Clay and Puppets

Summary: In which, all is not over for Sasori. Between his fellow Akatsuki, the menacing Hirohito, and his new and troublesome partner, he may even find a beginning.

Disclaimer: This product is meant for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Some assembly required. Batteries not included. Use only as directed. Flammable.

A/N: UPDATED! HELL YEAH! *fist pump*

You are a soul with a body, not a body with a soul.

Chapter 37: Far and Away

The constant, steady beat of dripping water filled the air, as mildew-infested cracks in thick stone oozed the condensation of a thousand years of damp rock onto the wet, muddy ground, pooling around the figure of a small and pale young man as he sat curled against the jagged wall - and with every drop's decent, his heart sank a little more.

The chill of the surrounding rock, the sodden state of his clothes, the lack and yet abundance of water and space and stale air - all were harrowing, meant to be so, but he felt none of them. The jagged wall and floor and ceiling of the cell bit into his skin, the cold of metal bars was sharp and unforgiving, but he felt none of it, was no more ruined for where he was.

Everything was over. There was nothing left of him, except the pain.

He wished he could cry, could shout and lash out and break the bars that held him; but he was tired, had no more tears in him to weep, and his throat was raw from screaming, from sobbing. All he had left was the steady throb of his heart, pounding as though it were burrowing it's way out of him - and yet he dared not let it heal, that pain, for fear that it was all he would ever have again of the man who had left it there.

The blonde's eyes screwed shut, battered hands rising to clutch desperately at his hair, as the images of his partner falling back over the cliff played over in his mind, seeming each time more vivid, more gruesome, more heart-wrenching - and had Sasori known, what it would do to him? How it would ruin Deidara, who had never truly been anything more or less than his partner?

Somewhere out there, a body lay, that had once been the only love he had ever known. He wanted desperately to go to it, to see it and kiss it and pretend, to hold it more closely than he had ever dared to when Sasori was alive and fearsomely great and he had just been the naive boy who weaselled his way into the greatest criminal organisation of the shinobi world.

But that was all so long ago, it seemed - and who was he now, without him?

After what might have been hours or days of near-absolute silence, with only the steady drip of the puddles around him and the echo of his breath on the walls, there was a click, and the quick pounding of heavy feet as they beat the hard, cavernous ground.

Before he was even aware of it, the door to Deidara's cell was open - such a small space in the tiny cave - and three men, painted in the colours of Iwa, stood proudly before him, heavy guard uniforms making them look so much larger than he; and for the first time in his life, Deidara was aware of just how much smaller, how much weaker he was.

Two of them reached out, grasping hold of him without a word, their fingers digging into his arms, but he did not fight them, felt no better for being on his feet and out of his cell - and then they were walking, making their way away from the caves and up tunnelled hallways, deep underneath the city of stone.

It was a short trip, or perhaps so long that Deidara had forgotten it, before he was dropped harshly to the ground, landing half-sprawled on a suddenly soft and carpeted floor.

Raising dull, heavy blue eyes to glance around the richly furnished room, the blonde wondered, only fleetingly, where he was. Then his eyes settled on the imposing figure standing on the other side of a large rock-carved desk, and abruptly, he knew all too well.

Edged by the light of the candles that mounted the walls, General Kuroma looked every bit the powerhouse that he was. Though the rolls of his hips hung over his belt, his physique was closer to that of an aged lumberjack than a sumo wrestler, and it did nothing to hide the immense width of his shoulders and the busting biceps crammed into the jacket of his gold-laced uniform. He was the highest form of military authority in Iwagakure, answerable only to the Tsuchikage, and he had once filled Deidara's every waking moment with a crippling fear.

Now, as Deidara watched the man's huge, scarred hands fold behind his back, all the blonde felt was a distant sense of defeat.

"General!" The last of the guards, the only one who had not helped to carry Deidara there, addressed his superior. "The prisoner has undergone 12 hours of supervised isolation, as you ordered!"

The guard shoved Deidara's shoulder in emphasis, almost hard enough to knock him to the ground, but the blonde stayed his place.

Slowly, the General turned, gaze sweeping up Deidara's bloody, battered figure, the giant man's face marred with the scars of a thousand gruesome battles, making his attention all the more unnerving.

'12 hours.' The artist thought with a sinking sensation in his gut. 'Thats all?'

