That is, the winner of my Halloween contest, whose prize was a oneshot written by me. Here's her request: a fluffy and progressive (that is, childhood to adulthood, about ages 7 to 18) tale of lovesick Sasori/oblivious Sakura. I can totally dig that. (And also, per usual, making it an loooong story.)

This means that Sasori and Sakura's lives, ideas, dialogue, etc., will get more complex as the story goes on, and as their decisions and maturity grow as they do. It's written in the form of Sasori's own memories, and I reserve the right to cut conversations/memories short here and there, or glaze over them, because rarely do we replay every little second of a memory, front to back, when we think of it.

As in many of my AU stories, the setting is America, mostly because I enjoy writing the quirks of the American school system more than the Japanese one, so don't be surprised at the amount of American influence spread around. I found it a little surreal writing a tale where Sakura reads Harry Potter and Sasori frequents DeviantART and they have friends with names like Rachel and Travis and Ashton…but…they're living in our world, in our culture, so why not? I did make them live in a town with lots of Japanese immigrants, though, so there's an excuse for the Naruto cast to live there, haha.

Warnings: 1) Lovesick, OOC Sasori 2) Sakura singing onstage for a talent show (don't laugh, I like that scene..) 3) I'm sure I'll find something else to put here.

One day he picked up the blue-eyed cat she kept so lovingly on the shelf and he remembered.

He remembered and loved everything about her. Every encounter. Every wish.

He remembered second grade.

Being completely biased, he could say nothing about it, but people told him as a child he'd been really adorable. Maybe that was why he could ask his parents for anything and they'd give it to him. He abused the privilege only mildly. "Mom? Mom, may I go outside? I finished my homework, see?" He held up the math worksheet for his mother, marked with all the crawling, broken-necked letters of a seven-year-old's hand.

"Yes, you can. Just don't leave our street, okay? No going past Miss Cory's house. Sasori, wait! Those shoes have a hole in them. Take your red ones instead."


His mother tied his shoes for him, since he hadn't quite mastered it yet. He sat quietly on the second step of the stairs tied them neat and tight, so he wouldn't step on them while playing. He had been patient for her to finish. Only for his parents was he ever willing to be patient. His mother told him to come back soon, since dinner was close to done, and Grandma was coming over, too. He went out the front door with the standard polite wave his parents had taught him.

It was the end of September, which Sasori couldn't spell yet. He could spell "fall" though, and he knew that presently fall was around him. Summer was his season of preference and always had been—heat was enjoyable, whatever the whining, sweating masses said—but as a child he had a fondness for trudging through, or even jumping in, autumn leaf piles. At some point he noticed that areas with many trees had many leaf piles. As he had yet to become "one of the smart kids" this revelation was massive to him, and he very much wanted to go find some such areas after school. So he did. He dashed sneakily (James Bond-ily, he used to think) behind the side of his neighbors' house and out of sight. And the woods were before him.

Everyone on his street had quite a large backyard. Marking the edge of each one was a straight line of trees: the edge of the woods, an area nearly a mile across, sitting between residential subdivisions. He was not yet grown enough to recognize the slight danger in those woods: the tall, tall trees and many, masking shadows. Now, it was a green land of wonderment with fantastic patches of autumn color, splashed with sunbeams and warmth and birds. And it waited for him to explore it and know it. Sasori went forward into the woods.

He ran straight in. He gasped when suddenly there were big shapes and shadows over his head that blocked out a half the sky or more. The grass under his shoes turned to crinkly, crackly leaves and his steps were made loud and obvious. He dodged under a branch, went around a bush, scared a bird. He thought of his classmate, Sasuke, who once got really scared by a bird at recess, and sniggered. He was infinitely braver (and cooler) than Sasuke. But then he heard a soft noise. Someone else was in his woods.

Slowly, with crinkly-leaf steps, Sasori turned around again and faced the deeper forest. Not much farther in he spotted a large dark cube, blocking his view of some of the trees beyond. It was a tree house, perhaps six by ten feet with two windows. It nestled in the palm of a great tree about five to six feet off the ground. It was held in place by many branches like dependable fingers protecting something in the palm. In the doorway was a little girl. And this he only knew because her hair was pink, the girliest color in the world.

That thought about stopped him from breathing. 'Pink,' he thought again. 'Hair isn't supposed to be pink!' He was afraid, but curious. He felt like an unseen string was pulling him in her direction. Even though she might be a witch or something.

The girl slipped through a window and onto a thick branch. He heard her say "Juliet!", a name he remembered from a sad book his father and grandmother liked. She kept talking. "Good job killing that dragon! I liked the part where you cut his Achilles tendon. Good cat-surgeon. Now I have to find the princess, so stand guard!" Sasori watched her jump easily from branch to branch like a cat three times, before she noticed him. She was seeing him for the first time, and her face exploded in undiluted terror.

"Where'd you come from?" she said quietly.

"…Mallow Street." he said, because he wasn't sure what she wanted. He was sure she had green eyes, though. They stood out to him, and in the present he acknowledged them as the force that had pulled him to her in the first place.

"Wh…well, why are you here? This is my spot! This my tree house! Go away!" She retreated back to the doorway and put her hand on the door, as though she meant to shut him out.

He took a few steps forward anyway, crackling at his feet and scaring the girl. "You can't tell me to go away. It's a free country."

"You can't come to my tree house 'cause you'll just laugh at me!" she said. There were tears in her eyes and her hands shook on the doorframe. He noticed her slightly quivering jaw and hands, and the trace of anger that ran through all parts of her. Sasori had no idea how he noticed such things as a second grader, how he distinguished her sorrow and scars from that of some girl who cried from a fall at recess or the lack of an extra cookie, but he did. He chose to come closer to the girl and observe her. She hurt, and he felt compelled to make it stop.

He walked till he was at the foot of her tree house, five wooden ladder rungs from her. "Why would I laugh at you? Are you funny?"

She looked confused, and her tears slowed. "No. But people laugh anyway." she replied. Her cat meowed above them but the girl paid it no heed. "The girls who sit at my table say I have a big forehead. And I'm ugly."

"Then they're jerks." He said immediately. "You're pretty. Those girls at your table are probably jealous that you're pretty and you have your own tree house." What fantastically pink hair she had. He watched her look away from him and run a hand through a part of it, catch on a tangle, and make a fist around it. She stayed still and murmured that nobody knew this place, and so nobody could laugh at her here.

"I'm not laughing at you." He said.

Her cat meowed again, twice. The girl snapped her head up to the tree house roof. "Will you be quiet, Juliet?" She sent him a gaze full of embarrassment and tried to lighten it by averting her eyes and laughing. He would later look back on that as the first time he ever thought of her as adorable. "That's, um…that's my cat, Juliet. She's a surgeon warrior."


"Juliet and me beat bad guys with surgery. We use scalpels and stuff to cut 'em and knock 'em out. Then if there are any princesses around we rescue them."

And that was the first time he thought of her as weird.

But she was smiling now, the thoughts of her cruel tablemates drifted away. Sasori's breath caught slightly in his throat. She asked him, "Do you want to play a game with me, maybe? You seem really nice. I'll let you come inside my tree house."

He wanted to. "Okay." And he closed the last few steps between himself and the tree. There were five wooden slats nailed into the tree. Five steps. He started to climb them. There was no "porch" area where he could move up onto before going in the door; the door was all there was, so he clambered into the doorway, past the girl's feet, and then stood up. The tree house was cozy and had two big windows, but his drilled-in manners appeared before he could notice anything else. "My name's Sasori. I'm in second grade."

Her appearance was shy now. "Hi. I'm Sakura I'm in first grade. And I'm six." And she put out her hand to shake, which he also remembered from his various sets of manners. He shook it and was surprised at the warmth of it, and at how it shook even while encased in his own hand. An elder Sasori might have chuckled at that.

"'Kay, so…me and Juliet just finished beating the Moleman, and we rescued a princess from his evil tower." Sakura said importantly. "So we have to think of another game to play that's not about beating the Moleman."

Sasori thought about it a moment. At the tender age of seven, he already was recognized as a calmer child, not the sort to romp and dash about on the playground at recess. Not that much, anyway. His favorite games were usually the sort that could be played sitting or standing still. "Do you have a ball? We can play catch." Sakura's eyebrows pinched together in a frown and she shook her head with a mutter of "M'sorry."

"I have a question." He said abruptly, and Sakura became attentive. "How come your hair is pink? That's not a normal color."

She was suddenly not attentive. Her face fell apart completely and her arms pressed harshly against her sides. "I'm…I'm just like that. My mama says it's just my special thing. Everybody's g-got a special thing." Her eyes began to turn watery again, and he felt her pain again. He started almost in fear. There would be some great and terrible consequence if he couldn't make her happy again. It was a strange set of feelings for him, but he waded through.

"I'm not trying to make fun of you. I was just curious. I like your hair. I think it's pretty. Remember how I said that before?" She nodded but said nothing. What else could be done? He knew of one solution. "Don't be sad. We can play whatever game you want. You can choose."

Sakura looked at him unsurely, pulling on her sleeve. "I like the games with rescuing princesses. Um, that'd be extra fun if I could…rescue you?"

"So I have to be the princess?"


How the hell had she gotten him to say yes? She did. Somehow. With some elegant turn of phrase or clever backswitch of words, together with a fine flash of a smile that made him dizzy. She did that frequently, no matter what place, or how old they were. Whatever he said about it—he'd apparently blacked it out—he knew that right afterward, Sakura brightened up immeasurably. Every aspect of her became…just that: bright. And she jumped on the balls of her feet. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I'm gonna go get a stick to be your royal scepter, okay? Stay here!"

And he stayed. He was given a stick for a scepter (it was a goddamn lame scepter) and he held it so all the world knew he was now a princess. Sakura came in the door and the window and pushed and pulled at him to get him out of the castle, or the sewer, or the maze of lima beans, wherever his kidnapper had put him.

He was late for dinner in the end but he didn't care.

On the following Monday, they met again on the school playground, by way of Sakura throwing a piece of playset mulch at his head.

He was watching Konan draw a horse with chalk on the ground when it happened. He turned to face the bully and found only her, excited to see him and discover they attended the same school and had the same recess time. She chattered on about how she wanted to see him again at the tree house on Sunday, but running errands with her mother had kept her from it. Overall, she was ecstatic to see him again, and so was he, but his enthusiasm was nothing like hers. She presented him with a ball, ready play catch as he'd wanted to the other day.

Sakura passed the ball to him, and he laughed at one of her many comments. "Your mom signed you up to play soccer?" She looked offended, so he tried to make it less insulting. "Sorry, you look…kinda little, is all. People might knock you around and stuff."

In the later years this impression would slap him in the face several times. She began the process by, at that moment, smoothing her face into cool displeasure and throwing the ball at him. It struck him in the stomach, shoving air from his belly and shoving pain in. He was knocked flat onto his back with his legs briefly thrashing in the air before flopping down into an ungraceful pile with the rest of him. His stomach hurt. His head hurt where it had slapped and then scraped the concrete, and none of the hurt would stop. He started to cry.

Ms. Garner blew the whistle that ended recess. The noise blared and smothered his own and suddenly the quiet sobs he'd hardly started seemed useless in the face of that noise. Or something. Sasori just remembered his crying halting at the whistle's blow. Simultaneously, the light over his face was blocked by the great silhouette of Sakura's head and trailing hair. He turned his head up and met her eyes just to show that he wasn't as violently hurt as he really felt, or thought he did. But her expression was only apologetic.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you so bad!" She pulled him up by his arm till he sat up and was hugging him. He stubbornly refused to hug her back and tried to be angry instead of hurt (boys weren't supposed to cry, ever). "I'm really, really sorry, Sasori. I can ask Ms. Garner for a band-aid to make it better, 'kay? I'll make it better! I wish I was grown-up 'cause then I could be a doctor and fix you up with lots of shots and medicine. But the school has band-aids so you get band-aids. Ms. Garner! Ms. Garner can I have a band-aid!"

The recess supervisor came jogging over, dodging around kids who were going back inside and bouncing her absurdly large and ugly cat-shaped brooch. Sasori saw Gregory staring at him worriedly, and Hannah, a third grader, pointing at Sakura. Or Sakura's hair. But then Ms. Garner producing a band-aid from her pocket distracted him, because it had a Snoopy pattern on it, his favorite character of the time.

The supervisor picked him up and he then tuned in to her talk about not playing rough, especially with a friend, and Sakura babbled on about how she was so sorry about hurting her only friend and would never do it again.

"Oh, Sasori! You should come over to my house today!" Sakura gasped suddenly. "You can maybe ride my bus home with me. Ms. Garner, can I go to the office and call my mama? I gotta tell her Sasori is coming over and we'll get off the bus together."

While Ms. Garner chuckled and little and explained that's not what the phone in the main office was for, Sasori marveled at how she had called him her only friend. Already he was aware that her classmates mocked her, growing young jackals that they were, but to be told so directly that he was her only friend, to have such a spot so close to her all for himself, was startling. And wonderful. That spot was his only.

He joined in her heckling. "Ms. Garner, we're never gonna use the phone again except for this. Can we please do it just this once?" Sakura beamed at him. They each recognized in each both a friend and a partner in crime.

The supervisor knitted her thin, old-lady brows together. She, too, saw they were ganging up on her. "Children, it's really only for kids to call their parents about being sick. If Mr. Richard saw you making a call just to set a playdate, he'd be quite mad."

"But just once, Ms. Garner. We don't do it ever again. I swear if I'm dead and on fire and being eaten by bats I still won't use the phone."

Good one, he told her through a grin which Ms. Garner missed.

"Ohh." The no-longer-supervisor pulled awkwardly on the lanyard round her neck. "Oh for goodness' sake. Come, we'll go to the office. But if your teachers put you in time-out for not coming back from recess, that's your own fault. Don't you do this again."



Such was their first act of mischief, circa the days of elementary school. They walked behind the supervisor with giggling, grinning faces like twin hyenas, and whispered about what they would do when they got to Sakura's house. Each placed a call home, explaining their plans to their parents, who were surprisingly approving of their children's sudden ideas. They were each placed in time-out once they returned to class for "hiding in the bathrooms", as they claimed, but three hours later boarded Bus 167 together. Saya and Nobuyuki Haruno stood waiting for them at the bus stop on the corner of Cirrus Lane.

He would spend many years on that street.


He threw a stick at her, and the thick end struck her flat on the head.

She caught the offensive projectile before it could fall to the ground and pointed it at him. "Princesses do not throw things! That is not ladylike!"

"I'm a prince."

"No, you're not."

"Sakura, I'm a boy."

"No, you're not!"

He found another stick and threw it to quiet her nonsense. Thus the game of rescuing Princess Sasori For The Eightieth Time became a stickfight.

It was the first day of December now. His eighth birthday had come and gone (his parents booked a party for him at TunnelTown, which was like the playplace at McDonald's except it never ended) and Sakura had gotten him a deluxe paint set, as he had told her long ago of how he loved art time in his class. His other gifts were nice, and his other friends were nice, but they simply didn't matter as much as Sakura did. His parents, and hers, had the look of preteen girls observing a small kitten when he asked them if Sakura could come over after the party and paint with him.

She did, many times. Mostly she watched him paint, and when she painted herself, she painted cats and stethoscopes, with the occasional awkward triangle of pizza. Whenever one could be driven via parent to the other to visit, they would go to the tree house. Most days, Sasori was made into Sakura's princess and she found new and strange ways to rescue him and invent kidnappers, and sometimes involve the mild-mannered Juliet in his rescuing. He remembered once being kidnapped by a radioactive hunk of cheese, and that had been a very cool rescuing. There was also the time Sakura let him rescue her and even make up the kidnapper. He decided it was a huge, ugly black ant, a very scary beast that Sakura should cower from and scream at. Sakura played her damsel-in-distress role well and he pulled her out the window just in time to avoid being digested. That, too, had been a very cool rescuing.

Spring came, and Sakura turned seven, and that was about the point when time began to blur together for him.

Spring came and jackets and snowboots and trips to the sledding hill on Chipman Road went away. School let out and he visited Sakura at least twice a week, and his parents and hers became best friends.

Grandma Chiyo talked about books with Sakura's mom all the time, and told stories about her amazing vacations to every continent except Antarctica.

