trust issues

He was surprised that neither Itachi nor Kisame stirred when Kaisuki slowly sat up, bracing herself on one arm and rubbing her eyes with the other. Madara watched her carefully and curiously, waiting to see who it was that had woken the Yurei up.

The girl glanced over at Kisame with bright blue eyes and then directed her gaze over to Itachi, her expression settling on a scowl. For a moment, Madara wondered if she was going to kill the two of them in their sleep, but then she peered around in the darkness for a moment and stood up, brushing herself off and not looking towards them again. Itachi and Kisame still didn’t stir, and Madara couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with them. Normally, it didn’t matter how slightly one of them moved, the other would rouse from their doze instantly to investigate whatever noise had been made.

Khrai stepped around the tree that Kaisuki had been laying beside and headed off into the darkness. Madara considered trying to wake Itachi, but decided against it. Instead, he followed after her, deciding that he’d report back to Itachi whatever he discovered. From there, the living Uchiha could make an appropriate decision on what to do about whatever it was Khrai was doing. Assuming anything needed to be done.

The blue-eyed spirit stalked through the trees and underbrush with purpose, appearing to know exactly where she was going. Either Saeka was directing her or she was also a sensory-type. It was most likely that Saeka was directing her. The only question was: what was Saeka directing her to? And was Kaisuki aware of what was going on?

Madara frowned as he trailed behind Khrai, listening carefully to any sounds of any sort. The forests in Hi no Kuni were pretty quiet at night, especially as late as it was. Even the crickets were sleeping, and there weren’t any owls in the southernmost parts of the country.

When they were about ten minutes out, Khrai lifted Kaisuki’s hands and moved them through a few hand seals. Madara instantly recognized the pattern, as he’d seen it a few times before when Izumi had needed to grow plants out of nothing but soil. A white flurry of light wrapped around Kaisuki’s body momentarily, and when it cleared, a stunningly beautiful blonde was standing there.

For a lengthy couple of minutes, Madara stood there and stared at her. Her hair was ridiculously long and it looked extremely thick, but the way she wore it didn’t hide her pointed ears. His mind was reeling. Was that some kind of body modification, or were her ears naturally like that? What kind of creature had ears like that? All he could think of were the kinds of things he had read about when he was a child. Tales of the fair folk, lore about demons and angels, and exciting epics about adventures and monsters.

What the fuck are you supposed to be?” Madara breathed, astounded. There were very few creatures in lore that had pointed ears – demons came to mind right away, but he couldn’t recall any of the others.

“Konohagakure, eh? I’ll be sure to tear it down for you.”

Don’t you dare! Get back here or I swear I’ll fucking kill you! Hey! GET BACK HERE!!

He’d had a fascination with the concept of demons from the Underworld when he’d been younger, but those illustrations had featured beasts that could hardly be described as humanoid, and this woman wasn’t like that. The only thing inhuman about her were her ears.

After Khrai had resumed her brisk pace, they walked for probably another half an hour before Madara spotted a faint light through the trees. It looked like a campfire. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, and he glanced over at Khrai. Her scowl had darkened as she continued to approach, making no effort at all to conceal her presence.

Part of him sort of wanted to hurry back to Itachi so he could wake the living Uchiha up and inform him that Khrai was behaving somewhat suspiciously. At the same time, however, he wanted to trust Kaisuki, and that meant trusting her spirits. He didn’t know what they were up to. It was possible that she was getting backup so she could take Itachi’s head off his shoulders (like she said she wanted to), but she could also be doing reconnaissance. Or perhaps that was Teara, and she was going to go try to chase him off.

He continued to follow her, deciding it would be best to see what she was actually up to. If it was something terrible, he could get back to Itachi faster than she could. He’d have plenty of time to warn the kid.

Madara glanced at her briefly, frowning again, before he looked back towards the light. It wasn’t very much further, and by that point he could figure that she was definitely heading for it. So, he started jogging towards it, his non-corporeal body moving seamlessly and noiselessly through the shrubbery. At the last line of bushes, he found himself in a very small clearing inhabited by six different people.

None of them were wearing their hitai-ate, and four of them looked like criminals themselves with their ruggedness and scars. The six of them were standing silently and looking through the trees that Madara had just walked through. Their hands were hovering over kunai pouches and the hilts of swords and axes, and they definitely looked ready for battle.

He could clearly hear Khrai’s noisy approach through the shrubbery, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit on the nervous side. He had no idea how strong she was. He didn’t know if she was getting herself into something she wouldn’t be able to get herself back out of. He didn’t know whether or not she’d be able to take on the six of them. She didn’t have a single weapon on her, and the six men standing around the campfire were armed to the teeth. Khrai could potentially get Kaisuki killed if she wasn’t a friend of the sketchy guys she was walking towards.

And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, as usual.” Madara bitterly stated, knowing that no one could hear him.

