinitely locked in a padded chakra-proof cell as well.

It was something to consider, at any rate, assuming that he survived long enough to experiment with being quirky to blow off steam.

In the end, he decided that the point was moot. Either Mikoto would kill him, or she would not kill him. Until then, it only made sense to live his life to the fullest, and to enjoy what time he had left.

Itachi liked this new plan.

Irritatingly though, he would first have to recover, and deal with the consequences of accidentally-on-purpose opening the can of worms that was the reasons for the poor Academy teaching standards.

Shisui had informed Itachi that Itachi was not going to be allowed out of his sight without a minder for some time. Itachi was simultaneously offended and touched, but confident in his ability to slip away from the scrutiny if it became too grating.

Shisui had chosen to ignore Itachi’s unbothered expression, and had proceeded to inform him that somehow (he flashed his Sharingan in a proper Uchiha glare that left Itachi entirely unmoved) Itachi’s “inadvertent” exposure of Mizuki as a traitor had caused two other spies to surface.

Much to the chagrin of the village, all three of the traitors had admitted (after some quality time spent with Ibiki and an incensed Yamanaka Inoichi who had taken the involvement of a member of his clan in this as a personal insult) to be spies of Orochimaru.

(Sometimes, Itachi had heard Minato murmur to Mikoto, the Yondaime could not help but think that the Sandaime had done little but create messes to give his successor ongoing headaches. Minato had not long been in office before he had executed a drastic reform of the necessary red-tape that was the direct responsibility of the Hokage. Now, only S-ranked problems directly crossed his desk- everything else that might be important, he trusted his subordinates to report to him in the regular intelligence-sharing meetings, or by knocking on his door and explaining in succinct terms why it was that intel gained from four C-ranked missions and two B-ranked ones was symptomatic of there being a huge fucking problem that needed attention before war broke out, Hokage-sama. Sometimes it was a false alarm, but Minato was largely pleased with the efficacy of the system he had- his time was not taken up with minutiae, and so he could train, and visit his students, and take tea with the people who (thought they) were important in village affairs without fear of missing something important to village security. It was good to have well-trained, trusted subordinates.

Itachi thought that his mother and Minato had the weirdest pillowtalk.)

Much to the further chagrin of the village, the traitorous ex-student of Orochimaru had not been the “obvious” choice of Mitarashi Anko. (Rumour had it that at least two of the spies had laughed outright at the very suggestion. The fact that Anko had been in the hospital getting a training-injury seen to during the events that had ended in their capture, and had definitively not acted in a way that could be construed as either aiding the traitors or insinuating herself into the village’s trust- sitting still to allow a medic-nin to apply burn-salve was safely innocuous in terms of alibis- had worked in her favour.)

Rather, the traitor was her considerably less-feared and reviled teammate Nobuo, who had married Yamanaka Kuchinashi, and had been a respected poison-maker before he had impersonated the Hokage in an attempt to (he had claimed) kidnap Itachi and maybe Sasuke and Naruto if sufficient opportunity had arisen.

Suffice to say, Namikaze Minato had taken a rather dim view of this statement, and Itachi had little doubt that Nobuo would only briefly live to have regrets once Ibiki was satisfied he had no further intel to provide.

(As Ibiki was infamously difficult to satisfy, Nobuo, Kuchinashi and Mizuki would no doubt have plenty of time to contemplate their impending mortality, and wish for the sweet release that it would provide.)

On the fourth day, Itachi found himself sitting bundled up in a blanket on the balcony of his childhood home, sharing tea with the Yondaime Hokage, watching as Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto practised throwing shuriken at a training log.

It was a peaceful scene, but Itachi was on his guard, keeping resolutely polite, but volunteering no more information than necessary as the Yondaime engaged him in the sort of pleasantries that would no doubt set most people at their ease.

Itachi was not most people, and he suspected that Minato was well aware of this. He wondered idly if this was a case of small talk being used as a subtle intimidation tactic. If so, he approved.

“So, I have a question,” the Yondaime mentioned finally, taking a leisurely sip of his tea.

Itachi sincerely doubted that there was only one question that the Hokage had, but suspected that this question would, nonetheless be a pressing one.

Rather than responding verbally, Itachi simply waited patiently, as he had for this entire conversation, for the Hokage to get to the point.

“You remember a different reality,” the Hokage stated.

Itachi inclined his head. He wondered when (if) Namikaze Minato had decided to take his insane story as read. He wondered how this was going to make his life more complicated.

“Based on your knowledge of that other reality, is there any information that you could give me on Orochimaru that would aid me in ensuring the safety of Konoha and all of its inhabitants?” the Hokage asked him bluntly.

Itachi took a moment to gather his thoughts.

“That depends,” he responded slowly. “On how similar the Orochimaru I knew is to the one in this reality.”

The Yondaime nodded, mien unchanging as he watched the muscles of Itachi’s face for every tiny spasm of expression. “Are there significant differences between the two realities besides people being alive or dead?”

Itachi just stared, and didn’t bother to hide his incredulity that the so-called fellow genius leader even dignified that question the effort of vocalisation.

“Hokage-sama,” he replied, “surely you are aware of Chaos Theory, in which the application of an earth jutsu can be the difference between firming the ground beneath your feet and accidentally causing a landslide. Two actions, similar in execution, identical in intent, drastically different in effect.” Itachi felt the corner of his mouth quirk. “Now imagine that instead of jutsu aim, we are talking about whether someone is alive to act and affect others, or dead and causing others to mourn.”

Minato nodded grimly. “I suspected as much. So begin with a description of what you know of Orochimaru, and then tell me any major activities of his.”

Itachi nodded. That actually made sense, as that way the Hokage could potentially gauge the reliability of Itachi’s information based on how it matched intel that he already had on the Snake Sannin. (A basic strategy, but sometimes basics were basic because they were essential, Itachi mused to himself.)

“Orochimaru. Born in Konoha, orphan, one of the Sannin along with Jiraiya-san and Senjuu Tsunade-san. Snake-summoner. Known for being able to impress Hanzo, and being a sadistic genius. Went Missing Nin from Konoha when his laboratory of human experiments including Konoha citizens was detected. Joined Akatsuki. In my reality, he left after he attempted to attack me to gain my Sharingan and I… resisted. Founded Otogakure, and is the Otokage. Has continued his human experimentation, apparently in a search to become immortal. Killed the Yondaime Kazekage, and tricked Suna into attacking Konoha during the Chunin exams hosted in Konoha in Sasuke’s first year as a genin, using the One-tailed jinchuriki as a weapon and killing the Sandaime before his forces were defeated and he ran away.” Itachi, who up until this moment had been maintaining a professional mask, scowled darkly as he remembered the events that came next, with Orochimaru somehow convincing his foolish little brother to defect to his side.

Itachi did not feel that this event was relevant for the Yondaime’s ears, as the Sasuke he could see training with his team-mates was happy and balanced and so did not fit the profile of disgruntled disaffected youth that Orochimaru was so able to entice.

Also, Orochimaru would get near Sasuke over Itachi’s dead body, and Itachi was not distracted by being a Missing-Nin this time, so there was also that.

Thankfully, Minato seemed to think nothing of Itachi’s thunderous expression, and did not seem to have realised that Itachi had edited out any major events.

Judging by the way that the Yondaime was staring fixedly into the middle-distance, Itachi had given him a few things to think about.

“Impersonating the Kazekage at the Chunin exams you say,” Minato said slowly, and then grinned in a mirthless, vicious way that gave Itachi sudden insight as to why the helpful flee on sight suggestion had originally appeared in Iwa’s bingo books.

“Interesting,” was all he said.

And then he nodded to Itachi, clapped him on the shoulder and then shunshined away.

Itachi considered the space that had only moments ago held the acknowledged deadliest person in Konoha, (a man who appeared to be auditioning for the position of Itachi’s step-father unless Itachi was misreading the signals,) and felt a shiver of anticipation creep up his spine.

“Itachi-senpai, can you come help us train? Please?”

Itachi turned at the sound of Sakura’s voice to see three sets of puppy eyes staring at him.

He didn’t bother to hide the quirk of his lips that he knew Sasuke would read as a grin.

“Very well,” he said, rising from his position on the balcony and depositing his tea on the small table.

He would worry about what the Hokage might be up to at a later date.

Right now, he had more important things to do.

Like keep Sasuke and his adorable little team-mates smiling.

Chapter Text

As Minato shunshined away from Itachi, he realised that he had made a mistake.

It was not, in fact, Itachi who had told him about Orochimaru’s plan to impersonate the Kazekage.

Minato had little doubt that Itachi would remember that conversation and later put together the pieces. As much as Itachi had changed in behaviour since he had been captured by Sound, Sho’s case notes on his file were more than adequate for proving that the trauma had not affected the fact that the boy had a mind like a steel trap.

(Considering how little Itachi had applied himself to reach his full potential, Minato had secretly wondered if Itachi might not be some genetic throwback to a Nara. He had, in fact, gone as far as asking Shikaku if there wasn’t some Nara ancestor who had married in. The normally laconic man’s expression and the ensuing explanation had been pretty funny actually, so Minato could only assume that if it had happened, it must have been an extremely well hushed up and probably brief affair*.)

Ah well. No use crying over spilled poison. Minato supposed that it would make a good test to see if Itachi was as discreet as he thought.

In the three days that Itachi had been recovering in hospital for his general chakra exhaustion and poisoning, the Torture and Interrogation unit had been busy.

Morino Ibiki, having been the one to originally clear Nobuo of treasonous leanings was professionally insulted that he had been so wrong about Orochimaru’s ex-student. The Yondaime had seen Ibiki take special care to wring every last piece of intel from prisoners of interest before.  

This was a whole new level.

Yamanaka Inoichi on the other hand, was livid that a clan member of his had turned traitor, and had used Clan techniques against an ally. Yamanaka Kuchinashi no doubt had been at least peripherally aware of why it was that her cousin Inoichi was the undisputed Clan Head. Now, it was safe to say, she was very personally aware.

And considering that a number of people in T&I had kids around Academy age, again including Inoichi, well… suffice to say that Mizuki was getting a warm reception too.

Even if Minato had not been personally invested, he would have been paying close attention to proceedings – after all, Konoha citizens had been brazenly attacked in broad daylight, and three attacks by three separate enemy nin in less than a few hours was definitely not something that could be ignored.

But the fact that the attackers had targeted Minato’s son, Minato’s lover, Minato’s lover’s sons and Academy students, and one of them had somehow mustered up the balls to do it wearing Minato’s own face…

Well, suffice to say, if they wanted the Yellow Flash’s attention, then they most certainly had it.

And Yondaime Namikaze Minato was going to make damned sure that they didn’t live long to regret it.

The very fact however that the attacks had been so very personal though, had Minato forcing himself to pause, and stop and think before he directed his forces to action.

The three spies were singing like drunken nightingales, after having outed themselves in brash and extremely unsubtle ways that could not be interpreted as anything other than obviously provocative suicide missions.

Considering how long the three of them had existed under the radar, Minato’s suspicions were well and truly raised at how all three of them had outed themselves so irretrievably in such a short span of time, in ways that Minato could not help but take a little personally.

Namikaze Minato, as a man who was in touch with his emotions, acknowledged that he was incandescently angry, and would get deep and personal satisfaction in embarking on a killing spree through the Land of Rice that would make the day he had single-handedly won the Third Shinobi War against the Iwa forces look like a cherry blossom-viewing picnic.

The Yondaime Hokage on the other hand, took a step back and coldly examined the implications.

Someone was trying to make him too angry to think straight.

Someone wanted his chief interrogators too angry to think straight.

Someone had been willing to sacrifice three agents in blatantly provocative moves, in order to do this.

At other times like this, he might have confided in belladonna-sweet Mikoto, but considering how she too was personally affected, Minato decided to run his inductions past Nara Shikaku first.

He changed direction mid-shunshin and dropped into his subordinate’s office via the window.

Shikaku blinked slowly at the Hokage as the papers on his large desk scattered to all corners of the room in the ensuing breeze.

“Damn it Minato,” Shikaku complained, making a quick handsign and sending out his shadow to collect the papers.

(Some might have been shocked at the way the scarred jounin commander addressed his Hokage, but Shikaku and Minato had been classmates at the Academy. If nothing else, having been present for the shenanigans involved in Minato getting together with Kushina was more than enough to have removed any of the mystique that the hat might have given his peer.

Then there was the fact that they had been working closely together for more than a decade now, and both of them had sons the same age, neither of them displaying the genius their fathers had passed onto them in conventional ways.

Suffice to say, the one time that Shikaku had called Minato “-sama”, when it wasn’t in front of a foreign dignitary or similar audience who needed to be awed by the Hokage, both of them had been entirely unable to keep a straight face.)

Minato smirked at the jutsu use. “Multitasking again?”

Shikaku smirked right back. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in a way that improves my chakra control.” With a flick of his wrist, the shadows tossed the papers back onto his desk. “So what is it that has you coming into my office like there’s a tailed beast on your ass?”

 Minato grimaced, sat down in the lone visitor’s chair, and outlined his thoughts to his right-hand strategist.

“Something very strange is going on,” Shikaku confirmed, the jounin commander scowling at the very thought. “The couple and Mizuki all ‘volunteered’ the information that Orochimaru was intending on impersonating the Kazekage. Orochimaru telling his sleeper agent subordinates his plans like that? That goes against everything that we know about the man. He’s always been as slippery as those summons of his.” Shikaku nodded to himself. “You’re right.”

“I think we should be extremely suspicious.”

The two of them paused to let that sink in for a moment.

“So,” Shikaku said after a while. “What did Itachi have to say?”

Minato laughed mirthlessly.

“I’ve got him primed. I asked him to list things that he knew about Orochimaru from that other world he dreamed, and it took him less than half a minute to go from practically apathetic to emitting enough killing intent that I’m sure people could have felt it across the street. You’ve seen Sho’s report on his psych profile. The slightest perceived risk to Sasuke’s wellbeing, and...”

Shikaku nodded thoughtfully, “And how convenient that his hyper-protectiveness seems to extend to Sasuke’s friends and classmates.”

The two shinobi shared a long look in which they acknowledged the fact that both of them had done far worse than exploiting the fixation of a traumatised potential madman to protect their children.

Minato sighed. “It’s like he’s a completely different person to the Itachi we used to know.”

Shikaku shrugged. “The base elements of his personality remain unchanged as far as I can see. It’s just that the sort of change that might normally occur over years, we saw happen in a matter of days, from the moment he went missing mid-mission, to the moment that he stumbled right into your brats fresh from that Sound bunker.”

Minato cocked his head. “So, you believe there might be something to his claims of being another Itachi from a different universe?”

Shikaku leaned back in his chair. “Maybe. It sounds insane, but he certainly believes it. And his story is very consistent for something dreamed up by a madman, if indeed that is what he is. And the couple seemed to have been informed to keep a very close eye on him, because,” he picked up one of the reports on his desk, “and I quote, ‘Whoever is wearing Itachi’s skin is some usurper who took over the body and stole it before Orochimaru-sama could’.”

Minato blinked, opened his mouth, and then shut it again.

“Excuse me, but what?”

“You heard me,” Shikaku groaned, tossing the report back onto his desk. “That little tidbit came out after you went to bed last night. But you know it changes little or nothing.”

Minato frowned. “Has anyone told Mikoto?”

“I suspect she knows,” Shikaku replied grimly. “You haven’t really had a chance to talk to her since the incidents. Yamanaka Kiyoshi has, and she passed on her impressions to Yoshino.”

Minato didn’t bother to ask how Shikaku knew that he had been too busy to talk to his lover. It went without saying that those stereotypical half-lidded Nara eyes observed more than any fifteen of the other ninja under the Hokage’s command. But if Inoichi’s wife Kiyoshi had noticed that something had shaken his spider Mikoto, then he trusted her instincts.

“So,” Shikaku grunted, distracting Minato from his thoughts. “We’re agreed then that as much as the traitors were no doubt working for Orochimaru, their last acts were neither something he would be willing to order, nor would they benefit their,” Shikaku sneered, “Otokage.”

“So then,” Minato agreed, continuing the train of thought, “if they don’t benefit Orochimaru, who did benefit, who gave the orders, and are they one third party or two?”

The two of them paused for a moment, considering this.

“You know, it’s times like this that I almost miss Danzo,” Shikaku admitted. “That wily old bastard always knew all the twists and turns of why seemingly random events were linked together.”

Minato snorted with laughter. “Yeah, because he was the one behind half of those twists. Dear Kami those files of his were like the mad ravings of a conspiracy nut, only worse, because they answered the question, what if a power-hungry mad conspiracy theorist had his own private underground secret army of ANBU?”

Shikaku waved one hand lazily, “Well yeah. But you have to admit, it was almost funny for a while there where seemingly every single problem we had somehow traced back to him. We ended up moving him to a cell closer to the interrogation rooms just to make it more convenient when we would inevitably have to ask him how the fuck the latest clusterfuck tied back to him and his operations.”

“Well,” Minato replied, with a glint in his eye that Shikaku had learned to distrust, “at least we uprooted that problem.”

Shikaku groaned, putting one hand over his eyes.

“Why do you always have to make that joke?”

“Because it’s still funny,” Minato insisted cheerfully.

Shikaku made warding off gestures. “Go. Get out. Go do Hokage things and get me more intel so I can figure out who the hell is trying to fuck us over this time, since it’s not that old bastard. Or go whisper sweet nothings to that scary hell-bitch you’re trying to woo.”

Minato smiled a little dreamily. “She really is great, isn’t she.”

Shikaku just rolled his eyes as his Hokage left his office.

The second he was alone, he called out, “Shiho!”

A young girl with extremely thick glasses and messy blonde hair came stumbling into the office.

“Yes sir?”

“Draft up a letter to Jiraiya, summarising recently received intel and recalling him. We’ll get the Hokage to send it through his toads as usual, but I want the message drafted up now,” he told her. “Then start a letter to Tsunade, politely suggesting that this year’s chunin examinations held in Konoha will be an unmissable event.”

Shiho bobbed her head in a slight bow and scuttled off.

Shikaku nodded grimly to himself. They were going to need all warm bodies on the wall for this one.

He had a bad feeling, and like most shinobi, his way of stopping bad feelings was to gather up his comrades and if possible stab the cause from behind in the dark.

And if that involved a rogue Sannin…

He’d ensure that if at all possible, his gathered comrades included the two loyal ones.

….

 

Chapter Text

Kabuto, it seemed to him, was surrounded by idiots.

To be fair, this was a common sensation for Kabuto. The first time, it had been when no one noticed that a kid named Kabuto had disappeared from the Konoha orphanage, and then reappeared in an Academy class a few years later. No one ever bothered to ask him where he had been, and simply swallowed the story that Nono had adopted him after she found him after a battle.

Urushi, the orphan who insisted on calling him “brother”, (Danzo’s training had done its very best to squash the warm feeling that Kabuto felt when he remembered this, but still a small flicker remained, no matter how he tried to ignore it,) knew the truth, of course. Urushi had, after all, been there when Danzo had been blackmailing Nono. But Urushi was not the only orphan, nor Konoha native for that matter, that Kabuto had interacted with both before and after the stint in Root.

It wasn’t like there were that many silver-haired boys with out-sized glasses out there, let alone in his age group.

But Orochimaru-sama’s haphazardly cobbled-together cover story had inexplicably held, and no one, not a single person, had ever challenged him on it, or asked him about the missing years. He was pretty sure he hadn’t been actually invisible before, so surely someone other than Urushi had to remember him from those days. Maybe it was the Sannin’s influence, but Kabuto always wondered. Perhaps Danzo, concerned that attention on Kabuto would lead to attention on him, and thus his secret army of brainwashed orphans infiltrating ANBU, had pulled some strings.

Which would make at least some sense, Kabuto supposed, since the main reason that Kabuto refrained from divulging that particular secret was that Danzo in turn was no doubt entirely aware of exactly who had reintegrated him into Konoha, and the scrutiny that being linked to Orochimaru-sama would bring upon Kabuto would be, to borrow a turn of phrase from a Nara, troublesome indeed.

It was a pact of mutually assured destruction, made without either party even openly declaring it to be so. Orochimaru-sama had been rather amused, once he was far enough away from Konoha that it was not his immediate problem.

The stalemate might have continued for years, had Danzo not conspired to kill a founding clan right under the Yondaime’s nose.

Perhaps he would have got away with it had the Sandaime still been in charge- after all, it was well known that Sarutobi Hiruzen, student and teacher of Senjuu, was firmly in their camp, and the Sandaime had always relied a little too much on his old teammates, and trusted them a little too far.

(Kabuto wonders what it must be like to build such bonds with one’s genin team. He supposes that it must be different for people who haven’t been shuffled from team to team like unwanted luggage because he has little interest in passing the chunin exams, as to actually progress to the arena stage would be fatally detrimental to his plans to stay under everyone’s radar.)

But Namikaze Minato, already suspicious of Danzo for having backed Orochimaru, used to relying on the counsel of the legendary Shika-Ino-Cho trio (the Nara went without saying, but neither of his teammates were intellectual slouches either), and close friends with Uchiha Mikoto…

Well suffice to say, Kabuto had been pleasantly surprised, but hardly shocked that the Yondaime had managed to ferret out Danzo’s literal underground army. The fallout had been very entertaining indeed.

It was almost enough for Kabuto to consider defecting to Konoha, really.

But that would mean betraying Orochimaru-sama, who had spared his life, and given him a cause, and an identity after Nono forgot him (howcouldshehowcouldshe!?) and had taught Kabuto such interesting applications for medical ninjutsu, and had taught Kabuto about research, and…

…that was not something that Kabuto was willing to do.

Nevertheless, he wished that Orochimaru-sama had better taste in subordinates.

As far as he could tell, it was a coincidence that Nobuo-sensei and his wife had made their move on the same day that Mizuki had caught wind that he was suspected and had panicked. An unfortunate coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.

