"What the hell do you think you're doing?!"
Dark eyes glowed balefully in the red light of the sunset. Soon, it would be dark, and then the nightly routine would start again. Everyone would have to go inside, so neither of them had much time. Still, sunset was the safest time to have this conversation--people were too busy concentrating on their own safety. And the people who'd be interested the most in this conversation were too busy fawning over the little Hyuuga girl, distracted by their bonds.
Pathetic. The thought was so obvious it hurt. The silhouette looked away, trying not to acknowledge the blatancy on the other's face.
"Answer me. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Absolutely nothing," came the innocent reply.
"Don't bullshit me! I know what you've been gathering--it's disgusting! What are you trying to accomplish with this?"
"Absolutely nothing. Now--it is sunset. Shouldn't you be getting to safety before nightfall?"
Hitomi was allowed to sit up and eat supper that night. She did so delicately, but it was easy to see that she was starving behind that veil of manners. She didn't complain once about the food, or about any sort of pain, or anything at all, which was unlike her, answering any questions with a small "no, thank you," or a "yes, please," and keeping her eyes downcast.
"Would you like more rice?" Seishirou asked, propping his elbows up on her bed. Neji gave him a disapproving look but didn't comment on his behavior.
"Yes, please," Hitomi responded around her chopsticks. Seishirou eagerly took her empty bowl and padded out of the room in his bare feet and pajamas. She shyly looked up at his retreating form, just as he exited the room, and Neji didn't miss that. She caught her father looking and hastily looked back down at her lap.
"He was worried about you, too," Neji said quietly, leaning forward to kiss her on the forehead. "Everyone was."
"I know," Hitomi said evasively. She opened her mouth to add something else, but closed it after a moment of silence. He waited her out, however; she obviously needed to say something else. And finally, she did. In a tiny voice, Hitomi said, "…Sasori was not worried."
"Kakuzu was not either."
Neji hadn't known that she was that attached to the other Akatsuki member. He paused to collect his thoughts, trying to figure out how to approach the topic as delicately as possible. Surely she knew that both Sasori and Kakuzu weren't the types to… worry? Show emotions? Care about any other being beside themselves?
"…Tomozou was not worried. He's still not worried. He has not seen me yet." With that reluctant whisper, Neji knew that she really wasn't worried about Kakuzu, or even Sasori. He relaxed and sat on the edge of her bed, pulling her against him. Hitomi sniffed and looked up at him for the first time since she awoke. "Doesn't he care about me? I-I know we are angry with each other, but I nearly died! Does he really ha-hate me?" she asked tearfully.
"No, he doesn't hate you." While he wanted to add 'far from it' to the end of that sentence, he knew he shouldn't meddle in the fickle arguments of young ninja. Who knew what Tomozou was feeling towards Hitomi right now. It was true, after all, that he hadn't come to see her yet. "I'm not sure where Tomozou is, or if he even knows where you are, but I'm sure he'll come see you eventually. He's not that angry with you."
"But--what if he is?" she persisted. Hitomi looked back down, tugging on his shirtfront as she did so. "…What did you do to Hachi?"
"Nothing. Why would you ask that?"
"You were angry with him."
"Were. Not any longer," Neji lied. He ran his fingers through her short hair. Her barrettes were out, which she amazingly hadn't commented upon yet, and made her look even younger than she already was. She was his little girl. He smoothed her hair down, sensing her anger at the slight muss, and reassured, "Don't worry about it. Hachi-san is fine. He's already explained what happened. …Are you angry with him?" He selfishly and secretly hoped that she would answer with a definite yes. If she was angry, he could be, and he could blame any following actions on his role as a protective father. He already brought his case to Daisuke, demanding some sort of (admittedly severe) punishment, but the leader was still on the fence. It had been an accident.
"No," she replied shortly.
At that point, Seishirou came back in with the promised rice, and Hitomi silently devoured that bowl as well. She didn't speak any more, and neither did Neji, respecting her right to muteness if she felt it necessary. He didn't know why, but he would go along with it.
Seishirou, for his part, just perched himself in the chair at the foot of her bed, propped his elbows up on it, and watched her. He was smiling slightly, obviously trying to keep upbeat, but Neji knew what his expression really meant. He had been reminded, again, of shinobi mortality. He had already lost so much, but Seishirou and Hitomi both had been through just as much. Seeing his little sister in such a state for the second time in such a short time frame must've felt like a punch to the gut.
