Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Notes: Prequel to Aces & Eights and Zero Hour. Can be read as a stand-alone fic, but the sequels fill in gaps and pick up where this leaves off.
"I took you home,
Set you on the glass.
I pulled off your wings,
And I laughed." - Deftones
It is a rare encounter that both kills and breathes life into a person, over and over again, until we no longer know if we're running to escape or embrace that which we desire most. We desire that which cannot be attained, that which hurts us, destroys us, and brings us to the edge of mortality only to reel us back in. And yet we want... Desperately. Unfailingly.
When they told him he would have a partner, Orochimaru just smiled mildly and said, "It's probably for the best."
"The kinds of missions I want us to take will be easier to accomplish in pairs," Pein said.
Orochimaru nodded and turned to leave, but Pein's voice stopped him.
"Orochimaru. Don't kill him."
Orochimaru bared his teeth in a smirk. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"You're awfully young."
Sasori thought that wasn't a compliment, but he took it as one. "We should all be so lucky."
Orochimaru smiled at that. "How true."
Like everything his new partner had said since Pein introduced them a couple of days ago, Sasori was not quite sure how to interpret this. It was hard to get a reading on the older shinobi, but Sasori supposed that was the point. To observe and to learn, never revealing one's own purpose or machinations, was a goal all rising shinobi strived to achieve. It alerted him to be very careful around Orochimaru, lest he become a catalyst to his own undoing.
"And yet, you hide your youth behind that hideous contraption," Orochimaru said, his eyes falling on Hiruko's bulky form.
There it was again.
"This puppet protects me from close range attacks," Sasori explained with practiced ease. On the subject of puppetry, like death and silence, he was well-versed.
"He looks almost life-like." Orochimaru ran slender, white fingers across the wooden shell, careful to avoid the newly-polished sections Sasori was currently working on. "Is he?"
"What're you getting at?"
Honey met gold and Sasori could almost see new schemes taking shape in the older man's mind.
"Puppets made of wood can break. But a puppet made of flesh, perhaps not so easily."
The subtle challenge hung in the air of the dim cave. Sasori, seated as he fixed up his favorite puppet, felt small under Orochimaru's spooky gaze. A ghost of a smile crept onto Orochimaru's thin lips.
"Akasuna no Sasori," he drawled. "You made quite the name for yourself in the war. How much of the blood you spilled was your comrades'?"
"They were already dead. I just made use of their corpses in combat."
Having a conversation with Orochimaru was like chasing fireflies—their lights brilliant and real, but always falling dark at the last second, eluding capture. And with all the attention arrested on floating lights, there was never time to see the abyss dropping off just one more careless step forward.
"What's your point?"
Orochimaru didn't answer right away. Instead, he approached the small fire keeping them warm on this rainy night. In the badlands with no company but each other, it was all the comfort for many miles.
"So impatient," Orochimaru finally said.
Firelight cast a soft glow upon his normally colorless face, lending him a spectral aura. When those rich, golden eyes flickered in his direction, holding untold secrets and the possibilities of both darkness and light, Sasori knew that he would never forget the way Orochimaru looked in that moment for the rest of his life.
The Sannin smiled that enigmatic smile that held promises better left unsaid. "Don't you know that good things come to those who wait?"
Their first mission together was a simple one. The daimyo of Mountain Country was disinclined to cooperate with Akatsuki's interests, making it unnecessarily difficult to conduct business in the area. Thus, a change of regime was in order. Mountain Country was a hub for underground gambling circles, and Akatsuki was keen on growing its influence in the industry to bring in the lucrative profits it afforded. It was pathetic how greedy civilians were with money that didn't even belong to them.
"We'll have to dispose of his shinobi guards before we can access the daimyo," Sasori said.
Next to him, Orochimaru's breath came in even exhalations. He was the picture of calm as he turned to his young partner. "Assassinations are so dull. Pein was never very creative, though."
Sasori sensed that Orochimaru had a plan already. "What are you suggesting?"
Orochimaru smiled, his eyes alight with excitement. "I find that improvisation can be more rewarding than the best laid plans. Don't you think so, Sasori?"
Sasori pressed his lips together, knowing that Orochimaru would not be able to detect the action through the gloom of the forest surrounding the daimyo's expansive home. If there was one thing he detested, it was charging in without a plan of attack. Still, Orochimaru was more than twice his age and had seen far more battles than Sasori. He supposed deferring to the older shinobi for now was acceptable.
"As long as we complete the mission, I could care less how it happens," Sasori said neutrally, shifting his weight and reaching for a storage scroll that held a few battle puppets.
"Let's get started."
Sasori may have been young, but he was an elite. Eliminating any dissenting guard foolish enough to stand in his way, Sasori made short work of the fortress' defenses. Orochimaru moved like a poisonous wraith. To the untrained eye, the Sannin seemed to expend little energy in his quest, sacrificing almost no movement as he wended his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the daimyo's palatial mansion. Sasori had not thought that another shinobi's movements looked so graceful since he first witnessed the Third Kazekage in battle during the Third Shinobi World War.
At one point the partners found themselves surrounded by a group of about fifteen lackeys attempting to gang up on them with brute force. Sasori gritted his teeth and threw his puppets into the foray without fear, forming a perimeter around himself in order to shield against close-range attacks.
One of the guards released a lightning-based attack that split one of Sasori's puppets in half and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Swallowing the minor setback, Sasori redirected his remaining puppets to double team the adept shinobi, impaling him through the heart with twin katana.
He really wished Hiruko wasn't still being refurbished after its last skirmish. Puppet armor would have been very useful right about now.
In his momentary lapse as he concentrated the bulk of his power on a single opponent, Sasori failed to notice the incoming attack in his blind spot. A molten stream of fire zeroed in on him from the far left, and Sasori was too slow to react in the narrow space. Long distance fighters were at their most vulnerable in confined places. Honey eyes widened as the flaming beam shot ever closer. He knew he wouldn't be able to block it in time.
A shadow suddenly materialized before Sasori in the direct path of the fire, effectively extinguishing it. Orochimaru spared the younger shinobi a glance askance, his golden eyes alight with adrenaline from the battle. Sasori held his gaze, knowing intuitively that Orochimaru had just chosen to intervene and spare him a rather unpleasant injury. He didn't know how to interpret the look in the older shinobi's eyes in that brief millisecond, but didn't have the time to ponder it as Orochimaru darted forward and released a snake from up his sleeve to rip out the attacker's throat.
Turning to the next onslaught from the remaining guards, Sasori threw himself fully into the effort. Once they cleared the room, the trek to the daimyo's stronghold was a short one. They met with little resistance along the way, but once they confronted the lord of the Land of Mountains Sasori felt a headache coming on.
"I won't cooperate. I don't negotiate with terrorists," the daimyo said.
Sasori rolled his eyes at the aged man's pathetic excuse for courage.
"Sasori, why don't you bring the daimyo's daughter in here," Orochimaru said. "I'm sure she has a different opinion on the matter."
Sasori and the daimyo both turned on Orochimaru. The daimyo looked absolutely outraged at the prospect of his daughter being dragged into this ordeal. Sasori didn't really care either way, but he didn't appreciate being ordered around.
"I'm waiting," Orochimaru said.
Sasori held his partner's gaze momentarily, a challenge to the older shinobi's authority, but in the end he flickered his fingers and disappeared with his puppets to retrieve the girl. It didn't take long to locate her shivering form.
"W-Who are you?"
Sasori stared down at the small child curled up in a dark corner, clutching a doll to her chest. Tears made her blue eyes sparkle almostly prettily, but her expression was all wrong. No one ever looked beautiful crying, he thought.
Instead of answering her, Sasori commanded one of his puppets to pick her up. The girl squirmed and struggled, but the puppet's wooden body was strong. Soft whimpers soon escalated to full-out sobs as she continued to fight against her wooden captor.
"Stop struggling," Sasori said. "You're just hurting yourself like that."
The sounds paused momentarily. "I want my daddy," she said, trying to very hard to keep it together. "Please?"
Sasori ignored her and she continued to struggle.
"Ah, here we are," Orochimaru said as Sasori rejoined him and the captive daimyo who'd been forced to his knees in submission.
As soon as father and daughter saw each other, the little girl tried to scamper away from her jailer. She didn't get far with Sasori maintaining a firm hold on her through his puppet.
"Daddy, I'm scared," she whimpered.
"Yui, it's okay. Daddy's here," the daimyo said, instantly losing his hardened look of defiance.
"Such a lovely name, Yui," Orochimaru said. "And how old are you, my dear?"
"S-Seven," she said, her eyes widened in fear as she looked at Orochimaru.
"Seven? What a big girl. How old were you when you made your first kill, Sasori?"
Sasori kept his expression carefully schooled. He didn't know where Orochimaru was going with this. "Five."
Orochimaru smiled that sinister smile that spoke of secrets and half-truths. "Mm, seven is a bit old, isn't it?"
"What are you planning to do? Leave my daughter out of this!" the daimyo growled, trying but failing to mask his mounting hysteria as he stole looks at his trembling daughter.
"Sasori, why don't you help her out?"
He can't be serious.
"...That'll take too long," he said. "Just do it yourself so we can leave."
You don't actually expect me to—
"You're the puppet master here. Surely your technique is strong enough to overpower a child."
Honey eyes looked between Orochimaru and the daimyo, who still hadn't quite realized what they were suggesting. They then fell upon the small child, weeping silently as she stared at the floor. Was this really necessary? Was he even capable of this?
If he did this, Akatsuki would win. If he did this, Orochimaru wouldn't doubt him. If he did this, it would follow him forever.
Forever is a long time.
With a flutter of his fingers, the puppet released the little girl. She gasped, but before she could scuttle away, Sasori's strings latched onto her like translucent shackles. With a push of his chakra, he forced her to moved toward her father.
The daimyo looked momentarily relieved. "Yui!" he breathed. But her movements contrasted sharply with the look of confusion and fear on her face. "What's wrong?"
Sasori forced her to stand directly in front of her father, her tears running down her cheeks and dripping onto the floor. Orochimaru kneeled down beside the little girl, kunai in hand.
"Here, my dear. You'll need this," he said smoothly, as though he were offering flowers rather than a lethal weapon to a child.
Yui tried to pull away, but Sasori's strings kept her from budging even an inch. Realizing that she was literally trapped in her own body, the little girl began to sob more loudly. The daimyo finally seemed to understand what was happening.
"No," he said. "No, you can't do this."
"Of course we can," Orochimaru said. "Just as you can negotiate with terrorists, if you so choose."
The daimyo swallowed hard. "I-I can't... I can't do that. The underground gangs would rise up. It would be anarchy if I gave Akatsuki full control."
Orochimaru smiled. "I find that anarchy is fairer than order. Introduce a little chaos, and you're bound to stumble across something interesting."
"You're insane! You won't get away with this!"
Orochimaru ignored him. "Sasori."
Sasori pressed his lips together, a thin sheen of sweat beginning to plaster his bangs to his forehead. It was suddenly much hotter in here, the added weight of his Akatsuki robe nearly asphyxiating. He didn't care about the daimyo's life or the little girl's. Why should he? He'd sooner choose himself, and the success of his partnership with Orochimaru, over them.
Useless civilians. Their existence is meaningless.
He fluttered his fingers, forcing the little girl to take the kunai from Orochimaru's slender hand. He had to use both of her hands to hold it properly; alone they were too small and awkward. She held the kunai over her father's heart, hands shaking violently despite Sasori's exerted control over her movements.
