Shadows of Dawn

Jedi Goat

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. I do own my OCs, though. :)

Author's Note: This took longer than expected. Sorry!


Part 20 – Snake-Bitten

~Hana~

We stood in solemn silence. I was still grinning slightly, a sai in each hand; Hito coiled about my arm, tensed and ready for action. Across from me Tatsuya gave a frosty stare, spiked knuckles grasped in each fist. Behind me grinned Kichiro, languid and lanky. The tip of his kunai pressed to the middle of my back.

"I wouldn't be so confident, if I were you," he hissed in my ear. "We've got you outnumbered and outmatched."
My eyes narrowed slightly. "Is that so?" When he continued to smirk at me I whirled around, away from his knife, and swung my leg up into his body. My boot connected firmly with his stomach and he stumbled back, momentarily winded.

Tatsuya closed in on my left and I met her in a clang of steel; we dueled, her artificial claws grappling against my sai. I was stronger with my left hand; I fought her off single-handed until Kichiro closed in on my right.

Tatsuya was a lot heavier than me; I knew I couldn't knock her away as easily. So, taking a step back to keep them both in my field of view, I raised both sai to block.

Claws locked between the prongs, attempting to hold them down as Tatsuya swiped in with her other hand. At the same time, Kichiro clashed against my right sai and grabbed a second kunai.

I couldn't dodge them both. Gritting my teeth, I ducked Tatsuya's attack, at the same time swinging the heel of my boot up into her knee. She grunted and fell back, giving me momentary space. Kichiro, however, came in with a kunai aiming at my arm.

Fast as lightning Hito's head snapped out, his fangs narrowly missing Kichiro's fist as he withdrew, eyes wide.

"You've still got that damn snake, I see," he remarked, dropping back and probably recalculating his plan.

"He's not just any damn snake," I crowed, "he's my partner. And Hito and I are gonna take you down now!"
Kichiro growled, forming hand seals. Tatsuya reared up on my other side. It was time to stop playing around.

I slipped my sai back into my belt, inhaling deeply to center myself as I folded my hands together.

"Earth Style! A Thousand Serpents!" I cried, slamming my palm against the floor. I felt shock waves fissuring through metal and rock, before one, two green heads wormed through. Suddenly thick green serpents were swarming everywhere, rapidly writhing toward Tatsuya. With a growl she lashed out with metal claws, slicing through the first wave of snakes. But soon they were overtaking her with their sheer numbers, coiling around her legs and arms, pricking with miniature fangs, reaching boldly for her neck. She was thrashing, snarling curses.

"Moving only makes it worse," I smiled serenely at her. I got no answer other than a furious howl.

"Nicely done," remarked Kichiro from behind me. "Really, I wouldn't expect anything less of the serpent lady. But you'll find I'm harder to catch."

"Exactly what I'd expect of a slime ball like you," I countered, now turning to face him, leisurely twirling a sai in my hand. "How about it? Would you like to see how you'd fare against my snakes?"

"Ha! I'm quicker than her," he sneered. "You're useless when nothing's in range of your fangs. You're too used to slow prey falling right into your grasp!"

"You're mistaken," I offered with a belligerent smile. "Snakes can be very fast when they so choose. Even you seemed surprised by Hito here earlier." The snake in question tensed on my arm. "Now, I believe, it's two against one. I'll show you how fast snakes can be!"

"Not fast enough," he responded automatically, locking his hands together. I tensed and he smirked, "Death Illusion Trap!"

Shit! I thought. I stood completely unprepared for his attack. I coiled my legs, trying to move, attack, anything, but my body was abruptly frozen. I gasped, struggling against nothing; my fingers twitched feebly and my sai clattered from my hands.

Damn it…

A dark cloud was forming around Kichiro; it solidified into the glinting forms of shuriken, gyrating, hovering ready for attack. Kichiro formed another hand seal.

A dozen shuriken arced forward, spinning for different points on my body. I grimaced, trying futilely to move. Only a genjutsu, I reminded myself.

