The Hazards of Amity

By: firefly

Note: Whoa, fail on my part for not updating this in so long. No real excuse, besides the fact that life is busy and time is scarce. And—can you guess what I'm going to say next? There is another chapter after this, because the final one was bordering on 20K words when I was intending to post it as a whole.

As for the chapter itself, I'm pretty surprised at how it turned out. I also seriously love my KankSasu bromance. Anyway, thank you very much to those who reviewed and waited patiently! Hope you enjoy this chapter, and reviews are always love!

The Hazards of Amity ch.4

His sleep was a tenuous thing.

Even when he'd been young, he'd always taken it in sips, cautiously indulging when it obliged him those rare hours of oblivion.

He appreciated those moments because they were so fleeting. After he'd left home, deep sleep was a blessing unattainable without the aid of medication or severe blood loss. It was true for him even now, and it was for that reason he felt something was seriously wrong when he woke some time near noon.

The sound of running water brought him out of his stupor. He cracked his eyes open, slowly becoming cognizant of the sunlight warming his face.

He turned his head from the glare and blinked up at the ceiling. Then he lifted his head slightly and looked across the room. Sasuke's bed was empty. Muddled, he lowered his eyes and found himself lying nearly sideways on his bed, blankets piled in a heap on the opposite end.

It was late. The thought was followed instantly by the realisation that he was supposed to be presenting with Temari to the council. He glanced at the clock. There were still several hours left before it started.

He sat up, bracing a hand against the wall when a wave of vertigo struck him. The room tilted akimbo, lingering at a forty-five degree angle before slowly straightening. He pressed his hand to his face and closed his eyes briefly.

His fingers felt icy against his skin.

He eased his weight out of bed and stood, pausing a moment. The faint clinking of dishware and the scrape of a chair drifted to him from the kitchen. He took a moment to breathe and clear his head. Then he slowly ambled out into the hall.

Sasuke was sitting at the table when he entered the kitchen. There was a glass of water and a bottle of antacid next to him.

His little brother spared him a glance when he noticed him in the doorway.

"Heartburn," he muttered in explanation.

Itachi tried to ignore the way his legs weren't quite supporting his weight and made his way towards the sink. "Long night?"

Sasuke pressed his fist to his mouth and grimaced before answering. He did not seem to notice the way Itachi's voice was quaking slightly.

"Ate something I shouldn't have," he said under his breath, a glower passing over his face. "Last time I listen to that moron..."

Itachi reached for a glass and turned on the tap, letting it run cold. He swallowed the sick feeling building in his throat and tried to speak naturally. "You had a good time, then."

He felt Sasuke's incredulous stare on the back of his head. "What makes you say that?"

"If you hadn't enjoyed yourself, you would have come home a lot earlier than you did."

Sasuke couldn't think of a response to that. But then he spoke, sounding miffed. "You were awake when I came back?"

"No." The water was overflowing the glass now. He would have elaborated, but the sick feeling was pushing at the base of his throat now.

Sasuke's tone grew curious. "Then how do you know?"

Itachi was silent for a moment. Then with slow, deliberate movements, he reached out and turned off the tap. Streams of water spilled down the sides of the glass and over his fingers. He stared at it and tried to speak.

"I..."

He stopped, feeling a pressure build in his chest and a hot, pooling sensation fill the back of his throat.

Sasuke stared at him, slowly growing concerned. His eyes trailed his brother's frame, narrowing in apprehension when he noticed his shoulders growing rigid. "Are you all right?"

Itachi let go of the glass, taking a shallow breath before finally turning around. "I'm fine—"

The words had no sooner left his mouth when he felt a sensation like getting kicked in the chest. He doubled over, slapping his hand to his mouth in anticipation of a coughing fit. Instead, a projectile stream of blood gushed out of his mouth, violently enough to spurt through his fingers and all over the tiles.

It took him a few seconds to clear his throat of the fluid before he straightened and looked at his hand. Blood webbed his fingers in thick, dripping strands. When he raised his head, he found Sasuke staring at him, aghast. The boy's face had gone totally white.

Very quickly, his vision began deteriorating into a haze. Recognizing the familiar signs, he summoned what remained of his strength and stepped away from the counter.

"Sasuke," he said, calm despite the blood splattering his face, "if the doctor asks, my medication is in my back pocket."

Sasuke mouthed wordlessly. Taking that as a sign of assurance, Itachi finally gave in and collapsed to the floor.


The meeting room was silent save for the rhythmic ticking of the clock. Nearly a minute passed this way before one of the council members cleared his throat and took a pointed glance at his watch.

The ticking was soon joined by the impatient tapping of a shoe against the tile.

Gaara sat at the head of the table, hands folded under his chin. He stared down at the final report on the trade agreement before looking up at the clock. Then his eyes slid questioningly over to where his sister was standing at the front of the room.

She returned his gaze with a visibly apologetic look before glancing at the clock and frowning. Nearby, Kankuro spared a glance at the empty seat next to him. Slowly, he reached for the copy of the report he'd laid out for Sasuke and set it back with his.

Another minute passed.

Then Temari broke the silence with the scuff of her shoes as she stepped towards the white board at the front of the room.

"I apologise for the delay," she finally said, tone decisive. "We'll continue with the presentation as scheduled."

With that, she aimed a meaningful look at Kankuro and held out the notes meant for her partner. Her brother quickly stood and joined her by her side, taking the papers.

No further words were exchanged because Temari was a consummate professional and would no doubt save her anger for outside the office. Kankuro actually felt somewhat sorry for Sasuke's brother because the poor fool apparently had no idea the sort of trouble he'd just gotten himself into. Bailing on Temari during the final presentation of a project was justifiable suicide.

But as they got into place and he saw her aim one final look at the clock, he curiously found that it wasn't really anger but something that looked more like worry creeping over his sister's face.


It was an hour later when Gaara finally dismissed the meeting.

The room broke up with the council members rising to congratulate each other. A seal of approval was stamped on the trade agreement and bore all twelve required signatures. Temari smiled and nodded as they praised her on a job well done before leaving the room.

"Congratulations, Temari," Gaara said, offering her a small smile when the room was empty and only he and his siblings remained. "You did well."

She smiled back, looking relieved that it was over. "Thanks, Gaara."

