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.

15. Part II: Bluebell

There were quarters reserved only for Uchiha in Itachi's (former) mansion, and Sasuke's team was granted permission to stay there by Madara himself. He had heard Mizuki muttering jealously in the hallways about favoritism, but the sadistic man-child's upturned nose was promptly turned downward by a few loyal soldiers that had experienced the general's strength for themselves. Unless Mizuki went crying to his influential father (and wouldn't the soldiers look down upon him if he did), the only five Uchiha turncoats would be keeping their accommodation.

The quarters weren't very big; Sasuke, as the highest ranking officer among their squad, had his own room, while Shisui, Ashikaga, Yano, and Kagami barracked in the other, larger sleeping quarters. Between the two rooms was a small lounge—a common room for discussion and relaxation, if you will.

It was where Shisui found himself right now, looking a sorry sight sprawled across the couch, a half-empty bottle of sake on the table in front. The lights were off as it was late at night, and Sasuke was out patrolling with Ashikaga and Yano. His cousin barely slept nowadays—Shisui knew; he could tell from the dark circles that had accumulated underneath his eyes—and his working hours definitely had some part to play in Sasuke's recent insomnia. Outside of his normal schedule, he volunteered for more patrols than he could keep up with—probably trying to keep himself running on the asphalt road; trying to keep himself from taking a breather and looking around at the pain and the suffering—

Muttering, Shisui reached for the bottle, heaving himself up in a sitting position after failing to do so. He was so, so glad that no one could see him now—Uchiha Shisui, spending his lonely nights with only alcohol and the moon behind the clouds for company. Even Itachi had never seen Shisui tipsy, and they had been thick as thieves back in the day.

"Maa, what a sorry sight you are..."

Instantly, Shisui straightened, awkwardly drawing out his tanto from the holster on his hip. Then he relaxed. "Oh, it's just you."

"Tsk." Kagami clicked their tongue, voice muffled by the mask as usual. "You say my name with such loathing. I can't believe you started without me."

Shisui snorted, the sound wet. "You weren't invited. This pity party is for my, myself, and I."

"Don't look so put out." Kagami closed the door behind them and flopped on the couch next to Shisui. "Everybody has their own coping mechanisms, especially when faced with times like these..." They adjusted their mask—it was a purple one with lollipop swirls where the cheeks would be on a normal face. It had a single eye hole on the left side of the face for them to peer through. "Everybody's slowly dying and losing faith—we haven't done any business for weeks now. But the hardasses don't mind; they have more time to give that stick adequate training."

Shisui glanced curiously at the man—woman? He wasn't sure; nobody was, really—as they tilted their mask upward slightly to reveal a pink, surprisingly normal mouth. Their lips wrapped around the bottle before chugging down the rest of Shisui's sake.

"I bet you're thinking that you're not doing enough again. But you're wrong," Kagami stated confidently. "You, eyepatch, and the spaz are all doing your bit. Ain't your fault that civilians aren't equipped to survive in the woods."

He chortled. "'Eyepatch'? 'Spaz'? You're a hoot, aren't 'cha?"

They shrugged. "If that is a jab at my creativity, I will ignore it like the respectable soldier I am."

What kind of respectable soldiers do what we're doing? Then again...

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Sasuke," Shisui groaned, as if his cousin's name explained everything.

Regardless, it was enough for Kagami to get the gist of it. "Ooohh... did he not react well to..." They quietened for a moment before continuing, "I never talked to him, you know? He lived far away enough for me to never bother. But a man who could run a business that good is a man worth respecting. I think this is the part where I toast to Obito, but we just drank the last of the sake."

"Sasuke never reacts well to anything," Shisui said, pushing past the grief that threatened to prick at his heart. Now wasn't the time, even if Obito had once accused him of being a sad drunk despite never even seeing him beyond buzzed before.


They sat in companionable silence.

"So, Mangekyou? That makes him, Itachi, and you the only Mangekyou wielders since the times of the Warring Clans. And all in the same generation, too. How would you, Shisui, describe the experience as? A reward that's worth all the sacrifices? Or no?"

"It's like..." Shisui's gaze flattened. "The gift that keeps on taking."

"Gotcha. Like children it is."

He spluttered. "What?! I didn't—pfft!"

Behind the mask Kagami smiled. "I made you laugh... for real, this time. You're awfully good at hiding behind a mask, you know. And this is coming from someone wearing a literal one."

