"You're not a bad man, Kisame-sensei. Everybody keeps calling you a monster, but you're not."
A large palm descended on her head, and she squeezed her eyes shut as the shark-man ruffled her hair, making it messier than it already was. "You're gonna make me cry, kiddo. There's a part of me that never wants you to change."
"I don't want to change either," Chihiro admitted.
"But you will." He sounded resigned, and it made Chihiro's heart explode with love. She almost threw her arms around his large frame. "You are already. You've seen how shitty this world is, kid. It's inevitable... that you're going to have to do nasty things to keep yourself alive."
"Like...?" She knew the answer already.
"You know what I'm talking about, kid."
Yes, she did.
"Now let's stop wasting time. Kunai aren't only for throwing, you know. When you slash someone with it, it'll hurt like a bitch."
"I'm going to protect my imouto, even if it kills me."
Chihiro did a double-take. "Daichi...!" What can I do? I can't leave him to face a monster by himself. She took a deep breath. "Then I guess I'm gonna make sure that you return to see her." Think of everything Kisame-sensei's taught me. The two kunai shifted in her hand, metal clinking as she trembled uncontrollably. She'd seen monsters before. She'd seen what they could do to human beings, to adults, let alone children.
Itsuki leaped off his perch, snarling viciously.
Daichi's grip on his sword tightened.
"Kill... tear..." Itsuki howled, and Chihiro unintentionally took a step backward. "I'm going to rip you apart!" The words were barely out of the Zetsu's mouth before he reverted back to emitting animalistic noises. Blood still dripped from where he had smashed his face into sturdy wood, pooling at his chin.
"DODGE!" shrieked Chihiro, and Daichi rolled out of the way, spinning his kunai so that it nicked the monster during the motion.
Daichi was panting heavily. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer terror. Chihiro was barely cohrent herself, the world buzzing like a white sea of noise around her, its constancy a spike of fear in her heart.
Itsuki leaped for Daichi again, jaws salivating, and the boy barely skirted aside, his lips pressed in a thin line and his face pallid. Then Chihiro moved, the twin kunai in her hand slashing in a dance of blades. An x-shaped wound was inscribed on Itsuki's face, and the beast howled terribly, shaking his head and sending droplets of blood flying everywhere.
"NOW!" Chihiro shouted pleadingly.
"RARRRGGGHHH!" Charging, Daichi screamed in terror and fury, swinging his kunai.
Itsuki shrieked when it cut through his arm, the limb promptly falling into the grass with a wet, sickening plop.
The kunai dropped to the ground.
"Daichi?!" Chihiro frantically cried.
"Oh god." Daichi, hands covered with blood from where it had sprayed, heaved, throwing up chunks of last night's dinner. "I can't do this, I can't. I CAN'T KILL ANOTHER HUMAN!" Just like that, his resolve was broken, the wetness on his palms an awakening of reality's true horrors.
Suddenly, a scream arose. Hikari.
"He's not human," Chihiro croaked. Numbly, she stepped forward. "Not anymore." Her arm shaking, she readied her kunai at the writhing form of Itsuki. The boy-turned-monster was slowly regaining his bearings, weakened from Daichi's attack. "I'm sorry." She sniffled. "I'm so sorry..." Before tears could completely blur her vision, she threw her kunai, knowing that her aim was true.
She closed her eyes, only hearing wet thuds. When she opened them again, a kunair was embedded through one of his eyes, the other his shoulder. The monster slumped. Chihiro turned to Daichi, who was on all fours on the grass, his hair falling over his face. "Daichi. Daichi, you can get up now. He's... gone."
A sob wracked his shoulders, and Chihiro tensed. He was just a kid, even younger than her. He tried to act brave, but in the end, there was nothing he could do to disguise his fear.
"Useless," he whispered to himself. "I'm so... useless. I couldn't save my father, I couldn't even save my sister—that was you."
Hauling him up, Chihiro made for the river which they had passed earlier when Masami led them away. They broke through the foliage, discovering the rest of their expedition group (minus Itsuki) huddling by the bank, Deidara and Rin standing over them. Rin was holding her daughter tightly as Masami recounted what had happened with chattering teeth.
"We have to find Daichi!" Hikari was sobbing. "I turned around and he wasn't there—aniki!"
"Oh, Daichi!" Rin scooped him up into a hug as well, tears trailing down her cheeks. "You're okay. Gods, you're both okay." Her tears tasted salty on Daichi's tongue, but he didn't complain, merely clutching his mother's torso as he shared the warm space in her arms with his little sister. It was like he had reverted back to newborn again, desperate for the touch of his mother; not caring if he made bloody hand-prints all over her front. "I'm so sorry for leaving you."
Chihiro, on the other hand, had no such comforts. She awkwardly stood to the side, staring at the grass as she willed her racing heart to slow itself.
The commotion attracted another person, Asagi, Shogo's mother.
"What happened?" Asagi gasped, horrified at the sight of her traumatized son.
"Shogo! Shogo, come here, I'm here for you..." Her son jumped into her arms, sniffling and rubbing snot on her collar. "My son..."
Deidara turned to Chihiro. "Was it you, hm?"
Something in her tone told the orphan girl that she wished that it had been her who killed Itsuki. She did not fault her for it—she, too, did not wish for Daichi to have blood on his hands.
"Was it you who stabbed him in the heart?" Deidara repeated her question, stepping forward. She wasn't angry, but she continued to press as Rin put down her children. Daichi was clutching a bloody kunai. He must have picked it up from the grass when Chihiro hadn't been looking. "Chihiro?"
Wait, the heart?