It took him a minute to register that she was crying uncontrollably now.
"Please," the daimyo said, tears trailing down his cheeks as he beseeched Sasori. "Please don't do this, I'm begging you. This is too cruel."
Sasori held the girl's hands steady. Just a little more and the knife would plunge into the daimyo's heart. It would be so easy, just one flick of his wrist and the blood would flow free. And yet, he hesitated.
"You sure like to drag things out," Orochimaru said suddenly.
Seeing the expectation in his eyes, Sasori almost couldn't look away from the older shinobi. It was the strangest feeling, wanting to prove himself to this man he yet barely knew. But Orochimaru was a Sannin, a legend of his generation, and stronger than himself. He was Sasori's ally and partner, the only one he'd ever had. At fifteen, Sasori had never felt this need to be acknowledged quite so intensely as he was feeling it now.
But at what price?
"Daddy," Yui sobbed.
The daimyo tried to fight off his own tears as he put on a meager strong front for his daughter. "It's okay, Princess. Everything's going to be okay."
"Do it," Orochimaru whispered, putting a hand on Sasori's shoulder.
Gurgling sounds bubbled forth from the daimyo's mouth, and blood was soon to follow. The little girl's hands were sticky with bright red blood. It was oddly captivating, the vibrant crimson staining her light skin and short blonde hair. She seemed more alive drenched in death. Sasori stared, transfixed and disbelieving of what he'd just done.
The girl's screams weren't enough to shatter the breathtaking sight.
Orochimaru smirked. "A quick death. How kind of you."
At the sound of that voice, Sasori remembered himself and released the girl, who fell to the floor and hugged her dead father, blood pooling beneath them as she continued to wail. The spell was broken and Sasori suddenly could not stomach the sight of them.
"Let's just go. The daimyo won't be causing any more problems."
"What about your prize?" he said, indicating the girl.
Acute anger suddenly took hold of Sasori for reasons he could not name. "She's no prize. She's just a worthless child."
Orochimaru seemed amused by this small act of defiance. "Have it your way then. But a puppet master requires puppets, as they say."
Sasori watched Orochimaru stroll out of the room before him. Against his better judgment—or maybe because he didn't want to forget—Sasori glanced at the girl turned kinslayer collapsed over her father's corpse. She was so beneath him, so tragically pathetic. A pawn easily manipulated without even putting up a fight.
I never cried after my first kill.
The master of puppets recalled his wooden minions, leaving the broken girl alone with her nightmares. And all the while as he followed Orochimaru's graceful form back to their base, he couldn't silence the sinister voice in his head telling him that the true puppet master wasn't him at all.
Theirs is a game he has no business playing. He doesn't know the rules, yet he's determined not to lose. Always one step behind, he feels himself being maneuvered by invisible threads, pulling him this way and that until he's ripping at the seams, falling apart.
He's already lost.
Yet he continues to play the game. For the first time in his life, he has someone to play it with.
"You're good at this."
Sasori glanced up briefly. Orochimaru had to grin at the fleeting action—enough to affirm his presence, but never focusing more attention on anyone but himself.
But a neglected snake can strike harder and faster.
"It's better to create original poisons," Sasori said, voice devoid of any emotion. "They're harder to apply precedent to for antidotes."
He studied the younger shinobi discreetly. The partnership deal was working quite well, if he was being honest. Sasori was sharp, a quick learner, and he had the stomach to handle whatever Orochimaru threw at him.
Something had changed in him since their first mission. He was warier somehow, more careful with his words. It was a positive change, Orochimaru thought, but nothing alarming. He was still as readable as an open book. It was almost an unfair advantage for the snake shinobi.
Sometimes Orochimaru wondered if Sasori felt guilty about what he'd coerced him into doing. He would have asked, but it was more interesting to observe, silent in the shadows, as Sasori coped in the aftermath. Orochimaru had always been fascinated by the human condition, what makes the heart beat.
And what makes it stop.
Sasori was painting Hiruko's scorpion tail in the newly created poison, careful to coat every inch of the contraption. One small slip of the hand and he'd be poisoned himself. But Sasori was better than that, Orochimaru thought. No, he was the type who would watch the world grow old around him, tired and bitter.
"I rarely see you use puppets other than Hiruko," Orochimaru commented, eyes roaming the razor sharp plated tail as Sasori doused it in venom inch by painstaking inch.
"Hiruko's my favorite."
Hidden inside his puppet armor, Sasori could eliminate a puppeteer's biggest disadvantage—vulnerability to close-range combat.
"Don't you want to add to your collection? Hiruko's more of a defensive puppet than an offensive force."
This got his attention. "Hiruko's my best."
"At the moment, perhaps."
They shared a significant look, more words passing between them in silence than they would ever utter aloud. This was a touchy subject for the ex Suna nin, Orochimaru knew, but what fun was there in following the rules and respecting boundaries?
"You must have some idea for a stronger puppet," Orochimaru pressed.
Sasori was silent as he studied Hiruko's sharpened tail, a faraway look on his face. He could have dismissed the line of questioning, or diverted it to another topic, but he didn't. He didn't because he wanted to win this game Orochimaru had pulled him into. Willing participants able to offer a real challenge were rare.
But in the end, Orochimaru would win. He always did.
"There is someone," Sasori said finally.
"And where can we find this 'someone'?"
Sasori stood up and crossed the spanse of the wide cavern where they were taking shelter between bases. Outside the world was foggy and cold, sunlight hours away yet. Orochimaru waited. He'd always been a patient man.
Colorless lips twisted in a smirk, the possibilities already too enticing to ignore at the revelation of that one little word. Clearly, Sasori had already put a good deal of thought into this. Often times all it took was a little push to set things in motion. It was fascinating to Orochimaru how much people craved to be led.
"We'll leave in the morning."
His puppets were useless, of that much Orochimaru was absolutely certain. Hiruko held its own as well as to be expected, but the target's jutsu was the worst possible pairing for Sasori. Iron sand clogged his puppets' joints. If not for the smooth, oiled skin of the large human puppet, Hiruko would have fallen long ago, too.
The sweeter the victory, the heavier the price to be paid.
Hiruko's razor-sharp tail artfully looped behind an iron sand shield, but only a clone waited on the other side. The Kazekage took the opportunity to pelt Sasori with iron bullets. If not for his puppet armor and surprising agility despite the extra bulk, the redhead would have had more holes in him than Swiss cheese.
"Sasori, stop this!" the Kazekage implored. "You don't have to do this. It's not too late for you to return to the village!"
Within Hiruko, Sasori's voice sounded booming and raspy, so unlike his normal speaking voice. Orochimaru thought it ill-suited, but he kept the opinion to himself. Hiruko launched a hail of poisoned senbon from its mouth, which the Kazekage barely had time to deflect with his ultimate iron defense. So like a Kage to spout platitudes at a time like this. But like Orochimaru, Sasori was gone before he ever left. He didn't want to be saved.
He was doing well, Orochimaru had to admit. It was clear that Sasori knew the Kazekage's fighting style well enough to predict his attacks and avoid the worst of them. It didn't surprise him. Somehow the villains and the heroes were always closer to each other than the best of friends.
But things were dragging on, and sooner or later the iron sand would wear down Hiruko enough for the Kazekage to land a fatal hit. Orochimaru could already see Sasori's puppet armor slowing, its movements becoming more and more sluggish with each new onslaught of iron sand.
The time for child's play was over.
Orochimaru opened his mouth and reached his entire hand down his throat. Golden eyes widened and watered as his neck bulged to an abnormal width. Slowly, he retracted his hand and the sword it now clutched. The blade passed easily through his esophagus, squelching, until it was free. Even coated in a thin film of saliva and a little blood, the blade of Kusanagi was a magnificent sight to behold.
Let's see how the ultimate iron defense fares against divine steel.
He ran right into the thick of Sasori's battle with the Kazekage, throwing himself into the chaos with fangs bared. Swinging the blade with practiced precision, he sliced clean through the Kazekage's hardened iron shield as though it were jelly. Orochimaru's sudden involvement took both Sasori and the Kazekage by surprise, but the former recovered more quickly.
Hiruko's deadly tail slashed at the Kazekage, who'd momentarily lost his balance trying avoid Kusanagi's lethal arc. All the while Orochimaru couldn't hold back a raucous cackle.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
It was a direct hit by Hiruko's tail through the stomach that brought the mighty Kazekage to his knees. He fell to the ground with the force of his iron defense. Orochimaru fancied that his fall shook the very foundation of the earth beneath their feet.
Having claimed victory at long last, Sasori emerged from Hiruko's battered shell and approached his former leader. The Kazekage coughed up black blood, perhaps from the poison Sasori had used to coat Hiruko's tail. He looked up between the two Akatsuki.
For power, Orochimaru thought to himself.
"For my legacy," Sasori said. "You'll be the jewel of my collection, Kazekage."
Orochimaru's previous thrill melted and simmered to something black and thick, a rancor so palpable it clogged his throat and sent chills to the pit of his stomach. The overwhelming urge to ram Kusanagi through Sasori's neck made his fingers tingle, but it was gone as soon as it had come, like lightning.
The Kazekage wheezed, spewing more tainted blood as he keeled over. Sasori's poison worked viciously fast. Watching the redhead produce a spare scroll to store the body, Orochimaru's golden eyes glimmered in the wan desert starlight, thoughtful.
For the first time since they'd met, there was no longer a clear winner in this game.
Practiced hands cleaned blood and grime from his subject's face, tender in their movements, almost akin to a lover's caress. Sasori took his work very seriously. He was an artist, a creator raised up to paint the world in hues of decadence.
To create, sometimes one must first destroy.
The lab Sasori and Orochimaru shared was in a remote location outside of Amegakure. Jars of all sizes filled the upper shelves, containing everything from severed limbs to unborn specimens to chakra itself. The macabre atmosphere lent a certain credibility to Sasori's current task.
"When will he be ready?" Orochimaru asked, drawing up across from Sasori and peering down at his prize.
"Not for another week."
"Pein's expecting the Seven Tails."
"One week," Sasori reiterated, annoyed. Wherever his art was concerned, he never liked to be rushed. It was a rare thing worth waiting for in the pursuit of perfection.
White fingers slithered along a cold arm, marked for precise incisions where weapons and traps would be implanted later. First, the blood would have to drain completely. Once exsanguinated, Sasori would excoriate the corpse and replace organic flesh with studded leather and wood. Sasori watched his partner survey his newest trophy with no small degree of suspicion. Whenever Orochimaru took an interest in something, it was always better to be on guard. This was a lesson he'd learned rather quickly.
"You say you can control his chakra even though he's dead."
Sasori smirked in spite of himself. After so many years of trial and error, hiding his experiments from those closest to him in Suna, he'd finally figured it out. If he followed the delicate procedure exactly, with his expert control he would have access to more than just surplus chakra.
"The Third Kazekage was the strongest shinobi Suna's ever seen." He paused to admire the aged man's physique. Even in the autumn of his life, he had been a difficult target. In the end, Sasori had needed Orochimaru's help to fully subdue the man. "Until now."
This seemed to please Orochimaru immensely. "True, but no matter how powerful you become, there will always be someone stronger."
"Then I'll just turn them into my puppets, too."
Orochimaru rewarded him with one of his enigmatic half smiles, but he said nothing to that. Somehow, the man always knew when to give a little and when to snatch it all away. Sasori envied him at times like this.
