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

11. Part II: Southernwood

Naruto glanced up at the grey sky exasperatedly, holding a wooden broom with bristly ends in one hand. His eyes were not as bright as usual, and Konohamaru resisted the urge to nail the blond in the back of the head with a rock. The low morale was getting to all of them, though the younger boy tried desperately not to show it, especially in front of Moegi and Udon.

The older boy's lack of enthusiasm was most definitely a combination of bitterness and cabin fever. Disease undoubtedly ran rampant outside, and though no one had gotten extremely sick in the past few weeks, it was better safe than sorry. Not to mention the ongoing patrols of Tsukigakure soldiers marching through the city.

"You missed a spot," Moegi said halfheartedly, pointing at a dusty area. She too was holding a broom, though it seemed to be newer than the one Naruto and Konohamaru possessed. "Better get that, or Iruka-san will be annoyed."

Konohamaru, who was standing closer to the still dirty spot, shuffled over. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen anything beyond the factory, the closed teahouse, and the front courtyard that used to host hundreds of street stands selling exotic spices, foreign fabrics, and delicious skewered meat.

None of them could remember the last time they had bathed or showered, two luxuries that had quickly been swept away during the night of the invasion. Their faces were perpetually caked with dirt, dust, and natural oils. Sometimes, Tenten would find a relatively clean rag lying around and wet it. Then she'd wipe their faces down, starting with the youngest, Chihiro, followed by Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon. She'd do her own face next, then Lee's and Naruto's, though it wouldn't always necessarily be in that order. They would be clean for a few hours before dirtying up again.

Konohamaru's hand twitched around the handle of his broom as he swept, reminded of the fate that had befell Chihiro just days ago. Well, none of them knew what had happened to her, just that she'd been sweeping the courtyard one day before going missing.

Iruka ordered them to do their outside chores in groups of three, now.

"I'm sick of this!"

Moegi nearly dropped her broom at Naruto's outburst; he'd thrown the broom across the courtyard floor.

"Naruto-nii," she said awkwardly, scuttling over to where he stood, his shoulders rising and falling angrily, and picking up his broom for him.

"When is this damn war going to end?!" Naruto shouted to the sky, a glare on his face. The shouting attracted the attention of Lee and Tenten, who poked their heads outside to see what was going on. His teeth were gritted. "I… can't stand this! We can't do anything anymore! We can't even go outside!" Technically, they were outside, but Konohamaru knew what he meant. Naruto waved his arm wildly at the space in front of him. "What happened to basic human rights, huh?!"

Tenten stepped in at that. "Naruto," she said bluntly, her brow furrowed. "Cut it out already. I know things are bad, but we just have to make do with what we have." Inwardly, she agreed thoroughly with the blond boy, but she knew that voicing her agreement would only make him more vehement about the circumstances of their current situation. Naruto glared at her, but she placed a firm hand on his shoulder and met his stare evenly. "This isn't forever. Nothing is eternal. Things are going to get better, just not..." She sighed. "Just not now, okay?"

As the oldest, they all knew that Tenten faced the pressure of looking after all of them, simply because nobody else was around enough to do so. The factory workers still around had their own homes to return to, however broken down, including Iruka. Sometimes, he stayed, but when he wasn't there, everything fell back to Tenten. When they had lost Chihiro, their mourning was forced to be brief, and Tenten had taken it the hardest. Naruto could see the dark circles collecting underneath her eyes, and he faltered.

"Doesn't mean I have to like it," he muttered, his eyes fixed on the ground. He took the broom from Moegi. "You know me, Tenten," he chuckled, the sound sour, "Complaining makes me feel a whole lot better, dattebayo."

It was then Iruka appeared, his face haggard but smiling wearily. "Everyone, come back inside. Lunch is ready."

'Lunch' consisted of a few potatoes and scraps everybody had scrounged up, and a thin, tasteless congee made of water and rice, though the water to rice ratio was extremely unbalanced. The grain was rare, nowadays, and they used their rice rations sparingly. Still, they took what they could get, and the factory stopped for a moment in time as everybody devoured their meager meals.

