The Prettiest Princess

Author's Notes- I dunno :o

Disclaimer- I don't own any of the recognisable characters or concepts. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.

"This tiara," Pein said, sending a telepathic message to all of Akatuski at once. "is a long-lost artifact used to control and suppress the jinchuuriki. It was rediscovered just two days ago after the owner donated it to replace the crown previously awarded to the winner of the Miss World beauty contest. It is clear how such a device would be invaluable to Akatsuki, allowing us to take complete control over the bijuu while still in human form," he paused for effect. "We have decided to enter Deidara."

"As a contestant?" Hidan said disbelievingly, and then burst out laughing, along with most of Akatsuki. As for Deidara, all four mouths kept opening and shutting silently in disbelief, but no words came forth. His left palm finally managed a subdued squeak? of dismay.

"I think Deidara will make a very good beauty queen," Tobi said primly, giving Deidara an encouraging look and both thumbs-up.

"But we're villains, yeah?" Deidara finally managed. "Why don't we just steal the tiara? Blow up the pageant? Kidnap the winner. Take all the contestants hostage-"

"You should understand that we are not the only ones after this tiara," Pein said. "It is likely that several of the contestants will be undercover agents who have access to the same information that we do. If an opportunity should arise to steal it, by all means do so. But we cannot rely on that as our only plan, when the winner is guaranteed to receive it."

"Then why not use her?" Deidara screeched, pointing at Konan. She regarded him serenely, with the self-assurance of one who knew she would not ever be seen in a spangly leotard twirling beribboned batons, not so long as she was the only female in an organisation that spent most of its time on the run from the rest of humanity in general.

"There is a cut-off age for the competition," Pein said swiftly, as though a little lying on the entry form would be absolutely beyond anything else Akatsuki might do in their pursuit of power.

"Sasori could replace one of the contestants with a puppet-"

"The joints will show in the swimsuit stage."

"The joints will show? At least puppets don't have any-"

There was a creak as Hiruko's face rearranged itself into a glare. Deidara shut up, at least for the second it took him to glance wildly around at the rest of Akatsuki. Too blue. Too thorny. Too wooden. Too stitchy. Too orange (though admittedly Tobi had the perkiness down to a fine art). Too-

"What about him? He'd look better in a dress than I would, yeah?" Deidara said triumphantly, pointing at Itachi. "Maybe," he added grudgingly after the slightest pause, never willing to admit someone might do something better than he did.

"That's a good point," Kisame said, slyly, glancing sideways at his partner. Itachi raised his eyebrow a fraction in a movement so small it was invisible to the naked eye. This was what passed for one of his expressions, and after years of working together, Kisame knew this one meant I trust that you have a plan here. He continued. "Itachi would look better in a dress. And there's the talent section to think about- we all know Itachi's by far the most talented Akatsuki member-"

"Fuck you!" Deidara snapped. "When can I go?"

The pageant was being held in Konoha, just a couple of days later. Pein had already briefed them on what to expect. Contestants would be scored in four areas. First was the evening dress event, to allow contestants to be judged on physical beauty and grace. Next was the swimsuit competition, to assess.. physical fitness and lifestyle, apparently. Third was the talent contest. And finally, the girls would answer questions to be judged on their personality.

It took those two days just to travel to Konoha's gates, leaving them with only hours to prepare.

"Miss Deidararina and entourage, here for the beauty contest," Kakuzu introduced them to the ninja at the gates. He was wearing a sharp suit, hat, and small curly moustache, all of which made him look more like a film noir villain than Deidara's manager. He gestured at Akatsuki one by one.

"Her personal trainer."

Kisame nodded, looking deeply unhappy. He was currently wearing shorts, t-shirt and trainers, and carrying an assortment of badminton rackets, footballs, snorkels and skipping ropes in an attempt to make him look more authentic.

"Her therapist."

"Hello!" Tobi said enthusiastically, shifting his clipboard so he could wave jauntily at the ninja on the gates.

"Her florist."

The six foot three flower arrangement that had previously been Zetsu raised a leafy hand in acknowledgement.

"Her personal stylist."

Itachi glowered quietly in his metrosexual disguise of designer clothing and designer sunglasses, and squeezed the giant skinny soy vanilla latte he was holding just that bit tighter. While the pink shirt and manbag gave him a deceptively harmless appearance, the hairdressers' belt he was wearing was still essentially full of dangerous objects that could be used to thoroughly jab, curl, bevel, feather, crimp and cut someone if not to actual death, at least into a state of acute pain and truly horrible hair.

"Her photographer."

"Fucking fabulous," Hidan said sourly. In a similar but louder getup to Itachi, he looked every inch the flamboyant photographer, at least until he opened his mouth.

"And of course, Miss Deidararina's luggage."

Hiruko had folded up neatly into what appeared to be a giant, walking trunk

They had arrived on the day of the first event, and had only hours to turn a completely unprepared man into the most beautiful young kunoichi in Konoha. Deidara hurried to his room to get changed for the evening dress stage. After a brief disagreement, Konan had given in gracefully and lent Deidara clothes for the competition. At least, that was what Deidara thought, until he unpacked a beige quilted swimming costume and a silky leopard-print dress that the label clearly advertised as 'Nightwear'. In the corner of the room, Kakuzu hummed quietly to himself, yanking stitches out of his arm as he tailored a stolen dress to fit Deidara.