"One week," Orochimaru said, stepping away from the table.
It was Sasori's first time using his new Third Kazekage puppet. He'd forgone Hiruko in favor of his new toy once he realized that the Seven Tails was a winged goliath virtually immune to their short- and mid-range attacks as long as it remained airborne. Orochimaru offered to summon Manda, his colossal snake familiar, but Sasori refused the favor. He owed Orochimaru enough already for his help subduing the Kazekage. Any more debt and Orochimaru would come to collect when Sasori was at his most vulnerable.
The Seven Tails' wings buzzed as it powered up yet another super powered chakra attack. The humming was enough to tempt blood from their ears, but they had more important things to worry about, like forcing a reverse transformation back into the beast's human form for easier capture. The beast's attacks were astronomically powerful, but its movements were slow enough to read and doge.
Atop a floating block of iron sand, Sasori weaved intricate patterns with his hands to prepare for a counterattack. Orochimaru crouched on his own block to the right, preparing a high-level Wind Release technique. Of all the missions they were assigned, Sasori favored ones in which they had to fight together. He could count on Orochimaru to react to him as though he could read his mind, and Sasori was becoming increasingly familiar with his partner's fighting style. Together, they were nearly invincible. After fighting alone for so long, it was a welcome, almost heady feeling. It was the closest he'd come to relying on another living person in years.
The beast released a fiery explosion of chakra in the form of a ball projectile that hurtled straight for the duo. At the same time, Orochimaru released his jutsu, and Sasori sent a thick cloud of iron sand gliding toward the now vulnerable Bijuu. The monster's attack rushed past them just as Sasori managed to maneuver them out of the way, but not without suffering peripheral damage. His iron mount was melting rapidly on one end, and Orochimaru had nearly fallen from his own perch. But their attacks had the desired effect.
Orochimaru's razor wind whipped up the iron sand particles, forcing them to churn at high speed. The ensuing tornado slammed into the Seven Tails. Gale-enhanced iron sand cut through the beast's wings like tissue paper, shredding them. It seeped in between the grooves in the Bijuu's scaled carapace, ripping away entire chunks of exoskeleton and revealing tender, bleeding flesh beneath. The giant insect fell from the sky with an otherworldly screech. Just before it crashed into the earth, it reverted back to its human form.
Sasori wasted no time in grounding them. They approached the fallen Jinchuuriki with caution. Even in her human form, this kunoichi had proven herself to be formidable. Sasori was nearly out of chakra and ready to collapse, and by the looks of it Orochimaru was faring little better. Still, as a team they had been more than a match for her.
"Checkmate," Orochimaru said, smiling as he stared down at the unconscious Falls kunoichi.
"I thought she'd be more of a challenge," Sasori commented, his Third Kazekage puppet hovering idly beside him.
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Orochimaru said, eyes still roaming their fallen prey's mangled form the way a scientist might observe a lab rat—curious and callous.
Sasori wasn't about to argue with that conclusion. In the end, their combined powers and smart strategy had proven too much for the great winged beast and her container. He directed his Third Kazekage puppet to pick up the body for transportation to the nearest Akatsuki base.
"What does Pein plan to do with the body?" Sasori asked.
Honey eyes flickered to Orochimaru. He could sense a set up when he heard it. "Then who wants it?"
Orochimaru walked to the other side of Sasori's puppet and looked up at the Jinchuuriki's sleeping face. She was bloody and beaten, but she'd been attractive before all this. Pity.
"Apparently, Uchiha Madara."
Sasori glared at his teammate. "I'm not in the mood for your riddles today."
Of course, this only made the mysterious Sannin smile. Spindly white fingers tucked dirty, matted hair behind the unconscious kunoichi's ear. "But it would be so much more interesting if you figured it out on your own."
Orochimaru's hand came away from the girl's face bloody, and Sasori watched with muted irritation as he rubbed her blood between his fingertips. Reptilian eyes turned on him, but Sasori had long since learned not to shrink before that penetrating gaze. Apparently realizing that Sasori was not going to let this go, Orochimaru inclined his head.
"He calls himself Uchiha Madara, but I didn't say this was his true identity. You've met him, Zetsu's underling."
"You're joking. That incompetent fool in the mask? Don't be ridiculous."
"That's the thing about masks, Sasori," Orochimaru went on, his normally casual tone suddenly serious. "They show only what the world is ready to see."
Sasori had nothing to say to that. He couldn't possibly believe that Uchiha Madara was actually alive, let alone posing as that buffoon Tobi. But Orochimaru had a knack for knowing things he had no business knowing. Perhaps that was why he was a winner in this game of lies and deception.
Play to win or die trying.
And like Sasori, Orochimaru was not the type die.
The thing about secrets is that they bind people together. It doesn't matter if they are enemies or brothers, or even if they know each other well at all. A secret is a bridge between two souls, but bridges can be burned.
Even so, ghosts are not so easily banished.
On warm summer nights when the crescent moon looms high in the night sky, and the air is thick with petrichor after the first rain, he remembers what it was like to share his secrets with one who could have been his equal. It's almost a pity, he thinks, that they are a phenomenon of the past. But such elegiac longings are simply delusions.
Two can keep a secret, but only if one of them is dead.
"What do you want, Sasori?"
Sasori looked up from his half-eaten meal. Sometimes Orochimaru would ask questions that could be considered personal, the way friends might want to get to know one another. But with Orochimaru, this partnership, the thing keeping them close, was a double-edged sword. It was nearly impossible to glean the man's true purpose beneath the cool and calm. Sasori would have envied him this if he didn't know by now that his energy was better spent learning how to emulate Orochimaru than dissecting him.
"I want a lot of things."
"No, you don't." Orochimaru raised his drinking cup to his lips, sipping the warm alcohol with a delicacy that spoke of ingrained patience and elegance. "There's really only one thing you truly want."
It had been bothering him since the night they kidnapped the Third Kazekage, though Orochimaru would never admit to this. He didn't have to when Sasori would do that much and more.
Tell me a secret.
"I want to become art. I want infinite beauty unrestricted by the passage of time."
"An empty desire. I'd expect no more from a self-proclaimed artist."
Sasori obviously didn't appreciate that comment. Orochimaru lowered his cup to the table.
"Youth and beauty are all well and good, but as the sands of time fall through the hourglass, everything becomes clearer. That's the gift of immortality."
"You don't understand. We both want to live forever, but you lack artistic vision. What's the point of such an empty existence?"
Orochimaru had never met someone like Sasori before. He could probably understand, could probably be great—or terrible—but he was chasing eternity for all the wrong reasons. And Orochimaru knew a thing or two about chasing eternity.
"The point, my friend, is that there's probably no meaning to life, as you would otherwise have us believe. What matters are the encounters you have along the way, the knowledge you acquire. This life is hollow and fragile, easily broken. It's worth spending an eternity to purge those imperfections than to struggle with mortality hoping to avoid them."
Why bother? Why go through the trouble of explaining? Never let it be said that Orochimaru let exquisite potential wither and rot without at least stopping to watch. But Sasori, who believed only in himself, could not be like Kabuto, who believed only in Orochimaru. Neither could he be like Anko had been, trusting and devoted. Sasori was wedded to his ideals, and he took from Orochimaru only what he needed. Still, this was why Sasori could play the game with him as nearly an equal where the others could not. He was never more than a step or two behind and fast closing the gap between them.
But in this game, there's only one winner.
"There is meaning to life, otherwise you wouldn't spend so much time trying to extend it. I'll become infinite and never fade into obscurity. There's no higher ideal."
Orochimaru smiled and lifted his cup for another sip, golden eyes glowing in the dim lighting of the small restaurant. "Vanity suits you, if nothing else. But even you won't be young forever."
Sasori leaned forward, resting his chin on his laced fingers. Orochimaru immediately became suspicious. His young partner never played the conspirator unless he was absolutely certain of something.
"What if I could be? I know you're working on a technique to separate your life force from your physical body to gain immortality. I can't imagine something like this being out of your league."
Orochimaru studied his partner, the hardness in his eyes and the slight tension in his shoulders belying his keen interest in the subject. He was almost disappointed—not because he'd been wrong, but because now he knew he'd been wrong. Sasori knew better than to give his true desires away, or so Orochimaru had thought. No vanity could ever be this selfish. And yet, there it was again, that subtle reminder that they were bound by virtue of their mutual goal.
And somewhere along the way, life might show you something interesting.
"How far will you go for this?"
"As far as I can."
Of course you will, because I will, too.
Orochimaru bared his teeth in a smile. "Perfect."
Trusting Orochimaru was like playing Russian roulette. The thrill of the risk was intoxicating, but play too long and someone was bound to get killed. Still, Orochimaru wanted to see this play out as much as he did. As long as the benefits outweighed the costs on both sides, they could rest a little easier in the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Sasori liked that it hurt. Agony. It was the kind of pain that killed him, but as long as he felt it he knew he was not yet dead. Physical pain filled the emptiness in his heart that he'd been carrying with him for years.
"You won't be human anymore," Orochimaru told him before they began. Not because he was concerned, but because he wanted to see Sasori's reaction.
Orochimaru ran a finger across Sasori's newest puppet. It traced the ridges of the cutout over the puppet's heart, then the expertly carved cheekbones, and finally twisted a lock of blood-red hair. "I suppose that's one way to outrun the past."
"I'm not running."
Orochimaru chuckled. "You're misunderstanding. I don't disagree with you, I've just been running for longer than you have."
Orochimaru made it his business to unearth secrets and add them to his growing collection. This one, however, would be theirs to share.
"Give it to me," Sasori said, indicating a glass on the table.
The liquid was black and viscous, and it would probably taste like death. But Sasori didn't care. After weeks of trial and error on far less willing subjects, they'd finally gotten this right. The sleepless nights and incessant wailing in between violent deaths was justified in this moment.
"See you on the other side, Sasori."
Sasori downed the glass's contents in one shot.
Killing the boy would be so easy like this. And he was just a boy in the end—eighteen and more dead than alive. It would be a simple matter for Orochimaru to crush the delicate canister concealing half of Sasori's life essence. Funny, how Orochimaru held the elixir of infinite life in his hands and one swift, crushing motion would destroy all hope of it for good. This, too, was a kind of power, and Orochimaru had never been one to relinquish power.
Sasori had wanted to extract his entire life force, but Orochimaru advised against it. It was always prudent to have a backup plan in case the weather turned sour.
You still have so much to learn.
Perhaps if he knew how things would turn out years and years from now, he would have let Sasori put all his eggs in one basket, if only to watch as they were smashed to pieces. But then again, that would ruin the fun of all this. Eternity was a long time; why not ensure some means of entertainment for the long road ahead?
He tossed the life canister from one hand to the other. Sasori was a fool to trust him with this, he thought. But Orochimaru would be the bigger fool to sabotage the procedure. A true scientist saw his experiments through to the end and took with him the experiences of failure and success. All that excess life energy sitting in neat rows of jars on shelves lining the lab walls, shimmering pearlescent beneath intricate seals in the glass, certainly counted for something.
In the end this had been a natural step forward for the snake Sannin. Transferring life force was tricky business, not to mention forbidden, but he'd always assumed rules were made to be broken, anyway. He'd push that big red button marked with a 'do not press' sign without thinking twice, just because he could.
"All in a good day's work," he said, looking from the canister to Sasori's comatose human body, and finally to the shiny new puppet shell.
