Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

Rated T: Due to coarse language.

"I will destroy you in the most beautiful way possible. And when I leave you will finally understand, why storms are named after people."

-Caitlyn Siehl

Bouncing her knee lightly as she sits in one of the seats pushed back against the wall and out of the way and, thus, out of sight of the doorway and any distracting sights, Sakura soundlessly exhales a sigh as one of the front office receptionists flawlessly ignores her existence. Three desks are arranged in a tight cluster, shelves of crafts and framed artworks surrounding the cramped office space in a frozen cyclone of vibrant colors. Only one of the desks is currently occupied with a woman steadfastly entering data, her fingertips dancing fluidly over the keyboard, the light cast by the monitor reflecting off her stylish, rectangular frames. Another student, one whom Sakura quickly concludes must be some kind of assistant or office worker, glides in with purpose, a bundle of sealed envelopes tucked up against his chest and a white cardboard box brandished atop his other hand like an offering.

His entrance catches the receptionist's attention whose expression instantly transforms from dour to elated in less time than Sakura can blink. She springs to her feet, arms reaching out for the box as she gushes, "Oh, Komushi, you absolute angel! This is exactly what I need right now."

Curiosity getting the better of her, Sakura surreptitiously peeks out of the corner of her eye to see just what the box contains. However, her forced indifference is unnecessary as the woman's thoughts are far from the young, pink-haired girl slouching in her seat. Without delay, she flips open the lid and Sakura's eyes are attached to the hand that reaches in to pull out…

A doughnut. With white frosting and pink, star-shaped sprinkles.

She mentally slaps her face.

But in the next instant, her mouth is watering at the thought of saccharine bliss in the shape of a round, doughy form, her stomach nudging her with the knowledge that she has yet to have breakfast in order to make her appointment on this blindingly sunny Friday afternoon.

But the receptionist greedily keeps the box and all its sugary treasures within arm's reach, offering none to Sakura or the boy, Komushi, who is busily slotting away the mail in their proper boxes along the back wall.

Sakura works to control the saliva production that has greatly increased in her mouth, swallowing bitterly as she shoots a glare at the oblivious woman. All she had been instructed to do was sign her name and time of arrival on the clipboard resting at the corner of the woman's desk and had then been wordlessly shooed away to sit and wait. Through E-mail, Sakura had made arrangements to meet with the woman whose permission (and signature) was needed to officially add her to the pottery class she desperately wishes to take. The clay bird taking up residence in the outside pocket of her backpack reminds her why.

The only issue is that the class is filled and Sakura is left to languish among the other identities filling up the grimly long waiting list. But, her academic advisor had taken a liking to Sakura and her peculiar interest in the arts after she had been so against the ridiculous requirement the previous semester and had suggested Sakura talk to someone in the art department that might be able to help her out. Unfortunately, her advisor had admitted to not being very familiar with that department and Sakura was left to do all the sleuthing work on her own.

After many frustrating calls and E-mails to track down just who exactly it would be best to set up this meeting with, Sakura had finally stumbled upon the name of the undergraduate program coordinator whose go-ahead was needed on the form her advisor had handed to her if she was to be slipped into the class.

The entire experience had sown a great distaste for the bureaucratic red tape mucking up the academics of such a large institution.

Sakura glances at her phone quickly to check the time. Already, it's ten minutes past her appointed time and still no sign of the woman she's supposed to meet. Her ears are poised intently for any footsteps clacking down the hallway but all is quiet as the first classes of the day have already started and even the last of the half-awake stragglers have made it in or else given up on any idea of tumbling out of bed before noon.

With envy, Sakura recalls Ino's tangled mass of hair as she snored lightly, one arm flung out over the side of the bed and her blankets a twisted restraint around her legs. Her roommate has somehow managed to swing a schedule with no classes on Friday and Ino has been doing her best to make full use of her beauty sleep, followed by a few hours at the gym, some TV, take-out from her favorite restaurant, and then another handful of hours pampering herself to get dolled up for a night of dancing and drinks.

Meanwhile, Sakura has a full day of lectures and recitations to attend, starting at 9:00 a.m. and ending at 4:30, after which she wants nothing more than to pass out on her unmade bed in her grungy jeans and T-shirt with a bag of chips cuddled in her arm for comfort. Instead, she has to come home to the fabulously coiffed and well-rested Ino who insists Sakura cleans herself up and does something about those dreadful bags under her eyes and Eesh! when was the last time she did something about those split ends?

It's enough to give Sakura a headache to deal with her high maintenance best friend on a day-to-day basis, but Fridays are definitely the worst. At least by Saturday Ino will be slightly worn out and placated by all the social activity from the previous night.

Thinking about it now, Sakura has to make a conscious effort to remove her nails from the cloth armrests on either side and she shoots her phone another peek.


Fed up, Sakura clambers to her feet, swinging her backpack over one shoulder as she fights to plaster a polite smile on her face while approaching the receptionist.

"Um, excuse me, but do you think I should make an appointment for another time? See, I'm not sure how long this is going to take and I have a class at 9:00 that's on the other side of campus – "

Sakura is cut off as the woman spins around in her chair, her back to Sakura as she barks, "Komushi! Check on her to see if she remembers she has a student waiting to see her."


The boy, who had been engrossed in a game on his phone, quickly jumps to his feet and marches past Sakura to stop at a door in the back corner of the room that Sakura hadn't even noticed up to this point, obscured as it was by a water dispenser and an odd, floor-standing sculpture made from rusted metal sheets and contorted into a loose resemblance of an open-mouthed, horrified human.

Komushi knocks lightly at the door, and then more vigorously when no answer is heard. Still, no response is made and Sakura can feel a muscle twitch under her eye as irritation creeps in, tightening her hands into fists. Why have all the office workers she's encountered on this little mission been so incompetent? And what of the lady she's supposed to be discussing her class schedule with at this very moment? Is she known for taking naps in her office?

Sakura inwardly rolls her eyes, clamping down on the rising frustration though she can't help but let the little spiteful thought slip through that it's no wonder so many other majors make fun of artists. If this is what their administration is like…

Komushi half turns to give the receptionist a questioning look before rolling his shoulders in a slight shrug and opening the door. From her vantage point, he completely disappears from Sakura's view as soon as he steps into the hidden room. But it is only a moment before a sharp, piercing yelp pricks at Sakura's ears and the boy comes staggering out of the room backward and bumping into a waste basket that spills over, scattering shredded documents and empty take-out containers on the floor. Sakura is at his side in an instant before even realizing she's crossed the room, the receptionist close on her heels as even she is moved to investigate what has the boy looking so traumatized. Together, all three stand to peer into the doorway and Sakura is greeted with the sight of the program coordinator slumped over her desk, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Sakura's jaw goes slack and the temperature in the room feels as though it's just dropped ten degrees. Light-headedness assaults her and she feels dizzy for a moment and –


Horrifyingly, a wicked cackle wheezes from the corpse's mouth and the gray head of hair lifts from the desk to show the twistedly delighted face of an old woman. She winks playfully at the statue-like trio moored in her office doorway, her tongue sticking out in glee at her successful trick.

The receptionist is the first to recover, her shoulders instantly dropping as the tension recedes away. Sighing and with a hand fluttering over her heart, she looks at the woman with equal parts irritation and relief.

"You crazy, old bat! One day it's going to be for real and I'm not going to believe it!" she snips, pushing her glasses back up her nose and retiring to her desk where her box of goodies waits to console her frazzled nerves.

"Yeah! That wasn't very nice!" Komushi pouts, but he smiles as the old woman continues to chuckle before returning to his game – uh – his very important office work.

Which leaves Sakura to shoulder the burden of having all of the old prankster's attention on her. Awkwardly, she lingers in the doorway for a moment, indecisive as to how to proceed after such a bizarre event.

I feel like I just stepped off from a rollercoaster.

With an odd sense of exhaustion in her limbs, she steps further into the room until she reaches its approximate center.

"Hello, my name is Sakura Haruno. We spoke through E-mail the other day about my enrollment in one of the pottery classes," she begins, at last finding her composure.

"Ah, yes, Sakura…Sakura, Sakura," she replies, the wrinkles around her smile lessening just a bit as her eyes take on a more serious edge, "Take a seat, child," she gestures to the comfortable looking chairs lined around the front of her desk.

Inwardly relaxing now that everything seems to be back on track, Sakura steps forward confidently to take the seat directly across from the older woman, her eyes catching sight of the aquarium situated nicely in the windowed alcove behind the desk. Sunlight filters through the glass enclosure, illuminating the scales of the two goldfish languidly circling inside, and reflecting off the colored pebbles layering the bottom of the tank.

"So, you've come to get my permission to be admitted into one of the introductory ceramics classes, hm? You want to have clay caked in your nail beds and see your first production fail in the firing process, leaving you with a lot of wasted time and a warped lump of nothing?"

"W-Well," Sakura flounders for words, caught off guard by the woman's sudden negativity.

The old woman eyes her critically, unimpressed with Sakura's response.

"Tell me a little about yourself, Sakura. For starters, what year are you?" she rests her forearms atop the desk's surface, one atop the other.

Sakura swallows to clear her throat, "Well, Ms. – "

"Chiyo is fine, dear," she cuts in, waving away the formalities. She's long past the age of caring about such things like polite recognition.

"Chiyo," Sakura repeats carefully, testing out the name, "I'm a freshman, majoring in chemistry and I hope to go to med school," Sakura forces herself to sit up straight while also appearing calm and at ease. It's a difficult feat; the woman before her is so frail and old, yet somehow exudes such command and power.

She has to be past retirement age. Just how old is she?

Chiyo hums in thought, the sound emanating from deep within her throat. Surprising Sakura, she stands to fetch a small watering can from the top shelf of a bookcase, and Sakura watches as she makes her rounds to each of the potted plants adorning her private office, a surprising number of them.

"A doctor-to-be, hm? And yet you're so determined to take an art class that you want me to sign off on your enrollment in a class that's already filled to capacity, pushing you up through the list of all the other students in line for a potential seat opening?"

Sakura purses her lips, steeling her nerves to make eye contact with the old woman as she turns away from a plant hanger holding up two lush, potted ferns.

"I really would like to take the class," she affirms, giving a slight nod.

"Well, indulge my curiosity and answer me this: What got you so interested in art? In clay?" she asks, raising a nearly nonexistent eyebrow in question along with a great many wrinkles in her forehead.


She really hadn't thought she'd be questioned on the matter. At best (and what she expected), Sakura thought that by making this meeting and showing up, her enthusiasm and can-do personality would persuade the woman in her favor. At worst, she'd simply be told there was no way to fit her in the class, but that she could possibly find an opening in some of the other beginner classes being offered. Certainly, she couldn't just say she'd been influenced by a charming, rather handsome, art student whose affinity just so happened to be clay.

And explosions. Can't forget the explosions.

She'd look like a complete boy crazy airhead in front of this woman who clearly already seems to assume Sakura is way out of her element.

Hhmmm, how to word this?

"Well, I took a painting class last semester and it actually ended up being a better experience than I thought it'd be…"

Good start, Sakura, keep it going! Hit it home!

"And, I've seen some of the work done by other students in the art department, some that are obviously a lot more advanced than me. There was a student who made clay sculptures of animals that I really liked."

Of course, only Sakura knows that she means she really liked the boy, not the sculptures, but that is the beauty of word manipulation.

"Well, Sakura, even if I could place you in the class, you need to be aware of the time commitment ceramics takes, and you being a non-art major, could be put at a slight disadvantage. You have less time, fewer connections to students and faculty who can guide you with your projects, and I'm not sure even you know just how much you're willing to invest in improving your craft," she pauses, reaching for a mug of tea next to her desktop computer. Unconsciously, Sakura's eyes track the movement of her hand, her eyes landing on an image framed beside the computer. Its angle affords little clarity as the sun reflects off the protective glass face, but Sakura leans forward just the slightest bit to catch a better glimpse. Something to do with the color pricks at the back of her mind…

"I used to teach a lot of the introductory classes back when I first started at this school, and I can tell you there's a great discrepancy between the workloads of certain classes. It's simply inherent in the different art forms. I don't mean to discourage you from art, but I think it best you consider a different class. I already reviewed your current class schedule and you've proven to be quite ambitious this semester with your courses," she regards Sakura carefully over the rim of her mug, a light tendril of steam curling up between them. Sakura looks down bashfully, murmuring a "Yeah," already knowing this meeting is close to an unfruitful conclusion.

Chiyo is adamant that Sakura should forego the ceramics class for this semester, and believes the girl is under false assumptions that it'll merely be a fun class to goof around in and make some homemade gifts for parents and friends, when in actuality she knows the instructor for the course is a stickler for technique and has little leniency for students not seriously interested in the arts. Though it isn't what Sakura wants to hear, Chiyo has been in this positon a long time and knows just how much stress even the best students can endure before they crack from exhaustion.

Still, Sakura does look rather disappointed about the missed opportunity…Perhaps, there is something else she can suggest…

Chiyo's arm reaches out again to set her mug down, temporarily blocking Sakura's view of the framed photo. As soon as she draws her arm back, Sakura discreetly rises from her seat the tiniest bit, under the guise that she's merely reaching down for the backpack she placed on the floor against the front of Chiyo's desk. It's then that she manages a quick glimpse of the person staring back at the world from a still snapshot in time.

No way.

Sakura's eyes widen at the very idea of it. Could this woman…and that guy…Could they be related?

All in all, Sakura is reminded of just how small the world can be at times.

Clearing her throat, determined to answer this newfound conundrum now that it seems like her plans of bumping into Deidara again have been dashed to pieces, Sakura points a finger in the direction of the photo and states bluntly without a second thought, "I think I recognize that person."

Chiyo's inner dilemma is stopped in its tracks as she glances first in the direction of Sakura's finger and then back to the vibrantly colored girl in front of her.

"Oh?" she cocks her head to the side, a sly, worrisome (for Sakura) smile sliding across her face as she plucks the picture up and spins it around to face Sakura.

"So you've caught the resemblance between me and my darling grandson, Sasori, have you?" she holds the photo up to her face for comparison, something wickedly teasing mingling in her voice.

Grandson? You've got to be kidding me? Not him again.

Sakura inwardly groans. Sasori is definitely not the artist she's trying to make contact with. She should've kept her big mouth shut. Who is she – Ino?

And she doesn't like the scheming look in the old woman's eyes as she swivels side to side ever so slightly in her wheeled office chair, clearly pondering something Sakura knows she's better off not hearing. No, she'd best stand up right away and make her departure before she's stuck here. She has her answer, it's not what she wanted, but it's time to go. Now.

But before she can even muster up some quick words of farewell and thanks for nothing, Chiyo zeros in on the girl caught in the act of just rising from her seat and her look clearly orders the girl to sit back down.

"Tell me, Sakura, how have you been acquainted with my grandson?" Chiyo asks, deceptively amiable. It's all a ploy and Sakura knows it. She just can't tell what falling into the trap will do to her.

"Um, well," Sakura hesitates, itching to look at her phone to estimate just how fast she'll have to speed walk to make it on time to her class, "He was a TA in that painting class I took last semester."

"Really now?" Chiyo drums her fingers across the paperwork on her desk, "Sakura, I think I have a proposition for you. I can't get you into the ceramics class you want, but if you're really as interested in art as you seem to be, I think I can offer you a different option that should suit your tastes equally well. As it is, all of the classes that you are eligible to take right now with only a single art class under your belt, are filled up. But," and this is when Sakura notes the warning twinkle in the old bat's eyes, "I can give you permission to have an independent study of sorts."

Sakura perks up at this, daring not to hope.

Well, that's not what I was expecting.

"As it turns out, my grandson is teaching for the first time this semester as a graduate student, no longer an assistant under our more seasoned faculty. I think it would do him some good to have a helping hand from someone who has already gone through the class he has been selected to instruct and it will give you an opportunity to hone your painting skills and demonstrate your leadership ability. So what do you say?" Chiyo leans forward, a smile on her face as she clasps her hands on the desk.

That's what I was expecting.

Inwardly deflating, Sakura fights to smile on the outside, knowing she's come too far to turn back now, made too great a fuss to object to this "generous" offer.

"That sounds," Sakura hesitates for only a second before gritting out the word, "great."

"Wonderful. I'll get the paperwork sent over to your advisor to sign and by Monday morning you should be officially enrolled for an independent study in painting."

With a few final words about online registration and when the class will fit into her schedule, Sakura exits the office hidden within another office on the third floor of the main art building. A contented old lady and an unsmiling photo are left in her wake.

She leaves the main building flabbergasted and a bit dazed. She supposes she should feel relief, maybe even triumph at (kind of) accomplishing the task she had set out to take care of, but too many other pressing thoughts bombard her and push away any positive emotions threatening to well up inside her brain.

This hadn't gone in any way, shape, or form how she thought it would. On light feet she touches down on the cobblestone surrounding the art sector of campus. For now, she has class to attend; thoughts of Sasori will have to wait.

Perhaps the only upside to her independent study is that she already has the materials purchased from the last semester.

Waste not, want not.

With effort, she heaves the straps of her oversized canvas bag up onto her shoulder despite its every struggle to slide down her shoulder and settle around the crease of her elbow to cut off circulation. With her unburdened hand, she yanks impatiently at the scarf coiled around the lower half of her face, weakly protecting her skin from the unforgiving, frosty bite of the wind.

She has had the weekend to mull over her current predicament and has come to the conclusion that she can still make the best of it; she can still perhaps wheedle a way out of the insufferable Sasori as to how to get in touch with Deidara. They are supposedly friends if he went to all the trouble of saving Deidara's self-destructive self from complete failure by getting him a second chance to present his portfolio. Surely that would mean he has Deidara's phone number in his possession?

Sakura purses her lips in thought, her eyes narrowing in concentration with her internal dialogue.

Really though, why am I so hung up on some artsy boy? If he's the type to kiss any girl as soon as he meets her then he's probably too busy sampling the rest of the co-ed population on campus to give any special attention to me…

It's a phenomenon Sakura quickly witnessed firsthand during her first few weeks of college life when the last nights of summer and early days of autumn were still nice enough to host parties on the lawns of the surrounding off-campus student apartments. Guys could go flirt and drift from one girl to five in one night at the same party and there'd be no harm, no foul on his part. No, rather girls would turn on each other, forsaking female friendships and sisterhood for hot-blooded competition of a man who knew the days of formal dating and commitment had largely been overwritten by a new culture of casual hookups. It had made the inner romantic in Sakura shrivel up and cry for the loss of fantastical ideals of true love.

The flat line of Sakura's chapped lips pulls down into a light frown as her legs mount the short flight of stairs to the front doors, heaving them open to the welcome relief of heated air. She has plenty of time to make it to the classroom for her first day as Sasori's assistant/pet project. Already, she feels the uncomfortable jumble of nerves flitter around in her upper stomach, her heartbeat steadily increasing as she glides up the winding front stairwell to what she might just be overdramatizing as a fateful encounter.