"Alright," Kakuzu said. "Try it on."

Deidara frowned, holding up the dress. It was a surprisingly modest thing, quite long with a fairly high neckline, in a soft shade of lilac. It had in fact belonged to Hinata Hyuuga, who was now rushing through her rooms in a towel, using her clan's most ancient and revered eye techniques to search for it.

Kakuzu's stitches were strong enough to hold Hidan together after he had been strewn around the Akatsuki hideout in six hundred and eighty three pieces (fortunately, Kakuzu was very fond of jigaw puzzles, so he never really minded when Pein told him to put Hidan's bits back where he found them), and the dress didn't tear as Deidara crammed both himself and two "Boobie Booster" bust enhancers into it. Deidara glanced down, and nodded. Not too bad. He'd stolen Konan's Kitten Soft Ladyshave razor to shave his legs (and then borrowed Hidan's scythe, when the razor didn't prove to be up to the job). The bust enhancers looked like a misplaced pair of surplus buttocks, but they could easily be mistaken for slightly dismal implants. And as for his build, he could easily pass himself off as a teenage girl, just one that engaged in hard manual labour on a regular basis. He looked up to see the rest of Akatsuki's reaction.

"I didn't think you could look even more of a faggot," Hidan said, sniggering, then remembered his cover. "I mean, you go girl. Knock 'em dead, sister. Fuck yeah."

"Well, there's still hair and makeup," Kisame said, dubiously, and with Deidara marching sullenly in the lead, Akatsuki found the dressing rooms. The room was chaotic. In front of the first mirror, a pale, worried looking girl was tugging nervously at her orange-trimmed, green spandex dress. Two similarly dressed men behind her were going into apparent spasms of joy.

"Tenten! You are the very embodiment of youth and beauty itself today!"

"Gai-sensei! Do you think Tenten would look more alluring with orange lipstick?"

"Lee! Your dedication to Tenten's victory is truly inspiring! Yes, and I will find her some eyeshadow to match!"

The pair of them burst into tears of manly joy, then departed in a cloud of dust. At the next table over, a dark-haired boy rolled his lilac eyes. He was currently brandishing a scrap of scarlet lycra in front of a horrified looking girl who was clearly some relation of his. She was currently wearing a towel, and clinging onto it for dear life. "I insist," a girl in glasses was cooing, cornering her on the other side. "Please, borrow one of my dresses. It's not fair that you should have to quit over this."

Akatsuki carried on their way. At the next mirror, a pink-haired girl was hanging onto her table while a dark-haired boy was tugging enthusiastically at the zip on her dress. "Come on Sai," she muttered nervously, raising her voice as she glanced at a nearby blonde. "It did up fine in the shop."

"No it didn't, Sakura-san," Sai chirruped. "You said you'd lose six pounds by now, remember?"

"You know what my talent is going to be, Sai?" Sakura asked, conversationally, as she was apparently throttling the life out of a perfectly serviceable powder puff. "Demonstrating live lobotomies, if I can find anything in that-"

Akatsuki carried hastily on their way. At the next mirror, the girl in glasses was now starting on her makeup, having somehow squeezed into a tiny, slinky dress that made the scarlet lycra thing look like a modest little number suitable for Middle Middleton's Church of England Ladies Coffee Morning. On her other side, an impatient looking girl with blonde ponytails was standing, hands on hips, in front of a grave, dark-eyed boy who was scrutinising her with great care. "Well?" she said, irritably. "Which is better?"

He appeared to give the question a lot of thought, regarding her feet intently. His expression was very serious. "I think," he said, after a long pause. "Perhaps the red shoes go better."

"Oh, fuck me," Hidan said, grouchily, as Akatsuki finally found an empty table to prepare. "The Sound are entering some chick in a wheelchair."

Orochimaru's badly dressed sidekick was coming down the room now, pushing a wheelchair. In it sat a pale and etheral looking girl in a floaty white dress, a faint, brave smile on her pretty features-

"I don't need a fuckin' push," Tayuya snarled at Kabuto, grabbing the wheels of her chair and propelling herself through the crowd, bowling potential beauty queens out the way as she went. "Move it bitch, that's my dressing table your fat ass is parked on-"

Hidan stared after her, a little dreamily. "What's her fucking problem? Must be on the rag."

"We can't compete with that," Kakuzu said, then turned to Deidara. "Which leg are you most attached to, the left or the right? Or would you prefer an arm? How about being wheeled in on a dialysis machine?"

Deidara leapt out of his chair and began backing away protectively, clamping hands over body parts as Kakuzu eyed them thoughtfully one by one.

"Wait," Kisame said, as Kakuzu had Deidara cornered against a mirror. "The mouth on his chest.."

"Open heart surgery!" Kakuzu said triumphantly, catching on. "We can't lose!"

With less than three hours to prepare, Itachi picked up a hair-drier and brush.