The fact that Uchiha Itachi seemed to be indirectly involved in both of these coincidences might have made Kabuto think that this was part of some deliberate attempt orchestrated by the Uchiha to draw out Orochimaru-sama’s spies, had it not been for the very simple fact that as far as he could tell, Itachi had never had any direct contact with any of them before. Kabuto had heard a rumour that maybe Itachi had something to do with Mizuki being investigated in the first place, but it seemed extremely unlikely that Itachi would have been able to convince Kuchinashi of the ridiculously stupid idea that using genjutsu, even Yamanaka Clan genjutsu, on a jounin Uchiha and expecting it to hold was suicidal at best.

The fact that Kuchinashi had decided, of all jounin Uchiha, to pick Uchiha Mikoto the Uchiha Head as a target was enough to make Kabuto consider hitting his head against the wall.

Though he supposed that maybe she would not have attempted it, had it not been for the catastrophic failure of Nobuo-sensei in kidnapping Uchiha Sasuke and Namikaze Naruto for Orochimaru-sama.

Nobuo-sensei!

Kabuto had no idea what had gotten into Nobuo-sensei, but getting (in the rather lurid words of one of the ANBU) his ass handed to him by a chunin who was currently indefinitely off-duty pending psychological clearance was frankly embarrassing. Especially since by all accounts Uchiha Itachi should have been exhausted from both a heavy training schedule, and fighting Mizuki.

Well, assuming that it actually was Uchiha Itachi in that body, Kabuto allowed.

Orochimaru-sama for one certainly seemed to doubt it, but Kabuto wondered.

He remembered Uchiha Itachi from the Academy. They were the same age, after all. From the rumours he had heard at the time, if Itachi’s father had had his way, Itachi probably would have tested out, and ridiculously quickly.

As it was, it had seemed that Itachi kept his top-three position with very little visible effort. Kabuto strongly suspected that if Itachi had actually wanted the Rookie of the Year position, then it would have been Itachi’s for the taking. But instead, Itachi had seemed content to float through the Academy, his behaviour discernible from a Nara’s only in that Itachi tended to simply zone out from boring classes rather than actively napping.

This behaviour had earned a certain level of grudging sympathy from Kabuto, because he too, had found the Academy classes interminably boring. It was hard to take lessons on how to properly throw a kunai even remotely seriously when Kabuto had visceral memories of burying kunai in the bodies of Iwa-nin, let alone basic chakra theory when Kabuto had already mastered more than a few intermediate medical ninjutsu.

Almost against his will, Kabuto had felt a sense of kinship with the soft-spoken, politely detached Uchiha, who somehow managed to convince everyone that he was nice. The two of them rarely interacted, but Kabuto had had the time to observe and scrutinise Itachi’s character at his leisure.

The Uchiha heir might have been a chronic underachiever, but he was neither weak-willed, nor stupid. Kabuto, having had opportunity to observe Uchiha Mikoto, rather suspected that the latter two traits might have been forcibly excised if they had ever had the utter gall to appear in her sons.

(Kabuto did not think, but knew that Uchiha Mikoto was not a woman to trifle with, and if he had had any idea that Kuchinashi was about to attempt such a completely foolish move, he would have knocked her out and tied her up somewhere until she came to her senses for her own good. Also Orochimaru-sama’s good, but also Kuchinashi’s. Kabuto did not exactly feel affection for the woman, but he was at least used to her, and she had had an excellent way with sea bream. Ah well. The loss was regrettable, but there was little that Kabuto could do about it at this juncture.)

It was perhaps because of this, that when Itachi had somehow managed to escape Orochimaru-sama, Kabuto had been surprised, but not shocked. There was nothing like near-death experiences to really focus the mind and make one pull every last molecule of talent and skill out of latency. It had, after all, been a few years since Kabuto had spent much time in Itachi’s presence. Maybe Itachi had stepped up his training once he had graduated the Academy, becoming closer to the potential that Kabuto had observed in him. Kabuto had heard some rumours suggesting as much, but it was equally possible that such rumours were Uchiha propaganda about their heir. It was hard to say, either way.

The Itachi that somehow managed to escape Orochimaru-sama certainly acted differently to the one that Kabuto had observed back in the Academy, but at the same time, Kabuto could not help but notice the fundamental similarities. To Kabuto, the “new” Itachi was simply the old Itachi bared like a nerve, with the air of polite detachment no longer slipping on rare occasions, but instead bearing cracks that if one looked closely, revealed just how close Itachi was to embracing the well-known Uchiha family insanity.

An imposter, Kabuto believed, would have tried a lot harder to pass as the Itachi of old. An imposter would have tried hard to stay below people’s notice, rather than openly training hard in taijutsu at levels that were enough that apparently Maito Gai had considered tracking the Uchiha down and offering a few tips, until Hatake Kakashi had swiftly talked him out of it (“Don’t you think the kid’s been through enough?” “So Harsh My Greatest Rival!” “Hey Gai, look, a challenger!” “Where! Where is My Most Youthful Challenger!”) before promptly throwing Yamato under the proverbial ox-cart (“Kakashi-senpai, I will kill you.” “Just think of it as saving a fellow injured comrade, and if that’s not enough, as payback for that time in Tori-no-Kuni” “…fine”).

An imposter would not be so clearly and near-obsessively adoring of Itachi’s little brother, let alone Sasuke’s little friends.

So as much as Kabuto admired and respected Orochimaru-sama, he was starting to suspect that whatever forbidden kinjutsu that Orochimaru-sama had used to evict Itachi’s spirit from his body had been defective somehow.

Orochimaru-sama insisted that that was not the case, at all, but when Kabuto had discussed his theory with Sasori-sama, Sasori-sama had agreed that Kabuto’s theory had merit. Kabuto suspected that at least part of this was because Sasori-sama did not always pay all due respect to Orochimaru-sama, but considering that Sasori-sama was in fact Orochimaru-sama’s elder, and appeared to be doing rather better at the eternal youth goal, and also believed in the importance of research (even if he claimed it was only important in as far as it furthered his art, rather than for its own sake) Kabuto thought that maybe Sasori-sama might be entitled to occasionally treat Orochimaru-sama like a cute little kohai who had managed to do a trick.

Still, it would be satisfying when it was eventually time to turn on Sasori and slice his heart to ribbons with his chakra scalpels. Sasori was a creepy asshole. Kabuto might enjoy pushing the bounds of ethics and medical science (pushing the bounds of ethics for medical science went without saying, because studying medicine was so interesting and reminded Kabuto of Nono, no, no, he would not be thinking about that now…) but the thought of making puppets out of corpses made his skin crawl.

Kabuto had made a point very early on of clearing up the fact that yes, Kabuto was phenomenal at medical ninjutsu, but it was 100 percent because Kabuto had practised chakra control and medical ninjutsu until his fingers went numb, and not because of any inherent ability. Sasori-sama had of course known exactly what Kabuto was doing, but had taken the time to reassure Kabuto that he didn’t want a puppet with defective eyes anyway. Kabuto was unsure why the puppet would need the ability to see, but had decided that raising this question would be very much against his best interests.

Kabuto had been a puppet before. He would rather be eaten by the Shinigami like Sakumo Hatake than be a puppet again.

(Thank you Yondaime-sama for eradicating Root, and Danzo. Thank you Yondaime-sama. Kabuto would take no pleasure in Yondaime-sama’s inevitable demise at the hands of Orochimaru-sama, but needs must.)

In this context, he could sympathise with Itachi’s reasons for resisting Orochimaru-sama.  Kabuto, after all, understood that Itachi had no reason to be loyal to Orochimaru-sama, not like him. And Itachi apparently had a little brother that he would live for and fight to the death for.

(Kabuto wondered… no, Kabuto did not wonder. Wondering was childish. Though perhaps he should check in on Urushi. It had been some time since he had last observed his “brother”. It was only a small indulgence, it wasn’t like Kabuto would actually spend time with Urushi… he didn’t want Urushi getting caught in the middle of things, at least, not until the chunin exams. Then Kabuto would have to do something. Maybe he would ask Urushi to “console” him for not getting into the arena. Then Kabuto would be able to keep him out of things. Yes. This was an excellent plan.)

Even so, Kabuto could not help but resent the way that Uchiha Itachi kept stumbling into the middle of Orochimaru-sama’s plans and ruining them. The pattern seemed too random to be on purpose, but…

Kabuto had always suspected that Itachi might be a genius. Maybe…

Kabuto would have to increase his observations.

Itachi would not foil Orochimaru-sama’s plans again.

Orochimaru-sama had insisted that he wanted Itachi alive rather than dead, and so Kabuto had yet to need to consider killing him.

But if Orochimaru-sama changed his orders…

Then Kabuto would be prepared.

And the Uchiha, genius or not, would never know what hit him.

Chapter Text

Itachi had started to detect a particular chakra signature on a regular basis.

Well, “regular” was not strictly accurate. Itachi was detecting the chakra signature at irregular intervals but with subtly increasing frequency.

It could be just a very determined fan, but although Itachi would have had difficulty articulating what it was, precisely, that made the muscles on the back of his neck tense in anticipation of an attack at the feel of that chakra, Itachi felt a little… disconcerted by the continued scrutiny.

Not enough to pause in his training as he ran through an advanced kata that he needed to increase the fluidity of his footwork with, but the fact that he felt disconcerted at all was enough for him to trust his instinct that whoever this mystery watcher was, they (to borrow a Nara turn of phrase) were going be troublesome.

It wasn’t as though Itachi was unused to being followed – apart from his fans, there were the usual concerned members of the Uchiha Clan, “concerned” members of the Uchiha Clan, ANBU, bored and/or curious/nosy shinobi or kunoichi who wanted to discreetly gawk at the Uchiha heir, Academy kids, civilians who were about to be gently redirected away from the training grounds before they got accidentally (or “accidentally”) hit by a stray jutsu whilst a ninja was practicing… all of these people stalked Itachi on a semi-regular basis. It had started to get to the point that if he didn’t feel eyes on him at some point or another of his training, then he assumed there must be something going on elsewhere in Konoha that he should probably make himself aware of before it became a problem and/or before he missed something that everyone would be talking about for days because it was just that interesting.

(Ninja really were the world’s worst gossips.)

But just because Itachi was used to being followed didn’t mean that he had a habit of letting a detected person go unidentified. Konoha might be a village full of people who were ostensibly his comrades, but even in amongst the people who he could count on to have his back in a fight were rivals, competitors, spies and potential information leaks.

A civilian might call this paranoid, but any ninja (or civilian with sense whose business could be affected by information) would simply call it the way of the world.

And so Itachi, not traditionally considering himself to be exactly bereft of common sense when it came to surviving as a shinobi, checked who was watching him almost on reflex, and then one step further: made a point of remembering who belonged to what chakra signature.

Detecting and recognising chakra signatures was not exactly an uncommon skill in and of itself. It was generally considered sensible to at least be able to recognise the chakra signatures of one’s comrades, especially if one was regularly teamed up with them. Relative chakra level sense was an Academy level skill, and some used that as a ready-reckoner for who was watching.

Some were easier than others. Most ninja could sense the presence of Naruto, for example, from at least a street away. Those who were actually chakra sensitive were able to figure out what direction he was in from halfway into Training Ground 44. On the other hand, he exuded such a massive cloud of chakra at all times that it tended to make it difficult to pin down exactly where in the mass he was, especially if he kept moving. Itachi remembered being greatly entertained by watching seasoned hunter-nin utterly fail to find an Academy child in bright orange in the middle of Konoha, simply because they were too used to relying on fine-tuned specialised detection senses that generally relied on chakra.

(The only one who could reliably find Naruto, one chunin by the name of Umino Iruka, on the other hand, had relied on the senses that Kami gave him, entirely un-enhanced, and so had, without fail, managed to track the brat down in about ten minutes flat. Itachi might have clued them in to why they were screwing up if it hadn’t been so funny to watch the seasoned hunter-nin start to think that Iruka was some kind of jinchuriki-finding wizard.)

But Itachi, with his very handy Sharingan-enhanced eidetic memory, never forgot a face paired to a chakra signature, and was very good at finding names.

(Also, he could make Kage-bunshin. The chakra drain was a pain in his ass, especially in this body before he had started improving its limits, but the applications were so many, varied and useful, especially for intelligence gathering, that he had no idea why people thought how you could remember in vivid detail in the first person how the clones died when they popped was a good enough reason to not learn it. Seriously, Itachi didn’t know how these people had the gall to call themselves proper ninja. Pathetic weaklings the lot of them.)

Itachi’s most recent serial stalker was actually pretty good at hiding himself, but once they had managed to properly engage Itachi’s attention, it was only a brief while later that he managed to track them down.

When Itachi received the information from his dispersed clone, it took him a minute to figure out where he recognised the spectacled teen in hospital scrubs. After all, the last time he’d seen Yakushi Kabuto, it had been when Itachi had been checking up on Sasuke, in the years after Sasuke had defected to Orochimaru (like a complete and utter moron, Itachi still could not believe his little brother had thought that was a good idea). At that time, not only had Yakushi been in his mid-twenties, rather than his late teens, but Itachi’s eyesight had been on the way out, and he had had to maintain his distance to avoid detection.

This however just meant that it took Itachi a minute to figure out who Kabuto was rather than recognising him instantly. Itachi consoled himself with the knowledge that at least he had not had to actually go fact-finding to dredge up the identification.

Itachi wondered what it meant that one of Orochimaru’s spies was suddenly taking such an overt (by jounin standards at least) interest in him. He would have to monitor the situation. He was tempted to simply out Kabuto, by reporting to the Hokage…

 But then he would have to explain both how he knew that Kabuto was a spy, and why he had failed to report on him months ago.

Itachi grimaced at the very thought.

The honest reason, that Itachi had actually forgotten that Kabuto had infiltrated Konoha, would go down like Anko on a stick of dango, and Itachi had little interest in dealing with that conversation. It was an embarrassing slip, and in retrospect, possibly an understandable one, but that wasn’t really the problem.

The problem was that the last thing Itachi needed was for Minato to start getting obstructively suspicious of Itachi’s motives (i.e. hampering Itachi’s options for action by observing his movements too closely). Itachi would admit, in the privacy of his own head, that it was pure luck that Minato was only base-line suspicious, as Itachi had been too psychologically compromised to come up with a decent trustworthy explanation for what must have appeared to be entirely bizarre behaviour from the Hokage’s perspective.

(And frankly, all Minato would need to do to make his suspicions obstructive would be to share his thoughts with Itachi’s mother. If he went and did that, then Itachi might have to withdraw his tentative bemused approval of their relationship and start machinating a break-up, and then no one would be happy.)

It wasn’t Itachi’s fault that he had accelerated out of the Academy too fast to get to know his peers. And then there had been ANBU, and then there had been the Massacre, and then there had been the infiltrating Akatsuki… he had been too busy to keep track of every stray double agent, okay?

(And he really didn’t feel like going through the session with an interrogator that saying so would probably provoke. He was already visiting a psychologist, he didn’t really want to go back over his old traumas any more than the mandated once a fortnight, thank you very much. Besides, Sho had extracted everything that he knew about Akatsuki over the course of a few sessions, and that was the most important  intel he had, diluted by alternate universes or no.)

No, now that he had been reminded, it was better to monitor things, and wait until Kabuto inevitably slipped up, and then Itachi could quietly slip a senbon covered in neurotoxin between his vertebrae. No muss, no fuss.

In the meantime though…

Itachi had training to do.

It had taken a while after Itachi’s hospitalisation before his self-appointed watchdog Shisui would let him do more than sit and watch Sasuke and his friends train, but a week later, Itachi had managed to convince his cousin to join him in some light sparring.

It was aggravating.

Itachi supposed that a very small, quiet part of him might have been gratified to learn that his family cared so much for his wellbeing. When he had attempted to complain about Shisui’s mother-henning to his mother, she had actually laughed at him, and told Itachi that he would be straining himself over her dead body. It was… strange to receive such regard from his family members. He couldn’t remember them thinking of him as vulnerable and needing to be protected.

(As frustrating as it was at times, it made him wonder if maybe, just maybe, if the Uchiha he had remembered in the other life had shown him that they cared like this, maybe he would have been unable to complete the mission Danzo had set before him. Maybe he might have loved more than Sasuke.

Itachi tried to think of other things, but the thought niggled at him like a wood-borer into the trunk of a tree.)

The sparring with Shisui itself was, however, unexpected.

Itachi could remember sparring with his cousin before, but it had been so long ago – back when the two of them had been the only ally the other could rely upon when it came to Clan matters.

Back before Shisui’s eye was stolen by Danzo, before Shisui gave his other eye to Itachi, and then threw himself from the cliff into the ravine with the waterfall.

(Itachi had told Sho about that memory, and could have sworn that as he was leaving that session she had muttered something under her breath about typical ridiculously over dramatic Uchiha not asking for help when they needed it. But he must have been hearing things, because Sho would  never be that unprofessional, he was sure. Just like he was sure that Shisui giving him a hug and dragging him out for teriyaki the next time Itachi had seen him had been a complete coincidence.)

Maybe it was because both of them had been under a great deal of pressure at the time, but Itachi’s memories of spars with Shisui had always been serious, both of them looking for holes in their own styles and exploits that could be used by a fast opponent.

But as Itachi dodged a knife-hand strike to his throat, and retaliated with a kick aimed at the back of Shisui’s knee, as he leapt back to avoid an attempted grappling move and then rolled into a handspring to kick at Shisui’s face, Itachi couldn’t remember the last time that he had this much fun.

Neither of them were sparring particularly seriously – the purpose of this was more to prove that Itachi was fit more than anything else – and Itachi actually caught himself grinning.

But it was okay, because a glance at Shisui’s face (not looking him in the eyes, because Itachi didn’t especially want to play the game of who had the better Sharingan,) showed that his cousin was grinning too.

“You’ve been holding back on me,” Shisui complained good-naturedly as their pace picked up.

Itachi considered how he was fighting at barely 15 percent of his capacity and tried not to scoff.

“I’ve been training,” was all he said in response.

“So I hear,” came a new voice, and Itachi and Shisui leapt apart to see Inuzuka Hana and Mitarashi Anko watching them.

“Hello ladies,” greeted Shisui, backing off to turn most of his attention to their audience.

Itachi promptly attempted to kick his cousin’s feet out from under him, but Shisui shunshined four metres to the left and slightly behind Itachi and then threw enough seals for a fire jutsu for Itachi to back off out of range even though his cousin didn’t bother to complete them.

“Itachi, don’t be rude to our guests by ignoring them,” Shisui teased, whilst flicking a couple of ANBU signs with his hands that taunted him that he would have to get up earlier if he was serious about getting the better of his more attractive cousin.

Itachi didn’t bother to hide his eye roll.

(More attractive his ass. Both of them knew who had higher numbers of obsessive stalker fans, although really, that was a competition that Itachi would have dearly loved not to rank in, let alone win, so it was a bitter victory at best.)

“So, Itachi,” said Anko, pretending to entirely ignore the by-play. “That training seems to have done you some good.” She looked him up and down, unsubtle even by civilian standards, and licked her lips. “I’m up for that spar you asked me for if you are,” she purred, pulling out a kunai to illustrate.

Shisui did a double-take.

“What,” he said flatly, his tone conveying clearly that he thought Itachi needed to increase his sessions with Sho.

“What?” Itachi asked after his cousin failed to elaborate.

“Yeah, Anko isn’t making this up, I was a witness to that moment of poor decision-making,” Hana said to Shisui, her mouth twisted to one side.

Shisui stared at Itachi, and the speaking silence was eloquent, with frantic gesticulations not present, but heavily implied.

Itachi exhaled. “Well, I knew you were going to hold back on me,” he explained, knowing he sounded a little closer to Sasuke’s tone when there were no tomatoes for it to be entirely dignified.

Shisui continued to stare at Itachi like he had just said he would like to give up his ninja life to join a travelling circus as a banjo player.

“Uh, yeah, because you’ve been training your ass off, but you’re still a chunin,” he explained in a tone that Itachi hadn’t heard directed at himself since he graduated after only a year in the Academy.

Itachi had not appreciated that tone then, and he did not appreciate that tone now.

“Shisui,” he responded calmly, and looking his cousin directly in the eyes, “you are one of my favourite people in this world, and I have no desire to put you into the hospital to prove a point. Understand me when I say that if I actually wanted to maim you, you would see me coming only out of courtesy.”  

Not waiting for his cousin’s response, he turned to face Anko.

“I’m ready if you are. If you like, we could remove ourselves to Training Ground 44?” he asked rhetorically. (Originally, Itachi had planned on just sparring at a normal training ground, but he was officially irritated, and if he was going to make this point, he was going to make this point properly.)

Anko, to her credit, refrained from asking Itachi if he was sure.

“That just happened, didn’t it,” stated Shisui a long moment after his cousin and one of Konoha’s most dangerous kunoichi shunshinned away to go spar in the Forest of Death.

“Yup,” responded Hana, stepping closer to the elder Uchiha and trying not to enjoy too much the fact that his mouth had been hanging open in surprise. (A visibly shocked Uchiha was at least as rare as an unkempt Main Branch Hyuuga, and if she did not so empathetically understand the reason why he was so disturbed she might have laughed at him.) “Do you see what I mean now?”

Shisui nodded slowly, still staring in the direction that Itachi and Anko had vanished in. “He’s told me some things,” he admitted. “In confidence,” he clarified when Hana immediately perked up with interest. “I am not entirely sure what I believe, but suffice to say, whatever Orochimaru did to him, Itachi…” he trailed off, considering his words. “He’s definitely different,” he settled on.

(Different since he came back. Different since he… changed. Could Shisui believe that his cousin was not the same Itachi that he had always known? Sometimes, times like this, he was starting to think that the answer, as insane as it sounded, might be yes.)