"Then I think I might be drunk."

"You're a sad drunk."

Obito was right. "These are sad times."

"Not as sad as the sight of you looking like a hen left out in the rain. Now up you get, you're on dawn patrol tomorrow. You can wallow some other time. And don't forget, my curly-haired relative, that you are not alone in our brilliant crusade for freedom."

Shisui laughed weakly as Kagami grabbed his arm and put it around their shoulder, heaving him upward with a small grunt. "It's hardly a crusade. More like... quiet rebellion."

"Hmm. It's the quiet ones you always have to look out for."


Madara was watching the fights today, which automatically put Sasuke on edge. After completing all his current patrols, Sasuke stood on the balcony looking down at the ring. As usual, around it sat ten formidable Tsukigakure warriors in seiza, not even twitching as their first opponent for this afternoon got on stage. Whenever Madara was watching, Mizuki and Sasuke would be, too. Mizuki because he was a sick bastard that was here almost every day when he wasn't doing his 'adviser duties', and Sasuke because Madara needed a translator. Tsukigakure came from across the Eastern Sea, on a lone island that was once Uzushiogakure before a disease wiped them all out a little past the Warring Clans era. As such, they spoke different languages; though there were gaping similarities in some of the characters (so gaping, in fact, that a man with half a brain could trace their mainland origins just by using common sense), their lexicons were pronounced differently. Sasuke, who was naturally talented at languages, had picked it up with relative ease.

"Arrgghhh!" The man below screamed as his opponent, a lean but muscular Tsukigakure warrior, snapped his leg.

Sasuke almost winced. Such a debilitating injury all but ensured death within the next week or so.

"Someone carry him off," Mizuki ordered, side-eyeing the general for any counter-commands. He received none, and nodded in self-affirmation. An officer dragged the man off the stage, opened the iron gates barring the other men from entering, and practically threw the grievously injured man into the mass. He was caught by some of the others standing at the front.

"Shit, are you okay?!" someone yelled out, the bars jostling as they threatened to snap close from all the movement.

"Your leg!"

"Hey, one of you come out already!" Mizuki sneered, and Sasuke resisted the urge to punch his face in. "We've got so many bags of rice to give away, and you're all just standing there!"

They looked to him, confused, and Mizuki glanced expectantly at Sasuke.

He suppressed a sigh, and said curtly, "Whoever's up next, come up."

Mizuki frowned. "Is it really that short in your tongue...?"

"I delivered the message," Sasuke dodged calmly, coal eyes following the trembling man who was shuffling forward.

Mizuki curled his lip, but the fight had begun.

It was the same lean-muscular man who had broken his previous opponent's leg, and Sasuke could tell that the Tsukigakure man was ready to fall asleep from dodging the civilian's weak punches.

After a bit of playing around, the lean-muscular warrior punched the shaking man straight in the nose, making him scream and fall backwards, knocking the back of his skull against the mat.

Sasuke closed his eyes, his stomach lurching. He had a feeling that this would be one of those 'accidents', again. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it. He was valuable, yes, for his translating services, but that did not mean that he was infallible. A translator could be replaced. Sasuke was simply found convenient—and, gods forbid, amusing—by Madara.

If Naruto were here—the dobe—he could put it in a much cruder way. It would probably sound something like, "Sasuke, what the hell are you doing, you bastard?! Just standing there?! The Sasuke I know isn't a coward like you, dattebayo!" But their amity had been brief, anyway, so it really didn't matter in the end. Their friendship had always been compromised by their clashing personalities. There'd never been any glue to hold them together—even Sakura and Kakashi hadn't been good enough, and the four of them had all drifted away from one another. Or, at least, Sasuke and Sakura had. He was pretty sure that Naruto and Kakashi had been on pretty good terms the last time he saw them at Obito's tea house.

The Sasuke Naruto had known wasn't really Sasuke at all, in the end. In the end, he was just another coward who abandoned his love ones when they needed him most—a weak, spineless coward just like his brother, the one who had abandoned his family for a girl who was common by Uchiha standards.

"That's enough."

Sasuke was a coward, just like his brother before him—

"I said—"


"—that's enough."

