I know what you're thinking: "An update already? But you always take forever! You're just teasing me, aren't you?" Nope, it really is finished and it's about 3,000 words larger than previous chapters! So, let's get down to business. (To defeat the Huns!)
Redskiez asked: "I thought they were having a holiday last chapter? Or has that holiday ended?" The short answer is yes, they did, and yes, it is over. It makes my OCD do backflips and shit to pick up exactly where the last chapter left off when months have passed since then. Don't worry, their holiday wasn't very eventful, anyway.
As far as the quickie goes... well, how long would you last if you hadn't gotten any in 7 years? ;P
I don't own Naruto!
"What did you say caused these punctures? Senbon?"
"Yes, sensei. Six of them," I repeated, having answered this question more than once already. I'd been putting off going to see Zetsu for a few days in hope of convincing Deidara that I was fine, but the persistent weakness, not to mention the occasional lightning bolts of agony that would spiderweb from my shoulder to each fingertip, were warning signs I could no longer ignore.
"These are unusual marks for senbon. They may have been crafted by a specialist."
"Who cares," his dark side said indignantly, leering at me. "It's plain to see he's been consorting with another cannibal behind our back. Just look at the teeth marks on him!"
"Oh, hush. Tobi's a good boy. He would never do that."
"Sensei, can I get your expert opinion?"
"Sit down, then."
Sighing, I realized his much-needed closer look at my shoulder and the surrounding tissue would necessitate the removal of my t-shirt. My eyes shot to the open doorway out of habit and I yanked the shirt up over my head in rebellion of my past insecurities and balled it up in my hands. Obeying my sensei's instructions, I reluctantly claimed the stiff, uncomfortable seat at the examination table. The fluorescent tube overhead washed out the milky, exposed flesh of my upper body in its scintillating glow and was quite unforgiving on the eyes. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on one's perspective — I was used to Zetsu's stainless steel workspace to the point that it rarely gave me a headache anymore, even with the repugnant, overpowering scent of rubbing alcohol. There were good hygiene habits, then there was an obsessive-compulsive need to disinfect every surface... the man-plant hybrid's tendencies were far closer to the latter. It was surprising, really, that I hadn't been inadvertently sterilized in all my years under his tutelage, considering the amount of chemicals he saturated his tools in to keep them bacteria-free and the amount of times those tools were used to repair my disfigured body.
"I have good news," white Zetsu announced after some contemplation, a satisfied twinge of a smile briefly passing over his lips. "These wounds are clear of debris. You must have tended them in the field."
"Hn," was my noncommittal reply.
Zetsu's pervasive chakra ventured into my aching deltoid and bicep, both of which had been damaged by the senbon. Evidently, he detected no problems with either because the soothing, threadlike strands withdrew back to the dermis to wind their way through the tender, scabbed points of entry. He expertly mended them, leaving new, unblemished skin cells behind. How odd for a medic, especially my carnivorous sensei, to take special care of a few superficial punctures when they were already partially healed. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic since the last time I sought his medical attention for a combat-related injury was over two decades ago when I stumbled back from a self-imposed mission sporting a jagged, sinister-looking gash from collarbone to navel. Zetsu admonished fifteen-year-old me for being stupid enough to allow my chakra reserves to fall so critically low that I couldn't triage myself, which would've circumvented the astounding blood loss that led to two transfusions. After that, I always took care of my injuries as soon as I could and didn't waste precious time fussing over scars.
The entire right half of my body was a scar, after all. That would never change.
The feelings of humiliation and disgrace I associated with that incident when I was a teenager reminded me of my most recent example of disgrace — the fiasco in Fire Country. The fact that I was reduced to blacking out in under a minute was infuriating and the circumstances were no clearer after a week of meditation than they were during the event itself. Despite my modesty as a person, I knew that, as a shinobi, I was exceptionally fast and should've been able to hold my own with ease in that fight... so why had I failed so spectacularly? Deidara was either as traumatized as I initially thought or he was being bullish and recalcitrant as usual because he still adamantly refused to discuss what transpired. The latter was more likely, seeing as he was the same person who blew people up for a living and took barbaric pleasure in doing so. What would my obstinate partner say when Pein-sama returned and commanded a full debrief?
"Ah, just as I suspected..." Zetsu's voice pulled me out of my thoughts and back to the current task at hand. I wrenched my eyelids apart, only to sear my retinas under the obnoxious light above. Cringing, I covered my eyes with my free hand and attempted to blink the discomfort away. The first throbs of a migraine began to bloom behind my optic nerves in spite of my efforts.
"What is it, sensei? Rotator cuff?" I guessed, keeping my eyes shielded.
"Close; your axillary nerve was nicked. This can result in palsy."