Hana sighed. “I’m really worried about him,” she said, the same words she had said to Shisui in their previous conversation, one that had occurred before Itachi’s latest discharge from hospital. “But right this second, I’m actually more worried about Anko.”

Shisui nodded again, not needing an explanation. Anko was always notoriously touchy (re: more homicidal than usual) whenever mentions of Orochimaru came up. The fact that three traitors linked to him had been recently exposed had visibly shaken her calm.

“That said,” Hana continued, “I’ve heard rumour that it has been suggested that considering what dungeon Itachi escaped from, T&I should triple-check that he isn’t a sleeper agent. Something about too many coincidences.”

Shisui spun to look at her, only half-conscious of how his Sharingan was flaring.

Hana held up her hands defensively. “Don’t jutsu the messenger. You know that your cousin is one of my best friends, and I’m well aware that he’s seeing Sho Suzume on a regular basis. There is no way in the Sage’s green earth that she would have missed something like that.”

Shisui scowled, but backed off, acknowledging her point.

“Shit,” he stated. No doubt Aunt Mikoto was already well aware of the rumours and enacting damage control, but he should talk with her to make sure that their efforts to counteract them were complementary.

He sighed, and walked over to sit beneath one of the trees near the edge of the training ground, enjoying the respite from the early afternoon sun.

After a moment, Hana joined him, a light whistle calling her dogs, the Haimaru triplets, out from wherever they were foraging, and they flopped down in front of her, panting. Hana absent-mindedly petted them, scratching behind ears and ruffling thick fur. Shisui knew better than to touch a nin-dog without being explicitly invited, and so kept his hands by his sides.

The two of them were silent for a good ten minutes, both of them lost in their own thoughts.

“He seems… happier,” Hana hazarded eventually.

Shisui acknowledged that statement with an affirmative grunt.

Hana had apparently been spending enough time around his cousin that she understood that Uchihaism.

“He’s not back to how he used to be, Before,” (she did not have to elaborate, there was only one significant Before these days when it came to Itachi,) “but especially since he started training Sasuke and Naruto and Sakura, there’s… light back in his eyes. And just now, when he was sparring with you, sure, it was training, but he also looked like he was actually having fun.”

“I miss him,” Shisui blurted out, and was immediately horrified by what he had said, what he had implicitly admitted, but Hana merely nodded, her eyes holding no condemnation.

“Me too. But,” she said, looking Shisui directly in the eyes, (a brave and unusual thing for someone to do to an Uchiha normally, let alone when one was emotionally compromised,) “I’m glad we at least got him back.”

Shisui bowed his head, looking down at the sparse grass between them. He did not voice his agreement, but nor did he reject the callused hand that settled on his shoulder, offering comfort.

(He wondered how much she suspected. As far as he knew, Itachi had not told his oldest friend his “truth” about being an alternate – and Shisui was still conflicted as to what he believed about that – but Inuzuka were renowned for their instincts. He wondered what Hana’s instincts told her, and if they revealed just how fundamental the change in Itachi really was.)

He looked back up, eyes trailing from the hand on his shoulder to her face. Bold dark eyes that were only emphasized by the red triangles (fangs, he had been told) of her Clan Markings tattooed onto her cheeks stared back at him. He could not help but notice that for all that her features were those of a fierce and practical warrior, her expression was kind, and her lips looked full and soft, stained a subtle pink by whatever gloss she had spread on them.

Shisui opened his mouth, although to say (or do) what he could not have said, when –

A faint boom sounded.

It was almost certainly not a coincidence that the boom was coming from the direction that Anko and Itachi had left in.

“So,” Hana said slowly, the tension between them suddenly broken, the moment lost as she looked away in the direction of the sound, “how much do you think Itachi has been holding back in your spars again?”

Shisui grimaced, both in response to her question, and at himself (stupid, stupid, she was only offering sympathy, nothing else, you complete and utter fool). “I’m still here, aren’t I?” he answered her aloud. He allowed her to see a self-deprecating twitch of his lips. “If I was genuinely concerned about his wellbeing right now, you would be talking to my after-image.”

“Point,” said Hana, wincing as the sound of what was almost certainly another exploding tag went off.

“Taijutsu without the Sharingan has always been Itachi’s weakest point, and frankly, I was not holding back nearly as much as I would have Before just then,” Shisui reminded them both as the booms were followed by the distant sounds of trees cracking and falling over. “And were he not about two seconds off dropping unconscious from chakra exhaustion, I have not even the slightest bit of doubt that he could have taken Nobuo without my interference. As it was, I practically kill-stole from him, and Nobuo was a veteran jounin sensei.” Unspoken, but acknowledged between the two of them was the fact that only seasoned jounin with proven tactical records and broad skill-bases were ever allowed the honour of training a genin team.

“Kuromaru says that a storm is coming,” Hana said, referencing her mother’s canine partner. “Says that he can feel it in his battle scars.”

Shisui, respectful as he was of other Clan customs, might have very privately scoffed at that, were it not for the fact that he remembered that the Inuzuka dogs had all howled before the Kyuubi had broken free from Uzumaki Kushina. He shuddered lightly.

“We will watch,” he half-reassured, half-promised the Inuzuka Heir (yet another reason why he should not read into that moment of… whatever it had been, he castigated himself). “And if Itachi manages to continue this streak of being in the middle of the trouble, I know I can count on you to be at his back.”

“Just as I will find you by his side,” Hana retorted, quirking carefully sculpted eyebrows at him, as though she could sense the direction of his thoughts (thankfully she appeared to be unoffended, but… no, he would not read into it). “Assuming Sasuke and his little friends haven’t stumbled right into the middle of trouble again,” she added, continuing the only conversation he would admit to be having with her at this moment were some outsider to ask.

Shisui leaned back so that he could rap on the nearby tree trunk. “Touch wood.”

The two of them shared a grim smile, before a larger explosion than the previous ones came from the direction of Training Ground 44, one large enough to shake the ground slightly.

Hana blinked. “Should we check…?”

But Shisui had already shunshined after his cousin and the notoriously insane tokubetsu no Jounin that had better not have hurt Itachi if she knew what was good for her.

He need not have worried, because as he neared the fence, Itachi and Anko came stumbling out of the forest, slightly singed, but both of them smiling.

(Well, Anko had more of a manic grin, and Itachi more had a slight quirk of his lips, but Shisui knew a goofy look on his cousin’s face when it happened.)

“Shisui, if your cousin is chunin-level, I’m the Sandaime’s summons,” Anko declared with a giggle that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “I haven’t had that much fun in a spar since this one time with this missing-nin from Cloud, and we were in a ravine, and there were axolotls and pineapples, and…”

Shisui tuned her out, focussed on his cousin.

“Itachi?” he asked, checking his cousin over for any obvious injuries. On the one hand, he was ambulant. On the other hand, goofy look.

“Shisui,” said Itachi in a very serious tone, “Kunoichi have magic pockets.”

Shisui checked Itachi’s pupils for concussion, and was not relieved that they were even. Mostly because they were quite blatantly blown wide by whatever it was that he had been exposed to.

“Magic pockets full of BOOM!” Itachi continued sagely.

Anko snorted. “And smoke bombs including mild toxins,” she added, confirming Shisui’s diagnosis.

“That too,” said Itachi, apparently unsurprised or at least unperturbed by this information. (Shisui was not nearly so sanguine. The second he had Itachi somewhere quiet to sleep this off, there were going to be words.)

“Anko,” hissed Hana in a remarkable impression of one of Anko’s summons, “Itachi just got out of the hospital from poisoning!”

Shisui shot Hana a look of appreciation as he looped Itachi’s arm around his shoulders to better support him.

Anko waved one hand lazily. “Relax, I used the ones for allies and targets I want alive. It’ll be out of his system entirely in an hour or two, and anyway, it barely even slowed him down. If we’d been playing seriously, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t be dead,” she admitted.

The quirk in Itachi’s lip broadened. “Underestimating me is a mistake that my enemies only make once,” he declared in the same uncharacteristically drawling deadpan, before his brow crinkled very slightly. “Except for Orochimaru.”

“Fuck Orochimaru,” Anko declared, stumbling over nothing.

Shisui blinked. Now that he had a moment to look properly, he realised that Itachi might be drugged, but Anko, she almost certainly had a concussion.

(If he was not so pissed off, he might have taken a moment to be proud.)

Itachi snickered at Anko, and muttered something about “not wanting to know details”. Shisui, well aware of how Anko usually operated, was grateful that she had either not heard that, or elected to ignore it, because it was even odds whether she would have started in on an elaborate (hopefully untrue) listing of Orochimaru’s assets, or simply tried to murder his cousin.

(Note to self: whatever it was that Anko kept in her “ally friendly” smoke bombs was not conducive to appropriate social filters.)

Hana, obviously having noticed exactly what Shisui had about Anko’s condition, moved to support her friend, rolling her eyes.

“Come on,” she urged, “let’s get you checked out. Again. For another training injury. I’m sure the med-nin are going to be thrilled to see you back in again.”

“Nah, nah,” argued Anko, “let’s go see that Yakushi kid. He can fix me up in a second, and I can check and see if he’s okay after his sensei got carted off to T&I.”

Shisui felt it when Itachi suddenly threw off the effects of Anko’s drug like they were non-existent.

“Yakushi Kabuto,” he said slowly, his tone clearly not implying a question.

Anko blinked up at him from where Hana was hauling her forward. “Yeah, he’s one of Nobuo’s students. Thought I’d offer my condolences, one student of a traitorous dirtbag to another.”

“Anko…” Itachi paused, and Shisui could tell that he was carefully selecting his words. “You know how there’s this… weird coincidence,” (Shisui resisted the urge to snort, he had his own suspicions about Itachi’s suspicious ability to find trouble lately) “where somehow Orochimaru’s minions keep trying to carry out nefarious plans in my presence?”

“‘Minions’? ‘Nefarious plans’?” Hana sent Itachi an incredulous look. “Itachi, how high are you right now?”

 But Shisui could hear the note of concern in her voice. Both of them knew that even impaired, the one thing that Uchiha Itachi had never been was stupid, or willing to jump to conclusions.

“What is it?” Shisui prompted his cousin when he didn’t continue. “What do Orochimaru’s ‘minions’,” he winced at the word choice, “have to do with Yakushi Kabuto?”

Instead of responding to Shisui, Itachi brought one hand to his lips and let out a coded whistle. A coded hunter nin whistle.

What the actual fuck?

Before Shisui had time to wrap his mind around the fact that somehow Itachi knew an S-ranked code, there were two ANBU standing in front of them, their masks (a Kestrel and an Otter) cocked slightly in askance.

“It has just been brought to my attention that Yakushi Kabuto is the student of one of the shinobi currently at Ibiki’s pleasure, Yamanaka Nobuo. It may be a coincidence,” (but all present could hear the sarcasm,) “but he has been stalking me pretty consistently on an irregular but increasing schedule ever since the incident with his sensei.”

The ANBU exchanged a glance, and a brief signed exchange that generally indicated both their incredulity at the fact that Orochimaru had apparently fixated on the poor Uchiha kid, but that he had a point, and someone should really check this out.

“Thank you, and yes, I too am sick of this bullshit,” Itachi said, responding directly to their conversation. That, Shisui realised a little hysterically, the two ANBU had thought they would be able to have somewhat privately, because Itachi was not supposed to know those particular ANBU signs, since Itachi was only a chunin.

“…” The ANBU stared at Itachi for a moment, clearly boggling, before the two of them shunshined away.

“Very unprofessional,” Itachi muttered darkly.

Anko burst out laughing, abruptly hanging off Hana in a way that made the taller woman grunt slightly as she readjusted her hold to ensure her friend didn’t hit the ground. “Ahahahaha oh Kami you have to come drinking with us Uchiha. Who woulda thunk you’d be this funny under the influence?”

Shisui flashed his Sharingan at her, but Anko was unintimidated. Hana on the other hand, grimaced in sympathy.

“Right. Since the Yakushi kid is apparently going to be unavoidably detained,” Hana quipped dryly, “let’s get you to the hospital before Shisui puts you in there overnight, okay? Okay. Shisui,” she addressed him before Anko could respond, “it has been a pleasure. From experience, Anko is right, Itachi should be back to normal in an hour or two, just make sure he stays well-hydrated and maybe keep him away from… anyone until he sobers up, unless he starts to show any symptoms. Right. Um,” she fumbled slightly, “bye.”

And then Shisui was alone in the clearing with his cousin.

Shisui looked down at Itachi.

Itachi looked up at Shisui.

“I think she likes you,” Itachi stated in the same calm way he had announced that he understood what the ANBU were communicating in front of him.

Shisui refused to wonder if Itachi’s reading of the situation was similarly accurate.

Refused.

“She only stumbles over words like that when she’s talking to someone that she’s attracted to,” Itachi continued blithely, unaware or (much more likely) entirely uncaring of the inner turmoil his words had just instigated.

(Nope, nope, nope. Shisui would agonise over this later. Much later. In the dead of the night, when his cousin, drugged or sober, was not present to analyse his facial expressions.)

“I’m taking you home,” Shisui said instead of responding to Itachi’s statement.

“Okay,” said Itachi placidly. “But when the two of you get married, I want to be best man.”

Before Shisui could decide on an appropriate reply (scathing, joking, disbelieving, so many options, all self-deprecating) Itachi slumped a little against his shoulder. “I never got to be your best man last time,” he mumbled, leaning into Shisui’s sleeve. “Missed you.”

Shisui gave up. Itachi, ability to summon ANBU, report to them, and set them on potential enemies aside, was clearly too intoxicated for this conversation, whilst Shisui himself was not nearly intoxicated enough.

He hoisted Itachi onto his back, and started to walk home.

“So,” he said, after the mournful pause from his cousin had grown a little too long for his tastes. “How glad are you that you moved back to the apartment, and so will have time to formulate a suitable explanation for Aunt Mikoto as to why I’ve had to carry you home?”

Itachi snorted. “I’d just tell her who I was sparring with this afternoon,” he replied.

“That’s cold, little cousin,” Shisui laughed. “That’s cold.”

Chapter Text

Itachi could tell that he was drugged.

Itachi could tell that he was drugged for two reasons.

The first, was the uncomfortably pleasant floaty sensation.

The second, was that he could not shut up.

“Hey, hey, Shisui,” he heard himself say, “I can’t shut up.”

He listened to Shisui’s snicker, and dug his chin into his cousin’s trapezoid muscle in revenge.

“Oi! Knock that off!” Shisui complained, jostling Itachi in a badly faked attempt to drop him.

Itachi relented by lifting his chin to ensure he didn’t bite his tongue from the jostling, and rested his forehead on the back of Shisui’s neck instead. It was weird being carried on his cousin’s back. He couldn’t actually remember the last time someone had carried him like this… oh wait no, Kakashi had carried him like this when he had collapsed after escaping from Orochimaru’s dungeon. That felt like such a long time ago.

How long had it been?

“A bit over four months,” Shisui responded.

Oh. Had Itachi been saying all that out loud?

“Yep,” Shisui replied, sounding distinctly amused. “And you’re still doing it.”

“Damn,” Itachi said without energy. “I knew I should have tried harder to dodge that smoke bomb, but she had just managed to move into the perfect position for me to catch her in a genjutsu… She was trying to distract me with her rack, but I wasn’t about to fall for that one.”

“Uh huh,” replied Shisui.

“No really,” Itachi insisted, and leant forward so that he could whisper into Shisui’s ear. “Kisame always had such a crush on her, so it would be really weird.”

Shisui paused in the middle of the road.

Itachi blinked. “Why aren’t we moving?”

“When you say ‘Kisame’, are you talking about Hoshigaki Kisame?” Shisui asked him in an odd voice. “As in, the Monster of Mist, the Tailed Beast Without A Tail, Missing Nin One of the Seven Swordsmen Kisame?”

What a weird question. “Do you know any other Kisames?” Itachi asked, genuinely curious. “Kisame always complained about his name. He thought that being literally named after a demon shark showed that his parents had a terrible sense of humour. Kisame might have liked to meet another Kisame, though, he was always kinda alone. Did I tell you that he had the biggest thing for Mitarashi Anko? And I don’t mean his sword, though I don’t know, he was always a bit weird about that sword... though I never saw him licking it like Anko licks kunai sometimes, wait, maybe that’s what he saw in her…” Itachi trailed off to contemplate this.

Shisui gave a weird whole-body shiver.

“Holy shit I did not need that mental image,” he whined, before continuing to walk.

Itachi shrugged. “Shark men need love too,” he mumbled into the back of Shisui’s collar, inadvertently breathing in the smell of his cousin’s sweat.

Shisui burst out laughing. “Your mind is an honestly terrifying place, little cousin.” He shook his head, causing the hair at his nape to brush Itachi’s forehead.

“Your face is an honestly terrifying place,” Itachi grumbled, and was mildly annoyed when this just made Shisui laugh harder. “Stop laughing at me. I’m poisoned and everything is kinda swimmy and my mouth tastes weird. Next time I spar with Anko I steal Kakashi’s mask first.”

That at least made Shisui stop laughing.

“Shit. You aren’t going to throw up on me are you?” he asked.

“No-oo,” Itachi moaned. “But maybe you should put me down just in case.”

Shisui stepped off the road and gently lowered Itachi from his back, settling him in the shade of a tree with his head between his knees.

Itachi felt a hand rubbing up and down his back, and he shivered a little. He had not felt something so pleasant for a long time, blurry head aside. He closed his eyes and focussed on breathing, smelling the crushed grass and dirt beneath him, and listening to the soft murmurs as his cousin told him that he was okay, that he had better be okay, because if Itachi had pushed himself too hard Aunt Mikoto was going to kill them both.

(Itachi had not been okay for some time, but it was nice to hear the confirmation that Shisui cared. The thing about worrying about his mother’s reaction was too obviously only half-true for Itachi to take it amiss.)

It felt like only a few moments later that Itachi detected another chakra presence. Moments later, polite (as in not soundless) footsteps came to a stop a few metres to their left. Itachi did not look up, but he could hear a light buzzing sound, not unlike a bee-hive.

An Aburame then.

“Do you need assistance? I ask because your cousin appears unwell.” The voice was soft and rich, like miso soup on a winter’s morning.

(Itachi wondered why he was apparently suddenly feeling poetic. Probably the poison affecting his brain. Yup, definitely going with that.)

“Oh, hey, Muta,” said Shisui. “You wouldn’t happen to have a canteen on you would you? Itachi got a dose of one of Anko’s smoke bombs and he isn’t feeling too spectacular.”

Itachi tried to recall the face of an Aburame Muta, and failed. This bothered him, so he looked up.

Oh…

The first thing he noticed was the dark green lenses of the man’s purple goggles.

The second thing he noticed was that the goggles did absolutely nothing to hide the fact that, “You might be the most gorgeous man I have ever seen, including Deidara. And that Hyuuga guy, what was his—“ he felt his cheeks heat as he realised what he was saying. Out loud. Fuck. “Shisui if you love me at all you will knock me out. Now. Plea—“ a slightly dirty gloved hand covered Itachi’s mouth.

Ohthankkami. Itachi inhaled slowly, trying to ignore the fact that he was almost certain he was blushing with embarrassment.

(Stupid toxins destroying his control. Itachi was definitely going to have to ask Anko what she used, because this kind of effect on his enemies would be useful. Also then he could start building a tolerance to ensure that this never happened again.)

“I see what you mean,” was all the Aburame said, his expression unreadable. (And people called Uchiha expressionless, Aburame were so much better at it even before they added the face-concealing clothes that their clan favoured. “I do in fact have a canteen with me. I will leave it with you and then go, because I believe my presence is making your cousin… uncomfortable.”

‘Uncomfortable’ was not the word that Itachi would have used, but on the other hand, water and not having the opportunity to further humiliate himself in front of the beautiful bug ninja. These things sounded pretty good right now.

Aburame Muta took his canteen from a deep pocket of his voluminous pale grey coat (how did he keep it so clean?) dropped it into Shisui’s hand that wasn’t currently covering Itachi’s blabbering mouth, and then shunshined away.

“So that’s what a flustered Aburame looks like,” Shisui said after a moment.

Itachi pushed his cousin’s hand away and snatched the canteen.

“Shut. Up.”

“Well one of us had better, since you seem to be incapable,” Shisui retorted with a smirk.

Itachi, rather than dignify that with a response, drank from the canteen.

Upon returning home to his apartment, Itachi drank a large glass of water, and then dragged himself to his futon to sleep the drug off.

It felt like only five minutes later that a knocking on Itachi’s front door woke him up, but judging by the length of the shadows, it had to have been a few hours.

Thankfully, it seemed like the drug was mostly out of his system, because the awful sensation of light-headedness was gone.

It had left a headache in its wake, but Itachi was too grateful to have the ability to control himself back to be overly bothered.

Itachi strode over to the door, and opened it to find a grim-looking Yondaime Hokage standing outside his door.

Itachi stared for a moment, and then wordlessly stepped back to allow the Hokage access into his home.

The Hokage stepped through the door.

“Are you here in an official capacity?” Itachi asked, feeling uncharacteristically hesitant in the face of the man’s glower (well, this was the Yellow Flash and arguably the greatest albeit most short-lived Hokage that Konoha had ever had, Itachi thought it was only sensible survival instincts telling him that he treat the man when angry with caution), “or should I offer you tea?”

“Shinobi Uchiha Itachi,” the Hokage responded, implicitly answering Itachi’s question, and causing Itachi’s spine to instinctively straighten. “Have you been holding back on information that could be vital to the village’s security?”

Itachi felt his jaw drop.

“What? Why…?” and then he remembered the events of the afternoon. Oh. Oh. Fuck. He supposed that he could see why the Hokage might think – “No, Kami no, of course not, not on purpose. I reported Yakushi Kabuto soon after I realised that he was in the village. I would have done so immediately, but I needed at least a basic pretext, otherwise I didn’t think that I’d be believed.” He shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t risk the village like that. I wouldn’t risk S- my family like that.”