Naruto ate his congee at breakneck speed compared to everyone else, Lee close behind. The latter boy's hair had grown out in messy, bushy spikes down his back. One time, Tenten saved him from getting his black locks caught in one of the machines.

Konohamaru looked around at the people sitting on the rickety wooden tables. There were about twenty workers left in the factory, but since they were making absolutely nothing, he figured the lack of staff mattered much. He suspected that the Nohara-Uchiha family only kept the place open to keep them busy, and to achieve some sort of normalcy in their lives. He sighed and unenthusiastically ate his congee and the half of a potato that Udon had given him (Konohamaru noticed that the boy, who's eyesight was poor but not that poor, kept the bigger half to himself).

There were so few of them left. There used to be hundreds of people working in that factory. It made them all feel at least a little vulnerable, especially since the last time Obito had shown, it had been with multiple bruises on his face and arms. Rin always looked so worried whenever they saw her, and, personally, Konohamaru thought that she looked like she had aged fifty years.

A rat scuttled by somewhere, but none of them even reacted to the presence of the rodent. Nor did they see, much less react, the rat's violent death—swallowed whole by a medium-sized snake on the verge of death.

----

Her hands were cold, even when they were balled up in the long sleeves of her cloak. Her hair—the part not tied up in a high ponytail—fell loosely around her shoulders, curling lightly at the bottom. Only the ends could be seen, as both of them had their hoods up.

Sasori led the way, Deidara close behind and holding Hitomi's hand tightly.

"Danna, left," Deidara murmured, her hand tightening around Hitomi's.

"I know."

Automatically, they slipped to the side and pressed against the walls, just as a small crowd of soldiers rounded the corner they'd been nearing. They were talking in hushed voices, their military boots clicking against the ground in some sort of bastardized goose-march.

Hitomi trembled slightly, nearly knocking over a broken wooden table, but a squeeze from Deidara's hand stopped her from shifting enough to do so.

"Sasori-no-Danna," Deidara breathed out, their shoulders pressed together. "Are you sure you're not out of your mind?"

His brown eyes flickered over to her. Her hood was covering the majority of her face in side profile, but he could feel how tense the muscles in her shoulders were. "I'm fairly sure that I'm sound of mind, yes. Why? Would you prefer to return to your decrepit apartment?"

"We'll eat you out of house and home, un."

The soldiers were gone. Sasori, Deidara, and Hitomi slipped onto the street again, speeding up their pace slightly.

"You told me you brought your own rations," he said calmly, eyes moving left and right to search for any soldiers. They were still in a part of the city that Sasori was not too intimately familiar with, and it was far enough from where Deidara had been living that she didn't know how the patrols worked here, either. It'd been sheer luck that they'd heard the voices and boots of the previous group of militants.

"I did, yeah." She frowned slightly; she had packed everything important—food, some clothes—into a scroll Sasori had provided her with. But still...

For a moment, their gazes met, and Deidara knew that Sasori would be unyielding on this matter. So she accepted defeat with a quiet grace.

"Um, Deidara?" Hitomi voiced hesitantly, looking up at the back of the girl's clothed head with wide, uncertain eyes.

"Later," the woman replied curtly, not even turning around.

Hitomi lowered her gaze, allowing herself to continue to be led by the older girl. "Okay."

Their first meeting since before the war began had been... remarkably less awkward than Deidara had anticipated, and she supposed that was mostly thanks to Sasori's unflappable personality. He had changed little—his frame was narrower, obviously, but that was the case for everyone, so that could be overlooked. She knew that he was older than he looked, and his face had retained the most of the same youth it had had during times of peace.

She was tentative, at first, to accept his sudden appearance in such a place. He and his grandmother lived on the opposite side of the city, after all. But he was undoubtedly Sasori, and, reluctantly, they slipped back into a small, tense fraction of their old dynamic.

Perhaps it was for the sake of old friendship, but he offered her sanctuary in his home. A home that she had been to only once for utterly unimportant reasons, and, banking on the fact that not much of their apartment's structure had been altered since the invasion, one that was cleaner and more homely than the abandoned flat that Deidara had been living in the past two months.