The brain and nerves were the most complex system of the human body, thus I had little understanding of the few medical ninjutsu tailored to them. The majority of my expertise was limited to flesh wounds and broken bones, but since I was capable of walking after what happened to me as a thirteen-year-old boy, I assumed that Zetsu must be well-acquainted with the jutsu involved with restoring nerve functionality. Simple healing chakra could be applied to reconnect severed nerves and reopen constricted nerves, but repairing them... that was a task reserved for highly experienced and educated medics with knowledge of highly specialized procedures and perhaps a few forbidden jutsu.
Axillary nerve palsy was a rare affliction among shinobi. The few unlucky enough to suffer from the condition complained of muscle weakness, limited range of motion in the affected shoulder, and numbness of the skin. The ones who didn't see a medic within a few hours of the injury never regain use of the joint, at least not fully. Adults were particularly unlikely to recover and generally receive mandatory orders to retire from service.
The reality that my career could be over because of a few tiny needles made my blood boil. I hadn't overcome adversity repeatedly over the course of my life and become an excellent ninja just to be permanently disabled by senbon, of all things. I would be useless as a shinobi and therefore useless to Akatsuki, so it only made sense to infer that I would be replaced in order to maintain a satisfactory mission completion ratio. Business was business, as they say... but what if Pein reassigned Deidara to a new partner? My heart faltered at the idea of my lover working with someone else. I hurled the slightly sweaty t-shirt I'd been clenching in my clammy fists at the open doorway where it bounced off the door frame and landed uneventfully in a heap on the unfinished, yet well-packed dirt floor.
"No need to lose your temper, Tobi. The nerve is transmitting impulses properly and the muscles contract as they should."
"I have to disagree, sensei. I can't move it and the pain is... disconcerting, to say the least."
"My official opinion is that your symptoms are psychosomatic. Mental issues are beyond my field of expertise, but I would assume that you haven't truly tried to control your arm."
"Haven't tried? I can't even support my daughter's weight and she's barely twenty kilos!"
"Natsumi weighs just over twenty-four kilos now, actually."
"Really? Are her height and weight still good?" I inquired, playing into Zetsu's forced distraction.
"Impossibly average," he confirmed ruefully. My daughter's utter normalcy as far as growth and anatomy flummoxed him to no end. He must have expected her to be born a mutant or at least show some evidence that she was conceived to two men instead of a man and a woman, but alas... not a single anomaly.
Zetsu reached for a cloth and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, his flytrap extensions rustling visibly. That was my queue to get out of his way and let him indulge his obsession with disinfection. It was nice to give my aching butt a reprieve from that unforgiving metal stool, anyway. It had not a single speck of padding left on its seat and all that remained of its frayed upholstery were small bits of unraveling cotton swatches. If I weren't nursing an oncoming headache, I likely would've acted on my sudden, childish urge to kick it.
"Thanks, sensei," I said, bowing deeply.
"No problem," Zetsu replied, absently shooing me out with one hand while he vigorously scrubbed the steel surface that I'd hardly touched. I couldn't stop myself from smirking as I backed out the doorway, pausing just outside to pull my t-shirt back over my head. While I wasn't terminally self-deprecating anymore, I also wasn't a self-absorbed pig like the Jashinist in our group. He used to strut regularly around the hideout in his boxer shorts, even though there were three young children — two of which were little girls — who didn't need to see his accoutrements hanging out of the leg holes of his undergarments. Until I threatened to remove a certain appendage that Kakuzu couldn't replace, that is. After that, he quit his exhibitionist habit cold turkey.
Perfect timing, I thought, glancing at the digital wristwatch I wore as I shuffled lazily down the hallway to the room I inhabited with my partner and our child. Zetsu's examination of my shoulder had consumed so much time that it was now half past one o'clock, which meant that I needed to leave immediately to avoid being late for my emergency meeting with Kakashi in Amegakure. Now Deidara would believe that I rushed off in honor of punctuality and not because I didn't want to respond to his concern for my injury. Even though it was for the best, it still pained me to look straight into his enchanting cerulean eyes and tell him lie after lie.
My guilty conscience could be the mental block between myself and my arm, for all I knew.
When an emotionally strained Tobi returned from his impromptu check up with Zetsu, he wasn't in the room for two minutes before he hastily performed the seals to teleport to Ame. His meeting with his old friend was in less than half an hour, so I didn't complain, even when his goodbye kiss was devoid of its typical tenderness and passion. When I asked him to at least tell me how his shoulder was healing, he shrugged and said he'd tell me later. He flipped his despondence off like a switch when Natsumi passed through the room on her way to the shower, of course, but that was to be expected from any decent parent. His consideration for her was a good sign that his head was still firmly attached, at the very least. It was only reasonable to assume that he had a particularly large bone to pick with the copy ninja after we were intercepted on our way through Fire Country. He was in a hurry to press the copy ninja for information. I needn't worry.
Don't you, though? Listen to yourself, baka. You're rationalizing.