The sound of Khrai’s approaching footsteps became ever louder, until she tore her way through the last line of bushes, never once looking down to watch where she was stepping. He watched her eyes skirt over the six faces, sizing them up. Her expression darkened, but her posture remained non-threatening. Nothing about her suggested that she was worried about getting killed. Madara could only hope that she could back up her confidence with skill.

“And what’s a pretty lil’ thing like yourself doin’ out here in the dark?” One of the men asked, his hand resting lazily on his katana. “S’not really safe out here, ya’ know.”

The look on Khrai’s face turned murderous in an instant, but she still didn’t so much as clench her fists. “I’m only going to ask you this once, and I expect you to give me a straight answer,” she practically growled. “You’ve been following Itachi and Kisame for a little over a week now. Are you stalking them so you can kill them and collect on their bounty?”

Madara stared at Khrai. He couldn’t get a read on her outside of how obviously she despised the six men. She didn’t act cocky at all. There was no arrogance about her. It wasn’t that she thought she was stronger than them, but rather that she knew she was stronger than them. He hadn’t seen her in a fight before. He hadn’t even seen how she behaved in the face of any kind of a threat.

Izumi came forward pretty often, and Saeka popped up once in a while to tell them that they needed to steer clear of a group of people or something. Khrai, however, never showed up. The only time Madara had seen her was the day Kaisuki had shown up for the first time, when Itachi had managed to anger the blonde. She seemed to be inclined to not involve herself outside of talking to Kaisuki, Saeka, and Izumi. She hadn’t even shown herself to yell at Itachi again as of yet.

And sure, it had only been a little over two weeks, but it wasn’t like Itachi was being much less cold towards Kaisuki and Izumi. Saeka didn’t stick around long enough to get any of the living Uchiha’s passive-aggressive hostility.

The one who had spoken before – their apparent leader – blinked, looking slightly surprised. Then, his eyes narrowed and his hand loosely wrapped around the hilt of the katana. “What, are you tryin’ to cash in their lives too? Because that’s gonna be a bit of a problem, miss.”

Madara scowled at the man. If Khrai butchered them, he was going to cheer.

Khrai snorted, “Hell no. I’m traveling with them.” she told them without a hint of hesitation. “I was going to let you go if you politely fucked off and never came back, but your attitude is pissing me off so I’m gonna have to kill all of you.”

“Kill all of us?” Another one of the men (scumbags) spoke up with a laugh. “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

Khrai didn’t reply at first, simply turned slightly where she stood and stepped into a stance Madara had never seen before. Her right arm was held up in front of her as a guard, while her left was lowered but already in position to swing at any moment.

“It really doesn’t matter,” she finally replied icily, her fists clenched tightly and her eyes narrowing.

He couldn’t imagine where she’d learned the stance she was in, or how she expected it to be helpful against the very sharp objects she would be up against, but he supposed that she had to be smart enough to know when she was outmatched.

Which has to mean that you’re not outmatched, right?” He pondered aloud.

“You cocky bitch,” the leader laughed. “Alright then, fine. Let’s show ‘er a good time, yea?”

Before they could finish laughing condescendingly, Khrai crouched slightly, angling herself forward and launched herself at the nearest of the six men. Madara watched, eyes widening steadily, as she reared back with her left arm and swung with speed and precision that could only be the product of years (or centuries) of experience and practice.

Her fist connected with the side of the first man’s head and, with a nauseating ripping sound that split through the air, his head was torn clear off his shoulders and sent smashing into a tree with enough force to shatter the skull and crack the wood.

Madara stared with wide eyes at the fresh corpse as it collapsed limply to the ground and the blonde woman who had killed him. The other men were frozen in a mixture of shock and fear that shone clearly in their eyes, and Khrai wasn’t even done moving. She spun around and took one large step forward, slamming her fist into another guy’s face. There was a sickening crunch as his skull collapsed under the immense weight of Khrai’s blow, and another one fell.

In less than ten seconds, Khrai had killed two of them. They hadn’t even been given time to so much as think about attacking first. Out of the remaining four, three of them looked ready to fight, while the last one looked like he was prepared to make a run for it. The two that were apparently morons attacked simultaneously, one loosing several kunai and the other moving forward right behind them. The blonde killing machine crouched down low to avoid the kunai, dodging out of the way of the katana swinging at her from the right.

Upon righting herself back into her original crouch and without a second of hesitation, Khrai sprang back up, swinging up as she went. This time, her fist connected with her opponent’s chin. There was an audible sound, one that Madara couldn’t even have described in words: the sound of an internal decapitation. The body flew several feet into the air. The fifth man hesitated for only a split second before he rushed forward in a panic, swinging wildly.

Much like a cornered rat.

The blonde easily sidestepped the onslaught of attacks, grabbing the man’s wrist in the middle of one of his swings and driving her right fist into his elbow, dislocating the joint. He howled in pain, stumbling backwards and clutching his arm. Khrai grabbed a handful of his hair and drove her knee into his face with another blood-curdling crunch.

