Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Naruto characters, unless otherwise stated. In this case, I only own Kimi and her village. Oh, and Taro. Been forgetting him.

Author's Note: Well, it's time to reveal the "contract" Kimi mentioned to Sasori . . . as well as the reason behind the title to this fic. This is the last of the full, pre-written/edited chapters, so I'll be working from scratch for the next few. I'm estimating perhaps three more chapters after this one until the end of Part II, and though I have a basic idea of what happens in each, they might take some time to write since there's probably going to be a lot of symbolism as well as looking into Kimi's past (which I'm still working out the details). Hopefully, it won't take too long, but bear with me, please, if it does. Oh, and WARNING! There is some foul language in this chapter! Otherwise, I hope you enjoy it!

XXXII

"Itachi, don't," Kisame warned from behind when his partner tensed slightly.

"Yeah, let me deal with the traitorous bastard, because that fucking hurt!" a voice snarled from the cliff side.

Itachi's heart skipped a beat. That was Kimi's voice! His stomach tightened. Something was not right, though. Her voice was distorted somehow – twisted nearly beyond his recognition.

Taro's eyes widened as he turned toward the cliff. "What?"

A blood-stained hand reached up over the cliff's edge, followed by another – an arm – a shoulder – a head. Golden hair flashed freely in the light of the high sun. It was Kimi after all, eyes closed tight with the effort of pulling herself back onto level ground.

"That is why I hate most people," Kimi continued. "Just when she starts to get comfortable with life, bastards like you ruin everything! Granted, she has never had people actually try to kill her like this before, but still! What is it about human beings that makes it so damn difficult for you to see other people happy?"

Itachi slid one foot back. This was Kimi – but it was not. Her voice – her attitude – the malicious curve of her lips – none of it was right! On top of that, as he watched, violet steam seemed to rise from her skin. Waves of power rolled off of her – an immense concentration of chakra and killing intent that struck Itachi's senses like a punch in the gut from the legendary sanin Tsunade.

Taro stared at her. "What the hell?"

Chuckling darkly – a sound very unlike Kimi's usual laughter – the woman opened her eyes. Itachi sucked in a sharp breath. No longer were they a familiar deep indigo; her eyes pulsed with inner light, shifting through various shades of violet like some sort of plasma.

Those strange eyes lingered on Itachi for a moment before focusing on Taro. "What is the matter, mountain brat?" she asked harshly. "You look like you have seen a ghost. Oh, that is right." She took a step toward him. "You just killed Kimi, stabbing her through the heart with that little stick of yours. Well, it is too bad for you that she does not have a heart anymore." Kimi – or whatever this creature was – threw a thumb in Itachi's direction. "Lover-boy here already tore it to bits." Itachi's stomach twisted even further into a knot.

The ex-Mountain Ninja broke from his stupor, gritting his teeth. "Well, I guess I'll just have to take off your head, then," he stated with as much bravado as he could muster, fighting against the sickening fear that rose unbidden in his chest.

She tilted her head to one side in a jerky motion strangely reminiscent of a bird and smirked. "Well, what are you waiting for? I am not standing here so we can chit-chat all day."

Taro snarled, but Itachi stepped forward cautiously before he could do anything. "What's going on here? Kimi?"

The woman did not even look at him. "I shall deal with you later, Uchiha," she stated, words dripping with malice. "Right now, I think it is time I show this little boy what happens when someone betrays me. I used to be the guardian of those mountains until you people presumed to be able to tame me – control me. Ha!"

Kimi threw her head back with a harsh laugh before glowering once more at the boy in question. "When you all first woke me from my slumber – settled in my land – I allowed you to exist there out of the goodness of my heart, and this is how you repay me? How you repay either of us? You are lucky she is such a smooth talker -- had such a big heart. Otherwise, we would not have just left the village. I would have leveled it."

Taro stared at her, visibly shaking now, though Itachi could not tell if it was from fear or anger. "You . . ." he breathed.

"You want to try to take my head boy?" Kimi asked sweetly. She beckoned to Taro with one finger. "I shall very much enjoy watching you try."