Neji foresaw Seishirou reverting back into his guard dog mode soon.
Spotting his adoptive son sneak a glance towards the door, he knew Tomozou would be in for one hell of a storm once he reappeared. The brunette man sighed and kept running his fingers through Hitomi's hair. Hinata would have known how to soothe all of these hurt feelings.
Soon. Soon, now, he reprimanded himself, glancing downward at the top of her head. Hitomi was still a mess, muddy and dirty and slightly bloody, not having had a proper wash for a couple days now. Her black hair was still as beautiful as ever, though. He kissed the part in it, and stood up, away from her. She looked at him curiously, but didn't reach out to make him stay; she was trying to be strong. He suspected he'd be seeing a lot of that, too.
"It's getting dark. I'm going to go check the building and talk to Daisuke. You two stay in here, alright?" He earned two nods in response.
Neji left his children there with no intention of finding Daisuke, though he'd definitely be checking the windows and doors (never mind the fact that he'd done so three times already that day). Now that Hitomi was awake, his priority had to be the upcoming mission again. It had been haphazardly thrown together before her accident, and postponed at his request after it. They only had a sparse few days now to plan it, lest their window of opportunity close on them, and then he'd have to leave for it. He'd have to leave them.
As much as he didn't want to admit it, he really had become a father through and through. It physically hurt him to think of leaving them, no matter if it was for a good cause or short time. It hurt because he was willingly leaving them.
Neji smiled ruefully to himself, wondering just what all of his old comrades would think of him now. Nearly a decade and a half ago, he was content, with his teammates, and ignorant of the impending war. He was in Konoha. He had most everything he wanted.
He never would have envisioned his future as it was now.
Gai-sensei, Lee, Tenten… What would you say about me now? Is it a good thing that I have mellowed out? Or would you be disappointed in my repeated failures to protect everyone? He hadn't protected Konoha--it had been destroyed. He hadn't protected Hinata--she had been kidnapped (again). He couldn't even protect his children.
"Neji-niisan?" He didn't stop walking when he heard Hanabi behind him. She jogged up to fall into step with him, looking at him casually. "How is Hitomi-chan? I was just going to visit her…"
"She's fine. A little shaken, but fine."
"Nervous?" Hanabi asked with a smile she didn't mean.
"About the mission. Getting Hinata back. Hopefully putting a stop to the Bijuu once and for all--"
"You know as well as I do that this won't be a killing mission. We're only there to rescue them and defend."
"You really think Sasori-san and Kakuzu-san are going to hold back because of that?" she asked, amused. "Those Akatsuki-nin are pretty vengeful, aren't they?"
"I wasn't aware Sasori was coming," Neji said stiffly, looking at her sideways. He'd thought that Sasori would stay behind. He couldn't do much against the chakra demons.
Hanabi shrugged, fully aware that he hadn't known. "He… insisted. Daisuke-sama couldn't refuse him."
"Then who is going to stay behind to guard the village?" He nearly ended that sentence with 'the children'. Oh, how much he'd changed.
"Lots of people. This is still considered a small-scale operation, you know. I think there's only… six of us going?" He didn't like how that had turned into a question. Hanabi smiled nervously and tried to hide that. "It's not that many. Yukina-san will stay behind in the village, for sure, and she's more than capable. Plus, you're forgetting what Amegakure is. It's made up of the ninja who were strong enough to survive the war and villages' destruction. Lots of chuunin, and jounin, and even an ex-Kage. The village can defend itself if need be."
"I still don't like that."
"Would you like it better if we never got Hinata and the other Akatsuki-nin back?" she asked quietly. Neji shook his head, eyes downcast. "Then, good. This will be a quick mission. It's just a few days' travel there, sneak in, spring them, and then run like hell back."
Neji twitched involuntarily. "You know that was Pein-sama's last order during the war," he accused sourly.
"Yeah, I know." She grinned at him and elbowed him in the side. "Is my poor nii-san carrying around one too many ghosts?"
Why was it that whenever he found some spare time to himself to work on his art, someone inevitably interrupted him? True, this was the first time it was Tomozou, but Sasori still wasn't feeling very happy with the disruption. He had been so close to figuring out that rotting jutsu placed on the monsters, too! Think of how many more bodies he could use if he figured that out; one step from figuring out its mechanics would be to reverse it, which meant he could use corpses several days--possibly even weeks!--old in his puppetry.
"Touch that one and you'll lose the finger," he said without turning around. His newest puppet was the one closest to the door. Undoubtedly, Tomozou would be messing with that one first.