It was remarkable, he thought belatedly. Even though this puppet wasn't a human puppet like the Third Kazekage, it was designed to operate like a human body. Sasori had spent nearly a year poring over anatomy texts, attempting to recreate the intricacies of a human heart to host his raw life force. Holding the canister in his hands, Orochimaru was inclined to acknowledge the younger shinobi's erudition. It pulsed like a true heart.
Carefully, he inserted the canister into the puppet's chest cavity and took a step back. Seconds ticked by but Orochimaru was a patient man, content to wait for success or failure, whichever came first. Finally, the puppet's hands clenched into fists, only to unclench again. Next came the creaks and moans as the shell began to twist and shudder, suddenly inundated with life and power. The eyes fluttered open, and Orochimaru was almost surprised to see how real this looked. Deluded or not, Sasori was indisputably a remarkable artist.
"Did it work?"
Orochimaru smirked at his new and improved partner. "You tell me."
It took a bit of effort, but Sasori finally pushed himself into a sitting position. Glassy eyes blinked a few times—to preserve the illusion of life, he'd insisted—and looked down at intricately carved hands.
"What do you feel?" Orochimaru asked.
Sasori looked up at the Sannin, seeing him for the first time since the operation. Orochimaru got the eerie impression that Sasori was looking through him, the way a painting's subject might seem to look over the observer's shoulder. It would be much more difficult to read him now.
Perhaps he's learning, after all.
"Nothing," Sasori said, prosthetic teeth bared in a wide smirk. "I feel nothing at all."
He slipped off the bed and tried walking, punching the air, anything he could think of. All the while he was laughing and laughing. Glancing at Sasori's sleeping organic body, Orochimaru wanted to remind Sasori that there was a difference between being eternal and being immortal.
But he let the boy have his moment. There would be plenty of time for Sasori to hate him later. He would make certain of that.
It happened at the most inappropriate of times. They were traveling between border towns in northern Fire Country, where dense foliage gave way to sloping meadows. A gentle wind blew, tinkling the small bells on their hats.
It was enough to give them away.
"My my, to what do I owe this special visit?" Orochimaru said, stopping.
Sasori spotted two uniformed shinobi, a man and a woman, blocking their path several yards ahead.
"Orochimaru, you know why we're here," the woman said.
Upon closer inspection, Sasori could make out their Konoha hitai-ate. He instantly became suspicious.
"How could you do this, Orochimaru?" the man growled. "We heard about what happened with the Hidden Falls Jinchuuriki. Were you involved?"
Orochimaru ignored the thinly veiled accusation. "Jiraiya, Tsunade-hime, I'd love to take a stroll down memory lane, but we're in a bit of a hurry."
The other Sannin.
Sasori watched through the veil of his hat as the woman, Tsunade the infamous Slug Princess, turned her fierce glare on him. The rumors said that her beauty was exceeded only by her raw strength. If they were true, then this would likely shape up to be a messy fight. Sasori smirked behind the high collar of his Akatsuki robe.
"We're taking you back with us," Tsunade said, returning her gaze to her estranged teammate. "I'll drag you if you prefer."
Orochimaru grinned. "Tempting as that offer may be, I'll have to decline."
"This ends today, Orochimaru," Jiraiya said. "We will bring you back to Konoha."
Orochimaru reached up to remove his hat, and Sasori did the same. They shared a look but said nothing, already understanding each other perfectly. As soon as Sasori revealed his face, he heard the reaction from the other Sannin. He was used to this by now, but it seemed that those he faced in battle could never stomach the fact that they'd just lost to a mere teenager.
"How rude of me," Orochimaru said. "Allow me to introduce my partner, Akasuna no Sasori."
Though not a legend like the Sannin, Sasori had carved out a fearsome reputation for himself in the last world war. He smirked at the dawn of recognition in their wide eyes.
"Let's do this quickly, shall we?" Orochimaru said, already forming hand seals.
The other two Sannin were not far behind. In a matter of seconds, the entire meadow was overcrowded with the hulking forms of king summons. Sasori took the opportunity to put some distance between himself and the eye of the storm as Manda, Gamabunta, and Katsuyu faced off. They threw scathing insults and taunts back and forth as they bit, crunched, and spat, old enmity blazing anew.
The Sannin themselves launched into heated combat as well. Jutsu of almost every element clashed in a brilliant display of light and sound, lethal fireworks of color. Sasori had to take a moment to appreciate the orphic display of power he was witnessing. These three shinobi were living legends, and to see them duke it out like this was probably a sight not many had ever, or would ever, live to tell about.
For all Orochimaru's prowess, however, taking on two shinobi of equal caliber was proving to be more of a challenge than he could realistically handle alone. Sasori released his Third Kazekage puppet, looking for an opening. Just as Jiraiya launched a fire technique at Orochimaru, Sasori sent a block of iron sand on a collision course with the toad sage.
It never met its target.
Unbelievably, the Slug Princess had somehow deflected the two-ton projectile with only her bare fist. Despite his now mechanical body, Sasori felt genuine shock register on his face at the idea of one person—a woman, no less—repelling his attack. That block was heavy enough to crush stone, and yet she'd swatted it away as though it were a gnat buzzing too close to her face.
Unfortunately, this also drew her full attention to him.
"If it's brute strength you want, then this is one bet I will win," Tsunade said, running toward him.
Tsunade and Sasori clashed in a flurry of super-powered punches and iron defense. Whenever Sasori threw another projectile her way, she expertly deflected it with a well-timed kick or punch. And just as she cleared the field, Sasori sent more iron shapes to bludgeon her into the next dimension. It soon became apparent that they were fairly evenly matched, much to his consternation.
Orochimaru, however, had gained the advantage over Jiraiya, pushing him back with a tornado attack that left a deep mess of churned earth in its wake. Seeing her teammate in need of assistance, Tsunade abandoned her battle with Sasori and rushed to his aid. Sasori followed suit.
"This is taking too long," he said, crouching next to Orochimaru.
"You should enjoy this moment. It's not every day you have the chance to fight a Sannin like myself."
Sasori scowled at his partner's arrogance, but even as he said it he slammed a bloody hand to the ground.
The earth rumbled and all of a sudden, a giant demon gate sprang up from underground between the Sannin and the Akatsuki. Things were far more out of hand than Sasori had imagined if Orochimaru was resorting to his ultimate defense. In the distance, the three king summons had lain waste to the landscape around them. Battered and bloody, their masters finally released them, but not before Manda demanded compensation for his assistance later.
"Now what?" Sasori said, readying his puppet.
"Now we wait. A snake strikes hardest when its prey feels a false sense of security."
Sasori didn't like the idea of waiting around for this battle to finally end when they had an important mission to get to in the next town, but Orochimaru seemed oddly determined. Sasori had never seen him this worked up before. Closer inspection revealed worry lines on his brow, and his shoulders rose more pronouncedly with each breath. He was tired.
And then, Sasori realized something:
Orochimaru would die here if it weren't for me.
This man, whom he felt closest to and yet kept at a cautious arm's length; this man, who had spent more time helping him, preparing him, than any other person; this man, who was both the hero and the villain of their story, was mortal. He bled and sweated like everyone else. He could die.
But I can't. Not anymore.
Tsunade used her super strength to punch a hole through Orochimaru's demon gate, but to no avail. She merely succeeded in denting it. To pierce through that monstrosity, she would need ten times the power. Orochimaru knew this, too. That was when the Akatsuki partners made their move.
Each taking a side, they ambushed the Sannin from either side of the gate, throwing their full power behind their best attacks. Sasori slammed Tsunade with an iron spike, gutting her like a fish. It wouldn't be until later, when Orochimaru explained that there was no way Tsunade had died back then because she was an extraordinary medical ninja, that Sasori would decide to coat his iron sand with poison. Medical ninja were the most annoying type of opponent in his opinion. They never knew how to stay dead.
That day they managed to escape the persistent Sannin, but just barely. Even slightly past their prime, the legendary trio was a divine force to be reckoned with. Orochimaru had been unusually quiet that night, opting simply to stare out the window at the falling rain.
Sasori let him have his silence, instead taking to observing the change in demeanor and cataloguing it for later use. Orochimaru was the picture of confidence in every way. He was calm, self-assured, and scarily strong. And yet, right now he looked liked he'd seen a ghost.
"It's funny how no matter how far you run from them, the ones you threw away will always come back to you," he finally said. "Like stray dogs begging for another beating."
"Then oblige them," Sasori said, eyes trained on his partner, looking for any cracks or imperfections in that perfectly armored façade ready to be exploited. As usual, he found none.
Orochimaru smirked. "You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks."
Sasori wanted to say that the same went for him. Orochimaru, who was one of them. But he refrained. He'd let Orochimaru have this moment for himself, if only because Sasori knew what it was like to run forever and get nowhere at all.
Loneliness is a cancer that doesn't play by the rules. It doesn't discriminate, and it has infinite patience and resilience. Even if it's beaten back, it never truly leaves us. It's a viper lying in wait for the next opportunity to strike. Sometimes it's easy to spot. Those who are physically isolated find loneliness to be their closest companion, plain for anyone to see.
But sometimes it masquerades as something else. Sometimes, loneliness is borne of the closest, most intimate human relationships. It is our friend, our ally, the one we trust.
Until the illusion is dispelled, and we realize there was never anyone there with us at all.
Years later, the day Pein announced that they would be accepting a new member into their ranks, Sasori and Orochimaru joined the rest of Akatsuki at the base in Amegakure to welcome him. They rarely got together like this due to the high volume of missions they were constantly taking over the years, and truthfully Sasori didn't care much for the other members. Then again, Sasori didn't care much for people in general unless they could offer him something of value.
He had Orochimaru as a partner, and that assurance of constant companionship was enough.
Tobi, the masked spy working for Zetsu whom Orochimaru had identified to Sasori as Uchiha Madara and the true leader of Akatsuki many years ago, was also there. He kept to a far corner with Zetsu, looking for all intents and purposes the innocent bystander. Sasori stole a glance at him discreetly, trying to imagine this person as the true mastermind. Orochimaru was right—masks only reflected what outside observers were ready to see.
And the greatest puppet masters always hide behind masks while others do their bidding.
"Kakuzu, where's your partner at?" Kisame asked.
Kakuzu shifted his weight as he leaned against the wall. "I killed him."
Kisame grinned. "Hey hey, what's your excuse this time?"
Orochimaru drew up to them. "Careful now, Kakuzu. People will start to worry that this is becoming a habit."
"He was stealing money. I'm not going to put up with some embezzling piece of shit."
Kisame guffawed. "Well, I'm glad we're having a real meeting with everyone for once. Don't wanna forget what lovely company I share."
Sasori didn't care to join in the conversation. Pein and Konan took that time to enter the room.
"We have a new member joining our ranks today," Pein said in his typical booming baritone that commanded attention. "Uchiha Itachi."
Sasori and the others watched as a new face stepped into the room just after Pein and Konan. At the sight of him, Sasori could not help but feel some degree of shock. This shinobi could not have been more than thirteen or fourteen years old.
He's even younger than I was...
Itachi was wearing a uniform that Sasori had seen Konoha ANBU Black-Ops wearing in the past. The white vest was splattered with blood, and the kid looked like he hadn't slept in days. Most striking of all, however, were his eyes. Sasori could not recall ever being so close to the Sharingan before.
"Kisame," Pein called to the tall, blue man. "I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that Itachi will be your partner starting today."
