written by A. E. Stover
this version is not edited

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At the dinner table, Itachi watched Sasuke dive for the grilled fish as soon as their father picked up his chopsticks.

“How time flies!” exclaimed their mother. “I feel like you just came to visit us. It’s going to be so quiet when you leave, Sasuke.”

“When is that, exactly?” their father asked cordially. Itachi saw him trying to be discreet in his eyeing of the grilled fish that their mother had placed at the center of the table. When their father’s chopsticks moved close to it, their mother rapped his knuckles with the back of her spoon.

“You have to watch your sodium intake, remember?” Mikoto reminded her husband with an admonishing look.

Their father grunted and poked at his bowl of rice.

Their mother continued; “Now, when did you say that you had to leave?”

“Tomorrow,” was the curt response. “I have to pick Sakura up from the airport, so I’m leaving at noon.”

“Oh, but wasn’t Naruto-kun supposed to be doing that?” asked their mother. “I thought Naruto-kun was going to pick her up. He could still do that, can’t he? And afterwards, he could come and pick you up too, later in the day.”

The look on Sasuke’s face, Itachi thought, looked so much like the exasperated one of their father whenever their mother tried to get him to do something he didn’t want to. Itachi knew their mother was only looking for ways to keep her youngest son with her a while longer.

“Naruto’s busy managing a workshop,” he heard Sasuke explain patiently. “He’ll be preoccupied for most of the week.”

“Oh.” Their mother almost sounded defeated as she sighed. “I suppose we can’t keep you here forever. You’re all grown up now, and a married man!”

A married man.

Itachi hesitated mid-reach for the grilled fish. From the corner of his eye, he could see Sasuke stiffen in his seat. Their mother made some kind of a nervous noise as she brought a hand to her lips, looking apologetically in his direction.

A married man. 

That was it. The forbidden word had been spoken, and with it a look overcame their father’s once disinterested eyes.

Itachi sighed, preparing for the worst.

“Speaking of married men…” Their father wiped his mouth with his napkin and set it down. He turned to regard Itachi with an even look and began his tirade. “Itachi, don’t you think it’s time to settle down and have a family?”

“Sasuke, how’s your old tutor been?” Mikoto chirped cheerfully, trying to ease the conversation into a different direction, even if it was a subject no one at the table was particularly enthusiastic about. “I haven’t heard from him in a while. Is he doing alright?”

Fugaku continued as if his wife hadn’t said a word. “Your younger brother’s gotten married ahead of you… You’re thirty two years old; you need to start thinking about your future!”

“He’s gotten ornery with age, but I don’t think that’s really news, considering what an ass he always was…” Sasuke responded.

“Sasuke!” Mikoto looked affronted. “You shouldn’t speak of Orochimaru-sensei like that!”

“But it’s true,” said Sasuke. “I heard he and Tsunade are divorcing due to ‘irreconcilable differences’ again. I doubt Tsunade was the one being unreasonable in that relationship.” Then, after a beat, he added, “Just goes to show that marriage doesn’t always solve everything.”

Fugaku frowned at his younger son before he insistently continued: “I know your previous relationships turned out to be… unfortunate, I admit,” he said in what Itachi supposed was a consoling tone, “but you can’t let that keep you from moving forward.”

“Oh, Sasuke,” Mikoto interrupted, “I think you’ve been spending too much time with that Karin girl as children.”

“I won’t be here forever, Itachi,” Fugaku continued, “and you have to be ready when—”

Sasuke interrupted again: “It was either her or Orochimaru. And I think I made the right choice, or else I would’ve turned out to be just like—”

Fugaku pounded his fist on the table. “Stop interrupting me with your ridiculous chatter, and focus your energy on important matters like our son!”

Itachi saw Sasuke gave their father a hard look, which prompted Mikoto to scold;

“Sasuke is your son.” Mikoto’s lips pressed together in a thin line.

Itachi silently watched their father’s face twist with irritation.

“I’m talking about Itachi! Sasuke isn’t inheriting the company! Itachi is!” Fugaku exploded, throwing his chopsticks down noisily and getting up from his seat.