"No," Chihiro's eyes widened, "neither of us did—"
Itsuki tore through the foliage, leaves slick with black blood thrown into the air as he howled with rage and hunger. With terrifying strength, he bowled into Chihiro, who barreled straight into Deidara, knocking the wind out of both of them as they slammed into a tree. His skin began to fleck away, and it almost seemed like his blackened eyes were melting from their sockets as he rushed at the shell-shocked Uchiha family with deadly speed.
There was wet sound of metal piercing flesh and a black shroud in the wind.
Deidara's eyes widened as that black shroud obscured her view. "... Rin?" Pushing Chihiro off, she scrambled to her feet, almost tripping over herself when she abruptly halted, staring down at the gruesome sight before her. Somehow, it didn't really faze her. When had she stopped caring? Well—it didn't matter now, not when—
Hikari slumped in her mother's arm, eyes rolling back as she lost consciousness. Her face was paper white, and the dark stain on her pants indicated that her bladder had loosened.
Tears welling up in her eyes, Rin clutched her daughter, her free hand covering her mouth as she struggled not to vomit at the sight of Itsuki's severed head on the grass. Itsuki's heart, already run through and bleeding sin like a punctured water balloon, remained in the other section of the corpse.
Daichi simply looked up at Sasuke blankly, looked up at the man who dared do what he wouldn't.
Sasuke's katana was blackened and slick with blood, and only a dancing shadow in his eyes gave away any the presence of humanity left in the Uchiha. Other than that, he remained hard and stoic. His hand was trembling slightly, but no one could tell if it was from adrenaline or remorse.
Deidara found herself breathing a sigh of relief, callously stepping over the boy's body to reach the Uchiha huddle. Without hesitating, she wrapped her arms around the remaining members of Obito's family, biting the insides of her cheeks until they stung.
Sasuke had dipped his katana in the river, black blood washing off the sword and down the mountain. He sheathed it just before multiple approaching footsteps sounded, and a group of people appeared from the foliage separating the river from the camp, led by a fretting Mikoko.
"There they are!" Mikoko splashed into the river as she waded across, not even giving the stepping stones a glance. She clumsily maneuvered herself across the water body, and her garment and person was sopping wet as she took her first step onto the grass on the other side.
The others, Deidara noticed, were Sasori and Chiyo. Itachi left with Kakashi earlier to scout the area. It was something that had to be done before sending their own in; Deidara was to be part of the collecting explosives squad. Neji's being guarded by Kisame and Anko; one levelheaded enough to balance the other's hotheadedness.
"What happened?" Chiyo demanded as she and her grandson caught up. She glanced at Deidara, then to Mikoko, who had gone stock still at the sight of Itsuki's bisected body.
"It was horrible," Asagi said hoarsely. Perhaps she did not register the tears on her face, for she made no attempt to brush them away from her cheeks, ruddy from the mountain chill. Shogo had his head buried into her bosom and was shuddering relentlessly—as soon as Itsuki had exploded from the bush, Asagi had formed a protective ball around her son.
Deidara glanced at Itsuki's sprawled lower half, then at his head, the barest feeling of pity welling in her heart. "See for yourself, hm." She turned away at that, bile rising in her throat at the sight, which had burned itself into her brain. He'd only been a boy.
"ITSUKI!" Mikoko screamed.
Reality's finally caught up to her, Deidara noted. It left a bitter taste in her mouth.
The woman fell to her knees, her hair untwisting itself from the bun she kept it in. Her mouth trembled, but no words came out as she reached out for Itsuki's head before faltering.
Mikoko did not receive her son's death with the sort of agonizing silence most women did. No, the first thing she did—the first thing she would do—
She twisted around to glare at all of them, a sort of crazed fury burning in her eyes. Her husband had been lost in Akatsuki, and her mother-in-law before that. Her son had been the only thing that she'd had left, a physical proof of the cushy life she had once lived in what she had once believed to be a safe haven.
"WHO KILLED HIM?! WHO KILLED MY SON?!"
—was to find someone to blame.
"It was you, wasn't it?!" Mikoko pointed at Chihiro, who had been watching everything unfold with a horrified quiet. "You're a monster! You've practically been raised by one; it was you, wasn't it?!"
"Mikoko," Chiyo began sharply, but the woman was mad with grief.
"I'VE LOST EVERYTHING!" Mikoko screamed, pointing an accusing finger at her before her gave shifted to Sasuke. Somehow, right away, she knew that he'd been the one to murder her child. "MY HUSBAND! MY MONEY! MY LIFE! And now... now I've lost my son!" Tears streamed down her face as her windblown hair lashed about wildly, and she lunged at Sasuke with wild abandon, only to change course and go for Rin and her children instead. In her mind, she rationalized her actions; it was only right that she hurt the man who had killed her son—but if she could not harm him, she would have to strike his family instead.
Deidara saw it coming before anyone else did.
Sasori, having been silent throughout the whole exchange, suddenly appeared in front of Mikoko. A vine twisted from his Zetsu arm and whipped through the air like lightning, slicing through flesh and bone, sharp as any of Shisui's tantos. He was fast and efficient, as if he'd been killing his whole life. Then he landed softly on the grass, staring at his new arm pensively, as if he hadn't just decapitated a civilian woman.
Mikoko's grief had been forever silenced, her head rolling to a stop next to her son's. Tears continued to trickle from the corners of her lifeless eyes, dribbling down her nose and into her mouth, still contorted in a silent scream.
"We..." Deidara had to swipe her tongue around the insides of her mouth to get rid of the dryness. "We should throw them in the river, hm." Burying them would be too much time wasted, and too much energy expended when had more pressing matters to attend to.
"The blood might attract monsters," Rin added quietly, not looking up. Her clothes almost slipped off her shoulder from the way her children were clutching the fabric.
Chiyo gave a bitter smirk. "Like we need any more."
Asagi and Rin returned to camp with the children, Deidara and Chiyo accompanying them.
Sasuke and Sasori exchanged a glance.