He had gone to extraordinary lengths for his Sharingan. From being six months old, he had put in countless hours of practice to awaken it. At the tender age of three, young Itachi had turned entirely orange after his mother had assured him carrots were very good for his eyesight. Following this, he had gone on to murder his best friend, massacre his entire clan, and spend years fine-tuning his brother's damaged psyche to ensure his new pair of eyes were good and ripe by the time his current set wore out.

Now, he was using them to style Deidara's hair.

Itachi lowered his designer sunglasses a fraction. The Sharingan whirled mysteriously as he watched the stylists around the room intently. Within a minute or two of observation, Itachi was duplicating their actions perfectly, creating an elegant, fantastically complicated sort of sculpture out of a hairstyle that could previously best be compared to that of some sort of small yappy dog. The same flawless perception served him well as he blended together a mixture of silver and gray eyeshadows and a soft raspberry lipstain, his ancient bloodline limit giving him an innate knowledge of whether someone was really more of a Spring or Winter colouring.

Kakuzu jammed gloves over Deidara's palm-mouths, while some foundation turned the fourth into an apparent scar. Kisame borrowed someone's perfume and sprayed Deidara with what appeared to be essence of pure strumpet. And then it was done, and Akatsuki stepped back to assess their work. Deidara glared back grouchily. His hair was now spun into some elaborate, candyfloss creation, with a few blonde curls spiralling down either side of his face. Itachi's skilful work with a makeup brush had simply painted over the less feminine of Deidara's features and replaced them with new ones. He still looked just a little bit like a man in a dress.

"You look as pretty as a princess!" Tobi said loyally.

"If I was really fucking hammered, yeah..?" Hidan said, thoughtfully, head tipped to one side. Kakuzu regarded Deidara with despair. He had half his savings bet on Akatsuki to win. True, the odds on Deidara winning were ridiculously long, but the bookkeepers had no idea that he was backed up by one of the finest sabotage teams around. Already, Zetsu was out distributing bouquets that would bring beauty queens out in peculiar rashes. Hidan had taken a series of extremely incriminating photos that would be distributed later (finding that "Hello, I am so totally a fag photographer, ladies" could get a man and camera into any number of places previously denied to them). And Tobi the pseudo-therapist had already reduced at least one girl to a nervous wreck with his pep-talks.

The atmosphere in the room was beginning to change. Everyone was now fully made-up and standing near the door, nervously waiting for the competition to begin. A few stylists were still flitting around, carefully rearranging a few stray hairs here or there, or spraying away stretch marks. Sakura was now hanging onto a door frame while Sai and Naruto pulled on the zip for all they were worth. Hinata was squirming with acute embarrassment, alternately yanking her dress up to hide her chest, and then squeaking and pulling it back down as it skimmed her bottom. There was a hiss as Kakuzu detached his hand and sent it sneaking across the room, holding a pair of scissors. Hinata shrieked as her dress gave way, and she disappeared into the nearest bathroom. Karin, on the other hand, glanced down as the two halves of her dress suddenly gaped spectacularly apart, made a small satisfied noise, and turned to the mirror to fluff up her hair some more.

After a short speech, the dreamy theme music began to play as the contestants lined up near the stage.

"From the Hidden Village of the Leaf, Miss Sakura Haruno! Sakura is an eighteen year old medic nin-"

One by one, the contestants began to file out as they were introduced.

"From the Hidden Village of the Stone, Miss Deidararina!"

Deidara thundered gracelessly out across the stage, leaving a trail of stiletto holes punched into the boards as he marched with all the elegance and poise of a drunken sailor who had just declared "You, me, out back." to a tavern full of hardened criminals. The applause began and then wavered, the audience unsure what to make of this new contestant, with her flowing golden hair, sparkling grey eye, uneven Boobie Boosters and the shoulders of a relatively weedy lumberjack.

"Miss Deidararina is eighteen years old, and- argh!"

The voice faded, replaced by the sounds of a scuffle, and then Hidan's voice continued the commentary. "Miss- haha- Deidararina is another eighteen year old medic nin, yeah, who recently made a remarkable recovery from open heart surgery after the horrific injuries she received totally fucking this dude's shit up for holding a door for her. When this spunky and liberated young woman isn't volunteering at the local hospital or saving helpless little forest animals, Deidarina is a keen artist, and is really into makeup and dates and.. eh, girly shit like that. His- uh, her ambition is to open an orphanage."

Deidara nodded threateningly at anyone in the audience who appeared to be disputing this. There was a long moment of silence as he joined the line of contestants already on stage.

"And next," Hidan continued blandly. "is that skank from the Hidden Village of the Sound, Mr- sorry, Miss Tayuya!"

Tayuya cursed loudly, and wheeled herself out onto stage as Hidan's commentary continued. "Tayuya is a thirty-seven year old mother of three, who wants to win Miss World so she can use the proceeds to complete her sex change surgery. Her hobbies include blowing go-"

With a final yell of "Vote Deidararina!", Hidan was abruptly cut off as he dived out of the commentator's box just in time to evade security.

It hadn't gone well. While no one had outright disputed that Deidara was female (and he had in fact received a perfectly respectable average of 6.6 out of 10, thus rating as an above-average girl), he was still in last place based on the first round. None of Akatsuki held much hope for the swimsuit competition either, no matter what number of ungodly things could be done with a bit of duct tape. It would all come down to the last three stages.

