There's a difference between fear and caution that is all too often overlooked. Fear is hiding behind others stronger than yourself for protection. Caution, on the other hand, is knowing that on your own you are helpless, and securing those stronger people to stand in front of you. Gato had been dealing in the wrong kind of business for too long to care about explaining the difference to his employees, or to care about how they chose to interpret his silence. Following his definition of caution, he only cared that the people he hired were around when he needed them to be, and that he paid them just enough to ensure that degree of loyalty.

He also made sure that the few times he employed someone his control over couldn't be adjusted with the size of their paycheck, he had a means of disposing of them once their hazards began to outweigh their assets. On his own, Zabuza was not a hazardous employee. He was difficult and spiteful, and easily had the potential to become a hazard, but he was also prideful. Gato had learned early on in his business that pride was one of the best traits he could hope to come by in the people he hired. Their rates may go up a bit more than the average worker's, but more than any amount of money, their pride bound them to their job. If only to keep his reputation intact, the former Mist swordsmen would expend any risk to kill the troublesome bridge builder Gato wanted out of the way, and that was exactly why Gato hired him. It was the boy, the tag-along that had not been mentioned when he and Zabuza discussed their contract, that made the shinobi team a liability. From what he could tell, the boy would not see any of Gato's money, and therefore was not affected by it. He also lacked his master's blinding arrogance that had made him so desirable as a hired assassin. And on top of that, the boy was fast.

Gato wound his way through the backstreets of the island village, shrouded in the mist of hired bodyguards. Without thinking, he tenderly adjusted the strap of his arm sling. Zabuza wasn't disciplining his apprentice correctly, and Gato knew better than to order for the boy's immediate dismissal. The Mist shinobi needed to be treated as a unit. He and that effeminate, tiny, little...

Gato shook himself when his sudden change in thoughts made the fist of his injured arm clench. He had to remind himself that he was in the Wave Country, where there were no schools. And because of that, no school girls. Things that his imagination supplied were not to be brought into his decisions here. As for Haku and Zabuza, he knew how to deal with their type…

Gato's party came to a halt when they reached an intersection where several other pathways crossed to form what would appear to be a large star if viewed from above. It was somewhere between late morning and early afternoon, the worst time of the day for a meeting between acquaintances that should not be acquaintances, but nevertheless the only time that Gato could be sure that he would not be missed by more acceptable peers. The Wave Country was not known for its large cities, mostly because its population was not capable of supporting them. Everywhere around Gato, sunlight was pouring into the alleyway network, vanishing most of the shadows that both he and his associate preferred. It was inconvenient, but on a low-income island, where the buildings were always one story and the weather more often than not took a turn for the luxurious, the lack of shadows would just have to do. Maybe after he took control over the island country, he could order the construction of larger buildings that would better suit his and his associates' preferences. Hotels would be a nice installment. Put the stubbornly bright weather and climate to use as a vacation spot.

Gato eyed the area around him, already thinking of which locations would give his future hotels the best views to draw in customers. His interest shifted back to the concerns of the present day when his eye fell on a bum farther down the alley on his left-hand side. It was a young man with dirty clothes and torn hems, sitting slumped against the alley wall with his forehead pressed into his knees. A dark green bottle sat on the ground next to him, explaining as clearly as written sign that the man it belonged to was nothing out of the ordinary. He was probably a fisherman that was put out of work when Gato began starving the island into submission. Gato had noticed that there had been a growth in the number of unemployed since he took an interest in the Wave Country. The urchin's ragged clothing suggested that he had been beaten down by the decline long ago. Nevertheless, Gato couldn't help but notice that the man was young, and young men in desperate situations had the annoying habit of trying to become heroes.

Catching the eye of one of his men, Gato nodded in the young man's direction. A moment later, his guard was stationed beside the drunk, ready to attack at the first sign that he was anything more than a desolate bum sleeping off the effects of a liquor-induced stupor.

Occupied as he was by watching his bodyguard position himself beside the islander, he didn't notice the approach of his associate until he heard the oily croak from the opposite alley.

"Good morning, Gato-sama."

Turning around, Gato instantly remembered why he had come to the island village in full daylight in the first place. His guards parted for him as he moved closer to the voice's source. His acquaintance was standing far in the pathway on the right, the one that boasted the most of the sparse dimness that their setting provided. Gato walked deeper into the alleyway, as far as he needed to in order to make out the familiar features, but no more than that. Even with people he had known for years, he felt the need to be cautious.

In mock concern, the voice asked him, "Gato-sama, did something unfortunate happen to your arm?"

Gato chose to ignore the comment. He could imagine the amused ripple that went through his cluster of bodyguards behind him. To his associate, he said, "I trust that you know why you were called?"

"Hai, hai," the vaguely shrouded figure answered him. Even in the dimness, Gato could see the outline of the smile on the other man's face, and hear it faintly in his voice as he spoke. "Though the reason that you gave me was most shocking..."

"The shinobi I hired," Gato snapped, "are getting to be too expensive for the results they're delivering." Unconsciously, the fingers of his injured arm flexed, bringing to the scout's eyes down to them for a moment while he went on. "I want them off the payroll, and I don't want anyone around to hold grudges about it afterward, do you understand?"

The shadowed head nodded. "Of course, Gato-sama."

"Good." Gato glanced back at his guard and the slumbering drunkard on the pavement beside him, making sure that the urchin's head had not moved and that a pair of eyes was not watching him from between the filthy arms crossed to form a kind of pillow for the man's head. "The next time they attack will be five days from now. By then, I want an army of our regulars ready to take them out. Can you manage that?"

"I will do my best, Gato-sama." The figure's head cocked to one side, watching Gato levelly when he added, "But transferring so many men onto the island without raising suspicion will be a problem."

"We've gotten people into tighter places," Gato pointed out harshly.

"Yes, but we do not want to risk the expendables hearing anything suspicious. The one that did that," the shadowed head nodded toward Gato's arm, "is still perfectly mobile, if I'm correct."

Gato's fingers absently flexed a second time. In his mind, he turned his associate's concern over. "I'll see what I can do about restricting his visits to the village," he finally conceded reluctantly, thinking of Zabuza's shortcomings when it came to keeping his younger charge in check.

"That would make things easier." His associate didn't thank him. "But perhaps you can indicate a more reasonable number of men you would like to have brought over?"

"A hundred," Gato stated immediately.

"Ah," came the oily reply, "I doubt the village itself has more than a hundred people left. I can get fifty over unnoticed."

"Fifty?" Gato echoed. One of his eyebrows twitched for a moment. His associate only shrugged. "Fine then, just get them here at the correct time." The figure nodded. Gato started to turn away, and then stopped. Raising his arm with the injured wrist a little out of its sling, he added, "And make sure these boys are fast. These two aren't amateurs."

"Of course, Gato-sama."

With that, Gato relaxed his arm again, and turned to reenter his herd of bodyguards. As he did so, he glanced wearily at the bum, wondering if he ought to have the young man killed as a safety measure. The young man hadn't so much as twitched since Gato spotted him. He let the idea go when his guard moved to rejoin the group. He looked at the man's greasy hair, hanging heavily around his arms and knees and laden with the evidence of weeks spent sleeping in gutters. It was a silent assurance that even if the drunkard had been awake, his warnings about an upcoming attack would have been dismissed by the sensible as the ravings of a desolate fool, and pointedly ignored by the ones who had already succumbed to Gato's rising influence over their country.

Assured, Gato left the dirty young man leaning against the side of the building. By the time he reached the mouth of the alley and walked back into the infuriatingly bright sunlight, he put the thought of him out of his mind. He had more important things to tend to. And because of that, he never thought to look back in time to see the dark hair be pushed aside, or the red eyes that focused onto his back as he walked away.

kkkkkkkkkk

The difference between an ANBU member and an ANBU captain is that the latter, unlike the former, is never assigned to a solo mission. An ANBU captain is a leader, someone who instructs and takes responsibility for an entire group of people. Itachi had been thirteen years old when he crossed the line from member to captain in the Leaf. His cousin Shisui, who had the benefit of being a few years older, became a captain the same year. They were both given command of five of their former peers, many of whom were new to the ANBU status. In Itachi's case there was a notable difference in the attitude of his subordinates than in his cousin's, which he suspected was directly due to the age gap between them. Nearly every member of his team had been into their teens the year that Itachi was born. Over the months that followed his installment as captain, Itachi carefully wore down the members of his team. The time it took was longer than what was usual in ANBU cells, but by the time that Itachi left the village he had turned the five men he was placed in charge of into a loyal and unshakably efficient team.

He did it by setting specific hours that he expected to see his subordinates training, starting ridiculously early in the mornings and stretching on for a full twelve hours. Daily. He didn't care if his men were assigned missions during the day. He told them to check in with him and that he would either speak to the Hokage or arrange to meet with the person at another time to make up for the hours missed. He left lists and notes at the local grocery stores and restaurants, naming each of his five subordinates and giving a list of items that they were allowed to buy during their intensive training period.

Several times he made a point of catching rebellious team members breaking his rules, and indirectly punishing them by informing the Hokage that he did not think that the individual shinobi was in a suitable state to take on missions for up to a month. Without missions, a shinobi makes no income. The members of his team paled when they first found out he could do this. In actuality, the Hokage only knew the barest details about what he subjected his charges to. Otherwise, Itachi would have likely been forced to make some adjustments to his off duty restrictions on the older men's lives, but none of his team members ever complained. Itachi suspected that it must have been the lower ranking ninjas' pride that kept them quiet. And also, there was the fact that every absurd demand that Itachi made to his team members, he fulfilled himself as well. His mother gave him odd looks during the last few months, when Itachi began turning aside certain meals that did not match with his set diet, but he never explained himself. Even on occasions when one of his group members had a mission, Itachi still participated fully in his training regulations. More than once he had to wake Shisui up before the sun was up and drag him to the training grounds so that there would be an even number of people for sparing. Each time he knocked on his cousin's door, he was met with a tired smile and a shake of the head. "You're too hard on them," Shisui warned him as he grudgingly slipped on his sandals.

