Sundried Palaver

By: firefly

Note: Written because Zetsu seriously needs more love. Comments would be GREATLY appreciated.

Sundried Palaver

A warm breeze rustled the sun-dried grass, cajoling the surrounding dandelion clocks into releasing their seeds and sending the fine filaments careening through the air.

A scent of freshly dug soil mingled with the smoky effluence of burning wood, encircling the small, shaded enclosure the Grass nin occupied. A large oak obscured him from human and animal eyes alike, its large leaves casting dappled shadows over his still form.

Swaying, sun-dried grass tickled the backs of his knuckles. Each breath infused him with a sense of peace, a sense of comfort born from the scent of natural decay—decaying wood tinged with a faint perfume redolent of irises and mint leaves.

Where bright spots of sunlight crept through the foliage and splayed themselves over his face, a pleasant, aching sort of warmth spread over his skin, tangible kisses from the sun. A cicada buzzed noisily in the distance, and the leaves above him swayed with the breeze. The soft rush of rustling foliage sounded like nature breathing a contented sigh.

The scant shadows cast by his lashes flickered against his cheeks, eyes fluttering open as the kiss of sunlight vanished behind a white cloud. A damp coolness descended on him then, and a small smile touched upon his lips as the wetness of dawn's lingering dew met with his fingertips, cupped in tiny pools within clusters of clover.

He was miles from the Akatsuki quarters and anyone he knew.

The name of the place in which he sat escaped him, though he knew where and how to find it every week. Zetsu knew which trees to pass and which rivers to follow to arrive at this place, one of the very few places that made him feel natural. He wouldn't let himself forget it.

There was nothing spectacular about the spot he'd chosen to spend his Sundays. It was a small enclosure near the backyard of a low-caste family, almost directly behind the jungles of untamed grass and weeds that swamped their property.

A pathetic little vegetable patch grew near the house, offering diseased tomatoes and misshapen cucumbers that now rotted in the sun, exposing their glistening innards to the hungry ants.

Where he sat, however, nature remained untouched. The grass hadn't been mown or watered, the leaves hadn't been raked, and the soil hadn't been disturbed. In all its disorder and untamed overgrowth, this patch of mother earth was as pristine and welcoming as any home.

Zetsu did not eat on Sundays. This, he decided, was the only reason the small child who came out to play in the backyard every Sunday, was still alive.

She was perhaps four or five years old. She could have been older, but her obvious malnourishment hadn't given her much room for growth. In that very moment, as he sat in his small enclosure and watched, she plodded around the overgrown grass, kicking a semi-deflated ball while holding tiny fistfuls of her dirtied cotton dress.

It didn't look very entertaining, what she was doing. But she pursued her game with startling intensity, large eyes fixed on the ball and its predictable routes through the grass.

He noticed she was barefoot. Then he closed his eyes once more as the sun emerged from behind the clouds.

Zetsu had been there a total of seven times, and despite his non-attempt to conceal himself, the little girl still hadn't noticed him. He was content with this, as he came to this place for nothing more than the peace it offered.

A woman shouted from within the house and an infant wailed a moment later. Pots clanged. The cicada buzzed on and the trees sighed. The little girl kicked the ball, hard.

Zetsu's eyes blinked open when the dry grass near his right knee bowed with a faint rustle, disturbed by the presence of some foreign, rubber object that glistened dully in the sunlight, its cracked paint wet with watery mud.

He stared at it, momentarily stunned by the sight of something synthetic and unnatural imposing on his sanctuary, before a shadow obscured the sunlight once more, dousing him in coolness.

The little girl didn't scream when he raised his head and met her gaze, and for a moment he said absolutely nothing, gazing at her with the same somber silence she'd displayed for the past seven weeks. He kept expecting her face to crumple into an expression of disgust and horror and for her to shriek.

When she didn't, he arrived at the conclusion that she must have been a mute. That perception was broken almost immediately.

"Hello," she said.

The mother in the house shouted again and the girl briefly turned her head to look back at the house. Then she was staring at him again, gaze intent.

When he realized she wasn't going to scream, he inclined his head slightly.

"Hello," he replied.

Her dress was plain cotton with a faded blue checker print. She stood perhaps a little more than three feet tall, and her black hair hung in thin, shining pigtails about her frail shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face wasted from malnourishment. Her lower lip was swollen and slightly bloody. Her eyes were large, so large they threatened to overtake her small face, guileless and wary as a doe's.