The first sharpened star flew past my arm and I gasped, pain suddenly flashing through my limb. A slim gash in my sleeve opened and blood dripped into the dark fabric of my jacket. Then another: shuriken slicing into my arms, my bare legs, one even gashing my cheek in its passage. I flinched slightly, teeth clenched so hard I tasted blood on my tongue, determined not to scream.

Relax, I told myself, and closed my eyes. Focus… I can overcome genjutsu…! I managed to close my hand in a simple seal and cried, "Release!"

I opened my eyes, still seeing shuriken spinning in the air around me. They hovered now like vultures, dark and menacing, preparing to strike at the first indication of weakness.

"That won't work," Kichiro taunted. "You're trapped in my genjutsu – no silly tricks can save you here. I'm far too strong for that." I grimaced, cursing under my breath; he went on, "I'm going to make you suffer, Hanabiki-chan. Enjoy the pain of betrayal!"

I spat curses; shuriken shot by, each cut deeper than the last, the pain rising up in a wave. I forced it back, barely, my vision swaying.

"You idiot," I hissed out. "You can torture me all you want. I'm not afraid of you or your illusionary death."
He laughed coldly, eyes glinting. "Oh, Hana-chan, you've never really seen my jutsu, have you? This pain you're going through now…it's not fake. I am slowly sucking your very life away – and when I'm done, you'll die."

I growled. "You bastard!"

He laughed coldly, feral and high-pitched. "Imagine when the leaders learn I was the one to eliminate the traitors! I'll finally have a post worthy of my talents!"

"No, you won't," I gasped. I could feel my body weakening by the minute; he was telling the truth about his jutsu, damn it, I thought. I should have seen it coming-! "Too bad for you, the leaders are already dead." I spat bloodily on the ground, gaze darkening as I raised my head again. "You were the stupid ones. You left yourselves open, and I only provided the means for my companions to attack!"

His pale face turned an ugly shade of red, his eyes narrowing. "You little bitch. I'll make your death all the more painful for that!"

"And what would be the point? Kurotokage is as good as dead."

"Revenge. Once you're dead, it will be more than easy to find and kill your friends!" He sneered. "Too bad they can't save you now. Maybe if you hadn't been so arrogant as to take me on single-handedly – but you always were that way. A shame, really."

"How many times do I have to tell you?" I rasped. "I didn't come here alone. And Hito-kun…wasn't affected by your jutsu." Despite the effort it took, my lips twitched toward a defiant grin.

"Wh-what?" He glanced down to see tiny fang marks embedded in his leg, twin steaks of blood trickling downward.

"While you were distracted, he took the liberty of poisoning you," I wheezed. "We'll be going down together!"
Anger further flushed his face. "I can't stand staring at your stupid smirk any longer! You're wrong, Hana-chan, so very wrong! Now die!"

The entire mass of shuriken came down on me like a raging tornado. The faint ching of metal rubbing together filled my ears like the buzzing of so many insects; my vision was obscured by black and the flashes of their metallic wings. Any second now, those stars would sink deadly fangs into my flesh…

I closed my eyes.

A sudden prickle of pain hit my thigh. I gasped, reawakening onto the silent hall. Hitonomi coiled about my leg, teeth sunk into my skin. He drew back, leaving twin tiny pinpricks.

I grinned slowly past a fog of pain. Genjutsu could be broken in many ways…like afflicting pain. "Thanks, Hito-kun," I said, before crumpling to my knees. I gasped, hands pressed to my knees to keep me upright. I was shaking, nearly completely drained of chakra. It took an effort to raise my head to Kichiro.

"Your snake is getting on my nerves," he hissed. "Now see what you've done: we'll both die slowly of poison, instead of the quick and easy death I had planned for you."

I smirked at him. "Speak for yourself. I've been around Hito-kun for so many years I'm immune to his poisons…and most of the ones I use, as a matter of fact. You'll still die here, alone."

He was furious. With a snarl he reached for his kunai, clenching one in each fist. "You lying bitch! You manipulated me this entire time – but no longer. Now you will die!" he announced, flinging them.

The kunai flashed forward. I didn't have the strength to block; closing my eyes, I desperately flung myself sideways over the floor. I sprawled, breath momentarily catching as ice seeped into my side; I heard a clatter of metal, a foreign snarl.

