Hello again readers! The creative inspiration i've been recieving hasn't ran out yet, thankfully! So I'm aiming for the next chapter to be up by the end of the week :)
Baked in a sky of dull heat, a gentle wisp of breeze flowed through the field of wheat, causing the farmer's daughter to close her eyes, raise her arms into the air, and imagine she could drift away along with the wind. She tired of her father's subtle complaints that he had not nurtured a son, her mother's instance that the neighbour's boy was her perfect match.
She longed to see what lay across the fields, towards the jagged outline of the earth's bone. She wished that somehow, this tiny breeze would be her liberation, as she did for every breeze that flowed through her hair. She wished she had the courage to change something, anything about her life, and the destiny, nay, despair enforced by the family in which she was raised.
She longed for the strength to severe the bonds that tied her wilful soul to the confinements of her home. Open air, and a landscape etching for miles around were nothing if one could never venture through them. All she needed was to know how she could make that first step.
A flurry of wings enticed her ears, provoking her to look up at the endless mass of heat above her. Birds flocked over her prison, mocking her with their freedom. What ugly birds they were; villainous, bringing with them a foul stench of blood. These were harbingers of liberation, without any confinements, yet they represented something nasty, something heinous, something that made her want to cry.
And then she saw him.
"Um, excuse me, this is private property, and it's way too soon for Halloween, so d'you mind leaving before my dad comes out." She called out to the young man. He was taller than her, but with the mask his features and age were a mystery. He gazed silently at the very birds she was transfixed with a moment ago, and seemed to have not heeded her warning.
"Hello! Are you listening! I know those birds are pretty and all, but you-"
"They are not pretty." He responded plainly, catching her off guard. "I am not watching birds, I am watching my freedom."
This bewildered the girl, thus prompting her to explain. The mask suddenly turned. It was a white mask, shaped like a fox, white with cute whiskers, yet it repulsed her, being stained with much blood. As another breeze parted the wheat, she saw the gentle flicker of his ponytail amidst the clothing, equally soaked with crimson. She suddenly felt terrified.
"Freedom, true freedom, is an ugly thing. I go where these birds go, because I am one of them. I am truly free, for I no longer have a home." He continued, his tranquil voice flooding her with a sense of enormous sorrow.
Sheer fear drove her to at least provide some comfort, if he felt she was on his side, he may not use the blade she spotted amidst the crops.
"Y-you could always go back. T-to this home of yours, I-I mean." She stammered.
"…no… There is no going back. That is the price of true freedom. Should you ever wish for true freedom, I warn you; it is a prison, without barriers or walls, rules and rulers. Yet it confines you, worse than any other force in this world. It is an ugly thing. And you cannot escape it."
His head practically splitting open with agony, Itachi rolled to the side of the bed and felt the clinging dampness of the sheets, as his clothing soaked into his flesh. His vision blurring out of focus as he scrambled to arise; feeling at his least graceful. Breathing heavily, he reached out for the glass of water beside his bed.
He wasn't having dreams anymore, only memories. They taunted him, a constant reminder of how low he had fallen, and hope no hope of salvation would ever be possible. However, they also told him something else, something that actually pleased him. The walls of his mind were shaking under the weight of his past. The excessive use of his power had diminished his body. He was losing himself, bit by bit. So vivid were these memories now he could recall everything about them, the sounds, the tastes, the smells – all were so clear to him that he felt as if he were there.
"…You're eyes were fluttering in your sleep." Came the timid voice of the woman Meiun. Itachi turned rather groggily, internally cursing himself for not even detecting her presence.
"I heard you groaning, so I came to check. That's when I saw your eyes." Her voice was a little uneven. She was holding a red towel, and nervously standing before him. Feeling sweat pour endlessly down his cheeks, he went to wipe it. Confused by his previous thought, he wondered whether the wet across his face were tears. Raising his hand after wiping himself, he knew it was neither. It was blood. He was activating it in his sleep now.
No wonder I'm so drained after sleeping. I may as well done a marathon for all the good it's done me!
"…That towel was white before, wasn't it?" He asked.
"Y-yeah. I sent my son to go fetch some help in the town. You're suffering from far more than exhaustion…" She had an air of pleading in her voice, implying she'd at least like to know what would cause a young, handsome man to bleed from his eyes.