"No use standing around," Sasori said dryly. "Come on, brat, we'll throw the heads in first, then cut up the body."
Surprisingly, Sasuke did not complain, and they set to work, disposing of the corpses in quiet tandem. Deidara cast them one last look from across the river before disappearing behind the trees.
What was that? Deidara leaned against the tree trunk, the sun climbing to its peak behind the clouds above her. Her stomach growled, but she could not afford to consume any more of their rations. They were running dangerously low, and everything had to be conserved. I've seen him kill before, so why am I surprised? She breathed out slowly, her eyebrows creasing in a frown. No, that's not right... She sat up. The only things I've ever seen him kill before are monsters. In spite of everything, Mikoko was still a human.
It bothered her, this new side of him she had seen, especially after she'd told him that she was certain about his goodness. Of course, everything had a light and a dark side, of that, Deidara was sure, but seeing the light waver was almost... frightening.
I'm not scared of him. It was true, she assured herself. After witnessing that, she would still be willing to spend nights under the stars with him, as they had last night, in that intimate silence which she craved. No, I'm not scared. I'm... curious. What kind of skeletons was Sasori hiding in his closet to make him speak so bitterly of himself—art aside—to drive him to attempting suicide; to allow him to murder someone without even batting an eyelash? The latter could, of course, be attributed to circumstances, but the rest had her pensive.
The sun was momentarily blocked out by a murder of crows cawing and flapping overhead. It prompted her to think of Itachi and Kakashi, both of whom had yet to return from their scouting mission.
"Deidara?" Izumi came up to her. "Mind if I sit?"
The blonde shrugged. "It's not my tree, hm."
So Izumi sat, letting out a sigh. "Okay, I'm about to tell you something, and I don't want you to be mad." Her tone was sobering, and Deidara immediately paid close attention. Izumi folded her hands in her lap, trying to decide how she would go about revealing whatever information she had to Deidara. In the end, she decided for blunt and straight to the point. "I'm joining you on the expedition to the TNT base."
"What?!" Deidara lurched away from Izumi as if she'd been burned. "Tell me you're joking, hm!" Why? What about Izuna? Why the hell is Itachi letting you? How could he? A million questions raced through her mind, but she spoke none of them. Instead, she waited for Izumi to explain.
"We're short on people who could actually pull this off," Izumi said, smiling hollowly at the distance. "It can't just be you, Itachi, and Kakashi."
"And why not?" Deidara said sharply. "We're masters. We can do this, yeah."
"So am I. I haven't trained for a long while, but I, too, am a martial artist. And to be honest..." Izumi closed her eyes regretfully. "There are stronger people who could take my place, but this camp needs to be defended, too. But me? I'd pull my own weight better out on the field, where I at least have some control of what's happening. And... I can't let my husband go out on the battlefield again without knowing what's happening to him. I handled myself last time—this time will be no different."
Deidara stared at her. "You're an idiot."
"No!" she snapped, standing up. "You're only going because of Itachi! I understand that he's your husband, but haven't you ever considered that he might prefer you staying behind?! And what about Izuna? You don't have to try and prove yourself to anyone, hm!" Her raised voice turned some heads, and Izumi balked at her tone.
Then she stood up to, a fire burning in her eyes. "No, you don't understand! You never will, Deidara. I love Itachi too much to let him go to war one more time. You don't understand, because you've never seen the world in my eyes. I think..." She laughed harshly, burying her face in her palms. "I would rather die than let him go."
"Might not have either of his parents?" Izumi finished, staring blankly at her. Her eye twitched, as if she knew that she wouldn't be able to keep it in any longer. "Would it kill me, would it send me to hell if I told you that I don't care? I wish I could, I've been trying so hard!" She exhaled sharply, grabbing Deidara by the shoulders and trying to keep a straight face as her broken mind fell from her eyes. "I've fed him, kissed him, held him, but it still feels foreign. Like he isn't my child. One time—one time, I even thought about leaving him behind in our previous camp." She sobbed, her fingers curling into the fabric of Deidara's green shirt, still unchanged from the day she left Akatsuki. "I'm terrible. I can't even feed him properly anymore because I haven't been sleeping or eating and it's like I don't even care because I think I might not. I love him, I tell him I love him, but do I really? Did I really give birth to him? Do you know where he is now? With Sakura, because she loves and cares for him more than I ever—"
"What..." Deidara was tense as Izumi cried out her sorrows. What's wrong? What went wrong? Why? "Izumi, focus. Izumi! I'm here, shh, I'm here, yeah..." She was faintly aware of another being approaching her, and out of her periphery, she could see Shizune coming.
"Izumi, breathe," Shizune coached, her voice steady. "Everything's okay. You're not the first woman to feel this way. You're not alone." Eventually, her sobs stifled, and Izumi backed away from Deidara and let Shizune lead her away.
"I've seen this before," a voice commented to her left, and she almost jumped when she saw Chiyo. How had she not sensed her? The old woman ambled toward her, and Deidara subconsciously backed into her tree, pressing her back against the bark. Chiyo stopped beside her, glancing once to where Shizune was bringing Izumi to Rin and Asagi. "Women who've recently given birth becoming shells of their former selves. Difficulties eating, sleeping, bonding with their newborn..." Chiyo frowned. "It is a terrible thing. I knew someone like that, once."
Idly, Deidara asked, "Who?"
"She was beautiful woman, caring and kind. She eventually recovered from her darkness. Her name was Arisa. Sand. I think you would have liked her."
"... If you think so, hm..." She had really nothing else to say. She had other thoughts in her mind. Izumi is broken. I've just been too busy with my own damn feelings to notice. How could I do this to her? She's so stubborn, she'll never listen to what I have to say about this mission. She'll go anyway. Whatever gods were watching over them, she prayed that they would keep Izumi safe.