That summer was very, very hot, the way he liked it. It helped him tolerate the endless days where he was a princess (Sakura never tired of that game) He began to attend Sakura's soccer games and appreciate that she was oddly strong for a little girl. Her kicks and punches were probably stronger than his, but he never said this aloud.

School came again, ended again. In July, his parents asked if he wanted a baby brother or sister to play with, and he said no, because he had Sakura and playing with her was most important.

The tree house, the hours of playing in her room, Juliet, painting and chasing and laughing all blurred together in his mind. Childhood was known to do that, but it seemed especially blurred for him, like this year or so of his life was being glazed over or skipped. And there was good reason for that. It was all rather blurred up to when the snow came that year. It was a week after his birthday. It was the night he and his parents were driving back from the school's annual bingo night, where he had beaten all the other fourth graders, except for his friend Tristan, and won a backpack. His dad said it looked great and he should take it to school tomorrow.

Suddenly his mother screamed and he couldn't see and his head hurt, and then nothing was ever blurred again.

And after...

It was his first funeral. His grandmother taught him how to fasten a tie.

They were silent together. They were in a large room which Sasori remembered reminded him of a dressing room at some fancy theater. He hated his little black suit, the scar marring his neck, how he couldn't smile anymore. Mostly he hated that his mom wasn't there to tie his tie for him. He hurt inside, and wasn't yet articulate enough to outright tell this to anyone.

Sasori looked at himself in the body-length mirror. He was barely ten years old and his body took up barely half of it. He saw his own eyes and quiet frown: the subdued and melancholy expression that he would wear forever afterward. Grandma Chiyo saw his expression in the mirror and put her hands over her mouth. She, too, could see it becoming permanent. She wrapped him up in her arms.

"I'll always be here for you, my love." She said. She said a few other things, sweet and protective things but he didn't remember them. He remembered only the hurt.

The funeral took place in a church-like room where pictures of his parents on a big collage stood up front, and rows of pews were behind. His best friend Sakura stood up suddenly from one of them in a pretty, solemn dress. He saw the flash of blue and pink coming towards him, and it slammed into him for a hug yet again. Sasori let her, and put his arms around her, too. His head rested in the curve of her shoulder and he hid there.

She had hugged him and held him many times in the past few days and under his deepening, heavy layers of sadness, it helped him a bit. He realized that he did need help, but did not know how to ask. So many things he never learned how to ask. How to do. He was alone now.

He cried at the funeral. Softly, weakly, because his special type of mellow happiness had been crushed with his parents' bodies and he had little strength left inside anymore. He went to his grandmother's house, just a mile from home, and the guest room was made into his. His bed, his coloring tools, his Gameboy, and all other things from his room were transferred. Some of the more memorable items from his house came, too, like his father's bookshelf and the kitchen table that his mom had paid five dollars for.

He remembered the moving crew that moved the shelf and table and the desk from the study. They had handled the things like they were bags of rotten potatoes. One dropped the bookshelf on the floor of his grandmother's kitchen and the top shelf came lose.

Sasori remembered running up to the mover and kicking him furiously in the back of his leg. The man cried out and stared at him as he yelled, "Pick it up, pick it up! That was my father's and he's dead! I'll kill you if you break it!"

The mover picked it up nicely after that.

Sakura came over often to occupy him, to help him. They visited the tree house, played games together, did homework, and once chased and rescued a lost dog (Sakura was ecstatic to actually rescue something). Every day she couldn't be with him, and every time one of them had to leave, something invisible inside him clenched like a pained muscle.

Sakura brought brightness wherever she went; he could understand and value that even as a child. Everything was made happy and animated and clever and fun. His homework was always correct if she helped on it, especially math assignments. The tree house was like an entirely new place if he visited it with her. At their sleepovers in his or her living room, he whispered the emptiness he felt sometimes when he thought of his parents, and she murmured of the children who continued to step on her budding confidence, and they helped each other heal. And he felt like smiling whenever she smiled at him. Something about her was simply perfect and he wanted her around him always.

He remembered the March after their death. Sakura was happy about turning nine next week. She was always happy to "catch up" to his age, and that made him laugh a little. They were at the tree house yet again, which was still strong and dark. The woods around them were sunny and cool.

Sakura was balancing on one of the stronger branches using the heels of her boots. Her hair was a little long at this time, and she wore a skirt and a purple jacket that he thought looked nice. "I have a little surprise today. Something really awesome happened during history time in my class." she said.

Sasori lay on his back with his feet hanging off the edge of the doorway. "Did your teacher do a backflip again?"

"Nah, she did it that one time right before Christmas break and then never again. I guess this is awesome just for me."

"A good grade on a quiz."

She grinned, "Pff. Always. This is…okay, in a way, this is even better than an A on a quiz." And that caught his attention. If there was anything to be recalled about Sakura in elementary school, it was that her record of stellar academics was taking off quick, and she was already proud of it. Anything larger than that in her world was…a mystery. So he sat up and listened, brown eyes attentive. "You remember Karin and Ami."

Of course he did. They had called her names in first grade and they called her names in third grade, and they would later in fourth, too. But at the time they were her tormentors of only two years, the only people who ever made her cry, who reversed their natural roles so that Sakura came to him for comfort and to be petted softly on the head. He listened.

She stood poised on the branches. "I called Karin ugly and knocked her out of her chair."

He balked. Sakura had always taken his and her parents' advice in ignoring the girls who taunted her, in giving none of her natural energy to even talking to them. And now this. "What happened? What the heck did they do?"

The little pinkette giggled and a breeze lifted the edges of her hair. She reminded him of a cat. "Ms. Allison said to take out our history books, and I did. And Karin threw a pencil at me and said to draw a mustache on my face so I wouldn't look so ugly." Even that couldn't sweep the sweet smile from her face. "And she smacked our desks together. Y'see, this month my class is doing this thing where four desks are put together to make a table and that's how we all have three tablemates. So she shoved her desk forward so mine went back and it hit me right in my tummy—" She stopped to breathe.

"Okay. And…I said that if I needed a moustache then she needed surgery to fix her ugly goblin face. And I smacked the desks right back, and that pushed her right out of her chair!"

Hearing of Karin getting her just desserts sounded rapturous. He would have given an arm and a leg to be a third grader again, or just to be in her classroom then to see it. "Finally," he laughed. "I was starting to think ignoring her wouldn't be enough."

"I was starting to think that a year ago!" she said back to him. "I'm so tired of that jerkface. And I didn't even get in trouble for it. Ms. Allison barely said anything when Karin and her friends tried to tell on me. And she gave me a piece of candy from her desk. So I'm pretty sure I won." She came quickly across her branch and straight into the south window of the tree house. She sat down and hugged him around his shoulders. "I'm really, really happy I did it. Thanks so much for helping me with her meanness."

He hugged her back, feeling the funny material of her purple jacket, of her hair that was getting too long now. "I have some good news, too. It's about your birthday gift. Or, two gifts." She slowly released him and sat on her feet, quietly listening. "I pretty much have to give the first part early so we can do the second part next week. Your first gift is a movie."

"Ooh," she smiled. "Do I get to know what one?"

"Hmmm, I'll let you guess. The story is from a really long book. And you just started reading the book."

She gasped and sat up straighter. "It's that Harry Potter one! You got me the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone movie! I never got to see that yet!"

The exuberance she showed at this was like sunlight. A small, growing poetic piece of him found it beautiful. "Mm-hmm. I wanted to give that to you tomorrow on the bus, since my mom's gonna buy it today. We can watch it together when you come over next. And remember that's just part one."

"Part two, please. Tell me. Now. Please."

He laughed. "Part two is…movie number two." Sakura's brows slowly went up in understanding, but he verbalized it anyway. "My mom bought tickets to the second movie that comes out next week. She'll take us to see it on Tuesday."

"Oh my gosh oh my gosh I love you this will be so amazing oh my gosh!"

Sakura blasted forward to hug him again, tightening her arms further and further and spouting more and more insistences that her birthday would be amazing because of him. Sasori hugged her back and his eyes wandered away, like his mind wandered away.

The Harry Potter movies were an experience like a dream, like a perfect, enchanting story, on both occasions, but wizards and the Great Hall did not compare to what he'd heard. He had heard I love you from her for the first time, and he would never let go of it.

And later…

The day before school ended that year, his teacher brought in movies. They were done with everything the lesson plan called for, he said, so why not? Mr. Reynolds stood before the blackboard with a stack of VHS tapes. Children rushed forward with eyes bulging to absorb them. There was a brief skirmish over which movie to watch first.

"I love Finding Nemo!"

"But I haven't seen Stuart Little in forever."

"Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!"

"Finding Nemo's way better, Mr. Reynolds."

In what seemed like an esteemed and special journey, Sasori and two classmates, Michelle and Naruto, took some popcorn bags to the teachers' lounge and used the microwave there to pop them. Sakura would be quite jealous that he'd seen that mythical place before her. That saddened him. Sakura probably wasn't having a movie day in her class. If he asked, would Mr. Reynolds let him bring her in here and sit with him? And would her teacher let him? (Mr. Reynolds said no.) He missed her that day, and he thought of how she once said she loved him, and now she wasn't here to say that. She had to stay in her own room with the teasing girls. The lack of her that day made the end of fourth grade significantly less fantastic.

Summer began, and trips to the tree house were frequent. They continued to play games there, but also smatterings of pure conversation colored their visits. At that time in their lives, as for many children, future careers was a big topic, that is, "What d'you wanna be when you grow up?" Sakura had grand dreams of being a doctor (and a parselmouth) and Sasori could never quite pin down what he wanted to be.

"I want to be some kind of artist," he remembered saying. Always something like that, always something under the umbrella of artist. He'd never said it before, really, but that had always been his preferred path. He would follow it forever.

"You should try more artsy things than just painting." Sakura suggested one day in July, fingering a twig.

"But I have already. My grandma's teaching me to sculpt things. She used to do it a lot and make money off it."

She blinked in surprise at him. "Hm. So…are you sculpting people? Or other things?"

He exhaled once, nearly a laugh. People were mostly all he would draw, and so mostly all he would sculpt. Or try to. "Yeah. I think I'm best at people. My grandma says I'm better at it than most kids my age. You've got to be good at people, too, in a doctor way. You ought to learn lots about them."

"I do learn lots about them," she said. "My parents make me read lots of books about growing up to be a doctor and I learn tons of new things from them. I learned that your kidneys are right here," She poked his side with her twig. "And you have two hundred and six bones when you're an adult, and your ears and your nose are made of the same stuff. And it's…mm…" She paused, retreated a little, and he looked over at her. She wasn't supposed to pause like that. To stop talking to him. "My mom's gonna be mad if I don't remember all of it. The stuff your ears and nose are made out of definitely starts with a C..."

Distress appeared on her face, and remained there. It wasn't the small touch of distress of a person who couldn't remember something. She was worried, and growing worse every second. He sat up, but she remained lying down, fingers pulling harshly on her Hello Kitty bracelet. Sasori bowed his head slightly at her. "Why's that so important?" he prodded gently.

"My parents'll be mad. I mean, a little." She shrugged a little and curled her legs up. "They say I've got to know everything and there's no such thing as a dumb doctor."

For likely the first time in three years, Mr. and Mrs. Haruno angered him. For God's sake, she had been only nine. "That's a dumb reason to be mad at you. How can they be mad at you for not knowing one thing? You know tons of other things. You're very good about remembering everything your teacher tells you."

Her fingers opened and scratched at a floorboard. She wouldn't look at him and that wasn't right. "I hate disappointing them. For anything. One mistake can really hurt."

How absurd, he thought in the present time. But at that time, he said, "How silly. Don't worry about them. You and I know the school way better than they do. And we both know you're excellent at it. But if I tell you you're not doing good enough, then you should worry."

Sakura laughed, and with it came the sense that her distress was solved. He'd pushed it away for her, and she was bright and smiling for him again, the way she was supposed to be. "Okay."

"Good." He said. If he had helped with this problem, he reasoned, he should be able to help her with others, and felt some type of guardianship from it. He would watch out for her at all times, he decided. "And come to me if you have any other problems, too. Your parents obviously aren't great at helping, so I will. Always come to me."

She giggled at him, but the expression on her face didn't change. She said she would, so things felt right again.

Still later.

Being a fifth grader was kind of a big deal. It was his last year of elementary school, eighty percent of the other children in the school looked upon him as a "big kid," and suddenly he realized he was far more intelligent, experienced and powerful than most of his peers, and he received nothing but admiration for his arrogance. It was his first experience of having prestige. He was very fond of it.

He was fond of his new bus driver, Mr. Jamison, who let the kids choose radio stations to play every afternoon, as well as discovering that he rode the same bus as his friend Shikamaru. He (secretly) enjoyed his fantastically decorated new classroom and most of all, the new and self-aware brand of brainpower he felt capable of. He discovered it on Christmas.

On Christmas Day that year, his eleventh, he woke up around eight and went downstairs to find his grandmother already up and watching a holiday cartoon special. Their fake tree was lit up and colorful boxes sat underneath. It was lightly snowing as well, so the day looked picture-perfect. He walked slowly from the stairs to the tree and his grandmother, watching. It made…atmosphere. The setting accentuated the situation, highlighted all things. It worked perfectly and he could see it working in his paintings, too, but not sculptures because as far as he knew then, they couldn't have settings. His grandmother interrupted his tangent of thought by standing up and holding her hands behind her back.

"I'd like to start with your best present first. Or what I think is the best one. You see, there was another sort of art I enjoyed besides the sculpting I've been teaching you this past year." His attention was fully caught. "I haven't done it in a while, but I practiced a bit before today. And here it is…"

Chiyo put one hand forth, palm down, and there was nothing there. But there was something below. On the floor sat a figure of a pinto horse, brown and white and with a neatly made mane and tail. It was pawing the ground and bowing its head there, sniffing for vegetation to graze.

Sasori remembered for a moment thinking it was real and his grandmother had bought him a midget pony for a pet, and what was wrong with her that would make her buy him a pony—but moments later her hand movements caught his eye. They were minute, only small twitches of the fingers, curling in and out again. The horse began to walk, a little stiffly, with the right-hind leg looking limp. But it walked on the carpet, and then trotted, and then reared up. He didn't understand it or fathom its movement and life just yet, but he was transfixed by it. It looked like pure beauty, like something that would remain lovely forever.

"Can you see the strings, dear?" his grandmother murmured. He looked up at her confusedly, and she rattled her hands around. The horse had a seizure, and then he could see hair-thin wires going from her fingertips to the horse's joints. "It's just a puppet, hon. I spent many years carving figures like this, and one of my greatest pleasures was turning them into puppets so that I could see them move."

"That's wonderful." He said. The horse looked up at him. "Grandma, it looks fantastic. That's ten times better than the sculptures. I feel like I can see it…see it living. Or trying to live."

Chiyo made a quiet grunting noise, an approving signal. She could see the fascination and need to understand in him. "The greatest puppets are lifelike, certainly, but it's the movements of the puppeteer that makes it so. That's the art. The movement."

"I'd love to learn that."

She smiled at him. "Would you really?"

"Yes. Yes, this looks amazing. I'd like to know everything about it. You have to teach me now."

"Have to, ahaha! Well, I suppose I do, since that's what my present is. But we've both got a few more things to open before we go straight to— " The phone rang and cut off Chiyo's words. Her friends were all out-of-state right now and they had no relatives in America but each other, and that left really only one strong possibility.

Sasori walked swiftly over to the phone and expected Sakura's voice, and there it was. "Hi, good morning! Merry Christmas!" He said the same back to her. "I waited to open your gift till this morning just like you asked. I love them both to bits. You just made me a cat freak all over again. I'll read the book and wear the scarf all day long." Sasori's lips curved up softly at the thought of her lifting the paperback encyclopedia of cat breeds he'd gotten her for Christmas, and donning her new Gryffindor scarf. "Well, I'm guessing you didn't get to mine yet, or else I'd hear you going brain-dead over the phone."

"It's good enough to make me go brain-dead?"

"Just a little. You've never had that kind before. I wish I could see your face! I can't come over today, but maybe tomorrow we can go to the tree house and show off our new things?"

