Hidan let out an aggravated sigh. "Come on," he whined, waving toward his partner slightly ahead of him, "I'm fucking starving. You've got five hearts; it doesn't matter if one gives out. But me? I've only got one body. I need food."

"All the more reason to go without. The faster I'm rid of you, the better," Kakuzu grumbled. His hand's grip on the dead Chiriku over his shoulder tightened with frustration at his immortal companion.

Hidan could only groan obnoxiously and stomp his feet for a few steps. "But I'm hungryyyyyyyy," He drawled out the word childishly.

Kakuzu growled rabidly, like some sort of vicious and angry wild animal you'd find stalking its prey in the forest. Nonetheless, he reached into his cloak and retrieved a small box from some unseen compartment within the article. He held it out beside him, and Hidan sped up slightly to grab it.

"Thank you," Hidan threw his head back with the exclamation and opened the box, revealing a few rolls of seafood-infused rice balls and fish. Without much of a second thought, Hidan rudely plunged into his meal as he walked. Kakuzu could only shake his head, irritated, and continue their trek toward the exchange point. After all, the bounty for this man, one of the Guardian Shinobi Twelve, was worth ten million more than their previous catch, Aomizu Kiagii with a measly reward of twenty-five.

x

The birds were obnoxiously loud.

Asaki's eyes blinked open to a flawless expanse of blue sky above her. She overslept. A dull ache pulsed through most of her body, and she slid her hand down her face tiredly with a small groan. Three days of nonstop walking and traveling since her escape from the bipolar Daisuke was starting to take its toll.

Already, she'd had to stop and ask for ragtag odd jobs for meals. For someone so unused to working, an hour in the rice fields or sweeping up a shop was difficult for her. But at least she ate.

She lifted her head from her sleeping mat with some difficulty as the sharp prodding escalated behind her eyes. With a sigh of the fresh forest air, Asaki began to clean up her campsite. In less than ten minutes, there was not a trace of her, and the runaway was on her way.

Her gray eyes were trained on the ground, watching step after step, one foot in front of the other. Eventually, one of those steps would lead her into the Hidden Leaf Village. They had already led her into the Land of Fire the previous day, near twilight. It was a different place, but the landscape was scarcely different from the forest she'd been wandering through for the past two days.

I wish I was with Hidan and Kakuzu, she thought to herself. She briefly wondered where they were, or who they had killed since she had last seen them. They—or at least Kakuzu—may not have been the nicest people she'd come across, but at least she was sure that Kakuzu always had some sort of food stashed with him at all times. Even if Kakuzu didn't voluntarily give her any, Hidan would.

Hidan. Asaki snorted at the thought of the immortal. He was annoying and complained far too often, always spewed impromptu sermons about Jashin, and was habitually up to mow somebody down. He had done all of the above in her short time with him, but Asaki had no doubt he was like that all the time.

But at the same time, she considered, he's watched out for my well-being. Asaki couldn't say she saw Hidan doing that for too many people. She openly acknowledged that she was lucky for being one of those people—if not, the only person—the silver-haired man had ever protected. After all, that was a sin—holding back death and destruction, that is.

With the audible growl of her stomach, Asaki turned her eyes upward and began looking for any sign of civilization. She could always head back to the border village she passed through yesterday, or she could keep going and hope she found a place to eat. She paused and glanced behind her. "How far was it…?" With a tired shake of her head, Asaki simply decided to keep walking and wish for the best.

Fortunately for her, the best came in not as long a time as she had expected. A roadside curry joint sat on the top of the next ridge, and the runaway sighed with relief. "Finally," she mumbled to herself, "some good luck."

With already aching feet, Asaki pulled the curtain back from the small stand. She plopped down on the seat farthest to the left, away from two women who sat at the end of the table. She couldn't help but listen into their buzzing and excited conversation.

"I'm so excited for you!" One woman, with black hair and slightly tanner skin than the other, gushed to her friend as they waited patiently for their food.

"It's kind of scary, though," the pale, brown-haired woman replied, wringing her hands together. "It's exciting, yeah! But just think about it—I have a child growing inside of me!"

"Miss?" Asaki's head snapped up from the bench to the vendor before her. "May I help you?" The small smile on his lips was genuine, but impatient. It took her a moment to realize that he had probably asked several times while she spaced out, eavesdropping.

