Citrus Ether was a small coffee-tea hybrid shop that sat on the corner a short walk from the Konoha University campus. During the mornings and afternoons, the establishment flooded with students and professionals on a regular basis, only calming down in the evenings. The staff there were cheerful people, both men and women in mint green and white uniforms, bright orange name tags glinting on their aprons.
Sakura really couldn’t tell if working there was the smartest of the stupidest thing she had ever done.
The drinks were addictive. The hours were acceptable. The people were polite, smart, respectful, and entertaining. She didn’t really want to leave when her shift was over. In fact, some nights, she dawdled for hours later, disregarding study time and sleep for some remarkably intriguing conversations with the regulars.
She could justify the time spent as brain exercise. And since she only worked two nights a week, one night a week spent chatting couldn’t be that bad. And it was only a few hours. And she was fed. And hyped on caffeine. And seriously, intriguing conversations.
Particularly when it came to a certain Uchiha. One of the older clan members, grey-haired, craggy faced, mouth pinched like he had just chomped on a lime, the man was the perfect specimen of his clan with all his priorities wrapped up in Uchiha politics. But Uchiha-san had such a mind.
“Enough about agriculture,” Uchiha-san growled. “I’ll concede your point.” He narrowed his eyes at her victorious grin. “But only because you don’t know any better.” She gave him a disappointed flat glare. He snorted. “You’re decades too young to be giving me that look, girl.”
Wrinkling her nose, Sakura fought not to roll her eyes. The first and only time she had done that two weeks ago, Uchiha-san had swiftly brought up a topic that though she had an opinion, it had been embarrassingly clear she didn’t know enough. He had trumped her soundly that night. And since then, she had stayed respectful. To a degree.
Leaning back, Uchiha-san glanced behind her to the clock, his black eyes still sharp despite his apparent age. “One more, and then you’re done for the night.”
Sakura twitched. Three conversations including tonight, and he always dictated what and how many topics they discussed. That’s going to change soon, old man.
Oblivious to her rebellious thoughts, Uchiha-san tapped the table with a finger. “Capital punishment,” he announced. “For or against?”
The rosette pursed her lips as she eyed him, careful not to look away as she considered it. She had made that mistake a few times—by habit—at which he’d expressed the necessity of meeting one’s eyes when you’re having a conversation with them. Which was sugar-coating it.
“I don’t think it can be that black and white,” she decided finally. “I can’t deny that sometimes, people—repeated offenders, especially—that harm others do need to be… dealt with in a way that will ensure they don’t do it again. But by the same token, I feel like this line is stretched and blurred so much that they give this punishment out when other punishments would do, and sometimes they don’t when they should.” She paused, the corners of her mouth turning down. “So it’s a matter of the person being tried. I don’t think it should be decided lightly or quickly, either.”
Uchiha-san raised a single thin brow. “Assume the jury actually know what they are doing,” his tone clearly indicating what he thought of that, “and the convict is sentenced to life in prison, never to see the outside world. Is it more humane to leave them to rot inside a cement house or end it while they still have a mind intact?.”
Sakura hummed, propping her head on her fist. “Incarceration changes people,” she said after a beat. “Sometimes it makes them insane, yeah. And sometimes it does what it’s designed to; it changes them for the better. How can someone in good conscience take away that chance of maybe having a better future, maybe being able to make amends, and just cut it off. Take away all possibilities, all chance of something good ever coming from it at all?” She shook her head. “I do concede that for some people, it won’t work. Imprisonment, I mean. But you can’t really know until it’s tried, and sometimes it isn’t tried.”
Grunting, he pursed his lips. “So it is for our own consciousness that we keep them. They committed a crime by taking a life or several, but we should not, shall not, will not. We put them into a container, with others of their kind, and hope that as the years pass, their character will disintegrate and mold to what we deem acceptable. We seek then to change them, through time and threat of permanent incarceration. Some of them will change,” he said dismissively, “but most will not. Most will die within their cells through violence, sickness, or by the slow burn of impotent rage.” He tipped his hand towards her. “Isn’t capital punishment a fine deterrent though? How many of these men and women commit a crime knowing that in twenty-five years they can talk their way out of prison? How many would take a chance at killing if they knew it was their own death they were courting?”
But she was shaking her head at him. “It’s not a deterrent,” she answered calmly. “It’s still practiced now in places, and people do these things anyway. In essence, people are only sentenced to death to be rid of the hassle they present, or to sooth those who would have revenge.”
“If it doesn’t work as a deterrent,” he said, “then it is their choice. We sentence them to die because it is what they chose for themselves. I’m not including those drunken brawls or the emotional ‘accidents’. I’m speaking of those who systematically kill. For the pleasure, for the hunt. However, you term it. Those who have no interest in adjusting to society’s norm, who work within it and manipulate it to adjust to their needs. And we should give them a chance to fool us?” He snorted. “Or we should coddle them in a humanitarian environment to wait out their days as the populace pays for their meals.”
