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Flesh and Blood

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“Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven.” – Tryon Edwards

***

At the gates of the small coastal village of Hisoka in the south of the Tea Country, two men met.

To the eyes of the citizens of the quiet and peaceful trade town, it was an unremarkable meeting. The first of the men was one of their own, a soldier by the name of Inoue Hideaki. He’d had the very basics of ninja training once, everyone said, but hadn’t been able to meet the standards to become a true genin. Instead, like so many other Academy washouts, he’d turned his training into employment elsewhere. The mayor of Hisoka had always had an eye for well-trained young men, and they kept things peaceful, especially when semi-disreputable ships came to port.

No, Hideaki was nothing special or unusual, no one who would stand out in a crowd. He was of medium height, had short gray-green hair, dark eyes, and he’d always kept mostly to himself. The only significant thing that any of the villagers could remember about him was that ten years ago, when a group of raiders had tried to steal some secret documents that were en route between the Wind Country and the Water Country, Hideaki had gone missing for two weeks.

He’d returned to the village finally, looking dazed and disoriented, and claimed that he’d foolishly gone after one of the enemy ninjas and been knocked unconscious. It was an odd story and didn’t quite make sense, but everyone knew that ninjas had strange and mysterious powers that could account for such things and, in the end, everyone was relieved to just be able to take one name off the death-count.

So that evening, when Hideaki stood at his usual guard post, no one even bothered to look twice as one of the strangers stepped away from the caravan that had just arrived and approached him. After all, the stranger was equally unremarkable in appearance: close-shaven black hair, a full-sleeved gray jacket with fingerless gloves, and a pair of dark sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose.

Even Hideaki didn’t look much at the stranger at first, until he leaned himself insouciantly up against the wall just a little bit too close to Hideaki and wormed his way into his personal space.

“Hey, cutie,” the stranger grinned. “I like you. Want to go out?”

Hideaki blinked in surprise, then frowned. This form was hardly one to attract any kind of romantic attention; he’d specifically chosen it that way, so that no one would disturb him. “Not interested,” he said curtly.

“Oh, come on. It’s got to be deathly dull standing by this gate all day. I bet you could do with some fun.” The stranger’s smile was downright devious now, but Hideaki couldn’t make out his full expression due to the sunglasses that covered his eyes.

The man inside Hideaki’s body boiled with rage at the impertinence of this stranger, but he bit back his instinctive, lethal reaction. He’d come too far and sacrificed too much to expose himself now. “I’m on duty. You’ll have better luck in the bars by the wharf, in any case.”

“By the wharf, hmm?” The stranger pretended to consider this, rubbing his chin with one palm in a gesture that Hideaki suddenly realized was horribly familiar. “I think I like the company here much better.” That hand reached up to cup Hideaki’s cheek in a bold move, and Hideaki felt something unnatural move beneath the glove. “What do you say? We’ll have a blast together, yeah?”

Hideaki’s eyes widened, and instantly looked around in alarm. Seeing that his mundane disguise had paid off in this case, he ventured his own bold move and ripped the sunglasses off the face of the ‘stranger.’ Mischievous blue eyes danced merrily back at him. In response, the being inside Hideaki’s body snapped.

“You? Brat!” he hissed. “All the reports said that Uchiha kid killed you. You kept me waiting so long, I’d completely given up on you.”

“And we both know how much you hate waiting, Master Sasori,” the other replied cheekily.

“Don’t call me that where people can hear,” Sasori hissed, watching the bystanders carefully through Hideaki’s eyes.

“Paranoid as always, I see.” The statement was accompanied by an expressive yawn.

Sasori took a moment to study his partner, after the longest period of time they’d spent apart since they’d first met. He hadn’t recognized Deidara at first because he’d been looking for a henge – back before he’d heard the reports of Deidara’s death and was still looking at all – but this wasn’t any ninja trickery. Deidara really had shorn off all his hair and dyed it black. He’d taken off his scope, but the sunglasses carefully covered up the two metal implant mounts around his left eye. Sasori supposed the gloves were to conceal the mouths in his palms. And, speaking of the plural…

“Your arm.” He tapped his fingers against Deidara’s left shoulder, where Deidara most certainly wasn’t missing a limb.

“Ah, yeah.” Deidara scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “Long story about that. We should probably wait until we’re in a secure location.”

“Hn.” Sasori’s eyes narrowed. “Your hair is black,” he finally said distastefully.

“Well, I had to walk through the entire Fire Country to get here, yeah? I figured it was best to blend in.”

Sasori snorted with amusement at the very thought. “You pick now to get responsible on me, brat?”

Deidara grinned in response. “You can punish me later if you want, Master…” He pronounced the last word with more than a little hint of innuendo and actually had the gall to wink.

Sasori didn’t know whether to laugh or smack Deidara upside the head. It was a frequent problem he had with his partner. “My shift ends two hours after sunset,” he said instead, because either action would attract too much attention. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a spare key. “Third street to your left, the white apartment building, number 3b.”

“Got it.” Deidara took the key from him and moved to go. He paused, though, just before entering the gates. “It’s been too long,” he said simply, a hint of something genuine in his voice.

Sasori snorted. “It hasn’t been long enough,” he retorted.

Deidara laughed at that, and then he was gone.

Composing himself once more, Sasori took on the bleak, uninterested expression that Hideaki always wore. It was a long, otherwise uneventful shift.

***

By the time Sasori returned to Hideaki’s home, it was dark. There was a light under the door to his apartment, though, and he opened it cautiously. Deidara had been known to greet him with a bang more often than not.

It was a tiny apartment: a small living room with a kitchenette along one wall, and a bedroom just barely large enough for the futon on the floor, with the half-bathroom crammed in next to the closet space. It was a home meant only for sleeping and not for living. The rent was dirt-cheap, though, and Hideaki had never needed anything more.

Sasori rested the katana that the gate guards wore against the wall by the door and toed off his sandals. The wood floor was cool against his bare feet, a sensation he still hadn’t grown accustomed to now that he was trapped once more in human flesh.

After checking that the window blinds were firmly drawn, he dropped the henge that surrounded him. The mirror on the far wall now showed a man who wasn’t quite Hideaki but wasn’t quite Sasori yet, either. After he’d awakened in this form, his new body’s flesh had begun to slowly readjust so that he looked more like his actual self every day. His face and eyes were almost entirely his own now, and the roots of his hair were growing in brilliant red. They looked thoroughly ridiculous against this body’s native grey-green ends. Sasori glared at his reflection and turned to the bedroom.

There, he found Deidara facedown on his mattress, snoring away. That was one of Sasori’s major problems with Deidara on the whole: when the man snored, he snored from all six mouths. He nudged the mouth on Deidara’s left ankle with his toe and moved to sit down on the edge of the futon.

Deidara’s left foot yawned in response and smacked its lips as it slowly woke up. One by one, the mouths quit snoring, and finally Deidara groaned into the pillow. “Remind me never to travel with non-shinobi again,” he complained. “They’re so slow. I don’t know how people get anywhere without flying.”

Sasori snorted and studied the line of Deidara’s back. He’d taken off the jacket and gloves, and now Sasori could see that the mouths weren’t the only thing Deidara had been concealing. With a disdainful expression, he eyed the jagged scars and black stitches where Deidara’s arms had been reattached. “I see you let that butcher Kakuzu have at you.”

“Ngh. Didn’t have many options in the matter,” Deidara agreed. “He made me pay an arm and, well, another arm to do it, too.”

Sasori eyed him skeptically. “How’d you lose the right arm?”

Deidara snorted with amusement. “It turns out you were right, Master. Taking on the Nine-Tails right after the One-Tail was a bit much, even for me.”

“Brat,” Sasori sighed, leaning in to inspect Deidara’s left arm. “I can fix you up properly. Kakuzu couldn’t see the inherent artistry of the human body if his life depended on it.”

Deidara turned his head on the pillow so it faced the side of the bed Sasori sat upon. “Tell me about it, yeah? The scars are a bitch to cover, too. Trekking through the Fire Country, in summer, wearing full sleeves?” He stuck out tongues in the three mouths nearest to Sasori all that once.

“We can’t do it here, though,” Sasori commented thoughtfully.

“Yeah, I figured you had your equipment stashed elsewhere.”

“There are a series of secluded caves by the coast, some of them impenetrable without earth techniques.”

“How’s your new carapace coming along?” Deidara inquired curiously.

“Hn. He’s no Hiruko.”

“Not yet.”

“I may need to start from scratch with proper supplies, once we’ve moved on.”

“Tch. Starting back at the beginning is such a pain,” Deidara agreed, finally rolling over onto his side to give Sasori more room on the futon. He propped his head up on one elbow and looked Sasori’s new human body over speculatively. “Although I suppose it’s a fair price to pay for cheating both Akatsuki and death.”

Sasori grunted in agreement and moved to lie down on the mattress, mirroring Deidara’s position. It still unnerved him how this body grew weary. It was like he was constantly dying. Dying and feeling, it all creeped him out.

“So,” Deidara drawled the word out, “are you going to tell me how you did it? I saw your heart, you know. Pierced with poisoned blades, yeah?”

“If you can’t figure it out on your own, it won’t do you any good for me to tell you,” Sasori evaded.

Deidara smirked. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” he teased. The mouth on his left foot nibbled playfully at Sasori’s toes.

Sasori kicked him in response. “Don’t get any funny ideas, brat. This body won’t be around for long.” Deidara had always flirted with him to annoy him, but something about the other man’s advances now, when something could actually happen, sent a spike of anxiety through him. “Besides, I’ve already figured yours out,” he added with a smirk.

Deidara scowled in response. “And just how did you manage that, Master?” This time the title held a hint of spite. “You said you thought I was dead.”

Sasori tisked. “Once I knew you weren’t, it was simple enough.”

Deidara raised a challenging eyebrow.

“Fine,” Sasori grumbled. “You did it all using Pain’s shape-shifting technique.”

Deidara’s eyebrow rose another inch at the mention of their former leader’s real name. They’d never dared to speak it while they were in Akatsuki. Now that that was over, however, Sasori refused to give Pain the honor.

“All our rings held the residual imprint of Pain’s technique,” Sasori went on, as if nothing were unusual, “in case he needed to activate a clone of us when we were physically separated. We all knew that forcing chakra through the ring’s seal would activate the clone.”

“Emergency procedure,” Deidara agreed.

“So all you did was wait until you received message from me and then activated the clone, using a dangerously large percentage of your chakra,” Sasori concluded.

“Five-sixths.”

Sasori nodded. That explained why Deidara had been so difficult to sense when he’d arrived earlier that day; his chakra levels still hadn’t nearly recovered. “At that point, the clone would have been more real than you yourself. You must have given it any identifying markers: the ring, cloak, forehead protector, your scope. All you had to do was live as a shadow of yourself until it died.” Sasori glared. “It was a foolhardy plan, brat. Far too much could have gone wrong, and far too much could have been detected.”

“But it didn’t, yeah?”

“It was also,” Sasori added coldly, “thoroughly uninspired. For all your talk of art, all you managed to achieve was a simple variant on the replacement technique.”

“And how were you any different?” Deidara shot back, blue eyes flashing.

“I,” Sasori summarized succinctly, “died.” That was all he was willing to reveal to Deidara on the matter.

Deidara sulked at having his secrets so easily revealed and then disparaged. “I can’t believe you figured all that out in a few hours.”

“Hideaki leads a very boring life,” Sasori conceded, “plenty of time to ponder such matters.”

“Oh, is that this puppet’s name?” Deidara grinned, appeased once more. “Love the hair, by the way. It’s a real Christmas miracle, yeah?”

Sasori glared at him through pale green bangs. “Watch yourself, brat,” he warned.

Deidara sighed. “Whatever.”

“You still risk too much. It was a gamble, assuming that clone that died in your place would go so quickly.”

“I owe the Uchiha kid one, yeah? Although with the way Akatsuki’s been dropping like flies lately, I suppose it was only a matter of time.”

Sasori snorted. “It’s said he took down Itachi as well.”

Deidara frowned. “That’s news to me. Shit! I wanted my revenge on that bastard.”

“So give it to the little brother for free, and then you won’t owe him anymore,” Sasori shrugged.

“Good idea. I’d hate to start a new life already in debt.” Deidara closed his eyes for a moment, and Sasori almost thought he’d fallen asleep again before Deidara spoke once more. “You need to eat now, yeah?”

“Unfortunately,” Sasori grumbled.

“Let’s eat, then. I’m famished.” With a stretch and a sudden burst of energy, Deidara rose from the mattress.

“I keep protein pills in the cupboard.” Sasori rose reluctantly as well.

“Tch. I saw. I threw them all out.” With that remark, Deidara sauntered back into the living area.

“What?” Sasori growled, stalking after him.

“If you’re only going to live again for a little while, you might as well actually live, yeah?” Deidara shot him a smug look. “I did a bit of shopping before the market closed.”

Sasori crossed his arms over his chest and wished, not for the first time since Deidara’s return earlier that day, that he had access to his poisons. “I don’t want to ‘live’,” he retorted coldly instead. “That’s the whole point of getting rid of this flesh as soon as I can.”

“You’re no fun at all,” Deidara complained lightheartedly, removing several packages from the refrigerator. “You haven’t eaten in almost twenty years, right? A little novelty won’t hurt you.” He opened the foil on one to reveal a fillet of eel.

Sasori turned away. “Brat.” He watched with wary eyes as Deidara neatly sliced up the vegetables and set the rice to steam. Deidara always had to hold the implements with only the tips of his fingers, so that it made all his actions look strangely dainty when he used his hands for anything but molding clay. More than one enemy in the past had underestimated Deidara for just that very reason.

Deidara set down the knife and poured a little water and sauce into the cooking wok as Sasori watched. It was a familiar ritual between them by now. Usually Sasori worked on oiling the joints of his puppets while Deidara cooked and ate, but sometimes he just watched his partner out of curiosity. It had been a facet of existence so alien to him for so long that it was novel to observe from time to time.

The whole experience was considerably stranger, of course, now that he would be eating as well. That was why he’d stuck to tasteless protein pills and vitamins ever since he’d woken up in this body.

“What can I say?” Deidara put the sliced eel onto the wok and flipped it as the meat sizzled. “I like to push your comfort zone.”

“As always, you excel at stating the obvious.” Sasori really wished right then that he had one of his puppets to work on, but it just wasn’t safe in town. This apartment couldn’t properly conceal anything of importance. So instead of working with his hands, he worked with his mind while Deidara cooked. “You’ll need a new source of clay. And parts for a new scope. I think I know where you can find the latter.”

“What timeframe are we looking at?” Deidara, thankfully, knew when not to push Sasori too much.

“I’ll need at least another month here. Maybe two, if things don’t go well.”

“Tch. That’s a bother, but I suppose it can’t be helped. After all, we are the first ninja to escape Akatsuki scot-free. Some sacrifices are necessary, yeah?” The vegetables went in with the eel, and Deidara stirred them neatly with a pair of wooden cooking chopsticks.

“Some sacrifices…” Sasori repeated to himself with a sigh. Those sacrifices already included over a hundred puppets, including his two favorites, plus the actual living core of his heart. He still couldn’t quite process the loss of it all. It just showed how far he still was from freeing himself from his emotions, when the loss of lifeless things affected him so.

“Here.” Deidara set a plate on the low table before Sasori.

The smell of fresh-cooked eel wafted up to his nose, and he carefully sat down on one of the cushions on the floor, crossing his legs neatly beneath him.

Deidara took the seat across from him and remained unusually quiet as they began to eat, chopsticks nimble between his fingers.

Sasori was grateful that Deidara wasn’t looking his way, because he knew he hadn’t been able to fully fight back his reaction at the first taste of actual food. Taste had become a distant memory to him, and the sudden swirl of flavor on his tongue was almost overwhelming. He could feel his mouth salivating, his stomach craving, his taste-buds enjoying. It was all new and strange, yet old and familiar at the same time.

Sasori wanted it all to stop now. He’d made the choice to eliminate all pleasure and pain from his life long ago, and the former was almost as agonizing to him as the latter now.

This newfound body, despite his mind’s wishes, fell upon the food like a starving man who’d been denied for far too long. About twenty years, perhaps.

Sasori, to his embarrassment, finished long before Deidara. Even worse, a part of him wanted more. It was dangerous, this time when he wore flesh once again, tempting him with all the wonders of the world, if only he would give up his immortality in exchange.

Deidara refilled his plate without comment.

“Are we going to be going back to any of our stashes at some point?” Deidara inquired after Sasori began slowing down, his stomach finally full.

“Too risky,” Sasori countered.

“Where’d you get the equipment for the puppet you’re working on, then?”

“I left it here.”

“We’ve never been here, yeah?” Deidara’s eyes met his, keen and intelligent. He was trying to find the trick to Sasori’s miraculous resurrection, then. It wasn’t surprising, given Deidara’s persistence in all things.

“It was before your time.”

“Hn. So long that it’s this difficult to make your modifications?”

“Mind your own business, brat,” Sasori snapped as he had a thousand times before.

Deidara shrugged and picked up their empty plates. He snapped on a pair of rubber gloves – “Do you know how nasty dish-detergent tastes?” he’d replied once when Sasori had asked him about it – and began scrubbing the plates in the sink with a faraway expression on his face. Sasori suddenly found himself inexplicably uncomfortable with the whole situation. He didn’t have anywhere to go, though.

“You know, Master, I wondered during those three weeks,” Deidara finally said softly, his back to Sasori. “I wondered if maybe the plan hadn’t worked, and you really were dead. You really looked it, yeah?”

“‘Yeah’,” Sasori mocked lightly.

“And I also wondered if the plan had worked, but you’d changed your mind, and you weren’t going to contact me, after all. That seemed like something you would do.” Deidara frowned down at his hands on the edge of the sink as he removed his dishwashing gloves. His hands frowned back up at him.

“It is,” Sasori agreed uncomfortably. In truth, he’d debated long and hard about whether to just cut his former ties entirely. Even he couldn’t say for sure what had prompted him to keep his promise and send for his partner to join him.

Then, Deidara shrugged and grinned, breaking the mood. “You’re stuck with me now, though, old man.”

“Hn,” Sasori snorted with amusement.

The rest of the evening was spent planning the requisitioning of supplies they’d need to rebuild their powers to the fullest. Sasori found something comforting in that, how they could still work together seamlessly, despite all that had changed.

It was only that night, as they both lay as far apart as they could get on the futon due to the overbearing heat and humidity in the air, that Sasori spoke of trivial matters once more.

“Hey, brat?” he mumbled groggily, unable to sleep due to the sweat that clung to the back of his neck.

“What?”

“The eel… How did you know that it was my favorite?” The question had been puzzling him ever since dinner.

Deidara chuckled a rich and deep laugh. “Maybe I should keep my secrets, too, yeah?” he teased.

“I may not have fully refined my poisons yet, but I can still make you horribly sick for a few days,” Sasori snapped.

Deidara relented. “That time we were in the Bird Country and I had eel.”

“What about it?”

“You couldn’t keep your eyes off me. Almost like you were…missing it. The food, yeah?”

“No,” Sasori hissed and shut his eyes tight.

“Tch.” Deidara snorted. “Whatever you say, Master. ’Night-’night.”

Sasori grunted in acknowledgement.

He pondered the matter in the still of the night, however. That had been the trip when he’d first let his guard slip around Deidara, just a little. He’d never understood much about trust, and even less so back then, but that had been when he’d begun to share his most important secrets. Some of them he’d even shared unwillingly, it seemed.

Sasori didn’t think that he could ever say that he trusted Deidara, but right now he was reasonably confident that Deidara hadn’t betrayed him and that Pain wouldn’t come bursting through that door any minute, ready to inflict every form of torment upon Sasori’s fragile new body and then haul him back into Akatsuki’s clutches. That was more trust than he’d ever put in anyone for as long as he could remember.

And that night, seven years ago, was when it had all begun…

Chapter Text

“So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the path of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

***

Seven years ago…

A cascade of explosions ripped through the night air, illuminating the woods with a scattering of bright flashes of light. Deidara was, once again, in a tirade and, as usual, he left a wave of destruction in his wake.

“I’m going to fucking murder them all!” Deidara hissed vehemently. “Katsu!” The ground at the edge of their campsite erupted into flames in response.

Sasori whipped Hiruko’s tail around himself defensively as bits of fire and sod fell from above. “Watch it, brat,” he hissed. Hiruko’s eyes flitted about warily, eyeing the sheer number of clay creations flying around the clearing in complete chaos.

Katsu!” Deidara screamed again, and another two explosions boomed through the night.

It seemed Deidara was setting them off entirely at random. “Calm yourself,” Sasori’s scorpion tail flashed menacingly in the firelight, “or I’ll do it for you.”

Furious blue eyes turned on Sasori in response. “By all means, Master,” Deidara hissed. “Better to die with a bang than live as a slave, yeah?”

“Tch.” Sasori rolled Hiruko’s eyes. “Don’t be so melodramatic.”

“Isn’t that what we all are?” Deidara snapped. With an errant wave of his hand, another half dozen of the clay birds that swarmed about them exploded.

“And blowing your own head off by accident is an improvement?” Sasori kept one eye on a clay grasshopper that had just landed a bit too close to Hiruko’s feet. The explosion wouldn’t be enough to damage Hiruko significantly, but repairing the paint job would be a bother. “Wait. I take it back. Blowing your head off would be an improvement.”

Deidara turned to face him, index and middle fingers raised in preparation for detonation. Then he paused for a moment, and instead waved the clay grasshopper off. It eventually blew up harmlessly by the edge of the woods.

“I hate it…” Deidara sighed, seeming to finally calm down. “It’s humiliating.” He slumped to the ground beside the campfire, which had burned continuously through Deidara’s outburst. In time with his motions, the dozen or so clay animals that still swarmed about them came to an abrupt halt as well, suddenly lifeless as they awaited further orders from their master.

Sasori couldn’t exactly argue with Deidara’s point. Deidara was the newest member of Akatsuki, so by default his team got all the grunt work. It was the way unwilling new recruits were always molded into conformity with Akatsuki’s larger goals. It was also not a bad way to keep the senior members from murdering their younger, often annoying partners; being paired with a new recruit inevitably meant suffering the foulest missions Pain could come up with. Sasori still hadn’t gotten the swamp-gunk out of Hiruko’s joints after their last mission.

Deidara’s face hardened as he stared deep into the campfire. “I won’t do it anymore,” he finally decided with conviction.

Sasori snorted. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”

“Why not?” Deidara countered. “You can kill me, yeah. Big deal.”

“Death isn’t the worst thing Leader can inflict,” Sasori retorted. “Remember your fight with Itachi.”

Deidara scowled at the memory. “Some day, I’ll get my revenge…”

Sasori chuckled. “You’re young yet,” he offered indulgently.

“Then, please, wise Master Sasori,” Deidara said sarcastically, “enlighten me.” He leaned back on his elbows, the perfect picture of youthful defiance.

Sasori debated swatting him with his tail, just for good measure. In the long run, however, he just encouraged Deidara by responding to his provocations. Instead, he settled Hiruko down across the campfire from his young partner.

“First of all, don’t think you’re special, brat,” he began gruffly.

Deidara quirked an eyebrow in interest.

“Only a fool would want to join Akatsuki. And Akatsuki members, for the most part, are not fools.” Sasori kept Hiruko’s eyes fixed on Deidara the entire time, and he could tell he had Deidara’s attention now.

“Akatsuki members are chosen,” Sasori continued, “from the most powerful ninjas in the world. They are also chosen from the most hardened killers. Outside Akatsuki, the odds of encountering a ninja powerful enough to destroy a potential recruit are quite small. Inside, it is guaranteed. This means that one would have to have a death wish to join willingly.”

“Then why did you join, Master?” Deidara tilted his head to one side, studying the lines of Hiruko’s face.

“You aren’t the only one who was given little choice in the matter,” Sasori said succinctly. “And you aren’t the only one who has considered escape.”

Deidara’s eyes widened. “Then why—?”

“Quiet, boy!” Sasori snapped. “Your impetuous nature will get you killed.”

“Why do you care, yeah?” Deidara retorted, arms crossed.

It was a very good question, and one Sasori couldn’t answer. He supposed the easiest answer was that he didn’t care, not really, but he’d grown accustomed to Deidara’s presence these last few months, and it would be…quiet without the other man around. Deidara, at the very least, was reasonably competent in battle and worth some small entertainment to Sasori. If Deidara died, he had no guarantee that his next partner wouldn’t be significantly worse.

“I don’t,” Sasori answered almost truthfully. “But someone needs to tell you this, and the burden has fallen to me.”

“My sincerest condolences.” Deidara could really be a smart-mouthed little snot when he wanted to.

“This is for your own good. I won’t say it twice,” Sasori warned.

Deidara, miraculously, shut up.

“If you tried to escape, you would hardly be the first. I’ve seen a dozen try over the years, and only one has succeeded. But even his success was a failure in the long run. He lives a half life now, deep in paranoia, running at all times from the enemies he has made. Leader will hunt him down until one of them is dead. It’s only a matter of time.” Sasori paused as he considered the matter. “The only real escape from Akatsuki is death.”

“You don’t mention him often,” Deidara finally said softly. “Your old partner, yeah?”

Hiruko’s features scowled. “He’ll get what’s coming to him.” Sasori shook off the anger at this latest abandonment – it was irrelevant and far too human – before continuing. “The others who failed to escape were captured.”

“And killed?”

“Not so many as you might think. Leader has…other ways of ensuring compliance. You have felt what Itachi can do in a second, with just his eyes. Yet even he doesn’t dare leave. Leader’s powers… Compared to them, the Mangekyou is nothing.”

Deidara shivered in memory.

“After a few more rounds against Itachi, would you still have the will to fight? Leader can beat out that fire in a heartbeat. He’s done it to countless others, and he’ll do it to you, too.” Hiruko’s puppet teeth clacked. “The secret to escaping is to not try to escape. That way the will remains firm: cool and focused at all times. A proper escape from Akatsuki would take years in the making, maybe even decades.”

Deidara considered him carefully. “You sound as if you’re planning it, yeah?”

“If I were, I would never be foolish enough to discuss it with you, brat. Why do you think Leader makes us work in pairs? It’s not for our social skills.”

Deidara chuckled. “You think I’m going to rat you out to the boss.” He seemed to consider the idea. “Interesting…”

“I, certainly, will ‘rat you out’ if you continue this foolish talk,” Sasori informed him. “It will only make my loyalties seem that much firmer if I betray you.”

“Lovely little organization you’ve got yourselves here.” Deidara glared. “Good thing we’re all already sociopaths.”

“Think what you want, boy, but if you’re smart, you’ll keep it to yourself.” With that, Sasori retracted Hiruko’s arms back into the carapace so he could resume removing the muck from the joints, as he had been before Pain’s image had fizzled into existence and provided them with their latest assignment.

Deidara was quiet for some time, and Sasori briefly entertained the hope that some of what he’d said had sunk in. When Deidara finally spoke, though, there was nothing diminished in his convictions. “I am an artist. An artist cannot work without the freedom to express himself however he is inspired to do so. Better to finish it now and remain true to myself than let my art grow dull and stale.”

Sasori rolled Hiruko’s eyes. “You blow things up,” he grumbled. “That’s not art!”

“See?” Deidara said triumphantly. “You’ve fallen under their control, and already your appreciation for art’s variety has narrowed. How many great masterpieces have you created since joining Akatsuki, hmm?”

“To the true artist,” Sasori retorted acerbically, “the perfect escape would be the ultimate masterpiece.”

Across the fire from him, Deidara’s breath caught in his throat. The silence between them was almost deafening as Sasori’s words sunk in.

“You’re correct of course, Master,” Deidara finally said, a small smile in his voice. “I’ve underestimated your ingenuity, yeah?”

Sasori grunted, but the damage had already been done. For better or for worse and despite his better judgment, Sasori had revealed that there was a master plan, after all…

***

Present day…

Sasori awoke slowly, groggy and confused. He still wasn’t used to dreaming again, and the trip his subconscious mind had taken into the past disoriented him at first.

Also, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why his stomach felt wet, hot, and sticky.

He grunted and reached out with his chakra to pull the strings in his hand. It didn’t work, and it took him a moment to remember that he was in an actual living, breathing, human body now. Chakra strings didn’t apply.

He tried moving his hand using the muscles and joints, and this time he succeeded in rubbing at his eyes. The morning light snuck in through the cracks around the edge of the blinds, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust: yet another pointless and painful experience humans had to go through daily. Sasori couldn’t wait to have a wooden body once more.

With his mind sharp again, Sasori turned his attention to the gooey puddle around his navel. The situation was made slightly more difficult by the fact that, at some point in the night, the weather had cooled off, and Deidara was now sleeping on his stomach right next to him, his arm flung over Sasori’s waist. It was just typical of Deidara to make everything as difficult as possible.

Deidara let out a muffled complaint in his sleep when Sasori moved his arm, but didn’t wake. However, Sasori only got halfway through moving Deidara when he suddenly realized what the thick liquid was and made a face.

The clear, gooey mess clung to his stomach and Deidara’s hand, creating a long string of liquid between the two. As Sasori watched, the liquid grew thicker as the tongue in Deidara’s hand lolled about and more saliva dribbled from his palm.

“Just great.” Deidara’s left hand had been drooling on him all night. Sasori shoved the arm back into Deidara’s direction with annoyance. “How absolutely, ridiculously human,” he muttered under his breath.

Hideaki’s bathroom didn’t have a shower, so Sasori used the sink to wash off the spot of drool. It had sunk all the way through the t-shirt he’d been wearing, and he chucked the garment aside in distaste. After he was done wiping down his stomach, he tossed the cloth in the wash bin on top of his shirt. Now that Deidara was back, and always willing to take on that particular chore, Sasori felt less need to keep things out of the laundry for as long as possible.

With that mess taken care of, Sasori returned to the mundane details of the life he was temporarily trapped in. Next to the morning paraphernalia he’d been forced to purchase, he noticed that the side of the sink was now stacked with three new tubes of toothpaste. A small box, containing several dozen more, was under the sink. Deidara had six mouths to clean, so he always bought in bulk.

Grateful that he only had one set of teeth to worry about – although even that was more of a bother than he wanted – Sasori opened up his own toothpaste. Thankfully, he’d already remastered this pointless menial task enough that his mind could drift to more important matters.

This, of course, was well-nigh impossible when Deidara suddenly burst in with the urgent request, “Gotta pee!”

Sasori quickly turned his full attention to cleaning his molars and not to the absolutely absurd sigh of relief that Deidara let out when he reached the toilet. Sometimes, Deidara really needed more personal boundaries.

“It’s a nice day today, yeah, Master?” Deidara crowded around the sink with Sasori to wash his fingers when he was done, and Sasori let him. “We should be able to get a lot done before your puppet’s guard shift this afternoon.” And then Deidara set to brushing his teeth.

The first time Sasori had witnessed this bizarre yet strangely fascinating event, even he hadn’t been able to keep from gaping. Deidara brushing his teeth was a full-body effort that took the coordination of an acrobat and the flexibility of a gymnast.

Deidara started by putting a healthy dab of toothpaste onto two of his toothbrushes. The one he held in his left fingers and used on his regular mouth was perfectly ordinary. The other one, which his right hand used on the mouth in his chest, was a special design with extra firm bristles that only fanned to the sides when Deidara’s thumb flicked the switch near the end of the brush. The bristles were designed to get in and around the stitches that sewed his chest mouth closed and could even reach the backs of Deidara’s molars there without him opening the mouth. Deidara had explained this all to him once after Sasori had shown unusual interest in the object.

Humming slightly to himself, Deidara brushed the two mouths at the same time, his right hand moving the brush bristles deftly through the stitches in his chest without Deidara even having to look in the mirror. Sasori supposed that sort of muscle memory came from doing the same bizarre thing every day of your life.

“I want to get your arms fixed first,” Sasori announced curtly, spitting out his own toothpaste and rinsing his mouth. Unlike the minty flavor Deidara mass-purchased, he’d found a simple baking soda brand that was virtually tasteless. “The new stitches will need time to heal.”

“Sounds good to me, yeah?” Deidara turned on the tap water and filled the rinser he used for the mouth on his chest. He spit out the toothpaste in his regular mouth.

Sasori found himself in the stupidly mundane predicament that he had to use the facilities but was too embarrassed to do so while Deidara could see him right in the mirror. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest and shifted nervously from foot to foot. As soon as I can switch back into a puppet body, he swore to himself, never again…

There were only so many humiliations an S-Class ninja could take before he snapped, after all.

“You should probably sleep after that,” Sasori said aloud. “Your chakra still hasn’t recovered fully from that foolhardy fake death of yours.”

Deidara grinned at him saucily and finished rinsing out the mouth in his chest. The lips there swished around a bit, before parting just enough to spit the water back into the sink. That completed, Deidara pulled out two ordinary toothbrushes, filled them with toothpaste, and promptly dropped down to the floor in the lotus position.

“It’s like a vacation, yeah?” Deidara began rigorously brushing the teeth on the insides of his ankles, right-hand brush on the left foot and left-hand brush on the right.

“If you consider narrowly avoiding death, posing as a civilian, and undergoing major surgery a vacation,” Sasori snorted. Then he switched to the other foot. He really had to go.

Deidara smirked at him knowingly. “I promise I won’t peek,” he teased.

Sasori glared at him. “Just hurry up, brat.”

“You know, Itsutsu was the exactly same way. It’s funny.”

“I am nothing like that freak!” Sasori snapped. Nanajuuichi Itsutsu was Deidara’s ex-boyfriend from Iwa. Deidara just loved to regale Sasori about the time they spent together. This was a problem because Itsutsu was a very distinct individual in that—

“You’re just saying that because he has five dicks,” Deidara insisted. Deidara stood up and lifted one leg so that the mouth there could spit into the sink. He poured a bit of water into it, and it swished about happily.

“Well, obviously.” Sasori tapped his foot anxiously. As happened every time Deidara mentioned his ex, Sasori was immediately assaulted with the logistics of why they’d obviously been together in the first place: five dicks and six mouths. He didn’t need that image in his head first thing in the morning. Hell, he didn’t need that image in his head ever.

Deidara repeated the process with the other foot and then filled his toothbrushes once more. Sasori still couldn’t help but be a little impressed that Deidara had the dexterity to make his two hands brush each other at the same time. The motion seemed like it should be hopelessly awkward, yet Deidara did it like it was second nature.

You hurry up,” Deidara shot back, wandering back into the bedroom as he brushed his palms. “I’ll need the sink again soon.”

Sasori debated throwing the bottle of mouthwash at Deidara’s head as he walked out, but in the end it just didn’t seem sinister enough. Sasori really needed to build himself another scorpion tail soon.

Letting out a breath of relief, Sasori satisfied himself with the thought that at least Deidara looked more frog-faced than usual with his hair hacked off and dyed dark. It was some limited consolation.

He watched his face in the mirror as he washed his hands afterwards, taking in each and every human arch. The features were almost entirely his now, although there was a certain broadness to Hideaki’s jaw that hadn’t entirely faded yet. His eyes were entirely silvery-grey, thankfully; it had been strange to see himself through black eyes when he’d first awoken. The red roots of his hair were showing about a quarter of an inch. A little bit longer, and Sasori would cut off the pale green ends.

It was unnerving to see flesh and blood staring back at him like this. He’d been in this body for a little over a month now, and the sight never failed to make something deep inside him queasy. “Mortal…” he whispered to himself in disgust. “Weak. Human…” His fingers reached up to touch the curve of his jaw-line and felt the beginnings of rough stubble there. It was itchy and uncomfortable, and everything Sasori wanted to escape.

“I hate it,” he breathed, shutting his eyes.

Naturally, at that point Deidara banged on the door. It sounded weirdly muffled, like Deidara was using his elbow or some other body part not designed for knocking. “How long does it take that body to pee, anyway?” he shouted loud enough that the neighbors probably heard. “I can’t brush forever, yeah?”

“Shut up, brat.” Sasori snapped out of his self-reflection and opened the door once more.

Deidara slid right past him as if absolutely nothing were unusual about the whole situation. Sasori halfheartedly swatted at the back of his head as he took over his position in front of the sink. “Try not to take forever. I want to get going.”

“Tch,” Deidara teased, “look who’s talking.”

Sasori shook his head and returned to the bedroom to meditate. It was a rigorous routine he had to follow now to make sure that he successfully took hold in this human body in every way. Bit-by-bit, he pushed his consciousness into the cells of his body, snuffing out the remnants of Hideaki. He focused on his jaw that morning because it was the one part of his face that still looked alien to him. With enough work, it would soon be his again…

About halfway through his meditation, Deidara began banging around in the kitchen in the most distracting manner imaginable, making breakfast.

Strangely enough, there was something Sasori found very reassuring about it all.

Chapter Text

“Without trust, words become the hollow sound of a wooden gong. With trust, words become life itself.” – John Harold

***

Present day…

It was strange how something could baffle Sasori his entire life, and then in one moment of clarity he suddenly understood it all. That was how it was with trust, though, that morning when Sasori led Deidara to his studio by the sea.

Sasori had set up his lair a little over two kilometers outside of Hisoka among the rocky crags along the shore. The terrain here was too jagged for farming, and the sea too rough for fishing. As a result, the area was rarely visited and perfect for Sasori’s purposes.

Sasori leapt down from the tree branches to the top of the cliff with a burst of chakra. Deidara landed only a half-step behind him. “You’re better with earth techniques than I am,” Sasori said simply.

Deidara nodded. After years as partners, lengthy explanations were unnecessary in such situations. Deidara formed two familiar hand seals, and the ground parted beneath them, creating a tunnel just big enough for them to travel through into the caves below. As they moved through it, the earth closed up again behind them, leaving no indication that they had passed.

Sasori followed Deidara’s lead, enjoying the spacious tunnel for once. Sasori could perform the technique, of course, but it still took him the full twelve hand signs to do so, and the small size of the tunnels he created was a bit claustrophobic. Apparently, humans didn’t like tight spaces, as he’d learned the first time he’d done this and come across the bizarre sensation of his palms sweating.

The end of the tunnel finally opened into a tall cave. The sound of dripping could be heard somewhere distantly, indicating that this cave was still alive. The stalactites that hung from the roof gave the whole place the appearance of a giant, gaping mouth. Sasori found that it suited his purposes quite adequately, although the moisture was a bit of a problem for preservation.

Deidara came to a halt in the section of the cave Sasori was using as his workshop and observed Sasori’s work-in-progress with a critical eye. “Not as big a compartment as Hiruko,” he commented thoughtfully.

“Hiruko was a very large man when alive,” Sasori agreed.

Deidara stepped up to Sasori’s half-formed creation. Sasori had already hollowed out the interior, so his latest puppet was mostly a husk of bones and the beginnings of a wooden frame at this point. The puppet’s skin had been flayed back and was still drying. Later, Sasori would tan it properly until it reached the strength of thick leather. The puppet’s heart was removed from the body, but was still connected and lay beating on a nearby table, since Sasori kept all the blood vessels and chakra paths intact at this stage. Eventually they’d be merged into the grain of the wood, but for now the puppet was a half-flesh, half-wood chimera. A small scroll set up within a series of pillars and seals created a chakra field for the heart to beat with a steady thump, even as its original body was eviscerated.

“What do you plan to put in the cranial cavity?” Deidara asked curiously, correctly spotting the area with the most recent carving marks.

“Poisoned senbon again.” Sasori crossed his arms over his chest, feeling oddly defensive all of a sudden. He knew it was a ridiculous reaction. He’d had plenty of partners over the years, and eventually all of them had seen him practice his art. Deidara had always stood apart from all the others, because where the others had given him looks like he was some kind of freak, Deidara just smiled and said…

“He’s beautiful, yeah?”

Sasori felt the smallest of smiles curve his lips. “His name is Jirou.”

“Hello, Jirou,” Deidara said fondly. His fingertips traced the line of Jirou’s skull to where the bone turned to wood in an almost seamless transition. By the time Sasori was done, it would be seamless. “So,” Deidara moved on, shrugging his jacket off his shoulders to expose his scarred arms, “where do you want me?”

Sasori glared at the not-so-subtle innuendo in Deidara’s words. “I haven’t used the third table yet. It’s sterile enough.”

Deidara nodded and lay back on the last of the metal operating tables Sasori had moved in for his work. Sasori examined the series of test tubes he’d gathered so far with various drugs and poisons, and picked out one that was almost clear except for the slightest trace of yellow in the liquid inside.

“This will probably hurt,” Sasori informed him.

Deidara shrugged. “Since when has a little pain bothered me?”

Sasori coated a needle with two drops of the liquid. “I’ll have to paralyze you.”

“Whatever you think works best,” Deidara agreed. He held perfectly still while Sasori pricked his neck.

Sasori sat on the edge of the metal table and watched Deidara’s body freeze in place. It suddenly struck him, then. He’d never really understood trust, but this, right now, had to be what trust was. He held Deidara entirely under his control: captured, paralyzed, and helpless. Not only that, but Deidara had given in to this state willingly.

With a sharp intake of breath, Sasori finally understood. Trust was what kept Deidara’s eyes calm and relaxed, even when he was completely at Sasori’s mercy.

And trust was also let Sasori know that, no matter what, he would never let himself hurt Deidara, even when it was so easy, like this.

They held each other’s gazes, Deidara lying on the cold metal operating slab and Sasori hovering over him. The change in Deidara’s body as the poison took hold was beautiful to behold, as always. As a puppet master, Sasori savored control as the most perfect of art forms, and this poison was the ultimate control over flesh and muscle. Bit by bit, Deidara’s body tensed and turned rigid until he didn’t even have the power to blink. His internal organs still functioned properly, which was why this paralytic was the perfect choice for the early stages of making a human puppet. That wasn’t Sasori’s intention this time, though; he’d made that decision long ago.

Sasori held up a sterilized scalpel and instead began to remove the stitches Kakuzu had made. Kakuzu being Kakuzu, of course, the stitches fought him as best they could. Sasori’s skill was greater, however, and he cut the foreign threads from Deidara’s flesh neatly and precisely.

“The paralytic will last not quite an hour,” Sasori began to detail the procedure he was about to perform. “I haven’t managed to refine the mixture enough to get it to full strength.” He pulled the last of Kakuzu’s stitches from Deidara’s right arm and summoned his own chakra thread to his fingertips. “I’m going to make sure the bone is properly set first. Then, I’m going to tie the muscle tissue one thread at a time.”

Sasori moved further onto the table, straddling Deidara’s waist so that he rested directly on top of him. It was an uncomfortably intimate position, but one had to make allowances for his lack of height. He then carefully dropped some moisturizing drops into Deidara’s open eyes, before closing the lids.

“I can already see that some of the muscle has healed improperly, so I’m going to have to cut you open again.” This was fitting, Sasori thought. Deidara was his partner, so he rather liked the idea of erasing any marks Kakuzu had made on his body and replacing them with his own.

Deidara couldn’t say a word in response, of course. That was why Sasori sacrificed his usual aloofness in this situation, and kept up a steady, one-sided conversation. This was one of the few circumstances in which Sasori felt really comfortable discussing important things, and he had an unfortunate tendency to say things while he had Deidara paralyzed and in his clutches that he had never spoken to another living soul. It was a tradition they had begun many years earlier…

***

Seven years ago…

It all happened in an instant, faster than even Sasori could react.

Deidara’s infiltration mission had been a success, and he’d assassinated Iwa’s elite interrogation team as they attempted to practice their craft on him. It was a necessary step in securing Akatsuki’s spies deeper into the Earth Country, but Deidara had been looking the worse for wear before the following battle had even begun. He’d had to endure quite a lot before the lead interrogator even arrived on the scene, much to Sasori’s chagrin as he’d watched from the shadows. It was never fun when one’s own partner was the bait.

With the mission complete, escape should have been simple, but one of the teammates of the interrogators was an annoying Iwa chuunin with an unfortunate knack for teleportation jutsu. Sasori should have killed him a thousand times over by now, but the kid just kept transporting himself to another location in the knick of time.

Deidara was almost entirely useless at this point, slumped against a nearby tree and clutching at his broken ribs. He stood gingerly due to the fact that several of his toenails had been forcibly removed with hot pincers, and the blood running down his forehead was blinding him. Really, it was a miracle the kid had had the forbearance to wait until the entire interrogation squad arrived and then blow them all up. Either that, or it was because of what he’d had to endure that the eventual explosion had been so enthusiastic.

It did mean, however, that Sasori’s only advantage lay in the fact that the Iwa chuunin was tiring. Sasori’s moment came soon enough and, when he saw his opening, he went for it.

The poisoned senbon flew through the air with perfect aim, directly for the head of their enemy…

And then, in a horrible instant, everything changed.

One second, unfamiliar dark eyes widened with alarm in the senbon’s path, and the next, those eyes were a rich, deep blue. Sasori only had one moment to process what the aggravating chuunin had done – switched places with Deidara – before the needle struck, right through the center of Deidara’s right eye.

Damn it!” Before Sasori even thought about what he was doing, he’d leapt from Hiruko’s protective carapace and was diving for his falling partner. He caught Deidara only milliseconds before he would’ve hit the dirt.

The Iwa chuunin, who clearly hadn’t expected his enemy to be a puppet hidden within another puppet, froze for a moment in shock. With an errant flick of his fingers, Sasori shot another senbon from Hiruko’s mouth. This one hit its intended target and caught the Iwa chuunin right through the pupil.

Sasori couldn’t even take satisfaction in the thump the boy made when he landed on the ground.

“Deidara…” Sasori finally whispered as he stared at the still form of his partner. Wide, unblinking eyes stared back up at him. “I…” Sasori felt something strange twist deep inside of him. Much like an amputee continued to ‘feel’ phantom limbs, sometimes Sasori retained an odd echo of the sensations that his human body had once known. This one right now was like a phantom rush of adrenaline, sharp and terrifying like a long-forgotten memory of what panic had felt like. “I…didn’t mean to.”

Deidara just remained as limp as a corpse in his arms, those unseeing eyes almost accusing in their blank gaze.

Then, Sasori realized that he was being absolutely, ridiculously useless and forced himself mentally to get it together. He took a moment to calm the erratic thumps of his still-beating heart, and when he was done, he was in control of the situation once more.

“You’ve been poisoned,” he informed Deidara matter-of-factly, setting him down on the ground carefully so as not to jostle his broken ribs. “This will stop it from killing you.” He removed a tiny vial from his stomach compartment that he kept for just such an emergency and injected Deidara’s arm. “The rest is just a paralytic. On its own, it’s mostly harmless. It’s the poison I use to immobilize my sleeper agents and human puppets during the first stage of creation.”

Sasori watched Deidara’s eyes and could see that there was still some intelligence behind them. They couldn’t widen, but Sasori saw something there that looked like fear. There was good reason for the fear, too. Sasori had already transformed two of his previous partners into puppets. He’d toyed with doing the same to Orochimaru, but in the end it had seemed too risky. With Deidara, Sasori was still considering the matter, and he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. After he’d so foolishly let his insubordinate thoughts slip on the way to Iwa, he needed to do a bit of damage control. On top of that, Deidara’s unique body and explosive chakra had always intrigued Sasori, but over time…

Even Sasori couldn’t quite explain why he made the choice he did. Maybe, in the end, he really did believe that Deidara was an artist. Remove the spark that governed Deidara, and remove also the creative genius there. Sasori could understand that reasoning, at the very least. He wanted to possess Deidara, just as he wanted to possess everything. Deidara’s case, however, was a rare exception. The real, living Deidara contained unique properties that couldn’t be duplicated in a puppet facsimile. It was one of the few times Sasori had felt that his art was inadequate to the task at hand.

Of course, Deidara knew none of what Sasori had just decided, so he had every reason to think that his consciousness would be snuffed out and his body would join Sasori’s army.

Sasori raised calm fingers to the senbon needle that protruded through Deidara’s eye. “This technique requires absolute precision, but it puts my needle squarely into the section of the brain that controls the sleeper agent’s free will. With a drop of corrosive poison to the end of the needle, I can drip it directly into the centers of the brain that I need to destroy. I bend the puppet to my will, then force my seal into their brain. They become nothing but an extension of me, whenever I wish it.”

Sasori held the end of the needle in Deidara’s eye between two fingers and then, with inhuman perfection, pulled it neatly back out. “After I remove the needle, there is no physical damage on the body that can be detected. You may want to keep that eye covered for a few days, though. I suspect it will be sensitive.”

With the immediate danger out of the way – Sasori had left off the part that he was no medical ninja, so he only managed to successfully remove the needle without killing his puppet in about seventy-five percent of cases – Sasori lifted Deidara up into his arms once more and carried him over to Hiruko.

“I’ll show you the actual technique on this chuunin boy,” Sasori offered as a sort of compensation for what he’d accidentally done, laying Deidara down carefully within Hiruko’s carapace. For some reason, it seemed wrong for Deidara to be quiet and still like this, and Sasori felt the irrational impulse to fill the silence with his own voice. “I’ll just be a moment.”

Sasori wasn’t anywhere near as careful moving the Iwa chuunin. The needle had lodged perhaps a bit too deeply in the boy’s brain, and Sasori wasn’t entirely sure he would survive: best to try for a human puppet rather than a sleeper agent, then. He tied the body neatly to the defensive plate on Hiruko’s back and then climbed inside next to Deidara.

“We’ll be home soon,” he promised.

***

Present day…

“Do you remember our first time together?” Sasori teased, face perfectly blank, as he continued to force his chakra threads through the muscles and sinews of Deidara’s arm, weaving the two broken ends together at the cellular level. Thankfully, this operation had none of the urgency of that first one, so Sasori wasn’t above getting Deidara back just a bit for all the flirtations his partner threw his way.

Sasori shifted his hips slightly so that he found a more comfortable position on Deidara’s stomach; he was feeling awfully stiff and cramped in this body. “I did consider turning you into a puppet for a moment, you know,” he continued conversationally. With a final pull of the thread, he closed the last blood vessel. “That would have stripped you of your unpredictability, though.” Sasori frowned. “It wouldn’t be the same.” He began stitching the arm closed, creating a smooth line of skin where before there had previously been scarred edges. All his work on transforming the human body turned out to be excellent practice for this. “I did think that I might have to kill you afterwards. I had no idea how you’d react when you came out of the paralysis.”

Sasori stilled his hand when Deidara’s right arm was complete. He ran one thumb curiously over the seam, checking his work. The skin there was red and slightly inflamed, but the seam was smooth. A week’s healing, and the scar would be completely invisible. Sasori allowed himself a moment of pride in his work.

As he continued to stroke his thumb up and down Deidara’s arm, he noticed the skin break out into gooseflesh. Either his partner was cold, or he was more perverted than even Sasori had guessed. He smirked to himself at the notion.

“I’ve shown my art to others,” he said blandly as he moved over to work on Deidara’s left arm. Here, the bone hadn’t mended quite right, and the double break would require more work. “My grandmother was the first, of course.” Sasori calmly began slicing Kakuzu’s stitches away.

With an angry stroke of the scalpel, he caught the first stitch and severed it in two. “She called me a monster,” he hissed, grey eyes flashing angrily. “She said I had to be stopped.”

With a final slash, Sasori removed the last of Kakuzu’s stitches. Soon, Deidara would bear no mark of his time with Akatsuki at all.

“I left Suna after that. She just didn’t understand,” Sasori said darkly. “Humans are frail creatures. One moment is all it takes to snuff out a life. But puppets… They can last forever if properly cared for. They can never leave me.”

He twisted the chakra string between his hands as he studied the ruined portion of Deidara’s arm. “You were the only one who ever understood,” he said softly, before resuming his work.

***

Seven years ago…

“The paralytic will last for four hours,” Sasori informed Deidara as he set him up in a seated position against the wall of Akatsuki’s lair. “It will clear out quickly, and leave no lasting effects.” The speech was irritatingly close to ‘everything will be all right,’ but that was essentially what Sasori was trying to convey, unfortunately.

Sasori allowed himself a moment of annoyance; none of his other partners had ever gotten him into uncomfortable positions like this. Of course, that was because he’d just killed them or turned them into puppets when they tried. Sasori had one moment of doubt that he wasn’t taking advantage of the perfect opportunity to add Deidara to his collection.

Then, he shook his head, and returned to his soon-to-be new puppet. “You,” he snarled in the face of the Iwa chuunin, “are most certainly not going to be ‘all right.’” He glanced over to Deidara and judged that the angle was right so that Deidara could see everything he was going to do to the boy. “First,” Sasori held up a vial of reddish-orange poison, “I’m going to dissolve the part of your brain that will fight me. I could leave it at that and make you my spy. You wouldn’t even know what you were.”

Sasori extracted a drop of the rust-colored poison from the vial. “That’s what I was planning to do to you. I need more sleeper agents.” He dropped the poison onto the needle and watched it slowly fall down the metal length, down into the eye. “But you’ve earned yourself special distinction.” Sasori leaned in with a menacing hiss. “You should have known better than to attack an Akatsuki member’s partner.” Sasori could hear the beginnings of the chemical reaction inside the boy’s skull as the poison ate away at his brain.

“You’ve earned yourself the honor of becoming one of my human puppets,” Sasori informed him, producing a scalpel. “Congratulations.” And he cut into the boy’s chest.

***

Present day…

Sasori felt Deidara’s heart beat wildly – a side-effect of the pain – as Sasori ground his bones back into their proper place. It was one of the few times he regretted that he’d never developed an anesthetic for his work.

“That’s the worst of it,” he said blandly. As quickly as he could, he sunk his chakra threads into Deidara’s bone and muscle, stopping the worst of the bleeding he’d caused almost immediately. “I’m almost done.”

The strain of working his chakra this carefully was starting to give Sasori a headache. It wasn’t a strain on his stamina, so much as his concentration, but he felt the effect physically nonetheless. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Sasori felt a drop of sweat slide down the side of his face. His thighs were stiff and aching where he perched over Deidara’s body, and he felt the sudden urge to squirm. This whole operation would have been so much easier if he’d been in his puppet body. Soon, he promised himself before returning to stitching Deidara back up.

He saw Deidara blink out of the corner of his eye and frowned. The paralytic should still be working; the compound must have been even weaker than he’d thought. That did explain how Jirou had been able to thrash about so much when Sasori removed his heart from the chest cavity, however. At some point soon, he was really going to have to get proper poison ingredients.

“I need you to hold still,” Sasori said calmly. “I’ll work as quickly as I can.”

A muffled noise escaped Deidara’s mouth that sounded like agreement. At least the paralytic was wearing off properly.

Sasori tripled the number of threads extending from his fingertips and wove them in a pattern that even he admired as beautiful in its complexity. Flesh untwisted and realigned before his eyes, guided by his experienced fingers. He rejoined torn tissue, sealed together cells, and slowly Deidara’s arm returned to its proper state.

He could feel Deidara breathing more heavily beneath him now, as if he were in pain, but he never moved a muscle, even though he undoubtedly could now.

There was something exciting about that, something that made Sasori feel impossibly powerful.

***

Seven years ago…

The Iwa chuunin twitched as Sasori reached in and finally removed his heart. It thumped between his wooden fingertips, and the blood there made it slick and hard to grip. It didn’t help that the bodies always started to jerk at this point, as if something not even Sasori’s poison could destroy sensed what was happening and clung pointlessly to life. It was always a race whether Sasori could get the heart out before his paralytic wore off, and this time there had been too many complications for him to complete in time.