She could only stutter a reply, "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't have any money. I-I was just taking a rest; I hope you don't mind." Her stomach decided to growl once more at the most inopportune moment for her.

The vendor only offered a sympathetic smile and a nod, "Go ahead and sit as long as you like."

Asaki nodded. "Thank you very much."

The flapping of the curtain behind her caught her attention before she got to return to eavesdropping and she threw a curious glance over her shoulder. A girl who looked about Asaki's age entered. Silently, she tapped on the black-haired girl sitting at the opposite end of the stand. She turned around, and Asaki realized how similar they looked. The younger girl was just slightly thinner and paler, adding an almost sickly look to her.

"Emi?" The younger girl began to wave her hands around, murmuring gibberish under her breath. Enthralled, Asaki turned slightly in her seat, watching her gestures, all of which were precise and meaningful.

With a disappointed sigh and a few quick motions in return, the woman turn to her friend beside her and explained, "I'm sorry, Kite. I've got to go; Sora's tripped into the stream and she thinks his leg's broken," She stood up, just as their meals were slid across the counter in front of them. "I swear, one of these days, I'll be able to stay out a full day without tragedy striking."

"It's alright, Mako. You go take care of your brother. You're great at caring for kids already. I didn't have younger siblings, though. I don't know what I'm going to do when this kid's born," The brunette placed a worried hand on her small stomach. "I don't know how you take care of your mother, a deaf girl, and a boy with far too much energy for his own good. I'm fretting over just one."

"It'll come naturally. Don't worry about it." She smiled and turned her sister out of the shop, signaling something else to her as the curtain flapped behind her.

The woman left behind looked at the curry Mako had ordered, then glanced down the counter to Asaki. The runaway quickly turned her gaze away, not wanting to look rude. "Uh, would you like this? As you can see, it would otherwise be a waste, and I couldn't help but hear you didn't order anything."

Asaki looked back at the woman. "No thanks," she shook her head, "I don't have any money to repay you, I'm sorry."

She waved her off. "Don't worry about it. It's my treat," She patted the seat beside her and Asaki gratefully relocated herself.

"Thank you so much for this," the runaway smiled. "I'm Asaki, by the way."

"It's very nice to meet you, Asaki. I'm Kite," she stuck her hand out, and Asaki took it. "This was supposed to be my celebratory lunch. I just found out I'm pregnant," Kite beamed, proud of the news she just gave.

Asaki raised her eyebrows pleasantly. "Congratulations!"

"My husband doesn't know yet, though. I don't know how I'm going to tell him," she went on, oblivious to Asaki's discomfort. "Bless his soul, though. I love that man to death," She took a bite of the curry on her plate with a faint nod and a grin. Asaki nodded along, taking her own bite of the spicy mixture. Once Kite cleared her mouth, she glanced at her guest once again and mumbled dreamily, "He's such a sweetheart. Do you have anyone special?"

"Uh…" Asaki stammered awkwardly in reply.

Kite jumped to apologize, "Oh, I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry or anything!"

The runaway smiled and shrugged, "Oh, it's fine, it's fine. I don't mind, really." She took another bite of her curry. She swallowed, tilting her head hesitantly toward the woman beside her. "I suppose there's this one guy…"

x

"Ugh," Hidan moaned, clutching at his stomach. "I think that fish was bad—" He cut himself off with a hiccup. Kakuzu ahead ignored him. "I mean, between that fish and the reek of this guy," the immortal waved at the body still being trucked over his shoulder, "I think I'm gonna hurl."

Sure enough, barely a moment after he finished speaking, Hidan turned to the undergrowth of the woods beside him and emptied the meal he had so recently consumed into the bushes. Kakuzu didn't even cringe as he kept walking. "Catch up when you're done," was his only instruction. It was lost on the sick Akatsuki.

Hidan gagged again, and a snide thought entered his head: just the sound of his voice is enough to make me sick. He would have said it too, had he not been as busy as he was.

He spit into the bushes one more time after a minute or two and stood straight. He sighed and looked around, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "The fucking asshole left me behind!" Swiping his tongue around his mouth, Hidan mustered up another spit onto the ground as he walked. Such a fucking asshole! The immortal began to walk after his partner.