"What about me?" Kankuro interjected, sounding offended. "I busted my back for three months building the damn things."

Gaara stared up at him for a moment before amending. "You also did well, Kankuro. Congratulations."

Kankuro looked back at him with petulance. "But you just—ah, fine, forget it. Thanks, Gaara. That means a lot."

Gaara looked down at his papers and sorted them into a neat pile. He spoke without looking up. "Uchiha Sasuke and Itachi were supposed to be in attendance, if I`m not mistaken."

There was a brief silence. Kankuro's expression sobered a bit and he looked towards his sister for a hint into what might have happened. It was no use. She looked as bewildered as he did.

"You're not mistaken," she said eventually, her face clouding. "Something must have happened."

"You don't know that," Kankuro said, somewhat taken aback at her reaction. "They could have just ditched."

She frowned. "Itachi wouldn't do that."

Before either Kankuro or Gaara could reply, a knock interrupted the silence. Gaara did not seem to be expecting anyone and blinked before permitting entry.

A kunoichi entered, quickly crossing the room to stand at attention before the Kazekage. Her face was damp with perspiration, as if she'd run on the way.

"Report," Gaara said.

She obeyed. "Two security clearance scrolls were recently activated and the names came up flagged in the system. Head of security thought Kazekage-sama should be informed that they belong to Uchiha Itachi and Uchiha Sasuke of Konoha."

Temari's eyes widened.

"What?" Kankuro said in disbelief.

"They are delegates here on a mission," Gaara said, regarding the messenger carefully. "For what reason were their security seals activated?"

"I apologise, Kazekage-sama," the messenger said, bowing her head, "there was no actual security compromise on their part, but seal activation is standard procedure for foreign shinobi admitted to the hospital."

There was a moment of silence. Kankuro looked away from the messenger and at Gaara, noticing that Temari had done the same. Her face had grown pinched.

"Kazekage-sama," Temari said after a moment, keeping her voice steady. "Permission to investigate?"

Gaara looked between the tight-lipped expressions of both his siblings before turning back to the messenger.

"Clear the alert," he said, nodding once to his siblings. "You are dismissed."

The three issued quick bows before leaving the room, Kankuro hanging back long enough to mutter "we'll keep you updated" before hurrying after Temari. His sister's gait was rushed and he had to jog to keep up when they emerged from the building and onto the street.

"Hey, do you know what's going on?" he asked in concern.

"I'm not sure," she answered, a peculiar note entering her voice. "But he's been sick lately. Even yesterday..."

Kankuro refrained from asking more, realising she was talking about Itachi. He spotted the hospital on the horizon and quickened his pace, thoughts wandering not only to his sister's quiet partner, but the younger brother who'd been so reluctant to leave him home alone last night.

"Just keep it together, Sasuke," he muttered under his breath.


It took four and a half hours and a battery of non-stop tests before Sasuke was allowed to see Itachi again. He'd been sitting in the corner of the waiting room with his face buried in his hands when one of the nurses approached him.

He leapt to his feet, barely letting her finish saying the room number before he was racing down the hallway.

The door was slightly ajar when he got there. He saw why when he burst into the room and nearly collided with the doctor who'd just entered before him.

"I'm all ri—" Itachi managed to get out before Sasuke practically flew across the room and seized him by the shoulders.

"What the hell? What the hell happened? You were perfectly fine and then you—you—" Sasuke's face went paper white as he looked down and noticed the IV in his brother's hand. Then he realised how tightly he was squeezing Itachi's shoulders and shakily let go. His hands remained hovering above them, though, as if he was prepared to lunge forward and force Itachi's soul back into his body if he had to.

"I'm all right," Itachi repeated, his voice a little hoarse. He smiled, though it came out looking like a wince. "The doctor was just about to tell me the results."

Sasuke finally lowered his arms and took a step back. He stared at his brother for a long moment, as though to reassure himself that he was alive and conscious and really there. Then he suddenly came alive and whirled towards the doctor.

"What happened to him?" he demanded. "Is it serious?"

The doctor didn't even bat an eye before he raised his clipboard and started where he left off.

"As I was saying, I went through your medical history. We ran every test under the sun and checked for adverse side effects from your medication..." at this he paused, looking at the bottle in his hand admiringly. "Give my regards to your Hokage, by the way."

Itachi watched expressionlessly as the man paused, flipping a page on his clipboard before lowering it with two words.

"It's stress."

"Stress?" Sasuke repeated.

"Yes," the doctor affirmed, shifting his attention to the emotionless man on the bed. "Enough to kill a horse, apparently, because it reduced the efficacy of your medication to nearly zero."

Itachi said nothing. The doctor's gaze flitted between the shocked—if not angry—look on Sasuke's face and his patient's nonchalance. He crossed his arms and spoke in a somewhat softer tone.

"Look, I know there's no shortage of tension in shinobi work. It's not something you can usually confide due to the nature of the job. But problems of this kind usually surface with inflammation caused by an acute onset of severe stress. Can you think of anything in particular that's been troubling you lately?"

Itachi closed his eyes. He pretended to think about it even as the obvious answer resounded dully in his head.

"I'm homesick," he said instead.

The doctor wrote something down on the clipboard while Sasuke stood there looking as though he'd been struck in the face. The angry look ebbed, clouding over with guilt. He lowered his eyes to the floor.

Itachi did not look at him and silently begged forgiveness for the lie.

"I can see, with your background, why that would be accountable," the doctor said after he finished writing. "But it's not something you should take lightly. Consider filing a request for early leave. I'm also prescribing something to calm your nerves so this doesn't happen again. Take it regularly with your current medication until you go home, all right?"

Itachi nodded.

The doctor placed the clipboard under his arm and glanced at his watch. "A nurse will be in shortly to prep you for discharge. If you experience another blackout, come back immediately. It may take a few days before the blood clears from your lungs. In the mean time, plenty of bed rest will do you good."

"Thank you," Itachi said.

The doctor nodded to them both before leaving the room. The door gently clicked closed behind him, leaving a stifling silence in its wake.

"Why didn't you say anything?" Sasuke asked lowly.

There was no response.

"If my wanting to stay here stressed you out that much, you should have said something," Sasuke ground out. "I'm not a little kid, Itachi. I can handle it if you say no."