"Now's not the time to fall into your own darkness," Chiyo warned, voice grave. The foliage cracked for a moment, and Sasuke and Sasori entered the camp. "Remember that, and hopefully you won't live only to take your own life." And like a breeze in the air, she drifted away, leaving Deidara by her lonesome.
But her thoughts were muddled, and she could not use her solitude to think properly. Frustration nipped at her skin in the form of biting winds, and she stood straighter, crossing the clearing to meet with Sasori.
He gave her a questioning look.
"We should talk," Deidara said, strained.
Sasuke left them alone, thankfully, going off to who-knew-where. Sasori hesitated for a split second before nodding, expression grim. "Is it about the Mikoko woman?" There was scorn in his voice, and Deidara twitched slightly.
"Don't talk about her like that," she said, surprised at how calm her voice sounded. They went to a more secluded area, where the backdrop noise was reduced to a faint buzz. Not that the people among them talked very loudly anyway. "Earlier this morning, when you killed her, yeah... It was like seeing another side of you."
His expression grew harshly frustrated. "I already warned you—"
"I know that!" She didn't mean to snap, but this morning and Izumi's depression had her temper flaring. "And I still stand by what I said, hm. But, Danna, I want to know—"
"That's who I was, and who I still am," Sasori explained, his face completely straight. His voice, however he tried to control it, betrayed more than he would have liked. "A hired killer. I've killed more people than you could possibly imagine, and I did it all with the same likeness as I did with Mikoko-san today."
He's not kidding. He's not kidding. But that was okay, wasn't it? She'd seen it herself, the side that people seemed to either completely ignore or take for granted. Each person has a light and a dark side, and I just happened to glimpse the latter today. It's nothing. It means nothing. "Do you regret it?" She just had to know this, to solidify what she thought she'd already known.
Sasori shifted his arms slightly, and Deidara cursed herself for instinctively tensing when she saw his Zetsu arm in full view. Sasori noticed, but forced himself to keep his pokerface. Such longing and optimism in her voice, he thought bitterly. She's only setting herself up for disappointment. The only person who I thought had faith in me is beginning to doubt. How... fitting. So what if I regret anything at all? How would she react?
"I—" He halted. "Most of it. I regret most of it. There are some that I don't regret."
"Relieving to hear?" he cut across her, his tone chilly, defensive. "Would you still see me the same way if I had said no?" He took a step forward, and it was a small relief to see that she didn't not recoil from him. "Tell me," a leaf fell between them, momentarily obscuring his view of her delicately emaciated face, "would you?"
There was a beat.
Did you really think, a small, barely audible voice in his head told him, that she would tell you that everything was okay? That she would still accept you? That's what you want, isn't it—to be reintegrated into humanity? To shed the skin of a killer? Her silence speaks volumes—
"I told you that I don't care." If he had just a little less self control, he would have sucked in a breath at the feeling of her hand grabbing his wide, disproportionate Zetsu one. "We all have our faults, yeah, that's what you said."
"You..." Sasori glared at her, yanking his hand away. "You're insane, brat. How can you care so little about the blood on my hands—the lives which I've taken? If you really didn't care, then why are we even having this conversation? Hm?" he added mockingly, the implication loud and clear. He truly thought that she was afraid of him, somehow. Disgusted by him.
"I didn't come here to talk with you because I feared you, hm!" she said fiercely, glaring back at him; she stepped even closer so that they were almost nose-to-nose.
"Then what did you fear, Deidara?"
A voice cut through the air, a loud protrusion through the gentle buzz. "Itachi's back! And Kakashi, too!"
More voices became raised. "Thank the gods they're still alive!"
Sasori brushed past her. "We should go." When she didn't immediately follow, he still kept going, uncertain of what kind of expression he would see on her face if he turned back.
"What did I fear?" Deidara repeated the question to him before forcing herself to move to where the flurry was. "I thought that I was going to lose you." At least now... I know that I was worrying about the wrong thing.
He stopped then, but didn't turn, waiting for her to catch up. "Why? Why don't you care about what really matters?"
She contemplated the question. Why did she? The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she had never known such a simplistic answer, especially when everything else seemed to have such a winding and convoluted solution. But like the wind calling to the bird, a natural instinct permeated her being, and she said, "Because you're not supposed to care about someone's past like that when you love them." Deidara didn't stumble on her words, didn't immediately try to retract them or amend them. Instead, she simply let it hang between them, knowing that whatever happened next was out of her hands. She didn't like it, of course—there was a part of her that was disquieted by the lack of control she had over the situation—but she had forced her own hand. "I..." She cleared her throat, heat creeping up the back of her neck and rising to her cheeks. "I underestimated you, hm. The degree of self-loathing you feel... But it's not something you have to face alone, yeah. What you were doesnt matter to me—what matters is who you choose to be now."
Sasori took in her solemn gaze, the sincerity pervading her words. He could almost envision her reaching her hand out to him as he crouched in a shroud of darkness, shadows and ghosts sliding up and over her arm as she willingly tainted herself for his sake. His breath almost caught in his throat, and his gut wrenched in mourning of her losses as he chose to take the hand which offered so much at her own expense. He knew then that he would only ever tell the truth to her if lies were avoidable. "I wish I deserved you." Then, taking her by surprise, he drew her in, the thinness of her frame painfully obvious. Brushing her hair away, his lips ghosted her forehead, and a shiver ran down her spine, her heart twisting for the lie he believed. "We should go," he repeated, not letting her protest his belief. "They're waiting for us."
Whatever feelings they had, it would have to be pushed aside for now. Especially when both of them knew there was the very high possibility that one or both of them wouldn't live to see the next dawn.
Tenten had to actively try to keep her heart beating at a steady, acceptable pace. Upon Itachi and Kakashi's return, everyone gathered around them, waiting to know what kind of fate awaited them.