As Deidara briefly recalled their encounter, Hitomi kicked a small pebble at the unmoving body of a rat. It sat up and hissed, scampering away, but not before giving the girl a mild fright.

Sasori turned his head ever so slightly, his flinty brown eyes sliding to the left to see Hitomi grimace. To her credit, the girl didn't scream or do anything else that would attract the attention of enemy soldiers like flies to honey.

Inoichi's youngest, he had concluded a while ago. According to baa-sama's 'informants', he died on the night of the attack. She would have been a pretty little thing if she didn't look so terribly malnourished. He had no doubt that food had been tight for them, and he couldn't help but wonder if Deidara had gone to entertain Uchiha Madara's machinations—the competition was crude and unstructured—distasteful and artless—and he slowly digested that thought with a healthy dose of disgust.

Sasori's face was completely blank as he remembered the expression Deidara's eyes had held when she had found them. It'd been an amalgamation of sheer relief, frustration, and anger. Then she'd noticed him, and it'd been like all the color had suddenly been sucked out of her, leaving behind a pale imitation of herself.

Chiyo normally recommended hot thyme tea for shock.

Sasori hated thyme.

Dutifully, they trudged back to his home, dodging patrols and the occasional dusty-gray body that had yet to be cleaned up or eaten.

She's been out of the loop, Sasori reminded himself. I doubt she knows anything of the Underground. He hadn't checked up on them in a while, busying himself his and Chiyo's own survival, as well as the Nohara-Uchiha's. She and Itachi aren't familiar, but I'm willing to bet Izumi misses her greatly. Her presence would be welcome. He was impatient to inform her of what had been happening while she was gone, but they couldn't speak now. Not when they were so vulnerable already, out in the open like this. And they were all feeling it—while she tried to seem relaxed, Deidara's entire body was a knot of tension, and Hitomi had all but sunken her tiny body into the folds of Deidara's cloak, as if the fabric would protect her from the dangers in the city.

And, Sasori considered, it probably would. Little girls and women were especially 'at risk', and Sasori was not unaware of the rapes and beatings that happened outside his home. At least Deidara could pass off as male well enough, with the cloak and hood concealing her curves and facial features, but Hitomi was utterly exposed.

He could hear Deidara suck in a breath through her teeth when they finally arrived at Akatsuki Square.

Once upon a time, it'd been the city's beating heart, a hub of noise and entertainment.

Now, things were still, and Sasori could have sworn that the stone flooring had absorbed in more gray.

"Don't look, brat," Sasori advised, allowing just a tinge of concern to seep into his voice—to comfort her, because she'd been with only the company of a child less than half her age for the past two months.

"Y-yeah, that's the plan..." Deidara mumbled under her breath, her fringe falling further across her face. She used her free hand to brush it away when it threatened to cover her right eye as well.

Hitomi was staring up at her curiously, but kept quiet, something that both adults were greatful for. Deidara because she wasn't sure how she would deal with it when she heard Hitomi's voice bleat nonsensical things again, and Sasori simply because children were simply tolerable, and he lacked the patience for them most days.

Chiyo's Chicken Rice, now closed, sat at the bottom level of one of the buildings encompassing the large quadrangle. Sasori's home was two levels above the store.

"Tadaima," Sasori announced tonelessly, opening the door to his and Chiyo's unit. He slipped his nondescript shoes off, Deidara doing the same, albeit with more difficulty. She wore military boots, while Hitomi's footwear were a pair of dusty martial arts slippers that were a little too big for her. How did she train with those on? Sasori briefly thought before Chiyo emerged from another room.

The old woman's eyebrows immediately raised past her hairline when she saw just who Sasori was in the company of. Her lips curled upward in a mischievous smile, and Sasori inwardly groaned, preparing for a remark jabbing at his status as a single man entering his thirties.

