Please tread gently on the ground when all around you earth turns to fire
Only get a second chance when danger's on the wind
Because you're lonely in your nightmare, let me in
Because there's heat beneath your winter, let me in
– 'Let Me In' by Duran Duran
"Ichiro's going to be a runner?" Konohamaru rolled onto his stomach, nearly shoving Moegi's boxes of old kunai off the end of her bed. "The kid's so goddamn skinny a good blast of wind'll blow him right out of the trees!"
"Yeah, I know," Moegi's voice echoed from where she was bent halfway inside her closet, digging through boxes. "Mom's been trying to put some weight on him ever since he was born, but he just burns through it immediately. Ichiro's always been fast, 'cause he's so skinny, so they tapped him for the runners a week ago."
"He does know the casualty rates for the runners, right?" Udon said from Moegi's bathroom, where he was flushing his sinuses with saline water in an attempt to control his allergies. "It's at least thirty percent, if not more. I mean, the name change doesn't hide the fact that they're still the postal ninja corps, except now they deliver orders. Offensive jutsu were never in their training."
"Ichiro doesn't care. He figures it'll be a good chance to prove himself." Moegi shoved another box out of the closet with her foot. "Especially since he's being sent on the offensive to Mount Katsuro with Genma and Raidou's divisions along with us to relay messages."
"Not that we'll see any action," Konohamaru muttered, sitting up and smearing dirt over her floral comforter as he moved. 'Shit.' Scrubbing at the stain with spit, he called into the closet,
"So what are you looking for?"
"All of our stuff for the offensive's already been shipped out, anyway," Udon said, before he grabbed a tissue and blew. Konohamaru winced at the noise. Udon flushed the tissue down the toilet and came out of the bathroom, taking a running jump to land just beside Konohamaru, who mumbled "gerroff," shoving at him. Udon ignored him totally. Just like the little bastard.
"I'm looking for one of my old flak jackets from when we started out as genin," Moegi said.
Huh? Those jackets were too small for any of them now; once they'd all hit their growth spurts, they went to the armory for new ones every week, or so it seemed back then.
"What you need that for?" Konohamaru asked, making a bid for Udon's glasses. Udon frowned, shoving his glasses up his nose, avoiding Konohamaru's attempt. Moegi made a sound of triumph and backed out of the closet, Konohamaru taking the opportunity to admire her rear. Sure, they were teammates and thus off-limits to each other, but it didn't mean he couldn't look!
Face streaked with dust, Moegi shook out the jacket. "It's for Ichiro."
"Ichiro? Isn't he supposed to get a special jacket from the runners, or the Academy?" Udon frowned, folding his arms across his chest. Scrolls rustled in the pockets of his vest.
"Yeah," Moegi said, gazing down at the green cloth spread out over her hands, her lips pressed together into a thin line. "But they don't make runner jackets s- small enough for him," Moegi whispered, voice thick. "So Mom's going to take this and work on it, strip the pockets off, maybe remove some of the armor plating to make it light enough to qualify."
"Oh," Konohamaru said, feeling like a complete and total heel as he stared at that small green vest, crinkled with age, dust spinning in the space between him and it. That vest would be all that stood between an eleven-year-old boy and death.
"They say that he'll be safer in the runners." Moegi looked up, her smile weak. "That he won't have to be in battle, and I guess that's true, but what if… what if they give him information that the enemy wants? He won't know what to do, how to- to stand up to whatever they do to him. He won't be dying… but he'll be delivering death to the people around him." Her fingers tightened in the fabric. "And they'll hate him for it."
"Aw, Moegi," Konohamaru said, for lack of anything else, anything that could comfort her. Reaching out, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to sit on the end of the bed between him and Udon, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "It'll be okay."
It was a totally utterly lame attempt at making her feel better, but it was all he could do.
"I know," Moegi said, but she leaned into him and Udon anyway. "Ichiro's smart, and the fastest kid in the village. He'll… he'll be alright." She nodded, fabric rustling in her hands. "I know he'll be alright."
"And so will we," Udon said from where his chin rested on her shoulder. "We're not going to even be on the front lines; they'll probably just make us pick off anybody that tries to flank."
Konohamaru felt Moegi lean her head, warm and heavy, against his shoulder, Udon's knee digging into his spine, the three of them sitting here together before they deployed, and his heart was full to bursting with love for them.
Ichiro would be okay, and so would they.
He refused to accept anything less.
Itachi stood in the position Kisame had steered him to, rotating his Akatsuki ring around his finger in a damnable nervous tic he had never been able to break himself of. The smell of salt and blood emanated from his left, where Kisame stood, Sameheda whispering in its bindings, a scratchy rasp of a voice that tugged at the outer edges of his hearing.
"I suppose this is probably about Hidan and Kazuku." Cloth rustled in his ear as Kisame shifted his stance. Itachi made a noncommittal sound, staring into the darkness of his closed eyes.
He was growing so tired of the darkness: it was encroaching on his vision, clouds blotting out patches of the world around him.
