Trial of Man

[AU - Historical Fantasy] The peaceful city of Akatsuki is taken over by hostile forces when the country of Amegakure is invaded. Suddenly, what they once had is now a luxury, but their will to survive burns strong beneath newfound oppression. fem!Deidara/Sasori. Cover image does not belong to me. Loosely based on Ip Man and the Second Sino-Japanese War.


Author's note

Starts off relatively lighthearted, but then escalates into darker themes.

8. Part II: Begonia

"Sasuke-sama! I swear I'm going to beat you one day!" Daichi panted, grinning as he pointed his training sword at Sasuke, who was balancing his katana across his shoulders, his posture as relaxed as an Uchiha's could be. Daichi was almost a carbon copy of Obito, though his hair was less spiky and his jawline was pointier, much like his mother's. His hair reminded Sasuke of Shisui's hair, though his bangs weren't held up by an Akatsuki forehead protector. They fell across his face in random spikes, and Sasuke figured that the boy would have to get his hair cut soon.

"Big talk for a small brat," Sasuke said, shifting his weight to his right foot. "You've barely been training with me for a month."

"I train every night!" Daichi declared, lowering his sword so that the tip touched the ground. His breathing was slowly evening out; they'd just stopped an intense sparring session. "I'm going to become the best kenjutsu user in Akatsuki."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "To impress the Yamanaka girl, I suppose..."

"Hitomi? Well..." Daichi scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "I mean, that'd be nice and all, but what I really want to do is protect my family."

Sasuke considered this, and Daichi continued.

"Especially Hikari. She's my imouto, and a big brother should always protect his imouto."

Something flashed in Sasuke's eyes. "Should they?"

Daichi nodded. "Of course! I love her more than anything in the world. I'd be pretty useless if I couldn't protect her, y'know."

There was a brief silence before Sasuke had his sword out in front of him again. "Enough talk. Come at me."

"Ready or not, Sasuke-sama!"


"Are you ready or not, Sasuke?"

Sasuke blinked, inwardly shaking himself out of his daydream. He shifted his gaze upward to meet Shisui's concerned eyes.

"The Uchiha Squad is waiting outside," Shisui informed him, cringing at the name. "Not to diss the General's creativity, but..."

The two Uchiha shared a room in the secondary military base that was once Obito's house. When the General had seized it and Itachi's mansion, he had decided to put Obito's training field and multiple training rooms to use. The Tsukigakure soldiers were not necessarily martial artists, but the General was, as were a select few.

In what was once Obito's vast lounge room, there stood three Uchiha-blooded soldiers, their backs straight and waiting tensely for Shisui and Sasuke to come out so that they could begin their duties for the day.

"Sir!" They saluted in unison when Sasuke entered the room, Shisui following closely behind.

Their patrol took them down the usual routes, where complete and utter strangers glared at them. Had they been regular Tsukigakure soldiers, the civilians would have most likely put their heads down and went on with their day.

But they were Uchiha.

Akatsuki's very own Uchiha.

The betrayal ran deep for the citizens, and while Sasuke struggled to maintain his impassive demeanor on his worst days, Shisui was outright smiling as they patrolled. There were no lines of guilt on the older Uchiha's face, and Sasuke had to wonder why. There was a little bit of sadness in his gaze, but no guilt.

Noon rolled around quickly, and Sasuke soon found himself in Obito's lounge again, having a brief recess with his squadmates.

If he were to be honest with himself, up until they became his subordinates, Sasuke hadn't bothered to ever know and remember their names. They were an all-male squad as far as he knew—there was one Uchiha that refused to take off their mask. It was to the point where Sasuke actually started to wonder if they slept with it on. But for the sake of making things easier for himself and the others, the masked Uchiha was referred to with a male pronoun. They—he—never complained, so everything worked out.

Their names were Uchiha Yano, Uchiha Ashikaga, and Uchiha Kagami.

Sasuke's hand tightened around his cup of hot water. How convenient that the masked one would possess a unisex name.

The door opened and an officer strode in. "The General wishes to see you, Sasuke-sama," the man said, keeping his eyes fixed on the Uchiha in question. When Sasuke didn't place his cup on the table immediately, he added, "Now."

And that was how Sasuke found himself in the audience of the General, with his wild black mane and his unforgiving eyes. He was tall—possibly taller than Sasuke would ever be, and he always radiated some kind of crushing, dominating aura.

But those things weren't too important.

No—to Sasuke, the most important thing was—

Sasuke bowed low. "Madara-sama."