"First off," Kakashi said. "If anyone has any grievances or concerns, we should address them right here. We don't need any unnecessary drama."
There was a bout of silence at first, then someone piped up, "Why is the Hyuuga still here?" It was Hitoshi, but he was sounding more uncomfortable than aggressive. "I'm talking about the long-haired boy," he added, in case someone was stupid enough to mistake his referral to the eldest Hyuuga. He had no problem with Hanabi or Hinata, after all. "How is his being here going to help us? And does anyone know where Yukari's gone?"
Tenten was curious about that, too, and she shot Sakura, who was next to her, a questioning glance. But the pink-haired medic shook her head, unsure of the other girl's whereabouts. She could have sworn her heart started racing again when she spotted Chihiro in the crowd, nearby Neji. She'd comforted the girl after the mess that had been early this morning, but she'd slipped away from her during the confusion that had arisen when Itachi and Kakashi reappeared.
"Hyuuga Neji is an ally and an asset," Itachi answered Hitoshi's concerns, in a tone that suggested no argument. "I know many of you feel nothing but hostility toward him, but I ask you—no, I implore all of you to put aside your personal feelings. He's someone we have to put our trust in, or else we might all die."
It was true. Neji had knowledge of how Zetsu camps were run, even if it was only a little. After all, he had regained his humanity before assimilating himself fully into monsterhood, and thus had never entered the monsters' largest headquarters, where Zetsu himself was rumored to be found in. And not long ago, in the absence of the children, he'd demonstrated his ability to willingly shift into a monster without the bloodthirsty disposition and mindlessness.
"Fine, but where's Yukari?" When nobody answered, he swore in frustration. "Fuck, I don't have time for this. She's ill. Physically and mentally."
"They don't know!" Hanabi didn't meant to lose her patience, but the heavy atmosphere was wearing her thin. She whirled to meet Hitoshi's gaze, adding regretfully, "None of us do."
Hitoshi didn't respond. He simply stood there, face hard. Then he lowered his chin, no more difficult questions shooting from his mouth.
Tenten stared up at Itachi's tired, lined face. He was still handsome, despite everything, and she had to admit that Izumi was a very lucky woman. Still, he seemed so far away from them—so isolated. She pitied him, much like the way she pitied almost all of them, but he incited an even stronger pity from her. She hoped to never see him cry, or scream, or break, because she wasn't sure if their perpetually low morale could survive such a devastating thing.
Under everyone's watchful gaze, Itachi couldn't help but have his feathers ruffled by a mild wind of anxiety. They depended on him. He couldn't let them down. He wasn't one for public speeches or dramatic goodbyes, but today, Itachi did a very un-Itachi-like thing. "Everyone." Just by uttering one word, their fixation on him had seemingly tripled. He was not a god, nor did he wish to be, but some would always look for someone to listen to, to bring them purpose and meaning. He took in each and every one of their dirty, tired faces, cheeks ruddy from the cold. This included Kakashi, whom Itachi observed from his peripheral. The silver-haired man's countenance was calm, but this was only because he had the very special gift of pausing his grieving process until an appropriate time. "We've made it this far. Konoha is just a few days travel away, and only one thing stands between us and salvation." He did his utmost to keep his face safe as he stated, "Not all of us will live." And perhaps Itachi was feeling more un-Itachi-like than they had first suspected, because he went on, "But to hell with it if we aren't going to try. You might not have faith in yourselves." His eyes gleamed, and suddenly, the Sharingan was spinning, a symbol of the decaying power he carried. "But have faith in me, in the people around you."
There was no applause, no cheers. It was so far away from the time that he had inspired a fighting spirit in all of them at Akatsuki Square, and Tenten's heart clenched, a dull ache making itself known in her chest. There was no sun visible—it was hidden behind the clouds—and they had seen enough death to last for a lifetime. It felt like they were in a constant downward spiral, unable to break from the centripetal force, doomed to keep accelerating toward the bottomless centre.
For a moment, Tenten thought no one would say. Maybe they would walk away with their heads hung low, preparing themselves for the inevitable.
"I'm with you." Tenten turned to see Kisame holding his head up high. He chuckled grimly. "Words I'd never thought I'd be saying, especially considering our first meeting."
Itachi nodded, and the lines on his face softened, the only indication that he was grateful for Kisame's support. And in a way, Tenten realised with a jolt, Kisame had been a stable source of comfort for all of them. He was strong, solid, and supported them without much complaint, even when they would whisper about blue monsters and tiptoe around him. Chihiro trusted him, as well as Anko, and Sakura, Itachi, Kakashi, and Sasori all held respect for him, respect that was solidified on the night of the hospital expedition.
"I'm with you, too." The next words were spoken by a voice so dark and gravelly and full of hate that Tenten nearly drew out the blade hidden in her sleeve. She had heard that voice before—only it had been light and lilting.
She pinpointed the speaker soon enough, as did everyone else, and the people standing around Kagami gave the Uchiha a wide berth. Then, slowly, Kagami lifted a hand to their face, clutching the purple mask and unhooking it.
Sasuke drew in a sharp breath.
It seemed like an eternity and a half, but then the mask was off Kagami's face and tucked into the Uchiha's palm.
"It is because of them that Shisui is dead," Kagami said, their—no, her—voice no longer muffled and mechanical, instead raw with grief. Tears were gathered in the corners of her Mangekyo eyes, and threatened to fall, but she held them back bravely. She pulled her hood down, revealing long black hair that disappeared into the rest of her garment and a clear view of her slim, delicate face. She said no more, letting the few words she had spoken shake them to the core. She had stared at Sasuke the most while saying it, as if willing him to share her vengeance.