He would need to find Sasuke before then, while he still had enough sight to kill him in punishment for his weakness. The memory of his little brother stirred only a vague contempt for the pathetic fool who had been given the power of the Sharingan and yet refused to use it to its fullest potential. He had entertained idle thoughts of Sasuke murdering Uzumaki in vengeance for the Kyuubi jinchuuriki's abandonment, but he knew them for what they were: delusions, idle fancies of a man unwilling to lose the Mangekyou Sharingan, willing to take his brother's eyes in replacement once they attained the Mangekyou.
Unfortunately, even if Itachi implanted Sasuke's eyes, he would be unable to regain the Mangekyou.
He had no one he loved enough to murder for them.
Chakra bloomed around him as the members arrived, two gaps in the circle as wide as oceans. He opened his eyes and saw only further darkness, lit only by the spectral forms of the other Akatsuki.
"Welcome," Pein said, sonorous voice echoing off the stone walls. He sounded almost… ill-at-ease, piquing Itachi's interest. These meetings were often boring, and so Itachi paid little attention at them, but hearing the leader of the most powerful criminal organization on the planet sound concerned was more than enough to draw his gaze.
"This about Hidan and Kazuku?" Deidara asked, rolling a sphere of clay between his palms, the sound of his other mouths munching nausea-inducing.
"Yes. They have neither returned with the vessel of the Isonade nor responded to my requests for information as to their failure. Furthermore, it has become apparent that the vessel of the Isonade has disappeared entirely from the war effort. When I last heard from Kazuku and Hidan, they had spotted the Isonade and Kyuubi jinchuuriki and were about to make their approach."
"Think they're dead, then?" Deidara said, the sphere in his hands morphing into a small sculpture of a bird in flight.
"It would be the logical conclusion that the Isonade jinchuuriki killed them both. However, we have also heard nothing about the Isonade's continued survival: in fact, I sent Zetsu out to discern the situation, as this could destroy our plans." Pain turned to the platform on which Zetsu stood, nodding to him.
"It has become apparent that the jinchuuriki is dead." Zetsu's leaves rustled, the black half's lips twisted in a frown.
A tiny, choked sound from Kisame, one that anyone unfamiliar with the Kiri-nin would not detect. Itachi frowned; the other man had stated more than once in no uncertain terms that he didn't give a damn what happened to the Isonade jinchuuriki.
"And it has also become possible that…" Zetsu hesitated, glancing at Pain, who regarded him with cool gray eyes, before forging ahead, "- the Isonade has died as well. I went up and down the coast searching for a chakra source-" he droned on, but Itachi heard nothing, what little remained of his vision fixed firmly on Pain.
Their leader stood, his arms folded across his chest, without even a twitch of the mouth to betray his feelings, gray eyes as bleak and empty as the echoing houses of the Uchiha that Itachi had left in his wake. He did not look like a man whose dreams had come crashing down around him.
Zetsu's voice faltered, then trailed off, the report delivered.
"I thought that the bijuu were immortal," Sasori said, his voice as dry as the desert he hailed from. He didn't look surprised, but then he never looked like he felt much of anything.
"As did I," Pain said. "I have a good source for information on the bijuu, one who has encountered them and their jinchuuriki before. The source implied that if a bijuu's vessel dies, the bijuu will live on; this idea is upheld by the fact that there have been over thirteen jinchuuriki prior to the current generation, all of whom died without taking the bijuu with them." He turned to Zetsu once more. "You detected no chakra trails or sources that could possibly be from the bijuu?"
Their spy seemed to shrink into his leaves, his demeanor wary. "The only trail I could detect ended at a cliff where a shallow grave had recently been dug: the cliff face appeared to be crumbling from some sort of a tidal wave that left a faint residue of the Isonade's chakra upon the cliff. Upon opening of the grave, there was little demonic chakra clinging to the contents, and no other chakra trails led away from the grave into the sea, as might be expected."
Pain was silent for a long moment, staring into the middle distance in the direction of the giant statue, his eyes unfocused, as if he saw something the rest of them could only guess at- and he might, with the Rinnegan. The other members of Akatsuki were not privy to all that the Rinnegan could do, so it was not implausible.
Deidara cast worried glances around the room, fidgeting. Sasori ignored his partner's distress, seeming comfortable with the silence.
"If the Isonade has died, all our plans will be unable to proceed, much less come to fruition." Pain lifted his head, made eye contact with each one of them: even Konan, who stood, unmoving, at his side. "I trust Zetsu's report about the situation, and as the Isonade is one of the more violent bijuu, it would not fit for this much time to pass without an attack, were it free. However, the death of the Isonade would go against all acquired knowledge of the bijuu and jinchuuriki up to this point."
"Uh, hey, boss?" Deidara took a deep breath, steadying himself, then went on, ignoring Pain's glare at the interruption, "If the bijuu can survive the jinchuuriki's death, why was it so important that we bring them back alive?"