On the other hand, Hinata had now withdrawn due to missing the entire first stage after her dress malfunction, which left fewer contestants to sabotage. And a second opportunity had arose a few hours later, as Deidara was sat in his room, grumpily shaving his legs once again. Ino had knocked on the door, inviting him to a sleepover. As Deidara had glanced around the room, thinking up an excuse, he had saw the sinister glow of Kakuzu's beady eyes out on his balcony.

"Sasori made this," Kakuzu had said, passing Deidara a small vial of some toxic looking liquid, the colour and texture of sludge.

"Poison?" Deidara had asked, interested.

"Worse," Kakuzu had confided. "Concentrated essence of treble chocolate-fudge layer cake," he paused, and lowered his voice. "With cookie dough ice-cream. One drop of this is the equivalent of ingesting over a hundred thousand calories at once."

In the middle of truth or dare, trying to find out as many incriminating secrets as he could (while ignoring the large potted plant in the corner of the room that kept waving surreptitiously at him), Deidara had succeeded in spilling a drop of Sasori's creation into Ino's drink. He had finished his own, blissfully unaware that one of Chouji's pills was fizzing away at the bottom, and gone back to his room after no more sabotage opportunities (or any of that "lesbian shit" Hidan had knowingly predicted) arose.

Deidara woke up a few hours later, feeling very strange.

He gazed sleepily at the ceiling, wondering what had changed. Nothing immediately came to mind, and he let it go. He did need his sleep, and it was getting quite late around now. Deidara tried to roll over to check the time, and nothing happened. His body didn't seem to be responding. He glanced down, alarmed, and saw an enormous bulk looming up right in front of his face. Deidara yelped, and threw himself out of bed, only for the enormous bulk to come with him, landing on the floor together with a sound like a dropped bag of wet concrete. He stared at his chubby arms in panic, and heaved himself to his feet, waddling over to the mirror and hoping that it was one of those horrible things that would go away when the light came on. He flicked the switch, and began to scream.

A few seconds later, his door burst open as the nearest Akatsuki members ran in, Hidan first, followed by Kakuzu in a sleeping cap and sensible pyjamas. They skidded to a halt upon seeing a morbidly obese Deidara waddling towards them, waving its fat little arms in panic.


Tobi chose this moment to arrive and commence screaming and running around in circles.

"Quick, kill it before it kills us!" Hidan screeched. While he technically wouldn't die, being blown up by one of Deidara's clones would reduce him to just as much dust as the next man, and he did not look forward to spending several eternities drifting around peacefully on the breeze, hoping all his particles would one day be reunited.

Hidan grabbed a lampshade and charged into the room with his traditional battle-cry of "COME AND HAVE A FUCKING GO, THEN". Kakuzu's threads detached themselves and shot towards Deidara with the speed of striking cobras. Deidara leapt ponderously over the bed, and began waddling towards the balcony as fast as he could. Zetsu arrived in the door at that moment, and what had been a perfectly well-behaved pot plant suddenly lunged at Deidara with a snarl.

Deidara fumbled behind him, found the door and fell out onto the balcony. He glanced behind him. His room looked out over a fifty foot drop onto concrete. He would splatter everywhere like a water bomb full of pudding. He had no clay to fight with, and his pudgy little arms could barely reach beyond his own stomach to even throw a punch. Deidara watched the threads, pot plant and madman with lampshade advance on him. He was doomed.

"It's not going to explode," a tired, irritable-sounding voice said. Everyone paused in the middle of killing Deidara, and turned around. A rumpled-looking Itachi was standing in the doorway, holding his sleeping mask in one hand. Deidara had never been so glad to see the Sharingan in all his life.

"Then what happened-" Kakuzu began.

"I don't care," Itachi said simply, and went back to his room.

"Itachi," Kisame said, poking his sleeping partner. "Wake up."

"What is it?" In any one else, that voice might have been described as grouchy. Itachi had been left wiped out by a day of heavy Sharingan use. First, he had to use constant genjutsu to subtly alter the judges' perceptions, to add a hint of a double chin here or there, or to make an ass just a little more saggy than it really was. Nothing too extreme- he couldn't have their perception totally disagreeing with that of the whole audience. Then after Kakuzu had reported that Tenten was currently favourite to win, he had hypnotised her. At precisely the moment she crossed the stage in front of the judges tomorrow, Tenten would suddenly forget how to walk in high heels. For extra security, Kakuzu had half-sawn through the heel on one side.

So between overuse of the Sharingan, and being recruited to style no fewer than five contestants' hair after he had proven to be remarkably good at it, Itachi was very tired.

"Is that the real Deidara?" Kisame asked.


"So he's just gained about three hundred pounds?"


"Is there anything we can do?" Kisame asked, a little desperately, as if Itachi would be a fountain of crash-dieting knowledge. It was unlikely. As an evil Uchiha, Itachi naturally cultivated the sort of pre-consumptive appearance that was conducive to brooding and lurking. It was very hard to be all ominous and fear-inspiring and "I hate your world and everything in it" from the neck up, if everything from the chins down made an addendum that the above statement did not include pies, curly chips and Mars bars.