As he glared down at the chuunin’s struggling body, however, it stilled. He raised a curious eyebrow to where a pair of hands held the boy’s shoulders down. Something inside him lurched unpleasantly as he looked further up to where Deidara’s blond head was bowed, looking down at the opened chest of the boy he held in place.

It was a moment Sasori had experienced dozens of times in his life, the instant when someone discovered who he really was. It was never pleasant; every other individual who had gotten this close had merely echoed his grandmother’s initial reaction.

Deidara looked up at him, and if Sasori had had any breath, it would have caught in his throat.

Deidara was smiling.

“Beautiful,” Deidara breathed, a look of awe in his eyes.

The heart between Sasori’s hands felt like it was going to pound free.

***

Present day…

With a final flourish, Sasori sewed the last of Deidara’s skin back together. He let out a sigh of relief and allowed himself to slump forward over Deidara’s body, just for a minute.

“All done?” Deidara asked carefully.

Sasori opened his eyes once more and nodded. “Try not to lose any more limbs,” he retorted snidely. Now that Deidara could move and talk on his own again, Sasori suffered the usual regret at having divulged such an intimate part of himself while Deidara had been paralyzed.

Deidara, however, was quite adept at acting like nothing had happened. “I think I am going to need a nap this afternoon, after all,” he sighed.

Sasori frowned. “The pain was that bad?”

“Not half as bad as losing them in the first place, yeah?” Deidara’s eyelashes fluttered open over tired but still mischievous eyes.

“Hn,” Sasori snorted and began packing up his tools. He carefully got off of Deidara and climbed back off the table.

Behind him, he could hear Deidara stretch and sit up. “Good as new.”

“Hn,” Sasori repeated. He’d already said too much today; he wasn’t going to risk any more.

Deidara took this in stride and slipped his jacket back on stiffly. “Let’s go, then.”

It wasn’t until they set off that Sasori noticed that this new body had had a very peculiar reaction to straddling Deidara for the last half an hour. He’d assumed it was just usual muscle stiffness from holding the same cramped position, but this was something entirely different altogether.

Sasori glared down at the bulge in his pants. The glaring did absolutely no good whatsoever.

“Coming, Master?” Deidara asked casually as he leaned against the cave wall.

Sasori couldn’t tell if that pun was intentional or not. Come to think of it, had Deidara been able to feel his reaction when they’d been together on the operating table? Sasori had no clue, and he wasn’t about to ask.

“Hurry up already, brat,” he snapped instead.

Sasori really, really, really hated this body.

Chapter Text

“Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.” – Jacob Bronowski

***

Present day…

It had only been half an erection, but the thought had troubled Sasori for days. He’d rarely experienced them before, only a few times before he’d turned his original body into a puppet. The time when he’d been transforming the Third Kazekage’s body had been exceptionally trying in that regard. Sasori had concluded, quite early on, that he got off on power and control. It was inconvenient at times, but that part wasn’t so troubling.

What was troubling, as always seemed to be the case when Deidara was involved, was that this time was different from all the others. Sasori could handle such a reaction to a puppet, but to a living, breathing, human body? The thought made Sasori endlessly uncomfortable. Deidara had always been the exception that disproved all of Sasori’s carefully-contrived categories, the one thing that never quite fit his worldview. Deidara was unique, and this was no exception.

Because, while Sasori had felt power and control when he’d held Deidara between his thighs, he’d felt something quite different, as well…

It certainly didn’t help that Deidara had been sleeping, half-naked, upwards of sixteen hours a day for the past few days, replenishing his chakra and healing his body. It was a habit of Deidara’s, and Sasori had called him lazy for it in the past. In the long run, however, Deidara did seem to recover faster that way than the endless droves of foolish young ninja who pushed themselves out of hospital beds before they were ready, and thus just ended up back in them for twice as long. So Sasori didn’t really mean it when he called Deidara lazy for taking the time to recover now; he was just on edge from returning home to Deidara’s bare back every day, the defined muscles glistening with sweat. Sasori was starting to think that he might have a problem.

“A ryo for your thoughts.”

Sasori growled inwardly at the interruption to his introspection. He could hardly think straight at home with Deidara’s constant presence, and now it seemed he couldn’t think at work either, due to Hideaki’s irritating acquaintances.

“Hmm?” he inquired in Hideaki’s mild-mannered voice, perfectly polite and contrived.

“You looked like you were about to stare straight through the road,” the brash female voice continued. “Been hitting the sake a bit too much? Or maybe you’ve been hitting that cutie you’re rooming with, instead?”

Sasori turned his head slowly to face the other gate guard, who had the nerve to wink at him. Her name was Nakano Kaori, and she was a casual friend of Hideaki’s. Sasori wouldn’t have cared less about her, except she was the most gregarious of Hideaki’s acquaintances and thus the most likely to notice that something was very wrong with Sasori’s human disguise.

“It’s neither,” he said simply and calmly. He retained enough of Hideaki’s memory to know that any sort of rudeness on his part would be a dead giveaway. Now that he had Deidara back, he probably could have leveled this mundane little village to the ground, but that would draw all the wrong sort of attention, and they weren’t ready to face ANBU yet, let alone Akatsuki.

Kaori make a disappointed face. “You’ve been quieter than usual lately,” she complained, twisting a lock of her shoulder-length black hair around her forefinger in a habit annoying enough that Sasori briefly entertained the thought of slicing the finger clear off. “You should come play pai gow tonight. It’s not as much fun with just three people.”

Frankly, Sasori couldn’t imagine such an activity being ‘fun,’ no matter how many people were involved. It had become something of a tradition among the guards though, unfortunately. “I have company,” he used his best excuse.

“Hmm,” Kaori considered. “You could bring your ‘friend’ along, although it’ll be tight with five in my apartment.” Then she smiled, and Sasori’s stomach dropped. “But I’m sure we can fit him in.” The smile turned sly. “Worst case scenario, you two can squeeze in together…” She nudged Sasori in the ribs.

Sasori debated how much it would give his position away if he jabbed a poisoned senbon through her eye before ripping out her innards and turning her into his puppet. Probably quite a lot, he concluded with a sigh. The woman seemed to have a talent for rubbing dirt in Sasori’s wounds, though; he had to give her that. He absolutely did not need to think about ‘squeezing in together’ with Deidara, especially given his body’s recent bizarre reactions to his partner.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” Kaori insisted with a grin.

Sasori made a mental note to have Deidara blow up this whole godforsaken village on their way out of town. “Fine,” he agreed, voice pinched.

His mood hadn’t lightened by the time he’d returned home. Kaori had been in a chatty mood all afternoon and had pestered Sasori constantly with her inane thoughts. It had reminded Sasori far too much of those first few months after Deidara had been assigned as his partner; the brat could go on non-stop, without any prompting or encouragement whatsoever from Sasori, for what felt like hours. He had driven Sasori up the wall at first, but then – frighteningly – Sasori had become accustomed to the idle chatter.

That was the most dangerous thing about Deidara, Sasori had long ago decided. Deidara was irritating as hell, but he was just so likeable that his annoyingness had insinuated itself into Sasori’s life against his will. Soon, Deidara’s voice had become no more grating than the slow thumping of his heart or the skittering sound of wooden puppet joints. It had all just become the background noise of Sasori’s life, and he’d actually missed the irritation when it was gone.

He didn’t like the notion now, and he hadn’t liked it then. It was far too close to genuine feeling for his partner. There was nothing to be done about it, however, except to fall into an even fouler mood.

“What the hell did you do to yourself?” Sasori demanded as he barged into Hideaki’s apartment to see Deidara sitting on the floor at the small table, sipping a cup of tea. When Sasori had left that morning, Deidara had had short, black hair; now, he was shaved completely bald. “You look like a fetal pig,” he said snidely.

Deidara snorted at that and took a sip of his tea. “You won’t get any argument from me, yeah? But I was tired of dyeing it. Plus, I want to grow it back out, so I need healthy ends.”

Sasori rolled his eyes. “You’re so gay sometimes,” he complained, sitting down to pour a cup of tea for himself.

“I’m gay all the time,” Deidara corrected. “I was made that way, yeah?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sasori grumbled. He stared sullenly down into his tea cup for a moment. It was hibiscus and annoyingly delicious, just like everything Deidara had been preparing of late. “We’re going out tonight, brat.”

Deidara gave him a curious look.

Sasori grunted. “I couldn’t get out of it without seeming like an antisocial psycho.”

“You’re capable of not acting like an antisocial psycho?” Deidara’s eyes widened in faux surprise.

Sasori shot one of the knives on the table straight at the center of Deidara’s forehead with enough force to pierce bone. The knife met with an unsatisfying end to its flight when it impacted with the wall; Deidara was skilled enough now at dodging Sasori’s outbursts of rage that he hadn’t even spilled his tea as he did so.

“Don’t worry about it.” Deidara shrugged. “I’ll play nice enough for the both of us.”

“Good.” Sasori eyed the shopping bags in the corner and correctly deduced that Deidara had acquired more supplies. The boy did seem to have an unholy knack for acquiring useful things at rock-bottom prices. Sasori assumed it had something to do with the fact that Deidara would flirt with anything that so much as moved; shopkeepers seemed to live for such things.

He was pleased to note an entire stock of reinforced steel ball bearings in one of the bags; they’d be perfect for rebuilding the joints of his scorpion tail. Deidara had also located what seemed to be old hospital equipment: plenty there to further refine his poisons.

“You still look like a fetal pig,” Sasori muttered to himself as he headed into the bedroom to change.

“And you still look like a poinsettia,” Deidara shouted after him.

Some things between them never changed.

***

Seven years ago…

“Blood will become the test of your faith, and carnage will be your sacrament,” Hidan’s voice boomed throughout the hideout.

Deidara tilted his head to one side. “Yeah?” he said, sounding like the perfect little airhead.

Sasori briefly entertained thoughts of leaping out of Hiruko and throttling that annoying, scrawny neck until his partner finally fell blessedly silent. These weren’t unusual thoughts for Sasori to have about his partners, but Deidara had to be the loudest, nosiest, perkiest partner he’d been given to date. He struggled in vain to try to figure out why he hadn’t shut the brat up permanently yet, and just then he couldn’t come up with a single good reason.

“Jashin will bathe in the blood you have shed, and reward His loyal followers,” Hidan continued to preach to Deidara, eager to have fresh ears in Akatsuki to deliver his sermon to.

Kakuzu looked like he was about to pass out from boredom as he continued to tend to Deidara’s wounds. Sasori figured that couldn’t be far from the truth. After all, Sasori himself had heard Hidan’s conversion speech at least a dozen times; for Kakuzu, it had to be hundreds now.

“Wait.” Deidara frowned. “Who’s Jashin again?”

Hidan gaped at him. “The Great Slaughterer, Destroyer of All Mankind, God of Blood and Death, and the Supreme Being in the universe.”

Deidara frowned further. “Oh. And what does he want, yeah?”

There was a moment of perfect silence. Kakuzu held his breath to see if Hidan would repeat his spiel for the seventh time. Sasori debated murdering Deidara on the spot. And Hidan…

Hidan’s shoulders slumped. “Eh, never mind,” he grumbled. “Fucking moron.” He got up and stalked over to the cave mouth. “Whoever decided that shit-for-brains blond should join needs to have a drill pushed straight through his motherfucking skull, seriously.”

Kakuzu raised an eyebrow at where Deidara still sat quite comfortably against the wall, innocently snapping clay in his mouths like it was chewing gum. “Hmm,” Kakuzu considered speculatively, tying off the end of the bandage around Deidara’s ribs before he chased after his partner.

That left Sasori alone with Deidara, who seemed perfectly oblivious to the scene he’d just created. As Sasori watched, Deidara blew a very large white bubble in his regular mouth. It reached critical mass, then popped, covering the lower half of Deidara’s face with clay. He blinked in surprise for a moment before slurping it back into his mouth with a grin.

“That was a blast, yeah?”

“I despise you,” Sasori informed him coldly.

Deidara snorted, then winced slightly as the motion jostled his ribs. “Don’t tell me you buy into that Jashinist bullshit, too.” The vacant gleam was gone from his eyes in an instant, and he gave Sasori a mischievous smirk. “Not very bright, yeah?” he said, nodding in the direction of where Hidan was now spouting off about holy gore to Kakuzu for the millionth or so time.

“Hidan?” Sasori tilted Hiruko’s head slightly. “Not particularly.”

Deidara rolled his eyes. “Both of them. The only way to shut a nut-job like that up is to act even denser than they are.” He blew another bubble.

Sasori pondered his words for a moment, suddenly feeling a bit less hostile. It was the first time he’d ever considered Deidara even remotely…clever. “You put on an act,” Sasori concluded.

“I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today if blonds were half as dumb as we’re rumored to be,” Deidara retorted.

“For two whole hours.”

Deidara shrugged, then winced again at the pain. “I was feeling inspired.”

“You made him repeat that same stupid speech for two whole hours,” Sasori repeated, still incredulous.

Deidara grinned. “A thousand ryo says he never tries with me again.”

Sasori stared at him blankly through Hiruko’s eyes. “I don’t bet.”

Deidara just sighed and leaned back contentedly as they waited to give their mission report.

“Brat,” Sasori added as an afterthought. The insult didn’t hold any bite to it, however.

Across the hideout from them, Kakuzu and Hidan’s argument broke out into bloodshed. Kakuzu ripped out a chunk of Hidan’s chest, and gore splattered over them both. Hidan started spewing invective in response, scooping up bloody chunks of his chest and holding them in place again. It was a familiar, irritating sight.

Sasori turned Hiruko’s eyes to look in Deidara’s direction. Deidara had shut his eyes now and had a small smile on his face. He continued to snap his clay in the most aggravating fashion imaginable. And, in that moment, Sasori had a strange epiphany. He still didn’t want the brat that had been foisted upon him out of the blue but, if he had to have a partner, he was glad it was Deidara and not any of these other psychos.

“Fuck with me again, and I’ll rip out your spleen and ram it so far up your ass, you’ll gag on your own blood,” Hidan shouted with his usual eloquence now that Kakuzu had sewn his dismembered flesh back into place. He stalked back over to where Deidara and Sasori were still waiting, bored out of their minds. “Er… So, blondie?”

“Yeah?” Deidara opened one blue eye.

“Uh, so…how about those bloodstains? Serious fucking pain to get out, am I right?”

Deidara smirked in Sasori’s direction. “Tell me about it, yeah?” he agreed, sounding as satisfied as if Sasori had agreed to that bet, after all.

Sasori frowned inside Hiruko’s carapace then, suddenly overwhelmed by a strange sensation. It took a long time for him to process the fact that it was an emotion trying to escape, but unable to because of the limitations of Sasori’s puppet body. It took him even longer to debate was the emotion was. It wasn’t hate, and it wasn’t indifference.

If Sasori didn’t know better, he’d almost have thought that he liked Deidara in that moment.

***

Present day…

“Man,” Kaori grumbled, “how does baldy get all the luck?” She dropped her pair of mismatched sixes in disgust.

Deidara cheerfully swept up the bet with one gloved hand. “That’s why I shaved my head, yeah? For luck.”

Kaori giggled like a schoolgirl, gazing into Deidara’s blue eyes. Sasori had the strange, long-forgotten urge to retch.

“Stop charming my sister out of all her hard-earned money and shuffle the tiles again,” Minoru complained, apparently as disgusted by Deidara and Kaori’s display as Sasori was.

“I’ve pushed three hands in a row now,” Yonai Akio, the last member of Hisoka’s weekly pai gow game, complained. “I’ll never make any money at this rate.”

Deidara shuffled the last hand back in with the rest of the tiles and dealt again. Sasori felt himself starting to go comatose. He had to be caught in a genjutsu; there was no other way time could be moving this slowly.

“So, Touji,” Kaori grinned at Deidara, using the fake name Deidara was going by. “How’d Hideaki hit the jackpot with you?” She tapped the growing collection of coins Deidara had won with one long, polished fingernail.

“We met before I came to Hisoka,” Sasori answered blandly, glancing at his tiles. He certainly wasn’t having any luck this evening. He made a seven and a five with his tiles and waited to see how the bidding would go.

“Academy friends?” Minoru asked curiously. “Does that mean you’re a ninja?”

Deidara put on a sheepish expression. “Our whole team didn’t make genin.”

Sasori was grateful that at least Deidara knew how to improvise with their little charade. At this point, Sasori would rather have swallowed his own poison than have to explain some other made-up facet of their past lives.

“So what did you do after that?” Akio inquired. Hideaki’s lingering memories informed Sasori that Akio had been an Academy wash-out as well, once upon a time.

“Well, I’m an artist, yeah?” Deidara offered in the worst attempt at false modesty that Sasori had ever seen.

Sasori snorted in response and folded.

Kaori raised. “Ooh, that’s so fascinating,” she cooed. “What do you do?”

Sasori briefly enjoyed the fantasy that Deidara would pull out one of his sculptures then and there and blow this entire nosy group up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

“I work with clay. Pottery, mostly.” It was a good lie. There were plenty of ceramic workers around the country who made decent money selling kitchenware.

“Wow, I’d love to get a new tea set, but I doubt I could afford you,” Kaori sighed.

“Nobody can afford me,” Deidara teased with a knowing wink.

Minoru groaned at the joke, and Akio made a face. Sasori just gave Deidara his best icy death glare. Kaori was the only one besides Deidara who laughed.

“But win this next hand,” Deidara continued, “and I’ll do it for free.”

Kaori’s eyes widened. “Really?”

Sasori sighed. There Deidara went, being horribly likeable again. By the time the evening was over, they’d all be eating out of the palms of his hands. And, given what the palms of his hands usually ate, that notion was slightly less than appetizing.

Kaori won the hand, and she and Deidara started talking about glazes and designs and how to color-coordinate motherfucking kitchens. Minoru, Akio, and Sasori all exchanged manly looks of supreme boredom, at which point Minoru vanished into his sister’s kitchen for a minute before emerging with a bottle of sake.

That gave Sasori one more thing to worry about, since he couldn’t refuse the alcohol but he was pretty damned sure that his body couldn’t take it, either. He couldn’t afford to let his henge slip even for a second, now that he looked very much like Sasori and very little like Hideaki. He spent the rest of the night pretending to get drunk while he secretly poured his drink into Kaori’s bamboo plant.

Deidara and Kaori occupied themselves by exclaiming over pictures of small children that Deidara had produced from his wallet. Deidara claimed that they were his nieces and nephews, but since Deidara didn’t even have parents, let alone an extended family, he had to be pulling that story out of his ass, too.

At eleven o’clock, Akio finally begged out since he had the early shift the next day. Sasori’s fingers clamped around Deidara’s wrist and didn’t let go until they’d successfully escaped after Akio into the night.

“Well, that was fun,” Deidara said cheerfully as they walked side-by-side to Hideaki’s apartment.

Sasori affected a wonderfully fake psychotic smile. “I’m currently eviscerating you in my mind,” he informed Deidara, closing his eyes as if picturing the wonderful image in vivid detail.

“All right, so yanking out my own teeth would’ve been more fun.” Deidara laughed, and it was a different tone from the laugh he’d been using five minutes ago when he’d been discussing his little ‘cousin’ Tazu’s first day at the Academy. This laugh was real, with just a hint of wickedness beneath the surface. It was the laugh of someone who found that joke funny because he’d seen Sasori eviscerate countless bodies before.

Sasori felt his headache fade at the sound. He’d never liked having to pretend he was something he wasn’t. Even if no one else but the two of them could see it, he could walk down the street now, with Deidara at his side, as the S-Class criminal he really was.

It was almost enough to make the evening not so bad after all.

***

Seven years ago…

“Report,” a staticy voice suddenly sounded throughout the chamber.

Deidara had fallen asleep some time back, exhausted from his injuries. Hidan and Kakuzu had left as soon as Kakuzu was done tending to Deidara. That left Sasori alone, huddled within Hiruko, to answer.

“Leader, sir,” he said blandly. “The targets were located, and all six were terminated.”

“Excellent,” Pain hissed, his image flickering in eerie counterpoint to the fire Sasori had made. “Your partner?”

“Sustained moderate injuries. He will be unable to participate in missions for at least a week.” Sasori didn’t say that it should probably be more; that was always at Pain’s discretion.

“Kakuzu reported the same,” Pain said, as if he’d been testing Sasori. “I heard about Deidara’s encounter with Hidan.”

Sasori shrugged.

A menacing chuckle escaped from Pain’s lips. “It seems your boy hit upon a way of shutting Hidan up that had eluded us all.”

“I’m not the type to play ‘dumb blond’,” Sasori shot back.

Pain let out that unearthly snicker again. “That Deidara… Who knew when we acquired him that he’d be such a…treasure?”

Sasori grunted because he couldn’t think of anything to say to that. It was almost reassuring to think that Pain also had a soft spot for Deidara, however; if Sasori was weak for growing attached to the brat, then at least he was in powerful company.

“Deidara’s second-year review is coming up next month,” Pain continued. “Be prepared.”

“Has it really been that long?” Sasori mused. It felt like just yesterday that he’d had a hyperactive blond all but tossed into his lap and been informed that he had to make a decent partner out of the creature. “Tch. I’ll be ready.”

“You’ll get your next mission assignment in two weeks. Follow the usual procedure until then.” And, with a final rip of static, Pain’s form vanished.

Sasori pondered Pain’s words as he began to go through the mechanical acts of tending to Hiruko’s internal maintenance. He’d been smart to design his puppet so that roughly seventy-five percent of the regular maintenance work could be carried out from the inside. Every so often, he paused in tightening Hiruko’s joints and turned Hiruko’s eyes across the fire, where Deidara lay sleeping. They were lucky Pain had given Deidara a full two weeks to recover; it wasn’t something often granted to Akatsuki members.

“You’re not that special, brat,” Sasori informed the mop of blond frizz that was all that emerged from the top of the sleeping bag. “So how do you do it?” One of Deidara’s mouths let out a particularly epic snore from inside the sleeping bag in response.

Sasori scoffed to himself and returned to his work. “You’re insidious,” he informed his sleeping partner, disgusted at himself for his own softening attitudes toward Deidara.

It was probably the nicest thing he’d ever said to anyone.

***

Present day…

“How do you do it?” Sasori finally broke the comfortable silence between them as they passed through the darkened streets of Hisoka in the still of the night.

“Hmm?” Deidara had obviously been deep in thought, gazing up at the stars overhead. “Oh. Well, it’s fun playing with people, yeah?”

“No,” Sasori countered.

Deidara snickered. “That’s why you’ve never played well with others, Master. You’re lucky you’ve got me to do all the dirty work for you.”

“Save me from gregarious types,” Sasori said evenly.

“It’s exciting.” Deidara retorted. “Each new person you meet… It’s a new challenge. They know nothing about you, so you can make them think anything you want, if you’re skilled enough.”

“You make such a doting uncle, too,” Sasori complained. “Where did you even find those photographs?”

“Ah.” Deidara pulled the wallet from his back pocket and removed the pictures in question.

He handed them over to Sasori, who frowned at the images in the faint light from the streetlamps. “I’ve never seen them before in my life.”

“They were in the luggage of the sacrifice I forced Pain’s shapeshifting technique on,” Deidara grinned.

“That sucker that blew himself up fighting the Uchiha kid?”

“The one and the same.”

Sasori passed the pictures back to Deidara. “These are nothing, then.”

“They’re a useful tool,” Deidara countered.

“Most people are like that,” Sasori agreed. That strange sensation Sasori had felt so many times before around Deidara bubbled up inside him. He’d first become aware of it that time Deidara had stopped Hidan’s proselytizing dead in its tracks, but it had happened with increasing regularity ever since. This was the first time it had happened since Sasori had become human again, though.

The emotion twisted its way inside him, uncomfortable for a moment, before it burst out in an uncontrollable expression. And, for the first time that he could remember, Akasuna no Sasori laughed, genuine and heartfelt, filling the silent, dark streets with his delight.

Chapter Text

“I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.” – John Berger

***

Present day…

There were almost a dozen arguments that Deidara and Sasori had cultivated throughout the years of their partnership. Most of these arguments were entirely pointless because neither of them would ever really change their minds. It was good to have something other than mundane drivel to chat about, however, especially since they’d spent nearly all of the past decade in each other’s company. There was no pattern to what they discussed. Whenever one of them came up with a new or interesting point in one of their debates, they’d bring it up, and the heated discussion would follow from there.

Their current argument was number four: could Sasori really be an artist if he wasn’t even human?

Even Sasori had to admit that the debate had interesting new philosophical implications now that he was human again.

“You agree that art doesn’t have to be beautiful, yeah?” Deidara crouched down and rifled through the bottom shelf, finally emerging with the old-fashioned camera. With a satisfied smile, he dropped it into their shopping cart.

“Of course not,” Sasori conceded. “Not all art is beautiful, and not all beautiful things are art. Otherwise, the two terms would be synonymous.”

“A sunset is beautiful but not art.”

“Because art necessarily implies an artist.”

“Art requires intent, a reason and purpose behind its creation.” Deidara began digging through a bin full of pliers.

Sasori considered some of the scraping blades on the shelves on the other side of the aisle as he did so. Once he created a shield for Jirou, he would need to decorate it… “You’re not saying anything controversial yet, brat.”

Deidara dumped half a dozen sets of pliers into the cart. “Do you also agree that the source of that intent matters?” He glanced at where Sasori was still studying the scrapers, plucked two off the wall, and dropped them in the cart, too.

Sasori frowned as Deidara all but skipped down to the next aisle. “Clarify,” he demanded, pushing the cart after Deidara.

“Take a spider web, for example.” Deidara had found the woodcarving tools, through some miracle shopping skill that Sasori obviously didn’t possess. “A spider creates a web with purpose, and it’s beautiful to behold, yeah?”

“I suppose so,” Sasori said indifferently.

“But is a spider web art?” Deidara began throwing things into the cart in what seemed like a thoroughly indiscriminate manner.

“No.” Sasori studied the paintbrushes and managed to pick out two while Deidara took care of the paint at lightning speed.

“Why not?”

“Because the spider has no conception of what art is,” Sasori answered obligingly.

Deidara grinned like he’d just won the argument. “Would you agree, then, that for something to be art, its creator has to have not only intent, but also intent to create art?” Then Deidara’s eyes widened in sudden surprise. “Ooh, pretty!” he suddenly exclaimed like an overexcited kid, dashing off down the aisle after some newfound treasure.

Sasori grudgingly lugged the cart after him. “I’ll agree with that,” he said, bringing the cart to a squeaky halt right next to where Deidara was gazing at the welding torches like they were delectable sweets. “Oh, just hurry up and get one,” Sasori complained.

“I like to savor the moment, yeah?” Deidara retorted before reverently picking one up off the shelf and nestling it carefully into the bag at the bottom of the cart. “Expensive, though. And not even on sale.”

Sasori rolled his eyes and gestured expansively to the empty and darkened hardware store around them. “We’re robbing the place,” he insisted. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s on sale.”

Deidara held his nose in the air stiffly. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Whatever.” Sasori sighed. “Did you have a point?”

“My point,” Deidara continued, grabbing some electrical wiring and connectors as he headed back to the rectangle of moonlight on the floor where they’d first entered through the skylight above, “is that, in order for something to be art, it has to be created as art.”

“Although not all things created as art are art,” Sasori made sure to get in.

“All right, fine. So, for an artist to be a true artist, he must know the meaning of art and express it through his chosen medium.” Deidara tied up their bag of loot and fastened it to the end of the rope that dangled through the skylight.

Sasori pushed their now-empty cart off to the side. “You’re not trying to turn this into argument number one, are you?” he demanded. Argument number one, of course, was what the true definition of art even was.

“Just bear with me, yeah?” Deidara demanded. He gave the rope a tug to make sure it would hold and then leapt up through the opening in the ceiling, landing on the roof outside.

Sasori followed him a second later. “Then be quick about it, brat.”

Deidara began tugging up the rope, and their loot with it. “Humans become artists because they deliberately intend to make art.”

“And humans can do this because they have higher intelligence, something I certainly didn’t lack when I was a puppet,” Sasori countered.

“Intelligence is part of it, yeah? But, for art to be art, it has to convey a greater message that other intelligent beings recognize as art.”

You seemed to think my puppets were art, although the ‘intelligent’ part is debatable there.”

Deidara stuck his tongue out at him. “But art isn’t just intelligence itself.”

“Agreed.”

“So the other common element that all art possesses is humanity,” Deidara concluded. “Art is art because it makes a statement about the human condition. Therefore, a non-human ‘artist’ wouldn’t be an artist at all, because he wouldn’t be able to draw upon that common ground.”

Sasori rolled his eyes and helped Deidara finally lift their bag through the skylight. “That would only make sense if I’d never been human,” he insisted. “Even as a puppet, I still had memories of the human condition.”

“But you claim you lacked any emotions while in puppet form,” Deidara countered. This was now touching upon argument number seven; Deidara had always insisted that Sasori did have emotions, even when he said he didn’t. “And what is the human condition without emotions? Aren’t they the first thing you tried to expunge when seeking to transform yourself beyond humanity?”

“Second,” Sasori corrected. “Flesh was first.”

“All right, second. Flesh to remove impulses and instincts and bodily needs. And emotions to remove the human condition itself,” Deidara concluded. “And, therefore, you tried to remove the very things that made you an artist to begin with, yeah?”

Sasori snorted. “Your logic is circular, brat. Humanity implies art; therefore, art implies humanity.”

“Am I wrong, though?” Deidara took up the bag and dashed across the rooftops toward their hideout at lightning speed.

Sasori kept apace with him easily. “Only in a world where the only beings to attempt to create art are humans,” he retorted. “My own existence disproves this point.”

Deidara sighed and rolled his eyes. “Sometimes, Master, I don’t understand you at all.”

It was a sentiment Sasori could agree with.

***

Seven years ago…

There was an old joke in Akatsuki that the only way you were ever going to find out your partner’s past was to break into their native hidden village and steal their file. It had proven to be true, though, in Sasori’s experience. Even Deidara, who seemed so open and chatty, had an uncanny ability to divert the conversation every time it drifted to his past life in Iwa. Sasori had come to realize that, while he’d learned Deidara’s personality quirks thoroughly over the last two years, he still didn’t know a damned thing about what had made Deidara into what he was today.

That was why, while Deidara had been tortured by Iwa’s elite interrogation team on their last mission, Sasori had sent one of his sleeper agents into the Tsuchikage’s office to steal Deidara’s file. The spy, Li Hoshi, was a chuunin in the Iwa administration, and she’d taken so long that Sasori had barely gotten his business taken care of before Deidara carried out the assassination.

“What took you so long?” Sasori snapped, snatching the stack of papers from her hands with Hiruko’s arm and quickly withdrawing the arm into Hiruko’s carapace.

“My apologies, Lord Sasori,” Hoshi said in a monotonous drone. “They weren’t filed under N, as you said they would be.”

Sasori raised an eyebrow at this. The only information he had been given on Deidara was what Pain had provided them with when they’d first been assigned as partners: name, age, height/weight, combat experience, powers, and the like. Everything they ‘needed’ to know, and nothing they needed to know.

“They were filed under the number twenty-two,” Hoshi clarified. “I included a copy of the Project Nue file as well.”

Sasori considered this. It seemed his partner kept stranger secrets than he would have guessed. It had always struck him as odd that Nijuuni was Deidara’s surname in the file Pain had given Sasori; ‘Twenty-Two’ wasn’t a proper family name by any stretch of the imagination. And now apparently Deidara was associated with a project named after a legendary chimera-like monster. Sasori was now quite certain that he’d found the key to unraveling the mystery that was Deidara.

He’d dismissed Hoshi back to Iwa after that, leaving her with no memories of what she’d done. He’d kept the file tucked safely within Hiruko and then completed his actual assigned mission.

It wasn’t until a week later, when Deidara had recovered enough to tend to his own needs, that Sasori found himself with any significant length of downtime to himself. One afternoon after Deidara had gone out to train, Sasori slipped free of Hiruko’s carapace and set out all the information he’d stolen across one of the benches in their current Akatsuki hideout. The files proved interesting enough, even if they told a story Sasori had heard a thousand times before.

He tackled the Project Nue files first because, if Hoshi had included them, that meant they had to be necessary to understanding Deidara’s personnel file. The files were revealing, at the very least. Konoha had once accused Iwa of building a war machine, which had ultimately set off the Third Great Shinobi War. That much was history. But Sasori now held proof in his hands that, nineteen years ago, Iwa’s experiments had been more horrific than even the most pessimistic of the war advisors had believed.

September 2, 4396: 200 embryos have been altered via the Yoruyonaka Clan’s bloodline limit. 185 survived the implantation into surrogate mothers.

Sasori knew all about the Yoruyonaka Clan from the time he’d spent as Orochimaru’s partner. The Yoruyonakas’ unique ability allowed them to transform their bodies’ structure on the cellular level. They could shapeshift into any person, become the exact physical replica of the unprepossessing scenery, or flatten themselves out to fit underneath the crack beneath a door. Orochimaru had been obsessed with the clan and how their genetics could further his own research. And, apparently, Orochimaru wasn’t the only one who had thought of the possibilities…

April 28, 4397: Subject 74 born premature and stillborn. Mutated physiology led to fusing of internal organs. Subject 74 deemed failure.

That was the first birth from the project. A dozen other fatal mutations followed it until:

May 9, 4397: Subject 16 born premature but alive. On respirator and expected to survive. Deformities: additional set of eyes at the back of skull, fingers webbed. Subject 16 case left open to later analysis.

Sasori continued to browse through the file until he reached the number he was now confident he wanted:

July 10, 4397: Subject 22 born alive and healthy. Deformities: additional functional mouths on hands, feet, and chest. Unlike Subject 67, deformities do not appear fatal. Subject 22 case left open to later analysis.

Sasori paused and reread the paragraph again; he’d found his partner. He skimmed over the irrelevant details after that point and kept to the important facts. Only fifty-six children had survived after birth. By the time the first year had passed, that number was down to forty-eight. Breeding children with severe deformities had a high death toll; Sasori remembered hearing Orochimaru complain of something of the sort at one point.

Something clicked into place for Sasori then and, although he refused to admit that he’d done it, he flipped through the files until he found 71, Nanajuuichi. Apparently, Deidara hadn’t been making up all those ridiculous stories. He really did have an ex with five dicks. The five dicks were located in a V-shape along the line of his pelvis. Sasori made a face; the information irritated him for some unknown reason, and he tried his best to forget it by focusing on more important matters.

The file continued. The children were kept isolated, tested, and retested. They’d all been engineered to be homosexual to minimize the danger of any unwanted genes breeding. They’d also all been bred male so that it would be easier to extract reproductive genetic material if the subjects were deemed successes. Unfortunately, Konoha had pushed the Third Shinobi War before Iwa had been able to take advantage of the project, and after the armistice Iwa had been left with experiments that no one had any use for anymore. By that time, the surviving number was down to thirty-six.

February 26, 4405: Subjects 8, 37, and 39 deemed successful and admitted to stage two of project. Remaining 33 subjects deemed failures due to disfiguring or otherwise undesired deformities and enrolled in Ninja Academy. Project Nue terminated.

That did answer the interesting question of how Iwa had increased its number of bloodline limits so drastically over the last century. If the information Sasori had was accurate, another three should be appearing among the Iwa genin in the next decade or so.

That was it, then. Subject Twenty-Two – Nijuuni – had survived the vetting process, but was ultimately deemed a failure. It explained everything and nothing all at once. Sasori flipped open Deidara’s personnel file.

Name: Nijuuni Deidara
DOB: July 10, 4397 at Iwa Ninja Hospital

There were photographs attached of a tiny infant, six mouths open and wailing. There was also a note from the surrogate mother who had carried Deidara to term. It was brief and to the point:

“It’s an abomination.”

Sasori snorted. Surrogates were the same across the world, no matter which country they hailed from. They were generally women from ninja families with little to no prospects, families that hadn’t successfully produced a genin in generations. They volunteered their wombs to the state, hoping to hit the jackpot and become mother to the next clan heir. Most failed. Most didn’t even understand what they were a part of.

Deidara’s mother, it seemed, had been just such a fool. She was never mentioned in Deidara’s file again after that.

Nijuuni became distressed after abandonment by surrogate. Deformity in chest began emitting dangerous levels of chakra. Chest deformity sealed for safety of handlers.

Now, that was interesting. Deidara had always been uncharacteristically uncomfortable with the mouth in his chest, and now Sasori knew why. From the time he’d been an infant, it had been locked away as another abomination, a power so great no mere infant could control it. Sasori wondered whether Deidara could fully control that power now, if he put his mind to it.

The log entries during the war were uninteresting, no more than mere lab tests. There was one curious comment in the margin of one of the pages from when Deidara was five, however:

Nijuuni exhibits none of antisocial characteristics evidenced in his group. Remarkably upbeat and friendly for a lab rat!

Sasori had no idea which medical ninja had written that note, but he wouldn’t mind seeing all the blood drained from the man’s body. ‘Lab rat,’ indeed. Deidara was probably the most powerful ninja to emerge from Iwa in a generation, and none of these morons had had even the slightest clue who they’d had locked up in that lab.

The rest of the file wasn’t worth spitting at. Deidara had been admitted to the Iwa Ninja Academy, then graduated. He’d become chuunin a year later. Just before his fifteenth birthday, Deidara became a missing ninja. Sasori himself could’ve added in the fact that Deidara had become an Akatsuki member at age sixteen, and it would’ve been more than Iwa seemed to know about his partner.

He tossed the file aside in annoyance.

“Not the most exciting reading, is it?” A voice suddenly cut through Sasori’s thoughts.

Sasori looked up in surprise. The reading must have been absorbing enough, because he hadn’t heard Deidara return to the hideout. “Deidara,” he acknowledged blandly, hiding his anxiety that he’d become so comfortable around the other man that Deidara could sneak up on him like this.

There was a weird glint in Deidara’s eyes as he approached the wooden bunk that Sasori sat upon, scanning the scattered papers that fanned out around Sasori’s position. “I’m a freak.” Deidara reached out to pick up one file and gazed over it emotionlessly. “There are even official state documents to prove it, yeah?” He held out the file to Sasori again, his thumb pressed pointedly against the stamp that marked Subject Twenty-Two as a failure.

Sasori took the file with a snort. “They’re all worthless,” he concluded. Whatever insight he’d been looking for into his partner’s psyche, the scribblings of a few lab assistants hadn’t cut it.

“They are,” Deidara agreed, his eyes still looking dangerous and dark. “They left out all the fun details, like how we all spent the first seven years of our lives cramped together in a locked cell in the basement of the hospital. We had one window, so high up that not even the adults could’ve seen through it, let alone children.”

“Deidara…” Sasori suddenly felt uncomfortable. He’d wanted to understand Deidara, for heaven only knew what reason, but he hadn’t wanted this sudden outburst of emotion. That was why Sasori had sought out the cold, hard facts from the personnel files to begin with.

“No, Sasori.” No ‘Master’ was appended to Sasori’s name; that was almost unheard of. “You’re my partner. I want to have this out with you just this once.”

Sasori’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not the senior part—”

“Tch!” Deidara’s hiss cut him off, and Deidara glanced pointedly to the center of Sasori’s chest.

Sasori looked down to see that a tiny clay fly had landed on his chest, directly over the casing that held his living heart. As he watched, Deidara held up his index and middle fingers in preparation for detonation. “What are you doing, brat?” he exclaimed in sudden alarm. He never should have left Hiruko’s protective carapace like this, but he’d become a bit lax about such things within the relative safety of the Akatsuki lairs, and he’d wanted space to spread out the files.

“You’re going to listen to me,” Deidara informed him darkly.

Sasori let out an annoyed snort and quickly began working his mind around a way out of this.

“Every so often,” Deidara said faintly, as if recalling a distant memory, “one of the children would die. Sometimes it would take them a whole day to take out the corpses, and we had all the time in the world to study them. Look at the bodies of your friends long enough, and you realize that they’re beautiful. They’re art. We would’ve mentioned it, but we weren’t supposed to talk, unless it was one of the scientists interrogating us. Then we had to divulge every little embarrassing secret about our bodies. For science’s sake, you understand?”

Sasori nodded numbly. The only plan he’d come up with so far was ‘humor the crazy person.’

“We all had a choice in there. We could let it get to us, or we could refuse to let them win. I chose the latter. I think I’m the only one who succeeded.” Deidara smiled a brief, humorless smile. “I don’t hate them, you know,” he said with enough conviction that Sasori almost believed him. “A part of me is grateful, even, because without them I would never have been born, and I love life. I love everything about this world, and I always have.”

“You especially love blowing chunks of it up,” Sasori ventured a sarcastic comment.

Deidara’s smile transformed into a genuine grin at that. “Well, yeah.” He ran his fingers through his long hair sheepishly. “So I’m a bit of a pyro, sue me. If that’s the worst way they messed me up in that place, I consider myself lucky.”

Sasori relaxed slightly as Deidara became more recognizable as the partner he knew. He’d seen Deidara deadly serious in battle, but he’d never seen Deidara so cold and distant before. A warmer, lighter Deidara didn’t frighten him at all, however. “If you want me to explain all the ways you’re fucked up, I’d be happy to oblige, brat.”

Deidara laughed and moved to sit beside Sasori on the bench, so close that their shoulders brushed. Sasori had never let anyone touch his real puppet body before, but he wasn’t about to move and risk the explosive on his chest going off.

“I was happy there, even in the lab,” Deidara reminisced. “Something inside me just couldn’t help but enjoy life. I couldn’t reach the sun, so I learned to fly. Say what you will for prison conditions, but they can inspire the most innovative art.”

“You could have just blown the whole place up.”

“Ah, I didn’t learn to do that until they taught me explosive techniques at the Academy,” Deidara corrected. “They’d let us all out by then, although we were still segregated from the ‘normal’ children: an entire separate class of freaks. They said we would never be the same. I suppose, given the way we grew up, we never were.”

The conversation had almost turned comfortable now, except for the imminent threat that still rested on Sasori’s chest. “Deidara?” he ventured slowly.

“Yeah, Master?”

“Get this thing off my chest.”

Deidara’s eyes widened almost comically, like he’d entirely forgotten about his clay fly. With a swish of his finger, he gestured the fly off. It buzzed around the center of the lair for a bit before detonating.

Instantly, Sasori had Deidara slammed against the wall, the cable in his stomach cavity pressing painfully into Deidara’s throat.

Deidara gave a couple satisfying gasps and twitches, but didn’t otherwise try to escape.

“If you ever, ever try anything like that again,” Sasori spat venomously in Deidara’s face, “I’ll flay you alive, boy.” The cable holding Deidara’s windpipe tightened until Deidara’s eyes bugged out slightly and his face began turning purple.

Convinced that his point had gotten across, Sasori abruptly released Deidara and retreated into the safety of Hiruko’s carapace before the brat had the chance to get back to his feet.

“I—” Deidara choked out before swallowing and trying again. “I understand. My humblest apologies, Master.”

Sasori grunted but wasn’t appeased. He couldn’t imagine what had possessed him to be curious about Deidara’s past in the first place. Now that he knew, he couldn’t help but wish he didn’t. The past didn’t matter, anyway, just the present. In the past, they were all too human for Sasori’s taste…

***

Present day…

Sasori tried not to die of boredom as Deidara and the grizzled shopkeeper haggled over the price of clay. Sasori had been all for breaking into this shop at night, too, but Deidara insisted he needed a regular source of clay, so that left them with the annoying situation of having to cultivate contacts. So, as Deidara and the shopkeeper discussed clay types in agonizing detail, Sasori glared at a hideous ceramic pig sitting on the shelf behind the counter.

He turned his attention back to Deidara, however, when the shopkeeper gave him a small sample of one of his clays to test out. Deidara’s art was at least less hideous than the giant pig. Sasori watched as, with a few quick presses of Deidara’s fingertips, the amorphous blob transformed miraculously into a tiny scorpion.

The shopkeeper was a lot more impressed than Sasori was. “Hey, you had any training?” the man blinked up at Deidara through thick glasses.

“A few years working in the Earth Country,” Deidara answered with a smile.

“Earth Country, eh? You can get a good price for that type of luxury item on the dock market here,” the man pondered. “You want a job, kid?”

Deidara raised an eyebrow in Sasori’s direction. Sasori didn’t respond in any way. “I suppose I could use the extra money,” Deidara agreed.

“Come by at dawn tomorrow, and we’ll see what you can do.” The man eyed the perfect little clay scorpion.

“Feel free to put it in for firing tonight,” Deidara handed it to him.

They arranged the sale of four large bags of clay, two of which Sasori ended up carrying back to their hideout in the caves by the sea.

As soon as they’d cleared Hisoka – and escaped any prying ears – Sasori snapped at Deidara. “You shouldn’t have told him you were from the Earth Country.”

“Hn. The less I lie, the less likely I am to get caught lying. Personally, I thought the scorpion was the riskier move.” Deidara winked Sasori’s way.

Sasori half-heartedly kicked at Deidara’s ankles, but Deidara leapt nimbly out of harm’s way. They walked peaceably for some time after that.

“Master?”

“Hmm?” Sasori glanced at Deidara out of the corner of his eye.

“After our little debate last night, I want to ask you a question, so don’t get angry with me, yeah?”

Sasori sighed. “No promises, brat.”

“Hmm,” Deidara mused over his options. “I’m going to ask it anyway.”

“Whatever.” Sasori hefted the clay bags over his shoulders and pointedly did not look at Deidara.

“So, yeah.” Deidara coughed awkwardly. “Why are you still in that human body?”

“You never did learning the meaning of the words ‘mind your own business,’ did you?” Sasori snapped.

“What can I say?” Deidara came to a halt and set down his bags to form the seals to create a tunnel into the cave below. “I’m curious. You said this body wasn’t going to be around much longer, yeah? Why the wait?”

To a certain degree, Deidara almost had the right to ask the question. Sasori was vulnerable as long as he was in human form, and it was Deidara’s job to watch Sasori’s back. In that sense, Deidara really should know how long this dangerous stage would last.

That wasn’t why Deidara was asking the question, though. Of course Deidara was trying to pry into the circumstances of just how Sasori had ended up human again, so that he could unravel the mystery surrounding Sasori’s death and rebirth. Sasori had to admire that kind of moxie and also that Deidara could disguise it within a seemingly legitimate question.

When Sasori finally answered, he answered carefully. “My cells are slowly taking over the cells in Hideaki’s body, and replacing what was once him with myself. I need to wait for the process to be complete before I modify my body again, or else I will take a part of my new host body with me every time I resurrect.”

“I see,” Deidara said with more than his usual seriousness, as he walked down into the darkness. “How long do you have to wait, yeah?”

Sasori followed him. “Not too long. Two or three months.”

“And then you’ll have to work on your new puppet body, of course.”

“I’ll start with that after we leave Hisoka. I need a base with easier access.”

“Ah…”

They shared a moment of comfortable silence.

“Master?” Deidara finally asked once again as they emerged into their new lair.

“What now?”

“If you died in this body, would that be it, then? No more Master Sasori?”

Another revealing question about Sasori’s resurrection, couched within information Deidara needed to know. “I can’t resurrect in my current condition,” Sasori admitted grudgingly. “If something happened to this body, I would die and stay dead.”

Deidara considered that for a moment. “Then we’ll just have to make doubly sure that doesn’t happen, yeah?”

“Whatever.”

They both set to work then, operating in their own separate corners of the cave. It was much more palatable to Sasori than everything else they’d done to date.

Chapter Text

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” – Anais Nin

***

Present day…

On the island of Hyakka at the far west of the Sea Country, something moved in the shadows. The guard stationed at the small shrine that protected the Source narrowed his eyes at the rustling in the bushes. He tightened his grip on his spear and gestured for his companion to watch his back while he went in for a closer look.

Cautiously, he moved through the grassy field that surrounded the shrine, eyes and ears alert. The Sea Country was far enough south that it rarely became embroiled with conflicts among the Five Great Shinobi Nations; however, it wasn’t unheard of for thieves to attack nearby villages. Hyakka Island was usually spared because the shrine was the only site of note on the island, but some thieves harbored the delusion that the shrine held riches beyond the Source.

The guard approached the bushes where he’d seen the movement and held his breath as he went in for the kill.

At the same moment, something suddenly burst from the shrubbery, wild and panicked.

The guard let out an undignified yelp of alarm and then swore under his breath at his cowardly display. He looked at the ‘attacker’ that had emerged from the bushes and chuckled to himself at the sight of the small brown rabbit.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack,” he sighed, lowering his spear.

The rabbit turned its head up to face him, and that was when the guard realized that something was very, very wrong. The lower half of the rabbit’s jaw looked like it had been hacked off and, where the mouth should be, a hollow wooden tube had been sewn into the fur and flesh instead.

“What the—?” the guard began.

Before he could finish, a long, thin needle shot from the rabbit’s wooden mouth and stabbed the guard right through the throat. He choked on his final word as inky black poison seeped into his blood through the needle, causing his throat to swell and constrict. He clawed at his neck desperately for a minute, struggling for air.

And then, as all mortal things must, he fell over and perished.

Sasori pulled back on the strings of his rabbit and took out the scroll he had tucked in his sleeve. With a small puff of smoke, the rabbit was sealed back inside. Sasori eyed the guard curiously for a moment, admiring his handiwork. For all that he enjoyed building his puppets and working on his poisons, nothing quite compared with the satisfaction of seeing them in action.

He stepped over the guard’s corpse, feeling strangely naked without a carapace to protect him during this raid and even more so because he could feel the wind against his fragile, human flesh. It all put him on edge even before he heard a small bang and a muffled yell from the shrine. He gritted his teeth in response and ran toward the source of the disturbance.

“Damn it, brat!” Sasori hissed as he leapt over the wall into the guard station to find Deidara leaning over the exploded remains of the other guard. The moonlight shone through the short blond frizz growing in on Deidara’s head, making him look rather like a ghostly hedgehog. “Did you ever even bother to learn the meaning of ‘stealth’?”

Deidara grinned up at him unrepentantly. “You’re not the only one who’s been chaffing to practice their art, yeah?”

“Tch,” Sasori hissed. “You’ll get us both killed. And this time I actually can die.”

Deidara rose to his feet in a graceful move and rested his hands on Sasori’s shoulders in a placating gesture. “Would I do that to you, Master?” he asked flirtatiously.

Sasori brushed him off. “We have to hurry before the guards at the dock arrive. There’s no way they didn’t hear your little explosion.”

Deidara rolled his eyes but followed Sasori into the shrine. “I can test out my new scope on them, yeah?” He held up the small mechanical device that he’d been working on in their lair back in Hisoka for the past week. Deidara had modified the lens of the camera he’d stolen so that it was now the size and shape of an eyepiece, not much larger than the lenses of Deidara’s sunglasses had been. Sasori supposed that was the advantage of inventing something for the second time; it was easier and more efficient.

“This isn’t a holiday,” Sasori snapped. “We’re here for a reason.” The interior of the shrine was entirely unremarkable: a small wooden building with a tiny altar against one wall. Sasori knew what he was looking for, however, and reached down to pull open the trapdoor in the floor.

Deidara held his new scope up to his left eye, and Sasori heard the lens contract twice, zooming in. Deidara still hadn’t completed the fastening mechanisms, so he had to hold it in place, but it was serviceable in long-distance surveillance situations at least.

“Keep an eye out. I’m going in,” Sasori announced.

“You’re safe with me,” Deidara grinned, giving his shoulder a final squeeze.

“Hn,” Sasori shrugged him off and dived in. He was decidedly uneasy about the way Deidara was acting. To anyone else, Deidara’s flirtations might have seemed reassuring, but Sasori knew Deidara better than anyone. Deidara was a fickle man at heart, and if he was playing up the act this much, then there was something twisting Deidara up inside. They were both on edge from hiding out so much, true, but this went deeper than that. After all, Sasori had seen all the signs countless times before…

***

Seven years ago…

Sasori opened the door to their inn room to find Deidara with his face only inches from the mirror, carefully applying a small, black pencil around the edges of his eye. “I don’t even want to know,” Sasori grumbled to himself as he shut the door behind him. Contrary to popular belief within Akatsuki, Deidara did not normally put on make-up, wear feather boas, or any other number of ridiculous stereotypes.

“I’m going out tonight, yeah?” Deidara answered the question that Sasori hadn’t cared to ask in the first place. He pulled back from the mirror and examined his eyeliner critically. Then, he fluffed his hair – which seemed to have been crimped, since it was wavier than usual – and turned to face Sasori. “What do you think? Would you do me?” Deidara struck a pose.

Sasori refused to even look at him. “No.”

Sasori could practically hear Deidara’s pout. “Why not?”

“Because I’m a puppet who lacks the anatomical features to ‘do you,’ as you so eloquently put it,” Sasori answered blandly.

“It was a rhetorical question,” Deidara retorted. “I just need to know if you think I look good in this outfit.” He put his hands on his hips.

With a resigned sigh, Sasori looked over at him skeptically. “You’re wearing the same thing you always wear.” He eyed the mesh shirt and cut-off black tank-top with disinterest, before frowning. “Except for those jeans. What, are they painted on?”

Deidara proudly jutted out an exposed hipbone in the low-cut jeans. “You sound like my mother, yeah?”

“You don’t have a mother,” Sasori retorted.

Deidara’s palms were covered by a pair of fingerless gloves, so he had to settle for just sticking his regular tongue out at Sasori.

Sasori suddenly felt very old. “Whatever, brat.”

“So,” Deidara insisted, “would you do me? And I mean metaphorically this time.”

Sasori glanced up at him again disinterestedly. “No,” he repeated.

Deidara made a face. “What’s wrong now?”

“I’m a puppet without the emotional or physical desire to do anyone,” Sasori retorted. “You could be wearing a burlap sack, for all that it would matter to me.”

“Fine, fine,” Deidara waved him off. “Forget I even asked. You just stay here and tweak Hiruko’s wrist joints for the fifth night in a row. I,” he paused dramatically, “am going to get laid.” He breezed out of the room in an impressive huff.

Sasori frowned down at where Hiruko rested next to his bed. It was true that a puppet-master always had an infinite amount of tinkering to do, but even Sasori was beginning to grow tired of nothing but work these last couple of weeks. He needed prey to test his art upon just as much as Deidara did.

Sasori refused to acknowledge that he experienced any emotions as mundane as boredom. Because of that, he didn’t let himself analyze too much just why he followed Deidara out into the night. He supposed he could justify it as part of his ever-increasing curiosity about his partner, although after that emotional disaster they’d shared recently, he honestly felt he knew more than he’d ever wanted to. Perhaps it was better to think of this as research for Deidara’s second-year review that was coming up any day now; Sasori would need to make a complete report of all Deidara’s failings at that time, and it just wouldn’t do to tell Pain that Deidara had wandered off on his own and engaged in some unknown tryst.

In any case, he ended up clinging to the shadows of the large commercial district where their inn was located, trailing Deidara from a distance and masking his chakra carefully as he did so. It was strange to be exposed, without Hiruko surrounding him, but Hiruko wasn’t designed for quick, stealthy movements.

