A/N: Despite gender!fail, I always liked Konan and hoped she'd have a productive and happy life after Nagato. Needless to say, this will not happen because CHAPTER 508 NOOOO.
So, uh. This fic is getting jossed like, next week. Please be kind to it in the interim :)
Two days after the conclusion of the Kage Summit, the Godaime Mizukage arrives in Ame to pay her respects. Konan refuses to see her. The woman makes a spectacle of herself by claiming she will stay in the fish house at Ame's border until granted audience. No one believes she'll do it, but she does.
So on the second day, Konan sends for her.
"Much obliged," says the lady they call the Kirigakure Fury, and bows the way others laugh. Her gaze comes up, bottle-green under red lashes. Konan turns and faces the window. Outside, rain sluices the slate walls of the tower. Darker patches are thrown into prominence in a splattered pattern, reminiscent of bloodstains.
"Mizukage-sama," she says, keeping her voice flat. "What can I do for you?"
They have never met, but much to Konan's consternation, the Mizukage deduces what the problem is in an instant.
"Of course they wouldn't invite you to the summit," she says blithely. "Look at yourself. How old are you, twenty?"
"Twenty-eight," says Konan, and feels the urge to add, "Konoha's Yellow Flash was at least four years younger at the time of his inaugaration."
"Konoha's Yellow Flash also wasn't sleeping with the world's most dangerous terrorist. Or ex-terrorist, whatever it was. I can't keep up with all the moral fluctuations at this point—"
"That should have been more reason to invite Amegakure to the summit," says Konan, ignoring the crudeness of the remark in favor of the obvious argument. "Save Uchiha Madara, no one living knows more about Akatsuki than I do."
"You wanted to go to provide intelligence? How…noble," smiles the other woman. Her traveling robes are still greased lightly with the slime from fish; she wears it like a medal, or like a net of silver sequins. The newspapers, thinks Konan, will run the story of the Mizukage waiting in the fish house for days. Her lips thin.
"Mizukage-sama," she begins, and the woman waves her hand.
"Mei," she says. "My name is Terumi Mei. Surely you know that, with your grasp on diplomatic intelligence." A smile saturated with poisonous things, crinkled eyes, precariously tilted lips.
"…Mizukage-sama," Konan continues coolly. "Amegakure should have been invited to that summit. I believe you know that as well as I do, or you would not be here. Had the Hokage been well—"
"Had the Hokage been well, your case would have been weakened," Mei cuts in. "The only two supporting Ame's inclusion would have been myself and Tsunade-sama, and that would have looked as if we simply wanted another female presence at the summit."
"That is preposterous—"
"That's what it would look like to them, Konan." Konan bristles at the unwanted familiarity, but keeps her features still. "You have to consider what we're dealing with here—the Tsuchikage is an old man, the Raikage hates the Water Country so much you'd think we were the ones responsible for the buzz baton up his ass—oh, don't flinch, you know it's true—and of course, Suna is so hair-trigger paranoid about Akatsuki that the poor Kazekage can't say a word in your favor without sixteen different factions howling for his blood. Tsunade-sama sat this one out, and—well, in case you can't count, I was drastically outvoted. It seems to happen a bit more than I might prefer." Another viciously sweet smile. "But we can change that, you know. That's why I'm here."
"To apologize?" This seems unbelievable to Konan.
"If it'll make you feel better to believe that, why not?" The Mizukage spreads her hands wide, revealing pert red nails and soft, uncalloused palms. Konan's fingers tense under the long sleeves of her robe. Her own skin has a grain to it like that of fine paper, dry and unfeeling and brittle in the dry heat that comes after the rains, as if the texture of skin has bleached itself from her flesh in increments. She has come to dislike the sight of ordinary skin—but now she thinks that, perhaps, she simply hasn't seen any in so long. No one draws close to anyone in Amegakure. Everything is eerier seen through sheets of silver water.
Terumi Mei, ignorant of all this, smiles, and says, "I'm here to help you make Amegakure free."