Mikoto paused before she raised a hand to touch her husband’s arm. “Dear, you really need to calm down. Remember your blood pressure—”

Fugaku wretched himself away. “I’m sick of this! I’m sick of you babying our oldest son! He’s thirty-two years old and he still lives with us! He should be married! He should be having children!”

“Madara said you lived with your parents until you were thirty-five.” Sasuke spoke casually around the rim of his cup.

“Shut your mouth, Sasuke.” Fugaku ordered angrily, pounding his fist on the table again and knocking over his drinking glass.

Water spilled onto the linen tablecloth. It seeped through, leaving a dark, wet spot on the fabric. Itachi frowned at it.

“I’ve set up an omiai with Yugakure Takahashi’s daughter for you tomorrow afternoon,” Fugaku said.

Itachi spoke up: “I have a board meeting—”

“I don’t care!” Fugaku raised his voice again. “I don’t care if you have meetings tomorrow. I don’t care if you have a funeral to go to, or — or whatever excuses you’ve come up with in the past! Nothing short of the end of the world or your death—”

Mikoto looked alarmed. “Dear, don’t be so rash—”

“—will get you out of meeting this young lady! You are going to that omiai tomorrow! I swear I will drag you there myself if I have to!”

Everyone at the table was silent as Fugaku stormed out of the dining room. It was an awkward silence, one that consisted largely of looking at Itachi when they thought he didn’t know.

Finally, Sasuke picked up his chopsticks again. “I told you talking about Orochimaru was a bad dinner topic.”

“Sasuke, please.” Mikoto rubbed at her temples.

“Not even Fugaku likes him.”

“Don’t call him by name, Sasuke. He is your father — your father. And your father isn’t exactly the best model to use, by the way.”

While his younger brother debated with their mother, Itachi watched the water their father had spilled seep through the linen cloth in an ugly, dark blotch.

“Itachi?”

Their mother’s voice drew him away. “Yes?”

Mikoto pursed her lips forward in thought. “Your father loves you very much,” she said, and turned to Sasuke. “both of you,” she affirmed. She faced her eldest son again, with something akin to pain in her eyes. “He just wants you to be happy, Itachi.”

“I understand,” Itachi replied.

Sasuke turned to look at his brother directly for the first time since he’d came. “If you don’t want to go tomorrow, I can—”

“No. Father’s right.” Itachi put his napkin over the darkening stain on the tablecloth. “I have to think about my future.” The napkin started to grow wet at the center. “Please, excuse me.” Itachi rose from his chair and left the table without waiting for his mother’s response.

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Itachi knocked on the door to Deidara’s apartment first thing the next morning. He could hear grumbling from the other side of the door, the few words that he could hear telling him that perhaps he should have called in ahead of time.

“…this early in the morning… can’t get any sleep around here… better not be… from next door again, that crazy little…”

The door swung back, and the smell of oil paint and clay came right at him. Itachi was awash with a familiarity that he knew came from the ensemble Deidara was wearing: an old blank tanktop and ratty, worn jeans — the same clothes he’d been wearing three weeks ago when Itachi had delivered the architect a new set of blueprints.

Deidara’s narrowed eyes blinked rapidly at him in confusion. “What are you doing here?” he asked, scowling and stepping back from his door anyway.

Itachi walked into the apartment without answering.

“Don’t you have a board meeting to go to today? Aren’t you gonna be—” Deidara stopped himself and suddenly sounded distraught. “Oh, no. It’s your dad again, isn’t it?”

Itachi surveyed the inside of the apartment. The kitchen was empty and dark, while the television set in the den was off and silent. The only hint of activity in the apartment was the dim yellow light from the room across the den that he knew was coming from the desklamp on a drafting table — Deidara’s drafting table. “Where is everybody?”

“Living their lives and getting married, yeah” Deidara responded, his tone all but a sneer. “You really gotta stop coming here. Last time, your dad ripped the door off the hinges. And then when I asked him to pay for it, he told me to go mind my own business if I wanted to keep my job. Your dad’s crazy, you know that? Fucking insane. If I didn’t like what I was doing, I would’ve quit ages ago, yeah.”

Itachi frowned, but said nothing. It wasn’t a good idea to say anything when Deidara was off on one of his monologues. If he was lucky, the idiot would prattle on and forget the reason he even began. Before he could take relief at the chance, something roughly shoved the back of his head. Startled, Itachi brought a hand to the back of his head while he turned to the blond man still standing at the door.