When the room remained silent, Sasuke raised his head and looked at him in exasperation. He could have lost him temper, then. In any other situation, he would have. But there was no point because he already knew what his brother's answer would be.

He passed a hand over his face, clenching his jaw in frustration. Then quite suddenly the tension melted out of him and his shoulders sagged. He dropped his hand and looked at him powerlessly.

"Stop thinking about me so much," he said, "and start thinking about yourself. Or you're going to die."

Itachi said nothing. Sasuke narrowed his eyes in concern, taking in the listlessness in his brother's features. He was about to speak again when a short spasm passed through Itachi's body and he immediately brought his hand to his mouth.

Sasuke snatched a handful of paper towels by the sink and quickly moved towards him. The papers grew dark with red liquid where Itachi pressed them to his lips. The sight sent another wave of panic coursing through Sasuke, but it comforted him slightly to see that the blood didn't seem fresh; the colour was darker and duller than it had been that morning.

Still, the sooner the nurse got there with his medication, the better. He was not willing to take his brother's word for it any longer.

Reaching out, Sasuke used the call light by the bed and waited. Ten minutes passed before he pressed the button again. Then again. Then he was picking it up and hurling it across the room in fury.

"Sasuke—" Itachi began, cutting himself off when his brother stormed out of the room.

The heavy footsteps soon disappeared down the hall. His gaze dropped to the pale blue wristband on his arm, tracing the letters of his name. He didn't have to think twice about why no one was coming. But it pained him to realise that Sasuke would have to learn why the hard way.


The minutes passed steadily with no end in sight and Sasuke felt his self-control slowly slipping to the point where he wanted to scream. Every member of the hospital staff he encountered responded with either a shake of the head or a re-direction, leading him in circles around the floor until he swore under his breath and went down to the main floor.

He didn't care anymore. The first white coat he'd lay eyes on was getting dragged back upstairs to Itachi's room. It didn't help that his fear was mounting again at the thought of leaving his ill brother alone for ten minutes while he ran around looking for a nurse.

He was just about to pursue a doctor making his way to the elevator when he caught sight of the two figures at the reception desk. He felt a flood of relief when he recognized the unmistakable black hood and the set of blond pigtails.

Unthinkingly, he ran up to them, getting the attention of the receptionist behind the desk.

Kankuro blinked when he saw the slightly alarmed look that passed over the woman's face. Then he heard someone take his name behind him.

"Kankuro—"

He and Temari turned around, pausing in surprise at the sight of Sasuke standing there. The boy was still dressed in his pajamas.

"Sasuke?" Kankuro's eyes flicked over him before his voice instantly became sharp. "What happened?"

Sasuke looked between the two of them, short of breath. He didn't care how he sounded when his voice cracked. "I need help."

Temari and Kankuro quickly exchanged looks. Then Temari took a step towards him, her tone urgent. "Where's his room?"

Sasuke immediately turned around and started leading the way. He briefed them on what had happened on the way to the second floor, missing the way Temari's expression flickered at the mention of Itachi's cough worsening.

She said nothing until they neared the door, at which point she came to an abrupt stop and reached out to hold Sasuke's arm.

"Do you remember the name of the doctor?" she asked when he turned to look at her questioningly.

He paused a moment before nodding. Temari released him and beckoned for Kankuro to go with him.

"The nurse's station is on the third floor. Find whoever's working under the physician and bring her here. And Kankuro..." she gave her brother a steely look. "Find out why they broke protocol and brief me when you get back. I'll stay with him just in case."

Sasuke seemed reluctant at first, but relented when Temari gave him a reassuring look. "I have full authority over the staff. I can have a doctor up in thirty seconds if anything happens."

She watched them depart down the hall before she turned around and pushed open the door.

The room was dead silent and had a medicinal smell lingering in it when she entered. The hush was mildly alarming and she quickly crossed the threshold until the bed came into view. Her breath almost rushed out of her in relief when she spotted Itachi quietly sitting there, head lowered to examine the IV in his hand.

"Jeez, Uchiha," she said, slightly short of breath. "Way to get out of a meeting."

He raised his head and went still at the sight of her. She smiled automatically, if only to keep from flinching when she saw how pale he was. His features remained blank for a moment, but then his eyes widened fractionally.

"The presentation," he said. "I—"

She immediately cut him off with a wave and moved closer to the bed. "Forget that. Kankuro substituted and we pulled it off without a hitch."

He seemed to relax minutely at that but it didn't last long. His features soon became unreadable again and she watched him with slight concern before speaking again.

"Your brother told us what happened," she said, making it a point to look at him and not the pile of bloody tissues on the table. He didn't respond because there wasn't really anything for him to say. Temari pressed her lips together at the sight of the call light lying in the corner of the room.

She sighed, shrugging off her holster and fan before dropping them in a nearby chair. "I'm sorry about this."

"Don't apologise," he said quietly.

"The hospital staff will be dealt with," she promised. Then her resolve wavered into contrition. "I was considering yelling at you for not coming to a doctor sooner, but I guess your foresight was better than mine."

He didn't say anything as she reached out to examine the empty bag of IV solution.

"They didn't even do this properly," she muttered softly, frowning at the injection site on his hand. The area was bruised a vivid purple around the needle. He glanced at it, feeling his hand throb as he shifted slightly. Neither of them had to voice the reason for the neglect.

She looked at it a little longer before raising her head. "Do you want me to take it out?"

At his questioning glance, she elaborated. "They gave me basic medic training during the war. Hooked up a couple of these while I was doing rounds in the infirmary." She paused. "Unless you want to wait for the nurse."

"No," he said, sounding grateful for the offer. "I would appreciate it."

She nodded and moved over to the sink in the corner of the room. He watched her roll up her sleeves and wash her hands before she opened the overhead cabinets for a pair of latex gloves.

She felt the entire process calm her down somewhat and returned to his side with a wad of gauze. He didn't speak or react when she took a seat on the edge of the bed. She glanced up to make sure he was comfortable before reaching for the tape binding the tubing to his hand.

Checking didn't help. He was staring sightlessly at his hand with the same closed off expression he'd worn since she came in. It looked both alien and familiar, the latter slowly occurring to her because it was the same expression he'd worn when they'd first met three months ago. The realisation perturbed her more than she was prepared for.