(Also, he was at least 70 percent sure that if he jeopardised Clan and Village by doing something like that, his mother would literally murder him. It was probably bad that there was a significant part of himself that fully approved of this. Maybe he should bring it up with Sho in their next session.)

“That is good to know, but that’s not what I am asking about,” the Yondaime responded. “Incidentally, he got away, but the hunter nin have his trail, and have been ordered to follow him back to his base to confirm his allegiances.”

Itachi raised an eyebrow at that.

“When you say ‘got away’…”

The Yondaime smiled mirthlessly. “No, it was not a deliberate ploy, merely the strategy to ensure that this situation is salvaged. He was both more slippery and more skilled than the ANBU had anticipated, Eternal Genin my left sandal. But no, this visit is not strictly about that shinobi concealing his abilities,” he said, his tone pointed.

Itachi blinked. Well that made exactly no sense to him. If this wasn’t about Kabuto, then what…?

“When exactly were you going to inform me that when you are actually fit, you’re S-ranked?” the Hokage demanded, hands on hips, staring him down.

Itachi blinked again.

Oh.

Oh.

He supposed that he could see why the Hokage might be a little upset with him. Kage tended to want to know what sort of weaponry (loose cannons or otherwise) was available to their village.

But the thing was…

“It never came up?” Itachi hazarded, watching warily as the Hokage’s killing intent momentarily spiked before settling down.

Namikaze Minato facepalmed.

“Seriously?” he demanded, face buried in one palm.

Itachi resisted the instinctive urge to flee the moment the Yondaime’s eyes were off him. Minato would only catch him, and then he would be more upset.

“Your mother told me this. Your mother,” Minato complained. (If Itachi had not managed to infuriate a man with a flee-on-sight order, then he might have found this amusing. Though when had he told his mother about the S-ranking… oh. His breakdown. Of course. That… made sense.) “I voiced surprise that you had managed to impress Mitarashi Anko, and she laughed at me and then told me what your previous rank was.”

“Sho didn’t tell you?” Itachi asked, surprised.

Minato gave him a flat look. “I do not make it a policy to ask the counsellors of my ninja to report the details of sessions unless it could compromise village safety. And even if I did, Sho no doubt would have thought that you would have informed me yourself of what you are capable of.”

Itachi shrugged a little uncomfortably.

“Technically I’m not fit for duty anyway,” he offered. “I’m getting my physical skills back, but I suspect that Sho will not clear me for missions for some time yet.”

Minato nodded an acknowledgement of this, his expression not betraying anything but annoyance.

“I swear on my Clan that I would have ensured you were aware of my abilities before you assigned me any missions?” Itachi winced.

There was a pause.

“So I only have one question,” Minato said after a moment, and then paused.

Itachi waited, but the pause stretched.

“And that question is…?” Itachi prompted, ignoring the sensation of his stomach flipping over.

(Yes, he was intimidated by the thought of what could happen to him if he truly upset the Hokage. He was not an idiot. If he was lucky though, perhaps Itachi could remind him that his mother would most likely not be best pleased to hear that the Hokage had maimed her son… which would maybe give him a split second before Minato realised that Itachi’s mother was likely to kill him herself for being a complete imbecile.)

The Yondaime Hokage, Namikaze Minato looked Itachi dead in the eye.

Itachi braced himself.

“So,” Minato said, allowing an amused glint into his eyes. “How funny has it been for you that people keep thinking that you’re only chunin level?”

Itachi was too relieved to answer aloud, and instead, just laughed.

 

Chapter Text

A few days after the Smoke Bomb Incident (or as Itachi usually referred to it, “Shut the hell up Shisui stop laughing”) Sasuke graduated from the Academy.

Itachi was unsurprised by this, but also completely proud. So was his mother, and Shisui, and the rest of the Uchiha Clan. Obito had even finagled to get back from his long-term mission so that he could be there to congratulate his little cousin on achieving this milestone. Now the only thing that stood between Sasuke being considered a full adult member of their clan was either gaining a chunin promotion, or developing his Sharingan, whichever came first.

(There had been a time in their clan’s history when only developing the Sharingan had been considered the path to full adulthood. That had changed when Itachi’s Aunt Junko had, (according to family legend) never developed her Sharingan, but had become a tokubetsu jounin poisons specialist for the Torture and Interrogation division aged 20 anyway. She had reportedly henceforth proceeded to terrify the then elders into what she would do to them if they didn’t respect her voice in Family Meetings. Itachi thought the change had only been a sensible one, as it reminded certain arrogant family members that although their doujutsu was one of the things that set the Uchiha apart, it was not the only way to succeed as being a ninja.)

Sakura and Naruto also passed with flying colours. Itachi tried not to be too visibly smug that all three of the Academy students that he had tutored had taken out the top three spots in their class, scoring over a class that was unusually stacked with Clan kids, but knew it was a losing battle when he heard even the civilians commenting on how proud he looked.

(“Wait, isn’t that…?” “Yes, should we go over and thank him?” “No, maybe later, he looks like the only thing on his mind right now is his brother.”)

Itachi wondered if they would be disturbed to hear that he had stepped in almost entirely because his little brother had been threatened by proxy. It was bad for village security for outsiders to get the idea that the Academy might be vulnerable, and Sasuke being an attendee of said Academy with a doujutsu would have been one of those most likely to be targeted. It had only been practical for Itachi to intervene as he had.

Yes, only practical.

If the threat to Sasuke had not existed, then well…

Itachi could not say for sure if he would have acted at the cost of his cover.

It would not have been the first time that he had stood back and watched as children died. After all, ‘no witnesses’ or ‘no survivors’ clauses on mission statements did not tend to come with exception caveats based on the age of the corpses.

Even before Itachi had been a member of Akatsuki, it had not been unheard of for a particularly politically inconvenient child to be the target of Konoha ANBU assassination missions. Itachi himself had managed to avoid taking point on any, but he had always known that a time would no doubt come that he would have to commit that flavour of atrocity for his village.

That said, he might have also acted because Sakura and Naruto had also been threatened. And it wasn’t like he approved of a ninja who chose to target children – even the monsters in Akatsuki had some standards, which was part of the reason that Itachi’s objection to Orochimaru attempting to kill him and steal his eyes had been supported by most of the others…

(And there had been that one time that Itachi and Kisame had accidentally ran into a sex-trafficking ring in Tea that targeted children, and Kisame had decided that this was an excellent time to live up to his monstrous reputation and kill everything that moved that wasn’t tied up and crying.

Itachi had been more than happy to help, if only to make sure that the children didn’t end up having screaming nightmares about sharkmen slicing pedophiles into ribbons. Considering that even before the kidnapping and assault was taken into account, some of them had actually been sold by family members, Itachi felt that they had enough to deal with, and might have used his Sharingan for non‑combat purposes for the first time in years, despite the fact that he had ended up literally weeping blood from over-exertion. Kisame had not commented at the time, but Itachi had noticed afterwards how some of their missions went a little more smoothly, because Kisame was a little more willing to listen to Itachi’s plans.

Apparently nothing brought team-members together like jointly obliterating human-shaped sewer sludge from the world’s misery. Some things were universal.

They had even delivered the liberated kids back to wherever they wanted to go afterwards, completely pro bono. Upon hearing the reason why they had been late back from the mission, Pein had simply nodded to them, and glared Kakuzu – who had been about to complain about the pro bono aspect – into silence. Deidara, normally hostile, had been oddly quiet, and then voluntarily offered Itachi some intel that would make their next mission go smoother.

Yes. Even anarchist missing nin had some standards.)

Itachi was distracted from this morbid thought chain by a shout of “Aniki!” followed by two shouts of “Itachi-niisan!” before suddenly three smaller bodies threw themselves at him.

Itachi did not have to resist the reflexive urge to kill them, as he had unconsciously perceived that the chakra signatures were friendly before they had hit him, but he did have to resist a flinch. With the notable exceptions of Shisui carrying him home the other day, and sparring, or teaching these children, it was rare for people to touch him.

(Sho had suggested that Itachi should consider seeking out some friendly contact. When he had raised both eyebrows at that, had clarified that she meant she thought he could use more regular hugs, maybe from family members and that it would improve his mental health.

Itachi had simply stared at Sho until she remembered that he was an Uchiha, and that Uchiha were not exactly known for being physically demonstrative in the affectionate sense.

Sho had just sighed, and made a note on her clipboard. Itachi was expecting an awkward ambush from a freshly guilt-tripped cousin any day now.)

“Itachi-niisan! We made it!” Sakura squealed, hitting a pitch and volume that made Itachi glad that he wasn’t an Inuzuka and brandishing her shiny new hitaiate.

“Made it made it made it!” Naruto chanted, before squeezing Itachi extra hard around the middle and then bouncing away to see his father.

“Oh I see how it is,” Minato said, grabbing his son in a friendly light headlock, “your old man is second best, huh?”

Naruto made a rude noise.

“Noo~ but Itachi-nii was the one who was tutoring me and Sasuke and Sakura and if it wasn’t for him I don’t think we would have ended up the top three. He really taught me a lot Dad, and I know you have too, but you don’t always have time, and…”

Was that sunburn Itachi felt on his ears? They felt oddly warm. Maybe he should purchase some aloe vera if it didn’t go down.

Sasuke remained a little longer, holding tightly enough that Itachi felt his diaphragm being lightly compressed.

He poked his little brother on the forehead.

“Well done. Top three, eh? Good to see that my efforts didn’t go to waste,” Itachi said.

Sasuke’s brow wrinkled as he pulled away from the poking finger. “Aniki! Cut it out!” he complained, batting it away. Then he smiled uncharacteristically broadly. “But yeah, Namikaze is right! We got the top scores!”

Itachi felt his lips twitch in response.

“So what were the final standings?” their mother, who had been standing to the Hokage’s left, (their public displays of affection really were getting more and more blatant,) asked.

Sasuke shrugged. “I got the second-highest score for shinobi, because Naruto is a trap savant who gets sealing tips from his dad, even though I did edge him out in taijutsu.” (Behind his back, Naruto stuck his tongue out in response to that comment, but Itachi did not miss the glow of pride from his father. Itachi had a vague memory of hearing that Naruto’s score had been nothing particularly impressive when he had graduated. It was interesting to see the difference a little favouritism could make when compared to ostracism.) “And Sakura was the best kunoichi by a mile!” He continued to babble excitedly, and went to hug his mother.

Itachi, seeing the delight on the faces of his brother and friends… no, the delight on the faces of his students, felt a warmth inside.

(Had he ever felt this sensation before?

Itachi had a feeling that Sho would count this as “progress”.)

…..

Later that evening, Itachi, for the first time since he had “returned” was surrounded on all sides by Uchiha.

Cousins, aunts, uncles and elders, it seemed that the entire clan had turned out to wish his little brother congratulations for graduating.

Itachi couldn’t breathe.

Sharingan was a mixed blessing. He could remember what every single one of these people had looked like when they died. When he had killed them.

It might have been alright, if they only wanted to talk to Sasuke. Itachi could have stayed in a shadowy corner, and watched proceedings from a discreet distance. That might not have been as bad.

Instead, they all wanted to talk to Itachi, to “catch up”, to offer congratulations on “an exemplary job done ensuring Sasuke could fulfil his full potential”, to make small talk about how proud they all were.

To take the opportunity to check for themselves if Itachi was still psychologically compromised.

Black hair, dark clothes, the Uchiha fan, the occasional flash of Sharingan…

Itachi had nightmares like this.

He could almost smell the blood, the fear, the stench of death.

A child shrieked, and although Itachi could see with his own eyes that it was with glee, all it did was remind him of the cries of shock and fear.

All it did was remind him of That Night.

The edges of his vision started to tunnel, and Itachi knew that he had to get out.

He gracelessly interrupted the uncles who had been talking to him, and shunshined away.

He didn’t stop moving until he was half-way across the village in an empty training ground.

Itachi collapsed to his knees, and wrapped his arms around himself, struggling to control his breathing.

In, two, three, four, five.

Out, two, three, four, five.

In, two, three, four, five.

Out, two, three, four, five.

“Itachi? What’s wrong?”

The voice was low, and slightly hoarse, and Itachi recognised it immediately.

No.

No.

No!

He shot to his feet, Mangekyo Sharingan spinning wildly.

He knew that voice.

He knew that voice.

Not again. No. Not this time. He would kill him, or die trying. He would not lose his clan again. He would not.

He looked directly into Uchiha Madara’s face…

Only to see that it was his Cousin Obito, his scarred face twisted with concern.

Wait, what!?

Itachi only barely reined back the jutsu he had been halfway through.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa little cousin!” Obito exclaimed, backing up a step and keeping his hands open and loose by his sides to show that he wasn’t a threat. “No need to pull out the finishing moves, it’s just me!”

“S-sorry, I…” mistook you for a vengeful ancestor, Itachi barely managed to avoid saying aloud.

As much as it was the truth, Itachi suspected that out would get him locked up somewhere with seals to stop him from hurting himself.

And he was so close to being ruled sufficiently recovered for light duties too.

But how could he even make a mistake like this?

Itachi shuddered, and shook his head.

“I, I’m tired,” he finally managed. “Give everyone my excuses.”

And then he shunshinned to his silent apartment where he knew there was no one around to hurt.

Chapter Text

Itachi could not understand it.

He had recognised that voice.

But, how?

Itachi stumbled in the darkness of his apartment, and fell against the wall. He slid down it slowly, taking refuge in the shadows. (If he were a civilian, he might have felt tempted to hole himself up in the gap between the couch and the wall, but as a seasoned shinobi, restricting his movements like that would have been anathema.)

Curled in on himself, Itachi shook at how close to killing his cousin he had come.

Was Itachi mistaken?

Had his madness progressed to full blown auditory hallucinations?

Was it now, finally, long after he had accepted this reality, that his madness had finally caught up to him?

Vaguely, Itachi realised that he was hyperventilating, and tried to forcibly calm himself down.

He registered approaching footsteps, and his head jerked up in time to see that Obito had for some reason decided to follow him.

Go away, go away, go away, GO AWAY!

“Holy shit little cous, when the fuck did you get those?!”

Itachi stared at his cousin uncomprehendingly, until he suddenly understood.

Oh. He had activated his Mangekyo Sharingan.

Shit.

Well there went his best chance to underplay his skills to his cousin.

Apparently his mother had been as good as her word about not spreading around the knowledge of his… achievement he supposed was the closest word… around the Clan.

At least, he thought a little wildly, he had managed to not pull out the taboo form of the Clan doujutsu in the middle of the family gathering.

Obito reached out a hand, slowly, as though Itachi were some kind of wild animal that he was trying to calm.

Itachi pulled back out of his reach, his mind racing.

Why, why, had he thought that Obito’s voice matched Madara’s? Was it merely the fact that they were related, and so it was some quirk of genetics that gave their voices a similar timbre?

It. Made. No. Sense.

“So, cous. Talk to me. What’s going on in that head of yours? How can I help? Should I get someone?” Obito asked him in the type of tone usually used to calm children or wild animals.

Itachi couldn’t think of an adequate response to that, and so remained silent.

“Wow, this is the second time you’ve thought Madara was fucking with you when I was around,” Obito muttered after a while. “How big a number did those Otonin do on your head, cous?” he laughed a little bitterly. “Why the hell would you think I had anything to do with that nutjob?”

Itachi shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe me if – wait.” Itachi blinked. “What do you mean ‘that nutjob’?”

Obito blinked. “Wait, you mean your parents never told you? I would have thought the Clan Heir would have been read into such things. I mean, it happened when you were a kid, but still…” Obito trailed off, obviously trying to figure out how to word whatever it was he was going to say.

Itachi let the tension of the situation wrench him back into shinobi survival mode. He could break down (shatter) later. Right now, he needed intel, and so, just like all those ANBU missions, just like all those Akatsuki missions, he shelved his impending psychotic break for the moment and dragged himself back up into a ready standing position, ignoring the way it made Obito tense.

 Itachi didn’t say anything, but Obito reacted as though he had demanded an answer.

(Uchiha were generally pretty good at reading body language, so Itachi almost didn’t read anything into this. Almost.)

Obito cleared his throat.

“Okay. So uh. Here’s the thing. You know how I was crushed under the rock at Kannabi Bridge? When I got all these scars?” he gestured vaguely at the right side of his body. “Well uh…” Obito winced, causing the scars on his face to contort. “So here’s the thing. My team left me for dead, because to be fair the last they saw I was buried under rock and bleeding out, and I was rescued by Uchiha Madara.”

What. The Absolute. Fuck. Itachi did not say.

Apparently his expression was eloquent though, because Obito winced harder.

“I know! It sounds crazy! But there I was, lying in the dark and dying, and then I wake up, and I’ve been… for a given definition… healed, and there’s our ancestor sitting there by my side all shrivelled up and talking at me about how he saved me and about how Konoha in general and the Uchiha Clan in particular are symptoms of a disease that can be only cured by removing war from the world.”

There was a particular part of that statement that was hauntingly familiar. Akatsuki had ostensibly been on a mission of peace. It was what had drawn Itachi to them, despite himself. They might have been violent terrorists, but Pein and Konan at least had spoken of ideals, of making the world a better place. A world without war. Itachi had killed for the chance to see it.

To hear that it had apparently been Uchiha Madara’s plan was… disturbing.

Obito continued. “And the thing is… maybe it was the pain. Maybe it was because he was brainwashing me… you’re not the only person who has needed to do time with the psychologists before being allowed back on active duty… at the time, it all made sense. Well, it didn’t completely make sense- he said a lot of shit about Kakashi and Rin that I could never really quite believe… but he knew all the buttons to push about our family. I mean, I was an insecure teenager back then, and the only family member who took care of me was my grandmother. You know the Clan Itachi, it’s not exactly what you’d call nurturing or accepting of anything other than stoic geniuses.” His face did something then that Itachi did not entirely understand. “Not that it treats its stoic geniuses any better really, but back when I was 13, being told that I had to be like, well… basically you… was doing exactly nothing good for my head.”

Oh. Pity. That had been what expression Obito’s face had been conveying.

Itachi was not sure how he felt about that.

“Anyway,” Obito said, ducking his head. “If it hadn’t been for Hatake Sakumo tracking me down with his nin-dogs when he did, then who the fuck even knows what would have happened. I mean, I was trying to resist the crazy dude’s words, but at the same time, as much as I logically I knew why my team left me, I was pretty devastated, you know? I felt… betrayed.”

Wait. Obito had- Madara had- oh. Oh. Oh fuck.

People had called Itachi a genius before, but the fragility of genius was the fact that if you had no way of knowing things, then it didn’t matter how intelligent you were, you could still be led about by the nose. And the fact that Itachi had had no way of knowing that Obito had been apparently brainwashed by Madara…

But there was another name in there that Itachi would never have expected to hear.

“Hatake Sakumo?” he asked, but already, his mind was working what ifs. What if Obito had somehow (somehow) been saved. (By Madara!?!) What if Obito had lived, and somehow, Rin had not ended up dying at the hands of her remaining teammate, Kakashi (a story Itachi had never got the full details on, but nonetheless was starting to a sneaking suspicion that he might be able to extrapolate what the shape of it had been). What if the village’s greatest tracker had not committed suicide. What if he had managed to track down Itachi’s cousin. What if.

What if, even in his original universe, Obito had somehow, somehow been picked up by Madara, and brainwashed, and survived, and… and…

Itachi could not be sure. Itachi had no way of knowing for sure that some things at least had happened the same in his universe.

But at the same time…

FUCK. FUCK. WHAT THE ACTUAL EVERLIVING FUCK.

Itachi could not be sure, but he could surmise.

And what he surmised was that he had, in the common parlance, been fucked over but good in his original world.

But what the hell could he even do about it?

The answer, distasteful as it was, was nothing. Not a damn thing. It wasn’t like he could get a message back. And even if he could, who would he contact? Sasuke? Please. Sasuke of his previous world wouldn’t listen to a word he said, and really, the only people who might have listened to Itachi probably would not have actually cared about the information. After all, when the Uchiha Clan had been annihilated to the point where there were only insane, disloyal remnants, what real difference in the scheme of things did it make that there were three instead of two to consider?

And quite rightly, all things considered. Itachi had had a lot of time to actually stop and think since he had woken up in this weird world, and had gone through months of therapy. If there was one thing he had come away with from that, it was the understanding that his 13 year old self had made bad decisions that he absolutely should not have stuck to… if only he had not been a fugitive missing-nin living with a pack of psychopathic terrorists, maybe he would have had some time for proper introspection. But there was little use having regrets now, since there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Just like there was absolutely nothing that Itachi could do with this information right now.

Well. Wasn’t that just typical.

Itachi started to laugh.

“…Wow,” Obito said.

Itachi looked up, and saw that his cousin was (sensibly) assiduously avoiding Itachi’s gaze.

Oh. Right. Mangekyo Sharingan.

“S-sorry,” Itachi gasped, trying to drag back his usually infamous control. He managed to stop the chakra flow to his eyes, but a few errant giggles continued.

Obito stared at Itachi like he’d never seen him before.

“So uh…. On a scale of ‘not okay’ to ‘in need of a room with chakra suppression seals and nice squishy walls’ how are you doing?” Obito asked a little cautiously.

Itachi huffed out a breath and leaned into the wall, tipping his head back to look at the ceiling.

“I’ve been better,” Itachi admitted. “It’s just, you know, funny. Everything I worked for, everything I thought that I had to do to survive, to keep the village safe, to protect Sasuke… It was all futile. There was no point. I was being manipulated like a brain-damaged, chakra-deaf civilian under a genjutsu. Me. The Uchiha Genius. The irony is palpable.” He shook his head. “This probably just sounds like I’m being insane right now, but I swear to you, I lived a full life before I woke up in that Sound basement, and I’ll tell you this, Cousin, it was a living hell. I wish I remember what life was like for the Itachi you all remember, because he might have been a weakling, but I have an increasing suspicion that the bastard, who had no idea how lucky he was, might have been happy.”