"I must say," Chiyo demurred, setting Sasori on edge. Nobody could quite do that like his grandmother, he begrudgingly admitted. "If I knew that international warfare and a famine would bring you a candidate bride, I would have marched up to Empress Kaguya myself and declared war before she did to Pein."

Sasori sighed; the sound was always one of long-suffering. "Baa-sama, please. Your humor is not needed in such a time."

Deidara's eyes lit up at the annoyance in his voice. So, she mused, this war hasn't turned him into one of his puppets, after all. It relieved her, this small bit of irritation he displayed. She knew it wasn't completely rational, but knowing that he was still human despite his wooden exterior was comforting. And his old woman, well...

Frankly, Deidara liked her already, even if she did insinuate that they were having some kind of sordid affair. She stifled a snort.

"Forgive me for my rudeness," Chiyo said to Deidara, shuffling past Sasori, who shot her a glance of pure exasperation and holding out her hand in a very informal gesture. "My name is Chiyo."

"You don't sound very sorry, un," Deidara stated, and Chiyo gave her a haughty look. Deidara grinned and shook the woman's offered hand. "I'm Deidara, yeah, and this is..." Hitomi squirmed underneath her blue gaze, and Deidara felt a small prick of pity despite herself. "... My ward, Yamanaka Hitomi." That's right brat, she wanted to crow when she saw Hitomi's eyes widen a little, You're not the only one who knows how to guilt trip.

"Yamanaka, eh?" Chiyo chuffed morbidly. "I heard that your clan has been... downsized by quite a considerable amount."

"Baa-sama," Sasori said sharply, noting the slight narrowing of Deidara's eyes.

"It's an uncomfortable truth. Deal with it." Chiyo's bluntness came down like a hammer on all of them, even Sasori. "Now..." She placed her hands on her hips and looked down her nose at her two house guests. "If you want to stay here, I hope you brought enough food. And don't expect to be waited on hand and foot. I'm looking at you, Yamanaka. You're going to earn your keep. Help around the house, accompany my grandson because he needs lady friends," she looked at Deidara, who twitched in a mixture of amusement and discomfort, "And don't make a mess. Are we clear?"

"Crystal," Deidara answered crisply, straightening. She'd removed her hood when she'd come in, and her blonde hair was a wind-blown mess from earlier this morning. Dirt caked her face. Hitomi was in a similar state, though she looked a bit fresher.

Chiyo wrinkled her nose. "First thing in order—both of you are taking a hot bath. A long one."

Hitomi met her gaze willingly for the first time. "W-with hot water?!" She looked wildly between Sasori and Chiyo. "You have hot water, Chiyo-baa-sama?!"

And the old woman cackled. "No. Why, did you?"

"Well, not exactly..." Hitomi trailed off. They did boil water and carry it outside to splash themselves occasionally, but Deidara wasn't very fond of bathing in general, claiming that they had nothing to dry thick enough to dry themselves off with, and that their wetness would cause fever.

"Then why ask?" Chiyo beckoned them forward, moving aside to another room. "Come. I'll boil up some water; girl, you go first. Deidara-san, you're next. Sasori, no peeking."

"I would never," Sasori deadpanned, his gaze as flat as his tone.

"Stop pretending that you're not a giant mass of hormones and make yourself useful," Chiyo retorted, pointing to the kitchen. "We can have an early lunch."

"Oh, right," Deidara said before Sasori could respond, pulling the scroll containing their rations and clothing out. "Here." As his grandmother was distracted, he grumpily heeded her advice, disappearing into the kitchen.

Chiyo clicked her tongue, accepting the storage scroll. "One of his finer ones."

Intrigued, Deidara echoed, "Finer ones? Does that mean..."

"Mm, yes." Chiyo unsealed the scroll. Miraculously, a bundle of clothing popped out first, then a sack of rice and some old, patchy potatoes and a small slice of boiled meat. Chiyo eyed it hungrily. Meat was extremely hard to come by, even more so than rice. "Sasori is quite proficient with seals, though not to the extent that he can be called a seal master..." She glanced toward the kitchen, where they could see Sasori moving back and forth through the doorway, working. "He didn't study sealing for kicks, or because he liked it. He did it to benefit his art."