Standing rather awkwardly, Itachi bowed his head slightly, "No doctor can me, no doctor would even know where to begin with this illness-"
"What illness?" She asked swiftly, her eagerness getting the better of her.
"hmph. You don't want to know." He shrugged and turned away, emitting an air of cool arrogance that came so naturally with those of the Uchiha, yet this did not quell her requests.
"I-I need to know. If you're sick, then how can I be sure my-my son won't catch…whatever it is!"
"…there is no need to worry there. This is…hereditary." He gave a grim chuckle at this cryptic answer. It was vague enough to hide the more disturbing history of the Uchiha, whilst informative enough to ease Meiun's concern.
"Then, then we should contact your family. Y-you said you had a brother, right? Perhaps he could help? We could help you do that."
Itachi gave no response.
"Y-you could always go back. T-to this home of yours, I-I mean." She stammered.
"…no… There is no going back. That is the price of true freedom." The words escaped his mouth before he even contemplated what they meant. Was it the dream, the memory he'd just had? Yes, he must have been simply recalling his own words since this woman before him sounded a lot like the farm-girl he encounter that awful day. The day he freed himself.
"P-price of true freedom?" Meiun asked, clearly bemused.
"I'm sorry. I ask only that you give me my possessions, then I'll leave." He responded solemnly, before heading out of the room.
He sounded just like her husband – so drained, so empty of life. Beyond the horror of the bleeding, she saw his eyes flash red. To most, that would spark a fear to retreat from such a man. However, she saw the pain that those eyes emblazoned. This man was suffering far worse than any illness can cause. His heart seemed so crushed, so damaged. She did nothing when her husband left the room that day. She prayed he would pull himself out of the sorrow.
How could she? When she could not feel the pain he felt. Following her loss, Meiun truly understood misery. To have something you cherish taken from you, that hole inside your chest. It swells, devouring all the light that tries to penetrate it. Had it not been for her son's sake, she probably would have followed her love. Yet this man here, he had something to live for. He shunned away from the concept of returning to those he loves. Perhaps he felt unworthy of it. She failed to stop her husband from seeing that, but she wouldn't fail again.
"Wait!" She called out.
"…what?" He responded evenly.
"Itachi, right? Y-you know it's rude to just leave after your hosts have taken care of you like this." She stammered, trying to hold her resolve, yet something about this man saddened her; he had an aura that drained any life within her.
"What would you have me do?"
"When my son comes back, y-you can get a check-up, a-and then, w-we can talk about-"
The doorbell rang. Both turned towards the noise, and Meiun breathed a sigh of relief.
"That'll be him now. Stay there." She rushed past him into the front room. Calling out to her son, she asked if he'd found a doctor.
"No! But some funny looking guy here says he knows Itachi!" Came her son's cheerful reply outside. Itachi's eyes widened with utter horror. There wasn't a merciful soul who did know him. Whether Leaf or Rouge, the ninja outside spelt disaster for this household, once they confirmed he was here.
Dashing to the front room, he caught the tail end of a nervous greeting Meiun gave to the bizarre figure, who seemed to fill the room. Itachi didn't even need to round the corner to confirm who had come. The stench of rotting flesh still lingered around everywhere this man stepped foot.
Revealing himself, and standing resolute and silent, Itachi stared down the sinister face of his comrade, who only grinned manically.
"My, my, what a quaint little love-nest we've found, eh, Senpai?" Zetsu laughed, "Now, can you get me something to eat? I'm starving!"
"W-what?" Konohamaru asked, clearly scandalised by the statement brought forwards by Naruto and his friends.
"Why us?" Hanabi asked, equally shocked by what her comrades were suggesting.
"It has to be you two," Sakura replied casually, "Obviously, you're the only ones he's seen."
"Y-yeah, b-but why can't we just expose ourselves as ninja, why lie?" Hanabi retorted, already fearful that her cheeks may betray her. She flat out refused to even glance at Konohamaru.
"Miss Hyuuga, look almost embarrassed by this situation. Do I need to remind you that it was your consideration of the general public that gave birth to this plan?" Yamato smiled at the two Genin.