Despite her dismay at this announcement, Konan has no resistance to offer save for frosty looks and equally frigid silences. Terumi Mei's arsenal includes various calligraphed scrolls that say things like official assessment and probationary period and considering Ame's past actions and eventually, they settle on a sort of compromise between conferencing tersely on issues and walking about ten feet apart whenever they are required to travel together, which is often, as Konan isn't about to allow the Mizukage anywhere on her own.
The older reconstruction initiatives lag, but new ones begin every day. Konan attempts to draw Mei's attention to the latter, but the Mizukage's gaze lingers most noticeably on the signs of broken progress: old buildings, bent like hunchbacks against the low angry belly of the sky, crowded backalleys, wide fields slick with industrial waste, like the grey slime that gathers on rotten teeth. Amegakure looks like something ravaged by a merciless pestilence. From her vantage point at the now-vacant tower, Konan realizes that this assessment is more accurate than she had thought. The entire land weeps. Farther to the misty north, where Kiri territory begins, the rivers are shaded dark with sewage and tar. The mountains on the other side are pockmarked here and there with the slim towers of generators, making right angles to the toothpick shrapnel left by leveled forests. And above everything, always—
"I'd have thought once he was dead it'd have stopped raining," says Mei all the time, tenting her straw rain cloak over her head and pursing her lips girlishly.
It hasn't, and this is the one thing that Konan cannot bring herself to change. On the tower at midnight, she still stands on the metal railing with careless chakra glowing at her feet, a force of habit. She raises her hands and turns them palm up, and the drops slip over her fingers and down her arms, leaving what feels like a trail of neon blue. A sustained tingling. The rain in its endlessness gives light to Amegakure. At night, like this, covered in a stippled silver brilliance like the metal of coins, Amegakure is wealthy. As the rain sheets down, every inch of her body is drenched, and in the intense privacy of the water's invasion she is not far from him at all. Distance closes with the speed of drops falling. Gilt lines spin themselves across the clouded sky; the city turns slick and wet to the time of her body helplessly beating like a moist red heart.
Sometimes she is silent, but sometimes she opens her mouth and says "Nagato," once or twice or again and again, until she is so chilled to her bones that the name will not stop shuddering in her mouth. "Nagato," she says. Fast-falling pellets of rain dash the syllables to the ground.
"Nagato," she says.
He can no longer answer, but his rain can.
Mei slings off her rain cloak with a deceptively smooth movement and then, suddenly, snaps the thing out over Konan's desk, dislodging hundreds of water droplets all over the spread papers. Konan's fingers fist around her brush and stain themselves black with ink.
"Sorry," says Mei airily. "I didn't quite realize how much water there was. You really should do something about that rain."
She tears her gaze from the ruined calligraphy and looks up at Mei through her eyelashes. The other woman smiles. In the last week she has accomplished little more than following Konan around with a scroll and a brush and a neverending supply of pointed comments. Still, she acts as if her stint in the village is something that automatically fixes things—whether this is by virtue of her position or her experience or her sheer presence, Konan doesn't know. Whatever it is, she resents it, but angels, even former ones, are wise at sidestepping their own irritations. She does so now, calmly assessing how long it will take her to redo the scrolls.
"I will see to it that you are provided with a better rain cloak," she says crisply.
"The rain was useful to you when you wanted to hide," remarks Mei. "It's a bit extraneous now. You're not exactly helping convince the other kages that Amegakure's—well, clean."
"It is clean."
"So there's an actual reason you haven't begun proper reconstruction yet?"
"We are waiting for aid from other villages," says Konan patiently, hiding her irritation. "You owe us this chance. We have been used as a pawn in your wars for years."
"That's not the point." Mei waves her hand, an elegant twist of her fingers that draws Konan's glance with it, against her will. "Have you seen your people? Defeated, hopeless—let's say we pour funds into your country, what good will it do?"
Konan stands up sharply, upending her chair.
"I am not here," she says pointedly, "to speak of abstractions."