Sasori slipped past several drunken partiers that were exiting a club in the center of town and followed Deidara down a side street. He thought for a moment that his cover must have been blown, but then Deidara knocked on what looked like the backdoor of a closed shop. Sasori hid around the corner two alleys down as the door was opened, and suddenly the pulsing music and flashing lights from behind the door spilled out into the otherwise silent side street.

Deidara was waved inside.

Sasori staked out his position on the rooftop across the street from the private club and slipped a scroll out of his sleeve. He unrolled the paper carefully before he found the puppet he wanted – an attractive young Waterfall shinobi who had once gone by the name of Saburo – and summoned him. He attached the chakra strings to his puppet mechanically, watching the door to the club as he did so. He could tell already that Saburo’s clothing was a bit plain for the establishment, but he hoped he could get Saburo through on body language; that was one area where all puppeteers were experts.

Satisfied that Saburo was as prepared as he could get in the short time allotted, Sasori sent his puppet in. He watched through the chakra strings attached to Saburo’s eyes as his puppet knocked on the door. The same man that had opened the door for Deidara eyed Saburo up and down.

Sasori made Saburo strike the same pose that Deidara had used earlier that evening to model his outfit. The doorman let Saburo in without a second glance.

The interior of the club was loud, obnoxious, and everything that Sasori hated. There were people everywhere. Saburo walked around the edges of the room, trying not to draw any attention to himself and scanning for Deidara. This was rather difficult since it seemed every man in the place was looking for someone to pick up, and apparently none of them had an ounce of ninja-sense in their bodies because Saburo was being treated just like all the other meat.

Luckily for Sasori, Saburo was tall, broad-shouldered, and had an extremely impressive sneer; it was all most effective for brushing off attempted pick-ups.

He finally found Deidara on the dance floor, grinding against a man roughly twice his size. It was actually somewhat impressive how Deidara could entirely control someone that much larger than him; Sasori could see, even from this distance, that the man was entirely wrapped around Deidara’s little finger.

Deidara had had his eyes closed when Sasori first spotted him, but as Sasori watched, Deidara’s eyes blinked slowly open. For one terrifying moment, he was looking directly at Saburo, and Sasori had to scramble to remind himself that Deidara had never seen this particular human puppet before.

Deidara’s gaze turned to the man dancing behind him the next second, though, and Sasori relaxed. He watched Deidara twist in the man’s arms until his hands were resting lightly on his shoulders. His face leaned in impossibly close. He managed to look coy, yet at the same time he reminded Sasori uncomfortably of an ambush predator closing in for the kill.

Deidara whispered something in the man’s ear. Sasori didn’t need to be a genius to tell, from the ecstatic expression on the man’s face, that Deidara said something along the lines of, “Let’s get a room.”

Sasori watched as Deidara took the man’s hand in his gloved one and led him out a side door. Sasori moved Saburo to follow after them, until suddenly he realized that Deidara was staring directly at him once again. Deidara winked once, in deliberate challenge, and then he was out the door, dragging his lay for the evening along with him.

Sasori’s hands froze on the strings for a moment, and Saburo went as still as a statue within the club. He knew that following Deidara was a foolish move, especially since his partner had already seemingly caught him in the act. He also knew that he had never been the type to back down from a challenge…

***

Present day…

Sasori landed in almost perfect blackness. He pulled the chemical torch from his belt and twisted it on. Instantly, the cave under the shrine lit up with an unearthly blue light. It reminded Sasori of the way the flickers and sparks of fire from Deidara’s welding torch flashed on the metal worktables back at their hideout. The difference in this cave was, of course, the giant geyser that shot up from the center of the cavern, directly below the altar in the shrine above.

Sasori approached the geyser, reaching for the canister in his belt.

The water fount was known as the Source, and ninjas from the islands of the Sea Country had been harvesting its power for centuries for their jutsu. It was still the most powerful source of the water element in the known world, which was why Sasori had also used its power for the water jets in his previous puppet body’s wrists.

He rested the canister before the geyser and began making a series of hand signs to capture a fraction of the geyser’s power and seal it within the canister. As he worked, he listened for sounds of a struggle from above, but all was silent still. Either Deidara had gone out to fight the incoming guards outside the shrine, or they hadn’t arrived yet. In either case, Sasori still had some time.

When the first canister was complete, he returned it to his belt and took out a second. After they’d left the area, it would be a long and risky pilgrimage to return, so Sasori wanted to make as many back-ups now as he could.

The second was filled without Deidara raising the alarm above, and Sasori continued on to the third. He was about halfway through it when he heard the sound of a step behind him.

He turned just in time to avoid the spear that had been aimed for his head. The tip slid past his cheek, slicing the delicate skin there, before it impacted with the geyser and was ripped to shreds by the destructive power of the water.

Clutching his cheek in surprise at the sudden overwhelming sensation of pain, Sasori spun on his heel and lashed out with the pair of senbon in his right hand.

The first struck one of the reserve guards in the side of the neck. The second went wide in the flickering shadows of the cave, and the second guard came at Sasori, spear raised.

Sasori leapt into the air and landed on one of the cave walls, the chakra on the soles of his feet holding him in place. The first guard had pulled a crossbow from the small of his back and managed to get off three quick shots before the pain from Sasori’s poison became debilitating, and he collapsed to the ground.

Sasori neatly dodged all three bolts, but his cheek was stinging horribly, and the frantic thought passed through his mind that perhaps the guards had poisoned weapons as well.

He landed on the ground, on the far side of the cave, just as the second guard rushed him again.

Sasori dodged the spear neatly and caught the shaft in his palm, snapping the wood easily in two. The guard, who obviously had some skill with weapons, jabbed the ragged wooden edge directly at Sasori’s face.

Sasori deflected it neatly with his own half of the spear. He ducked nimbly under the guard’s arm and struck out with another needle. This one sunk deep into the guard’s shoulder, and the other man’s arm instantly went limp.

Sasori took advantage of the opportunity to slash the man’s throat with the tip of his own spear. He watched with satisfaction as blood gurgled up through the wound, and the guard finally fell dead at his feet.

Flexing his hand due to the force it had taken when he’d caught the spear, Sasori headed back to his third canister. He just wasn’t used to fighting in a human body anymore. Wooden fingers took a blow like that easily, with no irritations such as pain. His cheek wouldn’t be stinging from the cut he’d received, either. Sasori longed for those days. Pain was something he had never wanted to experience again.

The third canister was full now, and Sasori stuck it in his belt. There was still no alarm from Deidara, which was unusual. Sasori would have stayed to fill his final two canisters, but something was obviously wrong, and he needed to find out what it was.

Leaving the corpses of the two guards behind, he leapt back up through the trapdoor and into the shrine.

He realized almost immediately that it was a mistake.

***

Seven years ago…

Sasori could only see the barest glimpses of muscled flesh rocking together, through the slits in the Venetian blinds. He could hear everything, though.

“Yeah, yeah,” Deidara panted. “Harder!”

“God, you’re so fucking hot,” his trick breathed.

Sasori felt something inside him twist as Deidara let out an ecstatic moan. Deidara’s stranger continued to grunt as he thrusted inside Deidara’s body, and the whole thing was just…disgusting.

Sasori’s lip curled as he heard the cries inside the apartment reach their climax and fade off into silence. Honestly, Deidara was an experienced ninja, and an S-Class criminal as well. He should have known better than to allow himself to be overcome by these beastly urges. Sasori had overcome any such biological imperatives decades ago, and was all the more focused in his work because of it.

Some rustling of sheets and readjusting of bodies sounded from within the apartment, and suddenly Sasori found that he couldn’t handle it anymore. Deidara’s weakness for human flesh put them both in danger. Just suppose the other man had been a spy planted by one of Akatsuki’s enemies? Not only was Deidara shaming the whole organization, but he was risking his own life and, by extension, Sasori’s as well.

Sasori went in through the window without shame.

Deidara, who was busy trying to shimmy back into his jeans, gave Sasori a disinterested look over his shoulder. “See if you can find my left boot, yeah?” he requested casually.

Sasori narrowed his eyes at him. The man in the bed didn’t stir. Sasori got the sudden strange feeling that he was missing something.

“Ah, never mind.” Deidara leaned over to reach under the bed. “Found it.” He held up the boot for Sasori to see.

Sasori just blinked at him before striding over to the bed. He pulled back the covers with an abrupt motion to find dead eyes staring back up at him. Deidara’s fuck-buddy had a tiny puncture wound in his throat that Sasori recognized all too well.

“Sorry to borrow this without permission.” Deidara offered Sasori one of his own senbon as if nothing unusual were happening. “I didn’t want to slit his throat and get blood everywhere, yeah?”

Only one thought could escape Sasori’s mind: “Why?”

Deidara scoffed at him as he tied his hair back up with a red ribbon. “We shared something brief, but beautiful,” he insisted. “What’s the point of leaving him to linger and die? This way, he goes out perfectly, as a work of art, always to be remembered for that one final moment of passion.”

“Tch,” Sasori said distastefully.

“And also,” Deidara conceded, “I’m an S-Class criminal. Do you really think I’d risk my safety, and that of my partner, for an anonymous fuck?”

It was unnerving how Deidara’s words echoed Sasori’s own thoughts a few minutes earlier. “You shouldn’t have gone with him at all, then,” Sasori all but growled.

Deidara slipped his shirt back on and grinned at Sasori. “Why, Master, I’d almost say you sounded…jealous just now, yeah?” He reached over to press a palm to Sasori’s cheek. “Don’t worry,” he teased. “You’re different from all the others. What we have…” The mouth in Deidara’s palm gave Sasori’s cheek a chaste kiss. “It’s special, yeah?”

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re a sociopath?” Sasori growled, wiping at his cheek with disgust. It was a pointless gesture because Sasori couldn’t really feel his cheek anyway; only the pulses of chakra he sent throughout his entire puppet body had even let him know that some movement had taken place on his skin there. He felt the gesture sent a clear message to Deidara, however, so he engaged in it anyway.

“Your loss, Master,” Deidara shrugged and headed for the window Sasori had opened. “Let’s go back to the inn. We’ve got a mission tomorrow.”

Sasori followed him, but he refused to take his eyes off of Deidara now. Deidara might act like everything was normal, but Sasori felt as though a floodgate had been opened. Ever since their last mission in Iwa, Sasori had been given glimpses behind the cheerful mask Deidara always wore, to what lay beneath. Seeing the twisted creature Deidara truly had become was almost too unsettling for Sasori to process.

It was good that he’d learned this now, though, instead of even a few weeks later. That meant that when Pain flickered into existence late that evening, while Deidara slept, Sasori knew exactly what to say.

“Deidara,” Sasori reported, Hiruko’s lips all but spitting venom on the consonants of that name, “is a reckless menace. He is worse than incompetent on stealth missions, and he endangers both our lives at almost every turn. It’s a miracle he hasn’t blown himself up yet, let alone me. He has no respect for authority and still rants endlessly about how much he hates us all and wants us dead. He’s a wildcard and a danger to all of Akatsuki.”

Pain processed this in silence for a moment. “I see,” he said finally. “And your recommendation?”

“I recommend,” Sasori hissed, “that we kill the brat before he kills us.”

“That is your final recommendation?”

“It is,” Sasori agreed, signing Deidara’s death warrant.

***

Present day…

Sasori stood frozen in the middle of the shrine and blinked in disbelief at where Deidara stood across the room from him, completely unencumbered.

“Enjoying yourself, Master?” Deidara asked pleasantly.

He was surrounded by another half dozen of the reserve guards.

“What—?” Sasori breathed, eyes wide.

Deidara just grinned at him maniacally, and the guards attacked.

Chapter Text

“Art is a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.” – Kahlil Gibran

***

Present day…

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, brat?” Sasori snapped. He whipped out the scroll from his sleeve and yanked it all the way open. There were seals for ten puppets inside, although only six of those spots were filled. One was the rabbit decoy Sasori had used earlier; the other five he summoned now, all at once.

Two fingers per puppet, he lashed out at the incoming guards.

“Watching an artist at work, yeah?” Deidara said in a bored manner, leaning against the doorframe and examining his fingernails critically.

Sasori’s first three puppets were old, wooden models. He’d left this scroll behind in the Tea Country over a decade ago, in case he needed some back-up puppets for an emergency. As a result, they were all woefully outdated puppets he’d thought he’d never have use of again.

The first, Sasori had named Banshi when he’d been about seven and still extremely foolish. The foolishness came from the fact that, while the puppet was called ‘certain death,’ he had been built before Sasori had been given access to puppet weapons and thus was completely unarmed.

Sasori used Banshi as a sacrifice and slammed the puppet hard into one of the oncoming guards. Banshi’s shoulder and neck joints broke at the force of impact – Sasori really had been just beginning with puppets at the time – but he knocked the one guard back and out of battle for the few precious seconds Sasori needed.

The other two wooden puppets were called Tenshi and Oni, and they were much better equipped to deal with the current battle. Each held a pair of short swords, as that had been the first weapon Sasori had mastered.

Tenshi lashed out with both arms, hacking off the ends of two of the guards’ spears as he did so. Oni then moved in for the kill, gutting one man and slicing the other neatly in the shoulder. The first guard fell dead, and the second staggered off to the side, clutching his arm.

Unfortunately, in that time, two of the remaining guards had slipped off to the sides, made their way past Sasori’s puppet protectors, and charged. At the same time, another guard rushed at Tenshi and Oni from the front, hitting them each with an exploding tag.

This, of course, was exactly why Sasori had held back the two human puppets thus far. The first had been a young woman named Haya from the River Country. She had been exceptionally skilled in defensive ninjutsu while alive and developed a special shielding technique. Sasori had experimented with her when he was younger, but had ultimately scrapped the design in favor of concealing himself entirely within Hiruko’s carapace. Now, however, her body was of use to him.

Sasori pulled the latch on her back, and her torso sprung apart, spreading out in sections like a folding screen. The sections of her torso spread around Sasori, forming a sort of fence around his body. Her body had never naturally divided up like a paper fan, but her technique only worked if her flesh surrounded the individual to be protected, so Sasori had spent hours carefully cleaving her body into sections.

One of the guards attacking from the sides made a face of disgust at the way Sasori had dismembered the human girl and screamed with even further rage at the criminal in their midst.

Sasori waited until the last second before jerking on the chakra strings that controlled Haya. The sections of torso unfolded upward once again, suddenly doubling the height of the barrier she created around Sasori and, more importantly, causing her flesh to come into contact with the two guards.

Instantly, her power took hold, dissolving all flesh her own touched. In a second, she sliced through the guards’ arms like a knife through hot butter, leaving them screaming in agony and clutching their bloody stumps.

At the same time, Sasori pulled Tenshi and Oni to the sides just as the exploding tags on them ignited. The explosions destroyed both wooden puppets, but Sasori had put them to good use. Tenshi also blew up the guard who had been wounded by Oni’s blade earlier, and Oni took out the one that Banshi had knocked aside.

That left Sasori with only one guard charging him, and his strongest human puppet, Kousei, still unused.
Kousei had once been a shinobi of the Fire Country, and his jutsu centered on that same element. If the guard had thought that the fire caused by the explosive tags was impressive, he’d clearly never seen Kousei in action.

Sasori let loose with a fireball that took out an entire wall of the shrine. The guard who’d been coming for him was instantly incinerated.

Sasori had one moment to relax before the building shook. It was never a good idea to use this much fire in such an enclosed space.

The two guards that Haya had disarmed – quite literally – earlier were still gasping in agony on the floor. Sasori lazily tossed a senbon into each of their throats; it wouldn’t do to leave any surviving witnesses on the techniques used in this battle.

Returning Haya and Kousei to his scroll, Sasori ran for the exit as the building burned around him. He hadn’t forgotten about Deidara, of course, and as he emerged from the flames into the cool of the night, he saw his partner leaning smugly against a giant clay swan a few dozen feet away.

Sasori’s chest was heaving like he was about to die from lack of oxygen, and it felt like his skin was being boiled alive by the heat, and the cut on his cheek from earlier stung painfully. It was all human and horrible and messy, and Sasori wanted it all to go away.

You!” he hissed at Deidara venomously.

Deidara’s blue eyes widened in a look of faux innocence.

“You let them come at me,” Sasori accused, fingers tightening around his puppet scroll. “You knew I could be killed!”

“Apparently not so easily, yeah?” Deidara drawled. He reached deliberately into his robe and pulled out a single kunai, gripping it in that odd backhanded fashion he used to favor the mouths on his palms when he fought.

Sasori hissed and pulled five senbon from his weapons pouch; the dark venom on them glinted dangerously in the light from the fire.

Deidara smiled at him in a thoroughly deranged matter. “Ready, Master?” he asked, and he threw the kunai at full strength.

***

Seven years ago…

“Deidara, step forward.” The static of Pain’s voice wavered, sending a sharp wave of feedback into the ears of the two ninja who listened.

Wincing slightly, Deidara followed his command.

“You have served Akatsuki for two full years, as of this date,” Pain continued. “Your trial period is at an end. It is time for the verdict to be handed down.”

Deidara looked nervously in Sasori’s direction, but Sasori refused to look his way. He kept all his senses focused on Pain instead, safe within Hiruko’s carapace. He knew the explosion was imminent, and there was no way he’d be caught with his defenses down this time.

“You stand between your two judges,” Pain explained. “It is time for votes to be cast.”

Deidara’s hands tightened into fists. “What right do you have to judge me, yeah?” he hissed. “You’re too much of a coward to even—”

Sasori cut off Deidara’s tirade before it could really get going by snaring him within Hiruko’s scorpion tail. The unsharpened edge of the stinger dug into Deidara’s throat, cutting off his air mid-sentence.

Deidara squirmed against Hiruko’s grip, thrashing about ineffectively within Sasori’s coils and glaring at him the entire time.

“I have the right because I hold the power here tonight,” Pain responded. He nodded to Sasori, who gave Hiruko’s tail a pointed squeeze in response; Deidara gasped and fell limp, his struggles at an end for now. “We will proceed with the verdict. Sasori?”

Sasori dangled Deidara in mid-air like he was a blond rag doll. “He is too unstable,” Sasori concluded, “reckless and disobedient.”

Deidara’s head shot up, and he looked at Sasori in surprise. He’d obviously thought that Pain was the only one he had to worry about tonight.

Sasori clucked his tongue disapprovingly. Some day, that overconfidence would get Deidara killed. “I vote death,” he finally answered.

“What?” Deidara all but screeched. He began struggling anew, fighting viciously against Hiruko’s tail.

Sasori held him easily, but the brat must have been hording some clay in the palm of his hand because before Sasori had time to register what was happening, two clay wasps spun around Hiruko’s head angrily.

Katsu!” Deidara screamed.

Sasori’s entire field of vision turned white at the force of the explosion. Hiruko went flying backward and smashed against the far wall of the cave, his cloak and hair on fire.

“Brat!” Sasori hissed in fury, unharmed within Hiruko’s carapace.

“You bastard!” Deidara screamed right back. He’d almost gotten one arm free from Hiruko’s tail by now.

Enough.” Pain’s voice was barely a whisper amidst the shouting, but it rang through their skulls loud and clear as if Pain had spoken from within their brains.

As one, they stilled.

“Sasori’s vote is cast,” Pain said simply. “Mine remains.”

“Just try it, you asshole!” Deidara spat.

“Hurry up so I can kill him,” Sasori retorted, squeezing Hiruko’s tail yet again.

“My vote,” Pain continued calmly, “is that Deidara should remain within Akatsuki’s ranks.”

The fight went out of Deidara’s face in an instant, and he blinked at Pain in disbelief. “Huh?”

“Didn’t you listen to anything I said?” Sasori exclaimed angrily. “He’d stab us all in the back in a heartbeat!”

Pain chuckled to himself in a particularly sadistic way. “Then it’s up to you, Sasori, to never turn your back on him. The two of you have an impressive success-rate on missions together. You are to remain partners indefinitely.”

“But—!” Sasori protested.

“Enjoy,” Pain said before he flashed out of existence.

There was a moment of perfect silence, and then:

“I will get you back for this some day, Master.” Deidara scowled. “One day, when you’re not looking—”

“Oh, shut up,” Sasori said, voice suddenly bland and calm. He released Deidara from Hiruko’s clutches. “I just did you the biggest favor of your pathetic, little life.”

“Favor?” Deidara repeated incredulously. “You betrayed me! You tried to have me killed!”

“Exactly.” Sasori twisted Hiruko’s features into a menacing smile. “I betrayed you for your own damn good…”

***

Present day…

Sasori ducked and flung his senbon in response. It was only after he’d released them, however, that he realized that the kunai hadn’t been aimed at his head in the first place.

“What on earth…?” He turned and blinked at where Deidara’s kunai now protruded through the forehead of the guard who’d been sneaking up behind Sasori.

“Watch it with these things, yeah?” Deidara had formed a giant clay octopus in the palms of his hands as a defensive shield. Five of the tentacles had Sasori’s poisoned senbon stuck in them.

Sasori’s eyes narrowed. “What game are you playing, brat?”

“The game where, if you don’t hurry up, we’ll have another battalion of guards to fight.” Deidara leapt up onto his clay swan and extended a hand.

Sasori frowned at it suspiciously.

Deidara rolled his eyes. “Come on!”

“You will tell me what’s going on,” Sasori grumbled, taking Deidara’s hand and letting himself be pulled up onto the swan. His arms slid hesitantly around Deidara’s waist from behind.

Deidara focused for a moment, and then the swan took off into the night air, leaving Hyakka Island far behind them. Sasori could feel the wind blowing against his cheeks and the thin air in his lungs. Both were intoxicating, and for a moment he almost understood why Deidara loved flying.

He took in a deep breath and tried to force down the sensations when Deidara answered:

“Well, it’s like you once said. ‘I betrayed you for your own damn good,’ yeah?”

***

Seven years ago…

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Deidara shouted.

“Tch, be quiet. You’re hurting my ears.”

“You don’t even have ears!”

“Do you have some mental disability where you can’t understand the words ‘be quiet’?”

Deidara seethed and reached for his clay. “That’s it. We’re having this out here and now, yeah?”

Sasori rolled Hiruko’s eyes, still absently batting his tail at where Hiruko’s cloak was singed. “Will you just listen for a minute, brat?”

“Why should I?”

“Because I just saved your miserable existence. A few minutes of actual quiet is hardly too much to ask.”

Deidara’s eyes were angry, but he held his hand still in his clay bag. “One minute.”

Sasori bristled at a mere kid giving him an ultimatum, but this entire incident was already more trouble than it was worth. He didn’t want to have to battle Deidara on top of it. “Leader doesn’t trust me,” he said succinctly.

“Gee, I wonder why?”

“He doesn’t trust me because he knows that I was coerced into joining Akatsuki, and thus I am probably very eager to leave.”

“And he’s right. So what?” Deidara sulked.

“So, he’s going to try to thwart me at every turn. He wants to make me miserable. He wants to break my will,” Sasori concluded.

“Welcome to the club, yeah?”

“You are,” Sasori gritted Hiruko’s teeth at having to admit it, “a tolerable partner. I concluded that it wasn’t worth the trouble of replacing you.”

A hint of realization lit up Deidara’s eyes. “And you knew that Leader’s vote outweighed yours…”

“So the best way to keep you alive was to make him think I hated you.”

“You think he kept me around just to punish you? Awfully full of yourself, aren’t you, Master?”

“Leader isn’t above petty cruelties,” Sasori retorted, “especially when they solidify his control over Akatsuki.”

Deidara scoffed. “You’re telling me that you voted to have me killed, so that Pain would vote not to have me killed, because he hates you?”

“Exactly.”

Deidara gave him a lazy smirk. “Either you’re pretty insane, or you think I’m pretty stupid, yeah?”

Sasori huffed. “Think whatever you want, brat. It doesn’t matter to me.” He turned Hiruko around to find someplace safe – preferably far away from Deidara and his explosions – so that he could assess the burn damage.

He was stopped only a few feet away, though, when Deidara suddenly appeared before Hiruko. Sasori cursed the fact that Hiruko was so slow for the umpteenth time; he was really going to have to find a way to fix that.

“What do you want now?”

Deidara studied Hiruko’s eyes carefully for a moment and then, to Sasori’s utter shock, he leaned in and wrapped his arms deliberately around Hiruko’s neck in an affectionate embrace. “Thank you, Master,” he purred against cold, lifeless flesh.

Sasori couldn’t have been more stunned if Deidara had revealed that he had an extra mouth on his ass; in fact, that would have made more sense. No one touched Hiruko except for Sasori. Hiruko had been a hideous man when alive, and all Sasori’s art had been geared toward bringing out that horrific nature. Hiruko had emerged from the dark, disfigured part of his psyche, and everyone else Sasori had ever met had had the sense to stay clear.

Deidara laughed and rapped on Hiruko’s cheek with his knuckles. “‘You’re welcome, brat’,” he said in a horrible imitation of Hiruko’s voice before he all but skipped off into the recesses of the lair.

Sasori stared after him for a long while before finally shaking the incident off. “Hn,” he said disinterestedly, even though no one was listening.

***

Present day…

Deidara brought them down to a graceful landing halfway between Hyakka Island and Hisoka. The sun was starting to rise by now, and a giant white swan would be conspicuous this far out to sea. With a command from Deidara’s forefinger, the swan vanished, leaving them alone on the tiny island. There were enough trees for cover, but not enough space for the island to be inhabited. Sasori grudgingly had to admit that it was a good place to layover and evade their pursuers.

His arms slipped from around Deidara’s waist, and he suddenly felt ridiculously awkward about the whole situation. Deidara’s actions were confusing his mind, and his hormones were messing with his body. So he did what he always did when things were out of his control and stalked off.

“Uh, Master?” Deidara ventured nervously, nearly tripping over his feet in the sand as they approached the nearest shade.

“What?” Sasori snapped. Already he was somewhat mollified to have thrown Deidara off-balance as well.

“Don’t you want me to explain?”

“You’d better explain.” Sasori sat at the base of the nearest tree, his back ramrod straight against its trunk. He gave Deidara no sign of encouragement whatsoever.

“Yeesh,” Deidara folded his arms over his chest, “I thought after letting loose on all those guards, you’d relax a little.”

Sasori fixed him with cold eyes. “I never relax.”

“Right.” Deidara shrugged. “Forget I even suggested it.” He plopped down on the sand across from Sasori, sitting in the morning sun.

From the shade, Sasori watched him wearily.

Instead of responding, Deidara kicked off his boots and wiggled his toes in the sand. The mouths on his ankles yawned and stretched, relieved to be free of the confining leather.

Sasori continued to stare him down.

“We’ve been in hiding for a little while now, yeah?” Deidara finally said. He dug around in his bag for some clay and then fed it to the mouths on his ankles; they chewed it happily. “And longer for you than for me.”

“So?”

“And on top of all that,” Deidara ignored Sasori’s frigid tone, “you’re human for the first time in an age. I can see it in your eyes every day, Master, how much you hate it, how much you wish you were the way you were before…”

“All in good time,” Sasori insisted. “It just requires patience.”

Deidara snorted, and the mouths in his hands began chewing clay as well. “You hate waiting,” he pointed out. “And it’s not just that. You’re not good at waiting, either.”

“I can deal with it.”

“Yeah, you can,” Deidara agreed, “but it’s killing you inside. I can see it.” He looked down at his hands, and his face was cast in shadow. “You’ve been forgetting who you are, hiding all the time, worrying about your mortality. It’s not you. So I thought you needed a little inspiration, yeah?”

“No,” Sasori sulked.

Deidara grinned up at him. “Tell me you didn’t feel something back there,” he challenged. “You wanted to kill me. Even more importantly, you wanted to kill. It’s a thrill, yeah? Having a life in your grasp and just…squeezing…” The mouth in his right hand returned the chakra-infused clay, and Deidara pressed it flat.

Sasori felt the adrenaline rise up inside him again at the memory.

“I watched you fighting, you know,” Deidara continued. “You were beautiful out there – deadly. You were my Master Sasori again, and it didn’t matter whether you were human or a puppet, mortal or immortal.”

“I got to use my art,” Sasori said slowly.

Deidara’s face brightened. “Exactly! And it was a blast, yeah?”

Sasori snorted and turned away. “I don’t need you to look after me.”

“Then why did you send for me?” Deidara retorted. “You say you like to be alone so much, and I’m such a loud brat. You could have just left me behind.”

Sasori glared at him.

“You chose to have a partner this time, Master. Don’t blame me for watching your back.”

“If you had watched my back, it wouldn’t be a problem,” Sasori hissed.

“You’ve a got problem? Deal with it.” Deidara stuck out five tongues at Sasori all at once.

Sasori felt something deep inside him snap in response. He’d known that his emotions were getting increasingly out of control in this human flesh, but even he hadn’t imagined that they could suddenly overcome him like this.

With a snarl, he tackled Deidara back onto the sand, his fist aiming for that smug expression. Deidara rolled with the punch and kicked Sasori in the chest hard, sending him flying over his head onto the sand behind him.

Sasori gasped at the pain as he hit the sand flat on his back, and the wind was knocked from his body. He didn’t have any time to dwell on this, though, because Deidara came right back at him, right hand slicing at his throat.

Sasori caught the blow and twisted Deidara’s wrist, only for Deidara’s left-hand slice to hit him in the stomach. He roared with the pain, and his fist caught Deidara under the chin with a powerful snap. For a second he thought Deidara had gone down, but then Deidara looked back up at him with a maniacal grin, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

They both rushed at each other at the same time and met in the center, this time with weapons out. The wide blade of Deidara’s kunai deflected dozens of deadly pricks from Sasori’s senbon, before diving in for the kill.

In this one regard, Sasori was at a disadvantage because senbon were worthless for deflecting attacks. He blocked with his arm instead, and he and Deidara froze, locked mid-blow, panting for breath in the middle of the sand.

The very tip of Deidara’s kunai had reached its target and, as Sasori watched, the pale green locks of Hideaki’s bangs fluttered down to the ground.

Their eyes met and, slowly, they both dropped their guards.

Sasori felt empty all of a sudden, as if all the emotion that had been welling inside of him had been dispelled during their brawl. He stepped closer to Deidara, and that inhuman stillness that had filled his being when he’d been a puppet took hold of him. It was a revelation, in many ways. He hadn’t needed another body to become Sasori again; he’d just needed Deidara to show him the way.

Their bodies pressed together, and Deidara’s kunai glinted in the sunlight. Sasori closed his eyes as it came down and hacked at his hair. He could feel the severed green locks tickling his shoulders and neck, and when Deidara was done, there was nothing but red left.

***

“So, how was your ‘romantic getaway’?” Kaori teased him the next day during their guard shift.

It had become a familiar routine over the last months, but somehow everything was different now. Before, Sasori had felt dull with the knowledge that this was the life he led now, forever hiding in this mundane existence. Now, however, he knew the truth; this was just another undercover mission, a brief stop on the way to becoming even more powerful than he’d been before.

“Relaxing,” Hideaki smiled. The sentiment was even halfway genuine.

Chapter Text

“In art, all who have done something other than their predecessors have merited the epithet of revolutionary; and it is they alone who are masters.” – Paul Gauguin

***

Seven years ago…

“Damn it! Let me go!” Deidara thrashed about in Hiruko’s tail.

“Hn,” Sasori said evenly, glancing around. They’d come to a small clearing in the woods, far away from the nearest village. “This will do.” He dropped Deidara without ceremony.

Deidara, who was developing catlike reflexes about being manhandled by Hiruko, landed nimbly on his toes, body crouched down low to the ground. “What was that about, yeah?” he demanded, rising to his feet and wiping the dust from his robe.

“If you’re going to stick around,” Sasori slipped his cloak off of Hiruko’s bulk with a flick of Hiruko’s wrist, “then you’d better work on not getting yourself killed.”

“Tch. That’s obvious, Master.” Deidara crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

“Then why are you such a pathetic, worthless brat?” Hiruko’s eyes narrowed.

Deidara scowled back at him.

“So,” Sasori announced, “we’re going to start training.”

“Training?” Deidara blinked. “I’ve already survived Akatsuki for two years. I think I know—”

“Arrogant child! Each mission exposes a new weakness. Every other member works to correct those weaknesses. If you do not, you’ll find yourself dead faster than you can say ‘katsu!’”

“Fine, Master. Tell me what my weaknesses are, then, yeah?”

“Your first obvious weakness is against genjutsu.” Sasori sneered. “Itachi trounced you like you were a mere child.”

Deidara’s expression fell at that. “You have a point there,” he conceded sheepishly.

Inside Hiruko’s carapace, Sasori withdrew one of his scrolls and unrolled it carefully to the place he wanted. He summoned Sakkaku with a puff of smoke.

Deidara fell gracefully into a defensive stance. At least the boy wasn’t too overconfident about this.

Sasori didn’t give him any warning in his attack. Sakkaku’s hands moved together, formed a hand seal, and then Sasori could feel the rush of the man’s inherent ability fill the small clearing.

Deidara dodged left, then dodged right. Sakkaku didn’t move an inch.

It was strange to be outside a genjutsu like this, yet entirely aware of it at the same time. Sasori was outside of Sakkaku’s body, so he saw the attacks of Deidara’s illusionary opponent, but at the same time he had created the illusion, so he could see through it. He thought, without much interest, that this must be similar to how Itachi viewed the world.

Deidara had already failed the lesson, so Sasori snuck up on him and smacked him in the back of the head with Hiruko’s tail.

Deidara glared up at him.

“Again,” Sasori said simply.

Deidara lunged.

***

Present day…

Sasori awoke to find himself surrounded by warmth. It was almost enough that he drifted back to sleep, but the sun was rising and he had important work to do today. He stirred and got a muffled complaint for his effort. He scowled and shoved. Deidara flopped over onto the other side of futon like an over-sized stuffed animal.

Feeling more than a little infringed upon, Sasori started his day. Unfortunately, Sasori had barely finished pushing the lightning seal into the blade in Jirou’s left hand, when he was yanked viciously from away from his tools.

“I was working,” Sasori hissed, pointing to where the seal flickered on fleshy-leather and wood of Jirou’s wrist for a moment, before vanishing into Jirou’s body.

Deidara spared a glance to admire his work. “And now you’re done working, yeah?”

“No.” Sasori glared up at him.

“Yeah,” Deidara insisted. “You need,” he said more than a little smugly, “to train.”

Sasori’s eye twitched. “What did you say, brat?”

“I said you needed to train,” Deidara said calmly, happily ignoring Sasori’s murderous fury. “You suck at taijutsu.”

Sasori flicked out a chakra string and pulled Jirou’s now-electrified left arm in front of him. “Want to try that theory out?”

Deidara rolled his eyes. “That just proves that you can use the puppet technique. Only an idiot would deny that.”

“And you are?”

Deidara stuck out the tongues in his palms. “Like it or not, Master, you’re trapped in a human body for now, and in a human body, you need taijutsu. Clever substitutions don’t count.” He batted aside Sasori’s chakra string and grabbed him by the shoulders, all but frog-marching him over to the tunnel that led from their cave. “So we’re training, yeah?”

“No,” Sasori sulked, but he didn’t fight back particularly hard. The sad truth of the matter was that Deidara was right; he was excellent at taijutsu as long as all the motions were controlled by his chakra strings. When it came to moving in a real body, he was flawed.

So, instead of finishing Jirou’s arm, Sasori followed Deidara out into the woods to practice. It wasn’t shaping up to be a good day.

“Ready, Master?” Deidara inquired, facing him.

“Tch.” Sasori shot a senbon at Deidara’s head. “When was the last time an enemy gave you warning in advance?”

Deidara managed to shrug and avoid the senbon at the same time; it was very irritating. “I thought I’d cut you some slack because you’re an old man, but… Tch, you asked for it.”

The problem was that, without the puppet technique, Sasori was only mediocre at taijutsu. Deidara, to many people’s surprise, was actually quite excellent at taijutsu; he just didn’t seem like it at first because roughly half his energy went into protecting his many mouths. As a result, Deidara usually had an odd, inwardly-curved stance designed to shield his palms, chest, and ankles. He wasn’t using it now, though, striking out at Sasori ruthlessly with side slices of his hands and powerful heel kicks. There was no way Sasori could stay standing for long without going for Deidara’s mouths.

So, naturally, Sasori went straight for Deidara’s mouths.

Deidara slipped half into a defensive stance gracefully and neatly deflected Sasori’s fist to his chest. He spun, with easy speed, and knocked Sasori’s ankle out from under him.

Sasori rolled with the fall and leapt back just in time to see Deidara open up the pouch at his waist. “What are you doing?” he snapped, eyes wide. “This is supposed to be taijutsu!”

Deidara grinned and released half a dozen clay doves. “It’s supposed to be taijutsu on your part,” he corrected. “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you…too much.”

Sasori wasn’t about to bet his life on Deidara’s ability to refrain from blowing things up for five seconds. He leapt through the trees, ducking and dodging the white birds that were determined to swarm him. Deidara followed at a slower pace, controlling the birds’ motions from afar. Sasori wished in that moment that he could murder Deidara. Quick, evasive maneuvers just weren’t a puppeteer’s forte, and he resented Deidara for forcing the bothersome exercise on him. It certainly didn’t help that his heart was pounding in a way that was almost painful, and it felt like he couldn’t draw enough breath into his lungs.

“You’re out of shape, Master,” Deidara tisked, resting comfortably against a nearby tree and chasing Sasori with nothing but his eyes.

“I’ll get you for this, brat!” Sasori managed to wheeze out, dropping down to the ground to avoid a near collision between two of the birds, only to leap back up into the air as another three were lying in wait for him down below.

“Tch,” Deidara teased. “Promises, promises…”

That was it, Sasori decided then and there. He might not be able to bring himself to murder Deidara, but he was going to torture him, slowly and painfully.

***

Seven years ago…

“You’re cheating, brat. I can tell.”

“Prove it, yeah?” Deidara retorted, dodging to the next tree branch.

Sasori did have to concede that Deidara had amazing stamina. He’d been running from Sasori’s various puppets for almost an hour now, and he still showed no signs of tiring. Of course, he was also dodging twice as much as he had to, which was how Sasori knew that he wasn’t actually sensing the genjutsu, just assuming that he was trapped in it.

“You have power but no finesse,” Sasori informed him. “That will only take you so far. In battle, you need to conserve that power, use it only when absolutely necessary, and save all you can to crush your opponent.”

Deidara came to a halt, hands clasped together. He grinned wickedly and then released his grip, a flock of clay hummingbirds darting from his palms.

Sasori pulled Hiruko back out of the fray just in time to avoid the cascade of tiny explosions all over the clearing. One of the hummingbirds detonated only a foot from Sakkaku’s right shoulder, and the puppet was thrown to the side, its cloak on fire.

Sasori barely snapped on Sakkaku’s chakra strings in time to keep him from colliding with a tree. Cold, angry eyes turned to where Deidara was looking very smug at his accomplishment. “What did I just tell you about conserving your power?” he growled.

Deidara waved a hand in the air dismissively. “That’s fine for you, Master, but I like to live in the moment, yeah? It’s more exciting that way, keeps me on my toes.”

Sasori knew it was impossible because he didn’t have any natural parts of his body left, but he would have sworn he twitched in response. “If I wasted all that effort keeping you alive, just for you to get yourself killed…”

“Well, of course, I’ll get killed some day,” Deidara concluded reasonably. “Who wants to live forever?”

“What did you just say?” Sasori hissed.

“Oh, right, sorry. Forgot who I was talking to. You can live forever all you want, but it’s just not me.”

Sasori absentmindedly doused the flames in Sakkaku’s cloak, using the secret hatch on Hiruko’s left flank to spray the water spout in his palm out of Hiruko’s carapace. He suddenly felt very weary of the whole affair, like it was all a waste of his time. Deidara was right, of course; he was mortal and would die just like everybody else. It didn’t really matter whether Sasori wanted him as his partner or not, because soon enough he’d be gone.

The errant thought only crossed his mind for a second or two, but it was all the time necessary to turn the tide. Apparently, Deidara had been waiting for just such an opportunity.

Katsu!” Deidara whispered.

Sasori jerked just in time to see that, hidden within the chaotic display of Deidara’s hummingbirds, there had been a tiny gnat as well, almost too tiny to see unless it was inches away. Unfortunately, it was inches away from the open hatch in Hiruko.

The explosion ricocheted throughout Hiruko’s carapace, and when the ringing had finally stopped, Sasori found himself staring up at the setting sun, blown entirely free of Hiruko. “Hn,” he said sullenly.

A shadow blocked the sun from his sight, and Deidara crouched down beside him, a kunai in hand. He rested the tip firmly against the scorpion kanji over Sasori’s heart. “I told you I’m most inspired when backed into a corner.”

Sasori hadn’t forgotten that only a few days ago, Deidara had been promising his demise. He also hadn’t forgotten that Deidara was a deceptive creature; just when he seemed the most affectionate, he struck the killing blow. “You never did defeat my genjutsu,” he said simply.

“Hn, I suppose not,” Deidara agreed. “But then you’re not really a genjutsu user, yeah? To defeat you, I had to defeat a puppet-master.” The kunai dug in just a fraction. “For all your talk of immortality, you’re awfully vulnerable. Right here.”

“And for all your talk of inspiration, you’re awfully predictable,” Sasori scoffed. “A nosy distraction and then a quiet ambush? I’ve seen you do the same countless times.” And then, to emphasize his point, he tugged on the chakra string on his left forefinger.

The advantage to having one puppet use genjutsu was that another – say, a capture puppet – could easily be summoned when Sasori’s victim didn’t know what was real and what an illusion. Riku was just such a puppet, and Sasori had kept him underground with earth techniques this whole time.

Deidara let out a surprised yelp when Sasori’s trap sprung, and the puppet body snapped closed around him. “Hey, Master! Not funny, yeah?” He began pounding his fists on his wood-and-flesh prison.

Sasori jerked his puppet body up and brushed the dirt and leaves from his wooden limbs. “I told you. You have to hold back your best material for the final strike.” He glanced impassively over at where Hiruko had fallen, hinges wide open, across the clearing. It looked like the damage was superficial. “You’re lucky Hiruko isn’t damaged. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so gentle with you. You could have killed me.”

“It was just C-1,” Deidara’s muffled voice sulked from inside Riku.

“Hn.” Deidara may have been a show off, but Sasori was forced to concede that, if Deidara had wanted him dead, he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to thrust the kunai into Sasori’s heart a minute ago. He eyed Riku speculatively and then flicked the release mechanism.

Deidara came rolling out of Riku’s holding compartment in a cloud of dust and curse words.

“I’m not a genjutsu user,” Sasori said evenly, “as you said. Yet even I used genjutsu to defeat you. Like it or not, brat, it’s your weakness. You’d better find a way to compensate for it.” He headed over to Hiruko and the work that needed to be done.

“Master?” Deidara’s uncharacteristically meek request caught him off guard, and he slowed his steps.

“What?”

“I wasn’t the only one who showed their weakness here today.” Deidara continued softly, head turned downward so that he was looking at the earth. “Your heart… It’s vulnerable.”

“Worry about yourself,” Sasori hissed.

“No, I’m serious, yeah? You might as well have a giant bull’s-eye right on the only spot where a blow could kill you.” Deidara coughed at the dust still surrounding him. “If you’re going to be my partner, I’d rather not see you go, either…”

“Worry about yourself,” Sasori repeated coldly. “Even if you don’t care if you die, I’m sure you care if you die at Itachi’s hands.”

Deidara looked up and smirked at that. “Too true.”

Sasori didn’t acknowledge Deidara’s other comment as he tended to Hiruko’s wounds. After all, he was hardly going to tell the brat that that was the whole point of his heart casing in the first place.

***

Present day…

“I,” Sasori announced, panting at where he crouched on a tree branch just below where the last of Deidara’s doves had exploded, “hate you. A lot.”

“Now, now, Master,” Deidara chided, leaning insouciantly up against the tree trunk, only feet away, “I know you don’t mean that.” The brat didn’t even look tired. “And don’t you feel better now that you’ve had a bit of exercise?”

Sasori whipped a senbon out of his weapons’ pouch and pointed it squarely between Deidara’s eyes. “I think I’d like to try target practice next,” he snarled.

Deidara’s eyes widened, and he ducked just in time to avoid a very painful, lingering illness. Sasori would have given him the antidote eventually, after all…probably.

One of the things Sasori liked about using senbon was that it was possible to carry a much larger quantity than with other weapons. He literally had thousands of them at his disposal, and the one thing he was very good at physically was his precise aim. Every throw was lethal and designed to drive Deidara further into a trap from which even he couldn’t dodge quickly enough.

Senbon in each hand, Sasori threw one after the other in lightning-quick succession. As a result, every time Deidara ducked in one direction, he had to correct himself and dive back the other way only a fraction of a second later. Sasori picked up the pace of his throws, causing Deidara to dart back and forth faster and faster.

Deidara, who sensed the trap, took the only option available to him and tried to increase the distance between Sasori and himself. That was just the opportunity Sasori had been waiting for, however, as it allowed him time to regroup. It was time to bring some puppets into play.

“Hey!” Deidara protested, still evading the last senbon, as Sasori pulled his puppet scroll from the sleeve of his jacket. “This is supposed to be taijutsu!”

“‘Taijutsu on your part’,” Sasori mocked Deidara’s comeback from earlier. “Kousei and Haya will get a workout, too. Does that make you happy?”

“No,” Deidara dodged the first fireball emitted from Kousei’s palms. “Duh!”

Haya leapt nimbly into battle, her defensive shield operative. Deidara let out a little yelp of alarm and, just as nimbly, dodged every one of her limbs. Deidara had been watching Haya’s technique during the battle in the Sea Country, then. That was good; partners should always know each other’s abilities.

Kousei came at Deidara from the right with fingers of flame, and Haya snuck in under his defenses on the left, fingers dripping acid. Deidara pulled off the replacement technique just in the knick of time.

Sasori’s deactivated both puppets’ techniques, and their hands pressed together harmlessly in the spot Deidara had just occupied.

“This isn’t helpful!” Deidara called out from the tree line.

Sasori’s senses instantly narrowed in on him, and he pulled his two puppets in to attack once more. “What are you talking about?” he asked lightly. “I find it very therapeutic.”

“I’m going to blow them up if you don’t put them away, yeah?” Deidara complained.

Sasori scoffed. “That would render me almost ineffective in battle. You can’t take the risk of destroying my last puppets.”

He could almost hear Deidara’s pout from the woods.

He closed his eyes for a moment, located Deidara’s chakra signature instinctively, and pulled out the reserve scroll he’d tucked into his other sleeve. He needed to try this out, and now was as good a time as any.

With a flare of chakra, he summoned his last puppet directly over Deidara’s current hiding spot. It was harder to ‘see’ through a puppet’s eyes with chakra strings when he had actual eyeballs interfering, but he pulled off the blind attack nonetheless.

He heard Deidara’s squeal of surprise and walked lazily over to see for himself.

“H-Hi, Jirou,” Deidara said, eyes wide, as Sasori approached. “Good puppet.”

Jirou had his lightning-charged blade pressed against Deidara’s throat. His jaw was opened unnaturally wide, exposing a dozen senbon ready to shoot Deidara directly in the face if he so much as moved.

“Tch. He’s not a dog.” Sasori eyed Deidara’s hands that were still desperately chewing clay. “Give?”

Deidara sighed, and his mouths slowed as well. “Give,” he conceded.

“Good,” Sasori pulled Jirou back with a flick of his pinky.

“Since when is Jirou battle-ready?” Deidara demanded, looking a bit put off by this latest surprise.

“Since you were snoring in bed all morning,” Sasori retorted. He held out his scroll, and Jirou vanished back inside. “He’s still only for emergencies, though. He’s not finished.”

Deidara rubbed absently at his throat. “He seems pretty ready to me, yeah?”

Sasori continued to close in on Deidara, eyes narrowed in thought.

“What?” Deidara asked, one eyebrow quirked in confusion.

“Take off your shirt,” Sasori finally demanded.

Deidara blinked, then grinned. “Sure, Master. All you ever had to do was ask…” He stripped the black tank-top and fishnets over his head with an impressive stretch of taut muscles.

Sasori scoffed. “Not like that,” he corrected. His hand reached out and gently traced the lower lip of the mouth in Deidara’s chest.

Deidara’s eyes widened, and he jerked back. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “That’s dangerous!”

Sasori held his fingers out before his face and wiggled them. “I still seem to be intact,” he said snidely. “Now, hold still.”

“Stop that!” Deidara squeaked, but his back was still to the tree, and he had nowhere to run to.

Sasori traced the line of Deidara’s largest mouth again, thoughtfully. “Your chakra’s much stronger here.”

“Yeah, straight from the source,” Deidara agreed. “Now, knock it off before it accidentally hurts you.”

Sasori raised an eyebrow as the lower chest-lip trembled in response to a brush from his thumb. “It doesn’t seem to want to hurt me,” he pointed out.

“You’re lucky it’s in a good mood, then.” Deidara sounded exceptionally nervous.

“It’s just another part of you, right?” Sasori countered. “It should do whatever you want it to.”

Deidara lowered his eyes slightly, looking embarrassed. “I don’t have the power to control it,” he insisted.

“Tch.” Sasori fingered one of the stitches experimentally. “What would happen if you used it?”

Deidara gave him a look like he’d completely lost his mind. “It would blow me up in an explosion so big, even you can’t conceive of it. And, oh, it would blow up your very mortal body right along with me.”

Sasori frowned and pondered the problem. “I don’t think so,” he finally concluded.

“Yeah, well, I do.” Deidara pushed Sasori’s hand away, suddenly angry. “I know my own body better than you do.”

“Do you?” Sasori wondered. “I wonder…”

“I don’t,” Deidara scoffed, hands on hips.

“Who told you it would kill you if you released it?”

Deidara gave him a cold glare. “Who do you think, yeah?”

Sasori smirked slightly. “Exactly my point. They feared you, hated you. You were a power they couldn’t control, except by sealing it away.”

“I’m lucky they didn’t just let it kill me. They pretty much already knew I was a freak.”

“Self-pity doesn’t become you, brat,” Sasori hissed. “I think you could control it, if you really tried. Do you know what your greatest weakness is?”

Deidara rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, we can do genjutsu training tomorrow.”

Sasori shook his head. “I’m not talking about genjutsu.”

Deidara raised his eyebrows. “What, then?”

“Time.”

There was a pause while Deidara considered this. “I’ve already told you, Master, I have no desire to live forever.”

“Not that way,” Sasori corrected, “although you’ve got a problem there, too.”

Deidara scowled at him.

“Time is your enemy because you need far too much of it to infuse your clay with chakra,” Sasori explained. “You’re weak because you depend on lulls in the battle to use your explosions. Even if you prepare your sculptures beforehand, in an extended battle, you eventually run out, and time becomes your enemy.”

“Mmm, true. But that’s my lot in life, yeah?”

“Not necessarily.” Sasori tapped the mouth over Deidara’s heart again. “With this, you could create low-level explosions instantly.”

“Did you miss the memo?” Deidara snapped. “It creates ultimate destruction! There’s nothing ‘low-level’ about it.”

“Tch,” Sasori brushed his concerns aside. “That’s because you still haven’t properly mastered finesse.”

Deidara frowned, but he seemed to be seriously considering the matter for the first time. “Even if what you say is true – and I’m not saying I agree – the whole thing would have to be handled very…delicately. It would take months, maybe years, to find a safe way to build up that finesse.”

Sasori looked at him blankly. “Done.”

Deidara blinked back. “Huh?”

“I’ve analyzed more than my own resurrection these past seven years,” Sasori answered, finally stepping away. “I’ve considered your problem in depth, and I have a plan.”

Deidara slipped his shirts back on. “What? Why would you, Master?”

“Because,” Sasori was less than happy at the truth of his words, “I chose you as my partner. It’s in my own personal interest to keep you alive, to help you overcome your weaknesses.”

“Hmm…”

“That is why you call me ‘Master,’ after all, isn’t it?” Sasori smirked and walked away.

Deidara scrambled after him. “I suppose anything’s possible,” he grinned.

“You’ll try it, then?”

“If I blow myself up, it’s on your head.”

“I’ll try to live with myself,” Sasori said emotionlessly.

Deidara laughed. “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

“Good.” Sasori cast him a shy, genuine smile. After waiting for so long, it seemed that everything was finally falling into place.

Chapter Text

“To the artist is sometimes granted a sudden, transient insight which serves in this matter for experience. A flash, and where previously the brain held a dead fact, the soul grasps a living truth!” – Arnold Bennett

***

Present day…

Sasori glared at Jirou.

Jirou glared back.

Sasori tilted his head to one side and then, suddenly, kicked Jirou in the leg.

Jirou went tumbling to the floor.

Sasori swore under his breath and picked Jirou up by his chakra threads once more. It was a routine he’d been repeating all afternoon.

“You’re not making this easy,” he informed Jirou sullenly.

Jirou stared back at him, as silent as the dead.

Sasori returned to tinkering with Jirou’s forearm as he pondered the problem. He’s just installed the packets of senbon there yesterday. The multi-pronged attack in Hiruko’s arm was one of the weapons Sasori had remained satisfied with and thus hadn’t felt the need to improve upon. The release mechanism could still stand to be fine-tuned, however, and this simple task was a lot easier to accomplish than Sasori’s larger predicament.

It had been one of his biggest problems with Hiruko, as well: namely, the matter of transportation. He’d eventually had to settle for hunching Hiruko onto all fours, with thick, solid rollers under the center of his bulk. Puppet legs were strong enough to support the puppet itself, but when Sasori was inside it, having two legs led to an imbalance that was almost impossible to correct. Stooping over made the puppet less able to pass as a human, however, which led to an entirely new set of difficulties when it came to stealth missions.

Sasori tightened the spring in Jirou’s forearm, tested it, and then sat back to eye his creation. “I will hack your legs off, if you don’t cooperate,” he grumbled.

Jirou remained persistently obstinate.

Sasori began sharpening his carving knives.

***

Seven years ago…

Deidara poked the embers of their campfire with a stick and sighed to himself.

Sasori didn’t look up from where he was still touching up the decoration on Hiruko’s shield. Deidara might not have intended to destroy Hiruko with that exploding gnat, but it had been hell on Hiruko’s paint job.

Deidara removed his fish from the fire, studied it for a moment, and decided it was done. Sasori glanced over at him occasionally as he finished detailing Hiruko’s back. There was something about the concentration on Deidara’s face when he absorbed himself in a simple task like cooking that Sasori found endlessly fascinating.

Finally, Deidara began to eat, and Sasori took a step back to eye Hiruko critically. He deemed Hiruko satisfactory and turned back to the fire.

They were silent as Deidara ate, watching the flickering flames together. Sasori had the sudden, strange illusion that he could feel the warmth, radiating out at him in an unfamiliar, yet somehow comforting, way.

Deidara didn’t say a thing as he finished eating and began to unroll his sleeping bag. After so much time spent together, a portion of that time was necessarily spent silent, alone in their own thoughts as they tended to basic tasks.

Sasori hadn’t liked it at first. He’d hated Deidara’s chatter, but even worse was Deidara’s constant presence. Even when the brat wasn’t being annoying, he was still there. Sasori had had similar difficulties with all his partners, which was why two of them had been transformed, so that he could neatly tuck them into his puppet scroll when he wanted to be alone. Orochimaru had lasted longer, and Sasori had almost gotten to the point where he could block Orochimaru’s presence out and pretend he wasn’t there.

