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.

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Author's note

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

10. Part II: Rue

Hyuuga Hanabi was a strange case in this new world of theirs. Her family still lived, though the heir was missing, and while their existence was not as comfortable as it once was, they still scraped through.

Well, the Main Family did, anyway. The Branch Family...

Were simply irrelevant for the most part.

But for Hanabi, the second daughter of the Hyuuga Clan Head, Hyuuga Hiashi, she simply had no reason to be spending her days—or nights, even, when she was feeling particularly bold—skulking around in the Underground with the homeless.

Or at least an outsider would think as much.

"I was out looking for my sister," Hanabi reported to Itachi, her small face stoic. The mask she wore was not as well trained as Itachi's, but it would be soon. It would have to be—Hanabi was the next up-and-coming taijutsu prodigy ever since Itachi had been disowned. "When I encountered two soldiers from Tsukigakure. I took them out, but I made a grave oversight. Deidara discovered me before anything could happen, however, and helped me in... disposing of the bodies."

Itachi blinked slowly, and Hanabi could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. His thought process was one that she could never figure out, and she took solace in knowing that she probably wasn't only one who felt that way.

"Where?" Itachi prompted at last.

"North-east from our current location." She listed off the distance and described the general area. "She implied that she was living with someone—a younger female by the way she spoke." Hanabi paused. "I think she might be looking after the girl. She was... thin, thinner than the population down here, that's for sure."

"Thank you, Hanabi-san." Itachi dipped his head lightly to her in acknowledgement. "Deidara... is another person that can be saved."

Hanabi raised a brow. "Does this have anything to do with that escape plan I've been hearing about?"

"Not particularly. Hanabi-san, my head is not the only thing I think with, despite what yohe might think," Itachi reminded her gently. "Rest here for tonight. You can return in the morning."

"What are we going to do about her? And the girl...?"

"You'll know when you're ready," he said vaguely, seeming a little lost in thought before his gaze focused. "Oh, and Hanabi-chan?"

She startled at the sudden sharpness his voice had taken. "Y-yes?"

"Be more careful next time."

"... Yes. I will."

----

Izumi sighed deeply as she accepted the canteen from Sakura, sweat dotting her forehead. She'd come down with a slight fever last night, and Sakura, whose last patient had made a full recovery, was devoting almost all her time to Izumi. The woman was due any day now, which made the prospect of an illness particularly dangerous.

"The baby's late," Izumi spoke up once she had finished the water. Her brown creased in a worried frown. "Sakura... there's nothing wrong is there?"

"No, no," Sakura assured her. "It's normal for your first pregnancy to go past the anticipated date. In fact, many women carry for forty-two weeks or forty-three weeks rather than forty-one." She touched Izumi's shoulder, her hand warm. "Don't be worried."

Izumi let loose a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "In a way," she started, her face wan. "I'm glad. I don't want my baby to be born in such a place." Guiltily, she lowered her gaze.

"Of course not," Sakura's voice was barely above a whisper, "No one would."

Both females turned when Itachi entered the medical hut, the lines etched in his face more pronounced than ever.

"Anata," Izumi greeted, a gentle smile gracing her lips as Itachi lowered himself to hug her—the Uchiha woman was currently seated on a makeshift bed.

Itachi breathed in her scent before sighing silently. I'll need to have a word with Shikamaru and Shikaku soon. Those seals need to be figured out as soon as possible. After some exploration of the Underground City, a route outside Akatsuki had been discovered, but there were protective seals of long ago guarding the entrance.

What was most odd about the seals was that it seemed to have been recently falsified. They—Itachi, Shikamaru, and Shikaku—kept that information amongst themselves. There was no use in stirring up panic at the notion of there being an outside force that none of them were seemingly aware of.

"The baby's going to be fine," Izumi was telling him now, their hands entwined. As he had wandered in his thoughts, he'd taken a seat next to her, and now her head was resting on his shoulder. She reached over to the side and pulled a small bundle of cloth into her lap.

"As long as you keep eating well, it will be," Sakura cautioned, holding up a finger. "I know that it's tough around here—and thank the gods that Sasori was able to bring us some food and medicine last time—but you have to eat well. Do you understand?" She shot Itachi a look. "The acoustics down here are amazing, Itachi. Are you going to... fight?"

"Sakura," Izumi sharply interrupted. "Do not force such a thing on him. He and the others are working hard enough by keeping everything in order and organizing patrols and raids. Not to mention figuring out the seals."