Then she spoke again.

"Why are you hiding in the jungle?"

Zetsu regarded her in silence, somewhat amused by her solemn demeanor and apparent lack of fear. Finding no harm in answering, he obliged her with a soft-spoken reply.

"It's nice here."

As if doubting his response, she tilted her head up to glance at the oak tree towering above him, and then glanced around to see what could possibly be "nice" about his little niche.

"There's bugs there, mister," she said with a furrowed brow. "Ants and beetles."

"They don't bother me."

"Are you a clown, mister?"


"You look like a clown," she said with a nod, eyes trailing the two differently coloured halves of his face. "And your hair is green. And…" she paused, outlining the plant-like appendages on either side of his head.

Zetsu said nothing.

His white half continued to regard her, detached and contemplative, while the black half seethed with anger at the tainting of his sanctuary by this dirty little sprog.

"Do you wanna…" she paused, looking somewhat hesitant when he stared at her. "Do you wanna have tea with me?"

He blinked in response, surprised by the offer. Doubting her sanity seemed to be the only logical thing to do in response. She'd just found an extremely bizarre-looking plant-man thing (he was unforgiving when it came to himself) sitting in the bushes near her backyard, and now she wanted to have tea with him.

Instead of answering her question, he replied with another question of his own, this time with his black half.

"Why couldn't you see me before?"

The girl squinted at him before rubbing one of her eyes, and it was then he noticed a thin white film over her irises, translucent and reminiscent of cataracts.

"I can't see too good," she offered apologetically. "Wait, I'll be back."

Zetsu watched her leave and run back to the house, and the mother's muffled shouting burst with harsh clarity as the door opened, drowning out the cicada's buzzing. The girl returned a moment later with two paper cups and a watering can.

She approached him almost shyly and set down the watering can before settling down in the grass in front of him. Then she offered him a paper cup.

Zetsu took it, not knowing what else to do, not knowing whether he should leave or stay since his routine had been broken. The girl stood up to pour him his "tea", clutching the watering can with two skinny arms, seemingly with every ounce of strength she could muster.

Once his cup was full, she seated herself and poured some into her own cup. Zetsu stared into his cup. It was full of river water.

She reverently lifted her paper cup and took a delicate sip, pursing her swollen lip and wincing as a stream of water ran over the bloodied flesh. The infant in the house wailed again, its great hitching cries carrying through to where they sat.

"Who is that?" Zetsu inquired, watching her pluck at the grass.

"That's my baby brother," she mumbled. "My momma won't give him no milk."

He didn't reply, and merely blinked as a soft breeze brushed up against his face. Her reply hadn't surprised him, considering that he was in the poorer caste of River country. But her solemnity, he found with slight intrigue, was something peculiar, even for a battered poor girl all too aware of her own poverty.

Perhaps it was the way the red clouds on his cloak gleamed, spotless and silken in the sunlight that made her refrain from asking why he hadn't touched his tea. Perhaps she felt someone like him, clownish as he was, was already offended by this pathetic offering to begin with.

Whatever it was, it prevented her from urging him to drink the dirty river water.

It was an odd moment, peaceful and clandestine beneath the shade of foliage. After a few minutes of silence, Zetsu realized her presence didn't dampen the richness of the summer air or obscure his senses to nature. She seemed just as appreciative of it as he was.

Somewhat pleased by her reclusive nature, as it reminded him of himself, he spoke.

"Did your mother do that to you?"

The girl glanced up, touching her lip with little fingertips when she found him staring at the blood.

"My momma hits me sometimes," she admitted, without the slightest hint of resentment.

His black half smiled grimly, almost scathing in reply.

"Are you sad because of that?"

She hesitated, as if contemplating the question, and when she replied she shook her head, tone resolute.

"No…my momma doesn't like it when I cry. She hits me more."

Zetsu regarded her in silence before closing his eyes briefly, opening them again to gaze off into the distance.

"When you're sad and alone…" he began with his white half, pausing so the black half could take over. "All you can count on is yourself."

The girl said nothing, like he'd expected her to. He didn't really expect her to understand, either, being as young as she was, but it was the only truth he discovered to be faultless in life. Humanity had scorned him despite him being one of their own, fearful of his appearance and abilities.