Luckily, the boy must've heeded his warning, for he didn't hear any sudden screams of pain. Sasori never was one to make idle threats, but it was true that many of his puppets wouldn't be so harmful if touched. That new one, however, would take the finger off. It had been made from the Suna kunoichi he'd fought, the one with the acid skin. Its potency had been significantly reduced during the transformation into a puppet, but it was still strong enough to dissolve tissue and even bone with ease.
Though it would have been funny if Tomozou had decided to touch it.
"It--she--looks familiar," Tomozou remarked casually, sidling up beside Sasori. "What are you working on now?" he asked without waiting for a response. The redhead glared at him, but was ignored. The boy just smiled innocently and looked at the shapeless mass of black on the work table.
"The monstrosities that are attacking at night. I'm trying to figure out what they are," he replied tersely, bending the scalpel in his hands to stop himself from doing the same to Tomozou's hand when he reached out to touch it. "Don't touch."
"I'll lose my finger?" he asked in obvious amusement.
"More than that. What do you want?" he snapped--both his words and the scalpel. Tomozou noticed and shrunk back accordingly.
"What did you do to Hitomi-san?" Good. He was no longer mincing words. Sasori reactivated the stasis jutsu around the black mass as he left the table, tossing the broken tool in the trash. It seemed every time he worked on that monster's remains, it rotted even more. Soon, he'd have nothing but liquefied, decayed whatever-it-was to work with. He was still unsure about what it was, though he had ruled out flesh, both human and animal, plant, and chakra--which left very little for him to work with.
"I only fixed my earlier mistake. She'll be fine from now on, provided she thinks before she acts. There will be nothing left but scarring." He rummaged around in one of the boxes he used to store his poisons--when not sealed away in scrolls, of course--until he took out the two vials he needed.
"Was it a problem with her back?" Sasori grunted in reply to the boy's question. Wouldn't it be obvious that that was her problem? Though he had to admit, he was surprised that the little girl had gathered up the courage to tell him about it. Tomozou tilted his head to the side and asked, "What happened to it?"
So much for her telling him; it was just his annoying habit of figuring things out on his own.
"But you were there, weren't you?"
"Who else was?"
"Myself, Hitomi, Seishirou, Neji, and the boy who died. Ryo, was that his name?" Sasori pretended to think, though he remembered Ryo perfectly. That kid had been just as annoying as any of the others, with the same perception that Tomozou possessed. The thing that made Ryo stand out, however, was his ability to correctly act upon that perception. For the first time, Sasori was thankful that Tomozou was more of a sneaky kid than an active one. "Ask one of the others."
Tomozou huffed and looked away. He knew he couldn't get any information out of any of the others any time soon--or at all, really. "So… she got hurt again?"
"It was her own fault."
"She was learning some jutsu, and it overtaxed her. That's all I know," Sasori said. It was only a half-lie. Deciding to change the subject, the puppeteer turned to the boy with a wicked smile. "You'll get hell for this, I hope you know."
"Wh-Why?" Tomozou backed up, eyeing the vials of poison in his hand with obvious distrust.
"If you're asking me what happened, it means you haven't seen her yet. She's going to take this as high treason. That'll automatically get Seishirou and Neji on you as well, and no telling who else will chew you up and spit you out for neglecting a poor, injured girl in her time of need." Sasori was satisfied to see that Tomozou clearly hadn't thought about all of the repercussions of his avoidance. "Regardless of whatever spat you two were having prior to this incident--or maybe because of it--she was probably expecting you to rush to her and declare your undying love for her or something equally nonsensical."
Scarlet faced, pressed up against the wall, and slowly edging back towards the door, Tomozou shook his head. "N-No. She wouldn't expect that, no way. Sh-She still hates me and she likes you anyway."
"You've seen how that girl acts. If it's male with a beating heart, she's all over it. She's just unusually attached to you and I because we've been with her for a longer period of time than anyone else in Ame." Now losing interest, Sasori turned back to the task at hand. The puppet of Haya needed more weapons. Sure, the acid skin was nice, but he knew better than to rely on any single thing, especially in puppetry. She was a complete puppet now, but he hadn't started the long, never-ending process of adding weapons to her body. It would be a good start to add a few poisoned senbon, though, he decided.