Itachi had fallen asleep again. Kisame paced around their room. A few doors away, he could hear the crashings and puffings and pantings as Hidan and Kakuzu attempted to chase Deidara down to perform some amateur liposuction. His own beady little shark eye fell on the pile of discarded personal trainer equipment in the corner of the room. Was it possible for someone to lose almost three hundred pounds overnight? Kisame was going to give it a very good go.

The swimsuit stage was not until the next evening. Deidara had spent almost twenty straight hours galloping along a treadmill like a bipedal manatee. Fortunately, the pills made by Chouji's clan were designed to create fat that could be rapidly broken down to release massive amounts of energy during hard physical exercise. After so many consecutive hours of exercise (at times touching speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour as vast quantities of fat were metabolised in minutes), Deidara had lost all but the last fourteen or so pounds. And, as they walked into the dressing room, they realised it could be worse.

"I can still enter!" Ino was protesting. The dark-haired boy she was with shook his head. Their rotund friend Chouji had a better chance of fitting in Ino's swimsuit than Ino herself. The entire room shook as Ino waddled off in a temper. Even if she did not withdraw, after missing an entire stage there was no way she would pose a serious threat to Akatsuki. Kakuzu surreptitiously crossed Ino's name off the list.

Unfortunately, this now meant that a few minutes later, Deidara was standing in a room full of women as they got changed around him, holding a swimming costume and realising they had given absolutely no thought to this stage during the last twenty hours.

He glanced around frantically. The rest of Akatsuki had all disappeared. There was, in fact, no one else male here at all. Except-

Sakura grabbed a towel hastily. "Sai, you're not supposed to be here!"

Sai glanced around the room full of half-naked women curiously. "Why not?" he asked, oblivious.

Sakura made a small enraged sound. "Go on, get out!" she told him. Deidara gazed at the closing door in despair, and then suddenly noticed one of the flower arrangements was staring at him. He leaned over a lot closer than he would normally let any body parts get to Zetsu, pretending to appreciate the flowers, and whispered "I need help" into one frothy blossom. The bouquet nodded at him, and disappeared. A few minutes later, Hidan strode casually into the room.

"It's okay, ladies, I'm a homo," Hidan said reassuringly as someone screamed and reached for a towel. "Puh-leeze, sister, I don't want to see any of that shit anyway. Hey, Deidararina honey, take this and Kakuzu says so help you, he will fuck you up good if you don't get through this round. Catch you later, sweetness!"

Hidan attempted what could have either been a manly flounce or a mincing swagger out of the room, leaving Deidara with Itachi's manbag. Inside, there were the Boobie Booster breast enhancers, a roll of duct tape, and nothing else.

Somehow, Deidara got through the swimming costume stage, although Itachi would spend the next week in excruciating pain after the amount of genjutsu it had taken to convince the judges that Deidararina was an anatomically normal young lady, and that the extra fourteen pounds she was carrying merely indicated a healthy and curvaceous figure that was a refreshing change from the uniformly slim girls around her. However, Tenten was forced to retire after she got half way across the stage, began wobbling dramatically from side to side, and then finally broke her ankle after Itachi's earlier genjutsu finally took effect and completely destroyed her sense of balance.

Akatsuki were now determined that nothing would distract them from the next stage of the tournament- the talent contest.

Deidara didn't see any kind of problem. "Art, of course. I'll make a sculpture on stage," He smiled dreamily at the thought. "An entire hall of beauty contestants.."

"No," Kakuzu said flatly. Even if Deidara could be persuaded to not end his show with an explosion, there was still something rather disgusting about seeing a so-called beauty queen gobbing blobs of soggy clay out of her spare mouths. "Can you dance?"

Deidara regarded Kakuzu with disgust, only to find Hidan pointing a scythe at him. "That wasn't a suggestion, princess."

With a furious scowl, Deidara attempted some sort of thunderous jig. Then he sang an out-of-key song that all three spare mouths attempted to join in on during the chorus. They were doomed. Deidara seemed to lack all of the normal talents that people wanted to see in a beauty contestant. Singing, dancing, gymnastics-

Kisame suddenly pictured one of Itachi's signature moves. The one where he threw handfuls of kunai upside down, his eyes closed, hitting up to thirty targets simultaneously. Now he mentally replaced the kunai with some ribbons or maybe a baton, and put his imaginary Itachi into a spangly leotard. Then he put Itachi back in his normal clothing, because that was a little too far. But the point still stood. Why had Kisame never seen this before? If there wasn't a rule against mass-murderers entering, then Itachi had a fine career ahead of him in the world of floor gymnastics.

He wasn't going to say anything, but Pein had chosen that moment to go rummaging through their minds.

"Excellent idea, Kisame. Itachi, you will use the Sharingan to memorise a suitable ballet or gymnastics routine, and stand in for Deidara during this round."

Itachi's expression remained perfectly blank and neutral, yet somehow got across that yes, Kisame had just ruined what had been a fairly good working relationship for the last three years.

"I refuse," he said, without heat. "I am considered an enemy within Konoha, more so than anyone else in Akatsuki. It would be unwise for me to be seen on stage."

"Let me talk to Itachi, Zetsu-san" Tobi chirruped.

Zetsu nodded, and shoved everyone else outside. A few minutes later, Itachi emerged looking blanker than ever.