"Grandma, can I go to the tree house with Sakura tomorrow?" Pause. Nod. "She says yes."


"Mmkay. Usual time, please. I'll open your gift next."

"Okay. My daddy says to get off the phone now. I'll see you tomorrow and I'll bring all my new stuff." They each said goodbye and hung up. He clicked the phone back into place.

His grandmother made a clicking sound as well. "She's such a sweet girl, Sasori." She smiled, pulling her horse puppet up into her hands. "You're quite lucky to have such a fine best friend."

"I know that." He said simply. "…I don't plan on ever having another one like her." That was a carefully abridged and diluted version of what he was really thinking. He suspected that his grandmother understood that, as she continued to look at him and say nothing. Perhaps he knew she understood, since she knew so many things and had seen so many types of people. Including the types like him, who sometimes hid truths inside instead of letting them be heard.

As he opened Sakura's gift—a box of imported sculpting clay which his grandmother balked at, since she recognized it as a brand that had to be ordered from Europe—he also looked upon himself, his life situation: not only that he was enjoying a holiday with his tiny family, but that he was not as much of a child as he was before, and he did not think like one anymore. The holiday wasn't so much about presents as being with Chiyo, and being happy. Sakura's gift to him was less an artistic tool and much more of a signal that she really cared about him, and he needed that. He needed her to care about him.

This and several other revelations came over him, some new and some repeats, as they finished gift-opening and then ate the favored holiday breakfast. Some, he even chose to share.

"Mom would have loved this," he said quietly, and waited. But Chiyo said nothing, so he continued for her. "I thought she was a very good cook. But she loved anything you made."

"Yes," Chiyo said slowly. She set down her mug and let her fingers hang crooked and limp in the handle. Sasori studied this. "Your mother always admired me. When your father first brought her home to meet me, she left him in the dust to follow me about and chatter away. I found it quite charming." She looked up at him. "And I know you miss them both."

He wanted to say nothing. But, "Yes. All the time." And so the rest of the day was about them, and what they were like and what they had done before he was born. He relayed it all to Sakura the next day, who wore her too-large Gryffindor scarf and listened to every word, and said everything and more to heal him, as she always had. "I'm still here. I'm always going to be here," is what she said at the end.

"You have to be." He replied. For the first time in many weeks he reached out and pulled her to him, tight and warm and wishing. He felt her small, gloved hands patting his shoulder, and heard her promising that she would be.

He kept her there a bit longer. One of his realizations from the previous day had been that he would enter middle school next year, a place whose challenges and judgments were like a dark and faraway myth, and Sakura would not go with him. He told her this and they shared the ominous knowledge of it for many months. And then came the twentieth of May. The elementary school's equivalent of "finals" were nearly done, and school would be out in three days. Today was his last recess ever. He and Shikamaru chose to spend it sitting idly on the swings. The other children let the big kids keep dominion of them. From the south exit doors, he suddenly saw Sakura sprinting. She looked around madly, dodged behind a tree so that the salt-and-pepper-haired Mrs. Garner wouldn't see her, and then ran towards him. Fast.

Of course she was fast, he thought at the time, she plays soccer and runs all the time. It only occurred to him when she skidded to stop in front of the swingset that her class did not share a recess time with his. But she was out here with him. She had run outside just to be with him.

"I only have a minute. My teacher thinks I went to the bathroom." She panted, once, twice, and was all right again. Then she clamped her hands onto the chain of the swing and leaned down. "I…am skipping fifth grade."

Shikamaru hm'd at this while an intangible voice inside Sasori cried yesyeyyesyesyes! Suddenly he was overwhelmingly happy. He wanted to hug her, to tell her that was wonderful, and yet he couldn't almost couldn't speak. Thank goodness she went on in his place, quieter now, and sweet. "My teacher and the principal called me out of class and told me. I'm going to middle school with you. We get to be in the same year, finally. And next week, we'll graduate school together!" Pause. Today was so good. "What's with that face? This is great news! Hug me, best bud!"

And she did. He was so used to her hugging him now and generally striding inside his smooth personal bubble. He finally did manage to tell her that it was great news, and he felt ten times better about going to a new school with her. Or something like that. It was definitely not what he wanted to say.

She let go of him, complimented Shikamaru's shirt (on which was a smiling creature called a Charmander) and jogged away towards the school building. Once she was gone, Shikamaru inclined his head towards Sasori. "You like her?"

Shikamaru and his fucking perception were one of perhaps five things that had ever made him lose his esteemed composure. He bit his tongue and looked away. But he told Shikamaru that yeah, he did.

So strange, to actually say that aloud, or try to. So alone and estranged, because he was eleven and already liked a girl so strongly that he didn't think "like" was a meaningful enough word. No one would take him seriously if he exposed the whole truth of it. They'd say "aww" and give him a lollipop.

The assumption that he was a child and he thought the world was a Disney playground made him want to crush someone's bleeding head into a wall. It would be years more of waiting and growing before anyone realized he had already seen death, that he was thankful for his good life, and that cared and yearned for someone with all his young heart. Especially the last part, because like hell any "child" knows what it's like to actually care about a person, to care about everything they say and do and always want to be with them and not share them.

This frustrated mindset came with him as he left the elementary school for the last time and began a summer vacation in which Sakura constantly told him he was being bratty and mean. It was really counterproductive, since he was trying to creep towards a day when he could tell her how he felt about her. Sakura attempted to highlight her point by beginning one of their old "rescue the princess" games at the tree house in the woods and then refusing to rescue him. Then leaving.

He hardly remembered what he did because it was so frantic, or maybe because he attempted to block out the idea of Sakura leaving him. It seemed that he followed her, speed-walking (maybe sprinting?) and promised to not act out at her again, and begged her to come back. Whatever he actually said, she forgave him. Her father took them to see the third Harry Potter film later that month and it was clear that their rocky bond was repaired then. (They both began a short phase of wishing they could be an Animagus.)

Her father also took them to Sakura's favorite restaurant directly after, stating that it was a reward for Sakura's excellent accomplishment in skipping a grade. He watched her father hug her tight, a rare sight. A piece of Sasori was happy. Another piece whispered that this was a little like a date. Another piece began to openly at Sakura: today in a white dress with a small ribbon of black across it. It was a beautiful thing to look at. And so was she.

And there, puberty poked its first freaky claw into him.


Fucking puberty, striking him early. Clearly there was no God, or that weird prick Sasuke would have been infected first.

The beginning of middle school was nerve-wracking to some extent for everyone, but he managed to hide it. Both Sakura and Shikamaru confessed to him that they had barely been able to sleep before the first day of school, but they all settled into the new routine and the new structure quite well, one that would stick even in their future high school days: seven different classes, and classrooms, each day, (and only one with Sakura) and homeroom once a week on Wednesdays, which shortened each class a bit. Lockers. The opportunity to choose your own classes. Vending machines. Using the elevators that really only kids with crutches or wheelchairs were supposed to use. The nightmare (for some, not really him) of dressing out for gym. And puberty. Which for him was thankfully just as much mental as it was physical.

Sasori remembered his sixth grade year as the one when he finally became conscious of everything around him, or at least started to see them. He had touched on it last year at Christmastime, but now the realization came full-force, and he wondered nervously, then and in the present, if he was supposed to have noticed these things sooner, or even later, but he kept this lack of surety to himself.

A classmate's constant refusal to buy lunch taught him that there existed families who couldn't pay for food. A boy insulting the Muslim girl in history class was his first real experience of racism. His being able to reach higher cabinets taught him that he was at last beginning to, literally, grow up. And that Sakura's being near him would create some strange reaction on and beneath his skin was, he learned, the vague beginning of his being attracted to her. And that, he learned from sex ed (although television had given him plenty of hints). Which for him took place right after his birthday, for God's sake. But none of that was important.

The important piece was Sakura herself. Their greatest joy had been that they were entering this new school together, and though they shared only one class out of seven, they were together. On the very first day of that shared class, when she sat down next to him and shared stories of new friends she'd already made that day—some of which were his own friends—it startled him. Then his anger from the summer came right back.

But he couldn't say it. Sakura was telling him about all these interesting and delightful people who weren't him. She was growing into a world that was bigger than just him and he hated that. She should not leave. She should always be with him. She had promised that she would be. Suddenly he was angry, raging. And yet he couldn't say anything.

She said, "—and he moved here from Hokkaido, like my family" and then he employed his first-ever tactic to grab her attention. He turned his head towards the whiteboard and ignored her.

"Wh—hey. Hey. What's wrong." She said, and pushed gently on his arm.

I'm not supposed to become second-rate is what's wrong!

"Please tell me…I didn't think just talking about my classes would make you mad. Tell me about yours instead. Your first period was math, right? Who's the teacher?"

Who cares. Stop ignoring me. Don't forget me.

Then the teacher was standing in between their desks, holding out the syllabus. He and the other students took note that they were a beat too slow in getting them. The questions and snide amusement in their eyes were obvious. This year was also his first real exposure to gossips.

Sakura took one syllabus for each of them, glaring at Sasori suddenly. "You will not win next time." she growled. The teacher, who was Mr. Wells according to the papers, pursed his lips and went on.

Sasori glanced down and somehow she had a piece of notebook paper half-filled with games of tic-tac-toe. She didn't understand what was wrong, but she was guarding them from suspicious eyes anyway. His heart clenched, as it used to when she had to stop spending time with him and leave, and when she thanked him for his counsel, and when they visited the tree house and sat so close together. Even when confused and under pressure, she always was good to him. She gave him everything good about herself. Why would she stop? Was he not a good enough friend anymore? That couldn't be it. No.

He absorbed nothing from Mr. Wells' introductory lecture, and shouldered his striped backpack without a word to Sakura when the bell rang. She asked him to meet her by the bike rack after school. One hour later, he did, because he always came when she called. She stood with her backpack on the ground and his favorite candy in her hand. He stopped in front of her, angry and unsure how to convey it.

She held out the candy to him. "I, uhm, I visited the vending machine for the first time, to get this for you." She said with a touch of shyness. He was the only one she would show shyness to, ever. He liked her cute, shy face. "I don't know what was wrong with you earlier, but I wish you'd tell me. You know I'll help."

'Can I tell you I'm jealous of everyone you talked to? Can I tell you I wish you'd never met those new people? I want you to just talk to me?'

No. No, no, no. What would she think of that? He sounded like a toddler hogging a toy. It sounded nothing like what he meant. He couldn't say it.

"At lunch today, I sat with a girl who kept coughing, and I think I've caught what she had. My throat hurts and talking just hurts more." He waited for her to accept that. It wasn't a lie, anyway, not really. And it seemed for a moment that she didn't take the answer. She looked suspicious…and then lost in thought. Crap, she probably knew enough medical whatevers to see his words as false.

"Really. I wonder what you've got." She said. Somehow it was a relief to know she was going off on a sharp "doctor" tangent. Anything to avoid his secret truth. "Even the common cold doesn't move that fast. It didn't even have two hours…" Her eyes darkened and she drew her thin brows together. "Hhuh…well, I can look it up if I need to. You still haven't told me what your classes were like! Tell me about your art class. Everyone I talked to today said good things about Mrs. Woody. You think she'll be a help to your carving?"

He nodded, a little better. "Everyone you talked to was right. She's a fantastic painter. She also said she's blind in one eye. The sight failed when she got very sick in college."

Sakura cocked her head like a bemused cat. He fought a smile. "Would having no depth perception mean that painting anything with dimensions is harder? Or would the paper just be so close that it doesn't matter?"

A conversation about art and depth perception. He would have stood here in a thunderstorm for that, with her. But someone called her name and wrenched her attention from him. Not far away, where the buses sat waiting for kids to board, a girl waved. It was the girl he'd sat with at lunch. Hinata the purple-haired cougher was apparently one of her new friends. Sakura waved back and then faced him, looking apologetic. She promised to see him tomorrow before first period, and then jogged over to Hinata. Leaving him alone. Several times a week.

There was nothing really wrong with making friends like she had, with getting to know other people while still keeping old friends, but he hated it. He seethed quietly much of the year, attempting to make his own friends, succeeding fairly and not really caring. He treasured his time with her, and resented the time without her.

There were more elements to his life than Sakura, though, much as he simply ignored that fact. There were more elements to his year. Besides the scantron tests, besides the long hallways and the eagle posters and mascots all over the walls, there was…acknowledgement. Other boys openly acknowledged him as cool. And girls openly acknowledged him as cute. He found that contrast perplexing.

Stuff like, "Hey, um, can I sit with you today?" or "Lookit that kid. Freaking badass!" peppered his days. Most of the friends he made were boys, naturally, and several admitted to him that they were surprised he had even begun to talk to them, or allowed them to sit with him during lunch periods. Something about the way he dressed (jeans? Black shirts? Hoods?) or the way he talked (not often, only with purpose or occasional spite) was so assuredly respected among his own gender that he'd unknowingly created his own pedestal that would last forever. He'd had something like this experience when he was younger, but never so obviously.

And girls, too, of course, were not new to him. Females had been giving him fluttering eyes for several years, though now some were starting to look at him less innocently and he knew it. Some had very clearly paid attention during sex ed in November, or had learned their wiles from…an undisclosed source. The same qualities about him that boys appreciated, girls did as well, but they were attractive.

Or, as Rachel (Rachel Miller? Or Ranlen?) had once said, "You're, like, really, really hot." And hell if she wasn't right. He tried to use that to his advantage.

When Sakura at last convinced him to read the Harry Potter books, when she invited him into her spacious home, when he walked with her, he held himself and inclined his head and generally tried to be the way everyone insisted was either very cool or very hot, a way his own growing masculine instinct insisted was attractive. But he got no romantic reaction from her, ever (and her signature in his yearbook remained one hundred percent "friend"). Infinite reactions from people he didn't much care about, though. He had but one victory, and he clung to it. He remembered it.

"I dreamed that you moved away to Nigeria. You loved the weather there, so you decided to pack up and move the next day. You took a zeppelin." She said. He sat on a bench with her as kids boarded their buses after school one Wednesday in spring and listened. "Emails just didn't exist in the dream, so before you left I said I'd write you letters so you'd remember me. Every day, so you'd feel like I was there. Every day in that dream I woke up and felt so alone."

Me too, he thought. She leaned over and put her lithe arm around him. Her head slowly came to rest on his shoulder, and pressed there like a loving little cat. Inside, he cried out with joy. "You're my best friend, Sasori. I hope you never have to move anywhere." She paused, and she felt so perfect next to him. But he couldn't put his arm around her in return. She would think of it as a friendly action. He didn't feel friendship.

The pinkette squeezed her fingers on his shoulder slightly. A few slipped over his sleeve and onto his bare arm, and the skin there was soothed. She asked him, "What would you write to me, if we had to live far apart?"

I love you, he thought, and then said something else.


That summer, his grandmother was kind enough to purchase him a PS2 that she found at a garage sale. She was completely unaware of what video game consoles were old and not-old and he was not that picky. She gave him money to purcahse a game for it. After prying Naruto off it, Sasori pulled his best friend into it. She loved it, and he loved to please her by playing it. "The next world you visit I'll keep a surprise. But I have a feeling you'll like it." He said one day.

"Just give me a clue. Just one."


"I just spent three hours running around under a hot sun and a tiny, tiny video game spoiler would be very soothing to my tired soul. And legs."

"You're not even tired, you're fine. It did make me tired, though."

"Watching me kick a soccer ball made you tired?"

"Yes. "

"Excuse me. That doesn't make any sense! Unless it just made you sleepy, in which case I'm boring, and maybe I should just kick the ball at your face and you'd wake up and be able to give me Kingdom Hearts spoilers. So is it a Lion King world or not?"

She was absolutely not boring during her soccer games. She looked like moving art when she played. She looked attractive. He was still young enough to only pinpoint some of those things, but he knew she looked beautiful when she threw all of her effort and strength into the sport. And when she wrote challenging assignments and grinned at the paper. And when she looked up and let the wind touch her hair.

He still hadn't told her these things. They sat hidden inside him instead. He had yet to say he loved her.

It was August first, and the new school year was coming up. The previous weeks had been filled with walks and bike rides under a blissfully hot sun, and when it became too hot for Sakura, she asked if they could go to his house, turn on the PS2 and spend three hours traipsing around the universe in the company of Cloud Strife and Donald Duck. It was probably the first electronic…anything either of them had been very interested in. And he loved to see the adorable faces she made when any big event occurred in the story.