"What about S-Seishirou? She's known him her whole life--"
"But they still see each other as siblings. That may change, given time, true. Hitomi still doesn't know the truth, however--don't forget that." Holding the glass vials up to the light, Sasori wondered which poison to start with. "While she admittedly does hold me in rather high esteem, I think she's moved on from me, and on to you. Also, I've already seen her after this. You haven't. Furthermore--"
Tomozou was out of the door before he could finish. Sasori smiled to himself, pleased. Served the brat right, interrupting him.
Now he only had to finish modifying Haya and then continue identifying that monstrosity. He decided to work on the puppet, since he already had most of the tools out that he needed, and it was guaranteed to get some results. He hated working towards the unknown, and anything dealing with that black creature was definitely classified as such.
Haya was turning out to be rather stubborn, even after her death. It was mostly her skin that was the problem: it had taken the most time during the conversion of human to puppet, since he couldn't outright touch her without losing the hand (again). Even if the acid's strength had decreased, he still had to be irritatingly careful.
It will be worth it, he told himself repeatedly. If I can't touch her, neither can my enemies… The idea of a puppet that literally no one could touch was too appealing to pass up, regardless of the problems along the way. "It will be worth it," he murmured, holding her hand up with chakra strings so that he could unscrew the finger joints.
Hitomi polished off her second bowl and decided she was full enough. Her stomach already felt rebelliously queasy, so, though she could have eaten more, she gave up. She'd last until morning, at any rate. She set her bowl and chopsticks on the table near her bed, and politely turned back to her brother. He, still leaning on the foot of her bed, stared back at her with his ringed eyes.
"Feeling better now?" Seishirou asked, offering her a warm smile.
"Yes, thank you," she responded. She was still sore, yes, but at least she was slightly full and more or less calm after her talk with her father.
"Need anything else?" he asked, ever helpful.
"Nothing comes to mind," she lied with a tiny smile. Actually, right then, she wanted nothing more than a warm bath, sleep, and maybe a hug from Sasori. True, she knew better than to actually ask for such a thing, but maybe, some day in the future… "Maybe… May I have a hug?" If not from Sasori, then Seishirou would do.
"Of course!" Hitomi sighed into his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her. A hug had been exactly what she'd needed. It was warm and comforting and showed that she still had support, even after such a blunder. It was reassuring.
What wasn't reassuring was when the door burst open and Tomozou stormed in. He spared Seishirou one look and said, like a voice issuing a command, "Yukina-chan wants to see you."
Hitomi bristled, but fully expected Seishirou to stay with her. She underestimated a young boy's crush, however, and he was out of the door with nothing more than a hasty goodbye and kiss. She was left alone with Tomozou, something she never wanted to be again. Hitomi fixed him with one of her best glares and ordered, "Get out."
He was not one to be intimidated, however. Acting like he hadn't even heard her, Tomozou turned and shut the door behind him, walked over, and sat on the side of her bed. It was just out of arm's reach, otherwise she would have pushed him off. "What happened?" he asked. No sympathy, no well wishes, no apology.
"Get out!" Now that he was actually there, she wanted him out. He wasn't acting in the least worried about her; he was probably just there to satisfy his own curiosity. That had her madder than if he had ignored her for another day. "Get out of my room!"
"Aren't you going to tell me what happened?" he repeated.
"No! Now get out!" She threw the pillow at his head. He smoothly ducked under it, of course, but he didn't dodge the rice bowl she threw immediately afterward.
"Are you crazy or something?! I'm here, aren't I? Why are you telling me to get out?!" Tomozou ducked down behind the foot of her bed for cover as she cast about for something else to throw at him. Luckily for him, there was nothing.
"Because I want you out of here! I did not ask to see you! I do not want you here!" she lied, still glowering at him. He peeked up over the edge, glaring back. He did not look in the least repentant. "Get out!"
He must have sensed either her lie or lack of ammo, for he didn't move. Hitomi clenched her fists in the blankets and tried not to shout. "Tell me what happened," said the cyan eyes at the foot of her bed.
"I got hurt. It was my own fault."
"I was learning a new technique and I collapsed because of chakra exhaustion." There. The truth, mostly. Hitomi looked away and gave up on her glaring war in the process; she couldn't win against him. Maybe it was because he was alone so much, but he was certainly a good glarer.
"No, not that. I know that much." The fact that he knew and still hadn't been to see her--how frustrating! Hitomi was about to do something she'd most likely regret later when he spoke again. "How did you get hurt initially? What happened to your back?"