I glanced up in surprise; my shock grew when I saw none other than a blonde in a gray kimono, katana in hand, settled in a battle crouch. Two kunai lay at her feet.

"I don't know who you are," Reinen growled, "but this bitch is mine alone to fight, and there's no way in hell I'll let you kill her!"


~Kaoyumi~

I walked down the hall with a slightly hesitant gait, trying my best to disguise my worry. I could only imagine what was going on elsewhere in the compound right now. From my mind I forced images of Reinen and Deidara – had they completed their mission by now? Or had they perhaps ran into trouble and now – I stopped myself. I had to keep my head.

Hana, I hope you're safe and out of the way right now. I inhaled deeply, easing my tensed muscles. I was now searching for her, knowing any minute now – yes, it had to be time enough now – our senseis would arrive and return us all to the lair.

Focus on the moment, I advised myself. If I get caught up in possible futures, I'll only jeopardize my mission.

I sighed. Normally I could disguise my emotions easily; when I was this worried about the others – Hana especially – I began to fret. My sister was reckless; if she had the chance, she'd gladly take part in the destruction of Kurotokage.

Remember our orders, Hana-chan.

Footsteps up ahead made me glance up; hastily I readjusted my posture, hoping to gather some shards of confidence. Surprise jolted across my face despite my will when it was Ryoushi, dark bangs falling across his cool face, who came into sight. He walked along leisurely, hands within his robes.

Flustered, I offered a slight bow with a murmur of, "Ryoushi-san."

He inclined his head slightly, staring at me. His gaze was as piercing as ever, but now, when I had something to hide, it made me all the more nervous. I only got this way around him…

"You're worried," he said curtly. I jumped slightly, striving to cover it.

"N-nani?"

He wasn't one to repeat himself, regarding me almost coldly. I recovered, straightening and clearing my throat.

"Well, with the meeting going on, I think it's justified," I murmured.

He nodded faintly, continuing to observe me. "Kaoyumi-san. The meeting has been sabotaged."
The shock on my face was real. How – how does he know? "What are you talking about?" I spluttered.

"I was passing by the head chamber. The guards were slaughtered, our leaders murdered. There was little trace of their presence, though I detected the scent of explosives."

"All of them?" I breathed. "Even – even the Rain?"

"Yes. It was the impressive feat of someone – only someone with inside information could do such a thing."

"And you don't know who did it?" I pressed, testing him. Ryoushi was the best tracker I knew, exempting perhaps the Lioness. Did he trace them here…?

"No. Their wounds were from a variety of sources: weapons, explosives, what appeared to be the marks of an animal." His eyes narrowed slightly. "There was no time for further investigation."

"There – there weren't any other bodies?" I asked, disguising the hope in my voice. He shook his head.

"The only foreigners were those of Rain – and they possessed none of the weaponry to be responsible."

I breathed a tiny bit easier. "Then you must be searching for them."

"Yes." His gaze lingered on my face a moment longer than necessary. "I believe they must still be within the compound. Security is too tight for them to leave."

I swallowed hard. "Hai. I'll come with you."

He didn't answer as his eyes narrowed slightly – voices yelling could be heard up ahead. I recognized Hana's cry – oh, God, no. I swung around to Ryoushi suddenly.

"Maybe we should check for more evidence-"

"No." He held out a hand, stopping me from turning back. "We must stop the traitors. At all cost – you know that, Kaoyumi."

I remembered his words so long ago. Those who turn away are too weak. I balked against that statement. We are strong. Stronger than all of them!

Clenching my jaw I strode forward, turning to block his path. "No. I can't let you do that."

"Kaoyumi-san," he warned.

"Do what you will!" I threatened. "You won't lay a hand on her while I'm still alive!"

He closed his eyes briefly, forming a hand sign. "Kaoyumi-san, please, step aside. I do not want to kill you."

"But you'd kill her, wouldn't you?" I demanded, voice lowering dangerously.

"I will do what I must. If you are in the way, then I will not hesitate." Ryoushi formed a final seal before calling sharply, "Ice Fang Rising!"

Frost splashed over the floor I was standing on; instinctively I leaped back, and just in time too. A giant spear of ice burst up from the ground, narrowed to a perilous point. A trail of ice followed me and I rapidly hopped back, avoiding each rising spike.