Carefully, she peeled back the tape and bit the inside of her mouth at the full extent of the bruising. Then she placed the gauze over the site and slid the catheter out in one smooth motion.

She threw it in the sharps container and turned her attention to the box in her lap. When she drew out the bandage and he merely stared at it, the corners of her lips twitched into a wry smile.

"It's standard procedure."

His gaze met hers at the familiarity of the words. Then he looked elsewhere as she carefully applied the bandage, even though it was quickly becoming clear that her efforts weren't helping. Despite her attempt to be gentle, the fingers of his left hand were steadily tightening their grip on the bedspread.

Temari stared at him, knowing him well enough to realise it couldn't just be the nurse's neglect or the pain of a botched IV that had him acting like this. Peeling off her gloves, she threw them in the trash before turning back to him with narrowed eyes.

"Itachi."

He seemed taken aback by the address but even more so when he turned his head and found her staring intently at him. There were several seconds of silence.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

She didn't know why it bothered her as much as it did when he didn't answer. He'd never been very communicative about himself to begin with, but she was certain that if his behaviour was a result of guilt over his brother or guilt for missing the presentation, he would have at least told her.

But he didn't say anything.

Instead, the shuttered look on his face slowly faded and she wasn't quite prepared for the way those dark eyes took focus on her.

It made her feel exposed in a way that was completely foreign, as if all the times they'd met before this his attention had been elsewhere—always distant and avoidant in some subtle way. It wasn't distant now, and the intensity of it had her feeling more vulnerable than she'd been while under his genjutsu.

He didn't speak and didn't have to. That look was all it took to convey that his preoccupation had nothing to do with what she was thinking and everything to do with her.

Before she could bring herself to speak, she heard someone stepping into the room and looked behind her. Kankuro and Sasuke were standing there staring at them.

She quickly rose to her feet as Itachi turned away.

"What happened?" she demanded.

In response, Kankuro reached behind him and pushed forward a frightened-looking woman. He also kept a secure hand on Sasuke's shoulder in case the boy tried physically attacking her.

"Some idiot was spreading rumours in the nurses' station," he said, shooting an aggravated look at the woman. "Apparently she caught wind and decided to ditch without telling anyone."

The air in the room seemed to drop several degrees. Temari turned to her, her voice sheer ice. "What's your unit number?"

The nurse took a step back, cowed by the waves of anger emanating towards her.

"Unit three," she said shakily. "I was going to pass off my assignment, but I—"

"Save it," Temari said tersely. "You violated hospital policy. You're relieved of duty and you, along with your entire unit, will be referred to the bureau of investigation for misconduct and negligence."

The woman mouthed wordlessly, her fists going slack by her sides.

"You're off your assignment," Temari concluded. "Go back to your station and inform the others."

The woman's shoulders slumped as she saw that defending herself was futile. Nodding stiffly, she bowed her head and shuffled out of the room.

"I've gotta report this," Temari muttered, glancing at her watch. "Kankuro, get another nurse up here to handle her assignment. I'm going to go see Gaara."

He gave a two-finger salute. "Got it."

Temari paused, then, glancing over her shoulder at Itachi. A strange expression passed over her face when she saw him staring silently at the bandage on the back of his hand. He looked as though he hadn't heard anything they'd said.

She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it when she remembered Kankuro and Sasuke were in the room. Instead, she gave him one final glance before heading towards the door.

"I'll see you later, Uchiha. Take care."

She briefly clapped Sasuke on the shoulder on the way out and then she was gone, her footsteps fading behind the closing door. Kankuro heaved a sigh and sauntered over to Itachi's bedside, bringing him out of his reverie when he placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry about all this," Kankuro said as Itachi looked at him in mild surprise. "Not exactly a great way to end a trip, eh?"

Itachi managed a thin semblance of a smile when he saw the rueful one the other man was giving him.

Kankuro dropped his arm and stepped back, turning to glance at the wall clock. "I'm gonna go grab you a proper nurse and get you out of here so you can rest up at home. Get well soon, Itachi-san."

"Thank you," Itachi murmured back, before turning his gaze back to the bedspread.

Kankuro then started towards the door, sparing Sasuke a humourless smirk before he left the room. He didn't get far, though, because the door opened a few seconds after him and Sasuke stopped him in the hall.

"What? You guys need something?" he inquired.

Sasuke looked at the older boy with an unreadable expression. Usually he had a barb ready on the tip of his tongue whenever he was around the puppeteer, because the guy was so infuriatingly juvenile most of the time. But the light-heartedness Sasuke had come to associate with him had been nowhere to be found earlier, when Kankuro had stormed into the nursing station and chewed out every last one of them.

He hadn't stopped until he'd found the one responsible, and even now he was going back to make amends for someone else's mistake.

Sasuke suddenly felt an enormous swell of gratitude he didn't quite know what to do with, so he just stood there. Kankuro eventually blinked in confusion and gave him a questioning look. Shifting uncomfortably, Sasuke lowered his eyes.

"Thank you," he finally muttered.

There was a brief silence.

Then Kankuro reached out and cuffed his shoulder. "It was nothing, man."

Sasuke looked at him, a little surprised. Then his features relaxed and he nodded, once. Kankuro gave a little wave and turned to depart down the hall, only to come to a sudden stop when something occurred to him.

"Hey."

Sasuke paused with his hand on the door handle. "What?"

Kankuro pursed his lips thoughtfully before speaking. "When we got back to the room before, did you notice anything weird?"

Sasuke's brows knitted together. "Like what?"

He shrugged uncertainly. "You know. I thought maybe it was my imagination but it seems like something's going on between your brother...and my sister..."

Sasuke looked at him incredulously when he realised what Kankuro was implying. "Don't be stupid."

"I'm serious," Kankuro said, eyebrows raised. "At least it looks that way after last night."

At Sasuke's bewildered look, Kankuro clarified. "They hung out during the festival. You didn't know?"

Well, that was news to him. Sasuke found himself considering what he'd said. The room had been oddly silent when they'd entered and she'd been seated unexpectedly close to his brother, but that was all he'd noticed because his focus was on getting Itachi his medicine.

To his displeasure, he was now running over the scene again in his head out of morbid curiosity. When he noticed Kankuro staring at him expectantly, he shook the image from his thoughts and snorted. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Kankuro shrugged and started off down the hall again. "Just saying, is all."