Deidara motioned wildly to the open door. “Get out,” he said. “Now.”

Itachi only looked at him. He saw the glare in Deidara’s eyes grow fiercer and frowned.

“Seriously, man,” Deidara yelled, coming forward and fisting his hand in Itachi’s black shirt. “I don’t want you to keep coming back here!” He began dragging Itachi back to the front door. “I’ve got so much shit to finish up by the end of the week, it’s not even funny, yeah. Come back when you get hitched, or when your dad dies, or something important, okay? I have blueprints to finish for the atrium, and then I’ve gotta start on floor plans for a new office building in Ikebukuro—”

It was at this moment that Itachi’s phone decided to ring.

Itachi saw Deidara stop in his tracks and whirl around as quickly as possible to try and answer the phone himself, but it was too late. Itachi had already answered the call. He held the phone in his hand, and the two of them stared down at it as a loud, furious voice howled from the other line:

“Itachi! Where are you? I told you I’m not letting you miss this omiai! A nice, young lady is expecting to see you at eight this morning, so you better haul your ass back home, or I swear to God I will—”

The call disconnected in the middle of Fugaku’s fury.

“…The battery’s dead.” Itachi observed thoughtfully.

Deidara’s shoulders shook. Then, with a snarl, he snatched the phone out of Itachi’s hand. Itachi only had time to utter, “My phone…” before Deidara chucked it across the room. The blond turned on him again, jabbing a finger into his chest; “Thanks a lot, asswipe. Now your dad’s gonna trace the call to my apartment and come to trash it all because you won’t see a goddamn freaking girl!”

 Itachi watched Deidara storm to his open door and was surprised to see the man, who had just turned twenty not too long ago, kick the door shut. “I’m… staying?” he asked hesitantly, looking to the grumbling young man for clarification.

Deidara waved a hand dismissively as he stomped past him to go into his room. “Well now that he’s actually coming, it makes no difference whether or not you’re really here, yeah. He’s gonna be here anyway, one way or the other, so just… sit tight and watch something. Or — or read a book, yeah.”

Itachi looked around him for a moment before taking a seat on the couch. “Thank you,” he replied. It was more out of habit than anything, but he still meant it. He was going to settle for staring at the black screen of the TV, but he felt a stare boring holes into the side of his head, so he turned to look left.

Deidara was standing in the doorway of his room with a frown.

When Itachi raised an eyebrow, Deidara sighed loudly and ran a hand through his hair.

“What’d you thank me for after all that yelling? Geez, thanks a lot for making me feel like an ass…” He left the doorway and joined Itachi on the couch. He plopped down, making Itachi bounce in his seat, and propped his feet up on the coffee table in front. “So who’s the chick this time? Don’t tell me it’s my cousin, Ino, yeah. It’s bad enough working for an Uchiha, but to be related ’em, even through marriage? Hah, I’d probably go jump off a bridge. So, Uchiha-boy, is it her or is it not?”

To show his amusement, a corner of Itachi’s mouth quirked up. “Sasuke would never allow it.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I mean, they never liked each other as kids either. Smart girl, that one is, no matter how annoying she can get.” Deidara gave a thoughtful hum, dropping his legs from the table and crossing them underneath him as he turned around to face Itachi. “So, who’s this girl you’re seeing this time? What’s her name?”

“I don’t remember.”

Deidara gave the older man a disgruntled look. “You know, I used to feel bad for you. But now I kinda don’t. I mean, your dad’s been throwing all these babes at you, and you don’t even meet up with them. You’ve got all the time in the world to do whatever you want, but all you do is work. You’re not always gonna be able to find satisfaction in your work, you know.”

Automatically, Itachi uttered an apology: “I’m sorry.”

“You better be sorry, yeah. You’ve got rich girls throwing themselves at your feet, and all you care about is hiding out in some dude’s apartment!” As if he had exhausted himself in trying to make sense of his friend’s situation, Deidara rubbed his eyes with hands. “Man, what is wrong with you?”