Each day he spent with her made him hope that in the coming school year she would see him as more important than her new friends. She had Hinata, Ashlin and even Shikamaru now, and many more, and he had Gaara, Shino, and that kid who liked basketball, and a few more, but he might be able to subtly remind her that they two of them were the most important to each other. After all, they had three classes together this year. They would have lots of time.

And those classes with her were…so much fun. They shared an English class this year, an advanced course which didn't seem all that advanced to either of them. There was once a book report in that class that he fondly remembered, because when the time came to present one's report in December, he wanted to go first. And so did Sakura. Thus ensued a "fight." She sat near the front of the room and turned around in her seat to face both him and the teacher in the back.

She had very cute, grey snow boots on today—a lot of things she wore from these times and onward were cute, or tasteful, and he always noticed, but he rarely chose to say those things. "Mrs. Husker, the day you assigned the project, I asked if I could go first on presentation day. You told me that'd be fine." Sakura insisted.

"And that's not fair to the rest of us normal people who wait till the day you present," Sasori countered. Arguing with Sakura usually ended in her being right and you being embarrassed. But he only meant to be playful. And when he was thirteen, arguing with her is what he would have called playful.

Hayley giggled behind him, and Sakura frowned. Their teacher raised a paper up to her face. "Well I definitely made a note about how you wanted to be first…"

From the left, Kevin muttered something about being last instead of first, but Sasori sneered and ignored him. "She basically snuck up and took the first place when no one else had thought of it," he scoffed. "And I hate waiting for other presentations to be done. I called dibs today, when it matters."

"Mrs. Husker, my dibs matter more than his dibs!" Sakura said loudly, and three kids burst into giggles when she said that.

She darted her eyes here and there at them, wondering, perhaps seeing some inappropriate joke there, and gained a half-embarrassed blush. He smiled at her but she didn't see it. And he ended up going first anyway. His collage of sketches and a hand-drawn map of Middle-earth put everyone else's visual aids to shame (another example of prestige, which he loved). He continually glanced at his friend's face during the presentation, measuring how impressed he was, how excellent his collage was. He'd made it so extravagant just so she would like it.

After Christmas break, he even thought he would tell her that. Even though the memory was now a month old. He wanted to try, just once, to say he did things to impress her. Or maybe more than that.

He had to.

The day he did it was in mid-January, and it was so fucking cold outside. But it was the day he'd set the goal on. Today, Sakura would know how he felt.

Just for good measure, he'd dressed his best today. Looking like crap during a love confession was not acceptable. He'd worn his favorite coat today, the one with a red cloud on the back, as well as his first, at the time only, pair of skinny jeans, and the gloves with no fingers that some girl had given him. He looked damn good today, and worth listening to. In five minutes, he would say it. Five. Minutes. Oh God.

But freaking Kiba was talking. Sakura's friend as of last year. A loud douchebag as tactless as Naruto. It mystified him that Sakura would want to befriend such an impulsive and annoying person, not to mention one who had tattoos on his face at age thirteen. "Aaand as it turned out, the teacher was allergic to dogs. So hiding Akamaru under her desk was not a great idea."

Ashton's lips quirked into a grin and then he busted out laughing. "Pff-hahaha! How'd she find him? Did he bite her foot or something?"

"Man, I wish." The brunette moron laughed. He pressed closer to the wall to let a teacher pass by. "She started to take roll and then he barked at her. She jumped up to the freakin' ceiling and so did everybody else. I was in such deep trouble, I mean, geez, I was grounded for sixth months. Six months! And the teacher hated my guts." This boy needed to be pushed down the stairs.

These idiots' happyfuntime was taking forever and wasting valuable time. Sasori lifted his eyes to the kid and his gaze burned. "So you never realized that bringing dogs to school is a dumbshit idea to begin with?"

All but Tara, who was tying her shoes, looked at him. Kiba frowned and sighed. "Well, yeah, kinda late it hit me. I was just trying to make the class more fun then, and I feel like a real idiot now. No need to make me feel like a loser."

"You should. You're not really supposed to re-enact the retarded things you see on Comedy Central. "

Kiba's look of annoyance and slight shame made him feel a little better. The loser had the audacity to say back to him, actually say to him, "Whatever. I don't really feel like taking insults from Little Red Riding Hood this morning."

"Shut the fuck up," was his first response to that stupid name. His second didn't get to come because Sakura kicked him in the shin and good lord, it hurt and he about fell over.

"You shut up." She said. Her glare made him still. "What's your problem today? And since when do you cuss like that?" He might even have had an answer for that, but the bell rang, Tara ran away, and all the kids around them began shuffling towards their obligated classrooms. It left them both alone and surrounded by a moving crowd of faces and backpacks. They were left in their own little space in the hall, tucked between lockers.

He could say it now. But all that came out was spite. Hurt. "Why is he even your friend? He's annoying and probably just wants to copy your homework." He doesn't care about you like I do and nobody ever will, why can't you see that?

What did she see? She didn't answer him at first. She looked into his eyes and seemed at a loss, and embarrassed. "I know he looks like some stupid punk. But he's not. He's…he's really into theater." The ridiculousness of that comment astounded him still today. She went on. "He's really excited for next year, because he's in a drama class right now and next year he wants to take what he learned and use it in a show. Ino wants that, too. And we're helping each other out with that. They're both teaching me how to sing."

Sakura singing. Suddenly he had something new to dream about and wish for. But later, later. "Why? You've never been interested in music before." And why didn't you tell me? Didn't you promise to tell me everything? Show me everything?

"At the beginning of the school year, my mom promised me an iPod if I kept up all my A's." He scoffed at this. Sakura's parents were forever calmly expecting perfection. "And the idea's made me really like music. I listen to it online a whole lot. I don't mean playing an instrument or something, but just listening. Kiba's actually really good about…I guess, the art of listening to music."

Oh, bullcrap. "Please. If Kiba can appreciate music, then Shino and Ashton must like ballet. Or maybe your old friend Karin is volunteering at the animal shelter. You should drop him for a friend who's not destined to be a high school dropout." Instantly, like he'd been burned, he knew his words were wrong and irreversible. The wound was there now. He had hurt her. He could see his words darkening her face, her happiness. He'd just hurt her.

They were nearly alone in the hall now. He could partially see her reflected in the weak glare on the floor tiles. In pieces. "He really does. He's really a good person, even if he does act like a jerk sometimes. Like you." Sasori's fingers curled into his gloved palms. "You've been an arrogant jerk for a couple months now. You almost made Lena cry right before Christmas break. She tried to say she likes you right to your face and you wouldn't even look at her." It wouldn't do any good to say he didn't know anyone name Lena. Now her sadness was melting…burning. Her voice turn into an angry growl that made him think of a lioness. "I was going to let that slide, plus a couple other things, because she's kind of a jerk, too, and may have deserved it. Not anymore. Screw you."

The bell rang again, making Sakura jump. Her anger only grew, lighting up her whole self like a new flame. He watched and was awed. "And now I've got my first-ever tardy thanks to you. Move it!" He stepped to the side to let her by. He was completely alone in the hall now. The weak glare of the floor tiles showed just him, alone. And today he was supposed to tell her he loved her.

Sasori pressed his hand to his face and the fingers shook. His entire body felt run through with heat, with shame. He'd come to open his heart and it went so wrong.

He was an arrogant jerk. He looked at himself and decided he was even dressed like one. What was he doing dressed like this, next to Sakura's finer clothing, finer everything? What was he doing trying to convey his affections dressed in black and red and fingerless gloves like a punk dropout? She was worth so much more than that. She was worth…more than him. Perhaps. But he couldn't stand the idea of her being with anyone but him. They clicked so well, like a pair of wings, like broken halves of a sculpture coming together. Like many more poetic things he felt too shitty to think right now. All he thought about was forgiveness.

And he got it, after three days of her glaring and ignoring him, pushing him away in favor of Kiba and others. Three long, long days and the wait for them to be over was pure hell. At the very least, she said she hadn't liked it, either, and had missed him. Her birthday that year took place at a bowling alley, and her sweet little grin as she told him to please be nice to everyone there made him bow his head and want to beg her…for something. To not be looked down on. For her to please understand.

No, he couldn't tell her then. He curled his fingers together and closed his eyes to imagine and to dream of it. Someday. Later.

The new age.

On his fourteenth birthday, Sakura made him blush. He could have let it stay and have her notice. But that was both impossible to think of, and also it made him look girly. So he didn't let her see (Chiyo did, though).

The last year of middle school was upon them. It gave Sasori with his first cell phone and a keen interest in the internet world. He was wandered and latched onto a website where he publicized photos of his artwork, which were in turn showered with acclaim and various "omg that's amazing are you sure you're 14" comments. On the flip side, he also received twenty-three love letters and date requests that year, none of which were accepted, or were from Sakura. Also—puberty again—his voice cracked in front of his grandmother's friend, who laughed at him. Bitch.

Sakura herself was busy as usual in this time with her constant studying, reading, and kicking of black-and-white balls. She was ecstatic about being able to take a French class (and he was secretly ecstatic about having taken that class just to be with her), and in fact quite ecstatic and joyful about most everything. She was very often seen with her pink iPod, and wearing or at least carrying her Gryffindor scarf, his gift to her which she still treasured. She wore it to the fourth Harry Potter movie the summer before eighth grade and it gave him hope.

Hope was given to him and taken from him that year:: Hints of it had been around as long as two years ago, but that was the year when he and nearly every young male around simply could not ignore the fact that Sakura was gorgeous. Suddenly, every move and word she made demanded attention, every garment she had rested on growing curves and lean legs. The combination of Kiba and her iPod made her prone to humming or lightly swaying to music. She seemed unaware of it. It was the inspiration for his first wet dream. (Fucking puberty.)

It was an eventful year. He mentioned to Sakura a sudden desire to paint his nails teal. A day later they had a rather girly nail-polishing, iPod-moderately-blasting get-together in her room, which confused her parents and probably made them think that he was gay. He continued to paint them for many years after.

It was also the first year they shared a math class. Every other student who thought they were so smart for getting into an advanced course were totally burned by his and her superior mathematic skills. Sasori was delighted to ignore them all and have constant play-fights to decide who understood the lessons better. He thought of Juliet and of cats each time, playfully batting at each other. Sakura with cat ears. But that was a different memory.

A review day right before Thanksgiving came to mind: the both of them stood at the whiteboard, furiously trying to write out and solve an equation before the other could finish. Commentary ("quit looking at my problem, jerk!"; "Negative! You missed the negative sign!"; "Dude, I'm gonna kick you.") from them and their classmates abounded. Yearbook signatures from those kids were quite memorable. Sakura's neat sharpie signature swore that she would crush his soul in her quest to be the high school's valedictorian in the future.

Those were very contrasting times. They lived out several months of good gestures, days, and humor. He played the role of the quiet and clever best friend at all times, and she never gave a sign of seeing past his pleasant lie to the truth he silently kept. That he was in love with brilliant Sakura Haruno, and she did not know it, became a part of himself as plain as his eyes or his art. With every good thing she did, he felt another tiny red spike puncture him. Sometimes it seemed she accomplished great things only to smack him in the face with the fact that he could not react as he wanted. Perhaps that thought jinxed him, since at the end of that school year, he received his biggest smack to the face yet.

By the influence of her newer friends, by the inspiration of her music, by some great effort, Sakura went onstage to sing. And wear a tail.

A new day.

"Stupid mandatory talent show. I hate mandatory stuff. Like lavatories. And lobotomies."

"Don't mock things you can't spell."

Coming down the hall and entering the spacious auditorium with Shikamaru and Travis, the one-brain-cell-wonder, had been the only humorous thing about it. It was early May, and school let out in two weeks. That what most kids talked about now. A few talked about some obscure talent or music show in the school, which apparently had auditions last month. Last week the morning announcements claimed that seventh period on this day would be replaced with the show, so short of sneaking out (to his knowledge, only two boys did), you had to attend.

"Us being required to come isn't the problem, you moron." He snapped to Shikamaru, who stuck his hands lazily into his hoodie pockets. They were ushered into a row to the left of the stage, and about midway away from it. "It's just a waste of our time. The most talented thing a kid our age can do is run really fast or do a handstand, so this is probably going to be either very boring or very sad. Pisses me off either way."

And he was more pissed off because Sakura wasn't here to sit with him. She'd promised the day before that she would find him by the left aisle in the school auditorium. He wanted to ask why she'd kept refusing to let him come over recently, and he feared the answer was a first boyfriend. Travis said something about the new technical additions to the auditorium that the school bought last semester, but Sasori had doubts that Travis knew what the hell he was talking about, so ignored him. He drummed his fingers on the armrest and tried to muffle his frustration when some girl asked to sit next to him.

"They're starting!" she said a minute later, grabbing his arm. The curtain pulled back and revealed a balance beam on the stage, as a gymnast might use. He sighed and resigned himself to this event. He could do nothing about it now. Just had to…wait.

And wait he did not. It wasn't thirty seconds before his jaw nearly dropped. A ponytailed girl suddenly dropped onto the balance beam, seemingly from the ceiling. Kids shrieked when she appeared, and collected themselves enough to gape when she landed on one foot. They gaped when an accompanying music piece started, some intense techno thing. They gaped when she nearly fell off the balance beam and swung around, pulling back up onto the other side.

Shikamaru's sudden aside glance made him curl his lip. "Not boring," he mouthed, half-apology. Two pipes were thrown at her from the left and right of the stage and she caught them both. She spun them, jumped, and then balanced with her hands on the beam and spun them using her feet.

"Geez." Shikamaru whispered.

"Fine, I was wrong," Sasori told him. The gymnast girl stood upright again with her pipes held high and her violet leotard faintly glimmering. She received the first blast of applause of the day. A bodiless voice welcomed the school to the show, and two beamed lights spun around and around the students' heads. Two stage hands began pulling out a professional-looking set of drums and two guitar amps, and four more carried the beam offstage. Three large blue lights flickered on from above the stage and turned the tops of the devices the color of winter ice.

Three boys came out next, each one wearing a blue cloth wristband. A section of kids on the far right side of the auditorium exploded with cheers as the first one played with his guitar's tuning. He did it almost wildly, but then settled. Something about him conveyed to Sasori that this boy thought of himself as some type of artist. He wasn't here to be a flashy, arrogant brat about his talent, but to express himself.

Once he decided the audience was ready for him, the boy lent his voice to them: "If I lay here…if I just lay here…would you lie with me, and just forget the world?"

There were nine more performances, each one exceeding expectations. Songs and dances and duets that he would not ever forget, and talent that seemed impossible to come from people their age. An aria from Hinata, a dance from Ino in a notably slutty dress, that kid who moved from Indonesia playing a massive harp like some Greek god. Perhaps the reason so few people knew of this show was purposeful, to hide its grandeur until the last moment. Until every performer could astound the audience on their own. Later, he found out that was the point exactly. But then, an announcer reminded them that there was once act left, and it would proceed in three minutes.

Those three minutes were filled with a babble of awe and incredulity. Only personal grace (which refused to let him act out in public) kept his mouth shut. The girl next to him was happy to lead the conversation about how amazing this all was, and how hopefully the school would sell a DVD of it. Somewhere in her chattering and the glare of her neon hairclip, she said, "By the way, my friend who's in the show told me Sakura's gonna be in the last act."

The personal grace tripped. "Sakura Haruno. Here." The girl looked away with an awkward smile, asking if he knew any other Sakura in the school. He didn't. The only one here was his, and she hadn't told him a thing about this. The only hint had been over a year ago. Kiba and Ino, the theater friends. They taught her to sing. For this? Now?

The curtain rose. He waited for her. 'What will you show me?'

The curtain rose indeed, revealing…a setting. A beautiful and enormous backdrop of city towers and a crowded street took the place of the blank concrete wall. What looked like a large model of a bulldozer sat in the corner, and opposite that, some students who might have been everyday passersby on the street. It was a city scene…and Kiba and Sakura walked onto it from stage left. They wore dog ears on their heads. ...The hell.