"I explained it was really important for Deidara to win this," Tobi said soulfully, the very picture of innocence. "He's ready to go practise now."

There was a thunk on the way out as Itachi apparently forgot one had to open doors to walk through them.

"Yes, you should keep an eye on him for the next day!" Tobi called after Kisame. Kisame gave Tobi a deeply suspicious look, decided it was best to pretend he suspected nothing, and carried on leading Zombie Itachi to the nearest video store to find something suitable.

The talent contest went surprisingly well, from Akatsuki's point of view..

Hinata, Tenten and Ino had all been eliminated. Hinata seemed much happier now she wasn't taking part, and could be seen bustling around the dressing room helping everyone else to get ready. A perfectly cheerful Tenten could normally be found supporting her friends, or hobbling away on crutches as fast as she could after Gai and Lee came chasing her down, determined to console her some more for having her victory so cruelly snatched away at the very peak of her youth. And a still morbidly obese Ino was sat moodily in five of the front row seats, watching the show with a murderous expression.

Sakura's talent had been demonstrating self-defence, spoiled by her partner Sai ending up clinging determinedly to a light fixture and refusing to come down. After she had climbed up after him and dragged him back across the stage, one of the judges had questioned whether it could really be described as self-defence if the so-called assailant was curled up in a ball the entire time.

Temari had unexpectedly had to withdraw from this stage. This was, for once, nothing to do with sabotage from Akatsuki. It wasn't for lack of effort (Zetsu had delivered a poisonous bouquet that sat in front of her mirror determinedly breathing venomous pollen), but simply because Tayuya and her wheelchair had got there first and broke eight bones in Temari's foot after accidentally driving over it minutes before she was due to dance on stage. And then backing up and doing it again and again while security danced around in consternation, unwilling to touch the girl in the wheelchair.

Karin had put up some fairly stiff competition with her pole dancing, and Tayuya had scored very highly with her flute solo, performing a particularly sad, drippy piece of music that had half the audience in tears for the poor disabled girl, who had viciously sabotaged her opponent only minutes before.

Feeling like the worst sort of traitor, Kisame had left a dangerously suggestible Itachi behind and made some excuse about going to see a man about a haddock. In the interests of a) saving some of Itachi's dignity, and b) slightly reducing his own chances of getting an Amaterasu in the back, he had stayed gone for the next twenty four hours, hoping that Itachi would take his wrath out on the rest of Akatsuki after whatever Tobi had done wore off.

He therefore missed seeing a blonde-wigged Itachi receive a standing ovation and unanimous full marks from every single judge for his Olympic-grade performance, completely making up for Deidara's dismal marks in the evening and swimsuit sections. Perhaps Deidararina's paleness and the truly terrible shadows under her eyes could have been put down to a very bad night, but it was remarkable that no one had questioned why she was a good few inches taller than she had been before. This might have been something to do with Tobi having a quiet word with the judges.

Kisame finally returned to the hotel later that night, whistling innocently as if he knew nothing of whatever had happened. Akatsuki were all gathered in Deidara's room. An unconscious Itachi was crumpled in the corner. Deidara was surrounded by bouquets and flushed with elation, caring little for whether he actually deserved credit or not just so long as he had lots of people telling him how big and clever he was.

"We're rehearsing the questions," Kakuzu said grimly, glancing up as Kisame walked in. Kisame took the seat nearest to the fire escape. "Deidara, describe your dream date."

Deidara frowned. "Is that one of those things with other people?"

"Your ideal date would be with yourself?"

"Yeah," Deidara said, contentedly. "We'd fly into the sunset together, and then blow lots of shit up."

"The part about flying into the sunset is promising," Zetsu said, dubiously. Like most of Akatsuki, he had no idea what passed as a normal and healthy relationship with other people.

"Romantic, Deidara-san," Tobi chipped in. "Like candles and stars and fireplaces," he clasped his hands together dreamily.

"Wait," Kakuzu said, turning to Tobi. "What's your ideal date?"

"Mine?" Tobi looked pleased. "First, we'd go for a walk in the park and feed all the ducks and share ice-cream, and give the ducks some too if ducks like ice-cream. Then we'd sit in front of the fire and tell each other stories. And then we'd go to the beach and watch the sun set, and name stars after each other, and-"

"This stuff is gold," Hidan said, scribbling away. "And what can we do for world peace?"

"Everyone should just hug each other," Tobi said ecstatically.

"..What happened?"

Everyone turned around. Itachi was now sat up, gingerly touching his temple as though he had a headache. No one was currently burning, or on the floor twitching and gurgling and begging someone to oh God, make the pain stop. Itachi's eyes hadn't narrowed two nanometres into what passed as his angry face. It was almost as if-

"You fell asleep, Itachi-san," Tobi said cheerily. "Here, let me get you some painkillers-"

"My Sharingan.." Itachi frowned. "The talent section is over?"

"Yes," Kisame said, and added a silent And let us never speak of it again.

And meanwhile, in the dressing rooms..

Karin was alone, rehearsing her questions in front of the mirror. She was beginning to get a little unsettled, unable to shake off a strange feeling that someone was watching her. A creak in the corner of the room made her jump, and she turned around quickly. Nothing. She was alone. There was absolutely nothing in the room except for inanimate objects. Clothes, makeup, hairdryers, shoes. Luggage.