The plan in question was developed whilst Konohamaru and Hanabi rested. The group needed to have the doppelganger expose himself to them, and it was unanimously agreed he would remain hidden until he had a chance at his targets; Konohamaru and Hanabi. Thus, both would be used as bait – and for him to spot the bait, they would need to be publically known.
The land of greens boasted tranquil scenery and was a commonplace of commerce, thus was never far behind the larger countries in terms of trade and news. Both these facts contributed to it being such a highly desired location to move to, compounded with the low costs of land there due to the young government there. Between the still blossoming system put in place by Haruna, and the attacks that claimed her father's life, the land was frequently welcoming new families and businesses to immigrate.
Thus many of the noble families in the neighbouring lands would often take advantage of this prosperous situation and relocate younger members there. The situation was rather romantic; two young heirs would be escorted throughout the land, find their ideal spot for a new home, and begin a life there. With many of said noble families arranging marriages from a very early age, it was a frequent sight to see couples as young as Konohamaru and Hanabi finding their own home, accompanied by an entourage of chaperones – the families weren't so naïve to send two younger lovers into the world alone.
The plan was for the two Genin to pose as such a couple, with the other four their faithful servants. The group would spread rumours that the two were of wealthy backgrounds and wished to tour the towns and cities. Emphasis would be placed on the publicity of their movements, thus maximizing the chances of Deidara hearing of them.
"I don't have enough money for a home here!" Konohamaru wept, clearly caught up in the guise of house-spotter. Indeed, everyone had to take a moment to remind him that he wouldn't actually have to get around to buying a house.
"Wh-why a couple? Why not just one of us? I don't see why I have to pose as this moron's girlfriend for a second time!" Her statement on his intelligence would have been hurtful, had it not been for his previous comment. However, Sakura did note that she was protesting a little too much for it to be earnest.
Before she could press Hanabi on that subject, Yamato interrupted the degenerating conversation and chose the most diplomatic response.
"For this plan to work, we have to play on the public's mind more than our targets. We know he'll come and get us, even if we just dangle you two from a rope outside the window," Konohamaru, snarling from the 'moron' comment, took petty pleasure in imagining Hanabi in such a situation, "However, as we've already established – ninja activity here could be disastrous to our village politically. If we engage him as Leaf ninja, it'll raise questions as to why we were here in the first place; try and explain that to the other nations in the current climate."
Both growled, but accepted this as true.
"However, if we engage him as a private body, here on innocent business, then it raises less eyebrows. Which is why we're using the 'noble-family' act. As to why you're both needed at the spotlight; he may not strike if he can't get to both of you. If one is in the wings, then he might just wait longer – we don't want that. Plus, it looks more natural that a couple would be touring the land, rather than one noble alone." Yamato risked a smug chuckle at the final comment, earning another sulking glare from both youngsters.
"…I-I'm not holding his hand or anything!" Hanabi finally yelled, turning her nose up away from them.
"Ha! What makes you think I want to hold your hand?" Konohamaru snapped, also turning away.
Yamato and Sakura allowed the two to continue trading insults, quite amused at how this 'relationship' was blossoming, since both felt their ranting now would drain them of any objections later on. Sai took this point to furiously jot down every comment and action made; fascinated by the spectacle of repressed emotions that both were displaying. However, the three didn't calculate the love-doctor Naruto interfering.
Placing a hand on each child's shoulder, Naruto crouched lower, to meet them eye level, and smiled obnoxiously.
"Guys, you two just got together only moments ago, is this how you want to remember the beginning of this relationship?" He asked, still smiling, despite the growing veins on both their heads.
"Rather than waste time arguing, go round back and get acquainted-"
A fist ended his lessons of love. As it turned out, Sakura had recently been called into the Hokage's office wherein she was given a mission of the utmost importance. The plague of filth spread by her fellow Sannin Jiraiya had claimed many casualties throughout the years; her own Sarutobi-Sensei, Iruka, Ebisu and Kakashi – making these great men into either 'closet' or 'open' perverts. According to Tsunade's intelligence, excessive exposure to the host has caused Naruto to show signs of the disease (spying on women's bathhouses, the sexy jutsu, his constantly growing collection of magazines…) and thus the only cure was to beat it out of him. Thus it became Sakura's sacred duty to strike her friend down when he preached of all things devious, his previous comment being one of them.
Opting to draw both Genin's attention away from Naruto's 'lesson', Yamato asked both to prepare to head out.
