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Kisame sat with his partner around a campfire as the sun went down over the forest they were hiding out in, on their way to complete a rather minor mission.

There was a truly horrifying choking sound, and Kisame whirled around to see Itachi holding the sleeve of his cloak to his mouth as he coughed, his shoulders heaving as he tried and failed to breathe. Kisame told himself not to panic, he really did, but he was suddenly ten feet to the left of where he'd been a moment ago with one hand on Itachi's shoulder and the other pressed against his chest, unsure of what to do but acting on pure instinct.

To Kisame's surprise and immense relief, it seemed to work. Itachi stopped sounding like he was going to die and took a deep, shaky breath in as Kisame rubbed small circles into his back.

For a little while, the only sound was Itachi's harsh breathing and Kisame's own heartbeat in his ears.

"You okay?" asked Kisame, and Itachi nodded, black eyes devoid of any sort of discernible expression.

"I'm fine," he said, a slight rasp in his voice, and they went back to their original positions, Kisame picking up his food again without much interest. His eyes shifted to Itachi, who was sitting at the corner of his vision staring at the fire, holding a pair of chopsticks but not making any sort of attempt to use them. Kisame's eyes narrowed. Could it be that Itachi wasn't eating enough? It was certainly plausible…

Kisame finished his own cardboard-tasting meal in record time in preparation for his upcoming ruse, and glanced over at Itachi again. Itachi still hadn't made a move to suggest that he was planning on finishing his food, and Kisame cleared his throat.

Itachi turned towards him with a question in his eyes.

"Are you planning on eating that?" asked Kisame. Itachi considered his food for a moment before shaking his head, dark hair flashing slightly in the firelight.

"No, I'm not particularly interested in fish," said Itachi, handing Kisame his plate.

“What kind of foods do you even eat?" asked Kisame, hoping it wasn't too out of the norm to ask questions like that. Itachi stared into the trees for several seconds before answering, his expression giving nothing away.

"Well... I haven't had anything I particularly like in a long time, but I really enjoy onigiri." After a pause, he added, "and dango. And pocky."

Desserts, huh. Kisame tried really, really hard not to find that both adorable and a little bit depressing, given he probably hadn't had any of those foods in years, but failed miserably on both counts.

"That sounds good," said Kisame, swallowing the last of Itachi's untouched fish. "Honestly, I'd kill for some pocky right about now."

Itachi let out an amused huff of breath, but his face didn't change from its usual apathetic expression, which mildly disappointed Kisame. He sort of wanted to know what Itachi looked like when he smiled.

Maybe that was an ulterior motive for wanting to know what foods Itachi liked. Kisame forced that thought to the back of his mind and spread a blanket on the ground in front of the fire- although not too near- so he could sleep.

Kisame closed his eyes, then opened them again as another theory occurred to him. Was Itachi not sleeping enough? Was he exhausted? Cold?

"I can take first watch," Kisame offered, sitting back up.

"Hm?” Itachi said, mildly surprised. "That's okay, I don't need much sleep."

Right. That was up there with 'I'm not hungry' on the list of Itachi's Bullshit Excuses For Making Unhealthy Decisions. Jeez, no wonder he was sick. How had Kisame never paid attention to this sort of thing before?!

"I don't think sleeping is going to do me much good tonight," said Kisame. He was being honest, really. Itachi was going to be on his mind nonstop for days at least- he might as well try to think some things through tonight.

"If you insist," said Itachi, lying down on the forest floor with his bag as a pillow.

Unacceptable. Kisame picked up his blanket and threw it at Itachi unceremoniously, along with an extra cloak folded into a small rectangle. Itachi sighed and wrapped himself up in Kisame's blanket, putting the cloak underneath his head and closing his eyes.

"Thank you, Kisame," he said. Kisame settled into his guard position for the night with a feeling of triumph, for some reason. Who knew why.

It took some time for Itachi to fall asleep, as he kept coughing, but he finally rifled through his bag for something that apparently stopped the coughing fits effectively enough for him to sleep.

Kisame let his eyes rest on his partner's sleeping face, pale in the firelight, and wondered why he cared so much. Why did he want to see Itachi smile anyway? What did it matter to Kisame if he succumbed to his unknown illness? Other than Itachi's frankly terrifying abilities as a shinobi, Kisame couldn't possibly justify his attachment to the Uchiha without betraying every lesson his village had ever taught him.

Fuck Kiri anyway, thought Kisame. It didn't matter what he'd learned there, but the Akatsuki wasn't really an ideal place for getting a crush on your partner either.

Well, for more than one reason, it wouldn't do to have Itachi die on him, so Kisame started thinking about ways to help his partner- or at least figure out what was wrong- without seeming too... interested. Attached. Worried.

(He was all of those things, but Itachi didn't need to know.)