Sasuke stared after him, nonplussed. Then he opened the door and walked back into the room to wait for the nurse.

She arrived about five minutes later. As she assessed Itachi and explained to him the dosage of his medication, Sasuke found himself getting irritated with the fact that he couldn't get Kankuro's suggestion out of his head.

He watched Itachi, noting the way he listened and nodded to the nurse seemingly attentively. But Sasuke knew his brother far better than Itachi gave him credit for, because the look was a mask that was failing to disguise the complete and utter detachment Itachi had with the entire situation.

His mind was somewhere else and his body on autopilot. It persisted even after they left, with Sasuke saying nothing to him about it as they made the walk back to the apartment. There was no point in asking directly, because he knew by now that Itachi would never burden him with his troubles, even at the expense of his own health.

That didn't dissuade Sasuke from thinking about it, though, and the more he thought about it, the more he wondered what could possibly be accountable.

Itachi was not one to hold grudges. If he'd been stressed or upset about Sasuke wanting to stay in Suna before this, it didn't make sense for him to be upset about it now when it was obvious that they were going to go home.

Itachi was not resentful, either. He wouldn't be this withdrawn just because of the hospital's mistreatment. On the contrary, Sasuke thought in annoyance. He'd probably say he deserved it.

But most of all, Itachi was not petty. He wouldn't do this just to teach Sasuke a lesson for giving him a hard time about staying. He was the type to cut off his own hand if it somehow meant benefitting his little brother.

Sasuke's thoughts continued to stew on the subject long after they'd made it home and night fell. He lay awake in bed after Itachi fell asleep, wracking his brain.

It just didn't make sense. He'd pointed out that Itachi was happier and healthier here than he'd been back home. Itachi had even agreed with him on that. But then things started to go downhill health wise, right around the time they'd both started spending more time with their mission partners.

Slowly, he started piecing it together. Itachi's increasingly common distractions. The insomnia and restlessness. The doctor's diagnosis of stress. And his most frequent preoccupation—

I was helping Temari-san at the greenhouse. I was assisting Temari-san at the academy. Temari-san needed a Konoha representative. Temari-san. Temari-san. Temari-san.

And against his will, he thought of what Kankuro had said at the hospital—when he'd walked in on them and she'd been sitting so close to him on the bed; and his brother, for the most fleeting of moments, looking at her as though he'd been...about...to...

Sasuke's eyes widened in realisation. Holy shit.


He didn't sleep that night.

Despite his restlessness, he remained in bed through the morning and into the afternoon, brooding. Sasuke would never admit that in his genin days, he had given into curiosity and peeked over Naruto's shoulder when the boy had pilfered one of Kakashi's Come Come Paradise books. He'd severely regretted it, of course, but it had made for educational reading.

Unfortunately, that had been the extent of his learning as far as relationships went. And now, thinking about his brother in the same light...he found the comparison kind of gross. And weird.

And not just because he was his brother, but because Itachi had always seemed impervious to those kinds of things. The thought instantly made Sasuke frown in self-reproach. Extraordinary or not, his brother was only human. It was only logical he'd feel this way at some point.

And for something like this to cause such serious physical ramifications—he wasn't surprised.

The love of Uchiha Itachi was a silent, smouldering, self-destructive one.

It had taken him a while to figure it out, but he'd finally arrived at a sobering conclusion. The only reason something as inane as a girl was causing his brother a slow death was that this was something far more serious than a crush; plus, going on Itachi's history of reticence and his desire to keep things peaceful, it appeared he hadn't even told her yet; and finally, based on everything he'd learned about female behaviour from his past pursuers, it seemed that Sabaku no Temari did not feel the same way.

Sasuke wasn't blind. He'd noticed how comfortable the Kazekage's sister felt working with his brother, but that was all it was—a good partnership. Itachi was extremely hard to read and Sasuke credited that for successfully hiding what he'd only just figured out. If Temari was feeling anything close to what Itachi was feeling, Sasuke would have to credit her with being even more well-acted and unreadable than his brother. And that was frankly impossible.

He took a deep breath and released it, closing his eyes in a scowl.

Granted, he'd been pretty angry when he'd realised that Itachi had lied about being 'homesick.' Not to mention, he'd felt extremely shitty for a while thinking the hospitalisation had been his fault. But as the hours passed and he continued thinking, the ire gradually faded.

Despite himself, he could not stay mad at Itachi. The man had never done a selfish thing in his life. In some twisted way, Itachi probably felt that telling anyone his dilemma was equivalent to creating unnecessary trouble. And besides, what would he get from confiding in Sasuke, anyway? What advice could he, his little brother, possibly offer?

None, probably. But it would at least lessen the burden of keeping it a secret. As to why Itachi hadn't told Temari yet, that was a mystery Sasuke was unwilling and unready to delve into. But he could at least support him, in the best way he knew how by just being there. Even if the situation in question made him extremely uncomfortable, it was the least he could do.

He lay in bed for another five minutes before rising abruptly and starting towards the door.

Itachi raised his head from his book when the bedroom door closed with a slam. He found himself staring up at his little brother a moment later. Sasuke stared back, an accusing look on his face.

"How long were you planning on keeping this from me?"

Itachi blinked. "What are you talking about, Sasuke?"

"The reason why your condition is getting worse. Why didn't you tell me?"

His voice remained carefully blank. "And what reason is that?"

Sasuke glared. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. The fact that you're—"

Itachi stared at him expectantly.

Sasuke's glare wavered. He almost flinched. "You—"

There was a long moment of silence. When Sasuke finally spoke, it was with a great amount of difficulty. "You like...the Kazekage's sister."

It was a testament to Itachi's inscrutability that he didn't react at all. Sasuke was expecting it, but it still astonished him how Itachi could survey him thoughtfully before replying. "I didn't think it was important."

Sasuke overcame his shock at the nonchalant admittance long enough to scowl. "Not important? You coughing up blood and passing out is not important?"

"My condition is being treated," he said, returning his attention to his book. "When we return home, this problem will go away on its own."

Sasuke felt the indignation ebb out of him. "Then you're not going to tell her."

"No," Itachi said, flipping a page.