General Madara was an Uchiha.


A week had passed since Deidara had rescued Hitomi from the streets, and the young girl was currently scrubbing the black pot that Deidara used to cook rice. The woman herself was training in the corner. They'd decided last week that if Hitomi were to stay here, she would have to at least try to earn her keep. Her duties in their shared home were mostly just folding laundry and washing dishes. Deidara couldn't trust her with chopping the wood, tending to the fire, or cooking. And it was fine with Hitomi, because in her spoiled life, she had never done such a thing.

"This won't come off," Hitomi muttered as she scrubbed at a brown stain on the side of a rice bowl. "Grr...!" She abandoned the bowl and left the tap running to search in the cupboards for something useful. The cupboards were mostly bare, but there were still three medium-sized bags of rice left, which was greatly comforting for the girl. As she returned to her washing duty, Deidara left her post to tend to the fire, tossing extra logs into the orange flames.

The fire burned with the same shade of orange that the Uzumaki orphan liked to wear. It was an obnoxious color, but in dark days like this, the hue was somewhat comforting.

Deidara rubbed at her visible eye with the back of her wrist when it got irritated by jumping embers. After making sure that the fire was okay to keep on crackling, a few embers landing on the cold stone floor, Deidara retreated to the bathroom.

The bathroom was small room, with only a simple squatting toilet and a rickety sink and smudged mirror. She'd never gotten around to cleaning the mirror, so, after washing her hands, she used her wet palms to wipe away the dirt on the glass.

She couldn't help but frown at her reflection.

Her once pristine golden hair was much duller than it had been, as if the misery lingering in the air had decided to suck out the bright color to keep it company. There were bags starting to form underneath her eyes, and, with a brief annoyance, she realized that those hadn't started to form before Hitomi took over the only bed in the apartment.

Damn, she thought, splashing water on her face, her bang tucked behind her air. I look like shit. If only Danna could see me now; he'd never let me hear the end of how human bodies are so fragile.

She exited the bathroom, spared Hitomi a quick glance, and returned to her training dummy. There was a window nearby that was constantly shut as to not let the cold air in, but there were no curtains available to be drawn over it.

Akatsuki was well known for its agricultural produce and ceramics, and Deidara could see the remnants of a potato farm in the distance. The family that owned it had passed away some weeks ago, and the crops had been raided for its produce.

Deidara clicked her tongue at the displaced dirt. What a waste... She struck the dummy in front of her with her forearm. It's just empty land now. Though I bet I could still find a few potatoes there if I really tried.

"I'm done!" Hitomi announced, putting the rice bowls on the kitchen counter, ready to be used again. "I dried them just like you taught me how to..."

"That's good," Deidara said halfheartedly.

"What do I do now?" Hitomi bounced over to the couch and flopped onto it.

Deidara paused, then shrugged. "Dunno. Remember that book we found in the trashcan last week? Go read that, un."

Hitomi wrinkled her nose. "But I've read it five times already. Can I read the other book instead?"

The 'other book' that Hitomi was referring to was a book that had been discovered in the same trashcan as the children's book that Hitomi thought boring. Deidara had only nine pages so far; she'd restrained herself to one page per day so the story could last until the war ended and everything could start reverting back to normal.

"No," Deidara said, holding up the palm of her hand and sticking her hand-mouth's tongue out.

"Eh?! Why not?! Huh?!"

"Because I'm reading it, un. Besides, it's not a kiddy book. I'm not even sure if you can recognize such complicated characters yet. Now go read your stupid book... or go out to the back courtyard and chase butterflies or something. You like butterflies, right?"

"Ino-nee did," Hitomi said miserably. "Not me. I liked moths better."

Deidara stared at her. Then she joined Hitomi on the couch, nudging her legs aside to make space. "Moths? Why moths?" Now that she was closer to the girl, she could see that the misery had sucked away her color as well. From a distance, Hitomi would have looked like an unpainted scarecrow, or doll if she was wearing her kimono.

Hesitating, Hitomi picked up a piece of red string from the couch and began to fiddle with it. "Well, you know..."

The string was from her Akatsuki cloak, Deidara realized. She had been forced to remove the red cloud patterns from her cloak the night she escaped her burning apartment. The Tsukigakure soldiers, being the bastards they were, would have attacked her for patriotism or some shit like that. It left minuscule holes in the garment, but it could have been worse.

"Moths are beautiful," Hitomi confessed. "And furry. I like furry things." She scowled. "Except rats. I hate rats."

