Chaos Theory
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Rating: T
World: AU, branches off after the Deidara vs. Sasuke fight

Giftfic for exileden, who won my Tumblr 500 Followers Giveaway. She wanted Deidara and Hinata, and I happily ran with them. The premise is loosely taken from a Tumblr RP idea I had a little while ago that didn't end up working out, so here we are. This is slow to develop and very long because these two characters never met in canon, and I felt it necessary to build a believable meeting between them before getting into the emotional stuff. Many a tear was shed writing this, hah. Enjoy!

"Our real discoveries come from chaos, from going to the place that looks wrong and stupid and foolish." - Chuck Palahniuk

He had failed. The grandiose crescendo building up to the ultimate artistic climax had failed. Fizzled, nothing. Nothing but a broken body and ruined pride as his macabre trophies. Uchiha Sasuke still lived—cockroaches, those damned Uchiha—and Deidara was bedridden. He couldn't say how much time had passed, but from the looks of his would-be saviors (an elderly couple living in a cottage somewhere in the mountains), he wasn't in danger of losing his life now.

"You musta stepped on a landmine when I found you, I reckon," the old man had said through a mostly toothless grin when Deidara had come to. "It's a miracle you survived, son. You some kinda alien?"

Deidara tried not to recoil from the old man's rancid breath and failed. The old man didn't seem to mind, though, and grinned wider.

"Well, at least you got your wits about ya now. Been sleepin' s' long I thought you'd never wake up. Missus was frettin' over you like a mother hen, too."

"Where am I? How did I…" Deidara trailed off. Where even to begin? He looked around briefly, the country decor of soft blue wallpaper and clean linens almost comforting in its simplicity. "…Did anyone come looking for me?"

The old man's grin faltered. "No." There was a pause during which his sunken eyes travelled to Deidara's left hand and the mouth it concealed, and Deidara fisted the sheets. "…But I reckon that's good news for you."

Deidara was about say something when a matronly woman in long sleeves and an apron entered the room with soup. "So you're awake. I made you some soup if you think you can keep it down, hm?"

It was too surreal, and Deidara felt stupefied into submission. One taste of the onion soup and he forgot his worries in favor of food. Months had passed since his run-in with Sasuke, apparently, and his body had atrophied in the meantime as he slept in a coma from which he could have never woken. His legs were too weak to hold him upright without physical therapy, and his ribs poked out like a washboard beneath sallow skin. The ultimate seal he'd used against Sasuke was gone, only the tattoo and a scar on his chest left to remind Deidara of his inadequacy.

"You best rest up and recover your strength, young man," the old woman chided. "Handsome boy like you oughtta have someone waiting for you somewhere. Bet she's awful worried."


One thing became steadily more plausible to Deidara in the weeks that passed under the elderly couple's care: he was likely forgotten, dead to the world. Dead to Akatsuki.

At first he was angry. Hell, the anger never subsided. It drove him to push his ruined body harder, to recover faster, and to always look over his shoulder even here in the mountains of western Lightning Country for the eyes of his enslavers. On more than one occasion, Deidara had thought he could see Itachi's terrible eyes following his feeble punches, waiting to bind him once more with the chains he'd finally shed in death. It was almost laughable, and Deidara indulged his madness long enough to throw his head back and let loose.

"Fucking brilliant!" he shouted to the clear, blue sky so much closer at fourteen thousand feet above sea level.

His laughter echoed against the naked peaks all around, sublime and imposing even during the mild summer months. The old man (whom he'd taken to calling 'Old Man' in lieu of whatever his real name was that Deidara couldn't be bothered to remember) froze in his tracks and stared, the freshly killed duck in his hands all but forgotten.

"Deidara," the old man said, keeping his distance. "You all right, son?"

Deidara calmed down enough to suck in a few breaths of thin mountain air. Icy blue eyes remained trained on a distant peak, so high above the earth where no one could reach. "It's true what they say," he said, now more subdued but no less awed. "Death sets you free, yeah."

And he intended to keep it that way.

It wasn't long before Deidara judged himself well enough to be on his way, and unfortunately for the elderly couple that had taken him in, he couldn't leave any witnesses. Still, he could at least give them a dignified death for all the help they'd given him without asking for anything in return. The conflagration that lit up their modest cottage was beautiful under the starlight of a clear, summer night. In this place, the sound of his bomb echoed off the surrounding mountain faces, compounding the effect in a symphony of thunder. Deidara watched what was left of the house and its sleeping inhabitants burn, their remains rising with the smoke to a place even higher than where this peak could reach. They were lucky, and they didn't even know it. But Deidara did. He wouldn't forget this sight, he thought with a grin.

That had been nearly two weeks ago. Rested and recuperated, Deidara made his way south through Frost Country, unsure where to go but wanting to be anywhere but here, where Akatsuki might get wind of him. It cost him precious time, but he remained on foot and kept his clay birds hidden lest someone recognize him. Gone was the stifling Akatsuki coat, replaced now with a short-sleeved, blue overcoat over a plain, brown clothing set. He'd even lost his eye scope in the fight against Sasuke, a small annoyance but an annoyance nonetheless. All he had left was a name he was loathe to give out and his artist's hands that could make as much clay as he needed. He was a wanderer, a nobody, and should he try to say otherwise he could alert the wrong eyes and ears.

There was freedom in anonymity, but Deidara found little joy in it. What was the point if he couldn't perform for an audience ready to balk in awe at his artistic genius? So distracted was he in his slow trek out of Lightning Country that he failed initially to notice the tail. He was getting rusty after so many months out of practice.

"Oi," he said, stopping in his tracks. "You there, what the hell d'you think you're doing?"

No answer, and Deidara was suddenly paranoid. Why hadn't he noticed them sooner? Unwilling to take his chances, he threw his cover to hell and launched a clay humming bird in the direction of the disturbance he'd sensed. It exploded, and someone shrieked.


The trees here were sparse but enough to conceal whoever had been tailing him. Smoke rose from a cluster to the southeast and Deidara sprinted toward it, reaching for a kunai on the way. Only an ingrained survival instinct alerted him to the short sword aiming to cleave him between the shoulders in time to block it. Steel clanged in a rain of sparks, and Deidara narrowed his visible blue eye at his attacker, a scruffy shinobi he didn't recognize.

The man was relentless. After they broke apart, he came in swinging at full force, almost reckless in his movements. Deidara thought little of it and dodged, not thrilled about engaging in close-combat. One hand reached into the pouch of clay at his hip while his footwork kept him nimble.

"Who the hell are you?" he demanded as he barely avoided a swipe to the face. "Hey! I'm talkin' to you, yeah!"

The man just kept coming, and Deidara was getting fed up. He lashed out with his foot, causing the enemy shinobi to sidestep him—just enough time to toss an explosive at him. The clay spider clung to his clothing, and he became disoriented momentarily before wide, green eyes darted a look somewhere over Deidara's shoulder.

"Katsu!" Deidara shouted, igniting the artificial insect.

The enemy shinobi exploded in a wave of fire, blood, and bone. Deidara leaped backwards to avoid the debris, frowning. It was quiet for a moment in the aftermath, and frustration melted into suspicion. He had the urge to turn around, remembering how the man had looked into the distance just before dying. Practiced eyes scrutinized the surroundings—a thin forest of too-skinny trees, dehydrated grass over hardened earth, footprints leading away…


Deidara took off at a sprint in the direction of the retreating footprints, hell bent on catching whoever his enemy's accomplice was. Sound to the left gave the guy away, and Deidara threw another bomb in that general direction. It went off with a bang, felling nearby trees and setting the area ablaze. His target had gotten caught up in the periphery of the blast and now lay on the ground, his leg severed at the thigh and his pants burning as he struggled against the pain.

Deidara didn't even hear his howling as he advanced and rolled him over the upturned earth, putting out the flames. Then he squatted down and pulled the enemy up by the collar enough to stop his flailing.

"Who sent you?" Deidara demanded, now beyond pissed.

"Please," the shinobi wailed, "I didn't mean—"

"I'm not gonna ask you again. Who fucking sent you?" Deidara kicked the man's shredded leg out of spite, eliciting a pathetic yelp.

Tears streamed down his dirty face and mixed with blood from a head wound he must have gotten when he fell. "A-Akatsuki!"

Deidara felt his heart stop momentarily. They'd found him. They knew he was alive. They would come for him to recruit him again or kill him. He didn't know which was worse. "Who? Where are they?"

The shinobi shook his head, gasping for breath. "I-I don't know! I'm just reporting to my boss."

"Where? You better start talking or you're gonna regret it, yeah."

"Yūgakure," he said, voice a broken whisper. "I sent a bird ahead."

"...You just picked the wrong guy to screw."

Before the guy knew what hit him, Deidara slide a kunai clean across his exposed throat, scowling at the way his eyes rolled back in his head. He hadn't even fought back.

Standing, Deidara dusted himself off and willed his anger to simmer down for now. He wasn't one to panic, but this was definitely a cause for concern. If the messenger bird this lackey sent to Yūgakure made it into the hands of whatever Akatsuki informant he worked for, Deidara's fragile freedom would shatter. He'd lose anonymity, and as much as he disdained keeping to the shadows like some unimportant worm, the last thing he wanted was to fall back into Akatsuki.

"Fuck if I'll ever go back there," he said to himself.

Yūgakure was a couple days from here, but flying would get him there by nightfall. It was a matter of urgency, so he decided to forgo caution for now and focus on the window of opportunity he had to ensure he maintained his freedom. How had they found him? Could the explosion he'd caused at the old couple's mountain abode have been discovered? Deidara's handiwork was hard to mistake, he admitted to himself with equal parts chagrin and pride.

In minutes, he had a clay owl ready to carry him southwest to Yūgakure. If he was going to put all his eggs in one basket, he supposed he'd have to make it a grand old time. Wind wipping his unruly hair as he sailed south of the setting sun, Deidara could not relax and enjoy the sensation. Only destruction lay ahead, and there was nothing beautiful about it. No, what lay ahead would be a battle fought in shadows and silence. There was no predicting the chaos that awaited him, and that both excited and scared him.

Whatever awaited him in Yūgakure was about to get a bloody awakening.

"Don't screw this up, and you three'll be on your way to becoming full-fledged Jōnin."

Hyūga Hinata took a deep breath, the Hokage's words returning to her as she made her slow way through the streets of Yūgakure. Konoha's premier tracking squad had been tasked with a reconnaissance and espionage mission as part of their advancement test. As Chūnin no longer under the care of their Jōnin sensei, Yūhi Kurenai, the former Team 8 had cast out into the world hoping to prove their competence as a three-man unit—and as a group of independent shinobi.

Hinata had never been on a solo mission (those were reserved typically for undercover infiltration), but this sure felt like being on her own in the Big, Bad World. Her teammates, Inuzuka Kiba and Aburame Shino, had parted ways to pursue their respective leads. Kiba was checking out the red light district, while Shino combed the residential and suburban areas. Hinata was given the village center. While their methods differed, the goal was the same: follow up on previously acquired leads of an underground Akatsuki base and surrounding crime ring in order to assess the threat for future deployment of force.

Kiba, a loyal friend with a heart of gold, nevertheless could come off as rough and rugged when he wanted. At least, more so than Shino, who had trouble even masking his speech pattern for the sake of a mission. It had been unanimously decided that Kiba, therefore, would take the most direct approach with the local brothels and casinos. Hinata had been apprehensive at first, worried about letting him expose himself to what was surely the center of the crime cesspool in Yūgakure alone, but it was the most logical choice. She could not very well mingle with drug lords and whores, all the while extracting information and maintaining her cover.

Maybe if I were more like Ino…

Shino, sensing her disappointment, had offered her a hand on her shoulder.

"Kiba's more suited to this task. Why? Because unlike you and I, he looks like more trouble than the worst underground slime."

Kiba had not appreciated that comment, but after so many years of collaboration Hinata knew his heated reaction was mostly just for show. They all knew he was the best for this particular job.

"Besides, you'll get around the town way easier than me or Shino," Kiba had said, flashing her a winning smile. "No one can say no to a pretty girl."

And so, Hinata found herself wandering through the streets of Yūgakure as night descended. It was a warm night, but she pulled her jacket tighter about her small frame and kept her face slightly downcast beneath her hood. She would be lying if she said she felt confident in her position here. Virtually alone in foreign territory on a mission that, should she be discovered, could result in incarceration or worse, injury and death at enemy hands, she was a little nervous.

But she would not pass up this opportunity to do her duty and support her teammates. They were counting on her, as were the friends and family she'd left back home. Neji had told her in no uncertain terms that he expected her to succeed here and pass the Jōnin test with flying colors—not because it was expected of her as a member of the Main House, but because he knew she could do it.

I'm really lucky, Hinata thought to herself, smiling. Not everyone had that kind of love and support.

Her thoughts ran away with her, as they were wont to do, and she found herself on a darkened street. A brush of panic passed over her. She couldn't remember coming this way. It seemed like only a few moments ago the streets were alight with overhead lamps and people milled about, indulging in the night markets and merriment.

A trashcan fell over a few yards away, startling her. Squinting, Hinata detected movement, but it was only an alley cat. She relaxed a little.

"Get a grip," she told herself, voice shaky.

Overhead, thunder cracked, scaring the cat away. Hinata looked up in time to catch a flash of lightning. One drop landed on her upturned nose, followed by another and another. In a matter of moments, it was pouring. Yanking her hood down, she cursed her luck. I was just like her to get stuck in the rain in the middle of a mission. Pearlescent eyes searched left and right. Maybe she could run back to the main street and find a place to take shelter. She was about to do just that when she passed a door with a red lantern hanging above the threshold. The green paint was flaky with age and wear, and a quick glance around showed no other opening. A wooden sign swung in the rainy wind on rusty hinges: Saloon.

Not her first choice, but this rain was starting to soak through her heavy coat. Without wasting another minute, Hinata pushed open the door and let herself inside. There was a long corridor beyond the door, but she could make out a light at the end around the corner. Voices and crackly music drifted to her ears. Steeling herself, Hinata made her way toward the light, taking care to keep her face hidden beneath her hood.

The bar was dimly lit, perhaps to hide the shifty eyes of drinking patrons. An old jukebox sat in the back corner opposite the bar, its neon lights flickering as though they might go out at any moment. An old piano tune was playing, something without words but still sing-songy. There were few customers, and most sat at the bar ruminating over their beer mugs. A thin miasma of cigarette smoke hung in the air like a stale cloud, and Hinata willed herself not to cough. The wooden furniture was plain but sturdy looking, perhaps older than she was. Her gaze flickered across the different patrons' faces, not daring to linger too long lest she draw their eyes. This was the kind of place a person went to be left alone. The last thing she wanted was to draw suspicion.

A part of her wanted to turn around and head back outside. Besides her, the only other female in the room was a lone waitress wearing considerably less than her. But no one had spared Hinata more than a cursory glance when she'd entered; perhaps her baggy clothing hid her figure enough to conceal her gender, too. Still, her mission returned to her. She was to gather intel about the suspected Akatsuki base in Yūgakure by any means possible. Who better to know about the workings of a criminal organization than these denizens of the underworld? Surely, no respectable person would ever set foot in a place like this. Perhaps she could try to glean some information while she waited out the rain. She could always leave when it let up, no harm done.

Thunder boomed, and Hinata could almost feel it in her bones through the roof. No, she was not relishing the thought having to brave the storm again so soon. Just a small respite would be acceptable, she thought. Resolved, she made her way to an empty bar stool, moving slowly so as not to appear nervous or worse, feminine. This was probably not friendly company for a young girl. Folding her hands in front of her on the bar, she tried to ignore the stickiness there from old drinks.

The bartender approached her. "Haven't seen you before, kid."

Hinata swallowed, forcing herself to peer up at him through the shadow of her hood. He was a big man, hairy, but none of it was on his head. Tattoos covered his exposed forearms—a fire-breathing dragon, a skeletal warrior, a horned eagle. His beady eyes bore into her, perhaps trying to get a better look at her.

Hinata opened her mouth to respond, but cleared her throat first. "I... New in town," she said, rasping her voice to make it sound as gender-neutral as possible. Silently, she prayed he wouldn't pick up on her ploy.

"...Right. So, what'll it be?"

She hadn't thought that far ahead, and panic visited her anew. She said the first thing that came to mind. "Water. Please."

Oh no, I shouldn't have said please. Now he'll know I'm not like these other guys—

The bartender laughed. "You're a funny guy. Hey fellas," he said, turning to some of the other patrons. "We got a funny guy here!"

The other patrons, all burly men in various stages of inebriation, turned their attention to Hinata. Their leering eyes tried to see through her layers of clothing, as if searching, but she didn't turn to them.

"Listen, kid. We don't ask questions around here, but I do got one rule: if you're here, you drink and you pay. Or you can get the hell out. You follow me?"

Hinata blinked, her throat wrenching as the nervousness that had plagued her since childhood threatened to tie her tongue in a knot. "Oh...okay," she managed, clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking.

The bartender eyed her a moment, and Hinata prayed that he bought her act. "Okay," he said, watching her a moment longer before leaning back and rummaging around behind the bar.

Before Hinata could form further words, he set down a heavy mug of pale ale before her. Foam dribbled down the sides where his movements had sloshed it. Hinata stared at the sizeable drink, then looked up at the bartender.

"Three-hundred fifty ryo," he said, holding out a hand.

She decided not to argue with him, not wanting to draw further attention to herself. To her left, a couple of other patrons were whispering and snickering. Without further hesitation, Hinata handed him the money and a little extra. He grunted and left her alone then, for which she was thankful. Releasing a shaky breath, Hinata pulled the mug close with both hands and took a sip. It was thick and wheaty, a little bitter, but not bad. Soon, she felt the weight of others' eyes lift from her, having lost interest. In the background, the scratchy piano music played its sing-songy tune, and Hinata closed her eyes and counted to ten to calm herself.

It was time to do what she'd come here to do: observe. No one seemed to pay her any mind now that she'd fallen silent. The bartender was cleaning glasses behind the counter and chatting with some patrons to Hinata's left, two men. One was thin and scrawny, maybe shorter than her. The other was severely overweight with a perpetual sniffle and skin like the underbellies of some toads. They each nursed a mug of beer, although Hinata suspected it wasn't their first round.

Beyond them sat a lone customer with his hood up. He was nursing what looked like scotch, or maybe whiskey. She couldn't be sure. He seemed to be minding his own business, silent. To the right was the waitress cleaning tables and chatting with a group of men in a booth who were leering openly at her. Hinata tried to ignore their lewd words, but the waitress seemed to be encouraging them, making things worse.

"That damn woman's bustin' my balls again. I can't go home yet," said the thin man. "Stupid bitch don't know her place."

"That's rough, man," the bartender said. "Just buy her chocolate or some shit. Women forget everything when you give them chocolate."

"I ain't buyin' her shit. She just sits around the house all day eating and watching TV. She's a goddamned leech."

"So why don't you drop her?"

The thin man downed the rest of his beer and sighed, slamming his empty mug down on the bar. "She's loaded. Can't leave her or I'll lose the money."

"Well, maybe she'll croak and you'll get lucky," said the fat man. "Could even make it look like an accident, if you know what I mean."

The thin man shook his head. "I ain't no murderer. 'N' I'm not smart enough to get away with that."

"Well, no argument there," the fat man said, snickering. "If you can't do it yourself, maybe you can arrange something instead."

"Huh? Whaddaya mean?"

"I mean, sometimes you can make accidents happen."

The thin man was a little slow, Hinata decided. He didn't seem to understand, but she did. Suddenly, she wondered if it was really okay for her to be overhearing this.

"Tell him," the fat man said to the bartender, whose expression had since turned unreadable.

"You're really running your mouth tonight," the bartender said, setting down a clean glass in a bin below the counter. "But the rule's simple: if you wanna drink, you gotta pay. You feel me?"

The thin man seemed to think about this for a moment before his eyes lit up a little. "Oh! Oh. Well, what if I told ya I got the dough? Er, I will when that old bitch is gone for good."

"Sorry, my boss says cash upfront only."

"Huh? Aw, I'm good for it! She's loaded, okay? Soon as she rolls over dead, it's all mine!"

The fat man smashed his mug over his companion's hand, shattering it and ripping the thin man's hand. Blood sprayed across the counter, and Hinata stifled a gasp. The thin man howled in pain.

"The fuck!"

"Keep your voice down," the fat man said.

The fat man seemed perfectly calm, but Hinata knew it was a ruse. The most dangerous people never lost their tempers; they simply directed them toward a specific outlet. She'd seen her father do it more times than she could count, and she knew well enough to fear such behavior.

"You broke my hand!"

"You deserved it. Now shut up before you announce your business to the whole world."

The thin man's breathing was labored as he tried to cope with the pain of his mangled hand. Hinata could make out a thick shard of glass protruding from it, and he seemed reluctant to disturb it.

"If you want my bosses to get rid of your problem, you gotta pay up front," the bartender said.

"H-How do I know you're good for it?"

The bartender leaned in closer and whispered. Hinata couldn't hear him from her position, but she was able to read his lips. And all of a sudden, her hands began to shake anew.

"Akatsuki's always good for it."

Hinata could not believe it. Somehow, by sheer luck of the draw, she'd picked the bar that housed the very connection to Akatsuki for which her team was searching. And now that she'd stumbled upon the jackpot, she had no idea how to proceed. Without Kiba and Shino, and with no way to contact them, she wasn't sure if she should proceed alone.

"Oi, I need a refill over here. Sometime this year would be good."

All eyes turned to the cloaked figure seated at the far end of the bar. Hinata noticed that his glass of whiskey was now empty.

"We're in the middle of a conversation," the fat man said, his stool whining under his weight when he shifted in it to face the hooded figure.

"Be with you in a minute," the bartender said.

"Y'know, I'm okay waiting on most days, but I'm really thirsty right now. So how about you do your job?"

The bartender looked surprised for a moment, but it quickly morphed into anger. He retrieved a thick, wooden battering stick from somewhere under the counter and brandished it at the cloaked man. "Listen, asshole. My bar, my rules. I don't like your attitude."