"For purposes of efficiency. It was believed that if a jinchuuriki was injured to the point of death, the bijuu would find take advantage of that weakness to break the bindings and flee. If the jinchuuriki were knocked unconscious but not mortally injured, they and the bijuu within would be easily transportable, rather than allowing the bijuu to escape and thus dealing with recapturing them."
Deidara nodded along, then frowned, scratching at the back of his head. "Okay, so a bijuu breaking out would require chakra, yeah?"
"Obviously," Pain said, his tone making it obvious that he was only humoring Deidara.
"Yeah! So if the Isonade used up all of its chakra…" Deidara twisted to face Zetsu, almost frightening in his sudden focus, "How big do you think that tidal wave was?"
"The cliff was around five stories high," Zetsu answered with dawning comprehension, the two halves immediately engaging in a fierce, whispered conversation.
"The jinchuuriki had already knocked out most of Kirigakure's navy in the battle by taking the form of the Isonade," Deidara ticked off the points on his fingers, "which had to have drained him already, considering he destroyed ten or more ships; he then came back on shore and fought Hidan, which couldn't have helped; then he decides that apparently it's a much better idea to go down fighting and take out Hidan, so he summons up this tidal wave, and if it was five stories tall, that's got to be a shitton of chakra he expended, even considering the bijuu's strength. It's not impossible, y'know, that the Isonade didn't have enough chakra to break free and died as well."
Pain stared at Deidara, the blond man wilting beneath that pale gaze, but the leader of Akatsuki showed no emotion about the destruction of his plans. Itachi wondered whether the man even cared.
Much like Itachi, the gods had forgotten to give Pain a soul.
"You could quite possibly be correct, Deidara," Pain said. "In testament to the possibility that the Isonade might have passed from this world, as of this moment, we are removing our focus entirely from the jinchuuriki and focusing instead on producing as much chaos as is possible. You will have free reign to do whatever you like, as long as you do not betray Amegakure. "
Sasori's brow rose. "Is this an informal dissolution of the organization, then?"
Pain seemed undecided for a moment, before he shook his head, his face expressionless. "No. It is a formal one. We have achieved our goal of engineering a war so bloody that the power structures of the nations will collapse, even without the jinchuuriki. The conditions we all required to achieve our respective goals have been met: all that remains is for you to reach out and take the opportunity."
"So as of this moment, Akatsuki as a formal organization is no more. We may have failed in our methods, but-" Pain's mouth twitched in something like a smile as the thunder of weapons rolling past filled the room, "-no one can argue that we have failed in our results."
"Dismissed." Pain's form blinked from existence, and after a heartbeat, Konan followed, then Deidara, then Sasori, like lamps being snuffed out at dawn.
Itachi turned, sandaled feet scraping on the stone, and shuffled off the podium, down the long hallway to one of the empty rooms located within the tower where Pain lived. After a moment, he heard Kisame follow him, taking a seat beside him on the old, dying couch, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his hands dangle as he stared down at the floor. Samehada clattered as it hit the wall and slid into the corner.
"I didn't realize that the boy- Katashi- was dead," Kisame said, his tone wondering as he said the jinchuuriki's name for the first time in years. Itachi glanced at him with what little peripheral vision he had remaining, seeing only a blankness on his partner's face, as if he had no idea what to feel.
Perhaps he didn't.
"I wonder if the kid ever figured out that the teeth and gills didn't come from the Isonade, but from his own bloodline." Kisame's shoulders rose, then fell as he exhaled, all the vibrancy seeming to leave him in that one breath. "I know they would've never told him; after the massacre of the clans, it became illegal to claim descent from them, much less manifest bloodlines, and he would've been far too valuable to be executed. Easier to let him think that the Isonade did it."
"Regrets?" Itachi asked, the word seeming like a foreign thing on his tongue. He had never experienced regret: had never felt anything for his massacre of his own blood beyond a sort of quiet, simple satisfaction that he had executed his plan so well. However, Kisame was not him: regret might still be a possibility.
Kisame laughed and shook his head, the grin he shot Itachi sardonic.
"Nah. He was never my son."
The hospital workers' cafeteria stunk of old food and desperation, blank-faced people milling about, some prodding at their trays of food as if expecting it to spring to life, others shoveling plates of onigiri down one after another, staring straight ahead-
As if the taste could be enough to distract them from why they were here, or what they were doing.
Ino let her head flop forward, digging her fingers into her hair, greasy and heavy against her fingers. She hadn't had a shower in two days, and if she concentrated she could smell her own sweat, even through the miasma of blood and tears that clogged her nose. The dull plastic plate of limp vegetables before her made her want to retch. Weird, that she could stand over the writhing bodies of those she knew, learning to read the progress of war in the names of thunder- Knife Ridge, Snake Pass- scored into their flesh, and yet it was this unassuming plate of food that made her eyes water, acid burn in her throat.
The PA crackled, a voice intoning, "Operating Room Team Six to Operating Room C."
Fuck. There went any chance of her enjoying a meal: not that she was ever going to eat it, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered. She didn't even have her teammates to commiserate with: they were both working under Sakura's father in the mental health ward, since Chouji's weight and Shikamaru's shadow jutsus helped in holding down unruly inmates.