He had long associated Sakura with cats, but the ears she wore, attached to a headband, were brownish and flopped at the ends like a mutt's. Below them was a long white scarf that ended at her bare thighs. And just above, a belt which had, of all things, a curled, furred tail hanging off it. Running shoes and tall, navy stockings. And the smile of someone humming their favorite tune. He was entranced. He barely registered the presence of Kiba, wearing rounder ears, also in "street" clothes, coming up excitedly behind Sakura and asking when they would eat.

The voice that came from Sakura's mouth, an unruffled and amused, "We?", made him shiver. She examined a cell phone in her hand. Kiba exclaimed he was starving, and giving him half of the food they had found was only fair. Sakura in her amused, cool voice told him, "I'm sorry, big fella, the 'we' was dropped when we hit sixty-first street. I can't waste time being 'fair' when there's work to be done!"

"You can't just take them!" Kiba yelled, pointing. "Half of those are mine! Give 'em to me or else!" Behind the two of them, the props and scene were changing. Others began to walk across the second half of the large stage.. Three fantastic replicas of the year's new Toyota appeared behind the two "animals." It was not a construction site now, but a busy street

"Not today, kid." And Sakura started to walk away, in between the parked cars. She turned her head slightly, hair falling over the scarf's curve. "Or, if you want them…come and get them."

"Girl, I could snap you in half." Kiba growled. "And you freaking bet I'll come and get them." Some of the audience made challenging 'ooooh~!' sounds, but Sakura only grinned. He'd seen that face before, when they fought for dominance in the math classroom, when they were small and would romp at the tree house. At night when he dreamed. His love jumped onto a car and giggled at her adversary.

"But I'm warning you, kid. You see…one minute, I'm in Central Park—"

Like magic, a painting appeared behind her, a caricature of city park, and at the same time, fractions of the audience gasped and grinned as they recognized the song. Few among them didn't recognize a good Disney song, not even him. Few among them weren't drawn in by her sudden transformation into a confident singer and navigator of a bustling city. Few weren't startled by the near-constant change of scenery to fit the chase scene, or by the chased girl's eluding or climbing upon scenery to twist away from her enemy again and again. But only he felt true admiration for her, true surprise. Her irritating friendships with Kiba and Ino were worth it to make her shine like this.

A pipe pointed down at Sakura from the ceiling, and spat blue confetti. She shot open an umbrella to block it with a cute smile, without a glance. "Why should I worry—why should I ca-a-are—"

The umbrella was gone and so was she, and Kiba was smothered with "water," much to his and the audience's delight. She traipsed off to the side of the stage—"why should I ca-a-aaare" —and an unseen fan blew her hair and scarf behind while Kiba was comically blown off his feet. He joined the rest of the audience in sniggering, and was possibly the only one to notice a street vendor's cart of sunglasses and hats sneaking on stage. He remembered the following scene from watching the movie as a child. And how would she manage that?

Sakura's free singing voice carried on, heedless of furious Kiba. "The rhythm of the city, but once you get it down—" Kiba ran at her, screaming, dog tail flying, and she, too, ran forward. One slip of both their feet knocked over cart and sent souvenirs flying. "Then you can own this town—" No. No way. Sakura jumped off the stage through a flurry of sunglasses.

"And you can wear the crown!" With a twist of her head, one pair fell neatly over her eyes, and she landed hard with her feet on the back of two auditorium seats. She walked along them. Jesus Christ.

Kiba yelled and shoved into a row of seats to get to her and she only half-turned to laugh at him—"Say, I may not have a dime, oh! "—while countless kids stared and pointed and mindlessly cheered, and those whose seats she walked on leaned out of her way. "But I've got street savoire faire~"

Fuck, she had something. Everything. She had the control of the other performers, apparently, as once she jumped off the seats and skipped back onstage, many of them began appearing with their own animal ears and tails and even one with a Dalmatian-print shirt. They stared and howled in her direction like overjoyed puppies. Choreographed puppies. They stood in Kiba's way and covertly pushed him farther and farther away, till the edge of the stage curtain hid him. Sakura was alone in the "street" with cars honking at her. She laughed and sauntered away. And here her audience of peers made each other deaf in showing how much they'd loved it.

"Goddamn," Shikamaru laughed. He hadn't heard Shikamaru laugh in quite a while. Travis was whooping "Yeaauuuuuh!" and somewhere behind them Naruto was shouting praise in Japanese. Sasori sat still and finished absorbing it.

All performers, animal parts gone, came onstage once more, pushing past the remaining scenery props and took an obligatory bow. Sakura's face was overjoyed like he'd never seen, literally: for this performance she'd become so carefree and determined that she seemed like a completely different human being than the one he knew and longed for. But like hell he'd complain about it. She'd sung and danced wonderfully. Endless hours of practice and effort had shown through. Since he remembered her request to not be an arrogant jerk, he clapped, too.

Afterward, one could find most of the performing students standing just outside the auditorium entrance and greeting their friends and fans. He meandered neatly past his classmates, someone's parent with a camera, somebody else, until he spotted the dog ears between two people's heads. A path opened itself to him and he took it to be nearer to her.

"So! Good! We rock! O-M-G!" Ino squealed from the center. She grabbed Sakura's hands and they struggled not to jump off the ground. A boy one year their junior patted Sakura hard on the back and another asked for a picture of her ears to put on Facebook.

"Yo, Sakura, where'd Oliver go?" Someone asked, and she pointed one slim hand towards Kiba, who was positively preening as six girls and a boy with a camera gushed over him, surely to get photographic evidence of this show for the yearbook. It took Sakura a few more seconds to notice him, and then she came running right over, indeed like a puppy. Delighted and brighter than the sun, and so deservedly proud. He ached to hold her.

She laughed at his silence, and said as though in his place, "'Good job, Sakura, I sure wasn't expecting that! Disney! Cats and dogs! Billy Joel!' Anything?"

I love you. I adore everything you do and every time that you shine. I want you to do that just for me.

But he was used to keeping it inside now, so there in a quiet and heavy pit it stayed and lived unknown. He said something good. He said she took him by complete surprise. He had no idea she could be so carefree and mischievous, even on stage, and what a gorgeous voice she had. That last he meant with all his heart. He asked why he'd never heard her sing before, and her excuse was something about needing as much practice as possible before letting her voice be heard, no cracks, no hiccups, no something or other whatever, which was nonsense because he was the one she should be singing for, no matter what.

While with his voice he asked how long it took the master the art of catching sunglasses on one's face, his mind wandered away. Sometime during the show, he'd fleetingly thought of her as his and that thought returned. It added a minute smile to whatever he was saying. It was true. She didn't know or even guess, but Sakura was his, because she shared more with him than any other person, trusted him more, wanted him the most. She didn't feel love now but she might later. Someday he would have to get over this damn irritating fear and say what he wanted to say, and she would…

God, what would she say?

And later still.

That summer was not hot enough for his taste, and it rained endlessly. Their town, which was so hailed as lovely and green and picture-perfect, became soaked and grey as Seattle. Shino thought it made for great photography, but Sasori wished for a forest fire to turn everything hot again. It was so weird when he went into a store one day and heard that exact thought coming out of some stranger's mouth.

"Dammit, I wish there'd be some forest fire to turn everything hot again! I hate this grey, rainy BS!" Sasori was staring up at a Starbuck's menu and his eyes dragged away from it onto a blonde girl. Or so he'd thought then.

It was a boy, as he would later find out, but the hairstyle drew many glances and spoke volumes of femininity. Not to mention the eyes that had a touch of black liner near the lashes. He would know about that.

The boy looked over at him. His weird, approving grin at the fingerless gloves Sasori often wore made him scowl. This kid wouldn't be the first gay guy to approach him. "Hey, I think I've seen you before, mm. You were walking on some residential street. I was super jealous of this scorpion jacket you were wearing. Freaking badass. Hey, you didn't draw it yourself, did you? I mean it looked professionally done. I was this close to creepin' up and stealing it from you."

How…weird. Did he think he was charming at all, talking like that? "Yes. I drew the scorpion myself with acrylics. A few days' work. Thank you."

"No prob." The blonde kid said, taking off his green hoodie, wet from outside rain. "Some people just piss me off with how they can be dumbasses and pretentious dicks at the same time with art. 'Ooh, I drew this rose and its shadow with a red sharpie, I'm so fucking intelligent and deep.' What you had was genuinely done."

It was Sasori's first time interacting with someone who spoke so coolly, so neatly about art. Like he knew it like the back of his hand. His art teachers hadn't sounded half so invested. It intrigued him. So he ordered a lightly-touched cappuccino and the blonde kid ordered something ridiculous with berries and candy flavors, and they sat down together and talked about their artworks.

His first conversation with Deidara was actually very interesting and respectable. They shared pictures off their phones of some pieces they had done. Deidara preferred sculpting things, and was ecstatic about the fact that Sasori had done it when he was a child, and had done it as excellently as any adult. Deidara's bird sculptures were nothing to scoff at, no matter what a weird little dick their maker could be at later times.

But at that time, he was happy to learn that Deidara, happily immigrated from some little place near Kyoto, would be entering the high school just two blocks away from here, which would soon be Sasori's own as well. They were taking the same art class first semester, they both enjoyed heavy doses of Slipknot, and liked Converse shoes, since they were often of a bland enough design that you could draw on them. He let slip that he had drawn an elephant on the Converse shoes of his friend Sakura. Deidara nodded and smiled as he described her and her shoes. Perhaps he knew the truth even then.

Sakura was delighted to meet him, and inquired about his hair care products ("Revlon, of course. Jeez."). The three of them, as well as Naruto, attended the freshman orientation together, in which other nervous and confused teenagers entered their new school prior to the first day for a kind of tour. And they were mutually impressed by how big and well-kept the place was. Chiyo's insistence that the district had won awards for its academic and aesthetic excellence were more evident in its high schools than the facilities for younger students. So the first day of this school wasn't nearly as bad as the first day of their previous one. After all, they were in high school now. Challenges and rewards were coming in equal measure. The best years of their lives were upon them. "Oh, the Places You'll Go!", as Dr. Seuss said. As his father had said.

Days of wishing

There was no Freshman Hunt as his grandmother (jokingly?) insisted there would be. Neither was there a group of vastly muscular and brutish seniors tormenting smaller freshmen. The size or intimidation factor of a student didn't have quite as much to do with their grade as he'd been led to believe. His first senior friend was actually a bit shorter than him, and the first bully he observed was a sophomore boy taunting a junior girl. One thing that rumors and television had gotten at least partially correct was the constant, fleeting love lives you could observe all around you. Ridiculous.

It hadn't been so present in middle school, thank God, but here, it seemed that the majority of students had a significant other they were dating, or angry with, or wished they could have. High school was where relationships started, and crashed and burned.

It pissed him off. Not one of these idiots felt actual love as he did. Some felt lust and some were charmed by a flattering figure or someone's kindness or unique hobby. Certainly some pairs did care about each other. But to say that there was any actual, literal "love" going on was BS, and it insulted him.

People still tried to make it happen, though. Take Rachel, for instance. The same girl who had told him he was "like, really, really hot" in middle school. She was still quite interested in him. Several times a week, as he sat in the cafeteria for his pre-first-period, morning gathering with his friends, she walked by and grinned, or waved. Always something to catch his attention and try to make him watch her. And once, she tried to assert her dominance over Sakura. Social standards kept him from punching her.

It was a Wednesday in September and the novelty of the new year was still slightly present. The opportunity to buy breakfast at school certainly still had novelty. Naruto bought donuts every day and sometimes had the tact to share them, and did today. "Guys, I bought the last three packs, so we should have, like, a donut party."

"Yes! Best way to celebrate Hump Day!" Ashton took one and spilled crumbs everywhere like a toddler.

Sasori was declining that offer while waiting for Sakura to walk through one of the cafeteria doors. He spied a flash of bright hair and became light and nervous suddenly when he assumed it was her, but it was Rachel, whose hair was blonde. She waved to some other friend and thankfully didn't see him yet. She saw Sakura instead, who was buying a small cereal pack and a milk carton in the food line, and had her back unfortunately turned. Rachel spied her and walked slowly toward the registers at the end of the line. Sasori watched as a hungry animal would. Rachel was about to pounce on her. He could read it in her ratty little eyes.

'Bitch, get away from my girlfriend.' He thought, and stood up. Sakura—who, sadly, he only pretended was his girlfriend—was heading towards their table. She was unprotected. The perfect, porcelain surface of her was about to be grabbed and defiled by a noisy blonde witch. She waved to him with her cereal-laden hand, and Rachel's hand clapped down on her shoulder. Sakura turned, unbothered.

The words, "—so maybe you should keep away from him" definitely came from the bitch's mouth and Sakura's brows went up slightly. She exhaled one swift laugh charged with gentle amusement. She said something that began with, "You've seriously got the wrong idea—" and then he was on both of them.

"Sasori," Rachel said amiably. He wished she had done something overly lustful or whorish so he could have a more justified reason to hate her. Then again, what greater justification was there than a person trying to accost Sakura and threaten her? How dare she.

"If you insult or threaten my best friend again, you can say goodbye to whatever you think you have with me." He growled at her. "That's not a way to get a guy, Rachel, and certainly not me. Sakura, come."

He took hold of her bare arm and took her back to her table, while she tried to give him his "don't be a jerk" lesson that he had yet to master, and also relay to him that Rachel assumed they were dating, and wasn't that a laugh? He huffed something irritated-sounding and had her sit next to him where she could be safe and near.

Ashton started some new conversation, while Sasori pondered on why it felt good to command Sakura to come. The internet forced a sexual answer into his head, but that clearly wasn't it. It merely was good to tell her to come to his side, where she was safe and cared for and away from potential dangers like Rachel. It felt good to bring her under his wing and hold her there, and have her go there willingly.

Deidara, who was also at the table, noticed. They talked about it after school that day. The mad beating of his heart as he spoke of his only desire for the first time in four years remained in his memory to this day.

This time, it wasn't Shikamaru's perception that made him cringe and grapple to hold his grace and dignity. It was just Deidara being a crude dick. They met at their usual grassy spot in front of what the school called "A Building" and his first comment was, "So. You're hot for Sakura."

Piece of shit. He wouldn't punch Rachel, but he'd deck this rat in a minute talking about he and his love so crudely. No one was in the immediate area to see if he really decided to punch Deidara. Even if they were, no one could see the withering and contracting of his heart and his entire body, but him. The question remained in the air for five seconds, during which Deidara cocked his head and began his molasses-slow understanding process. "Or, you like Sakura, not just think she's hot. Is that better?"

"No." He said immediately. "Like" had never been strong enough. He liked hot weather. He liked rock music. Rachel liked him. Why wouldn't such plain, easy-to-understand comparisons come out of his mouth?

"So, what? There's totally something between you." Deidara said. "Your face is making me really curious about it. Man, you should see yourself, mm. You looked so pissed off. Kind of sad, too. You should be in the school plays, you could express yourself like whoa when you seriously try, mm." That guy and his mouth, and his fucking "mm". One time, Mr. Redmond had threatened to trash his history quiz if he didn't stop saying it. Great guy.

Sasori took in a soft breath and…tried. "It's not so simple. 'I like her' isn't good enough. You have no idea what this is, and neither does she. She never sees through to me." Fuck, he sounded emo. So stupidly emo. He was saying it fucking wrong again! Why only for this would he fall apart into a total mess?

While his teeth ground together, his blonde friend's face changed. His eyes seemed to lighten a shade. The transformation was strange, but short-lived. Deidara gave his next guess. "So you love her." They paused. The dappled sunshine and bird chirps around them were disturbingly cheery. "Okay? Actual, serious...love?" More pausing. More happy bird chirps. One crowd of running kids later, Deidara quietly added, "How long?"

"My entire life. Every day. I can barely even remember this not being the case." Deidara's lips and trimmed eyebrows quirked up in surprise. He knew that Sakura had been in his life since he was seven.

There was a light crowd of moving kids around them now, boarding buses and walking beyond them to their cars. Only by the movement of his lips did Sasori recognize that Deidara muttered a subdued, "damn". They stood quietly together for a few more seconds before the blonde collected himself and spoke again. "So why don't you tell her? You think she won't feel the same?"