Everybody whipped their heads to the man who had ripped the wrought gate open with his bare hands, his slender frame trembling slightly from the exertion of such a feat. The gate had been weak, but no civilian could have possibly—

Sasuke couldn't hold in the sharp inhale when he saw him walk out to the ring. Raven hair, tied in a low ponytail. A slender, almost feminine body dressed in traditional martial art garb. It was the one that Sasuke had always seen him in—the one that Obito had custom made for him to suit his Amaterasu Style.

"Quick!" Mizuki urged Sasuke. "What's he saying?!"

Sasuke could only gape at the appearance of the brother that he hadn't seen since the war began, his teeth clenching when Itachi knelt beside the man. Groaning, the man reached for the sack of rice an officer at the bottom had thrown toward him in a taunt.

His hand closed around it as Itachi rose—


Sasuke nearly screamed


Itachi flinched.


The rice in the sack was undoubtedly stained with blood. The trembling man's body had flopped forward as soon as the bullet entered his brain, face-planting into the bag of rice.

Someone dragged him away as the men behind the iron bars roared.




"Why did you shoot him?" Itachi lifted his head, looking directly at Madara, Mizuki, and Sasuke. The youngest Uchiha felt his blood freeze in his veins as his brother searched for an answer. "Answer me, otouto." Now he was just looking at Sasuke. "Why did they open fire?!"

Itachi had raised his voice.

Sasuke almost fell onto his knees.

Mizuki opened his mouth, undoubtedly about to demand Sasuke for a translation when Madara spoke up for the first time since they had all entered the room.

"Who told you to shoot?" Madara demanded frostily, glaring at Mizuki. His eyes glowed red momentarily, and Mizuki faltered, though he did not lower his gun, which was pointed at Itachi.

If Itachi's display of strength had shocked them into silence, Madara's words made sure the atmosphere had dropped to absolute zero.

"He," Mizuki stumbled over his words, "took the rice even though he lost. I... wanted to teach him a lesson." Impressively, Mizuki kept his voice quite level, though it did waver in uncertainty a few times.

Madara's scowl deepened. Mizuki lowered his gun to the side as Itachi drilled holes into his head with spinning Sharingan eyes. "This place," Madara said lowly as he peered past the railing, staring intently at the bloodstained sack of rice, "is for tournaments only." Slowly, Madara turned around, stepping closer to Mizuki. Sasuke shuffled backward slightly as Madara wrapped his hand around the handle of Mizuki's gun, the other man's hand still attached to it.

Sasuke activated the first stage of his Sharingan, watching closely as Madara forcefully lifted the gun until the muzzle was pressed to the soft underside of Mizuki's chin. The older Uchiha's finger played with the trigger, staring his adviser in the eye. "Never open fire in here ever again. Not even your father will save you from me if you do."

Mizuki's eyes flashed with fear. "G-got it. Sir."

Madara released his hand, turning away in a remarkably displeased manner.

"A-ah, do not be too angry... I will arrange another match right away..." Mizuki turned to Sasuke. "Continue! Go down there and tell them to continue!"

Sasuke gave him a shallow bow before making his way down to the lower level. He purposefully swept his gaze past Itachi, instead focusing on the men behind the gate. "Who else wants to fight?" he asked in the Amegakure tongue.

No one did. No one except—

"Me. I will fight."

Sasuke's heart wrenched. Why was his brother trying so hard to get himself killed?! He wanted to scream in frustration, but all he could do was stiffly turn around. "Brother," he hissed, before getting cut off. "You—"

"Tell me," Itachi interrupted coldly. "Was that man beaten to death?"

"... Aniki." He cursed his weakness.

"I'm here, anyway. I will fight."

Defeated, Sasuke stepped back, turning his head upward to declare, "It's him. He will do it."

"Excellent," Mizuki said hurriedly, just wanting to get this over and done with.

Itachi glanced around at the ten taijutsu masters sitting around the ring. Then he lifted his chin, staring Madara in the eye. "I want to fight all ten of them."

Sasuke's eyes widened before he went over to Itachi, hissing his displeasure, "Are you insane?! Don't—"

"I want to fight all ten of them," Itachi repeated firmly, not even looking at his brother.

His mind was made up. Sasuke could do no more to save him from them. He turned again, looking up at the general and his adviser. "He says he wants to fight all of them."

Madara blinked, about as much surprise as he would show. He stepped closer to the railing, staring Itachi straight in the eye, scrutinizing every detail of his person. He saw the worn lines in his face, his unwashed hands, and dirt-patched cheeks. "Ten?" he murmured.