"I have to be hard on them," he answered stubbornly.

Sometime in the second month of Itachi's captainship, his tactics won out. When the last of his stubborn underlings finally looked at him with that glare that said that the jealousy of a minor's higher position had been replaced with frustration with what his team captain was capable of doing to him, he knew that he had finished breaking his subordinates in. When one was angry, age didn't matter.

Unfortunately, Itachi had left his village after his third month as an ANBU captain. Shortly after, his subordinates were all killed in a futile mission to bring him back. But given more time, Itachi was sure that under their hate-powered training, his five charges would have been able to succeed eventually. Or at least have managed to return to the Leaf alive.

When Itachi came to the Akatsuki, however, he was not granted the same control over Kisame as he had had with subordinates in Konoha. A two man team rarely has a set leader, particularly when the team is made up of equal ranking members of the same organization. The Leader never needed to tell Itachi that the shark shinobi was not meant to be a subordinate; he made it clear when he told them about their partnership, addressing them together as one rather than individually. To Itachi, who was used to the simple system of either being a superior or an underling when working with other ninja, it was a difficult relationship for him to grasp. Particularly when he thought he saw the same humoring glint in his partner's eye the first time he took command during a mission that he recognized from the first months with his ANBU team. Kisame liked to tease though, he realized shortly afterward, which left him to wonder whether he had only imagined that the look was real, if it had been there at all.

If it was, it had likely died by now. In the present, Itachi knew that leadership now depended on qualification, and tasks fell to the person who both Itachi and Kisame knew was better capable of completing them. Arguing over who did what was no longer needed between them; they both knew one another's weak points too well to try hiding them from one another. Take for instance, Kisame's illusionary abilities. Itachi knew without thinking that his partner's abilities in that area were as good as were needed in order for someone with an appearance as noticeable as his, but the shark knew that Itachi's were better.

That was why the Uchiha didn't blink when his partner returned from the island village where he had been buying their breakfast, and recounted a fisherman's claim to having seen a boat belonging to one of Gato's associates docking when the rest of the village was caught up in the morning's fire. He only asked the shark nin one question:

"When?"

"Locals say that Gato's friends from the mainland only visit during the day. My bet is that they meet before the men get back from the bridge construction in the afternoon."

For a moment, Itachi thought back to the inhabitants of the fishing village that he had seen so far during their mission, and then he gave his order, knowing that both he and Kisame were aware that he was better suited to act on this information.

"I need grease."

"You need what?"

Itachi shot his partner a blank look, knowing the other nin had heard him perfectly well.

Kisame shrugged. "Fine. I'll be back in a minute."

During his partner's absence, Itachi removed his hair tie and hitai-ate and messed his hair with his hands. He couldn't remember what the clothing quality was in the village exactly, but he did remember that regardless of location, people living on the lowest level of society always looked the same. Without thinking, he stripped down to the thin layer of bandages remaining on his chest from that morning. The fresh blood that had worried him momentarily before was now faded to a faintly reddish brown. But as he looked down, he noted that the white of the bandages was still too clean for the disguise he wanted. Kneeling, Itachi checked the tightness of the bandage, making sure that it would be able to keep dirt out of the wound, before he laid down in the dried leaves covering the forest floor.

He knew that Kisame was back when he rolled onto his back and saw the bulky form of his partner standing between two of the surrounding trees. The look on his face said that he clearly did not know why his younger partner was half dressed and rolling around on the forest floor like an animal marking its territory, but was not given the chance to ask before the Uchiha genius sat up and held his hand out authoritatively for small container of grease he had sent the shark nin to find.

"I'm guessing that you're going undercover for this?" Kisame placed his jar on the palm of his partner's outstretched hand. Itachi took it immediately.

"Gato is our only lead." Itachi tore the lid off the jar hastily and let it drop unnoticed to the ground. One hand went to Itachi's hair, ruffling it again as he lifted the container to his nose. The smell of rotting animal fat that came from it almost made him blanch. Kisame must have gotten it from one of the outside stands. He sniffed again, and his nose twitched violently. The stall owner must have left it in the sun for too long as well.

A glance upward at the raised corner of Kisame's mouth told him that the shark nin now had a fairly decent idea of what Itachi was planning to do with the foul smelling slop. Staring back down at it, he tried to see if there were any stray hairs that were possibly left behind by the original animal that the grease had come from as he went on speaking, "If he's coming back to the island, he's probably going to confirm a second plan for the bridge builder's assassination."

"Makes sense," Kisame said idly. Itachi was sure that there was a jubilant undertone to his partner's voice.

Without glancing up again, Itachi angled his face toward the ground and held the jar above his head. Outwardly, Itachi was able to keep himself from flinching by a stubborn, enduring string of control when he turned the jar over and let its contents pour over his hair in a thick, slow stream. He could feel the gooey coldness as it rolled over every raven strand.

He could also hear Kisame snickering. "And if it's not him?"

Itachi let the grease container drop to the ground as he tossed his head back. He nailed his blue-skinned partner with a look that bluntly said that someone was going to pay for the abuse his hair was taking, especially if it turned out to be for nothing more than a senile old man's ramblings.

Another amused snicker. "Okay, got it,"

Wisely backing off until his partner was feeling less homicidal, the shark-like ninja went to lean against one of the trees circling their clearing and silently watched his smaller partner with the same expression of amusement that had come with the schoolgirl uniform. Itachi's red eyes followed him, making it clear that mentioning this disguise in the future was every bit as fatal as mentioning the last.

With both hands, Itachi dug into his hair. The grease moved like jelly, cool, moist, and yielding to his touch as he worked it deeper into the strands of his hair. Inwardly, he reminded himself to later scrub ever particle of the oily substance out, to the extent of scraping his scalp raw in the process. When he laid back down in the dirt, he thought that he could feel the leaves and pebbles latching onto his hair and tangling with it as he rolled over once, twice...If Gato wasn't in town today, Itachi was going to skin Kisame and that villager who claimed that he was!

When Itachi finally got up from the forest floor, Kisame looked him over thoughtfully. For a moment, he thought that the shark nin was going to make a jibe at the difference between his appearance now and what it was normally. However...

"Tear your hems."

The glare that Itachi had had ready for his response fizzled into a muted blink.

Kisame repeated, "Tear your hems. They're the first thing to get worn down when you wear the same thing everyday."

Itachi glanced down toward his pant legs, looking at the dirt that had embedded itself in the fibers and then back up at the blue skinned man leaning against the tree. "How do you know that?"

Another shrug. "Picked it up somewhere."

Itachi continued to stare blankly, silently signaling that he was still curious without outwardly acknowledging it. However, Kisame didn't wait to see it before he pushed himself away from his tree truck and dropped to his knees in front of his seventeen year old partner. Itachi frowned down at the top of the blue head, but tensed immediately when he felt something take hold of his legging and stretch it away from his ankle. Kisame reached under cloak with the other hand and came out with a kunai a moment later.

He glanced up at Itachi as he held the weapon by his partner's leg. "Do you mind?"

When Itachi looked into his partner's expression, he saw no indications that his partner was playing with him. Kisame was honestly trying to help him with his disguise. Yet…

Itachi inwardly shook himself. "No," he answered, shifting his eyes from the shark's nin's face down to the knife by his leg. Even on his knees, it seemed that Kisame's head was almost high enough to reach his chest.

"Alright then, hold still."

Itachi did as he was instructed. He watched his partner first slice into his clothing with the kunai, then later abandon it to continue fraying the edges of the fabric with his fingers to make the cuts appear older than they were. If the shark nin noticed that his partner stood rigid next to him even after the blade had been set aside, he didn't make any indication. He only said, after he finally stood up and brushed the leaves away from his knees, "Might want to take your shoes off too. I've never seen a bum that wasn't barefoot."

After Gato's meeting, Itachi waited until he heard the sound of Gato's men disappearing at the alley mouth before he allowed himself to get up from his position by the wall of a butcher's shop that Kisame had insisted was mentioned by his source. Unconsciously, his hand slipped away to rub at the kinks that sitting in that position for so long had caused.

Around his neck and shoulders, his hair hung in unhindered, greasy coils. The tips of his hair left damp trails on his skin as they slid lazily along his shoulders. He batted away the urge to shudder when a passing breeze seemed to highlight the unclean smudges they left behind. He had half hoped that Gato would give the order for an attack when he felt the pudgy man's eyes on him during the meeting, if only to give him an outlet for the unwanted frustration the morning's events had caused. Instead, he had one more memory to add to the growing list of bothersome events that he was experiencing during this mission.

Itachi angled his head toward the ground as he stepped out into the sunlight, both to hide his unfamiliar features from passing villagers and to protect his acutely sensitive eyes, more so because of his Sharingan, from the sun.

Through the corner of one eye, he saw a little girl scampering along the streets. It was nearly mid afternoon now, and the only people to be seen on the street were the homemakers of the village who were shopping for their families, and the occasional odd face that could be either taken as an odd tourist or an agent of Gato. Either way, the only people in the village market at that time were people with money. The child darted from person to person, smiling and holding her hands out in a silent request for money. In the shadows, Itachi could also see the little girl's parents watching her protectively as she approached strangers, ready to rush out and retrieve their child should she encounter someone that reacted negatively to begging. The child didn't come running after Itachi as he passed by, likely guessing from his appearance that he wouldn't have anything to spare.