"I meant no offence." Sakura was struggling to keep her voice even. "But you have to look at the bigger picture! If we were to send fighters above ground to win us food, it'll benefit everyone, including the child."

"I am not an idiot, Sakura. I know that. But how could I?" Izumi stood up, shaking the bed as her face paled. "How could I send my husband out there, knowing that he may not ever return? Surely, Sakura, you must understand!"

"That's enough," Itachi intervened, his tone placidly bland. His gaze met with Izumi's, unwavering. "Izumi... you will not make these kinds of decisions for me. We don't know when those seals will break; we should have started looking into a more long term solution weeks ago."

"Itachi, you...!" Izumi clenched her fists, torn.

"Let's not rush into things just yet," Itachi murmured, taking her by the hand. "I'm not saying that we're going to be fighting for their entertainment. Food and seal-breaking are our current priorities. But to fight for it... we are not so desperate."

"For now," Sakura stated, crossing her arms.

"Knowing you, you'll take action when the time comes," Izumi said before crouching down to pick up the bundle of cloth that had fallen to the ground when she stood.

"When it is necessary, yes," Itachi confirmed. "Do not mistake me as caring for every single soul in this place equally." It was cold, and perhaps more than a little cruel, but he would not lie—what was their 'nation' of underground dwellers if not a group of individuals with their own selfish desires? "Our family comes first." He said this to Izumi, completely ignoring Sakura's presence. He could feel her chakra buzzing around her anxiously, but it was nothing new. They were all on edge.

Izumi looked up at, her eyes searching. "You do realize our family includes you, too, right?" When he nodded, she relaxed slightly. "Good. I don't want you going off and doing... something suicidal. You've always been too kind." But I suppose if you weren't, we would be in this position. If you weren't kind, you would still be heir.

All three of them fell into a silence, and Izumi unfolded the cloth bundle to reveal two small clay figurines—a tengu and a fox—and a wooden carving of a deer.

"Am I interrupting something?" A blue head poked through the doorway, and the oil lamp in the room illuminated Kisame's face. "I couldn't help but overhear something about seals, Itachi-sama."

"Hoshigaki-sama," Itachi acknowledged, moving away from his wife toward him. "Why don't we talk outside?"

----

Kisame looked up at the iron wall, which was painted with all sorts of seals that were unrecognizable. "Whoever did this must have been a true seal master." He paused. "And older than a fossil."

"We came to the same conclusion," Shikamaru voiced, his voice less drawling than usual.

"We've determined that some of the symbols are variations of symbols that are normally used in the north," Shikaku added. He was favoring his left leg, and Kisame strongly suspected that the man was nursing an injury. "So, Konohagakure. A land that has bred some notable samurai in the past four hundred years."

"A variation, huh?" Kisame stroked his chin. "I've seen a lot of variations in my travels, but never something as complicated and utterly unfamiliar as this."

"Well, you tried. Thanks anyway," Shikamaru said, slouching. "Breaking these seals... is the only way to get this damn wall to open up."

"Sealing is like a language," Shikaku mused. "A dialect; that would be more accurate. Each seal-master has a unique way of sealing in the sense that they like to change up their strokes so that it differs from the traditional, textbook way." He tossed Kisame a side glance. "It's not surprising that you and I cannot comprehend it. The Nara are acclaimed geniuses... but it will still take time for us to decipher this and counter it with the appropriate seal."

"That's not reassuring at all," muttered Kisame, his hand twitching as he nearly reached for Samehada. But not even his sword could cut through the reinforced iron. He doubted anything short of a massive explosion would do—and even then, he wasn't sure if the seals would allow for it to open. Not to mention the dangers of setting off an explosive Underground.

"We've made some progress," Shikamaru informed him. "That quadrant in the top left can be countered with what we have so far," he pointed at the appropriate area, "but it wouldn't be the best idea to do that without knowing how to do the rest."

"Of course," Kisame agreed. "Everything here is connected, which is..."

"Extremely troublesome," Shikaku and Shikamaru said in unison, shooting each other a knowing, amused glance.

Kisame sweatdropped slightly. The resemblance between them is uncanny...

----

"Tea," Hanabi announced before entering the hut Ino stayed in. "... Hi, Ino."

"Ah, Hanabi." Ino offered her a tentative smile, shifting on her futon. "Tea again?"