Turning on her heels, Hanabi marched out in a rush, desperate not to cross Konohamaru given her current state of mind. Reaching her room swiftly, she pounced onto her bed, placed her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them before burying her head in embarrassment.
Yet again, this series of endless misfortune seems to have delivered another trail for her to overcome; now she must pose as this boy's love. Groaning, Hanabi began to rationalise her thoughts. A trail, to be sure, but certainly valid experience for her future as a Kunoichi. If she could successfully lull the townsfolk of her relationship, then it would be a testament to her skills in deception and espionage. Indeed, her sister's Sensei was reportedly an expert in situations such as this. Calm and collected; she kept her real emotions reserved whenever she had to infiltrate a foreign society. By retracting all true emotion, she becomes a blank palette, and her demeanour and reassuring disposition would cause any who encounter her to simply assume her personality. She would entice, arouse, provoke her targets to whatever end she required, and was as easily forgettable once her objective was acquired – drift out of memory, leaving a wake of doubt as to whether she even existed.
Like a phantom she would wander to any plain, influence the lives of whomever she encountered, yet never remembered. Stealth in its primal form. Indeed, once she would return to her village, she would shed all forms of connection with her mission, re-establish her emotions, become once more content with her true nature and resume her real name and title. To this end, if she abandons her previous life – no matter how short a life it was – how can it have even existed? True, pure obscurity. Foolish, arrogant men like those Akatsuki fiends can tote all their powers, yet this was a real testament to the skill of a ninja. And she, Hanabi, would now be regarded with the same respect as her fellow Kunoichi –
"It's just an act, y'know?" Konohamaru chuckled.
Turning with fright, she hadn't even heard him come in. Standing by her doorway, hands in his pockets, and an impish grin on his face, why was he so much more relaxed with this situation?
"…I know…but still, it's just annoying to be…" She began, turning her head back to her knees.
"…My uncle told me one time, that the most obvious disguise was just that, a 'disguise'." Konohamaru still smiled, it seemed to force her to look up again. Her crossed brow told him to carry on.
"What he meant was when you put on an act, you'll always have a 'tell', something that makes people see you're lying. Even if you're posing as, say, a couple, you should just be yourself."
"-but-" She stopped he raised a hand.
"Look, whether you're a ninja, or this 'noble' girl they're making-up, doesn't mean you're not still Hanabi. You get annoyed at my jokes, you're always the first to act, you're dedicated to whatever you do-"
"-You get frustrated when things don't go the way they're supposed to, you've always been trained to push yourself, so you aren't afraid to argue with those above you. You get scared whenever you feel like things are out of your control. You're selfless, but you're scared it'll make you look weaker so you act selfish-"
"Stop it!" She yelled, still glaring, but with cheeks so red it looked as though all blood in her body had congregated to them.
"…all I'm saying is, the couple loves each other because the just do, it doesn't matter how they act, as long as their honest. The noble boy won't love you because you swoon at everything he says, he wants you to be yourself, that's the girl he loves."
Throwing one more smile at her, he turned and left. Hanabi let his presence drift away before responding with a smile. The moron, she thought, he had no clue about what he just said. This made her smile.
The next day, both 'lovers' stood before their unexpected ride.
"Where exactly did you get the carriage?" Konohamaru asked, scratching his hair at the sight of the handsome carriage that had appeared outside overnight.
"Captain Yamato made it. It did not take long, and I painted it to make it look more authentic." Sai explained, in a matter-of-fact tone, staring lazily into space.
"…that doesn't explain where you got the horses." Hanabi responded, staring down the vacant Sai into an explanation there.
"Well, Naruto said he just…found them…" Sai shrugged, clearly avoiding her gaze. Sakura had to hand it to him, he was certainly picking up more mannerisms of lying since he first joined her team, but this act could still be spotted a mile away. She sighed as some poor nearby farmer would awaken to find two of his prized horses missing.
"Speaking of Naruto, where is he?" Konohamaru asked.
"He went ahead with Captain Yamato, making reservations at every shop and restaurant for the two of you." Sakura smiled, placing each of their headbands in her rucksack, whilst Sai collected all their visible weapons and hid them too.