Itachi dropped his head and caught his cousin’s eyes. Obito’s flickered red for an instant, before settling back into their usual dark colour. It was a show of trust that Itachi did not feel that he had earned, but nonetheless, he’d take it.

“When did Hatake Sakumo die in this world?” Itachi wondered aloud. “Because in my world, he was long dead before the Kannabi Bridge incident.”

Obito’s eyes widened. “Seriously? How? Who was badass enough to take out the White Fang?”

Itachi let his lips quirk into a humourless smirk. “The White Fang. He committed suicide because people blamed him for starting the Third Shinobi War. He went back to save his teammates and the fallout caused an international incident, and so when the Treaties fell to pieces, he was shunned by the traditionalists and the civilians. From what I remember, this happened before your Team 7 was formed, but this is all hearsay about things that happened before I was born, so I can’t confirm that with complete certainty.”

Obito whistled lowly. “Well shit. That happened here two, well, except for the suicide. No idea what could have changed there. He ended up sacrificing himself to the Shinigami to bind the Kyuubi. Kakashi had always worried that his Dad had a death wish… fuck. So how fucked up was Kakashi in your world?”

Itachi grimaced. “His entire team was, as far as he knew, dead, at least one of them by his hand, including his sensei. He spent about a decade in ANBU, spent every spare moment either talking to the memorial stone or reading porn in public, and his closest associate was Maito Gai.”

Obito made an odd choking noise, and then was quiet for a while.

“…I’m sorry I asked,” he admitted.

Itachi nodded dully.

The two sat together in silence in the darkened room. It was oddly companionable.

“Either that was one seriously next-level fucked up Kurama-Clan’s wet dream genjutsu you were under, or you’re not bugfuck, and you actually experienced all of that,” Obito decided after a while.

Itachi huffed out a sound that might have been a laugh if he had been at all amused by this situation.

“Those are indeed the two options,” he affirmed. “Honestly, the best case scenario is just that I’m insane. If the other world was real, then I have no idea what happened to the Itachi who was in this body first. If he’s lucky, he died here, where you were saved by Hatake, and I never participated in a massacre where the two of us killed all but two others of our Clan.”

Obito considered that for a moment, blinking.

“…and why did I do that?” he wondered, his voice a little faint and higher pitched than normal.

Itachi grimaced. “From what you’ve just told me? I’m going to guess that the brainwashing worked better when you didn’t get rescued from Madara.”

Obito was silent for a while.

“That’s some serious shit,” he eventually said.

Itachi sighed. “Succinctly put.”

The silence, previously companionable, became distinctly awkward.

“Well then,” Obito said after a while. “I don’t know about you, but I think I want to put off processing that until ooh, next century. I’m going to get dead drunk. You want to join me?”

Itachi considered the alternative prospect of sitting alone in his apartment for the rest of the night and made his decision.

“Fine. But you’re paying.”

 

Chapter Text

Anko was pretty tired. It had been a long mission, and really, she just wanted a quiet drink at her favourite bar so she could wind down enough to get a decent sleep tonight. Maybe she would pick up some company for the night to help her get to sleep in the first place, but she had already been sitting in this corner for the last fifteen minutes and at least three people had “suddenly needed to be elsewhere” when she had smiled at them.

And it wasn’t like she had blood in her teeth again – she’d checked her reflection in a genin’s hitaiate – so she didn’t know what the problem was.

If she was any less secure in the fact that she was a sexy dangerous kunoichi, then Anko thought that she might be feeling a little bit offended.

She was just about to throw back her current drink and call it a night, when suddenly Uchiha Obito and Uchiha Itachi sat down at her table.

Anko blinked.

Well this was unexpected.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, boys?” she purred, arching her back to better display her breasts in a move that was more habitual than anything else, (although honestly, she wouldn’t say no to a bit of hot Uchiha action, she had heard rumours about how deliciously intense their Clan could be in the sack, and she certainly wouldn’t say no to sampling).

Obito politely ignore her posing, and replied, “You had a free table, and me and little Cous here both need the sweet, sweet oblivion of alcohol.”

Anko felt a manic grin cross her face, and she dropped the seduction routine.

“Wait, are you serious! Itachi!” she said, turning to him, “I said we should have a drink or six together!” her grin widened. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”

Itachi looked at Obito. “There is still time to leave.”

Obito snorted. “Don’t be rude, Cous.” He turned back to Anko, and smiled, causing the scars on the right side of his face to twist in ways that probably would have terrified a civilian, but just reminded Anko that this man had survived things that few other shinobi could have.

He probably had an insanely high pain tolerance.

Hot.

Anko ordered a bottle of umeshu and three cups. Clearly, her night was about to improve.

….

Obito could not believe it.

They had been sitting down for what, fifteen minutes? And Itachi was already smashed.

Not that many others would have been able to tell. Itachi was evidently one of those Uchiha who overcompensated for drunkenness by becoming more and more stoic-looking. Right now, (as Anko had laughingly said into his ear,) Itachi was doing a credible Ibiki impression.

In Itachi’s defense, Anko had almost immediately announced that clearly what needed to happen was a drinking game, and the game she had decided on was one that generally speaking was a lot easier for jounin.

Useless Intel, the game was called, and it was simple. Only trivia was allowed – nothing classified, and no questions about how people knew what it was that they knew – and the people who couldn’t tell if the Intel was true or not had to take a shot. Or if everyone knew the answer, the person supplying the Intel had to take a shot.

The test for that was simple, of course- the intel given was always very slightly wrong. To decide on who took the shot, the Listeners had to say exactly how the intel was wrong. Experienced players of Useless Intel would generally of course, try to play the players, and figure out by watching micro-expressions which part was incorrect, and then make their best guess as to what the truth was.

And of course, Anko was both a consistent ring-in at T&I as well as competitive and (whether she liked to admit it or not) the ex-protégé of Orochimaru, so suffice to say that she was a very very good at this game. (Blatantly why she had picked it.)

Anko had started off with a bunch of intel about the Land of Iron. (Apparently her latest mission had been to there, and she was feeling primed.)

Obito on the other hand had responded with some things he had picked up in Bird Country and on that one mission to the Land of Hotsprings where his team had tripped over a group of kunoichi from the Land of Honey, which so few people knew anything about.

Itachi on the other hand, had been playing it oddly at first, sticking to really old intel, from what Obito could tell. It took Obito a few rounds to realise that the reason why he was doing that was because he wasn’t 100% sure what would be different in this universe.

(And the penalty for referencing incorrect intel or lying was three shots if detected, so Obito supposed he could see why his cousin might be a bit cautious about that.)

But after Itachi had lost five rounds in a row…

(Okay, maybe the game had been going for a bit longer than fifteen minutes, but still, Obito was appalled that apparently Itachi had not been working hard enough to raise his tolerance. That was just dangerous on a mission – nothing stood out more than someone not drinking at a bar.)

But after Itachi had got a few drinks into him, he started playing a bit more… seriously… and then it got interesting.

“Pein of Akatsuki used to have a dog named Tatsuya,” Itachi said, his face completely serious.

 “You’re lying about the animal,” Obito said.

“Nope,” responded Itachi.

“You’re lying about the member of Akatsuki,” Anko hazarded.

“Nope,” Itachi replied, his tone level. “Pein did have a dog, and its name was Chibi.”

“You’re fucking with us,” Anko insisted.

Itachi shook his head solemnly, in the manner of the profoundly drunk. “Nope.”

Obito looked over at Anko, and both of them took a shot.

“Orochimaru,” Anko declared, when it was her turn next, “used ylang ylang essential oils in his hair.”

Itachi snorted. “If by ylang ylang you mean sandalwood.”

This time, both Obito and Anko stared at Itachi.

Anko opened her mouth, obviously to ask Itachi how the hell he knew that, but remembered the rules of the game at the last minute. No asking for sources.

Anko took the shot.

Obito, still startled by that sudden turn around, fumbled a little on his next turn, using a factoid that some might consider to be pretty useful. “Uh, Killer B is A’s cousin.”

“No, that was Blue B-“

“If by cousin you mean adopted brother-“

Itachi and Anko spoke at the same time.

Obito took the shot.

It was about this time that Obito noted that they were starting to gain an audience.

This was not uncommon in a game of Useless Intel. Generally speaking, ninja liked to make a habit of gathering intel, because as Yamanaka Tsubaki had been heard to say, “there is no truly useless intel, only intel that you don’t know how to use yet.”

Obito, slightly fuzzily, wondered if this had been a terrible idea.

A few more turns passed. Anko mentioned that one of the actresses in the Icha Icha movies was exiled royalty, Obito threw down a few tidbits about that one mission in Tea that everyone seemed to want to know about, and Itachi continued to drop intel bombs that Obito was starting to find a pattern in.

“Hoshigaki Kisame has nicknamed one of his… colleagues Zombie.” (Neither of them figured out that the lie was that he referred to two members of the Akatsuki, Hidan and Kakuzu, as being collectively the Zombie Combo).

The fuck!? Obito and Anko did not ask aloud, downing their shots.

“Roshi, container of the Yonbi’s favourite book is Icha Icha Tactics.” (It was actually Paradise, apparently.)

How could he know that?! Neither Obito nor Anko could figure out.

“Deidara’s favourite animals are birds,” Itachi said.

“Deidara who?” Obito wondered, downing his shot.

“Rock-nin,” Anko grunted, “likes explosions,” she added, before downing hers.

“Deidara likes art,” Itachi corrected her, cheating by taking another turn.

“Okay, fuck the rules,” Anko demanded, leaning over the table and obviously attempting to collar Itachi, “how the fuck do you even know that? I only even know that guy’s name because of-”

“That’s classified,” a cheerful voice interrupted them.

Obito looked up, and blanched.

Their table, which had originally been just the two of them and Anko, seemed to have expanded to almost a third of the bar. And that was just the people who couldn’t be bothered to be discreet.

Anko, looking at the speaker, Yamanaka Inoichi, Head of T&I, was also looking distinctly pasty.

“Uh, hi Boss!” she squeaked. “We were just, uh…”

Inoichi smiled benignly. “Oh don’t mind me! Carry on! The game is just starting to get good! Though that said…” he frowned in an exaggerated fashion to Itachi, “I’m impressed that you know intel about Deidara, since he only very recently went Missing. And unlike the rest of the people you seem to have intel regarding, he’s not related to Akatsuki.”

If Obito didn’t know any better, he would have thought that Itachi winced a little at that. “They’ll try pretty hard to recruit him,” was all he said.

Wait, so when Itachi had said that his life in the other world was a living hell… that had brought him into contact with Akatsuki and jinchuriki?

Obito had previously been distracted by the whole, “oh, alternative you helped me massacre the Clan” thing, but now he was starting to get the sinking suspicion that he really should have asked a few questions about what had happened next.

“Uh huh,” Inoichi responded to Itachi’s latest comment, his smile still on, but his eyes sharp. “I’ll take that intel under advisement.” He flicked his pony tail over his shoulder. “Is there anything else that you’re aware of about Akatsuki that no one else here would know?”

Itachi nodded.

Inoichi motioned for him to continue.

The silence stretched.

Obito imagined that they would have been able to hear a senbon drop, but Itachi appeared unperturbed but the expectant silence.

After a tense few seconds, Inoichi’s smile became a bit more real. “You’re not as drunk as you appear, are you,” he stated, rather than asked.

Obito noted the tiniest hint of a smirk at the corner of Itachi’s mouth, saw the glazed look in his eyes vanish like a dropped genjutsu and that little shit.

Obito pointed accusatorily at him. “You, you! You haven’t been drinking a drop, have you?!”

Itachi snorted. “I drank the first few, but I know my limit.” Do I look stupid to you? His eyes seemed to ask.

Anko slammed her hand on the table. “You cheating bastard!” she snarled, but the look in her eyes was almost admiring. “How the fuck did you get that by the both of us?”

Itachi’s smirk increased from the tiniest hint, to discernible by semi-observant civilians. “I have skills,” was all he said, the cagey bastard. “Thanks for the drinks, both of you,” he added, and then suddenly he shunshined out.

Anko’s jaw dropped. “Did he just skip out on the bill!?” she shrieked. “I’m gonna-!”

And then she vanished too.

It took a split second for Obito to figure out what just happened, and then he groaned, banging his head on the table. His audience, sensing that the show was over, began to disperse.

“I’m telling Aunt Mikoto,” he grumbled into the wood of the bench. “And Kurenai. That will teach them both.”

“What, that you skipped out on her son’s graduation party in favour of getting her other son drunk in public and playing a drinking game that could cause him significant problems?” Inoichi asked him, tone mercilessly cheerful. “And that you were dumb enough to play a drinking game with Anko?”

Obito froze, suddenly remembering who it was who was talking to him.

“There is an excellent explanation for that,” he said, slowly.

Yamanaka Inoichi raised a sculpted blonde eyebrow. “And I’m sure that it’s going to make me feel a lot more comfortable with the fact that you’re from one of our rapid response teams that is trusted with making snap decisions.”

Obito scowled. “Hey, I’m just the muscle! Kakashi and Rin are the brains of the operation.”

Inoichi appeared unimpressed with this explanation. “And yet, you are still a jounin. Unlike, to oh, take a random example, your cousin or Anko.”

Obito groaned.

Stuck with the tab, and the responsibility.

Shit.

….

Anko, being the excellent tracker-nin she was, caught up to Itachi quickly.

Okay, maybe that at least partially had something to do with the fact that she already knew where his apartment was (thanks Hana!) but as far as she was concerned, the point stood.

“Hey, where the hell do you think you’re going?” she demanded, when she managed to intercept him about halfway back to his place.

Itachi, on his back and wrapped in her snake summons, looked annoyingly unruffled.

“Well, I was going to go home, but…” he looked significantly at the snake summons.

Anko rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you don’t fool me. We’ve sparred, remember? If you were serious…”

Itachi rolled to his feet, summons dispersed into so much smoke.

Anko goggled. “Yeah. That,” she said a little faintly. “Kami on a stick. How the hell…? No. Don’t tell me. Actually, I have a better question. How the hell did you know what Orochimaru uses in his hair?”

“I worked with him once,” Itachi replied, intriguingly, and yet ultimately uninformatively.

Kind of a pattern with this asshole, really. It was driving Hana nuts.

(Anko was starting to see her point of view.)

“When did this happen?” Anko wanted to know.

“When I was thirteen,” Itachi responded.

When he was…

“Wait, you’re bullshitting me,” Anko realised. “You can’t have worked with Orochimaru when you were thirteen. You’re the same age as Hana, and Sensei has been gone for more than four years.”

“Am I?” Itachi wondered aloud, as though these things were in doubt.

And then, like the colossal dick he was, shunshined away again.

Anko ground her teeth.

If Itachi thought that that was the end of it, then he had another think coming.

Because she had been a little interested in what exactly his story was before, but now?

She was going to get answers from the enigmatic bastard if she had to to beat them out of him.

She cracked her knuckles, about to try and find the little weasel again, when he suddenly re-appeared before her.

“I just realised that I forgot to tell you the best bit of Akatsuki gossip,” Itachi said.

Anko blinked. “What?” she wanted to know.

“Hoshigaki Kisame thinks you’re attractive.”

Anko considered this new information.

“Either I am way too drunk, or way too sober for this, but I know that you are fucking with me, Uchiha,” she snarled, and then made the mistake of looking him in the eye.

“Maybe a little,” Itachi admitted, as he divided into six of himself. “But as much as I said that to distract you, it was also true. Have a nice night, Anko,” he finished in stereo.

Then all six of him ran in different directions, leaving Anko with a budding headache.

“Asshole,” she muttered.

She was starting to see what Hana saw in him.

Chapter Text

Yamanaka Inoichi had a problem.

Well, that was an understatement.

Yamanaka Inoichi generally speaking always had a large number of problems. It came with the position of being the Head of Torture and Interrogation (one of these days he was going to get Shikaku and Chouza back for encouraging him to take up the position, and when he did, his revenge would be freezing cold).

But recently, a suspiciously high number of these problems all seemed to have one common link.

Uchiha Itachi.

Eldest son of Uchiha Mikoto, Uchiha Clan Head and Uchiha Fugaku, previous Uchiha Clan Head and Previous Chief of the Konoha Police (deceased). 17 years old. Chunin. Undergoing ongoing psychological evaluation to decide if he would ever be fit to go back to active service. Devoted older brother to Uchiha Sasuke, who at this stage was remarkable primarily because he was a classmate of darling Ino, who seemed to be held in no little regard by her (and Inoichi was nothing if not a doting father who kept a close eye on anyone who caught his little girl’s attention). Heir to the Uchiha Clan (although rumour was that there had been a growing feeling that perhaps Itachi would be passed over in favour of his younger brother, especially since the Orochimaru Incident).

Closest associates – Uchiha Shisui (unremarkable as a close-in-age cousin), Inuzuka Hana (Academy classmates), Mitarashi Anko (a few red flags considering the Orochimaru history, but no more than what were usually raised by Mitarashi herself and somewhat mitigated by the fact that it seemed Inuzuka Hana was the mutual friend), but Inoichi had also recently learned that Itachi had been teaching both his younger brother (not very remarkable), Ino’s little friend Haruno Sakura (only remarkable because Inoichi happened to like the influence the studious second-generation kunoichi had on his little girl,) and Namikaze Naruto (son of the Yondaime, and Kyuubi jinchuriki, did he mention Kyuubi jinchuriki? Holy Security Hazard).

But naturally, Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage, the Yellow Flash, the Terror of Iwa, and one of the few shinobi in Inoichi’s experience to have ever earned the “flee on sight” note on his bingo book entry without also being an S class missing nin was the kind of thrillseeker in bed who had decided that the best way to come back out of his long mourning-induced bachelorhood was to get involved with Uchiha Mikoto, aka one of the most terrifying women of Inoichi’s acquaintance, and (of course) the mother of the kid who seemed to be the source of Inoichi’s currently developing ulcer.

Inoichi’s close friend and teammate, Nara Shikaku had been entirely unsympathetic when Inoichi had originally raised this as a potential issue.

“Let it go man,” had been Shikaku’s sage and ultimately entirely unhelpful advice. “This is a guy who saw a raging jinchuriki and thought that she was the sexiest thing he had ever seen. You are not even a bit going to be able to convince him that her milder-mannered best friend is a terrible idea.”

“But, the politics!” Inoichi groaned as he poured himself more sake, “and what happened to her last husband!”

Shikaku snorted into his own cup before taking a sip from it. “Don’t even go there, Inoichi. I know you know that Minato would never get caught out like that. If Mikoto wanted to get someone else to kill him, she’d have to somehow entice Kakuzu or Sasori within 100 miles of Konoha, or you know, both of them at once. And I’d still put my money on Minato.

“And frankly, even if the two of them weren’t acting like newly weds, Uchiha Mikoto is many things, but stupid is not one of them. Minato is a lot more useful to her alive than dead.”

Inoichi thumped his head on the bartop, narrowly missing flicking his ponytail into the sochu of a disgruntled med-nin.

As an experienced shinobi of some decades who was currently head of Torture and Interrogation, Inoichi had done many things in his time that even by ninja standards could be considered to have crossed a few moral event horizons.

Nonetheless, Inoichi could not think what, exactly it was that he had done to deserve this.

“Hey, Yamanaka!”

Inoichi looked up to see Shiranui Genma, one of his lesser headaches, approaching the bar.

“Why are you doing in this dump? Shouldn’t you be celebrating? Word is your daughter passed her Academy graduation test,” Shiranui expanded.

Inoichi felt a proud grin creep across his face and didn’t bother to hide it. “She did. And I already told her congratulations, but my Wife’s family has a specific coming-of-age tradition, and as a man, I’m not invited.” He knocked back his sake. “Ah, my little girl is growing up!”

“Yeah, next thing you know, she’s going to be elbow deep in the blood of her enemies,” an ANBU kunoichi listening in enthused.

Inoichi snorted. “Please, you’re confusing our family with the Inuzuka. Her victims are the ones who are going to be elbow-deep in the blood of their comrades.” His grin grew wider. “She’s picking up the family techniques so fast, and she’s so determined! I can’t wait to see how she goes once she’s been set loose on the field,” he bragged.

“Probably dragging my boy along behind her,” snickered Shikaku. “By the hair if needs be.”

Inoichi rolled his eyes. “Oh please, we both know that she won’t need to even touch him, she’ll just berate him until he learns how to shunshin away out of sheer self-defense.”

“Like father, like son,” the two old teammates chorused, to a round of laughter from those listening.

“Ahhh, I better get going,” Shikaku said, putting his empty sake cup upside-down on the bar. “Yoshino is probably going to try and murder me as is.”

“Shikamaru didn’t mind you skipping out after his graduation dinner?” Inoichi asked, rather belatedly all things considered.

Shikaku scoffed. “I finally gave that boy access to the chunin-level scrolls in our jutsu library. If he hasn’t been hip-deep in them for hours, then I’ll be checking that it’s not some imposter under genjutsu.” He shook his head. “Kids. It’s just as well he catches up on the sleep he misses from reading all night during the day, or I’d be worried about him stunting his growth.”

Inoichi hummed thoughtfully. “Yeah, Ino complains all the time about how annoying it is that he sleeps through class but then still manages to answer all the questions perfectly when called on. I kept hoping she’d figure it out, but I suppose we’ll just have to wait for the first couple of overnight missions they have for her to clue in.”

Shikaku clapped his hand on his old comrade’s shoulder. “Don’t stay out too much later, I won’t be coming back out to peel you off the bartop again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Inoichi waved Shikaku off and ordered more sake as his friend left the bar. He was Head of Torture and Interrogation, damnit. If he got too drunk, that was what minions were for.