"Yes," Hanabi answered patiently. She's opened up a more since the last time I saw her. I need to know if she saw Hinata, but... baby steps. "Uh, I would have brought biscuits, but, y'know..." The war. The soldiers. Everything.

"It's fine. Thanks for... coming to see me. Shikamaru stopped coming over a few days ago." There was a sadness in her voice hat Hanabi managed to place, and she frowned. "It's not his fault," Ino swiftly added when she saw her disapproving look. "I just...!"

"May I hold your hand?"

Ino hesitated. Then she held out her hand. "If you want."

"Shikamaru's an idiot," Hanabi said bluntly, squeezing her hand.

Ino chuckled. "That's fair." She breathed out, leaning back and supporting her weight with her palms. "But then again... I haven't exactly been myself lately. If only Naruto could see me now, he'd call me pathetic and give some kind of empowering speech..." Her eyes hardened. "I fucking hate them."

A rock formed in Hanabi's stomach. She had long since figured out what had happened to Ino based on her behavior and clues...

"What they took from me." Hanabi felt her eyes water from keeping them open for too long, fixated on Ino's furious expression. She was shaking now. Not from grief—she had had a long time to mourn what she had lost—but from pure fury. "I'll never get it back."

Hanabi sensed a "but" coming, but she stayed silent, the teapot—tea was a very rare thing; she'd brought this particular brew from her home—steaming in her hands.

"I want them to burn," she rasped, her fingers twitching. "All of them."

But she's one teenager against an entire army, Hanabi thought to herself, frowning. This should have never been her war to fight. It's not even ours, it... we... we're just caught up in the crossfire. "Ino, don't do anything reckless," Hanabi warned. "I won't pretend to understand how you feel, but please don't. There's... too many of them."

"You think I don't know that?!" Ino shouted, and Hanabi cringed as the blonde's ire turned to her. "Do you really think that...!" Seething, she wiped at her eyes. She wiped at them so hard that Hanabi figured that her vision would be blurry for at least a few minutes. "I've lost... my family. My sense of self. And do you know why?"

Hanabi didn't know, no.

"Because I was too weak to defend myself. Too slow to run." Ino stood, turned around, and, taking a deep breath, undid the sash around her yukata and let it fall.

Hanabi had to steel her nerves at what she saw.

Burn marks. Wicked, unforgiving burn marks marred the porcelain skin on her back. They had scarred as ugly as possible.

"I need to get stronger," Ino whispered, picking up her garment and redressing. "If I won't... I'll never survive."

Hanabi shakily stood up. "I could try and help, if you want." This wasn't about Hinata anymore. For now. "But I... I've never trained anyone before. Maybe you should ask one of the taijutsu masters down here. Like... Itachi-san or Hoshigaki-sama."

"... Maybe," Ino eventually said, tying the sash around her waist. "But if I ever get out of here alive, there's two things I want to do."

"And what are those?" To her relief, Hanabi's voice was unwavering. She wasn't sure how to deal with this new development, but showing weakness would do her no good. If there was anything that she had absorbed from her father's teachings, it was to never show your enemies and allies weakness and hesitation. She'd stumbled enough—she would stumble no more, she vowed.

"I'm going to seek out Tsunade the Sennin to learn her kekkei genkai. Forehead can help me with that," she said gravely. "I'm not losing anybody else. And the second thing..."

Hanabi leaned forward.

"I'm going to do whatever the hell I want. And I'm going to live by that rule for the rest of my life."

"... I like that rule," Hanabi confessed passively, her eyes flashing.

They drank their tea in silence after that.

Then;

"She wasn't there," Ino said suddenly. "That's why you've been coming." Hanabi opened her mouth to protest but Ino cut her off, "Our families had diplomatic relations. I know how your dad raised you. To think with your head before your heart. So, no, I haven't seen her. Hinata... she wasn't there. But at least you have some hope... my family on the other hand... they all perished in the fire."

"No," Hanabi said before she could even think about it. "Your sister. She's alive." Wheels began to turn in her brain. "She was here with us, before she... left us."

Ino's eyes widened, and the blood drained from her face. "And none of you stopped her?" she breathed.

"We never knew. But I have a feeling... that she's alive."

Ino nearly flipped the table as she stood up, her posture rigid. "Someone's going to pay."

----

Hitomi stared up at the bell tied up on a low tree branch. She and Deidara were currently in the back courtyard, and she had just gone through some basic katas.

"You want me to kick the bell?" Hitomi inquired dubiously. "B-but..." It's so high! Who can even kick that high?!