Still, why does he keep popping up in my life?

With only Chiyo's vague idea of an independent study to gain more advanced painting skills and lend a hand in managing Sasori's classroom, she really doesn't know what to expect from this little arrangement. Would she be doing the demonstrations for all those watching eyes when she herself had only just taken the course last semester?

She certainly hopes not.

But more pressing is her concern of what Chiyo meant by receiving more practice in honing her skills. Would she be taking time outside of class for Sasori to teach her one-on-one? She certainly can't picture that going in any other direction than absolute disaster. Not if he insists on standing at her back for every brush stroke she makes, every pause she takes in consideration, every flub that's permanently left on paper.

No, it would not be a fun experience, to say the least.

More and more, she feels as though she's made a huge mistake in her fervent insistence to make contact with a boy she met for all of ten minutes.

How pathetic am I?

Now moping over her failure as a mature, independent, college woman, Sakura's feet plod along at a much reduced pace as she drifts by lecture rooms and art labs alike. Students smooth away uneven surfaces and layers of built up ink on their limestone slabs in the lithography lab room, busy hands rotating the levigators to a rhythm in each artist's head. Next she passes a darkened classroom with twenty or so faces illuminated harshly by the bright screens of the monitors as the teacher sits comfortably at the front of the room, a projector screen capturing the movements of her mouse as she clicks away and makes digital magic in the Photoshop program for students to follow along and copy at their seats. It lightens her mood a little to see such a diversity of specialties housed within the many rooms of the building, but nothing can truly push away the dark cloud of anxiety looming over Sakura's head.

At last she faces the open door to a familiar room where she painted flowers and vases and an odd assortment of tarnished instruments, cloths, wooden blocks, and porcelain figurines. The small platform has been left in the center of the room for more still life assemblages to be placed upon it for the incoming classes and Sakura can almost look fondly upon the circle of work benches gathered around it like attentive spectators waiting to be dazzled and amazed so they can clap and smile. As early as she is, there's only three other students who have arrived before her and Sakura is confronted with the first decision she must make:

Where to sit?

To take a bench seat like the students might undermine her authority in the classroom, something that would already be tested as the clear underling to Sasori and a freshman at that. Not to mention, she'd be taking a seat from a student and if Chiyo was being honest, this'll be a full house.

Sakura turns slightly on her heel, eying the teacher's desk with mild trepidation.

Still, I'm not technically in charge here…It'd look a bit weird for me to make myself at home at the teacher's desk.

For an instant she considers fleeing the room and biding her time in the restroom until a minute before class starts; that should give the students and Sasori enough time to arrive and get settled. Then she could just situate herself wherever he informs her to go (hopefully someplace out of the way and inconspicuous).

But in the next instant she mentally swats herself for being so shy and cowardly. Now is not the time to get cold feet; she has a job to do and if nothing else, Sakura Haruno is one who prides herself on getting the job done.

Inhaling a deep breath through her nose, she walks with purpose to the large desk set apart from all the rest to relieve herself of the heavy strain of her bag. With it neatly deposited on the corner, she leans her butt into the edge of the desk, facing the classroom and, immediately, pulls out her phone to busily scroll through old text conversations with a determined interest.

Ok, so she's still just a nervous freshman struggling to pull on her big girl pants.

But for the most part, the other students don't seem to pay her any mind as they slowly wander in. Perhaps they only assume she's another student with a question that needs to be asked immediately; maybe she's on the waitlist. No one knows and no one is particularly bothered by it and thus some of Sakura's tension subsides as she easily blends in without suspicion.

And just as she can almost tell herself that everything is going to be ok, the red-headed terror sweeps into the room in tones of charcoal gray and tan. Sakura instantly stiffens, she may even stop breathing, but worst of all, she clumsily drops her phone with an ear-catching clatter to the tiled floor.

Uggghh. Why?

Immediately, she swoops down to retrieve it, silently thanking her sometimes lucky stars that the screen didn't shatter and everything appears to be in working order without a scratch. She rises back up just as quickly, forcing herself to make eye contact with the art teacher despite her little blunder. Altogether, he looks thoroughly unimpressed with his newly acquired disciple.

"So it's you."

His words are flat and inflectionless, and Sakura nearly bristles at the idea that he could be dreading this partnership with her as much as she's dreading working with him.

The nerve.

Only she has the right to be displeased with this teaming up his grandmother imposed on them; she's the one with grievances against him, not the other way around.

"Yes, Chiyo had the idea for this after I wasn't able to get into the ceramics class I wanted," Sakura shrugs casually, proud of the nonchalance in her voice.

But Sasori's large, sleepy eyes scrunch in distaste as though Sakura has said something offensive.

"Ceramics? Why ever would you be interested in something like that?" he asks languidly, moving out of the doorway to stand with Sakura at the desk as the last of the students pour in to make it to their seats on time. But before Sakura can even respond, Sasori's eyes widen as though a sudden revelation has come over him before he regards Sakura with a more scrutinizing look.

"Anyway," he continues, setting down his armful of supplies on the table and freeing himself of his backpack made of worn, brown leather, "Do you remember the first day of class?"

Sakura nods slowly, confused. This class started last week so it would be their third day of class which, if Sakura recalls correctly, includes a lot of demonstrations and note-taking.

"Good. The printers were out of order last week so you get the job of passing out the syllabus. I'm sure none of these children would bother to ever read it online so you need to hand feed them the information. You can skip the materials list," he explains cynically, selecting a number of paintbrushes from a rubber-banded bundle.

Sakura nods dutifully, biting back the words to rebuke him for looking down on his students so harshly.

Holding her arms out obligingly, he settles the thick stack of papers into her hold and she can almost relax under the warmth they give off.

Hot off the press.

"I'm going to make a short introduction to the class and then you can go over it with them while I set up. Go turn on the overhead projector. I think I'm going to have you record the notes while I dictate," he smirks, making Sakura inwardly snarl at his smugness for passing off the grunt work on her.

He turns away from her, giving Sakura a clean view of his profile as he reaches into his backpack to pull out…that infernal attendance clipboard.

And looped through the clip is a thin piece of string which itself is tied around the end of a pencil. Her pencil.

The one he stole.

"And, Sakura, take attendance while you're at it."

She can't be sure, but there may have been a note of sadistic pleasure in that last command. But Sasori says no more as he turns to address his waiting class. He merely watches from his periphery as his new teaching assistant scurries to positon the projector and jumps a few times until her fingertips manage to snag onto the cord of the rolled up screen.

His grandmother had invited him to lunch yesterday and had been her usual teasing, frustratingly cryptic self, informing him that she had assigned a young undergraduate to him for the purpose of helping out in his classroom in exchange for some one-on-one instruction. Of course, Sasori was too late to voice his objection because the arrangement had already been agreed upon without his consent. So typical of his grandmother.

And of course the old hag had refused to tell him much about the student, no name, no identifying traits. All he got out of her was that it would be a girl and she had some painting experience already.

Why his grandmother had been so adamant on keeping it a surprise he can't say. Not for the first time, he wonders if the classroom is being secretly recorded, Chiyo sitting back comfortably in her office recliner while she watches Sasori's patience wane by the minute. It'd be just like her.

But as Sasori looks out on the mixture of faces before him, reviewing what was touched upon in last week's sessions and explaining some of the upcoming projects, something tickles at the back of his thoughts as he continues to keep a careful eye on the pink-haired girl as she picks up the attendance clipboard, her fingers thoughtfully pulling on the pencil with a light tug to test the strength of the string. He wonders if maybe he can't get some use out of this forced arrangement after all. It might make things interesting at least.

And so, hours after the painting class has come to an end and Sakura returns back to her dorm with Ino from one of the school cafeterias, she opens up her E-mail on her laptop to find a new message waiting for her.

One from her new personal painting instructor informing her of when he'll be free this week to schedule a time for a meet-up to begin her own lessons.

Sakura groans, her forehead falling upon the keyboard with a clatter that makes Ino's head snap up from her position bent over her feet as she paints her toes atop her bed.

"That's not going to make your forehead any smaller, Sakura."

By only her fourth day as Sasori's personal servant, Sakura has come to expect if not anticipate what her Tuesdays and Thursdays will be like from 1:30 to 3:30. As soon as he arrives, which is typically before Sakura unless she's feeling extra petty and wants to beat him to the classroom, Sakura is handed the clipboard and expected to go through roll call first thing. She'd been corrected the first time she tried taking attendance silently, her excellent memory easily matching faces and names. For whatever reason, Sasori had not been pleased with that and made her re-take attendance his way when he noticed Sakura wordlessly ticking off the names.

After that, he may have her pass around hand-outs that detail the weekly projects or he may have her stand up at the projector to write out his mini lectures, oftentimes being momentarily pushed aside as he'd come up to take the Sharpie from her hand and write out a few things himself or re-draw a diagram to his liking. Inwardly, Sakura would stew and stomp Sasori's face into the ground. Outwardly, she would step aside with grace and patiently wait for further direction.

Still, most of the time she'd be left to walk around the classroom as the students work, many of them seeking out her suggestions and answers rather than engage the intimidating teacher in conversation.

Sakura has even become accustomed to the light flirting some of the male students send her way, noticing how some of them will regularly call her over to their work bench to get her opinion on their progress, only to have the conversation drift to less academic topics such as the school's sports teams and what classes she's taking and would she like to come to a party he and some roommates are going to?

It's in just such a situation that Sakura finds herself in now. One of the more senior students who's considerably more vocal and confident in class discussions and critiques asked for her help in getting just the right blend of purple and blue – a quick fix, really – only to sidetrack her with his plans for tomorrow night and if she'd like to go to the school's student lounge and bar with him and some friends just to hang out and watch the hockey game.

Now, Sakura is left grabbing for the suitable combination of words to turn down this offer that will save her face professionally, but still encourage the students to think of her as one of them, someone cool and approachable.

"Um, well, you see, I don't think I – "

"May I remind you that this is a classroom for the cultivation of art and your lacking imagination, not the local dive bar for picking up dates," Sasori all but growls as he stops behind the two caught in their socializing.

Whoa, where did that come from?

"Get back to work, and might I suggest that you tone down the amount of paint you're globbing onto your brush."

But it's not a suggestion.

The student, wide-eyed and flustered, nods quickly but his shaky hand flicks paint splatters onto his half-finished work. Sakura bemoans his misfortune silently on his behalf, knowing he has Sasori's full attention now. Surprisingly, a soft (though still unwelcome) hand gently pushes at Sakura's back to guide her onward and she complies, stepping away to seek out a student with another question, hopefully someone clear on the other side of the classroom. As she moves away, she watches as Sasori slips into the spot she once occupied, bending down to critique the student's painting.

More likely to tear it to pieces. Poor guy.

Still, she can't help but ponder the unusual amount of acerbity in Sasori's actions. Indifference occasionally complimented with a bit of snobbery or snark is part of his normal repertoire, but his behavior just now had been quite unprecedented. In a way, it had almost felt as though he had stepped in to defend her.

Sakura shakes her head at the thought. That definitely couldn't be the case. He merely has that stick up his butt wedged in even further today. That's why he's so cranky and irritable.

She wishes Deidara was around to share that thought with. He'd get a good laugh.

And she's uncomfortable with the fact that there seems to still be a trace of Sasori's ghost-like touch lingering against the small of her back.

Fortunately, the rest of the class time passes without incident and Sakura takes a comfortable seat along the wide ledge cut into the wall, her side leaning against the thick, warped glass of the window to soak in the warmth of the sun while still monitoring the bustle around the classroom with a half-attentive eye. While Sasori chastises his students into picking up properly after themselves this time, Sakura slides out her phone from her pocket to finally get around to replying to Naruto's texts asking for a ramen "dinner date" tonight. Earlier, she was of the mind to firmly reject the offer, knowing she needs to dissuade any lingering remnants of his old high school crush on her and push him in Hinata's direction instead, but she hasn't had the chance to talk to him face-to-face for the last week. And if anyone comes close to matching Ino in chattiness and a love for gossip, it's Naruto.

And Sakura is dying to dish her recent opinions of the permanent thorn in her side. Such conversations can only last so long with her roommate before Ino inevitably manipulates the direction of topic to herself. Her latest obsession is the young professor for her sociology class.

Sakura unknowingly crinkles her nose at the thought.

To crush on a teacher like that…Bleh.


Sakura jerks her gaze away from her perfect view of the campus quad with its melting snow and constantly fluctuating clusters of students moving every which way to class. Her hair whips across her eyes as she turns to address the voice that called to her, but as gravity takes control and settles her pink locks back to their rightful state, she sees it's only Sasori, impeccable, stone-faced, Sasori.

"I need to have a word with you," he says, his eyes flickering to the door where the last of the students are laughing and conversing as they pull on gloves and zip up coats.

"What is it?" Sakura asks politely, moving to uncross her stretched out legs and stand up so she isn't at such a vertical disadvantage with her superior. However, as she swings her legs down from the window ledge, she finds Sasori's close proximity a bit awkward and instantly wishes she had just stayed put.

"You need to be aware of how you're perceived in the classroom and how to handle yourself when the students forget themselves and act unprofessionally toward you."

"Oh," Sakura blushes, embarrassed, "About that," she waves her hand in the direction of where the boy from earlier had been seated, "It was harmless, but I was about to take care of it when you stepped it."

She doesn't mean for it to sound accusatory, but she can tell that's how Sasori perceives it.

"You'll do well to remember that in this classroom, for these three hours, you are not a student. You are not one of them."

So what does that make me then? One of you?

But of course Sakura doesn't voice such thoughts.

Sasori continues, "You need to conduct yourself accordingly. I realize you're young, as young as most of the students in the class if not younger, so don't downplay your authority over them by acting like you're someone to pal around with."

Ok, grandpa…

With effort, Sakura unclenches her jaw, "Look, I know I might act a bit too friendly with them, but I'm just trying to create a comfortable environment. I mean, most of these kids aren't going to go on to be great artists, and I want them to get the most out of this class that they can," Sakura takes a breath, trying to muster even an ounce of softness into her tone as she beseeches this cold man to understand, "I just don't think it's the worst thing ever to take an interest in each of the students as individuals; it creates trust and more open conversation for things like – "

"Things like dates? Going out for drinks later?" Sasori scoffs, raising a single, infuriatingly dubious eyebrow at the open-mouthed girl standing stock-still before him.

"That is not what I meant!" Sakura denies, her eyes rolling away as a hand reaches up to clasp at her hair, completely at a loss as to how she came to be trapped in such an asinine argument.

This asshole is getting on my last nerve.

Sasori tilts his head to the side, regarding Sakura with a blank-faced expression that incenses her even more as she's struggling to not lash out like a huffing, puffing, fire-breathing dragon to rip him a new one.

"You're an attractive girl, Sakura," he deadpans, as easily and airily as pointing out the window to make an observation on how blue the sky is.

Sakura's eyes widen, her neck pulling back as she splutters, "I – What?"

His eyelids lower, as though he's grown tired and bored of a dull conversation or he's too busy to explain it in much simpler terms for such a dimwit.

"You're attractive and it's a distraction to some of the students."

His bluntness makes her see red. Not to mention the new level of ridiculous he's reached.

"Excuse me?" Sakura crosses her arms, green embers spitting in her eyes, "I think you're crossing a line here," she warns.

"Don't be a stupid brat," he replies irritably, "I'm merely pointing it out so you can adjust your interactions with the students accordingly."

Sakura is flabbergasted, too many conflicting emotions and thoughts vying for dominance so that she's rendered speechless. Torn between wanting to sock him in the face or just walking away and letting it go, a single thought plagues her:

Is that why you're such an ice queen with all the students? Because you know they think you're young and handsome?


And he called her a stupid brat.

"Well, if that's all, then I think I'm going home," Sakura turns for the door, not making more than two strides before Sasori interrupts her haughty exit.

"I don't think so. That'd be a waste of my time. You scheduled me for your private instruction today. Don't you remember?"

Well, yes, she did. But she forgot.

Sakura's feet stop, clearly caught between turning back with her tail between her legs or blowing the meeting off and jeopardizing the completion of her extra art credits.

Though she can't see it as she stoutly refuses to face him, Sasori's eyes gleam with triumph. He's won.

"We're already ten minutes behind schedule and I hate being late," Sasori continues, brushing past Sakura's shoulder as he leads the way out the door, flicking off the lights.

That's your own fault Sakura grumbles to herself.

"We're not staying here?" Sakura asks, already picking up pace to cross the deserted classroom.

"I wouldn't have bothered turning off the lights if we were," he answers, purposely not telling her what she wants to know.

Instead, he leads her to an unknown destination as they silently walk through empty hallways to one of the back stairwells where Sasori starts the winding ascent without a glance back to ensure Sakura has kept up. Why they don't bother to take the elevator they just passed, Sakura can't fathom, but on second thought she believes it might be a blessing in disguise to not be trapped in such a small, rickety enclosure with the ill-tempered art teacher.

Up and up they climb until they reach the landing to the fourth floor where Sakura has never had need to visit before. Despite the heated conversation they just had two floors below, he holds the door open for her, letting Sakura pass through first before taking up the lead once again.

Sakura's impression of this floor is a bit underwhelmed. It's much more bland than those below it with white-washed walls, a distinct lack of posters announcing special events on campus or promotions for school clubs, and most of the doors are closed, giving off an impression of being dark, locked away spaces not meant for students to go snooping in.

But further down the long stretch of corridor with its blank walls and unfinished flooring is an open rectangle of light, with a variety of voices spilling out into the hall.

"This is where my office is along with many of the other grad students teaching in this building. Watch your step when you enter," he cautions her as they near the doorway.

"So this floor is for all the professors too?" Sakura questions, just for the sake of conversation. She wants to put their little argument far behind her where she'll never have to cringe in discomfort at the weird memory.

"Most of them. Some, like the woman you had for your painting class, have offices in the other two buildings."

"You don't even remember her name?" Sakura asks critically, shooting Sasori a sideways look caught between skepticism and offense.

"I only bother with the names of people who matter."

Ugh. This guy.

She can't tell if his ego is to blame or if he severely lacks decent people skills.

But her attention is quickly pulled to the noise and activity before her as she steps into the complexity of the grad student quarters. Immediately, she takes heed of Sasori's warning to watch her feet as she carefully chooses a path following him between the spilled paint splatters (some globby and still wet) and tangled mass of cords connecting all manner of equipment from fans to computers to lighting equipment. Stacks that are near the size of small hills are piled just about anywhere and everywhere and roughly organized by material from paper, to plastic, to cardboard. Trashcans are full and a sad-looking broom has fallen over next to one with too much work for it to cope with.

A rapid-fire succession of digital clicks sends Sakura's head spinning as she searches for the source of the sound, her eyes taking a moment to pick out the people tucked away in one of the corners by the far wall with its nearly floor-length windows. Through the obstructing wires hanging from the pipes running along the ceiling, are glass ornaments of every color of the rainbow, raining down upon a young woman positioned in front of a drop cloth and wearing an outfit made of large, feathery plumes. Her face is painted with stripes of neon pink, small, colored rhinestones adhered to her skin as she glares back at the lens of the camera.