About fifteen minutes after Shikaku’s departure, Inoichi, who had picked his usual spot where he could easily see all the entries and exits via the mirror behind the bar, saw Uchiha Obito and Itachi come in through the side.

Funny, Inoichi would have sworn that Itachi would be by the side of his little brother at this time of graduation. Except… now that he had a moment to more closely examine him, it was clear that the younger of the two Uchiha had been badly shaken by something.

What, Inoichi could only guess without upsetting one of his most respected mentors by going through confidential patient files without what she would consider a good reason. The very slight tension in Itachi’s hands, and the way that his hands were held loosely at his sides, conveniently close to his weapons pouches, indicated to Inoichi that the chunin Uchiha was very upset indeed.

And now that Inoichi was paying attention, Uchiha Obito did not seem exactly sanguine either. Something had happened. Inoichi didn’t know what, and as a man who’s entire occupation was supposed to be knowing everything important going on both inside and outside the Village, an unknown threat itched at his instincts.

Because of this, and because Uchiha Itachi seemed to be a vector for chaos lately, Inoichi decided to keep a close eye on the pair of them. Damage control was always more efficient before the match hit the fuse, and a bar full of ninja in various stages of drunkenness trying to blow up steam was a ready-made powderkeg.

To Inoichi’s consternation, it appeared that Obito had decided to try and assuage both of their frayed nerves with alcohol, and a game with Mitarashi Anko of all people.

Inoichi’s mental estimation of how badly this situation could go went up a few notches, and he stopped actually drinking his sake. He probably wanted to be sober for this. If it all went to shit, he, as the senior ranking officer, would be the one best positioned to do something about it. (And the one whose ass Minato would kick across the training ground for not nipping the problem in the bud, but that was a side consideration.)

It was just as well that Inoichi had stopped drinking and started paying attention, because it meant that he was listening when the game of Useless Intel (a classic that Inoichi himself was reigning champion at, and encouraged all and sundry to engage in, of course) took a distinct turn.

Uchiha Itachi had not once looked in Inoichi’s direction since he had entered the bar, but Inoichi just knew the little shit was doing it on purpose.

Of course Inoichi was read in on the bizarre alternative universe theory. He wasn’t sure that it wasn’t just a product of how well Orochimaru had scrambled the Uchiha kid’s brains, but he knew that Minato at least was not dismissing it out of hand, Mikoto appeared to have accepted it entirely, and Shikaku, when pressed for his opinion, had simply muttered that it was all troublesome. Which, in Inoichi’s experience, meant that Shikaku was not happy, because he couldn’t come up with a better explanation than the one provided, and the one provided made no fucking sense.

On the other hand, it was becoming increasingly clear that Uchiha Itachi was an untapped aquifer of knowledge when it came to the Akatsuki. Inoichi had been waiting for Sho to tell him when the kid was cleared for an intensive intel-gathering session, but it was looking like the kid was upping the timetable all by himself.

Inoichi wondered why, and by the way his old war scars were aching, he had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like the answer.

He started paying even closer attention when Itachi dropped the intel about a seemingly random missing-nin.

“Deidara’s favourite animals are birds,” Itachi said, entirely deadpan and very, very slightly listing to one side. If Inoichi hadn’t known any better, he would think that the kid was utterly schloshed.

(As it was, he had been paying enough attention to see when Itachi had engaged the minor genjutsu around his eyes. Itachi was a very good actor, and Inoichi would have snapped him up in a hot second for undercover work if it wasn’t for the whole “unfit for duty” thing. Oh, and the Uchiha thing. The whole Clan were showboats and drama queens with explosive tempers.

Especially the quieter ones like Itachi. He took after his mother, and people tended to die when Mikoto decided to vent her feelings.)

 “Deidara who?” Obito asked whilst downing a shot.

(Inoichi supposed he could forgive the elder Uchiha for not being across the latest bingo book intel from Rock. He had after all just come back from a long mission in Water Country, which was on the other side of the world.)

“Rock-nin, likes explosions,” Anko explained before taking her own shot.

“Deidara likes art,” Itachi corrected her flatly, before flicking his eyes towards Inoichi’s.

Little shit. Inoichi had known the kid knew he was there.

There were currently three people in the village privy to the information regarding Deidara’s desertion. The kunoichi who had happened to be in the right place to watch as events unfolded, her handler, and Inoichi himself. His report about the renegade Rock-nin hadn’t even hit the Hokage’s desk yet, as Inoichi had wanted to wait until he had a few more sources to fact-check the data.

Okay, Inoichi could take a hint.

“Okay, fuck the rules,” Anko demanded, leaning over the table and making a grab for Itachi’s shirt (he neatly dodged, making it look like she was simply uncoordinated), “how the fuck do you even know that?” Oh shit, time to intervene. “I only even know that guy’s name because of-”

“That’s classified,” Inoichi interrupted in his brightest voice.

Obito, who apparently had not been aware of his presence, turned to look at him and somehow managed to increase his Uchiha pallor, and Anko (although she at least had seen him when she came in, he knew because she had waved) didn’t exactly look comfortable either.

 “Uh, hi Boss!” she squeaked. “We were just, uh…”

Inoichi pasted on his friendliest ‘you kids are in trouble now’ smile. “Oh don’t mind me! Carry on! The game is just starting to get good! Though that said…” he frowned in an exaggerated fashion to Itachi, “I’m impressed that you know intel about Deidara, since he only very recently went Missing. And unlike the rest of the people you seem to have intel regarding, he’s not related to Akatsuki.”

The flicker of expression that crossed Itachi’s face was small, but Inoichi caught it all the same.

 “They’ll try pretty hard to recruit him,” came the response.

 “Uh huh,” Inoichi drawled. It wasn’t often that intel came giftwrapped, but no shinobi was fool enough to accept mysterious packages. Explosive tags were far too easy to hide under wrapping paper. “I’ll take that intel under advisement.” Inoichi flicked his pony tail over his shoulder, a signal to his subordinates that he was taking this very seriously. “Is there anything else that you’re aware of about Akatsuki that no one else here would know?”

Itachi nodded in response.

Inoichi motioned for him to continue, mostly just to see if he would. Thankfully none of the “useless intel” Itachi had been spouting was actually sensitive, but he had dropped enough crumbs that Inoichi wanted a better look at what he was cooking with under that impassive face.

The silence stretched.

Good. Seemed that Inoichi had judged right, and the kid actually had discretion.

Still, no reason why he couldn’t use this as a teaching moment for the others.

(It was, naturally, an important part of his role as a senior member of command.)

Inoichi let the silence stretch until Obito was almost visibly twitching, (bad habit that,) and decided to mess with the elder Uchiha a little. “You’re not as drunk as you appear, are you.”

Itachi obediently dropped the genjutsu that was making him seem impaired. The change was subtle, but obvious to the trained eyes.

Obito was appalled by how he had missed this, Anko was impressed and pretending to be appalled, and Itachi… was shunshining out.

Shit. He had better not have gone far. Inoichi was not in the mood to chase an errant chunin of high Clan standing over half of Konoha.

Anko theatrically took the opportunity to follow Itachi’s example in skipping out on the bill, leaving a stunned Obito behind. The audience of ninja who had gathered whilst the game had been ongoing, began to disperse, both because two of the players had left the bar, and because Inoichi was increasingly unimpressed with how Uchiha Obito had handled this situation.

“I’m telling Aunt Mikoto,” he grumbled into the wood of the bench, like a giant child (just what had Minato taught his team about proper decorum, Inoichi wondered). “And Kurenai. That will teach them both.”

“What, that you skipped out on her son’s graduation party in favour of getting her other son drunk in public and playing a drinking game that could cause him significant problems? And that you were dumb enough to play a drinking game with Anko?” Inoichi wanted to know.

Inoichi took the opportunity to tell Obito off for acting irresponsibly, but in the end, let him go home without direct punishment. The indirect punishment was already enforced- there had been plenty of witnesses to Obito’s humiliation, and Anko, bless her black heart, had been drinking from the top shelf before the boys had joined her. Obito would have to take a B-rank just to cover her bar tab, let alone the drinks he and his cousin had knocked back. (In Itachi’s case most of the booze had ended up in his cousin’s cup, a slick little trick that he had somehow managed with sleight of hand alone. Inoichi had questions.)

Fortunately for Inoichi’s blood pressure, by the time he finished embarrassing Obito and exited out the back of the bar, Itachi was waiting for him like a good little minion. Inoichi hadn’t even had to send out others to drag him back.

It wouldn’t have taken a Yamanaka to figure out that there was something on the kid’s mind, and as their Head, Inoichi considered himself fairly well-versed in such things.

“So I take it there are a few things you want to share with me,” Inoichi said.

Itachi nodded mutely, his eyes politely focussed on Inoichi’s chest. (Eye contact from a Sharingan-user generally meant that they either saw you as a threat, or someone worth crushing underfoot. Inoichi was pleasantly surprised by Itachi’s deference.)

“Come to my office, and we’ll talk.”

….

A few hours later, Nara Shikaku snapped awake at the sound of a knock on his window.

The only people to have the balls to do that were the sort of people who generally warranted Shikaku’s full attention, so he resisted the urge to groan, and stretched out his shadow to pull back the curtain enough to see who it was.

Pale blonde hair glowed in the moonlight.

Inoichi. Shit.

It was probably important then.

(It had better be important, or teammate or not, Shikaku was going to take it out on Inoichi’s hide.)

Shikaku tried to extricate himself from Yoshino’s unconscious hug without waking her.

It didn’t work, but since she simply drew his pillow to herself and rolled over and went back to sleep, Shikaku had a reasonable chance of not hearing about it in the morning. Good.

Dressed in his habitual loose sleeping yukata, Shikaku slunk towards the window, and then slipped out onto the roof.

“What,” he demanded, absent-mindedly attaching himself to the rooftiles with a little chakra.

Inoichi looked grim.

“Uchiha Itachi decided that we were being too slow in getting around to questioning him about his ‘other world’ knowledge, and so took it on himself to get my attention.”

Shikaku yawned. “And?”

“Best case scenario, we have about three years before we’re going to have S-class missing-nin up our collective asses trying to get their hands on the Kyuubi.”

Shikaku blinked. Well. That was indeed concerning.

Wait.

“That’s the best case scenario?”

“Worst case scenario is that Suna and Sound invade us during the chunin exams and catch us with our collective pants down. Orochimaru is apparently still a bit upset about being passed over for Minato,” said Inoichi, with his usual gift for understatement.

Hmmm. Nope. That was indeed not good at all.

Yes, Shikaku could understand why Inoichi had decided to wake him up for this, but…

“We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

Inoichi blinked. “But…”

“Is the potential invasion still going to be there in the morning?” Shikaku asked rhetorically.

“Well yes, but-”

“And can we do anything immediately about it that is timesensitive before tomorrow morning?”

Inoichi shook his head reluctantly, looking a little chagrined.

“And more to the point, is it worth waking up Minato, and by extension Uchiha Mikoto up at this time of night?”

Inoichi blanched.

Shikaku nodded sagely.

“Then in that case, I’m going back to sleep. Tomorrow morning, we’ll send our kids off to their new sensei, then talk about it, and get Chouza to provide appropriate sustenance.”

Inoichi visibly deflated.

“…Fine.”

Shikaku patted him on the shoulder.

“We’ll both handle this better in the morning. Alright?”

Inoichi nodded, and shunshinned away.

Shikaku sighed, and slipped back inside his room.

“What is it, darling?” Yoshino mumbled.

“Nothing for you to worry about, dearest,” Shikaku replied as he slipped back into bed. “Just Inoichi being dramatic again.”

Yoshino grumbled something incoherent into her pillow and went back to sleep.

Shikaku on the other hand, spent quite a few hours staring at the ceiling, sleepless that night, his mind whirring as he mulled over the possibilities, already forming contingencies to improve the defence of Konoha at large, and the Hokage’s son/its jinchuriki in particular.

This would take some doing, to work out all the appropriate strategies to tackle this problem, but there was one conclusion he was already certain of.

This was going to be a pain in the ass.

Chapter Text

Sasuke was upset.

It was obvious enough that Naruto noticed immediately, slowing down and refraining from the jubilant tackle that he usually greeted the Uchiha with.

It had been a while since Naruto had seen Sasuke so upset about something. The last time, news had come down that Itachi had been captured by Orochimaru. Seeing as the elder Uchiha was nowhere to be seen, Naruto had his suspicions about why Sasuke might be upset this time. It was of course, possible that Itachi-niisan was just off training somewhere else, but Itachi-niisan normally had a weirdly accurate Sasuke-sense that a civilian might have called “stalkerish” but ninja knew to refer to as “overly concerned”.

Deciding to test his theory, Naruto asked Sasuke where his big brother was.

Sasuke ignored his presence, and continued to punch a training post.

Bad sign.

Naruto looked over Sasuke’s shoulder to the already present Sakura, (for some reason both of them always beat him to the training ground,) and she grimaced. Clearly Sakura had no idea what this was about either.

Naruto was confused. He would have thought the bastard would be happy since they’d all passed the graduation test. Naruto was vaguely aware that his clan had probably held a party or something – any Clan bigger than the Hatake Clan tended to have all sorts of traditions based around their children progressing from Academy student to Genin.

(Kakashi-niisan probably had traditions too, but the one time Naruto had asked, a looong time ago before he got old enough to understand why sometimes the grown-ups made faces when he touched on some subjects, he had just got… quiet. Rin-neesan and Obito-niisan had ended up taking Kakashi-niisan aside, and Naruto hadn’t seen any of them for the rest of the day. Figuring from Obito-niisan’s glare that he had screwed up, Naruto had tried to apologise the next time he saw his father’s old students. Kakashi-niisan had just done that fake eye-smile at him from behind his mask and changed the subject. Naruto never asked again.)

 Looking at his best rival (Sakura was probably his best friend, since she wasn’t a total asshole, and besides, his Dad had always said it was best to get married to your best friend, so Naruto knew it was right to call his girlfriend that), Naruto knew he had a decision to make.

He could let the bastard continue with whatever self-destructive cycle he had decided to get himself into this time until he exhausted himself and eventually talked about it…

Or Naruto could just short-circuit that and beat him up until the bastard admitted what was bothering him.

Naruto’s eyes met Sakura’s over Sasuke’s back again, and she worried at her lip, obviously concerned. She had no doubt tried the “just talking” option already, because Sakura was awesome like that, but sometimes forgot that bastards like Sasuke didn’t appreciate attempts to encourage communication that were unaccompanied by bruises.

Naruto, launching himself at Sasuke without warning, would just have to remind the bastard why it was that shunning Sakura’s methods was a bad idea.

A brief tussle later, and Sakura and Naruto were both sitting on Sasuke, pinning him to the ground.

“Sooooo you going to talk about it, asshole?” Naruto asked conversationally as he ground Sasuke’s nose into the dirt.

“Fuck. Off.” Sasuke growled, trying to buck the two of them off.

Naruto just sighed, shaking his head. He looked over to Sakura and waggled his eyebrows. She knew what to do.

“Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said calmly, her tone saccharine-sweet, “either you talk about it, or we’re going to tie you to a tree and leave you for your fanclub.”

Naruto grinned at Sakura. This was why she was his best friend. She had the best diabolical ideas.

“Good idea Sakura-chan,” he said, wondering why that always made her blush. “Even better, we could leave him shirtless.”

Sasuke ceased struggling.

“You wouldn’t,” he said, but Naruto could tell that Sasuke knew that Naruto, indeed would, even though (because) Naruto was one of their only other classmates who understood about the horror of fans, and that Naruto may be many things, but a maker of empty threats was not one of them.

“Oh we would,” Naruto said mercilessly, as Sakura giggled, “and we’d tell Ino first.

“…that’s just cold,” Sasuke complained.  

Naruto shrugged. “Then you shouldn’t have been a bastard,” he said blithely. One day, Naruto hoped, Sasuke would remember that he didn’t have to handle all his problems by himself, and this was what friends were for. “Now, are you going to tell us what the problem is, or are we going to have to resort to drastic measures?”

Sasuke sighed, and Naruto and Sakura jumped off him. There was no need to rub it in after he’d tacitly agreed to capitulate.

“Itachi-nii ran away from my graduation party last night,” Sasuke said, standing up, “and when I went looking for him this morning, Natsuko-obasan told me that she heard from Morino Shizuka that Itachi had gone in to talk to Intelligence about something.”

Oh. Well. That would explain it.

“Did he have another flashback?” Sakura asked, gently placing one hand on Sasuke’s shoulder.

Sasuke looked down and kicked the dirt at his feet. “I don’t know. Probably. But I don’t know what that has to do with talking to Intelligence.”

Unspoken was the fact that he was scared that his brother had remembered something really horrible, and that this, after everything, might be what broke Itachi for good.

“Shit,” said Naruto. “I mean, Dad warned me, but I really thought that maybe he was getting better, you know?”

Sakura nodded. “Yeah, Ino’s dad talked to me too. Wanted to make sure I knew what to do if Itachi-niisan had an… episode.”

The three of them glumly exchanged looks.

“The only one he’s ever actually hurt though has been that traitor Mizuki though,” Naruto pointed out. “And, that wasn’t a flashback. Hell, apart from that time you told us about when he first came back and was still in the hospital, has he had any that you know about?”

Sasuke shrugged, but it wasn’t hard to see that he was far from calm about this. “Sometimes he gets this really weird expression on his face, like he thinks he’s dreaming or something, but not really? And there have been… moments where suddenly he’s just throwing out ridiculous amounts of killing intent, but usually he snaps out of it before I need to call someone. It’s been better since he started sparring with Shisui.”

Naruto and Sakura nodded grimly. They knew what Sasuke was talking about.

“Maybe he just remembered something that might be able to help somehow? And so he’s just talking to Ino’s dad or something to make sure that the right people know?” Sakura suggested, but her tone wasn’t hopeful.

The three of them sighed.

“This sucks,” Naruto said bluntly.

Sasuke laughed mirthlessly. “I just wish I knew what set him off. It was just our Clan.”

“Well maybe…” Sakura started, and then stopped.

“What?” Sasuke demanded. Of the three of them, Sakura was probably the best at figuring out people. Naruto was a lot better at influencing them (he had a particular knack for getting people to tell him their life story for some unfathomable reason) but Sasuke had learned by now that Sakura had an uncanny knack for guessing motivations.

“Just…” Sakura bit her lip. “There are… rumours about what happened when your father died, Sasuke.”

“What about it?” Sasuke snarled. It was an open secret that his mother had arranged for his father’s death, but Sasuke never talked about it. Usually, people knew better than to talk to Sasuke about it. He didn’t know all of the details, since he had been pretty young at the time, but he knew enough to not ask. Itachi, before, had warned him that asking about it would be a bad idea, but had reassured Sasuke that Okaasan loved both of them.

Unspoken had been the fact that Okaasan had loved their father once, and it would pay to not cross her.

“I just…” Sakura looked like she was regretting bringing this up at all. “Do you think that maybe that had something to do with it?”

Sasuke froze.

The only explanation his mother had ever given him was that his father was “no longer good for the Clan”. Could that… could that mean…

He stared at Sakura, saw how she was wringing her hands. His friend looked as though she was wishing she could take the words back, but the more that he thought about it, the more it made a sick sort of sense.

Had his mother killed his father because he had been hurting Itachi?

Sasuke knew that Itachi had started smiling a lot more since Fugaku had died, but…

How had he missed this?

How?

Something angry and confused in Sasuke that had existed, deeply buried since that day, suddenly hurt as he seethed.

“That,” Sasuke said finally, “would make a lot of sense.”

Because why else would Itachi feel so threatened by members of their Clan being together? Why else would he be triggered into a flashback?

His eyes were burning.

Before he knew it, Sakura and Naruto had both grabbed him, and squished him into a group-hug.

“Sasuke…” was all either of them said, but Sasuke slowly let himself relax in their hold. There was nothing he could do anyway. His father was long dead.

His mother had made sure of that.

….

Itachi left the T&I building feeling dazed and more than a little wrung-out, but satisfied.

He had done it.

Konoha now officially knew everything he did about Akatsuki, their methods, and their goals. This world was different enough from his last that he knew now that future events were highly unlikely to come to pass in the way he remembered, but nonetheless, nonetheless…

It was a weight off his mind to be sure that they were taking his intel seriously.

(He did wonder what Konoha was going to do about the intel he had provided regarding Deidara though. Apparently Itachi’s presence in Akatsuki had been more important than he would have thought for ensuring Deidara’s recruitment. No matter. Either they would eventually coerce him to their side, or the idiot would blow himself and some target important to Rock up in a dazzling blast of “art”. Maybe Konoha would step in to use the missing-nin for their own ends, or they would let him self-destruct in his own time. It was officially not Itachi’s problem.)

Itachi just hoped that this time, with the Uchiha Clan at full strength and the Yondaime Hokage still alive, Sand would be too smart to try and invade during the chunin exams to be held in a couple of months. He would hate to have to kill a few dozen idiots for screwing up the chunin exam Sasuke and his little friends would be taking.

Speaking of…

As though Itachi’s thoughts had summoned them, Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto appeared and promptly dogpiled him.

Itachi could, of course, have dodged, but they all looked upset. Letting them catch him was more conducive to learning who had upset them so that he could make sure it never happened again.

“We were so worried Itachi-nii!” Sakura exclaimed. “You’ve been in there all day!

Wait. How the hell had they figured that out?

Itachi blinked. It seemed that his little students were better at gathering intelligence than he would have assumed.

“It was nothing,” he insisted. “I just…” how to explain this without admitting to some degree of time and dimensional travel… “I remembered a few things, and I wanted to make sure that the right people knew about it.”

The hugs grew tighter. Itachi restrained himself from his instinctual urge to punt them all into the nearest building. He didn’t like being restrained like this, but he was damned if he would hurt these kids like that.