It was times like this that Deidara found herself to be reminded that Hitomi was only six. "You and me both. Rats... are ugly things, un. They thrive during times like this."

"Why? Everybody else is hungry."

"Which is why I think it's disgusting." Deidara wrinkled her nose at the thought of the ravaged potato farm.


"Yeah, oh."

They fell into a silence, and Deidara was about to get back up and start training again when Hitomi blurted, "What's the story like so far?"


"The story you were reading!" Hitomi impatiently clarified. "Even though you're only, like, a few pages in, something has to have happened, right?"

Deidara sat back down. "Un." Well, it wouldn't hurt to tell her. Better to tell her now than have her nag me all day about it. "The story starts with the protagonist waking up in a hospital."

"Eh? Pro-tago-nist?"

"The main character."


Deidara settled into the couch a bit more, and Hitomi instinctively pressed up against her more, listening intently.

"She just came from a war," Deidara continued. "A war like the one that's happening right now."

"What's the war about?" Hitomi pressed. "Why are they fighting?"

Deidara snorted. "Who knows? Humans fight for the most idiotic things, un."

"You mean like you?"

"Keep talking and you won't hear the rest," Deidara said haughtily.

"Okay, okay! Geez..." Hitomi pouted before fixing her attention on Deidara's story again.

Deidara recounted the events of the story as far as she got up to Hitomi for the next fifteen minutes, both females comfortable enough with each other's presence to sink their bodies into the couch.

"... and that's all I got up to," Deidara finished.

"No way! It was just getting exciting! How is she gonna live like a normal person? Since the war's over."

"If I knew, I'd tell you."

"Can't you read faster?" Hitomi pleaded.

"Nope. It's my book and I'll read it however fast I want to read it."

"Ugh, you're a jerk."

"Shut up, brat. Why don't you tell me a story instead, if you're so great."

Hitomi huffed. "I don't have any stories..."

Deidara huffed right back at her, narrowing her eyes. "Then don't complain to me about this."

"But...!" Knowing that she had lost, Hitomi's pout returned and, with a harrumph, she turned her nose up at Deidara. Rolling her eyes, Deidara simply knocked the back of her knuckles against the girl's head, making her wince.

"Talk to me later when you have a story to tell," Deidara told her before removing herself from the couch and returning back to her training post. I doubt that she'll have much to tell. She sighed through her nose, adjusting the wooden arms of her training dummy. Then she held her hands behind her back and attacked the post with her legs, leaning backward, forward, and to the side to avoid the uppermost row of arms that spun along with the bottom ones.

When one arm slapped her cheek, she hissed, and resisted the urge to angrily headbutt the thing.

"Why don't you use your hands?"

Deidara inwardly groaned. The brat really can't keep her mouth shut for five minutes, can she? But she couldn't really be blamed, seeing as she was still a child and children were biologically wired to be egocentric. This one's a little too egocentric, yeah. Because, you see, when two big egos shared a small apartment, a little irritation here and there was bound to happen. She forced down a blush that was threatening to appear on her cheeks. Of course she had to see me get bitch-slapped by a dummy.

"Well?" Hitomi prompted, either oblivious to Deidara's souring expression or simply uncaring. Her cheek is going red...

"I need to train my legs as well," Deidara explained to her as simply as she could. "I can't focus on just my upper body all the time."

"But I see you use your legs as well as your arms," Hitomi pointed out, and Deidara's eyes sharpened ever so slightly.

She's observant, at least. Not a bad quality to have. "That's true, but I'm still too reliant on my arms. I'm supposed to be training my entire body, not just one half of it."

Hitomi looked like she had some sort of semblance of understanding. "Oh, okay. Still, I wouldn't wanna get slapped by wood. Doesn't it hurt?"

Deidara returned to attacking the pole with her legs. "No," she said sarcastically, her patience wearing thin from the girl's questions. "No, Hitomi, it feels like a gentle caress. Of course it hurts!"

"Geez, sorry! You're so grumpy! No wonder you're never gonna get married!"

"I told you to drop the marriage thing! I bet I could get plenty of guys if I wanted to!" By now, Deidara had long given up on training properly. It was a little strange for her to be having an argument with a child, but she couldn't let those blows to her feminine pride go unchecked.

"Nuh uh! You don't look after your face enough. And your hair's always greasy."