Sakura’s brow twitched. “There’s a difference, Uchiha-san, between monsters and assholes,” she said as succinctly as possible. She inhaled to continue, but the door of the cafe opened and in seconds a familiar female sidled up. Erk. “Hello, Konan…”
The blue-haired woman smirked at her. “You done with your shift yet? Need you to come do me a favor,” she said, one hand shoved into a pocket. “It involves Pein, confetti and a… heh. Piñata.”
Giving a low huff, Uchiha-san watched them over the rim of his teacup.
Sakura grimaced. “Only if there’s pizza involved. And possibly a peek at your Advanced Chemistry notes. I wasn’t able to get everything down during class,” she said.
Konan nodded quickly, and shot the old man a curious look.
Right. Uchiha-san. “I’m very sorry, Uchiha-san. Duty calls; if I don’t chaperone, I feel like this will get unmanageable,” she said, putting on her most apologetic expression. Actually, she was secretly relieved (for once) to be accosted by her stalker—er, roommate. She wasn’t sure her temper could hold out against the man’s stubborn persistence much longer.
Five feet away, the blue-haired woman was grinning almost sweetly. “Oh it will,” she promised, her tone somehow managing extra sugar and mushroom-cloud doom at the same time.
Unimpressed, the old man leaned back in his seat. “Go, then.” And like before, he nodded once to her, in a strange display of respect, and then pointedly ignored her. Bizarre. And irritating.
Once again refraining from rolling her eyes, Sakura got up from the table, and offered Konan a smile. “Just let me put up my apron and get my purse. Then we can go.”
“Sweet! This is gonna be so cool,” Konan gushed in response.
In the words of Shikamaru, ‘this is gonna be so troublesome’, Sakura thought, and went to gather her stuff.
Honestly, Kami hadn’t planned on accompanying Isao out for ‘supplies’, but when he learned that the younger male was intending on going for building supplies, his whole tune changed. He needed to look into a few shops. So it was ultimately he who decided to go to the new shop just down the road from his apartment complex.
Mostly because he’d heard their metal working was decent and durable, and he needed a gallows for one of his acts, that wouldn’t break like the wooden ones he’d made kept doing.
Kami peered up at the place as Isao pulled his car into a parking spot, and shut off the engine. “I hear they’re pretty decent,” he said curiously, moving to unbuckle. “So maybe you can get the help you need.”
Humming as he glanced at the shop’s sign, ‘Shiranui’s Workshop,’ Isao shrugged. “Can’t hurt to shop around a little. I don’t need a lot either.” He popped the buckle and stepped out. Sounds of a saw drifted through the walls. “They are definitely active.”
His companion hummed noncommittally as they approached the door marked ‘For Commissioners’. There was nothing that said to knock first so he opened it, and immediately side-stepped as someone stumbled past him.
“You fucking asshole, I told you it wasn’t—oh, hello, un, welcome to the Workshop!” The blond instantly did a personality three sixty and straightened, giving them a bright smile.
Another boy, dark hair, pale green eyes, bulky physique, peeked through the door but said nothing. He seemed to have a perpetual scowl etched into his face.
“Uh, hi,” Isao said, stepping forward when Kami didn’t immediately respond. “I’m shopping for some framework done in spruce or pine. Maybe a metal of some sort if I can budget it in. It’s not too big or complicated. Only thing is, I need it in a week.”
At this, the scowling boy stepped back. “Come inside. Make yourselves comfortable, and I’ll go over details with you. Idiot, go get Genma or Kyuubi.”
The blond made a face. “Don’t fuckin’ call me that, un!” he growled, but stalked past the bigger male and off further into the building.
Kami tilted his head, but preceded Isao inside, glancing around curiously. It was a small room with a vending machine in the corner, a sofa against the wall with a sturdy coffee table in front of it, and a few folding chairs scattered around. Most of the last were folded up and tucked into a corner. There was a door in another corner, that likely lead into the main body of the workshop.
Humming softly, the puppeteer walked over to the couch and did as he’d been invited to do. “I also have something to discuss with you, but my companion will do his business first.”
“Fine,” the man said. “I’m Chuushin Kakuzu. The blond you met was Toji Deidara.”
Isao nodded as he sank down next to Kami, though he sat forward rather than relaxing back. “Hakumoto Isao,” he said, with a small smile, and then motioned to Kami. “This is Kami.”
They both watched Chuushin, waiting for a reaction.
Instead, Chuushin pulled a folding chair over, and sat. “So what exactly is it you’re looking for? Details. As for the time frame, we can meet it, for a small extra fee.”
Kami smiled faintly—no reaction to his nickname? How curious!
Beside him, Isao glanced back with an upraised brow and they shared a moment of amusement. Then he turned back to the business. “I’m building a set for a stage, twenty-six feet by sixteen. Mostly mock houses. What I need here is a structure that can support the weight of eight hundred pounds.” He glanced over to Kami. “There are only four people going up that tower, right?”
That matched his information, so he nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“You said spruce, pine or metal? What kind of metal are you thinking, if we go that direction? And what does your budget allow?” Chuushin demanded, brow arching.
In answer, Isao pulled out his blueprints and spread it over the table between them. Rattling off numbers and amounts, the two men quickly became immersed in their discussion. While Isao was concentrating more on quality and simplicity, the shop worker was pointing out safety hazards and longevity.