She could feel herself go pale, and suddenly, the room seemed very, very cold. Of all the things he could have done or said, that was probably the worst. Hitomi couldn't tell him what had happened, what she had done…! "…Get out," she said in a low voice.
"I know it had to do with the Bijuu, and I'm guessing that Ryo kid as well." Just hearing his name tossed out so casually hurt. They did not speak of Ryo--that was the unspoken agreement. "They killed him, right? And they attacked you?"
"Don't ask that. Go away, g-get out."
"I've seen some of the scars. How badly were you hurt?" Tomozou gathered up his courage and stood up at the foot of the bed. He opened his mouth to ask more, but closed it a moment later; instead, he was obviously thinking. Hitomi shifted, trying to get into a position where she could move if need be. "What happened to you two? Why was Seishirou not injured?"
He was, she wanted to say, but her mouth stayed resolutely closed and it felt like her throat had closed up. He received a broken leg. He was limping for weeks… He was still limping a bit when we met you, she wanted to tell him.
"Why was Sasori the one to fix you? He's not a medic-nin and can't heal broken bones. What happened to your back?"
I broke my back. I snapped my spine in two places and Sasori had to replace it. He fixed me. I would be good as dead without him, she thought as she looked down at her lap. Why did he have to ask? More importantly, why couldn't she tell him? She should be able to just scream all of his pain at him and he'd leave, but she couldn't. Was it the fact that she was still scared? Or the fact that she didn't want to tell him how she was the one to--
"What happened to Ryo?"
"I killed him! I killed Ryo, okay? I stood over him with a kunai and--and--he is dead because of me!"
The black monstrosities clambered out of the shadows, looking around for any people in the area. There were none. That wasn't good; they needed people. One of the larger ones, a thin creature with abnormally long and skinny legs, took charge since it had been one of the first to wake up. Without speaking, it gestured to the others that were appearing, and stamped off towards Ame.
Ame had people. They needed people. For people had bodies, bodies that were living and had skin and bones and flesh and blood. Bodies that didn't rot once the sun came up if they didn't get back to the shadows fast enough.
There was a loud, frightened squawk, and a massive white bird erupted out of the foliage near them. It speared two of the smaller creatures with its beak and stepped on another, pushing it down into the mud. The tallest one among them jumped forward and stabbed viciously at it with its pointed arms, getting it through the wing and neck. Still, the bird fought back, making enough noise to draw more creatures to the scene.
"Stop it, right now!"
All of the creatures froze when they heard the voice of their creator. The bird staggered away from them, bleeding and gasping.
"What are you doing?! For starters--that is a bird, and an endangered species. It will make people even more irate if they find its carcass around here."
"They won't find it," replied the large one, gesturing with its pointed arms. "It has wings! We need wings!"
"Is that why you've been killing people? To create something?" That wasn't good. The creator's voice was shaking. Several of the lesser creatures shrank back. Humans were emotional bodies, and they tended to get scary when their voices changed.
"We need wings!" the large one repeated, and a couple small ones echoed the cry. "Wings! Wings to fly with!" The bird finally collapsed, just a few steps from where it had been attacked. It gave a weak, dying cry.
"You need to stop. Stealing organs, killing people--I told you to merely keep the Ame-nin inside at night. Not hunt them down for parts!"
"We need bodies. We can fight better with bodies. We can become better with human bodies."
"Stop it, all of you. You're forbidden from killing anyone else. And for god's sake--leave that bird alone!" The smaller creatures skittered away from the bird's corpse.
The largest one looked at the creator with hollow eyes and a closed mouth.
Another pair of eyes were on the creator, bright, ice green eyes wide with shock. They belonged to Aoko, and they were currently taking in every single detail of the scene at hand. She might have gotten away with it, too, if she hadn't accidentally snapped a twig when she got up to move.
Instantly, the black creatures were all over her, stabbing, biting, trying to pull her down to the ground. She gave a shriek and fought back savagely, but she was unused to such numbers focused on her. She couldn't keep them at bay, and gradually, her attacks got weaker and weaker.
"Stop it! Leave her be!" the creator shouted, panicked. Ice green eyes looked up, half hopeful, half desperate. The monsters parted from around her as their creator came forward, pulling her upright rather roughly. Scratches and gashes covered her body, but she was still breathing. With medical attention, she'd be fine. Angrily, the creator turned back towards them. "I told you not to kill anyone else, and what do you do? You tried to kill another right in front of me!"
