Notes and Disclaimer: Not mine. The original conception of this fic came about way back when I posted the ItaHina, remember that? Was crack,once,I don't know what it is now.
….For Kiki, on her birthday, who is, for better or worse, my Itachi muse….
Review and critique is appreciated as ever and further apologies for those still waiting for an update of Butterfly in Reverse. My time's full up and I'm struggling to get out of my fanfic slump, let alone trying to get the courage to tackle that fic monster. Thank you for bearing with me, and I'm so very sorry I can't ask you to hold your breath.
The Akatsuki, according to Jiraiya's surprisingly regular reports, was an organisation of elite missing nin.
It was no coincidence that they had banded together – the utter seniority of each of these previously undervalued shinobi compared to their peers was remarkable; frightening – most of the organisation's recruits had been involved in, if not responsible for, at least one massacre before defecting from their village. Each one possessed a unique gift – whether bloodline, clan secrets, or unabashed power.
The organisation lived beyond the boundaries of ninja society; far from the codes of honour and loyalty of the villages. The only things that bonded the Akatsuki to one another were power, potential, and the sensible understanding that when hunted by only the most elite of your entire village, it was wise to have the most powerful of one's competition working alongside you.
Uchiha Itachi had only just turned fifteen when he'd joined the horrid force, made aware of it and enticed to it by the high expectations of Konoha's legendary traitor-Sannin. Orochimaru had lured Itachi in like a moth, expecting him to continue on and be consumed by that snakelike intensity, but Itachi – who at the age of thirteen had already done the unthinkable – was far too possessive of himself to give any small part to Orochimaru.
Instead, the Akatsuki recreated the boundaries of the shinobi lifestyle, and even at an early age, Itachi knew enough about the shinobi way to forge himself a brilliant little niche in the centre of the Akatsuki's success. Until slowly - so slowly - they built their fierce, unrivalled reputation as momentous bringers of pain.
Their leader was now no more than a face in the shadows, and now that Sasori – puppeteer of a Kazekage – had been defeated (by, Itachi's inner Uchiha sniffed, a fifteen year old girl, no less) there were very few of the Old Crowd left.
So clearly it was time for new blood.
When Tobi had been introduced to Kisame as an Akatsuki Candidate, Zetsu had been full of malice, his emotions shifting so quickly it showed on his twitching, bicoloured face. Deidara, meanwhile, had pouted as if in mourning, and Kisame had called for Itachi immediately, knowing how amusing a vengeful Zetsu and a morose Deidara could be. Tobi looked clueless.
'So you want this kid to join us?' Itachi asked mildly. His voice was calm, soothing tones that could almost send Kisame to sleep if he'd let it, an instinct that always made the Mist nin's spine straighten in anticipation.
'Who're you calling a kid, you fucking midget?' Tobi shrieked, dropping his tea in agitation. 'Oops.'
'Shut up, you little moron,' Deidara hissed, watching Itachi's emotionless face soften into something more ghastly. 'Before I'm forced to kill you.'
'With what, your bare feet?'
Deidara considered his options, figuring that if he was really going to put forward an Akatsuki candidate, it was probably better all round if Itachi didn't slaughter said candidate and everyone connected with him in their sleep. Deidara did not want to be on Itachi's bad side. Not that the stoic little brat had a good side, but Deidara really, really preferred the object-of-calm-disdain side, than the slaughter-you-for-being-les-pretty-than-me side. Deidara turned back to Tobi – for better or worse, his Tobi now, at least until he was accepted into their voluminous folds (or made into an omelette) – and prepared to play nice. 'If you insist.'
Deidara had strong legs. He didn't have great balance nowadays, at least, not when he had people in choke holds, but he had discovered that he had really strong legs. Tobi agreed, poor thing.
They'd travelled a way farther towards their destination, and the rest of the Akatsuki, before the sky had dimmed in its preparations for dawn and the five missing nin had grown weary enough to set up camp. Zetsu had been agitated for hours; his clarity of thought burdened by a sudden onset of... mania, maybe. He wanted to eat, to clear his head.
He wanted to eat Deidara, specifically. The scent of bombs and charcoal and burnt meat where his comrade's skinny arms had once been gave Zetsu a clear idea of how Deidara would taste roasted. On a spit, maybe. Like a pig. Smell was such a fine indicator of taste, after all… but too much had changed already, and Zetsu was loath to do anything that would make him even more confused.
Too much was happening, too many changes after so much time spent in this stable little world. Zetsu hadn't felt this distressed since Orochimaru had left their organisation. Their leader had been kind not to force Zetsu into taking any more partners. It had been so kind. Zetsu probably would've killed them, and that would've been awful. But now, now it was so much worse, so many changes all at once; Tobi's arrival, Sasori's death, Deidara's incapacitation, the brats of the leaf becoming so much more of a threat, the Kyuubi's improvement… the way those Konoha shinobi had looked at the Akatsuki as if it were a hindrance, as if they had something greater to be getting on with. It angered Zetsu, and he hated feeling anger. It confused him.