Itachi had noticed the poverty level of the village the night that he and Kisame arrived there. It was one of many factors that made Itachi uncomfortable with the amount of work that Haku's capture was causing him and his partner to do separately. It was a liability, because if one of them was overpowered the other would have no way of knowing, and also because under close observation during their first year of partnership, when Itachi wasn't sure whether it was better to become friends or enemies with his partner, he had noticed Kisame's unofficial weakness for children. He couldn't explain its cause, and never asked to the former Mist nin to do so, but he knew the fact all the same. Even that morning, when he had reluctantly allowed his partner to go back into the village for supplies, he had half expected to see the blue skinned shinobi return after giving away everything but his sword to dirty-faced children.

The Uchiha came to the edge of the island village slowly, mindful of the attention that a drunkard would attract by appearing to move too quickly. Once he was finally out, Itachi straightened his posture. After checking over his shoulder to ensure that he was not being watched by any eccentric villagers, went to the first tree he saw and walked up its trunk. From there, he went as far out onto a branch as he was able to without drawing obvious attention, and leapt from there onto the nearest rooftop, where his partner was already waiting for him.

Kisame job's, for the second time during their mission, was vastly easier than Itachi's, in the Uchiha's own opinion. From above the same butcher's shop that Itachi had leaned against throughout the meeting, the shark nin had watched from above to make sure that if Gato had decided to have the street urchin in the alleyway eliminated, his men would have been shaved in half before they took their first step, and a much more satisfying form of interrogation performed on their employer.

The part of Itachi that still remembered straddling the old man's fleshy hips approved of the "satisfying" method whole heartedly, but was unfortunately overridden by common sense. Too likely that their targets would run for it.

Kisame looked up at the sound of the pebbles under Itachi's feet scraping against the roof tiles as he came near. Once more, there was that smile quirking in one corner of his partner's mouth that hinted that he was trying not to smile for the sake of keeping his skin intact, but the shark nin didn't say anything as his partner settled himself on the roof beside him. Instead, he held Itachi's cloak out to him, wrapped around sandals and missing shirts, just as it had been after the fire.

Itachi was still pulling the shielding material of his cloak over his pale shoulders to block the sun rays when his partner addressed him.

"So what did you find out?"

Itachi pulled his hair out from under the cloak's collar and momentarily regretted the loss of his hat. "Gato is planning to ambush Zabuza."
There was a pause. "And our target?"

"Likely to be caught in the crossfire." Itachi watched his partner through the corner of one eye while he spoke. "It seems that one of them attacked Gato at some point yesterday."

Kisame didn't pause, if the information concerned him at all. "You think that might be his motive?"

"Possibly," Itachi answered vaguely, mind weighing what he knew of the little man he had just seen. "His ego is large enough for that. Several of his guards seemed like they were trying not to laugh when it was mentioned."

"He'll probably want his attack to be something big then," Kisame commented to the wind. Itachi knew that his partner's attention was divided during their conversation, monitoring the streets below in response to an ingrained sense of paranoia that Itachi had been drilled in during his own schooling in the Leaf, though perhaps not to the same extent as his partner. They both knew that to discuss their mission in a public place was dangerous, but to discuss it in the forest, where the chance of an unwanted eavesdropper going unnoticed was higher, it was better to let Kisame's instincts manifest.

"How long do we have to get our mission taken care of before he attacks?" the shark nin asked, bringing his eyes back up from the streets to look at the Uchiha again,

"Five days," Itachi answered readily. "It seems that he wants to have them finish their mission before he kills them. They must have already planned their next attack location."

"Did he say where?"

"It wasn't mentioned. The person Gato met with appeared to already know where the next attack will be held."

Kisame chuckled. "You have a very long way of saying 'no,' Itachi-san."

It was silent for a moment. Following the angle of the shark nin's eyes, Itachi traced his partner's gaze down to the little girl he had seen before. She was weeding her way between the bodies of adult streetwalkers, trailing after one particular person with rosy pink hair. The color must have caught the child's attention. It wasn't in Itachi to ask what it was about the, granted, outlandish looking girl, that had caught his partner's attention. Instead he brought his vision up to his partner's profile, silently willing him to notice.

When Kisame finally did draw look away from the two female children in the street, he grin, almost sheepishly at his partner for trailing out of the conversation. "So, we follow the bridge builder and wait for our target to show up, then?"

"Only until we can find out where Gato is stationed." As Itachi answered, a short breeze passed over the tops of the village houses, making his oily bangs stroke the sides of his face and remind him that he still needed to wash away his disguise. The urge to shudder in distaste was strong.

"I can do that," Kisame offered.

Itachi responded instantaneously, "No."

Below, the pink haired girl had frozen in mid step. Itachi could see her, and knew that likely, Kisame did as well. The beggar child's hand was firmly planted on the back of her dress, fisting in the material to get the rose-haired girl's attention. When the girl turned around, Itachi noticed the sunlight glinting off the top of her headband as she jerked her head to one side. A hitai-ate. There was a snarl on her face as the girl stared at the air for a minute, one fist raised as if to fend off an expected assailant that wasn't there. Itachi could imagine the worry that must have been on faces of the beggar girl's parents when it seemed that their child had made a wrong judgment in selecting a possible donator. But then, the pink haired girl's attention dropped down to where the small child was holding her hands out with the simple word, "Please."

When Itachi looked back up, it was to encounter Kisame's eyes focused on him instead of the scene below. The expression on his face made it clear that his response a few seconds ago did not go unnoticed. Itachi was good at overhearing things that people were not supposed to overhear, but Kisame possessed the ability to win people over enough to tell him what they didn't know he wanted to hear. 'No' broke their rule of qualification over insistence.

Itachi grasped for a viable explanation, until finally he settled on sending a pointed look into the streets, where the little girl was running back to her parents' alleyway with her cupped hands filled to overflowing with candies that the pink haired monstrosity had given her. Aloud, he said, "I don't trust you with these beggars."

Kisame looked where he was directed, and then back up at his partner again, then burst out laughing. "Itachi-san, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were making a joke at my expense."

Another breeze blew by; Itachi turned his face into it so that his greasy hair would be blown away from his eyes. His answer to Kisame was a practiced, disinterested, "Hn."

"I keep the look out for the bridge builder then, I got it." Kisame stood up, and Itachi watched through the corner of his eye as the former Mist ninja adjusted the strap of his sword, looked at his partner's uncharacteristic appearance one more time, and said, "In the meantime, have fun playing drunk."

Itachi hissed quietly at the larger man, knowing that the sound would be engulfed by the breeze. He watched Kisame's form after he stepped over the side of their building, disappearing into the shadows that had deepened only so much since Gato's meeting. A minute later, Itachi got up himself, not bothering to dust off his clothing as he turned to rejoin the crowds below.

He went to the edge of the building to mimic Kisame's method of slipping onto the streets unnoticed before another breeze, noticeably stronger than the last, made a lock of his hair wriggle free and skate across his face. Alone, he unabashedly reached out a hand to jerk the filthy tendril back into place while his other hand drifted thoughtfully over to the pocket where Kisame's shampoo was stored. Changing his direction, Itachi hopped down into an entirely different alley than his shark-like partner. Going away from the crowds and the possible information that they might be able to offer him, Itachi went toward the bathhouse district instead. When the wind began to pick up as he entered wider streets, it was an encouragement to make due on his earlier promise faster.

Haku could wait.

kkkkkkkkkkkk

History has shown that civil progress can take decades to come full circle, and even then there are always the chances that it can be overridden and forgotten with time. The common people are stubborn when it comes to preserving their way of life. Shinobi, on the other hand, are different. Their way of life encourages discovery and adaptation in a way that other groups have never quite understood. But even so, progress is still stretched out over the span of years because of the never shrinking death rate that the shinobi profession also endures. A ninja may come to accept a way of thinking different from his own one day, and then be killed in the action the next. It is an ironic factor of society in larger nations that the people who are quickest to react toward positive change in their nations are also the ones that disappear before they can make any impact on the larger, less flexible civilian populations.

It was only by stubbornness and a great deal of luck that the Water Country's bloodlines were not completely wiped out between the contrasting efforts of the Mizukage and the country's feudal lord. The second Mizukage of the Mist had outlawed the persecution of bloodline carriers toward the end of his reign, soon enough so that by the time the shark clan settled in the mountain village during the Third's ruler-ship, they were not immediately slaughtered by a horde of conservative shinobi clans. Younger generations that had never served under the Second were more gradual to accept the new law allowing bloodline holders into their midst, particularly the children of high ranking families who were reluctant to share power with the untried clans that came flocking to Kiri after the shinobi village declared itself a haven for the families that in many cases, had spent years hiding their abilities.

And flocking was unavoidable. To remain in the countryside or on the coast with a bloodline ability was dangerous.

The Hoshigaki clan had been among the first to take advantage of the promised safety that the shinobi lifestyle offered. After Kisame's grandfather became the head of their clan, he had wisely made the decision to move his family away from the Water Country's coastline and into the safety of the mountain village. Other ostracized bloodline clans were slower to act. It was possible that they may have made the mistake of believing that the Mizukage's influence extended over the civilian population as well as the shinobi. But civilians, even in the Mist Village itself, were under no obligation to follow a law that was not passed by their feudal lord. And though the Academy history lessons claimed that the Second had made countless attempts to reason with the civilian officials, a law protecting the rights of non-shinobi bloodline carriers was never passed.

Kisame had learned about his family's history from a distance, preferring not to approach his father or other relatives and hear something that he was fine not hearing about. He didn't want to know how his family had managed to survive the trip into the mountains when even the most humanoid abilities were still under extreme pressure to remain hidden, or how a land dispute had managed to start between a clan that was as old as his mother's had been and one that had just migrated to Kiri.