"Puppeteering, yeah? I've heard of it. Apparently, it's a foreign speciality from Suna." Not to mention all the art battles we used to have, she added silently, a ghost of a smile appearing on her lips. She would comment no more on the subject, lest Chiyo be upset. She had a strong feeling that the art of puppeteering ran in the family. Chiyo's hand had been hard and calloused—she had callouses that could only be caused by woodwork and hand to hand combat.

A chopping sound reached Deidara's ears. Sasori must have started on the potatoes.

"Oh, it is," Chiyo confirmed. "My son and I came here from Suna seven years ago. Or was it eight? Alas, my memory ails me..." She gave a mysterious smile. "But he made quite the reputation for himself, I recall..."

A loud thunk of the knife against the chopping block, then silence.

Chiyo continued to look amused at her own anectode, while Deidara shifted in her position.

The chopping resumed.

"Well then," Chiyo said cheerfully. "I'd better get that water boiling, before your ward starts complaining."

"Yes..." Deidara stared after her as she ambled off, her footsteps silent against the tiling. "You should, un."

----

Lunch was ready when Deidara emerged from the bathing room, wearing a plain, cotton tomesode kimono that had once belonged to Chiyo, who had given it to her before she entered. She refused to acknowledge the meaning behind the garb. Chiyo may be old, but she knows how to scheme, Deidara thought wryly, taking a seat beside Chiyo. There were bowls and chopsticks set out in front of four seats, each with some of the rice that Deidara had brought with her. They really didn't wait, did they?

Sasori emerged from the kitchen, carrying a small plate of boiled potatoes cut into chunky, uneven bits. If he saw what Deidara was wearing, he didn't comment on it. Knowing him, it was unlikely that he hadn't noticed.

"Where's Yamanaka-chan?" Chiyo inquired as Sasori sat down on his grandmother's other side, having placed the dish in the middle of the round table.

"Doing her hair," Deidara answered distractedly. More like trying to avoid me, un. Either that, or she's trying to find a way to talk to me.

When she didn't appear in the next few minutes, they started without her. As soon as Chiyo grabbed her chopsticks, Sasori and Deidara followed, picking and grabbing at pieces of potato.

Sasori went straight to the point. "Deidara, have you heard of the Underground?"

Underground? Her confused look was enough of an answer for the man, and he chewed and swallowed a chunk of potato. The vegetable was a bland paste against his tongue, and he washed it down with a cup of hot water; each of them had one next to their bowls.

For the next hour, they shared stories of their own experiences. Deidara was relieved to hear that Rin and Izumi, her two closest female friends, were okay, and that their husbands were still kicking.

"That idiot," Deidara groaned when Sasori told her of Obito's latest 'great idea'—challenging two Tsukigakure taijutsu users at once to win extra rice. "Hopefully, he's learned his lesson, un. Obito's good, but he's facing two elites that know not to underestimate him. Any chance of him doing it again?"

"Probably," Sasori replied. "And I'm not sure if I would stop him if he did. It's not my place."

She grunted. "I wouldn't expect you to. He wouldn't let you, to begin with. Obito's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but what he lacks in the brains department, he makes up for with sheer stubbornness, un."

A footfall reached their ears, and Sasori stared past Deidara's head to see Hitomi approaching them, wearing a brown yukata that was a size too big for her. It was one of his own, Sasori realized, from when he was just a bit older than her. Perhaps eight or nine.

"Hello," Hitomi mumbled, hesitating when she noticed that the only empty seat left was the one between Sasori and Deidara. "Sorry for coming so late... that was rude of me."

"Forget it," Chiyo dismissed, "Just eat already, child, you look like the wind could blow you over at any time."

None of them mentioned that there was no ventilation in the room, instead continuing to eat quietly.

Hitomi ate like a fine lady. She took small, meager bites, chewed with her mouth closed, and even held her chopsticks like nobility. She did not sip her tea loudly, and did not leave her chopsticks lying in her rice bowl like sticks of incense.