"Fair enough," says Mei, without blinking at all, and draws one of her everpresent scrolls from the bag at her side. She tosses it to Konan. "In that case, this is what I've concluded on the state of your village. No abstractions involved."
The scroll, unfurled, turns out to contain five and a half beautifully-written feet of completely brutal criticism.
Mei's notes are full of contradictory, incisive observations that are nevertheless correct, and Konan isn't sure what bothers her the most. Amegakure is too industrialized, but what arable farmland is available has been ruined by the steel plants and other factories. The village's position would have been ideal to house estuaries at some point, but industrial waste has polluted most of the old fisheries. The old buildings are unstable and should be demolished, but demolition costs are too high for the village to cover at this point. Birth rates are too high, but there aren't enough young people. Immigration will only hurt the city, but closing the borders will make the government seem totalitarian, and Konan needs to avoid that at all costs. And the rain!
Konan attempts to blatantly disregard these suggestions. After a few days, Mei realizes this and simply puts initiatives in motion on her own.
"How did you convince them to begin building that bridge?" demands Konan.
"I slept with all of them," says Mei. Konan stares at her, and the other woman turns, slides her lips sideways into a kind of smile that feels like something else, something laced with venom. Salt at the edge of a crystal glass.
"That's what you expected me to say, yes?" asks Mei. "I don't know why everyone finds you so hard to read. You're the most obvious woman I've ever met."
"This is irrelevant," says Konan. "The bridge, please."
Mei lifts a hand and draws a clean line between Ame's mountain river and the land beyond it, strewn with the dull bones of trees.
"Konoha's in that direction," she says. "As soon as Tsunade's up and running again, you'll want to open trade. Your populace was open to the suggestion."
"We have nothing to trade."
"Trade manual labor, then. Your pessimism, Konan. And here we were believing you'd actually learnt something from your encounter with that charismatic Konoha boy."
"People cannot be trained so quickly," objects Konan, ignoring this, and then stops when she sees Mei's face, subtly amused.
"People can always be trained."
"How do you know?"
Mei doesn't answer.
Some mornings Konan looks down from the tower to see her poling a skiff, or rigging a rowboat to the piers, or at times, when the weather is clear enough, taking a sailboat out on the sole lake. She changes on the water. In that incarnation she is something else entirely; sleek hair bound back, wearing an old tentlike shirt from one of the riverworkers building the bridge. She holds the rigging like reins, and when she flies the water goes behind her in a fanlike spray, wanting to touch her, wanting to map the arc of her flight. Konan's gaze goes with her too, but behind the tower walls gazes have no power. She is so good at watching by this point that when Mei asks, "Want to try?" she is stunned that she was discovered at all.
"No," she says. "This country has no time for sailing."
"If you have time to watch me sail," says Mei, "you have time to do it yourself."
The sight of all the open water, of rain captured beneath the prow of the cutting boat. All this terrifies her in a way she cannot articulate. So she stays behind tower walls, and when the bright point of red flies through the lakeside smog, she pretends not to notice, pretends it isn't the brightest thing in the miles of grey below her. The days wear on with pilgrim's slowness, and the rain keeps falling.
Autumn in Amegakure brings ice rain that freezes the few crops that have dared to survive, and, as if the rain itself is the harbringer of conflict, the riots. One morning Konan goes down to the market to quell a ration scuffle and a man spits in her face. Glob of chewed tobacco mucus-yellow on her cheek, a fetid slime sliding over her cheekbone. She turns her face to the side. Nagato's rain is ice-sharp on her shoulders.
Failure smells like the rot inside her people's mouths. She goes to the tallest tower, and opens palms to the rain, and when Mei finds her there, she slaps her.
"What did you come here for?" she snaps, in a deadly modulated tone Konan has never heard her use. "What are you hoping to find here?"
Konan doesn't know how to tell her that once there was a dark-cloaked form on the tallest tower, another point of red-haired flame, and the people's heads turned towards him had been an endless forest of dandelion stalks. The slightest breath from outside could have crumpled them to pieces. He had kept them in their rainswept globe, apart and fearless. When the winds came from outside it had been the violation of a promise he had made implicitly since the kunai entered Yahiko's heart. He had gone on, a figure ascendant, but she was not the one to make that promise, and so she could no longer keep it.