Not…really. Sakura would accept him more than anyone else, but in this way? To be her only…boyfriend? Lover? He said, "She thinks of me as the cool best friend. And she's mine." At least that was true. Yes, Sakura is mine was absolutely true…or he wanted it to be, so, so bad. Did that sound bad? There was only one way for her to really acknowledge that he thought that, even if she rejected him. "I'll tell her. I will. I've always told myself 'later, later,' so I could keep putting it off. Of course it scares me. But nothing will change unless I set a deadline for myself."

Deidara crossed his arms and quirked his lips up approvingly. "Good, good. You actually do get stuff done before deadlines come, so that should work. When do you think would work?"

It had to be something, sometime…big. The first and only time he tried had been some random school day. On a random, unimportant Thursday, he'd attempted a love confession and trampled it completely. On another random, unimportant Thursday, Sakura had appeared on a stage, singing and shining like a queen. Whatever he did was almost never as brilliant and impressive as what she did. But this had to be. This was more important than her singing, her academics, his small family, his art. If this were to matter, it had to be grand.

"I'll tell her at graduation, right after the ceremony." He said firmly. To have the date set in stone was soothing, by some measure.

"Uh—graduation? You sure?"

"Of course. I think it's a perfect idea…what, did you have something else in mind?"

Deidara scratched behind his neck, creating a textbook and textbook-annoying picture of sheepishness. "Yeah, uh, I was thinkin' tomorrow." Sasori scoffed at that idiocy and said nothing. "Are you suuuure?" Deidara leaned over to get in his line of sight. "'Cause…we'll be wearing big, funny robes and have the square caps with the thingies on them, mm. You probably don't want to be dressed like that. I mean when you're talking to a girl you're into."

Sometimes Deidara was quite informed and sometimes he knew as much as a fairly intelligent tapeworm. "Dumbass. Graduation robes zip up over your street clothes; they're nothing but a large coat. We'll get our diplomas indoors, be led outdoors to toss up our hats, and then I'll take off the robes and go to her. I will also not take your goddamned weird fashion advice. I'll wear whatever I choose underneath."

"Yeah. Yeah. Sure." Deidara said noncommittally, which was its own splatter of annoying, but another came right after. "I might still try to change your mind, but if you end up set on this, do you know what it'd mean? You tell her right after the ceremony, then you'll have a freaking amazing time at Project Grad."

So he was informed about that, at least. Sasori had first heard of the procedure from his grandmother, a few years back. The local high schools, hardly an hour after their graduation ceremonies, offered graduates a chance to be bussed away to some rented facility, usually a rec center, for a night of free food and entertainment. He'd heard secondhand stories of students' older siblings, who had seen such things as rock-climbing walls, childish blow-up obstacle courses, and even a hypnotist show. He was quite surprised to learn the supervised event was extremely popular, and nearly all attended, despite the obvious cover it was to keep the new graduates from running wild and drinking.

He was also quite surprised to realize that if her reaction to his confession was at all positive…it would be possibly the best night of his life. The happiest, the most free. Or the worst ever. After all, she could return his feelings with "I only like you as a friend" or "You must be joking" or maybe she'd just not say anything. Or laugh. Or…leave. Could that happen? What would it be like to be surrounded by a rec center full of laughing, romping people if his heart was deadened and ripped to strips? Would he live?

No. No, no good to think so negatively. His new date for the Confession was a good idea. It was well-chosen. "You're right. I will have a great time there with her. But I've got three years to kill before that."

"And I get to watch you be loooovesick." Deidara grinned. "Dude, I'm sure it's painful and stuff from your end, and I'm sorry, but…but I guess it's like when your best friend trips and falls. It makes me lawl." The redhead glared, but this only fueled his friend's lawl-some grin. Sometimes it seemed nothing would keep that stupid grin off his face. It was irritating. Its stupid resilience tried his tiny stash of patience.

He knew a suitable punishment. "Someday, sometime, you won't know when, I will hit you in the face with something, Deidara. And once you're on the ground, I will cut off a large piece of your hair with a pocket knife." His blanching, horrified face was great. As he picked up his bag and prepared to walk home, he added, "Keep your eyes open."

"Someone needs to take you to anger management." Deidara mumbled back, but his love for his own hair was no secret, and his fear of its destruction was obvious on his face.

He smirked back, just a bit. "I can't help it, I'm lovesick. You'll have to deal with me."

The "lovesick" part of the conversation, or perhaps only that one word, was somehow picked up by a passing fellow student who spent the next few days spreading the information around. This he only knew by the overflow of girls staring at him and giving suggestive grins and comments. One, Jeanette or Jean or something, had the nerve to smirk and say upfront "So who's the lucky girl?" as his biology class was starting. He smirked right back, spattering her with sexual appeal, and said in a dark mockery of her bubbly voice, "None of your business." She walked away stunned and wobbly-legged.

Sakura, of course, did not notice, or said nothing. He read no curiosity in her vibrant eyes, though he attempted to read them very often. She was too busy always looking down at books or crafting her fine handwriting onto various assignments, or listening to music or talking to Ino or doing anything in the world but reading his own eyes. He had a dream wherein he literally grabbed her head and said with strange energy and audible desperation, "Look at me! Just look at me!"

Waking up remembering that phrase on a dreary morning of May was probably where his emo phase started.

Sometime after.

Finals began that year—Sakura looked at her notes all the time, including when she should have been talking to him—and he fell into full brooding status. He did not hide it. One might have said he should have felt happier, with his goal set for the Confession, but it wasn't so. That a date was set didn't change the fact that every day, Sakura came up to him and called him "best friend" and shared food with him, swapped class stories with him, patted his shoulder, and said in all unintentionally agonizing ways that their relationship was platonic. He had a set date but it wouldn't change a thing for just over three years.

He still hurt. He still had dreams about her that taunted him by pushing him into waking reality later. It angered him. It made everything worthless, useless, insulting. He wanted to claw at the faces of anyone who came to him with a smile or a joke. He sneered at the openly cheerful or lucky. They taunted him with their happiness. He once felt prompted to wear all black, change his nail color from teal to jet, to be away from all things joyful and sunny. But Sakura wouldn't like that, so he resisted. That didn't matter to most girls, though.

Many of his female peers, regardless of how much black he did or didn't wear, found his new overtly brooding presence extremely sexy. A greater number than usual continued to lick their lips at him, drop and pick up pencils to reveal the presence of a thong, and stand near him and show off their shirts' swooping necklines. He would ignore them, usually. He glared and outright hated a few, like Kyoko, who shared a French class with he and Sakura and was infecting their good times and their precious shared laughter with her whorish nature. Three blatant stares at her and she kept away from him and his Sakura, and any group work they had to do was appropriately quiet.

Some girls he would look at, though. He slammed biology with the blame: he was a teenage boy and why shouldn't he look at attractive girls? He was a teenage boy, so shouldn't his mind drift and latch onto sex? He was also Sasori Akasuna, aspiring artist and hidden lover of Haruno Sakura, and being afflicted with biology would not absolve him if he chose a path that his love did not want or approve of.

The vices of adolescence, in all honesty, usually made him more intellectually curious—quite the same way he wondered about breathing underwater, or what it would be like to talk to God—than actually curious about participating in strange new things. He hoped Sakura shared his frame of mind. He wanted them to be above such things, together. They were superior to many people, he was sure. But he still wished to hear her thoughts aloud. Thankfully, they were delivered to him once. Indirectly.

It was summer again. Soon, they would rush to see Order of the Phoenix together. Now, they had gathered at the tree house, which was old now, and showing its first signs of rot. They sat inside together, lying down. Sakura's knees were up and her bare legs begging for his gaze. He resisted.

In fact, he was about to tell her he had to leave. His phone said it was five, and his grandmother had said the food she'd ordered would be delivered about that time. He sat up and she grabbed at his arm. It was warm where she touched. "I have something to ask first."

He looked down on her, one hand fidgeting, eyes sharp and sweet. It looked too much like a fantasy, but he pushed the vulgarity of it away for the real her, coming to him for help. She'd always promised that she would.

"I heard something about you during a passing period today." Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit. "I think it was that tall kid, James. James Cress. He was bragging about a party his brother had, and you were there? This means you were sneaking out for alcohol and strangers and God knows what else. I'm wondering why I didn't hear about this from you."

Thank the lord. Deidara—or Shikamaru—hadn't given away or hinted at his secret. Still, this was sudden and strange news for her, bullshit as it was. "He's lying. James is known to be a lying prick if it makes him look good. I wasn't at any party and I was not with alcohol, strangers, and God knows what else. You know I wouldn't do any of that."

"I thought I did." He allowed his confusion to spill on her face. And she let…guardedness show on hers. It was not an emotion that belonged there. "You've been acting so dark and angry for weeks. It's like a bigger, more disturbing version of how you acted around sixth or seventh grade. At that time, you were just a mean little brat, but I have no idea what's wrong now. I worry that when I'm not around, you're out doing something bad. Maybe stereotypically bad, like being at a party with James the prick and drugs and yes, doing God knows what there. I'm not a good judge anymore. But I still want you to tell me what's wrong."

So that, she had noticed. She did not notice the signs of love, but she noticed when he changed. And that warmed him. He soothed her with the truth, as best he could without revealing anything. "Nothing is wrong, and you don't need to worry about that. I'm not drifting into the 'unsavory teenager' path. I know I've been acting strange recently. I thought it was some…emo phase. I waited for it to be done."

"That sounds like a wonderful answer. That's real convenient that it throws away all my concerns in a snap." She replied. She was undaunted, like usual. How he loved her. "You can tell me if you've done something bad or weird. It's fine to try new things and all that. I get that. I don't think I want to do that, not for myself, but, but...if you did, you could still tell me."

And he had nothing to tell. His thoughts on all of the teenage 'vices' were pondering at best, the same as hers. Some—not a majority, he thought—of their age group would be diving in to ugly and self-destructive activities in this time of their lives, but he was not in such a category, he swore to her. She looked satisfied after a while.

Some later event would make his words an untruth. But he didn't want to think about that now; in the present, a shamed Sasori turned his thoughts somewhere else. He thought about Order of the Phoenix next. Sakura and he were both fans of Luna Lovegood, and he thought about dabbling in sewing to stitch a Ravenclaw scarf. If not for her, then maybe Konan would want it.

Nearer to the End.

Sophomore year was the year of money. His grandmother found him in the kitchen on the fourth of October and dropped a credit card into his hand.

"This was going to be your sixteenth birthday present but I thought you'd rather have it sooner. I'll put payments into it monthly, and I expect you to spend and save wisely." He was still dumbstruck. This, Shikamaru's perception, and Sakura in shorts were all he knew of at that time that could make him lose his natural composure.

His grandmother continued. "Dear, it's for the money you'll make with your account on that art site. I don't plan to 'stalk' you there or anything, but a quick glance tells me that you have more than a few fans who would pay for a carving done by your hand. You can get a account and put your commission money on this card. Oh, don't stare at me as though you don't know what all these things are. Make the best of it, son!" And she was off to her book club, and he had a credit card.

And indeed, commissions flowed in. He charged his first customer on deviantART sixty-five dollars for a four-inch wood carving of a sitting wolf. Eight more for shipping. Mailing it away and receiving a long letter of thanks made him proud. Or egotistical.

Sophomore year was also the year of Deidara being tolerable. Deidara's jealousy of Sasori's new money opportunity was palpable and sweet. And he was still slightly nervous, waiting for the day he would have to defend himself from a haircut. Allegedly, his Spanish teacher that year consistently referred to him as a female because he so detested Deidara's hair. Perhaps this was the only reason Deidara took a single year of Spanish before gratefully leaving it in junior year. But he wasn't quite there yet.

Sophomore year, he shared an advanced chemistry class with Sakura. And Deidara. It was bittersweet, that one week in February when they were all lab partners. At first it was sweet because she kept passing him new test tubes and accidentally brushing her fingers on his wrist, and he wanted to kiss them, and kiss her. He thought the things he wished he could say: I love you, I love your touch, I love your voice. I love your cleverness and how you always work hard, and I definitely love your legs.

And it was bitter when Deidara turned on the gas too early and too hard, and three-foot flames shot upward from their lighter. Deidara screamed, and Sasori grins to this day when he remembers his friend shielding the fire from the teacher's sight…with his own body. Mr. Nazworthy looked over at them from another group. The flame died away but three of them each felt that wondering, penetrating gaze.

Deidara saved them. "This test tube is just so amazing, Mr. Nazworthy; I had to scream!"

Sakura followed his lead. She tapped the array of tubes and clinked them around. "Deidara, here. Here's the one with magnesium chloride, take it!" Deidara did and said it was also a beautiful test tube. Mr. Nazworthy never suspected a thing and the neighboring lab groups thought they were hilarious.

Sophomore year, he first had serious thoughts about a girlfriend who was not Sakura. Only because it might make her jealous. And that may or may not have been beneficial to this plan for the Confession, but he didn't care. The deadline did not heal his ache for her attention. He started to give subtle signals to Yuko and Victoria and a few others that he considered them less annoying now. He could milk the product of that later.

Sophomore year…the time was getting close. As he and Sakura met at the treehouse on the hottest day of April, they talked about French homework and conjugation, he felt so happy to be with her alone, to be her only important person, even if she didn't love him yet. And his heart beat against his chest in fear. The time was getting closer. Two years was a long time yet, but he felt it.

Days of waiting.

The teacher for all the French classes was Mrs. Lorraine (Madame Lorraine, as they said in class) and during finals time of freshman year she took note of his angry faces and his weirdly angular, hellish sketches he made in free time, and from then till graduation, she looked at him like he was Hannibal Lecter. Now junior year had begun, French III for him, and her horrified looks were less amusant and more ennuyeux. At least Kyoko no longer flashed her sluttiness at him.

Madame Lorraine was reading the vocabulary list that would appear on their quiz Thursday. He absorbed this knowledge and looked at Sakura, a desk in front of him and to his left. She was looking studiously at the list and scratching notes on it. The sleeve of her shirt—plain grey, and a longer black undershirt—were long enough to cover a bit of her hand, and he found that quite cute.

Madame Lorraine asked him to please look up and define la peinture. He did so smoothly. Sakura turned and sent him a look of pretend fury. In French, too, they would play-fight for the title of Smartest Kid in Class. In this way, too, he would have an excuse to think of her as a small, play-fighting cat. He probably thought about that too much nowadays. But Sakura was too busy securing her place as the school's valedictorian next year to read his wants in his eyes or attempt to guess at his thoughts, so it didn't really matter.

"Ah, Sasori? Quel est le problème? Vous regardez en colère." Sakura's gaze was tuned opposite him, always, but spineless Madame Lorraine would notice. For whatever reason. The frustration bled into his gaze of its own accord and his teacher's brows came together as she tried to stifle her face of disquiet.

"Nothing, Madame Lorraine. I'm tired. Halo kept me up till three." His neighbor, Clint, whispered "Ha! Classic!" as he often did upon hearing anything remotely funny that was or was not classic.

He waited for the bell to ring, and the Madame requested that they all go over the vocab list. Sakura and Maurice both promised that they would as everyone left, and the former waited for him just outside the door. He was reminded that he had a year and a half left before she heard his secret. She knew he had a girlfriend now, and it did not seem to cause her any grief, which pissed him off. "You look excited." He remarked to her. On graduation day, would he be excited, too? Or terrified?

"I am. I'm a host today."

"Host? What does that mean?"

"I haven't delivered a B assignment to my parents for two years." She said excitedly. "This morning, I got the biggest hug ever, and my mom told me she'd make my favorite dinner tomorrow. And for today, she gave me money to take my friends out to eat. I'm treating everyone, so I'm the host. Where do you want to go?"

Sakura's parents' cool expectation of perfection from their daughter had lightened somewhat over the years, and in a way, this disappointed him. In his childhood he sometimes imagined rescuing her from them and taking her to his nice, normal-expectations home/nest, and now that couldn't be done. He set this disappointment aside to set a time to meet at a place of his own choosing. Hinata and Shikamaru would come, so the waiter would be serving a table of Japs. Six or so hours later, one such waiter was taking their orders and sloppily hiding her surprise at the appearance of the four she served.

"She had a bracelet with the Spiderman symbol on it." Shikamaru remarked once she was gone.

Sakura sipped at raspberry tea. "Are you very offended there wasn't a Pikachu on it instead?"