Rationalizing? There was nothing to rationalize. Tobi and I were both busy and both of us had our own things to do. Even if he was avoiding me, he would come to talk to me in due time. We were rarely apart for more than a few measly minutes a day, so it's not like he had anything to hide. How could he? There wasn't time to have secrets, much less conceal them. Life in the hideout had a way of uncovering everyone's personal business. Within Akatsuki, privacy was a forgotten commodity.
You've never trusted any other Uchiha you've met, and with good cause. Backstabbing is in their blood.
"Tobi isn't like that," I growled through gritted teeth, shaking my head at an empty room. Comparing my partner to the clan he no longer remembered was about as rational as comparing asparagus to zucchini. What utter nonsense...
When in doubt, look to one's eyes.
"Now that's just cryptic, yeah," I scoffed. Immediately, I felt stupid and ridiculous for allowing my own thoughts to provoke me. What if Natsumi heard me arguing with myself as she got dressed and ready to embark on our secret field trip? She was only meters away in the adjoining bathroom and sound carried splendidly in the cave.
See? You've kept a secret from him. What makes you think he's not keeping one from you?
So what if I didn't tell Tobi about my plans to take our daughter out of headquarters for her very first guided combat experience? If I had, he would've sooner taken Natsumi to his meeting in Ame with him. She was so thrilled for the opportunity to evaluate her skills in a real fight... I couldn't let Tobi ruin that. His fiercely over-protective nature, while well-meaning, was only going to come between her and her dream to be a top notch kunoichi. Slamming the airtight lid onto the plastic container that held my small stockpile of clay, ending the conversation between myself and I, I gave the newly filled pouches scattered across the bed beside me an appraising once-over. Four of them were mine, yes, but the extra four belonged to Natsumi now.
"What do you think, Mom?" Speak of the devil.
Natsumi emerged from the lavatory with a downright impish grin, showing off the style she developed for herself. Like me, she wore her hair up, but in pigtails, and stray tendrils of golden sunshine framed her seemingly perpetual pout and youthful, yet all-knowing eyes beautifully. She complemented her long-sleeved black shirt with lightweight, loose-fitting cotton pants that stopped just above the ankle. The finishing touch was a Konohagakure shinobi staple: Superfluous bandages binding her left thigh and right elbow — a pleasing, asymmetrical touch. I had to wonder where she'd seen it before, considering her father was the only Leaf native in Akatsuki and he didn't see fit to follow that trend.
"Very nice. A practical outfit, un."
Belatedly, I noticed that she wore the indigo hitai-ate with the symbol of Amegakure that Leader-sama and Konan gave her for her birthday. Ever the nonconformist, she had it tied on her right thigh rather than its designed location. The fleeting idea to enter her in the upcoming Chūnin Selection Exams intrigued me until I realized that, despite my belief that she was easily beyond the Genin level, she was not formally recognized as a Genin by any hidden village, therefore making her ineligible to participate in the exams. Oh well, I thought gloomily. Even if she were an official Genin, Tobi would spiral into a rage fit of epic proportions once he learned about our real world training session and probably lecture me endlessly about how I put her life at risk, as if my abilities and my judgment were inadequate. His lack of faith in me was disappointing.
If anything, shouldn't the parent who carried the child for the better part of nine months have more influence over their child's training?
"Mom? Can we go yet?"
Natsumi gazed expectantly at me, her father's goofy, lopsided smile plastered across her face. If we didn't get moving soon, her enthusiasm would devolve into a tantrum, so I rose to my feet and tossed her a couple of clay pouches, which she captured without looking. She could be a bit of a show-off sometimes.
"Is your hair dry? I don't want you to catch a cold, un."
"Yep," she replied, fastening each pouch onto opposite sides of her belt. I supposed she knew the drill from watching me gear up before an assignment countless times. She was a fairly independent child, which I appreciated, and I smiled approvingly at her choice to attach the third clay pouch on over her thigh bandaging. The bandages were good for more than wounds, I realized, recalling many occasions where I ended up with chafing from the strap of the pouch rubbing constantly against my leg.
"Good. Once your gear's on, well leave, yeah."
"Where should I put the last one?"
"I'll hold onto it in case you need it, but I don't think you will. Three pouches should be plenty for you, un."
Natsumi nodded once to convey her understanding and set out to find her sandals. I turned my attention to my own equipment laid out on the bed, which included my eye scope and my Akatsuki cloak, the latter of which I wasn't terribly interested in wearing. I stared indecisively at its cerise clouds with their white embroidered outlines for a moment, weighing its pros and cons. I didn't feel like openly displaying my affiliation for all to see and attract unwanted attention, especially since my daughter would be accompanying me, but anyone who'd seen a bingo book in the past decade would have my facial features — and my steadily increasing bounty — committed to memory, anyway. The cloak was versatile, though, and did an excellent job retaining heat, which was important now that winter was fast approaching. A chilly breeze on the ground was easily a biting, bone-chilling wind at my usual vantage point.
