Sasori unrolled the scroll and stared at the curt message from Pain: Your new partner will be arriving shortly. I expect you to keep him under control. This is not up for debate.

Sasori glanced up at the messenger hawk. The hawk cocked its head, fixed one bright, copper eye on Sasori, then preened its breast-feathers.

He looked down at the scroll again and muttered, "Damn him."

Sasori didn't need a partner. He was glad to be rid of that smug snake bastard. He was more productive without the distraction of another person around. He'd told Pain all this. Not that it made a difference.

He growled, wadded up the message in one hand and tossed it into the trash.

He'd known this was coming, but he hadn't expected it so soon. The blond brat had only been recruited a few months ago. Surely he wasn't ready to go on missions yet. In Sasori's opinion, he wasn't fit to be part of Akatsuki at all. He had an interesting Kekkei Genkai, but nothing more.

He fed the messenger hawk a few bloody strings of rabbit-meat, then wandered into the workshop and resumed tinkering with his latest puppet.

A few hours later, he heard a knock at the door. Sasori climbed into Hiruko. With chakra strings, he pulled the puppet armor shut around him. Concealed inside, he shuffled toward the front door, unlocked and opened it.

A blond boy of about fourteen stood there, clad in Akatsuki robes.

"Yo!" The boy raised a hand, smiling broadly. "Remember me? I'm Deidara."

Sasori squinted at him in the bright sunlight.

"I'm glad I'm working with you. They say you're pretty powerful, un. You're the puppeteer, right? Does that mean you put on puppet shows at kids' birthday parties? Heh, just kidding. Say, you got anything to eat in there? I'm starving, un."

Sasori slammed the door in his face, locked it and turned away, his teeth clenched. "I am not doing this," he muttered.

He made his way toward the back of his hideout, where he kept his messenger hawks.

"Hey!" The kid hammered on the door with one fist. "Why'd you lock the door? Let me in, un!"

"Go away."

The brat kept hammering on the door and shouting to be let in. Sasori ignored him as he unrolled a small parchment on his desk and began to write: You are sorely mistaken if you think I am going to stand for this. I have made my wishes very clear to you. Expecting me to partner with a child is an insult to my dignity…

A thunderous explosion shook the house, and the pencil fell from his hand. "Damn it!" He turned and stomped out of his workshop. "What now?" He froze when he saw the mess before him. Not only the door, but a good-sized part of the wall had been blown to pieces. Chunks of stone littered the floor and the ground outside.

The blond brat stood in the midst of it, fists clenched, face flushed, panting.

"You…" Sasori lunged, grabbed the brat and slammed him against the wall outside. "Do you have any idea who you're trifling with, boy?"

Deidara glared at him. "What was I supposed to do? You locked me out!"

"I don't want you here." Sasori glared into those defiant blue eyes. "I work alone. I don't need a partner."

"I'm not leaving."

"Do you see this?" He arched his iron tail and moved the poisonous tip closer to Deidara's face. "This barb is tipped with the most potent poison I have at my disposal. One scratch, and you'll die after three days of indescribable agony. And if you're not out of my sight within the next minute, I will use this poison on you. I have no qualms about killing brats."

Deidara gritted his teeth, tears standing in his blue eyes. "Fine, then! Kill me. It doesn't matter. If you won't let me stay, then I'll die anyway."

Sasori narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"That Itachi guy…he told me if I tried to run, if I didn't stay with you, he'd kill me. He said he'll be watching me."

Sasori studied his face. "Is that so?"

Deidara gulped. "Yeah. I believe him, un. He's a scary motherfucker." He clenched his fists. "But one of these days I'll get strong enough to beat him. I'll make him regret the way he treated me."

Sasori sniffed. He seriously doubted that this boy would ever be strong enough to beat Itachi, but he wasn't inclined to debate him on the subject. He released Deidara, who slumped against the wall, shaking. Sasori stood back and appraised him coldly. If he killed Deidara now, he'd catch hell from Pain. And if he sent him away and Itachi killed him—assuming he wasn't bluffing—they'd probably both catch hell from Pain.

Even setting aside all that, he found himself oddly reluctant to carry through with his threat. Deidara just looked so pathetic, shivering there against the wall like a scrawny, blond, half-drowned kitten. There was no need to waste good poison on someone like him.

"Fine," he said. "You can stay here. For now." Just until he got this sorted out with Pain, he told himself. Hopefully it wouldn't take more than a few days. "But if you annoy me too much, maybe I'll decide that I'd rather kill you after all."

"O-okay, un."

"And stop that incessant grunting."

"Un…sorry, un, I can't help it. It, un, it gets worse when I'm nervous, un."

Sasori sighed. It was a good thing, he thought, that a human puppet couldn't get headaches. Otherwise, he was sure he'd have a throbbing migraine by now. "All right, come in. You're going to fix that door later on, make no mistake about it, but I suppose I should feed you first."