Like it wasn't bad enough that they had to spend their R and R week volunteering at the hospital to learn basic medical jutsu, they couldn't even stay together.
Blowing out a sigh, she grabbed her tray, dumped the uneaten food into the collection box so that it could be distributed to civilians, and put the tray away, heading for the operating room. She sterilized her hands with the jutsu the unsmiling head night nurse had taught her, snatching a pair of gloves from the box by the door and yanking them on as she entered the operating room.
The rest of the team was already gathered around the operating table, bags of whole blood strung on stands above the table in a grotesque mobile. Ino shoved her way through the crowd to end up behind the head surgeon, balancing on her tiptoes to see the patient.
It was a struggle to stay dispassionate at the sight of the ravaged face before her. The eye had been- she wanted to say 'torn', but she was supposed to use 'enucleated'- enucleated from the socket, bulging from the crushed cavern. A deep laceration traced diagonally over his face, the skin on the left side of the laceration peeling back, the injury trailing over the jaw, punctuated by a deep red crater over the larynx. A sea of blood welled in the hollow of his throat, bounded by the mountains of his tendons, fleets of shrapnel floating.
"Yamanaka! Take the carotid while Daisuke stitches up the laryngeal wound." The surgeon's hands flew over the boy's face, eyes fixed on the monitors where the pulse flickered up and down in irregular peaks. Ino swallowed the wave of panic that rose up to swamp her, the world seeming to spin around her. Wonderful idea; putting her on one of the most important arteries in the body when she'd only assisted on a few vaccinations! She didn't even have any time to protest, so she wove through the crowd to end up on the side of the face that bled most heavily, lips twisting in an involuntary grimace as she stuck her fingers into the open gash, spreading chakra from her fingers to cover the wound, barrier stretching from the ear all the way to the larynx, curving over the jaw.
Shit- this was going to be even harder than she thought- the blood of others, all that kept the boy alive, bashed against the flimsy shield she erected, the sensation of needles driving beneath her nails as the flow pushed chakra back against her making her fingers curl.
Daisuke bent over her, stinking of alcohol, needle and sterile thread in hand, his beard scratching her shoulder even through the scrubs. The sound of the needle puncturing flesh was like a balloon popping. Ino turned away, trying to distract herself from the feeling of blood washing against her fingers, looking down the patient's body.
Her eyes widened. How had she not noticed what the medics down at the end of the table were laboring on? Feet stuck out from beneath the sterile green sheets, feet that barely deserved the name, the skin stripped from the tops, five bones gleaming like the ribs of a lady's fan, the soles-
The soles nearly burned away, the medics taking what looked like a small hacksaw to the remaining skin, a woman slicing off skin for grafts off of his uninjured thighs with methodical precision.
The clipboard holding the patient's papers were hanging on the wall, and there, written in the thick black scrawl of the surgeon, was the name of a boy from her class.
She truly, madly, deeply wanted to vomit.
Agony radiated up into her wrists, refocusing her attention on the gash where her fingers rested. She was not going to let blood beat her, not going to fail in front of all these people, all these medics who expected her to be great at this because she was a woman and had good chakra control-
They'd never asked if she was okay with blood, though, and she was deciding, right now, as of this moment, that she was not. She could feel it, warm and sticky, against her fingers, even though she knew that was a logical impossibility, that the chakra barrier over her gloves prevented even one molecule of the blood from penetrating to her gloves, much less her skin.
Waves of heat and frost seemed to crash down on her, internal organs jerking about as if they were on a spin cycle. Her tongue was thick and numb in her mouth, and everything around her seemed to be covered in a rainbow haze, like oil on water, chakra barrier stuttering, beginning to crack.
The sub-commander of the first Iwa strike force's face swam before her, the way she had last seen it: her kunai shoved through the soft plain of his chin, the 'snick' of his spinal cord snapping vibrating down her arms, his expression contorted. He had- had collapsed forward, into her arms, and even as she pushed him away he left a trail of blood down the front of her dress, spreading like ink-
'Oh no. No. No. This is not happening.' Even her thoughts seemed slow, broken, subsumed beneath the thunder of her racing heart. Her chakra shield, weakened, bent and flexed beneath the push of blood, pools of it lapping against her hands, warm even through the latex-
Her knees went out from beneath her.
"Yamanaka?" Daisuke's voice seemed to be coming from someplace very far away, his arm, solid and warm, wrapping around her waist, holding her up. She sagged against him, trying to seem like she had a grip on things when she so clearly didn't-
"Ma'am, Yamanaka's having a panic attack." Gloved fingers wrapped around her hands, pulled them free of the sucking wound, Daisuke erecting his own barrier to replace hers.
The surgeon's eyes flashed upward, mask wrinkling as the mouth beneath twitched into a snarl. "Then get her out of here, damn it! That's the problem with letting combatants volunteer: they're always panicking and having flashbacks so they can't be of any goddamn-" having given up on the eye, she plucked it free of the ruined socket and handed it off to a medic to bag, "-use to me."
