She died silently, on a cold winter's night. There'd been no fanfare. No tears, because there was nobody left to cry them. There was a wet crunch of rainwater and pebbles, and a boot landed beside her head, squashing the halo of brown hair fanned out around her pale head. Her eyes had been closed when she died, he knew; he doubted that anyone would have come by and shut them for her in death. It was eerie, actually, how she actually looked like she was asleep. Perhaps she had been asleep when she died. There was no blood on her body.
Sasuke was glad that she had died that way. It was a most peaceful death.
"Yoohoo? Sasuke?" Shisui waved a hand in front of his face, and Sasuke blinked, trying not to let his surprise show. "Earth to Sasuke." Only Shisui would keep that humorous lilt in his voice during times like this. He wasn't smiling, however. Not today. Ashikaga, Yano, and Kagami were absent this morning, having other duties to perform, so Shisui and Sasuke had taken on morning patrol by themselves like champions. Shisui hummed softly, breathing out a small sigh through his nose as he looked upon the woman's pallid, wan face.
"Do you want to bury her?"
If he hadn't surprised Sasuke before, he most definitely did now with that... nonsensical question.
Bury her? Sasuke thought, almost incredulously. What would be the point? It wasn't as if she'd been the first corpse he had stumbled cross in the streets. Many people had been rendered homeless as a result of Tsukigakure's occupation, and many more had starved to death. Some in their own homes, most out in the cold, under the cover of the dark.
Shisui seemed to sense his unease, and squatted, peering more closely at the dead woman's face. His expression was almost completely unreadable, but Sasuke could feel his chakra moving around in distaste and... sorrow.
"Hn. Why should we?" Sasuke eventually answered, his voice flat. Why her? He hadn't even known her. She'd just been another face in the crowd—she'd been young when she died, and Sasuke could imagine her awestruck countenance as he swaggered down the streets in his police uniform, on top of the world. When she'd been alive, and healthy, and worry-free; without the lines on her face, or the puffiness beneath her eyes.
Sasuke paused before adding another fact to his checklist, She died not long ago. Likely a few hours before the sun came out. Classic starvation case. Gods, since when had there even been such a thing like a classic starvation case?
Shisui merely shrugged. "You've seemed a little lost lately. Maybe something like this can put your mind at ease."
He was basing this off a maybe? Sasuke squared his shoulders, about to make a cutting remark, when Shisui continued.
"She was beautiful, wasn't she?" He observed her, not a hint of lust or love in his eyes. More like... a doleful admiration for the young woman who had survived this long in the cold. "Probably had a family." Shisui tilted his head to one side. "Maybe a son or daughter."
"You're looking way too much into this," Sasuke reprimanded sharply. "We're wasting time. We have to make another round in this entire section of the city before we get a break."
"Then lead the way, Sasuke." Shisui stood back up again, brushing off his pants. "You're probably right." His cheerful mask was back up again, and Sasuke internally squirmed.
He and Shisui had been close when they were kids, courtesy of Itachi's connections with the both of them. Itachi had been sixteen when he'd been disowned, leaving behind a surly, confused little brother, and a reluctantly understanding best friend. Before the war, Sasuke knew that Itachi and Shisui had met whenever they could. But Sasuke...
Had thrown himself into training, fueled by bitterness and the crushing weight of responsibility.
Sasuke didn't hate Itachi. No, he wouldn't ever truly hate the man, even if he wanted to. As desperately as he denied it sometimes, at the end of the day, Itachi was still family. Even if Sasuke thought he was too kind. Too weak-willed and spineless to ever have a proper place among the Uchiha.
As for Shisui... they'd been close, but not too close, and Sasuke wasn't entirely sure what to make of him anymore. On one hand, the Uchiha elders viewed Shisui as someone to be grudgingly respected for his prowess as a martial artist, much like Itachi, but, much like the disowned Uchiha heir, Shisui was also someone to never be admired. He was irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish. Those were the same words that they had hand-picked for Itachi as well, coincidentally. At one point, Fugaku, Sasuke's father, had spoken highly of his wild, perpetually smiling cousin, who had walked around the compound with his hands tucked behind his head, and a hearty chuckle ready to escape from his throat. Somewhere along the way... Shisui had strayed from his path—or, at least, the one the Uchiha had expected him to take. Become a police officer under the Clan Head. Earn money. Become a productive member of society. Start a family to continue the Uchihas' honorable line. Retire just shy of seventy, living the rest of his days drinking tea and playing mahjong and shogi and other old man games with other members of his generation. Shisui was strange to Sasuke.