While I clipped my own clay pouches on, I remembered that there was an easy way I could avoid being recognized. An E-rank technique, it was so novice that I had completely disregarded it and let it gather cobwebs in the far reaches of my mind, but now I realized why many high-ranking ninja still used it. Forming the necessary hand seals, I performed one of the most simple techniques commonly used today: Henge no Jutsu.
In a puff of smoke, I was transformed into an older, brunette version of my daughter. Female and all, I thought bitterly, my downward field of vision interrupted by a pair of moderately sized endowments protruding from my ribcage where my flat pectorals would normally be.
Those were definitely going to get in the way.
"Oh, are we going in disguise?" Natsumi asked excitedly, bouncing on the navy blue heels of her standard shinobi sandals.
"Just me, sweetie. You need your chakra for more important things, un."
"Aww, darn it."
Excited Natsumi became Ultra-Hyper-Almost-Unmanageable Natsumi during our somewhat lengthy flight to Grass Country, which I knew to be riddled heavily with low-ranking ninja that possessed roughly the same amount of combat finesse as a dead cat. I suspected we wouldn't need to journey more than a kilometer or so before locating a suitable target. This was ideal considering I was particularly unwelcome around the country's capital, Kusagakure, and I didn't want to get that close to Ame while Tobi was there, anyway. I scanned the largely flat expanse of farmland below diligently, having learned the art of tuning in and out of Natsumi's babbling at will sometime after she reached the age of three. It was a priceless skill, I decided, certain that I would otherwise be far too distracted to keep my scope — and my sanity — trained on the vast, rolling fields of wilting vegetation below.
However, the reality of what was set in motion crept up on me and even my adrenaline began to surge, leaving me with a jitter that would have the most steady hands shaking. It was by design, I supposed: Most parents were bestowed the intrinsic gift of a "sixth sense" when it came to the health and safety of their children and I was no exception, although I did not permit it to cripple my mental faculties as many other parents did. I acknowledged that Natsumi was still a little girl, having celebrated her seventh birthday not so long ago, but she was not a typical child in any sense of the word. Most kids her age were sitting at a desk in the Academy from the age of five or six until they were eleven or twelve, learning less about how to be shinobi than how to pick their noses without getting caught.
Or picking fights, I thought, vaguely recalling my own childhood antics. Kids were animals, plain and simple.
Natsumi was different. Seemingly inheriting the best of both parents' abilities, she already had a knack for predicting her opponent's next move, not to mention the patience to play cat-and-mouse games if necessary, but her most valuable skill was speed. I was not at all embarrassed to admit that she regularly managed to make contact with me during training and it wasn't because I zoned out or "let" her. She was just so fast, much like Tobi, that I sometimes couldn't keep track of her movements. As long as I could keep her challenged, she would continue to advance, but what would happen when she surpassed me in a few short years? Assuming I could convince her Dad to give her room to grow, that is.
"There's someone, Mom. See him?"
I followed the trajectory of Natsumi's outstretched finger and sure enough, there was a man walking — no, limping — down a narrow, unpaved road, but he had to be at least half a kilometer ahead. For Natsumi to spot him at such a distance without something like my eye scope, her vision must be beyond perfect. Inhuman seemed most fitting.
"Excellent eye, honey, but that man's a civilian. You can tell by his erratic chakra signature, un."
"Oh. This is taking a long time."
"I know it's boring, but it's a good chance to prepare yourself, yeah."
"You will witness death today, Natsumi."
The aptly named hidden village of Ame, despite its complicated series of water displacement mechanisms and weather-influenced architecture, was apparently suffering from widespread flooding as a result of a nonstop torrential downpour no less than a fortnight in duration. For that reason, I was relieved that Kakashi and I mutually agreed on a rooftop meeting. While it would be quite amusing to swim to the currently submerged dock and then tread water idly a meter or so above it the entire time, the chill of autumn would soak past our waterlogged clothing and straight into our cores, sending us both home with a cold... if not pneumonia. With my right arm out of commission, I wouldn't have been capable of treading water, anyway.
I was a few seconds short of being late to the top of the designated building, its only identifying characteristic a covered smoking bench for employees of the business below, which I was thankful for due to the persistent precipitation. Since I was incapable of raising my arm at the shoulder joint, I couldn't use it to maintain balance and slipped several times between the village gate and my destination. If I had known it would be that useless, I would've walked around with it in a sling. Then again, advertising one's weakness was a fantastic way to tempt others into taking advantage of it.
No sooner than I finished scoping the place out to ensure no one was lurking within hearing distance did Kakashi show up. Aside from his uncharacteristically prompt two o'clock arrival, no red flags were raised when I scrutinized his chakra signature for discrepancies. He seemed to briefly do the same and, with a quick, simultaneous nod, we approved one another to approach.
"Good to see you again, Obito."
"I learned your daughter graduated to Genin. Congratulations."
"Huh? There must be some mistake. She's never been to school in her life."