"They're… not supposed to be killing?" Aoko asked, voice weak, confused. "What are these things? Why did you make them?"
"They're trying to make human bodies for themselves. That's why they're taking organs from carcasses. And that's why the damned stupid things want those wings!"
"We want wings so we may fly! We want bodies so we can fight better! Isn't that what creator wants?" the monstrosities chorused, shifting nervously. The tallest one stood at the front of them, swinging its points at its sides.
"Shut up!" the creator shouted at them. They obediently fell silent.
Aoko, looking stricken, whispered, "No one's talking. Those things are as silent as always."
Just as the creator looked towards her, surprised, shocked, already denying the charge of the voices only he heard, the tallest monster stepped forward and thrust its pointed arm through his neck. Aoko tried to jump back out of the way, but it caught her with the flat side of its other arm, swinging her back into the throng of monsters waiting for her. This time, she was too weak to fight back at all, and she could only scream desperately as she was literally torn apart. She was dead before the creator fell from his own creation's hands.
"Take them back to the other bodies! We will use them. And the wings!" the largest commanded, taking charge. The creator might've been the creator, but this one had always been the master. Black, blank eyes turned downward to where the creator lay. "I told you to get to safety before sunset," it told him.
The creator didn't reply. Hachi's lifeless eyes just stared up at his last, greatest creation, blood dripping from his open mouth to the mud below.
Yukina looked up and smiled warmly when she saw Seishirou walking over to her. They were on the tallest floor of the tower, and she was leaning on the windowsill before her, looking out into the rainy night. Seishirou wordlessly stood beside her, peering out into the night as well.
"I've heard Hitomi-chan's awake now, and eating. That's good," she remarked.
"Y-Yeah." She tried not to giggle at his hesitant reply. Was he this shy around other people? She heard Sasori and Kakuzu complain almost nonstop about how the boys got into so much trouble, but she couldn't picture Seishirou being anything but this quiet, skittish boy.
"It's too late tonight, of course--unless you want a midnight snack together--"
"What?" Judging on his blank expression, she gathered that Tomozou hadn't told him about her offer.
She sighed, ran a hand through her bangs, and tried again. "Tomozou-kun was supposed to tell you that I had offered to take you out to lunch, you know, so we could have a talk." He suddenly looked a lot redder. She pretended not to notice. "So unless you want a midnight snack with me later, I suppose I'll get to treat you tomorrow, okay?"
From out in the rain, a long, keening call drifted to them. Both Yukina and Seishirou looked up at the noise. It sounded like an animal dying. She winced in sympathy, having been around dead or dying animals before; hopefully it hadn't been in too much pain… Then again, night had already fallen, so it was probably the work of those monsters.
"…I don't see them," Seishirou said quietly, leaning out the window. Yukina leaned out beside him, looking down. Ame's streets were empty. Just puddles, mud and stone. No monsters, for the first time in months. "Do they usually come out at this time?"
"Earlier, even. I wonder why… Do you think they're gone?" Yukina asked hopefully, though she knew it couldn't be true. There was no reason for them to have gone. They didn't even run when the Akatsuki went after them…
"Maybe." He didn't sound convinced of it, either. She smiled self-depreciatingly; she couldn't even console kids. True, Seishirou was far from worrying--he didn't even sound overly concerned--but she should at least act like the adult in this situation… even if she was only a couple years older than he was. "What if--"
A scream was suddenly heard, sharp even through the rain. Yukina went cold. Th-That sounded too much like--
"That was a human, wasn't it? Female?" Seishirou asked, leaning impossibly far out the window. He listened hard, but no more sounds were heard. He paused for a moment longer, and then jumped up onto the sill. Yukina instinctively put out a hand to stop him.
"Th-That was A-Aoko-chan's voice," she said, her shaking voice at odds with her body.
"Come on, then!" Seishirou grabbed her arm and pulled her up onto the windowsill. And then, he jumped.
Yukina felt the air rush out of her lungs in an involuntary gasp and barely had enough time to push some chakra into her legs to cushion the fall before the ground was there. No black creatures came running out to meet them. The kunoichi sprang into a sprint before Seishirou could fully recover. Now she wasn't the one being pulled out windows; she was in charge. If that was Aoko, then it was her friend they needed to save.
"Go back to the tower!" she shouted halfheartedly over her shoulder.
"No way!" he yelled back. In a way, she was glad. It was true that there were no monsters out, but something had to have attacked Aoko. She felt safer knowing Seishirou had her back.