The sixth man was staring with wide, terrified eyes at the carnage that had been wrought right in front of him. The blonde woman turned her attention towards him, her gaze smoldering, and he visibly flinched, panicked, turned on his heel, and took off at a dead sprint.

Madara watched, awestruck, as Khrai reared back her left fist and swung yet again, very clearly aiming for the retreating back. There were no hand seals involved at all. All he saw was a glow that started near her elbow and got only brighter and brighter as it rushed towards her knuckles.

The guy she was aiming at was probably about fifteen feet away, not yet obscured by the trees, when a blast of bright white light shot out of Khrai’s knuckles. It moved far faster than the guy was running, and Madara observed with wide eyes as the energy blast tore a hole clear through his back and kept going until it dissipated into the darkness.

His mouth was open, and he quickly closed it as he turned his attention back to the blonde he’d accompanied. She looked around at the corpses that surrounded her, walking over and crouching down beside their evident leader. She rummaged around in his kunai pouch and pulled out a small book – a BINGO book. She nonchalantly flipped through the pages, until she reached the one featuring Uchiha Itachi’s face.

She dipped her finger into the blood-soaked soil beside her, drawing an ‘X’ over Itachi’s picture and laying the open book face-down on the leader’s corpse. Then, Khrai stood up and glanced around. For a moment, Madara forgot that she couldn’t see him, and he stiffened automatically as her eyes skirted over the area where he was standing.

Of course, she couldn’t see him, so she didn’t react at all to his presence there. Khrai picked her way over the bodies and started back the way she’d come, her hands moving through seals again. With another flash of light, Kaisuki’s body was back.

Madara walked with her back to the campsite in uncharacteristic silence. He swallowed hard to wet his dry throat, the pulse of his soul beating fast and hard like a living person’s heart would. Even though his body was non-corporeal, he still experienced fear and horror the way a living person would. He experienced joy and anger and sadness and all of it exactly the same as he had when he’d been alive.

The level of carnage he had just witnessed wasn’t something he’d never seen before. He’d been on bloodier battlefields. He’d watched Itachi slaughter his way through his whole family. He’d liked to think that he’d seen it all, but apparently he hadn’t. What was freaking him out wasn’t the brutality, or the amount of blood spilled.

It was the fact that Khrai had completely removed a man’s head with a single blow, and from the look of her muscles as she swung, Madara could tell that she hadn’t been using her full strength. No human in the Shinobi Nations could take off a person’s head with one fist. There were many who could kill someone with one solid punch to the temple. The current Raikage, Kisame, and Tsunade were only a couple that came to mind right away.

But none of them could remove a person’s head with one punch, without the use of chakra to amplify strength. That wasn’t within the limits of the human body. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t even conceivable in Madara’s head, and yet Khrai had done that and much, much more.

“Just like I don’t need to take your head off your fucking shoulders, even though I really want to.”

Khrai hadn’t been bluffing. She would’ve actually removed Itachi’s head with a single punch, and Kisame wouldn’t have been able to stop her. She could almost definitely kill him with as much effort as she’d put into killing those bounty hunters.

Madara looked up to gauge how far they were from the campsite. He was definitely going to have to tell Itachi what he’d just witnessed. It was probably pretty important that the living Uchiha know exactly what Khrai was capable of. They already knew she had a short temper from her very brief outburst the day Kaisuki had first shown up.

Thinking of how close Itachi had been to dying that day was stressing him out.

He glanced over at Khrai when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw that she was examining the knuckles on Kaisuki’s left hand. They were torn up pretty bad and bleeding freely, and what Madara could see of her forearm was bruised extensively. The woman frowned and sighed, reaching into Kaisuki’s kunai pouch and pulling out a roll of gauze, which she used to loosely wrap the bleeding appendage.

They walked in silence for another twenty minutes before they stepped around the tree that Kaisuki had been sleeping against, returning to the clearing. Itachi and Kisame were staring at Khrai, who’s blue eyes settling on Itachi momentarily, flashing green for just a second before returning to blue. Madara walked over to the living Uchiha and sat down beside him and leaned against him.

We need to talk,” he said immediately. “And before you jump to a stupid conclusion, they’re not conspiring against you two.

Itachi didn’t let the tension in his shoulders relax, instead continuing to watch Khrai as she sat down and leaned back against the tree. “What’d I miss?” The woman asked nonchalantly, “Nothing good, I hope.”

Kisame snorted, but Madara could hear the lack of humor in his voice. “Well, Itachi-san had another two fits and I thought I saw a light somewhere out in the woods.”

Khrai raised her eyebrows, looking slightly surprised, before her expression shifted back to a scowl. There was a pause, and Madara observed as Itachi and Kisame stared at Khrai, whose eyes suddenly turned green, and then pink, and then green, and then blue, and then pink, and then blue, and then green, before settling back on blue. She cleared her throat and let out a noisy, irritated sigh.