"It doesn't matter if we die." This came from Naruto, not Sasuke. "I'm sick of running away like some coward! If it means I can be useful, then I'll do whatever you want me to, Itachi!" He looked around, as if daring anyone to oppose him.
"Kid's got spunk," Hitoshi commented, nodding in acknowledgment. "I'm in, too, I guess." He was more reluctant, but that didn't matter.
"Aw, what the heck." Anko lifted a clenched fist. "Let's make those bastards pay!" she bellowed, and several people echoed the sentiment, including Deidara and Tenten, the latter absolutely swept away by how fast everything was happening.
Awed, Itachi could only blink as, one by one, they offered their support, offered to stand alongside him in this battle. It did not come as a roaring tidal wave, but rather a subtle, yet forceful, shove of wind. He turned to Kakashi, unsure of his reaction.
"Don't look at me," Kakashi said mildly. "This is your doing, not mine. These people will die for you, not me."
"No, " Itachi amended, suddenly feeling more certain of himself. "They would die for you, too, and each other."
Kakashi gave him a surprised, but nevertheless grateful glance.
"Well, then," Deidara spoke over the dying down noise, exhilarated. "Mind telling us what the hell all of us are going to have to do?"
The plan was simple. Or as simple as it could possibly be, considering all the risk factors and variables involved. But risks, of course, had to be taken, and two of the group's most notorious members had it the worst.
"What?" Hanabi glanced up at her sister in a mixture of pity and sadness as Hinata uttered the words, outraged. She had all but lost her stutter; the constant presence of Hanabi and the blond boy, Naruto, had seen to it. There were still traces, of course, but the elder Hyuuga sister wouldn't let it ail her at this moment. "You... You want to send Neji-nii-san and Sasori-san into the camp?!"
"That's basically a death sentence!" Tenten exclaimed. She was not fond of the Hyuuga boy, but Sasori's actions in Akatsuki had earned him her loyalty. Even so, Tenten could see merit in the plan, and so could everyone else.
"The explosives have to be planted somehow," Kakashi said. "With their abilities, Neji and Sasori have the best chances of infiltrating the camp, and they won't be alone." Itachi had told them how all of them who were able would be participating in this next battle. Well, he hadn't ordered it, but he hadn't needed to. For all their fear and all their cowering, these people were tired, and a fire was burning in their bellies. They hungered for safety and survival, and they knew that if they didn't give their all into it, their chances would be greatly reduced.
In order for Neji and Sasori to plant all the bombs in the ravine, a distraction would have to be made, and Itachi would be leading the squad who would provide that. It composed of the majority of them. Their numbers had been cut down greatly since the beginning of the journey—those with martial arts training, no matter how minuscule, now outnumbered those without.
Those who could not fight—children, the sick, the elderly—would be observing the battle from the shelter in the trees, not far from the battleground. They could afford to leave them here, at such a distance away from the future war grounds.
"It's okay, Hinata-sama," Neji told her. His eyes became hooded with gratitude and regret. "I owe you a great debt, but the case goes for everyone else. This is the least I can do. Don't worry—I'll be safe."
Hinata looked pained. "Neji-nii..."
"It's okay, Hinata," Naruto comforted her. "We'll just have to raise hell as best as we can so Neji will be safe!"
"Y-Yes!" Hinata's eyes steeled from the support she was receiving from Naruto. "You can count on me!" She said this not only to Naruto and Neji, but to everyone else as well. Hanabi smiled at her, pleased.
Before that could happen, however, the TNT had to be retrieved first, and a special team of strong warriors were going to do that. The cell composed of Itachi, Deidara, and Kakashi, but from the way Izumi was staring up at her husband, her arms still absent of their child, it would probably change soon.
After more discussion, they dispersed, and Izumi and Itachi found each other, taking their conversation under a shady tree.
"I've heard," Itachi began softly.
"From who?" Izumi forced her voice to remain steady, but the underlying anger could still be heard. "Deidara?"
"I can't allow you to go."
"Don't go, Izumi." His eyes were pleading with her. "Izuna needs you."
"No. No he doesn't. He needs you, not me. He doesn't need me, Itachi." Izumi stepped right up to him, kissing him chastely on the lips once before drawing back. "Don't ask me why I feel this way because I don't know. I'll only tell you that this feeling hasn't once left me ever since his birth. Why do you think I gave Asagi the honor of being his godmother? A woman I hardly know. It was a spur of the moment decision, but I trust her." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I will go. I'll bring more to the table than I will staying behind. You didn't see how many of those things I killed back in the cave, Itachi. I can do this. My body won't betray me. You won't be able to stop me, short of knocking me out. Can you do that, Itachi? Even if you can, I won't let you." Her voice wavered slightly, but she kept a brave face.
I know I can't. How weak, he chastened himself, how pathetic that you cannot stop her from doing this. He knew—he knew—that she was emotionally manipulating him to get her way. She had done so before, but never this boldly. She was getting desperate to stay by his side, to protect him from the open arms of death. She loved him more than their child, and he could never harm her, even if it was for her own good. Itachi cursed his weakness. His love for Izumi—something that kept him strong—was becoming his downfall.
"Selfish," he uttered.
"I know. I know I am." She lifted a hand to his face solemnly. "But if I lose you without even having the chance to stop it from happening, it will destroy me. I'm sorry, Itachi, I really am. I've been told that I am a good wife, but I'm afraid I cannot be the mother Izuna deserves."
"You don't have to be. But do not stop me from being a father to Izuna," Itachi said sharply, the words sticking to his throat like flies to honey. "What kind of father would I be, if I knowingly took his mother away?"
"I'm not going anywhere," she promised, the conviction in her voice powerful, persuasive. "I'm going, Itachi. And we'll go to Konoha together, with Izuna. I... Shizune explained to me what this was, and she told me that I wouldn't be alone in the recovery process. When we get there, I'll get better. We both will."