"I rarely wash it for good reason, un," Deidara snapped. "I'm not foolish enough to let the water sit in my hair and give me a temperature." She was tempted to add a snide "like you have room to talk", but decided against it. She wasn't going to stoop that low just to win an argument against a goddamn six-year-old. She's right about my face, though. I'll start passing for a living corpse, soon. Like the rest of her body, her face had narrowed remarkably, any hint of baby fat now lost to living in poverty and oppression.

"So what? No guy would wanna marry you because you're always blowing things up," Hitomi shot back, changing her argument.

"If they can't appreciate my art, then that's their problem. It's part of who I am and I'll be damned if I let them walk all over me, un."

Hitomi opened her mouth to retort before closing it again, considering Deidara's response.

The blonde woman raised an eyebrow at her deliberation. "What?"

"Nothing... just that..." Hitomi lifted her chin. "You're just like onee-chan. Okaa-san always told her to be more ladylike to suit her appearance, but..."

"Ah." Deidara leaned against the wall, her arms folded across her chest. "I remember that she always hung out with that Uzumaki brat." She noted Hitomi's decidedly displeased look. "Don't like street rats, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"Well, neither of us have much business disliking him for just that..." Suddenly, the ribs jutting against her skin felt more pronounced than ever, and her hipbones felt uncomfortably sharp. And judging from Hitomi's distinctly uncomfortable demeanor, she was feeling the same way. "Anyway—" Time for a subject change; no use in making ourselves feel worse, un. "Your sister had the right idea."

"The right idea?" Hitomi echoed, unsure.

"Yeah," Deidara affirmed. "She stayed true to herself."

"Oh. But she had other friends, too." Better friends, Hitomi added silently, knowing that Deidara would probably snark her if she made the remark out loud. "Like that Billboard-brow that she hangs out with."

"Right," Deidara said dryly. Billboard-brow? Really? What an unorthodox friendship they must have, un. Then again, she wasn't really one to judge, considering her (former) interaction circle had consisted of multiple Uchiha, a green-clad, enthusiastic taijutsu user, village kids, and a puppet-obsessed man who worked at a chicken rice shop that was run by his grandmother.

It came quickly, but it was overwhelming nonetheless.

The nostalgia felt like a kunai to the gut—sharp and stinging. It continued to throb as Hitomi droned on about Ino's other friends ("... Shikamaru, and there was the fatty..."), and Deidara's heart twisted as she realized for the first time that her once-thriving interaction circle now consisted of a child, a training dummy, and skulking rats. How she wished she could feel the summer breeze on her face again as she and the other members of the Big 4 had a battle royale, as the smoke from the clay that she had exploded made her eyes water—

"Are you okay?" Hitomi asked, breaking Deidara out of her thoughts.

"Hm? Yeah..." Deidara blinked, her lashes damp. "I just hate being stuck here." There's nothing to do except wait. The city's on lock-downno one who isn't Tsukigakure gets in or out without getting a bullet through the head.

"... Me too. I miss Ino-nee. Umm..." Hitomi frowned. "Do you miss anyone?"

"Yeah." Deidara pushed herself off the wall and grabbed a wooden arm that belonged to her training dummy, adjusting its position. "Yeah, I do."

Hitomi didn't bother her for a while after that.


Daichi hadn't been outside his room for a while. The practice sword that Sasuke had given him on their first day of training hung proudly on the wall—the grandest display among mediocre things.

Daichi hadn't seen Sasuke since the invasion started, and it'd been over a month—nearing two—since then. Even now, as he headed downstairs to use the bathroom in their second home—the one above the dango shop—thoughts of his mentor plagued his mind.

Sasuke-sama... what happened to you? Where did you go? Are you fighting in the war? The last thought caused dread to fill his heart, and he tried to chase it away by arguing that it simply wasn't logically for a non-military man to be on the front-lines. Not to mention that there was no way Tsukigakure would have allowed him to leave the premises of the city.

There was a rustling noise when Daichi left the toilet, and he paused. Then he went over to the kitchen, where the sound had originated from. He peered around the doorway, his breath hitching when he saw his mother crouching over what was the remaining rice they had in a black pot. It was very meager—the amount wouldn't even begin to feed Hikari.

Rin seemed to realize, too. She dug further into her cupboard and pulled out a few potatoes in a jar. Boiled potatoes were what most people were eating nowadays. They could be grown using human feces, so it was a go-to food for people lacking the usual resources for growing crops.

His mother was a smart woman—she probably had a small patch of potatoes growing behind the store.