“Something wrong?” Itachi asked darkly.

“Fuck you both,” Khrai snapped, losing her temper instantly. “I swear, you’re both such motherfucking-…” She stopped herself, fists clenching as she glared an unfair amount of hatred at Itachi and ground her teeth together. Then, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again, they were green.

“Sorry,” Izumi apologized. “Khrai’s… well, it’s complicated,” she sheepishly explained, carefully unwrapping Khrai’s messy bandaging job.

“Where were you?” Itachi flatly asked. Madara sighed loudly, but decided it would probably be best if Izumi told the kid where they were, and the deceased Uchiha simply verified it.

Izumi smiled slightly. “Still paranoid, I see,” she said with a chuckle. “There was a group of six bounty hunters that had been tailing the two of you for about a week. Saeka led Khrai to them, and Khrai killed them all. She’s our go-to when the situation calls for concealing our identity, in case someone gets away.”

As she finished her explanation, the bandages on her hand fell to the ground, revealing the bruising and torn up flesh on Kaisuki’s hand. Madara straightened up and glanced at Itachi and then Kisame, seeing that they were both staring at the fresh injury.

She’s not lying,” Madara stated, still feeling a bit jittery. “I promise you, that’s exactly what happened. I’ll give you the juicy details later. Whatever you do or say in the meantime, do not, I repeat, do not piss off Khrai.

Itachi didn’t look over at him, but Madara felt the tension in his shoulders relax somewhat.

“That looks pretty bad.” Kisame commented, sounding much more relaxed. At least he trusted Izumi’s word.

Izumi rolled up Kaisuki’s one sleeve, revealing the dark bruising that went halfway up her bicep. “This is the result of Khrai using her chakra,” the irou-nin explained as she went to work repairing the damage. “It’s highly corrosive, so when she releases it in a concentrated blast, it eats through everything between it and it’s target. Any injuries we sustain while using the zenshin kirikae get transferred to Kaisuki’s body.”

“That sounds pretty inconvenient,” Kisame replied simply. Izumi chuckled, but didn’t reply, and the conversation lapsed.

Madara sighed, leaning on Itachi’s shoulder again. “Should we go for a walk now, or wait until nightfall?

When the living Uchiha didn’t reply and didn’t make a move to get up, Madara knew that they wouldn’t be going anywhere until nightfall. And that made sense, because Itachi had something akin to a routine when they were on the road – he went for a walk almost every night. Kisame had never asked about it, and neither of them had any reason to imagine that Kaisuki or her spirits would.

If Itachi went off in the early morning, Kisame would know (or assume, at least) that something was wrong. Which was inconvenient, because Madara wasn’t sure if he’d be able to muster the same kind of excited emotion if he had to put off the storytelling until nighttime.

Okay then,” he thought aloud, as he always did.

Itachi ignored him, as per protocol.

Eventually, she was going to have to come clean about the actual number of bounty hunters Khrai had killed in cold blood for her hostess, but Kaisuki wasn’t sure when that time was going to be.

There was no way for the murders to be traced back to her and her spirits, and she knew that. Khrai’s fingerprints weren’t in any registry, nor was her blood. The crimes couldn’t be pinned on Itachi either, because he wasn’t physically strong enough to do that kind of a damage to a person. Even if word of the murders got back to Konohagakure, she could easily assure herself that no one would suspect her. She hadn’t stopped writing periodic letters home, and she had gone back a couple of times over the past two years.

No one back home would suspect her of such a heinous crime.

It wasn’t like she was killing them just because she felt like it, either. She was protecting Itachi. She had been for a while. His state of health had come to her attention the prior year, and ever since then she’d been doing everything in her abilities to keep danger away from him. Izumi had explained how easily one of his episodes could be triggered, and she had explained how dangerous said episodes were.

So, Kaisuki and her spirits had taken it upon themselves to keep Itachi out of battle as much as possible, and that meant killing all of the bounty hunters that came upon his trail. She didn’t want him to die on her. She wanted him to live just as much as she wanted Sasuke to live. She wanted him to tell her the truth about the massacre just as much as she wanted Sasuke to explain why he had left Konohagakure. She wanted them both to stop lying, and stop doing the stupid things they were doing, and stop being cold and heartless. She wanted them both to turn back into the inseparable brothers that they had been, and she wanted to be a part of that family. She wanted to expand that family.

All Kaisuki really wanted was a way to bring them back home.

The best thing she could do to make that goal possible was to make sure neither of them died. Sasuke was under Orochimaru’s protection, so she wasn’t particularly worried about him. She’d gone to Otogakure a couple of times trying to find Teara, and each time Saeka had assured her that Sasuke was alive and well and stronger than ever.

But Itachi’s failing health wasn’t something that he could be protected from at a distance. She couldn’t exactly have gone to his irou-nin and asked him to refer Itachi to Izumi. It wouldn’t even have worked, because of the frequency she needed to see him. She had had no other options outside of just letting him die, and there was no way that was going to happen.