What in the world? Artists are soooo weird.

But the spectacle doesn't slow down Sasori as he expertly weaves his way to the right and away from the open mess of artistic excess. Sakura quickly scurries after him, noticing that the rest of the space appears to be sectioned off into a labyrinthine office space for each of the grad students, though they're unlike conventional offices and Sakura notices that nearly all of them are in various stages of disarray…some appearing to be nothing more than a chaotic dumping ground of supplies and half-finished experiments. Briefly passing by the first few open offices is one such room that Sakura at first mistakes as empty of any human occupant. But no, hidden away (if not mired) among hundreds if not thousands of random cardboard cut-out shapes that litter the floor at least a foot deep is a man wearing thick, red-framed glasses. Crouching down, he searches with one hand through the pile of endless shapes, apparently on a quest for the one, while the other hand remains at the ready, a can of gold spray paint clenched between determined fingers.

Most of the offices are vacant of their residents though the next one Sakura passes by (now walking at a more sedate pace to take the sights in, Sasori be damned) has a pretty, blue-haired woman sitting at a desk in the middle of her allowed space. Classical music blasts from the speakers atop the pristine surface of her glass desk and she seems to be intently studying whatever is displayed on her laptop screen. Other than that, the only thing occupying the woman's office is paper. Lots of paper. Everywhere.

Sakura takes in the intricate shapes and designs of the multi-colored sheets, picking out the forms of flowers and birds, and then even more complicated, buildings and statue-like replicas.


As Sakura walks past, the powerful, crashing melodies of Mozart's genius follow her, along with the heavy, nostril-stinging scent of too many aerosols. Despite the large air vents of the building's ventilation system, she can still imagine scans of all the art students' brains revealing massive holes from all the time spent in an enclosed room, smothered in chemical vapors. She's passed more than one student roaming the hallways looking more than a little out of it, and now she wonders if it wasn't to blame on the more conventional type of drugs college students tend to get their hands on.

Toward the back of the room, Sakura follows after Sasori as he makes a right and follows a line of partition boards used to create a wall of sorts to further insulate and distance Sasori from the rest of his fellow grad students. In the very back corner, completely opposite from where Sakura witnessed the public photo shoot taking place, is where Sasori has holed himself up and Sakura is mildly relieved that his space seems to be in much better order than the others.

In fact, she could almost go a step further and say he seems to be particularly neat…like, almost obsessively so.

A long work table takes up the middle of the room with shelving in the middle holding the many instruments of his practice. Sakura has almost forgotten what Deidara had told her about his friend: Sasori is a master wood sculptor, not just a painter. And looking around at the many objects of his craft, some in the open, some behind glass display cases for protection, she comes to appreciate his skill even if she can't stomach his oftentimes wretched personality. As she inspects what appears to be an unfinished project of a snake coiled tightly around a skull, she is tempted to run a finger over the soft, smooth dome of the fake bone. Even without any kind of varnish it already looks satiny smooth without even the chance of catching sensitive fingertips on a splinter.

Still, she clamps down on the urge to touch like a child in a museum and glances over at Sasori who is rummaging for something in one of the larger cabinets he has procured for his office. Sakura takes her time, walking around to meet him, glancing in at the doll-sized wooden people preserved within a glass box. Leaning forward, her eyes taking in the subtle touches of paint used to highlight the natural richness of the wood's variation in tone, she notices the strings attached to one of the people.

A puppet?!

Wonderingly, she looks back up at Sasori who is depositing an armful of paints on the work table along with a small easel.

"This is incredible, Sasori," she compliments sincerely, glancing back at the marionette.

He doesn't thank her, but a small smile graces his lips as he sweeps a few curls of stray wood shavings into his hand before watching them fall into the trash can.

"Do you," Sakura pauses, unsure if it's a stupid question or not, but deciding to hell with it, "Do you know how to use it?"

Something flashes in Sasori's eyes, a knowing sort of look, and the corner of his mouth hitches up just the slightest bit as he joins Sakura in front of the glass case with its three miniature people trapped inside. He reaches out and Sakura scoots back and out of the way as he opens the glass door and lifts the control bar from the stand inside.

Freeing the middle puppet from its box, Sakura notices he's selected the girl, the wooden skirt managing to disillusion Sakura's eyes into seeing true, flowing folds of fabric swirled around her feet. The puppet isn't very large, only a little more so than the average Barbie doll and Sakura marvels at the details in her facial structure and the joints of her sleeveless arms.

Amazing. Deidara was right.

But the real magic as Sakura will find, is in the subtle movements of Sasori's fingers as he lowers his hand so the strings stretch out to their full length and the little puppet's feet just barely graze the ground.

Sasori's fingers twitch, sending the puppet into a shallow curtsy, her head bent down in Sakura's presence before off she goes, twirling and dipping to a dance without music though Sakura swears she can almost pick up on the song that must be lilting through Sasori's head; the movements surely correspond to some sort of well-known melody.

It doesn't last long, Sasori merely graces her question with a small sample of his talents, but Sakura is nonetheless left thoroughly impressed, knowing he's holding back some of the tricks he still has up his sleeve. She claps lightly, a genuine smile on her face and Sasori reciprocates the gesture with an elegant bow of the puppet before lifting her back up and into his hold.

"How long have you been doing this?" Sakura asks, a trace of awe still evident in her voice.

Sasori shrugs as he closes the door on his creations once more, "Since I was a little kid. My grandmother got me started on it."

"I always wished my parents had gotten me started in something like that while I was young. Ballet, painting, music…something like that," Sakura finishes slowly, noting the odd, closed-off look marring Sasori's face all of a sudden.

"We should get started," Sasori replies, inclining his head toward the supplies he's set out.

Sakura doesn't object and the two situate themselves on the high stools Sasori drags over to the table. Sharing a canvas, Sasori has her copy some of the advanced brush stroke techniques he has in mind to teach her, ones that vary in both the actual mark making as well as the blend of colors he uses.

And once more, Sakura finds him rather gentle in his instruction of her compared to the other students. He isn't biting or critical in the face of her mistakes, though at times he is rather subdued and lacking in commentary which can be equally distressing. Still, despite their argument over differing opinions of classroom etiquette, Sakura's first lesson comes to an end happily and painlessly enough with Sasori walking her out of the art building and into the drifting herds of students on their way to dinner or back to their dorms as classes come to an end for the day. They part ways amicably enough and Sakura is left to roll her eyes over the whole day's turn of events as she makes her way to meet up with Naruto.

That idiot better be buying.

It's not for two more weeks filled with the first round of exams in her chemistry and math courses, a group presentation in her writing class, the usual headache of being a teaching assistant, and the surprising companionship that forms between her and Sasori during her painting lessons, that something surprisingly welcome enters Sakura's life.

On a Tuesday afternoon, about ten minutes until 2:00, Sakura is in the midst of smearing away the ink on the transparency sheets with the spray bottle and an old rag, today's mini lecture having wrapped up and the students dutifully working on the latest still life Sasori has arranged for them. At first she barely registers a presence standing off to the side, surveying the class, but she's hard pressed to get a particularly heavy-inked spot completely clean so she doesn't pay much mind. It's not until a voice she hasn't heard in a month pipes up with a smile evident in his tone, "I thought I heard you were teaching art, not custodial duties, yeah."

Sakura's head snaps up, about to rebuke the impertinent little punk making fun of her, but she drops the rag on the projector, her face lighting up in a brilliant smile.

"Deidara! No way! How've you been?" Sakura can barely contain her delight, the rest of the classroom instantly evaporating away as the one person she thought she'd never get the chance to see again suddenly walks back into her life.

Deidara grins, sliding his hands into the front pockets of his faded jeans, "Well, no complaints. My portfolio review went over pretty well, if you were curious?" he casts a glance at Sakura that conveys his sarcasm and distaste for the whole ridiculous affair, and she nods, "Now I get to look forward to adding a few new pieces and go through it all again at the end of next year. With any luck, they'll let me graduate. So how's this been working out for you?" he nods toward the circle of students in varying stages of progress.

"No complaints," she mimics with a small grin, "I tried to get into the ceramics class, but no such luck as you can see," she informs him good-naturedly, turning to take in the classroom scene with something akin to the pride a shepherd would feel while looking over her flock. It's funny how she's formed an attachment to this class.

"That's a shame, yeah. If there's any fun to be had, it's in clay. I'll have to have a talk with old Gram Gram about steering away potential students from the truly inspirational classes."

"Gram Gram?" Sakura repeats with a mixture of confusion and amusement.

"Ah," he looks sheepishly at her, "I meant Sasori's grandmother, yeah. Chiyo."

Sakura giggles into the back of her hand, trying to school her expression into one of diligent watchfulness as a few curious students look up to check out the stranger talking to her.

"So you know her well, I take it?"

"Oh yeah," Deidara replies, "I've known Sasori for a long time, met him back in high school. He was the only other kid with any talent and I was the only one willing to socialize with him so I guess you could say that's how we became friends. And then of course I got to know Chiyo well once I applied for art school here. She's a hoot, yeah. She's the one that told me to go to college."

"She pretended to be dead when I first met her," Sakura deadpans, fighting back the smile twitching at her lips.

Her effort isn't wasted as Deidara sputters, his hands sliding out of his pockets as he clutches at his ribcage, laughing.

"She got you too, huh?" he rubs at his eye with a knuckle, his cheeks flushed from laughing and what Sakura imagines must be a vast repository of memories supplied by the old woman's antics.

Sakura shakes her head, smiling, "Yeah, the receptionist wasn't too impressed though. She went right back to – "

"Eating her doughnuts, yeah" Deidara supplies with a knowing look, regaining his breath. At Sakura's look of surprise he nods, "Yeah, that woman isn't fazed by much and hardly anything gets her out of her seat except doughnuts…And funny cat videos, yeah" he supplies thoughtfully, a concentrated expression narrowing his visible eye.

Sakura wants so badly to run her hand through his fringe of bangs. For a boy, he has surprisingly meticulous grooming habits if his blond mane is anything to go by. But her less than professional thoughts are interrupted by a clearly fake clearing of the throat, and Sakura and Deidara turn their heads in unison to the less than pleased Sasori standing on the other side of Sakura.

Vaguely, Sakura is aware of more than half the students keeping an entertained eye on the trio at the front of the room while doing their best to feign busyness.

"Deidara, I'd appreciate it if you didn't stop by whenever you feel like it to interrupt my class," Sasori says, his tone short and clipped.

"Oh save it, yeah, I'm just here to bug Sakura," he winks at the pink-haired girl.

You can bug me any day, blondie.

"She is not free to be bugged," Sasori replies tightly, but his fellow artist expertly ignores the venom-spiked comment, throwing a friendly arm around Sakura's shoulders as he gives his friend a lazy smile.

"Oh c'mon, Sasori, my man" Deidara's lackadaisical attitude grates on Sasori's drained patience, "You seem to have the class under control; they're all busily working on that, uh, set-up, yeah," he flutters his hand around Sakura at the arrangement on the central stage, "How much work is left for your assistant to do, yeah?"

Uh oh.

"Sakura," her name is pronounced in a dangerously, deceptively calm tone, "Monitor the students, I need to have a word with you," his now not-so-sleepy eyes shoot darts into his friend, "Out in the hall."

With that, the red-head is already striding out of the classroom, fully expecting Deidara to comply. And he does, though not without a comically childish pout at Sakura who disengages herself from his embrace in a wordless gesture for him to not make matters worse for himself. With exaggerated slowness, he exits the classroom, fully aware that he's bringing his friend to a quick boil as he continues to wait for him.

Sakura, as well as the rest of the eavesdropping class, are sorely disappointed as whatever is exchanged just outside the classroom is done in hushed tones too low to discern and so the conversation is left a mystery. Sakura is forced to clamp down on the swell of disappointment in her chest as Sasori enters the classroom once more without the blond in tow.

However, she is surprised when Sasori catches her eye, motioning her over a short distance from the rest of the class.

"I couldn't get him to leave unless I agreed to give you this," he sighs, clearly irritated at the burden placed upon him as he holds out a small, folded piece of paper pinched between his thumb and index finger.

Perplexed, Sakura gingerly accepts the paper and before she can open it to read its contents, Sasori treats her with a resentful look and a wary offer of advice.

"While I know I'm wasting my breath, I suggest you not get too tangled up with Deidara. He has a habit of leaving everything he touches in flames."

And with that pearl of unwanted wisdom dropped on Sakura's head, he stalks off to harass his students into getting back on task.

Still a bit shell-shocked, Sakura slowly unfolds the paper, her eyes taking a moment to focus on what little writing is addressed to her. But eventually, Sakura's brain processes the string of numbers for what it is: Deidara's encouragement for Sakura to get in touch with him. A smiley face is attached to the end of the phone number.

Wordlessly, Sakura re-folds the paper and tucks it with care into her back pocket, ensuring it won't fall out. For the rest of the class period she floats around the circle of students, her feet seemingly never touching the ground.

Sasori watches her reaction with disapproval, his mood darkening as Sakura's expression turns to one of doe-eyed dreaminess.

He wants to tell her to not be such a fool, to not be a naïve little girl and moon over some artsy brat whose hobbies include watching anything he can strike a match to go up in smoke and flames and proclaim himself a visionary. But he knows that look on her face, has seen that expression too many times on many of the other students' faces, and he knows this will be a valuable learning experience for the girl.

Still, he wishes he could put a stop to it. At least, a part of him does. Another part, though notably quieter, tells him there is fun to be had in this.

People walk in and out of his life, most just blurred faces of little consequence, but occasionally someone interesting catches his eye. Sakura just so happens to fall in the smaller, latter category.

And tonight would be the first time Sakura texts Deidara.

Tonight would be the start of a beautifully chaotic disaster.

By the seventh week of the semester, Deidara has made himself a permanent fixture in Sasori's classroom – a very unwanted fixture upon whose ears Sasori's insults and complaints fall away like water on glass.

Of course, Sakura finds his presence a welcome addition and to her amusement, he actually takes an interest in the students, offering his praise where deserved and his advice where needed, though the amount of either is greatly overshadowed by his commentary on art and what defines it. Even Sakura finds it a bit much at times though Sasori never seems to tire of engaging him in verbal combat over their differing opinions. When such artistic debates arise, the class and Sakura have now become quite accustomed to tuning out their gradually escalating tirades and carrying on the day's work as usual. An increased number of students have taken to wearing headphones while they paint, much to Sakura's sympathetic understanding. She wishes she could do the same, but whenever Sasori eventually winds down and grows too frustrated to feed into Deidara's constant egging on, she's the first thing he directs his attention to, usually in the form of barking at her to fetch this or that, or go clean the paint brushes from his demonstration, or log these grades on the online gradebook.

But it's not all bad. She can tell that despite the show they put on, the two artists do respect one another to a certain degree, and there is an underlying comradery beneath the layers of snarky barbs and taunting laughter.

Plus, Deidara dotes on her with his attention. It's a welcome change for Sakura who spent much of her childhood and early teenage years chasing after the boy of her heart's desire. She likes the easy conversation and jokes that flow between them, the behind the hand teasing they make at Sasori's expense (knowing full-well he knows what they're doing and can probably hear them), and the way he smiles so openly at her, as though she's someone truly enjoyable to be around.

It's a nice feeling to say the least.

However, despite Sasori's grudging, not-quite-fully-accepting acceptance of Deidara's presence in the classroom, one thing he will not budge his stance on is Deidara joining them for their private painting sessions. Partly, Sakura agrees that it's for the best; she'd probably get little accomplished between Sasori and Deidara bickering and her desire to be Deidara's personal, adoring audience of one. However, a much stronger part of her childishly sticks her tongue out at Sasori's killjoy ways.

Today, Deidara's playful insistence on following them to the grad student offices goes as far as the doorway at which point Sasori slams the door in his friend's face with a murderous glare before stomping off toward his private workspace, assuming Sakura won't be too put off to follow.

It takes a lot of courage to follow the red-haired artist.

But with timid steps, the hopeful doctor-to-be trails after him, feeling mild disappointment when passing by the blue-haired girl's office to find it empty of both its artist and half of its creations. It's fairly quiet around the workspace on this late Thursday afternoon and, for once, Sakura is feeling a bit antsy to have this lesson over and done with so she can get started on her lab report and start memorizing her French dialogue for a quiz tomorrow.

Not to mention, she can pick up her conversation from earlier with Deidara once she's back within the comfortable boundaries of her dorm room and out from under the judgmental gaze of Sasori. She and Deidara have already logged hundreds of texts between them, from personal questions to mundane retellings of the day's events to randomness they find amusing while procrastinating real work. Sakura's hand unconsciously slips into the pocket of her hoodie to wrap around her cellphone as though it's a precious keepsake.

She arrives in Sasori's office nearly half a minute later than he does, something she immediately senses to be prickling at the man's fried patience as he stares openly at her entrance, the supplies for today's session already set up, an empty stool looking guiltily empty beside him. Sakura smiles sheepishly, shrugging her bag off to the floor and pulling the stool up with a cringe-worthy screech in the dead silence.

Ugh. Sometimes I just want to smack the attitude out of him. I mean, what's his problem with me?

As Sasori's nimble fingers guide the brush across the paper, his mouth moving, but Sakura's ears not properly trained on the words, she wonders why Deidara's close association with her rubs Sasori the wrong way. Deidara is his friend and he barely knows Sakura better than any one of the other students he doesn't bother to remember the names of.

It sounds petty, but maybe he's jealous of Deidara? The students really like him and he's so easy to get along with. Didn't Deidara say something about how no one else dared to talk to Sasori in high school? He probably has no other friends.

Sasori turns slightly to make brief eye contact with Sakura and she nods along, her eyes tracking the leisurely strokes of his hand as he faces the canvas once more.

And it's no wonder if he doesn't! The guy has a fuse shorter than mine and it's always his way or the highway. Who can put up with that all the time? And maybe having a grandma in charge of the department he's in doesn't help with his massive superiority complex. He can get away with treating everyone else like dirt.

The electronic hum of her phone vibrating in her pocket distracts Sasori for a moment, his hand hovering over the canvas as his eye slides over to catch Sakura's blank-faced expression.

That's probably Deidara.

He has the habit of texting her not more than ten minutes after parting ways, something Sakura finds a bit adorable.

As she brings the phone into view to check the new message, a harsh clack echoes off the wooden tabletop. A fuming Sasori, his hand with the paint brush clapped flat down on the work table stares at her with a look way past exasperation.

"It can wait, Sakura," his voice is nearly a hiss, "You forget yourself. During this time, you're the student and I'm the teacher. No phones allowed."