His current plan of action was to try several mundane things to improve Itachi's quality of life and see if that helped, but if that didn't work... Kisame wondered how far he would go to try and cure Itachi.

He'd only just begun to notice, but he was certain Itachi's illness wasn't a run-of-the-mill cold. It was either the result of chronic deprivation of something in Itachi's life, or…

Kisame cut off that train of thought before it could get started. What he really didn't need was another stressor in his already unconventional life. What he did need, however, was a list of restaurants in the nearest town.

---

Itachi woke with a start the next morning, his Sharingan activating as he took in the sight of Kisame sitting cross-legged on a log in front of the smoldering remains of their campfire.

"I was under the impression that you would wake me when my shift came," he said, in a somewhat accusatory tone.

"I didn't really feel tired," said Kisame, shrugging one broad shoulder. "Anyway, you've got me thinking. Do you want to stop at a restaurant today?"

Itachi arched an eyebrow at Kisame.

"What?" he asked.

"For some actual food," said Kisame. "It's not like we have to hurry. All we're doing is assassinating a feudal lord of some tiny, godforsaken country in the middle of nowhere. It's not like our target is going to move anytime soon."

“I suppose,” relented Itachi, standing up and fixing his ponytail in one fluid motion. The two of them packed up and walked into town in a comfortable silence, only broken by Itachi clearing his throat and coughing a few times. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the sudden, violent bout of hacking coughs that had nearly given Kisame a heart attack the previous night, but Kisame still grimaced internally at the further evidence of his partner’s sickness. Hopefully there was something Kisame could do to help.

---

They ended up at a mostly empty restaurant with a total of three staff members and a delightfully familiar menu that made Kisame wonder if Itachi ever felt homesick. He didn’t mention it, of course, just watched Itachi’s face for any sort of interest as he perused the choices.

“You said you liked onigiri, right?” asked Kisame. Itachi nodded slowly, and Kisame reached over to point it out on Itachi’s menu.

“Ah,” said Itachi, sounding strangely stilted. Kisame frowned, confused, but as he pulled his hand back, it brushed against Itachi’s and Kisame nearly froze in shock.

Itachi’s hand was cold. Kisame filed that information away for later and waved the waitress over, ordering for himself and Itachi, who stayed silent as he handed over his menu.

Their food arrived soon enough, and Kisame immediately tore into his, thankful that he finally had something other than preserved mission rations to eat. In the corner of his vision, Itachi steadily picked at his onigiri. Hopefully he was actually enjoying it, thought Kisame, but it was difficult to tell, as always. Itachi glanced over at Kisame once the latter had finished his food and was trying to savor his tea as opposed to drinking the whole cup in five seconds flat.

“Are you still hungry?” asked Itachi.

“A bit,” admitted Kisame, “but you should finish your food. I’ll just order another dish.”

“Are you sure?” asked Itachi. “I don’t eat much…”

“Yeah,” said Kisame. “I’m sure.” Itachi nodded and Kisame noticed with some satisfaction when he finished his meal. Maybe it wasn’t everything Itachi likely needed to keep himself in top shape, but it was a start.

Or maybe it was only Kisame’s personal opinion that most things could be fixed with food, if not by fighting. In his defense, though, even if it wasn’t the root of his sickness, Itachi needed to eat more.

“Okay, now dessert,” said Kisame, standing up to pay for their food. “They don’t have it here, but I saw a shop down the street.”

“Kisame, we don’t need more food,” said Itachi, sounding mildly alarmed.

“Live a little,” said Kisame. “I’m going to buy you pocky, then, if you don’t want to come with me. Wait for me on the other end of town.”

“I’ll come with,” relented Itachi with a slight sigh. Kisame smiled to himself. Maybe it was his imagination, but Itachi seemed happier already. Thus was the power of a good meal, thought Kisame. Hopefully, dessert would have a similar effect. If not, at least it would taste good.

---

Several minutes later, Itachi and Kisame continued into the forest on the other side of the village, walking in silence as they enjoyed their respective desserts.

“Thank you for the food, Kisame,” said Itachi, and Kisame nodded.

“Sure, anytime,” he replied. That was the thing about relatively easy missions like this one- they had time to do the things they liked on the way.

A few hours of walking later, Kisame looked up to realize that their path had been getting steadily more obscured by a thick fog.

“It’s like back in Kiri,” observed Kisame, stopping to examine the mist. It wasn’t natural- rather, it bore traces of unfamiliar chakra that suggested it was purposeful.

“We’re at the border between lands,” explained Itachi. “I am certain this is meant to deter intruders.”

“That’s no problem,” said Kisame with a shrug. “Mist won’t have any effect. Itachi, follow me.” Itachi nodded and followed in Kisame’s footsteps as he picked his way through the mist until they came to a riverbank and Kisame flung an arm out to his side to stop Itachi from walking into the water.