Kisame grinned and stepped forward. Already abnormally tall, Kisame looked like a veritable giant next to the young boy. Nevertheless, Itachi met his gaze with empty, red eyes that spoke of a soul far older than its vessel.
"Listen up. I'm no babysitter, so you better hope for your sake that you can pull your own weight, kid," Kisame said.
What happened next was unexpected, if not somewhat disturbing. As Kisame was delivering his thinly veiled threat to his new partner, Itachi calmly stepped around him and drew his katana, which was a rusty red from dried blood. He positioned it at the base of Kisame's spine and held it there. No one moved, and Itachi blinked.
"Hey, where did he—"
The slight pressure of a sword at his back promptly cut off Kisame's line of questioning. Beady, black eyes widened, but he dared not move. Instead, he settled for craning his neck enough to catch sight of the boy behind him.
"I'm sure I'll be more than capable of keeping up with you," Itachi said.
Sasori studied the newest Akatsuki with a critical eye.
Genjutsu, and a flawless one at that.
This boy had talent far beyond his years and a poker face that Sasori would have killed for at that age. Not that it mattered anymore. Perhaps Orochimaru was right about seeing more clearly with age, but he'd never admit it to the man.
"Kisame, if you're done fooling around, update Itachi on your mission progress. Everyone else is dismissed," Pein said.
Itachi finally withdrew his blade and Kisame faced him, all traces of amusement gone as a more sinister, calculating persona took control.
"I hope you get taller later on."
Itachi had nothing to say to that, and Sasori was about to leave the room and retreat to his own quarters when Orochimaru spoke.
"Uchiha Itachi," he said, drawing the boy's attention.
Crimson met gold in a clash that, had he still been possessed of a flesh and blood body, may have sent a chill down Sasori's spine. There was something decidedly cold about Itachi, an ancient sadness that clung to him, as though he were haunted. Idly, Sasori imagined that he'd looked much the same way in his younger days, when Chiyo still lied to him through half-smiles and cruel promises of a bright future that could never be.
"You've grown since I last saw you. I suppose genocide has a way of speeding things up," Orochimaru said.
There was nothing, not a flinch or even a twist of the lips to indicate that Itachi even registered Orochimaru's words. At the lack of response, Orochimaru's smirk widened. Sasori knew that look all too well.
"But I suppose it was worth it to awaken your ultimate potential, am I right?"
"Hey kid, are you just gonna let that slide?" Kisame said.
Sasori got the impression that Kisame didn't care either way as long as the end result was entertaining for him. Ever the silent observer, Sasori watched without interrupting. Itachi closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they had changed. He'd heard stories of the fabled Mangekyou Sharingan as a boy, but never had he heard of anyone actually possessing it.
Orochimaru looked positively giddy. While he hid his emotions well, Sasori knew what to look for. He'd only rarely seen Orochimaru get so worked up over something—not since the night they'd kidnapped and murdered the Kazekage—but this was certainly something.
"How interesting," Orochimaru said, his gaze hungry. "Aren't you quite the little genius."
"Kisame," Itachi said. "I'd like to hear about your mission status."
Kisame laughed. "Sure, kid."
Itachi and Kisame left without even a glance back.
"Orochimaru, let's go," Sasori said.
But Orochimaru didn't even so much as acknowledge him. Mild irritation began to build at being ignored in favor of a child.
Now that the spectacle was over, Kakuzu excused himself, too, followed by Zetsu and Tobi. Sasori observed as the latter inclined his head at Orochimaru. It was a seemingly unimportant gesture, but Sasori didn't like it.
Uchiha Madara, and now Uchiha Itachi.
Something was amiss, and Sasori didn't like being kept in the dark. And the one person who could provide answers proved even more reticent than usual.
Even years later, Sasori could not get a straight answer out of the Sannin.
"You're planning something," Sasori accused. "And it involves Uchiha Itachi."
Orochimaru swirled his sake, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Sasori, don't tell me you're jealous?"
"Stop playing games. What has you so intrigued?"
Reptilian eyes glowed in the dim lighting of the bar they were in as Orochimaru took a moment to contemplate this. "After all these years, you still haven't learned."
He finished the rest of his drink, savoring the burn of alcohol as it ran down his throat. Sasori watched the movement with an unreadable expression on his perfectly carved face. He'd probably never taste food or drink again.
"Learned what, exactly?"
Orochimaru smiled that infuriating smile reserved for secrets and half-truths. It was the one he brought out when they both knew he was winning this game.
"That good things always come to those who wait."
And now, the time for waiting was nearly over.
It was amazing how quickly things deteriorated between them. Itachi's arrival within Akatsuki was the catalyst that finally pushed them down the path of no return. Orochimaru became increasingly absorbed in his laboratory experiments, his mind always elsewhere. At first, it was only little things. Orochimaru wouldn't respond when Sasori spoke to him, and he'd be forced to repeat himself, something he came to loathe with a burning intensity very quickly. He lost his patience with the Sannin more often than he had in the past.
Where before they would banter and debate, everything from new poisons to the best way to break a prisoner's heart and soul, they now tended toward silence. There had never been abundant conversation between the partners, but now there was a wall between them that hadn't been there before. Even worse, they began to fall out of sync in their teamwork on the battlefield. It became less about complementing one another and more about saving their own skins and gaining a leg up. There had always been competition between them—in the dance of death it's every man for himself—but Sasori felt like he couldn't even rely on Orochimaru to watch his back on critical missions anymore.
You're the fool for ever having trusted him at all, a little voice taunted him, but he quashed it.
Less time spent with Orochimaru in any capacity meant more time for Sasori to pursue his own goals. One of the techniques he'd developed was a special brand of memory sealing that allowed him to control living people. He loved the idea of sending his puppets to every corner of the continent to do his bidding and bring him new secrets. He even had a spy in Suna, an up-and-coming shinobi on course to head the village's security. Should he ever become the target of suspicion in regards to the Third Kazekge's untimely disappearance, he'd be the first to know.
Then one day, everything fell to pieces and went up in flames.
They were at the main base in Amegakure reporting to Pein after a particularly harrowing mission. Orochimaru and Sasori were the executioners of Akatsuki, the team tasked with eliminating bodies, no matter how many. He remembered Orochimaru commenting that things would be much easier if they had an army to do their work for them. Sasori decided to make his own army, a force of one hundred puppets under the power of his perfect chakra control.
"You always were creative where human suffering is involved."
"You're one to talk."
Orochimaru grinned. "Show me your army."
He did, gladly. He wanted to regain his position in their game, and for that he was willing to indulge Orochimaru's demands without complaint. But today, everything would end.
Orochimaru attacked Itachi in an attempt to steal his body. The Uchiha kin slayer overcame the advance and ended up breaking Orochimaru's arm. Sasori didn't see the short fight, but he did witness something he shouldn't have.
"...never wanted him here in the first place," came an unfamiliar voice, a deep rumble laced with irritation.
"Even so, no harm came from the incident," Pein said.
Sasori paused before turning the corner in the hallway to listen. What was going on?
"I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Itachi's life is non-negotiable."
"And Orochimaru will answer for this outburst. I'll deal with him myself."
Curiosity getting the better of him, Sasori chanced a discreet look around the corner. The sight of Tobi arguing with Pein was the last thing he'd been expecting. He knew Tobi's voice, and this was not it. This person was something wholly different.
"You better," Tobi said, his tone brooking no argument. "Or I'll deal with you."
Sasori withdrew into the shadows and walked back the way he'd come, not wanting to be discovered. His mind was reeling. If Orochimaru attacked Itachi, he must have had a reason. He had an inkling as to what it was, but he wanted answers from the man himself. But by the time he got to their shared quarters, there was no sign of Orochimaru. He searched elsewhere around the building, but still nothing. It was like he'd disappeared.
"Sasori," Itachi said.
Sasori turned to regard the Uchiha clan killer. "What happened?"
Itachi fixed him with a level stare. "He attacked me for my Sharingan."
Then it's true.
Orochimaru only ever wanted power, after all. And if he was after Itachi's Sharingan, then that meant he'd picked a vessel for his newly perfected body transfer technique. Sasori was suddenly furious with his partner. He was letting his hunger drive him to extreme measures.
"He went east," Itachi added, as though he couldn't care less.
Sasori turned away from Itachi and made to give chase to his partner, but Itachi's voice stopped him again.
"He's already gone."
Sasori paused, but he didn't look back. If he looked back he'd never take another step forward. This was something he needed to settle with Orochimaru once and for all.
No, he's not.
He disappeared down the hallway.
Orochimaru had waited for him. Or at least, this is what he told himself.
"Come to scold me?" Orochimaru said, his dark hair dripping in the heavy downpour.
"You're out of control," Sasori said, stopping a good distance away. Orochimaru was deadly at close range, and right now Sasori didn't trust things to remain civil for long.
Orochimaru laughed, deep and throaty, like he'd just heard a marvelous joke. Slowly he turned to face his longtime partner. "The one with no control has always been you."
Sasori glared at him, one hand on the Third Kazekage's scroll just in case.
"Oh, don't tell me," Orochimaru continued. "You thought you were uninfluenced this entire time? Poor, pathetic fool!"
"Enough! You want a strong vessel, fine. But you can't act against Akatsuki if you want to live. We'll find another vessel—"
"Another vessel? Why would I settle for anything less than perfection?"
Orochimaru's eyes had a horrid glint in them as he thought about what he'd almost acquired, what he desired most. "The Sharingan is the most powerful doujutsu. With that kind of power, I can learn every technique in existence. I'll become a king!" He paused and held Sasori's gaze before softly adding, "You of all people should understand."
"I understand that you're letting this power trip go to your head. I told you before that you have no vision."
Orochimaru shook his head, rain running down his face like tears. "Of course it's beyond your capacity. You're just a pawn. You'll never be a king."
Sasori tore open the storage scroll and called out his Third Kazekage puppet. Orochimaru bared his teeth in a feral grin.
"That's why you'll always be inferior to me, Sasori. Instead of learning how to control them, you try to outrun your emotions. You're a child afraid to face his past."
Instead of answering, Sasori summoned his chakra and created a giant cloud of iron sand, which he transformed into a sharp spike. Orochimaru easily dodged the ensuing attack, however, and retaliated with an Earth Release technique that turned the ground under Sasori's feet to mud. He was quick to jump free, but not before a snake shot forth from the mire and bit down on his prosthetic ankle. There was no pain, but he was thrown off course and crashed to the ground.
"Not good enough!" Orochimaru shouted, sending more snakes after him.
Sasori released twin scythe blades from either flank, which ripped through his Akatsuki robe. He whirled in mid-air, and when the pythons closed in on him they suffered an excruciating death by mutilation. The blades flayed their armored bodies, reducing them to ribbons and allowing Sasori to evade what he knew from experience was meant to be a petrification trap. Quick to get back on his feet, Sasori pulled on the Third Kazekage's strings and re-positioned it as a shield between Orochimaru and himself.
"Speak for yourself," he bit out.
Orochimaru watched him through the rain for a few tense seconds, both shinobi gauging each other and contemplating their next moves. Knowing each other as well as they did, it was impossible to invoke the element of surprise and tip the scales one way or the other.
"I'm leaving Akatsuki," Orochimaru said.
A few seconds passed as heavy rain attempted to drown Sasori and Orochimaru. If not for his artificial body, Sasori wondered if he'd feel cold now.
"Because there's nothing left for me here. I'm on to bigger and better things."