Sasuke nodded. "Yes."

Mizuki immediately smirked, apparently having forgotten about Madara's ire toward him just a few moments ago. "Hah! Let's see just how good he is." He raised his voice so that it carried over to the other side of the room. "Attention! All of you! Unit One, Unit Two! Begin!"

"Yes!" chorused the warriors, all of them simultaneously getting up from seizas.

Sasuke bowed one last time to Madara before turning to his side to walk away. He paused. "Be careful... brother."

Itachi rolled up his sleeves. "... Aa."

From the corner of his eye, Itachi saw Sasuke leave and join the other observers in their ranks. He fit in so... seamlessly. It did not sit well with him. So this is what Sasori had been keeping from me. I'm surprised that neither Hanabi, Sakura, or the others sent out ever caught wind of him. Or maybe they had, and had decided not to tell him in order to spare his feelings. His heart dropped to his stomach in disappointment. Sasuke... Letting the thought leave his head, Itachi fell into a mentality that he hadn't exposed himself to in a while. A taijutsu battle.

The fighters surrounded him. A few of the younger ones looked smug. Most of them were stone-faced. All of them had their hair in a militaristic buzz cut. As if they were one single entity—and Itachi knew he would be in trouble if they fought like one—they entered into their stances with a fierce kiai. All were the exact same.

Behind him, Itachi could practically feel Sasuke's Sharingan gaze burning into the back of his clothes, and he had no delusions about Madara and Mizuki either. They were watching just as closely as Sasuke, if not more.

Steadily, Itachi lifted his hands up in a closed fist, firmly acknowledging his ten opponents.

It had begun.


That was the young one's first big mistake. Broadcasting his movements in an attempt to look flashy in front of the general and his most trusted adviser. The martial artist spun around in the air and launched a kick from the side at Itachi, who stepped backward to avoid it. As the young male's leg flashed past him, Itachi grabbed the limb and threw him painfully into the ground. Then, mercilessly, he kicked his head, snapping his neck backward. He was immediately unconscious. All the while, the nine others circled around him like hawks. Their integrity as martial artists dictated that they would not attack Itachi all at once, and that was their biggest mistake.

The next one attacked with his fists first, aiming for the Uchiha's face. They traded blows before Itachi harshly slapped him away with a force he almost never exerted on his opponents. Not on Hoshigaki, who had invaded his home for a fight all those months ago. Not even on Orochimaru, who had threatened Akatsuki's entire pride as well as broken one of Itachi's precious vases plus their dinner table. The man he had slapped collapsed onto the ground and disappeared in a mass of feet and moving bodies.

The third man tried something similar, though he tried to take out Itachi's shoulders instead. Itachi dodged the punches, then grabbed the man's arm and held him in place with a nigh unbreakable grip.

He could not kill Mizuki. But these man...

Were not Mizuki.

The man cried out as Itachi punched him in the jaw repeatedly, one blow after another until his jaw bone and his cheekbone was clearly fractured or otherwise damaged. Then he kicked his legs out from under him and pushed him belly-first into the floor. It was at this moment that someone else decided to attack, and Itachi pressed himself onto the last man and rolled out of the way. From behind, a bulky man kicked out at him.

Itachi caught it—

—and snapped it backwards with a sickening crack.

To his credit, the man's strangled scream was muffled extremely well.

A shorter fighter jumped at him and Itachi skirted to the side, allowing the man to fly past him safely.

There was so much noise, and Itachi nearly got hit by a punch coming in from the side. Growling, Itachi kneed his new attacker in the ribs and shoved him to the mat. Winded, he tried to get up again, but Itachi would not have it.

For a moment, the man's pained face turned into Mizuki's.

A moment was all Itachi needed.

Sasuke had never seen his brother fight so viciously before. He had only ever seen him fight halfheartedly in peace. This... beast was not his brother. It couldn't be. Yet, it undeniably was. He wasn't sure if reality could get any clearer for him, and he could only blink, stunned as he watched Itachi bombard a series of brutal punched all over the fallen fighter's torso and chest before moving onto his face. He did not last long.