When Kisame was eighteen, his father remarried into another non-bloodline family. It wasn't as surprising as Kisame was sure that his original mother's marriage had been, now that it had been close to thirty years since the Second Mizukage's declaration of equality in the Mist. By that time, the shinobi population's natural gift at quick acceptance of civil progress had penetrated into all but the most removed clans, reducing the reaction to a subdued murmur when a few decades earlier there might have been a roar. Kisame had felt a twinge in the back of his mind when he received a message outside the town of the Water Country's feudal Lord, several days after the fact, informing him that while he was on his mission his father had married girl only five years older than Kisame was himself. He expected it to grow when he returned to Kiri, but when he met the meek creature, and saw her taking his mother's place at their table, he was surprised when he felt nothing. She was chuunin, fairly attractive, but unsure of herself and ultimately unable to compare to the woman who had lived unfalteringly in the heart of a pack of sharks for thirteen years.

Kisame couldn't bring himself to feel threatened by his stepmother; even when she became pregnant and rumors began to spread that his father was trying to replace him as the future clan head. His instincts were proven correct when his younger sister was born. A little girl who looked as little like her submissive mother as Kisame had expected her to be, but more importantly, as a female child, she was completely useless if Kisame's father was hoping to usurp him as his successor.

But even if the child had been born male, Kisame was still well into the Jounin status by the time the pregnancy had taken place. To have cast aside a son that had become as successful as Kisame had obviously become would have spurred gossip about their family almost as scandalous as Ping's death.

The same year that Kisame had heard about his father's second marriage, he had also received an order directly from the Mizukage. He was to go to one of the secluded fishing towns on the Water Country's coastline and meet with a higher ranking official that the Mizukage had sent ahead of time. He was told to set out immediately, and that he was to keep all information about his mission to himself until given further instructions. That suited the shark ninja just fine when he set out. He didn't know what he was being called for at the time, or why the location selected had been a village that he hadn't so much as heard of before, but knew not to question his Kage for answers that were not already provided for him during briefings.

The Water Country, every inhabitant of Kiri knew, got its name for a reason. It was different from the other countries it was allied with. Unlike their neighbors on the mainland, the Water Country was isolated by a wide stretch of ocean blocking it off from the rest of the world, and on its shores it housed water in all its forms. The Mist village itself was cautiously hidden away in the mountains at the heart of the country, where spies from the Fire Country would never be able to find it without a proper guide, no matter what unnatural eye techniques their clans managed to produce.

After Kisame's grandfather had secured his clan's place in the Mist village, he had been reluctant to leave it afterward. It was a trait that he had managed to instill in his children and them in their children after that. Without thinking, Kisame had turned down missions that would have taken him out of the invisible border that his family had unintentionally set separating the places the Mizukage's influence managed to reach and places where it hadn't. As a result, Kisame's father had only approached the warmer, tropical reaches of the Water Country's coastlines on specific missions where the Mizukage told him bluntly that his refusal would not be permitted, and Kisame himself had never seen a beach.

The effects weren't noticeable at first, when Kisame began feeling the temperature rise as he made his way to the village he was ordered to. His clothing was suited to the higher reaches temperature, and after the third day of walking around through trees that looked as if they had sincerely never heard the word snow, he began traveling bare shouldered. His skin protested at first, turning from powder blue to a sore shade of violet that the shark nin later realized was sunburning, but at the time didn't examine too closely. On the sixth day, he glimpsed the ocean in the distance for the first time. On the eighth, the muscles in Kisame's shoulders and the backs of his legs seemed to tighten and erupt in twitching frenzies at odd hours. He spent most of his nights lying awake, not sure what was keeping him from falling asleep. Finally, he gave into traveling through the night as well as the day, only pausing to rest when his body was exhausted beyond reason. Finally, on the eighth day of his journey, an early winter gust made him smell salt on the wind for the first time, and brought with it an overwhelming urge that Kisame didn't fully understand. On the ninth, Kisame had cut the last two days off of an eleven-day journey without noticing.

Kisame could see the village indicated by the Mizukage when he stepped out of the forest. He could see the individual people inhabiting it, the boats anchored off shore, as well as the children playing along the beach. He saw them all, but he didn't register them.

As he walked down the path leading toward the fishing village, Kisame felt his blood pounding. He had seen the ocean before, distantly from atop the training building. On clear days, it was almost possible to stare out into the sea and see the smaller islands that were scattered around the Water Country's border. Almost. But staring from miles away and staring from just a few yards was completely different. Kisame felt the desire to run in the backs of his legs, growing stronger with every step he took. He held himself back stiffly, and knew that as he came closer, the people of the village one by one began to notice him.

The children he had seen on the beach noticed first. They looked up curiously, noting first and only a stranger in the way that very small kids tended to do. It was their parents, looking up from their chores in the village, who stiffened and motioned in different degrees of subtlety, for their children to come home. The shark-like man might have cared, if his eyes weren't focused onto the sapphire expanse of the ocean before him, so much darker up close than it had been on those clear days in the Mist. He told himself, uselessly, that the sight shouldn't have been as unnerving as it was, even as his feet continued to lead him forward and off the path that wound toward the civilian village.

The wind from the day before was still there. Vaguely, it occurred to Kisame that the Mizukage would not want him to put off finding his official and proceeding with whatever odd mission he had been sent to the village to do, but that was swept away by a breeze laden with the intoxicating scent of the sea, and the tantalizing knowledge that its source was only a matter of steps away.

In the back of his mind something else came up, unnecessary but there nonetheless. He'd tested his gills once, when he was eleven years old and managed to slip away from a training session with his mother and brother to get outside and run out to a lake that was on his family's property. After he had come home, clothes still dripping and skin nearly blanched as light as his brother's, he had discovered two things. One, that as a human with shark-like genetic traits, his gills did not respond well to fresh water. The other, that jumping into a lake without someone else nearby, even in spring, was downright idiotic in the mountain area of the Water Country.

"Kisame!"

The shark nin startled when he heard his name from somewhere off to his side. He turned slowly, surprised to find himself standing on the gold-yellow sand. He didn't remember when the ground under him changed from hard gravel.

Coming toward him from farther off, was a figure that Kisame didn't recognize at first. The person had his hand in the air to attract his attention, even though he was the only one on that side of the beach. Green hair was the first thing that Kisame noticed, even before the abnormally big eyes and thick lips registered that had been remarked upon in countless bathroom stalls since before and after leaving the Academy. As the running figure came closer, Kisame grasped after the older man's real name among the various ascribed ones in his memory.

"Raiga?" Kisame tried when the figure stopped in front of him. He remembered the green haired man vaguely from his Academy days. They had never met, though the shark nin remembered that he had been in the same class as the panting shinobi in front of him, if only for a few months. Quick tempered and slow witted, he had been held back from taking the graduation exam three times, and missed the Academy reform by a slender string of luck. Kisame hadn't been aware that the other man knew who he was, much less his name.

The oddly wide lips bent into a smile that told Kisame he had guessed correctly. "Hai." Raiga's voice was a deep rumble.

Kisame studied his features, wondering if there was any possibility that they had seen one another at some point since those few months at the Academy. Locker room messages hinted that Raiga's memory was not capable of recalling a one time classmate's name at a moment's notice.

Coincidently, his hair made Kisame think momentarily of seaweed...

"Others are coming along," the green haired shinobi was saying amiably, "but you're the first I've seen today – I cannot seem to remember where we're supposed to go. Do you know where Mizukage-sama wanted us? It's hard to find your way in the town—"

"Excuse me?" Kisame blinked, eyes darting away from the dark green locks of his comrade's hair and back down to the disproportionate face. He wondered if he had heard the other man right.

"Where are we supposed to go?" Raiga repeated, unabashed.

Kisame blinked. For the first time, he wondered why there was another shinobi in the fishing village to begin with. Dumbly, he said, "You mean where we're supposed to go?"

"Yes." Again, Raiga didn't seem to notice the confusion that Kisame was trying to convey in his voice.

Kisame waited for a moment to see whether the older man would think about his tone and realize that he was asking a different question than the other man was hearing, but gave up. Bluntly, he asked, "What did Mizukage tell you to do out here?"
Raiga started to answer, "I..."

He stopped.

Kisame waited.

Without warning, Raiga suddenly perked up. As if the shark nin had suddenly disappeared, the green haired man turned back toward the forest behind them and began to run. Kisame didn't move, wondering if he should call after the other man to ask if he was alright or whether he should go to the village and finally begin looking for the official the Mizukage wanted him to find. He was stopped from making his decision abruptly when he heard Raiga call out a name, in the same eager greeting voice that he had used when he had approached Kisame, that stopped him cold.

"Zabuza!"

kkkkkkkkkk

Discretion is a necessary factor for every shinobi's survival. Without it, one could not hope to pass the status of Genin, or to even remain in the profession beyond their instructor's evaluation at all. Kisame couldn't be sure, but he believed that after the reform in the Academy, the lack of subtlety and tact were the largest causes for deaths in rookie ninja. In his own case, a lot of credit probably belonged to luck, but in others…

After Kisame left his partner behind to navigate his way through the alleyway network of the fishing village, he had to stop before he reached the street. As he walked, he pulled his hands under the folds of his cloak to perform a brief series of seals before he passed onto the main street. The Mist wasn't nearly as efficient in its genjutsu as other countries. It was widely known that the Fire Country and the Grass Country were the masters. But Kiri shinobi knew enough to get by. Which was why Kisame didn't attract as much attention when he slipped back onto the crowded street. Invisibility jutsus were beyond him, but Kisame did know how to manipulate the chakra that surrounded his body so that people passing by him were less inclined to notice him, or that he was avidly trailing after a pink haired girl whose appearance clearly labeled her as well off in comparison to island locals, and the older man that she was with. If Itachi had recognized the girl as a Leaf Genin, or the man that she was guarding as the same villager their target was intent on killing, there had been no indication.