General Kuroma brusquely waved his hand, and the men turned on their heels without question, the door to the extravagant office shutting behind them with an echoing finally that would have had Deidara sweating, once upon a time.

A moment passed between the two of them, not really silent, but filled with the sound of built-up expectations, of something that had been a long time in coming. The General stared at Deidara, and Deidara stared at the ground.

"Cadet," The General's voice washed over the room like a layer of varnish, thick and suffocating. "What a shame it is, that we must meet again under these circumstances."

The smirk that twisted the corners of the General's mouth and the delight that twinkled in his cruel eyes belied the man's glee, and for good reason. Deidara had been well aware of the commotion he would have caused the day he abandoned his village. More than becoming a missing-nin, he had abetted a gang of criminals in stealing a national artefact, and destroyed part of the ancient wall. He wasn't just a wanted man, he was an embarrassment. General Kuroma's embarrassment.

How many months and years might he have spent, looking for him, waiting for the day he could make an example of Deidara?

The General surveyed the blonde, heavy boots drifting in and out of Deidara's vision as the man slowly circled him, as like a vulture taking it's time with easy prey.

"Always a nuisance. A troublemaker." He said, every word loaded with open hatred. "I should have known, the day I let you into my ranks, that you weren't worth the cost of the uniform."

Deidara gritted his teeth, eyes squeezed shut as the pounding of the man's feet echoed around him.

"I was too kind." The General continued. "Too in need of men. If only I had known you would turn out to be traitor, that you weren't even capable of dying with honour for your country." A cruel smile split across the General's face. "Of course, had you remained in Iwa that night, I would have killed you myself."

Deidara glared at the General. It was ironic, he thought, that out of the two of them, he was considered the criminal. Compared to a man who ritualistically sacrificed any subordinates he pleased, took the law into his own hands and often terrorised the people of Iwa under the guise of 'national security', the Akatsuki were saints.

"I was there, you know." General Kuroma said as he crouched low before the blonde, calloused fingers roughly grasping his chin, forcing Deidara to meet his eyes. "I wanted to be the one to capture you myself, and haul you back to face your judgement. But that spineless little toymaker just kept getting in the way…"

For the first time, Deidara's heart jolted, his eyes widened just a fraction, and the General's teeth glinted as he grinned.

"It made it all worth it, to see your face as you watched him die." The man said, tone dropped to a mocking whisper. "Tell me, do all Akatsuki scum cry for their captors, or was the sex just that good?"

A sudden rage welled within him, and Deidara spat in the General's face.

After a stunned moment, a swift slap to his cheek sent Deidara sprawling, and the General stood.

"The Third has ordered your death." The man barked sharply. "For acts of treason against the Earth Country, you are to be hung in the public square, after which your body will be discarded in sea, never to be at rest with the tombs of your ancestors."

The most severe punishment, then. Deidara didn't expect any less.

Suddenly, a hand was grasping his shoulder, pulling him upright again.

"It does not have to be this way, however," General Kuroma was saying, the timbre of his voice suddenly calmer, more casual. "Although you have committed terrible crimes, I am not without mercy. I have pleaded your case to the great Tsuchikage, and he has generously agreed to offer you an alternative."

Deidara eyed the General coldly, though the man pressed on, imploring.

"You have proved yourself, Deidara. The Tsuchikage now realises what a waste it would be, not to use your talents for the good of Iwa." The General said, almost conversationally, as though he expected the boy to agree. "In the Explosion Corps, you would have the opportunity to protect your country, to make riches beyond your imagination, and become a national hero."

Deidara's expression slackened into shock. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Why offer him this? Why now?

"The future children of Iwagakure will hear tales of you, and strive to become great shinobi themselves!" General Kuroma's eyes glinted with excitement, both gigantic hands squeezing Deidara's shoulders. "It will usher in a new age of the once-feared Iwa army! Kiri, Suna, and the mighty Konoha will tremble in the face of our forces, with you at the helm!"

So that was it. After a lifetime of struggling to be acknowledged, of being looked down upon and cast aside, the great General Kuroma had finally seen him for what he was, and wanted to use him as a weapon to wage war against peaceful countries. It made Deidara sick to think that he had once dreamed of an opportunity like this, the chance to join the legendary Explosion Corps. Now all he wanted was to go home, to his real home, in an uncharted land inside a steep mountain side where there lay a cavern, with a kitchen, and a door with his name on it.