"You're not going to complain, are you?" Deidara raised an eyebrow. "Because if you are, there's no point in even continuing, un."

"Uhm... what's the point of this?"

Deidara had to give her some credit. She snorted. Clever brat; wording her complaint in a question. Well, if she was going to play dirty like that, then Deidara didn't see any point in sugar coating anything. "The point is to improve your flexibility. Because right now, it's pretty fucking terrible."

Hitomi's ears burned at the curse word, but she nodded anyway.

"Of course, that's not the only kind of flexibility training you'll be doing." Deidara gestures to a pair of higher branches parallel to each other. "If you think the bell exercise is bad, think again, un." She paused. "I don't expect you to kick the hell on your first attempt. You'll be spending fifteen minutes on it, before we move on."

"Yes... sensei."

Deidara narrowed her eyes. "You're the one who bugged me into doing it. Don't get watery and weak on me now."

"Yes, sensei!" Hitomi repeated, straightening. I'll need to use the high kick that she got me to do this morning. Her leg shot up, but not straight. This was going to take a while, and they both knew it.

Deidara had moved her training dummy outside, so she occupied herself with it while Hitomi attempted to kick the bell, sweat already dripping down her forehead in glistening beads. Of course, she had an eye on Hitomi as well, making sure that she didn't accidentally do something stupid like fall forward and hit her head on the tree trunk.

My very first student, huh? Deidara mused, her muscles moving on autopilot. Hopefully, it doesn't turn into a complete disaster. Obito was the only one of us who ever took on a student, as far as I know. Gai and Shisui were too busy for that kind of stuff. Gai with his "youthful" activities, and Shisui with the military police. She hadn't known Itachi very well, and had only ever spoken to him when she came over to visit Izumi, but the man had liked keeping a low profile so she doubted that he had ever taken an apprentice before.

"Argghh!" Hitomi cried in frustration, briefly distracting Deidara from her thoughts. The younger girl soon returned to her vain attempts, allowing Deidara to immerse herself in her training.

A red-haired man with a slightly peeved expression appeared in her mind, and her lips quirked. And finally, we have Sasori no Danna.

Sasori, whose perspective of art clashed so terribly with her own. Sasori, who she took joy in driving up the wall (sometimes it was the opposite, but she was mostly her instigator). Sasori, who she used as a measuring stick and vice versa. Their relationship was not perfectly mutualistic, but it worked out nicely.

Deidara paused. He could be dead as far as she knew. The thought didn't sit right with her, and she pushed it to the back of her mind. He's too skilled to be dead. I've seen the way he chops chicken at the shop. Anyone who segments a whole chicken like that in ten seconds is someone not to be trifled with. He's alive. He has to be.

"Fifteen minutes is up," Deidara announced, halting the moving arms of her dummy and striding back to Hitomi. "That was... pretty terrible, un."

"Ugh."

Is she tired already? How cute. She probably thinks that nothing else I put her through will even compare to the bell exercise. Oh how she would enjoy proving her wrong.

At the end of the day, Hitomi was dead on her feet. She could hardly make it back up to the apartment, which meant Deidara had to carry her on her back. It wasn't the most pleasant experience, considering the cold sweat on their skin.

"Mrrghh... Deidara?"

"Yeah?"

"... That was kinda fun. I guess."

"Good. Because tomorrow will be even more fun. In which 'more fun' is a euphemism for 'harder', un," she quipped, grinning.

"Urgghh..."

Deidara dumped her on the bed and promptly started up another fire. "Sleep tight, kid."

"Hate... you..."

----

"Hitomi, run!" Ino yelled, grabbing her sister by the hand and whisking her away. Behind them, their house burned, flames taller than the both of them combined rising into the air. Eyes wide, Hitomi allowed herself to be dragged along by her sister, her entire body numb.

Everything was burning. Her dresses. Her dolls. The diary that she kept underneath her mattress. It was all burning.

"Where's otou-sama?" Hitomi demanded as they fled through the night, combining with a crowd of hysterical civilians whose houses had also been destroyed. "And okaa-san?"

"Dead," Ino whispered, her breath coming out in pants. "They're... gone." Tears rolled down her soot-covered face, and she didn't even flinch when someone jostled her.

Gunfire rattled the air, and the crowd shouted apprehensively, moving frantically at random for shelter.

"Hitomi?!" Ino screamed when their hands separated, the smaller girl shoved aside by a terrified woman. "Hitomi! Take my hand!"

