“Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven.” – Tryon Edwards
At the gates of the small coastal village of Hisoka in the south of the Tea Country, two men met.
To the eyes of the citizens of the quiet and peaceful trade town, it was an unremarkable meeting. The first of the men was one of their own, a soldier by the name of Inoue Hideaki. He’d had the very basics of ninja training once, everyone said, but hadn’t been able to meet the standards to become a true genin. Instead, like so many other Academy washouts, he’d turned his training into employment elsewhere. The mayor of Hisoka had always had an eye for well-trained young men, and they kept things peaceful, especially when semi-disreputable ships came to port.
No, Hideaki was nothing special or unusual, no one who would stand out in a crowd. He was of medium height, had short gray-green hair, dark eyes, and he’d always kept mostly to himself. The only significant thing that any of the villagers could remember about him was that ten years ago, when a group of raiders had tried to steal some secret documents that were en route between the Wind Country and the Water Country, Hideaki had gone missing for two weeks.
He’d returned to the village finally, looking dazed and disoriented, and claimed that he’d foolishly gone after one of the enemy ninjas and been knocked unconscious. It was an odd story and didn’t quite make sense, but everyone knew that ninjas had strange and mysterious powers that could account for such things and, in the end, everyone was relieved to just be able to take one name off the death-count.
So that evening, when Hideaki stood at his usual guard post, no one even bothered to look twice as one of the strangers stepped away from the caravan that had just arrived and approached him. After all, the stranger was equally unremarkable in appearance: close-shaven black hair, a full-sleeved gray jacket with fingerless gloves, and a pair of dark sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
Even Hideaki didn’t look much at the stranger at first, until he leaned himself insouciantly up against the wall just a little bit too close to Hideaki and wormed his way into his personal space.
“Hey, cutie,” the stranger grinned. “I like you. Want to go out?”
Hideaki blinked in surprise, then frowned. This form was hardly one to attract any kind of romantic attention; he’d specifically chosen it that way, so that no one would disturb him. “Not interested,” he said curtly.
“Oh, come on. It’s got to be deathly dull standing by this gate all day. I bet you could do with some fun.” The stranger’s smile was downright devious now, but Hideaki couldn’t make out his full expression due to the sunglasses that covered his eyes.
The man inside Hideaki’s body boiled with rage at the impertinence of this stranger, but he bit back his instinctive, lethal reaction. He’d come too far and sacrificed too much to expose himself now. “I’m on duty. You’ll have better luck in the bars by the wharf, in any case.”
“By the wharf, hmm?” The stranger pretended to consider this, rubbing his chin with one palm in a gesture that Hideaki suddenly realized was horribly familiar. “I think I like the company here much better.” That hand reached up to cup Hideaki’s cheek in a bold move, and Hideaki felt something unnatural move beneath the glove. “What do you say? We’ll have a blast together, yeah?”
Hideaki’s eyes widened, and instantly looked around in alarm. Seeing that his mundane disguise had paid off in this case, he ventured his own bold move and ripped the sunglasses off the face of the ‘stranger.’ Mischievous blue eyes danced merrily back at him. In response, the being inside Hideaki’s body snapped.
“You? Brat!” he hissed. “All the reports said that Uchiha kid killed you. You kept me waiting so long, I’d completely given up on you.”
“And we both know how much you hate waiting, Master Sasori,” the other replied cheekily.
“Don’t call me that where people can hear,” Sasori hissed, watching the bystanders carefully through Hideaki’s eyes.
“Paranoid as always, I see.” The statement was accompanied by an expressive yawn.
Sasori took a moment to study his partner, after the longest period of time they’d spent apart since they’d first met. He hadn’t recognized Deidara at first because he’d been looking for a henge – back before he’d heard the reports of Deidara’s death and was still looking at all – but this wasn’t any ninja trickery. Deidara really had shorn off all his hair and dyed it black. He’d taken off his scope, but the sunglasses carefully covered up the two metal implant mounts around his left eye. Sasori supposed the gloves were to conceal the mouths in his palms. And, speaking of the plural…
“Your arm.” He tapped his fingers against Deidara’s left shoulder, where Deidara most certainly wasn’t missing a limb.