The question made him wonder. The women his father had chosen over the long months were indeed attractive. Some of them had proven to possess far more than beauty and wealth; he remembered the intellect and sharp wit of many of those his father had presented to him. He couldn’t think of a single fault any of them possessed that would have turned him away, so why did he lack an interest in them? Did the fault, then, lie with him? Was there a factor within himself that resulted in a subsequent lack of interest for women?

No, he concluded, furrowing his brow in silence. There wasn’t anything of the sort. He had pursued women in the past, he told himself. He had never built a solid relationship with one before, but he was certain that he had once held some sort of desire for members of the opposite sex. Then, he reasoned logically, the fault could only lie with the women themselves. But what fault was it that caused his disinterest? What made him turn them away?

Could it be, perhaps… a foreign element? Itachi pursed his lips tightly at this thought, looking intently at the black screen ahead of him and barely aware of the fact that he had uttered this new thought aloud.

“Foreign element? What’re you talking about?”

Deidara’s voice disrupted Itachi’s internal monologue. Itachi glanced at the younger man with an inquisitive look. “Pardon?” He watched Deidara scrunch his face together.

The blond man heaved a sigh and made to leave. “Right. You’re obviously ignoring this lowly commoner’s opinions, so I’ll just go back to my work and quit trying to help you see the error of your ways or whatever.”

“Quite the contrary. After your proposal, I dissected my absent interest in women and came to the conclusion that it may be the result of an outside influence rather than an internal one.”

Deidara gave him a weird look. “…You don’t say.”

“It seems that I’ve been uninterested only toward the women my father tried to assert on me. I don’t recall experiencing any indifference toward those that I have pursued on my own in the past.”

“You… had a girlfriend before?”

Clearly, his blond friend was missing the point. Itachi ignored the inquiry and continued on; “I need to find a method in which I can deliver these thoughts to my father. Unfortunately, a direct confrontation is out of the question. But if he were to be approached by someone he thinks is wholly unrelated to the matter…” He turned to Deidara.

A wary look plastered on Deidara’s face. “What? What are you talking about? Wait a  — Wait a minute! I know what you’re doing! Don’t bring me into your family’s personal business! I already do enough for your stupid family, okay? I’ve got an atrium to finish, a new office building and—”

What interrupted Deidara’s panicked ranting brought sheer joy to his eyes. A rapid succession of knocks rattled the words out of their conversation and the two turned towards the front door.

“I know you’re in there, Itachi! Get out of there right now!”

Itachi could have scowled if he hadn’t seen the look of relief passing across Deidara’s face. His eyes narrowed when the blond quickly fled to open the door. Traitor, he branded internally, though he knew that he would have done the same if he happened to be in Deidara’s shoes.

Everything happened far too quickly. The moment Deidara opened the door, his father burst into the room with a furious expression set into his face (the cause of all his wrinkles, Itachi noted wryly) and roughly took hold of his arm.

“You’re disgracing the Uchiha name with your ridiculous antics! I won’t allow it!”

In this manner, Itachi allowed his father to drag him out of the apartment, disliking the way Deidara was cheekily grinning at him as he left with his father and loathing the loud banging the door to Deidara’s apartment made when it was shut in front of his face.

Watching a door fade into the distance had never been more depressing.

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In the car, Itachi suffered through his father lecturing him about upholding the family’s reputation and behaving like a gentleman. When he was done with that, his father moved on to his thoughts on Itachi’s apparent lack of interest in dating. Itachi listened to his father express his growing concern about the future of the family, his eldest son in particular.

“I just don’t understand, Itachi. When I was your age, I was already married to your mother. You were growing inside her! Our family was just beginning to grow. Don’t you want that, Itachi? A family? What about — What does that driver think he’s doing?”

Itachi felt the car swerve to the side as it sliced through the lanes.

“Keep to one side, teenage crazies,” his father mumbled darkly to himself as he passed by a rowdy group in a minivan. “Anyway, you’re well past the age where you’re free to hop around. You don’t have your youth anymore, and you and I both know it’s high time to settle down, son. I said keep to one side! I’ll run you down, I swear to God!”

 The red minivan pulled around the lanes to drive close by. A window rolled down, and a man with obnoxiously styled hair stuck his middle finger out. “Calm your shit, old man! Haha!”