Daisuke took his arm from around her waist and nudged her with his hip in the direction of the door. Ino stumbled towards it, the surgeon's rant following her,
"They should just go to the fucking mental hospital if they're going to panic! I tell you, these veterans, they got no spine for the real dirty work-"
The doors slammed shut behind her, cutting off the hateful words. Ino kept going until her hands hit the opposite wall and slid down it, pressing her forehead to the cold tile and gasping for air, squeezing her eyes shut. She would not give into the flashback. She would not look at her scrubs for blood- she was better than this, better than them, better than that surgeon thought she was-
The flare of agony in her chest dimmed as the iron band of her sudden migraine loosened, and she opened her eyes and stared at the green tiles of the wall, counting them until the harsh rasp of her breathing slowed.
A hand- enemy- touched her back-
She flung it off and whirled, hands already in position for a fire jutsu, mind working overtime to recall entrances and exits, before she let her hands fall as she saw Shinobu standing across the hallway, her hands empty.
Not that that meant much with a jinchuuriki.
"Sorry, Shinobu," she said. Goddamn it. Now Shinobu was going to think she was a freak, which sucked, because Ino wanted Shinobu to like her. Sakura had mentioned several times that Shinobu was a nice girl who could really use friends, and Ino was always up for ingratiating herself with new people: particularly if they could end up saving her ass some day.
"It's okay, really; I've dealt with far worse freak-outs than that on a daily basis since I met the other jinchuuriki," Shinobu said, smiling. Ino made a noise that she thought sounded acceptable and decently sane, but apparently Shinobu wasn't fooled. She took a step forward, cocking her head.
"Is everything okay?"
Ino, staring at her open, honest face, knowing that whatever problems she had were nothing compared to what Shinobu had been living with since she was small, to her eternal horror felt her lower lip quiver. She swallowed and firmed her stance, because it would just be so gauche to break down in the middle of the hallway. "I- yeah. Yeah. I'm okay."
Shinobu frowned, glanced up and down the hallway, and offered a hand, pulling Ino to her feet. "Come with me."
Ino, too tired to protest, followed her down empty hallways to a room marked 'linen closet.' Okay… was Shinobu going to bestow a feel-better gift of a fuzzy blanket on her or something? The jinchuuriki unlocked the door and ushered her in, turning on the lights and illuminating a small hot plate and kettle on the floor, boxes of tea leaves stacked beside it.
"Tea?" Ino asked, plopping down on the floor and leaning back against a stack of pillows as Shinobu closed the door behind her. "What, you've got some incredible secret recipe that you have to hide from the rest of the employees?"
Shinobu looked blank.
"That was a joke," Ino clarified.
"Oh," Shinobu said with an expression of dawning comprehension. "No, it's nothing secret; the leaves are just things Noboru's picked up over the years. He spent most of his life alone in a swamp, so he's had time to work on creating the perfect cup of tea." She busied herself putting the kettle on and crumbling the leaves into the wire tea ball. "I just keep it back here since employees aren't supposed to bring outside food and drink in, and we don't have many boxes of Noboru's swamp tea left. I have to save the rest of it; it keeps me awake during sixteen-hour shifts, and we're just going to get more of those."
"Sorry about not getting the joke," Shinobu finished, hunching into herself like she thought Ino would be angry or something stupid like that. "Since K- Katashi died, I've been… a little bit lost." The kettle whistled, Shinobu pouring two cups of tea and passing one chipped mug to Ino, who took it gratefully.
"I understand completely," Ino said, a little hurt that Shinobu could think her so insensitive that she felt the need to apologize. Still, she was a jinchuuriki, and the Konoha-nin had figured out quickly that the jinchuuriki's formative years had not been pleasant. "After my mom died, it took a couple weeks before I was able to even talk to anybody."
Shinobu gazed at her over the edge of her mug, open and friendly and somehow everything Ino had missed, everything Sakura had left behind in her mad quest for Naruto. "I hope you can talk to me. If you don't want to, I understand-" the shadow that passed behind her eyes only confirmed to Ino that Shinobu knew all too well what it felt like to be unwanted, "-but I want you to know that…" she took a fortifying sip of tea, "I'm always willing to listen. If you need me to."
That simple, honest offer did it, broke her down and left her naked and shaking under Shinobu's gaze. Ino's lips wobbled as she stared down into her tea, and she was unsurprised when several hot drops fell into the rich, dark liquid. Ino rubbed at her face with her free hand, knowing her skin was blotchy, her eyes red and swollen with crying, her nose bright, but somehow she couldn't muster the vanity to care, because the pain in her chest was too great.
She tried to laugh, hiccupped instead, the sound morphing into a sob.
"I don't know. It's just that ever since the war started, I feel-" she closed her eyes against the bitter warmth of tears welling, "-so useless."
Shinobu took another sip of tea, unruffled by the fact that Ino was unburdening herself all over someone she'd only really known for a few minutes. "Why do you feel useless?"