His white half had accepted it. His black half was still bitter.

Content with her silence, he endured with his own.

A few minutes later, when she finally spoke, her voice was small enough to get lost amongst the rustle of leaves.

"Are you sad, mister?"

The harsh glaze of sunlight brightened his yellow eyes, and blinking against the glare, he lowered his gaze to her bowed head. She didn't look up and continued to pluck at the dry grass, tying the crackling strands into knots. Her fingernails were black with soil.

Zetsu breathed, taking in once more the redolent mix of natural decay and burnt wood. He thought of where he was, how he felt, and who waited for him back at headquarters. The thought of Tobi greeting him with a joyful "Zetsu-san!" put a slight smile on his face, and his black half remained placated with his last meal and the profound peace he'd found with his surroundings.

"I am content," he finally murmured.

He doubted she even knew what that meant, but the tone he'd said it in had obviously been enough. She raised her filmy eyes and stared with slightly parted lips, her lower lip hanging with the weight of the bloody lump. She was easily the most pathetic-looking creature he'd ever seen.

"Will you come back?" she asked.

"No," he answered calmly, without hesitance. Then, "would you like me to?"

She smiled, and he saw that one of her teeth was missing.

"You're nice, mister," she blurted, and then lowered her eyes, as if ashamed of her own blatant starvation for a kind word and a kind gaze.

Zetsu didn't know about kindness, but he was the epitome of tolerance, constantly exhibiting the one quality he'd failed to find in the people he'd encountered throughout his life. He tolerated those from all walks of life, and he saw no harm in accepting this little sprog when apparently no one else could.

"I can…" she said suddenly, interrupting his thoughts with her hesitant voice. "I can…tell you a story my papa told me next time you come."

Was this her way of offering an incentive for him to visit? Zetsu saw no harm in obliging her, considering how he'd be here the next Sunday, anyway.

"All right," he said, and watched with detached amusement as her face lit up and the knotted blades of grass drifted back to the soil.

Sadness was a sign of need, a beacon to family members and friends, a winking, weak light signaling a need of help.

These beacons were forged from tears and sounds of grief, alarm wails broadcast in melancholy tones. Whether these calls for help—these SOS signals were answered or not, depended on others. Acceptance, comfort, love—these were all things bestowed by others. Without them, no help came to call, and no comfort came to sate the sadness.

The tears, winking weakly in the dark—they would eventually fade. And the alarm wails, gone unanswered, would eventually weep themselves into silence. And you and your sadness would be left, floating with no direction, swallowed by fog and eventually consumed by murky waters.

You couldn't depend on others, because sometimes the others refused to come through.

Zetsu couldn't remember the last time he cried. After the abandonment and the disregard, he'd answered his own calls and wiped his own tears, and it had been the same ever since.

He was his own friend, his own family.

He had no other lifeline.

The following Sunday yielded the same mild weather as the Sunday before, endowed with warm breezes and achingly warm sunlight.

Zetsu emerged soundlessly through the ground, finding his niche to be the same as he'd left it, finding the same, semi-deflated ball crushing the same patch of dried grass. He settled into his spot and took his time absorbing his surroundings.

The scents of leaves, sap, and irises mingled with the mother's cooking, and no noise save for the faint clanging of pots and pans issued from the small house. He sat there and absorbed the smells, the sounds, and the feelings of nature for nearly half an hour, letting the blend of sensations lull him into a state of half-sleep.

When the girl arrived, he felt her hesitate near the patch of dried grass, felt her uncertainty at the sight of his closed eyes. When he opened them, slowly, letting himself grow accustomed to the bright sunlight, he found her staring at him with an almost concerned look on her face.

"Were you sleeping, mister?"

She was wearing the same dress as last time. Her lower lip was more or less back to normal again.

"I was thinking," he said.

She nodded understandingly, unusually serious as she set down her watering can and paper cups, pushing one towards him.

"Sometimes I think, too."

Zetsu smiled slightly, amused by her precociousness.

"What would a little girl like you have to think about?"

She cocked her head slightly to the side, glancing thoughtfully at the foliage of the oak tree.

"I think about my chores…and what time I gotta do stuff…I think about food," she recounted, looking at her fingers now. "I think about what I wanna do when I grow up."