For all of Deidara’s clamor, however, he was actually easier to block out. Maybe Deidara’s loud mouth was why it was so easy, in fact; Deidara made so much noise usually that, when that noise was absent, Sasori just assumed Deidara was out of earshot.

It was almost…tolerable. Sasori could feel like he was alone with Deidara, even though he wasn’t. He’d never experienced anything like that before.

“’Night-’night, Master,” Deidara mumbled groggily as he buried his face in his pillow.

Sasori stared at him for a minute and then said, very carefully, “Come with me.”

Deidara groaned. “What, now? I’m trying to sleep. Where do you want to go, anyway?” A blue eye peeked out at Sasori from the pillow.

“No,” Sasori repeated slowly, “come with me.”

Deidara frowned at him, and then his visible eye widened in understanding. He sat up suddenly in his sleeping bag. “Are you serious?”

“I want you to come with me,” Sasori said thoughtfully to himself once again. The more he said it, the more he found himself liking the idea. “When I escape from Akatsuki…”

Deidara gulped and nodded seriously. “I’ll come with you,” he promised.

Sasori rapped on Hiruko’s shield to test its solidity one last time and then hopped back inside his carapace. “Good. We’ll discuss the plan in the morning.” He pulled Hiruko’s lid closed and absolutely refused to look outside to see how Deidara had reacted to his latest pronouncement.

The weird echoes of feeling he sometimes got were thrumming through him right now, but it was a very strange feeling, one he couldn’t remember even from his human days.

He was pretty sure the feeling was called contentment.

***

Present day…

Sasori awoke, tired and anxious, aware that something wasn’t right. Still half-unconscious, he instinctively reached for the large source of warmth that should be beside him. Instead, he found cool, empty sheets.

He cracked open one eye to see that Deidara’s spot on the futon was, indeed, empty. Then, he realized what exactly he’d been doing in his sleep-drugged state and sneered at himself in disgust. It was absolutely ridiculous, of course; he didn’t like waking up to find Deidara’s body wrapped all around him. It was a nuisance, just like everything was a nuisance unless it related to his art.

Sasori fell back onto the mattress and groaned as he remembered his art. It had been two days, and he still didn’t know what to do about Jirou’s legs. A part of him wanted to just cut his losses and go the route he had with Hiruko, but privately he would regard that as a failure. Wasn’t the whole point to improve upon himself this time around? He was supposed to be grinding away the rough edges in his defenses, not falling back into old patterns. He didn’t agree with Deidara on much concerning art, but the brat was right in that art had to be rigorously innovative.

He lay on the futon for a moment and realized how late it must be. The sun was already high in the sky. He didn’t usually sleep late, but he’d been tossing and turning late into the night, wrestling with his problem. He was still no closer to a solution.

He finally forced himself out of bed, despite his tired body’s protests. This body still annoyed him, but Deidara had pointed it out for what it was – a temporary burden that he had to overcome to better refine his powers – so he didn’t let himself dwell on it as much as he had at first.

After washing up in the bathroom, he padded over to the kitchen and discovered that Deidara had left him breakfast. There was a brief note atop the neat, little container:


I hope inspiration strikes today! Off to work.

D

Sasori snorted at the heart as he munched on one of the rice balls. At least, Deidara had the sense to stay out of his way when he was like this. Sasori would have been hard-pressed not to murder the other man had they been spending too much time together lately.

He drank a bottle of melon-mango juice from the fridge and decided that he couldn’t put it off any longer: it was time to go face Jirou again.

Inspiration continued not to strike as he snuck through the woods to their studio. He didn’t have any ideas when the tiny earth tunnel he created opened up into the cave, either. Jirou’s blank eyes stared at him mockingly.

Something else was looking at him, too.

Sasori blinked in surprise at the dead, dark eyes that stared back at him. The creature’s head was at an unnatural angle, and Sasori could see that its neck had been blown wide open by a small explosion. There were several other carcasses behind it. In his absence, four dead deer had found their way into the hideout.

Sasori approached curiously and found another note in Deidara’s flamboyant hiragana, tied to the antler of one of the deer with a bright yellow ribbon. He plucked off the note absentmindedly, still morbidly fascinated by the look of dumb realization on the first deer’s face, left over from the moment it had met its end.

He read the note:


You need large mammal vertebrae to make yourself another scorpion tail, yeah? I hope this helps. It’s just not the same without you trying to sting me all the time.
♥♥
D

Sasori pondered the note for a moment. Despite the fact that Deidara’s use of cute, little hearts was getting out of control, it was a useful gift. It gave him something simple and mechanical to do all day, while he pondered larger questions. That, and he missed swiping at Deidara whenever the brat got on his nerves.

“He even wrote ‘yeah?’” he complained to himself as he removed a sharp bone knife from his tool table and set to work. After all, he didn’t want to get soft on Deidara, even if Deidara wasn’t here to hear his insults.

The beasts had already been gutted elsewhere – which Sasori was thankful for, since his human nose found the stench quite nauseating – and mostly defleshed. Deidara seemed to be drying some of the meat for jerky to one side of the cave; heaven only knew where the rest of it had gone.

It was dull, painstaking work severing all the nerves that made up the deer’s spinal column and separating out the bone. It was just the sort of work Sasori needed.

He pondered the rest of the skeletons while he worked. It seemed that some of the other bones should be useful, as well. The antlers were natural weapons; it really seemed a shame to waste them. The hides could also be useful for creating a leather cover to the shielding of his carapace, once he tanned them. It was remarkable, really, how much use could be made of just one body, and Sasori now had four of them to play with.

It was too bad, he reflected to himself as he finally cleaned the last vertebra of the fourth deer, that they couldn’t be useful for solving his problem with Jirou’s transportation, as well.

Satisfied with his cleaning, he set the bone down into place. He’d alternated the vertebrae of the four deer so that he now had one very long line of bones, starting with the largest and narrowing out to the smallest. They made for a scorpion tail of a little over fifteen feet, which Sasori knew was ideal from all the experimentation he’d done when creating Hiruko’s.

He grabbed the bag of steel ball bearings Deidara had purchased, some reinforced wire, a small drill, and Deidara’s welding torch, and began the tedious task of fastening each vertebra into place. After the first few, Sasori had the motions down pat, so he could let his mind wander as he worked.

Why, he finally asked himself, couldn’t these deer be useful for solving his problem? Maybe his whole problem was that he was approaching transportation from too human a perspective, not in terms of emotions of course, but in terms of anatomy. Human legs might become unbalanced when the weight of the torso suddenly doubled, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other options.

The deer themselves used four legs for balance; that was already a much more stable base than a human body. Insects used six, and their body weight was enormous compared to the size of their legs. Scorpions used eight, and it served them equally well.

Sasori toyed with the idea of giving Jirou more than two legs for a while. He wondered if the number of legs was tied to speed in any way. It had always annoyed him that Hiruko was so slow, but he’d never found a way around the problem. Maybe with Jirou it could be different.

The main problem, Sasori quickly decided, would be where to put extra legs. He had long enough bones from the legs of the deer here that he wouldn’t lack for parts. The human body, however, was fundamentally designed for only two supports. He’d have to find a place to attach any new limbs.

He also puzzled over whether he’d have the same problem with his carapace looking inhuman, if he added extra legs. It really would be ideal to be able to pass for human, even if Jirou was still a bit odd-looking.

He eyed the legs of the nearest deer as he worked. The jointing was certainly different, with the hind legs bending backwards. Scorpions were the same, he recalled; all the joints pointed outwards. That seemed a reasonable way to keep balance. If all the joints pointed out, it increased the necessary size of the base of the animal, of course. A human pelvis wouldn’t be broad enough…

Suddenly, it struck him.

A little “oh” of surprise escaped his mouth, and his eyes widened at the creature he was envisioning. He’d have to do calculations to see if it would work, but…

It would require some of the most careful work of his life, but if Sasori could pull it off, Jirou would become his finest masterpiece.

He glared down at where Jirou’s scorpion tail was still only a third assembled. Such a repetitive task seemed so mind-numbing to him now. His fingers itched to get to his sketchbook and start working out the logistics.

With a resigned sigh, he continued linking the vertebrae, however. After all, Deidara might be exceptionally annoying this evening, and then he’d regret not having his tail.

***

Seven years ago…

“Get in here.” Sasori caught Deidara around the waist with Hiruko’s tail and yanked him inside.

“It’s kind of crowded in here, yeah?” Deidara gasped when he found himself suddenly straddling Sasori’s puppet body and Hiruko’s carapace closing around them.

“If Leader or Zetsu check up on us, be absolutely silent. I’ll tell them you’re out scouting the area,” Sasori instructed.

“Uh… How will I know if they show up? I can’t see a thing in here, Master!” Deidara shifted and banged his elbow into Hiruko’s left ribs. “Ouch!”

“Be still,” Sasori ordered. He reached out and placed one hand on Deidara’s shoulder. “I’ll squeeze if we’re no longer alone.”

“How will you be able to see them? It’s dark in here.”

“I ‘see’ with chakra strings. Obviously.”

Deidara let out a little harrumph. “All right, fine. Now that we’ve gotten the paranoid secrecy out of the way, what’s the plan?”

Sasori scanned around with Hiruko’s eyes, just to be doubly sure, before speaking. “At some point in the future, I will die.”

“Well, duh! Glad to see you finally decided to join the rest of us in the real world, Mas—ouch! Hey, no fair when I can’t see or move to fight back!” Deidara elbowed Hiruko again by accident before rubbing at his sore ear that Sasori had just yanked.

“I won’t really die,” Sasori hissed with annoyance. “I’ll only seem to.”

“You’re going to fake your death,” Deidara agreed, still sounding sullen. “All right, when?”

“That will depend on a variety of factors,” Sasori explained. “If we’re going to make a clean break, we need to do so when Akatsuki’s resources are limited. Zetsu patrols most of the known world, and unless we want to live the rest of our lives on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean, we’re going to have to do this when he’s preoccupied with other matters.”

“But, even if something does come up, won’t he just start patrolling again once Akatsuki’s dealt with it?”

“Of course,” Sasori agreed. “And that’s why it can’t just be any distraction. We have to go right when the foe arrives who will eventually destroy Akatsuki.”

Deidara considered this for a moment. “Then why run at all? Why not just let them destroy Akatsuki and then go on our merry way?”

“When this enemy arises, do you honestly think Leader won’t throw us on the frontlines first?” Sasori retorted. “And can you envision an enemy so powerful that they could completely destroy Akatsuki before any traitors were dealt with?”

“Hmm… I suppose you’re right. It’s all a matter of timing, yeah? Leave right when things start to get tough, and then when there’s no more Akatsuki left, we’re home free.”

“Exactly,” Sasori agreed.

“That could take years, though. There isn’t anyone even close right now.”

“I am prepared to wait a century if I need to.”

Deidara frowned in the dark. “Yeah, but what about me? I’m not going to live a century. I want to come with you, Master, but it better be sooner rather than later…”

“Try not to get yourself killed too soon,” Sasori grumbled. “Because you’ve got your own part to play…”

***

Present day…

“Mmm, looks like someone had a productive day,” Deidara murmured, slipping into bed beside Sasori.

Sasori grunted. Angrily, he scribbled all over the calculations on the page in his notebook and flipped to the next one to try again.

“I’m exhausted,” Deidara announced. “Who would’ve thought there were that many old ladies in Hisoka who need new saucer sets to match their tea cozies?”

Sasori finished his latest equation and considered it thoughtfully. It would require joint work that he’d never done before, but it looked like it might work.

“I’m going to take a little nap before making dinner, ‘kay?” Deidara asked.

Sasori frowned down at his notebook and started making a series of sketches.

“Tch,” Deidara complained, curling his body up against Sasori’s extended legs and nuzzling his face into the line of Sasori’s thigh.

Sasori looked down for a moment, shrugged, and then returned to his work.

He could see Jirou taking shape on the page before his very eyes, as if this was the solution he’d been meant to find all along. His plan was posing a whole new series of problems, but the difference now was that he was coming up with solutions almost faster than the difficulties could present themselves. It was an exhilarating sensation, the joy of becoming one with one’s craft, and this was the first time Sasori had experienced it since he had become human again.

It had worried him for a while that he wouldn’t be the same level an artist as he had been as a puppet. Logically, he knew that he’d created Hiruko as well as his own puppet body while still human, yet he hadn’t been able to shake the disturbing thought. If he’d somehow forgotten how to make art while human, he would have been in a terrible predicament. It was something that had been bothering him these past few weeks as Deidara acclimated flawlessly and Sasori continued to hold them back.

Now, however, he knew that all his fears were unfounded.

He tapped his pencil to the paper once, twice, and frowned, rereading all of his notes. Absentmindedly, his fingers reached over to stroke the warmth resting against his thigh.

“I think it’s going to work,” he almost whispered.

His plans passed the recheck. Deidara’s hair had grown out enough now that it was no longer stubble that stuck straight out, but fell down against his head just a few centimeters. It was as soft as down like this.

“It is going to work,” Sasori concluded with a smug smile.

Deidara hummed contentedly in his sleep and nuzzled closer.

Sasori looked down in surprise, and that was when he first consciously realized what his hand was doing. He froze, the pads of his fingertips still pressed gently against Deidara’s skull, and Deidara whimpered in protest.

“Tch, don’t be so pathetic,” he grumbled, even though Deidara was asleep, and got up.

Deidara snuffled into the pillow where Sasori had just been and seemed to find it a worthy replacement.

Sasori left him lying there. After all, he had work to do.

***

Seven years ago…

“If you die,” Sasori sighed, “I’ll just leave without you.”

“Well, obviously,” Deidara said sarcastically.

Sasori yanked on Deidara’s ear again, and the resulting yelp was quite satisfactory. “Listen up, brat. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re not going to die, and instead you’re going to come up with a way of faking your death, too. Try not to be too obvious about it, either.”

Deidara rubbed at his ear in the dark. “No, really?” he sulked.

“After I ‘die,’ I’ll contact you with the location of our rendezvous. Initiate your own plan, and then meet me.”

“And what after that?” Deidara asked curiously.

“There’s a larger plan,” Sasori assured him. “A place where we’ll be free of Akatsuki.”

Deidara pondered this for a moment. “What if Leader’s plan succeeds?” he finally asked nervously. “Akatsuki would rule the world, and there’d be no place left for us to go.”

“Tch.” Sasori rolled his eyes. “Half the S-Class ninjas who have ever lived had some designs on world domination, and not a single one of them has ever succeeded. Leader won’t be the first, he won’t be the last, and he won’t be successful.”

“Right.” Deidara didn’t sound entirely convinced, but at least he seemed willing to follow Sasori on this.

“Finally,” Sasori concluded, “you are never to mention this plan again, even to me. This conversation alone was risky enough. Leader has eyes and ears everywhere.”

“I can do that.”

“Any final questions?”

“Just one, Master.”

“What?” Sasori sighed with irritation.

“Why me?”

Sasori grunted. The question was annoying, but valid. “When I left Suna,” he began carefully, “I took something with me.”

“The Kazekage, yeah?”

“The most powerful ninja Suna had ever known. I like to take something with me when I go, my price for my years of service,” Sasori concluded.

“I’m your price?” Deidara considered that.

“You were given to me as a partner,” Sasori insisted, “whether I wanted you or not. Now, I’m taking you.”

Deidara smiled softly in the dark. “Whenever and however you want me, Master,” he teased.

Sasori ejected him forcibly from Hiruko in response, huffing to himself despite Deidara’s contagious laugh.

***

Present day…

“Master Sasori?” Deidara called out warily as he entered the cave.

Sasori couldn’t blame him for being on edge; after all, Sasori was notoriously cranky while he was working. The fact that this project had become his finest work to date had just made him even crankier this time around.

“Over here,” he answered from the recesses of the cave.

Deidara turned sharply to the left to peer into the darkness. “What are you doing over there, yeah?”

“Testing,” Sasori said simply.

Deidara blinked and scratched his head.

Sasori stepped from the shadows, enclosed comfortably within Jirou’s carapace.

Deidara blinked again in response. “You’re in there?” he asked curiously, stepping around Jirou’s carapace in what almost looked like an intricate dance.

“I am,” Sasori agreed.

Deidara sized him up. Jirou was almost of even height with Deidara, although his back and shoulders were hunched slightly so that he appeared taller. In truth, the hunching was Sasori’s addition and the way he disguised the defensive plate on Jirou’s back. He’d done much the same with Hiruko.

Jirou was older in appearance than Hiruko, with graying, balding hair tied back neatly at the nape of his neck. His face was wrinkled and sagging, and Sasori had left him that way because it concealed the hinged joint of his jaw.

Deidara skipped around him a couple more times, and Sasori decided to play with him. He neatly sidestepped, and Deidara’s eyes widened when he realized that his carapace was as fleet on foot as he was.

“How did you do it?” Deidara asked curiously, ducking to one side with a grin as Sasori quickly corrected his movements to follow Deidara around in a little chase.

“Do I look human to you?” Sasori asked instead, using Jirou’s voice. It was a deep, gravelly bass that had the tendency to rasp on hard consonants.

“Hmm, yeah, from what I can see.” Deidara looked back at him over his shoulder and then winked and broke into a run. “That cloak conceals a lot!” he shouted back over his shoulder.

The billowing tan cloak was, indeed, necessary to maintain Jirou’s human façade, but Sasori was glad to see that it passed Deidara’s scrutiny. That was certainly more than sufficient for stealth purposes. Feeling a bit of a grin pulling at his own lips, Sasori gave up on making Jirou appear human for the moment and broke into full speed. “So, how many legs would you guess Jirou has?” he asked.

“What?” Deidara exclaimed with a high-pitched yelp, darting a look back over his shoulder to see that, now that Jirou was moving much faster, there was clearly something not quite right with the lower half of his body. “Ooh, neat!” Deidara cooed, eyes wide.

Now that Deidara had seen how Sasori had removed Jirou’s pelvis and created an entirely new base to accommodate four skittering legs, he leapt up into the stalactites above, trying to evade his pursuer.

Still galloping on four spindly legs, Sasori ran right for that cave wall beneath Deidara and then suddenly cast Jirou’s cloak aside to reveal his masterwork.

In the upright position, Jirou had four thin legs that touched the ground and could walk at a regular, measured pace to conceal the abnormality beneath the cloak, or run at full gallop just like the deer that had provided the additional leg bones.

Jirou had a horizontal position as well, however. Sasori hit the wall with full speed and suddenly pushed his chakra through the other four legs that he kept lowered and concealed along Jirou’s sides when in four-legged mode. All eight legs landed on the wall and skittered up it, with the speed and facility of a scorpion. In fact, Sasori was proud of just how much Jirou looked like a scorpion in his mode: he ran with his belly to the ground, the eight legs around his torso fanning out around him. His head and arms twisted so that they were still upright, maintaining Sasori’s offensive techniques in this fastest mode.

Deidara must have been startled when Sasori suddenly started chasing him up and down the walls with all the speed and grace of an arachnid. Deidara was a skilled shinobi, however, and didn’t let himself slow for a second. He ricocheted off one stalactite and touched the cave floor for a moment before leaping back up.

Sasori dropped down to the floor in an eight-legged crouch just a second behind Deidara, before running back up the wall and onto the cave ceiling, following Deidara’s weaving pattern through the cave protrusions from above.

“I love this carapace!” Deidara laughed with glee, dodging to the right just in time to miss the sideswipe of Jirou’s tail. “Ha! It’s back!”

Only Deidara would be excited that Sasori’s means of swatting at Deidara in annoyance had returned. Sasori found himself on the verge of laughter as well. He finally made a flying leap just as Deidara was diving back down again and caught Deidara mid-air.

They crashed to the ground together in a tangle of an inordinate number of limbs, and Sasori neatly pinned Deidara with four of his legs. “Gotcha,” he teased, feeling strangely playful.

“Hmm, fair enough, Master,” Deidara grinned up at him.

Jirou grinned back down at him, puppet teeth clacking. “So, what do you think?”

“He’s a masterpiece.” Deidara reached up to touch the joint in one of Jirou’s forelegs. He traced the wooden-bone curve until it met with the additional socket Sasori had inserted just under Jirou’s arm. A little smile of wonder crossed his lips as he studied each and every innovative feature of Jirou’s anatomy. “This is why I call you ‘Master,’ yeah?”

Sasori felt his face heating up, but thankfully he was safely concealed within Jirou’s carapace, so Deidara couldn’t see him. He rose back into upright mode and walked over to his discarded cloak on four legs.

A few seconds later, Deidara padded after him, watching the movements of his lower body curiously. “I can’t believe that’s how he walks. You’d never guess it with the cloak.”

“That’s the whole point,” Sasori agreed.

“So,” Deidara raised a curious eyebrow, “does that mean we’re done here?”

Jirou grinned back at him and wrapped the cloak around his shoulders once more. “It’s time to get out of this hellhole,” Sasori agreed.

Chapter Text

“Art arises when the secret vision of the artist and the manifestation of nature agree to find new shapes.” – Kahlil Gibran

***

Present day…

The sun rose a deep, brilliant red over the stern of the Tsubone. It was a small trading vessel that really would have been more accurately dubbed a pirate ship at most times. At the moment, however, the shipping lanes were quite prosperous, and most sailors would take an honest job if it paid well enough. The crew was rough around the edges and fancied themselves dangerous, but even they would have been horrified if they’d known why this sunrise was so exceptionally vivid.

Two of the passengers who had bartered their way on board stood at the stern, arms folded on the guardrail in nearly identical casual positions. The two men weren’t mirroring each other on purpose, of course; they’d just worked together so long that keeping time with each other, even in such minute detail, had become second nature.

“How can you say it’s not a work of art?” the young, blond man asked.

“Tch. We already agreed that a sunset wasn’t art, brat. A sunrise is no different,” the old hunchback retorted, sounding both amused and irritated at the same time.

“A sunrise on its own isn’t art, but this sunrise is different. This sunrise has been made more vivid by my art, and therefore it’s also an expression of my artwork.”

“You can’t take credit for a beautiful sunrise. Even if I did concede that point, I still wouldn’t call your little parting gift ‘art.’”

“But look at what it’s created! The sun wouldn’t be this red this morning without me. I was inspired, envisioned my creation, and now thousands can see it, if only for this fleeting moment.”

“I know you’re trying to bait me with that last comment. It’s not going to work.”

“But you at least agree that it’s a beautiful sunrise, right, Master?”

“Tch. It’s fine.”

“And I helped create it?”

“I suppose you did.”

“Well, then, whether you call it art or not, that’s good enough for me.”

“Tch, brat,” the elder said fondly.

They drifted off into a companionable silence, while, far behind them, Hisoka burned to the ground, obliterating any trace of the two S-Class criminals it had concealed for the past months.

***

Sasori had never been fond of the sea. In the Wind Country, water had always been a precious commodity, where wells were carefully guarded and meticulously maintained. Vast tracts of water seemed uncomfortable and alien to Sasori. It didn’t help that this water was undrinkable; that was just like adding insult to injury.

Deidara seemed to like it, though. Of course, Sasori could count on one hand the number of things Deidara didn’t like. Deidara had always been remarkably versatile; it was a good characteristic to have in a partner, since Sasori usually wasn’t willing to compromise on anything.

Sasori spent most of his time below deck, tinkering with Jirou’s joints from inside his new carapace. On the one hand, it was a relief to finally be safe within a puppet once more; Sasori hadn’t even realized how on edge he’d been from being out in the open for so long. On the other hand, Jirou was a bit cramped inside, and Sasori didn’t have the opportunity to ever leave his compartment because the room they slept in housed all the passengers on the ship, and Sasori could never guarantee that he’d be alone. That problem would be fixed, of course, when his own body became a puppet once more. No more muscles meant no more cramps. Sasori could hardly wait.

Deidara stayed above deck for the most part, gazing out over the ocean and chatting with absolutely everybody he could find. Sasori didn’t see him much over those first couple of days, which suited him just fine because he was cranky from there being so many people around all the time. Sasori wished that they could have just traveled on foot, but the trip west would have taken them along the southern edge of the Fire Country, the River Country, and then the Wind Country: coincidentally, the three countries where they were most wanted at the moment. An ocean voyage really had been the only viable option.

So Sasori worked as best he could in the darkness of Jirou’s carapace, with occasional reports from Deidara as to their progress. When Deidara came in that evening, however, the news was different.

“The captain says we’re about to pass the border between River and Wind.” Deidara sat on his cot and pulled off his boots. He kept his socks on, though, rather than risk anyone seeing the mouths in his ankles.

“Hmm,” Sasori said disinterestedly, but the words struck a chord in him. It was a strange realization, that this might be the last time he ever saw his home country.

That was why, early the next morning while Deidara and the rest of the passengers slept, Sasori crept from his cot. It was difficult because he’d taken the spot at the far back of the cabin where he was as far away from the rest of the passengers as possible. Deidara had the cot right in front of his, and Sasori crept around Deidara’s sleeping form. Jirou may have been faster than Hiruko, but he was still rather large, and this kind of delicate work was difficult.

Deidara snorted lightly in his sleep, curled up on his side, but didn’t stir. Once Sasori got past him, the route to the door was quite clear, and he made it up to the deck easily.

The Tsubone’s route hugged the coast but sailed far enough out that the land still looked distant. Sasori could just make out, ahead and to their right, the tall cliffs that made up the Wind Country’s ocean border. He couldn’t see the desert here, he was disappointed to realize. That was the only thing he’d ever missed after he left Suna.

The sun was just brightening the horizon, but the land still had a bluish, shadowy cast to it. Sasori remembered sunrise in the desert with fondness. Out in the vast wasteland, everything seemed so permanent, unchangeable. He was alone, but it wasn’t the waiting sort of alone that he’d experienced as a child in Suna.

Sasori continued to watch the sunrise as the world he’d known so long slipped away for the last time.

***

“Are you all right, Master?” Deidara asked softly while the Tsubone was pulled into port at the south of the Wind Country. “You’ve been quiet lately.”

“Tch,” Sasori complained, “I’m always quiet.”

“But this is a different kind of quiet,” Deidara insisted.

It made very little sense to Sasori. “I’m just anxious for us to get on our way again,” he snapped.

“Hmm, yeah,” Deidara agreed. “It’s a bother. But this should be the last time we’ll have to hide out.”

Sasori nodded at that. In truth, now that he looked like Jirou, there was virtually no danger he’d be spotted if he stepped briefly ashore during this quick layover. Deidara had to watch himself, however; the man who had killed the Kazekage right under Suna’s nose could be recognized even with his hair short.

“You could go ashore, if you wanted,” Deidara said casually, as if reading Sasori’s thoughts. “Say goodbye. I wouldn’t mind.”

Sasori glared at him through Jirou’s eyes. “I have no use for sentimentality, brat.”

Deidara shrugged. “It was just a suggestion.”

“It was a bad one.”

Sasori closed himself off in his work for the rest of the afternoon and refused to acknowledge Deidara’s existence. That night, however, when Sasori snuck out to watch the shore pass slowly by, he suddenly found himself with company.

A gloved hand gripped the rail right beside Jirou’s, and Sasori glanced at it with a huff of annoyance.

“Here,” Deidara said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his scope.

Sasori darted a look around with Jirou’s eyes, but none of the crew were paying any attention to them. He took Deidara’s scope and lifted it to his eye. Jirou didn’t have the proper fastening mechanisms, of course, but he could still use it like a telescope.

It took him a minute to figure out how to zoom in. He could’ve asked Deidara, but he didn’t feel like talking. He finally pushed his chakra into the eye scope in just the right way, and suddenly the shore appeared twice as close.

He could see the desert now, rolling into the distance in an endless series of dunes the way it had since before Sasori’s most distant ancestors had even dreamed of such a sight. There was something very calming about it all.

“You can keep it for the trip,” Deidara said. “I won’t be able to wear it, anyway.” He paused a moment for a response, and when he got none, he left Sasori alone to his thoughts.

There were some times, Sasori concluded, that Deidara wasn’t half bad company.

***

“Do you ever miss it?” Sasori finally asked the third day sailing along the coast of the Wind Country. If the weather stayed in their favor, it should be the last day he saw his country of birth.

Deidara, who had just finished chatting with one of their fellow passengers about seabirds and other inane topics, moved to stand beside Sasori and watch the shore. “The Earth Country?” Deidara cocked his head to one side. “Well, sometimes I miss the desert…”

Sasori nodded.

“For the most part, there was never anything there for me,” Deidara concluded. “I had to go out and find my real home, yeah?”

“Tch,” Sasori scoffed. “You don’t have to sound so trite about it.”

“Whatever, Master,” Deidara sighed. He glanced at Sasori and then further than Sasori along the starboard side of the deck. “I think that passenger we picked up in the Wind Country is looking at me funny,” he said under his breath.

Sasori rolled Jirou’s eyes. “He’s checking you out. Big deal. Half the crew is doing the same.”

Deidara let out an offended little noise and headed back below deck.

The Wind Country traveler watched Deidara go.

Sasori just frowned and turned back to watching what little he could see of the desert in the distance, wishing it was past nightfall so he could pull out Deidara’s scope.

***

That night, one of the passengers on the Tsubone was lost overboard. Everyone was puzzled by how it had happened. The man was a Suna merchant, who had only boarded two days prior. Several passengers testified to seeing him fall asleep on his cot just after suppertime. The old hunchback who spent his nights watching the coast insisted that he hadn’t seen the merchant come up on deck. The man was clearly missing, however, and after the ship was searched from bow to stern, the only conclusion that the captain could draw was that somehow he’d gotten up on deck when no one was looking and fallen overboard.

The crew was happy enough with this resolution and divvied up the man’s property with all due haste.

“He was probably just checking me out,” Deidara conceded sheepishly as he and Sasori watched the desert slowly come to an end up ahead.

“Probably,” Sasori agreed. Likewise, Kaori and the other guards and Deidara’s employer at the pottery shop back in Hisoka probably wouldn’t have been able to identify them as Akasuna no Sasori and Nijuuni Deidara in the unlikely event that some day, someone tried to track them. Sasori didn’t like leaving loose ends, though, so he’d made sure they all received a prick of poison to their throats before Deidara set the town on fire. Such precautions were necessary.

Deidara grinned over at him. “Thanks anyway, Master.”

“Hn. Brat.” The odd thing was that the merchant’s death felt even more satisfying to Sasori, if he imagined the man as a harmless traveler who just wanted Deidara’s body. It was a point he didn’t let himself dwell upon.

***

The night after Sasori had marched the merchant out of his cot and over the edge of the deck on chakra strings, a tiny bird approached him under the cloak of darkness. Sasori held out one of Jirou’s palms, and the bird alighted on it, chirping twice before going still.

Sasori pulled the bird inside Jirou’s robe and slipped it inside the carapace through a small emergency side-hatch he’d created. That was one area were Hiruko had been more efficient; Jirou’s arms weren’t retractable because the space needed to retract his limbs was taken up by the additional leg sockets.

Once Sasori had the bird in hand, he recovered the chakra he’d pushed into the tiny puppet before returning the bird to his scroll.

He couldn’t see the desert anymore, anyway, even with Deidara’s scope set to its highest magnification. It seemed he’d left the world he’d been born into behind; it was a bittersweet departure.

He returned below deck with the report the bird had brought him. The note was from one of his spies in the Rain Country, and Sasori wanted to be able to devote his full attention to the information inside, without worrying about moving Jirou at the same time.

He settled Jirou’s bulk on his cot, jostling Deidara in the next cot over as he did so. Deidara continued to sleep like the dead. It made Sasori wonder why he’d bothered to be so careful that first night he snuck out.

When he’d received the message, he knew what the contents had to be. There was only one circumstance in which his spy was supposed to initiate contact like this. He read the message carefully, anyway, absorbing all the details in the report. He reread the missive, pondered for a moment, and then kicked Deidara in the back.

Deidara let out an incredible squawk as he fell out of his cot onto the wooden floor. Sasori stood over him and dropped the note on his head.

“Here.”

Deidara scowled at him and snatched it up.

Sasori didn’t wait for him and returned to the deck. Only the pilot and two night watchmen were out at this hour, and they paid Sasori no mind. He did get curious looks, however, when a few seconds later Deidara dashed out of the passenger cabin after him.

“Is this a joke?” Deidara demanded, clutching the letter in one hand.

“No joke,” Sasori said simply, tilting Jirou’s head up to gaze at the stars.

Deidara bit his lip. “Your sleeper agent wasn’t compromised?” he asked cautiously, his voice barely above a whisper.

“No. I built in a self-destruct mechanism for that scenario. The message is real.”

“Then…” Deidara breathed out slowly. “Akatsuki is gone?”

“Don’t sound so surprised, brat. Half the members were taken out before you even left.”

“Hmm, true. But… It’s still hard to believe, yeah?”

Sasori shrugged Jirou’s shoulders.

“We timed it just right,” Deidara said thoughtfully. “We’re free.” He looked down at the paper, reading it fully through for the first time.

Sasori suddenly heard a sound not unlike steam escaping from a kettle.

“Tobi was what?” Deidara finally exclaimed, outraged. “And to think I actually felt sorry for abandoning him, even for an instant!”

“Quiet!” Sasori hissed, but he was grinning to himself inside Jirou’s carapace.

***

The next day, the Tsubone pulled into port along the docks in the Forest Country. Forest and Wind were allies in a very loose sense, but Sasori concluded it was safe for them to disembark. He worried that knowledge of Akatsuki’s defeat was making him reckless, but they made it through the town without incident.

“Where are we going, Master?” Deidara complained when they looped back around outside the village and arrived at the coast a couple of miles away.

“Fly,” Sasori commanded instead.

“I hate it when you get like this,” Deidara grumbled, but he pulled a clay hawk from his pouch and, with a burst of chakra, it expanded to larger-than-life proportions. Deidara hopped on its back.

Sasori, a bit less confidently, followed him a second later, fitting his arms firmly around Deidara’s waist as they took off. “Over the ocean,” Sasori said into Deidara’s ear before Deidara could ask.

They flew in silence for some time as endless waves passed beneath them. Every so often Sasori would check behind them to see how far away the coast was. Every so often Deidara would also point below them when he saw a shadow of some creature in the depths of the water.

Finally, when Sasori couldn’t even see a line of darkness in the distance, he was satisfied. “We’re here,” he announced.

Deidara slowed the hawk’s pace, and they looped around in the air a few times. “Now what?”

Sasori produced a short sword from within Jirou’s robe. “Take off your shirt,” he demanded.

Deidara groaned. “Not this again!” He did as Sasori requested, though.

Sasori watched toned chest and stomach muscles ripple for a moment, with cool detachment. Then, he pressed the flat of the blade against the left side of Deidara’s chest, right over his heart. “We’re going to do this one stitch at a time,” he announced.

“If we blow ourselves up now, it’ll all be a waste, yeah?” Deidara laughed nervously.

“I’m not going to die out in the middle of the ocean with only a brat like you for company,” Sasori insisted with conviction. He brought the sword forward and carefully severed the stitch on the far right of the mouth in Deidara’s chest.

Nothing happened for a moment, and then the lips twitched, rubbing together for a moment before stretching as far as they could. It wasn’t far.

A rumble of chakra shook the air with a shockwave as the mouth opened just a little bit. Deidara reached instinctively to close it, but Sasori caught his hand, stopping him.

“Just a little bit of clay,” Sasori instructed. He took the smallest pinch from Deidara’s pouch, and fed it to the mouth.

The mouth chewed, and the chakra continued to leak from Deidara’s chest. It swirled together to form a tight little ball of energy around the clay. The ball pulsed once, twice…

“Fly!” Sasori commanded.

The hawk took off just as Deidara spit the dollop of clay out, leaving the swirling ball of explosive chakra behind them. It went off with a ear-splitting ‘boom’ with enough force that Deidara, Sasori, and the hawk all went careening into a freefall for a moment before Deidara commanded the hawk to loop back around and catch them in mid-air.

“Ugh,” Sasori clutched at his stomach. “This is why I hate flying.”

In front of him, Deidara’s shoulders shook. “Actually, Master, that was kind of fun, yeah?”

Sasori realized with annoyance that the shaking was laughter. He swatted Deidara with Jirou’s scorpion tail for good measure. “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he said stiffly while Deidara rubbed his head, “because we’re going to do it again.”

Deidara’s eyes widened. “I know I said you’re taking the living forever thing too seriously, but I didn’t mean for you to go suicidal on me.”

“Tch.” Sasori rolled Jirou’s eyes. “This time, brat, you’re going to control it.”

Deidara looked at him like he was crazy.

Sasori reached out with Jirou’s right hand and tapped Deidara’s chest pointedly. The stitch was still torn out, but the mouth wasn’t doing anything but panting from exertion.

Deidara looked down at his chest in surprise to see that Sasori was right. “Huh. It’s never done that before…”

“It’s been building up chakra pulses for years with no way to expel them,” Sasori decided. “It’s natural that there would be a bit of a backfire before you can use it properly.”

Deidara looked down at his chest like he’d never seen it before.

“They were afraid of you,” Sasori said almost kindly. “They were afraid of your power, so they bound it and made sure you were afraid of it, too.”

Deidara looked, for the first time, like he might actually believe what Sasori was saying. “All right, let’s try it. Just a little bit, yeah?”

Deidara accidentally infused the clay with enough chakra to blow up Hisoka again, ten times over. Thankfully, he’d also had a better feel for how much chakra he was releasing, and they ran away a lot faster this time.

Deidara managed eight attempts before they had to return to shore. He wasn’t improving his control in the slightest, although at least they both knew now that he was proficient enough at escaping his own chakra explosions that he probably wouldn’t get them killed.

“We’ll try again next time we stop,” Sasori said as he sewed the stitch closed again on the flight back.

Deidara grimaced in response.

***

“Have you ever heard of the Storm Country?” Sasori asked the day they finally sailed past the Forest Country into the Mountain Country. Misty blue peaks rose up into the clouds to their right, as far as the eye could see.

“Vaguely,” Deidara shrugged. “It’s far, I know. A few of the traders who would come in to port in the Earth Country would mention they had exotic goods from there sometimes.”

“It’s quite far,” Sasori agreed. “Across the sea, maybe a week’s travel.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because that’s where we’re going.”

Deidara blinked at him in surprise. “Why there, yeah?” he finally asked.

“I was there once,” Sasori said, watching the cloud-shrouded mountains, “long ago. As a genin, I had a mission there.”

Deidara propped his hand up on one elbow to look at Sasori when he spoke.

“The area near the coast is fertile, but then further inland the terrain turns to desert scrub and there are rocky wadis and cliffs… It makes the desert of the Wind Country look like a child’s sandbox.”

“It sounds beautiful,” Deidara sighed.

“I was young when I traveled there, but I knew then that I had to come back some day. There was something about the desert there… It called to me.” Sasori turned to look at Deidara to see that his partner was gazing at him in an unnerving way. “What?” he demanded crossly.

Deidara smiled to himself. “Nothing. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite like this before.”

Sasori shrugged off the comment. “The important thing,” he concluded, “is that there’s no centralized authority in the Storm Country. Villages run semi-autonomously, and the ninja clans either fight amongst themselves or stay out of each other’s way. There’s space there for us, and endless inspiration…”

“Are we there yet?” Deidara teased.

“In two weeks’ time.”

Chapter Text

“The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” – T. S. Eliot

***

Present day…

“Ugh!” Sasori complained. “How do the monks stand this?”

“Probably by whining a lot less than you do,” Deidara retorted with a smirk.

Sasori whipped out with Jirou’s tail, but it was only half-hearted due to the searing waves of heat seeping out through the mountain.

Deidara skipped easily out of the way and half ran up the path to the peak of the volcano. If it weren’t for the fact that Deidara’s hair was plastered to his head with sweat, Sasori would have thought that the brat didn’t even notice how hot it was.

“It didn’t seem so bad the last time,” Sasori muttered under his breath.

“Were you already a puppet the last time?” Deidara teased.

“Shut up.”

“You know who really liked the heat like this?” Deidara began conversationally.

“If it’s your ex with the five dicks, I’m going to murder you,” Sasori snarled.

Deidara gave him an odd look. “Why do you care so much about Itsutsu, anyway?”

“I don’t care about him,” Sasori insisted. “I don’t ever want to hear about him. At all.”

“Hmm, you sure don’t care about him vehemently, yeah?”

“Never mention him again, and it won’t be a problem.” Sasori glared.

“Fine, fine. You’ll never hear his name again,” Deidara promised.

Sasori tried not to analyze the smug feeling in his chest too much.

Deidara reached a bend in the path up ahead and suddenly froze. “Umm, I think we have a bit of a problem, Master…”

Sasori broke Jirou into a four-legged run and was at his side in instants. “Hmm…” Sasori agreed, narrowing Jirou’s eyes in on the sight before him. The temple looked as dour and foreboding as he’d remembered it; there hadn’t been half as many guards last time, though. “Oops.”

“What do you mean ‘oops’?” Deidara demanded, sitting down on a stone at the edge of the path with his back to the cliff face.

Sasori joined him. “They might have increased security after the last time I raided the temple.”

“Just great!” Deidara sighed and pulled some venison jerky from his pack. He handed Sasori half. “What do you think, then?” he asked, munching away. “We attack at night?”

“I want to get to the coast by the day after tomorrow. Freighters to the Storm Country are infrequent. We’ll have to wait another week and a half if we miss it.” Sasori pulled the jerky inside Jirou’s carapace and began eating as well; he was getting really sick of the taste of venison jerky by now.

“We attack now?” Deidara grimaced.

“We attack now.”

“We attack from above?”

“Agreed.”

***

Ten years ago…

Sasori ducked and rolled just in time to escape the massive fireball thrown at him by the leader of the Volcano Temple monks. Hiruko’s carapace had been badly burned in the initial attack, and he’d had to return him to his scroll or risk losing the puppet permanently. It left him open and vulnerable. His eyes darted around nervously to see that at least three of the guardian monks were still alive. He couldn’t see Orochimaru anywhere.

He dove over the edge of the path, struggling to cling to the falling rock of the cliff face with his chakra. A pit of molten lava shone ominously below, reminding him all too well of what would happen if he couldn’t stop himself in time.

He came to a halt finally only a few meters from the lava. On the path above, the monks were yelling, trying to figure out how to stop him now. That meant he was finally out of range of their fire attacks: good.

He ran for it, trying to reach out and sense Orochimaru’s chakra, but the man was nowhere to be found. He swore to himself at the thought. Orochimaru was almost as vehement about living forever as Sasori himself was; it would just be…wrong if Orochimaru had finally gotten himself killed on a mission to aid Sasori.

The monks were trying to chase after Sasori on the path above, but it veered to the right and Sasori was able to follow the line of the molten core of the volcano around to the left. When he deemed himself far enough from his pursuers, he hit the cliff face with the full force of his chakra, fighting to run up as the inevitable rockslide tried to pull him back down.

It was a harrowing few minutes, but he made it to the rim and over. The monks were out of his sight now. To a skilled shinobi, that meant he had as good as escaped already. All that was left now was the problem of his missing partner.

Chakra on full alert, he made his way to the assigned rendezvous point, just across the border in the Mountain Country. Mountain and Volcano had been skirmishing for years, and their pursuers wouldn’t be able to follow them there.

The walk gave Sasori far too much time to dwell. He and Orochimaru had been working together for years now; sensing each other’s chakra had become second nature. The fact that Sasori couldn’t meant that either Orochimaru was very far off course or he was dead.

Sasori actually found himself hoping it was the former. He and Orochimaru had quite a lot in common. They both planned to live forever, and they both had goals much larger than Akatsuki. Their powers complemented each other, and Sasori could honestly say he’d learned as much about the genetic make-up of the human body from Orochimaru as Orochimaru had learned about anatomy from him. They worked well together, and Sasori didn’t like the notion of a change in their partnership.

He reached the valley where they were to meet and descended the mountainside with a bit less caution than he probably should have. It was rare that he took a mission that actually endangered his life, though, and he was eager to return to a safe haven once more and lick his wounds.

When he reached their campsite of the night before, however, he found it anything but safe.

“Huh.” He blinked, tilting his head to one side as he looked down at the wire his foot had just tripped. His mind was exhausted from the ordeal he’d just undergone, so it took him a moment to process what the tripwire was: a trap.

His eyes widened, and his hands barely pressed together in time to make the seals for the replacement technique.

Twin bolts of lightning emitted from a pair of seals fastened to two rocks at the far edge of the campsite in response. The area where Sasori had just been standing crackled with blue-white energy.

Stunned, Sasori realized that he’d just almost died for the second time that day. Both Hiruko and Sasori’s heart were weak against lightning attacks. If that attack had struck him while he was in Hiruko, the puppet would have been rendered almost useless. If it had struck him in his current state, his heart would have ceased to beat.

He dodged the next blow, and the twin lightning bolts ripped apart the tree he’d concealed himself behind. The sheer force behind the seals was incredible. Very few ninja could generate that much of a charge without ripping themselves apart in the process. Orochimaru had been studying ninja with lightning chakra lately, because there was a particular cellular component in some individuals that—

Sasori froze in mid-thought as an inkling of a realization struck him. His puppet body continued to dodge and weave the continued lightning blasts. The realization was simple, but world-altering at the same time:

The monks in the Volcano Temple used fire. The monks in the Volcano Temple couldn’t have known where Sasori would escape to. The monks in the Volcano Temple didn’t know Sasori was vulnerable to lightning.

Orochimaru, however, was quite a different story.

Sasori leapt into a rocky crevasse where the lightning bolts couldn’t reach him and crawled his way on his belly to an area behind the two seals. Above him, electricity crackled and sparked, as the seals tried to strike him dead within his minimal shelter.

Once the idea occurred to him, it insinuated itself inside his mind and refused to leave. Orochimaru really couldn’t have been killed so easily at the Volcano Temple, could he? And, if not, then where was he? Where had Sasori’s back-up been when he’d tried to escape? This mission hadn’t been supposed to be this dangerous. Sasori had calculated that, with the two of them, attacking from either flank, it should be tricky but fairly routine.

He burst from the crevasse behind the first seal and shot it with a jet of molten flame from his wrist. He hated to use the concentrated fire he’d just stolen from the Volcano Temple like this, especially after it had been so risky to obtain, but he didn’t dare try using his water jets and risk electrocuting himself even worse.

The first seal was completely obliterated by his shot, and the rock it had been placed up glowed red like half-formed lava. The second seal continued to shoot at Sasori, and he dodged into the cover of the trees once more.

Sasori’s theory made more sense, the more Sasori thought about it. Orochimaru was the one obsessed with lightning techniques. At least, he had been until Uchiha Itachi had joined their ranks just last month. Orochimaru hadn’t been the same since, raving on and on about how Sharingan was the be-all and end-all of ninja abilities…

Sasori ricocheted off of four separate trees, caught the seal while it was still shooting the wrong way, unable to correct its aim in time, and melted it with another blast of fire. At least the fire jet was proving to be worth the effort.

There might have been more traps in waiting, but Sasori didn’t stick around to find out. Even if there weren’t, the forest was already ablaze from the battle, and Sasori had to get out of there as quickly as possible. He ran deeper into the forests of the Mountain Country and reached for his ring.

“Leader!” he hissed, forcing his chakra into the ring to initiate communications. “This is an emergency. Respond.”

There was no answer for a moment as Sasori’s heart pounded and his puppet body ran at full speed through the tree branches. He was about to call again, when Pain’s disembodied silhouette appeared a few feet ahead of him and to the left, hovering in mid-air just in front of Sasori as he continued to flee the forest fire.

“What is it, Sasori?” Pain sounded annoyed.

For once, Sasori was too preoccupied with the rest of his problems to be intimidated. “Orochimaru has defected! He tried to kill me before I could report.” Behind him, the entire forest was ablaze. “I need Zetsu now!”

Pain’s eyes widened for a moment, his Rin’negan flashing. Sasori couldn’t even spare the energy to find satisfaction in finally shocking the other man. “Orochimaru is…not responding,” he finally said. Heaven only knew how he’d made that communication while talking with Sasori. “Preliminary evidence confirms your report.”

“Of course, it does!” Sasori snapped. “Now, get me out of here!”

Pain’s tone turned cool and unaffected once more. “Zetsu has been dispatched. You have a new mission objective.”

“What?”

“You will track down Orochimaru,” Pain hissed, “and bring him to me.”

Sasori twisted his lips into a small smirk at that. “Gladly.”

Pain vanished in a bleep of static.

Sasori barely had time to pull out a still-damaged Hiruko and conceal himself inside before Zetsu rose from the ground only a few feet away. Zetsu stared at the fire in horror. “My brothers…” He watched the branches of an elm catch on fire.

“We can repay Orochimaru after we leave this place,” Sasori insisted impatiently.

Zetsu shook his head to clear it and nodded. He extended a white hand out of the plant shell.

Grumbling at the indignity of it all, Sasori reached out Hiruko’s arm to take it, was pulled inside, and was suddenly sucked back down into the void that Zetsu traveled through. The weird dissociated feeling that Sasori always got when he traveled with Zetsu took over, but he was able to put together one coherent thought:

If Orochimaru really wanted him dead, then Sasori knew where he was going next.

***

Present day…

The sky above the Volcano Temple was filled with soot and ash. Deidara and Sasori had tied wet cloths around their mouths and noses, and were still struggling not to cough. Sasori worried that it would be a problem when they got into battle, and Deidara needed all those mouths.

On the other hand, the soot was very good cover. Deidara floated them down to the temple in a giant flower bud; the white clay had turned pitch-black before they were even within the monks’ sight. There was some shouting and scrambling as they landed in the middle of the courtyard, but Sasori could tell from the words spoken that they thought Deidara’s creation was just a piece of volcanic debris.

“Ready?” Deidara whispered.

Sasori nodded.

The petals unfurled, and chaos ensued.

Sasori hit three of the guards with the water jet he’d temporarily mounted on Jirou’s left wrist; the exposure to such cold after such burning heat caused screams of agony from the men. With Jirou’s right hand, Sasori lashed out with his lightning blade, jolting another five guards to their deaths. That took care of most of the battalion by the door.

“Go!” Deidara shouted. “I’ve got the rest of them.” His hands opened, and a dozen clay bats emerged. They flitted up into the sky, taking on the black of volcanic soot almost immediately.

Sasori had a weird sense of déjà vu.

“Go!” Deidara repeated.

Sasori shook it off and ran for the temple. He could hear explosions behind him and counted them off one-by-one in his mind: one, two, three…

He reached the door to the temple. The three monks he hadn’t killed in his initial assault formed a line in front of him. As one, they blew a ring of flame around him. Four, five…

Sasori already had Kousei out of his scroll. The puppet formed a series of three hand seals, and the ring of flame swirled inward to a ball between his palms. Sasori held it for a moment as it burned steadily hotter and whiter, then Kousei unleashed it right back at the line of monks. Six…

Only one of the monks dodged to the side in time. The other two, and the door, were burnt to a crisp. Sasori dove through the open door, Kousei fending off the guards inside with his sword. Seven, eight…

The lava core at the heart of the temple was Sasori’s goal. It was easier now because these monks were less well trained in battle: most likely servants or ritual experts. Sasori pulled out Haya just in case, and placed her protective field around Jirou and Kousei. Nine…

The good thing about having a fire puppet was that he could fill the canisters twice as fast as Sasori had been able to back at the Source. Jirou’s lightning blade whipped away a wave of incoming flaming arrows, and Sasori opened Jirou’s mouth. Ten, eleven…

Poisoned senbon shot through the temple, strafing the incoming monks. Most fell to the floor, unable to move due to the pain at the first blast. Many more were smart enough to fall to floor to duck the obviously deadly attack. The stupider – or maybe braver; the terms were often synonymous – monks continued to charge. Twelve.

Deidara had used up his first wave of explosions. Kousei finished off the fifth canister with an efficient flick of his wrist. Sasori swept outwards with Haya’s acid-searing shield, set Jirou on all eight legs, and ran as fast as he could for the exit. Two guards got hit by Haya on the way out, one was taken out by Jirou’s tail, and the rest were met with a fireball when Kousei finally burst back outside.

“Master!” Sasori heard a screech from overhead. He looked up to see Deidara flying in circles on a large dragon, darting as fast as he could to avoid the remaining monks’ fire attacks.

Sasori swore when he saw what Deidara was about to do, pulled Haya and Kousei back into their scroll, and braced himself inside of Jirou.

Deidara swept low to the ground in a graceful arc and crashed right into Sasori, flinging him roughly into the air. Sasori didn’t know how Deidara managed to keep his focus enough to grab onto one of Jirou’s middle legs; Sasori certainly hadn’t been able to do anything but jolt at the impact.

Deidara’s dragon kept flying in swirling, serpentine arcs, past the temple and over the volcano. Deidara let out a grunt of effort. “A little help here?” he snapped, legs braced against the dragon’s neck and wing joints, panting as he pulled as hard as he could to get Jirou onto the dragon’s back.

Sasori flicked out Jirou’s tail, wrapped it twice around the dragon’s neck, and carefully wheeled himself back in. Finally, he collapsed onto the dragon’s back, with Deidara right beside him, both of them panting with exertion.

“Please, tell me we don’t have to go back,” Deidara finally gasped out. Apparently, it was no difficulty for him to guide the dragon, even half-collapsed like this.

“I got all five,” Sasori breathed out.

Deidara laughed. “We’re getting good at this, yeah?”

Sasori snorted. “See how easy it is when we work together?”

“Easy?” Deidara coughed.

Sasori would’ve laughed at him, but then he started coughing, too. It wasn’t the most graceful retreat in their careers, but at least it was one of the most successful.

***

Ten years ago…

Sasori and Zetsu emerged from the ground in the Claw Country.

“No matter how much of a head start he had, he couldn’t have gotten here before us, even on Manda,” Zetsu informed Sasori. “Filthy traitor,” Zetsu’s dark half chimed in.

“We’ll head him off, then,” Sasori said, expression perfectly blank, although inside he felt something twisting painfully.

Pain took that moment to appear before them again. “Zetsu, get to Kisame. Something happened in the Wind Country.”

Sasori and Zetsu shared a look; that was directly between where they’d come from and where they were now.

“What about that Sharingan brat Kisame’s partners with?” Sasori asked curiously.

“I’ve been informed that’s the problem,” Pain said simply before vanishing again.

Sasori and Zetsu exchanged a look. “I’ll hold this position. You go.”

Zetsu nodded once, then vanished back into the earth.

Sasori waited for a moment, trying to quell the lingering trace of emotion deep inside him, before setting to work.

He popped open Hiruko’s compartment and discarded his Akatsuki cloak to give himself access to the four canister holders on his back. Three were filled; one was empty. He replaced the now-empty spot for his fire canister with one he’d stolen from the Volcano Temple and snapped it into its place. Four canisters now: one for fire, one for water, one for his one-hundred puppets technique, and one for…

Sasori pulled out the fourth canister and sent a burst of chakra into it. Nothing appeared to happen just yet, so Sasori sat, senses at full alert in the event of Orochimaru’s arrival, and waited.

After all, no matter how obsessed Orochimaru had become with the Sharingan, he was more obsessed with immortality. The fourth canister in Sasori’s hands was his own method of cheating death. There was no way that Orochimaru wouldn’t come to finish off what he’d started in the Volcano Country.