Even so, the girl was nervous. She did not meet the gaze of anyone, and seemed to be trying her best to become invisible.

Lunch was a quiet affair, in the end.

----

The breeze brushed against his face, but Sasori didn't look up from his current project: the reconstruction of the puppet that Deidara had destroyed during their first spar.

He had his own workshop—technically, it was Chiyo's, but she had little use for it, nowadays—but it was refreshing to take his work outside every one in a while, and enjoy the night.

The guest room, which was occupied by Deidara and Hitomi, was right next to his workshop as well.

He was on the balcony, a table and chair set up. His toolbox sat on one end of the table, a cup of steaming hot water next to it. The latter item had been left to cool, and Sasori nearly burned himself when he reached for his calligraphy brush, stored in the toolbox in a plastic pack. There were different sizes; the one he needed was the thinnest one with the finest bristles and a pointed toe.

After coating the brush thinly with special chakra-conductive ink, Sasori took a sip from his water, now only moderately hot, as he traced the appropriate characters for an anchor seal tweaked to his own liking. Sealing was a rare art normally passed down from older generations to newer ones, and that was exactly what Chiyo and his parents had done for him.

Placing the brush down, he closed his eyes, sinking into his seat, the heat radiating from the cup warming his cold hands.

Otou-sama, okaa-san. I'm glad they are dead. Sasori took another sip, the perfect picture of contentedness. I don't want them to see this. Any of it. His brow twitched when the sound of a dog barking was abruptly cut off with a loud gunshot, leaving him to his own imagination.

Tomorrow, he had decided, he would take Deidara to the Underground, and Itachi would know what to do from there. Itachi always knew. Itachi, who cared about his family and friends, people like Sasori and Deidara and Rin and Obito. And, most likely, Sasuke, even if the little prick didn't deserve it. Sasori wasn't oblivious to Sasuke's new allegiance—he'd seen the teenage Uchiha heir stomping around the city like he owned it.

He hadn't decided what to do with Hitomi just yet. The girl was an anomaly. By all means, she shouldn't have even been alive. If he remembered correctly, Itachi had told him that Yamanaka Ino had been recovered a few weeks ago.

The sisters deserved to be reunited, sure, but Sasori needed to wait for it, and not get too ahead of himself. There could be some unforeseen consequences, and he didn't want to end up doing something that could doom them all, or flip the status quo three-hundred-and-sixty degrees on its head.

The wind blew harshly, and the calligraphy brush rolled off the table.

Sasori caught it before it landed and put it back in its place, turning his head slightly when he heard the sliding door open behind him.

Blearily, Deidara stared at him, the breeze blowing her hair gently around her face.

He turned around in his chair completely, the water in his cup moving along with him. "Wha—"

"Couldn't sleep," she cut him off. "Thought I'd get some fresh air, un." She closed the door behind her, walking forward a few steps and standing close to where he was sitting. "You?" Her blue eyes, brighter than they had been when they had reunited earlier today, drifted to the still, naked puppet in front of him.

"Simply perfecting my art," Sasori answered smoothly, taking another sip of water calmly. "If our positions were reversed, I'm sure you'd be doing the same with your... clay."

"Our positions don't matter," Deidara said haughtily, sticking out a hand-mouth tongue at him, before the sleeve of her sleepwear rolled down to reveal a clay creation clutched in her opposite hand. "You're not the only artist in the house, yeah." She leaned against his chair slightly, and Sasori could feel the natural warmth her proximity was emitting. "And don't talk like that. Like my art is beneath yours because you're blinded with your eternity. Danna, it might be a little difficult for you to comprehend, but art is an explosion." She unfolded her fingers, and the clay creature—it was a spider with six legs instead of eight—crawled onto the table, scuttling around. "It won't explode," she assured him, noticing the wary look he was giving her. "I gave it some of my chakra, but not enough for it to explode. At most..." The spider stilled, then crumbled into a fine powder, blown away by the wind. "Not exactly an explosion, but the meaning is there, un."