And then, under the Mizukage's furiously green eyes, the story takes on the sheen of truth; the things that he left her break like a million shafts of water over her skin. He had never asked her. Gods did not ask. They simply granted, and now the responsibility he granted her slides like tobacco slime over her face and feels like blood in her mouth. There is a Kage summit that proceeds without her; war is for leaders, not angels. There is a screaming child, an emaciated mother whose gaze says less than her protruding, articulate rib bones. There is saliva on her cheek and mud up to her knees. There is rain that draws and quarters her. Rips her apart with her inadequacies, shreds the paper flowers in its wake.
Her eyes cloud over and breathe, Mei is saying, breathe, Konan!
She puts her face in her hands and begins to shake.
Mei says, "When you're sixteen and festering in a hellhole of a country, a lot looks beautiful. He looked beautiful."
It's something Konan can believe. Uchiha Madara was beautiful when he came to them, too. Behind the mask, a face that had been the loveliest lie of all. Smoothest of smooth talkers. Had Yahiko been alive, he'd have told them what a hoax the whole setup was. It took a lot to con street kids, but then, they were never street kids in the strictly utilitarian sense of the term. Nagato approached everything in a haze of such dreamlike oblivion that it was doubtful he really understood anything about reality at all. She was the one who had lived in the streets, understanding terror and punch-in-the-gut hunger, and meanwhile he had warmed his hands inside his dream and stayed alive. For a while, she had too, because there had never been anything else. She had learned to live on idealism the way the people in her city have learned to live on rotten cabbage and black bread, and now she believes there is not much difference. The two things taste the same: pure pieces in another life, mercilessly battered by time and the decaying effect of the world around them.
"What happened?" asks Konan.
"The old story," says Mei, serene expression budging not a whit. "He turned out to be a murderous fuck obsessed with world domination. Didn't yours?"
In spite of herself, Konan smiles.
"I was also…obsessed, in that case," she says. "It wasn't quite the same. We shared that vision until the very end."
"I wonder," says Mei, "You've seen hunger. You know that a body accustomed to starvation acquires it, to keeping itself alive on the sheer propulsion of empty air, will reject food once it receives it. You knowit, and you can still say something like that about—about him?"
When she speaks in metaphors, she does so without pointed gazes or changes in inflection. She simply continues talking over steepled fingers, eyes lowered as if hiding some secret beneath the lashes. It's this that makes Konan forget talk of hunger and empty air and draw closer to her, and then, for the first time in her life, touch another person for its own sake. Beneath Mei's skin there is no conduit for a power that is not hers; no metal under her fingers—simply a sparkling constellation of aquamarine chakra points, and her eyes the same color, half-lidded with the weight of whatever she wants to say. Konan's eyes slide shut as well, and then, the shadow of the rain creating fireflies on the floor beneath them, she draws closer, and tastes the salt on Mei's lips.
The nighttime rain is filled with sighs again. Alien, though: fraught with Mei's laughter, for she laughs throughout it all. Her laughter is devoid of malice or vicious amusement. She laughs, in fact, like a little girl—all arpeggios of quick sound, wonder at the delight in every mote of dust, shatteringly anachronistic laughter the process of aging has forgotten to touch. She wields her tongue like a calligrapher's brush. Konan has never understood the small discoveries of love, but they are here in bountiful quantity: Mei's collarbones blushing—sweetly, delightfully—under her fingers. The way the wise tilted mouth gains intoxicated mirth with each kiss, smooth hands that catch her face between them and slow their bodies down to a rhythm that makes her weak with with its perfect deliberation. Breasts fuller than her own. Her nipples sing under the flicks of Mei's painted nails, and Mei smiles at this, smiles at the way Konan arcs underneath her, a new-made bow bending under arrows of sensation. Everything wide and boundless as the sea. For the first time Konan understands the desperation in those metallic-tasting nights in Nagato's tower room.