It takes every ounce of self-control, every reminder that she's supposed to be the model for the perfect student, every lesson in manners drilled into her by her mother, but Sakura manages to quiet the impulse to snarl at Sasori, to call him out for his moodiness and lack of people skills. To point out that he's far from the perfect teacher with his indifference for the students and his harsh critiques of those who have never picked up a paintbrush before taking his class. How that's no way to instill passion in the arts and encourage personal growth.

She wants to say all of these things, but she says none of it. Instead, she swallows the ball of anger clogging her throat and nods, doing her best to look abashed at her behavior.

"Sorry, it won't happen again."

Sasori opens his mouth to speak, but whether it is for the purpose of further reprimand or to relent and take some of the edge off his scolding, Sakura will never know as a buzzing ring emanates from the backpack at the feet of Sasori's stool. Sakura quirks an eyebrow at Sasori, waiting for his move of hypocrisy. Inhaling deeply through his nose, his eyes floating upward toward the ceiling in a silent prayer for serenity, Sasori hauls up his bag, an angry hand ransacking the inner pockets for his phone to harshly accept the call.

Sakura looks away self-righteously, as though she's proven a point, but her ears are at last paying close attention to Sasori's words. With a few huffy grunts of agreement and a haughty, "It won't take me more than five days to finish. Be ready to pick it up over the weekend," Sakura turns slowly back to face her mentor, her curiosity piqued.

"You sell your art?" she asks as he curtly ends the call.

She's not sure why, but something about such a normal activity for someone so talented at his craft seems so unlike Sasori. It seems too commercial for him, she supposes.

Sasori runs a hand through his tussled hair, sighing softly, "Yeah, for the time being. The puppets help bring in money for rent.


She doesn't know why she was expecting something grander from him. Something out of the ordinary. This just makes him seem more like the typical college student doing what he can to make ends meet, to put a roof over his head and groceries in the fridge. She can actually relate to him.

And that's not exactly something she wishes to do right now. Not when he's been so uptight and bossy with her. It almost makes her feel bad for arguing with him, or rather, wanting to argue with him.

Stupid teacher/student dynamics.

She doesn't want to sympathize with the guy.

Yet she finds her head bobbing in understanding, her lips parting to form words her brain has yet to have the time to mull over for careful consideration.

"Yeah, I know how it is. I think I'll look for part-time work next year to help out with tuition costs. Textbook costs alone are ridiculous and my family isn't rich by any means. I mean, I have a few scholarships, but they don't cover everything…" she trails off, catching herself in the rambling she has a habit of.

A light smile plays at Sasori's lips, so small in its expression that Sakura is unlikely to have caught it even if she had been looking at him rather than glancing around at the puppets strung up around the office.

"It can be difficult," Sasori concedes, "But it all depends on the type of job. If you can find enjoyment in what you do, payment is just a bonus."

Sakura smirks, playful, green eyes meeting Sasori's intent, brown ones, "That's all well and good. But a college girl has to eat," she laughs to herself, "And I've had way too many instant ramen cups this semester."

Sasori chuckles softly in amusement and in this moment, Sakura can almost pretend she feels a sense of friendship between them, or at the very least, mutual understanding. They both share the bond of being college students trying to get by. That has to count for something.

"Ugh," Sakura continues, "And now I'm thinking about food."

Sasori's expression looks thoughtful as he tilts his wrist to check the time, his fingers soundlessly drumming against the table.

"What would you say to getting something to eat?" Sasori asks, noting the look of disbelief that flashes across Sakura's face, "It's obvious your mind isn't on painting today."

Sakura's cheeks warm at the truth in that statement. She couldn't be less interested in painting today if she tried, not that she's about to admit that to her teacher.

"With y – Us? Together?" Sakura asks, her voice rising in pitch with surprise.

Sasori boredly shrugs, already getting to his feet to pull on his coat, "Why not? You're hungry. I'm hungry. Might as well."

And really, it's beyond Sakura to argue with his logic.

"O-Ok," Sakura agrees hesitantly, inwardly berating herself for making the situation seem so weird in the face of Sasori's sincere nonchalance.

She's further stunned when he doesn't bother to clean up their mess, though most would hardly consider two canvases (one of them still blank) and a small assortment of paint tubes and two brushes as a mess. But for the tight ship Sasori tends to run in his work space, it's completely out of character for him to leave it be for a later time to deal with. Still, she doesn't question the strangely friendly Sasori as she follows him back out the maze of grad student offices and into the empty, echoing halls.

"So where do you want to go?" Sakura asks, doing her best to contain the giddy nerves fizzing within her at the odd experience of dining with her TA.

Ex-TA she reminds herself. They're almost equals…part of the time, anyway.

"It's one of my favorite places just a little ways off campus. It's about a twelve minute walk from here," he informs her, looking pointedly at her moccasin-booted feet, as though skeptic of her ability to keep up in such impractical footwear.

Sakura doesn't know why people doubt her shoes' ability to hold up in the snow. Not to mention, the fur lining is absolute heaven to her easily chilled toes.

"Trust me, I have a farther walk than that back to my dorm. It's no problem," she verbally waves away any concerns, walking confidently at his side, "So what's the place called?"

She's been to a few coffee shops and delis with Ino and Hinata, not to mention the local pizzerias (but those were sampled on less than sober nights so who knows how their food would pass judgement in the light of day).

"The Red Secret," he replies as they make their way down the stairs and out into the fresh, brisk air of the campus quad. In another hour, the post lanterns will be switched on to light the crisscrossing pathways and if she's not back in time for their usual Tuesday movie/study night, Sakura will have to dish all to Ino on what held her up.

Not that she plans on holding any of it back anyway.

"Sounds exotic," Sakura hums appreciatively. Anything different from the student cafeterias and diners is a welcome change of scenery. It's not something she has the luxury of affording on a regular basis since she already has a meal plan set up, but with her stringent, money-saving ways the last few weeks, she decides it's ok to splurge today.

As they walk, Sakura tries her best to engage Sasori in conversation, privately cheering him on for this sudden effort in socializing. But perhaps the invitation has already exceeded his limit of charity for his responses don't go far, even when Sakura tries to show her interest in his puppet-making. Still, she can't say it's an uncomfortable sort of silence; she's been around Ino and Naruto so long that she's nearly forgotten how much she can enjoy just quietly being in another's company.

So she makes comments along the way as she sees fit, such as the time Kiba pushed Naruto in that frozen fountain over there only to be dragged in himself. Or how that spot over there under the large oak tree, now bare of its voluminous foliage, is her favorite spot to read in fall. For his part, Sasori appears attentive, smiling slightly now and then at the right moments, but eventually, Sakura loses steam and simply walks with him, her mind suddenly occupied with the thought that someone she knows might spot her out with her TA.


And it's not like it's a date or anything weird like that going on between them. No way. But who knows what others might think.

But no run-ins occur with her friends or classmates and the student crowds thin out as they trek further east of campus where the streets are dotted with an intermixing of apartments and businesses which prosper greatly from the local campus.

At last, they near a street corner with a short flight of concrete steps leading down to a slightly rusted, black metal door set into rough textured, beige brick.

Sakura eyes Sasori dubiously, wondering if he's playing a trick on her.

Maybe he's more like his grandma than I thought.

But either he doesn't catch her incredulous gaze or he ignores it with practiced grace as he fluidly pushes the door inward into a space that offers little light to those who enter. With trepidation, Sakura keeps close to Sasori's back as she follows him in, quickly casting a glance back out at the street where a few cars zoom past and a group of students exit a shop further down.

But with relief, Sakura's eyes quickly adjust to the dim mood lighting of the establishment and take in the surroundings with increasing wonderment.

"What is this place?" she asks, looking up at Sasori.

"Like I said, it's one of my favorites," his tone is light, but she can still tell he's pleased by her reaction.

Despite it's less than stellar outward appearance, the inside of The Red Secret is finely decorated with dark, wooden floors, covered by a smattering of imperial rugs whose floral-like geometric patterns are woven in rich threads of scarlet and gold. The circular bar in the center of the lounge-like restaurant is made from white granite and houses a rich display of dark brown bottles illuminated with blue lighting. Twinkling lanterns hang from the ceiling, their inner lights glowing through a multitude of colored glass and Sakura watches as Sasori glides from one pool of color to the next as he winds his way through the restaurant to one of the tables off to the side. Sakura follows slowly, enjoying the sight of her hands changing from pale purple to light green as she follows after him to the shadowy spot he picks. The table is low to the ground with a square surface and the seating is unusual, consisting of short, backless stools, though they're at least cushiony and covered in soft, black velveteen. With their backs to the wall, Sakura has a panoramic view of the place and all its guests, and after the waitress arrives with a pair of menus, Sasori taps Sakura lightly on the hand to gain her attention as he points to something off to the left of the bar area.

"Oh, wow!" Sakura exclaims, straightening her posture to get a better look. How she didn't notice it before, she can only blame on the low lighting, but now her eyes are nearly level with the matching set of baby grand pianos raised up on a short platform. Two players look across their lacquered surfaces as though settling into the familiar song and dance of a duel as they calmly take their seats, their fingers running along the ivory-colored keys in a short warm-up exercise. The tinkling notes easily reach Sakura's ears and she settles back down into her seat with delight at the show that's soon to start.

"I had no idea this place even existed! Why've I never heard anyone talk about it before?" Sakura glances at Sasori, the menu forgotten in the limp hold of her hands.

"Well," Sasori's voice replies, all silk and mystery, "It has 'secret' in its name for a reason."

Sakura scrunches her eyebrows in mock irritation, pouting.

"That, and the owners aren't big on advertising. But they have a loyal clientele that makes a point of not spreading the word around to anyone and everyone that this place is here. It keeps the drunken frat boys out and there's less property damage."

"Huh," Sakura nods thoughtfully.

That's a good point. It is really nice here. And peaceful.

"I was hoping we'd make it in time to see them start. They'll play a few of their own choices first and then customers can start putting in requests. The waiter should bring by some paper and pencils soon and you can walk it up there to the bouncer."

Sakura looks to the stone-faced, muscled guy decked out in head-to-toe black standing off to the side of the stage.

"Oh, I'm so totally doing it!" Sakura claps her hands together in delight, antsy for the waiter to hurry over so she can start writing out her choices.

Sasori sits back and watches the pink-haired freshman bounce in her seat as she bides her time through ordering dinner and writing out her song requests, excitedly awaiting her chance. And when at last the bouncer announces that customers can start making requests of the players, he watches with amusement as Sakura, for all her enthusiasm, walks up with something bordering on shyness as she hands off her slip of paper before quickly shuffling back to the table, a look of I-can't-believe-I-did-it! beaming across her face.

Sasori has to admit that Sakura's pick of "Fancy" is an interesting choice, especially as the Tuesday night's crowd can't help but join in as the players belt out the lyrics (or at least the ones they know).

And for her part, Sakura has to admit that this side of Sasori comes as a pleasant surprise.

Who knew he had it in him to be fun?

And after the check arrives and Sakura vehemently refuses to allow Sasori to pay on her behalf, the two drift outside with the notes of "Let Her Go" lingering behind them and a few soft flurries floating down from a charcoal gray, cloud-bloated sky.

"Thank you," Sakura turns to Sasori, sincerity shining through her eyes, the soft glow of the street lamps nearly turning her pastel pink hair white at the crown of her head, "This was exactly what I needed. It was so much fun. And," she looks down at her feet, "I'm sorry about not paying attention earlier. It's really not like me and it won't happen again."

"I know," Sasori replies simply, reaching out a bare hand to brush at some of the snow collecting in the hair at the top of her head, "And I expect to have your full attention on Thursday. We have two lessons to pack into one now," he smirks sadistically, looking down his nose at the girl whose mouth drops open in dismay only to lift back up once more into a true smile.


"I think Sasori has a thing for you, yeah," Deidara says slyly, watching red creep into Sakura's face as she swats her hands at him, shoving his shoulder in childish denial.

"Oh stop, he does not! And be quiet, the students will hear you!" Sakura whispers frantically as her fingers work furiously to free hardened paint from what's quickly appearing to be an unsalvageable paint brush, one of many Sasori found in the back of the supply cabinet and ordered her to clean.

Deidara snickers softly to himself, bumping his hip against Sakura's as he rolls his sleeves up to his elbows to give her a hand. Sakura has to admire the sharp contrast of his golden tanned forearms next to her ghostly white hands. There's just something so comfortably warm about him.

"But I'm being serious, yeah," he continues, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, a smile still lingering in his tone, "I heard about your little date to the piano bar," he teases, resulting in Sakura's retaliation of a few good finger flicks at his chest, speckling his gray shirt with soapy water.

"He wouldn't shut up about it," he insists, continuing when Sakura shoots him a disbelieving look, "Really, yeah! I know he's not much of a talker, but when I got home it's like he pounced on me, going on and on about you. He definitely wants me to stop texting you so much though," he smiles devilishly at the quickly blushing girl, "Said I was distracting you too much, yeah."

So I take it they live together? Ugh, I should've known.

"It wasn't a date," Sakura annunciates each word precisely to drive home her point as she discards the paintbrush she's been working on for the better part of five minutes and reaches for another one in hopes of better results.

Deidara hmphs, clearly not buying it, but he lets the topic drop…at least for a moment's worth of peace.

"So does that mean you'd be open to going on a date with me, yeah?" Deidara asks quietly, so softly, that Sakura actually stops what she's doing to face him. It's almost endearing the way he keeps his head down, working his fingers through the brush bristles with moderate success, his curtain of blond hair shrouding half his face from her scrutiny.

I think he actually believes I might reject him.

Sakura smiles.


"Hhhmm," Sakura ponders aloud, dragging out her response with a smirk, "Well, I dunno…I suppose I could…If you really want."

Deidara's neck whips around to meet her dancing eyes, matching her playfulness with a grin of his own.

"We better keep this a secret between the two of us, yeah," he leans down to whisper in her ear, casting a smug look in Sasori's direction, knowing he's had his eyes on them for the last minute, "Don't want your other boyfriend to find out."

The wicked gleam in his eye fills Sakura with self-righteous purpose as she hip checks him without remorse, sending Deidara off balance, but only for a moment before he's back at her side laughing.

Though they're only able to save four of the nine brushes, they make plans to meet up on Saturday and Sasori, surprisingly, doesn't yell at them for goofing off most of the class period.

What Sakura quickly discovers is that Deidara's version of a date is like the night to Sasori's day.

Or maybe Deidara is more like the day and Sasori is the night?

Either way, whereas Sasori's idea of an outing was more conventional in its relaxed restaurant atmosphere with music, Deidara goes for the adventurous option, the one that has Sakura concerned she may not be wearing the right outfit for this kind of thing, but she doesn't want to voice any complaints just yet.

He told her they were going for a bike ride, but as the day wore on and the sky transformed into night, and only a paltry ten degrees above freezing, Sakura began to fret that either something had happened to her date or he had completely forgotten about her and stood her up.

So when at last her cellphone buzzes with an incoming text message, Sakura swoops down on the phone like a bird of prey, leaving Ino to gawk at her roommate's barely suppressed anxiety.

"Are you ready? Meet you outside your dorm in ten minutes," Sakura reads off the text before quickly dashing to the mirror hanging off the door of her and Ino's shared closet. As her fingers tweak and fluff at the light curls she spent an hour forcing into her stubborn, stick straight hair and she adds a touch more lip gloss, Ino eyes her friend as though she's lost her mind.

"Who on Earth is this guy, Sakura? It's after nine o'clock and it's freezing outside and you're going to go on a bike ride? For a first date?" Ino crosses her arms, raising a perfectly waxed eyebrow at the back of Sakura's head, "This guy better be insanely hot."

"It's fine, Ino," Sakura brushes off her friend's concerns, already filled with too many of her own. As she winds her scarf around her throat and slips on her coat, Ino shakes her head at Sakura but continues to sift through her jewelry box for just the right earrings for her own night out.

"Keep your jacket zipped up and call me if you need me," Ino calls out as Sakura crosses the room to the door.

"Hey, Ino," Sakura stops in the open doorway, striking a pose as she casts a coy look back over her shoulder, "The cold never bothered me anyway."

Ino laughs at Sakura's corny Elsa impression, chucking a stuffed bear from her bed at Sakura's retreating figure. She'll have to go retrieve it from the hallway in a minute, but the blonde is much more worried about Sakura's well-being than Mr. Bear's.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Forehead," she mutters under her breath.

With a potent mix of butterflies and goosebumps wreaking havoc through her system, Sakura stamps her feet on the sidewalk, her gloved hands clenching onto the handlebars as she walks her bike out to the front of her building, hoping to catch sight of Deidara as he rides to meet her. Sure enough, he comes whizzing past, only to make a wide, lazy turn back to end up on Sakura's side of the street.

"Nice bike," she comments, smiling at the neon yellow frame. Somehow, it suits him perfectly.

"You ready?" he grins, tugging at the straps of a rather stuffed looking backpack.

Sakura eyes the backpack, questions drifting through her mind, but the most important one is: "Where exactly are we going?"

"Just for a nighttime cruise," he smiles secretively, "But the destination is for me to know and you to find out, yeah."

"This had better be worth it," Sakura warns, only half kidding. The cold is already seeping through her thick leggings and knee-high socks.

"I think you're gonna like it, yeah," he assures her, and with that, he's speeding off into the night. With a yelp for him to wait, Sakura clambers onto her bike, her legs pumping to catch up with the racing blond. She follows him down the roads that lead away from the businesses and dorms of campus, passing by the local movie theater and several bookstores. She hasn't explored much of the area west of campus, but she's heard other students talk about the bike trail that's frequented by students and local families alike. She figured that's where they'd be going, but she hadn't counted on it being this late at night.

Luckily though, the sky is beautifully clear and lit up with a scattering of stars like diamonds against a black cloth. If she has to be out for a bike ride, she couldn't have asked for a more perfect night. As they enter the shaded bike trail, the trees forming a bare-branched canopy over their heads to filter the starlight, Deidara flicks on a headlight mounted on the front of his bike and slows down for Sakura to ride alongside him to share the illuminated path. Once more she notes his bare hands leisurely steering the handlebars, reminding her of the night they met and how despite having a pair of gloves on him, he opted not to wear them.

"Aren't your hands freezing?"

"Hm? Oh, yeah," he chuckles to himself, "Nah, not really. I think I've lost a lot of the sensitivity in them."

That's strange…considering he sculpts with them.

"Still, you should probably wear some gloves," Sakura replies, ever the doctor.

However, the brisk pace of their pedaling has helped Sakura warm up a bit so maybe it's the same for Deidara. Regardless, there are other important matters at hand, questions that deserve answers.

"So why are we biking so late? I figured when you suggested it, we'd go sometime in the afternoon. Actually," Sakura's voice softens, "I thought you'd forgotten you made plans with me…And then you never replied back to my texts."

"Sorry about that, yeah. Some things took longer than I expected and then I got lost and, well, I'll explain it later 'cause I don't want to ruin things before we get there, yeah. So just be patient. Or," and now his voice turns decidedly mischievous, "Has Sasori rubbed off on you already?"