"Nee-chan! Help! Help me!" Ino shook as a rough hand grabbed her shoulder and wrenched her away from where she had last seen Hitomi.

"Help! Help...!" Ino and the crowd faded away into darkness, and Hitomi continued to wriggle and shriek desperately.

----

In the darkness, Hitomi's eyes snapped open, her pupils dilated and her face wet. "Ino-nee," she rasped out, her throat parched.

She heard a light snore. Deidara. She could hardly see anything, meaning that she would never be able to get past Deidara, a trained martial artist.

Biting her lip, Hitomi flopped her head down on the pillow again, her thoughts whirring in her mind at a rapid pace.

Tomorrow, Deidara said she would be going out early to do something. That's my chance! Her blood began to race in anticipation. It'd been a week since Deidara had started training her, and she had most of the basic katas down. Despite having been pampered most of her life, her child's body was incredibly adaptable, and her flexibility had improved greatly. Her fists clenched around the sheets. If I'm careful, I'll be able to take a quick look around while she's gone and be back before she notices. Just a quick look, in case Ino-nee is around... With that thought inplanted in her head, she drifted back to sleep.

----

Deidara knew it would be a shitty morning when a drop of dirty rainwater was thing that had her sitting up on the couch groggily, muttering angrily. The sun had risen behind the clouds not long ago, so Deidara could see the current source of her ire: a leaky roof.

"Of all the..." Like the living conditions here aren't bad enough, un. I'm going to have to find a bucket and move the couch.

Her mood worsened when she remembered what she intended to do today. "Right," she uttered, her head spinning from having sat up too quickly. "The bodies..." She'd been paranoid ever since her run-in with Hanabi and their hasty disposal of the Tsukigakure soldiers. What if they find out? constantly plagued her mind, and she'd decided last night to check if they were still there. If they were, she'd move them somewhere less prone to discovery.

Like an annoyed badger, Deidara quickly got dressed in her usual outfit: a fighting gi with her bastardized Akatsuki cloak wrapped around her shoulders, shrouding everything except for her feet and head from sight.

Hitomi was still fast asleep, the lazy creature. No matter. When Deidara got back, she'd make sure to give the Yamanaka girl a rude awakening.

Deidara closed the front door behind her and descended the stone steps, the early morning breeze blowing in her face and nearly pulling the hood of her cloak off.

She took a detour, successfully dodging a few patrols and four streets worth of walking. Deidara grimaced when the scent of rot hit her nose, and she hurried past the cold, dusty body of an elderly man with his eyes pecked out by crows.

That was so fucked up. Deidara felt her stomach flip but she pushed the feeling back. She blocked out the image of the old man and pressed forward, the bottom of her boots scuffing against the stone walkway.

Eventually, she reached the alleyway where she and Hanabi had had their confrontation. It looked mostly the same, and there was no evidence of there having been any searches for the missing soldiers.

Deidara sagged with relief. Then she steeled herself and marched over to the trash cans where she and Hanabi had stuffed the bodies. She reached for the lid. Here goes nothing, un.

There was nothing in there.

Deidara felt the blood in her veins chill and turn to ice. "What the hell?" she whispered, alarmed. Arm shaking more than she would have liked, she checked the other trash can. Again, there was nothing. "Who...? Shit."

Her foot landed in a small puddle, a spray of water sent up her pant leg and she ran through the alley and back to her home. If they're gone, it means that they know. It has to be! But there hadn't been any searches or raids in the area. If there had been, it would be loud, and she would have known and most certainly fled with Hitomi in tow.

Hitomi. Oh god, Hitomi. Deidara had a kid in her care, and she might as well have damned the little girl with her own carelessness.

She slowed when she reached a popular route for patrols, and then quickly scuttled back to her home, her heart thumping in her chest.

Back up the stone steps she went, and she slammed the door open, a grave expression on her face. "Hitomi—"

The rock in her stomach expanded to gigantic proportions when she saw that there was no girl in the bed, or anywhere at all. Swearing, she searched through her home, checking the bathroom and the courtyard.

Hitomi was gone.

"Shitshitshitshit," Deidara hissed, stomping back to the front door. Did they take her?! Warily, she entertained the idea, but the relatively unchanged state of the apartment said otherwise. If she had been taken, there would have been signs of a struggle. Hitomi was a fighter beneath that bratty, passive exterior—there was no way she would have gone down without a fight. Unless she'd been taken at gunpoint or sedated. Deidara shook her head. No, no. The bed was made. Hitomi...