"I don't think so. She apparently graduated from the Academy right here in Ame."
My left eyelid twitched involuntarily as I came to understand how dense I'd been. The hitai-ate that Natsumi received from Pein and Konan for her birthday wasn't the real gift; the promotion to Genin that it represented was. I thought it was simply a token meant to encourage a young aspiring kunoichi, but I put two and two together belatedly, remembering that hitai-ate were only ever awarded to Academy graduates. Pein was the equivalent of a Kage in Ame, if not a deity in the eyes of its citizens, so no one would question his decision to graduate a child that no one had ever seen or heard of.
"How did you find out?"
"Every major hidden village has a computerized database of its active shinobi. Your daughter's photo appeared in the database recently under a fake name, Fujita Kaede." That explained Konan's determination to get a clear photo of Natsumi last month — it was for her ninja registration.
"Ah. Well, thanks for letting me know. She'll be over the moon when I tell her."
The copy ninja responded with a grunt and an uncomfortable silence soon settled while I mulled over the not-so-gently broken news that my seven-year-old daughter had officially beat me to Genin by two years. She was still just baby, a couple of years older than Kakashi had been when he graduated from the Academy. I was proud, yes; more so than I had ever been before in my life, yet equal parts apprehension and fear welled in my chest upon the realization that she also had an alias already. That was probably for the best, though. Something told me that the sudden introduction of another living Uchiha — and a female at that — would serve as drastically more than mere fodder to grease the gears of the gossip mill. People loved drama and would eventually demand to know who fathered the alleged heir of a clan teetering dangerously on the verge of extinction. It'd blow the collective minds of every shinobi on the continent to discover that she was born to two men, one of whom was believed to have perished during the Third Shinobi World War and the other hailing from the very same country responsible for the former's presumed demise.
I could almost hear the sneers of derision. What a charming family, some would politely say, while others cut straight to the chase and let their sharp-tongued, misguided comments fly about how inept Deidara and I must be at parenting without a woman to "balance things out" or how screwed up Natsumi would inevitably be due to her "unorthodox" upbringing. She would be treated with as much animosity as most jinchūriki were by their peers, and for what? Being born?
No thanks to that scenario. We'd stick with Fujita Kaede for the time being.
"Anyway," Kakashi said gruffly, clearing his throat conspicuously, "Please relay my congratulations to her."
The two of us took to mirrored deadlock stares, each of us silently willing the other to address the true purpose for our conference. Ame was a long journey to trek just to stand around and shoot the shit, after all. I decided that, given what Deidara and I went through, I would be the one to break the silence.
"This is strictly off the record, but I asked you here to talk about something that happened last week while Deidara and I were in Fire Country."
"You want to know if I had anything to do with the ambush."
My heart sank to the acidic depths of my stomach. He knew about the attack on my partner and I, which confirmed Deidara's suspicions about his involvement and that it had indeed been a set-up.
His uncovered eyebrow furrowed, indicative of an internal conflict. That was a sign that he knew a whole hell of a lot more than he was permitted to share. He was quiet for nearly a minute as he determined whether or not he was willing to break protocol, which would be a severe offense against the village if anyone found out. Sharing top secret information with an unauthorized party, regardless of affiliation, was considered treason — a crime punishable by death.
"If I did know anything... which I don't... I would tell you that I did everything in my power to stop that operation from happening in the first place, and when I failed to do that, I participated only to ensure that neither you nor your partner were killed."
"You must have noticed someone was reading our letters."
Kakashi said nothing, apparently smart enough not to fall prey to the obvious trap I laid for him. He knew the village was using our friendship to my disadvantage and that was betrayal, plain and simple. How could he conceal vitally important information from a friend when he knew what it would come to?
"Deidara's blood would've been on your hands."
"Why do you think I intervened? I couldn't stand by and watch my oldest and dearest friend lose another love."
"Don't pretend you were innocent the first time."
My implication had its intended effect, breaking the façade of apathy that my former teammate cowered behind for decades. He lifted his forehead protector with the grave uncertainty of a man who might be attending his own funeral, revealing the Sharingan I gifted him on the brink of death nearly a quarter of a century ago, but not in anticipation of a fight. His mismatched eyes searched mine for forgiveness and I made sure they were met with nothing but cool disinterest.
"I never meant for Rin to die. She was so afraid of being a threat to Konoha that she—"
He clammed up in an instant, either too mortified or too remorseful to illustrate our dearly departed teammate's untimely death. I had neither the desire nor the need to hear it, anyway. Reliving it in a nightmare induced by the resurfacing of a buried memory was bad enough. If I wasn't convinced that I had no memories of my parents to relive, I would've expected them to materialize in my dreams soon, too.
"It doesn't matter now. Rin can't be helped. I'm just curious... did you think I'd forgive you and the village and come crawling back after Deidara's death, dragging my grieving daughter along behind me?"
"Of course not. Trusting anyone who played even the smallest part in the murder of your beloved would be beyond stupid, not to mention masochistic."