Now he felt foolish. Itachi appeared unconcerned—almost apathetic—about something he'd been fretting over all night. It was like Itachi was reassuring him rather than the other way around. Fleetingly, he found himself wondering if he'd arrived at the wrong conclusion. But then he looked at the too-calm expression on his brother's face and recalled his behaviour in the hospital, and a feeling of resolve replaced his uncertainty as he remembered exactly who he was dealing with.

Dropping the accusing tone, Sasuke looked at him expressionlessly. "...you should."

Itachi's eyes stilled on the page. Sasuke just stood there watching him, searching for any hint into what his brother was thinking. Slowly, Itachi lowered the book and closed it, setting it aside.

There was a long silence. Sasuke didn't bother attempting to fill it. He just watched as the seconds slowly chipped away at Itachi's mask, gradually revealing the face of someone who'd grown incredibly weary and resigned.

He didn't speak. He didn't confide. Sasuke knew he wouldn't. But he hoped that allowing him to at least show it—allowing him to lean, however briefly on his flimsy support—provided him some semblance of comfort.

Whether or not it helped was something he couldn't ascertain. Itachi stayed in his company for the rest of the day, doing more listening than talking. It was obvious he was thinking about what to do with the time he had left, and whether doing anything at all was the right decision.

Sasuke chose to leave him to his thoughts and didn't pry. Night fell, and after ensuring he took his medication along with the relaxant, Sasuke dropped into bed and immediately dozed off.

Itachi stayed in the living room, choosing to lie on the sofa and look out the window at the sand swept city. The relaxant did its work, lulling him into a state of half-wakefulness as he watched the city lights blink in the distance.

They gradually grew dimmer, blinking so quickly it looked like they were fluttering. It was the sand, he realised, hearing it rush on the gale. It buried everything. He found himself having to reach down and brush off the piles accumulating over his legs.

"You've been here a while. Don't you miss home?"

I do, he thought, wearily aware of the grains skittering along his shirt.

There was laughter. "That's all there is to this place. You should go back." A sardonic note entered her voice and a hand came up to rest over the insignia on his brow. "Leaves don't grow in Suna."

She was right in front of him but impossible to see because the light was glinting so brightly off her forehead protector.

I should, he agreed eventually, reaching out and placing his hand over the hourglass.

The light blinked out. Immediately he could see her clearly; see how close she was to him.

He could see the price for that closeness.

Closeness that brought him serenity he only otherwise found in memories. Closeness that brought him happiness he could not find in the leaves, but would brave sun and sand for.

And he would, he thought, eyes lowering to the grains gradually burying him in the dune. He would, if it meant closeness was as simple as sliding his hand over top of hers.

She leaned forward and showed him it was, bringing her lips to the place beneath his lashes. But with it came the weight of her fingers easing the fabric from his forehead, leaving it to drop somewhere in the sand behind him. With it came the drifting sand, skirting through their twining fingers to bury the last leaf in the desert.

And though his head swam and his heart beat heavy with euphoria, he shut his eyes and drew away, knowing that was a price too heavy to pay.

His hand dropped from the hourglass, flooding him with light again.

He opened his eyes. The fan whirred gently on the other side of the door, merging with Sasuke's soft breathing. The room was soft with the glow of dawn and outside the twinkling lights had vanished. Itachi stared up at the ceiling, slowly relaxing his grip on the covers.

He could not do this anymore.

Dregs of medicine flowed gently through him, reducing the immensity of that realisation to dull fact.

Slowly, he blinked away the remains of his sleep and sat up. A blanket pooled into his lap. He looked down at it, figuring Sasuke must have draped it over him some time in the night. The thought brought back remnants of the day before and he pressed a hand to his face.

Gradually, the room brightened as the sun climbed and warmth pressed on his closed eyelids. He eventually opened them, his gaze falling on the bag he kept on the side table. Reaching forward, he opened it and searched for the object he'd kept inside for three months.

He found it a moment later and set it on the table. Then he withdrew a kunai from the bag and made a small cut on his finger. The blood seeped along the edge of the cut until it collected into a drop. He reached out and pressed it onto the seal of the scroll.

It opened with a hiss, releasing a plume of white smoke and stray sand. He unfurled the paper until it opened to the peculiar looking seal on the right side. His signature—made in a drop of blood—was visible in the centre of the seal on the left. On the right, he read her name as the witness and guarantor to the signing. In the centre was a deadline set for three days from today.

That would signal the end of his mission and the end of his stay. Once activated, the scroll would conflagrate and his security clearance would expire.

He could have waited the three days, but the mission was already over. The authorization of early leave would be left to the guarantor to process. Activating her copy only required voiding the seal.

There was still enough blood left on his finger. He brought it to the deadline in the centre of the parchment and drew it across the date. It glistened there for a moment, soaking into the paper. Then the seals vanished and the scroll furled closed with a snap.

He sat there a moment longer, merely looking at it. Then he rose to his feet and left to get ready.

Sasuke stayed asleep even an hour later, oblivious when Itachi left a note on his bedside table saying he was going to the administration building.

He took the scroll and left the apartment a little before nine o'clock—the time when the office usually opened. The walk was familiar and uneventful, quickened by the morning traffic of pedestrians and academy students. He got there in ten minutes, five minutes before nine.

The doors were already unlocked by the time he arrived. The building was still relatively empty, silent except for the occasional office worker setting up for the day. He made his way through the halls until he arrived at the right door.

The corridor was empty and silent. He took a seat on one of the empty chairs outside the room and waited.

A few minutes passed. Gradually, the sounds of passing footsteps grew in frequency and the building started coming alive. The voices of workers could be heard mingling with their first appointees of the day. The aroma of coffee wafted through the air.

It was another few minutes before footsteps could be heard approaching from the stairwell. He waited to see if they would emerge into the hall or continue up to the second floor. They stopped outside the door, replaced with the shuffling of papers.

Just as he returned his attention to the bulletin board across the hall, the door swung open and the footsteps stopped just next to him.

He looked over and found Temari staring at him in surprise, her scroll balanced on her stack of folders.

There was a brief silence before he rose to his feet and inclined his head in greeting. "Temari-san."

She blinked at him before looking down at her scroll. Then her gaze flitted to the one he was holding by his side.

"Hey," she greeted, sounding a bit caught off guard. "I got the alert an hour ago. Was that you?"