“Just water?” he muttered to himself, dropping to one knee to examine the soft, slightly ominous lapping of the tide against the shore. Itachi glanced around, his Sharingan activating, and his jaw tightened.

“There are traps spread in intervals across the surface of the water,” he informed Kisame under his breath. “If we trigger them, we’ll get shot. However, the spaces between the traps may be enough to-”

“I don’t think we can go over the river,” said Kisame, standing up.

“Why not?” asked Itachi.

“The water can’t be walked on,” said Kisame, letting his foot sink through the surface to demonstrate. “The only way across is to swim the whole way without breaking the surface, to avoid the traps.”

Itachi was silent for a long while, and Kisame turned to look at him.

“Well, what do you make of it?” he prompted. The corner of Itachi’s mouth twisted into a slight grimace.

“There are no bodies of water near Konoha where children are taught to swim in turbulent waters such as these,” he said tightly. Oh, thought Kisame.

“That’s no problem,” said Kisame. Itachi gave him a questioning glance, as if wondering if Kisame had another motive behind his words.

“It’s quite a wide river,” said Itachi. “Are you certain there’s no other way across?”

“Yeah,” said Kisame. “Unfortunately. We had these types of traps in Kiri, and I saw more than one shinobi get skewered. Not that I doubt your abilities, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to attempt an over-water crossing of a river this size that’s rigged up with traps like this.” Itachi nodded and turned to the water, face perfectly blank.

“Again, that’s fine,” said Kisame hurriedly. “You just have to hold your breath. I can’t do any fancy jutsu without revealing us, but I can swim well. Ready?”

“I suppose,” said Itachi. Kisame hesitated for a moment, then added,
“I have to hold on to you. Is that okay?”

“That’s fine,” said Itachi. Trying not to think too hard about what he was doing, Kisame picked Itachi up, held him against his chest, took a running start, and dove into the water. He heard Itachi’s sharp intake of breath as they hit the surface and went under, and Kisame shot forwards through the murky darkness, well aware that Itachi’s lung capacity would only last so long. He kicked harder, reveling in the cold, heavy water that was like a second home to him, but at the same time he knew that the sooner they were on land again, the better.

Kisame and Itachi broke the surface on the other side of the river and Itachi immediately gasped for air, pushing away from Kisame’s grasp to stagger a few feet away on the riverbank, coughing into his sleeve. Even against the jet-black, soaking wet fabric of Itachi’s cloak, Kisame could see a spatter of blood, and he grimaced. The sooner he could figure out a way to help Itachi, he decided, the better, both for Itachi’s wellbeing and Kisame’s own mental state.

(He didn’t want to consider the fact that he might have been running out of time.)

Itachi straightened up, a painfully resigned expression in his eyes, and pushed his hair back from where it stuck to his face in the cold, damp air.

“You alright?” asked Kisame, and Itachi nodded, breathing a small tongue of fire into his pale hands. He couldn’t quite hide the violent shivers racking his body, not when Kisame’s sharp eyes were trained on his body language, watching him like a hawk. But Itachi didn’t need to know that. What he did need, however, was a source of warmth, and Kisame took a detour deeper into the forest on the other side of the river to find somewhere slightly drier for them to rest.

Kisame cleared the fog in a circle when he’d found a suitable place, and Itachi lit a fire in the center, trying to conceal his relief at the sudden heat.

“You should change clothes,” Kisame suggested after a little while. “You’ll get cold.”

“That is inconsequential,” said Itachi. “What about you?”

“Oh, please,” said Kisame. “I’m from Kiri. I’m used to being soaking wet half the time. Listen, I know Konoha isn’t exactly Suna, but it’s not cold, either. Seriously, Itachi, you’ll catch something.” He didn’t mention that Itachi was already ill, and Itachi didn’t bring it up either, only accepted Kisame’s offer of a dry set of clothes.

“How did you keep these dry?” he asked, intrigued.

“My bag is waterproof,” explained Kisame. “As I said, I’m from Kiri.” Itachi nodded and vanished briefly into the woods, then returned, having changed clothes. Kisame was relieved to see that he looked a bit better, having regained some color in his cheeks.

However, Kisame’s attention was immediately drawn by the fact that his extra cloak went all the way down to the ground on Itachi, which was undeniably adorable and definitely not what should have caught Kisame’s eye, but oh well. Itachi still looked cold, though, and Kisame realized that his body temperature didn’t quite regulate itself properly- his mind went back to how cold Itachi’s hand had been that morning, even before having been dunked in a freezing river.

There had to be something more that Kisame could do.

Actually, Kisame realized, there were blankets in his bag. He reached over and pulled one out, only to realize he’d accidentally taken out more than one. Well, no point in just putting them back, he supposed.