"As if!" Sakura huffs with mock indignation, her fingers tightening their grip around the handlebars.

And from that point the two pass through their usual bantering and mocking of Sasori before turning to topics of funny memories. Deidara tells her about the time he played a prank on Chiyo's receptionist by injecting one of her doughnuts with mayonnaise disguised as cream filling and how she actually stopped eating them for two full weeks because the memory of it turned her stomach. Sakura tells him about her roommate and her futile flirting attempts with one of her young professors, and Deidara agrees that Ino is definitely barking up the wrong tree.

"So have you been spending all your free time in the library still?" he asks.

"I should basically have some sort of ownership rights of that place for the amount of time I spend there," she informs him with false loftiness.

Deidara tsks, leaning back and lifting his hands to stretch them over his head and behind his back, maintaining perfect control of his steering,


"You really got to get out more, yeah. I mean, I know you're a total brainiac geek, and Sasori has you slaving away in that musty office of his, but you're young, you're hot, you oughta live a little, girl."

Did he just say I'm hot?...And call me a geek all in the same sentence?

"I'll brainiac geek you!" Sakura hollers as they ride across a wooden bridge transporting them over the quiet, slow-moving river below.

Deidara guffaws, the beam of his headlight swaying back and forth with the shaky motion of his bike. Even Sakura can't help but laugh at her outburst.

Things are just so easy with him. So uncomplicated.

"Hey, we're almost there!" Deidara calls out. Sakura doesn't know how he can tell; everything looks the same to her in the dark with the pine trees and naked oaks lining their way, the odd twig or crackling leaf under their tires.

But Deidara soon comes to a stop, forcing Sakura to backtrack as she pedals past him a short ways. The two dismount their bikes, Deidara letting his fall to the ground whereas Sakura opts for properly setting hers on its kickstand. As Deidara rummages for something in his backpack, Sakura strains her eyes to make out the details of the landscape. This area certainly looks a bit more open and something black shimmers a short ways off in the distance…

Is that water?

But her attention is snapped back to her date as he turns on a large flashlight, boldly taking her hand and leading her out toward the clearing away from their parked bikes. Soon enough, his beam of light sweeps across the open clearing, revealing a few park benches and what Sakura correctly identified as water, or a small pond to be exact, its darkened surface still frosted over and icy around the edges where a tangle of withered plants remain battered and brown.

So he wanted to take me here at night? But why?

Something like foreboding enters Sakura's thoughts and she's made all too aware of her hand firmly clasped in Deidara's much larger one. Captured. She's heard stories like this, seen too many bad horror movies.

But this isn't like that. Deidara isn't bad. He's not a creep…

He leads her to one of the well-used, wooden benches, its surface carved with the initials of decades of prior visitors. Deidara releases her hand to slide off his pack and Sakura watches curiously as he unzips it to reveal…


Packages of them in all assortments of styles and colors. He pulls out a packet of lighters, ripping at the cardboard to free a new one and Sakura marvels at the sheer quantity of colorful explosives lining the ordinary, innocent looking bag.

"Oh my gosh, Deidara. Where'd you get all this?" Sakura asks with unconcealed awe.

Deidara's teeth are blindingly white in the beam of the flashlight, harsh shadows throwing the straight ridge of his nose and planes of his cheeks into sharp relief.

"This is why I was so late, yeah. Obviously it has to be nighttime to truly appreciate the effect, but I meant for us to do this earlier. I had to drive about three hours to go pick these up from some middle of nowhere town because technically it's illegal to set these off here," he informs her with a hint of glee, tearing at the plastic packaging of the first set of explosives.

"And I would have been back sooner, but I took the wrong exit somewhere along the way and got turned around and it was a mess, yeah," he laughs self-deprecatingly, "So I hope you didn't mind the wait too much."

"Deidara, I –I don't know what to say," Sakura says, embarrassedly pushing down the annoying tears stinging her eyes, thankful that the flashlight isn't directed at her, "This was so thoughtful of you. I'm not mad at all."

"Good. I knew you were going to love this, yeah" he grins, clutching the stems of a handful of rockets between his fingers like makeshift claws, striding out toward the pond to set them up for launch. Sakura trods after him, not wanting to miss out on any of the action. She kneels down next to Deidara, all awareness of the cold night air wiped away as she watches his nimble fingers comb at the stiff grass for a good spot.

Immediately, a flame licks forth from his fingertips, lighting the fuses in quick succession before tugging at Sakura's arm to pull her up, holding her hand as they race away to a safe distance to enjoy the spectacle. Sakura squeals with glee as popping, yellow explosions light up the small clearing, smoke drifting through the air to her nostrils.


And so they race back and forth, starting out small and building up to bigger, more elaborate collaborations, Sakura occasionally daring to do the honors of lighting the fuse to Deidara's buoyant cheer of "Fire in the hole!" All the short sprinting has Sakura thoroughly warmed up, her heart beating excitedly from the adrenaline and thrill of being so close to danger that's so fragilely controlled. As they run through the backpack's contents, Deidara reveals a short plywood stake, that just barely fit inside the length of his pack and attaches a tube to it before taking out the last and biggest of the rockets he was able to get his hands on with such short notice.

"Time for the grand finale, yeah," he smiles, his voice deceptively calm for the exhilaration claiming his features as the pair walk out to stick the stake into the hard ground and plant the last firework in the temporary holder. Sakura wordlessly motions for him to light it, easily reading his itching desire to do so, but too courteous to not pause for Sakura's go-ahead.

"Here we go!"

And then it's Sakura's turn to pull Deidara up and away as they dash for the park bench with the emptied backpack, giddiness pouring through them in wild giggles and face-stretching smiles.

It screeches into the air with a high-pitched wail, too fast to track with the naked eye, and Deidara's hand tightens around Sakura's an instant before it goes off, a shower of dazzling pink bursting and scattering its embers in all directions. As it slowly fades, leaving an after-image of smoke in the sky, Sakura turns to Deidara to thank him for the fun, to tell him how unexpected and awesome this at first questionable, nighttime escapade turned out to be. But her words are hushed in her throat as his lips catch hers, stunning Sakura and rooting her to the spot as her mind goes blank against the surprising, but pleasing softness of Deidara's kiss. It's slow, delicate, and so at odds with Deidara's loud and fast personality that she can't help but think he might just be taking things so gently for her benefit.

So she falls forward into the kiss, her hands pressed against the cool leather of his jacket as his hands wind around her, clasping together in the shallow dip at her lower back.

What does Ino know? This is the perfect first date.

Slowly, their faces drift apart, their eyes finding each other though the flashlight is left useless on the bench, pointing its beam onto a scraggly clump of dead weeds.

"Was this fun for you, yeah?"

"Yes," she reassures, lifting her own arms to wrap around Deidara, enjoying the warmth and comfort of another body pressed against hers. How long had she wanted someone to do this with? To enjoy her company and treat her as something precious? Yet, she had wasted most of high school chasing after a boy who only pushed her away. With Deidara, it's so different. So right. So everything she thought it should be like.

And Sasori?

She pushes that little guilt-tripping, niggling voice back down into the depths of forgotten and ignored thoughts. Sasori doesn't need to come up right now. Not when everything is going the way she hoped it would. Because at the same time she's glad she had such a good time with Sasori, she also wishes that day had never happened because something had started to change between them. At least for her it had; Sasori remains as unreadable as ever. But now that she had been made privy to the more fun, friend-like side of her art mentor, she could almost see him in a new light.

But that would only complicate things. She lifts her face up to place a soft peck on Deidara's cheek, feeling one of his hands leave her back only to have it nestled against the base of her neck to bring her closer once more as he tilts his head to the side for a second kiss. And Sakura is certainly inclined to allow it, but her stomach has second thoughts as it gurgles with hunger, complaining of Sakura's neglect to its needs.

"Have you had dinner, yeah?" Deidara chuckles, their moment broken and Sakura curses her stomach, promising punishment in the form of a diet (not that that really makes any sense, even to her).

"Uh, no, actually," Sakura answers sheepishly. She had forgone dinner, expecting as time wore on and she never heard back from Deidara that that would be part of their plans once he got in touch with her.

"Silly girl, yeah," he admonishes, "Well, why don't you come back to my place? My cooking isn't the greatest, but I'll make you dinner. Or try to, yeah?" he offers.

Inwardly, Sakura swoons. Outwardly, she nods, accepting.

"I'm starving, yeah," Deidara declares as they walk their way over to their bikes, tiredness already beginning to creep into her limbs at the thought of biking back to campus on top of however far away Deidara lives. Still, happiness overrides any bodily complaints as she swings her leg over the bike seat and prepares to take off.

Deidara and Sasori, like many of the older students bypassing Greek life while also getting as far away from the inconveniences of dorm living as possible, made themselves at home in an old, dark-bricked duplex about a fifteen minute walk from campus. Sakura locks her bike up to the railing leading up to the front door on the right side of the building, curious green eyes watching the silhouette forms move behind the thin, blue curtain hanging from the living room window.

"Hhmm," Deidara glances back at the street, "Judging by the cars, I'd say we have some guests over right now," he smiles with anticipation, swinging the door inward, no key necessary.

Sasori has other friends? And entertains them at home?

Always a tad weirded out when entering someone's home for the first time (nerves over etiquette of whether to take her shoes off or if the dog is friendly and whatnot playing into her jitters), Sakura steps through the doorway, veiled from sight behind Deidara's back.

"Sasori, my man! I didn't know we were having company over. Konan! How'd your exhibition go, yeah? Sorry I couldn't make it."

And just like that her date is off and running, chatting up the art student Sakura recognizes from the grad student offices, the one who specializes in origami and paper constructions. But she's not the only one lounging comfortably in the living room of Sasori and Deidara's home; a total of three new sets of eyes land on the girl stranded just inside the apartment, her back to the door.

Well, maybe just two new sets of eyes.

For unfortunately, one of the visitors is a man she's been hoping to avoid as he finishes up his last year of college. So far, she's been successful, always mindful of keeping her eyes moving in busy, public places where she just might cross paths with him in the midst of changing classes or going to the library where the little prodigy is sure to study if such an activity is even necessary for a genius like him.


It's not that there's anything particularly awful about the man, it's more about who he's related to and how he was a witness to many of Sakura's embarrassingly amorous stunts back in her childhood. She doesn't want to be reminded of those dark times. They're enough to leave her lying in bed at night, wide awake and cringing at the memories of heartfelt confessions and cold, flat-out rejections.

Those familiar, ebony eyes drill back into her like bottomless pits sucking in her soul, and Sakura forces an awkward smile and "Hey" from between her lips.

"Sakura, you smell like smoke," Sasori states bluntly.

"Well, hello to you too," Sakura snips, crinkling her nose in distaste but there's no real bite behind her words.

"Here, have a seat, Sakura," Itachi gestures to the empty space on the short sofa he has all to himself, "How have you been?"

But before Sakura can reply, Deidara is already at Itachi's side, looking down at him contemptuously, sneering, "Don't act like you own the place, Uchiha, yeah. Besides, I'm cooking dinner for the two of us," he says more calmly as he strides over to Sakura, throwing an arm around her shoulders as he leads her away to the kitchen at the back of the house.

"Fuck, as if your bitch ass has ever made anything other than burnt toast," scoffs one of the two men Sakura has never met.

Sakura's eyebrows nearly shoot up into her hairline at the vastly overdone, obscene language.

"Fuck off, yeah," Deidara retorts, thrusting his middle finger into the air as he marches on without pause. She watches as he rummages through the decently stocked fridge, fighting the urge to pick up the handful of stray Cheerios scattered across the otherwise clean, eggshell colored floor. Beer bottles clink together as he bumps against the inside of the door, bringing out a head of lettuce and a large carrot.

"I'm thinking ravioli. Sound good to you, yeah?" he asks, reaching for the package of raviolis that just need to be boiled.

Sakura nods. Practically anything will do at this point. She'd eagerly accept nothing more complicated than a PB&J sandwich or a bowl of cereal if only to have something in her stomach. Feeling uneasy in someone else's kitchen, watching Deidara do all the work after he has already warned her he's not the best at cooking, Sakura offers to wash and chop up the vegetables for a salad. While she's no expert at domestic tasks, she feels more than sufficient at her chopping skills and feels a pinch of pride as Deidara stares in awe at her quick work pace, the knife hitting the cutting board with a precise rhythm.

It's at this point that Sakura feels another presence enter the room though the voices continue to flow from the living room, particularly the brash, cursing one.

With her back to the entrance, Sakura scrunches her eyes shut, mentally crossing her fingers as she turns around to check the new addition.

Please don't be him.



Only Uchihas have the ability to speak in that low timbre so politely, yet still command everyone to stop and listen.

Deidara looks ready to do just about anything but let Itachi stay in the kitchen , his blue eye practically crackling with untamed energy as he stares down the raven-haired man leaning in the doorway, the picture of relaxed and in control.

"Itachi," Sakura greets, weakly smiling.

"I'm surprised it's taken this long to run into each other here."

"Haha, yeah," Sakura giggles nervously, reminded of how that's probably largely thanks to her vigilance around campus for the very man before her, "It's kinda weird. But I guess you're just about finished up here, right? A couple more months and you'll be graduated," she tries to keep the relief out of her voice, knowing just how perceptive this man is.

"True. But I've applied here as well as a few other universities for law school. Now it's just a waiting game for the acceptance letters."

Well, that's just swell, Mr. I-Can-Get-In-To-Wherever-I-Want. I'm so happy for you.

"Wait a minute, yeah. How do you two already know each other?" Deidara asks, frowning, his gaze now traveling away from his one-sided staring contest with the side of Itachi's head and regarding Sakura with something like suspicion.

Oh no, we're not getting into that.

"I've known Sakura since she was a baby. She was the same age as my little brother and went to the same school."

Before Sakura can add anything to diffuse Deidara's interest in the topic, however, a sizzling sound catches her attention as she spins around to catch sight of the pot of raviolis boiling over, tonight's dinner threatening to spill into the angry, red burner below.

Rushing to unthinkingly grab the pot handles, Sakura winces as she lifts the pot up and away to rest on one of the unused burners.

"Ouch, Sakura, yeah," Deidara winces in sympathy as she hurries to the sink to let the cold tap water soothe the minor burn.

"Oh, quit bitching like a little girl. It's nothing a fucking cold beer between her hands can't fix," the violet-eyed man barks, swaggering his way into the kitchen, leaving Itachi clearly displeased at being rudely shoved aside.

"I want some of that," he declares, gesturing at the pasta.

"Hell no!" Deidara bellows at the man's audacity.

But, Sakura has to admit, for all his bad language, the guy was right about the beer thing. Finding herself squashed between Deidara and who she later comes to know as Hidan, Sakura eats her dinner in the living room, a cold beer bottle of some brand she's never heard of pressed between her palms.

And really, it's sort of nice being surrounded by a group of people she barely knows accepting her into their midst. The night's festivities easily devolve from sober conversations to drinking games to all-out drunken shenanigans as first the Jenga set is so thoroughly demolished that no one has the energy to retrieve the pieces scattered under the couches and TV set, and then Hidan gets so upset over his poor luck at card games that he starts shredding the cards.

Sakura, at a comfortable, light-headed level of buzzed, gapes and giggles at the affectionate couple snuggled together on the floor, Konan wrapped in the arms of the quiet man with auburn hair and a heavily pierced face. And she nearly loses it completely when Itachi trips over the extended foot rest of the recliner.

Dude needs to get his eyes checked.

And she learns that Hidan is a very passionate, emotional man when drunk, having to be forcibly yanked down from the wobbly coffee table each time the mood takes him to step up on his appointed soapbox and preach about some religious dogma Sakura has never even heard of before.

But as the night wears on and sleep drags down nearly everyone's eyelids, Sakura glances at her phone briefly to check the time glaring back at her (along with several of Ino's unread texts).

How'd it get to be 2:00 a.m. already?

But she's much too comfortable and warm, nestled between the two bodies at either side of her as some action, blow everything up movie plays on the flat screen across from her. There's no way she's about to venture outside to ride her bike in the cold when it's this late.

No, rather, she'll let sleep take ahold of her quietly and peacefully as her hand is gently cradled by the blond at her left and she leans into the red-head at her right, seeking out his shoulder for a headrest.

Sakura yawns, thoroughly drained from the amount of catch-up she had to play all day Sunday and most of Monday night just to get back on track from Saturday's day-off. Not that she counts Saturday as a wasted day, no, for something was certainly accomplished that night. She finally went on a date with Deidara and she had a really good time hanging out with him and Sasori at their apartment. In the morning, after their friends had groggily dragged themselves out the door and to their respective cars, Sasori had somehow managed to muster up the initiative to make breakfast. Sakura couldn't remember the last time she had waffles like that. Real waffles. The kind you have to make the batter for and pour into the waffle iron, not the tasteless, frozen, cardboard kind.

Those waffles had been marvelous with syrup and powdered sugar. It was obvious that Sasori was the true cook in that living situation.

But now, swinging her legs off the side of the teacher's desk in the art classroom, Sakura keeps an eye on the students. Or pretends to. She might be closing them every now and then.

Of course, Deidara is in even worse shape than she is, clearly passed out on the rest of the desk's surface as he supposedly pulled an all-nighter in one of the sculpting rooms to finish a project due today. She's surprised Sasori doesn't order him to leave, but the fiery puppet maker seems to be in a tranquil sort of ease today as he circles the room, a coffee cup clutched in his hand.

So that's where his source of power comes from. Ugh, I need sleep.

He hadn't even made Sakura take notes for him. The only purpose she's served today is to take roll call which she feels kind of bad about, but perhaps he sensed her exhaustion and chose to take pity on her.

Deidara's leg thumps the table as he jerks awake, jack-knifing up before almost immediately slumping back down to prop himself up on his elbows, looking dazed and about to pass back out.

Sakura laughs, "Bad dream?"

"Uugghhhnnn," he groans, sitting up to take a seat beside her, his heavy, booted feet nearly touching the ground as his legs fall over the side of the desk. Dragging his fingers down his face, stretching the skin, he sighs tiredly again before resting his chin in his hands, his elbows propped up on his knees.

Looking at his hunched over figure, Sakura reckons the pair of them are a sight for sore eyes, most likely scaring the students with their near perfect zombie impersonations. Sakura rubs at her stinging, red-rimmed eyes with the heels of her palms.

"Honestly, you brats are being ridiculous. You are absolutely of no use to me," Sasori states in a flat voice, taking another delicate sip of his coffee as he comes to lean against the corner of the desk beside Sakura.

Sakura practically jumps, as out of it and foggy-headed as she is.

Sasori shakes his head minutely, but smirks nevertheless.

"Get out of here," he shoos them away as though pests, and Sakura stares blankly at him, uncomprehending of his meaning.

"What?" she replies oh-so eloquently.