At least Kakashi wasn't operating under amusingly foolish assumptions. That was slightly redeeming, although I still sensed the bond between us dying with each passing minute. How silly for the friendship that endured death to fall prey to senseless deceit and mistrust. What happened to the Kakashi that fought with me to rescue Rin — the honorable ninja whom I bestowed my eye to? Deidara's bounty was admirable, but it was not the highest in the bingo book and certainly not enough to sacrifice a friendship for... not in my opinion, anyway. Had the political aspects of shinobi life finally gotten under Kakashi's skin and corrupted him from within?
As though the weather was attuned to our conversation, the day's lackadaisical drizzle took a turn for the worse, rainfall increasing tenfold as the overcast sky darkened further. I craned my head back to get a better view of the brilliant flashes of lightning, several of which struck close enough to rattle the village. The sight was breathtaking, not unlike the blonde bomber I cared so deeply for. I almost wondered what he was doing, only to figure that I knew him well enough to guarantee that he was probably trying to teach Natsumi some technique far beyond her current capabilities. How he could be so eager for her to grow up so soon, knowing the terrible things she has to look forward to as a kunoichi, was a part of him I would never understand.
"Obito, are you feeling alright?"
Caught off guard, I switched my focus back to the copy ninja to see that the worry in his voice was indeed reflected on his face. Creases gathered shadows around his normally emotionless eyes. Had I zoned out watching the storm too long and appeared to have gone off the deep end?
I tried to tell him I was just peachy, but the words didn't come out. In fact, my lips didn't move at all. My hands were shaking, I noted, wincing as peals of thunder began to punctuate each flicker of impossibly bright light in the ominously dim sky above. The cacophony coupled with the strobe-like effect of the weather reawakened the headache that I thought I'd snuffed out earlier with a vengeance. Twin epicenters of excruciating pain blossomed in both sides of my brain and, if I were able to cry out in agony and clap my hands over my eyes, I would have. I swayed to the side as the world around me became smeared and blurry around the edges.
"Ka—" was all I managed to say with tremendous effort before extraneous abilities such as speaking and seeing eluded me. I vaguely registered stumbling backward, losing equilibrium, and a falling sensation, the last of which was interrupted by the firm grasp of adept hands — presumably Kakashi's — clutching my upper arms.
"Obito? Obito! Shit..."
Sense of touch abandoned me, leaving me with nothing more than the dull roar of the pouring rain to keep me company, and I couldn't stop myself from wondering if I was dying. Not just brushing elbows with the reaper, but actually dying this time. While I never had expected to live to see the age of forty, I also never imagined that I'd have a lover and a child to leave behind when I finally met my end. Could I really allow myself to slip beyond the veil and never see their faces again? Did I have a choice?
Of course you do, baka. I need you, but Natsumi needs you more. Hold on for her, yeah?
The voice of Deidara was right: I had to stay alive for our little girl. Since all I had to hold onto were sounds, I listened intently to anything I could hear over the storm. Interestingly, I could make out my own heartbeat thumping in my ears and the quick but unmistakable sound of flesh tearing as though cut with a dull, yet still somewhat pointed weapon.
"Who's this? He smells familiar."
"I'll tell you later. Right now, I need you to find his partner and their child. Can you pick up their scents off his clothes?"
"Maybe... let's see... there's clay and a woodsy scent."
"That'll be his partner. That should be enough for you to find them. Tell them it's an emergency and to meet me at the hospital here in Ame."
How could he know what Deidara's shampoo smells like?
"He doesn't smell wounded. What's the emergency?"
"Pakkun, please... just find his family, give them my message, and go home. I'll explain everything later."
Pakkun... I know that name. That's one of the ninken he summons. He must be getting on in age... that old pug has been around since we were kids...
"Fine. Be careful, though. He's about to have a seizure."
That was the last thing I heard before my brain and my paralyzed body jointly took a leave of absence.
Having struck gold about two kilometers into Grass, Natsumi and I engaged a pair of vagrant boys — neither of which could've been a day over nineteen — and in the spirit of fairness, I left the obviously weaker of the pair to her. Both wore Kumogakure hitai-ate, their cloud shaped insignia scratched through, meaning they had abandoned their village. All the better, I thought. No one would miss them and it was unlikely that any tears would be shed over their deaths, should anyone care to search for their bodies in the first place.
My daughter's opponent was a skinny, green-eyed kid with a ruddy complexion and a pitifully overinflated ego. He begun the fight with taunts and crudely-worded insults and I sorely longed to wring his neck for it, but retribution would come to him in the form of a blonde whirlwind poking several holes in his ego and his flesh, bringing me immense joy. With several well-placed strikes, she had him on the ground multiple times with her taijutsu prowess alone, but his stamina must have been extraordinary because he always picked himself up while she was distracted by fatigue. She regenerated chakra at an alarming rate, fortunately, so I did not have to step in to allow her to rest. For a while, he just barely managed to avoid her attacks, but as he started to tire out, he could no longer compete with her speed. She landed a few near-fatal wounds on him while he could only graze her every so often. The outlook for him was looking more grim by the second.
