Disclaimer: Not mine, whut.

A/N: Written for chocolatelimes for the June 2007 round of flashfics on LJ. Super-late and somewhat awful, apologies.

Prodigal Son

It belonged in a story, most of it.

Once upon a time, there was a village nestled among the tall blades of grass. And in that village lived a family of terrible monsters. Their eyes were made of gold, their faces half-black and half-white, their bodies belonging not to animals but to plants. Storytellers whispered it as the grass whistled around them: "they eat their children."

Half of Zetsu has dim memories of his childhood, spent in a long low house surrounded everywhere by grass. Blades of it grew long enough that to a small boy they seemed to blot out the sun. When he was tall enough to navigate the grass he was sent to the ninja academy, as if he were a normal boy. How many years ago was that, now—how can he still see the frightened children, their faces all white with the fear of him?

The other half remembers only a long, exquisite awakening like grass growing toward the sun, and then blood.

Ten, eleven years old, he thinks he was, when he first killed. Blood covered one hand and made a sticky red ring around his mouth where his tongue couldn't quite reach.

Sometimes he forgets what his mother was like when she lived, but she is always present in that memory. Her hair was the gold of wheat in autumn, its tips stained blood-red when she bent down to feed on her son's kill. He was not a child after that—they eat their children.

From then on, his mind fills in more details. The walls of the compound suppressed him, shut him in so he could barely breathe. You and I were meant for greater things than this, this lurking in the grass, he whispered in his mind, though he no longer knows which self it was that spoke.

His mother caught him as he was sneaking away from the village. She let him kill her, he realized later as he cleaned the blood from her clothes. She patronized him, treated him like a child when he had never really had a childhood. He hated her for it, and her flesh soured in his mouth. It ended up as her victory anyway, dead though she was. They eat their children.

You killed your mother and ate her.

She had her revenge on me. When death claims me I will find her again, and feed on what flesh she still has. She will not have the power to thwart me.

You ought to let her lie dead in peace. She cared for both of us when we were children.

I was never a child, only a seed within a stupid boy trapped in a stifling house. I have escaped that house. I will never escape the boy.

My mother is dead.

Your mother is dead, and you have begun to live. You are free of that clan forever. You are a stupid boy, and they eat their children.

Zetsu shrouds himself in black, flecked with red clouds. Here he (they) can become something taller than the grass that wrapped around the house where he grew up so fast.

He remembers that his family mourned their dead in black and red instead of white. They would weep over the body and then rip it to shreds. The cloak reminds him of his mother. Her bones will have been covered with grass by now; the only place he will be able to find her is in hell.

The rest of his clan, though—he is strong now, he will be able to destroy them and he will have earned the taste of the rough sinews of their flesh. He is dressed in mourning for them already.

The child will return.

Zetsu has never paid much attention to the ramblings of storytellers, but he can't help but notice that the Akatsuki is made up of the kinds of barely human shinobi that tiny academy students whisper to each other about around flickering fires. Zetsu doesn't like many of them, and understands fewer than he likes.

Half of them are fixated on living forever. Even here, among other misfit monsters, Zetsu sticks out because he desires death. But the others are fools, and they will eventually learn this: that all things must die and rot or be eaten, that some things cannot be escaped, that they can run for as long as they want but they will never run away. The child will return.

One of Kakuzu's innumerable partners comes from Zetsu's old village. He can see that the boy knows his gold eyes and bicolored skin from horror stories told of the clan. It gives him a bit of vindictive pleasure to appear around corners and from trees to scare the boy.

Kakuzu lets Zetsu have the corpse after he kills this one. It is his first taste of home in a long time, and he is hungry for more. He imagines the boy's heart to be that of his father (who he doesn't remember at all) and waits until an opportunity to go home presents itself. Determined, the child will return.

When Deidara first appears to the Akatsuki, both sides of Zetsu are intrigued. Among the members of the organization, he seems to be the only other one who wants to die. His way is all fire and violence, limbs ripped from their joints by the force of the bomb rather than Zetsu's teeth and grass, but death is death no matter how it happens.

There are two openings in the organization when the decision is made to promote Deidara to a full member, and for a while it's uncertain whether he'll be assigned to Sasori or Kakuzu. Zetsu is once again divided on this issue: half of him wants to give the boy to Sasori and let him live for a while (he is, after all, very young, and the inevitability of death need not come after such a short time), while the other tries to imagine what his flesh will taste like after Kakuzu kills him.

Zetsu casts his vote for Kakuzu.

The child will return.

You say you will cut yourself free of me, eventually.

I will cut myself out of your corpse, tear you to shreds and gorge myself on you the way I did to her. Weakness is weeded out and the earth nurtures the strong.

The earth nurtures itself, and I am the earth. The child will return.

On closer inspection, which is what he has always good at, it turns out that Deidara will die only for art, as if his conception of beauty will alter the inevitability of the cycle they are all a part of. Zetsu has lived longer and taken more life away, and he knows that the air will not take Deidara when he makes the final reach for it; what is left of him will fall to the ground and spread himself within it. They are all the same, after all; they will all try to cheat the world Zetsu has dealt in since he was born.

He arrived back where he began.

He will give himself to the earth and the earth will take him. It is the way of his clan, and he will honor it in the end. They will not mourn him, but those above ground do not matter to the ground itself. He will be free of his mother's blood as they become the same dust. The clan would say he betrayed them, but as they all did, he arrived back where he began.

This is an endless cycle of decay and devour, and he in turn will do both and have them done to him. Stories will be told of Zetsu, the-man-who-killed, the-man-who-died, but he will not linger. The earth will take him for its own, and he will allow it as he passes forward, so far forward that he arrived back where he began.