She hadn’t actually expected Kisame-san to agree to let her travel with them. She was endlessly thankful that the swordsman cared enough about his partner to force him into accepting Izumi’s treatment. She couldn’t help but wonder if that relationship went both ways, even though it was totally none of her business. Itachi came across as nothing but aloof at best, but Kisame-san seemed to hold him in high regard, and she was sure that the Uchiha had to have earned that respect and consideration.

A loud screech startled her out of her thoughts, and she glanced skyward to identify the sound. A hawk was circling overhead, dropping lower and lower with each round. She couldn’t tell if it was a hawk from Konohagakure or Akatsuki. They all looked pretty similar to her, but she knew that they were trained to land only on the intended target.

Apparently, however, Kisame-san recognized the hawk as it came closer, because he stopped walking rather abruptly and raised an arm just as it was coming around it’s last circle. Once it had landed safely on his arm (which Kaisuki found slightly amazing, as she knew how sharp a hawk’s talons were), the swordsman untied the string and pulled the message that had been attached to it’s leg free. The hawk ruffled it’s feathers a little, which prompted Kisame-san to raise his arm up so it could take off without hitting him with it’s wings.

It took off and Kisame-san unrolled the scroll as they started walking again. Kaisuki watched him for a moment before looking back ahead of herself, wondering if Itachi’s eyes had gotten to the point that he couldn’t read very well anymore. Izumi had noticed that his eyes were going (though Kaisuki had no idea how she’d been able to tell), and when she had asked him about it directly, the Uchiha had admitted that his vision was definitely on its way out.

He had told her that he expected to be blind in about another year and a half, maybe two. Izumi hadn’t examined his eyes, as that wasn’t part of her job as his irou-nin, but she’d offered to see if there was anything she could do to slow to progression of his fading eyesight. He’d declined (naturally), and had assured her that he’d let her know if he changed her mind.

“We have an escort to do,” Kisame-san stated, glancing at Itachi. “Starting in Keishi.”

The Uchiha hummed in acknowledgment, but didn’t say anything at first. Then, he glanced over at Kaisuki, who was walking a step back between him and Kisame-san. “Kuroi will find you when we’re done.”

Seems like he’s gotten over how mad he is that we’re traveling with them,” Khrai commented suddenly, surprising Kaisuki. She hadn’t heard from her spirits all day. Khrai had been resting and Izumi and Saeka had been looking after her in the kotatsu room, so they’d been very quiet all afternoon.

Feeling better?” Kaisuki inquired, to which Khrai hummed an affirmative. Then, in response to Itachi, she replied, “Yea, of course.”

How long are they going to take?” Izumi asked, “I need to give Itachi enough of his meds to last him while we’re not around.

“Izumi needs to know how long you think you’re gonna be busy,” the Yurei obediently passed along the message. “So she can give you enough of your meds to last you through your mission.”

Kisame-san hummed thoughtfully as he slowed to a stop again, glancing back down at the scroll in his hands and rereading it. “Probably… Well, I’d give him a ten day supply, just to be safe. I don’t expect this to take more than a week, but shit happens.”

Kaisuki nodded, pulling back from her control and glancing back at Izumi, “You wanna take over and do your thing?

The brunette standing behind her nodded, and Kaisuki let go of the reigns and stepped back so Izumi could take over. She turned her attention away from what was going on outside of her mind, looking over at the blonde elf beside her.

Where’s Saeka?” She asked curiously, glancing around. Khrai looked down at her briefly before shrugging.

She’s off doing whatever she does.” Khrai replied somewhat distractedly. “She’s having a bad day, I gather.

Kaisuki frowned, “Any particular reason why?

Not a clue, but probably not,” was the reply the elf gave. “She hasn’t been very talkative lately anyway, so I’m gonna assume she wants to be left alone. If she wants us for something, she’ll tell us.” Khrai paused, and sighed. “She’s just having a bad time. She’ll come out of it eventually, like she always does.

Kaisuki nodded silently, but didn’t say anything further in reply. Khrai was right. Saeka had started having periods of what seemed like some kind of emotional regression since Kaisuki had started tailing Teara. She would return to the mostly quiet, very moody, easily enraged girl that her hostess had known when she was younger. When the youngest spirit got like that, she would either isolate herself by being silent and inconspicuous or disappear into Kaisuki’s memories altogether. The episodes sometimes lasted as long as a week (with two weeks being the record), but usually the other three spirits found that Saeka would return to her normal self within a couple of days.

So, she didn’t worry. None of them did. Saeka had mood swings with the best of them, and Izumi, Khrai, and Kaisuki knew very well that trying to manually bring her out of her bad moods would do more harm than good. It was better for them to just leave her alone when she wasn’t in a good place, and reassure her that they still adored her when she came out of those episodes.

