Dammit, I was sooooo close to having this chapter out just a week or two after the last one. But then I realized that I wasn't quite as prepared for college as I thought I was, and there went all my time again. And now that school has actually started, I'm busier than ever. Many apologies.

Oh, and one little note: I know the new databook says that Deidara is 19, but since I've already stated somewhere in this story that he is 18, I'm going to continue to go with that. Not that it's a huge difference, but whatever. Enjoy this chapter!

Chapter 12

Deidara sat on the lumpy couch in Sakura's living room, legs drawn up to his chest, chin on his knees, and mind deep in thought. His once grudging hostess had stepped out for a bit, claiming that she needed to run some errands but would be back before Tsunade called for them. Deidara rather doubted the legitimacy of that pretense. But he couldn't blame Sakura for feeling awkward after her little display in the forest. She had been pink and fidgety their entire trek back to Konoha and for the few minutes she'd remained in the apartment when they arrived. Some time away from him would give her a chance to compose herself. He was feeling decidedly uncomfortable himself.

But his thoughts were now less focused on the kunoichi's strange behavior then they were on other things. Sasori was weighing heavy on his mind. He couldn't help but feel that he had betrayed the other missing-nin, his partner, mentor, and one of the few real friends he'd ever had. Then there was Kaede, his once kind and loving older sister who was now no better than a monster in his eyes. But even these weren't the issues occupying the forefront of his thoughts. In the time since Sakura left that he'd spent pondering recent events, his mind had turned to the strange dream he'd had several nights before. He'd even pushed aside his aversion for the ram statue he'd magically pulled out of the phantasm and removed both it and the horn from the cupboard Sakura had crammed them into and placed them on the coffee table before him.

Now, the Iwa-nin sat, statue-still, with his eyes fixed unblinkingly on the two objects. His dream replayed itself over and over again in his head. Deidara didn't know why it seemed so important to him all of a sudden. Before, he had thought that if any of it was significant, it was the last part, which seemed to be more a memory of the night he was attacked than an actual dream. But now it was the beginning, the segment that took place in the bizarre Land of Contention, that absorbed his thoughts. The fact that time hadn't blurred the fantasy like it so often did added to his sudden feeling that it was meaningful in some way. On the contrary, now that he was actually thinking about it, the dream seemed just as sharp and vivid as it had at first, when he had detailed it to Sakura. He hadn't given it much consideration since then...

He hadn't had any surprising epiphanies or insights into what it all meant. So, for nearly an hour, he just sat and stared and watched the images reel through his head. That was how Sakura found him when she finally reappeared. Deidara jumped when the opening door snapped him out of his reverie and his eyes met the kunoichi's for a brief second before they both quickly looked away, each of them coloring slightly. Then Sakura's gaze found the items set on the table. She raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"I was just thinking," Deidara responded to her inquiring look. He unclasped his hands from where they were hugging his knees and reached one out to touch the ram statue, running his fingers lightly over its ebony horns. Sakura plopped down in a chair next to him, her arms empty despite her claim to have gone out for groceries. She looked at his expression quietly. "Tsunade-sama wants to see us now," she said eventually. "They...didn't catch up to your sister, though. Both of them got away." Deidara wrinkled his nose. He hadn't held out much hope that they would be caught, but that didn't make the news any easier. "But," Sakura continued, "on a better note—for you, at least—the ANBU aren't aware of the Akatsuki being there. They got far enough away in time, and in a different direction than Kaede went."

"That's good," Deidara muttered. That news really did lift his spirits considerably—even though he hadn't expected them to get caught either—but he was feeling too forlorn at the moment to let it show. His fingers continued to trace along the contours of the figurine slowly.

"We really should be going to Tsunade-sama's office, now," Sakura prompted when the Iwa-nin made no more response.

"Yeah," Deidara agreed, unfolding his legs and standing. Then he bent and picked up both the statue and the horn.

"Thought you couldn't even stand to look at those," Sakura observed as she rose with him.

Deidara shrugged. "They're important. And I believe we decided to tell Tsunade about the statue, and I am sure she would want to see it." He began to walk towards the door. Sakura didn't follow immediately.

"Deidara," she said slowly. He turned to look at her. "You do realize that she's probably going to ask you questions...you know, about Kaede?" Sakura wasn't sure how hard this would be on the Iwa-nin. Judging from his obvious shock and fear on first seeing his sister, his past with her wasn't a particularly fond memory. On their way back into the village after the encounter, Deidara had briefly told her what had transpired after she left to fetch the ANBU, and the dialogue between the two siblings revealed an obvious antagonism. Her thoughts were confirmed by the hard look on Deidara's face now. He glanced away from her, his eyes distant and cold.