Zetsu said nothing, his silence giving her the initiative to continue.

"I wanna be a teacher when I grow up," she declared, before blushing and ducking her head.

Zetsu's black half grinned slightly.

"The pay is lousy."

"You mean money?" she asked, looking surprised. "But they live in big houses."

Well, Zetsu thought to himself, looking at the dilapidated shack behind her. Anything can be considered a 'big house' compared to that.

"Where do you live, mister?"

"Far away," Zetsu replied shortly.

"In a tent?"


"I wish I lived in a tent," she mumbled.

Zetsu had no desire to try and understand the rationale behind a child's desire to live in a house made of cloth, so he remained silent.

"Do you have friends, mister?"

Zetsu thought of Tobi. "Yes."

"Do you…" she paused, as if looking for the right words. "Do you have a job?"


"My papa's a farmer. Are you a farmer?"


"Do you have fun with your friends, mister?"

"Fun?" Zetsu echoed blankly.

"Yeah. Do you have grown-up games?" she questioned, looking curious. "Grown-ups don't look like they have fun."

"Fun is for children."

She looked disappointed at his response, and cast her gaze to her bare feet.

"Then I don't wanna grow up."

Zetsu couldn't help but be amused.

"I thought you wanted to be a teacher."

She pouted, and finally looked like the age she was. Somehow, it was relieving.

"I don't wanna be if it's not fun."

A brief moment of silence followed, only to be broken by the baby's loud wail and the mother's subsequent shouting. Zetsu noticed the shadowed look that overtook her features, and it was almost with resentment that she lowered her eyes to the grass.

"Momma has no fun," she mumbled after a moment. "That's why she's mad. She only has fun when she hits me."

The bloody lip flashed in his mind's eye, ripe and glistening like the insides of a plum, and just as tender.

"Look," she said, almost complacently, gesturing to her left calf. "I got a scab from yesterday."

A long, livid scratch traced her scrawny leg in a crescent, now scabbed and flaking. She moved her leg and glanced down at the other one till she found a bruise on her thigh. Her leg was no thicker than his wrist.

"That's a big one," she announced, sounding almost proud for having endured her mother's wrath and survived.

Zetsu almost felt compelled to show her the scar he had obtained from once being impaled on a spear, but desisted, content with letting her show him her badges of warfare. With every scar she showed him, she had a little story to go with it.

Within that little head was a huge imagination, because she recounted her stories with fantastic details such as giant lizards and flying cats and the like. Eventually, she got to the story she'd planned on telling him since his last visit, and for ten minutes he sat and listened to her speak in hushed tones about the witch doctor who exorcised demons in her village.

His detached sense of amusement only changed once she'd exhausted her repertoire of tales, and suddenly declared, with complacent surety—

"My momma says I'm gonna die."

Zetsu only stared at her, somehow aware that she was no longer spinning or recounting tales, aware that she'd accepted him as a friend by divulging a big secret.

When he said nothing, she continued.

"My momma says I'm sick and that I eat all the food. She says I'm gonna die…" she trailed off, looking off into the distance almost thoughtfully.

"I think my momma wants to kill me when she hits me."

Before that moment, Zetsu hadn't considered the possibility of such profound words coming from a mere child. But the solemn way with which she'd said them altered that view entirely.

"I get scared," she murmured, looking at her feet again. "When my momma hits me. I'm scared of dying."

"Why don't you run?" Zetsu asked, staring at her fixedly, suddenly fascinated.

You can only depend on yourself.

She shook her head, her voice little more than a murmur.

"No one's gonna take care of me."

Don't wait for others to answer your call or wipe your tears. You'll only drown in them.

"Your father," Zetsu said a moment later, gaze intense. "Is he kind to you?"

The way she looked at him then, suddenly withdrawn and shamefaced, suddenly reaching for the hem of her dress to clutch, suddenly avoidant, made him drop the subject all together. The fear on her face was palpable.

"Papa loves me," she said after a while, softly. "He says so."

Zetsu left the conversation at that.

She didn't invite him to come back. Not directly, at least. The hopeful look in her filmy eyes said it all.

There was some kind of poetic justice, Zetsu found, in eating his victims.