Deidara pressed both hands to his stomach. "God, yes. I'm so hungry."

Sasori eyed Deidara and noticed just how thin he was. His chin looked far too pointed, his cheeks too hollow. He was pale, as well, with dark circles beneath his bright blue eyes. Hmm. "When's the last time you ate anything?"

"Yesterday morning. I traveled a long time to get here."

"Well, I don't have much food. I never eat it, myself. But there should be a few pouches of food pills in the back of the pantry, if the mice haven't gotten to them. You can help yourself."

Deidara blinked. "You don't eat anything? How is that possible?"

"Never mind that. The pantry is over there." He pointed with his tail.

Deidara opened the pantry door, and a few moths flew out. He waved them away, then stepped inside and rummaged. Sasori retreated into his workshop, picked up a wrench and began tightening a bolt on his newest puppet's leg.

He heard footsteps behind him and glanced over his shoulder. Deidara stood there, his hands filled with food pills, his cheeks stuffed with more, bulging like a chipmunk's. He chewed loudly and swallowed. "What are you doing?"

Sasori twisted the bolt tighter. "I'm working on one of my puppets."

"Can I watch?"

"If you're quiet."

Deidara watched him in silence for a few minutes. He looked around at the dozens of puppets hanging on the walls of Sasori's workshop and asked, "You like puppets a lot, don't you?"

Sasori didn't answer.

"You seem to be pretty good at making them."

"Pretty good?" He turned, wrench in hand. "I am the greatest living puppet master in the world. Though some may argue the point, I'm also one of the world's greatest living artists."

"You're an artist?" Deidara's blue eyes lit up. "That's great! So am I. I've always wanted to work with a fellow artist, un. So where's your art?"

"It's all around you. This is my art—these puppets, my weapons. Each one is perfect, the culmination of countless hours of labor and concentration. Their beauty will never rot or fade."

"Oh, I get it, un. Cool! Do you want to see my art?"

"I saw it once before, during your battle with Itachi. I wasn't terribly impressed."

"Oh, I've improved a lot since then! It's totally different."

Sasori sighed. "Very well. Let's see it."

"We'll have to go outside."

Sasori stepped away from his workbench and followed Deidara out of the workshop, through the hole where his front door had been, into the forest.

Deidara reached into the pouch at his hip and pulled out a wad of clay. As Sasori watched, one of the boy's obscene-looking mouth hands chewed up the clay. Then he closed his fingers around the wad, and when he opened them, a tiny bird stood in his palm. He set it on the ground. "Stand back," said Deidara, his blue eyes sparkling. He held his hand up in a sign. "Katsu!"

The bird exploded with a roar of flame, leaving a crater in the ground. Smoke curled up from the edges.

Deidara grinned. "So what do you think? Better than last time, un?"

"You dragged me out here for that? I didn't see any difference. Except that last time you made a spider instead of a bird."

Deidara frowned. "It is different! The old pieces were more bulky. My new ones are streamlined, simpler and cleaner."

"What does it matter? If you blow it up right away, no one's going to notice subtle differences like that. Try making something that lasts. Until then, you're not an artist. You're just a glorified bomber."

Deidara's smile fell away, and he flinched back as if he'd been struck. He lowered his gaze, and for a moment, Sasori wondered uneasily if he was going to cry.

Then he looked up, and the cocky grin was back. Was it a mask? Or did his emotions really change that quickly? "Art is explosion," Deidara said. "It's fleeting and brilliant. It lights up the world in a flash and then disappears."

"Nonsense. Real art is eternal."

He put his hands on his hips. "Nothing is eternal, un. The only constant in this world is change. Death and rebirth are happening all around us."

So the brat had a philosophical side. Maybe there was a bit more to him than met the eye. Even so, his adolescent views on life annoyed Sasori. "Living things die, but that's why we create art, to transcend our brief mortal life-spans. Haven't you ever been to a museum? There's one in Suna with a beautiful jade sword that's over six hundred years old, still in excellent condition. Wouldn't you rather create something like that?"

"Nah. I never liked museums, un. They're boring. I'm interested in here and now. Who cares about some old sword made by a dead guy?"

Sasori's tail lashed out and knocked him to the ground.

"Ow!" Deidara leaped to his feet. "What was that for?!"

"Ignorance."

"Hey, my opinions are just as valid as yours, un! Do you always hit people you don't agree with?"

"When they annoy me enough."

Deidara scowled. "What's so great about having something eternal, anyway?"

He turned. "I refuse to have a debate with a child."

"I'm not a child!"

"Yes you are. I'm going back to my workshop. And you are going to work on repairing that wall."

"How should I do that, un?"

"That's up to you, but if it's not done by nightfall, you're sleeping outside."