"Can't do it, can you?"
Sasuke scowled. "What are you insinuating? I'm not some weak fool—"
"Never said you were," Shisui interrupted swiftly. "I just didn't think that you were heartless as well."
Heartless? This, coming from Shisui, who still smiled and chuckled like nothing was amiss? Sasuke almost wanted to laugh at the irony of it all. "Tch, you have a lot of gall, Shisui. I never pegged you for a hypocrite."
"Hypocrite? I'm glad you think that of me." Shisui's smile was noticeably more strained, but he kept his head cool.
Perhaps, Shisui was not irresponsible, uncaring, or selfish. Perhaps, he was simply insane.
Sasuke was tensed as Shisui lowered himself again, picking up the woman's body and holding her like a bride. A dead bride, Sasuke thought morbidly. Because that was what she was, in the end. Dead. Her legs folded neatly over Shisui's right arm, and her head lolled to the side.
"There's an abandoned patch of land not too far from here. We can bury her there."
"I never agreed to this, you know. I'm your captain, Shisui."
"Yeah, and you're my baby cousin. I've changed you before." Shisui shook his head, an exasperated smile on his face. "Come on. Didn't you say that we're wasting daylight?"
And so, Sasuke begrudgingly followed him to an abandoned cabbage patch. At least, Sasuke remembered it being a cabbage patch, once upon a time. It could have been some sort of other vegetable. Maybe a radish patch.
It took longer than he would have liked, but her body ended up underground, ready to be recycled and turned into nutrients. To nurture the land, and give back to the earth what she had taken.
"That was completely pointless," Sasuke deadpanned when Shisui simply stared at the lump of dirt in front of him.
"Doesn't it make you sad?"
The question made him pause. "She is dead," he answered in the end, enunciating each word.
"Yes, but she didn't need to die, did she? Not like this. It wasn't even her fight." Wasn't even ours.
"She was a stranger."
"She was human."
"Enough," Sasuke said sharply. "I don't want to hear any of your preaching, Shisui. You accepted everything with that idiotic grin on your face. You've done nothing to save these people, so you should have nothing to say about them."
"You know," Shisui said when they were back on route. "You've done nothing to save them either. All you've wanted to do... is keep yourself alive."
Hypocrite, Sasuke thought immediately. But what kind of hypocrite had such a damn condemning stare? Shisui was either a marvelously good actor, or he truly didn't recognize the fact that he was also in the wrong. "Then you and I are the same, aren't we?"
Shisui slipped. Or, rather, his mask did. "You want my honest opinion, Sasuke? You want to know what I think? I think," he said slowly, "that you and I couldn't be anymore different."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you really going to take the moral high ground, Shisui, when you joined for the same reasons as me?" What was his problem? What? What? "That woman... you did that to give yourself closure, not me. You're a coward, Shisui."
"Maybe I am," his voice lowered, "for not doing more."
Not doing more? Sasuke wanted to demand a proper answer from the older male. But they were about to reach Obito's old mansion—and the Tsukigakure soldier's personal 'battle arena'—and it would not be wise to provoke each other in front of their... comrades. As two of the only Uchiha in the forces, they had to stick together.
They were about to keep going on their way when one of the soldiers called them over.
"Hey! Uchiha! Apparently, there's one of your own here today."
"Oh?" Shisui raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah! Why don't you come watch? You always come to see the Uchiha fights."
'Uchiha fights'. Sasuke nearly rolled his eyes. Only one Uchiha had ever come to fight, because Madara seemed to have some sense of loyalty to his family in Akatsuki, and had left their food and rations intact when storming the compound. Only one Uchiha, because...
Sasuke's breath hitched in his throat. Only one Uchiha had an excuse to fight. Only one Uchiha—one that lived away from the compound, one that was independent, and one that was certainly not Itachi because Sasuke couldn't wrap his head around his brother fighting for food.