What Daichi didn't know was that the small meal of rice and water he had had last night would probably be his last meal containing rice for a long time. Rice was rare nowadays. As the Tsukigakure occupation continued, food had grown incredibly scarce, even for former successful business owners like Obito and Rin. Money meant nothing—no one would give up their food for worthless lumps of metal. A few of the workers at the cotton mill had stopped coming to work despite their previous claims of staying.

They'd been looking extremely thin and weary during their last days at work, and no one had any doubt of what had become of them.

Daichi retreated further down the corridor when he heard a footfall, hiding in the bathroom and peering out ever so slightly. He recognized the footsteps—it was his father, but Daichi didn't want his mother to know that he knew of the food shortage in their household. He didn't particularly feel like being swaddled, told that everything would be okay when it clearly wasn't, and sent off to his room like a naughty child.

"Rin?" Obito called, disappearing into the kitchen. That was when Daichi, quiet as a mouse, crept out of the bathroom and pressed his back against the wall, listening intently.

In the kitchen, Obito had noticed the little amount of rice that they had left. He frowned, lines carved into his face from worry and stress—lines that hadn't been there before. "There really is none left..."

Rin nodded grimly. "All we have now are potatoes, but the garden is small. And they're not finished growing yet." She held up a potato. "This was the biggest one I could find."

Sighing warily, Obito accepted her words with a defeated air. We really have fallen on hard times. If this keeps going, we're only going to wait ourselves to death. Sasori had come to see him a few days ago, with news from Itachi.

The Underground Faction were experiencing the brunt of the famine, the stolen supplies they used to sustain themselves not able to provide for everyone. More than half of their population had already starved to death, and Sakura had nearly gotten shot after being caught after curfew smuggling medicine and dried noodles out of a store. The beer hall that was located above the Underground's entrance was still thriving as there was no shortage of supply on alcohol, but pretty much everything else was thinning out—including the people.

Obito was almost beside himself with righteous anger when the fact that Akatsuki once had a thriving population of 300,000 people came to him. He clenched his fists, eyebrows furrowed.

"Obito." Rin stood and clasped his shoulder, looking him in the eye. The silent plead was there: Please don't do anything rash.

"How pathetic do I have to be," Obito ground out, his hands shaking. "That I can't even provide for my own family."

"It isn't your fault, dammit!" Rin snapped, her own hand trembling as she clutched Obito's shoulder tighter before pulling him into a forceful embrace. "It isn't your fault..."

"Stop, Rin."

"It isn't your fault!" she repeated vehemently, her eyes burning as she drew away from her husband. "Don't you dare pin the blame on yourself. This is a situation that neither you or I can control. But we can survive."

How? The desperate, searching question hung in the air for so long that even Daichi could hear it from his position on the other side of the kitchen wall.

Eventually, Obito calmed down enough to reason, "Whoever's running the place isn't stupid enough to let the whole population die out, despite everything. They'll do something about it, I'll bet."

And sure enough, they did.


Sasori grunted in annoyance as he burned his hand on the handle of the pot. Muttering curses, he pressed the burned area to his side for a moment before reaching for what he had been reaching for again—a ladle.

Chiyo entered just as Sasori was about to emerge from the kitchen with two boiled potatoes on a plate.

"Baa-sama?" Sasori said, his tone questioning.

"Have you heard Madara's announcement? He's the Tsukigakure General that runs Akatsuki."

"Announcement? What announcement?" Sasori placed the plate of potatoes in the middle of their small, round dining table, the hem of Chiyo's dress swaying back and forth as she bustled after him, taking out a piece of brown paper from her apron pocket.

"Read it," his grandmother urged. "And tell me what you intend to do with this information."

Is this announcement truly that important? he wondered as he took the calligraphy-covered paper from Chiyo, who was looking unusually grave but somewhat excited at the same time. When he read it, Sasori could see why.

Defeat a taijutsu master and win one bag of rice to feed your family at the Nohara-Uchiha grounds, the paper read, the sentences curt and concise. Straight to the point. Normally, Sasori hated beating around the bush, and would have appreciated such a thing, but he despised how... cold and clinical it'd come out. There was no doubt in his mind—this message was clearly directed to those Madara considered sub-human, which was all of the Akatsuki's remaining population.

The paper crumpled a little under Sasori's grip.

"We're running out of food," Chiyo stated bluntly, a perpetual frown on her face. "Keeping a low profile and disregarding your title of Akasuna no Sasori means nothing now, my grandson. What will you do next?"