They reached the edge of the Ame-forest border without any more sounds, screams or otherwise. They didn't see any black things, either, so she was almost convinced that it was some sort of accident, or a rogue ninja, so the monsters were really gone--and then, out of the bushes, a veritable mass of them burst. Yukina skidded to a stop just in front of them, narrowly avoiding tumbling over the front most ones. She placed a hand on the nearest one's head, using her forward momentum to hop over its back and deliver a kick to the face of the one behind it.
"Katon: Gokakyuu no jutsu!" Yukina blinked in surprise as a rush of flames shot past her, roasting two of the nearer things. Normally, she was the one using fire jutsu, so seeing someone else use one was a bit of a shock.
One of the creatures' pointed hands grazed her leg, and that jarred her back to reality. Mimicking him, she shouted, "Katon: Gokakyuu no jutsu!" Yukina was slightly proud to see that her fireball was more effective--not to mention larger--than his. Then again, she specialized in fire ninjutsu, so that was only to be expected.
"You know fire techniques?" Seishirou called in surprise.
"Of course! Watch--" Quick as lightning, she performed all of the seals, used to it; this was her second most favorite fire jutsu. "--Katon: Karyuu Endan no jutsu!" Yukina took in one last deep breath on the last syllable, and exhaled a jet of fire. Fire wouldn't totally destroy them, but it was sure hard for them to put themselves back together when they weren't much more than ash. The fire incinerated most everything it touched, putting a good chunk of the monsters out of commission.
The downside to that technique was that it only lasted as long as her breath, and severely dried out her throat. She could usually only handle two, and that was with a glass of water in between. Coughing, Yukina ignored the dry air and looked around. Seishirou managed to hack away at one with a kunai enough that it went down for the moment. She threw a barrage of shuriken at it, just to make sure.
"Ao--" Yukina halted, coughing again, "--Aoko-chan!"
There was no response, be it human or otherwise.
"Aoko-san!" Seishirou called helpfully, cupping his hands around his mouth. His voice carried farther, but there was still no answering call. Yukina breathed through her nose, holding a pair of shuriken at the ready, and went farther into the bushes. No sounds, no more monsters, no Aoko. It wasn't comforting.
Then the stench of blood hit her.
Momentarily stunned, she could only look around for its source. She wasn't injured badly enough to bleed enough to warrant the smell, and, looking over her shoulder, she saw that neither was Seishirou. Ice blue eyes scanned the dark, rain-drenched forest. There--at the edge of her vision, something was sprawled out at impossible angles. Yukina ran over to it, only to find that it was the mangled remains of a bird. Granted, a very large bird, but just a bird nonetheless. Its wings had been ripped out of its sockets and its legs were both snapped, and it was lying in a puddle of its own watered-down blood.
Seishirou stumbled up behind her, took one look at the bird, and kept walking. Yukina eventually wrenched her gaze away from the poor animal, and ended up following him. That had been the source of the animal call they'd heard earlier; so where was Aoko?
"There's more blood here, but I don't see any bodies…" he told her absently, looking around in the nearby bushes for any corpses.
"They like to drag off the people they--k-kill--for parts," Yukina replied automatically.
"It's okay. Aoko-san isn't dead."
"There--something was dragged through here." The only problem was that there were two drag-trails. Either the monsters had gotten another animal… or they had gotten another person. Yukina set off on a run, following the muddy trails, heart thundering in her ears. Aoko couldn't be dead. She couldn't be. It was someone else who died--no, that's just as horrible! she reprimanded herself. No one died. No one else died because of those things.
Then, they came upon a clearing. Like any good ninja worth her salt, Yukina stopped before entering it; her body reacted before her mind did. The first thing she registered was that they were obviously outnumbered. The second was that the crowd of monsters were all huddled around several shapeless masses on the ground, barely visible between the sea of pointed feet and legs. The smell of blood was even stronger here.
By some unseen signal or command, most of the black creatures sprang forward as a unified wave. Yukina quickly lost track of Seishirou in all of the ensuing chaos. She shoved her fist clean through the chest of one of the thinner monsters and lost a kunai trying to decapitate another. Everywhere she looked there were spikes coming at her, trying to stab her. She tried her damnedest to dodge, but she couldn't get away from all of them, particularly those behind her. The scar on her stomach felt cold as it was grazed more than once; they were going to tear her open again. She knew their goal.