Unbelievably, the hooded man chuckled. Hinata felt nervous. A fight would likely break out soon, and she did not want to be stuck here when it did.

"Damn, so Akatsuki's using kiddie toys to fend off threats now? Things've really gone to shit, yeah."

The fat man actually bothered himself to stand, and the thin man remained seated, too stunned (or in pain) to interrupt.

"I think it's time for you to leave, fella. You're not welcome here."

The bartender swung his bat, slicing the air—a sign of what awaited if the cloaked man didn't take his leave quietly.

"Aw, come on, I'm a paying customer," the cloaked man said, revealing a bill from a hidden pocket. "And I'm not done drinking."

The fat man took a threatening step forward, but the cloaked man threw the money faster than Hinata could blink. It sliced a sizeable gash in the side of the fat man's neck, spraying blood. He gasped and wobbled precariously upon his squat, fleshy legs. The thin man cursed loud enough to wake the dead.

"Mother fucker!" The bartender swung at the cloaked man with his bat, aiming to kill from Hinata's vantage.

But the cloaked man was faster. In a flash, he had jumped on top of the bar and caught the bat mid-swing with both hands. In his sudden movement, his hood fell back and revealed a young face with bright, blond hair. He was grinning from ear to ear.

"Now that's just a blatant lie. I never even knew my mother, yeah."

The blond stranger cracked the bat with his bare hands, the wood splintering and the sound making Hinata cringe. The bartender's fury melted to fear; this stranger was clearly shinobi and way out of his league. Hinata sat, frozen in her seat, as all this unraveled in a matter of seconds.

"I got business with your boss, so you better start talkin'. Unless you want me to pay more?"

"Go to hell!" the bartender spat.

The blond's amusement faded, a darkness dulling the previous light in his lone blue eye. "Been there, done that. Say hi for me."

With one swift movement, he snapped the bartender's neck. Hinata watched, horrified, as the bartender's head swerved in her direction, its angle grotesque and unnatural. For a split second, she could see the life burst from his eyes before there was nothing and he slumped to the floor.

The thin man finally found the energy to move, and he bolted right out of his chair. The other few patrons in the bar ran for the door. The blond didn't stop them. He did, however, grab ahold of the fat man bleeding like a stuck pig.

"Let's try this again," he said, yanking the fat man by his collar. "Where's the Akatsuki informant? There's a right answer to that question, yeah."

Despite the severe disproportion in their bodies, Hinata thought the blond made manhandling the fat man look easy.

"W-Why? What's it got to do with you?"

The blond sighed dramatically, and it would have been comical if not for the dead body lying somewhere behind the bar. "I'm startin' to get why you were so impatient all the time," he said to himself. Returning his attention to the fat man he added, "Because I'm gonna kill him, obviously."

"You'll never succeed! He's got an army protecting him! Let me go!"

"Fat chance," the blond said, pausing. "No pun intended."

"Please," the fat man begged, now starting to cry.

"Ahhh, I hate this crap. Nothin' artistic about mangling a walking tub of lard, yeah." He then proceeded to dig around in a hidden pouch at his hip and, moments later, produced a small, white bird. "You know what this is?"

The fat man's struggling became frantic. "Y-You! You're supposed to be dead!"

"Not as dead as you're gonna be unless you start flapping those rosy lips."

At this point, Hinata had inched out of her seat, shrinking in on herself to stay inconspicuous. The blond seemed preoccupied, so her movements went unnoticed. Chakra seeped into her eyes as her bloodline limit activated, heightening her senses and preparing her for a fight if need be. But her feet refused to take her out of the bar to safety.

"Oh please! Please don't kill me!"

"You got five seconds, fatso."

"T-The bar! There's a switch that unlocks a trap door. It'll take you where you need to go. That's all I know, I swear!"

"Really? You're not lyin' to me, are you? 'Cause I hate liars, yeah."

Hinata's nose picked up a musty smell, and she realized that the fat man had soiled himself in his fear. The blond seemed to notice, too, and wrinkled his nose.

"Never! I don't lie, I swear! Please, believe me!"


The blond released him with enough force to send him flying into the nearby bar stools. The fat man toppled to the ground in a heap of split wood and his own blood, moaning in pain. The blond then proceeded to follow his instructions and search for the switch behind the bar, which turned out to be genuine. A click sounded somewhere behind the bar, and the blond grunted his approval. He disappeared through the floor.

A few tense seconds passed in which Hinata, frozen in place, panicked. Things had spiraled completely out of control now. This was the kind of situation in which she should contact Shino and Kiba before investigating further. Whoever this blond stranger was, he was very dangerous and seemed to have intimate knowledge about this Akatsuki base. Hinata hadn't had time to get much of a look at him with her Byakugan, but he was definitely shinobi, and a powerful one at that. It was enough to know not to do anything stupid, lest she wind up like the bartender.

"Oh, oh," the fat man moaned as he tried to roll himself upright. He wasn't having much success.

The seconds ticked by like war drums in her ears. She was wasting time, and she had no idea what the right course of action was. If she left now, it was likely that the blond man might beat her team to the Akatsuki informant and, thus, eliminate this lead. The mission would be a failure. But going in by herself was unappealing. If she'd learned anything from being a member of Team 8, it was that there was strength in numbers. She would have been dead long ago if not for her teammates.

"Ah!" The fat man had tried to right himself, but his injuries made him weak and he slammed into the floor again, taken by pain.

Hinata bit her lip, knowing she had to make a decision. At least she could get some information. There was no way Konoha would be happy if she passed up this opportunity. She was shinobi, and she had a duty to serve her country.

"Where does that door lead?" she asked, walking into the fat man's line of sight.

"Oh," he groaned. "That guy's going to walk right through the boss's front door. The defense will kill him for sure."

"How many are there?"

"Eh? Who the hell are you?"

Hinata had never been good with intimidation tactics, but she'd seen Neji employ them on many occasions. Leaning down, she gripped the fat man's collar and forced him to look into her transformed eyes through the shadow of her hood. The veins, swollen with chakra and blood, gave her a ghastly look, like something not of this world. He squirmed and whimpered. It had worked.

"I-I don't know! Thirty, maybe forty. Even that guy won't survive it. Just let me go, please."

Hinata's expression softened. This man was repulsive. The way he'd harmed his companion earlier was testament enough of that. But she had no quarrel with him, and she was wasting time. Releasing him she said, "Leave here. Don't...tell anyone about this. Or he'll probably come back for you."

She was proud of the steadiness in her voice. In fact, she believed her own words. The fat man did, too, and he struggled toward the door, ignoring her completely. Hinata hopped over the bar and discovered the hidden trap door where the blond stranger had disappeared earlier. It was dark and seemingly bottomless, and she swallowed.

"I always wanted to be the hero," she said to herself, forcing a smile.

But the heroes tended to die saving others.

Hinata decided she didn't care. This was her duty. It was what she'd signed up for. It was expected of Jōnin to put their lives on the line for the sake of the village and the greater good. Besides, she wouldn't have to risk herself too much. All she needed was proof of the Akatsuki presence here, something to help Konoha take the next step against the organization. Hinata still wasn't totally convinced, but time was working against her. Decided, she dropped down into the dark abyss after the rogue blond.

Deidara ran through the subterranean corridor toward his freedom. If he could intercept this informant and silence him for good, then it wouldn't matter whether the messenger bird had gotten this far. But he had to be quick. He'd already wasted enough time locating this hideout.

The passage was damp and poorly lit. The natural humidity of Yūgakure made it worse. He was beginning to sweat, but there was no helping it. After a couple minutes of running, he noticed a light shining down the hall around a corner. Tracks underfoot made him think this tunnel was used for carting supplies back and forth: drugs, weapons, and the like, knowing Akatsuki. He didn't care, but he did prepare his bombs for battle as he ran. Violence was the only language these people spoke.

Sure enough, his approach alerted the first guarded defense: burly men with so much muscle there was hardly any room left for brains.

"Hey! Where do you think you're—"

Deidara flung a pair of kunai at them, one for each sentry. His aim was true, and they severed the men's windpipes with a mess of garbling and a spray of blood.

He caught them, one in each arm, just before they hit the floor. No sense in alerting more guards to his presence if he could help it.

"Who's there! Show yourself!"

So much for stealth. Deidara sighed. It had never suited him, anyway. Four more guards ran at him from down the hall, but these were different from the two he'd just offed. Dressed in shinobi attire, they would be a little more of a nuisance than the civilians.

"Y'know, you coulda saved yourselves if you'd just looked the other way, yeah."

The guards lunged, weapons slicing the air and looking for something more solid to cleave. Deidara bared his teeth and his palms, where two clay spiders rested, twitching with stored energy.

"Don't say I didn't warn you!"

They didn't know what hit them, and if they did they were dead before anything could be done. The explosions shook the passage and blew out chunks of the walls. Deidara would have to keep moving or pass out from asphyxiation; the dust and smoke were thick enough to obscure his view beyond only a few feet down the passage. Stepping over the mangled bodies of his would-be opponents (ants, more like), Deidara began to run. Someone will have heard the blast and soon the ants would swarm him with sheer numbers. When that happened, he wanted to be out of these damned tunnels.

The sound of a bomb going off made Hinata drop to the damp floor in fear. She didn't know what was going on, and for one horrifying moment she was sure the underground tunnel would collapse on top of her. With each passing minute, she was regretting more and more not aborting this blind chase and looking for her teammates.

But nothing happened. Whatever had caused the blast was a ways down the tunnel, and after the initial boom, all was silent. No footsteps, no voices. Hinata dusted herself off and decided to make haste. Whatever had happened, she was sure the element of surprise was now lost to both her and the mysterious blond stranger.

Around the next corner, she came upon two bodies leaking their life's blood all over the walls and floor. Hinata remained deathly silent, pearly Byakugan assessing their wounds. They'd died fast and quiet. This wasn't the site of the blast. But none of that was disturbing; rather, she was almost certain the blond man had to be responsible for this. He was becoming increasingly more of a threat, and she hadn't even caught up to him yet. Swallowing, Hinata pressed deeper into the maze in pursuit of her target and, hopefully, some leads to make all this worth her while.

When she arrived at the blast site, she couldn't hold back a cough. Cursing her weakness, she forced herself not to breathe for as long as she could stand it, straining her hearing and sight to discern any potential danger that could have been drawn here by her carelessness. None came.

Luck would not be on her side forever, but she couldn't turn back now, not after she'd come this far. Stepping carefully between the bodies (and taking care not to trip over a severed arm and half blown-out head), she held her jacket collar as close to her face as possible to keep from breathing in dust and smoke. The toxic atmosphere made her eyes water, but this only spurred her to move faster. Up ahead, she could make out light coming from above.

A trap door.


The sound of something, or someone, smashing into something hard made Hinata's heart skip a beat. She'd arrived, and now she would have to step up and take responsibility for her actions. A Jōnin in the making, she was sure Kiba or Shino would have done the same in her place knowing what was at stake. Pulling her hood low, Hinata took a deep breath and jumped up through the open trap door.

"Ow," Deidara said, scowling. He'd crashed against an old table, the impact splitting the wood and giving him free bruises to take home as a souvenir of this little adventure.

"Little man, little life."

A man larger than any Deidara had ever seen in his life squeezed through the door he'd previously jettisoned through. The guy barely fit across the threshold, his bare belly slicked with sweat. A thick trail of wiry, black hairs covered his sagging chest and ran past his sunken belly button to the hemline of his pants. Deidara felt the most uncontrollable urge to throw up from all three of his mouths.

"Hey, I resent that!" he said.

The big man either didn't hear him or, perhaps, could not understand him well. Deidara pulled himself to his feet as the big man lumbered forward and pounded one thick fist against an open palm, a warning. Deidara wondered if he even had enough firepower to blow this abomination to smithereens. There must have been something fishy in the water around here to produce such a creature.

"Uh oh."

Deidara rolled to avoid a lurching punch from the big man, who ended up demolishing what little was left of the table Deidara had been lying among just moments before. Trying to take advantage of the momentary distraction, Deidara swung his body around and roundhoused the big man. All he got for his efforts were a sickening slapping sound when his leg connected with the big man's engorged belly and possibly a broken toe or two.

"Oh, fuck me!" Deidara swore, hopping backwards and shaking his abused leg to dispel the pain. "What're you packing in there, bricks?"

"You hurt Chico. Chico hurt you!" the big man said.

"Chico, seriously? Your mother must've hit her head naming you, yeah."

Sadly, Deidara's smart mouth wasn't going to get him past Chico. Deidara wasn't opposed to using his clay, but the amount it might take to bring this guy down and preserve the way through would likely not add up properly. The cramped space wasn't doing him any favors, either. Close combat wasn't his forte. It was so unartistic, to boot. No one ever looked good twirling around and smacking things.

But just as Chico was about to body slam Deidara into next week, he stumbled and fell to the left, crashing into a wall and making the whole space rumble. Deidara blinked, unsure what to make of this. Of course, someone so large would have balancing issues, but it almost seemed like he'd tripped over something.

A figure clad in a baggy coat was suddenly in the room with them, his hands glowing blue. Deidara couldn't see the newcomer's fact through his low hood, but his stance and obvious chakra output marked him as shinobi. And for some reason, the hooded figure had helped Deidara.

"Hnnggaaaaaahhh!" Chico roared, staggering to his feet and now hopping mad. "Chico kill you!"

Deidara drew a kunai from up his sleeve and ran at Chico, narrowly avoiding the big man's tree-trunk arms. He managed to slice the back of one of Chico's knees, causing him to howl in pain and fall to one knee. Unfortunately, the cost of this small victory was to be death by strangulation.

Chico grabbed Deidara with his big hands, sausage fingers squeezing around his ribcage with enough force to crush stone. Deidara gagged and saw stars. He could almost hear his ribs bending, on the verge of snapping altogether.

But the newcomer ran at them and slashed at Chico's arms with chakra-laden hands. As if by a miracle, Chico relaxed his hold and Deidara slipped free with only minor damage and maximum trauma. Falling to his knees and heaving, Deidara tried to suck in air despite the screaming pain in his abused chest. He was sure he'd suffered a few hairline fractures, but the newcomer had stopped Chico before the big man could do anything truly inhibiting.

Chico made a sound not unlike that of a dying animal as the newcomer continued to strike him with glowing palms. Soon, Chico was sprawled on the ground and soaking in his own blood. Deidara peered at him through his only visible eye, still panting. Chico's exposed skin was covered in bruises, from his swollen stomach to his hands. A line of drool dribbled from the side of his mouth and his tongue hung limp. It looked like the newcomer hadn't actually done much, but this was a lie. Deidara couldn't detect the damage, but the bruises spoke for themselves: whatever had happened was internal. In any case, Chico would bleed out from his severed leg in a few minutes.

Deidara finally managed to pull himself up, his breath returning to him. It hurt to breathe and the effort of standing up straight sent a dull pain reverberating through his chest, but he could manage. He'd fought through far worse, and he still had both his arms right now. Things were looking up.

"Who the hell're you?" Deidara said.

The newcomer's face was partially obscured by his hood, but Deidara could make out the gentle curve of a chin and nose through the shadows.

A kid?

"Um, I...thought you could use some help."

Deidara stared a moment. This guy seemed familiar somehow. "...You're that kid from the bar. The scared one."

At this, the unknown kid stiffened. "I'm not scared! I just... This is happening kind of fast."

Deidara was suspicious. It was normal for shinobi to be running around a hidden village, of course, but not for one to follow him here where there was certain to be torture and death waiting. Something about this kid was weird, and Deidara was positive the kid had an ulterior motive despite his clumsy manner of speaking.

Still, two birds, one stone. Maybe Deidara could spin this in his favor.

"Gonna be more of 'em inside. Think you can handle it?"

As predicted, the kid seemed to puff up at the challenge. "O-Of course! I'm not a wimp."

Deidara grinned. No, but you're predictable. He was about to introduce himself properly when shouts drew his attention. "Shit. Time to go, yeah."

Without waiting for the kid to follow, Deidara jumped over Chico's body and raced through the door the big man had been guarding. At the end of a short hallway, Deidara came upon an expansive dining room. Candelabras glowed in wall sconces, giving the room an eerie glow. The kid joined him soon after, but they didn't have any time to deliberate when enemy shinobi poured into the room from four different exits. Deidara followed them with his eyes as they surrounded him and the kid, counting upwards of twenty enemy shinobi.

"This is as far as you go," one of the enemies said from somewhere behind Deidara.

"Y'know, it's not like I enjoy mass murder, but don't hold it against me when you give me no choice, yeah."

Beside Deidara, the unnamed kid shifted.

"Hey, you get in my way and I'll blow you up, too," he said.

The kid turned to look at Deidara, and for a moment Deidara thought he was looking into mirrors where the kid's eyes should have been. "I won't get in your way!"

Deidara had never liked being alone if he could help it, although when it came to shinobi business he'd found it best to be on his own. That is, until Akatsuki forced him into their ranks and stuck him first with Sasori and later with Tobi. At least Sasori had had an understanding of what really mattered in this short, wretched thing called life. Tobi was just a moron when he wanted to be. Still, having someone to watch his back as Sasori and Tobi had done in the past had saved him from death's clutches more times than Deidara could count. He didn't mind this kid, who clearly had some skill to take out that monster of a man, Chico, to back him up now. And the kid didn't want to be pushed around. Deidara grinned.

"Surrender! You're outnumbered!"

Deidara dug his hands into the clay pouches at his hips and began to mold new bombs. "Good. I can get rid of you all at once and not waste extra clay!"

The fight was explosive, and not just due to Deidara's bombs. The enemy attacked en masse, and Deidara was forced to retreat as he finished his bombs. The kid, also assaulted by multiple enemies at once, shoved his flattened palms outward and somehow propelled a number of them backward, where they crashed into the stone walls with a sickening crunch.

Deidara laughed, giddy. He'd always loved a good fight. As he dodged flying blades and jets of fire and water, Deidara slowly blasted his way through the enemy. Some he eliminated with contact explosives that stuck to their clothes. Others he mangled with explosive punches. The latter was not his modus operandi, but it served a purpose. Still, it wasn't all smooth sailing. One enemy landed a kick to Deidara's chest, which hurt like a mother fucker after the damage Chico had done previously. That shinobi earned himself a kunai to the eyeball followed by a spider bomb down the throat. Deidara didn't even bother watching him implode and come apart at the joints.

But Deidara had a reason for being here, and he needed to hurry. The next shinobi that came within reach found himself at the mercy of a clay spider on his face, twitching and ready to blow at any moment. Deidara grabbed the guy's collar and shook.

"Where's your leader? Tell me and I might not rip you apart, yeah."

The enemy had begun to sob, his tears wetting the clay spider's feet. "Please, let me go!"

"Tell me or I rip your goddamned throat out."

"Upstairs! He's upstairs!"


"I just call him boss—"

Deidara jammed a kunai in the guy's shoulder, causing him to howl in pain. "I said, name."

"Sato! Boss Sato!"

"Good. Now shut up, yeah."

Deidara shoved the guy into another shinobi rushing to attack and released the chakra within the spider, detonating both men. Satisfied, Deidara searched the room for his impromptu partner, who was now surrounded on all sides by five enemy shinobi.

"Thought the kid said he wouldn't get in my way, yeah," Deidara grumbled. He molded two hummingbirds and prepared to toss them at the kid's attackers (it was the kid's own fault if he got caught up in the blast), but something strange happened then.


The kid began to spin in a whirlwind of chakra just before Deidara was finished molding his bombs. The advancing shinobi were propelled backward with alarming force and crashed into the wall. Deidara could hear the crunch of bones breaking. They sank to the ground, most groaning if they were even responsive. Deidara looked between them, curious and a little peeved. He'd already used up some energy making these bombs, and now he wouldn't be able to use them. What a waste.

And that technique...

"Hey, what's a Hyūga doin' out here all by him..."

Deidara trailed off when he caught sight of the "kid" who'd been helping him. The hood had fallen loose, and the bulky jacket's buttons had come undone with the rapid motions of that technique. Long, dark hair fell about her face in disarray and she panted, engorged veins feeding bright eyes that pulsed with chakra and adrenaline.

"...self," Deidara said, dazed. Gathering himself, Deidara pointed an accusatory finger at the girl. "Hey! You're a chick!"

The girl flushed, an odd sight to reconcile with the ferocity of the Byakugan. She looked surprised, and it took her a moment to realize her cover had been blown. "Oh! I, um... Are you okay?"

"Huh?" Deidara was utterly baffled. Everyone knew the Hyūga were a Konoha clan, and her forehead protector gleamed pristine around her neck. He could make it out now that her jacket didn't hide it. What was a Konoha shinobi doing out here helping him? Today was just bizarre.

"Who are you? Why'd you follow me?" Deidara demanded.

She seemed surprised at his outburst, but she stood her ground. It took her a moment to collect herself, but Deidara waited. He ignored the groans of pain and death at their feet. White noise.

"...My name is Hinata. And I'm not helping you, really, I'm just, well, Akatsuki is here, so..."

Deidara sighed. Now he understood. "Yeah yeah, I get it. Konoha's after the Big, Bad Akatsuki. Guess you got the tip that they got a base here, too, yeah."

"Yes," Hinata said, straightening. "You seemed to know what you were doing, so I, um, decided to tag along."

Not that he didn't appreciate the help. Deidara was a lot of things, but he wasn't delusional. Without her assistance, he'd probably be in worse shape than he was. Old habits made him suspicious. Akatsuki had a zero-tolerance policy for Hidden Village shinobi, and his first instinct was to kill her. But...he was no longer with Akatsuki.

"So, Hinata," Deidara said. "Seems like we got a mutual goal for now. I dunno what a girl like you's doing here by herself, but I don't really give a shit. So long as you don't slow me down, you can come along, yeah."

Hinata seemed to think on this a moment, and Deidara began to grow impatient. It wasn't like he offered the chance to work with him to just anyone. Didn't she realize that?

"I'm interested in finding the Akatsuki connection here. I'll help you...but I can't let you destroy that connection."

Silly Konoha shinobi and their delusions of order.