“Ah, yeah.” Deidara scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “Long story about that. We should probably wait until we’re in a secure location.”
“Hn.” Sasori’s eyes narrowed. “Your hair is black,” he finally said distastefully.
“Well, I had to walk through the entire Fire Country to get here, yeah? I figured it was best to blend in.”
Sasori snorted with amusement at the very thought. “You pick now to get responsible on me, brat?”
Deidara grinned in response. “You can punish me later if you want, Master…” He pronounced the last word with more than a little hint of innuendo and actually had the gall to wink.
Sasori didn’t know whether to laugh or smack Deidara upside the head. It was a frequent problem he had with his partner. “My shift ends two hours after sunset,” he said instead, because either action would attract too much attention. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a spare key. “Third street to your left, the white apartment building, number 3b.”
“Got it.” Deidara took the key from him and moved to go. He paused, though, just before entering the gates. “It’s been too long,” he said simply, a hint of something genuine in his voice.
Sasori snorted. “It hasn’t been long enough,” he retorted.
Deidara laughed at that, and then he was gone.
Composing himself once more, Sasori took on the bleak, uninterested expression that Hideaki always wore. It was a long, otherwise uneventful shift.
By the time Sasori returned to Hideaki’s home, it was dark. There was a light under the door to his apartment, though, and he opened it cautiously. Deidara had been known to greet him with a bang more often than not.
It was a tiny apartment: a small living room with a kitchenette along one wall, and a bedroom just barely large enough for the futon on the floor, with the half-bathroom crammed in next to the closet space. It was a home meant only for sleeping and not for living. The rent was dirt-cheap, though, and Hideaki had never needed anything more.
Sasori rested the katana that the gate guards wore against the wall by the door and toed off his sandals. The wood floor was cool against his bare feet, a sensation he still hadn’t grown accustomed to now that he was trapped once more in human flesh.
After checking that the window blinds were firmly drawn, he dropped the henge that surrounded him. The mirror on the far wall now showed a man who wasn’t quite Hideaki but wasn’t quite Sasori yet, either. After he’d awakened in this form, his new body’s flesh had begun to slowly readjust so that he looked more like his actual self every day. His face and eyes were almost entirely his own now, and the roots of his hair were growing in brilliant red. They looked thoroughly ridiculous against this body’s native grey-green ends. Sasori glared at his reflection and turned to the bedroom.
There, he found Deidara facedown on his mattress, snoring away. That was one of Sasori’s major problems with Deidara on the whole: when the man snored, he snored from all six mouths. He nudged the mouth on Deidara’s left ankle with his toe and moved to sit down on the edge of the futon.
Deidara’s left foot yawned in response and smacked its lips as it slowly woke up. One by one, the mouths quit snoring, and finally Deidara groaned into the pillow. “Remind me never to travel with non-shinobi again,” he complained. “They’re so slow. I don’t know how people get anywhere without flying.”
Sasori snorted and studied the line of Deidara’s back. He’d taken off the jacket and gloves, and now Sasori could see that the mouths weren’t the only thing Deidara had been concealing. With a disdainful expression, he eyed the jagged scars and black stitches where Deidara’s arms had been reattached. “I see you let that butcher Kakuzu have at you.”
“Ngh. Didn’t have many options in the matter,” Deidara agreed. “He made me pay an arm and, well, another arm to do it, too.”
Sasori eyed him skeptically. “How’d you lose the right arm?”
Deidara snorted with amusement. “It turns out you were right, Master. Taking on the Nine-Tails right after the One-Tail was a bit much, even for me.”
“Brat,” Sasori sighed, leaning in to inspect Deidara’s left arm. “I can fix you up properly. Kakuzu couldn’t see the inherent artistry of the human body if his life depended on it.”
Deidara turned his head on the pillow so it faced the side of the bed Sasori sat upon. “Tell me about it, yeah? The scars are a bitch to cover, too. Trekking through the Fire Country, in summer, wearing full sleeves?” He stuck out tongues in the three mouths nearest to Sasori all that once.