Sasuke cursed. "Obito again?" What's that idiot doing back here?! His heart started to thrum, and he swallowed a lump in his throat. Didn't he learn his lesson the last time he came?
"Oh, is that his name?" The soldier shrugged. "You can finish your patrol after watching the fight. I'm sure Madara-sama won't mind."
And so the Uchiha entered Obito's old home, and stood upon the peanut gallery, looking down at the fighters in the ring. The ring was always surrounded by ten martial artists sitting in a seiza. Nine when there were people fighting. Ten again when the opponent—almost always a civilian man desperate to feed himself and his family—had been defeated.
With a grimace, Sasuke watched as another civilian got pummeled. Where the hell was Obito? Was he still waiting? Paranoia crept up on him again, and he turned to Shisui.
"Let's go downstairs," Sasuke said, curt. "I want a better view."
Shisui nodded, looking grim as well. They went to the lower level, where the contestants were waiting behind metal bars, faces gaunt and ashen. Mizuki's eyes followed their retreating forms. The man was always there, even when Madara wasn't. And it just so happened their general was absent today, in a meeting with other officers.
"I can't see him," Sasuke stressed, trying to discretely peer over the mass of men still waiting.
"He'll come out soon," Shisui reasoned.
So they waited.
Sure enough, Obito did come out.
The iron gate snapped shut behind him, and Sasuke almost choked when he saw a tiny body pressed against the bars, eyes wide with apprehension. Daichi. Oh God, it was Daichi. Why was he here? Did Obito even know that his son had followed him to this hellhole? A string of curse words found themselves at the tip of Sasuke's tongue, but he swallowed them back. No. No, he couldn't bring attention to himself and the boy.
Obito glanced over to Shisui and Sasuke as he went up to the arena. Uncomprehending. Uncomprehending of why his beloved relatives were on the other side of the war. Sasuke kept his face stoic, Shisui's presence beside him a small comfort.
The fight unfolded right before their eyes, Obito and the Tsukigakure taijutsu user clashing fiercely. Obito fought with all his heart, never hesitating to strike unfair blows or pressure points.
Every time his opponent threw him on the ground, Sasuke's heart would jump to his throat in disquiet, even when Obito got back up. His eyes flicked to the side, trying to gauge Daichi's reaction. But the boy only had half his attention committed to the fight. The other half...
Was focused on him.
What was that look in his eyes? Sasuke wondered, his fingers curling and uncurling around his sword. The very same one he used to spar Daichi with, under the watchful eye of his parents. It was like the look that Obito had given them. As if he didn't understand why Sasuke was standing with the enemy. There was so much bewilderment, and even... a mild betrayal.
Sasuke narrowed his eyes, gaze flinty. A small price to pay for survival, he told himself. He refused to convince himself otherwise. Daichi was just another ryo in the bundle he had offered to his Taishō in exchange for a life worth living.
"He's going to win," Shisui opined when Obito punched his opponent square in the nose, making the other man grunt and flip backward. A relieved smile reached his face. Sasuke thought that it was the most genuine one he had seen from him—or anyone—in a while.
Obito would win. Because Obito had something to fight for. A family. Friends. Heck, even the workers at his decrepit factory if the city's fractured gossip network was anything to go by. Obito would not lose this match; he would not lose this battle.
It was a blow to the temple that knocked his opponent out. Obito stood, a lone figure in the ring, surrounded by three-quarters of a dozen of Tsukigakure martial artists. They were formidable, no doubt, but Obito had pulled through.
A small, relieved noise made its way up Sasuke's throat.
Everything was going to be okay. Obito would leave with a bruised face and limbs, but there would be a bag of rice in his arms, and he would smile at Rin's worried exasperation, and hug Hikari when he got home, and scold Daichi fiercely when he found out what he had done—
The sound was intimately familiar. It was the whisper of a past and present lover, one that had enticed him in the past and would continue to do so in the future. It came with an artful explosion, and was a tool of apathetic precision. It was so many things at once, and Sasuke felt time itself freeze for one brief moment.
He barely had time to even move when—
Obito slumped forward, his eyes wide and filled with the sort of bewilderment that made Sasuke's wretched heart twist painfully.
"Geez," Mizuki drawled, the muzzle of his pistol smoking. "I really hate arrogant bastards like you."