He was gaining ground – and this way I couldn't utilize my arrows. I grimaced; he knew me too well. Relying on my bow made me best for long-range dueling, and I needed a relatively stationary post to do so. Neither would help me now; I reached into my pocket, quickly twining string around my fist. Then I drew it to chest level, forming hand signs as I wove thread between my knuckles.

I'll just hold him back, I decided. That will be enough to keep Hana safe. I closed my hands together, crying out, "Cat's Cradle Bind!"

Instantly the string flew from my fingers, madly alive, twisting to surround him. Ryoushi grimaced, dropping his hands as he fell back. He couldn't avoid my string, however, which was already tightly wrapping around his arms.

Swiftly he began signing a new jutsu; he raised his hands together in an arrowhead, targeting me with the tips of his fingers. "Mind's Arrow Jutsu!"

His silver chakra hit me swift as a shot arrow and I froze to the spot, arms dropping limply by my sides. He invaded my mind so easily; I could feel his presence as a shadow at the back of my mind, scanning my thoughts and memories, calling them up involuntarily. I fought within my own head, struggling to shield my secrets.

But already he had read into our secret meetings with Kakuzu-sensei and Hidan; he observed as Hana and I wormed our ways into the ranks of the Akatsuki and were assigned our mission to invade Kurotokage. Such horror washed over me but I was powerless to hide my thoughts; I was an open book to him, and he flipped through my pages to his will.

Then he saw, with a lingering pause that made me blush furiously, how I felt about him. He flashed through the times in his presence, my surreptitious glances at him.

And then he released me; I nearly fell forward, robbed of all will to fight him. He knew everything, every darkest secret… Though it seemed hardly as grave, I wished he hadn't seen those last memories. It would be so much easier to fight him without that shared knowledge…

I raised my eyes to him, almost afraid of what I would see in his gaze. But his face was a perfect cold mask; yet, it wasn't him. The look marred his sharp, handsome features and made my heart pang.

"Kaoyumi-san…" he hissed. "You are the traitor."

"I'm sorry," I murmured, pointlessly. "I don't want to fight you-"

"I must destroy you," he said over me, folding his hands. "I am most disappointed in you, Kaoyumi-san… If anyone in this place, I would have liked to trust you."

I wanted to deny his every word; my throat was thick, and it was suddenly hard to talk. "Ryoushi-san…please…"

"Traitors must pay with their lives," he echoed coldly. He strode forward and I tensed, head raised, prepared to face the worst.

Yet he walked straight past me without a glance at me; he formed hand signs, hardened determination in his expression.

Panic rose fluttering in my throat. "What – what are you doing?"

"I will eliminate those responsible," he said calmly. "Once they are gone, you will once again be loyal to me – that is what love is, isn't it?" He regarded me, steely. "We will continue on Kurotokage's mission ourselves."

"No!" I gasped. "You can't – leave them!" The image of my sister flashed in my mind. No. She was the world to me; I wouldn't lose her, and certainly not in this way!

"Ryoushi, please, don't so this!" I strived to go after him, but I found my feet frozen; ice circled around my legs, holding me down. "Ryoushi-san!"

"It will be quick," he murmured, almost to himself, harshly. "A single pierce of my ice is enough to kill her."

My sister. I blinked back sudden furious tears. This wasn't Ryoushi; he had been lost, years ago, as I now clung to what was left of me. He was now an assassin, fully submerged in the total lack of identity. The assassin would kill Hanabiki.

The assassin never loved me.

There was still string in my hands and I knotted it together, desperately, nearly blind by tears.

"Ryoushi-san," I appealed finally. "Stop."

He ignored me, raising his hands. "Ice Fang-"

I closed my eyes and sent my chakra to my fingertips. Forgive me.

"Five Elements Net!"

Through my closed eyelids I saw the string glowing warm against my fists. I pulled my hands away, stretching it, and the string formed into an intricately woven net. It was warm with pulsing chakra of each color – fire, water, earth, air, lightning. And just as it formed, unable to stop now, I turned, extending it toward Ryoushi.