People took from the earth, plundered its stores and valuables and polluted its waters. They shredded its trees and murdered its inhabitants constantly. Their daily pastime was a perpetual rape of mother earth.

When he felt the first sliver of still-warm flesh slide down his throat, he smiled with the knowledge that those who took from the earth eventually went back to it in the end.

Back to the dirt, back to their mother, back from the ground from which they'd sprung. They would decompose like the animals and plants, their bodies enriching the soil and returning to it the valuables they'd stolen.

And the sun would lighten their corpses, planting mother-warm kisses against open wounds, enticing carrion flies and the blossoming of bacteria, catalyzing the breakdown of flesh and bone.

I am one of those creatures, Zetsu thought serenely, blinking hazily into the sunlight as blood ran down his chin. I am one of the many organisms that benefit from your breakdown. I thrive on your breakdown. There's new life in your breakdown.

He glanced down at the corpse at his feet, his serene smile widening as the flies began to accumulate.

Break down and blossom.

She wouldn't bring much back to the earth when she died, that was for certain. She had barely taken anything from it in the first place.

He eyed her thin limbs and hollow cheeks as she poured him river water from her watering can, observing the way her hands shook with the effort to maintain her grip.

Lately, he'd started pouring the tea. She seemed unable to lift the watering can anymore.

She told him more stories. Most of the time, he just sat there and listened, amused by her seriousness and content with her satisfaction once she'd poured out her ramblings. She never mentioned his appearance; she seemed convinced that nothing, despite its oddity, could compare to the sheer depravity of her kind.

New injuries would appear with every visit, a changing accessory to distract from the same banal dress she wore every time.

"Momma hit me yesterday," she confided, pointing to her cheek. "She knocked out a wiggly tooth. It was funny after I stopped crying."

She opened her mouth wide and leaned forward to show him, proudly displaying the gap between her incisors. Her gums were bright pink, the only healthy flesh in her wasted face. The removal of her baby tooth left a glistening, crimson blotch between her teeth, emanating a faint scent of copper.

He breathed.

She smelled like ammonia and baby powder.

"Can I see your teeth?" she asked.

He eyed her warily for a moment before opening his mouth, letting her peer at the sharp canines that dominated the top and bottom portions of his jaw.

"You have so many vampire teeth," she said, sounding awed. "I only have four."

His black half found amusement in this, and stretched his lips into a feral grin, displaying his canines.

"I eat a lot of meat."

Her eyes widened slightly at his words, lips parting wantonly at the sound of "meat".

"It's delicious."

"I like meat," she agreed, sounding wistful. "I only ate it one time."

"You're missing out."

"I know," she said somberly.

Zetsu tolerated many things. He tolerated ignorance, prejudice, and pretentious bullshit. He tolerated disobeying comrades and the messes they made. He tolerated the screaming he heard on a daily basis.

But Zetsu could not tolerate wasting food.

He treated it with reverence, never failing to appreciate the silken texture of his meals, devoid as they were of coarse fur and tough hides.

There was a woman stretched out before him, eyes closed and mouth open. She looked to be asleep in her kimono, with her hair undone and fanning out on the bloodstained floor beneath her.

Gently, he took hold of the knife sticking out of her side and pressed a hand against her ribs as he drew it out, careful to not mutilate the body any further. The bandits who'd done this to her had long-since escaped, leaving her dead on the floor of her bedroom.

The familiar scent of copper had drifted to him in passing, and he'd followed it to find this.

He does not know this woman. Nor does he know the motive of this brutal attack.

All he knows is that he doesn't want her to go to waste.

Setting the bloodied knife down on the floor beside her, he withdrew his own kunai and reached forward, placing the sharp point within the folds of her kimono and tugging downwards. The fabric slit like paper, and before the still-warm flesh from beneath was exposed, he reached for the bedside lamp.

A faint click dispelled the faint, yellow light in the room, leaving them in darkness and shielding her modesty as the cloth was peeled back and the flesh exposed.

Consuming her is a part of nature. Preying on other creatures constitutes the circle of life.

But looking at her naked flesh would be a violation of the highest degree.

Zetsu may be a scavenger.

But he is still a gentleman.

"Can I show you to my momma?"


She didn't question him, and merely lowered her eyes to her bare feet. The weather had gotten warmer with his visits, and beads of sweat glistened on the pallid skin of her forehead. Zetsu absorbed the sunlight and thrived, the soothing heat pressing orange spots against his closed eyelids.