(On the one hand, his little brother, on the other hand, the Hokage’s precious only son, and lastly, the daughter of one of the more prominent merchants in Konoha. Even if Itachi didn’t hold real affection for them, he could think of more than a few S-classed reasons to not make them cry. But that was irrelevant, because Itachi would rather kill himself again rather than let his brother or his brother’s friends get hurt like that.)

“Itachi-nii, let’s go get dango,” Sasuke said suddenly, releasing him, and wordlessly encouraging Sakura and Naruto to follow suit. Itachi missed none of this. He was too grateful for the thoughtfulness to be embarrassed.

“Alright,” he agreed easily. “My buy.” It was convenient having access to the Uchiha accounts again. He had almost forgotten, back when he had been a missing nin how much having a ridiculously wealthy and generally (amongst civilians at least) well-liked Clan eased the way.

The four of them walked towards Itachi’s favourite dango stand. It wasn’t often that Itachi indulged in the treat, but it was far from the first time he had spoiled his little brother and his little brother’s friends with what the stand had to offer. It was only right to reward children positively when they accomplished something. He had been so proud when his little brother had mastered the Grand Fireball technique, and Sakura had managed to manifest Chakra Scalpels for the first time, and Naruto had managed a Kage Bunshin. His little brother’s future team were going to be wonderfully terrifying, and Itachi was more than happy to push them along that road.

A few minutes later, and the four of them had nabbed a table outside the dango stand, all of them enjoying the sweet sticky dumplings.

“Hello Uchiha-san.”

Itachi, caught off-guard with two dumplings in his mouth, looked up and nearly choked.

Aburame Muta, holding his own stick of dango, was apparently still attractive when Itachi was sober.

He held up a finger, and managed somehow to swallow both dumplings before the pause became rude.

“Aburame-san! I, uh, I apologise for not yet returning your canteen,” Itachi said. That was what this was about right? Right. Of course. There was no way that someone that pretty and strong-looking was single.

Muta’s brow furrowed. “I apologise. Why? Because I had not intended to bother Uchiha-san about such things.” He looked as though he meant to walk away.

Itachi shook his head. “No!” Muta’s eyebrows raised over the goggles. “I didn’t mean… sorry. You caught me off guard,” Itachi insisted. “Please, sit with us. This is my little brother Sasuke, Namikaze Naruto, and Haruno Sakura.”

Muta had no doubt at least recognised the Hokage’s son, but nodded gravely and courteously to all three of the kids all the same. “I am pleased to meet the new generation of genin. Shino has mentioned all of you before, and spoken highly of your skills.”

Itachi didn’t miss three pairs of eyebrows going up at this, but fortunately, the kids were polite enough to not make any exclamations about getting second-hand compliments from famously reticent Aburame Clan members.

 Further small talk was exchanged for a while, but then Muta finished his stick of dango. Itachi was almost surprised at how disappointed he was when the man stood up to leave.

“Aburame-san… would you like to spar sometime?” Itachi blurted out.

Muta paused, tilting his head. Itachi cursed the goggles that covered Muta’s eyes. It would have been nice to gain a little more insight into Muta’s expression.

“Very well,” Muta said eventually. “Would Thursday at 1600 be a good time?”

Itachi nodded. “Training Ground 23?”

Muta nodded. “Very well.”

And then left.

The second Muta had rounded the corner, Sakura made a high-pitched noise that Itachi was sure he had never heard from the girl before. He couldn’t help it. He stared.

Naruto and Sasuke seemed similarly disturbed. “Sakura?” Naruto asked, leaning back a little, as though preparing to run.

Sakura blushed. “Sorry, I’m just excited! Itachi-niisan has a date!”

Itachi blinked.

What?

“What.” Sasuke said a little blankly.

Naruto shook his head, smiling. “Sakura-chan, Itachi-nii and Aburame-san are just sparring.”

Sakura snorted. “Yeah, ‘sparring’,” she put in air-quotes. “Didn’t any of you hear how much his bugs were buzzing? He was nervous.”

Naruto scoffed. “That could be because he’s seen Itachi-nii spar before and knows that he’s a badass.”

Sakura shook her head. “No, Aburame Muta is a jounin. I’ve heard Shino mention his cousin before.”

Itachi blinked again.

Huh.

Really?

(The fact that Muta probably thought Itachi was a chunin still rankled somewhat, but nonetheless…)

Intriguing.

Itachi would have to think on this.

He shunshined away.

….

“Oh Kami,” Sasuke said, lightly hitting his head against the table, apparently unconscious of the fact that his hair was about to dip into the sticky dango syrup.

“What?” Sakura asked.

“I could have survived a long time without thinking about the idea of Itachi dating,” Sasuke groaned, face in his hands.

Naruto snorted. “Can’t be worse than our parents dating.”

Sasuke’s head shot up. “What?”

Sakura snorted. “You’re kidding, right? No,” she said as Sasuke sent an accusing look at Naruto, “he didn’t tell me, he didn’t have to. Everyone in the village knows that your mum and his dad are banging.”

Naruto went bright red. “Sakura!”

Sasuke gaped. “No.” He paused. Thought about it. Blinked. “Holy shit.”

Naruto and Sakura turned to him and stared. “Seriously?” Naruto demanded. “How did you not know this?”

“I thought they were just close friends!” Sasuke protested. “Naruto’s mother used to be Kaa-san’s best friend!”

“Close friends with benefits,” Sakura explained bluntly.

“… oh.”

Sakura and Naruto just laughed at him.

Behind them, a couple of ninja who were blatantly eavesdropping similarly seemed to be having trouble holding in their snickers.

Sasuke groaned.

He was never hearing the end of this.

 

 

Chapter Text

Muta was not used to being pursued.

Well, to be precise, Muta was not used to being pursued in a romantic sense. One did, as a shinobi, often enough face times when the enemy was after you, so in that sense of the word at least Muta was quite used to being pursued.

But in the area of attraction, and relationships, and romance, well, Muta was attempting to remember the last time someone had singled him out to flirt with, let alone made an effort to indicate any interest with intent.

It wasn’t that he had never had a relationship before. There had been a brief fling with one of his genin team-mates before the two of them had agreed they were better as comrades. There had been an even briefer fling when Muta had been stranded in Tea waiting for a information-bearing merchant who was almost three weeks late. The apprentice herbalist had been a nice enough diversion, all things considered, and then it had turned out that he knew rather more about the movements of shinobi from the Hidden Moon Village on the mainland than he probably should have, and Muta had taken care to carefully extract every iota of information the man had accidentally learned from his cousin’s wife by seducing him.

There were other ways he could have gone about it, but Muta had always favoured efficiency, and frankly, the apprentice had been easy enough on the eyes that it had been no hardship.

Even if Muta had not been seducing him for intel though, it could never have worked out. The man treated insects with disgust, and Muta saw him squash an entirely harmless huntsman spider when it would have been easy enough to scoop her up and put her outside.

It had however, been quite a while since Muta had last had anyone make any reference to the idea that he might make a worthy bedmate. It wasn’t that he was unattractive. He knew that much, judging by the looks he got on occasion, and the not-soft-enough comments and giggles from civilians who watched him go by.

On the other hand, looks weren’t everything, and the combination of being an Aburame clan member, and a typically reserved Aburame clan member at that, was hardly a draw for most, especially when considering the nature of their primary jutsu.

It was not that Muta was not from a prestigious Clan, however, even (or perhaps especially) amongst the Clans there was a definite hierarchy.

Moreover, the Aburame had never been overly wealthy. Too numerous for that to be true. Only the strongest Aburame children could host the kikai beetles, and for that to mean anything in the scheme of things, there needed to be plenty to choose from.

Muta’s elder brother and twin sister had been passed over for the honour, but Muta had two nieces who were looking like they were going to be good candidates, though their other siblings had thus far not shown the same promise. That hardly mattered though. Aburame kept blood close, and there was always plenty of work for the civilian members through the hives and the gardens that both provided food for the insects and a secondary source of income for the clan as flowers, vegetables and fruits were sold at the Konoha Market.

Aburame believed that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but that it took individuals to make a hive. All were vital parts. Sure, sacrifices would always be made to protect the hive, but it was only logical to ensure that such sacrifices were limited whenever possible, for anything else was a waste.

And the Aburame as a Clan hated waste.

Torune being taken from them was a waste. Also a shame and a devastation. He and his father, who had been born outside the clan, and had sought strength outside of it when his wife’s death had left him feeling disconnected from the Clan customs. The fool had been taken in by Danzo’s lies that Torune, clever, vicious Torune, could be made greater through the special Root training. He had been lost from the hive for years, and even when he was returned to them in body when the Yondaime had discovered Danzo’s treachery, it was a mere husk, good only at killing. Aburame prided themselves upon being coolly logical and precise above all else, but Torune’s completely flat detached affect was something else entirely. It was not the need to consider things carefully and critically that caused Torune to remain expressionless, it was feelings so repressed as to be almost non-existent.

Worst of all, Danzo’s training had ensured that he was no longer loyal to the hive. To the Aburame, that meant Torune was dead to them.

The Aburame had since been even slower to trust outsiders with the wellbeing of their children, and all offers of training from outside the Clan that weren’t personally vetted by the Yondaime were viewed with suspicion.

This had effectively ensured that the traditionally reserved Clan be viewed as even more stand-offish than before. The only Clans with a similar reputation were the Hyuuga and the Uchiha, and both of them being far richer and more integrated with Village politics made them seem to be exclusive, rather than exclusionary in nature, regardless of the accuracy of such statements.

It was fascinating how the perception of wealth could put a bright shine on all sorts of behaviours, Muta mused.

Though perhaps he was being unfair.

It was no secret why the civilian police force was almost solely composed of born Uchiha, Uchiha who had married in, and prospective Uchiha spouses. (The latter group might not always consider themselves to be such, but that did not change the fact that the Clan had a tendency of closing ranks around talent they wanted to appropriate like the walls of a pitcher plant around a fly.)

Truth be told the Uchiha Police did considerable work in impressing the Konoha civilian population with the more glamorous side of being ninja. The Yondaime was a shining symbol in their eyes, but it was the Uchiha who made efforts to help little old ladies carry their groceries (to extract intel, little old ladies tended to have the most accurate gossip and most extensive networks), break up brawls (non-police Konoha-nin were banned from touching civilians with violence) and kindly tell their shinobi or kunoichi neighbours to keep it down on weeknights (the police would provide sound-proofing seals to shinobi homes for a reasonable fee, and since the trade off was not getting Uchiha “fun-suckers” turning up everytime a post-mission wind-down celebration got a little raucous, most nin were more than happy to pay the fee).

It was perhaps apt that the Uchiha Clan were traditionally aligned with Cat summons. They tended to fastidiously ignore things that did not fit well with their worldview.

So imagine Muta’s surprise that the Uchiha Clan Heir (although he had heard that said title was currently quietly in dispute due to Itachi being taken off the active shinobi roster, to be exact not that he had been taken off the roster, but rather the rumours as to why…) had apparently set his Sharingan eyes on him.

Normally, Muta being a tokubetsu jounin at a relatively young age would have been more than enough for most to assume that any Uchiha interested in him was looking for some jutsu to copy, and that would have made sense were he not an Aburame.

The current generation of Uchiha had a tendency to shun the Aburame, perhaps in the hopes that everyone would collectively forget that here was one Clan, at least, that was inherently able to nullify the edge that a Sharingan could bring to a battle.

No move or jutsu copying, no genjutsu, and worst for the average Uchiha, being able to see a thousand kikai surrounding one did not necessarily help with dodging them.

The Aburame, of course, were generally speaking too polite to point this out, and tended to ensure all members knew enough water or earth jutsu to ensure that any pissing matches that ended in fire would not end in the total devastation of a personal hive.

So especially considering however the rumours Muta had heard about the Uchiha Clan Heir lately, Muta was concerned that perhaps this was not a positive thing that somehow Muta had caught Uchiha Itachi’s attention.

For one thing, trouble seemed to follow the man like a plague. There had been several incidents involving traitors. The fact that from what Muta’s cousin Mushimaru had mentioned in passing that the Uchiha had spent all night in Interrogation apparently with some story to tell, and well…

The first time Muta had met Uchiha Itachi, the man had very clearly been under the influence of something. Certainly this could be explained away by a spar including poisons getting a little out of hand, however, it was not uncommon for shinobi to use “poisoned” as a euphemism for recreational use of such substances. Muta was not in the habit of judging other shinobi or kunoichi on their coping habits, but nor did he especially wish to get involved with the sort of person who would take the sort of risks that chemically dealing with their problems without the oversight of a mednin would involve.

Muta was feeling very cautious, to say the least.

And considering that Muta liked to embody the thoroughness and clarity of logical critical decision making that was taught by the Aburame Clan Elders to each and every child from early on, Muta felt that such caution was well-merited, to say the least.

But what Muta needed the most at this point was more data.

After all, it was perfectly possible that Uchiha Itachi was in fact not as the rumours Muta had thus far heard portrayed him. It was certainly possible that he was in fact a functioning and loyal shinobi, just one in need of a great deal of rest and recuperation after his mission that had gone horribly wrong in Sound.

Yes, more data would be best.

But what method would be the most efficient in gathering it? Muta wondered to himself, sipping idly at his cup of brown rice tea as he mused on the balcony of his brother’s house.

 He posed the question to his twin sister when she came to join him, and she rolled her eyes.

“You have already listened to the gossips, so now all that remains is to form your own impression of him by oh, I don’t know, actually talking to him,” she said. “You said he invited you to spar with him yes? See how that goes, and then maybe try talking to him afterwards while you’re both cooling down. Then, if you’re enjoying his company, ask if he wants to spar again sometime, or maybe even ask if he wants to get some food.”

Huh. His civilian sister made rather a good point.

“Thank you Yori.”

Yori shook her head in what looked to be exasperation. “Honestly. No wonder you never date.”

Muta channelled just enough chakra to make his kikaichu buzz.

Yori snorted. “I’m not saying they help, but on the other hand, Aunt Hotaru.”

Muta considered the example of his seduction-specialist kunoichi aunt whose string of ex-lovers was starting to approach triple digits, and had to admit that once again, his civilian sister had a point.

Yori sighed noisily. “You’re doing that thing again. Where you get surprised that I have a working brain even though I didn’t go to the Academy. You’ve been spending too much time with Akio and his friends again.”

“He is my teammate,” Muta muttered, although he did not deny that she had read him like an elementary scroll. It was not the first time she had accurately noted that he was unconsciously adopting biases, and Muta castigated himself for needing her to mention this more than once.

Yori poked him in the shoulder. “You might be the shinobi, but I’m still older than you,” (she ignored him muttering, “by 53 minutes,” and continued blithely,) “and as your big sister I’m telling you for your own good that you need to spend less time with those idiots before their views become contagious and you miss something on a mission because of it.”

She did not complete her statement with ‘and get yourself or your comrades maimed or worse’, but she didn’t have to. Yori might never have attended the Academy, but she was echoing a sentiment that was very similar to one that Himura-sensei had tried her best to hammer into her students’ heads. (Occasionally literally. It was rumoured that Himura-sensei had previously been a rising star in Torture and Interrogation before something very classified had happened and she had retired to teach instead.)

Muta bowed his head in acknowledgement, and Yori let it go. She knew better than to push him when he had already listened to what she had to say.

“So,” she said, sitting down next to him close enough that their arms touched. Muta considered idly the grounding sensation and mused that it had perhaps been too long since he had taken actual quality time with his family.  “Itachi is the one who spars with Shisui all the time, yes?”

“Yes. They are cousins after all,” Muta replied, wondering why his sister was asking him about a well-known fact.

Yori paused.

Muta did not rush her. He saw little point in discomforting her by demanding she (as Kikyo would have said) ‘spit out whatever she wanted to say already’. (Besides, he owed her increased courtesy for letting her civilian status flavour his treatment of her. That had been very ill-done of him.)

“Do you think you could get me an introduction to him?”

Muta blinked. “To Itachi?”

Yori scoffed. “No. Well, him too if he’s going to be spending time with you. No, I meant Shisui.” Uncharacteristically, she sighed a little. “He’s so dreamy. And actually polite to be nice rather than polite to establish social protocols like some clanmembers of his I could mention.”

“… I will ask if he would be amenable.” Muta frowned. “When exactly have you had a chance to learn about Shisui’s manners without interacting with him?”

If Yori sighing was uncharacteristic, then her blushing had Muta subtly checking her chakra signature.

“…I have changed my mind, and I do not want to know,” he decided.

….

As Itachi waited at the training ground for his… meeting with Aburame Muta, he wondered what exactly he was doing.

It had been a very long time since Itachi had felt even the most academic stirrings of interest towards anyone, and even then, Itachi had generally abstained from any sort of sexual contact. After all, it was far easier to complete a seduction mission by simply dropping the mark into a genjutsu where their own mind provided the imagery than it was to actually go through the act, and Itachi found little pleasure in spending the night with someone when there was a genuine risk that they were some sort of Konoha plant who thought he was disloyal.

Even if his missing-nin status had not been a significant obstacle to having even the smallest vestige of a normal relationship, there had also been the fact that Itachi had spent the last few years of his life incredibly sick from the infection that had settled into his lungs during that one bad mission in Mist.

It would have been easy if any of the other members of Akatsuki could be trusted, but even if that had been the case, considering that Kisame was not interested in men, Deidara hated Itachi’s guts for the role he had played in the Iwa missing-nin’s recruitment, Tobi was a relative, Pein and Konan were wrapped up in each other and Itachi’s tastes did not run towards necrophilia or puppets, it was not as though Itachi had had any real options there either.

(Orochimaru did not even bear speaking about. Itachi’s only regret was that he had not killed the renegade Sannin too dead to mess with Sasuke when he had had the chance.)

Itachi was not sure what it was about Muta that appealed to him exactly, but even though he had not exactly intended to ask the Aburame out on a date, (he really did just want another sparring partner,) he would be lying to himself if he was not currently feeling some… anticipation?

Yes, thought Itachi. Anticipation was the correct word for it, but really, he was getting ahead of himself. First he would have to ensure that Muta and he had the same mission briefing.

As though summoned by Itachi’s thoughts, Muta shunshined into the training ground.

“I thank you for the courtesy of being punctual,” he said, coming to a stop a few metres away.

Itachi found himself frowning slightly. “I effectively asked you for a favour, considering our relative ranks,” he said, wondering what level of rudeness the Aburame was used to that Itachi being slightly early for their meeting was noteworthy.

Muta raised an eyebrow. “I did not know that Uchiha were capable of humility, but you seem to be an odd candidate for exhibiting such. Why? Because I am well aware that you are a match for Anko, to the point that you appear to enjoy riling her for entertainment purposes.”

Itachi allowed himself a small smirk. “She is a formidable sparring partner,” he freely admitted, neither confirming nor denying that he annoyed her for sport.

Muta’s expression did not change, but Itachi read something in the slant of his shoulders that seemed akin to amusement.

“Shall we begin then?” the Aburame suggested. “Rules?”

“No Clan Jutsu,” Itachi decided. “Otherwise anything goes.” He would hate for this to end too quickly.

“A fair proposal,” Muta agreed. “I would hate for this to end too quickly.”

Itachi frowned internally. That statement had had entirely the opposite tone to what he might have expected. Almost as if…

Oh. He had almost forgotten that Aburame were immune to genjutsu.

Hmmm. This might be more of a challenge than he had originally thought.

Excellent.

Chapter Text

It was actually quite interesting fighting an Aburame who was not using their bugs, Itachi thought as he idly dodged a knee aimed squarely at his groin.

Most of the time in Itachi’s experience of one-on-one matches (and there had been more than a few Aburame huter-nin he had evaded or left locked in genjutsu back in the Akatsuki days), high-level Aburame tended to fight a bit like Uchiha. In that the best fight was one where they simply set a trap via the family jutsu and then let the family jutsu flatten their opponent.

No muss, no fuss.

It tended to lead members of both clan to develop a lot of ways to fight from a distance, attempting to force their opponents to stand back and let the jutsu hit them. The Uchiha Grand Fireball technique was a Clan favourite because most opponents would instinctively look directly at the burning mass of death being spat directly at their faces, and thus inadvertently establish eyecontact with the fireball spitter.

(Itachi still fondly remembered the first time he had managed to do the Grand Fireball Combo, where one spat a Grand Fireball, established eyecontact, locked the enemy in a genjutsu, and then let the fireball knock them back out of the genjutsu for maximum effect – his older cousins sometimes giggled and called it the Spitroast Attack for some reason–  he had always found that a little odd honestlt... Oh. Oh maybe that was-)

Itachi bent backwards at the waist to avoid catching a knife-hand strike in the throat.

Right. Should probably be paying a bit more attention rather than reminiscing.

Muta was, after all, a tokubetsu jounin, and if the slight tightening of his mouth was anything to go by, probably not amused by how Itachi was almost zoning out during the fight.

Indeed, Muta was showing a level of precise taijutsu that Itachi could not help but be somewhat impressed by. Not a single motion was wasted.

Itachi dodged a punch aimed for his left ear, and dropped, lashing out with a leg sweep.

Truly, a methodical and disciplined opponent.

Very different from Anko.

Muta almost lazily jumped over the leg sweep and dove straight for Itachi’s chest, aiming to knock the wind out of him.

“Grappling? Really?” Itachi said, trying to divert the Aburame’s momentum into the ground. “Cribbing from the Inuzuka playbook?”

Muta huffed as he managed to put Itachi in an armlock. “Yes. Why? Because I have fought Uchiha before, and unexpected tactics tend to be those that work best.”

It had been a while since Itachi had fought against someone who managed to be both logical and creative.

Itachi smirked as he lashed out at Muta’s face with the kunai in his free hand, forcing the Aburame to release him or get stabbed in the eye.