Very, very grudgingly, Sasori had to admit that there was some beauty in watching that happen, but if he said so, he would never hear the end of it from her. Irritable woman. "There is no meaning to that," he said flippantly, waving a hand dismissively. "There is simply no point to your art." He could have said more on the subject matter, but if he did, they'd be here all night, and Sasori was planning to turn in before the sun rose. So he drank from his rapidly cooling cup, staring out into the black horizon.

"Yare yare..." Deidara rolled her eyes, much to Sasori's amusement. "One day, Danna," she vowed, "I'll get you to respect my art, even if it kills me. You'll see."

"I doubt that."

"Yeah, I'll let you doubt," she muttered, crossing her arms and staring down at where he was sitting. "It'll be all the more sweeter when my art comes to bite you in the ass, un." Deidara passed her hand through her untied hair, pushing a few stray strands back from the right side of her face. "I think I'm going to turn in now. I'm pretty sure your grandmother likes me, but I'm also sure that she's an absolute slave driver, un."

Sasori smirked. "That's Chiyo-baa-sama for you. She's like that to everyone."

"Hmm, I noticed." She took a step backward, turning. "Goodnight—"

The door slid open, and Hitomi blinked at them, her face illuminated by the half-moon.

Deidara faltered. "Or not. Need something?"

"I...!" Hitomi swallowed. "I didn't realize that... he would be here, too. I, um..."

Sasori drained the last of his water, placing the cup down on the table with a tap.

"I'm sorry!" Hitomi predictably blurted, bowing at the waist for a moment. She lifted her head, eyes shining. "I just—I just..."

"Alright, I get it, yeah," Deidara said gruffly. "Ino. I got it."

"Yes... I didn't think I'd run into anyone—"

"Then you're a fool."

"I know, and I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Please don't..."

Sasori had a feeling that he'd faded into the background for Hitomi, who was no longer so averse to speaking up in his presence. He knew that he intimidated her. Most young kids had that reaction. What irked him most was the fact that she'd probably be taller than him when she was fully grown. Yes; he'd relish in their fear while he still could.

"Don't... leave me alone," Hitomi finished awkwardly, shuffling her feet. "I'm not sure... if I would know what to do if you did."

There was a silence as the two females stared at each other. One awkward and earnest, the other pending.

Then Deidara huffed a resigned sigh, lifting her arms. "Come here, kid."

Hitomi jumped into her arms with a small oomph, wrapping her thin arms around the older woman's waist.

"Don't ever run away from me again," Deidara said bluntly, narrowing her eyes. "Or I'll shank you, un."

"What does 'shank' mean?"

"You're a bad influence," Sasori opined, reminding them of his presence.

"Stop ruining the moment, Danna." Deidara unwrapped her arms from Hitomi and grimaced. "You can let go now, yeah. Kid. Kid. I said you can let go—"

A tiny snore sounded, and Sasori scoffed, amused.

"Oh, no, you're not pulling that fake sleeping shit on me—"

For the first time in a while, watching Deidara irritably palm Hitomi's head and push, Sasori felt genuine content overcome him, and he relaxed in his chair, turning around again to work on his puppet. The girls were gone after two minutes, leaving Sasori to enjoy the solitude.

It was nice to know, he thought absently, that despite everything, there was still something that was there. Not a memory, but something that would last for all posterity.

And it just so happened that Sasori considered that to be art.

----

"... And I have Udon and Tenten working over there," Iruka finished, Obito nodding along.

"Everything's in order," Obito said with a grin, giving Iruka a thumbs-up. "Great job. I knew I made a right choice when I hired you." He was still sporting a black eye, and there were multiple bruises decorating his naturally pale skin. He looked around, his face falling slightly. "I really ran this place to the ground, didn't I?" He let out a deep breath. "Maa, I guess it can't be helped."

"It's the war," Iruka told him. "The economy is in shambles." It was nothing Obito didn't already know, and the boss hummed. "Sir..."