Obito choked on the blood rapidly filling his lungs and rising in his throat, collapsing front-first onto the mat. The nine conscious Tsukigakure warriors looked on impassively, not even twitching in their seiza.
Sasuke had never felt so helpless in his life. Had never felt so helpless when he whipped his head around to see Daichi with one faltering arm reaching through the iron bars. The boy was staring at something that was far away.
Desperately, he looked toward Shisui. The older Uchiha's face was completely pale, and continued to whiten further, as if it was he who was bleeding out in the ring and not Obito. Sasuke absently wondered if he looked the same.
The men behind the iron bars had been stunned into silence.
He was screaming now. Why was he screaming? Sasuke stared off into the distance, unable to fully process everything that was happening around him. The boy was shaking the bars now, as if that would let him through. Tears peeked out at the corner of his eyes as the child screamed for his father.
Without saying anything to Shisui, Sasuke leaped forward, landing in front of Obito. He did not draw his sword and point it at the Tsukigakure martial artists. He did not remove his gun and aim it at Mizuki. He did not shout. He did not scream. He felt... like he'd been submerged underwater. Noise reached his ears, but he did not comprehend.
"S-Sasuke..." Obito weakly lifted his head, one hand clutching the wound that had shattered his ribs and pierced his lung. He was bleeding out rapidly.
What had Sakura called it? Hemorrhage.
"Sorry, cousin," Obito wheezed when he hacked up blood on Sasuke's uniform.
"Don't speak," Sasuke heard himself say, putting Obito up in a more comfortable position. His cousin's eyes were slowly glazing over—he was dyingdyingdying—and there was so much noise. Yet, Sasuke could only hear one voice clearly through the haze.
Obito wanted to say something. Sasuke really wish he didn't. "Sasuke... Rin... I..."
"You love her," Sasuke rushed him along, his voice breaking slightly. "You love her, I got it. I'll tell her. Shut up, Obito. Obito-dobe." His eyes burned with a sensation that was familiar but not familiar, and he squeezed them shut, tears sprouting beneath his eyelids and clinging to his eyelashes.
Obito choked out a sound, and Sasuke knew that he had wanted to laugh. Obito was like Shisui in that respect. They found humor in the strangest, most dire things. "Daichi..."
Sasuke's eyes snapped open again, and the world was so much clearer. He could see every detail; every aspect. He could see the way the corners of Obito's eyes crinkled as he smiled through the pain; he could see how his eyes were clouded in agony and, perhaps, delusion. He could see the small, bloody hole the bullet had left in the fabric of his cousin's clothing.
"Look..." Sasuke could see the muscles in Obito's eyelids twitch as his eyes drooped shut.
"Please shut up," Sasuke whispered, breathing rapidly. "Obito-dobe, shut the fuck up. Please."
"No." For a dying man, Obito's voice was surprisingly sharp. Then again, Obito had never taken to being silenced well. "This... is a huge m-mess... But, Sasuke..." He coughed again, and panted heavily. "Look after him, y-yeah?"
Sasuke wished he hadn't looked. He really, really wish he hadn't looked. But his eyes traveled to the side to see Daichi's face contorted with grief, snot and tears flowing down and past his cheeks and lips. His shoulders shook with every sob—every breath.
Sasuke had almost forgotten what pain felt like, but his Sharingan—was it? His father would have been so proud—made sure that he would never, ever forget what pain was. He would know pain, and pain would know him.
"Now kill me."
"W-what?" He hated how he stammered. Uchiha weren't supposed to stammer. They weren't—they just weren't—
But Obito's eyes—he had his Sharingan turned on as well. Sasuke failed to see any poetic justice behind this—bore into his. Desperate (wasn't everyone desperate these days) and pleading. Kill me, he mouthed. Make it quick.
With trembling arms—Uchiha weren't supposed to tremble either—Sasuke held Obito's head up, loosely cradling the taller Uchiha, who was still very much sprawled on the floor and bleeding—
Gun or sword? Gun or sword? Gunorsword?
Sasuke reached down.
And Obito choked on his final breath as the slender blade of Sasuke's katana slipped through his heart and nicked his spine.
Obito had never quite taken to guns.
"Excellent work, Sasuke, though surprisingly merciful of you," Mizuki hummed. "I would have liked him to bleed more."