“We can’t do it here, though,” Sasori commented thoughtfully.
“Yeah, I figured you had your equipment stashed elsewhere.”
“There are a series of secluded caves by the coast, some of them impenetrable without earth techniques.”
“How’s your new carapace coming along?” Deidara inquired curiously.
“Hn. He’s no Hiruko.”
“I may need to start from scratch with proper supplies, once we’ve moved on.”
“Tch. Starting back at the beginning is such a pain,” Deidara agreed, finally rolling over onto his side to give Sasori more room on the futon. He propped his head up on one elbow and looked Sasori’s new human body over speculatively. “Although I suppose it’s a fair price to pay for cheating both Akatsuki and death.”
Sasori grunted in agreement and moved to lie down on the mattress, mirroring Deidara’s position. It still unnerved him how this body grew weary. It was like he was constantly dying. Dying and feeling, it all creeped him out.
“So,” Deidara drawled the word out, “are you going to tell me how you did it? I saw your heart, you know. Pierced with poisoned blades, yeah?”
“If you can’t figure it out on your own, it won’t do you any good for me to tell you,” Sasori evaded.
Deidara smirked. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” he teased. The mouth on his left foot nibbled playfully at Sasori’s toes.
Sasori kicked him in response. “Don’t get any funny ideas, brat. This body won’t be around for long.” Deidara had always flirted with him to annoy him, but something about the other man’s advances now, when something could actually happen, sent a spike of anxiety through him. “Besides, I’ve already figured yours out,” he added with a smirk.
Deidara scowled in response. “And just how did you manage that, Master?” This time the title held a hint of spite. “You said you thought I was dead.”
Sasori tisked. “Once I knew you weren’t, it was simple enough.”
Deidara raised a challenging eyebrow.
“Fine,” Sasori grumbled. “You did it all using Pain’s shape-shifting technique.”
Deidara’s eyebrow rose another inch at the mention of their former leader’s real name. They’d never dared to speak it while they were in Akatsuki. Now that that was over, however, Sasori refused to give Pain the honor.
“All our rings held the residual imprint of Pain’s technique,” Sasori went on, as if nothing were unusual, “in case he needed to activate a clone of us when we were physically separated. We all knew that forcing chakra through the ring’s seal would activate the clone.”
“Emergency procedure,” Deidara agreed.
“So all you did was wait until you received message from me and then activated the clone, using a dangerously large percentage of your chakra,” Sasori concluded.
Sasori nodded. That explained why Deidara had been so difficult to sense when he’d arrived earlier that day; his chakra levels still hadn’t nearly recovered. “At that point, the clone would have been more real than you yourself. You must have given it any identifying markers: the ring, cloak, forehead protector, your scope. All you had to do was live as a shadow of yourself until it died.” Sasori glared. “It was a foolhardy plan, brat. Far too much could have gone wrong, and far too much could have been detected.”
“But it didn’t, yeah?”
“It was also,” Sasori added coldly, “thoroughly uninspired. For all your talk of art, all you managed to achieve was a simple variant on the replacement technique.”
“And how were you any different?” Deidara shot back, blue eyes flashing.
“I,” Sasori summarized succinctly, “died.” That was all he was willing to reveal to Deidara on the matter.
Deidara sulked at having his secrets so easily revealed and then disparaged. “I can’t believe you figured all that out in a few hours.”
“Hideaki leads a very boring life,” Sasori conceded, “plenty of time to ponder such matters.”
“Oh, is that this puppet’s name?” Deidara grinned, appeased once more. “Love the hair, by the way. It’s a real Christmas miracle, yeah?”
Sasori glared at him through pale green bangs. “Watch yourself, brat,” he warned.
Deidara sighed. “Whatever.”
“You still risk too much. It was a gamble, assuming that clone that died in your place would go so quickly.”
“I owe the Uchiha kid one, yeah? Although with the way Akatsuki’s been dropping like flies lately, I suppose it was only a matter of time.”
Sasori snorted. “It’s said he took down Itachi as well.”