Kaisuki,” Izumi’s voice drew her out of her thoughts, and she looked up in time to see the brunette glancing back at her, “You can take over, now.

The Yurei nodded and stepped up to take back control over her body, blinking twice to refocus her vision. The two Akatsuki members were watching her while she settled back in. “Well, you guys are headed south from here, and I’m heading west to go home for a visit, so I’ll see you later.” She said, taking a few steps westward. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you. Be safe.”

Kisame-san grinned at her, “You too, Kaisuki. Stay out of trouble.”

She beamed, “You should know by now that that’s impossible.” She retorted with a wink, before looking over at Itachi. “Take care of yourself. Don’t miss any doses. And don’t lie to Kisame-san if you don’t feel well.”

Itachi sighed softly, looking very tired of her concern with his welfare. “Give Izumi my thanks.” He replied stonily, pointedly not commenting on her requests (that had come out more like commands). She smiled widely and nodded, before leaping up onto a tree branch.

Kaisuki didn’t bother to glance back and properly bid them farewell, knowing that it was unnecessary. Instead, she took off into the trees, in the direction she knew Konohagakure was. As she was leaping through the branches at a leisurely pace (for her, anyway), she wondered offhandedly if Itachi and Kisame-san would miss her in her absence. She wasn’t sure about Itachi, but she and Kisame-san had hit it off pretty well.

Despite the fact that he was notorious for his cruelty and bloodlust, Kaisuki quite liked the swordsman. Whether it was true or not, she had come to the conclusion on her own that his cruel streak was somewhat of a facade that he put on during battle, or whenever else it was necessary. She just didn’t think that someone as pleasant and fun to talk to as Kisame-san could be quite as horrible as everyone said he was.

Obviously he wasn’t a “good guy.” He worked for a criminal organization, which made him a criminal by default. He was a professional killer, and he’d most certainly killed more people than he could remember. He’d threatened to cut off Naruto’s legs when he and Itachi had gone to retrieve him (for reasons Kaisuki still didn’t know). He was one of the more awful products of Kirigakure’s merciless academy program. He was known across the Shinobi Nations as one of the most ruthless swordsmen, even amongst the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.

But those titles, those methods of description, didn’t tell the story of how much he cared for his partner, Uchiha Itachi. There were no people who would recall Hoshigaki Kisame as thoughtful and witty. No one was going to know about how he had given more thought to Kaisuki’s safety and future wellbeing as a tag-along to two well-known S-rank criminals than the Yurei herself. Nobody knew of the moral code that he used to hold himself accountable for the terrible things he did. No one would ever know that he did feel remorse for his victims and guilt for his actions.

No one outside of Itachi and Kaisuki would ever know that he had wanted to leave Kirigakure from an early age and make himself into the kind of man he could be proud of.

She’d only known him for a little under five months, but in that amount of time, she had really gotten to know him. Itachi remained as distant and cold as ever, but Kisame-san genuinely liked Kaisuki. He seemed to really trust her, and that had allowed him to open up to her in a lot of ways she never would’ve expected. He had told her many times that he truly appreciated how willing she was to help two of the most infamous criminals in the Shinobi Nations, despite the fact that they had threatened and mentally scarred two of her closest friends. He didn’t seem to want to let her forget that she wasn’t tied to them permanently, and that if she ever wanted an out, he would give it to her.

Kisame-san was cruel and heartless to the people he didn’t care about, but to those that mattered to him, he was considerate and kind. She hoped that, as time went on, she would get to know him even better, and that he would get to know her just as well. As she had told him the day she’d met him, Izumi had taught her over the last two years to be compassionate to everyone, no matter their background.

“It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, or who they’ve hurt, or what laws they’ve broken. Treat everyone with compassion, Kaisuki; you never know when you’ll change someone’s life.”

Izumi was always teaching her profound life lessons that she did her best to live by. Khrai was always giving her the best possible battlefield advice and teaching her more about everything she wanted to know than any book ever could. Saeka taught her patience and kindness in ways that a conversation with Izumi couldn’t. She was thankful for all three of them, possibly more than they knew.

She hoped that she was teaching them something as well. Even if it was something as small as a new way to hold kunai, or a better method of grinding up herbs. She hoped that she would leave a lasting impression on them after the four of them had split up, as they inevitably would.

Although, despite knowing that it was completely impossible, she hoped that somehow, some way, they would be able to stick together.

Kaisuki faintly felt Khrai stepping back from where she’d been observing and disappearing into the darkness of her inner landscapes, softly humming a sad song that the Yurei still didn’t know. There was a slight ache in her chest, a feeling sort of like the urge to cry. At the same time, even deeper within and just barely within her awareness, there was a dark anger simmering threateningly.

She didn’t know what had happened to trigger Khrai into a sour mood, but she knew better than to inquire after the elf’s wellbeing so soon after she noticed. If Khrai wanted to talk to her, she would. And if she didn’t, she wouldn’t.