Catching up to the pair as quickly he could without overriding the illusion of normalcy he had set, Kisame was careful to avoid brushing into any of the people walking opposite him, following the girl and her elderly charge down the street until they came to corner that he assumed would lead to the old man's home. The crowd grew thinner there, thankfully, so that when Kisame stopped in blatant surprise, he didn't feel a villager walk into him from behind.

The bridge builder and the pink haired Genin from the Leaf turned the corner without him. By that time Kisame's head was turned, looking after a sound that had particularly stood out as his targeted duo neared the intersection. He stared first in confusion, then in disbelief when he looked across the street to see what caused the odd sound. His eyes fell on the slender form of what looked to be a young girl in her mid teens. Anywhere else, she might have gone unnoticed, save that on the island she was too well groomed to be a native, and that the dress she wore was obviously too intact for the Wave Country's state of decline.

As Kisame stood unnoticed and immobile on the sidewalk closest to the buildings, the girl walked right past him, striding down the street with a clear click announcing each step.

The shark nin's head turned to follow the girl, the bridge builder forgotten as his lips slowly turned into a grin of recognition. He knew that face. Changing his pace, Kisame weeded his way back into the midst of people in the market place, trying to keep the pale figure ahead of him in sight. It was an odd coincidence, Kisame knew, and he had a feeling that if Itachi was present he would have been pulled back from following after the seemingly female market-goer. But fortunately for him, as far as Kisame's sense of chakra detection could tell, Itachi was already gone to wherever it was he intended to do his searching.

Kisame skirted a middle aged woman leading a pack of children behind her, eyes never leaving the form of his target. Weaving his way closer was made easier when the pink-clad figure stopped to examine an assortment of trinkets on display at one stall. With one pale hand, the outlandish market-goer thoughtfully picked up a pocket-sized mirror and held it aloft. The shark nin was able to see the dark eyes reflected in it, large and admiring as their owner politely nodded to whatever the stall vendor said to him.

Before Kisame could reach the stand, the mirror was back on the display counter, the pink form again darting between the groups of people filling the street. As Kisame pursued, he only came up with one clear question, and that was whether or not it was Zabuza or the boy himself who had come up with the undeniably brilliant female disguise.

kkkkkkkk

Some people will say that there is a cool feeling of acknowledgement that comes with meeting someone who ultimately changes the course of your life, as if there is a spiritual recognition that takes place before names are even exchanged.

Kisame didn't agree with that. At age eighteen, when he looked up to follow where his permissibly flight-minded fellow Mist shinobi was running in time to see the lanky form of Momochi Zabuza step out of the wooded area, there was no unexplainable experience of feeling the earth shift. No tug of fate. There was a shock of surprise and recognition, though not of anything that might happen in the future. It was the first time he saw the person who once huddled outside the Kiri training building for warmth since that night.

"Zabuza!" Kisame could faintly hear his green haired comrade exclaim again as he came to a stop in front of the single person responsible for the Academy reforms that might have otherwise seen Raiga disposed of before he was finally permitted to see rookie level. Like before when he had came tromping towards the shark nin, there was no honorific attached to the name, as if Raiga was too careless to consider beyond the one word that a person would respond to.

The other Mist nin had stopped walking when he heard his name called, and stood watching with his arms folded in front of his chest as the green haired man reached him. Zabuza had turned out shorter than what he had imagined, Kisame realized as he watched Raiga's profile straighten next to the bandage wearer. Raiga was almost tall enough to stare down at Kisame, whereas Zabuza's head had to crane back to avoid being hit in the forehead with the other man's chin when Raiga stopped a little too close.

There was no look of recognition that the blue-skinned shinobi could see from where he stayed, confused as he had been when he heard his own name called, on the beach. Faintly, he could hear Raiga's words carrying down to him. Not enough to know what they were, but just enough to know that they were there. Then after one string of ear-straining syllables, Zabuza's head cocked to one side, and his eyes swept over the beach. When they found Kisame's, they both stared.

Raiga didn't seem to notice.

Battling down a persistent urge to turn around and continue his walk toward the expanse of blue ocean that came back with the breeze as if to remind him that it was still there, Kisame made his way toward the other two shinobi. As he did so, the two eyes visible over Zabuza's bandages stayed with him, and Kisame got the slightest impression that he was being measured.

"Zabuza? What are you staring at? You do know where we're supposed to go?"

Kisame had heard of Zabuza in a different way than Raiga. He was the mysterious boy who managed to spark a reform in the Academy, forced the Mizukage to look more closely at the desolates lining his streets, and finally, acknowledge the killings that had baffled his chuunin as valid. The Hoshigaki heir didn't know how the mysterious killer had managed to be trained the first year after he became a Genin, when there were no other rookies to make up the necessary number of people for a rookie team cell. He might have been trained one on one, for all the shark nin knew, to make up for the massive gap from skipping the formal lectures on chakra control that the Academy would have otherwise have given. Later, Zabuza had become the kind of oddity that was heard about from a friend of friend, but rarely seen; this largely due to the younger man's uncanny preference for training outdoors, with a rumored tolerance for cold that went beyond the normal rate even for a citizen of Kiri.

Kisame unconsciously made a habit of not speaking when the subject of the silent killer came up. There was no sense of loyalty that caused it, but rather a strong urge not to delve too deeply into whether he should feel anything toward his part in the Academy history, or the set of keys that were buried away in a drawer somewhere in his attic, along with a photograph of his Genin team, with the girl that never quite recovered from her younger sister's death.

"Mizukage-sama didn't say that this was a group mission," Zabuza finally said gruffly. At some point his attention had returned to Raiga, who had repeated his initial question.

Over Zabuza's shoulder, a glimmer of reflected sunlight skated along the blade as its owner turned toward Kisame when the shark nin answered him, "We weren't told that it would be a solo mission either."

Zabuza's expression changed under his bandages, though the covered portions of his face made it difficult for someone who did not know how to read the bumps and shadows to tell if it was a scowl or something less rebuffed.

Raiga stood silently between them, large eyes drawn inward as if he were listening to something that neither of the other two present were able to hear.

Kisame endured the weight of the other man's black eyed stare for as long as he was able, before finally shrugging. He said, "All that I was told was to find his attendant and listen to what he has to say. Not much of a mission to begin with."

The shadows on Zabuza's face changed positions again. The black eyes narrowed, in what reminded Kisame fleetingly of the wary expression worn by a stray cat when it first notices a larger animal watching it. In actuality, Zabuza was likely thinking back to his own instructions before the Mizukage sent him out to the nameless fishing village. He knew that the other swordsman wasn't given any more information about what they were doing here and with whom when the eyes finally eased. More easily than before, Zabuza asked, "So how many of us are here?"

Kisame was about to remind his comrade that the Mizukage hadn't even told them that there would be anyone else in the village, when another voice sprang up between them, disturbingly clear in its certainty.

"Seven."

kkkkkkk

Once one becomes missing nin, his ability to hide his face becomes vital. In the Akatsuki, the notable patterns of the organization's cloaks canceled out whatever good might have been done by their high collars and shading hats. But the Akatsuki was meant to draw attention, and with elite shinobi, remind people of the organization's reputation. Frankly, the Leader wanted the very sight of the Akatsuki colors to be intimidating. They were one of the only exceptions to the rule; in any other case having such a notable appearance could be classified as having a desire to be hunted down and possibly torn apart by hunter nins and bounty hunters from every village that knew how to read a wanted poster.

Zabuza was one of those people.

Kisame might have expected it from his time with Zabuza before their exile. The other missing nin was headstrong, cocky, and possibly by an ingrained distaste for the civilian populace that had come from living on the very bottom of the Mist Village's social levels, Kisame knew that Zabuza had a remarkable ability to completely underestimate a nin-ninja's ability to recognize him. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem for a shinobi still serving in his own village. ANBU members wore masks while they were on duty, and put them away when they were not. Zabuza, on the other hand, had never worn his mask. When asked, he said that the eyeholes hindered his vision, and as strange as that sounded coming from someone that was supposed to be trained to use other senses to detect their enemy, the fact that Zabuza's face was still regularly covered during missions kept the matter from becoming an issue. Until Zabuza's teammates realized that Zabuza wore his bandages full time, regardless of whether he was tracking an escaped killer or going to the market to buy groceries.

In a side, almost guilty way, Kisame was glad to see that Zabuza's stubborn carelessness hadn't been handed down to his tool. The boy walking ahead of him in the pale pink dress walked slowly, shying away when larger groups came walking down the street in the opposite direction. The chakra signature was neatly held close to its source, not strong enough to attract attention for a trap and too loosely covered to suggest that the boy was expecting one himself. But the boy had also walked right past the bridge builder. And Kisame was sure that anyone who could manage to outsmart Uchiha Itachi twice in one day could not possibly miss seeing his own target on the sidewalk. To Kisame, the evidence seemed to say the same odd, but admittedly not impossible thing: Zabuza's apprentice was out for a walk.

To the shark nin it seemed that killing the bridge builder in town would have been perfect. He was out in the open, when the only people who still have the will to fight against Gato's rising power would still be busy at the construction site of the bridge. Kisame had done assassination jobs similar to the one the boy was hired to do now, before and after joining the Akatsuki. And the signs of a group of people that had been beaten down past the point of resistance were not hard to miss.

Suspicion prickled in the back of the shark nin's mind. Checking to make sure again that he hadn't been spotted by the slender form ahead of him, Kisame crossed to the opposite side of the street so that he could watch his target in profile rather than from behind. He wanted to be able to see what his target was doing, and possibly see if there would be an opening that he could take advantage of to grab the boy without drawing too much attention. The sun was slowly moving past the midday position, grudgingly allowing the shadows that had been so scarce when Itachi was trying to find a spot to listen in on Gato's conversation to deepen and expand.