I saw only the shock in his eyes as the string flew out to him, tightening around him, my chakra burning his skin. The elements furiously bombarded him all at once – an overload even he was unable to resist – and his scream assaulted my ears.

I saw him crumple forward, but then I buried my head in my hands, unable to look any more. I was distantly aware of the ice receding and I fell to my knees, shaken with sobs.

I had no doubt that the real Ryoushi could have loved me.


~Hana~

I grinned faintly. "Just on time, Lioness. See, I always knew you were my loyal lesbian bitch. Not that I really needed your help, anyway," I added with a toss of my head.

Reinen snorted. "Just shut up, you whore. I'm not here because of you." Her eyes narrowed. "This…is my territory. You can have all the silky words you want; action is what counts, and that's what I plan to do."

I shook my head slightly, amused by how she turned my own words from so long ago on their heads. "All right, prove me your skills. But don't you dare kill them, Lioness. I already claimed them."

"Well, you seem to be having a bit of trouble keeping that claim," she snapped back. "I'll just take over from here, shall I?"

"You just want to be a show-off," I snorted.

Kichiro took our argument as an opportunity; he turned on his heel and ran down the empty corridor, stumbling slightly with the effects of the poison.

"Coward!" I screamed after him. Reinen snarled, but as she stepped forward Tatsuya regained her feet. Having torn a way free of the snakes she stepped in front of us, face hardened. Blood ran along the tears in her dark robes; she was breathing hard, curled blond hair flopping in her face, vengeance in her eyes.

"You go no further," she hissed.

Reinen raised her blade, but she needn't have bothered. Kichiro didn't get far: as he rounded the corner a fist lashed out across his jaw and he dropped to the ground. Deidara stepped into view, breathing hard, right fist still clenched. He brought his knee down on Kichiro's back, pinning him; the white-haired ninja tussled, but there was clearly no competition.

I turned my attention back to Tatsuya. She raised her knuckles warningly, adopting a wide defensive stance. Reinen held position in front of me, bristling like a cat.

"Who the hell are these people?" she growled to me. "Your friends?"

"No one you should be concerned with," I dismissed. "They're no one to me now."

"You side with the traitor," observed Tatsuya. "Then I have no choice but to kill you as well."

"Hold on a minute," Reinen interrupted. "Who said I would give you that chance?" She darted forward with her sword; Tasuya steadily blocked the blade with her knuckles.

"I'm the organization's best hand-to-hand fighter and head of Infiltration," she responded in a hiss. "I won't lose!"

"Really," murmured Reinen, a note of cool confidence in her tone. Just as suddenly she leaped away and plunged her sword into the tiled floor at her feet; she rose empty-handed, fingers flexing as she fell into position.

"Show me, then."

Tatsuya watched her warily a moment; surely, she must be thinking, this was a trap of some sort. I smirked, reading the cockiness in the Lioness's stance. Oh, I had a good idea of what she was planning…

Reinen, seeing her hesitation, took charge. With a cry she lunged, fists clenched, aiming a roiling attack at Tatsuya's chest. She sidestepped, bringing up her own fist as Reinen came down on her. Reinen grasped her fist, fingers curling around the long metal claws extending from her knuckles; Tatsuya, unable to pull back, threw a lower punch with her other hand.

Reinen captured her other hand in similar fashion, a feral grin twisting her lips. "What's this?" she queried, eyeing the bronzed knuckles. "You like your claws? Well, so do I."

Tatsuya gasped; Reinen's nails dug into her knuckles, elongated into dark hooks. I saw blood drip over the edges of her fists; but Tatsuya didn't back down. Instead she brought up her knee, knocking Reinen back; the Lioness released her, rolling with the blow to land back on her feet. She grinned, fangs jutting past her lower teeth. She looked like some sort of insane vampire.

"And you know how to fight, too," she crowed. "Maybe I'll enjoy this after all!"

I grimaced. Not only was the Lioness stealing my show, she was running away with it! "Hello, earth to Reinen?" I called out with a roll of my eyes. "This isn't the time for your battle royale. This isn't even your fight, anyway."

"Maybe not, but I'm making it mine!" she snarled, charging forward in a whirlwind of claws. Tatsuya blocked her every attack, bravely might I add. The Lioness here was bordering on insane.