Kisame stood up and draped several blankets over his partner’s shoulders, and Itachi made no move to stop him, just kept staring at the fire with a faraway look in his eyes that worried Kisame a little bit.

“Sure you’re okay?” asked Kisame, and Itachi nodded blankly. Kisame sighed and opened his bag again to retrieve a carefully wrapped package of dango that he’d saved from their dessert run that morning. Itachi turned to look, and his eyes widened ever so slightly in surprise.

“Want one?” asked Kisame, holding the sweets out towards Itachi, and Itachi took one, taking a careful bite with a delicacy that was- oh no oh no oh no, thought Kisame- extremely endearing.

“Thank you,” murmured Itachi, pulling the blankets farther around him with one hand. He looked exhausted down to his very bones, thought Kisame, concern spiking in his chest. It was clear that his sickness was taking its toll, even on a mission as minor as this one. Was it getting worse? Kisame hoped not, although his intuition said otherwise.

“I think we should stop here for the night,” said Kisame after a few minutes of silence. He didn’t say ‘because you look really beat,’ or ‘so you don’t push yourself too hard,’ and thankfully Itachi didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to Kisame’s nonverbal cues. He simply nodded and curled up with his back against a tree, Kisame’s extra cloak covering most of his face.

He was asleep within minutes, and Kisame watched him for a while with a growing sense of melancholy. Even while asleep, Itachi’s expression was tense and etched with a hopelessness that made Kisame’s heart ache a little. He couldn’t possibly claim to be an optimistic person himself, not when his own philosophy dictated that he was fated to die a worthless death for his crimes, but it was different, seeing evidence of that same unhappiness on another’s- Itachi’s- face.

He’d be a pariah in Kiri for these feelings, Kisame knew, but he just couldn’t bring himself to care. Every allegiance in his mind was rapidly changing to an unflinching loyalty to one, and only one person. Itachi Uchiha, responsible for the massacre of his own clan, notorious as a criminal and a fugitive, and currently in a restless sleep wearing Kisame’s clothes.

How far would he go for Itachi, Kisame wondered? How hard would he try? What would he do to keep his partner alive, and healthy, and happy?

He had a feeling he would find out, soon enough.

After checking the perimeter of his and Itachi’s little area, Kisame lay down on the ground and told himself to get some sleep. He wouldn’t be of any use running on empty two days in a row.

---

They continued on their journey the next morning, Itachi handing Kisame his blankets back but not bothering to switch clothes again, for which Kisame was actually a bit grateful, as Itachi’s own clothes were still damp. Itachi stopped for a moment to cough, turning away to spit blood onto the path, and Kisame felt his heart sink like a stone. He had known, but not wanted to believe, that Itachi’s illness wasn’t just something he could fix with enough food and warmth and attentiveness, but he had a feeling it was starting to get worse.

 

He needed a new plan of attack. He needed to know more.

They passed a bookstore and a teashop on their way through to the capital city where their target lived, and Kisame stopped.

“Could you get some food?” he asked, pointing to the teashop. “I’ll be in the bookstore, I need something.” Itachi nodded and they split ways for the time being, Kisame’s heart in his throat even at this relatively uneventful stop in their journey. He picked out several books that he thought might contain the information he needed, and met Itachi outside of the teashop.

Itachi handed Kisame a hot cup of green tea and a warm paper bag that Kisame assumed contained pastries.

“Thanks,” said Kisame, and Itachi nodded. The two of them set off down the street again, and Kisame couldn’t help but let his eyes be drawn to Itachi’s hands, which were covered down to the fingers by the sleeves of Kisame’s too-long cloak. Itachi seemed oblivious to it, staring straight ahead as he slowly sipped his tea, but Kisame tried his best not to smile at the sight. It was both adorable and a little heartbreaking, if he was honest with himself.

“The destination is up ahead,” said Itachi. “I think we should wait for nightfall.”

“Sure, sounds good,” said Kisame. “Let’s look for somewhere to spend the day.”

They stopped to sit on a stone bench in a neglected park, and they ate breakfast in silence as Kisame watched rain start to pour off of the roof of the alcove where he and Itachi sat. Kisame pulled one of the books from his bag and started to read once he was sure Itachi wasn’t looking. He decided to give Itachi one of his blankets again, though, and Itachi accepted his offer, his eyes watering from another coughing fit as he rummaged through his own supplies for his mysterious medicine. The expression on his face tightened for a moment, and Kisame couldn’t help the sharp bolt of dread that immediately buried itself in his chest.

The sooner he could finish all these books, the better. He turned back to his reading with renewed determination. Research wasn’t his thing, generally, but it couldn’t be helped.

---

Despite Itachi and Kisame’s brief difficulties in reaching their target, the assassination went off without a hitch, and they escaped the town in a flurry of black feathers, unnoticed.