"I know," he responded. Then he smiled half-heartedly. "But I'm pretty sure I can tell you all you need to know about her without getting too deep into personal history. I'll be fine. Don't go worrying about me again."

Sakura blushed slightly at the word "again" but simply nodded. "All right. Then we should go before Tsunade-sama starts getting impatient."

The short walk to the Hokage's office was silent and still a bit awkward. Sakura, as the bestower of the impromptu hug in the forest, was especially uncomfortable. Her time out of the apartment had also been spent in deep thought, and, like Deidara, she hadn't come to any decisive conclusion on the subject of those thoughts. But there was one thing that she could no longer deny no matter how hard she tried—she was beginning to care for the missing-nin. She didn't know when any feelings for him had first started to develop or how long she had been renouncing them. The kunoichi could recall several times since Deidara's arrival that she had had to remind herself that he was still their enemy, but any soft emotions she had towards him she just chalked up to her being sympathetic by nature. But it sure as hell wasn't sympathy that had caused her to fling her arms around her so-called "enemy."

Sakura sneaked a glance over at Deidara as they walked quietly side by side. Now that she thought about it, he really was quite good looking. As well as strong, intelligent, upbeat, even charming at times. Once she would have negated those descriptions by saying that he was also rude, selfish, sarcastic, murdering scum. But now she realized that—although some of that was true, as well—it was also just a label she placed on all criminals. She really didn't know that much about Deidara or his motives for doing what he did. So maybe it wouldn't be so bad to give him a chance...

Deidara chose that moment to flicker his own eyes in her direction, causing her to glance away with a blush yet again. He snorted softly, but she didn't look back at him to see if it was meant to be scornful or just amused. That was her other problem. She had no idea what his feelings were. The kunoichi sighed and focused her gaze on the Hokage's office when it came into view. But that was the healthiest way for it to be. She couldn't believe she was even contemplating a relationship in the first place. It was best to accept that, yes, she did have feelings for Deidara and then just let it lie. There were more important things to worry about right now.

Tsunade was standing with her back to the door, looking out the window, when the two teenagers arrived, but she immediately turned upon their entrance and motioned for them to sit. She settled behind her desk herself before speaking. "I believe you both already know that the two Rebirth members escaped?" They nodded. "Even with ANBU right on their tail..." Tsunade shook her head then looked at Deidara. "I think, before we determine our next course of action, I want to hear everything you now about this group, and I, in turn, will tell you my story in relation to them." The Iwa-nin nodded in agreement.

"Yeah. That sounds good to me."

Tsunade proceeded to repeat her story as Deidara listened intently. Sakura fiddled with the strings of her bag—which she had pulled out to, once again, transport the horn and statue in—and only half-focused on the narrative, as she had already heard it recently. She noticed that this telling wasn't nearly as emotional as the first in which Tsunade had evidenced a great deal of anger and pain. Of course, Deidara was one of the last people she would want to show any vulnerability in front of. Sakura wondered how well the Iwa-nin would fare in his own telling.

When the Hokage had finished, Deidara sighed. "I know of this Kanaye guy, too. He's the one that recruited Kaede." The young ninja leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling, as if contemplating where to begin his own story. "I guess first you should know that Kaede and I aren't natives to Iwagakure," he eventually began. "I don't know exactly where we came from; I was no more than a baby when we left, and Kaede never told me about our original home. But Iwa isn't known for being tolerant of outsiders, so it's been made painfully obvious to me my entire life that I didn't really belong there. But, luckily for us, Kaede happened to stumble upon an old woman who took pity on our situation and brought us into her home. The woman was a retired jounin, quite well-respected in Iwa, so when Kaede and me began to exhibit qualities of a possible shinobi, she pulled some strings and got us into the academy. Kaede was already older than most academy entrants, so we began at the same time."

Here, Deidara's expression turned from contemplating to bitter. "We were both almost immediately acknowledged as geniuses. And that just made everything worse. No one liked the outsiders outperforming the others. We were ridiculed for our techniques as well. I was especially scoffed at because of these." He held out his hands, the tongues in his palms poking out in illustration. "Kaede doesn't have them although our jutsu are similar. But we were both looked down on by many people for our loud, unorthodox methods. However, we both managed to prevail and graduate to genin. Things got better for me there. My sensei was tolerant, sometimes even friendly, towards me. And although I never struck up anything even close to a friendship with my teammates, they put up with me through training and missions, and we worked well together.