As Karin was repeating her answer to Describe your ideal date, she definitely saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She spun around again, and once more, there was nothing there. Except she could have sworn that giant clothes trunk had been a few feet to the right a minute ago. She stood up, slightly nervous, and walked over. She rapped on it. Solid wood.

Karin was repeating her answer to What is your ambition? in a high, nervous voice when the trunk lunged towards her. She whirled around, trapped against the mirror as the trunk loomed over her, unfolding to reveal a maw filled with knives, axes, needles, saws, scythes, and in the middle of it all, a small boy sat coolly at the controls. She began to scream, her voice abruptly cut off as the trunk swallowed her up.

"Kaaaarin," a singsong voice came from outside the door a minute or two later. "Did you see a spider? Want me to come chase it out for you? ..Karin?"

There was silence. Suigetsu began to wonder if one of the remaining contestants had attacked Karin. He wasn't too worried. He'd still have his money on her if she was going ten rounds with Juugo. Still.. not bothering to knock for the sake of any girls getting changed, he took a run-up and burst heroically through the door, ready to leap bravely into the middle of any number of catfighting beauty contestants.

"Huh." The room was completely empty. He wandered around it once or twice, taking a quick look under a few tables and in the odd wardrobe, before deciding that Karin must have gone out the back. He sat down on a clothes trunk to wait for her return.

"Ouch!" Suigetsu yelped, jumping back up a minute later. He turned around and glared at the trunk. "Fucking splinters." He kicked it vindictively and sauntered out the room.

At least, that was the idea. Suigetsu made it half way to the door before the poison took effect, and he fell twitching to the floor. A moment later, the trunk stood up, marched over to Suigetsu, and neatly swept him up into an open hatch.

The strain was beginning to get to Akatsuki. Itachi was haunted by inexplicable dreams involving energetic dance music, spangles, and spending an awful lot of time upside-down. Zetsu was beginning to wilt from lack of sleep. And security were called to Hidan and Kakuzu's room no fewer than six times over the last night, although Hidan was always stitched back together (not necessarily always in the right order) by the time they arrived, telling them they could fuck right off, and no, he didn't need no card with a very good helpline on it.

Tayuya had simply not shown up for the last stage at all. This was, one more, nothing to do with Akatsuki. Their money would have been on the peculiar, dark-eyed boy who had turned out to be Temari's brother. No one seriously suspected him, as he had only wandered into the dressing room for a few minutes, and had been seen leaving without a corpse. But Kisame could have sworn he later saw Gaara give one of the largest and most grumpy looking clothes trunks a conspiratorial nod.

The two remaining contestants glared at each other across the now nearly-empty stage as the questions began.

"Deidararina, what would you say is your favourite animal?"

Deidara glanced towards the audience. Tobi made some vague wiggly motions above his head. "Bunnies and puppies and kittens," Deidara said, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"Same question to Sakura!"

"Fluffy little ducklings," Sakura countered grimly. Deidara's eyes narrowed. She was good.

"And what do you most like to do with your friends, Sakura?"

"Eat ice-cream and talk about boys," she growled, looking like she'd punch out anyone who dared contradict this.

"Deidararina, same question to you."

"Volunteer in soup kitchens, yeah."

"You lying little ta-"

"Ladies, please! Deidararina, if you could have one wish, what would it be for?"

"A fucking unicorn."


"World peace," Sakura said triumphantly.

The interrogation seemed to go on forever. Deidara went to pieces and answered "Puppies" when asked what his favourite food was, but Sakura was unable to bluff an answer when asked what was her favourite makeup brand (this was easy for any Akatsuki member; they bought their nail polish in industrial size vats). And then it was over. The judges were whispering among themselves. Tobi was squirming in his seat excitedly. Kakuzu looked as though he might suffer four simultaneous heart attacks if Sakura won.

"And the winner of Miss World is... Miss Deidararina!"

The dreamy music began to play again, quickly drowned out by Deidara's very favourite noise after KABOOM. It was applause, and he didn't care how bemused the audience sounded so long as they were cheering for him. Glitter began to fall, twinkling prettily in the pink spotlight that swung over Deidara. He gasped theatrically, and then not-so-theatrically as Sakura broke three ribs with her congratulations hug, muttering a death threat through her well-Vaselined smile. But he didn't care, because someone was giving him a sash to tell everyone in the room that Deidara was absolutely, indisputably, the very prettiest and most talented and charming young lady for miles around. And a bouquet of flowers, and the most darling little tiara with glittery pink gemstones-

And he grabbed it protectively, looking around for back-up as at least four of the contestants had been here for the tiara too, and now they were pulling out their hidden weapons and coming at him, wearing slinky dresses and high heels and murderous expressions. With a lot of screaming and slapping, everyone dived at him at once. The tiara soared high above the audience, twinkling in the spotlights, bouncing on the ground and rolling to a stop-

"Heh," Naruto said, picking up the tiara and putting it on. "Look at me Sakura, I'm a pretty princess," He clasped his hands together, made kissy noises and burst out laughing at his own brilliant wit.