Had his self-control been any weaker, he would have undoubtedly flinched at the implication.
"You are not well, Itachi, and I'm not talking about your cough," Izumi stated, eyes growing mournful. "We're damaged. We both are, and everyone else around us, too. Three is not enough to take on multiple Zetsu, and there is no one else more suited to infiltration than I am amongst our group. Perhaps Sasori could, but we can't risk him."
Itachi merely stared blankly at her. Then he embraced her. "Stay."
"I won't. I think I'll go mad if I do," she whispered.
"Don't be foolish. Better mad than dead."
"... I'm going. And you cannot stop me."
It was then Itachi saw her in a new light. Desperate. Unhinged, almost. A liability. A liability that needed to be controlled, and he did not trust anyone with her assured safety. She needed him, and...
Perhaps he needed her, too.
"Stay by me at all times. Do not engage without permission." His tone became almost soldier-like and she shivered. She was now his weapon, one that he would wield to utmost efficiency. He was like that, sometimes, disassociating with his normal,
"I guess that's all I can ask for."
"TNT can't be carried in a storage scroll, hm," Deidara told Itachi bluntly. "Storage scrolls require chakra to be channelled through a seal to activate, and we all know what that could end up doing."
"Chakra is quite the volatile thing, isn't it?" Kakashi hummed thoughtfully. "Any ideas, Itachi? Izumi?"
They were setting out to leave soon, and the rest they left behind would just have to sit tight and wait.
Itachi answered, "There is one..."
He told them his idea, and they all turned to the many eyes on them at once, as if they were one entity.
It looked like they wouldn't be sitting tight after all.
The trees were a blur of greens and some yellows as Deidara whisked through the treetops, Itachi, Izumi, and Kakashi alongside her. They had become three of her most trusted people, and she felt as at ease as she could possibly be. Her blood still thrummed with anticipation, and she was not ashamed that she fantasized about leaving explosives to detonate the surrounding area around the base after they left. It would be glorious, turning everything into ashes, including those dark, immoral beings.
The wind hurt her face, but she had learned to accept physical pain, and tune it out until it became nothing but a barely noticeable bite on her flushed cheeks.
Itachi landed lightly on a branch, Izumi landing beside him. Deidara found her place in an opposite tree branch with Kakashi nearby.
"Coast is most definitely not clear," Kakashi muttered, eyeing the lumbering Zetsu around the outpost with distaste. "We'll have to kill. Make it quick and efficient as possible. No drawing it out—just a good stab in the heart."
"Roger that," Deidara said wryly. She caught Izumi's gaze then, saw the seriousness in her eyes. The Uchiha woman gave her a nod, and Deidara lowered her chin slightly in return. Then the four were ghosts in the wind, merely apparitions to any watching eyes.
The monsters were large. Almost twice as tall as Kakashi, the tallest among them, but for supposedly apex predators, their large bulk made it so that they had extremely poor peripheral vision. They made up for it with their powerful sense of smell and hearing, extreme endurance, and deadliness—which was just overkill—so they had to strike as many down as possible while they still had the element of surprise.
Izumi was surprisingly good at exploiting weaknesses, Deidara found. She'd notice before, as they had sparred frequently before Izumi entered pregnancy, but only in passing, and had never really focused on that strength. Izumi's keen eye was exactly that—keen—and made up for her lack of Sharingan.
They managed to kill seven—a good number, considering everything—before they were forced to throw away their sneakiness in order to directly engage the remaining Zetsu soldiers. All of them were splattered with black, seaweed-colored blood by that time. They all carried weapons, and all of their blades were ones that used to belong to Shisui.
He'd been something to all of them. Whether it'd been a brother-in-arms and a fellow rebel, a beloved relative, or the first friend in an unfamiliar country.
The final body fell at Itachi's hand, the man's entire length of arm plunged through the black flesh of the Zetsu, its heart pierced by Shisui's tanto. He removed his limb from the monster's chest cavity with a slimy flourish, the rolled-up long sleeve of his shirt plastered to his skin with unholy fluid.
Deidara couldn't help it. She smiled, baring all of her teeth. All of this violence... she found that it didn't even phase her at this point, as if that part of her had been burned out completely, replaced with a mentality that was forged by fire. To have a hand in slaughtering the animals who had killed so many of her beloved people—it was exhilarating; it gave her the same feeling as unleashing some of her hand-crafted explosives.
The door of the seemingly small bunker was kicked down by Kakashi, and the smell of death and rot pervaded the air even more so than it already was. Behind the mask, he wrinkled his nose. It led deep underground, this one, and all of them had at least a vague idea of what lay in the darkness.
Itachi turned on his Sharingan before entering. "Kakashi, be prepared." He didn't see the affirming nod of the man behind him, but he didn't need to. The Hatake disappeared into the treetops surrounding the area. "Izumi, stand guard. Deidara, you're with me."
Itachi and Deidara left Kakashi and Izumi behind to venture further into the bunker, callously stepping over mangled, mutilated bodies. Itachi, with his Sharingan spinning, led the way, and they found the explosives after a few minutes of poking around. As expected, they were stored in crates, with black powder scattered all over the floor. They made sure to keep their chakra flowing steadily, not allowing any of it to leak from their bodies, as chakra was sometimes prone to do when one got emotional.
They could each carry four crates each before handling them started to take a toll on their muscles. Izumi's gaze followed them from her shadowed position on a nearby tree as her husband and friend exited the bunker with eight crates of TNT between them. They reached a knotted tree with yellow leaves, tapping once on the wood to summon Kakashi. He hung upside down as he collected the crates one at a time, setting them on a thick branch. Then he was a shadow, carrying two crates at a time as he flitted through the trees.