They had an unspoken agreement to find another way out of the land on the way back- preferably not through the river this time- but Kisame was starting to have his doubts. They’d started through a rocky pass rather than another forest, but the wind was picking up and he’d seen Itachi stumble a few times already, staring straight ahead with a hollow look in his eyes.

Without a word, Kisame stepped closer and pulled Itachi’s arm over his shoulders, resting his own hand on Itachi’s waist and supporting him. Itachi averted his eyes from Kisame’s face, and Kisame felt a little bit bad when he realized he must’ve be hiding his shame, but Itachi’s long, dark lashes provided a stark contrast against his pale cheeks and Kisame felt himself quietly falling for Itachi Uchiha on a freezing cold mountain in the middle of nowhere.

Kisame knew there was no way back from where he was. He was trapped, sinking deeper and deeper every time he found himself noticing the endless darkness of Itachi’s piercing gaze or the way his hair shone and his cheeks flushed in the sunlight or the fact that Kisame’s cloak smoothed heavily over his shoulders.

He was unfairly beautiful, thought Kisame. But he was also stumbling along with Kisame’s help, his ragged breathing all too obvious with the two’s close proximity, and Kisame’s current priority was to save him, not flirt with him. Unfortunately, the books he’d been looking at had given him a profile to associate with the problem, but he still needed a solution.

Itachi stopped walking and pulled his arm away from Kisame’s shoulders as he dropped to his knees, violent, hacking coughs tearing through his body, and Kisame watched as he fumbled through his bag and came up empty handed, a flash of fear showing in his gaze.

Kisame knelt to rub Itachi’s back, smoothing his hair away from his face with the other hand and wishing, wishing he could do something.

He needed the time they didn’t have. He needed an answer. He’d never liked waiting around for things to happen, as he preferred to do things himself, and so he made up his mind that he wouldn’t, couldn’t give up here, even if it seemed like he would never find a way to save his beautiful, terrifying, unknowable partner.

Itachi Uchiha.

Itachi stopped coughing after what felt like an eternity, the resulting heavy silence broken only by his shaky breaths, desperate and broken.

“I’m okay,” he rasped, staggering to his feet and pushing forwards once more. Kisame slid his arm around him once more, and Itachi didn’t resist, simply slumped against Kisame’s side.

Kisame could feel Itachi’s breaths rattling in his chest, and he was suddenly, painfully aware that this was becoming a race against time, a race against whatever was killing his partner from the inside out.

Kisame had never been so determined to win. He pulled Itachi closer against his side and pressed forward, angling himself to block the wind from sucking out whatever heat Itachi had left in his body. If there was one thing Kisame was certain of, it was that he would save Itachi Uchiha, whatever it might take.

---

Kisame rented a hotel room at the first town they came across on the other side of the mountains, half-carrying Itachi up the stairs and helping him take off his sandals and cloak. Itachi dragged himself into bed, curling up into a catlike ball, his breathing still labored. Kisame ducked out of the room for a moment and came back with two cups of tea, filling the room with an herbal fragrance and warm steam. Itachi pushed himself into a sitting position and accepted his cup with an exhausted, grateful nod, letting Kisame press against his shoulder.

“Thank you, Kisame,” he said in a voice so quiet it was barely audible in the stillness of their room.

“No problem,” replied Kisame, finishing his tea and putting the mug on the bedside table.

“You don’t sound like you’re doing too well right now,” he added. Itachi sighed, staring into his cup dejectedly.

“I’m not,” he said, but didn’t elaborate. Kisame supposed it was enough to have gotten Itachi to admit any sort of weakness, anyway. He wasn’t stoic, exactly, but there was nobody he trusted enough to let them truly know him.

Kisame hoped, maybe, that he would become that person one day.

“Anyway,” he said, leaning back against the pillows, “we’re done with our mission. We don’t have anything else urgent currently, so I was thinking…”

“What?” asked Itachi.

“I have some things to do,” said Kisame. “We’re not far from Konoha, really, and I need something from there.”

“That is ill-advised,” said Itachi flatly.

“I don’t need much,” said Kisame truthfully. “It won’t take long. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” Itachi stayed silent for a long while before sighing deeply.

“I’ll accompany you,” he said, and Kisame couldn’t help but feel relieved.

Itachi finished his tea and curled up on his side facing away from Kisame, who stared at the back of his partner’s head for a long while in silence.

“Hey, are you okay with me touching you?” asked Kisame once he’d gathered up the courage.

“Hm,” mumbled Itachi, moving closer to Kisame, who took that as a yes. Kisame draped one arm carefully over Itachi, shifted into a more comfortable position, and closed his eyes.

It was just because he didn’t want Itachi to get cold, Kisame told himself, and sure, maybe that was part of it, but Kisame knew he was kidding himself if he said it didn’t have anything to do with the burning desire in his chest to make Itachi happy.