But Deidara decided this wasn't the opportune time to rain on her little self-righteous parade. Kill first, ask questions later. It had gotten him this far, and he wasn't one to question good sense.

"Sure, whatever. You comin' or not?"

Deidara headed for the stairs through one of the many doors leading out of the room. Sato had to be that way, and they would have to hurry if they wanted to catch him.

"Wait," Hinata said, taking a few steps toward him.

Deidara paused and looked at her over his shoulder.

"...What's your name?" she asked, almost fearful.

"Deidara," he said. "And don't look at me like I'm gonna eat you or somethin', yeah."

Hinata said nothing to that, but he could tell she was shocked by his manner of speaking. Nevertheless, she managed to pull herself together and stare him in the eye. "Deidara, okay."

She didn't recognize his name. He had the urge to question her further, but time was of the essence. Whatever little spark of curiosity had tempted him would have to wait.

"Come on."

Hinata followed Deidara upstairs toward their target. She knew this was probably a bad idea, working with him, but what was done was done. She was almost certain he was a criminal of some sort, and a high-caliber one at that. There were probably a million rules she was violating just giving him her name. Still, it seemed they had a common goal and he was happy for the assistance for now. While cautious by nature, once Hinata made up her mind she was determined to follow through with her choices.

Her heart pounded in her ears as they ran upstairs. She wondered if Deidara was all right after the abuse suffered at Chico's hands. She was sure she would have collapsed after being squeezed like a bug. But he didn't slow down as he bounded ahead of her. When they came to a door with light filtering through the bottom, Deidara held out an arm to hold her back.

"Hold it. Let me do the talking, yeah."

Hinata frowned. "I need to know about Akatsuki."

"Yeah, yeah, I hear you."

If it came down to it, Hinata would have to take matters into her own hands. She only hoped it wouldn't.

They burst through the door ready to tear through any more resistance if necessary, only to find the room empty and the far doorway squeaking on its hinges. Hinata activated her Byakugan and searched the premises for life. Someone was making a hasty escape.

"Oh, he's getting away," she said, indicating the door hanging ajar.

Deidara swore and flew after him, Hinata hot on his heels. It became obvious that they were above ground again with the change from damp, stone corridors to warm, hardwood floor and windows. Not a good sign. If their target made it out of wherever this was, he could disappear with a crowd and be lost to them. Hinata was determined not to let that happen, so she tracked his movements with expert precision, guiding Deidara through the maze of corridors. He didn't question her instructions, perhaps trusting the Byakugan's reputation more than anything.

"Wait!" Hinata said, pulling back on Deidara's blue coat and indicating the wall. "He stopped."

Deidara grinned and clenched a fist. "Step aside."

Hinata was about to question him, but Deidara didn't wait for her to cooperate. He thrust a glowing fist in the direction of the wall but did not touch it. A deafening explosion ensued, decimating about ten feet of wood panelling to the left and right. Hinata watched the ordeal with wide eyes. His chakra output itself was like watching a million explosions on the cellular level, like he was, in essence, a bomb himself. But clearly, he could control it. That explained the clay bombs. It was familiar, somehow, like she'd seen it before, but she couldn't place it.

"You!" Deidara said, already marching through the smoking hole he'd created toward the life force in the adjacent room.

Hinata scrambled after him, ready for another fight should it present itself. Their target wasn't completely defenseless, however. He aimed a katana at Deidara, halting the latter's approach long enough for Hinata to catch up.

"Not another step," the man said.

"You Sato?" Deidara asked. "I got some questions for you before I rearrange your insides, yeah."

The man laughed. "So it's true. I couldn't believe it when I got the message, but here you are. I'm Sato, yes. And I'm sorry to say that you won't be rearranging anything more this day."

Hinata studied the man. Sato was nothing extraordinary, plain enough to escape a second look. He wore nondescript ninja garb. A hitai-ate with Yūgakure's symbol was tied around his forehead, partially obscured by thick, brown bangs. Dark eyes and a lean face should have made him attractive, but the smoker's wrinkles around his mouth gave him a sour look. Perfectly ordinary, but Hinata got the chills just looking upon him.

Deidara seemed unperturbed by the sword pointing mere inches from his collarbone. "I'm not here to chat with a fucking lackey. Who do you report to?"

"You know, this isn't how I expected to meet you. You're supposed to be one of us, but here you are making death threats. Well, I suppose that's not too out of character with your reputation," Sato said.

Hinata frowned. It was almost as though Sato knew Deidara.

"You mean one of them. Guys like you are a dime a dozen. You're not Akatsuki; you're just the hired help, yeah."

"Be that as it may, I do get paid for my services. And I suspect they'll pay handsomely for news of your survival. I wonder what the penalty is for faking your death and not reporting in? Can't be pleasant, I'm sure."

Hinata turned to Deidara, suddenly chilled with the beginnings of fear. Something was not right.

"Greedy piece of shit. I bet you work for Kakuzu."

"No, but Itachi-sama has spoken of him on occasion."

At this, Deidara seemed to freeze over. "You work for that peacock Uchiha?"

"That's right. You and Itachi-sama never got along when you were still with the organization. Something about never being his equal?"

Hinata watched as Deidara seemed to implode with anger. She reached out a hand, incredulous.

"Deidara...are you—"

"Just fucking perfect, yeah."

"I'd love to stay and chat more, but I really must be going now," Sato said, withdrawing his katana and backing away.

"Wait! I have some questions for you, too!" Hinata said, making to go after Sato.

"Don't worry, I'm not leaving you all alone."

More enemy shinobi suddenly burst through the jagged hole Deidara had blown in the wall, and Hinata gasped. It seemed they weren't done fighting yet.

"Like I'd let you!" Deidara said, throwing a clay bird in Sato's direction.

The bomb exploded and Hinata clapped her hands over her ears to block out the sound as best she could. Still, her ears rang in the aftershock. The floor was torn to shreds, and the far wall was charred from the blast. Sato, however, was nowhere to be found.

"Damnit," Deidara said.

The enemy was already upon them. Hinata wanted to chase Sato, but it would be impossible with these new reinforcements biting at her heels. She would just have to dispose of them quickly.

"Come on, we're not stickin' around here, yeah."

Before she knew what has happening, Deidara had grabbed her by the elbow and tossed another bomb behind them at the charging shinobi. Hinata had no time to react. He dragged her through the door where Sato had disappeared, and just in time to avoid the brunt of the delayed explosion. It knocked them over, and Hinata grunted in pain when her shoulder slammed into a wall, dislocating it. Deidara stumbled beneath her, hissing. It happened in less that a few seconds, and for a short time after the only sound was their labored breathing.

Hinata tried to roll away from her impromptu partner, just noticing that her weight was crushing down on his ribcage where Chico had injured him before. Once free, Deidara's elbows wobbled and he dry heaved. Perhaps he was more hurt than he'd let on before.

"God, you're heavy, yeah," he said in between gasps for air.

Hinata had stumbled backward and now rested against the opposite wall. Smoke from the blast billowed out the door just over her head, but it wasn't her concern. Gritting her teeth, Hinata gripped her useless shoulder and squeezed in preparation for what she was about to do. With one swift jerk, she snapped her dislocated joint back in place, hissing in pain as blood filled her arm once more.

Deidara watched the entire ordeal, lone blue eye wide with interest. "...Bad ass, Hinata."

Hinata, having momentarily forgotten about Deidara while the pain of her injury consumed her focus, now blushed and struggled for words. "Um, I, I mean..."

Deidara struggled to stand. "What? Spit it out, yeah."

Hinata got to her feet, the throb in her shoulder manageable as long as she didn't aggravate it further. "I just... Well, I've never been called a bad ass."

Deidara grinned. "I know guys who'd cry having to do what you just did, yeah."

Hinata's blush intensified.

"Hey, where'd he go?"

Blinking, Hinata returned to reality and remembered her mission. "Oh, um, just a minute..."

With the Byakugan activated, she searched the premises for Sato only to discover he was farther away than she'd imagined. And fast disappearing. "Oh no, he's escaping!"

"Which way?" Deidara demanded, all traces of his previous humor gone.

"Up," Hinata said, pointing toward the roof.

Deidara swore but took off down the hall. "He's not gettin' away!"

Hinata ran after him through the base. They meandered through winding corridors and made their way upstairs. But when they got there, it was too late.

"Farewell! I'll give Itachi-sama your regards," Sato said as he made to fly away atop a bird-like summon.

The rain was still coming down hard. Street lanterns offered meager light, and Hinata had to marvel at the fact that they still burned in this weather.

"I don't think so," Deidara said.

He held out a hand, and it was then that Hinata noticed the mouth on his palm. Unable to look away, she watched as it spat out a miniature clay bird. Sato was flying steadily away, but Deidara's bomb zoomed after him like a homing missile. Sato was helpless to stop it, and the ensuing explosion shook Hinata to the core. Sato and his bird summon (what was left of it) fell to the ground below.

The pair jumped to the ground to intercept Sato. Hinata reached him first. Leaning down, she gasped at the state of his battered body. Deidara's bomb had blown off Sato's right arm and a sizeable chunk of his lower back. Blood pooled underneath him. Hinata didn't need the Byakugan to know life was rapidly leaving Sato.

"Is Uchiha Itachi in charge of Yūgakure?" she tried.

Sato wheezed, a wet, rattling sound that had nothing to with the rain. He did not answer.

"That piece of shit can't talk anymore," Deidara said, crouching down on Sato's other side. "All the better, yeah."

"I'm not alone," Sato said, voice broken and barely audible. Still, he bared bloody teeth in a grin. "Akatuski'll find you. Can't hide forever."

Deidara scowled, and Hinata was becoming desperate. "Tell me where I can find the Akatsuki."

Deidara shot her a look she did not see. Sato's final moments consumed her attention.

"You found them," Sato said, shuddering. He said nothing further.

Rain had long since soaked through Hinata's clothes and made her jacket uncomfortably heavy. In those few moments of inaction, in which the only sound was the pouring rain coming down all around her, Hinata felt the float before the inevitable fall. She'd had a feeling this would go wrong, and yet she pushed on anyway because she'd made a decision. It seemed in the end, she got what she came for. Shifting her gaze to Deidara, she found him looking at her. Waiting. His expression confirmed it all.

"Deidara," she began, barely loud enough to be heard over the roar of the rain. "You're that Deidara...aren't you?"

Hinata had always wondered what an encounter with Akatsuki would be like. She'd heard the horrors of such encounters from Sakura, Ino, and Tenten in the past. Those had been harrowing experiences from which they'd barely escaped with their lives, and Tenten's team hadn't managed to kill their target, either. But they'd had something Hinata did not have right now: teammates. Here, she was alone with one of the most powerful criminal masterminds the world had ever known.

Deidara of Akatsuki.

She should have known. The bombs, the intimate knowledge of and interest in this Akatsuki informant. In retrospect, she should have known the minute she heard the explosion in the subterranean cavern. Not many shinobi had the audacity to fight with bombs—only those who wanted to blow their covers because they were confident enough to fight in broad daylight and win.

"But you died," Hinata said.

Perhaps death alone should not have eased her fears when it came to Akatsuki. It did not seem to have slowed down Deidara. Stock still, Deidara reminded her of an animal caught in a hunter's crosshairs. His inaction scared her more than his previous displays of violence. She had no idea what he would do now that she knew his identity.

"Not exactly," he said. "But nobody else has to know that."

His seriousness gave her chills that had nothing to do with her soaked clothing. This man was dangerous, infamous. He'd bested death and come back to tell the tale. While shy by nature, Hinata did not scare easily. He was doing a good of pushing her over that edge, though.

"What... What does that mean?"

Deidara took a step toward her, and Hinata took a step back.

"It means I don't want witnesses. Can't risk Akatsuki knowing I'm still alive, yeah."

Somewhere in the midst of the alarm bells going off in her head (she was a witness, after all), Hinata found the energy to be puzzled. "You don't want Akatsuki to know? Why? You're one of them..."

He looked like he wanted to laugh at her. "Not if I'm dead. You get me?"

Hinata said nothing to that. Analyzing the reasons of a criminal was not high on her list of priorities right now as she tried to plan an escape. With her only lead dead, there seemed to be little reason to stick around here before Deidara decided to attack her next.

"Listen, it's nothing personal, but I'm gonna have to kill you, too," Deidara continued, waving a hand in Hinata's general direction. "Can't have you blabbing to Konoha about me, y'know."

Hinata felt as though someone had punched her in the stomach. Chakra bled into her eyes on instinct, and her bloodline limit highlighted the world in stark relief. She could make out the pockets of explosive chakra gathering in his palms. He was serious.

"W-Wait," she said, lifting her hands in front of her should she need to defend herself from him. "You don't have to do this."

"Uh, actually, I kinda do." Deidara advanced on her, and Hinata backpedalled accordingly. "And once I finish with you, I gotta find the rest of those rats before they get wise and report to Itachi, yeah."

Panic made her hands shake. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead and she shivered. Silly, silly girl. It seemed all she could do was make bad decisions and wait to be rescued. This time, no one seemed to be coming. She wondered what her father would say if he could see her now, shaking in her boots before the might of an undead Akatsuki. He'd probably tell her that Hanabi wouldn't be scared in such a situation. Sadness and self-loathing threatened to arrest Hinata's movement, relax her muscles just before her enemy's jaws delivered the final crushing blow.

"...No," she said.

Deidara frowned. "Come again?"

Hinata gritted her teeth and met his visible eye with all the courage and anger she could muster. "I said, no. I won't die today."

For a moment Deidara looked surprised.

"I am an heiress of the noble Hyūga clan. I won't let you do as you please!"

A few seconds passed before Hinata realized she'd just yelled at an S-class criminal. This was it; she was really going to die. He was going to shove one of those sticky bombs down her shirt and watch her squirm before blasting her to smithereens—

"You're a princess?" Deidara laughed. "Man, I shoulda known, yeah."

Hinata was about to respond to that, but in a flash Deidara appeared directly before her and grabbed her by the collar.

"Sorry, but that just makes me want to kill you even more."

He brought a hand back, and Hinata watched as a long, curling tongue slithered out of the mouth on his palm. It had a small, clay bird in its clutches. The time for conversation was over.

Before Deidara could react, Hinata jabbed a glowing hand at the offending mouth. Deidara grunted and the mouth closed on impact. He stumbled backwards on the soggy grass toward the Akatsuki base, clutching his injured hand.

"What the fuck did you just do?"

Hinata regained her bearings and breathed. "I sealed the tenketsu in your palm. You can't use it for awhile."

She prepared for him to scream at her, to show her no mercy and pummel her into the next dimension. Instead, he grinned.

"Clever. Hurts like a bitch, yeah."

For the short time she'd known him, Deidara had remained completely unpredictable. Hinata could not find the words to respond.

"But I'm clever, too," Deidara said, waving his good hand.

The tingling feeling crawling up her back was Hinata's only warning. She lunged toward him, shedding her heavy coat just before the small spider Deidara had planted there exploded and incinerated it. Shoving one palm forward, Hinata unleashed a pressurized air current at Deidara, intending to knock him back into the wall of the compound. To her dismay, he crumbled into a pile of loose soil.

"Good try, but I already saw that trick before, yeah."

Hinata clenched her fists, releasing more power, before turning to face her one-time partner-turned-enemy. Blue chakra swirled about her fists, popping and snapping.

"Then...I'll show you a new on," she said, running toward him.

The lion heads cloaking Hinata's fists roared with energy as she punched and jabbed. Deidara evaded her onslaught with agility even Neji would have envied.

"You know, we coulda done this the easy way, yeah!" Deidara said between punches.

He tossed a clay bird at her just after avoiding a mean right hook, and Hinata was forced to roll to the side to escape the ensuing explosion.

"If the easy way is letting you kill me without a fight, then I'm afraid I can't do that," Hinata said, panting as she charged him again.

Deidara's lone eye followed her glowing fists, but soon Hinata managed to graze his left flank. The satisfaction was short-lived, however, when Deidara made a grab at her hair and pulled her to the ground. Adrenaline and exertion slowly wore off as the sound of the pounding rain drowned out their heavy breathing. Deidara had her pinned to the ground, one hand twisting her hair painfully while the other, useless, anchored her shoulder in place.

"You're really wasting my time here, yeah."

Hinata glared at him, unwilling to accept defeat. She still had chakra and she still had time. But he had her in a tough position, and she could barely move. Without Sakura's super strength or Ino's mind manipulation, Hinata felt a bit like a wet noodle with no other recourse than the one unappetizing option left to her: talk her way out of this.

"Listen, please, I..." She wracked her brain for something, anything, that would change his mind. "You don't have to do this."

"Give me one good reason."

Deidara twisted her hair to emphasize his point, causing Hinata to hiss in pain.

"I-I can help you!"

"How? You're not really in a position to convince me."

She hated this, this feeling of weakness and degradation. Inadequacy. He'd pinned her so effortlessly, never mind that she'd wounded him and he had leagues of experience on her. An heiress was expected to win, to excel. All Hinata had ever done was fail and cry. Perhaps her father was right.

"Fight like you're immortal and even Death will start to believe you."

Neji's words seemed arrogant, even absurd. How could little Hyūga Hinata look Death in the eye and say, 'Not today'? She wasn't Neji. But Deidara wasn't Death.

"Sato mentioned others who know about you..."

Deidara narrowed his visible eye, perhaps trying to detect a lie. But he said nothing.

"I'm a tracker. One of the best." It wasn't a lie, although she wasn't sure she qualified as one of Konoha's finest. Surely there were others far more skilled than she would ever be. But she knew her trade well. "I can help you find them."

"I don't usually play well with others, princess."

"I won't tell Konoha anything. You..." She wanted to scream in frustration. Why couldn't he just believe her? "You don't want to be Akatsuki anymore, right? I want to find those informants as much as you do. We have a mutual goal, don't you see? Your secret will be safe. You won't have to hide anymore. So please...let me help you."

Hinata could not say for how long they lay there, the rain dripping from Deidara's bangs to her forehead, down the curves of her cheeks. When he finally rolled off her and got to his feet, Hinata almost thought he'd already killed her and she was just hallucinating. She sat up, her hair caked with mud and grass from its previous abuse. Deidara looked down at her over his nose.

"You got balls, I'll give you that. But what makes you think I even need your help? If you're who you say you are, then you probably can't help me, anyway."

Hinata pulled herself up. She was beginning to feel violently cold now that she'd lost her jacket and they'd been out in the rain for some time. The skin-tight black tank top she usually wore under her coat was doing her no favors, and she hugged her arms to her chest for warmth and modesty.

"That's not true," she protested. "I was here specifically to get information on Akatsuki—"

Deidara waved her off. "Yeah, and a load of good that did you. Trust me, Akatsuki doesn't usually make mistakes. Why d'you think Itachi isn't even here? He's got his underlings to face the public for him, just like we all did. You'll never get anywhere like this."

He made no move to leave or pick up where he'd left off, and Hinata wondered if he was waiting for something from her. Tentative, she took a step toward him, hands at her sides to appear as non-threatening as possible.

"Then help me," she said. "If... If you let me get their information, I'll help you find the ones who know about you... No questions asked."

Deidara said nothing, and Hinata felt a little braver.

"I can track them. And I can help you fight. You're, um, a long-range fighter, right? I'm better up close..."

She was rambling, a bad habit she'd never been able to shake. It was a wonder he hadn't already killed her as she prattled on and on.

"You'd be more convincing if you bothered to look me in the eye, y'know."

Startled, Hinata looked up and caught him watching her closely. She could have kicked herself. Old habits died hard, and it seemed even time had not shaken her natural meekness much. Still, she'd gotten herself into this mess, and she'd finally gotten him to listen. Crumpling now was not an option.

With as much courage as she could muster, Hinata met his gaze and tried to make him see her determination and strength of will. "Let's find the informants together."

Deidara chuckled and rummaged around a pouch at his hip. After a few moments, his good hand spat out another clay bird, but this one grew to a size large enough to ferry a couple people on its back. He climbed atop it, and Hinata was suddenly worried he was leaving.

"Deidara!" she said, taking a step toward him.

"They'll be in hiding after the damage we caused. Meet me back here in four days. We'll pick up the trail then, yeah."

Hinata gaped at him. He was so calm about the whole ordeal, like they hadn't just fought and nearly torn each other apart minutes ago. She was so shocked that all she could manage was a nod.

Deidara pulled his hood over his head for all the good it would do in this weather, but it served to obscure his face from view. "Better get outta here, princess. Who knows what the rain'll drag in."

The white bird spread its massive wings and beat the air, and within seconds Deidara was airborne and fast flying away. Hinata watched him go, but the thick fog and rain hid him almost completely from sight. Alone and wet, Hinata closed her eyes briefly and let herself shiver. Still alive, still in one piece.

And now, she was throwing in her lot with the dealer, hoping for a lucky hand.

"Hinata-sama, your father is awaiting your presence in the dining room."

Hinata looked up to catch the handmaiden's reflection in her mirror. "Thank you, I'll be right there."

The young woman bowed and left the room. Alone again, Hinata studied her painted face in the mirror. Relatives told her she looked like her mother, and when she had to dress for occasion, as tonight, the resemblance was nearly uncanny. It was amazing was a little lip stick could do. It was like transforming into another person, a person her father could be proud of. Hinata wondered if Hiashi looked at her sometimes and thought of his late wife. If he did, Hinata couldn't say what he thought of the resemblance.

Taking a deep breath, Hinata rose and made her way down a narrow wooden corridor toward the dining room. Tonight would be a family dinner in honor of Hinata's safe return and the success of her team's mission. Hinata had recounted her escapades at the Akatsuki hideout in Yūgakure to the Hokage, although she'd left out the parts involving Deidara. Kiba had also uncovered crucial evidence at his post, and together the information built a solid lead for Konoha. Tsunade would be sending shinobi to investigate more thoroughly now that the trail had been exposed. Hinata wanted to look forward to this dinner given in congratulations of a mission well executed, but she had a feeling it would end the way these occasions always did: with infighting and hurtful words.

Still, the little princess wore her perfect mask like a second skin. Hanabi may have had more natural shinobi talent, but she did not have half Hinata's grace of formality. The stiffer the company, the easier it was for Hinata to maintain a detached, polite demeanor. She only wished she could channel that kind of political professionalism in family situations.