"Left on her own, the stupid brat!" Deidara punched the wall without her chakra, making the entire room shake for a moment. Her knuckles began to ache, but she couldn't waste anymore time. I cannot believe her! she fumed as she left her apartment once more and practically jumped the entirety of the stone steps. Her heartbeat had pretty much elevated into a constant state of furiously fast beating, and there was a nervous sweat beading on the back of her neck despite the cold, making her blonde hair stick uncomfortably to the nape.

Somewhere along the way, in those two months, Deidara had come to care more for her than she liked to admit. Hell, she'd basically taken that kid in as her own. Now a week after commencing her training, she was gone?

Think about it, she told herself as she searched, trying not to appear too suspicious to the soldiers patrolling the streets. Think about why she left. Nobody does anything without a reason, no matter how stupid it might be. What could Hitomi possibly gain from wandering outside? She knew I was going out today, un; it's not a coincidence. It clicked almost immediately.

Ino.

Everything led back to Ino, annoyingly enough. Deidara wasn't a fan of one track minds, and Hitomi was proving to her biggest source of ire yet today.

She must have left to find her sister, Deidara concluded, narrowing her eyes. Hitomi, you fool! Did you think that one week of training would ensure that you wouldn't be hurt out there? If you die... Her heart jumped to her throat and she shook that morbid thought away.

Deidara slowed to a stop, checking her surroundings. Where would Hitomi look? Certainly not out in the open. She'd be skulking around alleyways and unpopular paths. She'd...

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement. Standing at the end of the road was Hitomi, and she was looking up at someone.

Deidara tensed. A Tsukigakure soldier?

But then the morning mist cleared and Deidara's eyes widened.

Sasori, clad in his red-less Akatsuki cloak, stared back at her, equally stunned at her appearance.

----

That morning, Chiyo burst into Sasori's room with a familiar box in her arms. Sasori, who'd already been awake and was working on one of his puppets, looked up, frowning.

"A delivery box?" he questioned. "We've been out of business since the invasion."

"Cut the sass, boy," Chiyo said briskly. "This contains a medicine I brewed for an informant of mine who lives across the city. I'm not sure if she's still alive or not, which is why I need you to bring this to her. She was ill with pneumonia the last time I heard from her."

Chiyo had an elaborate 'spy' network across the city, funnily enough. Elaborate for an elderly, retired taijutsu master at any rate. It was mostly composed of old gossips like her that had managed to survive the initial stages of the invasion, but Sasori knew that there was one particularly valuable informant that had ties with the Tsukigakure force. She was a woman with Tsukigakure blood running through her veins, and had moved to Akatsuki a few years ago. Thanks to her origins, she had certain ins with the military, but her heart belonged to Amegakure and Akatsuki.

"Ah," Sasori raised an eyebrow, "So her. How cavalier of you, baa-sama, to send your only living relative into the fray for a mere an informant."

"I told you to cut the sass, didn't I?" Chiyo said gruffly, shoving the box in his arms. "You sneak around in the dark well enough. If it gets too dangerous, return here immediately. You're too strong to have your strings cut by cannon fodder."

In the end, it turned out that Chiyo's informant had died from her illness, if the body in the living room had been any indication, leaving Sasori in a black mood as he stored the medicine in a storage scroll.

He was passing through an unfamiliar neighbourhood when a tiny figure in the mist caught his eye. A child? Out here? Sasori grimaced when he neared and saw her young face.

The girl saw him, too, and she blinked, shirking back warily.

"Stop that," Sasori ordered, stopping in front of heel. "If I was really an enemy, you'd already be on the ground." She was skin and bones, this girl, and looked as if the wind could blow her away.

"Who are you?" the girl bleated, taking a stance.

Sasori blinked slowly, as much surprise as he would show in the face of this child. She's had martial arts training, hm? Not bad, but she's going to have to do a lot better than that.

The morning mist that weaved about them began to clear, and Hitomi took a step backward, looking up at him with a strange mix of fear and defiance.

And that was when he saw her, a seemingly pale imitation from the girl he had known. She stood not too far away from him, her hood having fallen off to reveal dull, blonde hair. The Akatsuki cloak she wore—she'd taken out the red strands, like him—billowed slightly around her form, giving her a ghostly, ethereal look.

Their gazes met, and Sasori allowed himself a small, surprised intake of breath.

Deidara.

 

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