"You heard me. You're not assisting me right now so you might as well leave. Get some rest and be ready to focus for your lesson," Sasori says, pitching his empty cup in the wastebasket.

Sakura has to bite the inside of her cheek before she lets out another idiotic "What?"

But Deidara seems invigorated by Sasori's dismissal, jumping off the desk and slinging his backpack on in one fluid motion.

"Alright! C'mon, Sakura, let's go, yeah!" the blond leads the way out of the classroom, Sakura trailing after him, unsure. But Sasori is already moving away toward one of the students with his hand raised, so she follows after Deidara who's already waiting in the hallway.

"Where are we going?" she asks as she catches up, every muscle in her body urging her to collapse into sleep.

"One of the classrooms. It should be empty by now since everyone just finished their assignments for today and I like to keep a cot in there for my overnight stays, yeah," he explains as they round a corner in the hall.

"But won't it be locked?"

"Not if you have a key, yeah," Deidara grins devilishly.

Sakura wonders how Deidara managed to get his hands on one, but doesn't ask, not wanting to offend him. And she's glad she doesn't by the time they reach the door with its darkened window and Deidara swipes his student card through the reader at the side of the door, a mechanical click signaling that the door is now able to be opened.

And he made it sound like he was so special. I bet all the students in his class have access. What a goof.

As she walks through the room with its simple huddle of work tables and utility shelving with supplies, she watches as Deidara pulls out a folded up cot from behind one of the cabinets, setting it up in a matter of seconds and discarding his shoes and backpack.

There's only one…And it's not that big.

Sakura eyes the cot, uncertain of what he expects.

"Well, come on, yeah! I don't bite," he motions at her to come over, "Unless you want me to, yeah," he finishes slyly with a wink.

Sakura chucks a shoe at him, laughing, but joins him, sitting on the edge of the cot until Deidara pulls her down alongside him, moulding himself around her back as they rest on their sides. Even without a pillow for her weary head or a blanket to cling to for comfort, Sakura feels the tug of sleep almost immediately and Deidara must be one step ahead of her as his breathing seems to slow and even out. His mouth is uncharacteristically silent.

Even now, with his arms around her and a strand of his hair tickling her cheek, Sakura doesn't really know what she is to Deidara. A friend? A girlfriend? Just someone to have fun with for the sake of irking Sasori? He's never brought it up and she's afraid to scare him away by starting such a definitive conversation. It could ruin everything. Whatever this is, it's easy and relaxed, but there's something frighteningly fragile about it. She can't put her finger on what exactly makes it that way, but she senses it with a certainty deep within her core.

Those are the last thoughts Sakura has as her vision goes out with the fluttering close of her eyelids.

When Sakura awakens, a distant light on the far side of the classroom is on. And she distinctly remembers that neither she nor Deidara bothered to turn on any lights when they entered. Sakura sits up, Deidara still dozing and providing warmth at her back as she strains her sleep-blurred eyes to find what is so out of place.

It doesn't take more than a second.

"Sasori?!" Sakura nearly shrieks, her arms pulling up to her chest as though her modesty has been compromised. Deidara startles awake at the noise, rolling over on the cot, only to land on the floor with a thud and an irritated moan.

"What the hell, yeah?" he mumbles, righting himself on the floor and peering around Sakura's frozen form.

"Ugh, Sasori, why are you such a creep, yeah," he groans with exasperation at his friend, tiredly heaving himself to his feet and dusting off his pants, "Didn't you ever learn it's impolite to draw sleeping girls without their consent?"

That's what he's doing?

Sakura's cheeks color as she gets to her feet as well, noticing the drawing board resting against Sasori's thighs, a hand supporting it from the top as he sits a short distance away from his drawing subject. Deidara is already walking over to inspect his friend's work before Sakura remembers how to use her suddenly clumsy feet.

"Hhmm, not bad, yeah," the blond comments coolly, eyes roving over whatever Sasori has permanently set in charcoal on the white paper clipped to his board. As Sakura moves around to Sasori's other shoulder she peers at the sketch that portrays herself, sleeping, a soft smile on her lips. An arm, obviously Deidara's, is thrown around her waist, but the male napping beside her is mostly hidden by the angle Sasori chose to draw from.

"You're half an hour late for your lesson," Sasori informs her emotionlessly.

Sakura face palms, realizing she forgot to set an alarm on her phone to wake her up in time.

He must be pissed. I've been a total screw-up today.

"Sooorrrryyyy," she says, the word pleading for his forgiveness as she hurries to go grab her coat and backpack.

"So what's the lesson on today, teach? Figure drawing, yeah?" Deidara asks, salaciously waggling his eyebrow.

Sasori ignores the comment, standing up and tucking the drawing board under his arm, "I hate to be kept waiting. Let's go."

Miserably, Sakura treads after him, throwing her hand up at Deidara in parting.

All along the way, Sasori says nothing, allowing Sakura to stew in her anxiety over a potential scolding that she knows she very well deserves.

Please don't kill me.

But as they enter the office, Sasori calmly sets the board down on the table and pulls up two stools like normal, Sakura's trepidation reaching new heights as he continues to remain relaxed.

"My grandmother informed me yesterday that you'll be expected to enter a piece for the spring showcase so I think we should work on that as soon as possible."

Languid, brown eyes bore into her. Sakura's mind nearly comes to a halt as she furiously works to process his unanticipated words.

"The showcase? Like I had to last semester?"

Sasori nods.

Sakura sighs, "I got so stressed over that and then my painting wasn't even selected for the show."

It had been a small letdown for Sakura as she hadn't had high hopes of acceptance to begin with after seeing some of the competition, but entering a piece for the showcase selection process had been a requirement for her grade. Failure to do so would have resulted in a flunking grade so she sucked up her pride and forced herself to carry in her amateurish painting to stack among the others waiting to be judged.

Sasori shrugs as though it matters little, "It was your first time and your skill has improved. Besides, it's oftentimes a crap shoot for the undergrads; the department likes to display a wide variety of what's being produced in all the classes. It helps drum up donations from the wealthy alumni," Sasori retorts cynically, rubbing his fingers together to emphasize his point of monetary gain to be made from the students.

Sakura frowns at the thought, but keeps her focus on Sasori, determined to make up for her earlier blunders.

"So, what do you have in mind? What should I do?" she inquires, truly interested in his opinion.

"Portraiture," Sasori supplies without delay, carefully watching for Sakura's reaction.

"Really? But I've never really painted people before…Just still lifes."

The idea of all of a sudden having the floor ripped out from under her and falling away from her comfort zone has her catching herself in bringing her hand to her teeth, ready to gnaw at her fingernails. She's not sure she wants her very first attempt at painting people to be for the harsh judgement of a panel that will do no more than assign a number to her efforts to be reviewed at its convenience.

"Then what better time to try something new than when the stakes have been raised?"

Sakura's expression turns confused, "The stakes have been raised?"

Sasori gives a slight nod, no more than the shallow dip of his chin, a decidedly unpleasant smile stretching his lips.

"You are aware that I'm the one who assigns a grade for the completion of your independent study, correct?"

Sakura's eyes widen at the implication. In truth, she has nearly forgotten that all this work with Sasori is technically for a grade that will affect her overall GPA. She has become muddled within the social lives of her mentor and his roommate that it's nearly impossible to say where academia ends and friendship begins. It's such an undefined, tangled mess.

At Sakura's contemplative silence, Sasori continues, "I think I'm going to put an ultimatum on you getting an A from me," he ponders aloud, resting his chin in his palm, "If you get accepted into the showcase, you pass with flying colors. If not…" he trails off deliberately, watching the horror leak into Sakura's expressive eyes.

But, surprisingly, she doesn't put up a fight against the conditions he's made

"Alright," she replies, her tone declaring she's game for the challenge, "Where should I start?"

"Your subject matter, of course. And I think it'd be easiest to start with yourself," he says as he pushes away from the table, retrieving a mirror and a sketchpad from one of the file cabinets, "I had the idea during your impromptu nap," he makes the word "nap" sound childish and unnecessary.

Don't knock it till you try it.

"Today, I want you to spend the whole time studying yourself. We'll start from the neck up and move on from there. I don't want your submission to be a bland school picture. That's too easy."

Yes, because I'm obviously ready for the boss level.

Sakura inwardly rolls her eyes, but on the outside she's the model of obedience as she turns to a fresh page and takes out her graphite pencils. With the mirror situated at just the right angle and distance to satisfy her, Sakura begins to form the outline of her head, slowly developing the details of her jaw structure and hairline. Just as she's considering whether she should touch up some problems with her nose, Sasori slides the sketchpad toward him where he's been working in comfortable silence on varnishing a carving of a deer with its fawn.

His eyes narrow as he takes in every minute marking from top to bottom, at last sighing as he's come to a conclusion.

"Well, at least now I have a pretty good gauge of your skills. We'll use this," he says as he holds up Sakura's drawing for her to see as though it's something brand new to her, "As a reference for the areas you need to improve upon.

"For starters," he continues, snagging a pencil from Sakura's collection despite her displeased reaction, "Your eyes are too small and close together," his hand works to shape a rough outline of where they should be positioned with the correct shape and size, "We'll need to work on tonal variations in your shading, particularly in the hair," he makes a note off to the side of her head, "And this nose is complete garbage," he finishes, drawing an insulting "X" in the middle of her face.

Sakura can't help but look up from her drawing under Sasori's fingertips to the man standing over it so loftily, certain in his superiority. Shock, anger, and embarrassment form a muddled expression on her face, twisting her features.

"Gee, thanks for the constructive criticism," she states, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"It's how you get better," Sasori shrugs unapologetically.

Sakura sighs tiredly, flexing her hand from its cramped clutch around the pencil.

This is going to be a major pain.

But it's not quite as bad as she expected; Sasori is a good teacher, particularly in one-on-one settings and her progress just a week and a half after her first attempt at drawing herself is remarkably improved. However, she admittedly did get pretty peeved when Sasori announced he was going to switch up her medium a bit and get her used to working in water colors. Yet it's opened up a whole new world of subtlety and emotion that Sakura finds herself enjoying. Most days now as the semester rolls into its final month, Sakura looks forward to the time spent in Sasori's office, what she's come to think of as her own personal, creative space. French tests and chemistry labs fade into the background when she picks up a brush now and perhaps one of the most pleasant bonuses of her newfound artistic side is the vivid dreams she's been having.

So many colors.

Sometimes she dreams in kaleidoscope formations with eye-popping colors that leave her wanting more when she wakes up. She wonders if this is how it is for Sasori and Deidara. She fervently hopes the dreams won't fade away after she finishes her independent study.

Today has Sakura a bit on edge as she self-consciously checks herself in the bathroom mirror, fingers pushing at her bangs to behave accordingly and brushing at the wrinkles in her skirt from being folded up in her backpack half the day. When Sasori had first suggested an informal photoshoot to give her some reference material to work from, she had laughed him off, thinking he was pulling her leg. Of course, she should have known that Sasori isn't one for making jokes.

"Ugh, this had better be worth it."

Cramming her jeans and sweatshirt into her bag, she straps on her sandals and is out the door, walking with purpose to get this over with in as short of time possible with the least amount of awkwardness.

Already waiting on her, Sasori gives off a bored, composed air as Sakura walks into the grad offices. Much like the photoshoot Sakura had witnessed on her first tour of the space, Sasori has opted for the area near the windows for the sake of soft, natural lighting. However, as Sakura glances up to the pipes overhead, she notes that the glass sculptures have been removed for today's session.

"Well, aren't you an artist of all trades," Sakura remarks dryly as she drops off her backpack, trying to at least pretend she's at ease with the weird situation of being photographed by her teacher.

This is so weird.

Ino had had a good laugh at her expense when Sakura told her what she'd be doing today. She had had the good sense not to tell Naruto about it.

"It's useful and makes you more versatile."

Sakura doesn't know what to say to that so she walks slowly in front of the camera, a nearly pained look on her face.

"So – So, um, what should I do?…I don't really know how to pose or anything," she mumbles, looking down at her feet, wishing the floor would just swallow her whole or that she could at least flash forward in time to when this is all over with.

Sasori heaves a short sigh, a hand fluttering to his forehead as though this is all more effort than it's worth. Approaching Sakura with a sharp eye as he sizes her up, he observes her choice of outfit without comment.

Take a picture, it'll last longer!

Ha, I'm funny.

"You're such a brat," Sasori mutters under his breath looking, dare Sakura think it, a bit flustered, the faintest of pinks tinging his cheeks.

Yet, miraculously, this is exactly what helps to put Sakura at ease, knowing that he might just be as uneasy about this as she is. Somehow, it sets her in professional mode.

Whatever it takes. Time to get this job done! Cha!

And so she listens to Sasori's instructions, twisting and turning, glancing off to the side and looking straight down the lens like she's ready to devour it. Eventually, she relaxes enough that she starts jumping, begging Sasori to take some action shots to which he relents after some begging. He directs her to try sitting on the floor, to get some perspectives from above and then has her sit on a chair, legs crossed and arm thrown carelessly along the back, looking off into the distance with an aloof expression.

By the end of the session, Sakura is warm with excitement to see the photos displayed on the computer, a tired smile aching her cheeks as she does one final spin in front of the backdrop, much to Sasori's exasperation.

"Well, well," a voice calls out from the doorway.

Sakura spins around in reverse, her skirt tangling around her shins as she spots Deidara lounging against the open door frame, an unreadable expression on his face as he slowly stalks forward.

"So this is what you do with your students in your spare time, yeah?"

Something dangerous plays in Deidara's voice despite the light grin he wears. Sakura's skin prickles at the tension levels in the air as Sasori shoots him a nasty glare, crossing his arms.

"At least I work, Deidara. At least I don't destroy my own art before it's even finished," Sasori's cool whisper is nearly a hiss as he takes a few strides forward to meet his rival.

"Work, yeah?" Deidara spits, "Is that what you call this? Looks a little more like something else to me, yeah."

Turning his piercing blue gaze on Sakura he demands, "You get what he's doing don't you, yeah?"

"Deidara," Sakura speaks up, trying to level some calm into her tone, "This is just for my final project. I'm using these photos to help with my painting. That's all," she finishes, spreading her arms out, beseeching him to be rational.

Deidara thrusts an aggravated hand up to swipe at his bangs, fully pushing his hair out of his face, his eyes darting between the two standing stiffly before him. Coming to some sort of decision, his eyes at last land on Sakura with the finality of a gavel striking the sound block and it takes some effort for her not to flinch under his intense scrutiny.

"He's infatuated with you, Sakura," Deidara says quietly, "Can't you see how obvious it is? He's abusing his power as your teacher for all of this," his hand lashes out, indicating the camera and computer with all the photoshoot material already transferred to it, "All the one-on-one painting sessions holed away in his private office. Taking you out places, just the two of you, yeah. And you can't possibly be ok with that. Can you, yeah?"

Sakura is left speechless, her lips forming a small "o" of shock, her brain incapable of forming an appropriate response to something so ludicrous.

"What are you insinuating, you little shit?" Sasori seethes between tightly clenched jaws, stomping forward to grab Deidara by his collar, fisting a handful of his T-shirt and bringing the blond within inches of his face.

"You know damn well what I'm saying, pervert," Deidara replies readily, no fear as he stares down the bull, "You need to back off from where you're not wanted."

"And you need to shut that mouth of yours before you dig yourself any deeper," Sasori shoots back, eyes wide and alert, awaiting the fight.

And just in the moment of absolute stillness before the first punch is thrown, Sakura snaps back to the here and now as though throwing off a layer of debilitating, cottony haze.

This is all too surreal.

"Stop!" Sakura interjects, pushing them apart with some resistance though neither is eager to truly shove past the shorter girl to get at one another.

"Just stop," Sakura says again, desperation and nerves mixing her features, "Deidara, walk me out," she snaps.

Deidara's reaction is delayed as he forcibly tears his eyes away from the artist locked in his sights.

"…What, yeah?"

"You heard me. And send me the photos," she orders to the red-head whose anger slowly fades away to blank-faced apathy, his hands hanging limply at his sides and no longer threatening to form into fists.

Angrily, Sakura snatches up her bag, not even bothering to pull on her coat as she storms through the doorway, halfway to the doors leading to the staircase before Deidara jogs up alongside her. She can sense his worried glance searching her face for signs of forgiveness, but she offers none.

Stupid men. Stupid testosterone. Stupid cave-man-this-woman-is-my-property mentality.

Her thoughts do little to improve her huffing breaths as she slams the doors open with such frightening strength that they bang into the walls on either side as Sakura's sandaled feet slap down the stairs at a crashing pace, Deidara struggling to keep up.

"Sakura, wait, yeah!" Deidara pleads, finally managing to catch hold of her arm as she makes it to the front entrance of the building.

"No! I don't know what the hell that was in there, but you're both acting like children. What the heck do you think I've been doing with him all this time, Deidara?! Hm?" Sakura stomps her foot in frustration, answering for him, "I've been learning to paint! That's it! That's all there is to it."

Sakura's shoulders heave with the exertion, as she breathes slightly through her mouth to catch her breath, her face flushed.

Something like regret briefly flashes across Deidara's visage, but his bangs fall forward across the left side of his face and he steels his resolve.

"No," he says determinedly, "You may not see it, but I've known Sasori for a long time, yeah. And he's different around you. And you're not there when we're at home. You're always the topic of conversation and I'm not always the one bringing you up, yeah!"

Sakura holds up a hand, warning Deidara to stop.

"That's enough. I don't want to talk about this right now; it's ridiculous. I have a lab report to write," she says dismissively, turning on her heel to go, ignoring the looks of other students as they pass the strange pink-haired girl in summery sandals and a skirt when the last of the slush has yet to melt.

Deidara throws up a frustrated hand to his head, tightly clenching strands of hair between his fingers, relishing the grounding pain.

"At least put on your coat, yeah!" he hollers after her.

Thursday is a weird, uncomfortable experience as she shuffles her way into the classroom. Sasori doesn't look up from the newspaper he's reading as he pushes the attendance clipboard across the desk toward her and she relieves her aching shoulders of her belongings. Sakura raises a questioning eyebrow at him that he misses, but wordlessly accepts her normal task. The class period passes by slowly, the students seeming to sense the odd atmosphere surrounding their teacher and his assistant and they remain rather subdued as rain begins to drizzle against the windows.


Sakura glumly watches the tiny clusters of raindrops gather and converge on their descent down the glass frame, pressing her fingertips to relish the numbing coolness. She wishes she could apply that same feeling to certain uncomfortable social situations.

Sasori, as she had requested, had sent her the results of their photoshoot in an E-mail without subject line or message. And after his nonverbal treatment of her at the start of class, she has the feeling that things will uncomfortably continue as they are, or even worse, lead to an even more uncomfortable conversation over what Deidara accused him of. Neither is appealing.