Kisame kept his jutsu in place cautiously, thankful for the undrainable amount of chakra that both his sword and natural stamina provided. Without the Akatsuki hat, which he regrettably hadn't thought to grab before the letter bomb went off that morning, Kisame's face was too easy to see. He adjusted the color of his cloak, despite the fact that Zabuza's charge had already seen Itachi too many times to have not memorized the Akatsuki uniform by now.

Zabuza's boy turned a corner, going down a street that was slightly less crowded than the one he came from. When Kisame followed, he could tell by the smell that they were coming closer to the docks. The stalls were crammed close together with signs advertising different prices and types of what was ultimately the same product. Along with the salty smell of the sea, the air was laden with the pungent odor of fish.

Kisame took this in, still watching his target from several feet away. He frowned. The houses around them looked as if they were used primarily for storage purposes rather than actual homes. The only people that could live by the docks here were the ones who had been fishing for too long, to the point where their nose had stopped noticing the smell that came with along with their mastery. Kisame hadn't noticed it at first, when he had been a teenager first discovering a set of instincts that he hadn't been aware of in his genes. But in the present, the charm had gone away with familiarity, and seeing his target come here made him momentarily pause, as a warning flag inwardly rose. The docks meant water, and Kisame already knew that his target, if nothing else, was trained by someone who had mastered water jutsu.

Dropping back, Kisame let the distance between himself and his target grow. He selected an alleyway, still on the opposite side of the street from the boy who looked so much like a harmless female, and darted into it.

His target seemed to be examining the varying displays of fish. In this part of the village, the ground was not made of packed dirt or concrete. Instead, the roads were overlapped with wooden planking, leading from the beginning of the street right out to the end of the docks. The effect of the different flooring made the boy's sandals echo more loudly than before. Even if his eyes were closed, Kisame could find his target easily.

The boy walked down to the very last stall. The one closest to the water, Kisame noted despite himself. The vendor didn't rush to cater to a potential customer here, as they had on the main street. Still, the outlandishly fair teenager waited, patiently, to be noticed by the vendor.

"Sir?" the boy asked after taking a moment to look over the fish set out on ice for the inspection of buyers.

The man looked up from whatever he had been doing behind the desk – Kisame couldn't see what – to look at what must have appeared to him to be a young girl with no visible purse or place to store money on her person. As if to confirm Kisame's suspicious, his first words to the petite creature in front of his stall were, "Gomen, miss, I cannot accept credit."

"Ah, good." The boy's voice was soft, unperturbed by the initial rejection. "I have money with me. What I wanted to ask you was..." The boy's voice dropped as he leaned over the counter. Kisame saw the vendor's brow crinkle, first as he strived to hear what his customer was saying, and then in confusion as he drew back and looked over the slight figure of Zabuza's apprentice. He seemed to be pondering the size and shape.

Still frowning, he said, "We caught a fresh one this morning—"

"Good, I'd like it please."

"But we haven't had time to have cut yet. Working hours have been uncertain since the bridge—"

"I don't mind." Zabuza's student didn't give the man a chance to finish his sentence. With a persistence that almost ruined the gentleness of the voice's tone, the boy pretending to be a girl insisted, "I can cut it myself. Just bring it out for me, if you don't mind."

"You're sure?" The man said back, but he was already getting up from his stool and turning toward a curtained doorway.

"Hai," the reply came anyway.

The salesman's apparent skepticism made Kisame uneasy. He couldn't tell if there were any signs of annoyance or rebuke on the boy's face from where he was standing. Idly, he looked over the wares that were on display. The stall sold mostly larger fish, but nothing that a girl would have had trouble carrying on her own...

While the vendor was gone, the men working the other booths didn't attempt to divert the attention of the pink-clad teenager as most did in other markets that Kisame had seen. Instead they stayed quiet, looking vaguely ahead of themselves or pointedly down the street, as if not wanting to see the supposed young woman standing a few feet away. It was odd. Kisame made a side note in his mind to mention this to Itachi later.

A minute passed before Kisame abruptly realized that with the streets in this part of the village as deserted as they were, this was the perfect time to capture his effeminate target. However, no sooner had the thought entered his mind before the curtain over the fisherman's back room moved, and the stall vender emerged with the boy's order. What Kisame took to be a very large fish, was draped over both of the man's arms as he heaved it onto the display counter in front of his customer. Stiffly, the man said, "It's rather large."
"No, not at all." Kisame saw a thin finger trail from the tip of the creature's tail and then trace its way to the head, hidden behind his target's body. The expression on the vendor's face turned to annoyance when he saw that the "girl" was not at all put off from making her purchase.

His target walked around, going to the end of the counter and leaning across it, reaching for something.

Kisame felt the muscles in his back tighten as the boy's reaching caused his body to move, and allowed him to see the creature that was laid out on the inspection table. Particularly the pointed nose, and the gapping, empty mouth of a young male shark.

"Actually," the boy was saying to the vendor and he straightened from sifting among whatever was kept on the owner's side of the stall, "I was hoping that you would have bigger. I'm cooking for a lot of people, you see."

Sunlight reflected of the end of large butcher's knife, nearly also long as the boy's arm from wrist to elbow. Without asking for permission to take it, the pale figure went back to stand in front of the shark body.

"You won't fine a better one in town," the stall vendor said grudgingly, his eyes fix to the knife as it was raised. "These kinds don't come close to shore very often anymore. That knife probably won't be sharp enough—"

"Don't worry," the boy's voice cut through the man's sentence once again. Still not blatantly rude, but harder than before. "I know how deal with a shark."

Kisame was still not able to see his target's face when he rolled the shark over, but he did notice how the shark's mouth seemed to quiver as it was pushed onto its side, and how its eyes were wide and glassy as they stared out as if they could see the blade.

Kisame swallowed.

The boy slammed the knife down, tip first, into the space just above the shark's gills. The force of the impact made the vendor glance down his table warily, as his displays shook. The man hadn't been lying when he said that his catch was fresh; when he shakily made the suggestion that he butcher the body instead, droplets of blood flew from the edge of the knife as the boy brought it up and pointed it at the vendor in one swift motion.

"It's a slow day," the eerily sweet voice answered back. "I will only take a moment. Please."

The man stepped back until he brushed against the leg of his stool, and sat down. The boy's knife stayed trained on him the entire time, and Kisame noticed that down along the street other people were looking toward the stall, all frozen as they watched the scene take place. His target must have noticed them, as any shinobi would have, but he chose not to address them.

The vendor also hadn't been lying when he said that his knife wouldn't be sharp enough to butcher the shark. Despite the best efforts of the seemingly delicate muscles in the boy's arm and shoulder, his knife couldn't cut through the shark's spine when he attempted to take the animal's head off. Kisame could see the moment that the pink-clad boy encountered bone, and how the sawing motions of his arm made the shark's head jerk as if it were shaking its head at his attacker.

The fish vendor again made his offer to cut up the shark himself, and turned down in steely, "No thank you. I think I've got it now."

Zabuza's tool withdrew his knife, whipped the handle so that his grip wouldn't be affected, and then rolled the fish over so that it lay with its belly facing the street. One hand clutched at the shark just under the gnash that had already been made, while the other dragged the blade down, opening the animal's stomach and allowing its blood to pool on the counter.

Unmovable from its body, the shark's head continued to stare up at the sky, indifferent to the blade that cut away its flesh, as Kisame unconsciously took a step farther into his alleyway, when he thought for one moment, that his target's head would turn.

Zabuza's tool knew how to make himself clear.

kkkkkkkk

Zabuza and Kisame both stared at Raiga after the one word left his mouth. For a moment, the sound of the seagulls shrieking over the not too distant fishing docks was the only response that the green haired man got, before he blinked, and with the action, seemed to erase the other two other ninja present from his awareness. He turned away from them and began walking toward the village without a word.

Zabuza's eyebrows began to slant toward one another above his bandaged nose. Kisame, after wasting a second exchanging a mutual look of confusion with his fellow remaining swordsman, started down the path after Raiga.

"Wait, where are you going?" It wasn't often that Kisame found someone with longer legs than himself, but Raiga's were moving at a leisurely pace, allowing the shark nin to catch up with him easily. When Kisame addressed him, the other man seemed jarred. For a moment Kisame thought that he was going to have remind the green haired shinobi what his name was,

The look of confusion passed though. Within a moment, Raiga answered him simply, "To get a boat."

Kisame stared, but before he could phrase a question asking why Raiga had suddenly decided that he needed a boat, the older nin added, almost defensively, "We were supposed to go into town anyway."

"Uh, yes." There was a blankness behind Raiga's abnormally large eyes that Kisame couldn't quite place. He felt uncomfortable for some reason. He thought he could hear it in his own voice when he answered, "I suppose we were..."

"Good, then let's go!" Raiga began to turn away again. Kisame stood frowning at the back of the green head as its owner walked away, trying to remember if there had been any clear indications of communication problems when he had briefly known the other shinobi at the Academy.

"I don't like this." Zabuza's voice at his elbow came unexpectedly.

Kisame's shoulders went rigid on impulse; he hadn't even noticed that his other comrade had followed him when he went after Raiga. When he turned, it was to find himself staring directly down into the intent dark eyes that were not completely unfamiliar. "Why's that?"

Zabuza's eyebrows inclined toward each other, just slightly. Briefly, his eyes darted toward the path over Kisame's shoulder, while their owner asked, "Have you noticed?"

Kisame's mind drew a blank. He gave the bandaged swordsman a look that went unnoticed because Zabuza returned his gaze to the path and their other comrade. "Noticed what?"