Long, enduring silences encompassed most of the conversations, and what little talking they did consisted of her asking questions and him answering.

"What's your name, mister?"

"Why do you want to know my name?"

She said nothing for a long time, and when she finally spoke, she almost sounded shy.

"I won't tell no one."

Zetsu said nothing.

"What does your friend call you, mister?"

He kept his silence.

"Am I your friend?"

His eyelids flickered slightly, lashes casting scant, spidery shadows over his cheeks. The corner of his lip twitched, and his black half spoke a moment later.

"I don't need friends."

"Don't you feel lonely?"

"I have myself…and that's all that matters."

'Don't you like people?"

"People don't like me."

"…I like you."

Zetsu opened his eyes.

Selfishness was what governed the human need for friendship.

People needed people like themselves. They needed a familiar face to comfort them in times of pain, praise them in times of success, and agree with them in times of debate. Friendship was merely an embellishment for self-assurance through another entity.

It was a form of give and take—you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

This was his opinion, of course. He did not feel compelled to assure himself of its validity by seeking out a friend with whom to agree. He agreed with himself and that's all that mattered.

Tobi became his friend because Tobi was needy. He needed encouragement and he needed praise and he needed company to keep from going insane.

Zetsu was a peculiar friend, because he never asked for any of these things in return.

He found solace within himself, found love in the dark with his two halves exchanging entreaties for touch and conversation. The mere feeling of his own fingers touching his eyelids and mouth was comforting, the sound of his own voice lulling and therapeutic.

Secrets and guilty confessions were easy to divulge to yourself, easy to share because they would be held in strict confidence.

"I killed a man today," he whispered.

"He attacked you first."

"I was distracted from my mission."

"Nobody's perfect."

"I doubted myself. I am ashamed."

"I still love you."

He raised his hands, gently buried his face into his cupped palms, and smiled gratefully against the soft flesh.

Zetsu was surprised when she revealed to him that she was nearly eight years old.

"Tomorrow's my birthday."

He blinked hazily in the summer sun, amber eyes glistening in the soft, yellow glaze.

"My papa gives me candy on my birthday," she added, her smile wavering slightly. "He's coming back from the Grass village tomorrow."

The slightest flicker of recognition brightened his eyes at the name, his mind conjuring vivid recollections of vast green plains and fresh, crumbling soil.

"Can you say happy birthday to me?"

He met her gaze, unsurprised by her solemn expression.

"Why do you want me to do that?"

She shrugged, but her eyes didn't look any less imploring.

Selfishness. Neediness. Craving assurance. The human condition.

"It's because you're like everyone else," he said softly. "That you're starving."

She looked as though she hadn't even heard him, ears straining for the two, inconsequential words she craved, and nothing else.

Zetsu relented, merciful towards this miserable creature, who, like everyone else, was incapable of self-assurance and self-love.

"Happy birthday."

It was incredibly rare to find a person so pathetic and deprived of love and affection that they'd turn to someone like him for comfort.

When such things that constituted fulfillment and happiness were lacking, all prejudice, pretense, and superficial modes of judgment would disappear. To turn to him, and to overlook his appearance, his behaviour, and his status, was a testament to humanity's most basic need.

Love, Zetsu realized, and humanity's selfish desire for it, had bestowed him with a sense of normalcy.

He was normal in the eyes of the deprived. Perhaps he was even beautiful.

And selfish as it was of people for needing him to satisfy their most basic desires, he could not help but feel pleased.

He was content with loving himself, but the idea that someone needed him elicited a euphoria he'd seldom experienced elsewhere. No longer would he only go to that place for the sanctuary it offered, but he'd go to bask in the euphoria that came with knowing someone needed him there—wanted him there.

Was he becoming like them? Counting on another person to give him fulfillment?

"It's only temporary," he told himself in a whisper. "She's going to die soon, anyway."

The sky was cloudy the next time they met, and a pleasant coolness descended on the sun-burnt grass, holding off the evaporation of last night's dewfall.

She ran her hands over the bouquets of surrounding clover, peering at the wetness on her glistening palms. He stared into the distance, gazing through half-lidded eyes at the cluster of clouds obscuring the sun. He felt drowsy.