His friend was, to my chagrin, an invasive fighter and my close quarters skills left much to be desired. In combination with prolonged use of Henge no Jutsu and my divided attention between the two separate fights, my chakra reserves were half depleted by the twenty minute mark. Being disguised as a bouncy-chested kunoichi worked to my advantage, however, and I held off as long as possible before dispelling the jutsu. The boy was visibly horrified when he realized that the hot, young piece of ass he'd been ogling for thirty minutes was, in fact, a man. His surprised pause was the delay I'd been waiting for. Sending microscopic clay spiders into the delicate mucous membranes of his nose and throat, I showed him a thousand watt smile before detonating.
The unintended side effect was that I also distracted Natsumi. While she looked on in terror at the remains of the young man I'd been sparring, her own opponent tried to sneak a kunai to her throat. Enraged by his cowardice, I blew his entire left hand off and some of his forearm, too. This further distressed my daughter. She would have nightmares later and probably for weeks to come, but this was a necessary evil if she ever truly hoped to be a ninja. If she couldn't come to terms with taking lives, she had no business as a kunoichi. Not even medics, who were rarely placed on the front lines of war, were immune to the sight of death. If anything, they saw more of it than their combat-oriented teammates.
After what felt like hours watching her battle a young man who became increasingly frustrated with his inability to dodge a little girl, I began to worry that both of them might pass out as a result of chakra depletion, which would end their spar in a stalemate. If circumstances went that direction, leaving him alive was out of the question... I would have to take out the trash for her. I knew there was a very good chance that things would come to that, anyway, as Natsumi would likely be morally unable to kill the first time around. There was no sense in forcing her to do it as that would only send her spiraling into a sea of unhealthy emotions and resentment for me.
"Give up, you little brat. You can't beat me!"
"Quit talking and fight!"
Natsumi's tenacity was strong as ever, but her breathless panting pulled at my heartstrings. If she became too fatigued, she would make mistakes. Mistakes made in combat could be and often were fatal. Even though I was there to protect her, the principle of it was what mattered. I wouldn't always be around, after all, so I couldn't train her to depend on me. Assuming Tobi didn't flay me alive for this, I would give her more and more space with each subsequent battle, gradually disappearing from the equation altogether until she didn't need me anymore.
When she reached her teenage years, she probably wouldn't want me around. Teenagers were finicky that way.
"You've got to be kidding me."
Bested at last, the boy collapsed to his knees, nursing a brand new lethal wound to the carotid artery. A fountain of scarlet spurted from the gash in his neck with each heartbeat and he was either too shocked or didn't have the sense to apply pressure to it. My daughter dropped the kunai she'd been gripping tightly in her small fist, the heartbreaking — but, once again, completely necessary — realization that she was responsible for his imminent end dawned on her and she watched frozen in place as her unnamed opponent's precious blood drained in magnificent gushes from his body. After a violent tremor, he toppled over to one side, his lifeless limbs splayed out in unnatural directions like a discarded marionette.
"You did so well, Natsumi. I can't begin to express how proud of you I am, un."
"But... but Mom," she whimpered softly, turning her stormy, crimson-eyed gaze on me.
But Mom, I just killed a human being.
Mom, there's blood all over my hands.
I feel like I'm going to be sick.
Look at what I've done, Mom.
Sadly, all of the above phrases were likely to be picking her childhood innocence away already with the same ease that a tiger would pick clean the bones of its prey. The naïveté was usually first to go, followed by the adorable but woefully impractical childlike wonder. Watching these pieces of Natsumi die with her first kill would be rough, but worth it in the end. The possibilities for her were endless once she shed the limitations of a child's ignorance.
Wait, back up a bit. Crimson eyes? No, can't be right. I must be seeing things.
Blinking rapidly, I glanced away and then back, only to be met with the same Sharingan from a second before. How peculiar. Sometime during the fight, she awakened her Sharingan and hadn't even noticed. To be fair, she couldn't see her own eyes, but I thought she would've at least felt something or experienced a visual change. The real question was, how had I not caught a glimpse of those blazing red orbs, a lone tomoe spinning leisurely in each iris?
Tobi wasn't just going to flay me; he was going to demolish me for this.
"Sweetheart, is your eyesight any different?" I asked, beckoning her into the comfort of her Mom's arms. She obliged without hesitation and melted against me. The sorrowful keening I braced myself for and expected from a child her age didn't come, instead restrained behind her uncharacteristically stoic expression—the stony, brooding exterior reminiscent of one angsty Uchiha Sasuke. That I could not have prepared myself for, especially not on the face of a seven-year-old girl. I gently patted her back and lamented my luck. Leave it to Tobi and I to have a typical emo Uchiha kid.