They exchanged blows, neither gaining an advantage; only Tatsuya's quick wits with her own claws prevented her from turning into a scratching post. She countered every clawed swipe, then throwing a punch of her own. Reinen darted sideways, grinning madly, and whipped her extended hand across her face.

Tatsuya screamed, blood welling from long cuts on her cheek. She fell back, panting and cursing, Reinen in pursuit. The Lioness made to pounce -!

Suddenly the wall behind them exploded. I flung my hands over my head as chunks of metal and plaster flew everywhere. One struck Tatsuya in the back of the head – I saw her go down, unmoving. Reinen fell to a crouch, hissing, before bounding back toward me defensively. Her eyes flicked to her sword, just out of reach.

But the intruder now stepping through the gap in the wall was familiar. Kakuzu's luminous eyes narrowed as he scanned the scene; his blackened fist slowly returned to its normal color. Behind him, Hidan was grumbling as usual.

It was Reinen, however, who got the first word in. "What the hell was that for!" she spat, hackles raised like a cat. "You could've killed us!"

Kakuzu ignored her rant. "You had orders not to engage anyone," he muttered, a warning in his voice.

"What was I supposed to do? Let them kill her?" she raged.

"Hey, hey," I intervened, "I was doing perfectly well on my own, you know."

"Yeah, you were getting your sorry ass kicked!"

I shrugged slightly. "Maybe that's what you thought. I was in perfect control until you showed up."

"Lioness-chan," Deidara overrode our argument. He was crouched beside Kichiro. "I hope we didn't need him for questioning, hmm."

Reinen stiffened. "How should I-" She stopped her tirade. "…He's dead?"

"Nothing I could do about it," he nodded grimly. "Hana-chan's poison works fast."

"Serves that bastard right," I muttered. Hidan approached my side and I glanced up at my mentor wearily. "Where's Kao-nee-chan? Shouldn't you be finding her?"

"That won't be necessary." Kakuzu pointed down the hall. "She's right there."

I whirled, an exclamation on my tongue. "Nee-chan!"

Indeed, Kaoyumi now walked toward us, breathing hard as if she had been in a fight. Yet she didn't look too badly injured; what froze me, however, was the look in her eyes. It frightened me to see such blatant loss, a blanched daze. She turned toward me slowly, as if coming to, and allowed a tiny smile.

"Hana. You're all right."

"Yeah, mostly." I grimaced; I didn't think I could move right now. To my utter surprise Hidan reached down, grasped me around the waist, and hoisted me to my feet; I gasped, nearly stumbling into him as the world spun around me. He held me to his side a moment.

"Hey, snake-bitch! You okay?"

I raised my head. "Yeah…thanks…" Hito had looped loosely about my neck, leaving my arms free as I staggered along beside him. Kaoyumi quietly fell into step with Kakuzu; I wanted to talk to her, but in our current respective conditions I let her go for now. Vaguely I heard some mention of an exit – we were hastening down the hall now, me limping. We passed Kichiro's body and I stared at him, one last time.

Guess the snake's faster, huh.

I clung to Hidan's arm and staggered on. Reinen was with Deidara, supporting him, it seemed. He did look oddly pale – but I couldn't let my gaze linger longer, for I was finding it hard enough to walk over undulating ground.

Kichiro had put me into a worse state than I thought, I grimaced, attempting to keep pace with the others. I couldn't do it; black spots flared in front of my vision. I gasped, Hito tensing as he sensed my pain.

At a distance I was aware of us both slowing, Hidan shooting me a sharp glance. "Hey, snake-bitch? Hana?"

Then I was falling forward into the welcome darkness.


~Reinen~

I hadn't realized how far we were from the lair until we were rushing home. Deidara used the remainder of his clay to make more birds to carry us all back; I saw the effort it cost him, already injured as he was. It made my heart ache strangely to see him so determined to help; after all, it was my fault he was in this sorry state.

We were in the air now. Wintry wind whistled through my hair, my kimono. The skies were midnight black, and I strained my golden eyes in the darkness, hoping at least to be of some assistance. I was on my knees, straddling the back of the bird – I'd yet to gather the courage to stand during flight, and already I could feel my stomach flip-flopping with our rocking motion.