Zetsu melted into the trees as his comrades sped along the branches of them. He could keep up easily this way, and observe the play of emotion on others instead of analysing himself. Deidara stayed close behind Tobi, as if guarding the shinobi from doing anything stupid before he understood the dynamics of their organisation, and Zetsu could see the barest hint of strain drawn across the line of the blonde's mouth, colouring his eyes. He couldn't tell if it was pain or grief, but Deidara looked wrong, somehow; bland in the near-morning darkness, and yet he seemed less delicate, larger without the contrast of Sasori's bulk near him as he travelled.
Tobi buzzed with energy, still. His strain was written across his stride, his muscles. Zetsu couldn't read him yet, except to know he didn't like him, this new and clumsy addition to their core, and wasn't sure if he'd live for long in the others' shadow.
Kisame and Itachi were as intent as ever – two constants in Zetsu's world that he knew would be hard pressed to move an inch in any direction. Itachi ran a little ahead of his team-mate, leading the pack of them, black eyes slightly squint and wildly dilated against the blackness of the path ahead of them, and Zetsu shivered a little as those eyes flashed red so briefly, swinging to where he hid inside the trees. Kisame's mouth pulled back into a sinister grin as he noticed the slight movement of his comrade's dark head, and the fingers of his left hand lingered against the wrappings of his blade as he ran. The right seeming ready to catch Itachi, should he trip – an event that would never happen – and Zetsu wondered how two so radically different shinobi could synchronise so easily.
Zetsu shivered and sunk lower, moving through the mossy ground towards the rest of their comrades; and as the world changed around him, resolved to think of nothing.
They finally stopped above a crater. A deep gash in the surrounding rock, where Tobi had been led in circles so many times between the caves (like a mouse, nibbling at the edges of the gaping air holes in its favourite cheese) that he wasn't sure if he was being played, or that his new comrades were truly lost themselves.
Eventually, Zetsu appeared from a boulder, signalling for their little group to stop. Tobi followed as they settled in the hooded clearing, and watched Deidara slump to the ground with a sound of such utter exhaustion that Tobi felt his face burn with embarrassed concern. He shouldn't be allowed to watch these monsters hurt. No mortal creatures should see them weakened beyond repair. The sheer fact that Deidara was still going was a testament to how strong these ninja were; that, or a testament to his rage. Tobi hoped it was the former.
Gradually, others began to materialise from the rocks and shadows – ninja Tobi had heard of but not met, ninja he had never even heard of –and in his nervousness, began to bluster. They listened coldly, all kinds of eyes turned on this newbie as he tried to sell himself to them all. When there were nine of them gathered there, black cloaks rustling quietly, ruining the perfect silence of their circle, Kisame lit a fire, humming lightly as a Kunoichi Tobi had feared ever meeting pulled several bottles of sake from nowhere. Itachi smiled politely as he was passed a cup, and Deidara scoffed good-naturedly about letting ickle minors drink the alcyhol.
They laughed gently, and no weapons were drawn. Tobi didn't get it.
Hours – and bottles – later, Tobi was beginning to connect to nature. The Akatsuki's sharp, sharp edges were beginning to blur and smudge attractively, enough to mistake Kisame's triangular grin for something comforting, to mistake Deidara's scowl for a human note of grief. Soon the world was blurred enough and swaying so pleasantly, that Tobi missed the realisation that his comrades were no longer swaying with him; that they were in fact stone sober and highly amused. All the better, he thought.
'Tobi,' Deidara crooned, grimacing as a harsh breeze brushed his empty sleeves across raw nerves, he gasped tightly, and Tobi laughed drunkenly, and Itachi smiled coldly at the sight of them both. 'It's time we decide if you're Akatsuki material. Now don't worry, we've all of us been through this little initiation...'
Tobi grinned and swayed, and Kisame leaned forward where he sat, fire light flickering desperately across his sharp features. 'We want to test your rhythm, balance and how you handle yourself under pressure.'
'Wah?' he moaned, stumbling a little more than he strictly had too, and the world lurched pleasingly. 'Rhythm? Like, timing?'
The kunoichi grinned, leaned into one of her comrades – Tobi struggled in his hazy memory to find a name – and ordered, huskily. 'Strip.'
The Akatsuki, according to anyone with half a brain cell and any sense of self preservation, was an organisation of elite missing-nin. They was nigh on impossible to gain access to; undefeated, unemotional, and highly volatile. They were brilliant and sadistic, evil and contained.
They were the best of the best and Tobi, as he stood on a rock and shook his thang for the world to see, knew that he would never get another chance like this. Tobi knew the risks he was taking, but Tobi had a purpose, and he needed this. He had waited years, in the shadows, building his skill and watching them work, finding every scrap of information he could find until came the perfect moment. The moment where Konoha's brightest little blades had robbed them of a member.
So, Tobi wiggled his naked backside in time with the Akatsuki's hearty rhythm, grimacing at the chilling breeze and the off-key singing from behind, and prayed this group of monsters judged his dancing acceptable.
It was, after all, all about the timing.