"Hinata-sama," Neji said, rising from his seat when she entered.

Hinata felt better knowing he was here. She and Neji had not always seen eye to eye, but after the Chūnin exams some years ago, Neji had completely changed his attitude toward her. He trained with her, gave her an outlet to vent her frustrations, and reminded her that she was more than what her father thought of her. In many ways, Neji was her best friend and her closest companion.

"Neji," she said, smiling.

"Have a seat, Hinata," Hiashi said from the head of the table.

Hanabi was seated to his right, the heiress's seat, and Hinata sat to his left. She thought little of the silent slight, having long gotten used to things as they were. Hanabi spared her a look and Hinata smiled at her, and Hanabi barely returned it. She'd always been somewhat detached from others, unable to empathize or perhaps not wanting to. She was different behind closed doors when it was just the two of them, but their father had certain expectations of his daughters when they were in his presence. It didn't bother Hinata much; Hanabi was her sister no matter their rank and station.

Neji was seated to Hinata's right, for which she was thankful. A few other Main House family members sat further down the table, silent while food was served. The table was long enough to accommodate twenty, though it was only half filled tonight. Wood-panelled walls gleamed in the dim lighting. Flickering firelight cast shadows upon the few oil paintings hanging on the walls, making their colors dance as though alive.

"Hinata, Kurenai tells me you'll be promoted to Jōnin soon," Hiashi said.

Hinata nearly choked on her drink but managed to conceal the action. She nodded. "Yes, Father."

"Congratulations, Hinata-sama," said one of the other clansmen across the table from her, smiling.

Hinata nodded, but on the inside she was more than overjoyed. Tsunade thought her capable, and she was the strongest kunoichi in the country. That had to count for something.

"Good job," Hanabi said as she poked at her food. The curl of a smirk gave her sincerity away, and Hinata wished she was anywhere but here so she could dance about in joy.

"You're not ready," Hiashi said in a tone of finality. "I'll have a word with the Hokage about it first thing tomorrow morning."

There was a moment of silence as the table processed this news. Neji was the first to break it.

"Sir, you can't be serious. This is a great accomplishment."

All eyes turned to Neji, but no one said a word. His close involvement in the Main House's business was still a sore subject to the more traditionalist Hyūga clansmen, but Hiashi's word was law. Neji was the most gifted fighter of his generation and perhaps his father's generation; he would become an invaluable asset to the future clan leader.

"I'm perfectly serious," Hiashi said, setting his drink down. "She is not ready."

"With all due respect, if the Hokage says she is, then I don't understand why this would be in dispute."

Hinata was growing more and more agitated by the minute, though she hid it well. Neji's intentions were good, and she truly appreciated his efforts to defend her when she was too slow to do it herself, but hearing this conversation happen as though she were not even present awakened a seething anger deep inside which rarely made itself known.

"Father, I think Hinata deserves a shot at Jōnin," Hanabi said. "Neji's right."

"The conversation is over," Hiashi said. "I won't hear another word about it. I've made my decision." He rose and made to leave the room.

All the while, Hinata had not made a peep.

Dinner was over, and the other Hyūga filed out, whispering. Hinata did not have ears for them; she was still reeling from what she'd just witnessed. Neji's hand on her shoulder brought her back to reality.

"Hinata-sama, are you all right?"

Hinata blinked and looked between Hanabi and Neji. This wasn't right. Nothing was right. Without a word, she gathered up the ends of her kimono and followed Hiashi. Neji reached for her hand, but she yanked it away.

"Let me go," she said without looking back.

There was one place her father would be now, his usual spot where he drank sake while watching the moon rise before bed. Hinata scurried through the winding corridors, her socked feet thump thump thumping all the way. Unbidden, memories of the last narrow hallways through which she'd dashed returned to her, her partner's blond hair whipping behind him and the smell of smoke and blood upon her nose.

After all she'd done, after all the years spent honing her skills, all the blood and tears and sweat she'd shed with Neji, with her team, on her own—how could Hiashi dismiss it all like an unsavory dish at a dinner party? With each step, Hinata's anger bubbled black and menacing, a monster deep inside her screaming for justice.

She nearly lost her balance at the doorway leading outside to an open courtyard. The night air was crisp but fairly warm, the moon full and bright against the night sky. It cast the scene in stark black and white. Hiashi sat on a dais across the courtyard, devoid of color in this light. Hinata swallowed and gathered her bearings. She could not confront him ruled by anger or he would destroy her. He'd done it before. Breathing deep, she willed herself to calm, to don her perfect mask for this battle. She would need every trick in the book.

"I thought I made myself clear at dinner," Hiashi said, setting down his sake cup and giving his daughter his full attention.

"Father, I want to be a Jōnin. Lady Tsunade said—"

"I don't care what the Hokage said. You are a Hyūga, and I am your keeper for as long as I live."

Hinata clenched her fists, that familiar meekness in the face of her father's control threatening to take over. "I mean no disrespect, Father," she began. "But...the mission was a success. Kurenai-sensei and Lady Tsunade think we're ready for the Jōnin exam, and I want to take it. I've worked so hard."

"You're seventeen years old. You're a child."

"I-I am not a child!"

"Only a child would disobey her father." Hiashi stood up and looked down upon his eldest daughter. "Hinata, you are not built like your sister. You need more time to grow stronger. I've accepted that. But it's time you started to do the same."

She wanted to cry. Her father usually made her cry. But crying meant the end of the conversation, a loss on her part, and she wasn't ready to throw in the towel just yet.

"But I am strong. I train with Neji, and my teammates, and...and the Hokage was pleased with my mission—"

"The Hokage is not your mother."

"No, my mother's dead," Hinata said softly. "But... But I'm not Mother. I'm a kunoichi of the Hidden Leaf, and I'm ready to become a Jōnin. Father, please—"

"You are not ready!" Hiashi said, grabbing Hinata's wrist. "The survival rate of Jōnin is a fraction of that of Chūnin. I will not risk a daughter of mine in such a manner when she isn't strong enough. You'll be marching to your death, and what kind of example would that be to the rest of the clan? Absolutely not. I forbid it."

The tears had become too strong to resist, and Hinata's vision began to blur. She'd never had much luck winning battles with her father when he fell back on his absolute power as clan patriarch. In the past, Hinata had kept her head down and accepted it, but as she grew older, as she became closer with the shinobi in her age group and saw more of the world, she began to question her father's wisdom, his priorities. Did he truly know what was best for her?

"...You've already disinherited me. I-I'm barely your daughter as it is. And you would deny me the only avenue left to me?"

Hiashi hesitated a moment, but as always, he was immovable. "Don't put words in my mouth. The Hokage doesn't know you like I do, and I know you're not strong enough to take on the responsibilities of a Jōnin. Until you are, you will not advance. I will hear no more on this topic."

With that, Hiashi left her to her devices. Alone outside now, Hinata clenched her fists and stared at the floor, willing the tears to stop. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip, the pretty, red lipstick smearing a little.

"Why won't he just listen to me? Why?"

The night had no answer for her. Moonlight made her tears shimmer, pearlescent. There was nothing beautiful about this night. Tears smeared her makeup, her perfect mask, but Hinata could not be bothered to care anymore. There was no one around. There was never anyone around. Heavy feet took her back inside to her room, all in silence.

As soon as her father had gone back inside, Deidara decided he'd seen enough. Silent as a wraith, he made his way across the roof of the Hyūga compound toward Konoha's perimeter wall. The sentries he'd knocked out were still comatose, making his passage unbothered and quick. He needed to get beyond the borders of Konoha before summoning appropriate transportation.

He didn't know why he'd come here, really. Mostly, he didn't trust Hinata not to blab about him to the Hokage or her family. It looked like she'd kept her promise to stay silent on the issue, which was good because it meant he wouldn't have to kill a lot of people. Once on the outskirts of Konoha, Deidara mounted a clay owl and made his way north toward Yūgakure. Hinata was supposed to meet him there in a couple days' time to hunt for the other informants working with Sato.

Deidara had never been a nosy guy, but life was always a little more interesting when people were fucking up and making the front page. It had been by accident that he'd overheard that conversation between Hinata and her father, but now he kept replaying it in his mind. She hadn't been totally honest about being an heiress of the Hyūga clan since it appeared her father had disinherited her in favor of another. And the reason for that was clear: he thought her weak.

Deidara didn't particularly care about Hinata's personal issues or anyone else's. Someone had to look out for him, and since no one else was stepping up to the plate, Deidara did it himself. Always had, always would. He'd never known his own parents, having been raised in the chilly halls of the Tsuchikage's tower in Iwagakure. But he thought he was doing all right for himself: S-class criminal, good looks, artistic genius. He'd even cheated death. Things were looking up.

He laughed humorlessly. The stars raced by him overhead where he stared from his reclining position on his clay mount. They did not laugh with him. No one laughed with him these days. Free of Akatsuki and free of a life of servitude, Deidara was alone and running again. How could he express his art the way it was supposed to be seen when he couldn't reveal himself to anyone without risking exposure? It was a wretched existence and one he planned on rectifying as soon as possible with Hinata's help.

It was almost funny how she'd pleaded her case to him back in Yūgakure. He'd been ready to kill her, another name to add the list he'd stopped keeping track of years ago. But something she'd said stopped him.

"You won't have to hide anymore."

If he could live a life free from Akatsuki, he could travel the world with his art. No more missions for the benefit of others, no more risking his life for a cause he didn't even care about. No more ridicule, no more neglect. The audience Deidara craved awaited him, and he would use Hinata to help him get there. In exchange, he'd let her live. It was more than fair.

He kept coming back to the uncomfortable conversation she'd had with her father. Deidara had seen what happened to those born into privilege only to fall below expectations and see it all snatched away. It was a humiliating existence, but they still lived like kings compared to the masses. Who needed a fancy title and political responsibility? Freedom, that was worth fighting for.

Still, it bothered him. Hinata was meek, that much he'd understood immediately upon meeting her, but she wasn't a pushover. His left hand hadn't worked properly for hours after their fight, much to Deidara's consternation. She knew what she was doing; she was just young. Green. Deidara knew what that was like.

But she didn't even fight her father on his decision. For someone at the top of the food chain, it seemed like a cop-out. Weak. Deidara felt angry for no apparent reason. What was her problem? Didn't she get it?

When you're on center stage, you perform or get the hell out.

Hinata had been born to privilege, and yet she'd let her father take it all away. One thing was clear to Deidara: if it had been him, he would have fought tooth and nail to stay in the spotlight, even if it killed him.


It wasn't his problem, anyway.

"When you feel my heat look into my eyes.
It's where my demons hide. It's where my demons hide.
Don't get too close; it's dark inside.
It's where my demons hide. It's where my demons hide."

"Step lightly, young friends! We're just a hop, skip, and a jump away!" Gai called from several leaps ahead.

Hinata landed on a sturdy tree branch and pushed off with a bit of chakra. She rubbed an arm absently, not used to lacking the weight of her usual overcoat. Clad in the standard Chūnin attire, she felt almost naked compared to when she'd had her usual outfit. Too bad Deidara blew it up.

At the thought of the blond bomber, she lowered her eyes and frowned. She was going back to Yūgakure to fulfill her end of the bargain, as promised. It was a welcome respite from being in the same house as her father, who'd refused to speak to her since her outburst. He'd even questioned the Hokage's decision to send Hinata back to Yūgakure if Akatsuki were involved, but Tsunade assured him Hinata's team was going only for reconnaissance purposes; Team Gai would be doing the heavy infiltration.

Then again, seeing Deidara again was not exactly a happy thought. He was still a criminal with a history of extreme violence against humanity. If only her father knew what she was getting herself into, he would probably have a heart attack. It was silly to derive satisfaction from the idea that she was doing something questionable, something only trained Jōnin did, behind her father's back. But if and when she succeeded, she would know she was more than prepared to take on the responsibility of an elite ninja. Besides, if the other kunoichi in her year could take on the Akatsuki and live to tell about it, she could, too.

Of course, the voice of reason in her mind told her this was a bad idea waiting to end in disaster, but she'd already made her decision. Deidara needed her just as much as she needed him, so they would get the job done, then go their separate ways. It was a smart business transaction, nothing more, nothing less.

"Hinata-sama, you seem troubled," Neji said as he jumped along beside her.

Hinata blinked out of her reverie. "Oh, um, I'm fine. It's nothing."

"Listen, about your father..."

"Thank you for defending me," Hinata said, meaning it. "I won't forget it."

"That's not really the point. Hiashi-sama will come around. We'll make him."

Hinata smiled at her cousin. Hiashi likely would come around eventually, but by then she might be years behind her yearmates. It was an option Hinata was not willing to take, but currently she saw no way out of it without outright defying her father, something she was loathe to do. He was her father, after all, and she knew he meant well. What parent wouldn't want their child to be safe? Still...

"So, Hinata, which way did the Akatsuki go?" Tenten asked.

For a split second, Hinata was too stunned to respond. Tenten laughed and patted her on the back.

"Just kidding. They weren't even here, right? We gotta check out their base, though. See if we can find any more leads."

"I am ready! Friends, please point me in the correct direction so I may commence our investigation!" Lee said.

Kiba snickered and put an arm around Lee's shoulders. "Actually, my man, lemme take you to a pretty sweet spot where I picked up some juicy intel. Lots of nice ladies there ready to give out information for a price, or a handsome face."

"Splendid! Let's go at once!"

"Kiba, I don't think that's the best avenue for Lee to explore," Shino said.

The group discussed a plan of attack for the few days they would be stationed in Yūgakure as they approached the city limits on foot. Hinata, meanwhile, was planning her temporary escape. It felt a bit devious to deceive her teammates like this, but in the end the goal would be fulfilled one way or another. She would get valuable intel on Akatsuki either from the informants (if she managed to talk to them before Deidara blew them up) or from Deidara himself.

The group settled into a small inn, where Hinata shared a room with Tenten. Team Gai would explore the leads Team 8 had obtained on their previous trip while Team 8 was tasked with scouting. It was possible that whatever informants were lurking in the underbelly of Yūgakure might catch wind of the Konoha shinobi's presence and attempt to skip town.

"I think I better go with you," Kiba said once Shino parted from them to set up a perimeter around the village with his bugs. "You got in a pretty bad scuffle last time. They might be waiting for us this time around."

Hinata worried her lip. "Oh, that's okay, Kiba-kun. I can handle myself."

Kiba's expression fell. "That's not what I meant. I mean, I know you're really tough, Hinata. I just mean, uh, you know! Teams stick together and stuff."

Akamaru barked happily, and Hinata smiled.

"I know what you meant. But the place I wanted to go to is a bar, and taking a dog might, um, draw suspicion..."

"...A bar?" Kiba smirked. "Since when do you drink alone, Hyūga?"

Hinata blushed. "I-I do not drink alone! Well, it's normal to order a drink at a bar, though. But, I'm on a mission, so—"

Kiba raised his hands in a placating gesture. "I get it, don't worry. I had to play the part last time, too."

They fell into an amiable silence for a moment, and Hinata had to marvel at how lucky she was to have such a dear friend.

"Anyway, just, you know, be safe or whatever," Kiba said, not meeting her eyes. "You can't leave me alone with Shino, you got it? That'd suck balls."

Hinata laughed. "I wouldn't dream of putting Shino-kun in that situation."

"Good, glad were on the same— Hey!"

Hinata skipped away from her teammate, still smiling. "I'll see you later!"

On her own, Hinata made sure Kiba didn't follow her before cutting through the center of town and making her way to the bar where she'd first met Deidara. Thankfully, the late afternoon was clear with no sign of rain. Hinata had left her Chūnin vest and hitai-ate in the hotel room, not wanting to be recognized as a shinobi. She also tied her hair back in a bun, remembering how Deidara had yanked it last time when they'd clashed and not relishing the memory. Nondescript and plain, Hinata earned no more than a passing glance as she made her way through the streets of Yūgakure.

When she arrived at the alley entrance to the bar, she was about to open the door when someone rammed her into the wall and around the corner. A hand over her mouth bade her not to make a sound. It happened so fast that Hinata didn't have time to scream, anyway.

"Not a word," Deidara whispered as he pinned her to the wall.

Hinata didn't plan on giving them away, but the feel of something moving against her mouth made her yank his hand away. Deidara gave her a weird look, but one look at his palm answered all his questions.

"Don't flatter yourself, princess. They got a mind of their own, yeah."

"I wasn't flattering myself," Hinata said, smoothing out her navy shirt.

Deidara looked like he'd been running around somewhere. A thin sheen of sweat shone on his brow, and his long bangs appeared limp.

"Where have you been?" she asked, already anticipating his response.

"Working, unlike you. How long did it take you to pin up your hair like that, anyway?"

Hinata blushed against her better judgment. "What? I did it on the way here, and it only takes a minute..."

Deidara rolled his eyes. "Whatever. C'mon, you're late enough as it is, yeah."

Deidara beckoned her to follow deeper into the alley at a jog. When they reached a dead end, he began to scale the wall and she followed suit. Once atop the building, they ran due west. The sun was already beginning to set, and Hinata wondered where they were going.

"There," Deidara said, indicating another alley. "Got a tip about Akatsuki thugs working out of a whorehouse down there. Let's go."

"Um, a whorehouse?"

They jumped into the alley and Deidara approached the back entrance, checking for observers. "Yeah, y'know, prostitutes. They sell sex for money. I know you got 'em in Konoha, yeah."

"I'm familiar with the concept," Hinata said, indignant that he'd think her so naive. "Just, I think one of my teammates is supposed to be investigating this area, so, um, we should be careful."

Deidara turned to her. "Nice of you to look out for me, but you're forgetting that I blast first and ask questions later. Better hope your friend doesn't get in my way, yeah."

He led her through the back door to the main part of the building. Hinata squinted through the haze of reddish-pink lighting and cigarette smoke thick enough to slice with a knife. Deidara shot her a look when she coughed.

"Not your typical haunt, eh?"

"...Not exactly."

"Well, first time for everything. Now don't screw up, yeah."

Hinata merely nodded. He tended to be a little rude, but it seemed to come so naturally to him that she suspected he didn't even realize he was doing it. So she let it slide. Everyone had their quirks, she supposed. It could be worse.

Soft mood music reached her ears as they came upon a burly man in a black shirt that Hinata was sure was three sizes too small for his frame. He stood before a door with his arms crossed. A bodyguard, Hinata surmised.


"Thousand ryo for the show," the bodyguard said, talking to Deidara. He then noticed Hinata trailing behind Deidara and frowned. "Who's she?"

"Huh? Oh, her." Deidara grabbed Hinata by the elbow and manhandled her forward. "Uh, she's with me. Wants to see the show, yeah."

The bodyguard looked suspicious, and Deidara stepped on Hinata's foot hard.

"O-Oh! Yes, the show. I, um, like the dancing..." Hinata said.

Deidara shoved a few bills toward the guard (a lot more than two thousand ryo, if Hinata's eyes were not lying to her), and the guard relented. The pair walked into the main room and Deidara finally released Hinata.

"What was that?" she asked, rubbing her abused elbow.

"Chicks don't really come here. He probably thinks you're kinky or something, yeah."

Hinata flushed radiantly, but the red lighting masked it completely. "He thinks I'm what?"

Deidara ignored her and looked around. "There, that's our guy. C'mon."

He made a beeline for the bar, and Hinata followed. On the way, she took a moment to note their surroundings. Naked women danced on poles upon a raised stage that extended into the audience. Small tables lined the stage where patrons (all men) sat to enjoy the show. The wall opposite the stage was a line of doors, all closed. Men and women came in and out of the doors, and Hinata did not have to think too hard to guess at what the purpose of those rooms was. Instead of dwelling, she hurried after Deidara, who was already at the bar and talking to the bartender. Miraculously, he already had a drink in his hand.

"I think he's in the back," the bartender said as Hinata drew up to the bar.

"Get him. It's kinda important, yeah," Deidara said, taking a sip of his drink.

The bartender, a greasy man with slicked blond hair, glasses, and black V-neck deeper than any Hinata had seen in her life, appraised her when she joined Deidara at the bar. "Who's the broad?"

"My sister," Deidara said.

Hinata actually gaped at him.

"...Right," the bartender said. "Can I get you somethin' to drink, little lady?"

Hinata was still shocked by Deidara's totally unbelievable answer to say anything, and she automatically accepted the glass he'd been drinking from when he slid it toward her without a word.

"She's got one. Your boy, Shimao. Now."

The bartender gave Hinata one last suspicious look before disappearing through a door to a back room. Hinata eyed the drink Deidara had passed her.

"...Your sister?"

"Half-sister, yeah."

"I don't think he believed you."

"Like I give a shit. Drink the whiskey and keep a lookout."

Hinata frowned and pushed the drink away, but she did take the opportunity to look around. Besides the guard at the door where they'd come in, there were two more guards on either side of the stage, one at the end of the bar, and another near a door Hinata suspected was the main entrance. They were all big, probably civilians on steroids. She discreetly activated her Byakugan and used it to look around behind her without turning around. There were a few patrons at the tables by the stage, some of whom had distinct chakra signatures. It was impossible to tell, but they could be staged here as customers waiting for someone to cause trouble the civilian guards couldn't handle. A look behind the bar revealed several life forces, a few of whom were distinctly shinobi. The bartender was talking to someone. Satisfied with her sweep, Hinata released her bloodline limit and leaned toward Deidara to recount her findings.

"Bet those assholes work here. I got a feeling this isn't gonna be a cakewalk. Hope you're ready to mess up that pretty hair, yeah."

Shortly after, the bartender returned. "I'm sorry, sir, but Shimao isn't in tonight. Vacation. You can try back next week."

Hinata sensed Deidara's next move before her made it. The laughter gave him away. Faster than Hinata could blink, Deidara had the bartender by the collar and yanked him across the bar top.

"Let's try that again. Where's Shimao?"

"S-Security!" the bartender shouted.

Hinata noticed some of the shinobi posing as guests and a couple of bodyguards begin to advance.

"Wrong move, asshole."