"No," Obito said with faux cheer. "I'm not keeping this open for the money anymore. We all know that doesn't mean anything." Obito clasped Iruka's shoulder. "But look around, Umino-san. Look how..." His smile grew more strained. "Normal this is... Everyone has something to do, including me. So don't try to take that from me, you hear?" He slapped Iruka on the back good-naturedly, making the younger man choke on his saliva and cough harshly. "Now get back to work, you slacker!"

"Right, sir." Iruka cleared his throat. Something caught his hawk's eye, and he frowned. "Naruto, get down from there!"

"Come and get me then, dattebayo!"

Iruka began to sweat. Right in front of the boss?! Come on, give me a break, Naruto!

"Naruto!" another sharp voice interjected. Tenten was glaring at Naruto, who was lackadaisically sitting on top of a humming generator, cotton flying in the air as Konohamaru and Moegi cranked the cotton spinner. "Stop slacking off and get downNow."

Naruto grimaced. "Okay, okay... Sheesh, I'm coming..." Reluctantly, he slid off the squat machine and ambled over to Tenten. "You guys need help?"

Udon shook his head. "Nah, but I think," he sniffed, rubbing his nose, "Lee might."

The boy in question was vigorously cranking two machines at once with both arms, heaving. "This is great training!" Lee protested when they all shot him a look. "If I am to become good enough for Maito Gai-sama to notice me!"

"Oh god," Obito said with a chuckle. "It's a mini-Gai in the making." He shook his head. "How did he not notice this kid? He's pretty youthful, in the words of Gai."

"Naruto, go and help Lee," Iruka said sternly, pointing at the black-haired teenager. "If he throws out his back, it'll help no one."

Naruto gave him a mock salute. "On it! Hey, Bushy-Brows, slow down for a bit..."

As the orphans and the other nondescript workers spread themselves thin, Obito pitching in to help as well. Rin was here, too, but working on the other side of the room.

Lee was right, Obito mused as he spun cotton. This is pretty good training. It wasn't the first time he had helped do the hard-labor part of his business since the war broke out, but there was something oddly humbling about it each time. He wasn't so far above them anymore—no longer a king in his own empire. Now, he was just one of the little people.

Kids being kids, Konohamaru couldn't help but get a little bored spinning the same machine over and over again. So, grinning, he snatched a particularly large, fluffy cotton ball from the air.

"Eh?" Moegi stopped whirling the machine. "What'cha doing?"

Konohamaru lifted a finger to his lips, grinning. "Watch." He closed one eye and stuck out his tongue, holding the cotton ball in front of him. Then he threw it at Udon, who was scrubbing an oil stain off the floor with a dirty rag.

Of course, physics would decree that the cotton ball not make it far, but, miraculously, a breeze that blew through carried it over to Udon. The cotton ball smothered his face, and the bespectacled boy spluttered, glaring at Konohamaru, who whistled innocently, Moegi giggling beside him.

Iruka hadn't noticed yet, so Udon threw his rag at Konohamaru, who yelped quietly before snatching said rag out of the air. Triumphant, Konohamaru threw the rag at Udon, but it soared far over his head, and to the edge of the room, right next to a part of the metal wall that had been torn down by something during the night of the invasion.

Iruka was not as blind as they had thought, unfortunately. "Boys," he reprimanded, making them wilt.

Udon mumbled an apology as Naruto got a good laugh out of their scolding (before getting scolded himself by Tenten, who he had nearly elbowed), moseying over to where the rag had landed.

Stupid Konohamaru, Udon thought irritably, squatting down and grabbing the cloth. The next time he asks me how to long divide again, I ain't tellin' him. Debris moved and Udon lifted his head. Huh? What was that? Must be the wind... When he had been startled, he had dropped the cloth, and, sighing, he bent over once more.

A shadow loomed over him.

Eyes wide behind his glasses, Udon shakily looked up, hoping to the gods that it was just Konohamaru or Naruto playing a prank on him.

"Ahhh... ahhh...!" Udon trembled at long black hair and yellow slit eyes.

And Orochimaru smiled, a long tongue sliding out of his mouth. "Hello, little boy."

Udon screamed shrilly.

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