Ino let her head fall back against the pillows, opening her eyes to stare at the ceiling, the pale green of a new iris, and wondered why she had ever become a shinobi.
"I-" She sniffled, coughed, tried again, "I can't do anything. I've got the Body Possession, but that's useless in open warfare, and I can heal, but Forehead Girl's better at that than me- the bitch," she muttered without rancor, "-and all the others are being sent out night after night while I stand in the hospital and try to save people and end up failing half the time. And I mean, the Body Possession's a great talent, but-"
Shinobu's lips curled into a sly grin, the kindly eyes somehow changing, and Ino, watching her, could see Hachibi's sixteen eyes looming in the brown depths, cold and merciless through the steam.
"Everyone has talent," Shinobu said in a voice that rumbled with the eight voices of the dragon, "The question is how far you are willing to go with that talent."
It was easy to find Yugito after Kakashi heard the news; all he had to do was head for the graveyard. The only illumination in Konoha's streets were starlight and moonlight, the paper lanterns doused for the night and the lights of the houses and apartments turned off to conserve power. He'd been lonely: post-missions always left him so, and while normally he'd find some willing shinobi loitering outside the Hokage Tower looking for the same thing he was and take them home for a night, tonight was different.
Still, although he'd expected to find Yugito here, he hadn't expected to see this.
She was sitting beside a grave, hands wrist-deep in the soil, black fire that somehow was darker than the night sky above twisting around her head and arms. The bones of a child sat across from her, mirroring her cross-legged position.
His heart crawled up his throat, chills seeping into his bones as the skeleton lifted a hand in his direction. A greeting from Death itself.
Sensing his regard, Yugito's black gaze flicked to him, the fire animating the child's bones disappearing, the bones collapsing back into the grave with a sound like the beating of branches in a storm. She was dressed in casual clothing- an old T-shirt for a board game parlor in Kusagakure that Kakashi knew for a fact had closed down ages ago and ratty sweatpants- which made the whole scene even worse.
Somehow she was still beautiful.
"Hatake." Yugito's eyes cleared, pale blue emerging from behind black, and she stared at him with neither interest nor dislike. She didn't even look like she'd been crying, although her voice was shredded. "Why have you come?"
Disregarding the lack of an invitation, Kakashi picked his way around the graves to take a seat beside her, propping his elbow on his knee and leaning his chin into his hand. He didn't really know how to broach the subject. All he'd known, once he heard that the boy was dead, was that he had to check on Yugito: because although she regarded him as a nuisance she was required to keep alive, she was his teammate.
"I heard the bad news." The minute the words left his mouth, he winced internally. Smooth move, Hatake.
Yugito didn't stiffen, didn't glance at him: gave no sign that she had even heard him. Her voice, when she spoke, was flat and dull as unsharpened iron. "And do you care that Katashi is dead?"
That gave Kakashi pause. Sure, he cared in the same disconnected way that he might care about any Konoha shinobi's death: a sort of sadness that his country had been weakened by Katashi's death, heightened a little by his comparatively young age. Nothing personal, though; not the bone-deep sadness that came from losing an Obito or a Naruto. He hadn't known Katashi well enough to be truly saddened by his death.
"I… didn't know him well enough to grieve him personally."
Yugito's cheek twitched as the fire on her skin subsided into nothing. "At least you're honest. Better to admit that you mourn lost strategic value than people that never knew him weeping about how they'll miss him when he never even said a word to them." She shifted to glance at him out of her peripheral vision, the twist of her mouth into a sneer a white knife in the gloom. "So why come find me? Were you concerned?"
Her bitterness wasn't even a defense mechanism, a cover-up for secret vulnerabilities. It was just who she was, and so there wasn't any point in being upset about it.
"You're my teammate, and I like to make sure that my team's stable."
One side of Yugito's mouth lifted in a grin. "Just like you made sure Naruto was stable?"
He should've expected that, but it didn't make it sting any less.
"I know I made mistakes with Naruto, and I've wanted to apologize every day since he left for not checking up on him more often." His smile was self-deprecating. "At least making sure he ate something besides ramen. Believe me, Yugito, I acknowledge my mistakes; denial is never a skill I've been very good at."
How could he deny his mistakes, when they were etched in a black granite memorial for all to see?
Yugito shifted beside him, the soft cloth of her shirt brushing against his arm, goosebumps left in its wake. She seemed content to sit there and say nothing, gaze fixed on the paltry pile of bones before the headstone. Kakashi shivered, the darkness and the late night chill and the oppressive aura of the graveyard settling in his stomach, in his chest, cold and leaden.
"What were you doing with those?" He nodded at the bones, the skull with hollow dark eyes, the subtle curves of the pelvis.
Yugito sighed beside him, fire carried on her breath to lick at the bones. The pale forms rocked back and forth in the dirt, but subsided as Yugito made an irritated noise and muttered,
"Shut up, cat."
She'd been talking to the Nekomata? Kakashi shifted away from the bones, then flushed at her amused glance.