“That little…!”

Itachi tapped the dashboard. “You missed the exit.”

Fugaku nearly slammed his foot on the brakes. “What?” he seethed.

Itachi pointed with his finger. “There. Right there,” he said as the signpost flashed by.

Fugaku looked as if he wanted to rip off the steering wheel of the car. He made a rather illegal U-turn, nearly crashing into the side of the red minivan full of “teenage crazies” and earning a cry of “fucking old man!” from them, and drove across the lanes to get to the exit.

“I don’t believe that was a necessary course of action,” Itachi was compelled to point out.

“Goddammit! Don’t you get it, Itachi?” Fugaku shouted furiously as he stomped hard on the brakes. Thankfully their earlier actions had put some distance between the other drivers and themselves and there weren’t many cars affected by the sudden halt. Fugaku turned to his eldest son and continued; “I’m old, Itachi! I’m not going to be around for much longer, and I don’t want to leave you like — like —!”

Itachi watched his father struggle for the right words for what seemed like hours before the proud old man finally sighed, sagging his shoulders and turning away.

“Like my father. He died early on, and I don’t—I don’t want that to happen to you. I don’t want to leave you without knowing if you’re… That you’re happy, Itachi. I just want you to be happy.”

They sat silently in the car, both he and his father unspeaking. It wasn’t until the distant sound of police sirens that Itachi took the initiative to break it.

“I understand.”

“…Yeah. I suppose you do.” Fugaku sighed again, this time to regain his composure, and turned his focus back to the car. “Let’s get out of here before the cops do. And, uh…” Fugaku awkwardly shifted gears to right their car and drive in reverse far enough for them to get onto the ramp leading to their desired exit. “Let’s not mention this little highway incident to your mother when we get home, alright?”

“Understood.”

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They entered the Yugakure estates with little trouble, and Itachi noted the familiarity of his surroundings. The large Colonial house standing impressively behind a marble fountain in the courtyard caught his attention immediately.

“You were here when you were young,” Fugaku quipped suddenly, as if reading his thoughts. “It was for a charity event, years ago. It’s the day you fell into the lake and had to have Kisame fish you out, remember?”

Itachi’s mood soured at the memory. He remembered it very clearly. How could he ever forget when he was rescued by a terrifying-looking man? Of course, Itachi learned very quickly later on that the large man was hardly the monster he’d imagined him to be. The frown on his face quickly turned into a smile as he remembered that Kisame’s eldest daughter would be turning seven soon. Itachi made a mental note to drop by this year.

“Out of the car, Itachi.”

Itachi unbuckled his seat belt and couldn’t keep the feeling of dread from consuming him. He closed the door to the car and looked up to see his father greeting a man in a white suit. The man was roughly a head taller than his father, with noticeably western features aside from his bright, blond hair and large, broad shoulders. Then he remembered that the man was, in fact, from Austria and had taken a Japanese name for the convenience of his Japanese business partners.

“Takahashi,” he heard his father say, “it’s been a long time! You look well!”

Takahashi laughed, the sound deep and friendly, and patted his stomach. When he spoke, there was a hint of an accent in his words, but nothing so pronounced. “Well, my wife had been keeping me on a strict diet… It was a difficult struggle, but I don’t regret it at all.”

“I know how that’s like. Mikoto has all but locked the refrigerator in our home and keeps track of everything that’s bought from the market. She’s even taken a page from your wife’s book and started cooking meals herself…”

Takahashi patted Fugaku’s shoulder and gave a friendly smile. “It’ll get better after the first few months. Hey, if I made it, then so can you.”

Fugaku chuckled in response, and turned back. “Itachi, come over and say hello.”

Itachi pulled himself away from their car and approached the two businessmen in front of the house. He gave a short, respectful bow in greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yugakure-san.”

“You’ve turned into a fine young man over the years, Itachi! I hardly even recognized you!” The hand that had been on his father’s shoulder was now on Itachi’s. It felt warm and heavy, something Itachi had not expected.

When he straightened from his bow, he saw the fond smile on the fifty-something man’s face. It was oddly refreshing, and he could see a genuine, warm cheer in the man’s blue eyes.