"What's your favourite colour, mister?"

He considered her question, eyes drifting over the plethora of colours splashing his surroundings.

"I don't know," he answered after a while, truthfully.

She looked at him in silence for a moment, before the corners of her lips twitched and she glanced back at the ground.

"I like green." She glanced at him and smiled shyly. "It reminds me of you."

He merely looked at her.

I killed three people yesterday, he wanted to tell her. And I ate them. Would you still like me after hearing that?

She doesn't need to know.

I'm a criminal in the bingo books.

She doesn't need to know.

I'm only tolerating you because I get a selfish sense of satisfaction from being needed, even if it's by a pathetic little sprog like you.

She doesn't need to know.

"I like green, too," he said instead, and smiled.

Kindness is relative.

Friendship is a form of give-and-take.

All humans are selfish.

Humans need and need to be needed, some more than others.

They are pathetic.

And it feels good to be one of them.

Eventually a time came, near the end of summer, when he could no longer visit. The organization was on the move, and in the chaos of relocation and avoiding capture, time for relaxation was put aside.

Fall was coming, and the sun began to sink faster, the air cooling and clouds thickening in the sky. The sunlight became weaker and the colours become grayer. The grass was bowing and the leaves falling, and the dew no longer felt pleasant against his skin. It chilled him.

When he told her he wouldn't be returning, at the beginning of September, when the first leaves began to fall, her reaction was unexpected.

She knocked over her paper cup of river water when she scrambled to her feet, eyes wide and chest heaving.

He blinked in surprise at the look on her face, at the expression of fear that crossed her features as a chilled gust of wind blew her thin, dark hair behind her.

"You're leaving forever?"

Even then, he found it hard to not be amused by her dramatics.

"I'm not sure how long it will be."

His ambiguity left much to be desired, and she stared at him imploringly for a long time, a tiny, wasted figure with passionate entreaty in her somber gaze.

"You're not coming back?" she asked, voice frail and quavering for the first time.

"No," he said honestly, his tone soft as always. "I'm not."

It was a tense moment, and he was bemused by the air of discomfort that seeped into his niche. The dried grass became sharp and the chill became bitter. He wanted to leave.

"Do you…" she said thickly, suddenly on the verge of tears. "Do you still like me?"

He gazed at her in silence, expressionless as the tears she'd withheld for weeks finally overflowed their boundaries, running down her pallid cheeks.

Selfish. Needy. Human.

"Don't go," she pleaded, voice cracking, hands clenching at the sides of her dress. "Please…? I'll let you…you can…"

He stared at her, suddenly speechless when she moved her shaking hands to the hem of her dress, lifting it to reveal fragile legs, thighs no thicker than his wrists, and thin white underwear.

"If I let him…" she continued, crying openly now. "If I let papa…he doesn't go. He doesn't leave. You can…if you want. Don't leave."

Zetsu stared at her, and when he finally breathed, he tasted ammonia and baby powder, the smell overpowering.

She stood there and cried, holding up the hem of her dirty cotton dress and looking like the most despondent and pathetic creature he'd ever seen. A cold drop of water landed against his cheek.

He raised his eyes, blinking as another drop of water landed against his forehead, shattering into droplets and expelling a fragrant burst of ozone.

Humans are pathetic creatures.

Your father…is he kind to you?

Sometimes it feels good to be one of them.

Papa loves me…he says so.

But not this time.

The rain clung to the ends of his hair, running over his lips, cold and sweet against the furtive swipe of his tongue. It clung to his lashes and weighed them down, and he lowered his eyes to the girl who still stood before him, oblivious to the frigid drizzle.

The rainfall sounded like scattered applause on the surrounding foliage, and leaves from the oak broke under the weight of the water, covering the floor of his niche in a brown, decaying carpet. The girl's toes became submerged in mud, stark white against the darkness.

Somehow, he could distinguish between the rain and the tears on her face, yellow eyes fixed on that weary, wasted visage.

Why she expected him to accept her offer was beyond him. Perhaps she felt that this was what grown-up games consisted of, that maybe if she partook in their nefarious pastimes, they wouldn't abandon her. It hurt, and it was shameful, but it made her feel needed. So it was all right.

He felt inexplicably sad, then, slowly blinking away the rain as he reached forward.