A memory popped up in his mind of Asaki, as they left the ramen shop only a few days ago. "Can't we just say we're all assholes and just move on?" He snorted, grinning. She had a certain charm, that girl.

"Fuck," he hissed, berating himself when he caught himself smiling at the memory. He squeezed his eyes close, pausing. Why the hell was he still thinking of that girl?! Turning to the nearest tree, Hidan lifted his hands and punched the thick trunk of the old oak with both fists, screaming, "What the fuck is wrong with me?!"

Silence overtook the bit of trail and woods he was at. Only then did he notice that the light sound of a flute playing had stopped.

"Easy. You're in love."

Hidan almost jumped. Instead, he turned slowly around, glancing at the man sitting on the ground, back to a tree. He looked dirty, though not in physically bad shape. Who would voluntarily sit on the filthy ground, was Hidan's first reaction. Then the man's statement sunk in. Hidan looked at him guardedly, eyebrows drawn together suspiciously.

The pit of his stomach dropped with the comprehension of the final word. Or rather, at the images of the young Cloud girl that flicked through Hidan's head. He could deny it, which generally worked, or….

"Define 'love.'"

"Come on, man," the flutist said, dropping his instrument completely in his lap. He tilted his head knowingly. "You can't stop thinking about her. You're palms sweat and your heart races at the sound of her name. You see her in your mind's eye, right this second," He smirked at Hidan's uncomfortable look, accompanied by a curt shake of his head. "Don't try to deny it. You're in love with her."

"Man, you come on," He scowled, rolling his eyes. "You think I would fall for some girl? I'm not cut out for that romance shit. I only love one person, and that's Jashin!" He could feel a sermon coming on.

The man only stretched out his legs and smirked. "Say all you want. But I can see it. Anyone could, if they look close enough. Hidan made a noise similar to someone being strangled. The man only smiled wider. "See? You're nervous. Your heart's beating like a drum. I know that feeling, man. I know it. I'm in love, too."

The Akatsuki could only shake his head. "I'll tell you what are. You're crazy. That's what," He stalked off, expecting the guy to just shut up and stop psychoanalyzing him.

He should have expected differently. "It's love, man! Denying it will only hurt you more. You and your girl!" The flutist's voice rose as Hidan put distance between them. He vaguely heard his flute resume its song after he was sure the other man wasn't coming back.

Hidan only shook his head again and again, more and more violently each time. "Fuck that!" He mumbled to himself, "No. Fuck, I've only known her for what, two weeks? Haven't seen her in half of that," He was lucky no one was around to hear him muttering to himself. "How the hell could I be…" He left the words unspoken, though he knew they were there. Am I in love?

x

"So, let me get this straight," Kite began as they walked away from the curry shop. Asaki's new friend graciously paid the bill, as expected. The two girls walked together, heading in the same direction for a while, toward the next village Kite lived in. "You like this guy. You've known him for only a few days, right?" She looked to Asaki for confirmation, and the runaway nodded. "But in that time, he's saved your life multiple times? But yet, he still acts like he hates your guts?"

Once again, Asaki nodded. "He treats me only a tiny bit better than his partner. And they fight and bicker like an old married couple. Just, a little more… violently." She cringed, picturing Hidan's sliced-open face and severed head. The curry in her stomach swirled.

"Honey," Kite smiled knowingly, "He's definitely hiding it. If he's that ready to sacrifice his well-being for yours, there's no way he doesn't like you. Especially if he's as… selfish, as you made him out to be," She waved her hand in the air. "But you'll never know unless you ask him, I guess."

"Huh." Asaki hummed to herself. Could it really be true that Hidan really did have feelings for her? She knew for sure that she at least liked him. He wasn't exactly good-natured, but she cared about him, and as far as his actions could tell, he cared about her, too. They could joke together (if only about Kakuzu) and they could probably compete in a ramen-eating contest.

As for his selfishness… Asaki couldn't complain. Hiro and Daisuke had taught her as much about herself. Three days later, she still couldn't stop criticizing herself. All this time, she'd been trying to run away from a place where too many people wanted—needed—to be. Some people, like those boys, need the stability she had to offer.