If stripping him of his tools and headband didn't feel strange enough, Konohamaru certainly didn't feel too comfortable wearing silk robes. The only clutch to his old attire was his trademark scarf, which he flat out refused to wear. After much insistence by Sakura for him to take the worn-out garment off, it was Hanabi that intervened, by playing up to her new role.
"Miss Haruno, it isn't your place to tell your master what he can and cannot wear." She declared, chin held high, with an air of smug arrogance about her that made Sakura sneer.
Konohamaru could have sworn he heard one of the scruffy stolen horses chuckle. He had to hand it to her, Hanabi was far more capable of acting a noble than him – what with her actually being one. She even wore the kimono with elegance, hanging delicately from her petite frame. Running a hand through her stream of raven hair, she climbed aboard and beckoned him to join her.
Sakura begrudged climbed up front with Sai;
"I swear, five minutes," she hissed, "I'll be done in five minutes, little brat'll never turn her nose up again."
Sai simply nodded and whipped the horse in front; who turned with indignation, clearly angry at such treatment, and sullenly began to trot.
Stalking the humid halls of the decrypted tower, his pace quickened. With little intelligence offered up by his supposedly reliable informant, he was forced to pay him a visit sooner than expected. What was more, he'd have to endure her glares of discontent.
Having her killed would be too costly at this stage; she acted as an anchor to calm his subject down. Should he lose the only family he has left, it could be detrimental to his purpose. Alas, she would have to live, yet something told him he'd later pay for having such mercy. It was never in his nature.
Turning into the room specified, he found the two locked in discussion over something trivial like village supplies. As if such things were really relevant to this organization anymore.
"This had better be good." He sighed.
"…I've heard numerous reports, all of which should affect you directly."
Readjusting his orange mask in the process, he bade them to tell him what reports they had heard.
"Zetsu has informed us of mutiny and discord amongst our ranks." Pein revealed.
"…This was supposed to die down when Hidan and Kakuzu fell. Unless you're trying to make a statement about me and Deidara…" There was an air of mockery in his voice, so much so that Konan couldn't decide whether the sentence harboured a threat, a joke, or both.
"No, it appears these attempts at an assassination were made under the guise of Akatsuki. Kisame has been framed, and retaliated by attacking the Leaf borders."
The mask hid his expression, but it was clear his mind was on one thing.
"…what of Itachi?" He hissed.
"It appears they have had a struggle. Zetsu is locating him now. What's more, they've been witnesses across the borders who say Deidara is travelling to the Land of Greens as we speak."
"Impossible. I left him near the extraction point for the Three-Tails. Not that he'll notice, or indeed care about my absence." He gave a small chuckle at this, seemingly his charade as a fool was indeed for his own amusement.
"That's what we thought," Konan retorted, "So we assumed he'll be another imposter. We wanted to know what you're doing about this."
"What? The mutiny or the identity theft? I thought you two were the bosses. If you wanted to hand over more control then I'll be happy to-"
"We aren't going to make a move on either situation if it could jeopardise the village's security." Pein retorted, earning a glare from his masked comrade.
"…It'll take no effort to convince Deidara to sniff out his doppelganger. As for Kisame, let Zetsu handle it. With the exception of me, that guy will be the only one to talk sense into him."
"You aren't sure Kisame should be your top priorty?" Konan asked.
"…No, let's see how he does. I can't risk stepping in front of the Hokage so soon, plus we'll gauge his effectiveness. It'll tell us what you may need to do." With a gesture to Pein, he gave another chuckle.
"The Kyuubi is Itachi's, we stick to the plan. I'm not leaving the village yet."
"It's his if he's alive…regardless, you have my answer. I'll take care of our little copycats. You two, do…whatever…it is you do."
Konan stepped forwards.
"Don't forget your place! Nagato rules here. He owns you!" She spat, but was silenced as her friend raised a hand to stop her.
"Oh, I haven't forgotten who rules here. Don't worry about that…" He turned at the strike of lightning and was already behind her, his breath on her neck, a Kunai to her throat. After several seconds of revulsion, she heard him speak.
"…after all, Tobi is a good boy."
I confess that the in my original drafts, the last sequence here never happened - I was to write that Tobi learnt of the Doppleganger by unknown means, paying homage ot the character's excellent level of knowledge on all things Shinobi, but as a fan of the manga - I just couldn't help myself :P