Let the rest of Akatsuki play their games in the Wind Country; Sasori knew that all he had to do was wait here, and Orochimaru would come for him…

***

Present day…

“Finally!” Deidara sighed with relief. He walked out onto the water of the small pond and then, suddenly, released his chakra. He fell straight into the cool depths with a laugh and a shriek.

Sasori didn’t bother with anything so fancy. He just popped open Jirou’s compartment and walked straight into the water. It felt blissfully cool against his burned skin. He was pretty sure the heat from the volcano had singed his eyelashes.

Deidara’s head suddenly burst to the surface on the far side of the pool, and he stripped his black tank-top and mesh shirt off over his head. Sasori watched, curiously, as the moonlight caressed the curve of Deidara’s spine, outlining the muscles there in a soft, silvery glow. The muscles tensed and bunched as Deidara rinsed his clothes and then squeezed out the excess water.

Sasori swam over to him and began to do the same.

“It’s such a relief to be cool again, yeah?” Deidara smiled and shimmied out of his pants.

Sasori tried not to think about that. “We could’ve stopped an hour ago, if you didn’t have some bizarre problem with the ocean.”

“I don’t want to get salt in my hair,” Deidara insisted.

“Tch. It’s not like you have much hair to begin with.” Sasori paused. He needed to rinse his pants out, too, but something about doing it here, with Deidara naked only feet away…

“My hair’s almost as long as yours is,” Deidara retorted before intentionally splashing Sasori in the face.

Sasori blinked at him in disbelief. “I can see why you’re an S-Class assassin,” he said snidely, sucked it up, and dropped his pants.

Deidara’s eyes flicked pointedly down, and Sasori clutched his pants in front of him, washing the fabric out with water. “Fine,” Deidara smirked. “If you want to be a stick-in-the-mud, who am I to stop you?”

Sasori wasn’t sure if Deidara was talking about the fact that they were naked or Deidara’s little attempt at starting a splash fight earlier. Sometimes Deidara flirted on multiple levels like this, and it was very confusing. “Whatever. You’re always doing pointless things and distracting me from the task at hand.” He set his pants out on a rock to dry and began to meticulously rub water through his hair.

“Your loss,” Deidara said with a harrumph.

“I’ll try to live with it,” Sasori said wryly.

Deidara turned to wash his own hair and, when he wasn’t looking, Sasori reached over and dunked him under the water. “Hey, no fair!” Deidara tried laughing and scowling at the same time, and the result was patently ridiculous.

Sasori graced him with a superior smirk, when suddenly Deidara growled and Sasori realized, with horror, that his partner was lunging right for him in the water.

They both splashed beneath the surface, tangled, struggling, and naked. Sasori couldn’t get that last thought out of his head. It gave Deidara the advantage, and Sasori found his own head shoved under the water. That distracted him long enough from thoughts of Deidara’s body to fight back.

They kicked and fought in the water for some time, but it was all rather ineffectual since the weight of the water slowed their limbs, and neither of them was really proficient at water techniques.

Finally, they both crawled onto the bank, panting with exertion but blissfully cool as the night wind dried the droplets off their skin. Sasori realized, to his surprise, that he didn’t feel awkward at all right then, despite how exposed he was. He almost felt comfortable in Deidara’s presence…

“Hey, brat?” he said lazily, gazing up at the stars overhead.

“Yeah, Master?”

“Do you believe in fate?” Sasori’s voice felt strange on the words, like they weren’t the sort of things that should be coming from his mouth. He couldn’t help it, though. This battle at the Volcano Temple brought to mind the last time, and everything that had gone wrong then. For some reason, he and Deidara worked, while he and Orochimaru hadn’t, and he couldn’t think of a rational explanation for why, no matter how hard he tried. Maybe fate was the answer, after all…

“Of course not,” Deidara scoffed in response.

Sasori frowned at that. It wasn’t the answer he was expecting in his oddly sentimental mood. “What do you mean?” he asked a bit harshly.

“I mean that no real artist can believe in fate, yeah?”

“No?”

Deidara smiled indulgently over at him. “Look at it this way. If there’s fate, then everything has already been created. Nothing we do is original, because it was all written in stone before we were even born.”

Sasori considered this. “Perhaps…”

“I believe that I create. Therefore, I can’t accept that some force beyond my control destined it all before me.”

Sasori frowned to himself, his mood spoiled. The breeze chilled his flesh, and he felt goose bumps rising all over. He hadn’t liked being hot in a human body; he doubted he’d like being cold, either.

“Just for that,” he announced, getting up, “you’re helping me scrub down all my puppets.”

Deidara made an anguished expression.

Sasori smiled. Apparently, torturing Deidara was all he needed to make himself felt better again.

Chapter Text

“The artist alone sees spirits. But after he has told of their appearing to him, everybody sees them.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

***

Present day…

Sasori and Deidara actually caught the freighter to the Storm Country, which was something of a miracle because Deidara managed to get them lost twice on the way. The voyage was even more boring than the voyage to the Mountain Country, but at least they had a cabin of their own this time. It gave Sasori an opportunity to stretch outside of Jirou’s carapace, and Deidara an opportunity to start using Sasori as his own personal pillow again. Sasori swatted Deidara aside with Jirou’s tail for the latter, of course…most of the time.

Sasori thought, sometimes, when they argued about something pointless like how long to cook rice or when they argued about something important like what art was, that he and Deidara might be friends. Rarely, he even allowed himself to think that they might be more than friends.

Sasori had never really understood friendship. He understood family, to a certain degree, and friends were supposed to be like a sort of family someone created for themselves, if he understood correctly. But Deidara didn’t feel like the aching void in chest as he’d waited as a child, every day, for his parents to come home. Deidara didn’t feel like his grandmother had, either, always distant and solemn, leaving him behind so she could tend to the more important matters of war and state. Sasori was glad that Deidara wasn’t like that, on both counts. He probably would’ve killed Deidara, if he had been.

So Sasori didn’t know what Deidara was. He thought that Deidara might actually like him, but then he’d once thought that Orochimaru had liked him, too. Obviously, he had no ability to judge such things; it probably required those human emotions that he’d expunged years ago. He couldn’t think of any reason why Deidara would like him, though, so it was still a mystery to him.

That was why Sasori didn’t like to think about these things. It was a pointless pastime. People did things, and felt things, and it was all irrelevant and annoying. People never made any sense.

This was, of course, why, when they gazed out over the Storm Country for the first time and Deidara breathed with awe, “I love it,” Sasori just grumbled and shoved Deidara ahead of him off the dock.

Deidara emerged from the water, sputtering and swearing.

Sasori snorted with amusement and headed into the port town. Fully half the people in the milling crowd around them had hair the same color as Sasori’s. It was weird to suddenly find himself not in the minority anymore. Suna legend had always had it that the noble families came from the west, however…

The harbor was bustling with activity, and Sasori had to push his way through the crowd. Quite a few men swore at him with heavy-accents as he did so. He’d remembered that from when he was a genin; everyone in this country slurred their vowels to the point where they were almost impossible to understand.

Deidara finally caught up with him, still dripping wet, while Sasori bartered over their currency exchange with the redhead at the desk of the trade depot.

“That wasn’t nice, Master,” Deidara complained, ringing out his tank-top. He exposed nicely defined abdominal muscles as he did so.

“Where did you ever get the bizarre notion that I was ‘nice,’ brat?” Sasori retorted.

That night, however, when they slept in their small room at the local inn, was one of the nights when Deidara curled up against Sasori in his sleep and Sasori didn’t push him away. It was only because he was too tired, though, Sasori insisted to himself.

***

Ten years ago…

Takamori Yasuya wasn’t much of anybody. He lived in a tiny apartment just big enough to serve his most basic needs, he spent his whole day working in the local carpenter’s shop, and then he returned home at night to sleep. His boss and coworkers liked him just fine, but didn’t know much about him, simply because there wasn’t much to know about him. He had no hobbies, no interests, and all of his friends had had to initiate the friendship themselves because Yasuya never initiated anything. In many ways, he was just a shell of a man, existing with no real drive and no real thought for his life.

It all changed with one visitor, though.

The dark-haired man stepped out of nowhere that evening as Yasuya headed back from work, and something inside Yasuya began to panic in response. There was something indescribable wrong with the man who blocked his path, and a deeply-buried instinct told Yasuya to run.

The man cut him off with a fluid step, his body swaying gracefully and deadly as he slowly circled Yasuya.

“Sasori-kun,” the man purred, and Yasuya felt something wet flick at the back of his neck. “It is a brilliant technique. I would never have known you…” He came to stand before Yasuya once again.

Yasuya took a shaking step backwards, and the man let him, with an indulgent smile. “Wh-What do you want?”

“Is that any way to treat an old friend, Sasori-kun?” the man tisked. He licked his lips, and Yasuya could see that his tongue was unnaturally long, snaking in and out of his mouth in a way that made Yasuya shiver.

He rubbed at the spot on the back of his neck where he’d felt the wetness earlier, but he couldn’t make the feeling go away. “Look, sir,” he said nervously, holding his hands out in front of himself defensively. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know this Sasori kid, either. I just want to go home.”

As soon as he said the words, though, he had a strange flash of memory. A lilting, cooing voice just like this man’s off in the distance and then, staring down at him, a scalpel in hand, was a man with fiery red hair and cold, dead eyes.

Yasuya staggered back at the sudden vision. Something was very wrong, he realized, but for some reason he couldn’t process anything beyond that. It felt like there was something amiss in his head, something preventing him from giving normal responses and normal reactions. Yasuya had never noticed it before, but it was like something in his head was missing.

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember?” the man clucked his long tongue with distaste. “I would hate to finally kill the infamous Akasuna no Sasori and not even have him realize what his death meant.”

“I-I don’t know…” Yasuya repeated, but the images were becoming more vivid. He was paralyzed, lying flat on his back on an operating table, and that man with the red hair was cutting into him, and the pain… The pain was unbearable.

Something of Yasuya’s inner thoughts must have shown through on his face, because the man smiled a cold, wicked smile and approached him once more. “You do remember,” he purred, catching Yasuya’s face between his palms.

A shiver ran down Yasuya’s spine, and he found himself unable to move due to the power that crackled around the other man. Yellow, reptilian eyes stared into his, holding him in an almost hypnotic trance.

The memories were getting clearer now, and words were filtering in: puppet, resurrection, Sasori…

“Orochimaru,” Yasuya breathed. The name felt like a rotten taste in his mouth.

“That’s my Sasori-kun,” Orochimaru grinned, and then his fingers starting digging into Yasuya’s scalp, sharp and piercing like fangs.

They pierced flesh and bone, and Yasuya let out a final scream of horror and agony as his skull was ripped open.

Fingers dripping with blood and brains, Orochimaru peered into the cavity…and frowned.

“Where is it?” he whispered to himself, digging around deeper. He could see the hole in Yasuya’s brain where Sasori had sliced him open all those years ago, but the piece that had been put inside him – that little container that stored the living but dormant flesh of Sasori’s own brain – was gone.

“He’s empty!” Orochimaru screeched in sudden disgust, shoving Yasuya’s corpse aside. Yellow eyes narrowed on the surrounding path. “You must be here,” he thought aloud. “Now, where are you, and where did you put it?”

Sasori stepped from the shadows between the trees, armed only with his own puppet body, and cast Orochimaru a bored look. “I removed it. I couldn’t have you interfering with my resurrection.”

Orochimaru’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You escaped my trap,” he concluded.

“Yes,” Sasori agreed, “but you won’t escape mine.” And he pulled the strings to begin the battle.

***

Present day…

The port town of the Storm Country hadn’t been anything special; it was the land beyond that Deidara had remarked upon.

From the narrow, fertile strip along the coast, the desert stretched slowly outward. A few miles from shore was a line of imposing cliffs, with deep wadis cut into them, leading out into the desert beyond. They hinted at spectacular floods. The storms for which the country was named were usually dry – explosive bursts of lightning and wind – but every so often it poured as well. Rain was an enemy in the desert. It was rare, but when it came, it was powerful and destructive, with nothing to hold back its power. It carved through stone and left a spectacular landscape in its wake.

In the distance, Sasori could see strange, unnatural shapes jutting out at intervals from the desert floor: undoubtedly sections of rock that had been just a little bit stronger and thus had survived centuries of flash floods. With his scope, Deidara could see even farther; he had a small smile on his face as he looked out into the desert.

Sasori smacked him in the back with Jirou’s tail to get his attention. “Let’s get going.” He twirled the tan parasol over his right shoulder impatiently.

“Where to, yeah?” Deidara rubbed at his spine.

Jirou pulled a map from out of his sleeve.

“You bought a map,” Deidara said incredulously, opening up his own maroon-and-gray parasol and moving to stand beside Sasori.

“Tch, brat. We don’t want to risk the center of the continent without knowing where the oases are.”

“I guess…” Deidara still sounded skeptical.

“Not in keeping with your ‘get lost twice on the way to the harbor’ navigation techniques?” Sasori snapped, ignoring him. The northeast coast, where they were now, was the most populous area of the Storm Country. The settlements trickled off abruptly heading into the central desert, and then picked up again along the other coasts, although slightly less dense. “I suggest we go southwest.”

“Hmm,” Deidara agreed, “I like that. Not as many commercial lines, yeah?”

“Exactly.” Sasori snapped his map closed. “It looks as though any of these wadis will lead us to the desert plain.” He could hardly wait to be out in the emptiness of the desert again. The trip had been trying to him, pressed up among so many people, and he felt the sudden need for space.

Deidara nodded. “By all means. You first, Master.”

They set out into one of the canyons.

The most remarkable thing about this desert, to Sasori’s mind, was that it wasn’t entirely desolate. Small scrubs grew up at sporadic intervals along the cliffs walls. Colorful birds darted from desert flower to flower, and lizards and scorpions skittered across the ground, hunting for prey. The desert near Suna was quite different: empty dunes as far as the eye could see, with any reservoirs of water hidden deep beneath the rolling sands.

In Suna, the only way to survive was to band together for the greater good; here, with enough familiarity with deserts, a man could live his whole life on his own. Sasori thought he would like it here quite well.

“It’s different from Iwa,” Deidara commented, echoing Sasori’s thoughts. “More hospitable. Difficult to live here, but not impossible. I like it.”

Sasori continued to follow the shadow of his parasol through the rocky canyon, away from the coast and civilization. Scorpions scurried out from under his footsteps, and Deidara was a silent but tangible presence at his side.

For the first time, Sasori thought he might be home.

***

Ten years ago…

A hundred iron sand spires pierced up through the earth, slicing through the place Orochimaru had stood only seconds before. The space was empty now, though.

A lilting laugh sounded through the surrounding trees. “So emotional for someone who disdains emotions so much,” Orochimaru taunted him. “You should have struck when you still had the element of surprise, Sasori-kun.”

Sasori felt the ground rumble beneath his feet and put up a shield of iron sand just in time. Coils, wider around than he was tall, wrapped around his position and constricted. The grains of metal that surrounded him held in a perfect sphere. Sasori maintained the sphere for a second, then pushed his chakra into the Kazekage’s puppet, which he’d hidden underground using earth techniques. Instantly, the Kazekage’s powers impacted the iron sand, and razor-sharp spikes jabbed outward, cutting into the giant snake’s flesh.

Sasori heard a scream of agony and dove down through the earth himself, leaving the sphere of iron sand in his place; let Orochimaru think him still occupied there for the time being.

He rose to the surface again behind a small copse of trees. The giant snake – and Sasori grimaced to realize that it wasn’t Manda, and thus Orochimaru’s greatest weapon was still held in reserve – was pounding at the iron shield mercilessly. Its sides dripped with pale blood and gore. Orochimaru was still hidden from his sight.

His chakra, though, knew Orochimaru better than any other shinobi on the planet. Unfortunately, the reverse was true, as well.

Sasori dove to the right, the cable in his abdomen whipping out. It met with the steel of Orochimaru’s sword, and they froze for a moment, deadlocked.

“Bastard!” Sasori hissed.

Orochimaru smiled at him in that insufferably smug way of his, like there was some cosmic joke that only he was in on. “So emotional,” he chided. “That’s how you always lose, you know.”

Sasori released the blades on his back, and they fanned out behind him before intersecting in Orochimaru’s torso. Instantly, the figure of Orochimaru fell apart into hundreds of tiny snakes. Sasori leapt back and waited for the counterattack. The blades protruding from his shoulders twitched in anticipation, and the cable in his abdomen snapped in the air.

He took a moment to center himself and located where he’d left the Kazekage. He summoned him and felt around for other chakra signatures as the iron sand swirled around him one more. Orochimaru’s snake had apparently retreated to lick its wounds. Orochimaru was masking his own chakra by making it appear as if he were in five locations at once; either that, of he’d somehow split himself for a five-way attack. Sasori stood back-to-back with the Kazekage, at the ready.

The snakes that came at him were smaller this time – only a quarter of the size of Orochimaru’s original summons – but they worked in tandem. The Kazekage’s sand brushed aside two, Sasori’s cable hit one, and another Sasori caught only inches before its fangs pierced his heart, dripping venom.

That left one, which coiled itself around the Kazekage while Sasori was preoccupied with fighting for his life. The snake had a ridge of unnaturally sharp scales along its back that suddenly stood up on end, severing Sasori’s chakra strings.

The Kazekage felt limp to the ground in response, and the iron sand fell back down to earth.

“Shit!” Sasori’s eyes widened.

He managed to twitch one pinky, just in time to catch the Kazekage with a chakra string to the back before Orochimaru’s attack hit.

Lightning arced through the clearing, and Sasori spun the iron sand back into the air with only a fraction of a second to spare.

The iron formed a coil that channeled the electrical current, holding it for a moment like a giant electromagnet, before the coil turned back on itself and fired the full force of the lightning blast back in the direction it had come from. It made a boom like a cannon firing when it finally went off. Sasori could feel his artificial hair frizzle on end, and the wood in his arm charred at the kinetic energy in the air, but his heart stayed safe and intact.

He couldn’t say the same for his opponent, however.

He heard his blow strike and tossed the snake neatly to one side to narrow in on his kill. Across the clearing, Orochimaru lay on the ground, limp. Sasori staggered over to him.

“Sasori-kun,” Orochimaru tisked, his face melting slowly at the jolt his body had just endured, “you never did understand.” He reached out with one hand; the fingers there dripped like the flesh was wax. “Your body… If you hadn’t mutilated yourself so monstrously, maybe I could have used your body. But you’re worthless to me, as you are. You’re irrelevant.”

Realization struck Sasori as he watched the molten form. This wasn’t the real Orochimaru; the way the body was collapsing made that clear enough. But, if it was a replacement…

Orochimaru’s clone chuckled. “I needed you out of the way for the real battle. Those eyes…” He coughed. “With those eyes, I can do anything.”

Sasori didn’t particularly care whether Itachi lived or died, but the thought of Orochimaru possessing the Mangekyou sent a wave of unease through him.

“Such a child, still. Of course, you thought this was all about you. Your arrogance makes your weak. So does your fear.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Sasori insisted with a hiss.

“You fear death. You cower from it. And you fear loneliness most of all. Isn’t that why you shared the secret of your resurrection with me? Isn’t that why, even now, you cling to the idea I’ll come back to you?”

Sasori sliced off the clone’s head with the blades in his back. He didn’t need to hear any more of Orochimaru’s nonsense.

The clearing was bare and charred from their battle. The Kazekage’s puppet body lay off to one side, and Orochimaru’s melting clone was on the other.

Sasori sat himself down in the center of the clearing, alone and insignificant, and waited for Zetsu to return with news of the real battle in the Wind Country.

***

Present day…

They settled that night in a nook in the face of one of the monolithic stone monuments that rose sharply from the desert sand and sagebrush, just in time to avoid a massive windstorm that swept through the desert with dramatic flashes of dry lightning overhead. Deidara pulled out the scroll that contained the camping gear they’d acquired back in the Tea Country and set up camp, while Sasori cut the deadwood off several nearby bushes for their fire.

The branches had a unique scent as they burned, Sasori discovered when he put them on the flames. Although the wood was dead and dry, they smelled like green things, like the first blossoming of spring.

“Smells nice,” Deidara commented.

Sasori nodded and slipped out of Jirou to stretch. “More venison jerky?” he complained as Deidara pulled out their rations.

Deidara shrugged. “I prepared for a long journey.”

Sasori sighed and took his share. They ate in silence as the storm boomed ever further off into the distance. Slowly, the darkened sky came alive again with the song of the occasional night bird or the fluttering of bat wings. It was Sasori’s turn to take the first watch, so he continued to tend to the fire, while Deidara wrapped himself up in the sleeping bag and drifted off.

It gave Sasori more time to think, which he’d been doing alarmingly frequently of late. He wondered if it was a side-effect to being human again, or maybe now that they’d escaped Akatsuki, all the energy that had gone into planning had nowhere else to go.

Whatever the case, he was plagued by the disturbing sensation that all his thinking was trying to lead him somewhere, although he couldn’t think where. Everything was fine: Akatsuki was disbanded, Sasori had a new carapace, and he and Deidara had found their new home. Sure, it would take some time to settle in, and Sasori was still waiting until he could safely transfer his consciousness into a puppet body again, but there was nothing that should be nagging at the edges of his awareness this much.

Deidara slept, the night settled, and Sasori was convinced he was missing something.

Maybe he was just uneasy because their raid on the Volcano Temple had stirred up old memories of Orochimaru and his betrayal. Something inside Sasori still burned with rage at the memory. It was the same way he felt whenever he remembered his grandmother, like something was rotten deep inside him. The feelings were only stronger now that he had an actual stomach that could churn.

What he didn’t understand was why the feeling was tied in to thoughts of Deidara. Deidara usually evoked mild annoyance and grudging acceptance from Sasori, nothing violent and chaotic like what he was experiencing now. He ran Deidara through the equations in his head countless times, but it never made sense. Deidara hadn’t called him a monster like his grandmother; Deidara hadn’t betrayed him like Orochimaru. Therefore, Deidara shouldn’t be tied up in these thoughts at all.

Maybe, Sasori considered, he was thinking about it the wrong way. The one thing Deidara did have in common with his grandmother and Orochimaru was that they were all people he’d lived with at one point. Maybe the solution was as simple as that.

He’d lived with his grandmother because she was all the family he’d had left in the world. She’d lied to him and turned away from him when she saw the man he truly was.

He’d lived with Orochimaru because they’d been assigned as partners. Sasori hadn’t made him into a puppet like the first two partners he’d been given, because he’d thought that maybe he and Orochimaru had something in common that would transcend his art. In the end, Orochimaru hadn’t wanted him as a partner at all.

And he’d lived with Deidara…well, for the same reason he had Orochimaru. Something was different with Deidara, though. Something had happened so that they’d ended up exactly the opposite as he had with Orochimaru. Sasori couldn’t put his finger on why, though, and it was bothering him.

Deidara had always been different, and Sasori had never been able to explain it. He wanted to quantify Deidara, break down their relationship into a series of actions and events, and find the rational link as to why Deidara had succeeded as his companion when everyone else had failed.

There wasn’t any logic to it, though, that Sasori could see. That left either fate or emotion. Deidara mocked fate; Sasori disdained emotion.

“Fate, it is,” Sasori insisted grudgingly, his hands wrapped around his knees, staring out into the night.

***

Ten years ago…

Zetsu had finally come for Sasori after the battle was over, and Orochimaru was long gone. Apparently, Itachi hadn’t needed Akatsuki’s help against Orochimaru, after all. That didn’t stop Kisame from fussing over the kid, though, like his young partner needed to be coddled after his ordeal. Sasori could almost understand Kisame’s paranoia; after all, Itachi had been kidnapped right out from under his nose, albeit for a very brief time. The part that made them so unbearably insufferable to Sasori was how sometimes Itachi got a small smile on his face whenever Kisame went out of his way to please him. It made Sasori want to wipe that smug look off the brat’s face.

Thankfully, Sasori didn’t have to deal with them much. He was without a partner now, on his own, and so much the better for it. Sometimes, it made mission logistics a bit more complicated, but at least Sasori knew that he could depend on himself. Partners were just a distraction.

They were also a liability, he thought as he watched one of the guards stumble over a log and become separated from the herd. He’d shown Orochimaru his resurrection technique, and it had almost gotten him killed. This time, he was alone, and no one would ever find out where he’d hidden his spare consciousness.

The guard was a reasonable choice. Despite the chaos Sasori had caused by stealing the documents on the small transport ship, the Tea Country was generally a quiet place. This guard would live out his life in pleasant boredom, with nothing more than breaking up bar fights to disturb the monotony of his days.

Sasori hit him with a paralytic. No one saw him drag the guard back to his hideout, and that was just as well.

Sasori scanned over the guard’s ID papers as he sliced open his skull. Inoue Hideaki. It was good to know the name in advance, just in case he had to move his back-up core again, at a later date.

Meticulously, Sasori carved out the space he needed in the man’s brain. He wanted Hideaki to live – long and healthily – so this part of the surgery needed to be precise. He only removed non-essential areas: complex thought, will, creativity. In the end, Hideaki didn’t end up being much more than one of his puppets, but that was all Sasori needed.

Satisfied that he was finally ready, Sasori reached into the storage compartment in his abdomen and pulled out the small, precious container within.

He felt nervous setting it into place in Hideaki’s skull. Ever since Orochimaru had tried to destroy his previous resurrection attempt, Sasori had held the container with him at all times. It completely defeated the point, however, if his consciousness didn’t have a new body to awaken in.

Sasori sealed the container in place. It was much smaller than his heart container, more efficient. When he’d first begun to transform his body, he’d been unsure what part to keep alive to preserve his chakra pathways. The heart was the central organ that all chakra flowed through, but some lingering part of Sasori’s humanity had insisted that the brain was the real source of self. He’d left the decision until the very end, and thus they were the last two organs left functioning.

Finally, it had come time to choose and Sasori, in perhaps his most brilliant move, had chosen both: the heart as primary, and the brain as an emergency back-up.

He’d severed himself in two, still linked together with a space-time jutsu he’d stolen from the Kazekage when he turned him, and had experienced a brief, disorienting moment when he was alive in two places at once. He’d quickly put the brain half into stasis, however, and there it had remained all along, waiting to step in if Sasori’s heart failed.

And now it waited in Hideaki’s body, dormant but still alive. Sasori began to carefully seal it in place, so that when the time came, he could start all over again, alone and without the mistakes of his past. The sealing was delicate, tedious work and would take days to complete.

Sasori didn’t mind, though. After all, he had all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

“The artist, a traveler on this earth, leaves behind imperishable traces of his being.” – François Delsarte

***

Present day…

Sasori crouched down behind some desert scrub, his chakra at full alert. He couldn’t see Deidara on the other side of the small arroyo, but he could feel him, deep in his bones, like Deidara was an extension of himself. That happened sometimes between ninja who had worked together for so long.

He reassessed the position of their targets and adjusted his plan of attack in response: they were coming closer to his side of the path, so he’d have to make the first strike.

There were seven of them, Sasori could sense, and three of them had spikes of chakra that indicated that they had some training. Sasori couldn’t tell how skilled they were, though, because they were all suppressing their full chakra levels. Good, then, but not as good as Sasori was.

He thrummed one of his chakra strings against the ground, and four other figures were set in motion, slipping silently between the bushes. At least, they were silent until one of the four tumbled over flat on its face and raised the alarm.

“Stay behind us!” one of the three members of the caravan with the chakra spikes shouted out, as the three moved into a defensive position around the rest of their party. The woman’s Storm Country accent was so thick it took Sasori a moment to make out her words.

“Oh, fuck it,” Sasori grumbled. He left the fallen puppet behind and, with the other three, dove in for the kill.

Sasori instantly sized up the three enemy ninja with an experienced eye. They were obviously a team: two jounin and one chuunin, if Sasori guessed correctly. Sasori took the woman who had shouted out the order to be their leader. She was a short, stocky redhead, who looked like she could pack a vicious punch.

The next most powerful was a rail-thin man with pale blue hair and goggles. He flickered in and out of Sasori’s sight as he watched.

The chuunin was a teenage boy with straight, black hair that hung to his chin. For some reason, he had his eyes shut tight and his hands crossed behind his back. Sasori decided to assume the worst and expect that some sort of eye technique would come from that one.

Deidara had caught Sasori’s signal from the way he’d deployed his puppets and remained hidden for the moment. Good.

Sasori went straight for the redheaded woman; in an attack, the strongest ninja was usually the one most prepared to leave formation and fight in battle. Sasori’s bait worked, and she ran for Kousei, hands raised in a seal.

Kousei prepared his own fireball, but the woman dodged at the last moment and pressed her palm to the ground. The earth trembled, and for a moment Sasori thought he was dealing with a summoning technique, but then nothing appeared and the trembling increased. It appeared the woman’s jutsu caused the earth to shake. He could deal with that.

Kousei shot his fireball but, not surprisingly, the jounin woman ducked down into the earth. The trembling continued, and suddenly three cracks split the earth, aiming from all different directions right at Kousei. Sasori whipped his puppet high into the air just in time to avoid the collision of rocks.

“Something’s wrong with these shinobi, sensei,” the dark-haired chuunin boy spoke up, his eyes still tightly closed. “I don’t think they’re human…”

Perceptive kid. Sasori searched underground for the jounin woman’s chakra, but she seemed to have vanished. He frowned; she hadn’t been this good at masking when he’d first detected the caravan. She must have been intentionally leaking a bit of power to make herself seem less skilled than she actually was. That meant that she would be a clever opponent and also that they’d been anticipating this attack.

“Don’t break formation!” The jounin woman came up behind Haya, and Sasori struck out with Haya’s acidic shield; however, somehow the jounin blocked such that the acid didn’t touch her. “That’s an order, Katsura!”

“Yes, sensei!” the boy snapped to attention so obediently that Sasori had to wonder why she’d bothered to repeat the order.

Haya kicked upwards, and the jounin woman blocked. In that one moment of stillness, Sasori could see how she was evading Haya’s defenses; the earth chakra was seeping from the jounin’s skin in powerful pressure waves that kept everything a mere centimeter away from touching her skin. Haya wasn’t exchanging blows with the woman herself, but rather the layer of force that protected the woman. It was a clever defense.

Sasori pulled Haya back and threw his latest creation at the jounin, instead.

These were the first ninja Sasori had fought since they’d arrived in the Storm Country, so the puppets he’d made so far didn’t have any special abilities on their own. That had just required him to be more creative, though. Yajima was the definitely the most successful of his attempts, to date.

The puppet’s body was composed of a large ring of the rib cages of three separate men, bound together with sinews and wood. Sasori had attached a dozen arms at various heights all around the torso of the creature; each one was armed with a poison-tipped blade. Yajima’s legs had been removed, and in their place was a broad cone that pointed downward. Yajima’s base could drill through solid earth or, in this case, spin around like a top. Yajima’s three faces, still stretched out in horror, spun at a dizzying pace as Yajima attacked the jounin woman.

“What the hell is that?” asked the blue-haired jounin who was still guarding the caravan. One of the civilians had gotten nauseous at the sight and was retching on the ground.

Philistines, Sasori thought with irritation.

“Somehow,” the chuunin boy – Katsura – still had his eyes closed, “it’s all the same person, but different. I can feel the enemy now. There are only two of them. Everything Mikazuki-sensei has fought so far has just been the one.”

Sasori’s eyes narrowed on the boy; he had interesting abilities to analyze this battle.

“Fuck this!” the jounin woman – Mikazuki, Sasori concluded – fell back at the barrage of Yajima’s weapons. Sasori’s test of her powers had proved accurate; she had to focus her pressure shield to block attacks, and Yajima came at her so fast and in such an unnatural way that she had difficulty keeping up. “A little help here, Fumimaru?”

The blue-haired jounin nodded, and then suddenly vanished from Sasori’s sight.

Sasori swore under his breath; he hated invisibility techniques. Fortunately, he had a partner equipped to deal with such nonsense. He pulled on Kousei’s chakra strings, and the puppet sent a fire bolt into the air, signaling to Deidara for assistance. Almost immediately afterwards, Kousei was bowled over by an unseen force.

“How does a guy that skinny hit that hard?” Sasori complained to himself as he felt the power of the hit through his chakra strings. He spun Kousei around and set up a ring of fire around him; Haya activated her acid shield again, and Yajima continued to attack the jounin Mikazuki. The way Sasori figured it, that meant the jounin man had to either waste his energy trying to pierce Sasori’s defenses, or aid his leader.

Sasori’s gambit paid off, and suddenly Yajima was hit by an invisible attacker, almost knocking him off his axis.

A few seconds later, a colossal ‘boom’ echoed through the canyon. Sasori didn’t have to look to know that Deidara had come to Yajima’s defense and was disabling the invisible jounin. It gave Sasori the time he needed to split his attention and go for the remaining member of the enemy team.

The chuunin boy had spread his stance now that he alone was guarding the caravan, but his hands were still clenched tightly behind him, and his eyes were closed.

The battle was heating up, however, and Sasori couldn’t leave the boy alone any longer. He considered it a personal failure that he hadn’t forced the chuunin to expose his powers before now. Sasori rushed the chuunin in Jirou, racing across the desert floor on all eight legs.

The boy frowned behind closed eyes for a moment; Sasori guessed that Jirou registered quite oddly on whatever senses the boy was using. “Run!” he instructed the rest of the caravan – they ran – and then he opened his eyes for the first time.

The explosion of energy that hit Sasori threw him back across the entire canyon until he smacked at full speed into the cliff face. He must have passed out for a moment, because when he opened his eyes again, he could tell that a few vital seconds had passed.

Deidara was bombing the chuunin boy with a swarm of clay animals of all different sizes; it seemed all the boy had to do was look at one of the things, and a bright white blast of energy ripped it apart. The boy couldn’t get a fix on where Deidara circled overhead on a giant clay eagle, however, due to the sheer number of Deidara’s attacks. Apparently, his power required more than looking, then: looking and a second of concentration, perhaps.

Kousei and Haya had both fallen limp to the ground when Sasori lost consciousness, but they were old models, and that was to be expected. Yajima, however, was still spinning away, although half his arms had been blown off now, and the rest were being ripped off by the jounin pair at an alarming rate. Sasori had found it useful in the past to keep a small store of active chakra in his puppets so that they could stay mobile for some time if he had to leave the battle. The precaution had probably saved Deidara’s life on this occasion, because he was having difficulty enough just facing the chuunin boy.

Sasori grumbled to himself and did a quick damage check. Three of Jirou’s legs weren’t responding properly, and there was a crack in the shield on his back. The joint in Jirou’s mouth didn’t want to open, but at least Sasori could still see through his eyes. Sasori concluded that the chuunin’s attack had struck on his back on the front left side, because that was where the worst damage was.

He quickly concluded that he was staying out of the fighting in person, if he could help it at all.

That was simple enough, because it looked like Deidara would eventually finish off the chuunin boy, if given enough time. All Sasori needed to do was kill the two jounin.

In theory, it was something he was more than capable of doing…

***

Five months earlier…

Sasori had always known that the day he faced his grandmother again would be one of the greatest battles of his life. He only wished his grandmother had better back-up than a Konoha chuunin; Sasori wasn’t doing so well, and it was getting rather embarrassing.

His puppet army was dwindling before his eyes. His grandmother was more skilled than he remembered, and the chuunin girl packed quite a punch. Once his puppets fell, he’d be down to only one canister left; the fire and water ones were already used up.

His enemies were still coming on strong. He wouldn’t have believed that a medical ninja could counteract his poison so quickly and completely, but whatever antidote the chuunin had created was working. Akatsuki’s enemies were powerful this time, more powerful than they’d expected…

Sasori’s eyes narrowed as the chuunin girl rushed him again, a line of white-cloaked puppets defending her. A lock of pink hair caught in her mouth as she screamed with fury and prepared her blow.

In that moment, Sasori decided.

The fourth canister flickered for a moment, then released, sending a pulse through space and time, moving rapidly outward from their location. Sasori felt the signal spread, further and further and then…

The chuunin girl hit him with the chakra damping field, and he ejected his heart from the puppet body at the same moment. He suffered an uncomfortable disembodied moment before one of his chakra feelers found a replacement body, and he inserted himself into it. It was already pierced through multiple times, but that sort of thing didn’t matter with wooden limbs.

Sasori rose once more. He couldn’t feel the pulse from his fourth canister anymore, though. Theoretically, it should have continued once initiated, but he didn’t like the fact that it was now trapped within the damping field.

He couldn’t sense anything yet, but it was too late to turn back now. The battle began anew, and the element of surprise only got him a few precious moments…

The world stopped when the poisoned blades pierced his heart. It was strange, the numbness, but this was what was supposed to happen. This was what it was to die…

Sasori just really wished he could have watched his grandmother die before him, and Orochimaru, too. It also might have been nice if he and Deidara hadn’t been arguing the last time they saw each other, while he was at it.

All his life, Sasori had been afraid of death. He’d scoffed at Orochimaru when he’d mocked Sasori for it all those years ago, but now he could see that it was true. He was terrified now. His heart was beating its last, and he still hadn’t received any sign that his resurrection technique had worked.

A final gasp between his parents, and Sasori died…

…Was confusingly in two places at once for that instant of death…

…And suddenly Sasori was alive, two countries away.

Sasori blinked up at the bright sun overhead and looked around the small provincial village he suddenly found himself in. He glanced down at hands that weren’t his own and flexed the fingers one by one.

“Huh.” He cocked his head to one side. “Interesting.”

***

Present day…

The instant one of Yajima’s poisoned blades scratched the jounin woman, the battle should have been over. Unfortunately, she seemed annoyingly hearty and was still able to use her chakra for earth attacks, even if she was having trouble standing.

Sasori could have finished her off, of course, if only it weren’t for that damned other jounin, whom he couldn’t hit no matter how hard he tried. Sasori released a fireball from Kousei’s mouth, covering the battlefield in flames and still nothing.

Haya rushed at the fallen jounin woman, dripping acid, but suddenly she was knocked off course. Sasori had thought he hated invisibility techniques before; now, he loathed them.

The jounin woman released another earth strike, and this one collided with Yajima right at his pivot point, causing the monstrous compound puppet to topple over. He only had three arms left, anyway.

It was actually the opportunity Sasori needed. Kousei and Haya weren’t equipped for more delicate functioning like this, but Sasori had been playing with one of the Yajima’s faces just yesterday, and he’d added in just enough dexterity for this.

He redirected the puppet’s strings to the workable jaw, forced wind chakra through its mouth, and shouted out in a surprisingly sharp voice, “Damn it, Deidara! How on earth did you hit this guy?”

Deidara’s eagle did a quick backwards loop, and a swarm of clay hornets flew over the battlefield simultaneously. “Uh… It’s just a camouflage technique, yeah? I switched over to infrared.”

“Oh, perfect,” Sasori snapped. None of his puppets here had infrared, of course. It was something he’d have to correct; he was rather weak against genjutsu at the moment. He would’ve asked Deidara to take the guy out or offered to switch, but the sad truth was that Deidara was best qualified to take out the chuunin boy, too, and Sasori couldn’t leave him with all the work.

“When I kill you,” Sasori grumbled under his breath to the elusive jounin, “you are going straight into my collection…”

He yanked on Yajima’s strings, and the puppet rose shakily once more. Meanwhile, Kousei strafed the field with fire. Sasori figured that that had to slow the invisible – or, technically, camouflaged, for all the good that bit of information did him – jounin down. He pushed all his chakra into Kousei and just started setting the whole place ablaze. He felt rather silly doing it, but at least it got some results.

“Hey!” the chuunin kid called out in alarm, leaping back from the flames. His eyes seemed to have the ability to snuff out a bit of the fire at a time, but he couldn’t do anything on a larger scale.

The jounin woman hacked and managed to stagger behind a rock to avoid the worst of the blaze.

The annoying camouflaged jounin didn’t show himself at all, though, despite the fact that Sasori was shooting flames in every direction he could think of.

“In a good mood, are we?” Deidara teased, flying over Kousei’s head to engage the chuunin’s eye technique once more.

For a moment, Sasori toyed with the idea of hitting Deidara, just because his partner had the double advantage of being annoying and visible. It wouldn’t do to attack his own allies, though, and—

Sasori nearly slapped himself as soon as he thought of it. He was shooting flames everywhere except at his allies.

Instantly, he spun his other two puppets. The area around Haya was clear, and Yajima…

One of Yajima’s fists flung around wildly and smacked right into something.

That something fell to the ground, and the camouflaged coloring flickered for a moment. It was long enough for Sasori to reach out with one of Yajima’s swords and nick him in the arm.

Sasori let out a breath of relief. With both enemies poisoned, his battle was won now. Everything else the jounin threw at him would be desperate death throes. He pulled back his chakra and circled his three puppets around the blue-haired jounin, who was still struggling the most. The woman hadn’t moved since she’d hidden herself behind that rock; Sasori could see that she’d finally fallen unconscious.

It gave him time to watch the end of Deidara’s battle.

The hornets had been a smart move. There were a lot of them, and they were tiny. The chuunin’s eye technique wasn’t refined enough to hit with that precision and speed.

“Don’t damage the eyes,” Sasori complained using Yajima’s mouth.

“Tch, so picky,” Deidara teased. He clasped his hands together, and suddenly the hornets swarmed inwards.

The chuunin kid took out a decent number of them; Sasori had to give him that. Several landed on his back, though, and exploded with enough force to rip a hole straight through his chest.

Sasori approached the now-quiet battlefield in a limping Jirou. “I said not to damage the eyes,” he snapped as he made his way over to the fallen boy.

Deidara let out a harrumph. “I didn’t touch your precious eyes,” he insisted, looking over at the two jounin. “Hey, that guy’s still moving.”

“That’s because he’s annoying,” Sasori insisted. He examined the chuunin boy’s body and concluded that the eyes were intact. That taken care of, he began picking up all Yajima’s stray limbs. “A little help here?”

“You and your toys.” Deidara gave him an indulgent smirk and jumped to the ground. His eagle landed beside him, and he hefted the chuunin boy onto its back.

“So, reviewing the battle…” Sasori began sheepishly. He found the last of Yajima’s arms and sealed them away, together with the rest of Yajima.

“Yeah, let’s review that,” Deidara agreed. He lifted the jounin woman up onto his eagle and sent a scowl Sasori’s way. “What the hell was that racket you were causing, anyway?”

“That,” Sasori admitted with a resigned sigh, “was Ginzou.”

Deidara laughed and tried to disguise it with a cough. “I know you were having trouble with him, but… It sounded like he tripped over his own feet.”

Sasori winced. “He did.” He sealed away Kousei and Haya before glancing to where the black sheep of his happy little puppet family had fallen before the battle had even begun.

“I didn’t know it was possible to be a puppet and still be a klutz,” Deidara snickered.

Reluctantly, Sasori opened up his scroll. Ginzou’s feet were still twitching in the air in a hopelessly useless way. It almost seemed a crime, but he sealed Ginzou away anyway. “Well, it obviously is,” Sasori insisted, “because the problem’s not on my end.”

“I wouldn’t dare imply that, Master.” Deidara was doing at absolutely horrendous job trying not to laugh at him.

They met over the collapsed body of the jounin man who had given Sasori such trouble, and Sasori swatted Deidara with his tail for good measure. After all, they still had a conscious enemy on their hands.

Deidara cleared his throat and took on a serious expression, and they looked down at the jounin. The man struggled to get to his knees, but fell again.

“Hey,” Sasori said casually, “your name is Fumimaru, right?”

The man stared up at him with goggle-covered eyes. Sasori was pretty sure he was trying to glare at him.

“And you’re from Irihi, yeah?” Deidara nudged the design sewn into his sleeve with one toe. That was one of the quirks of the Storm Country; instead of forehead protectors, village insignias were stitched onto uniforms.

The man coughed but refused to answer.

“I just wanted to make sure I got it right,” Sasori insisted. “Don’t worry. The people you were guarding got away. We don’t need them now. You’re more valuable to me than all of them put together…”

The man passed out.

That was probably better for him, in the long run.

***

“Gah! I hate him!” Sasori finally snapped, shoving Ginzou aside. The puppet decided to knock into the bag with all their pots and pans as he fell, creating a horrendous racket.

Deidara glanced up at him from where he sat, shirtless, doing a set of breathing exercises through the mouth in his chest. Three of the stitches were out now and, as long as Deidara didn’t get too distracted, he could refrain from blowing them all to bits. “Why don’t you carve up that other guy you hate?” he suggested helpfully.

Sasori wasn’t in the mood for ‘helpful’ suggestions. His eye twitched, and he considered Jirou’s scorpion tail, the mouth in Deidara’s chest, and then kicked at Ginzou for good measure, since he couldn’t risk taking his frustrations out on Deidara. “I need a proper studio for this. Working on the go like this is…eh, pointless.”

“We could use a base,” Deidara agreed serenely. Sasori concluded that he’d been meditating too long. “It’d be nice to sleep in a real bed, yeah?”

Sasori rolled his shoulders. “I think that rock under the sleeping bag last night is permanently etched into my spine.”

Deidara gave him a mischievous little smile and rose to his feet.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Sasori blinked as Deidara walked around behind him. “You need to get stitched back up before you try anyth—huh?”

Deidara’s hands settled on his shoulders. “I bet I can get rid of that rock,” he purred in Sasori’s ear with a teasing tone. “I’m very good with earth techniques.”

Sasori opened his mouth to protest, but then Deidara’s thumbs dug in, and his words turned into a groan of relief. He hadn’t even felt the tension in his shoulders until Deidara’s magic fingers had released it. He blushed slightly at his reaction and bit his lip to stop any future embarrassing noises.

“This was a good raid,” Deidara concluded, “but even you can’t build three puppets all at once. It’d be nice to have some space for storage.”

“I need a hundred puppets again,” Sasori agreed. “With these three, I have seven, plus Jirou. Kousei and Haya are old and need to be either retired or upgraded. And Ginzou,” Sasori glared for a second before Deidara’s thumb dug into the back of his neck, and suddenly his headache vanished, “needs to stop sucking,” he sighed blissfully.

“Hmm.” Deidara’s fingers traced a tantalizing path down the line of Sasori’s spine. “If they’re starting to send ninja teams out with the caravans, we’ve got to assume they’ve picked up on the pattern of our attacks.”

“They know we’re out here,” Sasori agreed. “They’ll send more.”

“We don’t want to live too close, then. Or anywhere they’d think to look for us, yeah?”

“But they’ll look anywhere there’s water. Sooner or later, they’ll find us.” Sasori voice at the end sounded alarmingly like a purr.

“We’ll think of something,” Deidara concluded, tracing Sasori’s tailbone with one final swirl of his thumb, “we always do.”

“We make a good team,” Sasori conceded, leaning back into Deidara’s arms instinctively for a moment before he realized what he was doing and stopped himself.

“We do,” Deidara agreed, and the tone of his voice was smugger than Sasori had ever heard it before, like Deidara had just won one of the most difficult battles of his life.

Chapter Text

“All art is but an imitation of nature.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

***

Present day…

Deidara had taken to soaring over the desert, sometimes for days at a time, of late. That was all right with Sasori, though, because he had more than enough work to occupy his time: three bodies to be converted into puppets, three puppets to repair, and two more to upgrade. He’d been working from dawn to dusk for the last couple of weeks.

The time spent apart was actually quite nice. Sasori was forced to grudgingly concede that he didn’t mind Deidara’s company, but two people couldn’t possibly spend all their time together and not eventually drive each other crazy, no matter how well they got along. Deidara worked well like this; he always had enough to do that he didn’t need Sasori’s constant attention. Since Sasori didn’t have that much attention to give, it all worked out.

The second time Deidara returned, however, Sasori got the clear impression that Deidara was looking for something. Deidara had been on edge that evening, and Sasori had left him alone with their maps. Sasori was pretty sure Deidara was trying to find them a hideout. If that was the case, then he wasn’t about to get within ten feet of Deidara when he was in nesting mode.

Sometimes, while Sasori worked, he’d hear a distant ‘boom,’ echoing over the desert. Deidara usually came back to their temporary cave soon after that happened. One time his entire face had been covered with soot. Sasori didn’t ask.

Things had continued that way for some time – Sasori didn’t bother to keep track of the days; his mind was occupied elsewhere – when one afternoon Deidara returned suddenly and yanked Sasori away from his work.

“Come on, I want to show you something.” Fingers tugged persistently at Sasori’s sleeve.

“I’m working,” Sasori glared up at him.

“You’re always working,” Deidara retorted. “You can spare a few hours.”

“I could spare a few hours, if you hadn’t blown half of Katsura’s chest out,” Sasori complained. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to repair these chakra pathways?”

“After he blew you halfway across that canyon, I’d think you’d be grateful that I took him out for you,” Deidara retorted, crossing his arms over his chest sullenly.

“That’s your job,” Sasori said blandly. “Now, let me finish this.”

Deidara leaned back against the cave wall and stared at Sasori while he worked.

Sasori did his best to ignore him; after all, this was a very delicate operation. He found the broken end of one vein in Katsura’s abdomen and stuck it carefully to the wooden frame he had created to replace Katsura’s exploded parts.

Deidara coughed pointedly.

Sasori found two more veins and attached them to the first one. They hadn’t fit together when Katsura was alive, but that didn’t matter to Sasori. All he needed was for Katsura’s eyes to function; the rest was irrelevant.

Across the cave, Deidara began snapping clay in his mouths…loudly.

Sasori frowned and pushed his chakra into the reunited veins. There was an answering spark in return that told him this connection was good. Only a hundred or so more to go, and he’d have enough power to try that eye technique out for himself.

“Are you done yet?”

Sasori flicked a chakra string over to Jirou to make him lash out with his scorpion tail. Deidara let out a little yelp but leapt out of the way in time. “I said I’m working,” Sasori snarled in Deidara’s direction.

“Yeesh,” Deidara grumbled. “I heard you the first time, yeah?”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Sasori retorted.

“You’re such a spoilsport. Forget I asked.” Deidara stalked out.

Sasori let out a frustrated sigh and returned to his work. He got seven more connections made before he decided he needed a break to clear his mind for a bit.

“I’ll be done this time tomorrow,” he informed Deidara, emerging from the cave to watch the sun shine high in the sky.

Deidara shrugged and returned to molding his clay.

“Whatever.” Sasori turned to go back inside. He refused to apologize.

***

Five months ago…

Thirty seconds after Sasori awoke in Hideaki’s body, he fainted. It was rather symbolic of how he felt about the whole situation, to tell the truth.

“Hey!” he heard Minoru’s voice calling far too loudly and far too close when he awoke again. “Are you all right?”

“No,” Sasori snapped. He tried to smack Minoru with his tail, and then realized that he didn’t have a tail. He didn’t have chakra strings, either. His eyelids didn’t seem to want to work. He tried to remember how he was supposed to open them and finally figured it out.

“What happened?” Minoru looked worried. “Heatstroke?”

Hideaki’s consciousness decided to swoop back in for a moment to identify the man as a friend. Sasori batted away the impulse; he didn’t have friends. He got his jaw open, tried to talk, and passed out again.

“Okay, try to breathe slowly,” Minoru was still talking when he woke up for the third time.

It took moment for Sasori to process those words. Idiot, I don’t breathe! was his first thought. Then he realized that he did have to breathe now, and – fuck – his chest wasn’t moving. He opened his mouth and force-sucked air into his lungs. It felt like a relief for a second, and then it became downright painful.

“What the hell? Stop holding your breath.” Minoru was starting to sound frustrated.

Sasori let his chest relax. The air went out. He waited until he felt a bit dizzy again, then sucked air back in. Out again, in again; out again, in again. How the hell did humans do this all day long? Sasori couldn’t remember ever having to think this much about breathing back when he was a kid.

“Feeling better?” Minoru rested a hand on Hideaki’s forehead to check his temperature. “You should probably still take the afternoon off, though. I can get Akio to cover your shift.”

Sasori found the right muscles to move his head and nodded jerkily. The movement made him dizzy in a whole different way. Apparently, moving was going to be a pain, too. He realized with growing horror that it would be months until he could transfer back into a puppet body, and he was already about to go insane from the tedium of minutes like this.

A flurry of activity surrounded him, and he couldn’t really pay attention to any of it because it was confusing enough trying to figure out what thought moved what part of the body. It wasn’t something Sasori had ever been conscious of before he’d turned himself into a puppet. He eventually got to the point where he put all his mental energy onto one limb and imagined the thought flowing down through the bones until it lifted.

He tried it on one hand and was able to raise his wrist clumsily, just as several guards hefted him onto a stretcher. He realized around the same time that he hadn’t been thinking about breathing, and yet he still hadn’t passed out. Apparently, if he didn’t think about breathing but didn’t subconsciously suppress the movement either, his body could breathe on its own. That, at least, was some limited consolation.

“We need to get him to a doctor,” Minoru continued to chatter on, still far too loud. “I think we can find—”

Sasori focused his mind on his lips, formed them into a perfect circle, and managed to grind out, “No.”

Minoru looked down at him in surprise. “Are you sure? That was a pretty nasty fall and—”

“Home,” Sasori insisted. Thankfully, talking was the easiest thing he’d done so far. It wasn’t too different from the way he made his puppets speak: control the shape of the mouth from the inside, then push wind through the throat.

“All right, we’re taking you home,” Minoru informed him, placing a hand on Sasori’s forehead again.

Sasori could feel the stretcher jostling and the sun beating down on his face. He could hear the grunts and chatter of the men and the pounding of their footsteps. The world was bright, over-vivid, and there was something cloying at his insides. It took Sasori a full two minutes to realize that the sensation was smell, and it was some sort of food coming from the stand they’d just passed. He realized, with dawning horror, that he was actually going to have to eat while in this body.

Sasori had always been afraid of death, but never because of what he thought lay beyond. Death had always been an absence of existence to him, nothing more, nothing less. Hell never even entered the equation.

In a way, that was good because, as feelings bombarded Sasori from all sides for the first time in two decades, he knew that this was what hell really was.

It was some limited consolation that, if this frail body were to die, at least the torture would end.

***

Present day…

“Hey!” Deidara protested. “No peeking!”

Sasori gritted his teeth. “This is stupid. Can I just open my eyes already?”

“No,” Deidara insisted, “it’s a surprise.”

“You’re about to be the victim of a surprise homicide,” Sasori grumbled under his breath. He continued to march forward, guided by Deidara’s hands on his shoulders. At least this was better than earlier when he’d been blindfolded and flying. Sasori wondered if Deidara was actually leading him somewhere, or if he was just seeing how long he could mess with Sasori’s head before Sasori wouldn’t take it anymore.

“We’re almost there now, I promise.” Deidara turned Sasori’s shoulders abruptly. Instead of walking upward, they were now on a level surface.

They walked a few feet, and Sasori could feel that the sun was no longer shining directly on him. “Where on earth are you taking me?”

“You’ll find out soon.” Deidara turned Sasori’s shoulders again, and they marched to the right a few feet. “Okay, stop.”

Sasori scowled and did so. “Can I take off this stupid blindfold now?”

“No. No peeking!” Deidara left Sasori for a moment, and Sasori could hear some fussing noises. Then, Deidara was standing behind him again and untying the blindfold. “Tada!” he said proudly when the dark cloth finally fell from Sasori’s eyes.