Hinata feared for the bartender's life in that moment, and so took the opportunity to poke him in the chest with a chakra-laden hand. He seized momentarily before going limp in Deidara's hands. Unconscious, but not dead.

"Damnit, Hinata," Deidara said, releasing him.

Hinata ignored him, instead focusing on the approaching backup. "Um, what now?"

"Now we leave, yeah."

Deidara had already bounded over the bar and was reaching for the door through which the bartender had emerged previously, not waiting for her. Hinata followed as fast as she could, narrowly avoiding a swipe from one of the muscled bodyguards. Once through the back door, Hinata took care to close and lock the door behind them, for all the good it would do. With any luck it would buy them a little time.

"Where is he?" Deidara demanded.

Hinata activated her Byakugan once more, searching for life forces. She found three running away from them and pointed. "Through there!"

Deidara opened the door she'd indicated and ran through, Hinata hot on his tail. The back rooms smelled of vomit and sex, and Hinata tried not to breathe through her nose. They passed by a woman clad in nothing but a T-shirt, passed out on a ripped mattress, but she didn't stir at their passing. Deidara didn't even stop to look as they chased after their target. Hinata felt the need to help her, but she didn't want to be left behind. Sounds of a door being broken somewhere behind her also spurred her forward.

"Which way?" Deidara demanded when they came upon a room with two possible exits.

Hinata followed the life forces they were chasing. "We have to split up. Two went left, one right."

Deidara swore under his breath. "Okay, fine. You go right. Find me when you're done. If yours is Shimao, wait for me, yeah."

He left her before she could answer, a habit of his, as Hinata was fast learning. With little choice unless she wanted to wait for the small army of guards to catch up to her, Hinata sprinted through the door on the right, which ended up leading to a another alley. Her target was running toward the main street. Hinata was not about to let him get away.

Summoning her chakra, she executed her signature vacuum palm to knock him off-balance. He slammed into a nearby dumpster, giving Hinata enough time to catch up to him.

"Hey," she said, approaching but keeping a safe distance. "Are you Shimao?"

"No, no! Not me, I swear!"

Hinata blinked, her muscles relaxing at his obvious display of fear. "I don't want to hurt you, but I'm looking for Shimao..."

"You got the wrong guy, lady!"

Hinata nodded. Perhaps she should go back and find Deidara now that she knew this wasn't their target. While she was thinking on what to do next, however, the cornered man lashed out suddenly with a jet of water. Hinata slammed into the brick wall behind her, not having expected this surprise attack.

"Stupid bitch. Die!"

Hinata gasped, her Byakugan picking up on the enemy shinobi's movements in time to help her avoid them. He fought with water jutsu, as her dripping clothes could attest to. Not wanting to take any chances, Hinata adopted the traditional stance for the sixty-four palms technique. The enemy ninja rushed her, just as anticipated, and Hinata lashed out. Two strikes, then four, then sixteen. The guy didn't even know what had hit him. He stumbled, and blood dribbled from his mouth. The final thirty-two strikes were lightning fast, and Hinata boldly stepped forward to jab the enemy shinobi over his heart. His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the pavement in a heap.

Hinata panted lightly and hovered over her opponent. He lay unmoving on the ground, and even her Byakugan detected no signs of breathing. Good enough. She decided to search for Deidara.

They'd lead him to the forest, for which Deidara was grateful. Here, he could stretch his wings and wreak havoc. Idiots. He made a mental note to tell Itachi one day that his informers were severely incompetent.

When the earth rose under his feet and sent him flying into a tree, Deidara wondered if perhaps he'd spoken too soon.

"So it's true. Sato wasn't bullshitting."

Deidara pulled himself up and caught sight of two figures watching him. The one who'd spoken grinned.

"I assume you're looking for me. I'm Shimao. And you're going to be in a lot of trouble when Itachi-sama hears about this."

Against his better judgment, Deidara recalled the day Itachi had coerced him into joining Akatsuki. The memory enraged him. Not again.

"I'm gonna enjoy blowing you to pieces. You're forgetting that I was Akatsuki. You're insignificant compared to me, yeah."

"There are two of us and only one of you. And we know the terrain better," Shimao said.

"Like that's gonna help you!"

Deidara tossed two clay birds toward Shimao and his partner, who dove to avoid them. Walls of earth rose to protect Shimao, but Deidara's bomb decimated them. Shimao himself escaped unscathed.

"Deidara," a voice called.

Deidara didn't look at Hinata, instead focusing on the two enemies moving in the distance.
"Is he dead?"


"Good. Now it's their turn, yeah."

Deidara lay his hands flat on the ground. These lackeys didn't appreciate with whom they were dealing, so he'd show them what it meant to underestimate true art. Explosive chakra seeped through the soil like little rivers, enriching the soil and collecting in pockets around the area.

"Giving up already?" Shimao called. "I'll be happy to bring you in myself. Akatsuki will reward me for my loyalty."

Deidara chuckled. "Yeah, by relieving you of your head. Can't have the spies gettin' greedy, yeah."

Shimao did not like that comment. "Fool. What would you know? You betrayed the organization!"

Deidara stood, satisfied with his trap. "Best decision I ever made. Now, come down from that tree and fight or I'll come after you myself, yeah."

"Then come get me, traitor!"

Deidara scowled. Shimao and his partner were hiding among the trees somewhere, and in the darkness it was hard to see where.

"Um, one is about sixty feet away, two o'clock," Hinata said.

Deidara caught sight of the Byakugan. Well, perhaps it had been a wise move bringing her along. She was useful.

"And...the other is further back to the right."

"I'm going for that piece of shit over there," Deidara said, stepping forward. "Wait here and don't move, yeah."

"Deidara, I want to question Shimao, please."

"Yeah, yeah." He turned away from her, but after a moment's hesitation he added, "Watch your step, princess."

Deidara took off after Shimao in the direction Hinata had indicated while she stayed behind. She'd stay perfectly still if she knew what was good for her. The landmines Deidara had planted extended in all directions. If she stepped on one, she'd lose a leg.

As Deidara closed in on his prey, the whistling sound of flying kunai drew his attention skywards. Diving to the side to avoid being gouged to death, Deidara threw a small clay bird in the direction of the assault. A tree when up in flames and sawdust in the ensuing explosion, but he had a feeling Shimao wasn't dead yet.

"Eat this!"

Deidara turned at the sound of Shimao's voice behind him—the bastard must have made a clone at some point. The solid earth beneath Deidara's feet turned viscous as Shimao attempted to create a giant sinkhole and pull Deidara under. Deidara grinned and brought a hand up in a Tiger seal.


The sinkhole exploded with a flash of light and heat. Stinking mud and mulch launched high into the sky, taking Shimao along for the ride. In the distraction of admiring his handiwork, Deidara was a little slow in detecting the danger from Shimao's partner. But before he could change gears and swat the offender aside, Hinata appeared out of nowhere and rammed the other shinobi hard enough to send him flying into a nearby tree.

Deidara could make out the menacing head of a lion enveloping her fist like a blue specter. For a moment, he was actually surprised and even a little irritated. "Hey, how the hell did you avoid my landmines?"

"Oh, I can see them. The chakra, that is. I just, well, I went around them."

Deidara suddenly remembered his fight with Uchiha Sasuke and how the boy had claimed to be able to see Deidara's chakra even under layers of earth. Those damned Sharingan eyes had thwarted Deidara time and again. Perhaps Hinata's Byakugan had similar properties. It would explain how she could track people when Deidara could not. Perhaps he could use this in his favor.

"All right, princess. Let's dance."

Hinata was about to respond when a great blast of fire forced her to jump to safety. Deidara leaped to the side as well, and where the jet of flames hit the earth, a landmine exploded. Some distance away, Hinata landed without issue and searched for the enemy. Deidara prefered a more direct approach.

Breaking off a sizeable hunk of clay, Deidara weaved among his planted mines, molding furiously. The rain of fire intermixed with various sharp weaponry followed his dash, but it was easily avoidable. Once finished, he tossed the undulating mass of clay into the air, where it split into tens of moving parts. With a wave of his hand, the particles morphed into tiny birds and zipped off in all directions. Miniature explosions tore apart the canopy overhead, and Deidara had to take care not to be hit by falling debris. Nearby, Hinata gasped and rolled out of the way of a falling branch thicker around than she was. Deidara joined her and they waited.

The smokeout worked.

Through the ruined canopy, the light of the moon and stars illuminated the battleground. Shimao and his partner had fallen to the ground several yards apart. Hinata attempted to approach them, but Deidara stopped her with an arm.

"Not so fast. Sit back and enjoy the show."

"The show?"

"My art," Deidara said, grinning as Shimao and his partner slowly got to their feet. "It's a real blast, yeah."

"Your aim is shit," Shimao spat. "You didn't kill either of us with that racket. Kato, let's finish them now."

Kato, Shimao's partner, nodded and ran toward Deidara and Hinata. It was then that Hinata understood what Deidara meant to happen and she gasped, pushing against his arm. Deidara held her back, teeth bared in anticipation of the brilliant performance about to unfold.

With a wave of his free hand for dramatic effect, Deidara said, "Katsu!"

He could see the whites of Kato's eyes in the split second before the explosion, a nice touch. Raw energy burst from the earth beneath Kato's feet and in the immediate vicinity, sending chunks of rock and soil skyward like raised hands reaching for the stars. Kato spun in a vortex of light, heat, and sound. The crunch of bone was music to Deidara's ears when Kato lost an arm, then a leg, and another arm. They dissolved in the eye of the blast, the blood and tissue hissing and evaporating until Kato's physical vessel became the explosion itself. All this took place in the span of half a second, a fleeting moment of pure, raw energy and light. Perfect in its imperfection. In the blink of an eye, Deidara had transformed Kato into a medium of artistic expression.

"Brilliant!" Deidara said, replaying the scene over and over again in his mind as Kato's ashes fell to the earth. He turned to Hinata. "Did you see it? You saw it, right?"

Hinata stared, wide-eyed, at the spot where Kato had been standing only moments before the landmine blew him to smithereens. "I..."

Deidara laughed, ecstatic. He could see the awe in her eyes, the fear and respect for a power she didn't understand. But there was time. It was his job as a performer to wow his audience, and he was only getting warmed up. Shimao, too, looked on in horror. Deidara felt light as a feather with their attention fully on him, waiting for the grand finale.

"And now for you, yeah," Deidara said, pointing at Shimao. "What was that you were sayin' about a homefield advantage?"

Shimao took a small step back but stopped himself. Apparently, he got the message that the whole place was rigged with explosives. "Y-You're a monster! There aren't even any pieces of him left!"

"I know. It was beautiful, don't you think so?"

Shimao looked like he wanted to run away, but the threat of death by pulverization kept him glued to his spot.

"Now, before I finish you off, you're gonna tell me who else knows about me, yeah."

Shimao shook his head, and Deidara noticed he'd started crying. "N-No one, I swear!"

"That so? But I know Itachi, and I know he's the type to have ten backup plans. Even he's not dumb enough to put all his trust in just you and Sato, yeah."

Shimao fell to his knees and Deidara stopped a couple feet from him. "Please, I'm not lying. I haven't even been able to get in touch with Itachi-sama yet! He... No one knows you're alive!"

"Deidara, our deal," Hinata said from some distance away.

Deidara sighed and formed a Tiger seal. "Sorry, princess, but the show must go on."

"No, not like this," Shimao said.

There was a cracking sound, and Shimao began to shake. He squeezed his eyes shut and grunted, as if in pain. Deidara's good mood flew out the window as he realized what had just happened.

"Son of a bitch," he said, grabbing Shimao by the collar and shaking him hard. "You goddamned coward!"

Shimao hung limp in Deidara's grasp, unresponsive. Furious, Deidara threw Shimao's body onto the ground. Hinata rushed to the scene and crouched next to Shimao's body.

"He's dead," she said, incredulous. "But how—"

"Cyanide pill," Deidara said, clenching his fists in an attempt to calm down.

Hinata was silent for a moment, and Deidara was just fine with that. He crouched down and forced the chakra he'd released into the earth earlier to dissipate with all the enthusiasm of a child who'd just been denied dessert.

Hinata rose and looked down over him as he finished. "I was supposed to question him," she said, voice trembling. "And now he's dead."

"Perceptive." Deidara finished his task and rose up to his full height, a good few inches taller than Hinata. "Them's the breaks, princess. Least he won't be talkin' to anyone else now, either."

He attempted to walk away, but Hinata grabbed his wrist.

"But we had a deal."

"Yeah, we did, but that guy didn't." Deidara pointed at Shimao's corpse.

Hinata squeezed her eyes shut, warring with herself over something. Deidara observed, curious. What would she do now?

"Then... Then if I can't ask him about Akatsuki, you tell me," she said, meeting Deidara's eyes. "You owe me that much, I think."

Deidara yanked his wrist free of her grasp, frowning. "Hey, that's not really what we agreed on. 'Sides, I'm in a shitty mood now if you couldn't tell, yeah."

Once again, he attempted to walk away but Hinata pulled him back by the wrist again. Deidara had been expecting that, though, and swung around face her. His free hand was spread flat, the mouth on his palm drooling a bit as it wagged its pink tongue. A small ball of exploding clay was stuck fast in the appendage. A warning.

"Stop that," he said.

To Deidara's surprise, Hinata did not flinch under his intimidation tactic. The only sign of her trepidation was a small tremble in her lower lip, which Deidara could only make out due to their close proximity.

"Then stop ignoring me," she said, holding her head high. "I need information. That's why I helped you, so..." She released her grip on his hand and reached for one he'd shoved in her face, slowly lowering it. "So please."

There was something very odd about Hinata, Deidara decided. One minute she was fumbling over her words or crying in front of her father, and the next she was manhandling an S-class criminal mastermind like it was her day job. He'd thought he'd had her all figured out, but now he wasn't so sure.

"Fine. You wanna know about the big, bad wolves? I know more than those sissies, anyway. But I need a drink. Tonight was such a mess, yeah."

When he turned and walked away from her this time, she didn't reach for him. She wasn't even following him. Sighing, Deidara looked back at her over his shoulder.

"You coming, princess? Gotta have you home by midnight or you'll turn into a pumpkin, so get moving."

Hinata said nothing, but she trailed after him back into town.

The last time Hinata was in a bar with Deidara, they'd ended up being chased out by security guards. This bar was nothing like the club from earlier, though. It was a hole in the wall, inconspicuous when viewed from the street. Unlike the Akatsuki bar, this one was mostly stone, almost rustic. Yūgakure was an old town and not much had changed since the early days, including the crumbling walls and faded paintings that did a poor job of hiding the deterioration. There were a few other patrons, and everyone seemed to be minding their own business. Deidara chose a booth cut directly into the wall toward the back and took a seat opposite Hinata. A small oil lamp sat between them. The stone seat was cool against Hinata's skin, and right now she welcomed the chill.

They said barely a word to each other until the waitress brought their drinks (Deidara had taken the liberty of ordering for her before Hinata could get a word in edgewise). Once they were left alone, Deidara downed the whiskey he'd ordered in one gulp while Hinata stared, wondering if this was really such a good idea after all.

"So, um, about Akatsuki," she began, warming her drink between her hands.

"You know, this is kinda weird if you think about it," Deidara cut in. He crossed his arms on the table and leaned toward her a bit. "You're here practically in the middle of nowhere with, well, me, and you're not scared. Some people might call you stupid, yeah."

Hinata pressed her lips together. "I prefer to think of it as strategic. I mean, it's not every day I have the opportunity to talk to an ex-Akatsuki."

Deidara laughed. "You are weird."

Hinata wasn't sure how to respond to that. "That's your opinion and you're entitled to it."

"Lighten up, will you? Life's too short to be so formal and uptight all the time, yeah."

Lighten up? She just watched him kill a man in probably the most gruesome manner she'd ever seen in her life. Hinata had not lived long, but as a shinobi death was familiar to her, as was humiliation. This was something else entirely.

"About earlier," she said, trying to find the right words for it. "With Kato, I mean."

Deidara's lazy expression suddenly lit up. "What a sight, huh? You know, you're pretty lucky to have seen it. Most people who get to see my art in action usually end up dead."

A part of Hinata was ready to get up and call this whole charade off. Deidara had issues, to put it mildly. Watching him switch gears so quickly between making jokes about posing as his sister and brutally murdering another person and calling it "art" was a cause for concern. He struck her as unstable, a loose canon. The bad pun made her wince.

Deidara mistook her sour face for disgust. "Listen, you just don't get it. My art is magnificent. Not my fault if people are too ignorant to recognize it, yeah."

"You keep calling it 'art'. Isn't it just, well...murder? The goal was to kill him, after all."

Something in Deidara shifted, and a smile began to bloom. "Kill him? No, no that's not it at all! Here, let me show you..."

He looked around for something, although Hinata wasn't sure what it was. When he found was he was looking for, he made a triumphant 'Ah!' sound and stood from his seat. He didn't go far, only retrieving something from the table next to them and returning with his prize for her to see: a simple, yellow flower.

"Okay, what do you see?"

Hinata wondered if the whiskey had already gone to his head, but she decided it would be prudent to play along for now. "I see a flower."

Deidara sighed dramatically. "No, I mean, what do you see? What does it mean?"

Hinata stared at the dainty thing, frowning. "What do you see?"

Instead of answering, Deidara took her hand and curled her fingers around the flower's thin stem, still damp with water from the vase from which Deidara had plucked it. "I see true beauty."

Hinata watched, transfixed, as he touched the soft petals with his fingers, light and gentle, almost reverent. Like it truly meant something to him.

"Flowers are like living colors, but they only bloom once."

She was so caught up in his words, in the reverence of his tone that she could not find her own voice. He was showing her something special, she realized, something no one else in this room had the privilege to witness. The way he talked about beauty made her heart flutter. After a moment, the hand that had been caressing the flower's petals suddenly closed around it before Hinata could do anything to stop him.

"And then they die, just like that."

When he opened his hand, the flower was crushed and ripped, and some of the torn petals came away with Deidara's hand. Hinata could not look away, fascinated and a little fearful.

"Their lives are a burst of color, and they're gone in a flash. But that one moment of vibrancy is beautiful. It's art. An impression like that is remembered because it's gone so soon, yeah."

Hinata wasn't sure why, but she felt sad. If not for Deidara's other hand still holding hers and the crushed flower's remains, she would have hugged herself for warmth. Looking at him now, she felt hopeless and radiant all at the same time.

"Do you see it?" he asked.

It was the same look he'd given her after he'd blasted Kato, and Hinata truly did not know whether to be frightened or awed. This was Deidara, she realized. She was seeing what he truly was, in all his terrible glory.

Before she could respond, the waitress returned to take their empty glasses and ask if they wanted another round. Deidara released her hand as though she were the plague and frowned at the waitress, but he ordered another round for them anyway. An awkward silence ensued once they were alone again, the previous atmosphere dispelled.

"Does it have to end in death?" Hinata asked, twirling the ruined flower in her fingers and not looking at Deidara. She thought about Kato and the countless others Deidara had probably killed in his life. Of the people she herself had killed, and of those she would kill in the future.

"Death makes life worth living."

They watched each other for a long time, and the more time passed the more Hinata wondered what had happened to Deidara to make him like this. She wondered: if he could still find beauty in life, didn't that mean he wasn't a monster like Shimao had said? She wasn't sure.

"You wanted to know about Akatsuki, right?" he asked, taking a sip of his drink and breaking eye contact.

Hinata's eyes widened, and she nodded. "Yes, that's right. Um..." Where to begin?

Deidara picked up on her hesitation. "Let's start with what you think you know, yeah."

They spent the better part of the night talking about the secret organization that had wrought more pain and suffering upon the people Hinata loved than anyone else. She learned about the organization's goal to collect all the Bijuu in order to hold the world hostage and end all war and strife through fear-mongering. Deidara told her about Akatsuki's eccentric leader, Pein, who was the mastermind behind the group. He told her about the gruesome extraction process that had killed Gaara and others, and how the location of the stored Bijuu was impossible to pin down because it was a summon creature.

"They'll probably come for the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki soon. They have most of the others, already, yeah."

Hinata let her eyes fall, thinking of Naruto. It was unconscionable. There was no way they would take him the way they'd taken Gaara. Now that she thought about it, Deidara had been the one responsible for that. Looking at him now, as he rubbed a finger around the rim of his glass in an attempt to make a ringing sound and making a face when it didn't work the way he wanted, she almost couldn't believe it.

Deidara told her about the other members of Akatsuki. Zetsu, half plant half human. Tobi, slow in the head but possessed of a terrifying power to become incorporeal at will. Konan and Pein, the leaders stationed in Amegakure. Hoshigaki Kisame and his partner, Uchiha Itachi, the latter of whom Deidara seemed to have a particular beef with.

"Um, what happened? With Itachi, I mean," Hinata asked, sipping her drink.

Deidara stared at her like she'd grown another head for a moment. Perhaps he hadn't been expecting her to ask. "He's just a dick. Thinks he's better than me just because he's got those fancy eyes. He mocked my art and forced me to join Akatsuki. I can't stand him, yeah."

Hinata was beginning to understand just how important Deidara's art was to him, as well as the perceived appreciation of it in others. He'd seemed so keen on making her understand, and when he'd asked her if she saw the meaning in it, he seemed hyper-focused on her. To ignore his art or disparage it would be a terrible slight against him, she decided. Perhaps Itachi had made that very mistake.

"Last call," the bartender announced over the din of chatter.

Hinata turned and saw the first rays of sunlight breaching the horizon through the window. She blanched and nearly spilled her drink standing up. "Oh my goodness," she said. "It's so late!"

"Uh, actually, it's pretty early," Deidara said.

Hinata shook her head. "Oh no, I was supposed to be back hours ago. My team is probably so worried."

Deidara laughed. It wasn't like previous times he'd laughed out of spite or cruelty; this was more lighthearted. He was enjoying her squirming, but it wasn't malicious. "Calm down. You're a big girl. Who cares if you stay out late talking to handsome strangers?"

Hinata frowned through a rising blush. "What happened to getting me home by midnight?"