If there was one thing she had learned from her interactions with her oldest and youngest spirits, it was the knowledge of when to let it lie.

Kaisuki’s absence was strongly felt almost the instant she was gone.

Kisame had gotten fairly used to her being around in a very short period of time, much to Itachi’s incredibly obvious annoyance. She was a good kid with a quiet presence. She didn’t talk a whole lot unless a conversation arose out of something that was happening in the moment, and if said conversation trailed away into silence, she didn’t try to fill it. She actually had a lot of personality features in common with Itachi. He supposed that had to be one of the reasons he was getting along with her so well.

Itachi also seemed to have gotten fairly used to her being around, though it showed in smaller, less noticeable ways. He wasn’t as moody as he’d been the first day. He wasn’t glaring as often. He seemed to have resigned himself to his fate. He also seemed to have decided that he kind of liked Izumi, though Kisame was sure he would never admit it.

Itachi still didn’t seem to trust the girl and her spirits very much, and he most certainly hadn’t developed any form of affection for them, but he got along well with Izumi. Kisame wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Itachi would eventually start to get along with Kaisuki. He had been much the same with his blue-haired partner when they’d first met, and they’d managed to find companionship in one another. If Kaisuki stuck around, Itachi would get over it.

He had a feeling she was in it for… at least somewhat of a long run. She had killed six bounty hunters for them. Kisame had no idea where the decision to do that had come from, but he was thankful for it. The fewer times Itachi wound up in battle, the better for his health.

Kisame had given it a bit of thought and he had come to find that, despite what he’d initially told Kaisuki, he and Itachi hadn’t actually encountered any bounty hunters in a little over a year. He didn’t really think it was the case, but he couldn’t help wondering if she’d been keeping bounty hunters off their trail for that amount of time. She said she had been tailing Teara, and therefore inadvertently tailing the two Akatsuki members, for about two years.

Kaisuki might (emphasis on the “might”) have been keeping a closer eye on them than she’d implied, for a lot longer than Kisame had originally suspected. And he still didn’t really know the whole story behind it. He knew she was doing it for Itachi, but that wasn’t a whole lot of information and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering all that his partner had done. He couldn’t imagine what Itachi must have done to earn such a place in someone’s heart, but it wasn’t like he’d known the guy his whole life. Supposedly, Uchiha Itachi had been a decent person at one point.

Then again, all of them had been decent people at one point.

“Kisame,” Itachi’s voice reached him over the noise of the busy streets of Keishi, and he glanced over at his partner. Immediately, he noticed that Itachi’s lips were tinted purple and his face was whiter than he’d seen it in a long time. “I can’t… breathe.”

Alarmed, Kisame glanced around just long enough to spot an alley to their right. He grabbed his partner by the elbow and swiftly guided him to it. Once they were sufficiently out of sight, he let go of Itachi, who put his back against the wall and doubled over and pressing his hand to his chest. Kisame could easily hear the wheezing breaths the Uchiha was taking in, and it sounded much worse than usual. He was already wishing that Kaisuki was still with them. It would figure that the minute she was gone, Itachi’s lungs started giving out again.

That’s a bit too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?

He squashed the thought as quickly as it arose and placed a hand on Itachi’s shoulder, “Hey, are you alright? Anything I can do to be remotely helpful?”

Before Itachi could actually reply, a shudder ran through him and his next wheeze turned into a loud, harsh cough. He straightened up a bit with one hand squeezing a fistful of his cloak while the other was pressed over his mouth.

The coughing fit he was succumbing to seemed worse than the usual ones. His eyes were wide and Kisame was relatively certain that they were watering, his whole body was shaking, and his face was growing ashen. Within the first ten seconds of the fit, there was blood spilling past his fingers, and each cough seemed wetter and messier than the last.

Every cough was followed by a strangled wheeze, a desperate attempt to take in a breath of air past the blood rushing into his mouth, and Kisame had no idea what he ought to do. He really, really wished Kaisuki was still with them. He had no knowledge in the field of irou-ninjutsu. He was basically an expert in dressing and caring for open wounds, and he could set a fracture with ease, but tending to Itachi’s mess of a respiratory system was not his forte.

Itachi was still coughing up blood after three minutes (which was a fairly long time for his fits), and he wasn’t breathing enough, as evidenced by the way he had started to list forward. Kisame quickly planted his hands on his partners shaking shoulders to hold him upright, growing ever concerned. Kaisuki didn’t know the emergency call that Akatsuki employed, and she was two and a half hours out, anyway. She wouldn’t be able to feel it, not even with Saeka. All he would accomplish would be attracting a lot of attention to himself.

It was close to four minutes before Itachi finally took in a decent breath of air without immediately coughing. He held very still for a long moment, no longer coughing. Then, after a good two minutes of stillness and silence between them, he slowly straightened back up, spitting out one last mouthful of blood. He used the hand had hadn’t been drenched in red to pull out his handkerchief so he could wipe his mouth and hand off.