Something clicked in Sasori then, something he hadn't felt in many years. He couldn't place what it was, but he remembered despising the feeling. Somehow, the pent up frustration of the last few years since the day Itachi had shown up and Orochimaru changed flooded to the surface and threatened to spill out. He clenched a fist as hard as he could, but there was no reassuring pressure. There was nothing, and yet this feeling would not abate.
"I'll admit, I thought you were fascinating. We're similar, you and I. We both want to transcend this existence and become infinite. Perhaps this is what they call kindred spirits." He paused to chuckle, eye far away as though remembering. "But in the end you were just like the rest, easily manipulated and such a disappointment."
Sasori was nearly speechless in his fury. Manipulated? Disappointed? "I'm a master of puppets. No one controls me, least of all you."
Orochimaru laughed. "A puppet master should always look for stronger puppets, especially when the ones he has become old and rusty. I'm simply tossing aside what's useless and setting my sights on a better prize."
Even without a heart or a body, Sasori understood this feeling as clearly as the light of day. He was being cast aside by the one person he'd become closest to, the one person he had ever come close to calling an ally—a friend—in all his life. Orochimaru had always been a source of enmity and never to be fully trusted, but he was a constant in Sasori's life after so many years of being let down by the ones who were supposed to be helping. The past feelings of frustration with being ignored suddenly made sense as the truth was thrown in his face for anyone to see. Orochimaru didn't need him.
He never did.
I've been alone all this time.
"Oh? It seems like you figured something out just now," Orochimaru said.
"Have you ever gone a day in your life without playing this game?"
"Why would I do that? Watching you break and bend has taught me so much. A scientist lives to enrich his knowledge."
Memories of their first mission returned to Sasori then, unbidden. He remembered the terrified little girl wailing for her father, and the sound of Orochimaru's voice in his ear, urging him to kill. Even now, even after all that they'd been through and the strength he'd acquired, he still felt as helpless as that little girl caving to the puppet master's whims. He wondered whatever happened to that little girl—Yui, that was her name. If there was any decency in the world, she was long dead.
"But I don't have a use for broken things," Orochimaru continued.
Without warning, Sasori resumed their battle with an iron assault more vicious than any he'd delivered in the past. Iron bullets rained down from on high as the Third Kazekage flew overhead, a silent harbinger of death. Orochimaru seemed to slither about as he dodged the majority of the bullets, but he didn't escape unscathed.
And yet, he laughed.
"Are you finished?" he taunted, bleeding from various entry wounds.
"No, but you are!"
With one last push of chakra, Sasori melded the iron bullets together into one gigantic block and slammed it into the ground where Orochimaru was standing. For a moment, the only sound that could be heard was the incessant rainfall striking solid iron. Sasori looked on with calculating eyes, waiting for any sign of movement.
The screeching sound of metal striking metal resounded from around the area where Orochimaru had previously been standing. Sasori scowled as he saw what was happening. As though from the inside out, his giant iron block was being slashed to ribbons by the one weapon that could stand up to the ultimate iron defense.
"That sword of yours is annoying," Sasori said.
The block fell apart at perfect angles, disintegrating into fine grains as individual chunks hit the ground. Orochimaru stood at the center of the destruction, bleeding and covered in mud. Sasori guessed that he must have burrowed underground to avoid the brunt of the collision. The sword of Kusanagi was clutched in his hand, dripping rainwater. He looked worse for wear.
Sasori fluttered his fingers and the iron sand in the vicinity began to amalgamate once more. "Not that it matters. Your body's falling apart."
Orochimaru smirked, baring bloody teeth, and immediately Sasori knew that he'd overlooked something. As soon as he had the thought, Orochimaru opened his mouth wide—too wide—and fell to his knees. Sasori could only watch in morbid fascination as a pale arm emerged from his partner's throat, followed by a head and torso. In a matter of moments, Orochimaru had defied the laws of nature and spat himself up, good as new. He pulled himself up, retrieving Kusanagi as his shed skin began to disintegrate into ash.
"What did you do?" Sasori said, wracking his brain for a memory, anything that would point to how and when Orochimaru developed a technique like this.
"Surely you don't think I would share all of my secrets with you."
"What else were you hiding?"
Orochimaru opened his mouth and slowly swallowed Kusanagi once more. "That, my friend, is a story for another time."
"You're not getting away!" Sasori launched another iron spike at Orochimaru, but it never met its target.
"I already have," a voice whispered in his ear.
Sasori tried to lash out behind him with his chakra strings, but he was too slow. In one swift motion, Orochimaru hit him square in the back, directly behind the hidden life canister. The force of the blow caused it to pop out of Sasori's prosthetic chest, and his body collapsed to the ground in a lifeless heap.
It was the strangest out-of-body feeling Sasori had ever experienced. He was aware of his surroundings, but he couldn't see or move. Frantically concentrating his chakra, he began to release invisible strings outward to pull himself back together. Orochimaru's next words came to him as though in a dream.
"You'll never beat me as you are, Sasori. If you really want to kill me, you'll have to find some new toys first."
He was almost whole again. Just a little more—
"But know this. A pawn will never become a king because it can't survive alone. There's no room at the top for lonely little boys, only kings and queens."
Finally, Sasori succeeded in pulling himself back together. He sprang to his feet and located the Third Kazekage exactly where it had fallen. Feeling slightly more secure, Sasori looked all around him, searching for Orochimaru.
But he was gone.
"Orochimaru!" he shouted. "Show yourself!"
There was no response. Glassy eyes squinted through the rain and mist, but all he could see were shadows.
His own voice echoed in the empty wasteland, unheard. There was no one here, no one to see his abandonment, his utter humiliation. There had never been anyone here with him at all. All these years...
I was supposed to forget what this feels like.
The building pressure deep inside him finally burst. He couldn't hold back the laughter any longer. Dead eyes stared up at the heavens, a sinister smile twisting his beautifully wrought face. Hilarious. This whole time, he'd played right into Orochimaru's traps and schemes, a willing participant in his twisted human experiments. Except the subject of those experiments wasn't the tortured souls they'd kidnapped and cut open, but Sasori himself.
I let it happen.
The sky continued to weep over him, as though sympathetic to this cruel joke. Rain ran down his face like tears, but he felt nothing.
Having calmed down from his previous anger, Sasori turned to see Itachi standing a short ways away, careful not to step in the muddy swamp Orochimaru had created previously in their skirmish.
"Come to see the show? You're too late."
Itachi gave no indication of how he felt about this and continued to stare at the older shinobi through the rain. Lurid Sharingan glowed in the gloom, giving him a spectral look. If he didn't know better, he would have said that Itachi almost looked fragile in the way poison ivy might appear to the ignorant passerby. And in that moment, Sasori realized something.
Orochimaru will never take Itachi's body.
"Pein's sending trackers after him."
Sasori smirked, suddenly wanting to laugh again. "They'll never find him. When Orochimaru wants to disappear, he can't be found."
They stood like that for a long time, just watching the rain fall. Sasori felt himself calm down with each passing second. In this body it was amazing how much easier it was to let things go. But this would never really leave him, just as the memory of how he'd forced Yui to kill her father would never leave him.
"I'm sorry," Itachi finally said.
Sasori scrutinized the younger shinobi, but he found no trace of insincerity. In fact, he found nothing at all in Itachi's expression. But somehow, the part of him that stubbornly refused to let go of his humanity no matter how much Orochimaru trampled on it told him that Itachi meant his words.
Sasori recalled the Third Kazekage and trudged toward Itachi, careless of the mud and snake blood further dirtying his ruined Akatsuki robe. He stopped just as he drew up next to him. "Not as sorry as he'll be."
It was a promise Sasori intended to keep, no matter how long it took.
He had an eternity, and eternity was a very long time.
A game needs players.
But what does he do when there are no more players? Does he win? Or does he lose? Does he even want to keep playing?
Without the game, there is no purpose, no meaning. Without the game, he is truly alone. That's not acceptable, he thinks. There must always be someone to play with.
But he doesn't account for players who never wanted to play.
For players who never needed the game to begin with.
The day he met Deidara, Sasori had the overwhelming urge to strangle him to death. He'd only refrained from doing so because Pein insisted that the kid was worth his salt despite the rather embarrassing beating he'd taken from Itachi's genjutsu. He was barely sixteen and already had an ego the size of Wind Country. It also didn't help that he'd recoiled three feet when Pein told him he'd be partnering with Sasori.
"Is he even human? You don't really expect me to believe this old man's in Akatsuki, yeah."
Again, Sasori refrained from using violence in front of Pein, but only because he knew it would serve little purpose to rile the leader's anger. "You have a big mouth for a kid. I'm happy to shut it for you permanently."
Deidara grinned and held out his hands for Sasori to see the extra mouths on his palms, also grinning. "So I'm told. Bring it on."
Insolent son of a—
"That's enough, both of you," Pein said. "Sasori, you already know your mission. Konan will expect your report as usual."
They were dismissed with that, and Sasori left the room without waiting for Deidara. After some initial grumbling on the blond's part, they lapsed into merciful silence for a few miles while crossing the border between Rain and Fire. That was when the questions started.
"So you're Akasuna no Sasori, right? What happened to your body?"
Sasori ignored the kid. He was not in a talking mood now, especially not since he was now expected to babysit some teenager with a penchant for running his mouth. If Deidara knew what was good for him, he wouldn't provoke—
"Hey, are you old and deaf? How the hell did I get stuck with this?"
Sasori stopped and turned to face the boy, who looked a bit startled at the abrupt halt.
"First of all, I'm neither old nor deaf. I just chose not to respond to your asinine question," Sasori said.
Deidara crossed his arms. "Hey, can you blame me? I mean, just look at you—"
Sasori slammed Hiruko's scorpion tail into the ground where Deidara had been standing, though the kid had the sense to evade the blow just in time. Sasori managed to tear the hem of his brand new Akatsuki robe, however.
"Hey! What gives?"
"Are you blind or just stupid? Obviously, this isn't a normal human body; it's a puppet."
At this, Deidara seemed to forget his anger as his only visible blue eye stared at Sasori, as though he were some exotic but revolting animal on display. "I'll be damned. So, where are the strings?"
Sasori wanted to roll his eyes, but unfortunately Hiruko's body didn't allow for such a function. "Inside. With me."
Deidara's mouth hung open a little at the implication. "Wait, so you're hidin' inside that thing?"
"I'm not hiding. This is a defensive battle puppet. One of us has to be able to fight in close combat, and I don't see you taking any responsibility."
Deidara either wasn't offended by the obvious slight or simply didn't care. He continued to scrutinize Hiruko. "Why don't you come outta there? For some fresh air, yeah."
"There's no need for that. Let's keep moving. The next town is still a good fifty miles from here."
As they continued on their way, Sasori couldn't help but notice how Deidara kept stealing glances at him out of the corner of his eye. He ignored it for the most part, but it was starting to get on his nerves. Finally, after another ten or so miles, Sasori turned on the boy.
"What do you keep looking over here for?"
Deidara sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Just thinkin' that if you came outta there, we could've flown, yeah."
"Are you hiding wings under your shirt?" Sasori said unkindly.
"Nah, but I can create clay birds big enough to transport a few people at a time. Maybe we could've made it to the town in one day. But that puppet would be too bulky, yeah."
He didn't want to reveal his true self to Deidara at this time. After everything that had happened with Orochimaru, he wasn't taking any more chances with anyone, least of all the partner he'd be traveling closely with indefinitely.