"All you need to do," General Kuroma said, producing an unwound scroll from inside his desk, a quill dripping ink in his other hand, and held them out to Deidara. "Is sign this contract, stating that you were taken against your will, that you never meant any harm to come to Iwa. It will be as if your time with the Akatsuki never happened."

Deidara's eyes locked on the General's, and for the first time since his partner fell, he spoke.

"Never." He growled.

The General's friendly expression crumbled like a cheap mask, and his hand curled around Deidara's neck as he stood, dragging the blonde off his feet. Deidara struggled to breathe, his bound hands straining to clutch at the General's arms.

"You think those outcasts cared about you?" General Kuroma shouted an inch from his face. "You're even stupider than you look! They were using you. That 'partner' of yours would have sold you out sooner or later, his only mistake was taking too long to do it. He was a fool, and a weakling!"

Deidara wheezed. "He was… ten times the shinobi… you'll ever be."

General Kuroma threw the blonde to the ground and stars exploded behind Deidara's eyes. There was only the sound of the General's harsh breathing as Deidara coughed the air back into his lungs, and the contact was shoved back into his face.

"Sign it!" The General commanded, enraged.

"No." Deidara rasped.

General Kuroma stared at his once-subordinate for a long time, before slowly turning away, only to lay the contract back on his desk. Deidara thought for a moment that he might be killed right then, before the General spoke once more, distant and focused again.

"You will be executed in three days, before sundown. You have until then to accept my generous proposal."

The General snapped his fingers, a sharp wave of chakra piercing the space around them, and the guards re-entered the room, grasping Deidara by his arms once again and dragging him away.

As the door to his cell creaked shut once again, the guard's murmured locking jutsu reverberating against the cold stone walls, Deidara felt only a desire to sleep, and forget.

Maybe, when all was said and done, Sasori would be waiting for him.

The roaring was all around, filling his ears, blurring his vision.

Faster and faster, he could feel it getting closer, any moment now.

Arms struggling to move against the strength of the wind breaking past him, he forced himself to reach back, all the way back, the switch was just there…


Arms of wood shot out from behind him, the cloth straining to break the fall, tearing.

Too late, just a moment too late, and it was rushing up to meet him now.

He twisted in the air, turning himself, one last chance if he could get it just right…

He blinked and in a flash it was there, the impact echoed throughout his body, and then only darkness.

In his dreams, Sasori was always fifteen. He didn't know why, couldn't remember any reason for it, but always it was the same. He was building hiruko, lovingly shaping the wood, carefully soldering every tiny metal compartment. He felt truly peaceful, safe, and content.

Distantly, he heard a trickle of laughter, and turned. There was only the deep, sand-coloured void around him, but somewhere in it he thought he saw a flash of yellow, a lock of golden hair.

"Who's there?" His called out, in his childhood voice, which ebbed in every direction.

An answering giggle, light and carefree, echoed from behind him and Sasori quickly turned. As though through a dense mist, there seemed to stand a figure some distance away, long hair resting about their hips, a smile on a rounded face, and one bright blue eye.

"Who are you?" Sasori demanded, small and uncertain.

"Sasori no Danna!" The figure answered, laughing, and then turned and ran away.

"Wait!" Sasori called, and began to run after the figment, but his legs were short and he lost his breath too quickly. He had always been too small, never had the stamina to be a shinobi, it was pointless to dream of things he could never be. "Deidara!" He shouted.

"Sasori," A gentle voice answered, and Sasori turned to find a man standing before him, not with long blonde hair but short lavender-coloured spikes.

"Inari," The Suna-nin replied, and his voice seemed suddenly to age.

"You can't stay here, Sasori." The man said, eyes soft and kind.

"But I want to," Sasori replied, "I'm happy here."

"It's too soon for this, my friend. You have work yet to do," Inari smiled with understanding. "He's waiting for you."

The song-like laughter echoed around them once again, just out of reach.

"Deidara," Sasori said, looking around him for a speck of yellow. "I have to find him."

"Yes, Sasori." Inari replied, and rested his hand on the redheaded boy's shoulder. "It's time to go. Don't forget, three steps to the left. Punch hard."