Of course he picked the most unreadable, mysterious, shattered person to give his whole heart and soul to, thought Kisame. Of fucking course.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

---

Kisame woke the next day with Itachi wrapped up in his arms, which was definitely not how they had fallen asleep, not that Kisame minded much. He got up reluctantly, pulling the covers back over Itachi to avoid waking him up.

He flipped through the notes he’d left in the margins of his books to make sure he knew exactly what he was looking for- after all, it wouldn’t do to be caught in the middle of the Konoha medical library as he tried to search out a specific volume.

Kisame glanced at Itachi to make sure he was really asleep as he concentrated chakra in his hands, hoping it would work. It took him a few tries, even though he had been practicing since the bookstore run, but he finally got a steady green glow to appear around his hands.

All he needed was a little more research, and maybe some ingredients. Finally, the pieces were falling into place. Itachi stirred and sat up, his hair mussed up and his eyes sleepy and soft, and Kisame smiled.

“Morning,” he greeted Itachi, who nodded in reply, frowning when he realized he’d fallen asleep with his ponytail in.

“Feeling better?” asked Kisame, aware that the question skirted dangerously close to a line neither he nor Itachi was ready to cross just yet.

“A bit,” admitted Itachi through a small yawn that drove Kisame a little bit crazy.

“That’s good,” he said instead of ‘oh my god you’re adorable and you break my heart every time I see you and please please please I want you to be safe and well and loved.’ He sat down on the edge of the bed again and ran his hands through Itachi’s hair, undoing the tangles as gently as possible and re-tying his ponytail.
“We should head for Konoha if we’re aiming to get there by tonight,” said Itachi.

“Food first,” said Kisame, grinning at Itachi and patting him on the shoulder. “Can’t go traveling without eating.” Itachi didn’t reply, just shook his head ever so slightly and put on Kisame’s extra cloak again. It occurred to Kisame that Itachi had been wearing his cloak for several days now, but Itachi didn’t seem to care, and Kisame didn’t mind either.

They had apparently crossed into the Land of Fire the previous night, and by Itachi’s estimate it would take at most half a day to get to Konoha once he knew where they had ended up, so Kisame selected another rather small restaurant to eat at. It turned out they had both woken up late, so they ended up just ordering lunch and taking their time, sitting squeezed side by side into a booth. Itachi seemed to be doing better than he had been the night before- at the very least, he had more of an appetite- so Kisame allowed himself to relax a bit as they walked through the thickly wooded lands surrounding Konoha.

It was sunny and warm, unlike how it had been for the previous few days, and although Kisame preferred the rain, he was glad he didn’t have to worry as much about Itachi given the weather.

“We’re nearly there,” announced Itachi at sundown, stopping to point out the walls of a gigantic city through the trees. Kisame nodded and they waited for the sun to go down fully, Itachi scanning the forest with his Sharingan to make sure they remained undetected.

“Stay here,” said Kisame once night had truly fallen and the only light came from the faint stars overhead.

“Sure,” said Itachi. He didn’t need to say he’d cover for Kisame. Even if it was nothing more than a business arrangement yet, their partnership worked like a charm, both shinobi acutely aware of the other’s weaknesses and perfectly willing to compensate for them.

This was going a little bit far even if he justified it as ‘compensating for Itachi’s weaknesses,’ thought Kisame. Sure, teaching himself medical ninjutsu in secret could be useful in the future, but he couldn’t pretend the main reason wasn’t to cure his partner’s sickness.

Kisame pushed all other thoughts to the back of his mind and crushed the metal side door into Konoha’s main medical wing, disarming and knocking out the sleepy Konoha guards inside before they could catch a good glimpse of him.

He didn’t even kill them, thought Kisame with disappointment and pride in equal measure. Itachi never did approve of his bloodlust, anyway.

Kisame pulled the book he was looking for from a shelf, along with, for good measure, a map of where to find important medicinal ingredients. Then he left, looking back longingly at all the things still left for him to destroy. Oh well- this was his top priority, and he didn’t have all the time in the world. He and Itachi left the vicinity as quickly as possible, retreating until Itachi stopped and gestured for Kisame to do the same, scanning the area again with his Sharingan before deactivating it and continuing at a slower pace.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked without looking at Kisame.

“Yeah,” said Kisame. “Thanks.” Itachi nodded in acknowledgement.

“Do you mind me asking what it was for?” questioned Itachi after a short while, letting his curiosity get the best of him for once. Kisame considered telling him, then decided against it. He wouldn’t want to get Itachi’s hopes up, only to crush them on the off chance that Kisame couldn’t find a cure.

“It’s for a friend,” he said instead. Itachi glanced back at him for a moment, one eyebrow quirked in a silent query.

“Do I know him?” he asked.