Another one came at him. Of course he did. He was honey, and they were the flies. Except, honey wasn't supposed to fight back, something that this man learned the hard away. Itachi twisted his arm behind his back until the bone snapped, palmed the side of his face, and rotated his entire body in a spin. The man spun in the air before landing roughly on the ground. He did not get up, having fallen unconscious from the pain.

Itachi exhaled jarringly. The man attacking him this time had his ankle caught and broken before being flipped onto the ground and having his tailbone stomped on. Deftly Itachi climbed on top of his back and sent his elbow digging into trapezius, causing the man to have a gutteral scream erupting from his throat.

Now there were only four fighters standing. The others were either unconscious, writhing on the ground in pain, or...

Sasuke swallowed.


They seemed to have clued in on Itachi's unforgiving disposition. This time, the remaining four fighters attacked him at once, but he expertly evaded or parried all of their kicks and punches.

One fell when Itachi punched him in the neck after exchanging fierce blows.

Itachi felt someone's arm brush past his side, almost burning his skin through his clothes with sheer speed. He was fast, but Itachi was faster. He yanked the man's wrist, pulling him forward, stumbling. The only noise was the pattering of his other opponents' feet as they composed themselves, and the sharp sound of flesh bruising flesh. He chopped the man's neck as he spun, making his eyes roll to the back of his head. Itachi then grabbed his gi and turned him around, so that he could see his face.

The man's neck was snapped with another chop.

Itachi moved his hand back, and the man collapsed onto the floor, completely still.

Two more, he coached himself, catching a man approaching him from behind as he turned.

Itachi blocked his punches and set himself on hammering the man's chest until his ribs or chest caved in—whichever came first. The man was pushed to the ground by Itachi's attacks, but the Uchiha kept on going. When he finished, the man was twitching.

All of these people. All of them nameless, faceless. Itachi slowly turned around to face the last fighter. Now, there is only one.

It was one of the young ones, Itachi noticed. One of the men that had exchanged smirks with another young friend in the ring. Now he was no longer sneering or smirking or doing anything of the sort. Instead, he held his fists up defensively, his entire form trembling slightly as Itachi focused his attention entirely on him. Almost lackadaisically, Itachi approached him.

At first, the young fighter shuffled backwards. But then he stopped, and when Itachi got close enough, the man immediately launched a kick at his neck. Itachi dodged it, and sent a hand flying into his stomach, causing spittle to spray from his gaping mouth. The man all but folded inward on himself, and Itachi caught his head and twisted so that his entire person was sent spinning into the mat, groaning and moaning.

Impassively, Itachi punched him in the skull. Once. Twice. Hard enough to lobotomize him. The man's eyes were squeezed shut in pain, blood dribbling from his nose as he took the brunt of Itachi's assault. Then he stilled, just as Itachi lifted his arm up for one more shot.

The Uchiha slowly straightened, his eyes—still coal, no sight of a Sharingan—burning with a vengeance. His fists were clenched at his sides, his knuckles split and bloodied. He unfurled them.

Immediately, more men dressed in the white uniforms of Itachi's ten opponents emerged from the shadows, circling around Itachi as they got into their stances.

Itachi tensed.

"Stay back!"

Surprisingly, it was Madara that had spoken, he and his adviser having descended during the fight and now heading toward the ring. Madara stopped at the side, as did Mizuki, who looked incredibly disgruntled.

At his command, they all stood back, leaving Itachi to stand alone in the center of the ring. Madara approached him, arms by his side, his wild mane falling over his shoulders and half of his face as he circled Itachi.

Unblinking, Itachi merely lifted his locked fists again before letting his arms fall to his side. Nine rice bags were thrown at his feet by a few officers.

"You..." Madara stared at him. "Come back again."

"He wants you to come back," Sasuke translated, standing behind the two of them outside of the ring.

Itachi stared the general down, and Sasuke could literally feel the electricity in the air. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple and disappeared down the collar of his uniform. Itachi, you... What are you going to do now?

"I'm not here," Itachi answered evenly, "for you."

Sasuke hesitated. No. No, this absolutely would not do. Nobody treated the general with blatant disrespect. If he didn't do something, his brother—the man who he had believed had caused him suffering—would... "He said... he will come back."

Itachi turned from the general, picking up all nine sacks of rice. The tenth one. Where is the... His eyes landed on the bloody sack that the dead man from the previous round had fought. He walked toward it and picked it up as well, adding it to the pile he was cradling to his chest with one arm.


Itachi slowed to a stop.