Sasori chuckled, and Hinata muttered something about the "black one with a snake tongue" who gave her the creeps. He supplied her with the name "Venom," which Shikamaru scowled at. "He was in the last movie, which I barely got to see anyway because these dickheads up front kept yelling at the screen."

"I hate those people." Sakura scowled also, wrinkling her brow just enough. Sasori fought an adoring smile. "They're the same ones who freak out during previews, too. Being excited and scaring other moviegoers with your excitement are two different things. 'Thor! Thor! Jesus Christ, I have to see what happens to Thor!'" Her table got a laugh from that. Sakura fed on creating contentment and laughter for others, to added a few more, such as: "Swiper! Will he swipe?!"

Hinata spat water and fumbled to stem her laughter and rub a napkin on her lip at once. Shikamaru put a hand over his face, and Sasori felt warm and pleased to hear such an animated voice. It reminded him of when she had sung before. A few years ago. She had danced a bit. Danced.

Prom was in four months.


More time.

Prom turned out to not be a problem. The devil's son, Deidara, had concocted and set off a stink bomb out of stolen chemistry materials. Since a DJ, stage, lighting, catering, and the time of various chaperones could not easily be re-rented, there was no prom that year.

Chiyo was disappointed that she wouldn't get to wave goodbye to him as he left for a school dance, and he faked some amount of dissatisfaction to match her. Truth be told, he was overjoyed. He had long feared the day when the girl he loved would be asked to dance by another boy. She would finally turn her eyes to romance and she wouldn't be looking at him for it. And in a wordless corner of himself, he worried that he would turn his own eyes to her date, and plan some revenge against him that would be either very petty or very—distressingly—harmful. But he remained sane and the high school remained pissed off at one specific junior, who was suspended for a month, and punched by his father.

What a beautiful month. No contact from Deidara except for texts and one home visit. So much time alone with Sakura, unpestered and quiet like younger days. He once saw Karin and Ami, the childhood tormentors of his love, in the halls, and was completely unbothered by them and whatever their presence or actions might mean. He had time with Sakura and he would spend it well.

Today, she came to his house and lay on his bed. While he painted fine touches on a carved lizard, she played with his nail polish, painting all her nails. He found this endlessly charming.

"What's next on your list after the lizard?" she asked him. Her eyes remained on her nails, but he kept looking at her in case she wanted to meet his eyes.

"Something very new. I'm to take a picture of someone's twin chlidren and carve them with that as a reference."

Now she looked up. He smiled at the little emerald suns he saw. "Really! That's so…so different! They must really trust your skill. Are you thinking it'll be a difficult piece or not?"

"With a reference like that, no. I could shape the kids' faces with my eyes closed."

She scoffed. "I should commission you for something. When you have a spot on your list, tell me how much an elephant would cost. One as big as that lizard, fully painted."

"I will not let you pay me." He said flatly, and she looked faintly angry. "Don't make a face. I charge strangers, naturally. All I want from them is money. That policy is for them. Not you." Those had assuredly not been the words he wanted to come out. That hinted too much at his secret truth. And as much as he longed for her to know him, and dreamed about kissing her, and had been ready to hurt her would-be prom date, hinting at the truth was just not okay. Without proper words or reason, even, he pulled away from that as much as possible. It was fear of rejection, probably, but he had never put a label on it. Sakura only shook her head anyway and disagreed. She threw a crumpled ten-dollar bill at him and said that would be her first down payment.

In the end, she was not allowed to pay, and she received her elephant. When she took it out of the little box he'd placed it in, she gazed up on it with a kind of sweet adoration he begged and prayed would one day be bestowed on him. She kissed its grey head and said in a fine and delighted voice that she would name it Sori.

His mind all but whirled into fanaticism that day, as he spoke to her and as he went home and walked and ate and breathed. Does she love me too, does she love me too, what if the world was really that kind, she might love me too—

Days passed and he watched her brighten, succeed, laugh, and never leave him. They told tales at the tree house of life and loss and what they wondered of the world. The words he let her hear were always accompanied by a mental backdrop in which he told her the truth. Someday soon those words would come to her, too. He once noted that she was close to being an adult now, and hadn't yet become a parselmouth. Sakura replied that he was close to being an adult now and to her, he was still a princess. He didn't mind.

The summer and the fall were both hot like a desert plain. He considered them gifts. By the next summer, his life would be complete or ruined.


He got innumerable little, meaningless gifts on the day he turned eighteen. Some, one specifically, he tried to forget because they and the givers were meaningless, or nearly so. Some were amusing, like the band shirt Shikamaru gave him, purchased at a concert his rockaholic mother had forced him to attend with her. Some were impressive, like blushing Konan's origami crane, a foot-tall, admirable masterpiece he would keep for a long time. The confetti and birthday cards he found sloppily taped onto his locker were endearing; Madame Lorraine's command that the class sing him "happy birthday" in French was less so.

On the other hand, that so many people recognized his day of birth was another marker of prestige, and it was refreshing to receive signals that were not charged by a girl's strange or desperate attraction to him, or a boy's strange and zealous desire to act cool enough for him. In the present, Sasori looked back and pondered how self-absorbed he must have been, to only acknowledge and appreciate friends after eighteen years of being alive. But whatever. Sakura's gift to him was lovely and that mattered most.

She approached him a bit cautiously, and, he noted with exasperation, he couldn't help but relate it to a cat creeping nervously towards an intimidating new object. And it appealed to his sense of masculinity that she would consider him intimidating. She came as close as she dared and presented a shoebox with the logo of Bjorn. On top of it was a figurine of a cat, red-furred, thin, and bearing a stark, disapproving expression.

"It's supposed to be you." She explained with a nervous kind of quiet. He turned it in his hands and hoped that she watched his deft and moving fingers. "I went on deviantART and paid someone to make it. And, uhm, for a reference I actually gave them that picture of you from last year's yearbook, where you're sitting on the stairs by the auditorium, looking at the camera all angry." She paused to stifle a laugh. He wanted to stifle it for her by covering and claiming her lips. He'd waited so many years for that. The time when he could do it was so close, it chilled him.

"I think that's the better part of the gift. But open the box, too!"

"Did you buy me Bjorn shoes?"

"No, sir. Open it." He did, and there were shoes inside, but they were certainly not so fancy as the Bjorn brand. They looked like Converse, or a cheap offshoot of them: a plain canvas pair. Sakura and a set of markers had set upon these shoes to draw a swooping pattern of blue strings on a black background. They curved up and around and did not crowd each other, and they turned dark in their curves and descents. An amount of artistic skill and effort showed on the surface of those shoes than he had ever seen her express on any surface, with any medium. She had learned from him. His prestige faded, removed itself and pride came clearly in its place.

He thanked her and reveled in the gratitude he could see in her eyes. God, her eyes. Deidara saw him looking at her and sprouted a massive grin. He had yet to be assaulted and have his hair cut, so he had grown cocky again, as he was meant to be. Sasori accepted his gift, as well as its accompanying gift of his being silent. He thought briefly of his parents and how they might look upon him now, if they could. He fancied they would be proud. He'd done few wrongs and succeeded in many paths. And he was in love, and would be forever. His mother especially would have loved to know that.

Sakura put her arms around him when she read his thoughts about his parents in his expression. They stood together and no one dared interrupt them. He returned the gesture, only this once, and if the desperation showed in how tight he held her, then...then what-the-fuck-ever.

Deidara flipped out his phone and took a picture.

Time together.

The tree house again. It had aged so much, but continued to hold their weight and shelter them from the world outside. This may have been where he fell in love with her, as much as he could as a narrow-minded child, and at the least it was where they, as a couple, as friends, began.

Today it was spring but talked about things ending. Their school, their friendships with others. Their lives in this town.

Sakura's small glance told him to be honest, and he was. "I feel guilty." He said. She waited to receive more of his truth. "Soon it will be time for me to go away, live somewhere else, live a new life. I will leave my only family here alone. Her son is dead and I'll leave her, too. She's gonna die alone, eventually."

Through one of the new cracks in the roof, he could see the sun appearing from behind a cloud. It shone on them like forgiveness. He listened for Sakura's response, her healing, which he knew would come because it always did. She told him, "Your grandmother knows it's normal for you to leave. She would never resent you for going away to college. She wants you to leave and find your calling and your happiness somewhere. You know that."

"She will be alone, and that is what concerns me. I don't care if it's normal. That solves nothing."

"I guess you better call and email her pretty often so she doesn't feel so alone. If you're in college, that's the best you can do."

He exhaled, one small chuckle, but it soured. "And you? You'll be leaving Juliet. She's very old, Sakura. I know it hurts to hear, but she'll probably die while you're away. What will you do?"

"I've already prayed several times that it happens when I'm visiting my parents." She replied quietly. "If I'm not there when she passes, I can't tell you what I'd do. She and you are some of the few dependable constants I have. She's my little sister. She can't ever be replaced."

Did that mean he was like her big brother, or just that he also couldn't be replaced? Ordinarily this would cause him much grief, but today was peaceful, and so was he. The date for the Confession, the date when they three hundred of their peers would advance to the newest stage of their lives and the most important day of his life, was three months away. Oddly, he felt less frightened than ever. The calm before the storm, like all the old and scholarly literature said. A plethora of bright and sharp memories was behind him and perhaps only a few were left. He did not mind. He could wait. This time.

"I'm still a constant. And as long as you remember Juliet after she's gone, she will remain one, too. She can pass on from life, but never from you."

As the blessedly warm sun beat on them, his love's hand touched onto his arm. Not for hand-holding, but merely for contact, for a more simple touch. "I'll miss you being profound and right all the time." She whispered to him. He turned his head to hear it more. "Wherever I go, I better see a what's-up text or email from you once a week, and I mean once a week. You and me are not gonna lose touch."

What. What. What the fuck was that we-won't-be-in-the-same-place implication doing in her sentence? As though she assumed they would separate after this? Her phone rang, singing some hilariously old, outdated song, and she answered to the loud voice of her father. Sakura affirmed whatever he was saying and then relayed that she had to be home soon. Her last word before his heart burst into mindless, violent activity was "I'll see you in French tomorrow."

He told her goodbye, she climbed down, and jogged over the path their shoes had worn in the grass and fallen branches. He stayed there a while. Many long minutes. Pondering an idea that had, for some unknowable reason, eluded him. For all their talk of potential colleges and scholarships and dorm rooms, Sasori had not truly registered that they would almost surely not attend college together. Or even in the same town. The same state. Country. Life.

His calm from the past few weeks faded away like a morning fog, and smothered all his other senses. Once, he felt the prick of a branch on his side, and wind, and then he was indoors and his grandmother was in front of him. "You look ill." She noted. Sasori could not think of what to say, and their house was quiet, without even the background buzz of the central heating. Silent inside and out. "Have you eaten yet, love?

She was looking straight into his eyes but he could barely see or acknowledge her. The time was close, he knew, and a time of separation was also close. His friends, his life, his hometown, and Sakura would leave. On his shoulder he felt a force pushing him towards the kitchen until he had to sit down on a chair. He leaned forward. He looked down. His grandmother still stood.

"Tell me what's wrong, Sasori. I won't judge you. I won't hate you. You know I support you in everything."

Chiyo was a person of great heart and caring. She did not deserve to have her child stolen from her. Like himself, the workings of fate and society and everything else, all of it, had absolutely no right to take what she loved or what he loved, or the person he needed and cherished like nothing he could ever describe. It was physically painful to think of Sakura so far away, literally untouchable. It was physically painful to imagine a life in which she wasn't nearby or in front of him to guide his way and brighten the world. Chiyo's voice came through the haze and his barrier of silence. She again asked him what was wrong and what troubled him. There was no reason for him to answer. No strength with which to do it. He parted his lips to inhale, and couldn't.

"I'm in love with Sakura."

He couldn't see his grandmother to know or gauge her reaction. He had no working mind to do those things anyhow. Only when she came around to his front and tilted his head up did he realize her presence again. "And this is a problem?" He told her no flatly. "And does she know?" He told her no again. "Ah. And how long has this been hidden from her?"

That answer was…was… "I don't remember when. I don't remember a time when I didn't hide it from her."

"I thought so." She replied. He felt confused. Chiyo seemed to be making light of his colossally important truth. Were he in a proper state of mind, he would be insulted, and afterward realize it was only her comforting manner. "So long you've been around each other, eh? You wouldn't shut up about her when you were little. And when you grew, you hardly talked about her. And let's not pretend you didn't stare longingly out of windows like a pining, preteen girl many times."

"This is funny to you?" he spat suddenly. His small store of emotions returned, anger first. "This is a cute childhood memory? A crush? No, Grandmother, you are—"

"You are in no state to tell me I'm wrong. I've been aware of this probably longer than you have." His mouth closed, some respect seeping in. "Your high school years are nearly done. One summer more, and you and her will both be out of here for good. What are you and your extremely lovesick little self going to do then, Sasori? If you love this girl, you'd better get up and tell her."

He told her his plan to do just that, minutes after graduation. His voice was not as composed and grand as it should have been. No, he sounded half-terrified and forgot one bit of it, and had to go back and repeat it. What had been an elegant plot to propose —propose?—his truth to Sakura at her highest moment of glory and happiness now looked as awkward and stupid as his first attempt at a love confession. But Chiyo heard it and nodded. "Mm-hmm." She murmured, and was quiet for too damn long a time. "I think it's a good idea. I think it will turn out well, and you needn't be so scared and quaking in your boots over it. Enjoy your last few weeks as a high school student. Many people you know will soon be gone forever, and your way of life will change no matter what. The day will come soon enough."


The time passed. The time came.



School was done. The last day came and went and goodbyes were many and frequent. Two weeks passed and now it was time. He and three hundred other no-longer-students were driving towards a large church out of town where their last high school event would take place. They were supposed to arrive wearing the robes, but Sasori found them almost amusingly stupid-looking, so decided not to put his on until he was inside. He separated from his grandmother—"I'm so proud of you, Sasori. If only your parents could see you now."—and descended to the basement where students gathered. They did not look embarrassed to be wearing the robes. Or the hats.

"Put it on, dude! We're graduating! Be happy!" Deidara barked at him with a smile. And it nearly sprouted a smirk on Sasori, as well. The cap covered most of his ponytail and made it seem that his hair was down.

Sakura had her ensemble on, as well as two special colored ropes given to those who had achieved some grand academic thing or other. Her cap looked cute on her. She ran towards him and slammed him with an embrace which he half-heartedly returned. He could feel her shaking. Hell, so was he. All day. She must have felt it, too. "Look at you, you're shaking! Isn't this great! We're moving on, we're going somewhere. I got the chills, too, and Kiba says I keep rambling and rambling but I can't help it! Did you hear that we're graduating?"

Yes. Yes.

The principal had them all stand at attention—"We're allowing you to sit with your friends at the ceremony, remember! The students at Redwood and Farrow Hill have to sit in alphabetical order, but we wanted to make this as special for you as possible"—and a girl who wanted to date him or maybe had dated him kept turning around to grin and make desperate faces at him, distracting from what should have been a monumental experience. Or maybe his own breathing was doing that. He heard his own breath more than the principal with his microphone. He felt Sakura's breath on his cheek as she whispered something to him and giddily shook his arm. He walked behind her, following the huge line up the long and winding ramp to the church's auditorium. A thousand people were looking down on them, and easily four hundred cameras were flashing.

They flashed and he sat and all his friends sat around him. Dozens of rows of fine, cushioned chairs and dozens of grinning and proud teenagers. Row by row, they went up to receive a diploma. His row was fourth and he and Kiba and Sakura and others each received one. He didn't remember receiving his. Only breathing and the new, aggravated heartbeat he felt stood out. Someone went up to make a speech. Was it a staff member or a student? The valedictorian? Was it Sakura? Oh God, there were only minutes left.

The time was now and what was he going to say? Had he even planned the words? There was some paper in his desk that said stuff like that, or he had thought of making one. Or what? What! What was he supposed to do now?

His thoughts were going nowhere except into a wall that cruelly accepted the smashed skulls of his reasoning and previous plans that hit it. Thanks to a cacophony of sudden, gleeful shouting and shuffling, he realized that the students were being ushered outside now. They were going towards a back door that led outside. Right outside, he would tell Sakura he loved her. He had to, whether he was composed or prepared or not. He had sworn this would be the day, and if it wasn't, there would never be one as perfectly suited. If it wasn't, she might be gone forever in two months.