Muta retaliated by forcing Itachi to dodge a sudden barrage of shuriken, that, had he been any less aware of his surroundings, would have caused him to run headlong into a tree.

Really, Itachi admitted to himself, he was probably enjoying Muta’s parries a little too much.

“Ah, so you are aware of my clan’s weakness,” Itachi said in response as he threw down a smoke bomb to hide his flash step to a spot to Muta’s five o’clock.

Muta was already turning to face him as Itachi tried to trap the Aburame in ninja wire.

Muta dodged by sinking into the earth, and Itachi went airborne to miss the hands that immediately grabbed for his ankles…

Only no, it seemed that Muta had decided against the obvious tactic, because now Itachi could detect his chakra from the treeline to his right.

Itachi almost smiled. It was oddly refreshing to not be right all the time.

“You talk as though it is not blindingly obvious that the greatest flaw in any Uchiha is hubris,” Muta said, punctuating his words by setting off the explosive tags he had buried beneath Itachi’s feet.

Itachi executed a textbook kawarimi with a convenient log (blessed be the log, for the log is your saviour) and barely concealed a wince as the log became a mist of splinters.

Flashstep, duck the punch, push him up against the tree.

“And do you find me typical of my clan?” Itachi wondered, as he held a kunai to Muta’s throat.

Muta dissolved into mud.

Itachi felt a light pricking sensation at the nape of his neck, and then felt his world grow a little hazy.

“I do not know, if you are typical of your clan, Uchiha Itachi,” Itachi heard as though from a long way away, “but you are certainly full of hubris.”

Itachi sighed.

And then whirled and punched Muta in the jaw, catching him before he collapsed.

Itachi sank down to sit at the base of the tree, cradling the Aburame. He mused that despite the slight swelling from the last hit, the man looked quite peaceful, struggling on the edge of consciousness like this.

“You may not be wrong,” Itachi admitted, “but I came by my arrogance naturally.”

Muta groaned.

“How typical for an Uchiha,” he said a little muzzily as Itachi removed his goggles to check for signs of concussion.

Itachi looked into Muta’s slightly unfocussed amber eyes and smiled.

“If you like,” he said, lightly running his fingers through Muta’s long brown hair.

Muta did not smile back.

But he did grab Itachi by the ear and kiss him.

Itachi’s subsequent collapse from the contact poison applied to Muta’s lips probably should have been something he anticipated.

Damn, he thought. It seemed that the Aburame might have a point about Uchiha hubris. Itachi had definitely underestimated his opponent.

“I believe that I win,” Muta said, catching Itachi and preventing him from hitting the ground hard. “I noted the other day that you do not appear to have a strong resistance to poisons. This is something you should perhaps work on,” the Aburame chided him.

Getting knocked out in a spar, Itachi thought vaguely as the edges of his vision began to go dark, should probably not be so hot.

…..

 “What do you think should be done about Itachi?” Mikoto asked, as she calmly readjusted her kimono after a pleasant afternoon in her lover’s company.

Minato, straightening his own white and red robes, grimaced.

“I have not made a decision yet,” he said, as he replaced his hat, neatly hiding the somewhat dishevelled state of his hair.

“Honestly, I am unsure how to proceed,” the Hokage admitted. “Itachi has clearly shown that he could easily put down a tokubetsu jounin if inclined – more than one source has reported back the results of his spar with Anko, who I’d honestly rank S-class should she ever go Missing – but I’m hesitant to put him back on the roster considering the reports I’ve been receiving on his psyche from Sho.”

Mikoto nodded slowly, and cast an E rank fire jutsu on the kettle to warm the water.

“That is reasonable,” she said, reaching for the jar that held her favourite sencha blend, “although you know you will have to give him something to do, and soon. In the past month alone he has had a hand in digging up a number of Orochimaru’s spies, as well as taking the time to train both Sasuke, your son, and that pink-haired girl… what is her name again?”

“Haruno Sakura,” Minato replied absently, kneeling on the other side of the low table from her. “Highest ranked kunoichi in her class, even before your son started giving the three of them tips to improve. I have high hopes for them.”

Mikoto hummed to herself as she busied herself with the tea preparation. A few minutes later, and two cups had been poured, fine steam rising from them.

She took a slow sip. “So you aren’t going to bother with the old lowest-score/highest-score team tradition that your predecessor set up?”

Minato blew the steam off his cup and scoffed. “I honestly never saw the point of that. Poorly balanced teams tend to have internal problems that can shatter the squad. You know what happened between Kakashi and Obito before they managed to nearly get their entire team killed working against each other.” He took a swig of his tea and grimaced, thinking about how much of a catastrophe the Kannabi Bridge incident had been.

If it hadn’t been for Sakumo tracking down the presumed dead Obito when he had, who could say what kind of mess Kakashi in particular would have ended up being? Minato might have been forced to dump Kakashi into ANBU until further notice, to ensure that his self-destructive behaviour was at least used for the benefit of the village. As it happened, Kakashi’s complete reversal from concerning aloofness into co-dependence upon Obito’s return and rehabilitation had been more than a little disquieting, but certainly at least since then Kakashi had finally seemed to have stopped being so resistant to the teamwork culture which put the Leaf Village ahead of its rivals.

It was not the sort of object lesson that Minato was happy that his team had been forced to undergo, but he could certainly not complain about the results. His Team 7 might not be as illustrious as the Sannin, but they were definitely one of his most effective and versatile exfiltration squads.

Mikoto nodded. “I understand,” was all she said, but Minato could see that his lover was pleased from the way that her lips twitched minutely.

“Besides,” Minato said, “considering the fact that there’s a Nara and a Yamanaka in the class, the rankings are all off anyway.”

Mikoto’s head tilted to one side. “I understand the comment regarding the Nara – I well remember my own experience having Nara Shikami as a classmate, I know how they tend to throw their grades – but the Yamanaka?”

Minato huffed a laugh. “Yamanaka techniques split between interrogation and infiltration, and both require a certain level of understanding of human nature that makes them work to seem less threatening or more likeable. And what a coincidence,” he said sarcastically, “people are less threatened by those they perceive as less intelligent than them.” He looked at her pointedly and added, “You might have some insight into the effectiveness of that technique, considering how Yamanaka Kuchinashi managed to get the drop on you.”

Mikoto smiled serenely in a way that told the Hokage he would probably be paying for that jibe later. Probably in public, in the middle of a Council session.

Ah well. If it caused his arrogant Uchiha to take a little more care, then Minato would take his lumps with grace.

(Besides, Mikoto in a snit was vicious in bed in a way that uh… Minato resisted the urge to smile in a way that would reveal the direction of his thoughts and thus invite swift and no doubt painful retribution prematurely. He shot a glance at Mikoto and could tell by the cant of her shoulders that his preoccupation had not escaped her. Ah well. There were worse ways to go.)

Delicately pouring herself a new cup of tea, Mikoto changed the subject back to her original topic. “So? What do you intend to do with my elder son? I gather that you wish to keep him close to the village then.”

Minato grunted in agreement. “After that little display out the front of the Academy, I’ve been considering sending him to work for Ibiki. That was an impressive display of intimidation. I never would have thought him capable of it, before.”

Minato and Mikoto exchanged a long look. There was no need to elaborate on what Minato meant by ‘before’.

He shrugged, continuing. “Otherwise, perhaps he could spend some time in the Police Force. Left to his own devices Itachi seems to trip over all manner of conspiracies, which might be useful there.”

Rather than acting as a loose cannon, Minato did not say aloud. If Itachi had managed to be even somewhat subtle, the opportunity would have been there to pressure some of those spies into becoming double-agents. At the very least, they could have simply ensured that they were fed misinformation. Some time working in T&I might have the benefit of impressing upon Itachi the benefit of being subtle.

It was not that Minato was ungrateful for Itachi saving his son – quite the opposite in fact, Minato the father was nothing but satisfied at how Itachi had protected Naruto – but even though the results of Itachi’s actions had ended largely positively in the short term, he had effectively shut down the possibility of using any of the spies as pawns in any long-term intelligence strategies, which halved their usefulness.

Thinking a Hokage who had to consider all future ramifications of any of his shinobi’s actions, this was not an ideal outcome.

“With respect, Minato, are you not currently down an Academy teacher?” Mikoto asked, diverting his thoughts.

The Hokage did not need her to elaborate to understand the drift of the Uchiha matriarch’s suggestion.

“You think Itachi would make a good addition to the Academy staff?” he asked, a little surprised.

Mikoto leaned slightly forward, her mostly-shut yukata sliding open a half-inch in a move that Minato was entirely certain was deliberate. The unsubtle manipulation tactic was practically his lover joking with him – he knew that she knew that he saw through such obvious things – and yet, Minato could not help but smugly admire the developing bruise from a lovebite that was revealed by the shift in Mikoto’s neckline.

“Have you not been pleased with how he has been training our sons?” Mikoto asked rhetorically. “I believe that the Academy would be well-suited to my son’s talents.”

 Minato considered this for a moment, staring into the space beside his lover’s head.

On the one hand, Itachi was a psychological mess, who Minato had absolutely not been letting near his son unsupervised. (Hyuuga were so very useful for covert long-distance observation. It had not been difficult to hide the presence of Hyuuga Hitomi who could settle several training grounds away and observe the interactions between Itachi and others and give reports regarding any odd behaviour. As a single mother with young children, Hitomi had been very pleased to receive the long-term in-village assignment so that she could spend more time with her family.)

On the other hand, seeing as the Academy was at the base of the Hokage tower, it would mean keeping a close eye on Itachi would be a lot easier. The sheer number of ANBU who passed through the tower on a regular basis, as well as the Academy instructors themselves, would be well-placed to keep a close eye on the Uchiha.

And there was the added benefit that it seemed that Itachi had at the very least the ability to be patient with children and pass on his skills…

Perhaps it was worth checking if he also had the inclination.

It would not be the first time he had placed a pacifist in the Academy in order to get maximum value from them as a ninja. Umino Iruka was another one, and come to think of it, might be a good influence on the largely aloof Uchiha.

Although, from what Minato had been hearing from more recent reports from Hyuuga Hitomi and Sho Suzume, it sounded as though Itachi had been (re)forming social connections largely on his own recently without prompting.

Chances were that Mikoto had a second, more hidden agenda for suggesting that Itachi be placed in the Academy, (look underneath the underneath, as Minato had always told his subordinates) but Minato was sure that the two of them had similar enough goals at present that whatever her less obvious purpose was it probably was not specifically set up to bite him specifically (although he suspected that any backlash would nonetheless give him a headache because sometimes being Hokage was like being a swan sharing a pond with a flock of cantankerous ducks – although the ducks were individually not a threat, their squabbles could be extremely annoying).

Hmmm. Maybe this suggestion was worth a trial.

“You make an interesting suggestion, Mikoto,” Minato admitted.

Mikoto smiled politely, but it did not reach her eyes. “Of course I do.”

The Hokage placed his cup down, and took her free hand, holding it until she looked him in the eye. “That was not me diplomatically putting you off. Honestly. I will need to speak to some of the Academy instructors, and there will most certainly be a probationary period, but I really think your suggestion has merit.”

Mikoto’s smile became more real. “I forget sometimes how straight forward you are,” she said, putting her own cup down and leaning forward over the table.

Minato brushed a loose strand of hair behind one of her ears, and laughed. “I blame proximity to Kushina,” he said. “Next to her, everyone seemed subtle,” he said a little wistfully.

Mikoto smirked, leaned forward and kissed him.

“She would be proud of what you have accomplished,” she said, pulling back slightly. “Especially with how you have raised your son.” She smiled softly. “He and Sasuke already make each other strong. I look forward to what they accomplish.”

Minato grinned. “Pure havoc, no doubt,” he joked.

“Living up to Kushina’s legacy then,” Mikoto teased. “All the better to inflict on our enemies.” She picked up her tea-cup and raised it in a toast. “May they have long and successful careers.”

May they survive more unscathed than Itachi, Mikoto prayed silently, as Minato laughed and light-heartedly returned her toast with his empty teacup.

At least she was sure that the boy who had returned to her wanted the same thing.

Regardless of whether he was truly her son or not.

Chapter Text

After the first of what was to be many spars with Aburame Muta, Itachi found his life taking up new patterns.

Two days after he awoke with his head pillowed on a muscular thigh with the gorgeous Aburame staring down at him, (if that was what he could expect upon waking, Itachi thought that he almost understood the temptation that some shinobi had to actually lose on purpose,) the Hokage called Itachi to his office.

Itachi had gone, expecting the conversation to be about the intel that he had provided, or possibly being reinstated onto the active list.

He was only somewhat correct.

“I’ve decided to assign you to teaching at the Academy, effective as of next term. If you have any questions, Fujioka Hitomi is the head sensei, and she will explain the basic curriculum requirements. Otherwise, you have been assigned to work beside a more experienced teacher, Umino Iruka,” the Hokage said. “Umino has agreed to mentor you to ensure that you perform your duties to the Konoha standard.”

Itachi stared. He was tempted to check for genjutsu, but he could detect chakra signatures from both Namikaze Minato and at least three familiar ANBU, so he was mostly sure this was actually happening.

“Mission accepted, Hokage-sama,” he murmured, somehow managing to keep his expression professionally blank.

After that conversation, Itachi found that his feeling of being watched had increased tenfold. He supposed that was only fair. Sho had cleared him for light duties with an admonition to keep coming to see her on a regular basis, (“There is still a significant amount of work left for us to do, Itachi,” she had said, “but I am pleased with your progress”,) but it was one thing for him to be yet another mission-fatigued shinobi wandering around Konoha, and quite another to be deliberately putting him into close contact with impressionable pre-genin.

Or at least, he had thought that that was the problem, but it turned out that the story of how he had defended the children from Mizuki had done the rounds, and people seemed to like the idea of him being a permanent body-guard to the prospective genin. The fact that he was at least somewhat accountable for their psychological well-being had apparently given a few parents pause, but after all, it was generally acknowledged that Iruka was maybe one of the most stable chunin in Konoha’s forces, so it was thought that his influence would be enough to balance out any of Itachi’s “quirks”.

Naruto was slightly disappointed that this meant that Itachi could not be his jounin sensei. Sasuke had bluntly (and a little bitterly) pointed out that Itachi was only a chunin, and so this would not have been possible anyway. Sakura had already been two steps ahead and had asked if it would be possible for the three of them to still train with Itachi on weekends when they did not have missions.

Itachi had managed to stifle a laugh. “How do you know that the three of you are going to be in a genin team together?” he asked quite reasonably. “The three of you are at the top of your year.”

 Naruto had scoffed. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he said with uncharacteristic sarcasm, “but I’ve got an in with the Hokage.”

Itachi and his fellow students had stared at him dubiously.

Naruto blushed, and then admitted that he had (“Accidentally, mind!”) overheard Minato and Mikoto talking in private about the teams and so mostly knew what the planned distribution was going to look like.

Itachi was dubious that this was as accidental as claimed (albeit more likely that the Hokage had decided to obliquely reassure his son, or Mikoto had decided to obliquely reassure her son rather than Naruto deliberately managing to eavesdrop on mildly classified information) but had not bothered to say as much, because Sakura and Sasuke were more than happy to attempt to grind Naruto into the dirt over not sharing this information before now.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, and the three of them had graduated, and were put on a team captained by Nohara Rin. Which meant that Sasuke was in plenty of contact with her teammate Obito, who promptly proceeded to school his younger cousin in all the ways that the Sharingan was both the ultimate cheat and a ridiculous crutch. Itachi was still uncomfortable around Obito, but could tell that this version at least was only homicidal in the culturally acceptable ways and genuinely wanted to turn Sasuke into a more efficient killer for the sake of Konoha. That was a goal that Itachi could get wholeheartedly behind, and so he was content to ease back the amount of time he put into training Sasuke as opposed to simply spending time with him.

(Sakura started learning medical ninjutsu from Rin and promptly started progressing at a startling rate that was very quietly compared to ‘that Kabuto boy who went bad, such a waste,’ and more loudly compared to a young Tsunade. Naruto on the other hand found one of his mother’s old books on sealing, and Minato promptly handed Kakashi a long-term mission to ensure that his son didn’t blow his fool self up.)

 To avoid any appearance of unfair bias, the Hokage had declared that Itachi would begin teaching after Sasuke’s graduation (which to all and sundry was in zero doubt). In the weeks leading up to his brother’s gradutation, Itachi spent a significant amount of time discretely lurking and watching the different Academy classes. At the end of each day he would talk to Iruka about his impressions. Judging by the expressions that Iruka made, Itachi’s impressions were not coming from a perspective that Iruka was used to working with.

Itachi hoped that would not be an impediment to their working relationship, but considering that some of his questions about why things were taught a particular way had resulted in changes to the curriculum, he felt confident that continuing to ask for clarification until the thinking behind teaching various things a certain way made sense to him was worthwhile.

Oddly, Iruka had started to pay attention as to whether Itachi had eaten lunch or not, or looked tired. Itachi was unsure of the correlation between this and him asking why a few of the students from more upper-class civilian families found the idea of killing and eating animals for food (as they had to in order to pass the survival training unit where they all camped in the forest and learned about making smokeless fires and what mushrooms to avoid) to be so disconcerting. “My father had me killing rabbits as soon as I had the hand-eye coordination,” Itachi had said.

“Itachi… how old were you when that happened,” Iruka asked.

Itachi frowned thoughtfully. “I believe I was three and a half. Why?”

“And,” Iruka looked like he was regretting asking, “how old were you the first time you took on a mission that required killing?”

Itachi had told him, and Iruka had asked if it was okay if he gave Itachi a hug. Itachi had not entirely understood this impulse, but decided that it might help him bond with his new mentor, and so had allowed it.

Later, after another spar, he talked about the conversation with Anko.

She had stared at him for a solid thirty seconds before saying that she was too sober to have this conversation with Itachi. Soon afterwards she was too drunk to have the conversation with Itachi. Itachi decided to let that the issue lie.

Soon after that, Itachi started teaching. To his slight surprise, the task was not as onerous as he had thought it would be. He found it was relatively easy to keep the class distracted from deliberately attempting to murder each other with their practice kunai, and extremely engaging to attempt to teach them how to avoid doing so accidentally. Other Academy sensei had asked him for tips in dealing with the Clan brats and frustrated geniuses, as apparently Itachi had a way with them.

Ever since Itachi had had a quiet word with Hyuuga Hanabi about the responsibility of every Konoha ninja to keep their comrades intact in the field, and that whilst her taijutsu might be good for her age that once she was out of the shallow pond of the Academy actually using those skills probably meant that at least one of her mission parameters had already been failed, and that to enemy ninja her status in her Clan would make her a target rather than an asset to any team, the Hyuuga heiress had been sitting in thoughtful, rather than scornful silence. Itachi had later spotted her almost politely interrogating one of her classmates about how they achieved their stealth scores, and heard one of the younger students from the Hyuuga Branch clan, Hyuuga Akira, telling their friends about seeing her trailing her elder cousin Neji. Apparently her father Hiashi had yet to say a word about this, even when Hanabi started practicing with ranged weapons in a fashion that looked rather reminiscent of Neji’s teammate Tenten.

Hyuuga Hanabi was not one of Itachi’s favourite students, (none of them could compare to the joy of teaching Sasuke and his team,) but he could admit he felt a small level of smugness over directing her into maybe being less of a pain to work with in future.

He said as much to Muta on one of their many dates, as they relaxed beneath a shady tree having just finished a take-out box of dango between them.

 Muta had been a little amused. “I had often wondered if the Main Hyuuga line ego was unassailable. I suppose I should have known that it would take a member of a fellow-doujutsu using noble clan to know how to get through to them.”

Itachi shrugged. “I have seen various members of my clan have similar difficulties to her. The fact that most Clan children receive education prior to the Academy tends to create a certain confirmation bias that many of them have difficulties in overcoming in regards to their relative abilities in comparison to their fellow students.” He shook his head. “Succumbing to such an assumption is a weakness that leaves them with difficulties in building trust in their comrades, and blind spots as to their own fallibility. It could lead them to making grave errors of judgement that could be easily rectified by simply having the ability to confide in a fellow shinobi or kunoichi, who might be better able to provide important insight.”

There was a long moment of silence after Itachi said that, as Muta contemplated this. Itachi was unbothered by Muta taking his time to respond to his statement. They were well enough acquainted by now that Itachi knew that Muta preferred to take his time before making remarks on any topic that verged on the deeply personal, so as to reduce the chances of miscommunication. He watched how the movement of the leaves caused the bright dapples of sunlight to appear to dance across the ground beneath them. Itachi felt as though that might be a metaphor for his life, but could not yet articulate how.

“I do believe,” Muta said shrewdly after a while of silent contemplation, “that it is not just vicarious learning which provided you with this insight of the perils of, as I have heard some of the genin say it, ‘falling for your own hype’.”

Itachi looked up from his study of the shadows and grimaced. His conversations with Sho had revealed how badly he had been failed by not having a teacher ever point out to his child self that no matter how good a killer he was, 13 and emotionally compromised was most certainly not a state in which one could expect to be able to make good decisions.

Like oh, say, what to do about his Clan threatening a coup and causing him to have to choose between his family and his honour.

Itachi knew that his facial expressions were difficult for most non-ninja to read, but his lover was an Aburame, from a Clan that were allegedly even more difficult to read than the Uchiha. Muta asked for no further confirmation of his supposition, and instead merely drew Itachi into his arms.

Itachi wondered what it was about him these days that caused people around him to offer him so much physical affection. It was not something that he was used to. It was not what he would have considered consistent with the Uchiha Clan’s reputed image.

Feeling the warmth emanating from his lover’s body through his long white coat, listening to the rustle of leaves, and the distant sounds of people training, Itachi let himself relax enough to fall into a doze.

Edo Tensei!

Itachi woke up with the echo of Kabuto’s voice in his head.

He felt cold.