Sasori blinked. It wasn’t as bright here as it was in the middle of the desert, but it was still bright enough that it took his eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, he blinked again. “It’s a cliff,” he said disinterestedly.

“Isn’t it perfect?” Deidara beamed. He walked up to the rocky surface and ran his hands over it carefully.

Sasori looked around. High above them, the cliff jutted sharply outward, protecting this area from direct sunlight. Sasori could see that there was another cliff face opposite them. Judging by the distance, they were in a narrow wadi, fairly high up. He walked over to the edge and looked down. It was at least a hundred-foot drop. The rock they stood upon formed a little shelf along one side of the canyon, surrounded on all sides.

He turned back to Deidara. “Perfect for what?”

Deidara rolled his eyes at Sasori like he was being difficult on purpose. “Our new hideout, of course!” He stretched his arms out to encompass the whole ledge beneath the overhang. “Can’t you see it right now?”

Sasori saw a bunch of rocks and a cliff. He raised a speculative eyebrow. “It’s hard to get to,” he finally concluded.

“Which is an advantage,” Deidara insisted. “Pursuing ninjas won’t be able to get up here easily, yeah?”

“How am I supposed to get up here?” Sasori retorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t fly.”

Deidara batted a dismissive hand his way. “So you can use earth techniques or fly up with me.”

Sasori looked around again. It wasn’t a bad location, per se; he just couldn’t see why Deidara had decided that this particular cliff was better than all others. “Why this place?” he finally asked with a sigh.

Deidara grinned at that and proudly produced a map from within his cloak. He knelt down and unrolled it along the rock floor. “This,” he pointed, “is where we are.”

Sasori knelt down beside him and smirked. The spot on the map indicated nothing but open desert. “You sure about this, brat?”

“I’ve been doing aerial recon for weeks,” Deidara insisted. “It’s not on here.”

“But there’s a stream in this canyon.” Sasori considered the matter. “How could anyone making a map miss that?”

“The water bubbles up from underground, back at the source of the canyon. It’s not enough to trickle outside where anyone could see it.”

“An unmapped water source. Nice.”

Deidara rolled the map up. “What do you say, Master? Is it home?”

Sasori glanced at the cliff face. “It needs work,” he concluded.

Deidara beamed at the suggestion. That was when Sasori remembered, with sudden horror, just how much Deidara liked interior decorating.

“Help!” he whimpered to no one in particular as Deidara assaulted him with an entire armful of household floor plans.

***

Five months ago…

It should have been a relief when Sasori was finally left alone in Hideaki’s little shit hole of an apartment. At least there were no more people squawking and fussing and creating a commotion. On the other hand, Sasori was faced with an entirely new kind of torment.

Sensation was everywhere.

The floorboards squeaked every time the upstairs neighbor’s cat moved, and Sasori was pretty sure that cat knew he was down here suffering, because it moved as often as possible. The wind rustled the leaves outside and whistled through the blinds. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and it was all driving Sasori insane.

There were a million little things he’d forgotten about being human, and he was discovering all over again how he hated them all. For example, the inside of the right wrist of this body kept itching for no damned reason. Sasori glared at it, but it continued to spike with annoying feeling.

His toes felt a bit too warm under the blankets, too. Honestly, toes were one of the most worthless parts of the human body, so why on earth were they preoccupying him so much? Every few seconds or so, he’d notice another detail was slightly uncomfortable, or even comfortable, and it would cause his mind to fret until he corrected the problem. No wonder humans never got anything accomplished; they spent too much time tending to their bodies’ idiotic needs.

He sure got a lot of practice making this body shift and move over those first few hours, though. He could vaguely remember, as if through a haze, that he’d experienced something similar but in reverse when he’d first converted his body. Things had been almost too peaceful for him at first, without his body creating a myriad of distractions.

Right now, Sasori couldn’t imagine anything being too peaceful. He felt as though he was trapped within the longest, most chaotic battle of his life. Everywhere was noise: of sight, of taste, of smell, of hearing, of touch…even of mind.

The entire world was oversaturated with every kind of experience, and Sasori couldn’t shut them out, no matter how hard he tried.

When he’d been a child, Sasori had thought that being alone was the quietest thing in the whole world.

It turned out being alone was noisy, messy, and giving him a headache. Sasori wondered why he hadn’t just let himself die.

***

Present day…

Sasori focused the earth chakra into the palm of his hand and ran it over the surface of the wall. Beneath his palm, the rock face smoothed out to form a flat, even surface. It was dreadfully dull, making walls, and Sasori had been doing it all day.

Deidara was in the next room…creating the next room. As was usually the case, Sasori was good at precise control and working out the fine details; Deidara was good at massive expressions of power. That was why Deidara was digging out the rooms of their new hideout in the cliff-side, and Sasori was left to make the rooms habitable.

A loud sound of crunching and crashing sounded through the door Deidara had made deeper into the mountain. Sasori paid it no attention until an avalanche of rock shards emerged from the room, followed by a massive cloud of dust.

Sasori scowled down at where several pebbles had collided with his foot. His cloak was now dusty from the knees down.

Deidara emerged from the doorway coughing. “So, it turns out you’ve got a larger workroom than the plan said,” he offered sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. The blond hair was now long enough that it trailed down his neck. As Deidara rubbed at it, a halo of dust emerged from his hair to surround his head. He coughed more.

“Somehow, I’ll manage to survive,” Sasori said with a smirk.

Deidara glared at him, took a deep breath, and focused his chakra again. With a massive blast, he knocked all the rocks through the room and out their front door. Sasori could hear some of them clattering down the side of the cliff face outside.

“Okay,” Deidara said with a sigh, sliding to the ground against the far wall. “I think that’s it for me today. We don’t need a kitchen tonight anyway.”

Sasori winced at the thought of more deer jerky. “Or windows,” he added snidely.

Deidara scowled up at him.

Sasori smirked back.

If Deidara was to be believed, the entire village of Iwa suffered from a bizarre affliction where they thought windows should be narrow, horizontal rectangles high up by the ceiling. Sasori, having grown up in a civilized place, knew that windows should be round and low to the ground.

They’d spent most of the afternoon arguing over window shapes, and Deidara had eventually come to the conclusion that Sasori wasn’t going to let him have his way on this point.

“Toss me the water, yeah?” Deidara finally said wearily.

Sasori finished off the wall he’d been working on and picked up both their canteens. Sand and gravel crunched beneath his feet as he made his way over to Deidara; there was a reason he hadn’t bothered finishing off the floors while Deidara was still ‘excavating.’

“Here.” Sasori thrust Deidara’s canteen out towards him.

Deidara took it gratefully and drank deep while Sasori sat down beside him. “It’s coming along nicely, yeah?” he finally said happily.

Sasori grunted. They had shelter for the evening; that was good enough. They’d have to make quite a few purchases – or thefts – for the place to look like an actual home, though. “Do you have enough chakra to fly still?” he asked.

Deidara nodded. “Why?”

“I want to move my puppets as quickly as possible. Two of the bodies are still human enough that they can’t fit in scrolls.”

“We can do that next,” Deidara agreed. “I think there were some rugs in the stuff we stole from that first caravan. I know there were a couple of lanterns. This place will need a bit of light this evening, yeah? And we can’t have a fire indoors.”

“Whatever you want.” Sasori really didn’t want to discuss these things.

“We’ll have to go into town at some point, so I can find parts to build a generator,” Deidara continued. “And we’ll need furniture, too. Most of the nice stuff won’t be on caravans. Ooh! And curtains!”

Sasori smacked him in the stomach and got up.

“Hey, what was that for?”

“If you have enough energy to babble, you have enough energy to help me fetch my puppets.” Sasori tapped his foot impatiently.

“Yeesh, fine. Bitchy, bitchy,” Deidara grumbled. He followed Sasori outside and created a vulture for them to fly out back to their old camp. “Hold on tight,” he teased, looping an arm around Sasori’s waist. His hand slipped down just a little bit lower than was appropriate and half squeezed Sasori’s ass.

Sasori was pretty sure he was being molested on purpose. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he asked, raising an imperious eyebrow.

Deidara’s grin was much too wide; no way had the grope been an accident. “Testing my boundaries,” was Deidara’s cheeky reply. He returned his hand to its proper place on Sasori’s hip.

“Brat,” Sasori sighed.

They took off together over the canyon.

***

Five months ago…

Hideaki was ‘out sick’ for a grand total of eight days. Sasori actually had been sick several of those days. He’d developed a terrible fever and couldn’t stop shaking. It seemed that Hideaki’s body was trying to fend off Sasori’s invading cells like a virus. It was pathetic, really, that a mere immune system was trying to take Sasori on. He had defeated it ruthlessly, replacing the DNA in those cells with his own first. It was still annoying, though.

He’d suffered from dehydration and hunger during his sickness, though. He knew this body needed food and water, but he was terrible at gauging how much. It reminded him of that one time Deidara had bought a houseplant, and Sasori had managed to kill it in two days. Even Deidara had been in awe of his incredible ability to misjudge water and plant food.

He finally got into a system where he drank a glass of tap water every four hours and ate a meal every eight. It was a stupid schedule to remember, but it seemed to be keeping him alive so far.

Food had been something of a mystery to him. Hideaki had had some sushi, but by the time Sasori thought to eat, it smelled a bit foul. Sasori wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to smell like that or not, but he didn’t take any risks.

That was when he found the protein bars in Hideaki’s cabinet. They were designed for ninja on long missions, and Sasori remembered that they provided at least enough nutrients to keep a human alive indefinitely.

He’d bought a dozen boxes at the market the next day.

All in all, he’d been feeling well enough to move around on the fifth day, he’d left the apartment for the first time on the sixth, and on the seventh Sasori thought that maybe he would survive this ordeal, after all. He still hated it, though.

On the eighth day – the last day before he returned to acting out the monotony of Hideaki’s daily life – he composed a message to Deidara:

To: Nijuuni Deidara. Ame, Rain Country
From: Shuriken Emporiums Home Office. Hisoka, Tea Country

Looking for great deals on quality weapons? Come, visit our stores in 46 convenient locations throughout the 5 Shinobi Nations! We have the best deals around!

It was the sort of pointless junk mail that every ninja got daily, and thus it was the perfect prearranged signal. The message was deciphered by two points: the return address, and the first word in the second sentence. It was so brief and to the point that it was practically indecipherable: “Hisoka, Tea Country. Come.” Pain could examine the blasted thing with his Rin’negan all day, and he wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from any other junk mail.

Sasori tore off the bottom left-hand corner – the signal of authenticity – and then examined his message. To tell the truth, he’d never quite believed this day would come. He’d made his offer to Deidara on an impulse, and although they hadn’t spoken about it in years, it had weighed heavily on Sasori’s mind on more than one occasion.

Deidara was, above all else, an annoying brat. He was loud and flirtatious and always blowing something up. More often than not, he was a nuisance.

It also hadn’t really occurred to Sasori how much he was risking, contacting Deidara. Their signal was subtle, but not perfect. For all he knew, Pain had Zetsu scouted out every single location they got mail from. Who knew how paranoid the Akatsuki leader really was? If Sasori was found now, he was as good as dead.

He left the letter on the table that night before he went to bed. He left it again the next morning when he went to work for the first time.

Whatever he chose to do, it wasn’t a decision to be made lightly.

***

Present day…

They finally arrived back at their new home after the sun had set. Deidara went inside and began lighting lamps; Sasori had to admit that the depth of the crevasse was good for concealing the light from the outside world.

He stayed out on the natural cliff ledge and tended to his works-in-progress. They’d had to move Katsura and Mikazuki on two separate trips, and both moves had been delicate. Katsura was still in critical condition – or as critical a condition as a puppet could be in – and Sasori checked all the chakra paths he’d reconnected so far, satisfied that he could take a break and continue to work on Katsura in the morning.

Finally, he returned to their house in the cliff face to discover that Deidara had been redecorating. Specifically, Deidara had furnished half the place. Sasori blinked slowly at the sight of shelves, a low table, and a large box of kitchenware in one corner. Deidara was humming to himself in the bedroom.

Sasori nervously peeked inside to find Deidara unrolling their old futon from Hideaki’s place. “You brought this all with you,” he said in disbelief.

“Well, yeah.” Deidara brushed his hands off on his cloak. “What do you think? It’s not bad for a start, and we’ll need a bigger bed at some point, but—”

“Deidara?” Sasori cut him off.

“Yeah?”

How did you bring all this stuff with you?”

“Oh, easy. In scrolls.”

Sasori’s eye twitched. “How many scrolls did you bring?”

“Only three,” Deidara insisted.

“Three?” Sasori repeated incredulously.

“Of course, two of those scrolls were filled with other scrolls, and a couple of those were filled with other scrolls, too.”

Sasori gaped.

“What?” Deidara demanded.

“You,” Sasori said wearily, “are insane.”

The next morning, though, when Sasori woke up on a soft mattress, he was the last one to complain. Until, of course, he realized that he’d spooned up behind Deidara in his sleep and had wrapped his limbs all around the brat.

“Bah!” he complained, getting up.

It was nice to be home.

Chapter Text

“To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to do.” – Kahlil Gibran

***

Present day…

A puppeteer grew stronger the more puppets he controlled and the finer quality those puppets were. Sasori now had eight puppets, including Jirou. Seven of those were of the highest quality, now that he’d finally completed his work. He tried not to think too much about Ginzou.

It was still only the beginning of a collection, though, and if Sasori wanted to regain his lost strength, he needed an elite army at his hands.

Deidara just really wanted to blow things up. Sometimes it amazed Sasori how their goals converged, even on issues where they had absolutely nothing in common.

Sasori spun Yajima through the village, the blades on his twelve arms twirling madly as he did so. Various civilians ran through the streets screaming, although not, to Sasori’s disgust, in a way that particularly avoided Yajima’s path. It somehow lessened the excitement of the kill when his prey ran straight into his blades.

On the far side of the village, an explosion sounded, and suddenly several tall buildings erupted into flames. There was no way that had gone unnoticed. Sasori had to hand it to Deidara: the man might have been useless when it came to stealth, but he was spectacular at attracting attention when they needed it.

“I found a furniture store!” Deidara announced gleefully over the wireless.

Sasori rolled his eyes, and Kousei blew flames down the street. “How wonderful,” he said in the driest voice he could manage.

“They have bed frames!” Deidara sounded like a kid in a candy store.

“We’re here to destroy this place, not shop!” Sasori snapped back at him. Jirou skittered up onto a rooftop and then leapt down, on all eight legs, right in the middle of a group of schoolchildren. They all screamed at the top of their lungs and ran around wildly, arms flailing over their heads. It was actually kind of fun.

“But we need a new bedroom set!” Deidara complained. “Ooh! Loveseats!”

“Why aren’t you blowing things up?” Sasori complained. It wasn’t a question he had to ask Deidara often.

“Okay, don’t hate me for this, Master, but I’m getting us a new bedroom set. And maybe a living room one, too…”

A few absentminded booms sounded across town. Sasori didn’t even bother to ask, because of course Deidara had bought scrolls to shop with. He’d been bringing them everywhere lately. The man was a menace to retailers all throughout the Storm Country, and not in the way Sasori needed him to be.

“Just hurry up. If I have to save your ass, you’ll regret it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry. My ass is yours.” That last bit was mumbled, but that’s what Sasori heard.

“What?” he exclaimed. Kousei let off another fireball, and this time it was blocked. Instantly, all of Sasori’s attention focused on the new enemy.

“Oh, shit. Enemy engaged!” Deidara announced suddenly over the intercom. “And I got us some bathroom stuff, too, for when I get the well working.”

Only Deidara could accessorize while fighting enemy ninja. Sasori chose to ignore his partner. It was usually the best way to stay sane.

The four ninja before him were all chuunin. Sasori frowned as he tasted their chakra in the morning breeze. They seemed to be a tracking team, not particularly powerful. Still, they were useful to Sasori.

“Stop right there.” The leader of the group was a man with midnight blue skin and shockingly red hair. He was the strangest-looking individual Sasori had seen since Zetsu.

“I don’t take orders from you, brat,” Sasori said through Kousei’s newly-functional mouth.

None of the chuunin took their eyes from Jirou; they could all sense where the real enemy was. With that, they all passed Sasori’s test.

“Very soon, however,” Sasori continued, speaking through Jirou now, “you’ll be taking orders from me.”

He opened Jirou’s mouth wide, unhinged his jaw, and shot a barrage of poisoned senbon at the unsuspecting chuunin.

***

Five months ago…

Sasori stared at Hideaki’s face in the mirror. Hideaki stared back at him, a strange and alien reflection. Sasori shook his head, sat down, and returned to meditating. It was slow and painstaking work forcing himself into Hideaki’s cells one at a time, but this was the fastest way to spread the change throughout Hideaki’s body. Now that Hideaki’s immune system was almost entirely Sasori’s own, he no longer faced any resistance and could focus on other areas.

He was working on the heart now because, ultimately, that was the area that needed to be the purest. Cell by cell, he pushed himself into existence and Hideaki into oblivion. It was a tedious task that would take months.

It gave him some time to think, though, and Sasori couldn’t tell if that was good or bad yet. Nearly all his thoughts of late were preoccupied by everything that was wrong with having a human body. His feet hurt, and his eyes got tired, and sometimes he got the hiccups, and once he’d accidentally swallowed a bug. Being human was the most undignified thing he could ever imagine.

He let the most trivial annoyances go now, however, and focused on the larger ones: he was human, which meant he was weak and useless. If he was to survive, he had to become strong again. For Sasori, strength had always come from his puppets.

He couldn’t help the fact that he was human at the moment, even though he despised it. What he missed the most after that, he finally decided, was Hiruko. He missed the safety of knowing that any attack would bounce harmlessly off his defensive puppet, while Sasori remained unharmed inside. If Sasori had another carapace now, he’d still be weak, but he wouldn’t be too weak.

With a sigh, he finished his meditation for the morning and prepared to go to work. His letter to Deidara remained on the kitchen counter, almost forgotten.

He kept an eye out for potential carapaces at work that day. Most of the inhabitants of Hisoka had to leave the town at some point or another, so Sasori got to see them all. It was good to have something to focus on for once. He needed to find a large man – big enough to house his body with a bit of wiggle room – and he needed someone who wouldn’t be missed if he disappeared.

The first three potential carapaces he saw were discarded for the latter reason; they were with families who would raise a fuss. Traders and other wandering merchants would be a better bet.

It wasn’t until the end of his shift that anything sparked his interest. An old cobbler hobbled into town, his stomach as big as a beach ball. Sasori perked up at his post and, in Hideaki’s most official voice, demanded to see the man’s ID.

The man produced it without question. Something inside Sasori tingled at the thought. Prey was always most exciting in that last moment before it knew it was hunted.

“Thank you,” Hideaki said politely, beckoning the man into Hisoka and his death.

Unaware, the man entered the gates.

“Jirou,” Sasori whispered the name he’d read on the ID once the man was gone. “My new carapace is Jirou…”

***

Present day…

Sasori surveyed the four fallen chuunin. All had patches identifying them as ninja from Irihi, the same as the last batch Sasori had turned. Irihi was to the south and west, right along the coast. It was the closest hidden village to his and Deidara’s new home, and if things kept up this way, they’d probably have the whole village breathing down their necks.

That part didn’t bother Sasori too much; he was reasonably certain he could handle whatever ANBU were sent their way. He did like to have variety in his puppets, however. At some point, he’d have to expand his hunt. He didn’t even know what bloodline limits were available to him in this country…

Something very loud was still happening on the other side of town. Sasori recognized Deidara’s explosions, but for some reason there was a lot of tinkling, as if from bells. Either Deidara was raiding a music shop, or one of the Irihi ninja was using sound techniques.

Normally, Sasori would’ve left Deidara alone; his partner was more than capable of handling himself in battle. In case of emergency, Deidara could always contact him over the wireless. A ninja with sound techniques might mean that such a cry for help wouldn’t make it through, however. Grudgingly, he activated Fumimaru’s camouflage technique and sent him off to check up on Deidara.

The rest of his puppets, he returned to his scrolls. All except…

“You better not toy with me this time,” he informed Ginzou as he pulled the last puppet from his scroll.

Ginzou appeared before him, looking round, jolly, and entirely unrepentant. Ginzou had looked round, jolly, and unrepentant when he’d been alive, too. He was a fat nobleman that Sasori and Deidara had captured in their second raid. He hadn’t gotten out of his palanquin the entire battle, even when the four porters that had been carrying him had fallen. When Sasori had finally yanked open the doors, the man had had the gall to give him directions to where he was supposed to be going.

Sasori had taken great pleasure in transforming Ginzou into a capture puppet. Ginzou took great pleasure, in return, in being as difficult as possible.

Warily, Sasori flipped open Ginzou’s hatch. The puppet wobbled a bit on its rounded rear, but didn’t do anything too disobedient yet. Sasori began loading the poisoned chuunin into the compartment inside. Ginzou was actually quite roomy – easily three times the size of Jirou – but Sasori wouldn’t trust the puppet with his own body in a million years.

A few more explosions sounded across town as Sasori stored the chuunin for later use. He suddenly felt the chakra strings he’d put in Fumimaru snap, and he turned in alarm, only to see a giant clay pelican rise into the sky with a majestic flap of its wings. It turned in Sasori’s direction and swooped down.

“Oh, Master,” Deidara cooed, “I didn’t know you cared.”

Deidara dropped Fumimaru to the ground at Sasori’s feet, a tangled heap of oddly-angled limbs. Sasori grunted. He should’ve known that Deidara was the only one capable of locating and disabling Fumimaru so quickly.

“What did you bring me?” Sasori asked instead.

Deidara leapt down off his pelican and snapped his fingers. Its mouth opened to reveal a jounin and two chuunin inside. “Happy birthday, Master.”

Sasori swatted Deidara with his tail for the cheeky tone. “That’s seven for this raid.”

“Add the eight you have now, and you’ve got—”

“Fifteen.” Sasori sighed. It generally took a few large-scale attacks before they even drew any attention from the neighboring shinobi villages. At this rate, it would take him an annoyingly long time to build up a good collection. “Let’s go.” He closed the hatch on Ginzou.

Ginzou promptly toppled over and rolled down the hill straight out the front gate of the village before crashing into a large boulder.

Deidara and Sasori blinked as they watched him go.

“He really does hate you…” Deidara finally breathed in disbelief.

Sasori rolled his eyes and trudged off after his errant puppet. “Come on, brat. I’ve got a real mission for us this time. It’s time for me to go shopping.”

Deidara padded along beside him, his clay pelican following obediently.

Sasori glared at him, then at Ginzou, just for good measure.

***

Five months ago…

It was a still night in Hisoka. The wind whispered through the leaves, the crickets chirped, and every so often an owl would hoot in the distance.

All the inhabitants of the village’s largest inn had thrown their windows open to welcome the pleasant night air. The high heat of summer would be arriving soon, and these last few beautiful nights were meant to be enjoyed.

At the back corner of the building, however, something strange happened. The man inhabiting the room on the ground floor became aware of a strange silence. He frowned for a moment, unable to place what was wrong. A shinobi would have been aware of all his surroundings and would instantly have realized what had changed. This man, however, was a simple craftsman, and it took him a moment to put a finger on what was bothering him:

Outside, the crickets had suddenly stopped chirping.

Cautiously, he approached the window, pushing back the hanging curtains. It was pitch-black outside. The back of the inn opened onto a small courtyard, with the south wall of Hisoka at its far end. There were no streetlamps here in order to give the lodgers a better night’s rest.

He couldn’t see a thing, but a vague sense of uneasiness filled him. It was a vestige of the senses shinobi honed and refined until they could sense when even a single leaf was amiss. The man didn’t know anything about that, but he knew to trust that instinct.

He closed his windows and bolted the lock on them. It was mostly a symbolic gesture since the flimsy tab of metal wasn’t strong enough to keep any real danger out. It helped the man feel more secure, though.

It also prevented him from hearing the struggle when upstairs, in the room just above his, Sasori captured Jirou.

***

Present day…

In the desert, the night often seemed more alive than the day. Animals that wilted under the blazing sun came out to hunt, and the landscape was transformed into an intricate dance between predator and prey.

Even though the hidden village of Hinoiri was near the coast, where a thin line of rich forests circled the western edge of the Storm Country, its night guards had learned the truths of the desert well and were on sharp alert. They didn’t expect any particular attack, however. While Irihi seemed to be caught up in a minor war with a group of raiders – or, as some insisted it must be, an entire crime syndicate – down to the southwest, Hinoiri hadn’t experienced any unusual incidents…until tonight.

A white desert swallow circled overhead, mirroring the erratic flight patterns of the other night birds hunting insects. Of course, if anyone looked at this bird too closely, they’d notice that it was too large and too pale, but no one seemed to have spotted the incongruity yet.

Sasori clung to Deidara’s waist, his cheek pressed firmly against the back of Deidara’s shoulder and his eyes shut tight. The jerky motions were making him a bit queasy, to tell the truth, but it was necessary if Deidara didn’t want to repeat the mistakes he’d made when invading Suna.

Finally, Deidara had circled enough that he found where he wanted to set down, and they jerked downwards abruptly. Sasori could feel Deidara’s short hair blowing against his face as they dropped. It was soft as silk, yet managed to whip him with its erratic flicks at the same time.

He gave Deidara an annoyed shove in retaliation as soon as they’d landed. Deidara grinned back at him unrepentantly.

They scattered immediately to opposite ends of the rooftop and tasted the chakra in the night air to find out if they’d been spotted yet. Sasori didn’t sense anything threatening. He turned to Deidara, who shook his head, his scope zooming in and out over the rooftops as he did so.

They might have just succeeded in a stealthy infiltration. With Deidara, that was a small miracle in and of itself.

The villages in the Storm Country didn’t have a Kage, but they were still organized on a hierarchical system, and the general at the top went by the title of Sousui. Hinoiri’s Sousui was housed in the administrative district near the center of the village. Sasori and Deidara only had to cover a dozen or so rooftops before they reached their target.

Of course, those rooftops became more cleverly defended the closer they got to the Sousui’s building. Sasori landed on a wall that had an anti-chakra jutsu on it and almost lost his footing; a lesser ninja would have fallen and alerted the enemy to their presence.

Several buildings to his left, Sasori could see that Deidara had slowed down his advance as well. At least he was being appropriately cautious. Less than a dozen yards ahead, guards were posted on the rooftops around the Sousui’s sanctuary. Sasori double-checked that his chakra was perfectly suppressed. He couldn’t feel Deidara either, except through that familiarity that had grown between them after nine years as partners.

Two senbon whistled through the air towards the nearest guards. Both struck right in the throat, instantly disabling the men’s ability to speak. Sasori leapt onto the rooftop and snapped their necks before they could raise the alarm another way. He took a moment to create a quick genjutsu, hiding the bodies from the other guards. It wouldn’t cover them indefinitely, but it would hopefully buy them another few minutes.

He hoped Deidara had found a way to disable the guards at his position without resorting to noisy explosions; even his C-1 spiders were enough to draw attention this deep into the hidden village. Thankfully, he didn’t hear a peep from Deidara’s direction. Maybe the brat finally really had learned some subtlety.

After the first line of guards, Sasori had an open path on the rooftops to the Sousui’s library. It looked too good to be true; in Sasori’s life, that inevitably meant that it was too good to be true.

He slipped his puppet scroll from its sheath along his wrist. Fumimaru was his stealth puppet now, so he was the first puppet on the scroll. Sasori summoned him with the minimal amount of chakra needed. Hopefully, it would be mistaken for one of the guards’.

Chakra strings, he’d learned to create without being detected at all. Fumimaru shifted into camouflage mode and approached the main complex.

Just as Sasori had suspected, he caught a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye. The regular guards were just chuunin; the ANBU kept themselves perfectly concealed behind the main lines. Two of them crept in on Fumimaru’s position as he watched; a third ANBU was watching him, but Sasori couldn’t quite detect where the enemy had hidden himself in the shadows.

The sense of being found out vanished with a bang, and a bright spark of an explosion lit up the night for a second from behind a nearby chimney. Deidara had found Sasori’s missing ANBU.

Sasori extended his senses and felt another four ANBU were on Deidara’s trail. The other two had already engaged Fumimaru. Sasori and Deidara hadn’t thought they’d be able to get much deeper into fortified enemy territory without being detected, and at this point Sasori was still free to act without enemy opposition. It was actually one of the better case scenarios they’d planned for.

“I’m going in,” Sasori whispered over the intercom and dove for the Sousui’s library.

Deidara responded by letting off a series of explosions that would attract every ANBU in a five mile radius. Fortunately, he was far enough from Sasori that none of those ANBU were crossing his path.

Sasori landed on a high windowsill and could see the library floor far below him on the inside. It was a high-vaulted room, with windows above to let in light. Sasori slipped a chakra string through a crack in the window frame and opened it from the inside. Unnoticed due to Deidara’s growing battle with the ANBU, he slipped inside.

He kept the chakra pressure on his feet slow and even, so that he finally landed without a sound. Shelves of scrolls and books surrounded him, and he grimaced. It would take him some time to find what he was looking for. He hoped Deidara could keep the enemy distracted long enough.

Sasori still had two chakra strings on Fumimaru, keeping him in the battle. The rest he used for his other puppets – sans Ginzou, of course. A dozen pairs of eyes were better than one, after all.

They each took a row, scanning for the information he needed. It was actually quite easy this way; Sasori had long since learned how to perfectly split his attention between multiple puppets, so that didn’t slow him down in the slightest.

Haya finally found the section he needed on her third shelf. Sasori sent Kousei and Mikazuki to guard the door and went to explore Haya’s discovery.

The villages of the Storm Country had all been to war with each other on a dozen occasions. That was probably why Fumimaru’s camouflage technique wasn’t working on the ANBU; they knew of the enemy village’s technique and were trained to fight against it.

The source of their knowledge was before Sasori now. Files and scrolls of all the intelligence acquired on the enemy villages lined the shelf. There was information on bloodline limits there, secret techniques, attacks and counterattacks. Sasori took everything he could and threw it into the bag Haya held. Everything he needed to build the strongest puppet army possible was in those scrolls.

“Huh,” a quiet voice cut off his work.

Sasori spun suddenly, senbon in hand, to face the enemy. The man couldn’t have gotten past his guards on the door, so there must have been a secret entrance to this room somewhere. If anyone knew of such an entrance, it would be the enemy now before Sasori; the insignia of Hinoiri and the Sousui were clear on the shoulder of his robe.

“I didn’t expect you to be a kid,” the Sousui finally said, contemplating Sasori.

He was a man in his fifties with graying reddish hair and the beginnings of a belly. Sasori could feel by his chakra that he was easily a jounin, ANBU-level at least, but not nearly as powerful as a Kage of the world they’d left behind. He wasn’t as powerful as either of the S-Class criminals who had invaded his village, either.

Sasori kept on guard, but he wasn’t alarmed. One-on-one, he could defeat this man in battle.

“But then,” the Sousui said slowly, almost lazily, “you’re not really a kid, are you?” He frowned at Sasori, as if he was the most puzzling thing the Sousui had ever seen. “You’re something different.”

Sasori had Haya tie the bag of stolen scrolls closed. “Don’t try to stop me,” he warned emotionlessly.

The Sousui nodded slowly. “Ah, so you are foreigners.” He commented on Sasori’s accent. “We don’t get many foreign ninja this far south, so you must be the ones who have been giving our sister village down south so much trouble.” He smirked to himself like the notion pleased him inwardly. “They said there was an entire army of you.”

Sasori snorted.

“I’m required by treaty, of course, to aid Irihi in apprehending bandits,” Sousui said with a sigh, pulling a kunai from the waistband of his robes.

Sasori stiffened in response, and he pulled on Katsura’s strings until the boy was poised on top of the bookshelf right over the Sousui. This battle would be over very quickly, indeed.

“But it seems that, in my forgetful old age, I rushed in unarmed.” The Sousui pointedly dropped his kunai onto the nearest shelf. “Senility will do that to you, you know?”

Sasori quirked an eyebrow. No matter what grudge the Sousui had against Irihi, Sasori was still taking valuable information that Hinoiri would need in battle.

“We have back-ups, of course,” the Sousui smiled brightly as he answered Sasori’s unspoken question. He glanced up to see Katsura hovering over him. “Hmm… Mahiru Clan. Yes, feel free to do anything to them that you like. It seems I went down the wrong aisle and let the enemy escape. If you’ll excuse me? It’s been delightful talking with you.”

Sasori had, of course, only said five words. Bemused, he watched the other man turn the corner. Then he shook his head and called his puppets back together. They exited the same way they came in.

“Took you long enough!” Deidara snapped, hair plastered to his head with sweat. He’d taken to the air and was weaving in and out of ANBU attacks on another clay swallow.

Sasori leapt into the air, and Deidara swooped in to catch him on the swallow’s back. A lightning jutsu missed them by mere inches as Deidara jerked the bird’s flight back into the other direction just in time. Sasori jostled against Deidara’s chest as he did so, and he noticed a faint blush on his partner’s cheeks.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sasori demanded.

Deidara grimaced. “Hold on.” He focused his concentration and led them toward the outer wall in a fantastic pattern of loops and twirls.

Sasori wondered if he was imagining it that the ANBU chased after them just a bit less enthusiastically than they should have.

***

Five months ago…

Sasori collapsed, panting against the wall of the cave, when he finally had Jirou in place on his operating table. His lungs felt like they were burning, he was dripping with sweat, and all his muscles were exhausted. All that, and he hadn’t even starting converting Jirou yet. This human body was weaker than even he’d imagined.

He didn’t have any time to waste, though. His paralytic wasn’t refined yet, and he needed to get Jirou’s heart out of his body before it wore off. Ignoring his aching limbs, Sasori pushed off from the wall and approached his newest puppet.

His fingers shook as he unsheathed his scalpel and opened Jirou’s shirt to make his first incision. There was absolutely no reason why they should. He’d done this before hundreds of times, but for some reason this time felt different.

At the first cut, a line of red blood welled forth. Sasori felt his breath catch in his throat. The part of him that still had Hideaki’s impulses was repulsed at the sight; the part of him that was Sasori felt like himself again for the first time since he’d awoken in this body. He grabbed the saw and cut deeper.

About halfway through Sasori opening up his chest, Jirou woke up. The look of horror on the man’s face was something Sasori wouldn’t forget, and his screams were loud enough that they hurt Sasori’s ears as they resonated through the cave.

Even sliced open and half-dismembered, the man tried to fight him. It seemed that his terror lent him inhuman strength.

Sasori struggled against him, fingers slippery with blood until finally he banged Jirou’s head hard enough against the table that there was a loud thud and an unpleasant squelching sound. Jirou went limp on the table, and his heartbeat turned erratic.

Fingers sliding clumsily over the organ, Sasori finally caught hold of his heart and pulled it from his chest. Instantly, the seals around the table activated, stabilizing it for the moment. Sasori breathed a sigh of relief when the most difficult task was finally over.

He sat back down against the wall then, wiping at the sweat on his forehead with hands still sticky with blood. He could see the red out of the corner of his eyes. It was almost like having red hair again.

Sasori watched Jirou’s body, following the chakra lines inside him with a practiced eye. He could already see where he was going to carve, where Jirou’s carapace would need wood reinforcements, how he’d cut the features of his puppet’s mouth. He smiled softly as his vision took hold and he made art for the first time as a human in almost twenty years.

That night, when he returned home to Hideaki’s apartment, he frowned when he noticed the half-forgotten message to Deidara on the counter. For the first time, he really regretted not being able to share his success. The next day, he’d go in to work, and no one would have the slightest clue that he’d created a masterpiece in blood the night before. The thought displeased him. After all, art was meant to be shared.

With a self-satisfied smirk, he slipped Deidara’s summons into the outgoing mail the very next morning.

***

Present day…

“I almost think the information that the Sousui are willing to look the other way as long as we’re attacking their enemies is the most valuable thing we found out,” Deidara commented, glancing through one of the scrolls they’d acquired.

“Mmm,” Sasori agreed with a lazy yawn. He felt unusually tired all of a sudden, and the queen-sized bed Deidara had acquired for them was almost too comfortable.

“Hey, check this out,” Deidara said, sounding endlessly energetic and cheerful. “This Clan can convert inanimate objects into pure chakra.”

Sasori scootched over to peer at the scroll over his shoulder. “It looks like they seal their abilities, though.” He yawned again. “I don’t want another disappointment like that time I tried to make a puppet with Byakugan.”

“Hmm,” Deidara read further down. “Well, how about this one, yeah?”

“’S good.” Sasori’s eyelids suddenly felt impossibly heavy. With a final yawn, he stretched out right where he was. His head landed on something warm and firm, and a part of him realized that it was Deidara’s lap. A larger part of him didn’t care and just wanted to get some sleep.

“’Night-’night, Master,” Deidara said softly, trailing his fingers through Sasori’s hair.

“Mmm,” he murmured in acknowledgement.

Chapter Text

“Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

***

Present day…

The morning after Sasori fell asleep in Deidara’s lap, he didn’t wake up. He didn’t wake up that afternoon, either, and it wasn’t until evening that his eyelids finally flickered open, and he realized that something was wrong.

“Shh, hey, it’s okay.” A glass of water was pressed almost instantly to his lips. “Drink this.”

Instinctively, Sasori jerked his head away.

“It’s me, Master. You’re dehydrated, come on…”

Sasori recognized Deidara’s voice through the haze and the pounding in his head. He held the glass between sweaty palms and drank deep. Until the liquid touched his lips, he hadn’t realized how thirsty he’d been. He drank the entire glass down greedily.

“Mmm… Deidara?” he said wearily. His head still felt foggy.

“I’m right here.” Deidara took the glass from him, and his free hand brushed Sasori’s forehead. “Your fever’s lower than it was this afternoon.” The palm puckered to press a chaste kiss to his temple. “Hopefully, it’ll stay down now, yeah?”

“’m sick?” Sasori muttered.

“Yeah. You had some nasty chills this morning. I can’t tell if they did something to you in Hinoiri or…”

Sasori’s brain finally fit all the pieces together. “No,” he replied. “’s natural.”

“Part of the resurrection process?” Deidara asked lightly.

Sasori coughed and tried to sit up. Deidara’s hands caught his shoulders and carefully guided him to the pile of pillows stacked up behind his head. Sasori slumped back against them in relief. “It happened before, when I awoke in Hideaki.” He yawned. “Too few of my cells, and too many of his. His immune system tried to get rid of me. Beat it, though…” Already, his eyelids were drooping again.

“This time it’s the reverse,” Deidara concluded. “Only a little bit of Hideaki is left. This fever will kill off the last of him, and then it will be only my Master Sasori left.”

Sasori grumbled. “Fever’s horrible. Don’t know how humans do it,” he sighed, closing his eyelids just for a minute.

“Well, after this, you can convert your body back into a puppet, yeah?” Deidara said cheerfully. “You won’t have to worry about getting sick ever again.”

“Good.” Sasori was just resting his eyelids, really. It wasn’t like he was falling back to sleep…

***

When Sasori woke up this time, his head felt much clearer. He was still groggy, but he could form coherent thoughts now. More importantly, he didn’t feel like immediately falling asleep again.

He cracked open his eyes and found the alarm clock by the side of the bed. It was just after noon. That meant that he’d slept the whole night through and the morning as well. Rubbing at the unpleasant crust around his eyes, he sat up and glanced around the bedroom.

The armchair beside the bed had a tray with several damp cloths and a thermometer on it. There was also a full water glass for Sasori, and he drank it all, remembering how much better it had made him feel last time. By the time he was done, he felt almost human again which, for Sasori, wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“Only a few more days,” he reminded himself. That was how long the fever had lasted last time, so at least Sasori could count down until this would end. He couldn’t even imagine how he’d done this alone the first time, back when he’d still been hazy on the details like ‘remember to eat and drink.’ It was a lot less stressful now, with Deidara to make sure he survived the ordeal.

Speaking of Deidara… Sasori’s partner was nowhere in sight. It was obviously a temporary absence, though, since several of the scrolls they’d stolen were strewn out on Deidara’s desk in the corner. The chair was half pushed out, as if something had distracted Deidara but he planned to return any minute.

Sasori curled up against the pillows and waited. His stomach was starting to grumble.

As if on cue, Deidara stepped into the bedroom, carrying a small tray. He set it down on his desk before he noticed that Sasori was watching him with bleary eyes.

“You’re awake.” The tray instantly came off of Deidara’s desk and moved to Sasori’s bedside. “Here, eat this.” Deidara handed him a bowl of miso soup.

It was the best thing Sasori had ever tasted. He fell upon it ravenously, while Deidara nibbled at a bowl of sticky rice. A part of Sasori was aware that it was Deidara’s lunch that he was devouring, but he didn’t care. Besides, Deidara could always make more later.

Sasori finally finished the soup with a contented sigh and held out the empty bowl. Deidara took it from his hands and set it on the nightstand.

“Drink more water,” Deidara instructed, handing Sasori his glass.

Sasori didn’t object.

When he was done, Deidara took the glass from him and checked his temperature again. “I think the worst of it is over.”

“Good.” Sasori sighed and lay back down. “I’ll be glad to get into a puppet body again.” He curled on his side, his back to Deidara. He shivered in response when fingers gently stroked the line of his spine.

“How long did the fever last when you woke up in Hideaki?” Deidara asked.

Sasori tensed, and Deidara stopped in mid-stroke in response. “That’s none of your business, brat,” he snapped.

Deidara sighed and pulled his hand away. He didn’t move, though, and Sasori tried not to squirm while Deidara stayed perfectly silent but annoyingly present behind him.

“I’m not him,” Deidara finally said in a low voice. He rose to his feet and then said more brightly, “You need your sleep, yeah?” He headed for the door.

Sasori felt his heart pounding, panicky at Deidara’s words. “Deidara?” he got out right as Deidara reached the door.

Deidara’s fingers curved around the whitewashed frame. “Yeah, Sasori?” he said blankly, facing away. The use of Sasori’s name without his usual epithet was telling.

“I…” Sasori had no idea what to say, or even why he’d stopped Deidara in the first place. “Never mind.”

Deidara nodded once, as if affirming something to himself, and then he was gone.

Sasori gazed into space in the direction of the door for some time. ‘I’m not him.’ Deidara’s words seemed to ring in his ears. The implications made Sasori vaguely queasy.

He’d never told Deidara about how he’d originally stored his back-up in another body. He also had never mentioned that Orochimaru had used that knowledge to try to kill him once and for all. The way Deidara said ‘I’m not him,’ though, implied that he knew.

A part of Sasori was panicking at the notion. The last time his partner had learned of his resurrection, he’d almost ended up dead.

Another part of Sasori was almost impossibly calm with the idea.

The two halves warred with each other in a chaotic, headache-inducing way for some time, and Sasori was pretty sure that it was the fever rising again. Eventually, he fell into the relief of sleep once again.

***

“We need to talk.”

Sasori groaned and rolled away from where Deidara sat in bed beside him. “G’way,” he muttered into his pillow. Unfortunately, he was awake now. Deidara must have been sitting there for hours, waiting for Sasori to wake up so that he could deliver his ultimatum. Sasori felt around in his bedside drawer for a senbon.

“I moved your weapons, yeah? It’s easier to talk this way.”

Sasori affixed Deidara with a glare that could bring enemies to their knees…just so long as it wasn’t delivered over a pillow. Sasori figured he was probably the opposite of menacing right then. His hair still clung to his forehead with sweat, and he felt weak and tired.

“Don’t scowl at me like that,” Deidara continued. “I know you like to play the game where we don’t tell each other anything, so we have to figure each other out on our own. For the most part, I’m fine with that. But this is important, and we need to talk about it.”

“It’s not like I can go anywhere,” Sasori complained. He hadn’t walked farther than the distance between the bed and the bathroom in almost three days now. Even the thought of trying to run from this conversation made him drowsy.

Deidara looked sheepish at that. “Heh, I would feel guilty about that, except you’re probably going to hate me more for what I’m about to say, so I’ll save up my guilt for that, yeah?”

In Sasori’s current state of mind, the syntax was beyond him. “Huh?”

“I know how you resurrected yourself,” Deidara confessed, staring down at the palms of his hands. Both were chewing slowly.

Sasori stiffened in response. “Do you?” he said in a perfect monotone. Inwardly, however, his mind was reeling.

“It’s just like you said with me. I know you well enough, so all I needed was some time to think on it, and…yeah. You gave me enough clues. I figured out the rest on my own.” Deidara’s voice was strangely dull throughout the speech.

“It’s none of your business, brat,” Sasori practically growled, catching Deidara’s cheek in his palm and forcing Deidara to look at him. Deidara’s blue eyes were hopeful more than anything else. That gave Sasori pause. “Where did I go wrong?” Sasori finally asked warily.

Deidara smiled at that. “Well, everything you do involves your puppet techniques, yeah? So I figured this had to be the same.”

Sasori stared, somewhat confused, at where his hand rested on Deidara’s cheek.

Deidara continued on happily, seemingly oblivious to Sasori’s distraction. “I know all your other techniques, except for how you made your body a puppet. There had to be a reason you kept refusing to tell me how you did it, and the only thing you ever refused to budge on was how you were resurrecting yourself. I figure it has something to do with what happened between you and Orochimaru…”

Sasori’s eyes met Deidara’s in response. “There was another before Hideaki,” Sasori said dully. “Orochimaru killed him. I got to him first, though, took what I needed…” Deidara’s cheek was so warm against his palm, almost like Deidara’s skin was burning him.

“It would take more than a creep like Orochimaru to defeat my Master,” Deidara said softly.

Sasori nodded slowly, carefully, for Deidara to continue.

“You refused to tell me how you resurrected, and you refused to tell me how you transformed your own body into a puppet, and you refused to tell me what that fourth canister was for. It all had to be connected. So I figured that when you made your heart, you had some kind of safety. The fourth canister must have been the trigger for it. Once I saw that you came back in a human body, I figured that that was where you stored it.”

Sasori wetted his lips as he watched Deidara’s mouth part on every syllable. “It was my brain. I divided my consciousness in two. One was dormant and the other…”

“The other died.” Deidara leaned into Sasori’s palm, and his eyelids fluttered shut. “It all fit when you said that you had to wait until you’d fully taken over Hideaki’s body. There was a little piece of you that had woken up inside him and was spreading. Both that piece and your heart had to be intact before you could repeat the process.”

“You know me too well,” Sasori commented. It wasn’t a compliment.

“I’m not him,” Deidara repeated, eyes flashing dangerously. “I want you to live, yeah? Playing with you makes the game twice as fun.”

Sasori sighed wearily. “Life isn’t a game, brat.”

Deidara shrugged. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. The point is that I’m different from him, and I’m sick and tired of you hiding from me because of things he did.”

“You are different,” Sasori conceded and left it at that. He let his hand drop from Deidara’s face and almost missed the contact when it was gone. “Was that all?” He turned away to sleep again.

He heard Deidara sigh behind him. “All for now, Master,” he said as he turned to lie down behind Sasori.

It almost sounded like a threat.

***

That night, Sasori dreamed.

They weren’t the dreams of high fever, which was too bad, because then at least Sasori would have been able to explain them. His dreams left him confused but not disturbed in the way he wanted to be. Even while dreaming, the paradox bothered him. He should be analyzing, taking control, and then bringing the dreams to an end. Instead, he just let them flow over him. Maybe he was sicker than he thought.

In his dreams, he found himself in the dim, familiar caverns of one of Akatsuki’s hideouts. He could hear noises behind the closed doors: shouting, sounds of screaming, like someone was dying within. It didn’t bother him, though; he’d worked with Kakuzu and Hidan before, after all.

He continued to walk down the hall, occasionally having to step around a pool of blood that seeped from underneath one of the doors. In the back of his mind, this puzzled him because there weren’t enough members of Akatsuki to account for all the doors.

The light at the end of the corridor caught his attention then, and suddenly his purposeful walking made sense. He couldn’t see what was beyond the light – it was too blinding – but he held up one hand before his eyes and walked into it nonetheless.

It became painful, a struggle for his human eyes to push forward. A part of him dreaded what lay beyond that door, but he couldn’t make himself stop. It was as if, in this dream, he had no will of his own. He was merely a puppet, following the motions his subconscious lay out before him.

The white light finally coalesced into the outline of a door. When Sasori reached it, a powerful wind started blowing, trying to force him back. He clutched at the frame with one hand; the other still shielded his face from that glaring light.

It was harder than it should have been to pull himself inside, but when he did, the wind suddenly stopped and the light became bearable. The room was perfectly white and sterile, like a hospital room with luminescent walls.

Sasori wasn’t alone.

“Sasori-kun,” Orochimaru’s voice was honest and level for once, rather than that lilting coo that let Sasori know he was being mocked, “we’ve been waiting for you.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Sasori said, confused at the sight of his old partner, although he couldn’t say why. After all, it was a dream, and Orochimaru had been a major part of his life for several years. Why shouldn’t the man appear in his dreams?

“We all belong here,” Orochimaru insisted, and again Sasori was struck by how wrong it was.

A frog let out a loud ‘ribbit’ and hopped across the glowing floor.

Sasori frowned down at it, then looked around to see that the room was actually quite crowded, and bigger than he’d thought it had been. Most of the people there were far off, though, and he could barely make out their silhouettes against the white light.

Instead, Sasori frowned at Orochimaru, who was impossibly close. “Where are we?”

“Akatsuki,” Orochimaru answered simply. “You know that.”

Sasori nodded. That made perfect sense to his subconscious mind. “So how do we get out of here?”

Orochimaru laughed, his laughter sounding as light as bells and yet vaguely rotten at the same time. Sasori had always hated Orochimaru’s laugh. “Oh, my Sasori-kun,” Orochimaru sighed with affection that he’d never really felt for Sasori in life. He came closer and slid his arms around Sasori’s shoulders until their bodies were pressed together and their noses were only inches apart. “I’ve missed you so.”

Sasori nodded numbly. He felt uncomfortable at having Orochimaru touching him like this, but another part of him strangely didn’t want to pull away. “What are you doing?” he asked nervously instead.

“Taking what’s mine,” Orochimaru said simply, before he leaned in and their lips met…

…And suddenly Sasori wasn’t in Akatsuki anymore, but out in the open expanse of desert. Orochimaru had transformed as well, and while it was Orochimaru who had kissed him in the first place, it was Deidara’s lips that pulled away.

Sasori stared at him in surprise, and a soft blush flushed Deidara’s cheeks.

“You asked for the way out, Master, yeah?” Deidara shrugged and pulled away from him.

The desert wind blew around them in a sandstorm, and only a few feet away the air was so thick with sand that it became impossible to see. For some reason, the wind and sand didn’t affect the spot they were standing on, though.

Deidara shot Sasori a shy smile over his shoulder and then stepped out of the eye into the storm. His body vanished in the swirling sand.

“Deidara!” Sasori called out in alarm, rushing to the spot where Deidara had disappeared. The calm in the storm followed Sasori, surrounding him in a perfect circle wherever he went. That was good because he’d hesitated at the edge of the storm at first, but now he knew he was safe to look for Deidara wherever he wanted. “Where are you?” He plunged into the darkness, only to have it turn calm and still every time he explored a new corner.

Still, he couldn’t find Deidara anywhere.

That was when Sasori awoke with a start, frightened and disoriented, still desperately trying to find Deidara. Fortunately, Deidara was only inches away, curled on his side so that he faced Sasori in his sleep. Sasori, still half caught in the dream, wrapped an arm around Deidara’s waist and pulled them closer so that those few inches that separated them vanished.

“There you are,” he muttered sleepily, falling back into his dreams with Deidara’s head pillowed comfortably against his chest.

His next dream involved his grandmother forcing him to take care of a litter of tiny puppies, or else she wouldn’t let him see his parents ever again. It was a hundred times more horrifying than the first nightmare.

***

The next day, despite his dreams, Sasori felt much better.

Deidara had fussed over him leaving the house, but for some reason it amused Sasori rather than annoying him. Sasori had insisted that he just wanted to see the sun that day, and he would rest. That sent Deidara into an entirely different kind of fussing until finally Sasori ended up where he was now: comfortably seated in a lounge chair outside their home but still under the overhang of the cliff, with a pile of blankets and pillows on all sides, and soup and water for him to sip at in the meantime. Deidara sat on a cushion by his feet and was infusing a new batch of clay with chakra. Sasori was too distracted by the scroll in his lap to really pay attention.

Now that Sasori was awake enough to appreciate the information on the scrolls they’d stolen, he couldn’t believe that he’d ever been too sick to read them. He’d uncovered eight bloodline limits that he wanted already, and a dozen clans scattered across the Storm Country that could provide puppets that would bolster the weak components of his defenses.

Sasori had worried a bit that the ninja here might not be as powerful as those of the Five Nations, and his puppet army would suffer as a result. His worries were unfounded, however; it seemed that the only reason the Storm Country was weaker was because alliances between the various clans had never strengthened enough to form the powerful countries like the one he’d grown up in. So much the better for him and Deidara…

He felt Deidara shift against his thigh and absentmindedly adjusted himself so that Deidara would have more space. He glanced over the list he’d made, thinking about what else he’d like from his newest army. As he did so, he sipped from his soup. It was pork dumpling and, as usual, Deidara had outdone himself. He was actually going to miss Deidara’s cooking once he got rid of this body, he thought somewhat wistfully.

He wasn’t going to miss the rest of being human, though. He wasn’t going to miss the aches and fatigue and all the stupid, trivial needs he had to attend to night and day. There were just a few things that weren’t so bad, like the taste of good food or the warmth of Deidara’s body pressed against his thigh.

He reached into his bag beside him and pulled out one of the scrolls on the very bottom. He unraveled it to reveal the twelve seals inside. Deidara turned his attention to Sasori curiously as Sasori summoned the twelve canisters within.

Sasori ran his hands over them one by one as Deidara watched. Five from the Volcano Temple, three from the Source, an additional two that he hadn’t had time to fill from the Source, one waiting for him to have enough puppets for his hundred puppets technique, and the last one…

Sasori’s fingers curved around the last one. Soon, it would hold his immortality once again.

“Does it bother you too much?” Deidara asked softly.

“Hmm?”

“Knowing that you’re mortal right now,” Deidara explained. “Is it so terrible?”

“It’s the worst thing in the world,” Sasori answered instinctively, without really hearing the question.

“Ah.” Deidara sighed. “I’m happy for you, then, Master.” He didn’t sound particularly happy.

Sasori glanced down at him. “What’s wrong?” he asked before he had time to remind himself that he didn’t care, anyway.

Deidara half smiled at him. “You’re going to live forever,” he explained, “and I’m not.”

A heaviness suddenly struck Sasori’s chest at the thought. It had never really occurred to him before. He was going to last, and Deidara was going to die. That meant that, at some point in the distant future, he was going to be all alone again. It was something he should have thought of, but it was almost like his mind had been denying the fact. Sasori had created a paradox – he wanted to live forever, and he wanted Deidara as his partner – and it was easier just to ignore the inevitable conclusion.

“Don’t be silly, brat,” Sasori forced the words out, like the thought didn’t affect him.

“Sorry, Master.” Deidara took a deep breath and rose to his feet. He collected the canisters carefully, while Sasori watched perplexed, and dropped them back into Sasori’s bag. “Don’t kill me,” he pleaded softly.

