"I do hope you have good news for me this time, my dear?"
Kabuto sighed quietly, locked up the pigeon's cage, and turned somber eyes on his master. "My apologies, Orochimaru-sama. The message says that the team never reached Konoha."
Pale fingers tightened on a balcony ledge. A golden eye narrowed. The other eye was still lost under many bandages.
There was a weight to that little word that made Kabuto wince and start to list to himself how many disposable genin he could throw at his master to slack his ire. Not a lot anymore, not since they had been forced to switch hideouts every other week by Jiraiya's relentless hunt.
The first team they'd sent -- the Sound Four, the best and most faithful -- had almost succeeded. Almost. And then Uchiha Sasuke had failed to fight his way free. Bad luck; irritating, but he would have arrived too late for the transfer anyway, and Orochimaru's new body enabled him to wait a while longer.
The second team had had an encounter with Hatake Kakashi.
Now, with the third team going incommunicado, Kabuto was starting to wonder if perhaps going back to Konoha hadn't been Sasuke's choice from the start. It certainly looked like his choice now; he had left the hospital a month ago and still hadn't made a move to escape on his own. No matter; making his body a fitting vessel for Orochimaru-sama would be easier with Sasuke-kun's cooperation, but they didn't need his consent.
"I don't suppose," Orochimaru inquired silkily, "that the message said anything of the location of my wayward children, did it?"
"Which pieces are you looking for?"
Kabuto was a good ninja, jounin-level, infiltration specialist. He knew sneaky. And Orochimaru-sama was a Sannin. Neither of them had seen, heard, smelled or felt him coming.
Itachi stood at the center of the cave-like room, watching them calmly.
Kisame found his partner in the middle of a vast expanse of broken-down masonry
and still-burning debris. Itachi was propped up against a wall, gazing up at
the blue sky. He looked so calm and casual that at first glance, it was hard
to realize that anything was out of the ordinary. At least for someone who didn't
know Itachi. His eyes were black, and that was the most telling, even though
the absence of cloak and the strangely wet, heavy way his black clothes settled
on his body were rather telling in themselves.
"Did you have trouble with the mission?" Kisame asked with fake surprise and real amusement.
Itachi merely glared at him, but Kisame was aware of how blurry his vision got, and that rather undermined the effect. Nevertheless, he let his smirk smooth out and approached, opening his cloak to tear strips off the lining. The way Itachi bled, he would need bandages, and a lot.
"Stab wound through the stomach. Several serpent bites -- the antidote neutralizes the lethal aspect."
"But not the shakes or lack of coordination?" Kisame replied as he knelt beside his partner to check out his wounds.
Itachi frowned, as if he took those particular side-effects of especially deadly toxins like a personal affront. "No. Broken forearm, torn ligaments, cut muscles."
Kisame whistled in appreciation. "Weeell. He must have gotten better."
Itachi grunted. "Kabuto had. He was... distracting."
"Perhaps it would have been better to come with you, eh?"
Itachi threw him a quick, reprimanding glare. "No. It wouldn't have been."
Of course. Itachi would pretend that getting rid of Orochimaru had been purely business, but the fact of the matter was that he hadn't stepped up and taken the long-standing open mission until he heard that the snake summoner wasn't going to take no for an answer, as far as a certain Uchiha Sasuke was concerned. Itachi didn't care which path his little brother took to catch up to him, but he was quite adamant about letting Sasuke choose it and walk it to the end on his own two feet.
Chuckling -- Itachi would make him pay for it, but not for a while yet -- Kisame finished bandaging off the stomach wound. It was nasty; thankfully he knew where to find good medic-nins quickly. As for the broken bones and ligaments... Well. Their leader wasn't going to be happy. This would put Itachi out of commission for a little while.
"Well, I'm done with my part of the job, at least. Even if it wasn't very fun."
Itachi's eyes drifted over the vast expanse of rocks, his eyes tracking the escape of a pale, white-haired silhouette with some difficulty.
"Your cleanup wasn't very efficient."
Kisame shrugged, and deftly tied off the end of a bandage around Itachi's ravaged arm. "I have something of a personal interest in that one."
"You could say he's like a little brother to me." Kisame chuckled, teeth bared in a feral, strangely self-satisfied smile. "I'm sure you understand exactly what that's like."
Itachi's lips quirked up in a fleeting smile. "I see."
Kisame finished bandaging off the wounds that bled the most, and sat back on his heels, surveying his handiwork. "Think you can survive for three more hours?"
Itachi didn't even grace him with an annoyed look. "Don't waste time, Kisame."
He still managed to make it sound like he didn't care, and was just mentioning it because the one in the most trouble would be Kisame. And then people said they didn't understand why Kisame actually liked working alongside Itachi. He had more balls than all of Akatsuki combined, and it would never stop being hilarious. Still smirking, Kisame picked up his partner in the crook of an arm, gave the burning wreckage a last look, and started running toward the closest competent medic-nin.
Behind them, Orochimaru's Western lair still smoked, ashes snowing on the ruins lazily. There was nothing left of any of the research, or the bodies.
"Kisame, who is that boy you allowed to run off?"
"He wants to kill me and I find that funny, so I let him go so he'd get stronger."
"Oh. Your little brother."
"... Something like that."
u.u;;;;; Oh Itachi.