Hanabi was not surprised to see Kakashi land on her tree, which was a bit further away from the outpost. "You can carry these, right?" he inquired.
She nodded, taking the crates from Kakashi and jumping away. She gave them to Sasuke, who was partially hidden on the high branches of a mighty oak tree, who passed them to Kisame, who passed them to Anko and so on. They didn't reach Gai until the very end of the makeshift delivery line, who they were counting on to deliver the TNT steadfastly to their new storage spot—close to the Zetsu ravine, but not too close—which were the medium-high branches of a sycamore with many recesses and indents. There, Gai would be greeted by the pallid but hopeful faces of those who weren't able or strong enough to help—young children, the old, and the pregnant. Their old camp had long been abandoned, the fire put out by a grinning Konohamaru with a stream of yellow water that made Moegi roll her eyes behind her hand and Udon cough exasperatedly. Iruka had given an indignant shout, still clutching comically to the bucket of river water he had painstakingly collected for the purpose of offing the flame.
They worked in tandem, warriors and civilians alike. The middle of the chain had the weakest strength-wise, composing of Hinata, Shikamaru, Masami, and so on. Their trees were closer together, to make the process more efficient.
"Careful!" Tenten hissed when Naruto nearly dropped a crate of TNT on the ground.
"Sorry!" Naruto stage-whispered back, the apology delivered through clenched teeth.
"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered from the tree next to Tenten's. "Pass it here already, before my arms become too tired to lift."
At the outpost, Itachi and Deidara were churning out crates and crates of TNT as fast as they could, knowing that they could not afford to dally. Izumi cupped her hands and twittered like a bird, the signal that they had decided on. They were coming. The twittering grew more hasty. Deidara gritted her teeth. They had collected a little more than half of the TNT supply, but it still wasn't enough to decimate the entire camp. They could not rely on a rockfall to destroy the beasts. They needed to be purged with fire. Otherwise everything she loved would be torn apart.
"Be safe," Sasori had said before they'd left, going separate ways.
"Worry about yourself, yeah," she had replied with a grim smile. She'd almost kissed him. But she hadn't. Had refrained from doing so. Other things had taken precedence.
"Deidara!" Itachi's voice sounded close to her ear as they ducked into the bunker. "This is the last run. We'll have to go after that. Kakashi is already evacuating the others."
She grunted in affirmation, nearly tripping over a body without a face. Her arms were burning fiercely from carrying the crates, not allowing chakra to assist her in the great heave, lest she blow them all up sky high.
She picked up one crate this time, unable and unwilling to carry more than that, while Itachi picked up two.
She could already feel the repressing chakra of the Zetsu soldiers diffusing around the surroundings, like a dark haze of fog or something else equally effusive. Faster, she coached herself, she needed to be faster.
They burst into the sunlight rapidly, leaving the darkness and death behind them. Probably for good. Unless they had a death wish, they would not be returning here soon.
Kakashi had gone and escorted the others away. She could barely feel their suppressed chakra signatures hopping further and further away until she could no longer sense them. She knew the monsters would not be able to smell them. The wind blew in only one direction due to the mountain's formations, and their group's location was decidedly downwind.
"LOOK OUT!" Izumi's warning came like a crash of thunder that was suddenly silenced, and then Deidara's box of TNT was flying out of her hands and through the air, where it made contact with Itachi's.
The boxes, upon colliding at such a high speed, shattered and splintered, and black powder rained upon them.
Vines were wrapped around her waist and neck, nearly suffocating her. Itachi was in a similar predicament, and she was unable to turn her head to see how Izumi was faring.
The monsters were still a while away, from what she could sense. So how? Where had these come from?
"Excellent. You truly are a scientific wonder, my dear. Of course, I have my previous children to thank."
And of all the—
Yukari stumbled out, missing an eye, her nose, and part of her ear. Beside her, a grey-haired man with a pale, cracked mask of a face, emerged. He wore round-rimmed glasses, and a black tongue swiped around his lips once.
More vines. Deidara was completely restrained now, as was Itachi. She still could not see Izumi, and she could not speak either. She could not scream when vine penetrated her shoulder, then her leg, purposefully missing the important arteries. Eyes shifting to the side, she saw Itachi suffering a similar fate, his eyes nearly closed shut with pain as the Sharingan flickered out.
"She came to me willingly," the grey-haired man mused, a vine stroking his chin in thought. "Sick and weak. I improved her then, in only the span of a few hours. I wonder... how could I improve you?"
Kakashi jumped from tree branch to tree branch, his heart pounding relentlessly. Finally, in what seemed to him like an eternity and a half, he burst through the foliage and landed in the most leafy tree closest to the outpost, almost overshooting and making his presence known to the monsters that had replaced their fallen comrades.
No sign of Itachi.
Only the red of human blood amongst the black of the monsters.
Kakashi's heart fell into his stomach.
I... Where... Where am I?
Deidara's eyes cracked open slowly, and her spine straightened at the dryness of the corner of her lids.
It's so dark in here, she mused deliriously. And the air was dank and vile with piss, shit, and blood. Her entire body was wracked with pain. Some stung, while others were aching and stiff. Her neck, in particular, ached fiercely no matter how she positioned her head.
She tried to lift her arm, but found that she could not. But she hardly registered it, continuing to pull at the chakra chains which bound her wrists to the damp floor of her cell. It clanked. The noise hurt her ears, sending a sharp bolt of lightning running down her brain and lingering at the back of her teeth and the base of her neck. So she ceased, her breathing growing shallower.
The last thing she saw before falling into an almost death-like sleep was the man's cracked, bespectacled face, his grin promising horrors yet to come.
Deidara smiled back, as if such a futile thing would defeat him. She smiled even as the woman in the next cell screamed and screamed, separated only from her by a few metal bars.
And then she slept.