Sasori’s eyes widened for a moment because he had absolutely no clue what Deidara was going to do, and then…

And then Deidara slid into Sasori’s lap, caught him by the chin, and kissed him right on the lips.

Sasori gasped in surprise, and Deidara’s tongue slid inside his mouth, warm and wet.

Sasori’s heart pounded, and his mind was going a mile a minute. His first thought was that he knew why Deidara had begged Sasori not to kill him, because Sasori was going to kill him for this infraction. Sasori hated emotions, and Deidara knew that, yet Deidara was kissing him anyway.

His second thought was that maybe this wasn’t a crime punishable by death, after all. From what Sasori knew of kissing, it was supposed to be the sappiest, most pointlessly romantic moment ever. In real life, though, it was quite the opposite. Deidara’s lips were dry and chapped from the desert air. His tongue tasted of something salty and not entirely pleasant. His body was heavy in Sasori’s lap and somewhat uncomfortable. A kiss wasn’t the wondrous, euphoric thing Sasori had been led to believe.

At the same time, it wasn’t exactly bad, either. Deidara’s first assault had been an invasion, sudden and overwhelming. When Sasori didn’t murder him on the spot, however, things…softened.

Deidara’s tongue pulled back out of his mouth and flicked along his lips cautiously. One of Deidara’s hands clutched in his hair, holding them tightly together. The other stroked his throat, and the mouth there was planting gentle, wet kisses along his neck. It made the nerves there tremble, and Sasori felt a shiver run down his spine.

“Mmm,” Deidara moaned against his mouth, eyes closed tight, and he began to rock slowly in Sasori’s lap.

For a moment, Sasori couldn’t put words to the sensations he was experiencing. His brain forgot to catalogue each and every experience, and the only thing he could process was that this was good.

Then, just as he was starting to enjoy the kiss, Deidara pulled back again, licking his lips.

Sasori sat back and stared at him slightly cross-eyed, his chest heaving for breath. Deidara gave him a mischievous smirk, and Sasori pulled himself back together. “What was that, brat?” he demanded with a scowl.

“That,” Deidara informed him, “is what I want from you.”

Sasori’s scowl deepened. “You know that—”

“Sasori, wait.” Deidara pressed his fingertips to Sasori’s lips, cutting him off. “I know you’re going to say no. Just let me get my say in first, yeah?”

Sasori didn’t see any reason why he should, except that his heart was still racing and some part of him was almost…curious about what Deidara could possibly say to him.

Deidara nodded and took a deep breath. “I’ve wanted you for years now. We’ve both known it, and we’ve never said a thing about it. I would’ve waited longer, until you were ready, but my time’s run out now, hasn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” Sasori said carefully.

“We’ll have been together for ten years come November,” Deidara insisted. “When you think about it, we might as well be married.”

Sasori blinked at that. He’d never thought of them that way before, but now he was hard-pressed to think of any way their relationship wasn’t like a marriage, except… “There’s one significant difference.”

Deidara leaned in, and Sasori jerked back, afraid that Deidara was going to kiss him again. Deidara just pressed their foreheads together, however, and they breathed only inches from each other’s lips for a few moments.

“Would it be so bad?” Deidara finally asked. “I want you, and you’re starting to want me, whether you realize it or not. It wouldn’t change anything between us in the long run.”

“Then why do you care about it so much?” Sasori asked skeptically.

Deidara shrugged. “I’ve always…needed contact. It makes me feel alive, yeah?”

Sasori shook his head because he didn’t understand.

Deidara sighed. “Just think about it. That’s all I ask. You’ve already died a virgin once. Just… Aren’t you even a little bit curious?”

Sasori opened his mouth to say no, so it was funny how the words, “I’ll think about it,” came out instead.

Deidara’s smile was the brightest, most genuine thing Sasori had ever seen from him. “No pressure,” he promised, and then in another moment he’d hopped back off Sasori’s lap and had gone inside.

Sasori stared out over the desert and the canyon. He couldn’t form a single coherent thought.

Chapter Text

“The strange power of art is sometimes it can show that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them.” – John Berger

***

Present day…

“No,” Deidara insisted, peering up over the rushes.

Sasori glared at him. “Why not?” he demanded, leaning his chin forward on his folded hands. Their ambush was in the marshes along the west coast, and there was very little cover. As a result, they were both lying on their stomachs in the mud to avoid detection.

“If I tell you, you’ll get pissed off, yeah?” Deidara retorted, lying down beside him once more. He shook his head once to indicate that their quarry hadn’t arrived yet.

“I’m pissed now,” Sasori retorted with irrefutable logic.

Deidara sighed. “You asked for it…”

“I did,” Sasori agreed. “It was a very provocative statement, and I demand to know your reasoning.”

“Fine. You do want me. I can tell because of this.” Deidara inched several inches over in the mud until they were brushing shoulders.

Sasori blinked at him curiously. “Yes?” he said impatiently.

“This.” Deidara gestured back and forth between them.

“What?”

Deidara smiled indulgently, like he found Sasori hopelessly naïve. “I’m touching you, and I still have all my limbs, yeah?”

“So?” Sasori sulked. He realized that he had been a bit lax about keeping up his personal boundaries with Deidara lately, but it was often pointlessly difficult given the close quarters they were forced into.

“So you want me. Otherwise, my skull would be riddled with senbon right now.”

Sasori considered that. It was unusual that he didn’t object to Deidara’s touch. He couldn’t think of another person that had happened with. “That doesn’t prove anything,” he finally said, although his words didn’t sound certain even to his own ears.

“If you can think of another explanation, I’d love to hear it.” Deidara peeked up over the rushes again.

Sasori rolled his eyes. He could tell from their target’s chakra signatures that they were still at least a mile away. “I’m just being practical,” he finally concluded. “Some physical contact is necessary if we’re to work as partners.”

Deidara pressed the line of his upper arm against Sasori’s. He still hadn’t pulled back. “Does that feel necessary to you?”

Sasori frowned. “We’re setting up an ambush. I’m hardly going to attack you now. The target could escape.”

“Did you let Orochimaru get away with touching you like this?”

“Orochimaru wasn’t idiot enough to try.”

“Whatever, Sasori. You want me.”

Sasori tried not to notice how Deidara was dropping his honorific more and more often ever since he’d made his declaration to Sasori. “Tch. It’s just not practical for me to punish you every time you get cuddly.”

“You’ve had your share of cuddly nights, too,” Deidara retorted. “And that’s another point. Would you be sharing a bed with me, if you didn’t want me?”

“That’s practical, too. Hideaki’s apartment wasn’t big enough for us to sleep separately.”

“And what about now, yeah? You could’ve built yourself a separate bedroom.”

“There was no point. I’m not going to be in a body that needs sleep much longer,” Sasori insisted.

“We’re sleeping together,” Deidara repeated.

“Shut up.”

“Because you want me.”

“No, seriously: shut up. I can sense them coming.”

The team of enemy ninja alighted beside the pond at that very second, and the ambush began. Sasori believed the term for it was ‘saved by the bell.’

***

“It’s absolutely ridiculous.” Sasori crossed his arms over his chest defensively. It probably would’ve been more menacing if they hadn’t been in bed and Sasori was wearing more than his underwear.

Deidara sidled up to him, a cheeky grin on his face. “Admit it,” he teased, ruffling Sasori’s hair.

Sasori caught the hand in a death grip and used it to twist Deidara’s arm behind his back. He jabbed his knee into the base of Deidara’s spine and pinned him down to the bed.

“Oh, kinky,” Deidara purred, his face pressed into the mattress.

Sasori froze and then leapt back off Deidara so fast that Deidara started laughing. “I can kill you from a distance,” Sasori insisted, as far over on his side of the bed as he could get.

Deidara rolled back over onto his back, still laughing.

“What happened to ‘no pressure’?” Sasori sulked.

Deidara let out a final chuckle. “No pressure for sex,” he corrected Sasori. “I can pressure you into admitting we’re married all I want.”

Sasori glared at him. “We are not married!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Sure, honey, whatever you say.”

Sasori’s eye twitched. “Don’t ever call me that again,” he warned.

“Then admit we’re married.”

“No! I told you, it’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous. Just look at our lives. We live together, work together, sleep together. We moved to a new town – a new country – together. We built a home and decorated it together.”

Sasori snorted. “That last part was entirely you.”

Deidara glared at him. “You argued about the windows as much as I did. We’ve built a whole life together. I say, piece of paper or not, we’re married.”

“So you’re my little housewife now?” Sasori retorted. “Is that it?”

“I’m not anybody’s wife,” Deidara returned vehemently. “Don’t get any funny ideas.”

A disturbing thought struck Sasori. “But when I decide about…you know.” He could feel his cheeks burning. “I don’t think…”

Deidara’s eyes widened in response. “Oh, well, yeah. Sex is different. I’ll be the wife for that. But only because that’s what gets me off.” He made what Sasori supposed was a seductive smile and crawled his way over to where Sasori rested on the far side of the bed.

“I’m prepared to summon Haya and use her as a protective shield all night if I have to. If her acid isn’t enough of a repellent, I figure her breasts should do the trick,” Sasori smirked.

Someone’s not getting any loving tonight,” Deidara continued to be supremely annoying about the whole thing and fell back onto his half of the bed.

“I’ve never gotten any loving any night, ever,” Sasori retorted in disbelief.

“It shows, believe me.” Deidara stuck his tongues out at him.

“I can see you’re maturing by the day, brat.” Sasori turned his back to Deidara and lay down.

“See? Only old married couples have quality banter like that,” Deidara announced proudly.

“That wasn’t even a particularly good retort. Now stay on your side of the bed and go to sleep.”

“The fact that I have a side of the bed proves—”

“Deidara?” Sasori growled, interrupting him.

“What?”

“If you don’t shut up this minute, I’m going to cut out all six of your tongues.”

There was a moment of silence. Sasori could practically hear Deidara sulking behind him.

“I’m just trying to say—”

“We never had a wedding. We don’t have a marriage license. We are not married!”

Deidara sighed. “Fine, whatever.”

Sasori felt the bed shift, and the blankets were suddenly half tugged off his body. He tugged them back in revenge and flicked off the light. They lay together in silence, but it was an agitated silence, like there was something still left unsaid.

“Hey, Sasori?” Deidara finally said lazily.

“What?” Sasori countered warily.

“Do you want to get married?”

“No,” Sasori snapped and buried his head under the pillow.

***

“Why?”

“Why not?” Deidara shot back with a shit-eating grin.

“That’s not an answer.” Sasori carved the fine detail around one of his new jounin puppets’ jaw and reached for the paintbrush.

“That’s the only answer there is.” Deidara passed by, sweeping the sand that had blown into their workshop back out the door.

“Tch. That doesn’t even make any sense.” Sasori tensed his chakra strings, and the puppet’s jaw unhinged, lopsided. With painstaking patience, he moved to the other side and fine-tuned that joint as well.

“It makes perfect sense. Feelings are like that. There’s no reason for it; you just feel.”

“That’s the definition of ‘no sense’,” Sasori insisted. “It’s completely irrational.”

“Feelings aren’t supposed to be rational. That’s why they’re called ‘emotions’ and not ‘rigid logical constructs.’”

“Rigid logical constructs would make more sense.” Sasori tensed the jaw again. Now the other side was too loose.

“See, this is why you can’t admit you want me,” Deidara concluded. “You’re trying to rationalize it, and it’s not something you can reason out. You just have to go with your feelings.”

“That’s your answer?” Sasori looked up at him and frowned. “The reason you want me is because you’re ‘going with your feelings’?”

“It’s the way humans work, yeah? It’s the way sex works.”

“You’re not exactly convincing me that sex is worthwhile, if you’re comparing it to humanity,” Sasori pointed out.

“I’m not going to try to convince you by lying to you,” Deidara countered. He slumped back against one of the workbenches, and a blissful smile graced his face as he warmed to his topic. “Sex is human and messy and everything you hate. But it’s also wonderful, and the parts that are wonderful more than make up for the rest of it.”

Sasori pulled on his puppet’s strings, and the jaw opened smoothly. Satisfied with that, he moved on to the eyes. “It’s two bodies mating. And, in the case of two men, failing to mate. What’s so wonderful about that?”

Deidara sighed. “It’s really hard to explain unless you try it.”

“Still ‘no pressure’?” Sasori taunted.

“Well, it’s true!” Deidara considered for a moment. “It makes you feel close to another person, in a way that nothing else can.”

“You don’t feel close enough to me already?” Sasori snapped. “You stole my toothpaste right out of my hand this morning!” He had to admit that that last part didn’t sound bad, however. As a child, he’d always wanted…

“I told you I was sorry about that, but I ran out.” Deidara broke Sasori’s train of thoughts before it could really begin; it was probably for the better.

“Such a mystery how that happened.” He glared at the extra mouth in Deidara’s left hand that was chewing clay noisily.

“My dentist always tells me that all my teeth are in excellent health, I’ll have you know,” Deidara informed him primly.

Sasori snorted and turned his attention back to his puppet’s eyes. The left one refused to close for some reason. He tried prying at it with a small chisel.

“If you really want an answer to your question, I guess that’s the best I can come up with,” Deidara finally spoke again.

“You want me for the good of your dental hygiene?” Sometimes, Sasori got a sort of perverse pleasure in making Deidara’s life as difficult as possible.

“No.” Deidara rolled his eyes. “I just want to be…close, yeah? I want to feel you inside me.”

Sasori was trying to use the chisel to wedge beneath the puppet’s eyeball when Deidara made that little proclamation. The image of him being inside Deidara did very unwanted things to his hormones, and he applied a bit more pressure than he should have. The eyeball popped right out of its socket and landed on the floor between them with a soft squishing sound.

“Oops,” Deidara winced.

Sasori managed a scowl, despite his body’s disobedient actions; he had a lot of practice with that lately.

“I’ll just finish getting the generator online,” Deidara offered sheepishly, reaching down to pick up the eyeball. He set it on Sasori’s worktable carefully. “Right, then…” He left the room.

Sasori counted slowly to twenty and then breathed a sigh of relief when Deidara didn’t come back. He slumped back in his chair and glared at the prominent bulge in his pants. It seemed that, if Sasori was unable to make sense of his feelings towards Deidara, his body was more than happy to voice its opinion on the matter.

***

“Maybe…” Sasori said slowly.

“Maybe what?”

“Maybe there’s a reason we keep having these arguments.” Sasori pushed his way through the brush. He knew Ginzou’s arm had flown off in this direction, but even the cursed puppet’s limbs were evading him now.

“The reason we keep having these arguments is that you’re obsessed,” Deidara retorted. He parted several branches and looked inside the bush before pulling back out with a sigh.

I’m obsessed? You’re the one who’s been trying to seduce me for the past ten years.” Sasori rounded another patch of scrub and spotted Ginzou’s arm high in a scraggly tree. He glared at it.

Deidara came up behind him and eyed the errant arm with equal annoyance. He reached into his clay pouch, and his right hand began chewing. “I’ve already gotten what I need from you, yeah? We’re together, whether you’re willing to admit it or not.”

“I thought you wanted me?” Sasori retorted. “Or is the offer no longer on the table?”

“The offer’s always on the table for you,” Deidara shrugged his comment off. “What I mean is: it doesn’t matter which way you choose. Sex is nice, and I want sex with you, but I don’t need it. What we have transcends that.”

“Don’t go mushy on me,” Sasori grumbled.

“I’m not,” Deidara insisted. The mouth in his palm opened and spit the clay back out. His fingers carefully molded it. “But you’ve been starting arguments over this for days now. Don’t you think it means something that you can’t stop thinking about it?” His fingers opened to reveal…a miniature stepladder.

Sasori blinked at him. “Is that it?”

“What?” Deidara pushed chakra into his creation, and it turned into a full-sized stepladder. He climbed the rungs, retrieved Ginzou’s arm, and climbed back down.

Sasori blinked again for good measure. “I thought some sort of pterosaur, or maybe a giant fruit bat…”

Deidara gave him a skeptical look. “All I needed was a stepladder.”

Sasori shook his head. Sometimes, Deidara was beyond him.

***

“Yes.”

“Yes is not an option.” Deidara rolled his eyes. “Were you even listening to me? I asked if you wanted maki or tempura for dinner tonight.”

Yes,” Sasori repeated.

“Now you’re just being difficult on purpose.”

“No… Yes, damn it!”

Deidara gave him an accusing glare.

Sasori could feel his cheeks turn red. “Don’t make me say it,” he requested softly.

He watched Deidara’s eyes widen in realization that Sasori hadn’t been talking about dinner. Sasori would have been entertained by the way Deidara was gaping in disbelief, except he was too nervous about his decision.

“Yes?” Deidara finally managed to repeat the word after opening his mouth two times and failing.

Sasori shrugged. “You have my answer.”

“Now?” Deidara sounded hopeful, but then his expression dropped. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”

“Oh.” Sasori blinked. “Is that bad?”

“Well, I guess not. I mean, it’s not the way it’s usually done, yeah? But we haven’t really done anything the way it’s usually done. Unless you wanted to wait until tonight?”

“I…don’t know.” Sasori’s stomach felt vaguely queasy. He’d made up his mind about an hour ago, and that hour had been one of the most agonizing experiences of his life. He tried to imagine an entire evening of that – through dinner, even.

Deidara smirked at him. “I can tell when you’re lying. My Sasori doesn’t like waiting.”

Sasori managed a smirk in return. “You know me too well.”

Deidara began returning the vegetables to the refrigerator. “Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in our case it’s just going to make things awkward, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Sasori agreed, even though he couldn’t imagine anything more awkward than standing here now, watching Deidara put away groceries. Deidara had finally gotten the power working reliably enough, and all their appliances were working, which meant in turn that Deidara no longer had to fly into a market daily to—

“Sasori?”

Sasori blinked to find that Deidara was suddenly right in front of him, his fingers brushing Sasori’s cheek. “Huh?”

“Your mind is drifting,” Deidara accused, leaning in so that their foreheads rested together again.

“Oh, uh… Yeah.” Apparently, the concept of sex turned Sasori into a monosyllabic moron. He cringed inwardly and managed, “So, how does this work?”

Deidara took hold of Sasori’s hand and carefully guided it to his waist. Sasori frowned down at the contact. It suddenly occurred to him that it wasn’t just that he was a virgin; he’d never even touched anybody before. Deidara’s flesh felt warm and strange beneath the pads of his fingers. He watched them carefully for a moment, then looked back up at Deidara.

“Now what?”

“Okay, how much should I assume you already know?” Deidara asked sheepishly.

“Assume I know nothing.” It was pretty much the truth.

“Well, first we should move to the bedroom.”

Sasori nodded. That fit with what he knew about the subject.

Deidara took Sasori’s hand where it was still exploring the flesh of Deidara’s hipbone through the mesh of his shirt. Their fingers twined together, and Sasori felt Deidara’s palm give his a chaste kiss. “Come on,” he said, guiding Sasori out of the kitchen.

Sasori followed slowly, watching Deidara all the while. Deidara seemed to be fighting the urge to grin like a maniac, and he kept glancing back at Sasori to make sure he was still following, even though Deidara would have felt if he wasn’t. It was a bit confusing to Sasori, but he figured it was normal. After all, Deidara knew what he was doing; in this one circumstance, Sasori had no compunctions about trusting Deidara’s expertise.

Deidara finally landed on the edge of their bed and pulled Sasori down to sit beside him. Their thighs brushed, and Sasori felt something warm and not entirely unpleasant twist inside him.

“So,” Deidara’s voice had turned soft and husky, “first we have to get in the mood, yeah?” His palm came up to caress Sasori’s cheek.

“That will make things less…awkward?” Sasori hoped.

“Mmm, yeah.” Deidara nibbled at the edge of Sasori’s lips. “It’ll also make sure things happen at all.”

Sasori shut his eyes at the feel of Deidara’s kiss. It was short and to the point, and he ventured to return it. Deidara made a humming noise deep in his throat and moved closer. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Sasori whispered against his lips. “These last few days have been…trying.”

“For the both of us,” Deidara agreed. His hand skimmed up under Sasori’s shirt, and the lips there began pressing against the line of his spine.

Sasori shivered in response. “Aren’t we supposed to be lying down?” he asked as Deidara sunk down to nip at his neck. His hands fisted in Deidara’s shirt as the nerve endings in his throat went wild with pleasure.

“If you want.” Deidara pressed a wet kiss right over Sasori’s pulse. “Yeah, let’s lie down.” He gave Sasori a shove back onto the mattress and fell on top of him.

Sasori experienced a moment of alarm – the response to years of training to react instinctively to surprise attacks – before he registered the playful smile on Deidara’s face. “Brat,” he complained and dropped the hand that had come up around Deidara’s neck in a chokehold. Deidara settled down more slowly over him, and Sasori could feel the entire length of Deidara’s body pressed against his.

Deidara grinned unrepentantly and tangled his fingers in Sasori’s hair. This time his lips were more demanding, and his tongue flicked out against Sasori’s lips, seeking entrance.

Sasori returned the gesture, and suddenly found his hands sliding through the silk of Deidara’s hair and his mouth invaded by a warm, wet tongue. Sasori still wasn’t sure how he felt about the taste – there was something in it that was just so human – but his body responded to the movement. Deidara’s tongue thrusted slow and deep, and Sasori found himself echoing the motion automatically.

His tongue slid alongside Deidara’s for a few strokes, and then Deidara slowly retreated back into his own mouth. The invitation was obvious.

Sasori ventured inside, and the taste of Deidara was suddenly magnified tenfold. He could taste the toothpaste Deidara had stolen from him earlier, and that musky human taste, too. Sasori wasn’t sure he liked it until Deidara wrapped his mouth gently around Sasori’s tongue and sucked.

When Sasori finally recovered the ability to think, he was almost afraid he’d passed out for a moment. His hands were fisted tight in Deidara’s short hair, and he was all but plundering the mouth above him. Deidara’s hands clutched at his waist, and he was grinding his hips down against Sasori’s. Sasori couldn’t quite remember how they’d gotten to that point; it was all a haze of pleasure.

“I thought I was supposed to be on top,” he said, pulling away with a gasp.

“If you want to be on top, you’d better force me beneath you then, yeah?” Deidara challenged.

Sasori’s eyes widened. “I’m allowed to do that?” he asked hesitantly.

“You’re allowed to do anything,” Deidara assured him. “I don’t mind pain, and I like things rough. I like things gentle, too. Just do whatever you’re inspired to do. That’s the whole point of sex. It’s like art, yeah?”

Sasori wasn’t sure the analogy was all that helpful, but he did know that everything in his body was screaming to have Deidara under him right now. He caught Deidara’s wrists in a rough grip and tried to roll them over.

Deidara fought back, twisting and squirming in ways that made Sasori’s eyes cross. For some reason, Deidara struggling against him just excited him more, and his determination increased. It was almost the same feeling as when he was struggling to make a kill, that final moment when his victim fought him with every bit of life they had left…

Sasori let out a victorious exclamation when he finally succeeded in rolling over and pinned Deidara down to the bed. Deidara grinned back up and him and thrashed, but Sasori’s grip on his wrists was unbreakable. Curiously, Deidara didn’t struggle with his legs too much. Somehow when they’d flipped, Deidara’s thighs had opened, and Sasori was now situated between his spread legs. It was an imperfect hold, and Deidara must have known a thousand ways out of it, but he didn’t really try.

Sasori realized, with more than a little awe, that it was as though he had a willing victim beneath him. The notion had never occurred to him before, but it was exciting, a form of art he’d never had the chance to explore.

With a sound disturbingly like a growl, his mouth latched onto Deidara’s neck. He remembered how it had made him squirm when Deidara tried that move on him, and Deidara’s body jerked in the exact way he imagined, rubbing against him eagerly.

Deidara’s hands were under Sasori’s shirt now, leaving wet, heated kisses up his chest. Deidara pulled the fabric up as he went until finally Sasori’s shirt was bunched up around his shoulders. “Take it off,” Deidara panted out.

One of the things Sasori did know about sex was that you were supposed to be naked. He relaxed his hold on Deidara long enough to pull his gray t-shirt up over his head. He wasn’t sure whether he would put it on again afterwards, so he waffled a bit over whether to throw it in the laundry hamper or set in on the armchair beside the bed.

Deidara solved the problem for him by taking the shirt and throwing it carelessly on the floor.

“Hey!” Sasori complained.

“Sex is messy,” Deidara reminded him, sticking out his tongues. Then, he stretched his back up in a languid arc, and practically peeled the tank top and mesh shirt off his body. Muscles flexed and tightened at the motion, and Sasori found himself utterly captivated by the sight of Deidara’s bare chest. Deidara’s torso was a perfect map of dips and planes, with a rosy nipple interrupting the smooth flow of flesh on the right side and Deidara’s largest mouth on the left. As Sasori watched, the mouth in Deidara’s chest wetted its lips through the stitches in anticipation. “C’mere.” Deidara crooked one finger at him.

Sasori dove back in and kissed Deidara again. Kissing was becoming more comfortable now. He dwelled less on the little details and more on Deidara’s reactions. It turned out that biting Deidara’s lip caused him to gasp and shiver, and thrusting his tongue as far into Deidara’s mouth as he could made Deidara’s hips come off the bed to meet Sasori’s.

Sasori felt Deidara’s erection brush against the line of his hip, and it was a startling realization. He had one moment to dwell on the fact that he was actually about to have sex, and then one of Deidara’s legs wrapped around his waist and this time their erections rubbed together.

Sasori’s eyes widened, and Deidara let out a low groan and did it again.

Deidara felt impossibly hot against him, like he was about to explode; given that this was Deidara, Sasori worried about that for a full fraction of a second, before Deidara rubbed against him in just the right way, and he lost his analytical abilities once more.

They rocked together, and eventually Sasori realized through the lust-filled haze that his hips were moving too, as if his body instinctively knew how to respond to the situation. He was harder now than he’d ever been before; he’d always retreated to a cold shower before things could get this out of hand. He wondered for a moment whether he would explode, as the desire kept building up inside him to critical levels…

“I think we might be past the awkward phase…” Sasori requested. He was surprised at how his voice had dropped to a deep rumble.

“Way ahead of you.” The mouth in Deidara’s chest pressed a gentle kiss against Sasori’s own chest and then, in an impressive display of dexterity that made Sasori’s erection twitch, Deidara tucked his toes into the waistband of Sasori’s pants and underwear and tugged them both down with just his feet. The mouths in his ankles kissed the backs of Sasori’s thighs the whole way down.

Sasori’s pants finally caught around his knees, and Sasori resorted to a much less impressive display of kicking wildly to free himself from his clothing. While he did that, Deidara pulled several items from his pocket before shimmying out of his own pants.

His erection slid against Sasori’s as he did so, bare skin on bare skin, and Sasori thought he was going to lose himself for a moment. It was a sharp, frightening sensation, and Sasori wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not.

“Okay?” Deidara asked, reaching up to push Sasori’s hair back off his forehead in a reassuring gesture.

“I… I think so?” he finally ventured.

Deidara tugged at him slightly, and Sasori followed the motion, figuring that Deidara would know what to do. He ended up lying on top of Deidara’s body, his face resting beside Deidara’s collarbone. “You just need a minute to cool down, yeah? And I need a minute to prepare, so it all works out.”

“Okay.” Cooling down actually sounded like a really good idea just then.

“Touch me again when you feel ready,” Deidara encouraged him, guiding Sasori’s hand between their bodies until it brushed Deidara’s erection.

Sasori felt his cheeks flush. Deidara was a little bit thicker around than he was and a bit longer, too, just like the rest of their bodies. Sasori worried for a minute because he’d been led to believe that that made him the bottom. Deidara’s actions, however, indicated that it wasn’t an issue at all.

Sasori’s blush deepened when he realized what Deidara was doing. Deidara’s pocket had held a small plastic tube and some foil packages. Sasori recognized the larger bag as a pair of the surgical gloves Deidara wore when he needed to do something with his hands that required protecting the mouths there.

Deidara put on the gloves and then opened up the cap of the small tube. He squeezed some thick, clear liquid onto his fingers and rubbed them together for a minute. Sasori wasn’t sure what that was for, but apparently Deidara had achieved his purpose because he lowered his hand out of Sasori’s sight, and his hips canted upwards.

Sasori gulped when he realized where Deidara’s fingers had gone, and his fist tightened around Deidara’s erection almost instinctively. It was the closest thing to hold on to, after all.

Deidara moaned, and his hips started bucking up as he fucked himself on his fingers. Sasori shut his eyes and squeezed.

“F-Fuck, yeah…” Deidara stammered. He tilted his hips further upwards so that his legs folded over the middle of Sasori’s back and started rocking in earnest. “Please, tell me you’re ready,” he whimpered.

Sasori wasn’t sure if he’d ever be ready for this. He nodded anyway.

Deidara’s hand came back into view, and his viciously ripped open one of the foil packets. Condoms, Sasori realized numbly. Then Deidara’s hand was on him, and he nearly lost it again.

“Shh, shh, stay with me,” Deidara whispered in his ear.

Sasori felt the rubber roll onto him, and there was a brief moment when he could relax. Then, Deidara’s hand was back with more of the gel from that tube. Sasori squeezed his eyes shut tight and bit down on his lip to fight the overwhelming barrage of sensation. He decided right then that he didn’t like the feeling at all.

“Good?” Deidara asked.

Sasori shook his head.

“Hmm… Maybe we’d better hurry. This first time might be rough.” Deidara snapped off the gloves and realigned their bodies.

Sasori suddenly found himself pressing against something warm.

He’d spent twenty years erasing all emotion, all human need and impulse. Such things were only weaknesses, distractions, and having abandoned his human body, he’d almost completely eradicated them.

Absolutely none of that mattered when he felt that warm, tight space willing to open for him, and his body thrust inside as deep as it could, before he even knew what he doing.

A strangled sound escaped his lips, and Deidara echoed him with a long, breathy moan. If anything, Deidara’s cry made things even worse.

“I…” He tried to express his alarm and couldn’t think of a single way to do so.

“Just stay still. You’ll get used to it.”

Sasori couldn’t imagine ever getting used to this. The most sensitive part of his anatomy felt like it was trapped in a vise, and it was more pain and pleasure than he could possibly process.

“It’s just me,” Deidara cooed, stroking his hair. “It’s us.”

The sharp edge faded after a few seconds, but the overwhelming feelings were still there. A part of Sasori couldn’t stand the thought of just staying still, so he started to move. If nothing else, maybe that would finish things off once and for all.

His body knew the proper motions, and he slid in and out of Deidara. Deidara’s hips thrusted against him in counterpoint, easing their mating. The sensations were twisting and changing inside Sasori, and Sasori wasn’t sure whether it was an improvement or not. It still just all felt like too much.

His hips had moved erratically at first, but Deidara’s legs were helping to guide him, and he soon found himself in a fast, regular rhythm. He could hear the sound of flesh slapping and Deidara gasping, and he felt too out of control to process it all. Then, his hips came in at a slightly different angle, and Deidara screamed in response.

At that moment, everything changed. Sasori frowned, thrust at the same spot again, and another keening wail escaped Deidara’s throat. Deidara’s hands had been wandering, kissing him everywhere they went, but now they fell back on the bed, like Deidara had lost all control of his body. It seemed that, as Deidara lost control, Sasori gained it.

Sasori had always liked control very much.

He shifted his angle slightly and deliberately missed the place that made Deidara react so powerfully. Deidara whimpered and twitched, begging for more. Sasori grinned and missed two more times, before hitting the spot squarely, and Deidara clawed helplessly at the sheets beneath him.

In many ways, it was like Deidara was his puppet. Sasori felt giddy with the knowledge. He was inside Deidara, controlling his every movement, mastering his body. It was the same way he felt when carving up a victim, ripping out its insides, and turning it into his own creation.

He toyed with Deidara off and on, granting him pleasure one moment and denying it the next. Deidara’s body trembled beneath him, at his mercy, and finally a whimpered “Please!” escaped Deidara’s lips.

Sasori denied him for three more thrusts before he finally gave in. Deidara’s whole body tensed, shook, and then arched upwards. Sasori felt a warm, sticky liquid between the union of their bodies, and Deidara softened once more, spent with pleasure.

It was only then that Sasori really let loose.

Deidara lay limp in the aftershocks, jerking as Sasori took him violently. Sasori enjoyed that sensation, too, and this time when his pleasure spiked, it wasn’t unbearable the way it had been before. This time, finding pleasure in Deidara’s body was a conquest.

He came in a quick, sharp jerk that wasn’t half as bad as all the build-up had led him to believe. The pleasure came, went, and hopeless relief followed after it was over.

“Hmm,” he murmured lazily, his cheek resting against Deidara’s chest once more. He couldn’t quite remember when he’d fallen, but for once that didn’t bother him.

“Sasori…” Deidara whispered into his hair. He lowered shaky legs back to the mattress, and Sasori felt himself slip out of Deidara’s body. There was an uncomfortable sticky sensation around his softening erection, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“Hmm.” It seemed to be the only sound he could make.

Deidara shifted their bodies so that they were lying side-by-side instead. Sasori tolerated it because his limbs didn’t seem to be working properly at the moment. The thought crossed his mind that, if Deidara wanted to kill him, now would be the perfect time, when he was weak and helpless. Deidara did have a tendency to kill after mating, after all…

Instead, Deidara yawned and stretched. He reached over and removed the condom from Sasori before tying it off and tossing it into the trash. Sasori conceded that that was a lot more comfortable. Deidara then opened two more of the little packages, and Sasori was afraid that Deidara wanted to do it again, but they contained moist towelettes, to Sasori’s relief.

Deidara cleaned Sasori patiently with one and himself with the other. It was actually a rather nice feeling, being taken care of like this. If Sasori had to suffer emotions, at least this was one that he could come to enjoy.

“There,” Deidara announced proudly when they were both clean. He collapsed back onto the bed beside Sasori and cuddled up close so that his nose was buried in the crook of Sasori’s neck. “So,” he said, sounding somewhat nervous, “what do you think?”

Sasori considered for a moment. “It was…interesting,” he finally concluded.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Deidara chuckled.

“Parts of it were good and parts were bad. It was informative, though. And I liked the bit at the end when you were almost like my puppet.”

“Are you comparing our lovemaking to dismembering corpses?” Deidara teased.

“I suppose so. Why?”

“Because I think it’s the best compliment I could receive, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Sasori agreed, drifting off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

“Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.” – Margot Fonteyn

***

Present day…

“I don’t understand.” Sasori trailed his fingertips lazily up and down the line of Deidara’s bare spine. “Why do you let me do these things to you?”

“I like it,” Deidara insisted. “Nothing you could do to me would be bad.”

Sasori’s mind was filled with the afterimage of Deidara on his hands and knees, his face pressed down into the motel mattress, as Sasori took him from behind. Sasori still blushed at the thought. “I don’t understand how you can enjoy something like that, though.”

Deidara shrugged and rolled over onto his back with a wince. Sasori took a certain amount of pride in the fact that he had struck inside Deidara so deeply that Deidara was still feeling it. “You…touching me, being with me… It’s more than I ever dared to hope for, yeah?”

Sasori considered him curiously. “Are you in love with me?” he asked with the same amount of emotion he would have put into stating a mathematical equation.

“Who knows?” Deidara sighed. “I’ve never gotten a straight answer on what love is, anyway. Everyone just says you know it when you feel it. It never made much sense to me.”

“How can you name an emotion that you’ve never known?” Sasori agreed. It was a problem that he suffered frequently, and it was encouraging to learn that Deidara had the same difficulty at times. Dimly, Sasori could recall his parents. He didn’t like to think about them, but he was sure that he must have loved them once, because that was what children did. He couldn’t really remember what it was like, though.

One of the few things he did remember from his childhood was a fight his father had once gotten into with his grandmother. He remembered that he’d felt scared at the time, with all the voices raised around him. His father had been an openly affectionate man, especially to his son, and his grandmother had insisted that, if love were given so freely, Sasori would never seek to improve himself in order to win that love. His father had argued that he didn’t care if Sasori grew up to be a street-sweeper; it was more important that he knew that his father loved him unconditionally.

Sasori wondered sometimes whether that love would have remained unconditional if his father had lived to see what Sasori had become. Then again, Sasori might not have been the same man he was now, if his parents hadn’t died. It was an interesting intellectual question, but ultimately unanswerable.

Sometimes, however, when he and Deidara lay together in the aftermath and touched each other casually, he felt as though he’d recovered something that he’d lost when his parents died. After all, Deidara was a very affectionate man, too…

With a sigh, Sasori pushed such trivial matters aside and turned his attention to the mission. “What time are we meeting with your boyfriend’s agent?” he asked, inflicting every bit of snideness into the word ‘boyfriend’ that he could.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Deidara retorted with a roll of his eyes. “We’ve never even met. If anything, you were the one who convinced him not to attack you when we broke into his library.”

“Your implication is ridiculous. And I didn’t do any convincing; he’d already made up his mind.” Sasori sat up and stretched before reaching for his clothes. “And you’re the one who sent him a fruit basket.”

“To thank him for letting my Sasori go,” Deidara insisted. With a sigh, he got up and began dressing as well.

“I could have taken him.” Sasori pulled up his pants. “A Sousui’s nothing compared to a Kage. You didn’t need to send him a fruit basket.”

Deidara looked back over his shoulder from where he was sitting on the edge of the bed, lacing up his boots. He stuck his tongue out. “It was the polite thing to do.”

Sasori shook his head. It amazing sometimes how Deidara could not realize just how weird he was.

“It’s cute that you’re jealous, though.”

Conveniently, Sasori had just summoned Jirou and was doing a crosscheck before climbing into his carapace. He flicked Jirou’s tail out in Deidara’s direction and gave his partner a quick whack on the ass.

“Hey!” Deidara protested, glaring at him. “Haven’t you done enough to me there already?”

Sasori just smirked at him in response and climbed inside Jirou. “Hurry up.”

Deidara checked his reflection in the mirror and ran his fingers through his hair. It wasn’t long enough to tie up yet, but his bangs were creeping closer to covering his left eye every day. Deidara pushed them back up and fastened his scope into place.

“You don’t have anything to worry about, though,” Deidara said as he focused the lens in experimentally. Apparently, it passed the test, because Deidara grabbed his clay pouch to leave. “You’re the only boyfriend I want.”

Sasori paused at the door at that. “Only two weeks ago, you were calling me husband.”

“Only two weeks ago, you were denying it.” Deidara raised a curious eyebrow.

Inside Jirou’s carapace, Sasori blushed. He would have been glad that Deidara couldn’t see it, but Deidara had a sixth sense about these things and was smirking at him anyway. “That was before we…consummated.”

“So, does that mean you finally admit that we’re married?” Deidara demanded.

“Tch. Don’t expect this to last. As soon as I have the opportunity, I’m switching out of this body.” It had already been almost two weeks since he was able to safely make the transition, however, and he still hadn’t done a thing to prepare himself.

“I remember,” Deidara assured him.

That was good because sometimes Sasori forgot.

***

Twenty years ago…

Sasori shivered in the night air. He’d had to run all the way to the Rice Field Country to escape the Suna ANBU squad that was pursuing him. He’d found himself a decent hideout in the caves beneath the forest here, but it was chill and damp, especially this late into the autumn.

Soon, though, the cold wouldn’t be a problem ever again.

Sasori critically examined the seals that surrounded him one by one. It was the twelfth time he’d done so. He tried to reassure himself that he was just being careful, and he wasn’t afraid. Fear was emotion, and emotion led to weakness. His whole miserable childhood had taught him that, and now it was time to break free.

It was hard for a sixteen-year-old boy not to be terrified at the notion of cutting out his own heart, however.

The seals were still perfect, and the stasis field was ready to be activated to keep him alive throughout the procedure.

“It’s absolutely routine,” he reminded himself, his voice sounding unnaturally high-pitched in the silence of the cave. “I’ve done this plenty of times before.”

He tried not to think about what had happened to the first bodies he’d tried to turn into puppets. Spectacular failures and misshapen chimeras were long past him now. His technique had become flawless over the last few years.

This was a transformation unlike any he’d tried before, however. He was reasonably certain he could withstand the pain and the sight of his own innards. It was impossible to be certain of that sort of thing, though.

Sasori returned to the center of his seal formation and the inclined seat there. Hiruko stood facing the operating table, still and lifeless without Sasori’s chakra strings to guide him. Sasori sat down carefully, and reached for the fastenings that would hold his body in place while he worked. His fingers trembled.

In many ways, this was the ultimate test of his resolve. He wanted to live without emotion, without feeling. The final step was his ability to discard his body, coolly and dispassionately. This was everything Sasori had been working towards all these years.

Sasori forced his fingers to still and fastened the band around his legs.

Some part of him clung desperately to his flesh. It insisted that he was going to die, alone in this dank cave, and no one would even remember his name. There was no coming back if he failed this time. If something happened, there would be no one to save him…

He pulled the brace around his abdomen tight.

There were things in this world he liked, that weak part of him insisted, that he’d never be able to experience again. He’d never taste fresh-cooked eel, or feel the hot desert breeze against his cheeks, or feel the blood of his victims cling to his fingers, hot and sticky. He’d never grow any taller, or know what he would have looked like as an adult.

He tied the final band across his shoulders, binding his torso in place.

“I can build myself a body of any height I want, and I’ll never grow old and die, either,” he said aloud, forcing himself to cast aside his fears.

He pushed his chakra into the seals around him, and they pulsed to life one by one, glowing an eerie blue. His fingers twitched, and Sasori reached out to Hiruko with his chakra strings. Hiruko came to life in response and reached for the table beside Sasori. Sasori made sure all the tools he needed were in place. Neither he nor Hiruko would be able to leave the seals if he’d forgotten something this time.

“I am strong enough,” he annunciated clearly into the nothingness around him. “I am beyond all emotion.”

He made Hiruko pick up the scalpel and raise it to his chest.

The first cut burned more than he could possibly have anticipated. He hissed and looked down at his chest to see a shallow bleeding slice off of the main incision. He took a deep breath to steady himself, and the blade ached in his chest. It had been years since he’d left a hesitation mark on one of his puppets.

Sasori experienced a strange sensation then, a moment of profound doubt. He could stop now, if he wanted. It wasn’t too late. Maybe there was a better way, a way that didn’t involve slicing his body to pieces…

“I am beyond humanity.” Sasori’s voice echoed weakly throughout the cave, sounding horribly unsure.

Hiruko’s hand reached for the bone saw, anyway.

***

Present day…

“Your boyfriend’s liaison is late, brat.” Sasori rested Jirou’s bulk back against one of the trees in the clearing and began whittling at one of the branches he found on the forest floor.

Deidara glared at him. “How many times do I have to tell you? He’s not my boyfriend. And don’t call me ‘brat.’”

“I’ve called you ‘brat’ for almost ten years now. I hardly see the point in stopping now.” A wicked smirk curved Sasori’s lips inside Jirou. “Brat.”

“It’s different now,” Deidara insisted. “We’re something more than just ‘Master’ and ‘brat,’ yeah?”

“I knew you were going to get mushy on me.” Sasori rolled his eyes.

Deidara crossed his arms over his chest defensively. “It’s your choice. But don’t expect any action tonight…”

The smirk fell from Sasori’s face, and his carving knife froze in the wood. “Are you blackmailing me?” he snarled.

“I’m trying to show you that I’m serious!” Deidara insisted.

“Whatever,” Sasori turned away from him and resumed his work. He tried not to think too much about the fact that he’d left the ‘brat’ off at the end.

Deidara turned his back on Sasori, too. They waited for a moment before their eavesdropper landed in the clearing.

“It’s about time,” Sasori snapped.

“Huh.” The ninja stood and ignored Sasori’s complaint, brushing a leaf from his shoulder instead. “So you’re two of those kind.” He didn’t say it with any real malice, though, just a vague hint that it was interesting intelligence.

Sasori’s first instinct was to object. He wasn’t gay, but then he wasn’t straight, either. He was pretty sure he wasn’t much of anything. Deidara was the lone exception in a lifetime filled with a complete lack of interest in sex. He still wasn’t even sure that it was the sex he wanted from Deidara, but rather the feelings of possession and control that went along with it.

“Huh,” Deidara mocked the Hinoiri ninja’s tone and looked him up and down. “They sent an old man.”

Sasori inwardly seconded Deidara’s opinion. The man they faced was easily a jounin, and probably the strongest ninja Sasori had met in the Storm Country to date. He was steeped over slightly from old age and was nearly bald now, except for the long, thin beard on his chin. Sasori could tell that he’d once had a broad, strong chest, though. He was still a bit of an intimidating figure, even ravaged by age.

Sasori tried not to remember what had happened the last time he’d faced off with a powerful elder. Even if that defeat had ultimately led to his freedom, it was still bitter.

“I am Kyoukoku no Hirohisa, emissary of Sousui Inukai of Hinoiri,” he announced in a formal tone, albeit with the usual Storm Country accent.

Sasori exchanged a glance with Deidara. The statement had been addressed to him, in acknowledgement of his position as senior partner. “Akasuna no Sasori,” he replied in the crisp, precise vowels of the Suna nobility, “and my partner, Nijuuni Deidara.”

Hirohisa considered this, the crow’s feet at the edges of his eyes crinkling as he studied them. “He has a foreign name.” He gestured to Deidara. “And you both have foreign accents.”

“I suppose so.” Sasori didn’t offer any further information. “Why does your Sousui want to speak with us?”

“To the point, I see.”

Sasori narrowed Jirou’s eyes. “I don’t like waiting.”

“A luxury your profession allows,” Hirohisa nodded. “The Sousui wishes to hire you.”

“Hire us?” Deidara chimed in with a curious tilt of his head.

“The Storm Country doesn’t lack for mercenaries,” Hirohisa explained, “but the Sousui was particularly impressed with your skill. Having now felt your chakra myself, I can understand why.”

He left off that he was obviously there to collect information, as well. Sasori began to have a bit of respect for Hinoiri’s Sousui. The man had the sense to assess the new threat properly before declaring them friend or foe. He would make an excellent puppet one day.

“What mission?” Sasori asked.

“I know some mercenaries don’t do assassinations…” Hirohisa began cautiously.

Sasori saw the glint of excitement spark in Deidara’s visible eye. “My partner’s specialty,” he answered with a nod in Deidara’s direction.

“Fun,” Deidara agreed with a smile. “Art.”

Hirohisa’s lips quirked into a smirk, and he produced a scroll from the folds of his robe.

Sasori tensed at the motion, although outwardly Jirou remained cool and collected. He accepted the scroll and read it over. “A council member from Keimei.” He passed the scroll along to an eager Deidara. “What do we get in return?”

“Five million yibi.”

Sasori did the mental calculations into ryo and adjusted for the comparative poverty of the Storm Country, and thus the lower prices. “Ten million,” he countered.

Hirohisa grinned. “Six.”

“Eight.”

“Seven.”

“And a half.”

“Deal.”

Deidara yawned at their haggling and continued to peruse the information on their target.

“I’ll need half upfront,” Sasori demanded, “and, if we don’t get the rest, it will cost your Sousui his head instead.”

“I would expect nothing less from a professional,” Hirohisa agreed.

***

Twenty years ago…

Sasori couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried.

He probably had, back when he was a small child and still had his parents to take care of him whenever anything went wrong. Those days were hazy now, a distant memory. He’d never had a chance to cry when his parents died, because he hadn’t known. By the time his grandmother had told him the truth, the emptiness had seeped so deeply into his soul that there was just…nothing.

As Sasori guided Hiruko’s fingers to pull his heart from his chest, though, he cried.

He tried to deny the tears as sweat or exertion at first, but with the first tang of salt on his lips, he couldn’t keep up the lie any longer. He despised the weakness, but it wasn’t so bad. After all, it was reasonable to mourn his own death, if nothing else. His world was coming to an end, and a new unfathomable one was taking its place.

The stasis seals activated around his heart, and Sasori watched it for a moment, beating outside his own body. It was strange. The heart was still a part of him, and he could send chakra strings through it, out of it, and with them he could look back at himself, lying sliced open on the operating slab.

Sasori dispelled the chakra strings quickly. The vision made him more than a little queasy. “O-One more to go.” One more, and then there wouldn’t be any pain ever again. There wouldn’t be any pleasure either: no feeling whatsoever.

Sasori moved Hiruko’s scalpel until it pressed against his skull. Tears were still leaking out of the corners of his eyes.

At age sixteen, Sasori died by his own puppet’s hands and emerged as a creature that would never be entirely human again.

The operation was a complete success.

***

Present day…

Sasori jumped down through the skylight and landed in the main hall soundlessly. A half second later, Deidara was right beside him. The court was empty at this time of night, and Sasori took a moment to assess the enemy position.

The four chuunin on the roof still hadn’t detected them. There was an ANBU squad roaming the perimeter, but they were too far away to interfere now. Several pairs of guards were stationed throughout the building, undoubtedly two at the chambers of every council member. There was only one pair he and Deidara had to worry about.

Deidara turned to look at him with a questioning tilt of his head.

Sasori nodded and gestured for Deidara to lead the way down the hall to their left. They slipped out of the courtroom as silently as they’d entered it.

The corridors were completely dark in this part of the building. Apparently, no one was expected to wander around at night. Deidara’s eyes had always been good at acclimating to the dark, however, and the starlight shining in through the windows above was all he needed to guide them flawlessly to their quarry.

The guards outside the door went down with a pair of senbon. Deidara stepped over the nearest body and signaled to Sasori that he was going in. Sasori nodded absentmindedly, but his eyes were focused on one of the men he’d just paralyzed. He was barely more than a boy, and in the lamplight from the far wall, his hair was a brilliant, fiery red.

From this position, he looked like Sasori himself.

Sometimes an artist’s inspiration struck at exactly the wrong times. This was one of them. Sasori knew it was far too risky, but he couldn’t stop himself once the idea had taken hold.

He opened up Jirou’s carapace quickly and stepped out of it. With a tug of chakra strings, he lifted up the boy’s paralyzed body, and threw him inside Hiruko instead, before pulling his carapace closed. The air of the corridor was cool on his flesh, and he was far too exposed now, but if his plan succeeded…

If his plan succeeded, he’d have everything he’d ever wanted.

He turned his attention back to Deidara, who had now entered their target’s bedroom. Sometimes, when he knew they’d be separated on a mission, he attached a couple of chakra strings to Deidara, so that he could see what was happening. Deidara either never noticed or didn’t care, because he’d never commented on it.

Through the threads, Sasori could see the dark bedroom and the figure sleeping in the bed. The councilman was an old man, and even his ninja skills seemed to be failing him in his age, because he didn’t stir as Deidara approached.

Deidara opened his palm to reveal a tiny clay spider. It leapt from his hand onto the sheets, skittered up the man’s body, and when it reached his heart, exploded in a fiery blast.

At the same moment, the trap around them was sprung.

Sasori had a moment to shout in warning before the jets of fire shot from the walls, all aimed directly at Deidara. His chakra strings were destroyed in the process, and the panic he felt over the sudden loss of knowledge about his partner’s condition almost cost him his life.

The trap set for him was much more basic: a thousand edged blades sprung from the walls, flying at him from every direction. Instinctively, he yanked on Jirou’s chakra strings. The puppet tackled him to the ground, wrapping his body around Sasori’s.

Sasori heard a dozen thuds as Jirou’s body was riddled with kunai. At the same time, there was a sharp sting in his arm, and he looked over to see that one of the kunai had just grazed his bicep where Jirou hadn’t covered him completely. Sasori could see the inky black liquid on the blade. It was poisoned: just great.

Sensing that the first attack was over, he pulled Jirou back up to his feet and scrambled into the councilman’s chambers. He could hear the clang of metal blades coming from the back of the suite, and part of him rejoiced – because a battle must mean that Deidara was still alive – and another part of him panicked – because if Deidara was injured…

He burst into the bedroom to find Deidara pinned back into the corner, facing off against an ANBU in a raven’s mask. Another ANBU lay on the floor; the blood on his throat looked black in the dim light.

Even when Sasori had been his most successful at dispelling all emotions, anger was the one that still crept in most strongly on him. He wasn’t particularly good at dispelling his emotions at all right now. Still, he’d never gone into a rage like this before.

He tackled the ANBU from behind, and his fingers clawed at the man’s throat, cutting off his oxygen supply. It was the sort of attack that no ninja would prepare for, and the ANBU started for a moment in surprise, then tried desperately to shake Sasori off from where he’d latched onto the man’s back and squeezed the life from his body.

Deidara was just as surprised as the ANBU, apparently, because he blinked in disbelief at Sasori for a moment before he pulled himself together and thrust his kunai into the ANBU’s gut.

The man slumped to the floor, dying, and Sasori finally let go. His fingers were dripping with blood.

“I had him, yeah?” Deidara ventured hesitantly, offering Sasori a hand to his feet.

Sasori took it and pulled Deidara up against him. “The fire…” Sticky, bloody fingers ran over Deidara’s body quickly, making sure he was all there.

Deidara snapped the clay in his mouth deliberately. “I blew a bubble.” He blew a small one, not large enough to enclose his head, let alone his whole body, in demonstration. “I just got a bit of the heat.” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal that the skin there was red with a few white blisters, like he’d lifted it up to shield his face, which was unburned.

Sasori scowled at him. “Brat.”

“I told you not to call me that,” Deidara said with an indulgent smile.

“Deidara…” Sasori sighed, pressing his forehead into the crook of his partner’s neck.

“There are more outside,” Deidara warned him.

“I know.” Sasori reached into his pocket and pulled out several tubes. He was beginning to feel dizzy, and he was pretty sure it was the poison taking hold. “They hit me with something. Hopefully, one of my antidotes will work on it.” Sasori did have quite a number of antidotes in his possession; it was necessary with all the poisons he worked with.

“I’ll watch your back.” Deidara pulled away from him and met Jirou at the doorway. Already, his hands were viciously chewing clay. “Why’d you get out of Jirou, anyway?”

“Mind your own business,” Sasori snapped, injecting himself with the first antidote.

“Fine, fine, forget I asked.” There was a sound of scuffling in the hallway, and then a bang.

Sasori was on his fourth injection. He only had two more antidotes in his possession.

“Hurrying would be nice.” Deidara let loose a swarm of clay wasps, and Sasori could see the bright flashes of the explosions light up the other room in quick succession.

“Done.” Sasori pulled out the syringe for the last time and shook his arm so that the shots would spread through his system more quickly. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Gladly.” Deidara grabbed the chair in the corner and threw it through the window with his full strength.

Sasori unhinged Jirou’s jaw and flooded the suite with poisoned senbon as the glass shattered into a million pieces.

Deidara ran over to the window, his left hand still working his clay, and froze. “Uh-oh…”

“Uh-oh?” One of the jounin in the suite had raised an earth shield, and Jirou’s senbon became ineffective. Sasori switched his focus to the lightning seal in Jirou’s wrist and waited for the attack to come.

Deidara ducked back from the window just in time to avoid getting hit by about twenty arrows. “There are about a hundred guys out there with bows,” he offered sheepishly.

Sasori frowned. “They knew we were coming, and they knew our abilities.”

“Someone spilled that we were coming, yeah?”

“Only one person knew that we were coming…”

“One of us gets to kill the Sousui and one gets Hirohisa. Want to flip for it?”