I glanced ahead to my sensei. He crouched at the head of our craft, a careful eye on the birds flying to either side of us. His shoulders were bare to the air – he'd foregone his cloak again, giving it to Hana, who'd passed out during our hasty retreat and now slumped against Hidan, unresponsive. I growled faintly; at least I had fur to keep me warm, but he had nothing…

Deidara twisted around abruptly to look at me, bangs flaring across his face. "Lioness-chan, can you see anything?"

"A bit," I answered cautiously. "We're too high to make anything out clearly."

"We'll be coming in on the mountains soon, hmm," he stated, brow furrowing. "I think I can land us pretty well, but…"

"But what?" I snapped. Flight always made me edgier. And now he was telling us we'd crash-land? Wonderful!

He hesitated. "My scope got broken during the battle, hmm," he admitted. "I know where we're headed, but your eyes would be an immense help."

"Okay, okay." I sighed, digging my fingers into the bird's back in front of me. Hand over hand, cautiously, I crawled to where he perched at its head. Nervously I crept up behind him, peering over his shoulder. The ground swung dizzyingly far below, obscured by dark low-hanging clouds. In the distance mountains rose.

"We're on the right track," I murmured. Already my mind was racing – could I recognize the lair from above? It was dark, and I'd never seen the mountains from this high up… I swallowed back the sick feeling in my stomach.

I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, trying to rid myself of my sudden dizziness. The cold assaulted my senses, freezing my nose, accentuating every nauseous movement. I grimaced and leaned forward, my arms wrapping tightly around Deidara's chest for security.

My eyes fluttered open and I gasped. "Sensei…" I breathed. "You're cold." His skin was ice; I could feel him trembling against me, the harshness of every breath.

"We're almost there," he pressed, gaze set firmly ahead, jaw clenched. "Don't worry about me, hmm."

"But you're hurt…" My eyes went to his shoulder bound in bloodstained bandages.

"This is nothing, hmm." His hand closed gently around my own, clenched to his chest near his thundering heart. He squeezed my hand slightly, and I didn't flinch at his cold touch. "We've got to get these girls to safety first. Don't worry about me," he repeated.

I bit my lip to stop my immediate protest; nothing I said could deter him now, I knew. With a resigned sigh I glanced ahead to the rapidly magnifying mountains. We would be upon them in a matter of minutes.

I tightened my grip around him, half for my own support, half to offer what warmth I could provide. I lowered my head, resting my chin against his uninjured right shoulder. He turned his head in surprise but made no motion to move me; the strong muscles beneath my jaw eased gradually as he turned away.

Suddenly I didn't feel so cold; and gathering strength, I peered at the ground below without feeling the urge to faint. I scanned the mountains, thinking hard, comparing the dark slopes to those I knew to disguise our lair. I struggled to remember past the rush of excitement of our earlier leaving; we had taken off from the cliff I liked to frequent, high above the lair. I squinted at the rapidly growing surfaces below. We were angling downward, my stomach tilting with the bird's wings. Deep crags reached up to ensconce us.

Deidara was taking us down to the highest peak. He was flying blind, but he still knew enough of our course; this mountain, I realized, was our target. I strained my eyes, searching for a gap in the trees flashing by just under the clay bird's broad wings. Hidan was swearing vehemently behind us as the second and third birds followed our mad dive.

"There!" I gasped suddenly, pointing to a ledge far below. Deidara readjusted the bird's course mid-dive with a faint "hmm," of thanks; we were going faster, on the edge of control. I was clinging to him for dear life.

Branches scraped by on either side, slowing our mad plunge; the bird gave a final flare of its wings and fell into a clearing. Talons dug deep ruts into the ground; the bird shrieked as it drudged a few more feet forward, nearly pitching sideways over the large boulder where once long ago I had sat. The cliff's drop-off was precious meters away.

Deidara hardly gave the clay creation time to stop; already he flung himself to the ground, staggering slightly as he righted himself, then running out to guide the other two birds to a landing. He had less control over them without proximity to them; instead he threw out an arm, creating a barrier so that the bird had to halt.