Deidara leaned his chin on an elbow, visible eye half-lidded and lazy. "You didn't turn into a pumpkin in the end. No harm done, yeah."

"I have to go now," Hinata said, sliding out of the booth.

She nearly sprinted out of the bar before remembering their tab. Pausing, she fished out a few bills from her pocket to pay her part of the tab, but Deidara grabbed her wrist before she could set the money on the table.

"Just because I'm a criminal doesn't mean I'm no gentleman, y'know. Run along home now, princess."

Hinata stared at his hand on her wrist, warm and steady, before meeting his gaze one last time. "...Thank you, Deidara."

He released her and she backed away. With a quick bow, she took her leave.

The report to the Hokage had gone better than expected. After parting from Deidara, Hinata returned to the hotel only to find that no one but Shino was there. Everyone was still out following up on various leads. Shino questioned her whereabouts, noting that it wasn't like Hinata to stay out all night, and she worried that he smelled the whiskey on her breath. But when Hinata told everyone about Shimao and they went with her to collect his body later in the day, Shino dropped it. She thanked her lucky stars for the foresight to move Shimao from the site of the battle with Deidara to a back alley near the whorehouse where they'd first encountered him.

The Hokage was interested in much of the mission intel, which consisted not only of Hinata's discoveries but also of some information obtained by Team Gai. It turned out that the Hokage knew some of what Hinata had found out from Deidara already, but the information was still useful.

On the way back to the Hyūga compound, Neji and Hinata walked together in comfortable silence until he asked the question she'd been anticipating.

"How did you find that Shimao character? He seemed to know a lot about Akatsuki."

Hinata stared at her feet trudging along. "I got a tip last time I was in Yūgakure that he might be working with Akatsuki, so, you know. I guess I got lucky."


When they arrived at the compound, Hinata didn't question Neji when he followed her to one of the kitchens for a bite to eat. She suspected he wanted to say something and was waiting for the right moment. She didn't press him.

"About your father," Neji said as Hinata cut up some apples for them to share.

She nicked her thumb with the knife and hissed. Neji took the knife and turned on the warm water for her use. Hinata let the water run over the wound while she applied pressure to it. Once satisfied, she wrapped a small washcloth around it until she could bandage it properly.

"It's fine," she said finally. "Father means well... I just need to remember that."

"It's not fine," Neji said, keeping his voice low. "Even the Hokage thinks you're ready for Jōnin. Hiashi-sama may mean well, but he has a poor way of showing it. You are shinobi just as much as your sister and I are."

Hinata let her eyes fall. "What would you have me do? Defy him? I can't do such a thing."

Neji sighed. "You'll have to think of something. You are his daughter, too, Hinata-sama. But he won't take you seriously until you take yourself seriously."

Hinata gaped at her cousin, shocked by his audacity. He rarely spoke so forcefully, so this must have been grating at him something terrible. She immediately felt badly for making him suffer like this.

"Neji, I'm sorry for making you worry. I just..."

Neji shook his head. "I will always be on your side. Just say the word, and I'll help you reclaim what's yours. When you're ready."

He took his leave and Hinata could not find the words to stop him. She thought about what he'd said, baffled. She'd resigned herself to Hanabi's ascension when the time came, ever the obedient daughter. There seemed to be little else she could do for her father besides. But Neji's conviction shook her to the core, and she let herself wonder: was there a possibility that her fate was not yet decided? Did others feel the same way?

She gathered up the pieces of apple Neji hadn't eaten and took them to her room to consume in private. But first, she made her way to the bathroom to bandage her cut finger. Bright blood dripped from the laceration onto the pristine white of her sink when she removed the towel. She was suddenly reminded of Deidara and what he'd said to her.

"Do you see it?"

She winced at the sting of iodine on the raw wound and watched as the abused flesh bubbled with disinfectant before wrapping it up. It still throbbed a bit even when she'd finished. And she decided that no, she did not see it. Tiny blots of red seeped through the tight bandages, little kisses fighting for air. Brilliant color. But all she could see was the pain.

She saw Deidara in Yūgakure twice more. They'd managed finally to hunt down the rest of the Sato's underlings who'd been privy to Deidara's existence. Still, he was paranoid that Itachi may have caught wind of him in the interim.

"He's a slick bastard, that one. Uchihas are the worst, yeah."

"I'm guessing you didn't like Sasuke much better..."

Deidara made a sour face. "Fucking prick. Worse than his brother, if you ask me. At least Itachi had the decency not to be dick on purpose."

Hinata had told Deidara that Sasuke's status was currently unknown. Many suspected he'd died in the fight against Deidara, actually. Others swore he was just recovering, biding his time. Naruto was among them. Hinata remembered him announcing to the other rookies recently that Sasuke would never die before he killed Itachi, that he simply could not die until then. Hinata wasn't sure what to believe, and she voiced as much to Deidara.

"Che, there's no way he survived my ultimate art. Oh man, you shoulda seen it. It was my greatest masterpiece, yeah."

Deidara had then proceeded to weave a colorful tale of how he'd gotten the idea for his ultimate art and its unveiling in the fight against Sasuke. Hinata had listened intently, as always, drawn in by Deidara's enthusiasm and passion. She wondered how he could stand it.

"How do you do it?"

Deidara frowned. "Do what?"

"Live like you do...with so much passion. It's so..." She trailed off and bit her lip, searching for the right words. "It's like you're on fire."

Deidara caught her gaze, and Hinata knew she would never forget his expression in that single moment for as long as she lived.

"I don't know any other way to live."

She'd almost wanted to cry at his raw sincerity, like he had no idea what it was to hit a glass ceiling and lose all hope. But as soon as she thought it, Hinata hated the idea. How could anyone justify giving up when Deidara had faced Death itself and clawed his way back to the surface?

One day, Hinata woke up and realized he'd become important to her.

Deidara was like a natural disaster. He wrought havoc wherever he went, and amidst the wreckage he had the power to rebuild something beautiful. Hinata had never known someone like him before. He found creation in destruction, life in the midst of death. Hope in despair. Simply being around him made her feel like she could be doing so much more, that there simply was more.

He wasn't perfect. He'd done unspeakable things, and no matter his reasons they were still his sins to carry forever. He was eccentric, perhaps a bit mad. Others saw his genius as a curse, a plague that brought ruin on everything he touched. But they turned their backs before they saw the new life that grew out of that very ruin.

Deidara was chaos personified. Unpredictable, unreliable, unstable. He was a new adventure, the space between heartbeats. Adrenaline. Sometimes Hinata wanted to smack him (she had, on several occasions), and other times she wanted hold his hand if only to prove to him that she was still there with him. She couldn't view him as a friend for all he'd done and all he was bound to do (chaos is friend to none). But he wasn't an enemy, either.

This made her decision all the more difficult when she returned to her room one night after a meeting with the Hokage about the upcoming Jōnin exams to find him there sitting on her bed.

"Deidara!" she said, shocked that she could even produce coherent speech in the face of such a surprise.

He looked up at her and smirked. A deep gash stretching from the corner of his visible eye to his chin stretched and leaked blood through clotted cracks. "Hey."

Hinata locked her door and rushed to his side. "What happened? You're hurt..."

"You should see the other guy, yeah."

She wanted to smack him for being smart at a time like this. Like it wasn't a big deal that a former Akatsuki was in her room. In the Hyūga compound. In Konoha.

"Before you start giving me hell, you got anything to drink? The stronger the better."

Hinata wanted to be angry, but she was worried about his wounds. There were rips in his shirt obscuring ugly lacerations, crudely wrapped and bleeding a little. Whatever he'd been through, it wasn't pleasant.

Taking a deep breath she said, "Stay quiet. If you're found, they'll probably take you to prison."

"They'll do worse than that, princess."

Hinata chose not to respond to that and hastened to procure a first aid kit. She locked him in her room while she ran to the supply room where her family kept basic medical equipment. On her way back, she passed the kitchen and paused. After a short internal debate, she caved and raided the liquor cabinet. There was a bottle of whiskey that hadn't been opened yet, so she grabbed it and returned to her room.

"Here," she said, handing Deidara the bottle. "There's a glass on the nightstand if you want."

"Aged twenty-two years, huh? It's older than I am, yeah."

"Um, is that bad?"

Deidara laughed. "You're cute."

Hinata blushed, but she remembered her previous anger at his being here. "Anyway, please hold still while I disinfect that cut," she said, indicating his face.

Deidara was mostly silent while Hinata worked on him. She was no medic, but she was trained in basic field first aid, as were all shinobi. She disinfected his wounds, which required him to remove his shirt. She tried to ignore the ingrained modesty that made her flush at the sight of his bare flesh. She was almost thankful that it was badly lashed and discolored to give her something to focus on. A few pokes and colorful strings of swear words out of Deidara led Hinata to conclude that he had a few broken ribs underneath the minced flesh. Nothing seemed to be too out of place, however, so she thought they might only be hairline fractures.

One thing Hinata noticed while Deidara's shirt was off were the thick stitches binding his arms to his shoulders. She traced them with a finger, curious.

"Kakuzu," he said. "Got my arms ripped off fighting some of your friends awhile back, and Kakuzu sewed 'em back on, yeah."

Hinata caught his eye, thoughtful. "I'm sure you deserved it."

Deidara grinned. "I'm sure I did."

She patched him up as best she could and gave him some spare clothes to change into. Then, she helped him to the bathroom to clean up. It was strange seeing his reflection in her bathroom mirror, like the two of them together took up all the space in her small bathroom. Cramped. But she said nothing and let him clean up in peace.

While he was busy, she laid out a futon on the floor for herself so that Deidara could have the bed. All the while, she waged an internal war with herself. Her sanity was steadily losing to her emotions as she smoothed out the futon and made arrangements for Deidara. When he finally emerged from the bathroom and slowly made his way back to the sleeping quarters, Hinata rose from the floor.

The soft peach coloring of her room combined with the muted lamplight made him look taller than he was. In the loose, plain clothes she'd given him, he looked fairly normal and unthreatening. His hair was down, and Hinata absently noted that it was almost as long as hers.

"Think I got all the blood outta my hair, yeah."

"Why are you here, Deidara?"

"Maybe I was lonely."

Hinata had not been expecting that, and it showed.

"Relax. I was in the neighborhood and not feeling too hot, obviously. I don't need long, yeah."

She frowned, a little irritated that he'd teased her like that. It was a habit of his. Most of the time, Hinata wasn't sure if he was really joking or not.

"...What happened?"

Deidara leaned some of his weight against her dresser. "Shark attack."


"It's not important." He paused for a moment and itched the bandages on his face. "Akatsuki knows I'm alive."

"What? How?" After all their efforts, was it all for naught?

"You know me. I'm not the most discreet guy in the world, yeah."

Word had recently reached Konoha of Itachi's death at Sasuke's hands. Hinata had thought that with Itachi gone, Deidara would have no further reason to be wary of Akatsuki. It seemed none of that mattered now.

"...What will you do?"

Deidara shrugged. "Recover. Probably go into hiding again. I dunno, I hate planning. I think I'll wing it."

"You don't seem too worried..."

Deidara sighed. "Life's too short to worry about useless shit, yeah."

He was upset. Hinata knew him well enough now to know that. For some reason, Deidara always felt the need to put on a tough guy front. He was still scratching idly at the bandages on his face. She slowly approached him and caught his hand in hers to stop the scratching. He let her.

"All right," she said, dropping the subject. "You should sleep a little. You're, um, probably very tired."

Deidara didn't pull away from her and he didn't break eye contact. It was like he didn't have any words for her. He just nodded and let her lead him to her bed. He'd never been so silent around her, and it scared her. Something was very wrong, and she didn't want to antagonize him by prying more right now. That could at least wait until he was rested.

"Um, try to rest, okay? We can talk tomorrow."

Deidara got into bed, wincing as he lay down and disturbed his injuries. Hinata moved the bottle of whiskey and the empty glass to her nightstand, then turned out the light and settled into the futon on the floor. Silence stretched on, and Hinata listened the faint sounds of Deidara's and her breathing as it lulled her to sleep. Vaguely, she realized she was falling asleep not three feet away from a criminal. But he wouldn't hurt her. He'd already done enough to gain her trust and confidence.

"Thanks, Hinata."

She thought she'd dreamed it, but she wasn't yet asleep. She tried to see Deidara through the darkness, but she couldn't make him out. Biting her lip, Hinata turned over and closed her eyes.

"You're welcome, Deidara."

This was one of those rare times when Hinata thanked her lucky stars that she'd been born into a wealthy clan that valued privacy above all else. She and Hanabi shared an entire wing of the compound, and no one ever ventured into Hinata's private rooms without her permission. The likelihood of Deidara's presence being discovered was low as long as he behaved himself.

It was a tough call letting him recuperate here. If they were caught, it would mean both their heads. But she could not turn him away when he seemed to need her assistance. His injuries didn't look bad to the naked eye, but he had difficulty walking on his own. Whatever he'd been through had taken the life out of him. Surely, she could let him recover for a bit before sending him on his way for both their sakes.

Deidara's injuries weren't the only thing ailing him, however. She'd caught him watching her, curious, a couple times now. It seemed like he wanted to say something to her, but he wasn't able or ready. She knew him well enough to know Deidara always said exactly what was on his mind, so his struggle was alarming. She only hoped whatever it was wouldn't be too awful, but something told her that was wishful thinking.

"I brought you lunch," Hinata said.

She walked across her room with a tray in hand bearing sandwiches and sliced fruit. Deidara was lying on her bed with an arm shielding his eyes from the light filtering through a skylight overhead. Even shirtless, he was nearly covered in bandages. She had applied homemade salves to his skin beneath the wrappings to speed along the healing process. At the sound of her voice, he shifted and sat upright. Hinata winced, knowing that must have hurt. Deidara didn't even make a face.

"Did your servants make this?" he asked, accepting the tray and settling it on his lap.

Hinata frowned. She pulled up a chair from her desk to sit across from him. "I'm perfectly capable of doing this much."

"So you like gettin' your hands dirty, hm?"

She wasn't sure why, but Hinata felt a tickle of embarrassment at his words. It was silly. Much of what Deidara said was silly. She ignored the feeling. "I guess if you mean I like cooking, then yes."

He ate quickly and they lapsed into comfortable silence. Hinata studied him. He looked exhausted, maybe a little gaunt. The bandages didn't help much in that respect. He was scratching at them again even though she'd specifically told him not to. She was about to procure a fresh change and redo some of them when something caught her eye.

"Um, is that a tattoo?"

Deidara swallowed a strawberry and followed her gaze to a spot over his heart. Black swirls snaked past the lines of zigzagging bandages. "Oh, that. Not really."

She was about to ask for clarification when he ripped of the bandages concealing the markings. Hinata gasped.

"Wait! You can't just—"

He ignored her. There was no telling Deidara what he could or could not do. She would merely waste her breath. When the wrappings fell free enough to reveal the marking, Hinata stared at it with unabashed curiosity. It reminded her of a target, or perhaps an intricate seal. A jagged scar bisected it, as though his heart had been cut out with a rusty knife. Fascinated, Hinata reached out a hand and traced the scar with her fingers. Deidara grabbed her hand, startling her.

"I-I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean, um..." Hinata bit her lip. "Where did you get this scar?"

Deidara watched her closely, his expression unreadable. "It's from a kinjutsu I used to blow myself up fighting Sasuke. Didn't work, yeah."

"Oh... Wait, you blew yourself up?"

"Tried to. It was supposed to be my grand finale, no refunds. Whole lotta good it did me in the end, but..." He smiled bitterly. "It was pretty spectacular in the moment. You shoulda seen it, yeah."

Hinata did not doubt that the sight had been spectacular, but she was glad she had not witnessed it. She'd seen what Deidara's bombs could do on a small scale, but to use himself as a medium? It was hard to believe he and Sasuke had both survived that experience.

"It looks like someone ripped your heart out," she said softly.

His lips parted in shock, but after a moment he pressed her palm flat against the scar and the markings outlining it. His skin was warm to the touch, the uneven roughness of the scar standing out against her palm.

"No," he said. "It's still there."

It beat steady and strong as he breathed, the sensation reverberating in her fingertips. Each pulse was a tiny explosion of life, each short and unrecoverable, but he continued to breathe. Hinata had never felt so fragile than she did in that moment, listening to life slip steadily away. One day it would be gone for them both, for everyone she knew. But it was real and warm now, under her fingertips. For a moment, Hinata felt like she understood a little of what made life so beautiful.

"Hello?" Deidara said.

Hinata blinked and pulled her hand away. He let her.

"Sorry, I just got lost in thought."


She let him finish his lunch while she pondered over their situation. "Deidara?"


"Is there... Do you have something on your mind?"

He scratched at the bandage on his cheek. "Why d'you ask?"

"Well, you just, um, you've been giving me these weird looks. I thought maybe something was bothering you."

"I just got somethin' in my eye, yeah."

When he didn't look like he would elaborate, Hinata shook her head and rose. She reached for his tray to take it back to the kitchen, but his words stopped her.

"You're not gonna like what I have to say."

"...Why not?"

A knock on the door made Hinata jump and nearly drop the tray. "Hinata-sama?" a woman's voice said. "I beg your pardon, but Neji-san is waiting on you for training. He sent me to find you."

Hinata could have kicked herself. The clock on her dresser showed that she was already ten minutes late for training with her cousin. She knew he was already busy enough as a Jōnin, and she felt terrible for making him wait.

"I'll be right out. Please give him my apologies. I won't be long."

The maid excused herself and her footsteps faded down the hall.

"Run along, princess. Family calls."

Hinata shook her head. "Please stay quiet. I'll be back as soon as I can."

She didn't make it back until late at night. Leaving Deidara alone all day hadn't been her intention, and with each passing minute Hinata worried something awful had happened. It was paranoia, of course (Deidara was a professional assassin, and despite his penchant for flashiness, he knew how to stay hidden when he wanted to). She was relieved to finally make it back to her room regardless. Kiba and Shino had come over to join the training with Neji, and then the former Team 8 had spent time just relaxing together and talking about the upcoming Jōnin exams. Hinata didn't have the heart to tell them of her father's opposition to the ordeal.

Treading lightly so as not to wake Deidara, Hinata unlocked her door and tiptoed inside. Once safely inside, she made a beeline for the bathroom to shower. All the while, Deidara said not a word. She assumed he was asleep. Later, when she was clean and ready for bed, Hinata approached her bed to pull out the futon from underneath it.

"Y'know, there's no way any woman would fall for Hiro," Deidara said. "I mean, not a real woman. He's a fucking train wreck, yeah."

It took a moment for Hinata to get what he was talking about. "...Did you read my romance novels?"

The bed squeaked as Deidara sat up in the dark. "There's nothin' else to do cooped up in here."

It was so absurd that she had to laugh. "I can't believe you got through the end. It's a bit silly."

"Understatement of the century. You think that's really what it's like? It's not."

Hinata laughed again. "Okay, then what's it really like?"

She realized too late that she'd just asked Deidara what it was like to be in love.

"Um, never mind."

"Dunno," Deidara said. "No time, no interest."

"Oh..." That was a little bit sad. "Not even a crush?"

"What am I, four?" He scowled. "It wouldn't be worth it if your feelings weren't reciprocated, y'know? Otherwise, it's like bleeding out and no one stopping to help. There's nothing beautiful about that, yeah."

Hinata's eyes fell. She thought about Uzumaki Naruto, the boy she'd been crushing on for almost as long as she could remember. He was a friend, always willing to smile for her just as he would smile for all their other friends. He was like the sun, shining bright and warm for all those within his reach. Everyone loved Naruto, and that was precisely the problem. Everyone was equal in his eyes. His heart was too big to make room for only one special person. To him, she was just another friend, no more or less precious than the rest. It had always been enough and Hinata was happy, but sometimes she wondered what it would be like to be alone with him in a dark room, just the two of them, talking about silly romance novels and making each other laugh.

"Earth to Hinata," Deidara said.

Hinata blinked and searched for his silhouette through the darkness. "Huh? Oh, sorry. I was just thinking."


She suddenly remembered that they'd been interrupted earlier when she had to dash off to meet Neji. "You were saying earlier that there was something you had to tell me, but I wouldn't like it."

"...Yeah, about that. Just forget it. It's not important."

Hinata frowned. "Oh, but, you sounded troubled. Are you sure?"

Sheets rustled and a few moments passed before Deidara responded. "Go to sleep, princess. Don't wanna skimp on your beauty sleep, yeah."

Hinata wasn't sure what to make of his strange behavior, but it seemed like he wasn't in the mood to talk about it. It was probably for the best; he needed to rest, too.

"...Okay. Goodnight, Deidara."

He didn't respond, and Hinata fell asleep almost as soon as she hit the pillow.

Deidara only stayed for a few days. As soon as he deemed himself well enough to travel, he told her he would be leaving.

"What? But it's only been a few days. You're not well," Hinata protested.

"I blew myself up once. Compared to that, this is a walk in the park, yeah."

They were on the roof the Hyūga compound late at night, and Deidara was busy molding clay for his flight out of Konoha. Hinata had woken in the night to find him missing from bed and tracked him here in her pajamas. The night air was chilly against her bare arms.

"Deidara, wait. You're not ready for travel yet."

He faced away from her toward the perimeter wall in the distance. "If I stick around, Akatsuki'll track me here. Itachi's dead, but there are others. You want 'em to find you?"

Hinata hadn't been expecting that kind of reasoning, and it showed on her face. Deidara scoffed.

"If they get you, there goes my lifeline, yeah."


"Uh, I mean, you know..."

Deidara fumbled over his words, and Hinata got the feeling he was embarrassed. She smiled a little.

"Do you...really think that?"

Deidara growled in frustration and closed the distance between them so he could tower over her at his full height. "You're the only one who knows I'm alive and doesn't want me dead. That's it. Without you, I'd just be alone, yeah."

Hinata had known and accepted for awhile that Deidara had become someone important to her, someone worth protecting. They'd fought back to back many times now, and they'd saved each other. He could have killed her the first time they met, but he decided to take a gamble on her. She'd taken a risk with him, too, and in the end it had paid off. Criminal or not, she could not honestly say that she would do things differently if given the chance. Konoha had gained too much from their partnership. She had gained too much.