"What's your name?" Madara asked.

Sasuke, who was now standing by the iron gates, said to his brother, "He wants to know your name."

Itachi turned around again, meeting Madara's gaze. "I'm just... a man from Ame."

Closing his eyes, Sasuke exhaled sharply. "His name is Uchiha Itachi." And he is my brother.

"Hmph." Madara crossed his arms as he watched Itachi's figure disappear past the iron gates and through the throng of men, who were too shocked to even hound him. "Uchiha..."


The women were crying as Itachi set down the bloody bag of rice on their table. Kazuki had been their son and their brother. Silently, he left their single-room house, only to run into Sasuke.


Ah. He stopped in front of his younger brother, the one he hadn't seen in months.

"You need to be more careful," Sasuke warned, and perhaps, if the circumstances were different, Itachi's heart would have been melted at the obvious concern in his brother's voice.

But the women were still crying inside.

"I don't know what Madara might do," Sasuke finished.

Itachi stared at his brother. Then slapped him across the face.

"Kkkhh...! Itachi?!"

"Madara?" Itachi repeated. "It's Madara-sama to you, isn't it, foolish little brother? Or Madara-taisho? Isn't that who you are—the general's dog?"

"Dog?" Sasuke glared at him, palming the red mark on his face. "What dog? His death had nothing to do with me! I'm just an interpreter and the most I ever do is patrol the goddamn streets. You think I don't have to survive, too?"

"Survive?" Itachi echoed, sounding incredulous. "You watch your countrymen get beaten to death. You have no right to talk about survival. You don't even have the guts to survive." Their gazes held for one more moment before Itachi swept past him, not even looking back.

"You're right." Sasuke chuckled darkly. "I don't have any. But you do. You have lots of it. If you have the guts, go beat them up!" he shouted after Itachi's retreating figure. "Beat all of them! Beat as many as you can!" He barked out a harsh laugh. "I was supposed to just be an interpreter, not a lackey. I am a man from Ame!" In his fury, he had slipped into Tsukigakure's tongue.

A sigh escaped Itachi as he walked down the street, back to the beer hall. Sakura ushered him into the cellar as discretely as possible. Hardly any of the soldiers paid attention to him. Otouto, I cannot deny that you make mistakes; I do, too. But no matter what...

Sakura shut the lid above him, and he was enveloped in darkness.

... I will love you forever, and forgive you every time.


"I'm back," Itachi announced softly, stepping into the building block he shared with his wife.

"Itachi," Izumi greeted warmly, a hint of sadness and relief in her eyes.

Smiling tiredly, Itachi knelt down and cradled her belly, pressing his ear to the fabric. "I hope you've been good to your mother."

Izumi returned the smile, rubbing Itachi's red knuckles. "He has been," she told him. "Ah, anata..."

"Don't bother Sakura," Itachi said swiftly. "It's not worth it."

"Then let me."

Itachi sat in silence as his wife cleaned his knuckles with a wet cloth. She wished it were warm, but this would have to suffice for now. She then spread a disinfecting oil she had gotten from Sakura a few days ago onto the cloth and rubbed the ointment into Itachi's wounds.

He watched her press the cloth gently. "You are good to me," he murmured. What had he ever done to deserve such a loving wife? "I realized today that I'm useless."

Izumi eyed him curiously.

"I've practiced martial arts. Spent most of my life perfecting the Amaterasu." Itachi let out a small chuckle. "But so what? This world... is minuscule. I can't do anything."

"I don't care what the world is like," Izumi stated bluntly, looking up at him resolve in her eyes. "I only know that I'm very happy right now. As long as we all stay together, everything will be okay." Perhaps it was naive of her, but...

"Aa," he agreed, pulling her closer and running his fingers through her hair. "It's essential... for a family to stay together."

She smiled. "Not just us. I mean the people we care about. They're family, too. Deidara, Sasori, Sakura, even Kisame."

And Sasuke, Itachi added silently.



Tomorrow was Orochimaru's promised assault, and Deidara and Sasori were having the workers partner up and spar with one another. In fact, they practiced their taijutsu everywhere. Even beating cotton had become an exercise for improving their physiology, much to their delight.

The workplace became almost a playground, and Naruto and some of the younger kids enjoyed the rather relaxed atmosphere.

But none of that could last for long.


Today, Orochimaru came.


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