Itachi could not move or breathe as Taro shifted his weight and lunged toward the woman he loved. This could not be happening. This was not real. The figure standing before him was some twisted mockery of the blonde enigma he had fallen for. There was no way this could possibly be Kimi. No way! She spoke as if she was something else – something apart from Kimi. What, then, was she?

For all his questions, Itachi could do nothing but stand there, unmoving in his shock, as Taro attacked. Though he never saw her move, the ex-Mountain ninja somehow missed his target, stumbling to a halt past the woman. Kimi smirked, unfazed. "Were you aiming for me?" She cackled as she turned and started to walk slowly toward the man.

Taro cursed and whirled the naginata, slashing downward at the top of her head. Kimi continued to smile as she stepped smoothly to one side. Her fist shot out and impacted with the blade aimed at her head, despite the speed at which it traveled. The metal cracked and shattered, falling harmlessly to the ground in bright shards.

"I have been wanting a chance to stretch my wings," she stated lazily, wrapping her hand around the shaft of the now-one-bladed staff. "Ever since the contract became binding, I have felt so cooped up – so caged in."

Eyes wide in panic, Taro released his hold on the naginata and jumped back, kunai knives appearing in his hands.

"Now, what was that old saying again?" Kimi murmured softly. "Ah, yes. 'Killing two birds with one stone.' I never really cared for it, but I guess it fits the situation."

Gritting his teeth, the bronze-haired shinobi flung his kunai at Kimi. She did not even flinch as she lazily – though with the speed and precision of a seasoned fighter – deflected the knives. A dark smile touched her lips as the blades clattered to the stone several feet behind her. "Missed me," she taunted with a light giggle – a twisted mockery of the bubbly laugh Itachi knew.

After a heartbeat, Kimi resumed her stalk toward Taro, her violet aura of chakra sweeping out behind her like a cloak – no – like wings. It seemed to be constantly shifting and changing, like fire given form. Her eyes grew brighter, pupils shrinking to tiny dots. She locked her gaze on Taro and he stared right back with fear plain in his eyes. Kimi's stride seemed to take on a seductive edge, eyelids dropping slightly and body moving lithely forward with the grace of a cat stalking its prey.

The man did not move as his breathing became uneven. "I – know you," he gasped, voice barely audible above the crash of waves against the cliff.

"Taro," Kakuzu warned, the stitches on his wrists slowly coming undone. He had held back, following the boy's previous wish of being allowed to deal with the girl himself, but now things were going too far. It was time to interfere.

But Taro did not heed the warning – did not move as his eyes widened in realization. "You're that phoenix girl."

Kimi chuckled softly, ignoring the green-eyed man. "Indeed. So, what do you say, Taro?" she murmured, touching a slightly clawed finger beneath his chin. "Fly with me? Die with me?" Before anyone could take another breath, she jerked the naginata upward, sliding its blade through Taro's stomach and up into his chest cavity. He gasped in pain and coughed, blood flecking his lips. She grinned, her cheek brushing his almost lovingly as she breathed in his ear, "You tried to take her Life, so now yours belongs to me."

"Kimi, stop!" Itachi cried, jumping toward her, but a sudden gust of hot wind pushed him back. He blinked, and the pair was gone. Itachi's eyes snapped up. Fly with me. Could she? Sharingan blazing, he scanned the sky as Kakuzu spat a loud curse. In Kimi's absence, the petrifying effects of her chakra aura were broken, allowing the three remaining men to move freely once more.

"What the hell is she?" the stitch-ridden man demanded.

"I don't know," Itachi admitted, eyes finally spotting a dark speck among the clouds – slightly violet around the edges.

Kisame snarled softly. "We'd better go after them." His hand was on the giant sword strapped to his back, which was shifting hungrily beneath its bindings in reaction to the chakra aura that had been emanating from Kimi only moments before.

"No," Itachi stated flatly. The two Akatsuki members looked at him, but before Kakuzu could object, he continued. "I'll take care of it." He started back into the woods. "She's my responsibility, anyway."

"Leader's orders are to kill her," Kakuzu reminded him as he passed.

"I know."