"Unnecessary, but accepted." Yugito cracked her neck, then turned to him. "You are correct in your assumption that I was conversing with the Nekomata. It's severely limited in its manifestations in the physical world; the only way it can interact with our plane of existence is if I allow it possession of a body."
"Possession? Can all bijuu do it?" Was it possible for a jinchuuriki to be possessed by their tenant? He'd have to keep a closer eye on them all if that was the case.
"Theoretically," Yugito said, busying herself with tearing handfuls of grass up and shredding them between her fingers. "If a jinchuuriki's seal is weakened enough, or a jinchuuriki is tricked into giving their tenant free reign, the jinchuuriki's body will be possessed and the jinchuuriki's consciousness obliterated by the demon." She dumped the grass shreds on the ground before and started piling them into a mound. "The memories of the jinchuuriki who released their demons in the Village of Shadows made the experience to be much like dying: a mind being snuffed out like a candle flame."
So many questions boiled inside him, about why they'd made that choice, how she perceived their memories, but the one that won the battle was,
"Would you ever give the Nekomata control?"
Yugito's considering gaze bored into him, as if she were deciding whether or not to remove his head from his body for his impertinence. She tilted her head in silent thought before saying with an air of complete finality,
"Why not?" Okay, he knew he was pushing it, but this was the most forthcoming Yugito had been since he met her; her answers to his questions were normally monosyllabic and given with a feeling of annoyance. Maybe Katashi's death had forced her to lower her emotional walls a bit?
"I… don't fear death," she said after a moment spent gazing at the waning moon, her hands picking at her bandages, "How could I fear it when I've spent most of my life as its incarnation? I may not know what's behind the fog on the other side of the river-" she stopped again, then began, the words seeming to take ages to leave her lips, "-but nothing I've seen in my years as jinchuuriki has led me to believe that it's a cruel fate, or that there's any value in resurrection. I wouldn't give myself to the bijuu because I was frightened of dying and thought that it could save me, because there's nothing to be saved from."
"Besides, I know the Nekomata. I know what it can do; what you saw me do with the bones of the Uchiha is nothing compared to an army of thousands of dead soldiers who know no fear." She smiled, but there wasn't any joy in it. "If I were to release the Nekomata in its full glory, it would require at least one of the other jinchuuriki to allow themselves to be possessed by their bijuu, and that's-" her inhale crackled with something that made Obito's eye itch with sympathy, "-not a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Ever."
The words she used gnawed at him: 'incarnation of death' made it sound like she thought that she was dead, like she was cut off from every living thing, whether plant or beast, that covered the earth.
"Do you… consider yourself alive?"
Yugito started to unwind the first layer of bandages around her thin arms, letting the rough cloth run through her fingers. "I used to. Not anymore."
"I realized that the emotional spectrum I'm capable of experiencing is nothing close to what others experience. They have a rainbow of love, humor, affection, sadness, anger, joy, while I-" her smile was a quicksilver shadow flickering over her face, "-live in black and white. Anger at everything that breaks my contentment and contentment when I am without stress are the whole of my spectrum. Even with Katashi," she twisted the undone bandages through her fingers, avoiding Kakashi's eyes, "-I didn't feel grief when I heard the news. I still don't."
Kakashi lowered his gaze at her words. How terrible, to be so limited, to exist in a constant state of rage brought on by the slightest change.
She nodded, and her litany came out in a rush. "Anger. At him for being so stupid to die in the first battle of the war; at Naruto for not saving him- though I know how hard he tried-; at myself for failing to protect him though I promised the jinchuuriki I would be the first to go; at death for taking one of the few people in this world that was capable of bringing contentment by his presence."
He hadn't ever thought that there could be this much fire beneath her cold exterior: this much boiling fury. Now that he knew it, so much of her behavior made sense: her bitterness, her coldness, the insane joy she took in battle, because battle was the only place her wrath could find full expression.
"There can be something else besides anger," he said, remembering a young boy who had watched his best friend die and been consumed by it, who had gone into ANBU in an attempt to assuage his pain, only to learn that ANBU, just like anger, could consume you if you let it.
Her laugh clawed at his hearing. "What? Love? Empathy? If you think I value those things, if you think I'm capable of understanding what they mean, you haven't heard a damn thing I said."
"I think love's always a possibility, but not for people like you and I," he shot back, only to find himself bowled over onto the ground as Yugito shoved him and climbed on top, straddling his chest, grabbing his wrists and slamming them to the freshly turned earth. Shock ran cold and horrible over his skin, radiated from her touch, dug into his body. Her fingernails dug into his wrists until the blood flowed, her mouth twisting in a horrid snarl at his hiss. Black threads clawed outward from her pupils, spread to cover her eyes as he stared in horrified fascination, blood, inky in the moonlight, streaking her lips, falling from her mouth to puddle on his chest.
It froze where it touched.
Fire poured from her skin to rip at the earth around them, the sound like the snapping jaws of a thousand rabid wolves, raced up the trunks of trees like ink without leaving marks behind. Kakashi twisted, tried to get his hands into position for a jutsu- why had he trusted her? Why had he thought that being teammates meant a goddamn thing to someone like her?- but Yugito shoved his arms back to the ground.