"You're not alone," she said. "I, um, I'm happy I know you." She laughed nervously. "It's a little silly, maybe, but I feel stronger now, fighting with you."

Deidara looked down on her in silence for a few moments, and Hinata wondered if he was going to say anything or just leave her hanging like that.

"I saw what happened, y'know. Between you and your father."


"Awhile back, you had a fight with your father about him disinheriting you and not letting you make Jōnin. I was here. I saw it happen, yeah."

Hinata took a step back, head spinning. He wasn't making sense. That conversation had happened months ago. She'd only just met Deidara back then. Understanding, she gasped. "Y-You followed me here? You spied on me? Why would you do that?"

It felt like a violation of privacy even though he'd been under no obligation to her. That was a private moment, a shameful moment not meant to be witnessed by anyone, least of all an outsider.

"Didn't trust you. I wanted to make sure you'd keep my secret. Nothin' personal, yeah."

Hinata's hands shook with anger and outrage. "Nothing personal? That conversation was very personal. How could you do that?"

Deidara frowned. "Hey, it's not like I wanted to overhear. It sorta just happened. Don't get all bent outta shape about it."

Hinata had not been so angry since that very conversation with her father. Without thinking, she reached out and grabbed his shirt front. "This isn't a game. This's my life."

Something snapped in Deidara, and he closed his hands over her balled fists. "No, it is a game, and you're losing big time. What kind of person lets her father walk all over her like that? You're an heir to a fucking throne, and you're letting other people tell you what to do? That's not a life, it's a goddamned race to the bottom, yeah."

Hinata was so shocked that she had trouble forming words. Deidara wasn't finished.

"Look at you. You live in a palace. You're pampered and waited on. People see you walkin' down the street and they stop and look because they know who you are. But one little bump in the road and suddenly you fall apart? Give me a fucking break."

"You don't know anything about it," Hinata said, trying to push him away. "I have nothing. My father made his decision. I can't do anything. I've tried—"

"No, you haven't. Wake up, already. You're on top of the world. All eyes are on you. You know most people fight all their lives to get where you are and fail? When you're on center stage, you damn well better perform or get the hell out. People listen to you because of who you are. They want to listen, and you don't even have to prove anything for that. You know what I'd give to have that kinda power?"

Hinata had never seen him this worked up before. There was a desperation in his expression that gave her shivers, but it wasn't fear. There was passion there, so close and tangible she could almost taste it. He believed every word of what he said, and he was making her believe it, too. But he didn't understand. He didn't know Hiashi. He didn't know the Hyūga and their traditions.

But he knows you, a voice reminded her somewhere in the back of her mind. Isn't that what counts?

"You don't understand," Hinata said, letting her eyes fall. "I don't have your passion or your strength. I'm trapped. I've tried so hard, but it's never been good enough."

Deidara released a sharp breath and pulled her hands free of him. "Whatever. I don't care about your excuses, yeah."

He summoned a clay bird and mounted it, and Hinata realized he was leaving now. No matter their disagreements, she did not want to part on a bad note.

"Deidara, wait, don't leave like this, please," she said, looking up at him.

He lingered for a moment, but her words didn't do much to sway him. "I'll see you later, yeah."

The bird beat its massive wings and rose up. Hinata shielded her eyes from the windburn, and her loose hair flapped about her face. She watched Deidara fly away until he was indiscernible through the darkness.

With Deidara gone, Hinata's life was mostly back to normal. She was sleeping in her own bed again, and she'd disposed of the old wrappings and half-empty medicine jars. Even though she was still a little angry with him over their parting and his harsh words, she hoped he was all right. Deidara could take care of himself, but he was up against a group of the strongest shinobi the world had ever seen. A little concern was merited.

There were times when she would look in the mirror at night and wonder, just hypothetically, if Deidara was right—was she really squandering her destiny by not standing up to her father? What more could she do? Hiashi was the type to make up his mind and never change. Then there was the question of whether she even wanted to be the heiress, to take that away from her sister. Surely, that had to count for something.

But with the excitement of the Jōnin exams, Hinata had had little time to worry about her strange friendship with the ex-Akatsuki. She'd finally confided in Shino and Kiba her father's opposition to her career advancement, and they'd told her this was going too far. Even Shino, who himself came from a very traditional clan and generally understood and respected the Hyūga's rules, found Hiashi's decision to be a bit over the top. It was understandable to worry over the safety of a daughter, but to doubt the evidence of capability when it had been right before his eyes for years?

So they'd made the decision to participate in the exams as a team despite Hiashi's wishes for his eldest daughter. And they'd passed.

"Can you believe it? We're Jōnin! Damn, I think I need a drink to celebrate!" Kiba said.

"Count us in!" Ino said, jogging to join Hinata's group.

Team 10 had also participated in the exams and passed. They were rookies no more.

"An excellent idea, for a change," Shino said.

"Oh! Let's go to that new place. I heard they have great yakiniku!" Chouji said, already leading the way.

Hinata hugged her arms about her middle, the feel of her new Jōnin vest a comfort. Sh couldn't help but smile. She'd done it despite her father's doubts. She was ready, and the proof was plain for anyone to see. A part of her wondered what Deidara would think of her now. Perhaps he'd be proud that she'd done this, but knowing him he'd probably shrug it off. It wasn't such a grand accomplishment to someone who'd once been one of the most notorious criminals on the continent, surely. Still, a small part of her thought he would approve of her taking matters into her own hands.

That evening, Hinata let herself indulge in good food and good company with friends. They'd worked hard for this, and they deserved it. By the time Hinata made it home, the compound was quiet and dark. Most people had already gone to sleep, so she made sure to tread quietly. She did not get far before her father intercepted her.

"Hinata. Let me be the first to congratulate you on your promotion to Jōnin," Hiashi said.

He was seated in his usual spot in the Main House's open-air courtyard. Above, the stars twinkled small but bright. Hinata froze.


Hiashi rose from his seat and walked toward her. He was dressed in his after dinner yukata, relaxed. But there was nothing soft about his expression.

"Father, I can explain," Hinata said.

"I certainly hope so. I'd like to know what reason you had to go behind my back and deliberately disobey me."

Her hands were beginning to shake, as they usually did when Hiashi reprimanded her. But this was different. He was too quiet, almost eerily so. Hinata had not seen him this angry in years.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have gone behind your back."

"No, you should not have. But here we are." He paused, studying his eldest daughter. "I'm ashamed of you, Hinata. If nothing else, I always thought you were obedient. I never dreamed you would act so selfishly."

Hinata was beginning to grow angry. "Selfish? Father, I took the test because I want to do my part to protect Konoha—"

"Your duty is to the Hyūga clan before Konoha. You know that. I am your leader before the Hokage, and you have defied my wishes outright. Do not think I'll overlook this."

Hinata stared at her father, aghast. She'd grown up knowing that family always came first, and she'd never taken issue with that. But this was going too far.

"My becoming a Jōnin brings honor to our family," she said. "There is nothing more noble than serving my country and representing the Hyūga. I thought—"

"No, you didn't think, and that's the problem." Hiashi released a frustrated breath. "You are my daughter, and I told you you weren't ready for Jōnin. You don't know what it's like for Jōnin. This isn't a game, it's your life. And yours is too important to throw away for the village like any other shinobi."

Shock soon became outrage. She could not believe her father's words. "Father, you're saying that all the other shinobi risking their lives for Konoha, for us, are disposable. How can you think such a thing? We're all in this together."

"No, daughter of mine. You're not like those masses; you're an heiress of the Hyūga clan. You will not be squandered as long as I have anything to say about it."

Whatever hesitation Hinata had been feeling up until now disappeared as her emotions and morals fought their way to the surface. She simply could not abide this. "Me, an heiress? You've disinherited me. You've taken my title and my birthright because you believe me weak and frail." Hinata shook her head. "Maybe I am weak. I'm not like Neji or even Hanabi." She looked up and met her father's eyes. "But I've worked hard to improve, and today I proved that I'm strong. I'm a Jōnin of the Leaf, and I'm your daughter. I am strong. Please acknowledge me!"

Hinata had not realized she was shouting, and the racket drew onlookers. Hyūga from both the Main and Branch Houses emerged from their quarters to witness the spat between their leader and his eldest daughter.

"You break my rules, defy me, and now you disrespect me in front of our family. Hinata, I won't hear another word of this."

Hiashi turned around to leave, just as he always did, but something in Hinata snapped at his age-old dismissal. He was always dismissing her, and she'd never had the gall to fight back. The eyes of her family, both close and distant, looked on. All the attention was focused on her, waiting to see what she would do, and Hinata realized that Deidara had been right all along. She was not going disappoint them by failing to play her part. Not this time.

Hinata rushed toward her father and materialized in front of him, cutting off his retreat. In the rush of adrenaline, she'd activated the Byakugan. "Please don't ignore me, Father. I won't let you."

Hiashi was surprised to see this new level of defiance in his usually meek daughter, but he recovered quickly. "I'm sure you don't mean to fight me, Hinata. I'm far stronger than you, and it would not be appropriate."

Hinata's hands shook. She was still hesitating, still wary of standing up to her father. It had never worked before, and there was no reason it should work now. But she'd come this far, and Deidara was right: she was the main attraction here. The audience had come to see her, just as they'd always been watching her. It was time to show them that they'd been waiting for.

"If that's what it takes...then I'll fight you until I convince you I'm worth your time."

Hiashi scowled. "Your insolence is unappreciated. I'm only doing what's best for you."

"Maybe you're wrong," Hinata challenged. "Did you ever think that?"

"I'm your father. I know best."

Hinata shook her head and channeled chakra to her hands. Twin lion fists manifested, their spectral blue extending the length of her forearms and ending in ghastly jaws that gnashed and snarled, ready for blood. "No, you don't!"

Hiashi had only a few seconds to observe this new technique his daughter had developed without his knowledge before he had to dodge its effects. Hinata grazed her father's long hair, singing it before doubling back to regain her balance. Hiashi faced her, his own Byakugan tracing her every movement as he crouched in the traditional pose of their clan's Gentle Step.

"Then I'll teach you a lesson," he said.

Father and daughter clashed as members of their family looked on in anticipation and a little fear. This was highly uncharacteristic behavior for the Hyūga clan leader, and hardly anyone had ever seen Hinata lash out in such a manner. Whispers circulated, some disapproving, others awed and proud. But everyone agreed on one thing: this confrontation was a long time coming.

Hinata twisted to avoid a jab to her solar plexus and made a grab for Hiashi's ankle. She'd seen Deidara do something similar in fight. He tended to fight dirty.

"It's not dirty, it's improvising. If you spend all your time plannin' ahead, you miss what's going on right now, and that's how people end up dead, yeah."

It worked for Hinata now, and Hiashi went down. But he had years of experience on her, so he recovered quickly. Hinata grunted in pain when her father landed a perfect hit to a tenketsu in her shoulder, rendering her right arm useless. But she wasn't finished.

Stumbling backwards from the impact, Hinata focused her energy in her good arm and thrust forward. The lion head opened its maw and roared as it flew forward toward Hiashi. Her newest improvement, a combination of the lion fist and vacuum palm, knocked Hiashi backward into the wooden stairs of the wrap-around porch surrounding the outdoor courtyard.

Hinata's panting was the only sound loud enough to reach her in the ensuing break. None of the onlookers said a word as Hiashi struggled to pull himself up from the split wood. He was favoring his left leg, and Hinata could see blood staining his sleeve. Father and daughter locked gazes, and Hinata held her ground. After the strain of the Jōnin exams earlier and this impromptu fight with her father, she was worse for wear. But she would not give up, not when she'd come this far. Ignoring the pain in her shoulder, Hinata showed her father the palm of her good hand and resumed her fighting stance in case he decided to come after her again.


Neji jogged to Hinata's side, followed closely by Hanabi. Flanked by the two of them, Hinata still held her position. They said nothing as they assessed the situation.

"...I see you've picked up a few new tricks," Hiashi said, wiping his mouth. "I would commend you if you hadn't just destroyed Hyūga property and injured me in the process."

Hinata blinked and released her Byakugan. Her father made no move to resume attacking her.

"Father, I... I should not have disobeyed you," she said. "It was not my intention to dishonor you or the clan. I will atone for my behavior." She gritted her teeth, determined. "But I will not apologize for fighting you now. If... If this is the only way to get your attention, then I don't regret it. I should have done it long ago."

"Hinata-sama..." Neji said, shocked at his younger cousin's audacity.

"I want you to reconsider your decision," Hinata went on. She had to clench her fists to keep her hands from shaking. "Your decision to strip me of my inheritance. I... I don't want to deprive my sister of her right, but I ask for your consideration, that's all."

Beside her, Hanabi remained silent as she watched their father intently. The seconds ticked by in endless succession as everyone waited for Hiashi's response. Above, the half moon offered little light, but it made her father's eyes glow.

"You will receive punishment for your dishonesty," Hiashi said. "...But I'll take your wishes into consideration." After a pause he added, "As a legal Jōnin."

For a minute, Hinata could not believe her ears. But the whispers among the onlookers had intensified to conversation and, even, some cheers of congratulations. Hinata blinked, feeling winded.

"Enough of this. We'll speak on it more in the morning," Hiashi said, turning to head inside.

This time, Hinata did not stop him. Incredulous and lightheaded, she held her head in her good hand and felt like smiling despite her body's pain. Neji and Hanabi each lent her a shoulder for support.

"I'm proud of you," Neji said softly so only Hinata could hear. "I knew you had it in you."

Hinata laughed out loud and felt a few stray tears fall from her eyes. But there was no sadness in them. For the first time in a long time, she felt truly strong.

"Don't wanna let you down, but I am hell bound.
Though this is all for you, don't wanna hide the truth.
No matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.
This is my kingdom come. This is my kingdom come."

It was probably inevitable that Akatsuki got wind of Deidara's existence despite his and Hinata's best efforts to snuff out all traces. The organization had eyes everywhere; there was no hiding from them in the end. Deidara had run into Kisame first and narrowly escaped without getting his head lopped off. That was when he'd sought shelter from the one person he knew would help him: Hinata. It was selfish, reckless even, to put her in Akatsuki's crosshairs, but she had the might of an entire Hidden Village to protect her. He had no one in the world but her.

She also had him, and Deidara swore he would not let his past punish her. This was his crowd to wow, not hers.

As Deidara hovered over the smoking ruins of yet another Akatsuki base he'd decimated on his new warpath, he thought Sasori might be turning in his grave if he could see what had become of Deidara now. The puppet master had always worked against fate and destiny. His art was his to master and perfect, and he answered to no one. But somehow, Deidara felt that all his life he'd been racing faster and faster toward an inevitable conclusion. And instead of fighting it, he chose to meet his destiny on the battlefield. He would bring his best tricks and give them a show to remember.

Somewhere along this new path to destruction, Deidara had found out that Tobi wasn't actually Tobi, but the true mastermind behind Akatsuki. The whole time he'd known the feather-brained idiot, Deidara had had no idea. He spent that night conducting an elaborate sabotage of one of the main Akatsuki bases in Lightning Country. Herding the spies, informants, and hired muscle above ground like cattle, he set off a brilliant chain reaction of incendiary bombs that filled the base's subterranean tunnels with fire. It raced skyward in search of oxygen, bursting through cracks in the earth like molten geysers beneath the feet of the Akatsuki spies. They danced around the fire, in it and among it, their shadows writhing and twisting against the mountain faces all around the box canyon in which the base was located. Above, Deidara spread his arms and basked in their screams, a symphony of praise from a satisfied audience.

"And now, for the curtain call, yeah."

Deidara dropped his signature C3 bomb. The explosion created a beautiful dome of orange fire that swallowed up most of the box canyon and all of the base. Deidara watched it from above, feeling the superheated air on his face like the warm caress of a lover. This was his favorite bomb because it was like creating his own sun that shined just for him. But there was little joy to be had on this night. Tobi had played him for a fool. Akatsuki had bled him of every last drop and given him nothing in return.

Sasori had always impressed upon Deidara never to accept an unequal trade lest he run the risk of incurring a debt he could not repay. But this was one debt Deidara was ready to repay with interest. He would not rest until all of Akatsuki's efforts, their years of blood and sweat and tears, lay in a pile of smoking ash.

But Tobi was no pushover, as it turned out, and once again Deidara was on the run from hunters and hired mercenaries ordered to kill him on sight. Individually they were no great challenge, but they kept coming back no matter how many he exterminated. Tobi meant to run Deidara into the ground until he could run no longer. Then, Deidara expected the killing blow would come slowly and sweetly. He wasn't about to give his old partner the satisfaction. The only way Deidara would go would be with fanfare and fireworks they would talk about for ages, and he would take as many of his spectators with him as possible.

It was during a stopover in Northern Fire Country that Deidara ran into Hinata again. Several months had passed since his brief stint in Konoha, and he'd heard not a word of her condition. No news was good news; Akatsuki had not made the connection between them.

"Fancy running into you here, princess."

Deidara lowered the kunai he held against her throat and gave her some space. Someone had tracked him to an abandoned cabin in the woods a few miles from a nearby settlement, and Deidara planned to make sure they never left. But he hadn't been expecting Hinata, of all people.

"What're you doing here?" he asked, stashing the kunai up his sleeve.

She took a moment to collect herself. She hadn't changed much in the last few months. She wore a standard ninja uniform with a green flak vest and her hair thrown up in a messy bun, like she'd just woken up.

"So it was you. Deidara..." Hinata took his hand in hers and smiled shyly. "I was worried about you."


Deidara didn't pull away. Her hands were rough to the touch but warm. He placed his free hand over hers and let his eyes fall. It suddenly felt like more than a few months since they'd last seen each other.

Hinata shook her head. "The explosions. You've been leaving a trail behind, and I thought... What happened? Why are you doing this?"

Deidara sighed and led her deeper into the one-room cabin. A small fire burned in the stone hearth, the only source of light in the room. He led her to the bed, the only place to sit in the cramped space, and looked her in the eye.

"I've been destroying Akatsuki bases."

Hinata gaped at him. "W-What? Why? They'll figure out you're still alive."

Deidara shrugged. "Why put off the inevitable? I hate hiding, anyway. Was never any good at it, anyway."

"But...what if they find you?"

Deidara grabbed her bun and forced her to look at him. He smirked. "Then I'll give 'em a welcome they'll never forget, yeah."

He released her before she could say anything and walked to the kitchenette across the room. "You want some tea or somethin'?"

A few minutes later, they were seated across from each other, cross-legged and sipping tea. Hinata had removed her flack jacket and boots to get comfortable. She explained that she was part of a scouting mission to investigate the mysterious bombings with three other shinobi, none of whom were the teammates she'd often talked to him about in the past. She hadn't said anything about Deidara's existence, but Konoha had started to put two and two together; not many shinobi used explosives in battle. It made no difference to Deidara, though. Akatsuki already knew he was alive and causing trouble, so things couldn't get much worse. When she told him she'd made Jōnin, he told her it was about damn time.

"Konoha sure likes to baby its shinobi is all I'm sayin'. Life moved a little faster when I was in Iwa, yeah."

"What was it like?"

Deidara gave her a weird look and set his empty cup on the floor. "Why do you care?"

Hinata shrugged. "I suppose... I don't know much about your past. You know so much about me, and I was just curious..."

No one had ever asked him about his past before. In Akatsuki, people kept to themselves. The answers were never very pleasant, anyway. Now that he thought about it, Deidara didn't know much about even Sasori, with whom he'd worked closely for years.

"It was shitty," he said. "No glitz and glamour like your royal family."

Hinata smiled a little. "All the same, I'd like to know. If, I mean, if you want to talk about it."

Hinata was so weird. Every time he saw her, he was convinced of this more and more. He never quite knew what he'd get with her. It should have been annoying, but he didn't mind. She was interesting, he supposed. She never bored him. So he told her a little about his childhood. He told her about the parents he'd never known, about the day the Tsuchikage discovered his extraordinary abilities and adopted him into his care for special training (manipulation, more like). He even told her about Akatsuchi and Kurotsuchi, the closest people he'd ever known to family. When she asked more about them, Deidara remembered all the trouble they'd gotten into as kids. One time, they put green food coloring in Oonoki's tea and he went to a meeting with the feudal lord with green lips and teeth. They'd laughed for ages about that one despite the punishment.

Deidara told her about the Explosion Corps, about his first mission where he witnessed the glorious power of bombs, a power Deidara had previously shunned out of fright. But then he'd learned to control it and exploit it. He gave it life, and it gave him meaning. Before he knew it, he was rambling on about art, as he was wont to do. Hinata let him talk without interruption, smiling all the while. Eventually, he calmed down and eyed her suspiciously.

"I'm kinda surprised you haven't told me to shut up yet, yeah."

Hinata shook her head and stared at her hands. "I like listening to you."


Yeah, she was weird, but he kind of liked that about her. It felt good to talk to someone who wanted to listen. No one had really listened to him since Sasori, and even then their discussions always devolved into petty bickering. Sasori never really wanted to understand Deidara's point of view in the end.

"About the last time I saw you..." Hinata began.

She wrung her hands, and Deidara frowned.

"Whatever. I don't hold grudges, and it's not like it's my life, y'know."

She met his eyes, bright and searching, and he could not look away. "You were right," she said, breathless. "Everything you said was right. I understand that now."

Deidara ran a finger over the faded scar on his cheek that she'd patched up the last time they were together. "Well, duh."

Hinata smiled a little. "I, um, I took your advice. I confronted my father."

"...Really?" That was unexpected. "What happened?"

Just then, he noticed that there were tears in her eyes.

"He reinstated me," she said. The tears fell, but she was smiling brightly. "I-It wasn't easy, but I'm the heiress again." She wiped her tears away with a long sleeve, laughing.

Deidara stared, unsure what to say. She was crying, but she wasn't sad. He didn't think he'd ever seen someone do that before.

"Thank you," she said, meeting his gaze again. "I don't think I could have done it. I mean, without you. I didn't know I needed to hear what you had to say."