Between her legs, Mei beams like a perfect child, a mermaid beginning her dive, and then she draws her finger down her folds and fills Konan's skin with the sound of her laughter.
Fried potatoes, smudged lipstick. It's a good morning.
Mei says, "You like your redheads, is that it?"
Konan, feeling like a hummed snatch of music, replies "Some more than others," and Mei laughs, and suddenly Amegakure, with its broken turrets and buried lovers, is the most beautiful place in the world.
She's come to think of love as a grail carried between shaking fingers, but some time between the sixth night and the seventh she realizes that this is nothing of the kind. This is a flower-in-the-buttonhole kind of love, kicked-off sandals outside the bedroom threshhold. This is a warmly humming distance between them as they walk Ame's back alleys, side by side and hiding smiles under official words. This is learning that the embodiment of Kirigakure hates fish and knows how to sing, and can set the towers trembling with a glorious alto that fractures the rain, ricochets off the turrets, rings in Konan's dreams with all the full-bodied vibrato of a copper bell. This is back alleyways spangled with color behind closed eyes and open ones, red hair, green-light eyes, the tilted mouth that Konan can't drink her fill of, all moist and tart like a fruit.
This is teaching Mei to fold paper, which she does so terribly that Konan is amazed. By this point she's formed the notion that Mei brings that ocean in her head, that wide unfettered sense of possibility, to everything she does, and to see her fail at something is a strange incidence.
"I'm human," says Mei, laughing. "You're used to gods, or so I've heard."
Konan is a little surprised to hear things like this, because Nagato with his earnest eyes and his knife-edge ribs had made his failures something greater than both of them. Only someone who had never understood either the pain or the pleasure of living, after all, could have ascended to the sky as he did, trailing his ghosts like sheets and leaving her naked, gasping with the pain, freezing freezing freezing as the rain came down.
Martyrdom, ironically, comes naturally to her after the years with criminals. In the spiderwebbed vintage mirror, the pipes rusted mercurial with rainwater, she still sometimes sees Itachi's glasslike eyes.
When she tells her about this, Mei rests her cheek in her hands and raises an eyebrow.
"Of course," she says. "Martyrs don't die like human beings, but they don't live like them either. I would think that's something you should know."
"When I got here, that's all you were. It was like a little piece of Nagato left behind, waiting to martyr yourself and go on and join the rest. You needed him so badly, it was just—" She scowls, pursing her lips. "I came to see the greatest kunoichi in Amegakure, and instead I found a little girl haunted by her lover."
It's true, of course. People like Itachi and Nagato had always held small pieces of death under their skin, always straining towards the border to join the greater death on the other side. No way to live. And Konan had been no better. To need someone meant—meant the end of life once they were gone, an existence so pathetic it breaks her heart, now, the poisonous dependence she had enshrined by calling it love.
But she has existed like that since she can remember, and so instead of what she thinks she says that without the principle of self-sacrifice, hundreds of years of shinobi culture are invalidated. Mei dismisses this without so much as looking up.
"You know, Konan," she says. "It amazes me, how a smart woman like you doesn't understand the distinction between need and want. Politics won't come to you unless you're able to make concessions, and stop thinking in terms of need. It's want that moves the world."
"And which are you, Mei-san?"
Mei looks up, sharply. Her brush has jerked wildly off-balance for a moment. It is unlike her to lose composure, and she eyes it with her lowered lids as if the mistaken stroke isn't worth contemplating.
"That," she says wonderingly, "is the first intelligent thing you've said on the subject."
"Perhaps you should enlighten me, in that case, instead of wasting my time with patronizing remarks."
And suddenly Mei is all sweetness and addictive venom again, smiling like something from a fairytale. "There are better ways to waste your time," she says.
All is forgiven, skin on skin, warm slip of a body next to hers as the Ame nights grow colder, and she keeps asking.
It's unnecessary, because she can answer the question herself.