He wasn't sure what he was sad for. It might have been out of sheer pity for the pathetic creature before him, but he doubted that. The sadness, he surmised, came from the shame of knowing that, even if it was for a little while, he'd obtained gratification by being accepted and needed by another human being.

The sadness came from knowing he'd been right. There was no pride in depending on others, needing others—especially when people were as depraved as they were. All he needed was himself. That should have been enough from the beginning.

She gradually relinquished her hold on her wet dress, head bowing slightly under the weight of his hand. He'd given up on trying to gain love and comfort from others many years ago. But he'd never really stopped trying to give it.

He was not familiar with kindness. He tolerated, and he empathized. Zetsu was a peculiar friend.

"When you're alone," he told her, voice mingling with the thrumming rain. "No one can hurt you."

He removed his hand from her head.

When she glanced up, he was gone.

"You look sad, Zetsu-san. What's wrong?"

"…It's nothing, Tobi."

The sky was still cloudy the next time he came back, and the leaves hung lifelessly on the bowed branches of the oak tree. The semi-deflated rubber ball lay forgotten in the neglected, mostly dead vegetable patch.

He'd followed the scent of copper for miles, and it had brought him here. For a long time, he stood under the shade of the oak, knowing the girl's mother had done exactly what her daughter had predicted.

Wordlessly, he stepped into the backyard and walked around to the front of the dilapidated shack. No infant cried from within. He continued to follow the scent of copper until it brought him to the riverside, nearly a mile from her house.

A half-starved woman kneeled near the water, filling a large sack with rocks. Near her lay the girl's body.

He regarded the woman silently for a while, sparing no glance at the girl who still wore her cotton dress and lay motionless on the withering grass. The rocks weighed down the sack, and as the woman turned to grab her dead daughter, she caught sight of Zetsu.

Glazed, wild eyes looked up in his direction, mouth moving soundlessly as he remained motionless. She looked mad.

After a few seconds, she scrambled away from the rocks, abandoning the sack full of rocks and her daughter's body and running off in the direction of her house.

Zetsu watched her disappear in the distance, and then moved his gaze to the little girl on the riverside. He stepped closer, tilting his head to the side, examining her pasty face and closed eyes. She'd only been dead an hour, from the looks of it. Blood still oozed from the back of her head, where her mother must have delivered the fatal blow.

He nudged the sack of rocks out of the way and knelt, lifting her seemingly weightless body into his arms.

Casting one last glance around at his colourless, dreary surroundings, he closed his eyes and sank through the withered grass.

He took her somewhere where the irises were in full bloom and bees roved from flower to flower. Uncut, untamed grass brushed up against the hem of his cloak as he emerged onto the fertile land. The scent of sap and freshwater doused the air.

Zetsu did not eat on Sundays.

But that didn't mean he'd let her go to waste.

He carried her to a small, grassy knoll, setting her down near a patch of clover. Then he began to dig. The sunlight warmed his back and cast the illusion of colour over her pallid face, adding luster to her dull hair and drying the blood.

Blood dripped from beneath his fingernails by the time he was done, but he didn't mind. A cicada hummed shrilly in the background as he placed her in the hole, and butterflies drifted serenely over the grave as he filled it with the fertile soil.

Something resembling closure bore down on him as he patted the grave flat, running his fingers over the fragrant soil. There was no sorrow or grief at the loss of the girl who'd given him river water tea for the past three months. Only relief.

She'd been so young and insignificant that she'd hardly stolen anything from the earth that bore her. But in death, she would serve a higher purpose by enriching it. Her body would return to nature and become one part of a unified whole. She would no longer be alone, nor would she suffer. Her essence would meld and grace the earth that bore the flowers, breathing perfume into their tender petals and nourishing new life.

Zetsu cast his amber gaze to the elastic hair ties in his hand, closing his fingers over them.

He could not be a friend to her in the end. Nor was he able to change his view of humanity as a depraved race of selfish creatures clamoring for assurance and love.

But he'd brought her to a better place and had given her a higher purpose. She would become part of the nature he so loved, and he found affinity with her in that aspect alone.

Zetsu breathed deeply. Closing his eyes, he placed his hand against the soft soil.

The possibility of new life pushed ghostly warmth against his white palm, blazing with potential.

He smiled.

Break down and blossom.