I only allowed myself a moment of recovery before leaping down to help him. The second bird slid along, talons scoring through the ground; it stilled mere inches away from him, nearly bowling him over. He pressed his good hand to the bird's flank, leaning heavily against it.

"Sensei!" I yelled.

The final bird overshot its target and closed in on the ledge; its talons grappled with the edge of the cliff, its weight pulling it forward over the brink. In a few quick strides I reached the floundering creature; but it was far too large, there was no way I could stop it! I snarled, grasping handfuls of clay, digging in my heels.

Hidan was clambering toward us, hampered by the weight of Hana he was carrying. He reached the tail feathers and flung her at me; I stumbled back, catching her dead weight in my arms.

Deidara was beside me then, pulling at the bird's feathers with all his might. "Stupid-!" he growled, attempting futilely to drag it back.

Hidan made a mad lunge for high ground just as the bird toppled from the cliff; he hit the soil on his knees, panting, spitting curses. But already my attention was diverted. Deidara stumbled forward as the bird slipped away; he teetered on the precipice. With a snarl I lunged for him, arms tightening around his waist and pulling him back.

Suddenly the ground gave way beneath me; I screamed as my foothold crumbled, and we were both falling -!

A strong hand grasped me by the back of my shirt, hauling me back. Kakuzu cast us away from the cliff none too gently, and I stumbled back, landing hard on my back. Only then did I dare let go of Deidara, gasping, arms aching with the sudden strain, heart thundering. He rolled away from me soundlessly, rising up on his knees and crawling back to the cliff.

I joined him a careful few feet away from the drop-off, seeing the bird tumble through the air and shatter on the hard ground below. I swallowed hard and turned away, clenching trembling fists.

That was closer than it needed to be…

Deidara staggered to his feet, grimacing, clenching his hand over his bloody shoulder. "Get inside," he hissed to the others. Once they were headed to the hidden entrance he muttered to me, "Let's go, Reinen."

I glanced at him sharply in surprise. "What happened to 'Lioness-chan'?" I demanded, one eyebrow raised.

He didn't answer; pain flashed across his face and he staggered forward. I reached his side, pulling his good arm around my shoulders; I pressed my other hand to his side, supporting him.

"…I…" he began, breathing heavily. He tapered off into a rasping cough, eyes half-closing. His legs were almost trembling too much to walk.

"Don't talk," I murmured. "Never mind. Let's just get you inside." He leaned heavily against me as we somehow managed to reach the welcoming tunnel leading into the lair.

"Thank you…" he mumbled in my ear, tiredly. I said nothing, gritting my teeth, dragging him along.

My mind was racing. I had to find Minako, or Sasori-san, quickly-! The hall was utterly dark, the candles extinguished for the night, and I maneuvered with difficulty. I ignored where the others had gone; I had to get Deidara to a medic…

The dark disoriented me; winding hallways extended in all directions. I grimaced, struggling to focus past my own exhaustion and the weight across my shoulders. Have to get to our room…

Light burst suddenly in front of me. I blinked, turning toward the glow of candlelight bobbing toward me. Deidara's harsh breathing echoed in my ears with my pounding heartbeat.

Itachi swept into view, soundlessly surveying us with the Sharingan, a light in hand. I had never been happier to see him; beyond any ability to summon my irritation I appealed to him.

"He's hurt…please, help me."

He said nothing but fell into step with us, supporting Deidara's other side. I gasped as my burden suddenly eased; wearily I raised my head, determined at least to keep my strength in front of him.

Deidara mumbled incomprehensively, head lolling against my shoulder. I didn't know what caused his state – his injury, the cold, our near-death fall, or some combination thereof – but the evening had taken its toll, and I was desperate to get him some form of help.

"The ward is not far," Itachi said curtly. I could manage no protest at this; I gave into his guidance, warmth coloring my face with gratitude. "I believe Sasori-san is already there, treating Hanabiki-san."

I glanced across at him: his composed face, his steady stride. Right now I could convince myself that I appreciated every aspect of him.

I didn't know how I could ever repay him – but I would think about that after I'd had some sleep and started despising him again.

To be continued...


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