“...Maybe,” said Kisame. “He’s from Konoha, but... perhaps not. He left a long time ago, after all.” Itachi seemed to accept this explanation, and Kisame was relieved that he didn’t ask any more questions as they walked through the dark, quiet forest, leaves crunching softly under their feet.

“I have a few more errands to run,” Kisame informed Itachi, thinking of the ingredients he still had to gather. Itachi hummed softly and nodded his head.

“You don’t mind, do you?” asked Kisame.

“No,” said Itachi. “That’s fine.” He stopped to cough into his sleeve just then, though, and Kisame wondered if he should really be dragging Itachi all over the continent in this state. It was just as well that he could keep an eye on him, but at the same time…

Kisame shook his head to dispel those thoughts, accepting that while he was worried out of his mind about his partner, Itachi was a formidable shinobi and much stronger than people would assume even about a member of the Akatsuki who managed to slaughter the Uchiha clan alone and in a single night.

It didn’t mean Kisame didn’t have an irrepressible urge to just take care of him, though. He glanced sidelong as Itachi’s pale, drawn face and decided to stop at the next quiet town.

---

The next few days were spent picking through the foothills of a rocky, inhospitable mountain range, Kisame’s hearing carefully attuned to Itachi’s shallow breathing in the thin air. He tried not to hover too much, but he found himself tucking an extra layer around Itachi’s shoulders and asking if he was okay.

I’ll stop now, he told himself as he tucked a stray lock of hair behind Itachi’s ear and pressed his partner’s ice-cold hands between his own, trying to encourage circulation. Itachi gave Kisame a strange look at that, and Kisame cursed his own worried impulses. The last thing he wanted to do was drive Itachi away.

Unfortunately for Kisame, Itachi Uchiha did not give away his trust easily.

“Kisame,” he said a few nights later in a tone of voice that made Kisame freeze.

“Yeah?” asked Kisame.

“You know that you do not have to stay in hotels at night simply because of my condition,” Itachi continued, and Kisame’s heart dropped into his stomach. Shit.

“Itachi, I-” started Kisame, but Itachi cut him off.

“Do you think I’m weak?” he asked, his voice dangerously soft.

“No,” said Kisame vehemently. Itachi looked up, the expression in his eyes somewhere between disappointed and hurt.

“Hm,” he said, standing up and turning towards the door, cloak swirling around his ankles. Kisame stared after him in dumbstruck silence, unable to string together a sentence that would make him stay.

“I will be the judge of my own strength,” was the last thing Kisame heard Itachi say before the door was closed and the room was silent and Kisame was alone, sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring at the place where Itachi had been standing just seconds ago.

No, no, no, no, no, thought Kisame, starting to panic. He got up and wrenched open the door, but the hallway was empty, and even after running downstairs and into the street, he could find no trace of Itachi. The pitch black night resounded with the sound of wingbeats, and Kisame stood gazing up into the sky for who knows how long, lost for words.

He could never hunt down Itachi Uchiha, even in his current state, and Kisame knew it.

Even after all his effort, he didn’t truly know his own partner, did he? He’d been so wrapped up in Itachi the vulnerable, unhappy young man that he’d forgotten Itachi the solitary, indecipherable, dangerous shinobi.

Kisame sank to his knees, staring at the ground blankly. Had he really come this far only to lose Itachi just when the light was finally visible at the end of the tunnel? He’d promised himself that he’d save Itachi if it was the last thing he did, and now-

He stood up, stalking back into the hotel and frightening the receptionist as he walked past. This wasn’t the end, he told himself. When Itachi came back, if he came back, Kisame would be ready. He picked up his bags and walked back out into the night, ignoring the flustered-looking receptionist as he examined the map he’d stolen from Konoha, all the things he needed marked in red on the paper.

Kisame set off down the street, and let the darkness swallow him.

---

Days passed, and then weeks- exactly how long, Kisame wasn’t keeping track. He didn’t want to think about how much time had gone by since Itachi had struck off on his own. Right now, he had one job and one job only.

Kisame kicked in the entrance to the Kirigakure medical storeroom without paying any heed to his old village. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given up the chance to take his revenge and satisfy his own hunger for battle, but he simply didn’t care enough to stop and take the time.

There was only one more ingredient left on his list, and Kisame still harbored a secret, desperate hope that Itachi would wait for him, would know just where he needed to be and when. He had his ways, after all. Those hopes didn’t hold out, though, and Kisame gritted his teeth in disappointment as he carefully removed the rare plant he’d been searching for out of the ground with a gentleness that ran counter to the flare of frustration in his chest. He didn’t give up hope, he really didn’t, but it was getting hard to keep from just tracking Itachi down himself.