The world burned around them in black and white.
"I'm not-" Yugito bent close, and her breath smelled like rotting flesh, "-like you. Don't even compare me to something that I have no hope of knowing!"
Kakashi stared into her eyes, paralyzed by the hate he saw there, a hate that had burned her alive and hollowed her out into a shell of a human being. Yugito's ink-black eyes bored into him, and he wondered what she saw: if he was marked by his mother, dying to give him life; his father, dying because he believed in the concept of a team; Obito and Rin and Yondaime.
"Love is something for people who are alive- love is for people who have something to give, something of value besides their body-"
"I have nothing of value," Kakashi said, "except my teammates and an eye that's not mine."
"Teammates?" Her laugh made the fire respond in a hiss that seemed to shake the world. "You call me a teammate? Something of value for something beside my power?"
He couldn't value her for anything beside her power: Kumo had made it so, had turned her into a vessel of power without conscience or care. He knew this and didn't care.
"No, but I've learned that someone willing to stand beside you when all else falls is the only thing worth having, and you're-" his smile burned him, "As much as I hate to say it, you were assigned to me, and you're all I've got."
Her face froze into a mask of wrath. "Don't! Don't value me at all."
What had the world done to her, to make her so furious at the prospect that someone might care?
She plunged forward and smashed her lips to his in a bloody kiss that served to shut him up with a flood of warmth, and when she pulled away, her eyes still yawned black. "You- you anger me, with your idealism, your belief that love- that good things are still possible- you enrage me and I can't- I can't kill you because Naruto says I can't, that you have to live because he loves you, but I- I want to hurt something, someone, you-" she bent closer, "-and I can't-"
"Kiss me again," he said with a twisted smile- a kiss could hurt him more than anything physical, could maim with the knowledge that it was all he would ever have of anyone, that he lacked the capability to give or be given anything more. She reared back, gaze darting over his face, searching for falsehood, and that momentary shock allowed him to yank a hand from her grip and get it up to cup the fragile curve of her skull. She shuddered beneath his touch, and this was nothing like any love he'd ever known-
He leaned up, his captured hand splayed in the dirt, to kiss her, slanting his mouth over hers, the taste of the blood on her lips going unnoticed. She responded for a moment, her lips softening beneath his, before she snarled into his mouth and shoved him flat again, her hand coming to his throat.
"What-" she loomed over him, growling, the fires about her rising up in columns of darkness like a temple.
"You want to hurt me?" he snarled right back. "Then spend the night with me."
A night that would mean nothing, that would only prove to him over and over again that he wasn't capable of anything but empty sex, that Yugito wasn't capable of love, that humanity had succeeded in breaking the both of them into shiny façades with nothing inside. The two of them clawing at each other, using each other for warmth and meaning that had died long ago, until emptiness was all that was left. She would use him for something to hurt; he'd use her to pretend that life still held warmth; and the using couldn't even demean them, because there was nothing to demean.
She tilted her head. Darkness faded into blue; fires disappeared and left the cemetery as it had been; she emerged with her lips curled in a smile that chilled him to the bone with its seeming normality.
"Okay," she said, and pushed herself to her feet, waited for him to get up, dusting himself off, and followed him out of the cemetery, her bare feet leaving dirt stains on the pavement. They walked in silence through darkened streets lit by moonlight without touching, a parody of lovers. Yugito didn't look at him, didn't speak; she walked at his side without hesitation, blue alien eyes gleaming in the light, and stared straight ahead into the darkness.
At the apartment, Yugito waited for him to unlock the door and strode inside without so much as a by-your-leave, taking in the one-room flat, bereft of decorations, with a glance.
Kakashi finished locking the door and turned around to find her already undressing. She pulled her T-shirt off over her head without fanfare, unwound the wrappings on her forearms, and stepped out of her sweats to stand, naked and without shame, in the middle of the room. Her skin was knit together with scars: a pink knife wound curling across her ribs; a puckered white patch of burn scarring mapping the expanse from hip to sternum; last and most damning, ladders of silver lines marching up her forearms.
She watched him as he stripped, without approval of his physique or condemnation of his scars, and then stepped towards him and pulled him down into a kiss. Kakashi closed his eye, his hands coming up to span her shoulders, the ridges of her shoulderblades pressing against her skin into his palms. He felt her walking him backwards, the carpet change to tile beneath his feet, and opened his eye to find himself standing in the bathroom, Yugito turning the shower on before returning to him and shoving him straight back into the spray.
There were no more kisses, no more pretensions or falsehoods.
They slid together in the shower, her shoulders against the tile, her hair all about them in a curtain of sodden gold, and Kakashi's arms slid over her scar-slick skin, biting at her mouth- frantic and savage and lost, their teeth clicking together, and the scalding water falling over them couldn't ease the frigidity inside- as her fingers curled into his skin, her legs squeezing his hips, something like pain.
They could taste each other's tears on their lips.