"You have ten minutes. Then we're coming after you. She'd damn well better be dead by then. If she's not, then we're going to finish the job ourselves."

"Hn." I know. Itachi vanished into the shadows.

--

Itachi smelled the result of Kimi's fight with Taro – or rather slaughter – before he saw it, following the acrid scent of blood and death on the wind up into more rugged terrain. Jagged boulders jutted up among younger trees, probably the result of some long-forgotten battle between two powerful shinobi. As he rounded a particularly large rock structure, Itachi was immediately thankful that he had a strong stomach. The amount of blood splattered across dirt and stone was almost unfathomable.

Taro lay limp on his back at the top of one of the larger stones, obviously the victim of a drop from a large height, though Itachi suspected that his "fall" was aided by a kick or two to the chest. Speaking of his chest, Kimi was perched on it, crouching over him and looking very much like a predator contemplating her prey.

As Itachi watched, she reached down with bloodstained hands to cradle Taro's head with surprising tenderness, turning his face to look at her. Her expression was sickeningly amused.

Kimi smiled, teeth flashing. "That was fun, boy." She patted his cheek. "We should do this again sometime, hey?"

Taro, of course, could not answer her; he was very much dead. She lifted her gaze from him to peer over at Itachi. After a moment, she released Taro's head, allowing it to drop rather heavily back down on the rock.

Her victim apparently forgotten for the moment, Kimi hopped down off of Taro's chest to face Itachi. "I see you came alone," she stated. "You are a brave man, Uchiha . . . or foolish."

Itachi stepped toward her. "Who are you?" he demanded flatly.

The woman laughed coldly, opening her arms. "Why, do you not recognize me, love? I am Kimi."

He scowled. "No, you're not. Kimi would never do – this." He glanced momentarily at Taro, utterly broken on the jagged rocks.

She shrugged. "Perhaps not, but Kimi and I have long since become one and the same." The woman placed a bloody hand against her red-stained chest. "Though soon, I shall be the only one left. A body without a heart and soul after all is only an empty shell, and the Kimi you know is quickly fading away. No doubt she will break the contract so I do not perish with her. She always was a kind-hearted girl. After that happens, there will be no need for me to keep this body alive. I suppose I shall have to move on, though I am not fond of the thought. In a way, I should be grateful to that traitorous village. Kimi and I were truly compatible, more so than any other."

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

Kimi scowled. "It is none of your business, Uchiha."

The Sharingan swirled in Itachi's eyes as he moved even closer to her. She only laughed and smiled, lifting one eyebrow. "Are you going to use that against me, boy? Against your precious Kimi? You do not have the –"

Before she could finish her statement – her taunt – Itachi grabbed her chin, activating his Mangekyo Sharingan. Unlike other times he used this skill, though, Itachi did not intend to torture his victim. He wanted to talk – to get explanations – which would definitely take more than his allotted ten minutes.

As soon as he entered the world of the Tsukuyomi, however, Itachi realized that something was not at all right. Everything was black – an empty void – and Kimi was not with him. Itachi frowned and focused on altering the terrain into something more familiar – perhaps the meadow he used to meet Kimi in as a child. Nothing changed. A sense of déjà-vu overcame Itachi, and his heart started hammering faster in his chest.

"What the hell do you think you are doing, boy?!"

The voice that shrieked from behind Itachi was accompanied by a blast of pure chakra that forced him to stumble forward a few steps. This voice, though, was not entirely new; he had heard an echo of it in Kimi's words. Could this be the 'other' Kimi?

Itachi turned slowly to face the speaker. His breath seemed to be sucked from his lungs when his eyes rose to meet the smoldering gaze of the voice's owner. A giant phoenix bird of violet flames towered over him, wings spread wide and eyes burning with barely-contained fury. Long feathers whipped out behind and above the great beast, like several separate tails. How many?

Before Itachi could count them – identify what this creature might be – the bird's eyes narrowed in a lip-less sneer. "Thirteen," it – no – she stated.

Itachi blinked. Thirteen? How could that be?