Takahashi stepped forward to lead his two visitors to his home. “Come, let’s not stand around out here. We’ve got much to do, haven’t we?”

They entered the grand house and went down a corridor to the left. As they walked down the carpeted hall, Takahashi spoke amicably about his daughter.

“Hibari’s a shy girl, so don’t take her silence as dislike, or anything like that. It might take a while for her to warm up to you, but I know you’ll get along.”

Music began floating down, and Itachi recognized it to be one of Chopin’s light piano sonatas. It wasn’t a difficult piece to play, but it certainly wasn’t at a beginner’s level. He couldn’t exactly say that he was impressed by it; his father had introduced him to many women who were very capable of conveying the thunderous passion in Beethoven’s pieces or follow through the complex demands present in those of Liszt’s.

Playing Chopin was a very womanly thing, he felt. It was light and airy; delicate, even. Though, even Itachi couldn’t dismiss the unusual strength behind the music that lead them through the halls. To say that she — Hibari — was talented would be an understatement.

“Is that your daughter playing?” Itachi heard his father ask with an approving look.

The other man replied in the affirmative. “She’s been playing a lot more these days. She’s probably anxious to meet you.”

Further down the hall was an open door, the light coming from the room bathing the adjacent walls with a bright, radiant glow. By the time they came to the room, the music had reached its climax, the notes carrying it moving higher and higher until it stilled ever so slightly before it began its descent to its end.

Takahashi knocked on the door before he strode inside. “Hibari, there’s someone to see you.”

Sitting at the grand piano in the room was a young woman with very distinct features; a rosy complexion, warm, amethyst eyes, and silver hair that fell around her shoulders. She idly twirled her hair with her left hand, and tapped the rest of the music on the piano with her right.

Itachi couldn’t help but feel that the woman looked somewhat familiar. But he quickly brushed the thought aside for a later time.

Takahashi stood beside his daughter, who was smiling prettily from her seat at the piano. “Hibari, you already know Fugaku-san.”

She made to stand, but Fugaku stopped her with a hand and a shake of his head. “No need,” he assured. “Don’t mind my being here; I’m not the one for whom this appointment is for.” He turned and grabbed Itachi’s arm, pulling him closer.

Itachi ignored how he’d nearly tripped over his stumbling feet and tried not to shoot his father a glare too obviously.

“This is my son, Itachi,” Fugaku introduced with one of his business smiles. “Say hello, Itachi.”

Itachi gave his father a quick glance before submitting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, not caring that it was exactly word-for-word what he had said to her father not even five minutes ago.

Unaware of this, Hibari gave Itachi a warm smile in response. “Likewise.”

Perhaps, Itachi found himself admitting, if their circumstances had differed, he would have found her smile to be charming; maybe he would say that it brought a certain light to her face. And yes, she was a pretty woman. It was in her eyes that she housed her beauty; they were a stunningly bright purple, something he had not seen before. Her hair was also a shade he’d never seen before. Blond strands that were so pale in color that it looked silver.

Everything about her was bright, nearly as bright as the room they were in. Itachi was convinced that the saying “blinded by beauty” would apply here. He idly wondered if the room would darken significantly if she were put away. She would be an environment-friendly addition to any household if so, not to mention economically helpful. This was certainly an appealing thought.

His father cleared his throat. “Let’s leave our children alone to get acquainted,” he proposed cheerfully.

“Of course,” the other man agreed. “And we have business to discuss! The fundraiser event next week isn’t going to plan itself, after all. Come, we can talk about it in my office.” Takahashi began to lead his friend aside to exit the room.

Before Fugaku followed, he grabbed hold of Itachi’s shoulder and squeezed hard. “Don’t ruin this,” he threatened in a barely-heard hiss. “And will it kill you to smile?”

Itachi forced the corners of his mouth to turn up. He could feel his cheeks strain to hold the motion, but it must have been satisfying enough as his father let go of him at last to follow the larger man out of the room. The door that slammed shut after the two fathers sounded hollowly against the ornately decorated walls of the room.

