Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Naruto characters, unless otherwise stated. In this case, I only own Kimi and her village. Oh, and Taro. Been forgetting him.

Author's Note: I'd meant to post this earlier, but when I was reading through it, I discovered some things I wanted to change. I even took out a section and moved it to the next chapter, making the ending of this one a bit cleaner (if still another cliff-hanger, sorry). Some people might say that Itachi is a tad bit OCC in this chapter, but I believe that he's developed enough throughout this fic to allow a small bit of his emotional control around his "co-workers" (so to speak) slip. So, yeah. I think it works. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this chapter!

XXXI

It took longer than Itachi would have liked for them to reach their new destination. Itachi studied the small village for a moment – the village in which Kimi had found work – taken refuge. Everything looked peaceful from the outside. Steeling himself for the worst, he dropped down and started into the village, Kisame at his heels.

"We shouldn't be here," Kisame said softly.

"Shut up," Itachi snapped back, startling his companion.

Itachi turned a corner of the village and had to force himself to keep walking calmly forward when he spotted the owner of the small restaurant where Kimi worked standing outside and peering up and down the street worriedly. When the man caught sight of Itachi and Kisame, he looked hopeful for a moment, but as they got closer, his face fell again and the worry returned.

"Is something the matter?" Itachi asked flatly, pausing in front of the restaurant.

The owner gave a nervous laugh. "It's my best cook. She left about an hour ago for her lunch break and hasn't come back. I shouldn't be worried so much, since my other workers are usually worse about their break times, but Kimi usually takes her lunch here instead of going out. When she left, she looked kind of nervous, too. I don't blame her, though. Those men that wanted to talk to her looked like trouble."

"Men? What men?"

The man peered at Itachi. "They were dressed like you. The shorter one had bronze hair and the other one was wearing a mask over his mouth and had really strange eyes."

Itachi stiffened slightly. Taro and Kakuzu! But, what would they want with Kimi?

"Do you know them?" The owner asked, studying Itachi suspiciously.

For a moment, Itachi did not answer him, his mind racing through possibilities. Taro and Kakuzu were never Kimi's biggest fans. Why would they come here, then? His heart skipped a beat. There could only be one reason.

"Which way did they go?" he demanded of the man, a bit too sharply than he meant.

The owner took a step back, startled by the intensity in Itachi's red eyes. "Th-they went that way," he stuttered, pointing down the road toward a line of trees. "But the village ends there. They had to have gone into the woods."

Itachi did not bother to thank the man. He sprinted down the street, the sleeves of his cloak fluttering out behind him as he tucked his arms back to streamline his body. He had no time to waste – no time to lose. Kimi's life was on the line. The only reason Taro and Kakuzu would even consider seeking out Kimi would be by Pein's orders, and there was only one thing that the Leader of Akatsuki would order concerning Kimi.

Her death.

The young man raced through the trees – the Sharingan in his eyes searching for any sign of passage – his ears open and listening for any hint of human life. Itachi stumbled suddenly to a halt. The forest was silent. There were no birds. His heart pounded in his chest as his mind comprehended this fact.

Kisame came up behind him. "What's with you, Itachi? First you dash off without any warning, as if the world's going to end, and now you're just standing here? What's going on?"

Itachi shushed him. "Listen. What do you hear?"

After a moment, the blue-skinned man answered, "Nothing."

"Don't you think that's strange? There aren't any birds."

Kisame thinks for a moment. "They could be reacting to us," he suggested.

Itachi shook his head, scanning the trees warily. "They've never done that before. There are always birds, except . . ." Except when Kimi's around. For the first time, it clicked in his mind. All the times that there were no birds – every single time he noticed an extreme difference in avian activity – was when Kimi was around – no exceptions.

"She's here," he breathed. Dashing forward, he started yelling her name. "Kimi! Kimi, where are you?" He did not care if this outburst of emotion would ruin his reputation. He needed to find her. Now.

There was no answer, but Itachi soon came across a small opening in the trees that harbored something rather troubling. The ground was marked by two rather deep holes, as if something had burst from beneath the surface. The leaves in the space between these holes had been disturbed, indicating a struggle. Itachi's eyes fell upon two very distinct shapes – two halves of a thick log. He stepped over to them, inspecting the sliced wood. A replacement jutsu.

"Itachi," Kisame grunted, bending over and lifting something off of the ground. The object fluttered in the slight breeze. A black ribbon.

Itachi took the ribbon from his partner, looking between it and the log. Had someone rescued her? There was no doubt in Itachi's mind that this place marked where Taro and Kakuzu had made their move against the woman, but who had come to her rescue?

He rose to his feet, scanning the surrounding area. There was no sign of the other Akatsuki team. They had no doubt gone after Kimi and her rescuer – whoever that was. Itachi gritted his teeth. He had to find her before they did.

A shriek of pain split the air, making Itachi stiffen and whirl. His heart froze. Too late. Crying out her name, he ran.

Kimi skidded to a halt, heart hammering in her chest. She stared down over the edge of the cliff at her feet – at the water crashing below. Not good. She took a step back, and turned to run in a different direction. She had to get away!

"A replacement jutsu," Taro's voice stated from behind her, making her freeze mid-step. "So, you are a shinobi, though I don't know how you did it without making any hand signs." He grunted. "It seems you've been deceiving Itachi as much as he's been deceiving you." The man snorted and spat, "Bitch."