“Are you alright?” Kisame asked again, suddenly noting that his heart rate was a bit elevated. Leave it to Itachi’s terrible health to scare him out of his wits. The Uchiha glanced up at him with hooded eyes, his face still pale and his lips still purple.

“I’m…” he began hoarsely, stopping long enough to swallow hard. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” the swordsman grunted in reply. “Are you okay to keep walking?”

Itachi didn’t reply at first. He looked like he was highly uncomfortable. His chest was probably still hurting fairly horribly. After a moment, he swallowed again and nodded silently.

“Alright, then let’s get a move on,” Kisame said, turning back towards the road they had just been walking down. Itachi walked alongside him, reaching up a hand and rubbing at his eyes. Crowds tended to give him a headache. The Uchiha had previously explained that the faces of the people walking past them would bleed together a bit, and since everything was already fairly unfocused, it made his head hurt.

Kisame felt bad for Itachi on a number of different levels, even though he knew that admitting it would ensure that the younger man never spoke to him again.

He glanced up and spotted the hotel, only a few more doors down. “I was beginning to think we would never get there,” he commented. Itachi hummed quietly in reply, but didn’t say anything.

Their client was on the third floor of the Meikai Hotel, in room 366. Two flights of stairs. It wasn’t a lot, but given the episode Itachi had just had, Kisame was wondering if he ought to leave his partner in the lobby. He knew that wouldn’t happen even if he suggested it, though, so he didn’t bother to ask.

They walked into the Meikai Hotel, crossed the lobby, and started up the stairs at a slow, even pace. The last thing he needed was for Itachi to start coughing again. He knew his partner hated being looked after more than most things in the world (hence the constant lying about his health), but Kisame honestly didn’t care. The Uchiha hadn’t mentioned the significantly slowed pace, and he wasn’t about to start explaining himself if he wasn’t required to. Itachi probably already knew why they had slowed down.

They had to stop so Itachi could catch his breath at the top of the first flight. The younger of the two of them leaned up against the cool stone wall, gasping quietly.

“You’re having a worse day than usual,” Kisame remarked with a worried frown. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Itachi looked over at him tiredly and shrugged. He looked really out of it. “I don’t know… I don’t know what’s wrong.” He quietly replied.

Kisame’s frown deepened and his eyebrows furrowed. It seemed like whatever was wrong with his partner was going beyond a physical malady. He didn’t think he’d ever seen the Uchiha look so depressed. He couldn’t imagine what could possibly be causing whatever was wrong with him, and he wished more than anything else that he and Itachi hadn’t sent Kaisuki away for the duration of their mission. If the Uchiha continued to worsen, there wouldn’t be anything Kisame could do, and he didn’t think they were going to be sending for Kaisuki sooner than a week from then.

He knew better than to suggest that they abandon their mission and inform their bosses that Itachi was in no condition for much of anything outside of sleeping. The Uchiha would have none of that, and he’d probably be furious if Kisame even suggested it. He supposed he was just going to have to keep an eye on Itachi, and if things got bad he would send for Kaisuki before their mission was finished.

After about five minutes, Itachi deemed himself well enough to continue and started walking up the stairs wordlessly. Kisame sighed and followed after him. At the top of the second and last flight, Itachi was out of breath again, but he didn’t stop. They walked down the hall, around a corner, and partway down that hall, before coming to a stop in front of room 366.

Kisame glanced at Itachi, who returned his gaze for just an instant before Kisame felt the genjutsu that had been surrounding them disappear. He lifted a hand, knocked, and waited. Within a few seconds, the sound of the lock unhinging on the other side could be heard, and the door was pulled open.

The girl standing before him looked identical to the one that had been in the picture they’d received with their mission details. Black hair, black eyes, extremely pale, and quite fragile-looking. Itachi didn’t stiffen or say anything, so it was unlikely that she was using a genjutsu. In that case, it was definitely their client.

“Oh! Hello, come in. I’ve been expecting you,” she told them with a friendly smile as she stepped back and to the side to let them into the room. Kisame followed after Itachi, glancing around with a critical eye to ensure that nothing suspicious got past him. He couldn’t rely on Itachi’s poor vision to see something small that might have been overlooked by an untrained eye.

The door was shut and latched behind them as they were turning around to face the twelve year-old girl. She stepped away from the door, her hands clasped in front of her yukata, and met their gazes evenly. “What might I call you two?” She asked politely, her smile still present.

There was an instant of a pause in which Kisame knew Itachi was considering whether or not to give her his real name. Whatever the Uchiha decided would be what Kisame went along with, so he waited for his partner to make the decision.

Itachi replied, “Uchiha Itachi.”

And Kisame followed suit, “Hoshigaki Kisame.”

“Itachi-san and Kisame-san, then.” The girl concluded, her smile widening. “I’m Yukimura Sumi.”

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