It was then that Itachi noticed for the first time just how ornate; the floral, art-deco wallpaper pasted against the walls was sectioned off by ivory beams that ran down from the ceiling against the sides of the room. At each corner were stronger beams, column-like, with a carved relief of a cherub leaning over the top and proudly holding a trumpet to its mouth. The carpeted floor was a dark red, almost maroon, and brought out the deep emerald leaves and vines that spidered through the flowers on the walls. A massive chandelier hung overhead, providing more than enough light to illuminate the room, and made the elegant grand piano glow with a light he had only seen at concert halls where he had performed many years ago.

Right in the middle of all this ornate greatness were two figures: a man and a woman, who stared at everything but each other in silence.

A light note shattered that silence, even startling him and the young lady who, in her idle fingering of the keys from earlier, had pressed down on one that forced the wooden hammer inside to strike a string and release a single note that died quickly when she jerked away in surprise.

She moved her hands away from the piano then, stroking her hair, her eyes trained forever on the black and white keys before her. She sat prettily in front of the piano, in complete and utter silence, the anxiety brimming inside showing only by the slightest crease in her brow, the fleeting look in her odd eyes, and the worrying of her bottom lip.

Itachi found himself wondering how many suitors she’d gone through before him. Which one was he? The fifth? The sixth? And he remembered her father’s words, telling him she was a shy girl, telling him she would warm up to him in good time.

She was Itachi’s ninth, but she was the first who showed the slightest potential in that firm reluctance she held in wanting to take time to know someone before opening up herself.

Perhaps, he thought with some distant hope, she could be the one.

“You play well,” Itachi finally said. He smiled, then, putting his best into it.

Her hands moved back to the piano keys; whether it was an unconscious movement or not, he couldn’t tell.

“Thank you.” It was uttered automatically, without meaning. She did not even spare him a glance.

Itachi approached her carefully, moving around the piano to join her. He found her running her fingers over the keys again, playing the music silently, quietly; for herself and herself only. He recognized the piece and moved his hand to intercept her’s in the middle of the melody, breaking the silence and playing clearly for the two of them. He had barely played five notes when she suddenly struck her palm against the keys.

An angry, discordant sound broke the flow of music, and Itachi watched with some bewilderment as she rose to her feet.

“While I am certain that you are a good man,” she said, her voice filling the room so fully, “I’m afraid I cannot accept anything you have to offer. I must ask you to leave.”

There was a period of static tension in which Itachi could do nothing but stare. A beat or two of it passed before the woman finally turned, revealing a stern face. All the luminescent brightness had disappeared from her face to make room for a dark, furious expression. He was also quick to note that the room had not, in fact, been affected by this sudden change in any matter.

“Why are you still here?” she demanded. “There is no reason for you to see me, not now or in the future, so I ask that you please take your leave now!”

So he did. He calmly stood from the piano and crossed the room to the door. As he left the, the thought of giving some sort of an apology came to his head and he turned around. But before he could say a word, the angry eyes of the young woman before him stole away his intent, and Itachi could do nothing as she slammed the door in his face.

He stood there for some time, mulling over the bizarre occurrence. In his meditation, he was able to pull out the vaguest notion of something having gone oddly awry. Had he, he wondered, just been rejected? The thought didn’t sit as well with him as he’d often imagined it would. After all, it allowed for the perfect opportunity to slip out of yet another one of his father’s plans to marry him off.

But rather than a joyous relief there was a gloomy disappointment that churned his stomach as he pondered on his earlier theory of there being a foreign element responsible for his failed courtship experiences. Had he been mistaken in believing there was no flaw residing in him? Was there something wrong with him, and not the women? What was the fault? What had he done now that was different from his previous relationships during his time in college? What was he doing wrong?

“Ah, sir…?”

A kind voice snapped him out of his thoughts and Itachi turned to face the intruder. There was an elderly man standing in the hall sporting a dark suit and peering at him with a knowing look. A butler?

“Pardon my intrusion, sir,” he began, “But would you like me to escort you to Yugakure-san’s office?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Itachi followed the man out of the corridor and up a flight of stairs. They walked down another hall and stopped before an open door that revealed modestly-furnished room, one with a heavy oak desk and a five-level bookcase stuffed with thick books and binders. A potted plat sat in the corner, soaking up the sun from the large windows in the back.