"Hey. Hey!" Deidara was walking by him and his tasseled hat looked ridiculous. Sasori could not imagine his looked much more attractive. "You've stuck by your plan after all. Here's your moment, mm."



"Fuck yes."

"Good! This should be scary!" Deidara shoved on his arm, ruffling the robe's sleeve. It turned dark as they went outside into the night. "Throw your stupid cap and go straight to her! This one moment is it. Right now. Carpe diem, dude."

Once upon a time, he'd thought Deidara was some homosexual stalker. How strange what he'd evolved into, from that first impression. Sakura was not his best friend, Deidara was. "Thank you." He said. All his honesty and the genuine gratitude he chose never to voice was audible in that. Deidara had the eyes and ears of a hawk. He heard.

"No prob, we can bro-hug later. Now, to get to it. And hope she hasn't already noticed." Sasori's face burned out completely blank. "Oh, what, it's so goddamn obvious! Everyone already knows you love her." Sasori's face…remained blank. "Well, it's probably why your last girlfriend left. And the one before her. Seriously, the freaking squirrels can see that you love her, so get your ass in gear and tell her, mm!" What an inspiring and strange friend. He thanked Deidara again.

Now, all the students stood in a crowd on the grass, removing their hats and waiting for the signal. Kiba had prepared a a special pose for this moment, and looked like an idiot, in Sasori's opinion. But his joy showed when someone shouted for them to move, and a storm of square, tasseled caps were flung upward. He fancied that the rise and fall of them was a kind of art in itself. Despite the accompanying shouts of glee, it was calming and he needed that.

He needed to find her. He took one step forward, and the calm was gone. He tried to unzip his robe and toss it somewhere. All his friends' shouts and leaps and noises blended together into a mind-numbing fog. He heard noise, and felt people brushing past him. Someone tried to talk to him. Say congratulations. He said it and he walked.

God, his heart hurt already. It beat on his chest. Violent. He'd never been so scared, shook so bad. His hands couldn't be still. Where was Sakura? Where? There? No. Go…over there. Past Konan. There, she was standing with others, robe off, her red, white-sleeved tee and her smile on now. She saw him.

Sasori went over to her and extended his hands. They felt bloodless and weak, but they grabbed at Sakura's hands and closed slowly and powerfully over hers. They were warm and lovely as usual. She was saying how happy she was. He was hardly breathing.

"I love you."

Sakura's happiness faded from her face. Confusion took root. She wondered if she'd heard him right—she actually said, "Wh-what?"—Well, here's your answer, dear, make sure you listen this time.

"I love you. I've loved you my entire life." The answer, many answers, many things he'd thought and wished he could say, lined up and prepared to fly madly out. "I waited till now to say it, and I doubt I'm saying it right but I fucking mean it, Sakura. I love you, I love your voice and your touch. I love your cleverness and how you always work hard, and I definitely love your legs. Everything I ever did, I did only so you would be impressed and want to stay with me. Every day I wished I could not be a goddamned coward and say what I was truly thinking."

His eyes were trained on hers; for the first time, she was looking into them and realizing there was true and aching emotion there that she'd turned a blind eye to before. Sasori hid nothing. He was free now, but frightened. He could not tell if Sakura's hands were shaking or his. But he could see no rejection in her expression. All surprise. And a hint of a nervous or giddy smile. She smiled at him. Oh, God, he was elated and warm already.

He lifted their hands slightly. "This means everything to me. Whatever happens to us tonight and whatever you choose, I wanted you to know. This is…me. Hiding nothing. Now you know me."

Now it was done. Ten years later—eleven—so now, she had to react. Always, she performed a grand action and he reacted. Now it was backwards and it was terrifying. Sakura's hands were definitely shaking harder than his. She asked him, "How long have you been thinking this?"

He exhaled once, a sharp and sardonic laugh. "How long." He repeated, only to stall, because he wasn't sure himself. "Years, Sakura. I can't even remember. Perhaps since the first day. When you were playing at the tree house, all alone, and I found you. You…were very cute." Go on. Go on. Speak the truth! "I still think you're extremely, ungodly cute, and beautiful at once. I've wanted…I want to kiss you."

Sakura's face contorted a bit in surprise, and it reminded him of a surprised cat. Too cute. "Right now?"

"Now. If you let me. Only if you let me, and if you want me." He paused. "I've always wondered…if you wanted me, too. I wondered every day, 'am I her best friend? Does she think just that and nothing more?' Can you tell me?"

Three hundred other no-longer-high-schoolers milled around and made mindless noise around them. Sakura's reaction and her softly moving expression existed outside of the crowd. Only she mattered. She was struggling to create her own reaction now. He knew the feeling of wishing the proper words would come out. Or even be formed in the mind. But she was Sakura, always working hard and always grasping success; he smiled when she finally managed the task. She began with, "You're…not…you're not just my best friend. But I don't think there's a definition for what you are. I think th-that…you matter more…than any other person does to me, and, uh…"

She did. She cared, she cared more for him than the others, she did want him. He could see it in her now, not hidden. She wasn't hiding so much as he had been, but the shyness that came and the marks of a confession were on her now. Sakura finished with, "The, uhm, the talent show in eighth grade…that was for you. I wanted to impress you, too."

Something burst and flashed, inside and out. It may have been his heart. Perhaps it had exploded. "Kiss me. Now."




Now, he pulled her by their connected, laced hands and initiated their first kiss. He felt the sudden, blissful meeting of their lips like a thunderstrike, like every dam on the earth being opened. The essence of Sakura Haruno tasted like a sweetened cherry, like her, and hell if he didn't push his tongue in and take more and more of it. She was fidgeting against him, taken by surprise and yes, with joy and with pleasure. This was her first kiss, it seemed, a shocking thing, but he was practiced enough to make it perfect for her, and to know where to push his tongue, where to sweep it along her lip, and when to breathe. That she didn't, that she was following his lead for once—and that she was kissing him, feeling and starting to love him—massively fueled his ego. It made him want. A lot.

When they pulled back again, he found his own hands again and placed them on her arms, just below her shoulders. She was just beginning to gather her bearings, which was not allowed right now, so he laughed once and kissed her again. Again. Once on her cheek because it was sweet and he loved her. Once lower, on the jawline, and that single, first kiss on that spot told him that she liked it there. Sasori remembered feeling uncharacteristically giddy and overjoyed, finding out Sakura liked to be kissed along the jawline. What other boy had realized such a thing about her? None. Not a fucking one, and he liked it that way.

He remembered grasping the pinkette's arms harder, forgetting that he was standing. His weight pulled them both down onto the ground. Someone cried out in surprise. Probably her. People were probably noticing them. He didn't give a damn. He only cared about the love of his life, whom he was straddling now, yes, who was a little underneath him now, kissing her on her sweet swan neck, and on the lips again and she tried to kiss back but couldn't possibly make a move against his own unstoppable torrent.

What stopped him was in fact an annoyance. A camera flash. He lifted his head from his granted wish, and saw Rachel, and a boy he knew, and also Deidara. Pointing the backs of their phones at him. The boy was sniggering. "Christ, this is so going on Facebook, man."

"Only had to wait like four years," someone else said behind them. Sakura looked bewildered, though not seemingly by the flurry of kisses. Perhaps she, too, had been oblivious to the fact that people already knew he was in love with her.

"Why couldn't you do that before they made the yearbook!" Kiba said from the side. "That would have totally gotten a page to itself. I mean, my God."

"But still, Facebook!"

"This is the most adorable and romantic thing on the fucking planet! Great job, Sasori!"

Sasori was still giddy from having his life being completed. Mischievous, even. One of his arms was around Sakura, supporting her as she sat up, but the other suddenly grabbed at her shoulder. "You want something for Facebook?" Sakura made a choked noise and he smirked. "Put this on Facebook." And he started again, while people cheered.

Some amount of minutes, days, lives, later, they tried to stand up, and Sakura pushed him. Once upon a time, she'd thrown a soccer ball at him and it had knocked him flat onto the ground. Now, he was lucky to remain standing. His ribcage was not. "Will you let me breathe just once every twelve minutes! Fuck!"

"Language," he chided her. For the first time, his expressions moved freely on his face. He was teasing her, the way he'd wanted to for so long.

"You have no right to scold me about language. Do you—" Her words bubbled away in a small fit of laughter that she tried to cover with her forearm. Behind it, she was blushing. He watched and felt happy. "My God. Oh, my God." She bent her legs a little, sinking, and came back up. She was giddy, too. "Let me…go find my parents. I'll come back to you. I have to tell them I have a boyfriend. Right?"

"Yes." He said. "Tell them everything. I'll come to you." She went. Her gait was noticeably slower, less strong and controlled than usual. It was good to be the source of that. Finally. Oh, look, Deidara.

"Look at you! Holy crap!" He shoved Sasori's shoulder, a manly gesture he'd never been so fond of. He did not mind. "You told her and she totally likes you, too. You're done! Eleven years and you're all done holding that in, and your life is officially perfect, mm. How do you feel?"

As though there was a word for this. Not in English. Not in home-spoken Japanese, either. Or any language of humans, perhaps. "I feel indescribable, Deidara." He said. "I can't possibly relate to you what this is. Maybe later, I will try."

His blonde friend nodded. "'Kay. You can tell me at Project Grad. By the way, you kinda dropped your robe on the ground. Here. Take it home and meet me at one of the buses. With your girlfriend, please."

He did. First, he followed Sakura's path through the crowd until he found her adoring parents. Her mother looked like a schoolgirl suddenly, so surprised and smothering her mouth with her hands. She must have just heard the news. Sasori approached them a bit cautiously. How would he be perceived now, he wondered? Would her father regard him as a predator, her mother say he was not good enough? They had once thought he was gay, and a punk, and a bad influence, and probably a few other things he was not aware of. He did not quite expect Mr. and Mrs. Haruno to be gesturing him over like a returned family member.

Sakura's father patted him mildly on the back and then engulfed him in a powerful hug. Sakura's strength clearly had come from somewhere. He told Sasori he was a good kid, and please don't disappoint my baby girl. Her mother basically cried on him.

After that, they separated and he had to return to his own family, his own crying female relative, who talked and talked and made him smile as they drove away. There was a flurry of clothes changing (he took Deidara's advice after all, wore his shirt of choice) and returned to school. It was strange, seeing all his peers there, gathering in front of buses, at ten at night. But whatever. Really, whatever. Sakura. Was. Someplace. Not here. That is upsetting.

As it turned out, she was already on the second bus with Deidara, who moved to allow them to sit together. The ride to the rec center was nothing but a dark environment for him to tell her every thought and secret opinion he could think of and relay them to her. He told her his astonishment and joy when she sang as an eighth grader, how clever he thought she was when they tricked Mrs. Garner into letting them use the office phone, and that he'd gone literally catatonic when she implied they would not be going to college together, and could she please make up her mind about her university of choice so he could pick one very near it? Sakura told him that was stupid and damaging to his own future career, but said it while she had her face buried in his chest hugging him.

They arrived. Walked a bit. Ashton never stopped jumping around. A brightly lit building came into view and for the rest of the night, it belonged to them. And now, Sakura belonged to him. Once they stepped inside she was actually able to notice his shirt, which showed off his lean muscle, and pretended she did not find this quite appealing. She distracted herself with a poptart.

She distracted him, enough that he did not find it childish or absurd to partake in the obstacle course, a massive blow-up structure of holes and pillars and things to climb over. She distracted him enough that they ran into it, climbed, pushed, tore through it, ten times in a row. She beat him six out of ten, only because she kept grabbing him and pulling him back. Cheating. She would learn very soon that that was not acceptable.

She distracted him, enough that he didn't notice that chasing her around the building was silly and potentially dangerous to the other graduates, who would either cuss at them or whoop encouragements. He did not remember if he caught her.

Another distraction came in the form of the hypnotist show, which was not nearly as much bullshit as he, and most students, believed. After space was cleared and a row of chairs and volunteers to fill them—such as Sakura and Kiba—the hypnotist spent ten full minutes speaking calming nonsense into the microphone and playing soothing music to lull the volunteers into half-sleep. After which, came chaos. Sakura was told she had a very cool talent, and what was it? Hypnotized Sakura said that she could jump really high. She jumped a bit, and her audience guffawed and clapped for her. Kiba's hypnotized talent was to "make the finger my mommy makes at my daddy," which made Deidara spit out his drink. Sasori did not like to remember the absurd dancing the hypnotist had them do.

Their entire night was full of bliss, charged with pride and with gratitude. He hadn't expected his hope to be so wholly filled or for his dreams to come to life. It was…almost sickening, he thought dimly, looking in on himself and watching his loving and tender gestures toward her. He loved each one, but they were so different from what he was used to acting with her.

"You didn't film me at the hypnotist show, did you?" Sakura asked as they rode home. The sun was not yet rising, and most of their friends were asleep in their seats.

"No. But I'm sure Deidara did. You'll find yourself on Youtube soon enough."


"Come here." She came, through a combination of nudging towards him and his own pulling. He waited till she was safely in his lap and the crown of her head was tucked neatly under his chin. Though it was dark and quiet, Sakura was close to him. Long ago, this would have been an unimaginable hope and the grief he felt from the lack of it, the mockery of it never coming to fruition, would have pushed thorns into his heart. Now…it was dark and quiet, and he could at last conceive happiness.

"Sakura…" He whispered a promise in her ear, and after that, a good night.

Now, he picked up the blue-eyed cat she kept so lovingly on the shelf and he remembered.

They were together now, in all ways, but he found it pleasing to remember their roots, or at least his own. To his bewilderment, there were still bits of Sakura's roots he had yet to discover, and he loved to hunt and claim those. Only yesterday, she admitted she had been scared of cats prior to her parents purchasing her childhood cat, Juliet. And now, it was dark and quiet and she probably lie half-awake wondering where he'd gone. He went back to her swiftly and pushed his hand neatly through her hair, the way he'd longed to do in all his previous stages of life. Only a few years gone. Sakura found his hand and pulled it up to kiss his wrist.

They fell asleep together, and slept well.


This…agh…what a mammoth of a story. When Thirrin gave me this prompt as her requested prize for winning my contest, I actually thought I could get it done in about thirteen to fifteen thousand words. LOL NO. This is even longer than The Night Under. I did not think that was possible.

I thought felt that Sasori had sooo many memories of Sakura and thoughts about her life and what she was doing (compared to literally anything else happening in his life) that it was almost ridiculous…but, again on the other hand, the story was meant to focus on their relationship, and it how it affected all other things, not the other way around, which sounds deadass boring to me.

There were some things in this oneshot that I wished to include but couldn't due to time constraints/already being dead of writing exhaustion. Karin and Ami were supposed to continue pestering Sakura as they got older but they just faded away, oops. I also wanted Sasori's carvings (sorry, puppets were way downplayed here) to get so famous some local art museum would want to exhibit one and that was his lucky boost to stardom and the start of an artistic reputation. Deidara would "kidnap" Sasori, by shoving him in the trunk of his car, and driving him to he museum to see his own work shown there. (And when Deidara opened the trunk, a reasonably frightened Sasori would punch him. Lawlz.) Also-also, I wanted Sakura to have a nerd-rivalry with either Shikamaru or Sasuke, that is, she would fight to get higher grades than either of them, but that didn't really happen.

Also, I admit to using this oneshot as a chance to show off some of my own high school experience. There really is a thing called Project Grad in my school district (mine was the only school that did not make the kids pay to get in! ;D) and that night was one of the best of my life; I thought it would make a great plot device. There really was a blow-up obstacle course and a hugely impressive, successful hypnotist show there, haha. And lastly, I did want to write a prom scene but just got tired of it all...I wanted to write a scene where Kiba and Sakura, who went together, made their outfits entirely out of duct tape, and they would look amazing. This would be based off a couple I knew who made their senior prom outfits out of duct tape to get a scholarship (seriously!) and they definitely looked amazing.

Ugh...so many...words...thank you all for reading this beast, and thank Thirrin73 for its creation. I will now lumber off to sleep.