[Insert disclaimer here: I don't own Naruto. But I do own a Naruto plushie. It is not featured at all in this story.]

...

There were good days and there were bad days, Kisame thought to himself as he heard the soft rustling of bed sheets beside him. Itachi was awake already. Sometimes Kisame wondered if he ever fell asleep to begin with.

In the still, tranquil moments of early morning, there was nothing to drown out his partner's coarse, ragged breathing. Sharp gasps punctuated long wheezes in a familiar pattern that Kisame recognized as a battle of wills. He counted the forced inhales and the grinding exhales. Seven. Eight. Nine, and then the bed moved, as it always did. The battle, though, was just beginning.

The thin sheet fell from Itachi's shoulders as he pushed himself up. There was a stifled groan among the wheezes that Kisame forced himself to ignore. Itachi was still for a moment, and then slowly eased his legs out of the sheet. One foot touched the floor, and then another. The next groan wasn't stifled at all.

Kisame watched Itachi in silence. He knew why Itachi rose so early, before the harsh blades of dawn shredded what was left of the night sky. It was his eyes. Itachi's eyesight had been slowly deteriorating since he was a child, the effects of fully matured sharingan taking their painful toll.

Itachi sat on the edge of the bed, while his head sunk in his hands. Kisame glanced out the window. The sky was still dark, but Itachi's eyes were burning with the fire of a hundred newly risen suns. He rubbed them with his palms, and Kisame could almost see the fire spreading down his neck and over a pair of tense, hunched shoulders. Itachi let out the breath he probably wasn't aware that he was holding, and it sputtered from his chest in a series of jagged coughs.

Kisame cringed when Itachi coughed. It was a familiar sound now, and one that neither of them took lightly anymore. The coughing continued, though muffled by Itachi's hand, and as Kisame waited for it to pass, he wondered if it was going to be a good day or a bad day. The fit worsened, so much so that Itachi struggled to catch his breath between them. But it did eventually subside, and when it did, he didn't wipe his hand on the sheets. It might be a good day after all.

Instead, he blindly reached for a small pouch on the nightstand. Hyorogan, Two of them. Kisame knew the routine. Itachi put the first pill in his mouth, but he didn't swallow. Instead, he took his time, letting the hard outer shell dissolve and then savoring the rest like a gourmet enjoying a fine delicacy. Kisame wondered briefly if Itachi actually liked the disgustingly bitter taste, or whether he just longed for the feeling of eating something more substantial every now and then. When the second one went down with a single swallow, Kisame always decided, at least for the moment, it was the latter.

Itachi lingered on the edge of the bed. His bare feet brushed over the wooden floor in every direction. At first, Kisame wondered if this was how Itachi compensated for his impending blindness - sketching a daily mental map of their constantly changing surroundings. But the reality was far less impressive, and it didn't take long for Kisame to realize that Itachi wasn't testing the room. He was testing himself. He was in pain.

His limbs ached past his muscles and beyond his bones. Kisame watched Itachi carefully flex each joint, calculating the strain that it could carry, and more importantly, what it couldn't. The longer Itachi focused on a single stretch, the worse the prognosis was. There were days where Kisame knew Itachi's legs could barely support his weight, and yet Itachi would force himself carry on somewhere between a stagger and a limp. Today, though, was a good day. The worst of it seemed to be contained in his left arm.

But the slow, cautious way Itachi finally stood up brought Kisame back to the chilling fact that 'the worst of it' was a very relative term. One look at his partner, and he knew he was getting worse, not better.

Itachi was thin, thinner than Kisame ever remembered seeing him, and everything about him looked disturbingly frail. His hair hung limp and lifeless over his naked back. His pale skin was like death in the moonlight. Kisame found himself holding his breath, as he often did when Itachi started his tenuous walk toward the washroom. It was silly to superstitiously believe the shock of a single breath could break a man like Itachi. But when he finally did let it out, and Itachi's entire body trembled, Kisame couldn't help but shudder.

He closed his eyes, deciding that this morning, he didn't want to relive the now familiar sights of his partner lurching across the room or blindly fumbling for a door handle. Instead, he resigned to listening to the floor creak under Itachi's feet. His footsteps slowly steadied, as did his breathing. He found the door with little effort, made his way inside and turned on the tap. Kisame let out a sigh of relief.

The former mist shinobi could find nothing in the world more soothing than the sound of running water. It was the calm before and after a storm. It nourished more than it killed. And no matter how much blood stained his hands, it would always wash it away. His shoulders slumped into the mattress again and he pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Unfortunately, even the soothing sound of the water couldn't drown out the brutal round of coughing and retching that followed. It was only behind closed doors that Itachi let his guard down and his composure slip. He didn't mask his pain or hide his suffering. And as he heard his partner hack blood into the sink and heave his meager breakfast into the toilet, Kisame cringed.

He prayed, as he always did, that the water would be cold enough to extinguish the scalding fire in Itachi's eyes, to numb the searing pain in his body and ease the exhaustion that plagued his soul. And this morning, like all the others, his prayers were answered when the door to the washroom finally opened and Itachi Uchiha stepped into the light.

He stood as sturdy as the sharingan now spinning in his eyes. In the menacing Akatsuki cloak, his body wasn't nearly as thin. He was imposing again. He was intimidating. And his left arm, even as it contorted in a painful spasm, looked oddly relaxed as it hung in front of his chest. To the untrained eye, he was as invincible as he ever was.

Kisame knew otherwise, but he never spoke of it. Instead, he carried on with the weak illusion that he was still asleep, completely oblivious to his partner's daily battle of wills. He knew Itachi saw through it, but he also chose to accept it. Perhaps it was a matter of dignity. Perhaps it was simply denial. But perhaps, and Kisame hoped this was the case, perhaps the tacit understanding between them was what turned the tide of battle every morning.

"We need to move out now to reach the western base by early afternoon."

Kisame feigned a yawn and threw off the blanket. He glanced up at his partner's cold, emotionless face with reverence, as he always did, at just how well Itachi could hide the pain he so clearly just alluded to - His eyes still throbbed badly enough that he feared moving toward the sun would trigger a near-incapacitating migraine. But otherwise, his body was fit enough for travel. He could confidently confirm six, if not eight, hours worth of stamina. In short, it really was a good day.

The only question was, Kisame thought to himself, just how many more good days could Itachi have left?