"But Kaede wasn't so lucky. Her sensei was completely apathetic towards her. He turned a blind eye to the treatment she received from her teammates, one of whom was the nephew of the woman who took us in. He had always hated us for coming into his family. No matter how high their standing, the clan was still looked down on to some degree after our arrival. He'd always terrorized us, but it became worse for Kaede after they were put on the same team. The others refused to watch her back in fights. If someone ever had to be put in the line of fire as a decoy, it was always her. She was never treated when she was injured, just sent home bleeding. And she came back like that a lot. The woman that took us in... she was kind, but not motherly. She'd shake her head over Kaede's wounds and send for a healer to fix her up, but she never tried to do anything about the circumstances that caused it."

Deidara had set his clasped hands in his lap and was staring at them. His expression had changed again, this time to one of barely concealed sadness. Sakura had to resist the urge to reach out and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. She turned her eyes to her own lap as the Iwa-nin continued.

"I think it was about that time that Kaede began to hate me," he said quietly. "My life had gotten better upon graduating the academy. Not good, but better. And that was also when I discovered how I could mold my chakra into clay and create living, exploding sculptures. I had my art, and that was enough to get me through.

"But Kaede had nothing. No friends, no dreams, no passions. She was close to me in our academy days, but afterwards we began to drift apart. And then it's like one day Kaede decided to compare the qualities of our separate lives. My genin team was strong. Like I said, we weren't close, but we trained together often and carried out a large number of missions. We all graduated to chuunin at the very next exam. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Kaede trained alone. Her teammates' refusal to accept her led to a weak squad and many failed missions. Although Kaede is now at least at a high jounin level, she never officially made it past genin. And..."

Sakura glanced back up when Deidara trailed off. He had raised his head suddenly and he looked almost angry. The kunoichi was concerned for a moment before she remembered something he had said to her earlier that day. "I'm pretty sure I can tell you all you need to know about her without getting too deep into personal history." The Iwa-nin jerked his gaze to the side and continued in a stiff voice. "Well, basically Kaede's life just became even more of a living hell than it had been before. She trained all the time, but we never realized how strong she had become until the day she lost it on a mission and killed her entire team. And then she ran. She was chased my ANBU for a good while, but she ended up killing several of them as well before they lost her trail and she escaped.

"The rest is pretty much like your story, Tsunade-sama." Both women started slightly at Deidara's sudden use of the honorific, but he continued as if it was nothing new. "I stayed on in Iwagakure. But it began to get worse for me again. I'd been starting to earn some respect, if nothing else, from the other villager due to my success as a ninja. I was expected to become a jounin in short time. When Kaede killed those people, though... all the progress I'd made didn't matter anymore. And then, almost a year after she left, Kaede came back to me.

"She was wearing the same outfit you said Kanaye had on. The necklace as well. She had never been an emotional person, but she was somehow much colder than she had ever been before. And..." he shrugged. "Like I said, it's pretty much the same as yours. Kanaye had come to her after she left Iwa and recruited her for their group. She accepted. And then she came to recruit me. Explained their whole philosophy, said that I would actually be welcomed there, unlike we were in Iwa. I... I almost accepted. Powerful or not, my abilities were still looked down upon in the village. I wanted a place to showcase my art without it being sneered at. And a place to be accepted..."

He trailed off and jerked his head again, as if trying to physically cut off that train of thought. "Well, obviously I refused. Kaede got pissed off and left, and this is the first time I've seen her since then. That's really all I can tell you that would pertain to her now."

Sakura was quiet for a moment before a question suddenly occurred to her. "But why are they so intent on killing you? Not just Kaede, but her whole organization?"

Deidara started to shrug, but Tsunade cut the motion off. "Don't say you don't know. When Kaede attacked you this morning she said you should know why she wanted to kill you, and you certainly didn't look surprised at all. If they killed people merely for refusing their proposals, we both could very well have been dead years ago."

"But I really don't know exactly why," the boy insisted. "Kaede's answer to my refusal was 'You've just sentenced yourself to an early death, little brother.' I don't know why she didn't try to kill me right there. But I've lived the last ten years always on the lookout for anyone from Rebirth. The way she said it... It left no doubt that they'd be after me. Before hearing your story I really thought it was just because I hadn't accepted the position."

Tsunade sighed and nodded. "Very well. I will think over what you have told me. Tomorrow you will both return here, and we will decide what our next move will be."


Ugh, I hate abrupt endings. And short chapters. I'm sure you're all sick of hearing this, but I'm sooooo incredibly sorry about my few updates, especially with as little as I usually have to show for the long waits. Please don't hate me :( I'm trying.