They continued on in silence as the sun passed them by overhead and finally began to dip low on the western horizon. The forests of Fire Country were dense and leafy, so they were offered adequate protection and cover in the case of any foreign threats. Still, Sasori and Deidara encountered nothing and no one but a family of deer and the occasional woodpecker. It was almost too quiet.
And then Sasori heard it. It could have easily been passed off as an animal, but the snapping of a twig made him tense. If there was one thing he'd learned being partnered with Orochimaru all those years, it was to always trust his instincts and nothing else. And always assume the worst.
Without warning, he swung Hiruko's tail into a nearby tree, splintering it enough to topple it. Deidara stopped and glared at the felled tree. "What the hell—"
A fire jutsu erupted from the foliage just then, and Sasori had to roll within Hiruko to escape it. "Pay attention, boy!"
There were two squads from Konoha. ANBU, from the look of their uniforms and masks. Eight against two were never good odds, but Sasori was in no mood to drag out a large-scale fight. Without any warning at all, he shot Hiruko's tail forward at blinding speed, impaling one ANBU through the chest and slamming into another directly behind him. Both ended up pinned to a tree, gurgling and leaking blood and poison. They hadn't even seen it coming.
Everyone faltered for a moment at the unprovoked act of extreme violence, even Deidara. But Sasori didn't care to give them time to recover. From beneath the cloth covering Hiruko's wide mouth, he launched a hail of poisoned senbon at another ANBU, filling him with a hundred needles and sending him staggering to the ground. Having lost nearly half of their number, the Konoha ANBU finally jumped into action and retaliated viciously. Sasori thought he heard a woman shout the word 'monster' at him, but this only fueled his bloodlust.
He easily deflected a strike from a katana with his tail, sending an ANBU flying backwards into the brush. Deidara, meanwhile, was surrounded by two ANBU who were attempting to engage him in close combat. He seemed to be holding up just fine, but Sasori didn't trust a kid to have his back.
The ground shook and a wave of earth and mulch rose up and forced Sasori to retreat, lest he be pulled under by the quicksand effect. Swearing under his breath, he swung Hiruko's poisoned tail around to deflect a rain of kunai he knew was coming. Just as he did, however, they exploded and made him lose his balance.
"Damn flies," he growled, taking a quick moment to assess the damage.
Hiruko was a tough puppet designed to withstand even the strongest physical attacks, but an explosion was different matter entirely. The left arm was splintered and would need to be repaired.
All of a sudden, something unexpected happened. Without warning, someone tackled him from the side, forcing him to tumble several yards deeper into the forest—away from the ANBU. Just as Sasori was about to murder whoever had dared strike him, Deidara's voice cut him off.
The world erupted in a brilliant display of light as Sasori and Deidara were both blown backwards. Reacting more quickly this time, Sasori used Hiruko's tail to wrap around a tree and stop his flight. The light receded almost instantly, but in its wake it left a wasteland where before stood verdant foliage. An entire mile-long area of the forest was demolished, consumed by conflagration, and all that remained of the ANBU squads were charred, broken masks and smoking entrails.
Sasori righted Hiruko and looked around, trying to see if any ANBU had escaped the blast. Nearby, Deidara coughed.
"That was too easy, yeah."
Sasori glared at the younger shinobi. "That blast was probably heard from miles away. More of them will be coming. Way to go."
Deidara frowned at his partner's scathing tone. "Hey, I solved the problem, didn't I? Besides, who gives a shit? I can take 'em, yeah."
"If you're going to be Akatsuki, you need to learn how I operate. I'll give you a hint: don't announce our presence to every shinobi within a fifty mile radius."
"Hey, I never wanted to be a part of all this crap. And by the way, what I do is art, for your information. It's beauty incarnate, yeah."
You have got to be kidding me.
"Art?" Sasori said the word like a curse. "What could you possibly know about art? Blowing things up is just a form of destruction."
"Exactly." Deidara dusted himself off, his face contorted in a scowl. "Whatever. Let's just go, yeah."
Sasori didn't argue with that. Now that Deidara had practically announced their position, they would have to get the hell out of here. Well, that was just fine with the ex Suna nin; his stamina was nearly unlimited thanks to his puppet body, so he could travel for days without stopping if need be.
Deidara, however, was not so hardy. They wandered through dark forests for another few hours as night fell before Deidara had to stop. Sasori debated forcing him to keep moving, if only to see how far he could push the boy. But Hiruko's left hand was troubling him, and he wanted to start repairs so that the puppet would be back to normal fighting capacity.
Once Deidara got a fire going, Sasori decided to get to work. He unlocked the latch on Hiruko's back and easily let himself out, stepping lightly onto the grass.
Sasori fixed bored honey eyes on his new partner. "What?"
"I just expected you to be older, yeah."
Sasori smirked. Deidara didn't know that his body was actually an artificial puppet too, so of course he'd think Sasori was near his own age.
"So when did you join Akatsuki? Couldn't have been long ago, yeah."
"Seventeen years ago," Sasori answered fluidly, keeping one eye on Deidara for a reaction.
The blond didn't disappoint. "Very funny."
"One thing you should know, Deidara," Sasori said as he assessed the damage to Hiruko's left arm. "I never lie."
There was silence for a while, only the crackling fire filling the void as Sasori began to remove the damaged portion of Hiruko's hand.
"What did you do to your body?"
Sasori blinked at his work. Perhaps this boy wasn't as dense as he made himself out to be. "I traded in my human body for an artificial one. In this form, I can't age or rot."
"Because I'm inorganic, obviously."
"No, I mean, why'd you do it? You wanna live forever or something?"
An image of Orochimaru appeared in his mind's eye. They'd chased eternity together, gone farther than any man had gone before, and for what? Orochimaru was gone; he'd never even really been there, if Sasori was honest with himself. And now he was stuck with some punk kid claiming to be an artist. An artist, of all the ludicrous things. Sasori chuckled bitterly at this thought.
Deidara just watched him, curious but otherwise unaffected. "You okay?"
At this, Sasori's laughter faded, leaving only emptiness. When was the last time anyone had asked him if he were okay? He clenched a wooden fist as hard as he could, but there was no pain. There was nothing. He was starting to wonder if he even remembered what pain felt like.
"I think that's enough questions for one night," he said. "Get some sleep, boy. I'm not slowing our pace just because you can't keep up."
Deidara held his glassy gaze for a moment over the light of the campfire, lone blue eye suddenly unreadable. It was an odd feeling, Sasori thought, to be looked through like that as though he were transparent, secrets bared for all to see. He shifted, moving an arm in front of his chest cavity where the essence of his life rested, concealed beneath layers of thick fabric. Just when he was about to snap at Deidara, the younger shinobi turned away.
"Yeah, whatever," he said, settling down for the night under a tree.
Sasori said nothing as the hours passed him by, dulled as he was to the passage of time. Working on Hiruko's arm consumed his focus—that which wasn't devoted to keeping watch for any more enemy shinobi, at least. It seemed like the blink of an eye when the first lights of dawn began to stain the night sky, banishing the stars back to the heavens. Sasori watched as morning dew began to sparkle, wondering vaguely what it felt like to feel the warmth of the sun.
Honey eyes turned on his sleeping partner, frowning in his sleep. Perhaps he was having a nightmare. Somehow, this thought suited Sasori just fine. The kid would have to get used to nightmares in their line of work.
A cruel thought drifted across his consciousness just then as he watched the younger shinobi twist fitfully in his sleep. He'd never given it much thought, not while Orochimaru had been around. Orochimaru played the game better than Sasori ever had, this he knew deep down. But he also knew that Orochimaru had been threatened by him, pushed to extremes just to stay ahead.
Orochimaru was right about one thing.
"A puppet master should always look for stronger puppets."
Sasori let Deidara sleep a few more minutes. It was one small mercy in anticipation of the torture that lay ahead.
"Can your bombs detonate from inside people?"
Deidara was peeling an apple when Sasori posed the question, so he didn't give the notion much thought. "Never tried it."
"Why not? I can't imagine a more appropriate medium for a bomb."
Deidara took a bite of his apple, frowning. "Because that would defeat the purpose. My art's an explosion of light an energy, there one minute and gone the next. Anyone who goes near it becomes a part of it, not the other way around, yeah."
Sasori watched him through his own eyes for once. Usually he was holed up inside Hiruko. Deidara would never admit it out loud, but Sasori was much more threatening like this than in his bulky puppet form. Scarier.
"So you're incapable."
Deidara nearly choked on his fruit. "Hey, I didn't say that. Just that it's not my style."
"Well, here's your chance to prove me wrong."
As though Sasori was ever wrong.
If Deidara had known how messy things would get, he might have told Sasori to fuck off and just do the job himself. But a part of him wanted to prove that he was an equal, not a pawn. It wasn't so much the blood that splattered all over Deidara's face and hair that bothered him. Rather, it was the preparation for what the guy knew was coming that put him off.
"What're you going to do with that?" the young lord whimpered, eyes wide as saucers.
Deidara held a lump of clay in an open palm, its misshapen form offensive. He brought his free hand to rest atop it, preparing to devour it and sculpt a new masterpiece, but Sasori stopped him.
"There's no need for that," he said, gripping Deidara's forearm.
Deidara growled in frustration. He was never frustrated. His emotions were like his art—explosive and deeply felt. Frustration was an annoying itch, beneath him. But one look at Sasori's blank face drowned out the prisoner's pathetic sobbing. Whatever game Sasori was playing, Deidara finally understood that he was dead serious.
For reasons not quite known to him then, Deidara's locus of irritation shifted to his victim. The guy had soiled himself somewhere in the midst of begging for his life and offering them riches beyond their wildest dreams in exchange for mercy.
"This is such a fucking waste," he grumbled. "And you're starting to piss me off."
The prisoner cried out in exaggerated agony as Deidara grabbed his short hair and yanked his head back. Surprised, he let his mouth loll open, giving Deidara the perfect opening. With one swift motion, he shoved a hunk of chakra-infused clay down the man's throat. He choked and spit, trying to cough the sticky white goop up, but Deidara held him steady.
"Get on with it," Sasori said.
Deidara shot a poisonous look at the young lord, snot and tears running down his sad little face as he tried to breathe through the clay. Deidara knew death; he'd seen far too much of it in his life. This was a dead man before him.
But not like this.
With one final, painful wrenching of his captive's hair, Deidara let a kunai slip from his sleeve and swiftly slit the man's throat. A fountain of blood gushed forth, teeming with life and warmth. It dyed the clay an ugly crimson, and Deidara grimaced at the sight. Shoving the now dead man aside, he wiped a long sleeve across his dirty face.
Silence reigned for a moment as Deidara tried to calm his breathing, anger subsiding with each exhalation.
"What the hell was that?"
Slowly, blue met honey in a clash of egos and raw fury. Deidara spit a sticky mixture of blood and saliva to the ground. "That was me not wasting my art on some worthless power trip, yeah."
Being a puppet, Sasori had always been nearly impossible to read. Now, those dead, glassy eyes looked more unguarded than Deidara had ever seen. Human.
"You try my patience, boy."
Deidara drew up close to his partner and bared his teeth in a sneer, the smeared noble blood on his face sticking and stretching uncomfortably with the action. "Good. Someone oughtta."
It was the first and last time in their entire acquaintance that Deidara got the last word and Sasori let him.
"Why'd you do it?"