Deidara frowned. “That’s news to me. Shit! I wanted my revenge on that bastard.”
“So give it to the little brother for free, and then you won’t owe him anymore,” Sasori shrugged.
“Good idea. I’d hate to start a new life already in debt.” Deidara closed his eyes for a moment, and Sasori almost thought he’d fallen asleep again before Deidara spoke once more. “You need to eat now, yeah?”
“Unfortunately,” Sasori grumbled.
“Let’s eat, then. I’m famished.” With a stretch and a sudden burst of energy, Deidara rose from the mattress.
“I keep protein pills in the cupboard.” Sasori rose reluctantly as well.
“Tch. I saw. I threw them all out.” With that remark, Deidara sauntered back into the living area.
“What?” Sasori growled, stalking after him.
“If you’re only going to live again for a little while, you might as well actually live, yeah?” Deidara shot him a smug look. “I did a bit of shopping before the market closed.”
Sasori crossed his arms over his chest and wished, not for the first time since Deidara’s return earlier that day, that he had access to his poisons. “I don’t want to ‘live’,” he retorted coldly instead. “That’s the whole point of getting rid of this flesh as soon as I can.”
“You’re no fun at all,” Deidara complained lightheartedly, removing several packages from the refrigerator. “You haven’t eaten in almost twenty years, right? A little novelty won’t hurt you.” He opened the foil on one to reveal a fillet of eel.
Sasori turned away. “Brat.” He watched with wary eyes as Deidara neatly sliced up the vegetables and set the rice to steam. Deidara always had to hold the implements with only the tips of his fingers, so that it made all his actions look strangely dainty when he used his hands for anything but molding clay. More than one enemy in the past had underestimated Deidara for just that very reason.
Deidara set down the knife and poured a little water and sauce into the cooking wok as Sasori watched. It was a familiar ritual between them by now. Usually Sasori worked on oiling the joints of his puppets while Deidara cooked and ate, but sometimes he just watched his partner out of curiosity. It had been a facet of existence so alien to him for so long that it was novel to observe from time to time.
The whole experience was considerably stranger, of course, now that he would be eating as well. That was why he’d stuck to tasteless protein pills and vitamins ever since he’d woken up in this body.
“What can I say?” Deidara put the sliced eel onto the wok and flipped it as the meat sizzled. “I like to push your comfort zone.”
“As always, you excel at stating the obvious.” Sasori really wished right then that he had one of his puppets to work on, but it just wasn’t safe in town. This apartment couldn’t properly conceal anything of importance. So instead of working with his hands, he worked with his mind while Deidara cooked. “You’ll need a new source of clay. And parts for a new scope. I think I know where you can find the latter.”
“What timeframe are we looking at?” Deidara, thankfully, knew when not to push Sasori too much.
“I’ll need at least another month here. Maybe two, if things don’t go well.”
“Tch. That’s a bother, but I suppose it can’t be helped. After all, we are the first ninja to escape Akatsuki scot-free. Some sacrifices are necessary, yeah?” The vegetables went in with the eel, and Deidara stirred them neatly with a pair of wooden cooking chopsticks.
“Some sacrifices…” Sasori repeated to himself with a sigh. Those sacrifices already included over a hundred puppets, including his two favorites, plus the actual living core of his heart. He still couldn’t quite process the loss of it all. It just showed how far he still was from freeing himself from his emotions, when the loss of lifeless things affected him so.
“Here.” Deidara set a plate on the low table before Sasori.
The smell of fresh-cooked eel wafted up to his nose, and he carefully sat down on one of the cushions on the floor, crossing his legs neatly beneath him.
Deidara took the seat across from him and remained unusually quiet as they began to eat, chopsticks nimble between his fingers.
Sasori was grateful that Deidara wasn’t looking his way, because he knew he hadn’t been able to fully fight back his reaction at the first taste of actual food. Taste had become a distant memory to him, and the sudden swirl of flavor on his tongue was almost overwhelming. He could feel his mouth salivating, his stomach craving, his taste-buds enjoying. It was all new and strange, yet old and familiar at the same time.