“Let’s get out of this alive first.” Sasori rolled his eyes.

“Ah, right. Down?”

“Down,” Sasori agreed.

Jirou let off an arc of lightning into the main suite. Sasori was wasting chakra, because the enemy’s earth shield was back up, but they needed to buy a few seconds. With his free hand, Sasori pulled his puppet scroll from its wrist sheath and summoned Kousei.

“Brace yourself,” he warned Deidara, and then Kousei let out a ring of flames around them that melted straight through the floor. They fell down to the floor beneath them with a crash.

Sasori gave Deidara a moment to steady himself again, and he quickly checked over the state of his puppets. Jirou had a busted arm, and he would have returned his carapace to his scroll, if not for the boy inside.

Deidara nodded to Sasori, and they could hear shouting as the enemy reconvened on their new location. “They must have been masking their chakra well, for there to be this many,” Deidara commented.

That worried Sasori, too. Thus far they hadn’t had much difficulty detecting the concealment techniques of the Storm Country, but this village seemed to be better than most.

“Let’s go.”

Kousei cut through the floor with flames again, and they fell down into the basement. Dust and plaster flew everywhere, and Sasori and Deidara both scrambled off the section of floorboards that had fallen with them and onto the hardened dirt.

Sasori pulled Kousei back into his scroll and brought Jirou over to stand beside him.

Deidara raised an eyebrow at Jirou being left out of the scroll, but didn’t make any comment. He formed the seals for the earth tunnel technique, and they vanished down beneath the soil.

It was very dark down beneath the earth. Sasori followed the tunnel in perfect blackness for what felt like an age, feeling his way with chakra. Deidara led them steadily deeper, occasionally turning for reasons Sasori could only assume made sense to his partner. Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer and pulled a chemical torch from his robe. The steady blue light was almost blinding after the complete darkness.

Deidara blinked for a moment and then continued to move downward. They were probably far enough that the enemy’s chakra couldn’t sense them, but they still didn’t risk speaking. It was tiresome, but came with the job.

Finally, Deidara turned sharply to the left, and they began to slowly ascend once more. Sasori guessed they’d covered almost a mile, and the air in their tunnel was beginning to run thin. His chest was aching. His system was still weak from the poison – although, thankfully, one of his antidotes seemed to be working – and he felt impossibly tired.

It just added insult to injury that, if he’d turned himself back into a puppet when the opportunity had first presented itself, he wouldn’t be able to feel pain at all anymore. He had allowed himself to become distracted from his goal by Deidara’s enticing body, and it had almost been the death of him.

He kept his eyes fixed on Deidara’s back as they continued to climb. Deidara’s tank-top shifted suggestively, offering hints of the muscles that lay beneath. Sasori had had only a little over a week to explore those muscles, but already he knew them well, knew exactly where to stroke and bite and lick to make Deidara hum beneath him in contentment or let out a sharp yelp of pain.

Sasori wanted Deidara, even now. He’d wanted immortality for a lot longer, however. He pondered the conundrum as they walked.

The tunnel finally opened into the night air, and Sasori let out a gasp of relief. He looked back to the east and could hear the bustle of Keimei in the aftermath of the invasion. “It would’ve been nice to leave them with a parting gift,” he sighed.

Deidara considered him carefully for a moment. “I could try,” he finally admitted softly.

Sasori turned to look at him curiously.

Deidara just shrugged and lifted up his shirts. “I’ve been practicing, yeah?” He took out a kunai and delicately snipped each of the stitches from the mouth in his chest. “I’ve gotten it down to C-3. I think I can do this.”

Sasori nodded, feeling the adrenaline rush through his veins once more.

Deidara gave the mouth in his chest a small bit of clay. It chewed for a moment, and Sasori could feel that dangerous chakra swirling wildly. Deidara spit the clay out after only a second, and it had transformed into a swirling, pulsing black ball of energy.

“Hold on.” Deidara closed his eyes, pressed his forefingers together in concentration, and the ball of explosive chakra moved.

It flew through the sky, slowly and steadily towards Keimei. Deidara’s shoulders trembled with effort, and his brow broke out into a cold sweat.

Sasori caught Deidara as his knees buckled before he could hit the ground and lose his focus. Sasori eased them gently into a kneeling position, his arms wrapped around Deidara from behind while Deidara slumped back against his chest in exhaustion.

They held their position for a few more minutes, and then Deidara suddenly released his control.

An explosion larger than anything Sasori had ever seen lit up the night sky, blinding in its brilliance. It must have been powerful enough to take out the whole village of Keimei.

“Did you see it?” Deidara breathed when the explosion died down and the night was quiet once more.

“I saw it.” Sasori caught Deidara with one arm under his bent knees and the other around his back, and rose to his feet.

Deidara looped his arms weakly around Sasori’s neck and pressed his face into the crook of Sasori’s throat. “That was art, yeah?” The mouth on his chest was already snoring loudly from its exertion.

“It’s about time you unleashed your full potential,” Sasori commented with a roll of his eyes. The words were double-edged, though, because in his desire for Deidara, he’d intentionally held back his own potential. Deidara had found a way to improve himself; Sasori was still only half the ninja he’d been as a puppet.

In that moment, he came to a decision.

“Let’s go home,” he announced, carrying Deidara bridal-style and unconscious from the scene of their victory.

***

Twenty years ago…

Sasori brought his fingers up to touch his face. He saw skin meet skin in the mirror, but inside he didn’t feel a thing. He felt so quiet inside now, like a thousand little things that had made him Sasori were suddenly gone.

He pushed his chakra into the fingertips and could detect that his cheek was still there, but he couldn’t feel it. Sensing his own puppet body was no different from sensing the door across the room. They existed, and Sasori could detect their position, but that was all.

He could tell that some emotion was trying to bubble up at the thought, but it had nowhere to go. Sasori wondered if it was panic. That would be understandable. Things were so different now, and in tiny ways that he’d never have guessed. He’d known that he’d never eat again, but it hadn’t occurred to him how comforting he’d found the motion of his own breathing.

He still had his heartbeat, of course. It was the only link he still had to the man he’d once been.

He pressed his fingers to the glass of the mirror. It was disorienting having to use his chakra threads for everything, even his own body. Over time, though, it would just make him stronger.

The figure in the mirror pressed its fingers to Sasori’s. He looked almost the same as he had while alive. A few joints showed, but overall Sasori had outdone himself with the realism of this puppet.

If Sasori hadn’t known the truth, he would have thought he was still human.

***

Present day…

Sasori allowed himself a small smile as he gazed down on Deidara’s sleeping body. He abhorred sentimentality, but even he could admit that Deidara looked…peaceful like this. Deidara was smiling into his pillow, and the mounts for his scope glinted in the moonlight streaming in through their bedroom window.

Sasori reached over to run his fingers down the line of Deidara’s bare spine one last time. “My puppet,” he whispered softly. In so many ways, Deidara was his puppet, even though Sasori had never lifted a blade to his flesh. Sasori had controlled Deidara from the inside out, mastered all the intricacies of his body, and inscribed himself so deeply inside Deidara that no one could ever be foolish enough to deny that Deidara was his, now and forever.

“I’ll see you in the morning.” Sasori leaned in and pressed his lips to Deidara’s temple. Deidara’s hair was as soft as silk. It was a wonderful sensation and one that Sasori would miss to the core of his being. He thought Deidara would miss it, too. That was why he had taken his time tonight and given Deidara one long, last parting gift to hold him over for the months ahead.

With a sigh, Sasori pulled back and crept out of bed. Deidara let out a little murmur of protest in his sleep, but Sasori didn’t allow himself to look back.

He made his way to his workshop and the cavern beyond. There, Jirou waited for him before a metal operating table. Beside the table was the unconscious body of the redheaded boy Sasori had captured in Keimei. Now that Sasori could see his face, the boy didn’t look so much like him after all, but he was sufficient for Sasori’s purposes.

He painted the seals in the corners of the cave quickly and neatly. He’d known them for an age now, and they weren’t half the challenge they’d been when he was still barely a boy himself. Jirou watched silently from the center of the room.

Satisfied with his work, Sasori returned to the operating table. His hands didn’t shake at all this time as he strapped himself down. He took a deep breath, double-checked his chakra strings on Jirou, and began.

This time, there was no hesitation mark as he cut out his own heart.

This time, he had no regrets.

Chapter Text

“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.” – Albert Camus

***

Present day…

“Good morning.”

Sasori spoke the instant he saw Deidara’s eyelashes flutter. Deidara let out a little groan and reached across the bed in the general direction of where Sasori’s ass should be. He didn’t find anything there but sheets, of course.

“Mmph?” Deidara complained sleepily. “Come back to bed.”

“I can’t do that.” Sasori leaned forward in the armchair beside the bed and rested his elbows on his knees. It was remarkable, really. Only last night, he hadn’t been able to keep himself from touching Deidara’s body, and now…

Deidara’s back stiffened as he woke up enough to sense that something was very different. His eyes snapped open to look at Sasori, and Sasori saw the realization flash in those eyes for an instant.

“So soon?” He sat up abruptly, the sheets pooling around his bare waist. “Hmm… Well, you did tell me it could be any day.” Deidara looked thoroughly debauched, and he winced when he shifted into a seated position. “At least I’ll still be feeling you for a few days, yeah?”

“If I were human, I’d be blushing right now,” Sasori commented curiously. It was an interesting study: his reactions to Deidara now versus before.

“You were quite cute when you blushed, Master,” Deidara teased.

Sasori considered him for a moment. “I thought you weren’t going to call me ‘Master’ anymore.”

“Doesn’t this change everything back?” Deidara countered. He rose from the bed with an impressive stretch and padded naked over to the dresser.

Sasori watched his ass sway dispassionately. “You’re still mine,” he insisted. “My partner, my…husband.”

Deidara met his eyes in the mirror and beamed at him. “Is that a promise?” he teased, pulling on a pair of maroon boxers.

“Hn.” Sasori rolled his eyes.

Deidara stepped into a pair of grey pants before sauntering over to Sasori. How he was even able to saunter after the workout Sasori gave him the night before was impressive. “Good morning, then.” Deidara leaned in and pressed a kiss to lifeless, wooden lips. “Husband.”

Sasori was taken aback for a moment by how well Deidara was taking his transition back into a puppet body. “I can’t feel it,” Sasori reminded him.

“But I can,” Deidara retorted. He smacked his lips and made a face. “You taste a little like varnish, yeah?”

“I am a puppet,” Sasori sighed.

Deidara’s fingers trailed down Sasori’s chest to rest where his heart should be. “I just hope you found some better protection for your heart this time. Last time, it was pretty much just a giant bull’s-eye.” Deidara’s palm rested fully on his chest, and he frowned.

“I, ah, moved it,” Sasori admitted. “I needed someone to find my weakness once; I don’t need to make it so obvious this time.”

Deidara looked him up and down. “Where’d you put it?” He peered into Sasori’s eyes, like he’d be able to see through his skull or something.

“Somewhere non-vital, where no enemy would think to strike.”

Deidara tapped Sasori’s abdomen and found it hollow with the container for his stomach cable once more. “The only other place big enough is…”

Sasori felt a little sheepish, despite himself. It was a bit embarrassing. “When was the last time the enemy stabbed you in the ass?” he retorted.

Deidara let out a delighted peal of laughter. “You did quite a good job of that last night, as I recall…”

Sasori swatted at his head half-heartedly, and Deidara smirked and got back off his lap to continue getting dressed. “It’s practical,” Sasori insisted.

“No, I’m glad. Unless we come across some real perverts, I doubt anyone will uncover your secret.” Deidara said it with a straight face, but at the end he couldn’t stop himself from snickering.

“As if I needed any more proof that you don’t understand true art…” Sasori grumbled just to be petty.

“Sorry.” Deidara forced himself to be serious and pulled his mesh shirt and tank-top over his head. “So, how are you feeling about killing some Hinoiri ninja, then?” he asked excitedly.

Sasori pulled on his chakra strings and rose to his feet. “Ecstatic,” he said dryly.

***

Hinoiri was a fortress, even more so than the last time they’d attacked. Hirohisa hadn’t been at the rendezvous point to give them the rest of their payment, of course. It was bothersome, but they’d have to take out both targets at once.

Deidara and Jirou approached the front gates, side by side, in broad daylight. It wasn’t the most strategic plan, but they were trying to send a message.

The first wave of chuunin that came at them were all destroyed in a ripple of explosions as the tiny clay ants that swarmed over the ground crept up their legs and detonated.

“Fire ants, huh, Sasori?” Deidara joked.

Sasori rolled Jirou’s eyes. “Try to pay attention. If you get yourself killed, I’m going to spit on your grave.”

Deidara’s brows furrowed. “But you don’t have spit anymore, yeah?”

“Figuratively.” Sasori lashed out with Jirou’s tail and parried the shuriken of the incoming chuunin. His scorpion tail twisted and weaved, blocking every attack with flawless efficiency.

The enemy lines advanced, and Sasori opened the compartments in Jirou’s arms. Senbon packets flew high into the air before scattering, littering the battlefield with tiny poisoned darts.

“They’re holding back their best fighters behind the walls,” Deidara said thoughtfully.

Sasori nodded his agreement.

They came to a halt about ten feet before the giant gates, and Sasori called up in a confident, booming voice, “We only want the Sousui and Kyoukoku no Hirohisa. Hand them over, and your village will go unharmed.”

Roughly a thousand arrows impacted in the area where they’d just been standing.

Having both used the replacement technique so that they were safely out of the range once more, Sasori and Deidara frowned.

“I guess that’s a no,” Deidara sighed.

“I don’t understand humans at all.” Sasori pulled his puppet scroll from his sleeve.

“Me, neither,” Deidara agreed. “Cover me?” He opened his palms to reveal the figure of a vulture within.

Sasori summoned every puppet he had, and they formed a perfect ring around where Deidara was taking off. “Remember what I said about not getting killed.”

“I’d say that same to you, yeah? But that’s not a problem anymore.” Deidara took off into the air on the back of his vulture. A wide variety of enemy attacks followed his lift-off, but Sasori had a puppet to counterattack each and every one of them.

Once Deidara was high enough that he was no longer in danger, Sasori turned his attention to the approaching enemy lines. He felt the chakra flow from his chest, through the hundreds of chakra points in Jirou’s body, and out to his puppets. It was so much easier to control them all like this, without physical limitations. He’d been human again for over half a year, but returning to his puppet body felt like coming home again. This time, he hadn’t forgotten a thing.

He still only had fifteen puppets against the incoming army, however. For all that he’d accomplished, he had a long way to go. He put twelve on the front lines, held two back for his final attack, and stayed inside Jirou at the very rear.

One of the chuunin he’d captured right before his illness had certain abilities with generating plant life. The girl was named Tawara, and he pushed chakra through her veins, while the rest of his front line fended off the first volley of attacks. Once the battle was fully engaged on both sides, he pushed Tawara’s power into the ground, and suddenly the earth exploded with giant vines with thorns as big around as a human torso.

The attack ripped through the Hinoiri army, although most of the jounin and more advanced chuunin avoided being impaled. It tilted the odds significantly more in Sasori’s favor, however.

The battle continued to rage between Sasori’s puppets and the surviving Hinoiri ninja, but Sasori – who had split his attention between the fight and the surroundings behind him – suddenly picked up the expected ambush. It seemed that two ANBU teams had been assigned to take him out from the rear.

He showed no outward sign that he was aware of the attack, but continued to fight his battle. Fumimaru dove in between the vines, perfectly camouflaged, hacking off an enemy limb here and driving his sword through a chest there. Haya’s limbs burned all that they touched, as did Kousei’s, although in a more literal sense. One of the chuunin he’d taken was skilled with wind spears, and another was pretty good with a battle axe. All along, Yajima spun wildly, slicing and dicing.

Satisfied that he could hold the front line almost indefinitely, Sasori prepared his counterattack to the ambush. One ANBU squad closed in carefully from the treetops, while another was coming in from the right.

Sasori waited carefully and then, just as the first enemy came for him, he and Jirou fell to the dirt. Katsura, meanwhile, who had been one of the puppets he’d kept in reserve, turned his head all the way around on his neck and opened his eyes.

The first ANBU squad was vaporized before they even knew what hit them. Katsura had still been somewhat unskilled with his eyes when alive, but Sasori had learned enough about his bloodline limit to perfect his techniques.

The second ANBU squad scattered, dodging wildly among the treetops in an effort to escape Katsura’s deadly gaze.

Sasori waited until they’d regrouped at the bottom of the hill, outside of Katsura’s range, before he turned to his second reserve puppet.

“I won’t miss you,” he informed Ginzou. Ginzou grinned smugly back. Sasori gave the oversized puppet a good kick, and it wobbled for a minute – one last moment of defiance – before it tumbled down the hill, picking up tremendous speed as it did so, and bowled right through the ANBU squad.

They all leapt out of the way, of course, but Sasori pulled his final string on the puppet as it passed them by. “Katsu,” he said blandly, because he was in a mercurial mood that day.

The exploding tags inside Ginzou’s bulk blew up with an astonishing blast. It took two of the ANBU down, and winged the other two. For a moment, Sasori could almost understand why Deidara liked explosions so much. There was something satisfying about watching your enemy’s body being ripped to shreds.

Sasori watched them burn.

“I’m not going to take you by surprise, am I?” a calm voice broke into his silent musings.

“No,” he agreed. He turned Jirou’s head to see Hirohisa crouched in a nearby tree branch. Katsura was limp on the ground off to the right. “I am curious how you disable the Mahiru Clan so effectively.” Sasori frowned at his most powerful puppet. “It’s best to know my own puppet’s weaknesses.”

“Sorry,” Hirohisa shrugged. “Old Clan secret.”

“Hmm,” Sasori considered this. “Would I find it out if I made you part of my army?”

“Maybe. I never like to underestimate my enemies’ abilities.”

“That gives me twice the reason to defeat you, then,” Sasori concluded.

“I suppose it does,” Hirohisa agreed, tugging at his long, grey beard thoughtfully. “I’m sorry it’s come to this.”

“You mean you’re sorry that ambush in Keimei didn’t kill us.”

“You have to admit,” Hirohisa sighed wearily, “you might have worked for us for a while, but in the end you would have destroyed Hinoiri anyway. That’s just what you are. I could tell it the moment I looked into your partner’s eyes. I still haven’t seen your real eyes, but if the two of you are together, then you must be the same. That’s how these things work.”

“Of course I would have destroyed Hinoiri,” Sasori agreed readily. “I would have taken every one of your ninjas and turned them into my own creations. It’s nothing personal, you understand. It’s just part of the larger plan.”

Hirohisa’s eyes narrowed, and Sasori knew that he’d finally gotten underneath the man’s easygoing exterior. “It’s a pity. You would have made a good ally.”

Hirohisa clasped his hands together, and Sasori felt the chakra around them build. There wasn’t time to pull any of his puppets off the front lines, so Sasori braced himself for the attack instead.

There was a moment of perfect stillness, and then the forest itself twisted in around him. For one moment, he thought it was genjutsu, but then one of Jirou’s legs was caught in the swirling reality, and it was ripped right off.

“Shit!” Sasori swore, leaping into the air.

The vortex chased after him.

***

The greatest thing about not being human, Sasori learned long ago, was that he didn’t get tired. As a human, every push and pull on a muscle, every breath, every turn of the head expended just a little bit of energy. Jutsu required energy, too, and that energy was pulled from the same source that all physical movement was.

As a puppet, however, even the largest, most extravagant motion required no more energy than the flick of a puppet string. When Sasori was at even strength with an opponent, they would naturally tire ten times as quickly, because they were getting a full body workout and Sasori was doing the equivalent of twitching his pinky.

It was that way with Hirohisa. At his prime, the old man might have even had more chakra than Sasori, but now they’d begun on even terms. Sasori was expending energy working his puppet army as well, of course, but it was nothing compared to the running and dodging Hirohisa had to do.

Sasori could see the man panting for breath, and only too recently Sasori would have been doing the same. Now, though, Sasori could fight like this forever.

The old man’s first hits were the worst. That first blow had taken one of Jirou’s legs, and then next sent Sasori’s carapace tossing and turning down the ravine. Thankfully, Sasori had ejected his own puppet body in time. He could see that the right side of Jirou’s chest had taken some damage and would require repairs before he could block any more attacks. Sasori left him there and faced off against Hirohisa in his own body.

“The Sousui said you looked deceptively young…” Hirohisa studied him curiously, aiming his next attack.

This time Sasori had no difficulty dodging the vortex. That was the secret to fighting these high-level attacks. After a few shots, no matter how powerful the enemy ninja was, they lost their finesse. If Sasori was calculating correctly, Hirohisa had three more of those shots and then he’d be dead.

Hirohisa apparently reached the same conclusion because he turned to water element attacks. Sasori leapt high into the air and activated the fire canister at his back. Fire met water in a sudden burst of steam, and Sasori fell back down through the mist to engage Hirohisa in hand-to-hand.

“You’re different from before,” Hirohisa commented, dodging the winged blades that emerged from Sasori’s back. “Stronger.”

“What you met before was just an echo,” Sasori informed him coolly, his voice perfectly level even in the heat of battle. “I am the real Sasori.”

The compartment in his stomach slid open, and he whipped out the cable within before Hirohisa could react. Sasori was quicker and had more endurance than any human now. Hirohisa lunged away from the first blow, but the backswing cut a scratch up the length of his thigh.

He flipped back out of the way and landed on a small, rocky outcropping. “Not bad.” He pressed his hands together in a seal. “But I’m not finished yet.”

“Oh, no?” Sasori cocked his head to one side. “Because I really think you are.”

Hirohisa looked down at where his hands were trembling to try to form the next seal. “Poison?” he whispered. One of his knees buckled, and he went down.

“What would a puppeteer be without it?” Sasori said lightly.

Hirohisa twitched on the ground as Sasori approached. Sasori saw his eyelid flutter deliberately when Sasori’s foot came into view and jumped aside just in time to avoid the man’s final water jutsu. The blast shattered a boulder to his left instead.

“Nice try, old man.” Sasori crouched down beside him, checking that he was fully paralyzed this time. “But your body has finally failed you. Don’t worry, though. With me, you’ll be immortal…”

With a twitch of Sasori’s fingers, Jirou stood up on the far side of the battlefield and skittered over to them on his seven remaining legs. Sasori checked over the damage to Jirou’s compartment dispassionately and concluded that he could still hold a body, although his shielding would need extensive repairs.

“In, you go.” He lifted Hirohisa up on puppet strings, and he could have sworn he saw terror in the man’s eyes as Jirou’s hinges creaked shut around him.

With that out of the way, Sasori turned his attention back to the battle with Hinoiri’s main forces. His puppet army had held its own the entire time, but he still hadn’t heard any explosions from within the city. It wasn’t like Deidara to be this quiet, and he wondered where his partner had gotten off to.

He turned his attention back to his army. It was time to end this.

***

The reason there were no explosions coming from the main town was that Deidara’s battle with the Sousui wasn’t taking place in the main town. Sasori’s new tracking puppet, Joji, had only split off from the battle for a minute before he located Deidara and the Sousui a full mile southwest of the town.

Sasori’s own half of the mission was accomplished, so he pulled back all his puppets and gave the enemy one last parting shot from Katsura’s eyes. He hoped the chaos in the aftermath would keep the enemy from following him. Likely, it was the front line’s job to protect the gates, in any case, so he’d be allowed to go.

His assumptions proved correct when only a few ninja peeled off to chase after him. They didn’t engage him, though, and Sasori figured they were trying to gauge whether the attack had really ended and whether or not they should pursue.

He ignored them for the moment because he could sense the action up ahead now. The Sousui had had a small army with him, it seemed. Sasori couldn’t think of a reason why he’d been this far from the city, unless he’d been making a run for it.

He passed the first enemy bodies, all with portions of their torsos blown to shreds. The battle was comparatively silent now, though. Deidara was playing things close to the chest to prevent reinforcements from Hinoiri from coming to their leader’s aid. Sasori was almost impressed with his restraint.

Then he got to the scene of the actual battle, and he rolled his eyes. “Stop fooling around, Deidara.” He watched the two men clash, kunai to kunai, before Deidara ducked under the blade and flipped backwards. A series of lightning-quick parries and dodges followed.

“I’m not,” Deidara panted, “fooling around!”

Sasori sighed and absentmindedly spun Jirou around to shoot two of the Sousui’s incoming bodyguards with senbon. “Then why are you using taijutsu?”

“Stay out of range,” Deidara warned. “He’s got some technique for suppressing enemy chakra.”

That caught Sasori’s attention, and he frowned at the Sousui. The man was still remarkably fit, given the size of his gut, but Sasori had never seen anyone beat Deidara for stamina, so he had faith that his partner would emerge victorious. “I’ll keep anyone from interfering,” he announced, slicing out at an approaching ANBU with Jirou’s lightning blade.

“I’d expect nothing less from my Sasori.” Deidara rolled and struck out with one heel, sending the Sousui to the ground. The man lashed out with his kunai, though, forcing Deidara to retreat once more.

Another bodyguard rushed at the fighting pair, and Sasori took him out with a flare from Katsura’s eyes. He returned his scroll to his sleeve; he shouldn’t need more than his top two puppets to keep Deidara’s battle even.

“I’m surprised you still talk about me like that.” Sasori kept a wary eye on the tree line, waiting for the next enemies to arrive.

“I always talk about you like that,” Deidara retorted. Sparks flashed off the blade of his kunai as it met every slash from the Sousui’s weapon.

Sasori readied the blades in his shoulders as a new team of jounin arrived. “I thought you’d be mad at me.”

Deidara let out a wide, low slash and caught the Sousui in the side. The older man staggered back, clutching his wound, and gave Deidara time to regroup. “Why? Because you turned yourself into a puppet again?”

“Obviously.” The chakra threads spun from Sasori’s fingertips as Jirou and Katsura met the oncoming jounin. Jirou was still a bit slow due to his injuries, but Sasori couldn’t put him away while Hirohisa was still alive inside of him, so he might as well make Jirou fight. It did make it easier for the jounin Jirou was fighting to knock aside his sword and rush at Sasori, though.

“Are you kidding?” Deidara kicked high and caught the Sousui in the shoulder. The man grunted at the force of the blow and staggered back. “I love what you’ve done to yourself.”

Sasori blinked, then twisted to the side as the first jounin attacked his puppet body. “What?” he demanded, slicing the man’s wrist with his shoulder blades.

“Your art…” Deidara sighed wistfully. “It’s always so moving.” He ducked under a wild punch, still as fast and strong as ever, and his fist caught the Sousui right in his ample stomach. The Sousui buckled under the blow.

“But…you wanted me?” Sasori said hesitantly. His actions were sure and quick, though: Katsura took out the remaining jounin with a sharp flare from his eyes. Sasori began to feel a bit of a pull on his chakra; he should probably stop using Katsura’s attack soon, or it would drain his reserves.

Deidara’s heel pressed into the Sousui’s throat where he pinned the man to the ground. “Yeah, and I got to be with you. It was everything I’d ever dreamed, too.” Deidara’s cheeks flushed, and he looked over at Sasori shyly for a moment. “But art is more important than that, yeah?”

“I suppose so…” Sasori frowned and took a step toward his partner.

“I’ve always admired your art,” Deidara looked down dispassionately at the Sousui’s squirming body, “even if you’ve got some funny ideas about what art is.”

I have funny ideas?” Sasori snapped.

Deidara smirked. With a quick twist of his heel, he snapped his prey’s throat. “Your art has always been about the human condition to me.” His tone was almost perfectly blank as he spoke. “All those years, they called me a freak, like they were somehow better than me. More human.”

Sasori approached Deidara cautiously. Deidara was in one of his volatile moods, and Sasori never knew what to expect from him when he was like this.

“But you turn it all on its head, yeah? You take those ‘normal’ people and show them for what they are: puppets. In your hands, anyone can become a freak. Except me.” Deidara looked up at him. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sasori reached up, and he frowned when his palm cupped Deidara’s cheek and he couldn’t feel the warmth there. In that moment, even without emotions, Deidara was the most beautiful thing Sasori had ever seen, too. “You’re so perfect,” he marveled, tracing the line of Deidara’s face. It was true to him, just then. It was as if the gods themselves had crafted a creature to perfectly understand Sasori in every way.

“Your human body was nice,” Deidara agreed, “but it wasn’t the real you, yeah?”

Sasori’s heart skipped a beat, and he stepped in close so that their faces were only inches apart. “Deidara…” he said softly.

Deidara’s eyes drifted closed, and he leaned in.

Their lips were only millimeters apart when Deidara’s body jerked violently. They both looked down in unison to see the crossbow bolt sticking forward through the middle of Deidara’s chest, blood pooling thick and red around it.

“Sasori?” Deidara managed to gasp out before he fell to the ground in a heap.

Sasori let out a scream of rage that sounded throughout the battlefield, halting the enemy archers in their tracks. Sasori turned to them, Deidara’s body at his feet, and wild, merciless gray eyes flashed with hatred.

Chapter Text

“Freedom means freedom from forces and circumstances which would turn man into a thing, which would impose on man the passivity and predictability of matter. By this test, absolute power is the manifestation most inimical to human uniqueness. Absolute power wants to turn people into malleable clay.” – Eric Hoffer

***

Seven years ago…

“If you could have anything in the world,” Sasori asked as they watched the sunset from the ocean bluffs in the south of the River Country, “what would it be?”

Deidara’s eyes slid over to him, and he gave Sasori a lazy smirk. “Anything?” he teased.

“Be serious, brat,” Sasori grumped.

“Maybe I am serious, yeah?”

“I mean, out of life in general,” Sasori clarified.

“Hmm…” Deidara considered for a moment. “I guess I’d want to do exactly what I’m doing now, and what I did before, too. I love the missions, the danger…”

Sasori scowled and waited for it.

“The explosions.” Deidara grinned gleefully. “I love the opportunities to use my art at every turn.”

“Then why leave Akatsuki?” Sasori asked. “If you’re so happy with the missions, why do you hate it so much?”

“It’s about freedom, yeah?” Deidara retorted. “Maybe what I’m doing isn’t so different from what I did before, but it feels different. Before, it was art for art’s sake. Now, it’s been reduced to a mundane job. It cheapens everything.”

“So, if you were to ever leave Akatsuki?”

“I’d want to do everything I’m doing now,” Deidara agreed eagerly. “I want the taste of blood, the constant challenge. I want to die some day, in the heat of battle, sudden, unexpected, unpredictable…” Deidara smiled softly at the thought of his own demise.

“You’re insane.” Sasori rolled his eyes. “What’s the point of gaining your freedom just to die?”

“What’s the point of living forever just to be a slave?” Deidara shot back.

Sasori sighed. “I don’t understand you at all, brat.”

“Maybe that’s just because you’ve never really tried…”

***

Present day…

Sasori ran.

Later, he wouldn’t remember when he’d tossed Hirohisa from Jirou’s body and put Deidara inside in his place. He never for a moment regretted the choice, though. Deidara was the most precious puppet he’d ever owned; Hirohisa and their revenge were insignificant in comparison. Besides, Hirohisa was already poisoned. He probably wouldn’t survive anyway.

Sasori also wouldn’t remember fleeing from the battlefield, wildly at first because all his attention was on Deidara’s slow-beating heart inside Jirou’s damaged carapace.

He wouldn’t remember the enemy chasing them, the half dozen times he’d actually been caught, only to lash out murderously against their pursuers.

He wouldn’t remember fleeing into the desert and finally losing the enemy. It was a good thing Sasori had lost them, though, because otherwise he would have led them straight to their home.

He wouldn’t remember finally laying Deidara out on the operating table, searching madly through their first aid kits for extra blood and an IV. He wouldn’t remember extracting the bolt from Deidara’s chest, or frantically trying to sew together the wound.

He knew that it all must have happened, though, because he was home now, with Deidara lying pale and wounded on the table. With nothing else to think about other than how his partner was dying, it was a lot easier to try to piece together all the details of an escape that was nothing but a blur to Sasori.

The waiting, though – the hours and hours of waiting – Sasori would remember every second of.

***

Deidara couldn’t die, Sasori finally concluded after the sun had risen on the next morning. Deidara’s skin might be a sickly grey color, and his breathing might be shallow and strained, and his heartbeat might be nothing more than a flutter, but he couldn’t die.

Sasori knew this because fate owed him.

Deidara might not believe in fate, but Sasori knew that it had to be true. Sasori had had his whole life stolen from him before he’d even been old enough to understand what was happening. He’d grown up miserable and alone, and he’d never understood why.

He realized why it had all had to happen now, though. Fate had taken his parents, because compared to the gift Sasori was going to be given, they were nothing. That was what Deidara was, Sasori concluded, a gift from the heavens. There was no other explanation for it. Deidara was perfect for him, and him alone.

It was a trade: Sasori’s youth and innocence, for Deidara. At the time, Sasori would have been foolish and chosen his parents, but that was why fate had never given him a choice. Now, though, Sasori wouldn’t trade his partner for anything in the world. Deidara was his, no matter what the cost, and Sasori would happily sacrifice anything else to keep Deidara by his side.

Fate had already taken everything from him once; it wouldn’t dare try again.

That was how Sasori knew that Deidara couldn’t die.

Sasori went over the stitches in Deidara’s chest a hundred times in those hours. The crossbow bolt had just nicked Deidara’s lung. It was amazing, really, how much the bolt had missed. It hadn’t hit Deidara’s heart, and it hadn’t made his lung collapse.

Sasori had never wished more that he was a medical ninja. He knew how to rip organs out, but he had no real idea how to put them back together. He’d left the lung alone lest he do more damage than good. Given that Deidara wasn’t waking up, though, he thought that it might not be enough.

For one moment, his constant mantra – Deidara can’t die – faltered, and he allowed himself to envision the possibility. He imagined himself living forever, stretched out over the centuries, more alone than he’d ever been as a child. He imagined a world where there was no one there to surprise him, to tease him, to enrage him at all the wrong moments. He imagined creating masterpiece after masterpiece with no one there to appreciate them. He imagined a world without Deidara’s laugh or his smirk or the annoying way he snapped his clay in his mouths.

For the only time since Sasori had found immortality, he hated it.

“If you leave me, I’ll kill you,” Sasori informed Deidara’s unconscious body.

Deidara didn’t quirk his lips and reply with something equally ridiculous that left Sasori sputtering and rolling his eyes. He didn’t wink or stick out his tongues. He didn’t flirt shamelessly. He didn’t move at all. It just wasn’t right seeing Deidara’s face that drawn and sickly.

“If you leave me,” Sasori whispered softly, as if he was afraid someone would overhear, “everything that’s good in my life will die with you.”

All these years, he’d thought that death was his greatest enemy, but it turned out that it had been loneliness all along.

***

The second day, when Deidara’s condition hadn’t improved and Sasori was on the last of the blood transfusions, he allowed himself to consider the obvious solution to his problem.

He wasn’t a medical ninja; it wasn’t in his power to save Deidara. He was, however, an expert puppet maker. Deidara was still alive, and his chakra pathways were intact. Deidara, as a human, was already his favorite puppet. It would be so easy to…

It would be so easy.

A puppet didn’t need to breathe, so it didn’t need lungs. Sasori could replace any part of a puppet’s body. Most importantly, a puppet would last forever. Deidara himself had said countless times that he planned on dying some day. Even if, by some miracle, Deidara survived this injury, Sasori would still be faced with this loss again some time in the future.

A human puppet would be the easiest, of course. There was virtually no risk there. Sasori had managed that with bodies that had technically died, even, although those puppets had been less than perfect. Deidara was more than alive enough for that.

A human puppet would never speak to him again, though. It wouldn’t be able to think or react. It wouldn’t be Deidara, just a puppet that looked like him. For the first time, Sasori clearly saw the distinction. If Deidara became a human puppet, he would die. Sasori would only have a pale imitation to touch in those lonely nights and remind him of what he’d lost.

The other option was that Sasori could give Deidara a puppet body like his own. This plan was more feasible. The problem was that Deidara wasn’t a puppeteer. Sasori was fairly confident that he could transfer Deidara’s consciousness into his heart and install him in a newly immortal body. Deidara wouldn’t know how to move, though, or even to see and listen.

Sasori would have to teach him by example, push his own chakra strings through Deidara’s core and out into Deidara’s limbs. Deidara would have to master the precise chakra control that Sasori used. He wouldn’t be particularly good at it; he’d always been a power fighter. With endless years to practice, though, he would learn. He’d suffer years as a total cripple – unable to so much as raise his hand – but one day he’d finally figure it out. One day, he’d be like Sasori: a walking, talking, sentient puppet.

One day, he’d be able to open his mouth and tell Sasori how much he hated it, and how he hated Sasori in return for forcing that life on him.

Deidara wouldn’t be able to leave Sasori, though, no matter how much he hated him. Deidara as a puppet would never be the powerful ninja he was now. Maybe with hundreds of years of practice, he might refine his control enough to be able to fight again. It would never be the same, though. He’d need Sasori to teach him, to take care of him. He’d be as helpless as any of Sasori’s other puppets.

Sasori had to admit that the idea had its appeal. Deidara just planned to throw his life away anyway, on some ridiculous notion that art was ephemeral. Sasori could save him from all that, make Deidara into everything he wanted in his life’s companion.

He could probably even stop Deidara from killing himself, once Deidara developed the movement to try. Sasori knew for certain, as he thought about it, that Deidara would try.

“You’d be so beautiful,” he informed Deidara’s comatose body, wooden fingers running through sweat-slick hair and not feeling a thing. “One day, maybe you’d even grow to appreciate it.”

Deidara didn’t respond because he couldn’t. In a way, it was very symbolic of what Sasori was thinking of doing to him.

“I promise you’d have your freedom again some day. It might take a thousand years, but you’d have a thousand years. Would it really be so bad?”

Without Deidara there to answer, Sasori had to answer for him. He looked down at Deidara’s pale, dying face, and suddenly wished that just once in all the years they’d been together that he really understood Deidara. His partner was deadly one minute, and a ball of aggravating fluff the next. He liked explosions and interior decorating and goading reactions out of Sasori. He disdained life to the point where he would delightedly take his own, yet he cherished Sasori’s happiness to the point of self-sacrifice.

“I don’t understand,” Sasori sighed. “What should I do?”

In the end, all Sasori could do was try to follow Deidara’s model. Deidara was flighty and unpredictable, but there were a few things that were constant.

“I don’t want to live without you,” Sasori informed him, and he picked up the scalpel.

***

On the third day, Deidara’s cheeks were pink once more and slowly, against his own will, his eyelids flicked open.

Sasori was at his side when it happened, and he ran lifeless fingers along the side of Deidara’s face. “Welcome back, my puppet.”

Deidara tried to open his mouth to speak, but found that he couldn’t move.

“Shh, shh,” Sasori soothed him. “Don’t worry.”

A glint of panic lit Deidara’s eyes nonetheless, and Sasori felt a wave of relief wash through him. There were two very different ways this conversation could have gone. The fact that he could curve his artificial lips into a smile as he explained, let him know that he’d made the right choice.

“It’s just a paralytic,” he assured Deidara. “I had to go back in, cut you open, and heal up the last of the internal bleeding. Your lung… I had to do the best I could. You started to get better right away, though. I think you’ll be fine.”

Deidara stared blankly in his direction, unable to focus his eyes, but Sasori could feel his breathing even out.

“Now,” Sasori sat back and scowled at his little brat of a partner, “don’t you ever do anything like that to me again, or I’ll rip your head off and stick it on a spike on the mantelpiece!”

Inside, Sasori wished that he could laugh with joy at the sight of Deidara desperately trying to scowl at him, but unable to.

“Sleep it off,” he advised, using his chakra strings to shut Deidara’s eyelids again. “You can yell at me all you want once you can move again.”

Sasori almost felt giddy at the notion.

***

“You’re silly,” Deidara rolled his eyes and shifted comfortably against the pillows of the bed.

Sasori blinked at him in disbelief. “I confess to you that I was seconds away from transforming you into a puppet and making your life a living hell, and all you can say is ‘you’re silly’?”

“Well, you are,” Deidara insisted.

It was one of those times when Sasori couldn’t figure Deidara out if he lived to be a million. “You would have hated it!” he protested.

“Of course, I would have,” Deidara agreed. “And you knew I would hate it. So my Sasori would never do anything like that to me.”

“I nearly did!”

“No.” Deidara yawned. “You just freaked out a little. But you understand me better than you think. You could never have gone through with it.”

“You love life…”

“I love art more.”

Sasori scowled at him. “Art lasts forever.”

Deidara laughed and then coughed, clutching at his chest. Sasori was at his side in an instant, feeling for Deidara’s pulse and breathing through the wounded flesh of his chest. Deidara smiled up at him shyly in response.

“You couldn’t make me live as an immortal puppet any more than I could make you live as a mortal human.” Deidara’s hand came up to cover Sasori’s fingers over his heart. He gave Sasori’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Neither of us can ever change what we really are. It’s okay, Sasori. I know.”

Sasori could sense the pressure of Deidara’s palm against the chakra points in his puppet body’s hand. He couldn’t tell how warm Deidara’s grip was, though, or whether it was still weak from the surgery. He had known, when he turned himself again, that this was one thing about being human that he’d miss, but he hadn’t realized that it would be so acute.

“I have something to show you,” he finally sighed, still staring at his hand on Deidara’s heart.

“Oh?” Deidara looked up at him curiously.

“A…gift. In exchange for a gift that was bestowed upon me.”

Deidara frowned slightly, not understanding. With Deidara’s worldview, he probably never would. That was all right, though. Sasori had figured it out, and that was enough for him.

“All right, then,” Deidara finally agreed. “Let’s see it.”

“I have to take you to it.” Sasori’s lips quirked into a smirk.

“You’re being very mysterious…” Deidara said warily, pressing his back further into the pillows like Sasori was creeping him out.

“It’s a surprise.”

Deidara gulped.

“You’ll like it. I promise.”

***

It was two days before Sasori deemed Deidara well enough to leave bed and come see his present. Over that time, Deidara had teased and cajoled him, and one time he’d even managed to set a trap for Sasori using a bucket of wood varnish. It was ridiculous and delightful and exactly the sort of thing that he would have missed forever if he’d gone through with turning Deidara into a puppet.

Maybe Sasori didn’t understand Deidara all the time, but those moments when he didn’t understand – when Deidara was unpredictable and spontaneous – were the most exciting ones. Sasori wondered sometimes whether he really would have had the strength to let Deidara die if that operation hadn’t worked. Seeing Deidara like this now just reassured him that Deidara would never have been the same without his life and freedom.

“I’m not an invalid,” Deidara protested, arms crossed defiantly over his chest as Sasori wheeled him into his workroom and then further on to the secret room he’d created in the back. A wry smile crossed Deidara’s lips. “Ah, yeah. I was wondering when you were going to tell me what’s back here.”

Sasori scowled down at the wheelchair he’d stolen from the hospital in Irihi. Deidara smiled back up at him. “Of course, you knew,” Sasori sighed. “I don’t even know why I should be surprised anymore.”

“You’re always surprised,” Deidara teased. “That’s what makes you so much fun.”

Sasori snorted and rolled his eyes. He wheeled Deidara the rest of the way into his secret workroom.

The seals were still in place from when Sasori had converted his body. If Sasori had decided to turn Deidara as well, everything would have been ready. There were two operating tables in the center of the room, inside the stasis fields. One, Sasori had lain upon that day, only a week ago now, although it felt like an eon.

The other one still held the body of the redheaded boy he’d captured in Keimei. He wheeled Deidara over to it.

“A corpse?” Deidara teased. “You always get me the sweetest gi…” He trailed off mid-syllable as he got a good look at the body.

The chuunin boy’s chest rose and fell, slowly and steadily, within the stasis field. Sasori had already healed the marks from the surgery, but Deidara was clever. He would know that…

“It’s you,” Deidara breathed in awe, leaning in.

The boy’s face was different, of course. He really didn’t look anything like Sasori…yet. “Yes,” Sasori agreed. “I put my brain in him. It’s active, although he’s asleep. We can’t both be conscious for more than a few seconds without starting to lose our minds. A pity I never got to examine Pain’s Rin’negan…”

Deidara looked up at him sharply. “Why?” he demanded.

Sasori sighed and looked down at himself. “It occurred to me that there was a very simple way to expand my ressurection technique. I only had two chakra centers to split my consciousness into, but I needed three. If I activated the implanted one, though… This chuunin will grow into me over the next few months, the same way Hideaki did. He’ll have a brain and a heart, and then I can split him again. I’ll have my three pieces.”

Deidara studied him carefully. “What’s the third one for?”

Deidara already had figured out the answer to that question, of course, but Sasori didn’t begrudge him hearing the words aloud. “I need the first copy of my consciousness for my puppet body.”

“You’re not Sasori without it,” Deidara agreed.

“I need the second to store in another human body, dormant,” Sasori continued. “So that my resurrection technique will activate again, if I ever need it.”

“Right…”

“And I need the third, so that I can keep an active, human copy of myself. It seems I’ve acquired one puppet who has certain…visceral needs. And a puppet-master always takes care of his puppets, even if they are brats.” Sasori quirked a smile in Deidara’s direction.

Deidara stuck out his tongue. “I don’t understand…” he sighed, sounding almost lost.

“I need to be a puppet,” Sasori concluded, “but I don’t really need to be a puppet all the time. I’ve become convinced that a few hours as a human won’t hurt me.” His hand rested on Deidara’s shoulder. He couldn’t feel anything now, of course, but when the chuunin’s body fully transformed, he’d be able to revive it for a few hours and put his puppet body into stasis instead. He’d remind himself of the warmth of Deidara’s skin in those hours, the taste of his lips, the sound of his moans. This time, Sasori wouldn’t slowly forget what it was like. This time, he would have no regrets.

“Do you like it?” Sasori finally asked.

“I still don’t understand,” Deidara laughed, “but it’s the most wonderful present ever.”

As Sasori leaned in and pressed artificial lips to Deidara’s flesh-and-blood ones in a quick peck, he could almost swear he felt something, an emotion so strange and alien that he couldn’t even begin to put a name to it. He liked it, though, and in the end, that was all that mattered.

***

“They’re going to come after us, you know.” Sasori sat on the edge of the cliff and gazed out over the canyon below as the sun set. “All of Hinoiri. Irihi won’t be happy that I raided their village again, either. And then there’s what’s left of Keimei…”

“All that, and you still haven’t rebuilt even a quarter of your puppet army.” Deidara snuggled deeper into the curve of Sasori’s side, his head resting against the wood of Sasori’s shoulder. It couldn’t have been particularly warm against the growing chill of twilight, but Deidara didn’t seem to mind. “It’ll be a lot of fun, yeah?”

Sasori snorted. “Only you would think that having three ninja villages trying to kill us was fun.”

“You think so, too,” Deidara teased. “Admit it.”

Sasori shrugged, causing Deidara to shift slightly and lean on his shoulder just a little bit more. “Maybe,” he conceded slyly.

Deidara let out a contented sigh. “I could stay like this forever. Just you, me, and endless challenges ahead…”

Sasori froze. He’d been waiting for the opportunity to bring this up, and Deidara had just given him the perfect opening. “Then do it,” he requested simply.

“Hmm?” Deidara looked up at him, confused.

“Do it,” Sasori repeated. “Stay like this forever, with me.”

Deidara’s eyes widened. “S-Sasori, I…”

“I know,” Sasori brushed him off. “You think art is temporary. You need to be fleeting. Well, I still think that art is permanent, but I found a way to be just a little bit temporary, so that I could be with you.”

Deidara had opened his mouth to speak, but he closed it then and frowned, like Sasori had said something that he finally couldn’t argue with.

“If I can find a way to be a little bit temporary, why can’t you find a way to be a little bit permanent?” Sasori pressed his point. “Would it really be so bad? It’s a change, yes, but that’s the sort of thing you thrive on.”

“I…” Deidara began hesitantly. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin…”

“You’re a powerful shinobi, and clever.” Sasori shrugged. “Plenty of others have found a way…a way that doesn’t compromise their art, even. If I did it, you could, if you really wanted to.”

Deidara gulped as if something of what Sasori was saying had finally sunk in through that thick skull of his. “I’ll think about it,” he finally said softly, holding Sasori close.

“I’ve got time,” Sasori agreed. After all, change hadn’t come overnight for him; he couldn’t expect it to happen that way for Deidara, either. The fact that he’d even gotten a ‘maybe’ on this issue, though… In Sasori’s mind, it was as good as a done deal. He just hoped that it didn’t take them another ten years.

“Hmm,” Deidara finally said after some time. The sun had set now, and it was dark, but neither got up to move. They watched the bats and night birds flit about up in the sky hunting insects, and thought in silence instead.

“What?” Sasori asked curiously.

“I think I’ve finally figured out what art is,” Deidara announced proudly.

Sasori rolled his eyes. “What now?”

“I think,” Deidara began very carefully, like he was trying to get every word right, “that art is the way one conscious being expresses how they see the world…”

Sasori nodded slowly.

“…In such a way that another, like-minded conscious being can appreciate the truth of that expression.” Deidara bit his lip and considered it for a moment.

“My art is art because you can see the truth in it?” Sasori considered.

“And my art is art because you can see the truth in it,” Deidara agreed.

Sasori debated saying Deidara’s art wasn’t art, just for the sake of annoying him. In the end, however, he decided it wasn’t worth it to keep up that particular argument. “I’ll agree with you on that,” Sasori finally conceded.

Sasori had never seen such a genuine smile on Deidara’s face.

Together, they sat and watched the night come and go for the first of a million times.

Chapter Text

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

***

Ten years later…

“No way.” Sakura froze, blinking in disbelief at what she saw across the crowded tavern. “It can’t be…”

Naruto scrunched up his nose. “This place is even worse than the last one,” he agreed.

“No.” Sakura reached out and caught his wrist in an iron grip. “There.”

Naruto frowned in the direction she was pointing. Several patrons were sitting at the tables against the far wall. There was an old man all but drowning in his sake, and a pair of soldiers playing cards, and a redheaded young man scowling in a superior sort of way at all that he surveyed. “What?” he asked.

“That’s Sasori!” Sakura hissed. “Don’t you recognize him?”

Naruto’s frown deepened. “I only ever saw that scorpion puppet he walked around in, remember?” He tilted his head to one side. “Are you sure?”

“There are a lot of redheads in the Storm Country. Maybe he just looks like Sasori.” Sasuke had crept up behind them while they were arguing, and he surreptitiously flicked his Sharingan on the man in question.

“It’s him,” Sakura insisted dangerously, her hand clenched into a fist.

Sasuke blinked and took a careful step back. “I believe you,” he quickly assured her. He didn’t mention that the reason he believed her was because he’d just assessed that the redhead was a puppet.

“But Sasori’s dead.” Naruto scratched his head. “You and that old granny killed him years ago. How can—oh.”

If any doubt had remained in any of the three Konoha ninjas’ minds, it vanished when another man joined his table. With a flirtatious flick of long, blond hair, the second man landed right in the lap of the suspected Sasori.

“Hey, hey!” Naruto protested. “Isn’t that…?”

“Deidara,” Sakura nodded.

“He’s supposed to be dead, too! Sasuke, you bastard, you said he was dead.”

“He was…” Sasuke said a bit breathlessly as he watched Deidara slowly begin to grind in a sensuous lap dance.

Sakura rolled her eyes. She couldn’t believe now that she’d ever thought Sasuke was shy or chaste. It turned out he was the biggest pervert of all of them; he just didn’t switch over to pervert mode unless there were two penises involved. It was something she’d accepted long ago, although it still made her blush on occasions like this when Sasuke was so open about his ogling.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, though,” Sasuke sighed. “There aren’t enough hot blonds in the world as it is…” It was a pointedly suggestive comment.

The point, of course, went right over its target’s head. “But that can’t be Deidara,” Naruto was still in denial. “Look at him. He hasn’t aged a day.”

Sakura considered them. “He wouldn’t be the first to make himself immortal,” she retorted. “He wouldn’t even be the first one at that table.” Her cheeks reddened further when Deidara arched his back and threw his head back as if in the throes of ecstasy.

Sasuke gaped, and he all but whimpered at the sight.

Sakura glared over at him, and he at least had the decency to look contrite. “What do we do?” she asked, turning back to the matter at hand.

“You think we’ve found the source of those missing freighters?” Sasuke considered the pair across the room.

Sakura bit her lip. “Neither of them are particularly water jutsu users,” she finally reluctantly shook her head. “They might be the source of all those desert bandit rumors we’ve been hearing about, though. That would fit their style more.”

“Who cares?” Naruto countered. “We can kick their asses any day!”

Sasuke and Sakura gave him equally frustrated looks.

“What?” he asked sheepishly.

“The mission comes first,” Sakura insisted primly. “We don’t have time to pick fights with old adversaries.”

“We can’t afford to blow our cover,” Sasuke agreed before letting out a wistful sigh.

Sakura gave him a glare, too, just for good measure. She didn’t even want to know what Sasori and Deidara were doing right now to give Sasuke that glazed look in his eyes. “We should regroup at the inn,” she decided. “The raiders have to be operating out of one of these port towns, and we need to investigate them all in the most efficient manner possible.”

Naruto looked as though she’d murdered a puppy right in front of him.

Sasuke still hadn’t taken his eyes off the couple across the tavern. “Oh…” he breathed so low that Sakura could barely make it out. He licked his lips surreptitiously.

Sakura couldn’t fight her curiosity any longer. She glanced over to see that Sasori was now running his hands up under Deidara’s shirt. She rolled her eyes. Whoever said boys got more mature as they got older obviously hadn’t met her boys.

“We’re going,” she informed him, popping her knuckles deliberately. “We can’t afford to be found out here.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go,” Sasuke said with a shrug. “Although it makes me wonder why I returned at all. Missing ninjas get all the lap dances.”

Naruto scowled at him as Sakura all but shoved them out of the tavern. “Don’t say things like that, bastard. Good blonds give just as good lap dances as evil ones.”

Sasuke fixed him with a look so neutral there had to be some powerful emotion behind it. “You wouldn’t have the guts.” A pregnant pause followed. “Dead last,” Sasuke delivered with perfect timing.

“You asshole!” Naruto’s temper flared. “I’ll show you! I’ll give you a lap dance so hot that your balls will turn blue and fall right off!”

“I’d like to see you try.” Even Sasuke couldn’t keep the smirk off his face.

Sakura rolled her eyes and pushed them both back out the door. Boys were such idiots.

Their departure caused no obvious reaction, but across the tavern, Deidara slipped a little bit lower into Sasori’s lap and nibbled his ear. “They’re gone?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Sasori agreed.

“You think they’re after us?”

“No.”

“Hmm. What do you think?”

“I think we could defeat them,” Sasori shrugged. “I also see no good reason to.”

“They’re the past, yeah?”

Sasori’s hand tightened on Deidara’s hip. “This is the future.”

Deidara smiled at him coyly, his hair all thrown over the left side of his face. Sasori could tell he was trying to look quite the seductive nymph.

“You know you’re never going to get a reaction out of me while I’m in this body,” Sasori commented disinterestedly.

“But it’s still fun to try,” Deidara teased. “And, besides, it just gets you all the more worked up the next time you are in your human body.”

Sasori didn’t try to deny it. There was no point. In the end, that was their art together.