The phoenix seemed to read his mind. "There were once far more than just nine of my kind – spirits of the earth and sky and sea. Before mankind tamed this land, it belonged to us. The nine bijuu, as you call them, are fairly young in comparison to the world – given birth to these lands by the hatred and malice of mankind."

"What about you?"

The beast chuckled. "I have many names. We all do. Since true names hold power, and that is not something given lightly, you may call me Juusanbi. I am one of the few Ancients remaining."

"There are more of you?"

Juusanbi hissed, suddenly defensive. "I do not have to answer your questions, Uchiha. Now, get out!"

Itachi held his ground as a wave of heat and malice washed over him. "Where is Kimi?" he demanded, putting as much force as he could muster behind the demand.

The phoenix studied him for a moment before laughing loudly and harshly. "Do you think you can intimidate me, mortal? I am so sorry to inform you that your precious 'killing intent' is wasted on me." Again, she seemed to sneer at him, though the expression was limited to her eyes do to the lack of a mouth to twist.

Fighting off the fear rising in his chest, Itachi repeated his question. "Where is she?"

Juusanbi cocked her head, amusement filling her voice. "You have guts, Uchiha. I shall give you that." She folded her wings and moved to the side. "She is right here."

Kimi's frail form came into view, lying prone on the dark floor of the void – if this void did indeed have a floor. Throwing caution to the wind, especially considering the proximity of this demon (or "Ancient" as she seemed to prefer), Itachi moved swiftly to her side and knelt. He touched her cheek – icy cold. "What's wrong with her?" he asked.

"I told you already. Were you not listening? Her heart and soul is dying all thanks to you. You broke her heart, and her soul soon followed. I am all that is left in this now-dreary place that was once her mind. I can return her Life, but she will not take my offered hand." The great phoenix shifted her wings. "So to speak, of course."

Itachi rested a hand over Kimi's heart. He could feel a bare heartbeat beneath her chest. She was still alive – if only just. "What can I do?" he asked.

"Do?" Juusanbi scoffed. "You have done enough already, Uchiha. Get out and leave her to die with some shred of peace."

"I won't let her die!" Itachi snapped fiercely, turning on the giant beast.

Juusanbi peered down at him carefully, long neck arched back in response to his outburst. Her eyes seemed to pierce his very soul. After an eternal moment of silence, she inquired, "Would you be willing to give your Life to save her?"

"Yes." He spoke without hesitation.

The great bird turned her head, directing her blazing eyes over Itachi's shoulder. The young man turned and drew in a sharp breath. A mirror had appeared in the void – a mirror that he had definitely seen before. Now Itachi realized why this place seemed so familiar. It was just like his dreams – his nightmares – all down to the simple mirror standing before him in the darkness.

"That," Juusanbi explained, "is the doorway into what I suppose you could call Kimi's Memories, though I am not sure that is the best title to give what lies beyond. There is no real term for it. Kimi's heart and soul has fled into that realm of her mind – the only one remaining intact for the time being. The others might be recoverable, but . . ." Her voice trailed off suggestively. After a moment, she continued. "Should you choose to venture in there to retrieve Kimi's 'self', be warned. You will find more than just the woman you seek beyond that mirror."

Itachi stepped over to the object as Juusanbi spoke on. "There you will encounter what Is and what Was – what Might Have Been and what Might Still Be – if you succeed of course. What you find there can only be described as snapshots of my ward from various stages in her life – versions of herself frozen forever in time. You must find the one from here and now and return here with her before your time to use the Mangekyo runs dry."

The shinobi glanced back at her. "What happens then?"

"I will not be able to help you, and Kimi will die. Know that if she dies, Uchiha, her blood is on your hands."

Itachi swallowed and looked back at the mirror. There was no question that he had to go through with this, but would he be able to succeed? Would Kimi still trust him enough to return? What if she hated him and chose to die? What would he do?

"You have a little over seventy-one hours," Juusanbi stated softly. "Use them wisely, Itachi, and be careful in there. Things are not always as they appear."

He nodded to her and touched the mirror lightly with his fingertips. "So, how do I go through?" The question had barely left his lips when the surface of the mirror became like liquid and pulled him through into blinding light.