"Give me that," Kakuzu growled. Naruto laughed, and skipped off, holding out his imaginary dress and still wearing the useless tiara that clearly had no effect on him at all.

"It doesn't work," Itachi said tonelessly. None of them bothered to follow Naruto. All of their efforts had came to nothing.

But Kakuzu's eerie glowing eyes swam with tears as he clutched a little ticket in his hands, an expression of maniacal glee coming over him as he stared at the scrap of paper in reverence. "Who cares? I'm rich!"

Those thirty seconds in which Kakuzu was able to gaze at his ticket and believe he had won a fortune didn't last long, but they were the happiest thirty seconds of his life. In those seconds, his constant and irrational urge to tear everything alive into little pieces subsided. Perhaps this money could fill the aching void in his life that he had previously filled with countless body parts. He even began to entertain thoughts of retiring (something he was about three centuries overdue for anyway), perhaps buying a little cottage and spending the rest of his days rolling around in a giant pile of money giggling with glee.

And then it was all ruined as there was a sharp intake of breath from the audience. A gleeful Deidara had just ripped his Boobie Boosters out of his dress and threw them high into the air with a shout of joy. The soft silicone cups landed on the stage with a wobbly sort of plip that would forever be the sound of Kakuzu's dreams crashing down around him.

"That's not a girl," someone said, and the enraged beauty contestants descended upon Akatsuki.

Tenten and Temari were already armed with crutches. Shy little Hinata was holding what looked like a two-by-four full of rusty nails (she had in fact just picked it up off the floor before someone stood on it and needed an ouchy tetanus shot, but none of Akatsuki knew that). And Sakura looked ready to beat Deidara to death with the nearest blunt object (Sai had cautiously retreated to a safe distance upon seeing this).

Deidara glanced from girl to girl to Kakuzu, produced a clay bird from nowhere, and shot into the sky a moment before Kakuzu would have began tearing him apart for being disqualified after he had already won the whole thing. The rest of Akatsuki began to back away, only to find Ino blocking one entire side as the girls closed in from the other. Hidan tore off his own arm and hefted it like a club. Itachi found his pointiest hairdressing scissors. Kisame raised the badminton racket threateningly.

They were saved as everyone was distracted by a high pitched nyeeeeeowwww coming from the dressing rooms. A second later, the wall blew apart. Something was racing towards them. Something that currently looked very much like a giant clothes trunk, but was looking more and more like a light aircraft as bits kept folding out from nowhere. Within seconds, it had turned into a small aeroplane with Hiruko's sneery face on the nose cone. Sasori sat in the cockpit, coolly steering with one hand while he found his flying gear (scarf, goggles, hat with ear flaps on) with the other.

Sasori wasn't actually trying to save Akatsuki, but that didn't stop them all diving on the light aircraft as it zoomed past. The engine began to whine as the plane listed dramatically to one side, losing the precious inches it had gained until it was barely skimming above the floor. All of Akatsuki came to the same realisation- someone had to go- and just as a suspicious fireball nearly singed off the ivy tendrils Zetsu was clinging on with, Hidan attempted to decapitate Itachi while Kakuzu was sawing busily through Hidan's left wrist, and Kisame was unpicking the stitches that held on Kakuzu's right arm, slightly distracted by the small petunia that had detached itself from Zetsu's blossoms, hopped on Kisame's shoulder, and was determinedly trying to throttle him from behind. And all the while, the ground was quivering as Ino pounded after them, beginning to build up momentum as she went. There was no way they would survive a collision with that.

Sasori glanced behind him and hit a button on the dashboard, adding to the chaos as an enormous scythe unfolded itself and began sweeping back and forward systematically like a giant window-cleaner arm, trying to knock off at least one or more of his fellow teammates. With a shriek, Tobi lost his precarious grip, and went bouncing off Hiruko, rolling straight into Megaino's path as the gigantic girl closed in on them. With a shout of dismay, Ino lost her balance and bounced over and over like a three hundred pound organic beach ball. Sasori hit the jets, and with a high-pitched screech from the engines, the lightened Hiruko managed to gain just enough altitude to rise inches above Ino's chubby grasping fingers.

Another minute later, and things were looking up. Hiruko was flying steadily at a safe three hundred feet or so in the air. Sasori had ceased trying to throw the rest of Akatsuki to their deaths. Hidan had found the in-flight movie. Kakuzu was too inconsolable to even feel like killing everyone in sight.

And then the mysterious noises began.

"Mmm, Sasuke, is that you?" A disembodied girl's voice giggled naughtily. Attention turned to Hidan and his in-flight movie. He raised his hands, innocent for once.

"Hrmmph? Help! Rape!" a male voice bellowed, followed by frantic scuffling noises. "I can't move! OH GOD SHE HAS DRUGGED ME!"

The girl's voice rose in an indignant screech. "YOU? I didn't-" Something boomed hollowly inside Hiruko, and the plane began to list dangerously to one side. Sasori realised where the voices were coming from, swore, and hit the jettison button too late. A comatose Tayuya plummeted serenely to the ground as a desperate Suigetsu came clawing his way out of the hatch and up the side of the plane, followed by a wrathful Karin, and some minutes later, the entire aircraft disappeared into a forest canopy in a trail of black smoke.