Of course Sakura knows Deidara was just leaping to conclusions, reading into things way too much and completely misinterpreting the situation. He's wild and brash and throws himself into things without looking first, which can be endearing and attractive at times, but not this… Yet now, each time she attempts to meet Sasori's eye from across the room, he refuses to acknowledge her existence.

I hate this.

Sakura curls her fingers tightly against the thighs of her jeans, keeping sentry over the classroom from her perch in the windowsill.

When Sasori breaks away from his circle of students to fetch his water bottle from the teacher's desk, Sakura seizes the opportunity to pounce. On light feet, she soundlessly stalks around the intently working students, approaching Sasori from the side and latching onto his forearm with a light squeeze.

Sakura is surprised when he almost entirely wrenches out of her grasp as though painfully stung.

But she smoothes her expression, lowering her voice so as not to be overheard, "We need to talk."

Sasori regards her from the corner of his eye before nodding stiffly once, "After class."

Sakura nods in affirmative, quickly releasing her hold of him and drifting slowly away to survey the work of the students as though nothing has passed between them. The minute hand seems to slow down and Sakura is about ready to start pulling out hair – preferably, not her own.

But at last the class starts packing up, carefully putting away their final works in progress and disappearing out the door in small groups until only Sasori and Sakura remain on opposite sides of the classroom, a sea of painting benches between them.

Despite his agreement to stay after and talk to her, prolonging her departure and progress on her showcase piece, Sakura has a feeling that getting Sasori to open up and truly speak with her is going to be like pulling teeth.

Slow and painful.

Surprisingly, she is wrong.

"Sasori – " she begins, her mouth open to continue, the words pushing up her throat, but Sasori cuts in, apparently with a lot of his own stored words ready to share.

"If he's told you anything about me, I bet he made me out to be some kind of social outcast when we were kids, didn't he?" Sasori asks, eying Sakura for an answer, but not waiting for confirmation.

"I'll admit I wasn't winning any popularity contests, but then that really wasn't any concern of mine. But unlike Deidara, people weren't afraid to talk to me. They heard the stories of the new kid arriving who had already been expelled from three schools for homemade cherry bombs in the boy's bathroom and setting fires in the chemistry classrooms. They were afraid to be around him and he certainly didn't do anything to dissuade their fears."

Why are you telling me this?

Worry lines form on Sakura's forehead, her lips turning downward at the corners as Sasori continues on relentlessly, the words pouring forth from an unstoppable fountain of held back aggression.

"He wouldn't leave me alone in the one art class we had together, always rambling about his creations and how nothing is meant to last. The other kids thought he was a freak and wouldn't sit near him. And even when I ignored him he wouldn't shut up. Eventually, it just became less annoying to indulge him so I could get a little peace and quiet every now and then," Sasori's eyes narrow and it is just now that Sakura realizes their feet have been slowly gravitating them toward one another until they nearly meet in the center of the circle.

"What does this have to do with the other day, Sasori?" Sakura asks softly, confused.

"Deidara," Sasori drops the name flatly as though he couldn't care less for it, "Is a child. He will yell and fuss and fight to get his way. He'll point fingers when there is no blame to be given. He made wild accusations about me, disgusting things, as though I would ever force myself on you," he looks away, too infuriated by the very idea.

"But he got one thing right," he says, his eyebrows scrunching together in self-deprecating humor, "He's an idiot, but he's perceptive when he wants to be."

Sakura stares back, wide-eyed and unexpecting, poised for a response she can't possibly foresee.

"I am infatuated with you," he whispers, but his voice grows in strength as though liberated by the admission, "I'm intoxicated by you. Inspired by you. I dream of you. I paint you. But it's never enough, you infuriating brat," the words are harsh, but said with such adoration, a softness lingering in his eyes where there is usually nothing but emptiness.


She can barely hear her own voice as raspy with shock as it is. How could this have happened? How could she have gotten tangled up with not one artist, but two? How? And why does life have to deny her an easy romance? Why does it have to laugh at her as she trips and falls over all the little complications thrown her way?

This is all more than she bargained for when a strange, blond boy stole a kiss on a snowy night.

"Admit there might be something between us, something more than a student-teacher relationship," he gently encourages, soft, pale fingers tipping up her chin and jostling her frozen gaze from the small patch of floor separating their feet.


But she can't finish the thought. Tongue-tied and heart racing, she watches, as though barred within the confines of her own body, peering out through the windows within her eyes as Sasori refuses to wait any longer, dipping his head down to meld his mouth with hers, pulling her body into him, their chests bumping, and all Sakura can do is inwardly scream at herself to react.


Her lips struggle against his, but he must confuse her protests as participation until she pushes at his chest, lightly at first and then more vehemently.

"S-Stop," she manages, catching her breath to compose herself, breaking away from his embrace, "This – I don't – I can't! You're my teacher – And Deidara!"

Something like panic stirs in her eyes as she backs away and Sasori retreats a step as well, his expression quickly becoming walled-off, forming an unreadable barrier that Sakura hasn't the energy to break apart.

He looks away, his shoulders tense.

"I shouldn't have done that."

Sakura doesn't agree nor disagree. Instead, she simply collects her things and makes a beeline for the exit.

Sasori doesn't call out after her. Instead, with feet weighed down by invisible cement blocks, he moves to the window in time to watch a pink head slip out into the quad, a hood quickly being yanked over her unprotected hair as students mosey along their ways under the shield of their umbrellas.

Today's lesson has been canceled.

"Well, if you do pick one and need to fix the spare up with someone so he can forget about you and move on, I'm, like, totally willing," Ino offers as she loops her hair through an elastic band with expert ease.

"You've never even met them before, Pig!"

Ino shrugs as she brushes out her ponytail, "I did some super-secret sleuthing online and totally stalked them. You've got some major hotties after you. I mean, the blond one is all tan and blue-eyed, and the other guy looks like a real life doll."

Sakura groans, face in her hands after finally dishing to Ino about yesterday's events. She couldn't bring herself to review it after she barged into their dorm room in a huff yesterday evening, dripping rainwater and something that suspiciously looked like tears though Ino got the impression she wasn't supposed to ask for clarification.

Returning back to their dorm after a full day of classes and a day of her feet sweating and suffocating inside her rain boots, Sakura had opened her E-mail to find Sasori had contacted her. But it was only to inform her that she was given permission to come to his office to collect her work in progress and any supplies she needs to finish the painting at her leisure, whether in his office or another place of her choosing.

She got the distinct impression he'd rather her work elsewhere.

Wonder if he'll give me that A if I threaten to press harassment charges?

But there's no real humor behind the thought. Just stress and an uneasy feeling in her stomach.

But the E-mail had prompted her to relate the news to Ino who just about lost it at the amount of drama going on in her usually stable, no nonsense, best friend's life. Now Sakura is left to decide whether she feels like returning out into the drizzle to head to the art building. The considerable driving factor behind that idea is that it's nearing dinner time on top of being a Friday. Surely even someone like Sasori wouldn't be staying late to do school work tonight.

And Deidara has yet to text her at all since their parting yesterday in front of the art building. Whether it's for her own benefit of cooling off, or he's stubbornly holding onto his own self-righteous anger as justification, she can't say.

After a warm, steamy shower and a fresh set of dry clothes, Sakura packs her bag, dislodges her umbrella from the clutter in the floor of the closet, and prepares herself to brave the elements.

Here goes nothing.

With wind sending the rain into her face, she angles her umbrella to block the worst of it, but the trip takes longer the usual, leaving Sakura in a foul temperament as her boots plod across the tiled floor of the art building, moving with sloth-like speed up the stairs.

Entering the grad student offices is an eerie experience when she finds herself opening the door (for some reason left unlocked) and flicking on the lights that slowly buzz to full brightness overhead. The outside world is nearly pitch black at this time with the storm slowly picking up in intensity and Sakura is faced with her own pale, weary reflection in the windows. Tromping past the offices, she decides it's best to make some sort of noise in her approach in order to forewarn Sasori of her arrival just in case he's been lounging in the dark for some reason. But as she turns right down the short stretch of partitions to his workspace, she finds it pristine and empty and is reminded that she'll need to leave it in the same condition.

It feels so strange being here without him…

It doesn't feel right at all, as though she's trespassing in private property. But she supposes she better get over that; with the rain pouring outside, there's no way she's safely transporting her artwork across campus to her dorm and it's too late in the evening to go work on the second floor in the old painting classroom, the janitors having already swept through and locked up for the night.

Which still begs the question of why the grad offices were left unlocked…?


But it's not like he knew she would so promptly take heed of his E-mail and safely claim her things from his office tonight.

Deciding to shrug it off, Sakura passes by the glass cases of his puppets, noting a few empty spots in the collection, and heaves open the cabinet doors where he keeps most of his supplies along with her painting. But something new is placed alongside her water color kit and brushes.

Just a thin, paper clipped stack of pages, but Sakura instantly recognizes the one on top – her first attempt at drawing her self-portrait, admonished of course with Sasori's "constructive" criticism. She smiles softly at it, reminded of how much simpler things were just a short time ago. Flipping over the page, she finds print-outs of portraiture examples, mostly done in water colors like hers. She remembers Sasori showing her a few of these examples on his laptop back when he first dropped the bomb on her that he was changing her medium a bit. Sakura had fussed and complained until she saw the beautiful examples, eventually relenting with little confidence that she would ever be able to create something on par with those talented works. Sasori had rolled his eyes, bored with the conversation and agreed she never would if she didn't shut up and get to work.

Eyes crinkling at the memory, she flips to the final sheet, a bit thicker than the others and off-white in color. The smile slips from her face as her eyes widen at the sketch he had made of her while she napped with Deidara, but he had gone back and added just a small touch to the picture…

He had colored in her pink hair.

Something heavy settles in her heart and Sakura knows things aren't over yet, not when two best friends are currently at each other's throats over the same girl. And she doesn't want to be that girl, no matter how many cheesy romances she read that made her fantasize and swoon over this exact situation. To live it is to endure an unpleasant burden and she doesn't want to end a friendship.

I'm not worth that.

If only it had just been one of them. Or if only she could feel so strongly for only one that the choice would be easy. But as things are, she likes both young artists, each so drastically in contrast with the other that to choose one would be to deny the greatness of the other.

So opposite, yet so equal…

What to do?

Who to choose?

"I can't be bothered by this right now," Sakura whispers to herself, sliding the papers into her bag and sliding out her dried work in progress. She has just a week and a half before submission and she has a slew of other papers to finish and exams to study for in preparation for the conclusion of her first year at university. Now is not the time to have her silly head filled with boy problems.

So, she turns on her mp3 player, slides the headphones over her ears, and sets to work on her painting in the otherwise empty office space, one of the printed out pictures from her photoshoot laying on the table before her for reference.

It's sometime after nine o'clock, after walking back home through mud and puddles and purchasing an unsatisfying sub sandwich, that Sakura finds herself lounging on her bed, a textbook open on her stomach and her laptop off to the side with a PowerPoint presentation open to population and evolutionary genetics that her phone alerts her to an incoming text.

She ignores it for a moment, but when the lead in her mechanical pencil breaks for the umpteenth time that night from her heavy-handed ways of applying too much pressure, Sakura flings the pencil at the wall and decides she could use a temporary distraction so she boredly slides her thumb across the screen of the phone to unlock it.

The book slides over the edge of her bed to the floor, landing in a downturned, open-paged heap as wild eyes re-read the text in consternation.

It still says the same thing.

'I wanna go out with a bang. Let's show him what true art is. Meet me at our spot.'

What the hell?!

"What does that even mean?!" Sakura implores her phone to provide some much needed answers, but it merely displays Deidara's text. Of course, she thinks she understands what "our spot" refers to. He wants her to bike all the way out to the place where they set off the fireworks, but what of the rest of it? Going out with a bang?

'Him' probably refers to Sasori.

She has sat passively through too many artistic debates to take it to mean anyone else.

Grunting in frustration, Sakura removes herself from the bed, her socked feet hitting the floor lightly as she moves to tug on her shoes.

She doesn't want to do this on her own, shouldn't be expected to. So she dials Sasori's number, hoping he's chosen to stay in tonight in the less than ideal conditions. If she can get ahold of him, maybe he'll drive her to the trail where the two of them can confront Deidara and have a rational, calm conversation like adults.

Who am I kidding?

But the dial tone keeps humming in Sakura's ear without Sasori picking up his phone until it at last goes to an automatic recording message that the line is unavailable.

"Damn it!" Sakura growls, pulling on her knit toboggan cap with the ridiculous pink pom pom made out of faux fur. It doesn't suit her ready-to-kick-ass-and-take-names demeanor.

She really doesn't want to bike over to Sasori's only to find him out for the night, but if he's there, it'll still be a quicker ride there to have him drive her to meet up with Deidara than to bike all the way herself.

And if she's being completely honest, she's a little afraid of going alone at night, especially without the convenient headlight Deidara used.

What is that idiot thinking?

With Ino roaming around the parties taking place behind closed doors within their own dorm, Sakura has no one to dissuade her from what she's about to do so she plunges out into the wet, dark night to unlock her bike and take to the streets.

Now that the rain has stopped, some students have decided that it'll take more than a few puddles to prevent them from their bar hopping good times and the streets just off of campus are pulsing with light, music pouring out from open patios and flashing lights advertising where tonight's parties are taking place.

Skidding through puddles was not on Sakura's to-do list tonight as she brakes hard to avoid a less than cautious driver turning across her bike lane and nearly clipping the front wheel of her bike. Cursing, her ears catch the distinct melody of her ringtone coming from somewhere in the pockets of her jacket. Hoping it's Sasori returning her missed call, she maneuvers over to the curb, cars whizzing past as she accepts the call, slapping a hand over her unoccupied ear to focus better.

"Sssaakurrahh, yeah!"

"What is it Deidara?" she yells into the phone, barely able to hear anything as a rowdy group of students emerge from one of the bars on their way to the next destination for tonight's mobile party. They whistle at her, trying to get her attention, but Sakura spares them little more than an angry glare as she turns her head away, eyes narrowed in concentration.

"I'm going to blow it all up, yeah!" his voice is jubilant, bordering on dangerously excited.

"W-What? What do you mean? What are you doing right now, Deidara?"

But her demands are met with a frustrating chuckle and some muffled sounds that she can't discern. Sweeping her eyes back and forth across the street, waiting with waning patience for his answer, she's about to speak up again when at last she hears him say, "Come find me."

The call cuts out and Sakura is left staring at the phone in her hand, temper flaring at being hung up on.

He's definitely drunk. Or on something.

She doesn't know which is the case, but it has her feet pumping the pedals faster as she turns off the main road to escape the flow of headlights, daring to take her chances on the less crowded side streets connecting the grid of apartments. It means less light and a greater perceived risk of running into the not-so-friendly types, but Sakura's body is coursing with too much adrenaline to care. By the end of the night she's going to have put an end to all this nonsense, all this petty jealousy and asinine fighting.

Her jaw clenches in determination at the thought.

With relief, her eyes land on the well-lit windows of Deidara and Sasori's apartment, though a twinge of annoyance peaks within her at the realization he probably chose to just ignore her call.

Tossing her bike on the shallow hill of their front yard, Sakura knocks rapidly at the front door, inhaling a deep breath as she stands back to await its answer.

And waits.

And waits.

And is still left waiting.


She inwardly screams, cursing the red-head for his obstinance as she pounds on the door again. She's mid-strike while simultaneously leaning over to try and peer through the front window when the door swings inward, catching her by surprise and throwing her off balance.


She huffs loudly, scowling at the sleepy-eyed man before her, "What the hell? I've tried calling you and I've been pounding at your door for ages! Where's your phone?"

"My phone?" he repeats, looking lost as though he's never heard the concept of a cellphone before.

"Nevermind," Sakura sighs before picking up the small signs of Sasori's activities, her eyes scrunching as she leans forward, "Your eyes are awfully red. What are you doing?" she asks, looking around him and into the living room with its hazy, fruit and honey scented air.

But Sasori turns away and Sakura is left standing on his doorstep as he plods across the living room rug with his bare feet before falling back onto the couch, a content sigh escaping his mouth as his head lulls back, chest expanding on a deep breath.

"Not much," he replies at last, as though half asleep.

Weirded out, Sakura hesitantly enters the home, closing the door on the night behind her as she approaches the man like one would a sleeping tiger. Sharp eyes spot the hookah on the floor, the snake-like hose coiled loosely around the glass base. A near empty bottle of vodka sits on the edge of the coffee table with a short glass beside it.

"Sasori," she calls his name tentatively, feet shuffling closer until her knees brush the edge of the couch cushions, "Sasori," she tries again, leaning down.

An arm shoots out from the deceptively dozing man and Sakura is pulled down atop him, struggling to right herself as his arms snake around her waist, anchoring her to him.

"Sasori!" she repeats sternly, ceasing all struggle in favor of getting him to listen to her, "Pay attention!"

His eyes crack open just the tiniest sliver, his neck tilting to the side to watch the glittering green of her eyes.

"This is important. I think Deidara is going to do something stupid. He called me and I need to meet him," Sakura explains, choosing her words with deliberate slowness to help Sasori's unhurried mind follow along.

"That little shit," he replies as though for her benefit alone, there's no true malice behind the words as though he's speaking without truly registering the conversation. Sakura's mouth tightens into a straight line.

Why is everything so difficult?

"I need you to drive – No," she amends quickly, realizing that'll never do, "I need you to let me borrow your car. And you're coming with me."

In any other case, she knows she wouldn't get her way with this, knows he wouldn't let some petite, pink-haired girl order him around like he's nothing but a lackey, but Sasori's less than clear head isn't up for the task of protesting. Not even a fleeting tidbit of opposition exerts itself in his mind as his hands loosen from around Sakura's hips, one sliding up to the side of Sakura's face to cradle it tenderly.

"Whatever you want, Sakura."

She sighs, disentangling her limbs from his and getting to her feet. All business now, she asks, "Where are your keys?"

It takes him a moment of consideration, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling in thought, but at last he responds, "The kitchen."

Without delay, Sakura takes off to the back of the house, eyes darting around the blender and dish rack, the countertops, even in the fridge, before she at last spots a set of keys on the windowsill above the sink. Snatching them up, her boots click forward as she tugs on Sasori's arm to get him up. With some resistance, he's at last on his feet and following after her, though Sakura has to stop him at the door to put on some shoes. Shaking her head, she nudges him out into the cold and locks the door behind her, taking his arm once more to lead him like a child to the car.

Stupid drunks.

But some of her disdain for the far from ideal situation subsides as Sasori's clumsy movements combined with what Sakura assumes to be alcohol vision, leaves him fumbling with the seatbelt, unsure of how exactly it's supposed to work.

At least he's sober enough to remember wearing it. Baby steps.

Leaning across the console, Sakura guides his hand to click the belt into place and starts the engine.

Already, it's been half an hour since Deidara's text. She doesn't want to leave him to his own devices for much longer, as uncertain as she is to where exactly such freedom might take him.