Sasori stared at the fresh corpses littering the ground before him, bloodied and mangled like they'd been put through a meat grinder and spit back out. Or flayed with razor sharp iron sand.
"Why did I do what?" he asked, honey eyes admiring the carnage before him.
"Turn yourself into a puppet, yeah." Deidara kneeled down in front of a corpse, poking it in the ribs with a single finger, looking for life.
He'd been skirting this topic since they started their partnership. Deidara would never understand his reasons. Not like Orochimaru understood.
"You must have a reason," Deidara pressed. "Something to do with your love of puppets?"
Sasori studied his young partner as he made his way among butchered bodies, poking and prodding, seemingly unconcerned. But Sasori knew that ploy. Deidara was hyper aware of what he would say.
I don't give him enough credit.
So he decided to let it slip. Why the hell not? "I wanted to become true art. Infinite beauty... That's the highest form of art."
Deidara smirked. "Figured as much. You're an artist, too. Wouldn't spend so much time on your dolls if you didn't take them seriously, yeah."
Sasori bristled. "They're not dolls, imbecile."
Deidara waved him off. "Whatever."
Sasori expected him to elaborate, but he didn't. Suddenly irritated at the lack of response after he'd finally decided to let Deidara in on his true vision, he glared at the blond. "My art is true art. Not like your fancy explosions. They're the destruction of art, and they only attract unwanted attention."
It was Deidara's turn to bristle. "Hey, back off. My bombs are beautiful. True art is that fleeting moment of perfection, an explosion of color. My art's a bang, yeah."
"Besides, who wants to live forever? Life is s'posed to be transient."
"Transient? Don't be stupid. There's no meaning to life if it can be extinguished so easily."
Deidara shook his head. "See, that's your problem. You're looking so far ahead of yourself that you forget to just live in the present. Might as well be dead, yeah."
"What good is it to live in the present when you could be dead the next day from poor planning? If you're lucky enough live a little longer, you'll understand."
Deidara stood up, face shielded from view by his too-long hair. "If you say so, Master Sasori. You'll probably outlive us all, anyway, so I guess you should think about what to do when everyone's gone and you're all alone, yeah."
"Insolent whelp. You know nothing."
They didn't speak again that day, or the day after that. They simply went on their way, reeling in the stragglers that had escaped their purge one by one. Blood, screaming, fruitless begging. Sasori took it all with his usual empty detachment as he sent his puppets after the dwindling survivors. And all the while, Deidara didn't say a word. He may as well have been alone.
After that silent massacre, after the sound of skin ripping and bones crunching and wails cracking until they, too, lost their breath, Sasori decided he would never abide a silent Deidara ever again.
Even after so much time together, Deidara still couldn't quite figure out his partner. He knew what pissed Sasori off, knew what topics were boring or of passing interest or completely unworthy of the redhead's time. He even knew what Sasori liked best—that one was easy. They were both artists, after all. Regardless of their starkly different visions of true art, they both possessed visions of grandeur. Sasori would probably never admit it, but it was what kept them from tearing each other apart otherwise.
Funny how it was also a source of supreme contention between them.
Arguing with Sasori was like trying to persuade a brick wall, but Deidara found it oddly cathartic. It was the most responsive Sasori ever got in conversation. In his mind, they could agree to disagree. Well, Deidara could. Sasori would probably never acknowledge an opposing opinion even on pain of death. Not that he could feel pain, of course. Yes, that was also annoying. Deidara was not only weaker than Sasori, but also he couldn't hope to inflict physical pain or trauma when their fights took a turn for the nasty. Sasori was a machine, never tiring and never faltering. But unlike that peacock Uchiha, Deidara thought Sasori's strength was legitimate. He didn't need to cast illusions when his power was ground entirely in reality.
Deidara's hackles rose at the sound of that voice. Refusing to dignify the newcomer with his full attention, Deidara continued staring out the window. "Itachi."
There were not enough words to describe Deidara's resentment of the Uchiha clan killer. It was times like these when they were all gathered together at the base in Rain that made Deidara most uneasy. Dealing with Sasori was one thing; having to interact with the rest of the Akatsuki and not blow anything up should have earned him a goddamned medal.
"How are you getting along with Sasori?"
"Fuckin' peachy keen. Why do you care?"
Itachi didn't respond right away, which only served to piss Deidara off even more. He hated how Itachi seemed to always carry a holier-than-thou attitude around him, like he was better than him.
"I don't. I take it he hasn't made any definitive moves against Orochimaru, then."
Deidara hesitated. He'd heard about Sasori's previous partner, the Sannin Orochimaru, and the fate of the snake shinobi. Truth be told, Deidara thought he had the right idea opting out when he did. Having been given no choice in the matter of joining Akatsuki, Deidara envied that freedom.
"Never even talks about him, not that it's any of your business, yeah."
Itachi leveled him with a heavy stare, and Deidara ignored the crawling sensation on his skin. Every muscle in his body screamed to punch Itachi in his smug, pretty-boy face—
"Odd, since Sasori was so affected by his defection."
"Why're you telling me this?"
Itachi turned away from Deidara and made for the exit, but he paused at the door. Deidara was about to tell him off when he said, "They were close."
Before Deidara had a chance to question what exactly that was supposed to mean, Itachi disappeared. Left to divine his own answers, or wheedle them out of Sasori, Deidara naturally forwent both options and tracked down Kisame.
"Orochimaru and Sasori? Can't say I know much about that," Kisame said.
Kisame was the most tolerable of all the Akatsuki despite his ignorance when it came to art. At least the ex Mist nin could hold a normal conversation.
"Itachi said they were close. Aw man, you know how Itachi is. Says things that're s'posed to mean somethin', but he doesn't tell you what."
"That sounds like the kid."
"It sounds obnoxious, yeah."
Kisame looked thoughtful for a moment. "I guess there is that..."
And that was how Deidara found out about the debacle with Orochimaru trying to take over Itachi's body for his Sharingan. Kisame told him the condensed version, but he didn't leave out the fact that Sasori had confronted Orochimaru about the ordeal and fought him in a battle that could have ended in the redhead's death had Orochimaru not chosen to cut things short.
"You'd never know it, but Sasori was pretty messed up about it. Guess even a puppet can be a pussy sometimes," Kisame said, grinning toothily.
Deidara paid him no mind as he turned this new information over in his mind. "So that's what he meant when he said they were close?"
Kisame shrugged. "Dunno about that. I don't really give a shit, though. Anyway, Orochimaru wanted power and immortality. That's why he went after the Sharingan."
"What, is the Sharingan some kinda holy grail of ninjutsu now?"
"If you're gonna try to live forever, I guess you'd want the best that's out there. Oh, there's one other thing."
"Orochimaru helped Sasori become a puppet."
"That's completely fucked up," Deidara said, the wheels already turning in his head.
It was time to get some real answers from his partner.
"What're you gonna do if you live forever?"
Sasori hadn't been expecting a question like this out of the blue. Deidara was prone to asking questions any idiot could answer, mostly to 'make conversation', as he liked to put it. Sasori tuned him out when it suited him, but he never told him to shut up unless they were working. The background din helped to remind him that he still walked among the living.
The too-calm set of his shoulders and the way he didn't look at Sasori directly told him that Deidara was keenly interested in his answer. Sasori leaned back against the tree he was sitting under.
"It's not that I'm going to do anything. It's what comes with eternal life that I'm after."
"Okay, and what exactly does that entail?"
They locked eyes for a moment, the light of the setting sun casting shadows and obscuring half of Deidara's face from view.
"I want what any artist wants. By becoming infinite, I'll embody true art. That will be my ultimate legacy to the world."
Deidara chuckled, but there was nothing humorous about it. "You've got a twisted vision of what art is, yeah."
"You're one to talk."
Deidara smirked and turned away, looking once more toward the setting sun. It was a long time before he spoke again.
"Well, we've got that in common at least, yeah."
Deidara reached into a hidden pocket, rummaging about for a moment before withdrawing his clenched fist. When he unfurled it, Sasori made out a tiny bird perched upon Deidara's open palm. He lifted his arm up a bit and the bird took off, a fragile little thing on the wind. Neither spoke as they watched it flutter higher and higher, carried by a warm night breeze. Just as it became almost too small to discern from the evening's first shy stars, Deidara released his chakra. A small but brilliant explosion flashed, momentarily brightening the darkening sky with false daylight. Light cascaded toward the ground like so many falling stars, but they were extinguished the moment they appeared, leaving only the afterimage, a memory.
Something long-buried stirred in defiance somewhere in the pit of Sasori's crude heart machine. A part of him, the part that had always challenged Orochimaru and held himself in such high esteem agreed with Deidara. He suddenly felt like he was seeing a ghost of his former partner, beautifully bastardized.
There was no way Deidara would ever play the game Orochimaru had played with him.
"Get some sleep, boy. We have a country to conquer tomorrow," Sasori said, turning away.
He didn't see the curve of a smile on Deidara's face as a million stars slowly twinkled to life in the stygian sky above.
"I am to infiltrate the Sound village and obtain information on Orochimaru's progress with the body transfer technique. I will then report what I find to you."
Sasori glowered at the boy through Hiruko's eyes, his titanium scorpion's stinger swishing back and forth menacingly. Yakushi Kabuto was a skilled medical ninja, from what Sasori could tell. It would be the perfect cover to get into Orochimaru's good graces. Orochimaru was a powerful shinobi, but even he was not half as knowledgeable about the medical ninjutsu required of extending life as someone like Kabuto was.
"Very good, Kabuto. I want you to find out about any new endeavors he might be working on, too. I want to be prepared for whatever that snake's got up his sleeve."
"Yes, sir," Kabuto said, bowing politely.
Deidara was leaning in the other doorway opposite where Kabuto had excused himself. With what appeared to be great effort, Sasori maneuvered Hiruko's hulking form to face Deidara. "My affairs are none of your business, boy."
Deidara removed himself from the doorway and sauntered toward his partner. Suddenly irritated by Hiruko's stunted form and lack of height, Sasori released the hatch and climbed out of his monstrous puppet.
"Why're you spying on Orochimaru, anyway?"
"Because," Sasori said, looking down his nose at his young partner. "Orochimaru is the biggest threat to Akatsuki. He knows more than most about this organization."
"Yeah, well, you don't have to know much to want out."
Sasori ignored that. He didn't care much for Deidara's personal grievances. He wasn't going anywhere, in any case. "You're too free with your opinions. They'll get you killed one day if you don't blow yourself up first."
Honey eyes narrowed in silent warning. Sasori hated it when Deidara said that word.
"Hey, you wanna kill him?"
Sasori looked at Deidara, really looked at him, and couldn't help but wonder if Orochimaru felt this way looking at him all those years ago.
No, he thought. There's a difference between you and me, old friend.
"There's only one thing I really want now," Sasori said. "In the meantime, there's no reason not to fill in the empty spaces along the way."
Deidara backed down then, his usual cocky smirk in place. "Now you're talkin'. Just make sure I get an invitation, yeah."
As Deidara disappeared through the doorway, Sasori allowed himself a moment to really think about what was happening. There was no need to play games with Deidara, to hold him to the standards Orochimaru set. They didn't matter anymore. The rules were his to make or break now.
"Check," Sasori said to the empty room.
Kings had no use for the standards applied to lowly pawns.
Author's note: Your reviews are highly appreciated. Remember to check out the sequels, Aces & Eights and Zero Hour, if you want to know what happens next!