Sasuke almost flinched. He'd all but forgotten about the adviser's presence. He looked over to Daichi, his gaze detached. There was a newly born fury on his face. One that did not belong on any eight year old. It was type of fury that was so overwhelming, Sasuke doubted that the boy had even noticed that he was trembling. It was the kind of fury that was disbelieving, but very much real. And it came from grief that hadn't quite caught up with him yet.
His head ached. His head ached so, so much. Was this a side effect of the Sharingan? Or was it something else?
Shisui helped him up. At least, he thought it was Shisui.
When Sasuke glanced to the gathering of men behind the iron bars again, Daichi was gone.
"Oh, there you are," Chiyo said when Sasori and Deidara returned, the latter looking more solemn than Chiyo had seen her so far. "Stayed the night at the Underground, did you? Was it filthy?"
"Quite," Sasori said shortly, obviously not in the mood for small talk. "Baa-sama, is Hitomi around?"
At that, Chiyo snorted. "Locked herself up in the guest room. She said that she was 'training'. I took a peek in and she's reading a medicine textbook from one of my shelves. Mind you, it didn't seem like she was absorbing anything." Chiyo pointed to her crinkled eyes. "Eyes were glazed over. Unfocused."
Deidara elbowed Sasori discretely, and the man rolled his eyes, a bead of sweat falling from his temple. Chiyo raised an eyebrow when Deidara all but dragged the old woman's grandson into the next room—his room. "Well," she muttered, smirking. "I'm not exactly complaining."
"We have to tell her, un." Deidara closed the bedroom door behind her, turning around to face Sasori, who was standing with his arms crossed. "You know how many times she's nearly gotten herself killed for Ino?"
"That's exactly why I don't want her to know," Sasori refuted stubbornly. "She'll beg us to bring her to her, and if we refuse, she'll take off again. The Yamanaka—Ino—isn't ready. She's practically functioning full-time on adrenaline and self-righteous anger—"
"Self-righteous?!" Deidara hissed, bringing their faces closer together as she leaned in. "She was raped, you insensitive prick!" Nobody in the Underground had ever explicitly mentioned it, but Deidara could connect the scattered dots well enough to make a full picture. "She needs Hitomi. They need each other. Why can't you see that?"
"She'll crash sooner or later," Sasori stated solemnly. "Brat, don't fight me for once. We'll reintroduce them when Ino appears to be more... mentally stable."
Their gazes burned as they stared down each other, both of them unrelenting. But, eventually, one broke.
"We should focus on one thing at a time for now," Sasori told her, reluctantly, "We'll take her to see Ino at the end of the week. Right now, we should prepare for Orochimaru's assault."
"Fine," Deidara grudgingly agreed. "Speaking of, Obito should be training them soon. They start in the morning, an hour or two before noon." She breathed out, leaning against the door. "We should start on lunch, un. What's on the menu? Boiled potatoes or steamed potatoes?" Her voice was dry when she listed the options.
Sasori allowed a little smirk to reach his lips. "Which do you prefer?"
"Tch!" Deidara made a face, scrunching up her nose. "I don't have a preference. They're both equally disgusting." They exited the room, and Deidara cast a furtive glance at the closed door of the guest room. "If—when all of this is over, I don't think I'll be eating any spuds for a while..."
For once, Sasori had to agree with her, nodding. "Boiled, then. Personally, I find them a little more tolerable than steamed ones."
Chiyo was nowhere to be seen, and they suspected that she had gone to the guest room to accompany Hitomi. Perhaps help her understand some of the complex medical jargon.
So Deidara and Sasori took to the kitchen, each of them doing their own thing and working in almost perfect tandem. Sasori sliced the potatoes deftly while Deidara prepared the rice, sorting out the appropriate portions for each person.
She put the rice on the kamado stove as Sasori washed the chopped up slices of potato in the low sink with practiced ease.
"Need any help?" she offered.
Sasori paused. "You could cut the rest."
"On it, un."
Silence prevailed as Deidara leisurely chopped the potatoes, passing them to Sasori to wash and put in a pot on the ground.
Deidara didn't stop cutting, and Sasori didn't stop washing.
"When you were living alone..." Sasori hesitated, wracking his brain for what to say. "You weren't assaulted, were you?"