As the car cruises silently, the radio off and Sasori pressing his temple against the cool inside of the passenger window, Sakura bites her lip in worry. Now she'll not only be walking in the dark, but leading a drunken Sasori through the woods with little more than the puny flashlight on her phone. Really, it's probably worse than simply making the trek alone on her bike.

But together, she and Sasori exit the car and make their way down the footpath to the true, paved bike trail, Sakura holding onto Sasori's arm partly for his benefit and partly for her own. Somehow, she never really noticed how creepy the trail can be at night when she first came here with Deidara. Back then, he had been in the lead, the one with the plan, the one who knew what to expect. Now, Sakura has to be the responsible one, dragging along a drunken grad student for her own comfort as she leads them along with squinting eyes and a dismal beam of light. What's worse, just like last time, she has no idea what to expect from Deidara; she only knows that it probably won't be a romantic fireworks display and a soft kiss under the stars.

Frowning deeply, she pushes onward, their pace slow and stumbling at times as Sasori struggles to come to with lackluster results. Worry eats at the lining of her stomach as she checks the time.

Over an hour since Deidara called her.


She tugs at Sasori's hand and he's pulled along ungracefully as dead leaves crunch under their feet, a rustling off in the distance prickling at the hairs on the back of Sakura's neck.

Please just be a squirrel.

She's in no mood to deal with rabid animals that want to take a piece out of her, or murderous, chainsaw-wielding psychos who want to split her in two.

Not today!

Stomping forward across the bridge, knowing they're close to their destination, Sakura keeps her eyes wandering into the dark, not knowing if she should expect some type of ambush from Deidara.

Her eyes catch on a soft, orange-yellow glow near the ground, Deidara's bike once more toppled over with the light still turned on. Sakura feels a short wave of relief wash over her before she's instantly on guard again.

"Deidara," she calls out cautiously in the night, fingers unconsciously curling tighter around Sasori's hand.

A light flashes on a short way in the distance off to the left, and she can just barely make out the darkened form of someone rising up into a sitting position from the park bench.

"Sakura, yeah!" the voice is happy at first, before turning annoyed, "Took you long enough. I've been freezing my ass off, yeah."

The plink of a glass bottle falling to the ground catches Sakura's attention as he rises to meet her, the flashlight illuminating the tips of his boots.

"I'm sorry, I didn't want to come alone and it took longer than I –"

"What's he doing here, yeah?!" Deidara accusingly shines the flashlight's unforgiving beam into Sasori's face, forcing the older boy to release Sakura's hand in favor of blocking his eyes from the harsh light.

"Shine that fucking thing elsewhere. I'm going blind," Sasori bites out, turning away with his arms blocking his face.

A cruel smile mars Deidara's face as he persists.

"Deidara!" Sakura pleads, stepping forward, to push away Deidara's aim, "You had me worried. What are you doing out here?"

Giving up in his flashlight torture, Deidara aims the beam of light behind them, back toward the now thawed pond where a collection of wood is stacked in a small, masterful pyre on its bank. And atop that, cushioned by a generous mat of dried straw, is a small assortment of Sasori's puppets. Three little wooden figures perch atop the wood pile with limp, lifeless appendages, oblivious to the perilous situation in which a telling red canister, its cap missing and tilted on its side a short ways from the formation threatens to end them.


Sakura's expression is one of true horror and disbelief. This is what Deidara had meant about going out with a bang and showing Sasori what true art is. He's going to destroy his timeless creations.

Sasori staggers up to Sakura's side, their shoulders bumping into each other's as he looks out on the display with wide eyes.

Wide eyes filled with flames.

He leaps at the blond man, tackling him to the cold, hard earth below as they roll around in the dead grass, fighting for dominance and the opportunity to pulverize the other man's body with merciless fists.

Deidara grunts and kicks at Sasori's ribs, rolling away to his feet and taking off back to the bench where a lighter is left somewhere waiting for the grand moment. He curses himself for not keeping it on him as Sasori, fighting off the sluggish effects of the alcohol still lingering in his body, lumbers up behind Deidara, shoving him back to the ground.

This is bad! This is bad! This is really, really bad!

Sakura chases after them as they fall and tumble together again, thanking the small blessing that has befallen this terrible night: at least they're drunk.

And despite all the anger fueling their punches and kicks and hateful words, they're still like two sloppy puppies rolling over one another, just learning how to use their legs. The fight is uncoordinated and unpredictable, but it gives Sakura enough faith in their ability to distract one another as she grabs up the three puppets sitting on Deidara's bonfire and clutches them against her chest.

She knows how much Sasori's artwork means to him. And she knows how much Deidara respects his older friend, how much he'll look back on this event with regret for destroying something so precious.

As she walks purposely back to the tussling artists duking it out on the ground, giving them time to tire in the optimistic hope that they'll be more manageable, Sasori is the one who gets to his feet first this time, blood trickling from his nose and his hair sticking out in every which way as he passes by Sakura, ignoring the hand she holds out to stop him and the arm pressing his three works of art against the front of her jacket.

He doesn't know I have them Sakura thinks in the same panicked instant she catches sight of Deidara scampering over to the canister of gas, a match in hand.

And Sakura's mind whirls in a flurry of successive conclusions: the path of spilled fuel leading to the pyre, the dry, dead grass feeding the flames, and Sasori unknowingly going to rescue his puppets when they're already safely tucked in Sakura's arms. Deidara is kneeling down, watching with pleasure as Sasori reaches the pile of wood, his inebriated mind slowly processing that his creations aren't where he last saw them.

And she can see them both going up in flames right before her eyes if she doesn't do something in the next second.

"NO," she shrieks, the puppets dropping to the ground in a wooden clatter, "Noooooo!"

She's sprinting.

Then diving.

Then crashing.

Then landing.

Her cheek aching as she lifts it away from Deidara's leather jacket, a slight scrape stinging from where it caught across the undone zipper. But she doesn't really feel it. Doesn't feel anything aside from the relief and crashing tide of adrenaline as she lies bonelessly atop Deidara's chest.


Just thankful that she was fast enough to prevent the match from being flicked into the fuel that would consume everything that matters.

Deidara grunts beneath her, trying to sit up, but Sakura isn't ready to move.

"Sakura, yeah? Are you hurt?"

It's killing me. You guys are absolutely killing me.

She rolls away from him, her back hitting the ground beside him with a thud and for an instant her mind is blank as she finally catches sight of the stars dimly twinkling through the clouded sky overhead.

But it doesn't last. Sasori limps over to them, kneeling down to eye level as Deidara and Sakura sit up, regaining their composure, plummeting quickly back down to the reality of the situation, too afraid to move, too afraid to admit what almost occurred.

"What is wrong with the two of you?" Sakura whispers darkly under her breath, refusing to look either of them in the eye, so white-hot is her fury, "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!"

She doesn't trust herself to say anymore just yet, her chin is already trembling with the effort not to cry. Not here. Not now.

Damn it. Damn it!

"Sakura," she doesn't know who says her name so pitifully like that. The blood is rushing too loudly in her ears.

"How can you treat each other like this?" she asks, at last turning her face to meet theirs, her now adjusted eyes able to make out the bruise blooming under Deidara's eye and the rip around the collar of Sasori's sweater, a scrap of dark fabric dangling by a few threads.

"How can you involve me in this – this – whatever this is," she hisses, bringing her knees up to her chest.

A moment of silence hangs between the three, each too lost in their own racing thoughts and too anxious to hear someone else speak first.

"I can't do this," Sakura says at last, getting to her feet, "I can't be around either of you. Not if it's going to be like this. Not if it's going to ruin your friendship. I don't know what either of you expect from this or what you want but – "

"I want you, yeah," Deidara cuts in earnestly, quickly standing.

"And I need you," Sasori insists, on his feet as well.

Sakura shakes her head, the first hot tear overflowing the brim of her eyelid and sliding down her cheek. Shakily, she stands her ground, knowing this has to be done here and now. It's not something to be dragged out until the daylight hours when they're all refreshed and cleaned up. No, now is best.

"You guys can't do this to me. No, I'm not making some kind of choice here. I don't want this," she swallows, "I don't want either of you."

Something breaks in their expressions, something like panic in Deidara's and a knowing loss in Sasori's as they watch her fetch the forgotten flashlight a few yards away, its light growing dim from constant use.

"I'm going," she states flatly, "Are you guys coming or not?"

Slowly, as though unthawing, Sasori bends over with a brittleness too advanced for his young age in order to collect his abused puppets, and Deidara walks ahead to pick up his bike. In silence, the three meander their way along the winding trail back to the car with Deidara walking his bike, Sakura marching in the middle with an expression befitting a warrior, and Sasori gently carrying his puppets.

Sakura slides behind the steering wheel with Sasori taking the front passenger seat again, this time buckling the seatbelt for himself while Deidara hoists his bike into the trunk before taking the back seat.

"Sakura," Deidara starts, but Sakura shoots a glare into the backseat via the rearview mirror with a defiant, "No," and so ends all attempts at conversation. Sakura silently grumbles over her misfortune at hitting nearly every red light on her way back to their apartment, but at last the car is parked and she gets out, tossing the keys into Sasori's lap before he even has time to exit the car.

She's already righting her bicycle, thankful that no one made off with it in its abandoned state, and mounts her ride home, leaving two artists to silently watch her back as she zooms down their street.

The dark pavement shimmers from the rain as she passes under pools of lamp light set in regular intervals along her route home. Sakura wants nothing more than to fall asleep and forget that any of this ever happened.

The week and a half before her painting is due for submission flies past in the blink of an eye. Sakura skips the remaining two painting classes she's supposed to assist Sasori with, but no reprimand or angry E-mail is sent her way to nag at her conscience for such blatant disregard of her responsibilities. Instead, she uses the extra time to finish her painting, make flashcards for her biology exam, successfully navigate her way through a tricky dialogue with her French professor as part of her final grade, and turn in the last lab report of the semester for her chemistry class. And without private lessons with the sulky Sasori or distracting texts from the attention-seeking Deidara, she is left to enjoy time with her other friends before they all head home or embark on vacations to foreign countries for the summer.

It came with some surprise when a few hours after submitting her painting, she received an E-mail notifying her that her artwork had been accepted into the showcase. What Sakura hadn't known and what Sasori never informed her, was that such acceptance compelled her to be present for the formal judging of the selected artworks which would be accompanied with some light refreshments and mingling of the art students, professors, and anyone who happened to come by for a look.

Today, Sakura finds herself standing in front of her painting as a slow-moving group of judges glides through the gallery with their clipboards, squinting eyes, and pursed lips, knowing they're the ones with all the power to bestow the colorful, official-looking ribbons upon the works that tickle their fancy, breaking the hearts of those students who just don't measure up to their lofty standards. Sakura inhales deeply, impatient to leave and return to her computer where a final paper is waiting to be edited and submitted by midnight. It's a quarter till six and she desperately wants dinner; the cheese and crackers with complementary fruits just aren't cutting it for her. Tapping her heeled foot lightly, trying to smile when one of the judges looks up from his notes to glance at her, Sakura sighs, running her hands down her knee-length pencil skirt.

Turning, she regards her work with a hint of pride, overall very happy with how it turned out though the memories behind its conception aren't exactly as light as the picture itself. She chose one of the photos in which she's jumping in the air, her skirt bouncing and flowing around her in what she deemed as a rather aesthetic look. Her arms are lifted up, but tucked in close to her body, her hair flying around her face, and a peculiar expression in place. Most of the photos revealed Sakura to be in the midst of smiling, laughing, or purposely looking serious and relaxed. But this one had been rather candid, Sakura having not controlled her facial features much as she twisted away from the camera.

Of course, as she finished her painting in private and away from Sasori's eyes, she took a few liberties with her portraiture. It isn't wholly realistic as she was struck by a bit of creative passion one final night while reviewing her work. Wildly, she added strings to her limbs, going straight up and off the top of the canvas into the unknown with a small, white bird fluttering near her face, the reason for her odd, distracted countenance.

Ino had looked over Sakura's shoulder that night as she held up the canvas one final time to take it all in, deciding she had at last reached the end with it.

Her friend hadn't said much, but she settled a hand on Sakura's shoulder, a small, sincere smile in place as she at last said, "It's perfect."

Sakura smiles at the memory. Ino has her lovable moments and Sakura had really needed to hear something positive related to her painting after so much unpleasant drama.

Crossing her arms, Sakura breathes in contentedly, tilting her head to the side as she zeroes in on the tiny bird.

Maybe I should have made his wings a bit larger, more feathery, maybe? Or maybe a different color would have been smarter…

"Now what did I say about hindering your perspective in order to bear looking at your own artwork?"

Sakura jumps, spinning around to see not just Sasori, but Deidara as well standing before her.

"It really is beautiful, Sakura. Well done," Sasori smirks softly.

"A real work of art, yeah," Deidara adds, before looking down at his hand holding out the object for Sakura to take, "Here, yeah, these are for you."

"Oh!" Sakura smiles in delight, accepting the bouquet of yellow daffodils, "They're beautiful! Thank you," she replies shyly.

Sasori hands her his own bouquet of purple tulips and Sakura is left standing speechless, her arms draped in an eye-catching display of fresh blooms.

"Congratulations," he says sincerely, "Your progress has been amazing."

"Yeah, you might have to reconsider the whole doctor thing and join us artists, yeah," Deidara nods, a hint of his old, familiar grin slipping into place.

"Miss?" a woman interrupts, another woman and an elderly man at her back, "May we have a look at your work?"

"Oh!" Sakura brings the flowers closer to her chest, flustered, "Of course! Yes, let me get out of the way."

She steps to the side as Deidara and Sasori slide away from the procession smoothly, Deidara nodding at the girl in parting as the two artists drift out of sight, mingling into the crowd of students near the exit of the gallery hall.

With a twinge of disappointment, Sakura watches them go, doing her best to stand up straight and not make eye contact with the judges as they inspect her painting, leaning in closely and conversing amongst themselves in hushed whispers too low for even Sakura's attentive ears to pick up. At last, they proceed to the next student eagerly awaiting their arrival to show-off his silkscreen art. A few students stop by to converse with Sakura, complimenting her on her work and she even catches sight of the lithe-formed Konan dressed in black, her blue hair being the point of focus. She smiles at Sakura, passing through the crowds.

At last, the night's judging comes to a close at half past six and Sakura is not among the recipients of the ribbons though she was mostly expecting that. Still, her artwork will remain on display until the end of finals and that in itself is something to feel accomplished about. With her bundle of flowers, she heads outside where spring is just starting to make an appearance in the greening grass and budding trees. It's been an unusually harsh winter and Sakura has almost forgotten that something other than bleak grays and dead plants exists in nature. As she makes her way down the steps of the building, she spots two unmistakable heads turn away from their view of the quad and glance up at her.

They waited around?

"What are you two still doing here?" she asks, a light laugh in her tone though she's still a bit apprehensive of all of this. The flowers. The surprise turn-up at the showcase. What's happened between them in her absence?

"I figured I might as well inform you of your grade now that you've turned in your final project," Sasori starts, lazily watching her for a reaction.

"You failed, yeah!" Deidara blurts out, laughing at Sakura's stunned face.

"Actually," Sasori continues, a light smirk in place as he reaches out a hand to help guide Sakura down the stairs in her cumbersome shoes, "I think I'll give you an A."

"Well," Sakura replies with good-natured haughtiness, "I did do exactly what you wanted. I got in to the showcase, so it's basically no contest. I deserve that A," she declares, hands on her hips, though the pose is made slightly comical by the voluminous bouquet in either hand.

"So, do you feel like celebrating, yeah?" Deidara asks eagerly, standing up from his seat on the stairs to loop his arm through Sakura's.

"Weeelll," Sakura stalls, "I've got a paper to finish…"

"C'mon, it'll just be dinner. You have to eat," Deidara persuades, already walking with Sakura down the steps and away from the direction of her dorm.

"And since I'm not your teacher anymore, there's no need for you to make a fuss over it," Sasori adds, relinquishing Sakura's hold of his bouquet, and taking her hand in his.

What in the world?

"Wait. Wait. Wait. Hold up," Sakura interrupts the two's attempts at pulling her along, making them come to a complete stop, "What's up with you guys?" she hesitates, raising an eyebrow at their nonplussed expressions, "Is everything…good – between you guys?"

Deidara tsks, "Sakura, Sakura, yeah. It's all water under the bridge," he chuckles, prompting her to move forward as he renews their walk toward the restaurants nearby.

Sakura looks up to her right, awaiting Sasori's confirmation with suspicion apparent in her eyes.

"What's with that look, Sakura?" he teases, "You shouldn't worry your pretty, little head so much."

Dumbfounded, Sakura shakes her head, smiling to herself as she's swept away in the storm of the two artists.

Only it's not so much a storm, not this time.

No, it's more like the start of a beautifully harmonic relationship.

Author's Note: Did I just write a story with a conclusive pairing? And not just a pariring but a threesome? Is this some alternate universe? Am I sick?

Anyway, just a few notes to explain some things that might cause confusion. Firstly, Sasori is not an actual professor at the university Sakura attends. He's a grad student, and while I don't know if it's this way at most colleges, a lot of the art classes where I attended were often taught by grad students rather than full professors; I think it served as a way for them to pay their way through schooling though it could have been a requirement at that level (not really sure). While Sakura is a freshman, I have Deidara as a junior and Sasori in his first year of grad school, just to give you an estimate on ages. I based The Red Secret off a bar in my campus's city, though it wasn't the underground hole in the wall I made it out to be in this story. It was well known and always packed, but still a lot of fun nonetheless with the piano renditions of pop songs.

Credit to the songs mentioned in this story:

"Fancy" – Iggy Azalea

"Let Her Go" – Passenger

It was actually around the point when Deidara first started hanging out in Sasori's classroom all the time that I was going to end up taking this story in a much darker, grittier, more dramatic direction than what I did. But I ended up deleting some things and doing some editing to keep things a bit lighter without turning it into overly lovey-dovey fluff. Originally, I started thinking about implementing some back story with Sasori's difficult time with accepting his parents' deaths and his inability to let himself get too close to others while Deidara was going to be this huge rebel without a cause with a plausible rough childhood and maybe throw in some hidden addiction problems as well. But then I put the brakes on that train of thought after hitting a roadblock on the idea that the two would constantly be at each other's throats, trying to get Sakura to side with him against the other and completely blowing up their friendship (possibly to be taken literally). I figured the outcome of that story would be pretty dismal and complicated and no one would come out of it as a winner, and who wants to read that? So this is the way toned down version of that.

And anyone who knows about colors probably recognized the purposeful choice of yellow and purple flowers; they're on opposite sides of the color wheel and thus complementary colors (and well, yellow like Deidara's hair and purple like Sasori's poison in canon).

Song for inspiration: "Nina" – Ed Sheeran

I hope you all enjoyed this and that the wait was worth it. My fingers are tired of typing.

Reviews are nice.

Thanks for reading!