"I won't forget," he promised. "I'll find him."

"Wake up now, Sasori."

Dull white noise turned to a high-pitched screech, as the black wing of a single crow swept through the sunlight to land a shadow upon his face, and Sasori opened his eyes. Walls of sun-baked rock stretched toward the sky on either side of him, endless red on endless blue.

Haltingly, his senses returned. Hearing first, then sight, the smell of frozen snow, and last the feeling of his back against the wet ground.

He blinked sluggishly, and the pain hit him. An aching exhaustion crawled out from the pit of his chest, and on instinct he flexed every agonising muscle, taking stock of each broken bone, every fracture and tear.

For a moment he almost considered closing his eyes and letting it all slip away again, until a burst of recollection cleared the fog from his mind, his eyes snapped open, and his tortured body lurched into movement.


Gasping in pain, the puppet master shakily hoisted himself from the snowy rock bed, swaying where he sat. On both sides of him poles of wood protruded from the white ground, torn cloth strewn over the snow, speckled with blood. His 'wings', untested until recently, and not reinforced enough, it seemed, in the end. One hand moved to clutch at his shoulder and as he looked down, he saw the cracks that ran the entire left side of his body, the splintered holes, both wooden arm and leg irreparably broken.

In fragments, it came back to him. The fall from the cliff, the only way to escape, the failed flight. His last chance had been to rely on the fact that his wooden limbs would cushion the fall enough for him to survive. But how long had he lain here? Hours, or days?

Was it already too late?

Sharp pain shot up Sasori's back as he pushed himself to stand, clumps of ice tumbling from his quavering legs, and he knew it wasn't only his wooden limbs that had taken damage. Blood still trickled from a puncture just below his ribs, the joint of his ankle was almost certainly displaced, but there was time for none of it. If he was lucky, Deidara might not have reached Iwa yet. If not…

Pushing aside the intense and desperate fear that welled up inside of him, Sasori forced himself to walk.

Pushing through the hard sleet, his right leg jerked painfully, moving at half the pace of his bruised flesh one, while his wooden arm hung dead at his side. One hand clenching his ribs, the other leaning against the cliff surface, Sasori followed the winding trail that stretched before him, glancing up every now and then in hopes of finding a ledge, or carved footholds in the stone. As he was, he had no hopes of climbing without assistance, and without even his puppets to scout ahead for him, he was left with the hope only that he wasn't leading himself to another wall of rock.

The alternative didn't turn out to be much better. Instead of a barricade, it was a sheer drop, fifty feet at least until it hit a partially frozen body of water. Grunting to himself, Sasori cast his gaze over the valley below, deduced that there should be enough tree cover to adequately hide his descent once he passed the first ten feet, and jumped.

Wind whistled in his ears and his body stung as he broke the layer of ice over the water, the intense cold stealing all the air from his lungs, and his muscles did not thank him for the effort it took to push himself to the surface. Water splashing about him as he gulped lungfuls of air, Sasori realised he was doing a pretty poor job of hiding his location from any shinobi that might be lurking nearby, but could hardly do anything other than focus on the need to keep moving.

Stretching out his one functioning arm to sweep the water in front of him, his legs delivering weak mismatched kicks, Sasori spent several long minutes making his way agonisingly to the shore, the heavy wet fabric of his cloak making the journey even more arduous. At last, he flopped himself against the pebbled bed in weary defeat, limbs burning.

His heaving breath sent gusts of fog over his face, and he closed his eyes as he felt despair wash over him.

It was impossible. He was never going to reach Iwa like this.

Maybe it would be a better course of action to return to the hideout first, and get the others. But that would add at least another day's travel, two really, given his state. Two days that he couldn't afford.

What hope did he have?

"Hey!" A distant call travelled through the blackened trees behind him, and Sasori's eyes snapped open. Immediately, his hand scrambled to feel inside the sodden folds of his cloak, fingers ceasing the handle of a kunai, until the voice called again, closer; "Sasori!"

The puppet master froze, craning his head back to look through the line of the trees, and in seconds he could see them. Leaping through the air at full speed, followed belatedly by a large hulking figure, it took Itachi mere seconds to land standing over the crippled Suna-nin, hand outstretched.

Sasori stared at him in pure, numbed shock.