"I... I guess so. Everything looks so... sharp."
"It's your Sharingan. You've got yours younger than your father got his, un."
"Well, girls do mature faster than boys," she sighed, hilariously unimpressed.
Out of the corner of my eyes, a sprinting blur that appeared to be a miniature dog approached us from the south as though his life depended on it. His blue cape and Konoha issue hitai-ate, which I could only decipher with the assistance of my eye scope, indicated he was ninken. He skidded to a halt just under a meter away, stirring up loose soil in the process, and I strained to remember who it was that used ninken as summons. The pug announced the answer before I could figure it out for myself.
"I have an urgent message from Hatake Kakashi."
Why would Tobi's friend send me a message when he was supposed to be with Tobi right now? Unless...
"Obito has been hospitalized in Amegakure—" the pug began, only to be interrupted halfway through by a crouched Natsumi scratching behind his ears. He wagged his tail appreciatively before finishing the delivery of his message: "Your presence is requested at the hospital."
My daughter glanced uneasily at the corpses of our slain adversaries, evidently worried by the same possibility that I was.
"There's no time to make a bird, un. We'll have to teleport. Do you want to come with us, ninken?"
"It's Pakkun, and no thanks. I'm dismissed."
"Thank you, Pakkun," Natsumi cooed sweetly, bending down to pet the small dog once more. He licked her palm and vanished in a swirl of yellowing leaves.
"Hold on tight," I advised the seven-year-old. I waited for her fingers to interlock firmly behind my back, her arms curled around my waist. Once she was secure, I formed the seals for Shunshin no Jutsu and, in a few short seconds, stood outside the gates of Amegakure with a terrified child clinging to my front.
I had the sense to transform myself and Natsumi after we gained entry to the village under the not-quite-false pretense of "classified Akatsuki business," which the guards never contested. For the duration of our visit, I would be disguised as a tawny-haired young woman my daughter would be... well, my daughter, but with loose raven-tinted curls and blue eyes to mask her Sharingan. I was grateful that Ame was rich in shinobi, unlike some larger capitals, for our obvious ninja garb went unnoticed. Upon arrival at the hospital, Natsumi and I were intercepted and ushered to the fourth floor — the intensive care ward — by an anxious-looking Kakashi. The Jōnin stopped short before the room with the numbers "418" embellished on its door in black ink and spun on his heels to face me.
"I'm not a relative, so I'm not permitted to go in. This is as far as the staff would let me come. You should know before you go in, though... he's unresponsive."
"What happened to him? Were you with him?"
"There was pain in his eyes and the lightning seemed to irritate him. He had a seizure and has been unconscious since."
A seizure? I knew Tobi had been suffering through headaches for the past two weeks, back to back with little relief in between, and it sounded like he had another one if he was sensitive to light. Ever since Fire Country...
"Is my Dad dying?" Natsumi wondered aloud to no one in particular, her eyes focused somewhere light years beyond the speckled white ceiling. This appeared to floor the copy ninja, whose visible eye couldn't possibly get any wider. After the life — er, death — lesson she just went through, a surge of philosophical questions related to all things surrounding life's mysterious end were to be expected.
"Maybe Kakashi-san can tell you about your new Sharingan, un."
"Would you, Kakashi-san? I only just activated it today."
"Please, call me Kakashi. I'll tell you everything you need to know about the Sharingan. I have a Sharingan eye, myself. Did you know that? Your Dad gave it to me..."
Tuning out of Kakashi's stroll down memory lane, which Natsumi lapped up every word of as though the man's voice was sweeter than syrup, I opened the door to room 418 and slipped inside, sighing wearily as I closed the door behind me. The sight of Tobi hooked up to a series of hollow plastic tubing, some inserted in a vein in his arm while one appeared to go up his nostrils, made my chest feel tight. Medicine in the highly industrialized village of Ame was a mystery to me. My partner didn't need civilian physicians — he needed Zetsu, the man who kept him alive for years against all odds. What benefit could there possibly be to letting him lie there in a hospital bed with no one to watch him closely and monitor his condition? I would've personally taken him back to the hideout where his sensei could treat him properly, but an irrational fear of the consequences of yanking those pointless tubes away struck me immobile. The last thing I wanted to do was make his condition worse.
I longed to squeeze Tobi's hand and let him know I was there, but even in his unconscious state, his face was screwed up in what must be unthinkable pain. Why hadn't a nurse administered something to take the edge off? Without a voice to express his despair, he was left to suffer in silence.
Not anymore, I fumed internally, my skin reddening with fury. Tobi deserved better and I was going to get it for him or the hospital would be obliterated and its personnel would learn what art truly was.
So, what do you think of the longer chapter? Too much, still on the short side, or just right?
I realized while writing this chapter that "Natsumi" is an anagram for "tsunami." That gives me an idea of what her ninja nickname should be when she's older. ;3