Finally, Yukina snapped and didn't care whether or not she wasted all of her chakra just defending herself from the onslaught of hellions. She had to perform the signs with pauses in between in order to block and it took two tries before she could successfully pull off the jutsu. "Hou-Houkate no jutsu!" she gasped out, just as one of the creatures managed to stab her through the shoulder.
Hands glowing red with heat, she turned around and grabbed the monster's head. Its flesh, if it could be called that, sizzled and it instantly reacted, pulling its arm out of her and writhing in silent agony. With her other hand, Yukina slapped another across the face. It went sprawling to the ground and wasn't quick to get back up.
Now, every thing that she touched instantly shied away from her. It didn't take too many incapacitated monsters for them to learn; they formed a wide circle around her, empty eyes staring. Keeping an eye on them, Yukina shouted, "Sei-kun?"
"Over he--" He was rather alarmingly cut off. Yukina slapped, scratched and clawed her way in his direction. All she could see was more and more of the monsters, rushing--to get away from her or to stop her from aiding Seishirou, she didn't know. The silence was deafening. The creatures were noiseless, there was no sound from Seishirou, and all she could hear was her heart banging against her ribcage.
Then, Yukina tripped.
Mud and rainwater splashed up all around her when she hit the ground. She was instantly scrambling back to her feet--that was, until she saw what had hooked her foot. It was an arm. An arm with a very familiar green bracelet on its wrist.
"You… killed him," Tomozou repeated incredulously. He didn't believe it. Sure, the pieces of trauma fit, but he really couldn't see a little girl as a killer. Her personality just wasn't suited to it. Nor did she actually act like that… Though, now that he thought about it, she wasn't shy around death; she didn't act like she was totally unaccustomed to it.
Hitomi nodded miserably, hiding her face in her hands.
Judging it safe enough to come out from behind the edge of the bed, Tomozou perched on the edge of it instead. She didn't throw anything else at him or try to kick him or anything. Safe enough indeed.
Now. What did one say to someone who confessed to their first kill? He set his chin in his hand and thought. His parents and Sasuke had written his first kill off as nothing special. That probably saved him quite a bit distress later on, but it didn't help him here. Nonchalance about death had been beaten into him since day one; Hitomi was a coddled Kiri girl. She had to be handled more delicately.
"I--" she started in a tiny, broken little whisper.
"Shh, I'm thinking," he replied automatically. A shocked--and somewhat frightened--Hitomi immediately shrunk back and shut up.
How did one handle a girl delicately? He sure didn't get many tips on that subject from his father. Come to think of it--Seishirou is probably the one who treats Hitomi the best, he thought, but instantly recoiled from it. He couldn't stand to be another servant to her whims like everyone else seemed to be.
In the end, Tomozou decided to try to improvise. If he couldn't draw on examples, then that was all there was left to do. Not leaving his relatively safe spot on the edge of the bed, however, he cleared his throat and caught her eye when she looked up at him. "I don't give a damn."
"It was probably situational, and something tells me I'll never know what really happened to you or Ryo or whatever. I don't think you actually killed him, though. Anyway--" He paused, searching for the right words. Hitomi was not very helpful in that aspect. She just stared at him in shock. "--I don't care if you did or didn't, I guess. You've shown no signs of regularly betraying your comrades and I really don't think you could do the same to me, anyway, if this is your version of some sort of a warning. Also--"
He didn't get the chance to continue, because Hitomi had lunged forward and wrapped her arms so tightly around him it was a wonder he didn't have cracked ribs. Wincing, Tomozou tried to get his arms free (though whether to pry her off or hug her back, even he didn't know), but she had a grip like an iron vice. He had no choice but to sit there and let her cry on his shoulder.
Next Chapter: Yukina deals with Aoko's death as the rest of the cast try to figure out how to stop Hachi's creations now that their creator is dead. Now with one less shinobi, the rescue team departs for the Bijuu. That leaves a heartbroken Yukina, a very skittish Seishirou, Hitomi and Tomozou--who are avoiding each other yet again--and a mess of Ame-nin to try to figure out how to stop the monsters once and for all.
(Author's Apology: Super sorry for the late update! My only defense is that it's long and moving the plot right along. The next chapter should be likewise long and plot-filled. I'm lookin' to finally wrap up this Ame arc. Also, the thank-you picture for 300 reviews has a parody theme! If you'd like to see any parodies (keep in mind that it will be one picture per parody, put together in a comic strip form), drop a suggestion in a review or head on over to darkknightnojutsu dot deviantart dot com!)