He nodded and reached out to relieve her of the folders she was carrying as she dug a ring of keys out of her pocket to open the door. She beckoned him in, turning on the lights and setting her bag down as he entered behind her and put the folders on the desk.

The door swung closed behind him. As the lights maintained a steady flicker and the noise settled, she seemed to come to her senses and turned to look at him incredulously.

"What the hell are you doing here, Uchiha? You just got out of the hospital yesterday."

"I'm fine," he assured her, knowing it didn't mean much coming from him when she shot him a disbelieving look. "This couldn't wait."

At that, she looked down at the table where he placed the scroll in front of her.

Her expression dissolved from sceptical into one he couldn't quite decipher. She looked up at him again. "You voided the deadline?"

"Yes."

If she was expecting him to elaborate, she didn't show it. Instead, she took a seat on the edge of the desk. He said nothing, merely watching her as she gave him a penetrative look.

"You had three days left. What happened?"

He was expecting the question and answered without hesitating. "The mission is over. I was planning to leave on schedule, but my relapse made that impossible."

"Shouldn't you wait, then?" she questioned, her brow furrowing slightly. "To recover before you make the trip back?"

"The Hokage is the only one capable of treating my condition," he replied. There was a pause. "I can't risk another relapse."

It was a faultless reason. He could tell she agreed with it, noting the understanding, if not pensive look that crossed her features. He lowered his eyes to the scroll, waiting for the moment she picked it up and took care of it. But she remained where she was, staying silent until he had no choice but to look up at her.

He wasn't expecting the long, searching look she gave him when he met her gaze.

"What happened yesterday?" she asked.

He blinked, uncomprehending.

"In the hospital room," she said, frowning slightly. "Were you angry at me for something?"

His fists slackened behind his back. Gradually, his arms came to his sides and he looked at her first in surprise, and then compunction. In retrospect, he understood how his behaviour might have seemed that way.

It had been a mistake. He had slipped; the circumstances and exhaustion raking away his facade until he hadn't had the energy or will to hold it up anymore.

And now, a distant voice was warning him. You're doing it right now. You're slipping.

He attempted to get his bearings back.

"No," he finally said, voice quiet when he noticed her looking at the bandage on his hand. "I wasn't angry."

The silence in the room was brief but nothing like the frequent, comfortable lapses they'd shared while working. All at once the space felt too small and her eyes too discerning. It was the greenhouse and bay window and lookout all over again without the lies to fall back on.

And without the lies, the mask cracked completely, falling away with the rest of his plan to get in, get out, and leave.

"I'm sorry," he finally said, feeling inconceivably bare in the smallness of the room, "if I gave you that impression."

There was another brief silence. Then her frown dissolved into a small, familiar smile. It almost seemed relieved.

"It just weirded me out, is all," she said, the teasing lightness returning to her voice. "Or were you just embarrassed I saw you in a hospital gown?"

He wished she knew what her words did to him, and how at ease they could make him feel. Her demeanor returned to the way it'd been that night on the lookout, when he'd first slipped and showed her his fractured edges. The office persona changed into the Temari who was relaxed and considered him her friend, and the transformation now left him at a complete loss at what to do with himself.

She reached out and picked up his scroll, shooting him a reproachful look as she unfurled it on the desk. "Wish you'd told me about this sooner, but I guess it can't be helped. Gaara gave me the week off and I was planning another visit to the school."

She paused, unfurling her scroll next and poising her ink brush above it. "You'll be leaving tomorrow, right?"

His voice came out smothered. "Yes."

Her lower lip turned up in a disappointed sort of way but she nodded, bringing the brush down to make the adjustments. The room was silent as the ink traced over the parchment and she signed her name underneath the amendment.

"That's final, then," she said, blowing a tuft of hair out of her eyes as she drew back. "I need you to sign it."

Wordlessly, he moved forward and circled around the desk until he was standing beside her. She handed him the brush and leaned against the filing cabinets as he reached down to write his name. She watched him in silence for a few seconds before speaking.

"I guess it came at the right time," she said, sounding amused. Her head leaned back against the drawers and she smirked at the ceiling. "Kankuro said the most ridiculous thing the other day when I told him I was with you at the festival."

The tip of the brush stopped moving. It lingered on the spot where he'd finished signing his name. He stared down at it, watching the black ink slowly bleed out into the parchment.

"He's got the maturity of a five-year-old, though, so I'm not surprised," she continued, sighing lamentably. "I mentioned we got along well, and he took it to mean you had a thing for me." She closed her eyes and smiled dryly. "I'm apparently unbearable to be around, otherwise."

He slowly pulled the brush back and placed it back in the well. Straightening, he stared sightlessly at some point on the desk as a humming noise gradually filled his ears.

The compulsion that came with it was automatic.

Swallow it, his mind told him. All of it; the words and the will and the emotion. All the risk and the turmoil and possibility of regret. Swallow it till it poisons your insides because it's all that might save the tenuous little thing you both share.

The warning blared once like an alarm. His instinct was to follow it because doing so had always served him in the past. But this time he remained still, letting it fade into silence because the truth had already occurred once to him this morning. It was repeating itself again now.

He could not do this anymore.

His body was falling apart. Swallowing his feelings was a disease more pestilent than the illness he actually had. He could have done it if he wanted, but he was pretty sure it was going to kill him if he didn't get it off his chest. Had he been on his own, it wouldn't have been a problem. But he had Sasuke to consider.

And he'd done enough lying in his lifetime. Frankly, he was tired of it. Really, really tired.

Slowly, the tenseness melted from his frame and he breathed a small, inaudible sigh. With his arms slack by his sides, he finally spoke, nearly quiet enough to go unheard.

"He wasn't wrong."

She cut herself off in the middle of a sentence. "What?"

He looked at the parchment a little longer before turning his head towards her. "What your brother said."

She just stared at him. Then her voice faltered. "You mean you—?"

He said nothing and stared back.

"Are you joking?" she said.

He shook his head.

Her face remained blank for a moment. Then a small smirk appeared, followed quickly by a grin. She attempted to laugh it off and failed.

"You're kidding, right?" she said, looking at him like he was insane. "I can never tell when you're joking."

He shook his head again. It wasn't like him to be so mute, but his throat seemed to have swelled shut. It was incredibly painful in a way he'd never experienced before.