His father was sitting beside Takahashi, the two of them overlooking the flurry of the documents spread over the wide surface of Takahashi’s desk. Fugaku wore his glasses at the edge of his nose as he flipped through a packet, and looked up only when the butler politely knocked on the door frame.

Upon seeing his son at the door with the butler, Fugaku’s whole face seemed to sag along with the corners of his mouth. His eyes, however, blinked owlishly at him, a hint of incredulity shining in the disappointment that also lay present.

Itachi watched his father sigh and toss the packet onto the desk. His glasses followed suit, and Takahashi gave his father an inquisitive look. From the corner of his eye, he also saw the butler leave the room and pass down into another hallway.

“Not even ten minutes?” he heard his father ask, his tone weary.

“She asked me to leave,” Itachi quipped with the hopes of preventing another of his father’s tiring lectures.

His father was, for once, rendered speechless.

Takahashi only scratched his head. “Really? That’s odd… Is that all she did? Because she usually throws people out herself.”

The expression on his father’s face, Itachi decided, was something worth having gone through such a bizarre ordeal. It was a mixture of absolute bafflement and horror, a look he’d seen on Neji when the young Hyuuga finally discovered who was courting Hinata.

“She didn’t hurt you or anything, did she? I’m terribly sorry if she did… She really doesn’t mean anything she says or does. She’s just a very shy girl. You understand, right?”

Itachi caught the pleading tone in his voice, and he was a bit taken aback by the matching look on the man’s face. He quickly glanced at his father, who looked torn between slapping Takahashi in the back of the head and patting his shoulder comfortingly.

“She… Hibari means well,” Takahashi continued, “Really, she does.” He looked down at his hands, and quickly rose to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck slowly. “Her mother died early on, and I’ve spoiled her as she grew up. Maybe that’s why she’s like this, because I spoiled her a lot. I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time, so I just.. did what I thought was best for her. I wanted her to have the best, so I gave her the best. We were close, and… My wife — My second wife — Hibari took a long time getting used to having to share her father, and of welcoming a stranger into the family. I think, even now, she puts up with Kagami for my sake and that she’s seeing these omiais the same way. Recently, though, she’s gotten more… expressive about where she stands.”

Takahashi looked up at last, giving Itachi a strained smile. It was the first time Itachi had ever seen the man look uncertain. Granted, the last time he’d seen Takahashi in person was when he was eight, but that was besides thee point.

“Itachi,” Takahashi began, “I understand if you decide to cancel this arrangement. I’ll hold nothing against you. This is a choice you’re free to make.”

Itachi’s eyes immediately flicked to his father, to see what he thought of it. Fugaku was silent, and solemnly so, patiently waiting his son’s response.

There it was again, Itachi thought as he faced Takahashi, the perfect opportunity to slip out of his unwanted predicament, if only for a little while. He knew his freedom wouldn’t last; perhaps a month or two at most. He would be free to do whatever he wanted, not that he had much to do aside from working; which, and Deidara had gotten it right, was beginning to grow tiresome.

Things he used to find an interest in — flying out for business trips, being interviewed, attending board meetings, checking company stocks, reviewing court cases — he had now began to dump onto Sasuke. His brother took the extra work as if they were small favors, taking care of things faster than Itachi could have done himself.

His father was right. He was getting old.

And old meant senile.

Perhaps that’s why Itachi did what he did next:

“Thank you for your concern, Takahashi-san. But I don’t have any intention of canceling our arrangement.”

Takahashi — and his father — looked relieved, the enthusiasm creeping visibly back into him. He came up to him to place both hands on his shoulders, and smiled warmly at him. “You’re a good man, Itachi. And my daughter seems to think so, if she hasn’t harmed you in any way.” There was a chuckle, and suddenly, he was being embraced. “Thank you.”

Itachi, being taller than his father, had the wonderful fortune of not having his face completely smushed against the broad shoulder of the large man hugging him, and was able to see the faint smile his father had.

And, for a brief, fleeting moment, Itachi could see twenty years’ worth of stress and fatigue melt away to reveal a younger, happier face; a face that resembled more like the one of his father before that terrible heart attack, before that sudden downward plunge his company took in the stock market, and before his eldest son was shot at by a former financial executive.

It was the face of a man who still believed he could change the world.

.

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