"Aw, come on!"

"No excuses." He shuffled toward the house.

Deidara followed him. "Why do you dislike me so much, anyway? What did I do to you?"

"Nothing."

"Then why are you being such an ass to me?"

God, he was irritating. He'd been here less than an hour, and already Sasori wanted to stuff a gag in that noisy mouth. And tie him up so he'd stop following him around like a stray kitten looking for a handout.

"Answer me!"

"I don't like people," Sasori snapped. "I like being alone. Anyway, there's no sense in us getting chummy with each other, because you aren't staying. As soon as I can get in touch with Pain, you're going back to wherever you were before you came here."

Deidara froze. Sasori turned and stared at him. "What is it?"

"I really don't want to go back," said Deidara, his voice trembling slightly. "I don't want to stay with him anymore. I hate him."

"Who?"

"Itachi. He gave me my basic training, un." He gulped. "Even if he doesn't kill me when I go back, he'll be really mad. He'll probably torture me again."

Sasori hesitated. "He tortures you?"

"It's all illusion, but still…it feels real. And he can make it last as long as he wants. Even if it's just a few minutes, in my head it goes on for days and days. I…I just really don't want to go back."

"That's none of my concern."

Deidara clenched his jaw and glared at Sasori. "I never wanted to be part of this group. And now you're saying you don't want me? After you forced me to join?"

"I was following orders. I don't understand what Pain sees in you, personally."

"Please. I—I know I've been kind of giving you a hard time, but I really do want to be your partner. I was glad when I heard it was you and not Itachi. I was so afraid they were going to stick me with him. And you're an artist, too. I thought…I dunno. I thought we could kind of understand each other and get along. Give me a chance. I'll prove to you that I'm not useless. My art can do lots of things. And I'll keep making it better. I just want a chance. That's all."

Sasori stared into the boy's wide eyes and experienced a peculiar tugging sensation inside his flesh core—a distinctly annoying sensation, impossible to ignore, as if the brat had somehow physically reached inside him to paw at his heart. Sasori looked away and uttered a low sound, half a growl and half a sigh.

He shouldn't care. He'd purged his heart of any shred of human pity…or so he thought.

Damn those blue eyes.

"Fine. Whatever. But if you're going to stay here, you're going to follow some rules. One: you are to address me as Sasori no Danna and obey me without talking back or asking questions. Two: stay out of my workshop and don't touch my puppets without permission. Ever."

Deidara saluted. "Yes, Sasori. I mean, Sasori no Danna."

"Good."

Deidara glanced at the hole in the wall. "I guess I should get started on fixing that. It's getting late."

"You do that." Sasori went into the house, where he resumed tinkering with his puppets. A few hours later, it was dark, and Deidara was still outside. Sasori could hear him grunting and panting as he worked. He listened for a minute, then left the workshop and made his way to the front of the house.

Deidara stood outside the demolished door, holding a chunk of stone. Sweat rolled down his flushed face. He staggered, dropped the stone on his foot and yelped. Muttering curses, he sat on the ground and held his foot gingerly. Then he glanced up at Sasori and offered a sheepish smile. "I'm not done yet. Sorry, danna."

Sasori hesitated. "You can finish that tomorrow. Come inside and get some sleep."

"Really?" He smiled—not the cocky grin he'd given Sasori earlier, but a hopeful, almost shy smile. "Thanks."

"Hmph."

Deidara followed him into the house. "Um…where should I sleep?"

"There's a bedroom down that hall. Second door to the left."

"Okay. But then, where will you sleep."

"I don't sleep." Sasori retreated to his workshop.


Sasori was oiling the joints in his right arm when he heard a sharp cry, like someone in pain. "What now?" he muttered and walked out of his workshop, down the hall to Deidara's bedroom.

He opened the door and peered in. Deidara lay in bed, his eyes closed, his blond hair unbound and spilling across the pillow. Tears shone on his cheeks. He was breathing hard. A soft moan escaped his lips. "No," he murmured. "Stop. It hurts."

Sasori moved closer to the bed and stood, looking down at him. Nightmares. He'd had plenty of those himself, before he transformed himself into a puppet. What was Deidara seeing, now? Was he dreaming about what Itachi had done to him?

Deidara whimpered and twitched in his sleep. Fresh tears seeped out from under his eyelids.

Sasori hesitated. Then, slowly, he reached out and lay a hand on Deidara's head.

At once, Deidara grew still, and the furrows smoothed from his brow. His whimpers stopped.

Sasori let his hand linger on Deidara's head a moment longer, listening to the soft in-and-out of his breathing. He had to admit, the brat was sort of cute when he was asleep. Of course, once he woke up and started running his tireless mouth again, the effect would probably be ruined. But for now…

He stood there, studying that tearstained, sleeping face. Then he turned and left the bedroom.

-To be continued