Deidara was a bit thrown off guard at her sincerity. He scratched at the scar on his face, thinking. He'd never been good this whole "nice" thing, and he'd certainly never been thanked like this before. He reacted in the only way he knew how.

"Yeah, well, don't act so surprised. I'm right about a lot of things, y'know."

"Not everything."

"Uh, what?"

"You're not right about everything."

Hinata watched him with quiet conviction. The fire crackled across the room, casting shadows on her profile and making her eyes glow. It was like looking at the moon, like she cast her own inner light and he was just a spectator. So bright.

"You told me that I had an audience to impress, that I could do it because of my position. When I confronted my father, my whole family watched it happen. But..." She paused, fidgeting under the weight of his heavy gaze, but she pushed on. "But they didn't support me because I put on a better show than my father. They did it because they believed in me. Because...they trust me."

"It's the same thing," Deidara said. "You're just looking at it all wrong—"

"No," Hinata interrupted. "No, it's not the same. It's love."

She took his hand in hers and placed it over her heart, much the same way he'd done to her in the darkness of her room. The steady beat of her heart hummed beneath his fingertips.

"It's love that makes my life worth living." She smiled, and he could see fresh tears in her eyes. "I see it, Deidara. What you meant about how life is beautiful. I see it now."

Deidara was speechless. All his life he'd been running from people, unable to reach them but unable to escape them. When had he turned them into faceless spectators? On center stage the lights shined bright, but he was all alone. And yet, she was here with him now. There were no flashy lights, no brilliant explosions or screaming onlookers. It was only them, but he'd never felt more real and alive and important than he felt now.

"I see you," she said, smiling through her tears.

Deidara raised his free hand to her face and wiped her tears away. He lifted her face toward him, dazzled by the light in her eyes. Radiant, though it had always been there. And maybe this was all that he'd ever really wanted back for everything he'd lost, everything he'd destroyed. These hands ruined everything they touched, oh radiant ruin, but Deidara had always found the beauty in chaos. He'd built a life out of it.

"I see you, too," he said against her parted lips.

He closed the distance between them, and they crashed together like breaking waves. Her hair fell loose and found his fingers, so soft. It wasn't enough, so they fell deeper. Their clothes lay forgotten on the cold floor and her skin was warm and inviting. She explored him, the scars and stitches that held him together. When she found one of his hands, she kissed the knuckles with a gentleness he was sure he'd never known. Bringers of ruin now given rest and repose under her touch.

She wasn't perfect. She had her own scars and secrets she didn't want the world to see. But there was no hiding here, from him. Her imperfections made her interesting, and she could grow and change. How had he let so much time slip by before this moment? He wasn't perfect, either.

When she whispered his name in the darkness, Deidara was sure he was losing his mind. All his battles, all the wonders of his art dulled in his memory as he focused on her. He probably would never be able to give it up, just as other men could not give up the air they breathed. But for now, he could live in the moment with her and her bright eyes that saw only him this night. It was okay to lose themselves in each other. This was the kind of destruction that reminded them that they were truly alive, and he realized that even in the chaos of life and death and all that existed in between, people could be beautiful, too.

"I love you, I love you, I love you," she whispered in his ear.

In just a single, fleeting moment, Deidara knew it was all worth it. He had lived a good life.

Those few days were some of the best of Hinata's life. Her teammates for this mission were spread out scouring a large expanse of land over about one hundred miles, so they barely saw each other and communicated mostly by radio. Hinata could have told them that she found the cause of the path of destruction they'd been chasing, but he slept so peacefully beside her that waking him seemed cruel. She didn't know why Deidara had blown his cover and attacked Akatsuki now, of all times, but she knew he had a good reason. He blew through like a natural disaster and knocked down whoever and whatever stood in his path. She was just happy that he'd slowed down enough to let her catch up, if only for awhile.

As she prepared their breakfast and hummed softly to herself, Hinata wondered if she'd always known they would end up like this. He made quite the first impression, and she'd be lying if she said she hadn't thought about it. Wanted it. He wasn't a saint, and he was probably all wrong for her. The world knew him as a terrorist, a madman, a murderer. He was all those things, but he was also more, just as she was more than the porcelain doll her father had set on a pedestal to collect dust—better to sink into the shadows, forgotten, than to be smashed to pieces. But behind these narrow walls, Deidara was hers. He was just a man with hopes and dreams and an eye for pretty things. His demons could not reach them here, and neither could hers.

"Is something burning?"

Hinata gasped and checked the stove top. The bread she'd been toasting was beginning to smoke as its edges turned black. She dumped it on a towel and shut off the gas. "Oh no... Um, I think they're okay. You like your toast crunchy, right?"

Bare arms wrapped around her middle and pulled her close. Hinata's heart fluttered, but she fell back into his touch.

"I'm not hungry for breakfast, yeah."

His breath was warm against her ear and she shivered. His lips on her neck made her tremble, and she reached for him.


He picked her up and walked her back to bed. She ran her hands over the thick stitches criss-crossing his bicep, tracing their roughness as he trailed impossibly soft kisses down her neck, past her collar bone. He was extremes, both taught and flexible, hard and gentle. Hinata was sure she would never be able to settle for anything less than his brand of exquisite chaos ever again.

His hands traced her body like one of his masterpieces, but instead of shaping her he molded himself to fit with her. And no matter how close he got, she wanted more of him.

"Who are you?" he asked as they lay together and he played with her hair.

Hinata laughed. "I'm just a girl."

"You're my girl, yeah."

She blushed and traced his bottom lip with a finger. "And you're mine."

He pulled away and sat upright in bed, startling her.

"Is something wrong?"

He clenched and unclenched his hands. "I have to show you something. Right now."

Hinata frowned, but his expression was giddy. He threw off the covers and searched for his clothes. She let him go, puzzled.

"Show me something?"

Deidara paced about, looking like he might explode at any minute. "Yeah, something big. Ah!" He retrieved the clay pouches by the door and strapped them to his hips. Then he donned his jacket and walked outside. Baffled, Hinata got out of bed and got dressed before following. He had just finished constructing a giant owl and was mounting it. When he saw her, he grinned.

"Stay here. I'll be back, yeah."

"Where are you going? Aren't you hungry?"

"Nah. Who's got time for food when there're more important things to do?"

She didn't understand, but he seemed set on whatever this was. So she saw him off and told him she would wait. While Deidara was gone, Hinata checked in with her team and reported nothing new. No one seemed to be having too much luck. It was already suspected that a powerful shinobi was behind the bombings, but so far Konoha had yet to realize those bombing sites were Akatsuki bases.

She spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up, then getting in some exercise. When it began to grow dark, Hinata made dinner to keep until Deidara returned, which turned out to be not much later.

He touched down just outside and she went to greet him.

"Where were you?" she asked as he broke down his bird and returned the used clay to one of his pouches.

"That's a secret." He sniffed the air. "Hey, is that dinner?"

Hinata smiled and led him inside. They ate a simple meal together, but it was hot and filling. Deidara looked like he might cry as he ate, lamenting the lack of good food in his life. Hinata waved him off, but secretly she didn't mind the small praise. It was sincere.

After dinner, Deidara dragged her outside to reveal whatever it was he wanted to show her. The country sky was sheltered from the light pollution prevalent in human settlements like Konoha, so the millions of stars above had no competition. There were so many that they almost looked like a diamond fog blocking out the night sky. A crescent moon shed meager light on the small cabin in the woods.

Deidara bade her sit down on the ground just outside the cabin, and she complied. "You'll have a good view from there, yeah."

Hinata shook her head and smiled to herself. Mystery didn't suit Deidara the way it suited boys like Neji or Shino, but his attempt was appreciated.

Deidara brought a sack back with him from wherever he'd gone, and now he produced various small bottles of something from it, but Hinata couldn't make out what he was doing with them. A few minutes passed with his back to her, and she waited patiently. When he was finished, he walked toward her and took a seat next to her.

"So? What's this you wanted to show me?"

Deidara flashed her a grin that made her heart speed up. It was the look boys got when they had something up their sleeve, usually something that would get them in heaps of trouble but that would be worth the consequences. "A sight you'll never forget, yeah."

He executed a couple hand seals, and rumbling sounded from a short distance away. Hinata noticed that he'd left something in the spot where he'd been working previously, but she couldn't make out what it was through the darkness. Whatever it was, it shot into the sky with a high-pitched whistle, making her gasp. Deidara followed the dark projectile with his eyes, all the while holding his Tiger seal.


The sight made Hinata stare in awe. Tiny bombs exploded in an array of colors: pinks, purples, yellows, and blues. Their light swirled in the sky, like sentient beings born of moonbeams and starlight. Hinata followed their paths with her eyes, and when they extinguished Deidara sent more to take their place. She'd seen fireworks before, but none quite like this. Each flash lasted only a moment, but its image seared into her mind's eye and she replayed them over and over with dazzling clarity.

"Awesome, right?" Deidara said.

Hinata laughed happily and leaned against him. Her hand found his and she brought it to her chest to keep warm. "It's beautiful."

They watched the fireworks until there were none left, and it was just the two of them under the stars. Hinata never wanted this moment to end.

"I have to go in the morning," Deidara whispered into her hair. "So do you."

Hinata pulled away and searched for his gaze. "'s only been a couple of days."

"They're looking for me. They don't know about you." He looked away. "I'm not totally careless, y'know."

Hinata turned his face so he was looking at her again. "Can't you forget them?"

"No more than I can forget how to breathe, yeah."

Hinata had always known it would come to this. Deidara was strong, and because of that he was a target. Akatsuki was bigger than both of them, no matter how many of their bases he blew up. The organization was widespread and years in the making. What could a couple of kids do to them?

"I don't want to talk about this now," Deidara said. He stood up and pulled her up after him. "Come on."

They were just delaying fate another night. This whole time together, these few days away from the world were like limbo. Time didn't pass here, and their demons could not follow. It was impossible to stay like this forever, no matter how much Hinata wanted to in this moment. But with Deidara, she had learned to find the beauty in that which cannot last, in that which will ultimately leave. And if that was the case, then she wanted to remember this moment for as long as she lived.

That night they did not sleep, and Hinata could only see colors, vibrant and painful and so beautiful. He whispered tales in her ear of life and death, of fantasies that existed only in dreams, gone with the sun's first light. And she was not a princess of the Hyūga clan, but a girl with no past and no future. There was only now and him, and she was happy.

Morning came all too soon, however, and they tried to ignore it for as long as possible. Hinata didn't let go of Deidara for fear she might wake and he would already be gone. Like a mirage. But the time finally came for them to return to the world and face the monsters salivating at their door.

They dressed in silence, their movements slow and sluggish. Neither was looking forward to what would have to come next, but they could avoid it no better than they could avoid tomorrow. There was no such thing as eternity.

Deidara summoned a clay bird to take him away, but he hesitated before climbing aboard. When he turned to Hinata, she ran toward him and threw her arms around him. He caught her easily and held her close, his long fingers threading through her hair.

"I don't want you to leave," she said, her breath hitching with the first of many tears she was sure she would cry for him.

"I have to," he said gently. "Nothing lasts forever, y'know."

"I know." But she didn't have to like it.

He pulled back enough to draw her into a kiss, languid and sad. There was goodbye in that kiss, and it broke Hinata's heart to accept it. She ran her hands along his face, his chest, everywhere she could reach just to memorize him. Maybe he couldn't last forever, but she could remember him forever.

Thunder rumbled overhead, and a light rain began to fall. Their breath steamed, mingling as one. Hinata squeezed her eyes shut and fought the tears in vain. This was really happening, and there was nothing she could do about it.

"Hinata," he said, lifting her chin. "Look at me."

She opened her eyes and tried to make him out through tear-blurred vision. By now, the rain had picked up and begun to soak through their clothes. It mixed with her tears.

"You better not forget about me." He smirked.

Hinata felt like she couldn't breathe. She touched a hand to his cheek, running her thumb over the scar there. "I could never forget you."


He pulled away and climbed aboard his bird. Hinata looked on, and the rain continued to beat down on her. The bird stretched its white wings and launched into the air several feet. She followed Deidara with her eyes, but the rain hid her tears. He hovered just above her, out of reach, and cast one last, lingering look in her direction. Just as he looked away, Hinata realized he was really leaving. She reached for him.


He looked at her, his one visible eye wide with emotion. Hinata blinked away her tears and the rain to see him better.

"Whatever happens, even if you have to fight, or... Even if I never see you again, just please..." She swallowed the knot in her throat from too much crying and forced herself to hold his gaze. "Please remember that I loved you."

Deidara blinked and seemed to hesitate. Rivers ran down his face, but Hinata couldn't tell if they were his tears of just the rain.

"I think I loved you, too."

Hinata covered her mouth with both hands, unable to speak or think or even breathe in her shock. He looked so unsure, so startled in that moment, like he'd only just now realized it. And just like that, he was gone. The white bird rose higher in the sky, away from her, and Hinata fell to her knees. The storm swallowed him whole until there was nothing left for her to see.

She stayed there, crying her heart out, until the rain let up and there were no tears left to fall.

Hinata stared in the mirror and brushed her long, dark hair with a comb her father had given her for her twenty-first birthday. She was idling. Her makeup was done (perfect, as always), and she was just wrinkling her kimono sitting here. A knock at her door drew her attention.

"Hey, you in there?"

Hanabi didn't wait to be admitted, and she burst into Hinata's room all smiles and perfume. Hinata turned to face her sister, unsurprised to see her holding a bottle of champagne and two glasses. One of them was wet but empty.

"What're you doing in here? Party's starting without you, you know."

Hinata laughed and accepted the clean glass from her sister. Hanabi was dressed in full kimono, her hair done up and her makeup subtle. She poured them each a glass of champagne and smirked.

"You're starting a little early, don't you think?" Hinata asked, taking a sip of the bubbly drink.

"It's after five," Hanabi said. "Besides, this is kind of a big night."

Hinata smiled and studied her reflection. "I guess it is."

"Hey, you're hair's not even up. God, I can't leave you alone for five minutes. Here..."

Hanabi chose an ivory comb from Hinata's dresser and fastened it in her sister's hair, looping the long tresses into a tight knot. Once satisfied, Hanabi waved a hand as though to thank an adoring crowd.

"Am I great or what?"

Hinata stood and held her glass out toward her sister. "You are. Let's toast to you, sister."


The girls finished their champagne just as Neji knocked on the door.

"Are you two ready yet? I've been waiting for hours."

Hanabi made a face. "You have not. Besides, I was done before Hinata."

Neji smirked. "Of course."

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Neji," Hinata said. "We're ready to go."

Neji gave her a once-over and smiled a little. "Let's go."

He let the girls exit first, but not before catching Hinata's elbow and whispering, "You look beautiful, Hinata-sama."

Hinata blushed and smiled. "Thank you."

The trio made their way to the courtyard where many other members of their family had gathered. Tables had been set up around the perimeter with food, drink, and games. The Hyūga were celebrating tonight, and they had not skimped on the goods.

Hinata, Neji, and Hanabi made their way among the crowd toward the opposite side of the courtyard. Along the way various family members and guests smiled at them and wished them good fortune. Near their destination, Hinata spotted Shino and Kiba with Akamaru and waved at them. Kiba waved back, sloshing his drink until Shino grabbed his wrist and calmed him down. Hinata laughed at their antics, relaxing a little now that she knew they were here. Finally, the trio made it to the other side of the courtyard.

Tsunade smiled when she saw Hinata. "There she is."

"Hokage-sama," Hinata said, bowing. Hanabi and Neji bowed as well.

Tsunade put a hand on Hinata's shoulder and leaned closer. "You've done well, Hinata. You should be proud of yourself. I know I am."

Hinata blushed. It wasn't every day she received praise from the most powerful kunoichi in the country.


Tsunade stepped aside and let the trio pass. Hiashi was waiting for them on a raised platform. His father, the clan elder, was seated on a dais and hunched over as though sleeping. Neji put a reassuring hand on the small of Hinata's back, a silent reminder that he was here for her. Hanabi squeezed her hand and smiled.

Hinata approached the platform. "Father, Grandfather." She bowed deeply.

The crowed had quieted down to observe what came next. Hiashi held out a hand and Hinata took it. They stood side by side and faced the crowd.

"Thank you all for being here tonight," Hiashi began. "As you know, it is tradition for our great clan to bestow leadership upon a child of the Main House upon the current leader's death. Well, I'm not dead yet."

The crowd laughed.

"But the time has come to formally declare my heir and establish the future of our noble family."

Hiashi glanced at Hinata and they stepped forward together.

"I'm sure...many of you recall that I disinherited Hinata when she was a girl. I believed her weak and incapable of shouldering the responsibilities that come with leading an old family such as ours." Hiashi paused, and the crowd was silent. He looked at Hinata, his white eyes hard but not unkind. "...I was wrong. Leadership is a burden, not a gift. It requires extraordinary strength to uphold. Hinata."

Hinata bowed on one knee and kept her head down. She tried not to think of the hundreds of eyes watching her now.

"You are my eldest daughter, a true-born child of the Hyūga. You have mastered the secrets of the Byakugan, and you've made them your own. Even when I wasn't ready to acknowledge your progress, others did. I regret my blindness to this day, and I'm sure I'll regret it for the rest of my life. But tonight, I'll try to redeem myself a little by granting you what is rightfully yours. With this crowd as my witness, I hereby pronounce you my sole heir and successor. You will lead our clan upon my death to the end of your days, before such time you will declare a successor of your own. I entrust you with all the duties, responsibilities, and powers of the clan head. From this day forth, you will act in with the interests of the clan in mind, and you will do everything in your power to advance our goals, our wellbeing, and our fate. Rise, Hyūga Hinata."

Hinata rose and met her father's eyes. She couldn't say when the crowd had begun to cheer, but the noise was almost deafening. Hiashi bowed to her, and Hinata felt as though she were dreaming. Never one to deny her emotions, Hinata stepped forward and embraced her father. He tensed, shocked at her breaking of decorum, but eventually he returned her embrace.

"Thank you, Father. I won't let you down," she whispered. "I swear it."

"I know you won't," Hiashi said. "After all, you're my daughter."

Tears stung Hinata's eyes and she pulled away, smiling brightly. The formalities were over, and she was able to rejoin Hanabi and Neji. Hanabi hugged her in front of everyone, careless of who saw.

"You'll be great, Hinata. So great."

Hinata laughed into her sister's hair. "I'll do my best."

Neji put a hand on each of his cousins' shoulders. "Ladies, may I get either of you a drink?"

"Absolutely!" Hanabi said. "I hate this formal stuff. Let's have fun!"

She pulled Hinata and Neji along behind her. Neji smiled and Hinata laughed, feeling light. Drinks in hand and surrounded by friends, it was awhile before Hinata had a moment of respite. But Neji found her and discreetly took her hand.


"You did well," he said. "I always knew you could do it."

Hinata smiled and pulled him into a hug. "Thank you, Neji."

The night was loud and jovial. At one point, Kiba picked Hinata up bridal style and twirled her around. Kurenai pulled Shino toward them and the four members of Team 8 embraced for a photo. Hinata's face had started to hurt a little from smiling too much. It was like a dream come true.

Towards the end of the night there were fireworks, and the guests took a break from their merrymaking to admire them. Hinata stood with Hanabi, her eyes lifted skyward to follow the bright explosions of color and sound.

And she remembered.

It had been years, and in all that time Hinata had spoken not a word to anyone of him. Deidara was hers to remember and cherish, no one else's. She remembered what it had been like in those first few months after she'd last seen him, hoping that she would encounter him again somewhere as he slowly but surely worked to dismantle Akatsuki's regime. She would lie in bed at night, dreaming of him and of what she would say to him when they next saw each other.

Until one day, she learned of his death. It had been quite by accident. She'd gone to the Hokage's tower to drop off a mission report, humming to herself along the way, when she overheard a conversation between two Jōnin.

"Did you hear? They found his body."

"No shit, really? Thought he was pretty much un-killable."

"Guess not. But can you believe it? Deidara was Akatsuki, and this whole time he was actually destroying them. Talk about irony."

"How'd he die?"

"Well, he did it himself, apparently. The guy was nuts, blowing shit up like a little kid. But he took a bunch of Akatsuki scum with him. Guess he wasn't that bad in the end. They say it was a sight to see."

Hinata had dropped her mission report, startling the conversing Jōnin. She'd confronted them about it, startling them. But they'd confirmed that it was good intel from Torture and Interrogation. Deidara of Akatsuki was dead, his body consumed by the very bombs he'd loved more than life itself. Hinata had stayed inside for a week after that.

She'd known all along. How could she not? At first she was angry. How could he just give up like that? He was the strongest person she knew; surely, he was better than this. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. Deidara was gone. He'd been long gone even when they parted ways and she told him she loved him. He was never meant to last. She could just picture his final moments, that icy blue eye defiant until the end as he recited a death mantra to his enemies about art and beauty and transience. They would not have understood, but that didn't matter. Not many ever could appreciate true genius.

The fireworks were beautiful. Everyone in the crowd was dazzled by the display, brief flashes of brilliance that were gone almost as soon as they appeared. Hinata found them beautiful, too.

"Do you see it?"

Hinata closed her eyes and saw different fireworks in a place far from here. Deidara's hand was in hers, and she was happy. She could feel his hands on her, taste him, hear him breathing against her. Beautiful and terrible, he was a force unto himself.

"I don't know any other way to live."


Hinata opened her eyes and caught Hanabi staring at her, concerned.

"You all right? You're crying."

Deidara had given her something she'd thought she'd lost forever. She was here because of her own will, but Deidara had reminded her that she had that power to begin with. They said it was he who'd defied death once, but he had brought her back from the dead with him. He wasn't forever, but the best things never were. They visited for a moment, long enough to make an impact, hard and lasting, and moved on, their brilliance never forgotten, never squandered. It hurt. Every day she missed him, but she knew it could be no other way. He could be no other way. And she'd loved that about him.

"Yeah," Hinata said, returning her gaze to the colorful fireworks above. She smiled through her tears. "I'm all right."

"They say it's what you make, but I say it's up to fate. It's woven in my soul, and I need to let you go.
Your eyes, they shine so bright; I wanna save that light. I can't escape this now, unless you show me how."