Endure it, he told himself detachedly, musing over the crushing weight invading his chest. For once, he couldn't think of anything to compare it to. Nothing could come close. So he remained still, surrendering himself to the stranglehold of emotion in the hope that it would pass soon.

At some point he noticed she'd stopped smiling. In fact, she'd been staring at him with a strange expression on her face for several seconds.

Oh, he realized, recognizing what it was. Abject horror.

"You're serious," she stated, voice blank.

He managed to loosen his throat enough to speak. "Yes."

There was an unbearable moment of silence.

She seemed to come to her senses soon after and took in the space between them. Suddenly, the room became inexplicably, intolerably small. A slow sort of stiffness overtook her, her back pressing the cabinet instinctively.

When she finally spoke, her response was rather unexpected. "Let's find a place to sit. You look like you're going to be sick."

He merely nodded and let her go out first, inwardly glad for the suggestion because he felt a hair away from throwing up.

She locked the door behind them and quickly led him down the hall and out of the building. He followed a few paces behind, numb and not really registering where they were going until she stopped at a small tea shop on the street and ushered him in.

Once he was inside, he recognized the shop as one of the few they'd frequented over the past months. They took a table in the far corner by the window, not speaking until the waitress came by.

They murmured their orders and fell silent again. The waitress returned five minutes later and left their drinks on the table. There was another long stretch of silence. Neither of them could bring themselves to look up from their tea.

"I'm sorry," Temari said at last. Her voice sounded a mix of discomfort and terseness. "It wouldn't work out."

"I know," he said tonelessly.

His reply seemed to catch her off guard. She was quiet for a while, trying to think of what to say to that. In a feeble attempt to ward off the awkwardness, she added a spoon of sugar to her tea. He didn't look at her, instead staring at some point at the front of the store. He felt like the fruit carving sitting on the counter. Completely gouged out of his insides.

She tried to fill the oppressive silence by adding another spoonful of sugar to her tea. When she'd mixed it as much as she could, she set the spoon down and finally raised her head.

"I have my responsibilities to my village," she said firmly. "You have yours. I couldn't relocate. And I know you wouldn't, either."

"Of course," he said.

"The whole long-distance thing..." she trailed off.

He shook his head. "I know."

There was another long pause. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again.

There was only one thing left to say that could possibly comfort them both, and its brevity belied the seemingly impossible nature of the task.

"I will get over it," he said.

She glanced at him with an expression that was painful to look at. He let his eyes linger on it for a second before lowering his gaze and raising his tea cup to his lips. She followed suit a moment later, the gentle clink of ceramic diffusing the silence.

They stayed in the cafe for another ten minutes. Then Temari threw down a few bills and stood up. He half-expected her to walk out on him, but then she spoke.

"Since you're leaving tomorrow," she mentioned, trailing off for a few seconds, "...want to make one last visit to the greenhouse?"

He raised his head. She was looking at him with a strained expression, a thin smile wavering on her lips. She was trying very hard to pretend the last thirty minutes had never happened.

Despite himself, he couldn't help smiling faintly in return, even as he was shaking his head. "I have to go back and tell Sasuke. He doesn't know yet."

She nodded in understanding and pushed in her chair, but she remained where she was.

"We're going the same way," she said.

He was glad he avoided seeing the way she looked at him then because he could hear the regret in her voice.

Silently, he stood up and pushed his chair in.

The walk back to the crossroads was long and surreal. He wasn't overly conscious of the way they weren't talking because he mostly felt empty. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, but it was a relief from the deep ache the constant repression had carved in his chest.

It was a temporary respite, he was sure. Like being stunned by a blow before the real pain kicked in, even though he'd already seen the blow coming.

She said a few offhand remarks about the greenhouse on the way, speaking in short, quiet murmurs. He wasn't really listening to the details because in that moment the words meant nothing. Instead, a part of him was welling up with a strange and blissful kind of relief.

He'd told her. It had gone exactly as he'd anticipated it would, but there was none of the regret he'd thought he'd feel. He supposed the empty feeling in his chest was there for something else, then, and he comforted himself with the fact that if he was going to dwell on this and look back at the things he would have done differently, at least this moment wouldn't count among them.

He didn't realise they'd reached the fork in the road until she'd turned towards him and said his name.

"—I'll let Kankuro know," he heard as he finally focused on her. "If nothing comes up, I'll drop by to see you guys off."

When he nodded, she pressed her lips together as though she was mustering the effort to say something else. Then she seemed to think better of it and let it go. Her features relaxed into a softer expression. "See you later."

He watched her turn and leave, then, her hand raised in a half-hearted wave. When she'd departed a decent distance, he turned and started back to the apartment.

It was still quiet when he entered. He went to his room to change his clothes and returned to the living room. The sofa sank under his weight and he shut his eyes, feeling suddenly and intensely exhausted.

The bathroom door opened a few minutes later. Sasuke came to a stop in the doorway, staring at the motionless form lying on the sofa.

"Start packing, Sasuke," Itachi said without raising his head. "We're leaving tomorrow."

Sasuke blinked at him, first in surprise and then in understanding when he remembered the note his brother had left for him. His mouth opened, and then closed again.

"What happened?" he finally managed to ask.

"I requested early leave."

"No, I mean..." his little brother stared at him in vexation. "You're depressed."

"I'm tired," Itachi responded, and he sounded it. Incredibly so.

Sasuke said nothing for a few seconds. Then he scowled. "This is because of her, isn't it?"

There were several seconds of silence.

Sasuke took a step into the room. "If you just—"

"I have done abominable things in my lifetime," he interrupted. "Things no person should be able to live with. This is nothing."

Subdued, Sasuke lingered uncertainly in the room a little while longer. Then he mumbled something about starting packing and disappeared into the bedroom.

He didn't come back, something Itachi was inwardly grateful for because that empty feeling in his chest was starting to fill up with something. So far it was familiar enough that he vaguely wondered if it would be any different from what he'd dealt with in the past. Either way, he knew he couldn't avoid it. And he supposed in some twisted sense, she had gotten her payback.

She had hit him. Hard. Only not in the face.

The only thing left to do was to wait and endure. Belief in the adage that time healed all wounds had helped him in the past; it was the only thing that had, and he had to believe it would now.

This is nothing, he repeated inwardly, then closed his eyes and waited patiently for the pain to ebb.