Sasori wanted it all to stop now. He’d made the choice to eliminate all pleasure and pain from his life long ago, and the former was almost as agonizing to him as the latter now.
This newfound body, despite his mind’s wishes, fell upon the food like a starving man who’d been denied for far too long. About twenty years, perhaps.
Sasori, to his embarrassment, finished long before Deidara. Even worse, a part of him wanted more. It was dangerous, this time when he wore flesh once again, tempting him with all the wonders of the world, if only he would give up his immortality in exchange.
Deidara refilled his plate without comment.
“Are we going to be going back to any of our stashes at some point?” Deidara inquired after Sasori began slowing down, his stomach finally full.
“Too risky,” Sasori countered.
“Where’d you get the equipment for the puppet you’re working on, then?”
“I left it here.”
“We’ve never been here, yeah?” Deidara’s eyes met his, keen and intelligent. He was trying to find the trick to Sasori’s miraculous resurrection, then. It wasn’t surprising, given Deidara’s persistence in all things.
“It was before your time.”
“Hn. So long that it’s this difficult to make your modifications?”
“Mind your own business, brat,” Sasori snapped as he had a thousand times before.
Deidara shrugged and picked up their empty plates. He snapped on a pair of rubber gloves – “Do you know how nasty dish-detergent tastes?” he’d replied once when Sasori had asked him about it – and began scrubbing the plates in the sink with a faraway expression on his face. Sasori suddenly found himself inexplicably uncomfortable with the whole situation. He didn’t have anywhere to go, though.
“You know, Master, I wondered during those three weeks,” Deidara finally said softly, his back to Sasori. “I wondered if maybe the plan hadn’t worked, and you really were dead. You really looked it, yeah?”
“‘Yeah’,” Sasori mocked lightly.
“And I also wondered if the plan had worked, but you’d changed your mind, and you weren’t going to contact me, after all. That seemed like something you would do.” Deidara frowned down at his hands on the edge of the sink as he removed his dishwashing gloves. His hands frowned back up at him.
“It is,” Sasori agreed uncomfortably. In truth, he’d debated long and hard about whether to just cut his former ties entirely. Even he couldn’t say for sure what had prompted him to keep his promise and send for his partner to join him.
Then, Deidara shrugged and grinned, breaking the mood. “You’re stuck with me now, though, old man.”
“Hn,” Sasori snorted with amusement.
The rest of the evening was spent planning the requisitioning of supplies they’d need to rebuild their powers to the fullest. Sasori found something comforting in that, how they could still work together seamlessly, despite all that had changed.
It was only that night, as they both lay as far apart as they could get on the futon due to the overbearing heat and humidity in the air, that Sasori spoke of trivial matters once more.
“Hey, brat?” he mumbled groggily, unable to sleep due to the sweat that clung to the back of his neck.
“The eel… How did you know that it was my favorite?” The question had been puzzling him ever since dinner.
Deidara chuckled a rich and deep laugh. “Maybe I should keep my secrets, too, yeah?” he teased.
“I may not have fully refined my poisons yet, but I can still make you horribly sick for a few days,” Sasori snapped.
Deidara relented. “That time we were in the Bird Country and I had eel.”
“What about it?”
“You couldn’t keep your eyes off me. Almost like you were…missing it. The food, yeah?”
“No,” Sasori hissed and shut his eyes tight.
“Tch.” Deidara snorted. “Whatever you say, Master. ’Night-’night.”
Sasori grunted in acknowledgement.
He pondered the matter in the still of the night, however. That had been the trip when he’d first let his guard slip around Deidara, just a little. He’d never understood much about trust, and even less so back then, but that had been when he’d begun to share his most important secrets. Some of them he’d even shared unwillingly, it seemed.
Sasori didn’t think that he could ever say that he trusted Deidara, but right now he was reasonably confident that Deidara hadn’t betrayed him and that Pain wouldn’t come bursting through that door any minute, ready to inflict every form of torment upon Sasori’s fragile new body and then haul him back into Akatsuki’s clutches. That was more trust than he’d ever put in anyone for as long as he could remember.
And that night, seven years ago, was when it had all begun…