"Assault—? As if," Deidara scoffed, but there was no malice or scorn in it. "Why?"
The potato slice nearly slipped out of Sasori's grip, and he scowled. What an uncomfortable question... "When you yelled at me before about the older Yamanaka's... You know what." He closed his eyes, breathing out silently. Then he opened them again, staring sternly at Deidara, who was openly gazing at him, the knife raised above the chopping board slightly.
Then she smiled. It was a very small one, and more reminiscent of a grimace, but it was a smile nevertheless. "You can relax, then. Nothing like that happened to me, un."
He nodded, tearing his gaze away from her and once again focusing on the potato slices in front of him. "Good. As a general consensus, females are irritating—"
"Danna, I have a knife."
"—but I would never wish that kind of thing upon any woman," he finished levelly, as if Deidara had never spoken.
She didn't know why, but she felt a sudden surge of appreciation for him. Despite the casual misogyny, it was his own way of letting her know that he cared. "Well, that's good, yeah. Because if you did," she slammed the knife down, grinning wildly at him, "I'd have to put your grandmother's beloved blade to good use."
Sasori was unfazed, though there was a ghost of a smile playing on his lips. "You wouldn't be the first." He gestured to multiple slits in the kitchen walls. "Sometimes, baa-sama enjoys playing games."
"Hmm," Deidara hummed. "Do you enjoy them? These games?"
"It's a surprisingly good way to unwind," he answered honestly.
"Ah, that's good, un."
An easy silence fell between them again, and lunch was complete before they knew it. The smell of boiled potatoes and rice brought Hitomi and Chiyo out of the guest room.
Chiyo made a dry remark about their bland meal before they all sat down at the dining table. Hitomi was looking noticeably perkier, a content smile on her face as she devoured her food with all the finesse of a noble lady.
"Just use your hands," Deidara told her after watching the child try and fail to pick up a slice of particularly slippery potato.
"My hands?" Perhaps, once upon a time, Hitomi would have scoffed at the idea and flounced on her way. But now, she paused, considering the thought. Hesitantly, she put down her chopsticks and pinched the vegetable between her thumb and her pointer finger. Then she placed it in her mouth, blinking at the wetness on her fingers. "That wasn't... so bad, I guess. But wouldn't wanna do that if I didn't have to."
"Tsk, you priss," Deidara commented, quirking her lips upward. "Once we kick Orochimaru's ass, I might have to start beating some more sense into you, un."
To her surprise, Hitomi grinned widely. "Bring it on, sensei!"
"Aaah," Deidara yawned, stretching as she and Sasori walked to the Nohara-Uchiha factory. "That was a good meal. You know, you're not a bad chef, Danna."
They arrived at the factory an hour before noon, but, to their surprise everybody was still working and not training.
"The hell?" muttered Deidara, glancing around. "We should find Rin..."
"Um, excuse me?" a brown-haired teenager hesitantly approached them. "Neither Rin-sama nor Obito-sama are here today." She dipped her head hastily. "Sorry about the inconvenience."
"Not here today?" Sasori echoed, suspicion crawling at the back of his mind. Has Orochimaru already struck? No, that can't be it. This was only the first day since Orochimaru's warning, and if he really had changed his mind, it would have been a massacre. The teenage girl standing in front of him would be nothing but a corpse, not a living, breathing creature.
The brown-haired girl—she wore her hair in twin buns—was holding some sort of pole that was used for beating cotton. "I thought you would know where they went," she said slowly, unease evident in her eyes. "But apparently not, huh?"
Just then, the sliding door opened, letting in more sunlight than the hole in the wall did. Rin stood at the doorway, looking haunted. She held both of her children by each hand, both of them looking equally as worn as their mother, and Deidara started toward her.
"There you are! Where's Obito, un?" Deidara stopped in front of her, frowning when Rin seemingly didn't hear her. "Rin...? I—"
"He's dead." Her voice was so soft that Deidara almost didn't hear her.
"Rin, what are you—"
Rin lifted her chin, and Deidara thought that she had never seen her friend look so utterly helpless before. "D-Deidara... Obito's dead. They killed him."
There was silence. Nothing but a shocked silence.
Then Hikari began to cry, loudly sobbing.