Kisame watched the lines indiscriminately change on Zabuza's face at the question, but it was his voice that gave way to irritation. "Do you know who that is?"

Down the path, Kisame thought he heard someone shout. Momentarily, he had an urge to turn around and see what Raiga was doing in the fishing village, but instead he answered Zabuza, shrugging one shoulder to show that he wasn't sure what the other man meant. "Is that in or out of the locker rooms?"

Kisame thought he heard a huff muffled by the bandages. He waited to see if there was another answer coming, but the bandaged man seemed not to think another one was necessary. Brushing past, Zabuza began walking toward the fishing village to join the green haired comrade in question, leaving Kisame to either frown and let the question drop, or follow.

They were almost at the village entrance when Zabuza dropped back to walk beside the shark nin again. Quietly, he said, "He only became a Jounin a few months ago."

Kisame glanced at the smaller man as they continued into the village without pausing.

"He used to tag along with ANBU groups until he went on a mission to wipe out a Fire Country spy on one of our outer islands. Rumor says, he slaughtered nearly half a village before he finally reported back to Kiri. It wasn't even the right village, but..." Zabuza's voice trailed off as they came to the path neared the docks. At the end of it, they could see Raiga pulling out his weapons and crossing them against one another in front of an older villager. Tiny trails of electricity licked along the metal staffs that could just barely be counted as swords. The poor man that had been standing in the green haired shinobi's way froze, dropping the net he had been carrying and letting the silvery fish inside flop onto the ground behind him. Raiga took a step forward, and the man scrambled to get out of his way without touching the charged sword tips.

Zabuza continued, "...his work since then has been perfect. Assassinations, recoveries, escorts..." Kisame saw the bandaged head shake, incredulous. "His old captain says that he started sayingthings out of nowhere, things he couldn't know on his own."

Kisame snorted. "Like a psychic?"

Zabuza looked back up at him sharply. Kisame expected a retort, but instead he snapped, "Have you ever worked with him before?"
"No," Kisame answered as they stepped onto the wooden planking of the dock. By the efforts of their strange, but nevertheless intimidating comrade, the docks were now empty.

He heard Zabuza saying, "Neither have I." Then more quietly, "…I don't know about you, but I certainly never told him my name."

At the end of the docks, Raiga was struggling with the moor lines of a fishing boat that he had managed to frighten the owner away from. He was glaring down at the lines in his hand, the same expression used when he was threatening to electrocute the villager.

As he bent down over them, the odd shape of the blue-gray bag he had strapped to his back was pushed into the air, both swords safely tucked behind it.

Zabuza went forward without waiting for Kisame to form a reply to his last sentence. The same vague, unknowing look greeted the bandaged nin when he stopped in front of Raiga that Kisame had seen only a few minutes ago. Not pausing to reintroduce himself, Zabuza bent down and took the line from his confused comrade's hands, untying the knot with three quick, jerky motions. There was a slant to his eyes that seen in profile, indicated annoyance, but it was missed by Raiga.

As Kisame walked down the wooden planking toward his two comrades, he saw outline of Zabuza's jaw move, and Raiga smile. Whatever they said to one another was inaudible. For a moment, Kisame wondered whether Zabuza was now recounting his recent history to Raiga.

They were still crouched around the iron hook protruding out of the wood for fishermen to tie their boats with when his shadow fell over Zabuza's on the dock. As if the smaller ninja had been waiting for him, Zabuza chose that moment to ask, "So where did you say we were going?"

Raiga stood up before he answered, dusting his sweaty hands off on the outside of his Jounin vest as he did so. Then, "There are four shinobi out on that island."

Kisame waited a moment, then gently asked, "What island?"
There were several sizable patches of land separating the Water Country from its closest neighbors. In times past, they had formed a civilian country of their own, but towards the end of the First's reign, there had been whispers of an alliance forming between their non-ninja neighbor and the, at that time, severely dangerous Fire Country. The feudal lord was then pressured by the Mizukage into occupying the smaller nation. After the Fire Country lost its interest in the islands, the occupation was supposed to end, but as things had gone, they were now regarded as small pieces of the Water Country. The villages that remained on the two islands were now sparsely populated. Families had eventually begun acquiring citizenship elsewhere when suspicion lingered on their home in the Third's reign.

Kisame frowned when Raiga pointed out into the water, where in the distance where the outlines of the islands closest to shore could faintly be seen. Which of the islands he meant was still unclear.

Beside him, Zabuza grumbled, "This isn't guard duty, is it?"
Kisame stared down to where the bandaged ninja was still crouched on the docks, looking up at them. "Why would they assign three close range fighters to the same guard shift?"

"Seven," Zabuza snapped.

Kisame ignored him. He turned back to Raiga, who had apparently not been interested in the exchange. The green haired man was already clambering over the end of the boat, making it sway and splash seawater toward the docks in protest. "Did the Mizukage tell you to expect that?"

Raiga, after picking himself up from where he had landed on the deck of the boat when he finally managed to pull himself over its side, glanced over his shoulder to answer, but Zabuza crowed from where he still sat, "The Mizukage didn't say anything."

"They're there, though," Raiga insisted.

Kisame was still skeptical. "But isn't that island a little far to sense?"

Kisame saw Zabuza's shadow move as the other man stood up beside him. It was a second before Raiga shrugged, as if chakra signatures hadn't even occurred to him when he was making his announcement. As he swung a leg over the ship of the fishing boat, Zabuza sent the shark nin a look that, even with half his face covered, still managed to convey the message, 'I told you so.'

Kisame glared back at him, before reluctantly moving to pull himself into the boat with his comrades. Until he looked down to adjust his footing and his eye found the welcoming blue of the ocean water peering up from between the boat and the dock.

He paused.

"Raiga," he called after a second.

He'd already seen Raiga turn away to go play with the steering wheel. The man's voice sound a bit farther away when he heard back, "Yeah?"

"You're sure that there are four shinobi out on that island?" Kisame's finger pointed down the dock as if it were a walkway, waiting for confirmation that he knew would come.

"Four shinobi and the Mizukage's messenger," Raiga answered pleasantly.

Kisame pushed away from the boat. Zabuza was standing on the other side, halfway through the act of propping his sword against the side of the cabin. He looked at the shark nin strangely as he answered, "Good."

He turned away from the boat without another word. He tried walking at first, but his feet picked up speed without bothering to wait for the mind's permission, as he went down the to the end of the dock, half racing by the time he was there, and threw himself headfirst into the sparkling water.

kkkkkkkk

If Kisame had expected his target to move quickly, he was disappointed. The boy had already proven that he was different from the Zabuza that he remembered. Zabuza had never been cautious. Other factors had made up for that shortcoming: stealth, knowledge, experience, efficacy… But there was always something else that overrode the ingrained sense of paranoia that most shinobi had. If the boy was anything like Zabuza, Kisame wouldn't have been surprised if he leapt up from the fish vendor's stall and came charging at him with the butcher's knife the moment he was done with the shark carcass. But the apprentice seemed to have done exactly what so many members of the Seven Swordsmen had been forced to when no one was able to shake Zabuza away from the belief that he was capable of so much more than his opponents: learn to work with it. Largely by developing the exact traits that the bandage wearer lacked.

Across the street, Kisame was still able to see his target. The boy was cleaning the borrowed knife with a handkerchief, and then holding it out politely to the stall owner. After he paid for the fish, Kisame expected him to turn away, but instead he lingered a little longer, asking the vendor if it would be alright if he washed the blood off his face before he left.

The boy was patient. With a nostalgic twinge in the back of his mind, it occurred to the shark like ninja that his target must drive Zabuza insane, too.

When the curtain opened again, the shark nin was finally able to see the face of his target for the first time since noticing him on the street. The large brown eyes were timidly directed toward the ground, once again supporting the image of a meek female market goer. But Kisame could see that his feet were moving more hurriedly now, down the street past the other stalls, and then around the corner and down the next. He was moving away from the water.

Kisame hesitated for a moment before he moved up to the rooftops again. If there was someone with his target, traveling above would be dangerous, particularly if the other person was also pursuing from that level. But it was faster, and easier to keep the pink clad figure from slipping out of sight as he made his way back into the crowded part of the village.

The sun had sunk lower now, bringing in the tide and with it, the workers from both the docks and the bridge. But even among the densest part of the market, his target managed to move swiftly. The villagers seemed to give him a wider berth than most, as if the female disguise wasn't completely necessary and his employment already well known.

Kisame stayed close enough that the sound of the boy's shoes on the pavement, and then later scraping against the small pebbles when the pavement gave way to trail, was a constant background chatter. The effeminate creature didn't shy away from the edge of town, either. When he approached it, Kisame was mindful to drop back, considerate of the fact that he had already been informed that his presence was not unknown. Let the boy go in to the forest alone for a second...

The shark nin was quiet when he finally followed into the trees. He jumped down from the last house and relied on his chakra sense to help find which direction the pink-clad shinobi had gone off in... but there was nothing.

Frowning, Kisame went in deeper, going straight and looking for telltale signs of someone passing by recently. Snapped twigs, crushed leaves, broken branches. He saw none of those. But then, most shinobi knew not to leave those signs...

Drip..

Kisame stilled. He turned to one side, staring off into the direction that for a second, he thought he heard the sound of a water droplet splashing. He changed his direction, winding his way between several trees that seemed intent on intertwining themselves together for the sole purpose of making his path more difficult. He stopped when he found a small bubble of empty space that the plant life had left untouched. It was small, but large enough to fit a very slight person, if they didn't mind the occasion twig poking into their space. At the bottom of the clearing, the ocean nowhere in reach, there was a swallow, fresh puddle.

Drip...

A water droplet fell from a low, thin branch reaching out from one of the trees. The water on it created a dark spot three inches wide, and the moisture pooled on it was heavy enough to still be falling periodically.