“I don’t need this to last longer than a year,” Isao countered, his voice was firm, but Kami could already tell by the frown that he was considering it. A specific piece could only be used twice, maybe three times. But a basic structure like what Isao was angling for could be used for a number of things, and re-surfaced even more.
Chuushin shrugged and opened his mouth to make another point, when the door in the corner opened. “Hey, fucker, where’d you put the torch—holy shit, it’s the queer!”
Kami’s head snapped up, and his eyes narrowed at the albino who had stepped into the room. He turned his gaze onto Isao, then back to the other male. “And who are you?” he asked, tone bland.
“Hidan, you his boyfriend or somethin’?” the other man shot back.
Not yet, Kami thought, and offered ‘Hidan’ an empty smile.
There was a choked laugh from Isao as his brain apparently stuttered to life. Only, it was a surprised sound rather than a pained one. “I had no idea you worked here!” Isao greeted the newcomer warmly. “Thought you… Wait…” Pause. “You’re the Kakuzu I’ve been hearing about?!”
Chuushin blinked slowly at him, and twisted in his seat to frown at Hidan. “What the fuck have you been telling people?”
“Only that you’re a fuckin’ hardass,” Hidan retorted.
Apparently that was good enough, because the green-eyed male huffed and straightened again. “I gave it to Kisame.”
“Sweet. But I’m takin’ a fucking break. So what are you guys up to? Seriously.”
Kami tilted his head. “I do not believe you are capable of seriousness,” he said thoughtfully.
“The fuck do you know?” Hidan dragged a chair over and plopped down next to Kakuzu. “What’re you here for, Isao?”
Isao’s grin was gleeful. “Wood,” he replied instantly. “Though, your friend is trying to convince me metal would be the better option. Strength, durability, and all just to stay tall and upright.” He shrugged. “Though,” and he grimaced, “Chuushin is actually doing a good job of convincing me.”
“What’d I fucking tell you?” the albino laughed. It kind of grated on Kami’s nerves, actually.
“What did you fucking tell him?” Chuushin growled.
“Oh, a lot.”
Kami hoped he hit the other male. He was seriously hoping, but considering they were best friends, it wasn’t likely to—
Beside him, Isao leaned over to look at the albino who was now sitting on the floor holding his head. “Anyway, Hidan, this is my friend Kami. Kami, this is—well, I met Hidan at a bar when I met with Tenten-chan. Don’t ever play pool with him.” Isao straightened up and glanced at Chuushin. “Either of them.”
Chuushin gave them both a perfectly neutral smile, but Kami felt like the prey being stalked by the predator. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and he didn’t usually scare easy. “Ah, Tenten-san… the Highschool student? I have not made her acquaintance yet, if you recall.”
Hidan peeked over the table, gaze locked on Chuushin, but the bigger male’s expression was unreadable, so Kami wasn’t sure what the albino was looking for. “Damn, Kakuzu, get a hold of that fucking temper.”
“You’re supposed to be working. Go earn your fucking keep, asshole,” Chuushin retorted, pointing toward the door in the corner.
Isao blinked at the two shopworkers, and then dawning realization widened his eyes. “Yes, Tenten-chan. She dropped by one of my classes to see if she was interested in Advanced Textiles,” he blurted out. “Nice girl. Very smart. And I think she’s interested in someone—Erp!” He slapped a hand over his mouth.
Kami was curious to note how still Chuushin was, though it was Hidan that spoke up. “Oh yeah? Who?” he asked, grinning and pointing at the back of Chuushin’s head.
Chuushin said nothing, but he was looking at Isao.
Who meeped behind his palm. Large brown eyes swung over to Kami. Help?
Blue brows simply arched in response. Hidan snickered.
Isao looked like someone had told him the Christmas special had been cancelled. It was rather endearing. Slowly letting his hand slide down, the smaller univ student cleared his throat. “First off, I’m claiming a certain amount of amnesty. Just because I’m gay does not mean I know how a girl thinks.” He shifted again as Chuushin’s regard only sharpened. “After Hidan left, Tenten-chan wouldn’t stop talking about you,” Isao said simply and directly at the green-eyed shopworker.
There was a moment of dead silence that followed as Chuushin considered that. Then he grunted. “I believe we were discussing business. Can we continue and stop wasting time.” It wasn’t actually a question.
Hidan laughed. “I’m gonna go back in there. See you queers later!” He waved as he headed for the door.
Kami watched him go, and turned his gaze back to the other two. “Yes. We can continue.” He was eager to get to his own project, actually.
Humming, Isao nodded and tapped a finger on the detailed lines on the paper. “Though, Hidan has that wrong,” he murmured eyes down. “There’s only one gay man in this room…” And then he launched into an interrogation of Chuushin about the merits of aluminum.
The whole time they were talking, Kami was staring at his companion, eyes wide. How does he not know?!
Finally, the two finished up, and that unnerving stare shifted to Kami as Isao went toward the vending machine for a drink. “So, what did you want?”
“Me? I want gallows. For little tiny people. About five of them.”
A/N: Short chapter, yes. There’s a reason for it though!