Breathing rapidly, Kimi turned to face her pursuers. "I didn't lie to him," she said softly. "Technically, I'm not, since I never graduated from an academy. I put that life behind me a long time ago and swore never to use another jutsu ever again."

Kakuzu narrowed his green and black eyes. "It seems you broke that promise."

"You forced my hand."

Taro scowled. "Why are you running, anyway? You can't get away from us. You can't escape. Stand and fight like the shinobi you are." He pointed his naginata at her, sneering the word 'shinobi'.

Kimi's eyes dropped to the ground. "I don't know, really. I guess it's just instinct." For the first time since she had made that oath, she did not argue the shinobi point – she did not contradict his words. He's right.

Snorting, Taro shifted his weapon into both hands. "Well, you can run all you want, but we have our orders, and we're not going to let you live." He jumped toward her. "So if you're not going to fight, then just stand still and die!"

Don't listen to him! Move! Kimi dodged to one side, the wide blade missing her by bare inches. Snarling, Taro shifted his attack, swinging the other side of the bladed staff horizontally at her legs. Gasping, Kimi jumped and flipped over his head, landing behind him and dancing back several steps before wincing and dropping to one knee, grasping her shin. Blood trickled between her fingers.

Taro chuckled, watching the thin trail of blood sliding down one of the blades of the naginata. "Too slow," he mocked, slipping into an offensive stance and watching her with sickeningly gleeful eyes.

No! You've got to get out of here! Kimi blinked her eyes against the tears building. "It's over," she murmured, forcing herself to stand. "Just go."

Taro glanced at her, spinning the staff slowly above his head as he stepped toward her. "What was that?" He lunged forward, sweeping the blades in a lightning-fast strike.

Kimi ducked down, snatching a broad stone from the ground and bringing it up to block the second blade. She gritted her teeth against the force of holding back the attack but made no move to counter it – only block. Taro's lips peeled back in a laughing snarl. "Pitiful. Your heart's not in it. That's why you'll fail. That's why you'll die!"

He pulled the blade away, twisting to plant a solid kick in Kimi's chest. The girl wheezed, stumbling backwards. Her vision swirled, clearing too late for her to properly dodge the next blade.

Kimi cried out in pain, hugging her now-bleeding arm against her chest as the stone in her hand clattered to the ground. That one had brushed the bone. Her knees buckled in agony, but she managed to stay upright – managed to stay conscious. Fight back! You don't have to die! What about our contract?! Do something! She gritted her teeth. "I can't."

Taro advanced again. "You can't what?"

Kakuzu scowled from behind him. "Stop playing, Taro, and kill her." He sounded impatient – disgusted, almost.

The man glanced from his partner to the woman, watching pain and sorrow running circles across her face. Was there anger there too? He did not care. Taro shrugged. "Alright," he grunted and lunged forward, thrusting the naginata through her chest.

Kimi drew a sharp breath, lifting a shaking hand to touch the shaft of the staff. "No," she choked.

Taro jerked the blade out of her and grabbed a handful of her shirt. He leaned close to her, lips brushing her ear. "You disappointed me, Kimi," he murmured softly. "You had my hopes up. I expected this to be fun."

With a harsh laugh, he pushed her back toward the cliff edge. Blood poured from her wound, disregarding the hand she pressed against her chest. Faintly, she heard someone yelling her name as she continued to stumble back and tumbled over the cliff. Air howled past her ears, as the crash of waves against rock rose in a crescendo of sound.

Then, it all vanished, leaving darkness, silence, and a single, angry voice. Damn it all. Must I do everything myself?

Itachi rushed headlong through the trees. "Kimi!" Where was she? Why had she screamed? Had they caught her? What about her savior? His heart slammed against his chest, threatening to burst. Something was wrong. He could feel it. Oh, Kami, no. Please, no. No. No. NO!

Kisame called out to him from behind, but he did not answer. There was only one thing on his mind – Kimi. He broke through the trees to find Taro wiping blood from the blades of his naginata. The man looked up and threw him a dark smirk. "Well, hello, Itachi."

Itachi stared at the thick pool of red near the cliff edge. He could not move. "You killed her," he stated blankly, not sure if he was asking a question or merely voicing fact.

Kakuzu peered at him for a minute before answering. "They were Pein's orders. Do you have a problem with them?"

Slowly, Itachi tore his eyes away from the puddle of blood – Kimi's blood – to gaze flatly at Taro. The bronze-haired man stiffened, hands tightening around the shaft of his duel-bladed staff as if preparing for a fight. "We have another set of orders, too," Taro declared. "If you cause any problems as a result of this, we're supposed to deal with you as well."

Behind Itachi's blank mask, his blood boiled; Kimi had been no threat to any of them. She was a distraction, maybe, but not nearly as much as she had been when she was actually living with the Akatsuki. She had left. They had let her go. What right did Pein have to order her death now? Why did he do it? Why? Why? Why?!

"So," Taro continued, his hands tightening around his duel-bladed naginata. "Do you have a problem with this?"

Itachi's hands curled into fists, fire burning behind his eyes. His muscles tensed, ready for a fight. It would not take much to deal with this man – the one who killed his love. Yes, that was what she was, he realized, suddenly. His love. He loved her, and Taro had taken her away from him. The flames behind his eyes burned hotter, his anger boiling. No, it would not take much. A single Amaterasu would deal with him nicely.