But instead, as Daisuke had made very clear, she threw it all away.

Kite broke the short, comfortable silence that had fallen over them. "So, what brings you down in this neck of the woods, anyway? I never thought to ask back at Takumi's. If you don't mind me asking, that is."

Asaki shook her head, "I don't mind. I'm trying to make my way down to the Leaf. I'm supposed to be meeting up with one of my, um, friends' brother. He lives as a teacher at the academy there," she explained, brushing her hair out of her face with the tailwind that suddenly swept between them.

"Oh?" Kite's eyebrows drew together. "And did your 'um, friend,' live up near the Cloud?"

Asaki nodded.

"Does his name happen to be Kiagii? Aomizu and Hintara Kiagii?" Kite inquired, a guarded curiosity swiping any other expression.

The runaway's eyes widened. "How did you know?"

"There are only so many people teaching in the Leaf who have brothers in the Cloud. My husband grew up with them. They attended the same dojo for Tai-jutsu for years, up until they were of age to work in the Cloud. They worked as guards in some nobleman's home…" Her voice trailed off before bursting back with a newfound realization. "You're that man's daughter! You're Asaki Aikino!" She beamed with her discovery.

Asaki could only nod, dumbfounded. She closed her gaping mouth, taking a moment to think of a reply. "Yes," she began. "But Aomizu had been banished for an assassination attempt on my father, wasn't he?"

Kite's face darkened. "Yes. Mizu's stunt there cost their whole family their jobs as guards. Hintara went back to live with his mother in the Leaf, where he became a teacher there. All I knew of Mizu was that he remained close to the Cloud. He built up quite a reputation over the years…"

"That's for sure." Asaki could only sigh. "I hate to tell you this, but Aomizu died, not too long ago. He was killed by—" She almost paused before thinking. She couldn't reveal it was the man she just admitted to liking who killed Kite's friend! "He was killed by a couple of bounty hunters. I could only watch from the top of a rift nearby, as I was leaving his house. He had let me stay the night to wait out a thunderstorm. We'd become friends in that time."

The look on the other woman's face was one of conflicting sadness and joy. "He was never happy with his life. I'm sad that he's gone, but I'm happy he's not putting himself through his self-afflicted misery anymore." She hesitated, "So, now you're headed to Hintara?"

Asaki nodded. "Oh!" She flipped her bag off of her back and dug through it. She extracted the note she had found in the cabin after Hidan and Kakuzu had disposed of him. She handed it to Kite. "I snuck back in after the bounty hunters left," she continued her lie, regretfully, "and I found this note. I don't think Hintara even knows I'm coming yet. He barely knows who I am, now. Aomizu never finished it, I'm sad to say."

The pair paused. Kite leaned against a tree, quickly reading the note. "I could send a bird to Hintara, if you want. I think he'd want to know not only about your coming, but about his brother's death, too. That's never something that's easy; I know that for sure," She shook her head.

Asaki agreed. "Thank you."

They resumed walking, but this time, the sounds of the forest became their soundtrack. A few minutes later, Kite sighed and stopped at a small path veering off the side of the road. "Well, this is where I turn off. If you want to come back to my house for a bit, you can," She offered, smiling whole-heartedly at Asaki.

The runaway returned her smile, but shook her head. "I want to get to the Leaf as soon as possible. I've already been traveling long enough, I think!" She laughed, and Kite joined in, though she could tell the news of Aomizu had drained some of her contagious happiness.

Kite placed a hand over her stomach and waved as Asaki began to break paths with her. "Take care! Tell Hintara to send me a letter when you arrive. I hope I'll see you again soon!" Kite called after Asaki.

Asaki waved back and shouted, "I will. Thank you for everything, Kite! See you!"

Kite only stopped waving when the young traveler's shape disappeared over the hill.

A/N: Told you it wouldn't be so long. ;)

I really like this chapter a lot, for reasons I hope are pretty apparent, heheh! What do you think? :)

I feel weird updating this in the middle of the night, but hey, it's done and I'm happy with it! :D I hope you like it too!

And yes, I will make sure to have the next chapter for all of you eager beavers as soon as humanly (and I guess academically, with all of my homework this weekend) possible!

Until next time~!