Drip...

Kisame's eyes dropped lower on the tree, down to its trunk, where another dark shape could be seen. Round, with five tail-like lines extending downward. A small, drying trail of water came down from each one. As if someone had rested their hand there after swimming for hours without drying off afterward, or just moments before they burst into water.

Several branches still jabbing into his sides from trying to reach the little clearing, Kisame began to extract himself from the small nook between trees. Under his breath, he recited several choice swears. He wasn't telling Itachi about this…

kkkkkkkkk

Itachi stepped away from the island village's only remaining bathhouse with his hand idly ghosting the entrance railing. It was an old building that had doubtlessly already seen its prime long before Gato's forces had ever come to the Wave Country, but it had hot water and soap, and that was enough to satisfy the Uchiha. His hair, now free of the atrocious animal grease from before, was still damp as it hung around his shoulders. Washing the filth out had taken up the entire contents of the miniature shampoo bottle Kisame had salvaged from their room that morning, and as he walked, the evening breeze coaxed the unmistakable fragrance of peaches from the damp locks.

Itachi turned down the beaten road (if it had once been a sidewalk, then it had gone so long without sweeping that it was hard to tell). Inwardly, when he inhaled the reassuring scent, he experiences a momentary bout of sheer relief. Even the fact that he had spent the majority of his day making up for his lost morning ritual instead of hunting for leads on his and Kisame's target could be overlooked until later.

Children didn't frequent this part of the village. The people who were still well enough financially preferred to keep their children inside after dark, and the poor would doubtlessly rather have their children with them on the busier streets, where charitable passersby were more likely to be found. Itachi didn't mind the deserted streets. There were no curious children following him when he came to a mostly empty trash receptacle, and no one to dart toward it afterward after he dropped inside a cloth bundle that he had compiled before leaving the bathhouse changing room. At its center there was an empty plastic bottle, wrapped in the ruined pair of pants that he had been wearing since before coming to the Wave Country. Even if Kisame hadn't torn apart the leggings for his disguise earlier, a distinct stiffness to the material in a certain area had reminded the Uchiha that he had already needed a new pair before Kisame had even heard about Gato's meeting. It had been forgotten during the incident with Haku's bomb letter, then put aside while trailing Gato, but when distractions were finally over, the fact that his clothes needed to be replaced as soon as humanly possible had not changed.

Kisame was too respectful of the boundaries of his partner's privacy to have noticed any signs of discomfort that might have slipped onto his face unchecked during the few times that they saw one another during the day, but the shop keeper that Itachi had met when he went to buy a new pair hadn't been. Or so the measuring look he was given when he walked into the store had led him to suspect.

Itachi turned away from the trash bin, intent on finding another store where he could buy a larger bottle of shampoo before meeting Kisame. He was turning toward the street that he knew would lead him back toward the marketplace when he felt eyes on him; when he looked around, he kept himself from showing any outward sign of noticing. His head stayed angled forward, but a small flutter of pale pink in the corner of his eye flagged his attention. There was a girl across the street from him, walking in the opposite direction.

Something in the back of his mind stood up when he let his eye trail after her. A mid-evening breeze was blowing by, tugging at the girl's hair and obscuring her features, so that for a moment, Itachi didn't understand why the other's presence stood out to him.

The girl didn't look back as she continued to make her way down the unswept, pebbled street. He could tell by the angle of her shadow that her eyes were downcast, likely picking her way around the loose stones peppering the sidewalk. In her arms, she carried two large bags containing something unidentifiable from the growing distance between her and the contemplative former Uchiha heir. She was nearly at the end of her street before he realized that her skin was too pale for the climate, and that no woman as young as the girl appeared to be would be out unattended in a secluded district so close to sunset.

The girl's head turned as she rounded her corner, glancing back down the street and seemingly in Itachi's direction, as if to confirm the half formed suspicion in Itachi's head that the girl walking casually away from him was no girl. Her silhouette lingered for half a second, the stance almost saying, 'Are you coming?' Then it disappeared behind the next building, the sudden distinct sounds of her footsteps echoing down the empty street, where a second ago, Itachi was sure they hadn't been.

Click. Click. Click...

Before the shadow had even begun to shrink behind the building, Itachi was already pursuing Haku, his plans of finding his partner and a decent shampoo shop forgotten. Likewise forgotten was his awareness of the fact that he was moving in the direction exactly opposite that of the forest and closer to the sea. And also, his target's undeniable gift to be severely underestimated by his opponents.

kkkkkkkkkkkkkkk

((poke)) Attention everyone! I am not dead, repeat, NOT DEAD:)

I've finally finished the next chapter! ((dances)) This one has been in the works for quite awhile because of outside complications, so I'm sorry if anything seems a bit off or choppy about it, but for the most part- SQUEE! It feels good to update again!

...even if there was no KisaIta progress going on in this chapter.

Reveiw Responces:

animedragongirl ((cowers)) I'll get to them, I promise! Just as soon as I kick my muses into providing a good set up for one. In the meantime, thanks for the review.

ano You know, you're the first person to show compassion for the roomie. No body seems to care about Itachi's poor, naive, OCroommate... Your review actually came to me when I was FINISHING finals, and actually, it really made my day (June is evil). Thanks. I can honestly tell you that writing Itachi's awkward teenage moment by the stream wasn't easy. Itachi did not to make to make the scene easy for me. XD

Diet Soda Heh, sorry that it's confusing. I try to make it clear, but sometimes I'm not the best at that. Glad that this story still manages to interest you regardless. :D (and I like your pen name)

Nikore-Uichi Praise is just as good as constructive criticism:D ((spoken from under onslaught of KisaIta plushie attacks)) Thank you for reviewing, my ego needs swelling!

Saiseki You and me both wish someone would draw Itachi in a schoolgirl uniform. ;P Really, why has this area not been exploited to the point of exhaustion in fanfiction! lol, I don't remember what the total number of pages this story is at in Microsoft Word, but I can tell you that chapter three was thirty pages long, and this one is just over twenty-four. I like to ramble. :) You gave me so many compliments in your review, it had me smiling for a full five minutes afterward! I'm thrilled that someone out there thinks so highly of me and my scribbles.

Skinst! Yo! Thanks for reviewing me here! ((snicker)) Jealousy? Oh, just wait. Itachi's jealousy isn't ANYTHING next to Haku...;P But of course, I can't talk to much about that. Might give the story away.

Nekotsume Wooooow, that's a long review. ((blinks)) Yeah, you're probably right about how far Itachi would let Gato go for the sake of his ((ahem)) distraction. But I had brain bunnies controlling me, you see, and it just added so much to the humor factor, I just couldn't resist! Now with Ping's name...well, yeah, I wasn't wild for the name at first either. I actually came up with it while watching Mulan with my little sister, and after that, I just got used to calling him that. Behold the wonders of my naming techniques! sigh I hope to have Kisame and Zabuza meet at least once in the present time frame too, but having them together in a scene proved harder to write than I thought (does it show?). They'll have a lot of conversations in the flashbacks though, I can promise you that. (Ooo, the sharpened teeth bit has appeal. If I find a place to work that in, mind if I use it?)

Serafin lol, That scene wasn't supposed to seem like a dream until the end. ;P Just me being difficult. I'm glad that you liked it though.

Psyche lol, in your review you listed all the scenes that were cooked up in my sociology class. :) My teacher was a great inspiration for "DUH!" actions (I'm going to miss him next year...). Though the fluffier bits were more just fangirlish dreaming. At least now the time limit has been set. Sometime in the next five days, Itachi will either buck up the courage to confront Kisame, or Kisame will figure out why his partner is so touchy about the Haku-side of their mission. Either way, the story will be filled with more flashbacks, so it's a good thing that you like them. :D Especially when Kisame swoops in and fills up entire chapters with them (though actually, I made the story that way to avoid writing in chronological order; reading it is one thing, but I usually get a little bored writing that way --;). Thank you again for helping me edit this. I really appreciate it (and so does the part of my head that would have been slammed into the nearest wall when looking back over that "lesions" typo XD).

Shail666 Not much shounen-ai in this chapter, unfortunately. Though Itachi did get a little nervous when Kisame was kneeling infront of him (naughty thoughts, I like to imagine :P)

minn yun! Hi! It's been forever! (mostly because I'm a lazy arse who hasn't updated Family Matters since last summer --) I take it, you like Itachi's frustration?

Taiy-Chan AFF was being a pain in the arse, so I wasn't able to update there. TT Even now, all my links to that site aren't working. I'm very heartbroken over this. Glad that you like how this is going. You're right, there really isn't enough on Kisame and Itachi. Especially not enough multichapter stories.

Suiren Look, I updated at last! Unfortunately, there's no Kurasa, but I have hopes for thenext chapter. Maybe. ((looks around)) It depends on how the next scene with Itachi and Haku comes out. (Psst! But on a different note, if you have time, could you give me a Japanese name starting with the letter T? I'm hoping that I can find something that means "gray" or "shadow" or "ash" or something, and you're the only person I know that speaks it. Just if you're not doing anything else.)

Sacral Heh, I'm sorry that this update wasn't soon. I had honestly thought it might be, but things started coming at me in my life outside the computer. You know how it is, I'm sure. Hopefully the next one won't take as long. In the mean time, ((dances)) thanks for the review! But if you think that I'm the best KisaIta writer, than you need to read "Nights in White Satin" on the livejournal community, akatsukilove. Do it now! The woman who wrote itis a goddess!

Azamiko l'mglad you liked.

Smoking Panda Writing their communication is really fun for me to do ('specially when it involves fluffy or funny things like Kisame walking in on something he wasn't supposed to or surprising Itachi with gifts :)) I'm glad you like.