Itachi panted for breath, eyes filled with emotion that he refused to show. "Get up." He commanded, and Sasori would never have argued.

Reaching out to take his hand, the puppeteer was hoisted to his feet, just as Kisame landed beside them, the widest grin Sasori had ever seen stretched over his face.

"Thank god!" The shark man exclaimed between breaths. "We've been looking for you all over the mountainside!"

Sasori took in the Kiri-nin's dishevelled appearance, and thought he looked almost as bad as Sasori felt. Though Kisame's limp was only slight, his broken arm was evident, wrapped and slung like it was with cloth torn from his cloak. The black bruise spreading over his temple told Sasori that the blow Kisame had sustained back in the cave during their initial attack must have knocked him out cold, and the Suna-nin understood at once why Itachi seemed so on edge. As though two missing friends weren't enough, the fear of a dead partner could crumble the resolve of even the most cold-blooded shinobi.

"We saw Iwa-nin on our way here, boasting that they had killed the Akasuna no Akuma," The Uchiha said. "We feared the worst."

"Those idiots hardly laid a hand on me." Sasori replied bitterly.

"Never doubted you for a second!" Kisame declared, smacking him gently on the shoulder, and looking apologetic when his wooden arm swayed with the force.

"How badly are you damaged?" Itachi asked, mangekyou raking over his form in order to answer his own question.

"Bad enough." Sasori answered wearily. "How long?"

"Almost two days." Kisame said, tone a little grimmer. "Can you walk?"

"Not well." The puppet master replied.

"Well, it may be just the three of us, and we might not be in top condition, but if we're going then we have to go now." Itachi announced, as his gaze moved to the snow-ladden forest once again. "It'll be a hard day's travel if we're going to get to Iwa in time."

"Iwa?" Sasori asked, bewildered.

"Of course," Itachi turned to him sharply. "You're going after him, aren't him?"

"Yes, of course, I am." The puppetmaster's eyebrows furrowed. "But you two need to return to the hideout. You're injured; I can't ask you to-"

"Good thing you didn't ask us, then." Kisame interjected, "Besides, you're the most beaten up one here, if anything you should be headed back to the hideout."

"He's my partner!" Sasori barked.

"Then we're all in agreement!" The shark man smiled. "Now come on, you'll slow us down on that leg, hop on my back."

The Suna-nin stared at him, taken aback. "You can hardly walk yourself."

"Nonsense," Kisame gruffly waved his concerns away. "I've travelled in much worse condition than this."

"How are you going to fight?" Sasori inquired sceptically.

"I've still got an arm to hold Samehada," the Kiri-nin said, flexing his hand to demonstrate. "Between the two of us, we can rescue Deidara single-handedly! Get it, single-handed?"

Sasori felt a strange build-up in his chest, and abruptly found he couldn't speak. Immense gratitude overcame him, and not trusting his voice to remain steady, he simply nodded to them both. Itachi nodded back, and with a motion to his partner, Kisame knelt.

Hesitantly, Sasori placed his hands on Kisame's broad shoulders, and without warning, the Kiri-nin swept him onto his back. Standing with the puppeteer's arms around his neck, and legs folded over his waist, Kisame's one good hand under Sasori's knee easily held his weight, and the puppeteer was reminded of how strong the shark man was.

"I should have taken better care of him," Sasori said, the words tumbling out of his mouth of their own volition as he held fast to Kisame. "It's my fault."

But Itachi would have none of it. "There's no time for fears and regrets." The Konoha-nin stated firmly. "Deidara can take care of himself, he won't die quickly."

Sasori looked at the Uchiha and the shark man in turn. How many shinobi would willingly risk their lives, and the life of the one they loved, to save a comrade?

"Thank you." He said quietly.

Kisame gave him a pointed look over his shoulder. "You're not the only one who cares about Deidara, you know."

The puppetmaster heard the unsaid inference. They were family. The only family any of them had.

Sasori nodded solemnly, and felt the determination he saw reflected in Itachi and Kisame invade even the broken recesses of his soul, breathing life and hope into it once again.

Itachi smiled faintly, reassuringly at Sasori, and they set off into the trees toward Iwagakure.

A/N: 'Akuma' means 'demon', so the Iwa-nin were referring to Sasori as the 'Demon of the Red Sands'.

Only three chapters left to go!