She thinks that she wants Mei in the way she used to want flavored ices as a young child. They had sold them at a stall under the bridge where she and Nagato and Yahiko had slept one week, before they'd been chased into the next district by some of Hanzo's policemen. Trash floated by on the water. Hawkers cried loud enough to wake them at a precise time every morning. Oil on the ripples was rainbow-colored and the flavored ices made prism-pieces of all the colors; strawberry-pink, cherry-red, raspberry-blue. They had thought raspberries were blue because they had never seen any before, and the next year, when Yahiko stole her some in a small plastic bouquet of a carton, she had been surprised and somewhat disappointed at their bloodred color. Her mouth had always gone wet at the heady scent of lemon syrup in the late summer afternoons, the dirty cart wheels and grimy vendor hands holding the ices out to the children with proper shoes and matching jackets. A strange selfishness afire in her veins like pure sugar, cold as if she'd eaten the ice too fast. She was all want then in a way she's never been since then; her nights since filled with Nagato's hacking cough and the absolute terror that he would go, the inability to live without the fact of his presence ahead of hers on the dark roads.
Need, then, was nothing to be proud of. As she realizes this, she thinks of Amegakure and its citizens, and a few things collide in her mind, shunt one another aside for more valuable ideas.
To this end, she stands on the tower one day and tells every citizen of Amegakure that they will never beg a single outsider for anything again; that they will be grateful for what is given and ignore what is not, and that in the end they will turn themselves into a village that needs nothing but the fact of its own people. They will ask for no recognition from the Kage summit or from anyone else. They will stand as she is: palms spread to them, proud, straight, true, dependent on nothing, free, and when they die, they will die for what they want, and not what they cannot live without. For to believe that one cannot live without something, she says, is a slavery greater than any that was ever imposed upon them in their endless wars. She tells them that if she can salvage a dream of her own after years of breaking her bones upon the altar of another, it is something that her populace can do as well.
Mei watches her with a sheaf of bright hair over one eye, a little splash of wetness over her indecipherable eyes, and when Konan has dazzled her crowd to cheering, she walks to her, in front of the multitude, and thrusts their joined hands into the air.
"What do you want with gods, Amegakure?" she cries, laughing. "Stop begging, damn you, and live!"
And in the command of her voice, its heady optimism so different from the futility of the man at the highest tower, the last piece of waiting crumbles down in Konan's bloodstream; the last little death vanishes, and life rushes into her as rich and pure as the taste of ice, as all-encompassing as the pleasure that racks her body under Mei's fingers at night.
They are gods, each one, and even under the rain that shakes the timbers, there is no piece of heaven that they cannot seize.
"I don't need you."
Mei laughs, delighted, unfettered. She walks around the table and takes Konan's chin between her two fingers, and before she kisses her, she winks.
"I was expecting a love confession," she says, "but you did me one better, I see."
On the last night of winter the rain is at its coldest. It still seems like lines of glowing paint, at times. A wetness that leaves marks. Still infused, sometimes, with his chakra. How many nights she had stood on the railing and systematically emptied herself, that that rain might pour into her, fill her with whatever essence it was that Nagato had taken. Chakra holds her feet steady, but she still sways.
Beneath her Amegakure spreads a net of golden lights.
And what it is, ultimately, is that their little village will continue fighting in its own way, whether their contribution to the war is acknowledged or not, and when Tsunade wakes up Konan will send her the intelligence she has without the crippling expectations of anything in return. Nagato left her with a handful of dreams, and now she cups them in the rain, lets them all slip into the yawning valley below. The metal railing under her toes imparts the sense of vertigo she wants. She can't see the raindrops end themselves miles below her perch.
The want, not the need. Absent of the crushing weight of debt or dependence, cognizant only of the simple freedom to desire, and the knowledge that when the next good thing is over, she will be as whole as she has always been.
Goodbye, she thinks. She entered her new life as angel; she will leave as goddess.
And then she raises her arms in a technique she will remember always, turns palms up, and stops the rain.