Sasori met her stare evenly. "I'll do what needs to be done. Nothing more, nothing less." He turned the paper around, finding nothing useful. Then he crumpled it and tossed it into a dusty trashcan. "But first..." He tapped the table, gesturing to the potatoes and giving his grandmother an expecting glance. "Itadakimasu." You wily old bat, he added silently.

Chiyo snorted. "There's no getting past you, is there?"


Madara had an adviser that Sasuke hated with a burning passion. His name was Mizuki and his only purpose was to fawn over Madara on his bad days as far as Sasuke was concerned.

Wherever Madara went, Mizuki followed behind him like some kind of twisted puppy. The only comfort that Sasuke had was that it was highly likely that Madara found Mizuki to be as much of a nuisance as Sasuke did. But Mizuki's father was apparently some kind of high-ranking official in Tsukigakure, which was probably why the General even bothered to keep him around.

Today, Sasuke was forced to stand next to Mizuki—who was sandwiched between him and Madara—and watch the hapless citizens of Akatsuki file in through the door to challenge Tsukigakure taijutsu masters for a reward. They were standing on the upper level of the room, and looking down at the ring.

The reward was one bag of rice.

For some, it was worth risking life and limb to provide for their families.

Most were just desperate to survive, and seeing the desperation in their eyes made something in Sasuke's stomach coil. Most of them were civilians with no battle experience, he quickly realized.

What happened to them next was brutal, and Sasuke refused to watch, staring at the opposite balcony instead. Footsteps reached his ears, and officers took their places behind the three of them, eager to watch civilians—whose only crime was their futile hope—being beaten to near death by master martial artists.

A civilian shouted at them in the Amegakure dialect that only Sasuke could understand.

"Translate," Madara instructed, and Sasuke did so instantaneously.

"He called us dogs, Madara-sama," Sasuke translated, wondering if this man was suicidal.

Madara's lips curled upward in a cruel smile. "Then his only hope is to win."

Sasuke did not dare ask what the consequences would be if the man lost. But he soon found out when, inevitably, the man suffered the hands of defeat. He was going to get up and go home like the rest of the few men that had gotten away still able-bodied when there was a crack of thunder, and a hole opened up in the man's head as a bullet passed through his brain.

Sasuke stiffened at the noise, which had originated from Mizuki. Mizuki, who had pulled his gun out somewhere during the fight, was smiling contently, smoke coming out from the muzzle of his gun.

The thud of the man's body was sickening, and Sasuke's stomach lurched again. They killed him. They actually killed him. His eyes were wide with shock as the body was dragged away by a lower-ranking officer, and the next contestant was called up. They wouldn't have if he hadn't called us dogs. If Sasuke hadn't translated the man's words.

Sasuke had seen death before. It was inevitable now that they were living in times of war. But what he had seen were people whose souls had long departed. Sasuke had never seen a man killed right in front of his eyes before.

He'd boasted of his skill as a swordsman to Daichi and others who'd been willing to listen, but he had never put his training into practice before. Had never had to.

Sasuke was trembling. No. This is a mistake.

His mother appeared in his mind, mouthing the words, SurviveShe'd died in his father's arms from injuries she had received while out in the market, and Fugaku had cradled her body all night.

This isn't survival.

Sasuke could have sworn that cold water splashed on his back. Survival wasn't supposed to be like this.

When Madara had stormed the Uchiha compound asking for people to join his army, Sasuke had been the first to volunteer, still grieving for his mother. She'd told him to survive, and he would best flourish on the winning side.

People weren't supposed to die like that.

Are you a fool? Sasuke argued with himself, clenching his clammy hands. You knew what you were getting into when you joined. This has been happening all around you the whole time. One man doesn't make a difference. He felt like barking out in hysterical, mirthless laughter, and would have had Madara not been there. I am heir. I cannot break. Itachi forsook me with a clan.

In front of Sasuke was a massacre.

And there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

But there was light—one, small crepuscular ray—when the first winner appeared and claimed his prize.

Sasori, Sasuke immediately recognized. The puppeteer fought with his arms and legs today, and defeated the taijutsu master he was facing with relative ease. He seemed as malnourished as the rest of the civilians, but there was a hint of color on his cheeks from the fighting, and his face was still looking as timeless as usual.

Mizuki blinked, disappointed.

"Give him the rice," Madara commanded, and someone tossed the bag of rice at Sasori's feet. Sasori hooked one foot underneath the bag and kicked it upward, catching it with one hand without spilling any of the precious grain. The man's brown eyes never left Sasuke's face before he took the rice and went.

The darkness returned again, and the massacre resumed after that.


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