Just one last step. One last step, and there would be nothing between Kisame and his goal except Itachi himself. Kisame sat with his back against a rocky outcropping, hiding from the wind as he laid out the supplies and gathered up the chakra he needed. This was for Itachi, he reminded himself. This couldn’t be messed up. With that thought in mind, Kisame closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and began.

---

He woke up to pitch blackness and an ice-cold mountain wind and immediately scrambled to his feet, heart pounding. Had he fallen asleep somehow and fucked up his final chance at his partner’s life and possible forgiveness? Shit, shit, shit- Kisame turned to see a carefully stoppered vial on the ground next to him, and held his breath as he examined it.

He flipped through the pages of his stolen book and compared the images drawn onto the pages to what he held in his hands, and barely contained a triumphant whoop.

He’d done it. He, Kisame Hoshigaki, had mastered enough medical knowledge and jutsu to create a cure to Itachi’s hopeless illness.

On the other hand, he still felt like he was going to pass out, but there was no time to lose. Kisame hauled himself to his feet and made his way down to level ground, watching his footing carefully, until he was stopped by the feather-light touch of a hand against his chest.

Hardly daring to believe his luck, Kisame looked up.

“Itachi,” he breathed.

“I’ve been gone too long,” said Itachi in reply, tugging Kisame closer by the collar to check him over for injuries.

“Yeah, you have,” said Kisame, pulling Itachi into a tight hug before he could argue with himself. Itachi froze for a moment, then slipped his hand into Kisame’s, pulling away in surprise once he felt glass against his palm.

“What’s this?” asked Itachi, turning the vial over in his hands.

“It’s,” said Kisame, “a cure.” Itachi froze, then looked up at Kisame with barely disguised hope flashing in his eyes. God, Kisame had missed him.

“You made this yourself?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Kisame. “It’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.”

“You did all that for me?” asked Itachi wonderingly. “Why?”

“I wanted to see you smile,” confessed Kisame, and Itachi’s eyebrows rose just the tiniest bit, intrigued.

“That seems awfully mushy for a Kiri-nin,” murmured Itachi, but there was no heat behind his words.

“Yeah, well,” said Kisame, then stopped. There was silence for a few seconds, and then Itachi ducked his head slightly and the corners of his lips tilted upwards. Just for a second, mind you, but Kisame’s breath caught at the sight.

“You achieved your goal,” said Itachi. Kisame let out a slightly desperate laugh, like he couldn’t believe this had finally happened and it felt so-

So-

It felt so… anticlimactic, and domestic, and so unlike the Itachi Uchiha Kisame had thought he’d known when he joined the Akatsuki. Kisame was glad that that Itachi had been a lie.

“Does that mean you want me to stop doing all that… stuff?” asked Kisame. Stop giving Itachi extra blankets or tying his ponytail for him or taking him out to restaurants or acting as a wall of muscle and shark skin to keep him safe from the cold and wind?

Itachi shrugged, and that smile was back on his face, small and faint but truly joyful.

“You can keep going if you want to,” he said, and Kisame grinned. That was the closest Itachi would get to ‘yes, please keep doing that,’ and Kisame knew it.

Itachi lifted the vial Kisame had given him and swallowed the contents, face blank, then tucked the empty container into his robes.

“Thank you, Kisame,” he said softly, and Kisame pulled him into another hug rather than trying to find the right words to respond.

“I’m sorry for doubting your faith in me,” said Itachi.

“I’m sorry for doubting your strength,” countered Kisame. Itachi shook his head, laughing under his breath before looking up, his eyes raw and dark and full of expression.

It took Kisame’s breath away.

“Hey,” said Itachi, smiling for the third time in as many minutes.

“I was worried about you,” said Kisame. Itachi nodded, his expression turning serious again.

“I know,” he said, and then “I’m sorry,” in a voice so quiet it sounded like a breath of wind.

“I missed you too,” he continued, “so much. And I knew you’d worry. I just needed… time. To figure everything out for myself.”

“You don’t have to do things on your own anymore,” said Kisame. “You know I’ll help you with anything you need.”

“Are you sure you want to promise that?” asked Itachi, a trace of uncertainty creeping into his voice. Kisame let go of Itachi and took his hand. Maybe he didn’t know everything there was to know about his partner, but he swore to himself that he’d get there one day, if Itachi would let him.

“Yeah,” said Kisame, perfectly honest for once in his life. His promise still stood- if there was one thing he would do no matter what, it was save Itachi Uchiha. He may have rescued him once, but they had a long way to go, and Kisame knew it- it was foolish to think he’d fixed everything.

That was okay, though. They had time now, enough time for Kisame to slow down, take a breath, and teach Itachi Uchiha how to live. They were going to be okay, Kisame thought. They’d be alright.

If there was one thing Kisame was sure of, it was this- cold wind and the smell of rain and Itachi’s fingers laced with his, reassuringly warm and real and alive. They had time, he reminded himself.

They had time.

 

~end~