Face Value

By: firefly

Note: written as a (huge) gift for my best friend sharingank's birthday. Note, this is a crack pairing request and a serious attempt at one, at that. So if you don't like the idea of KakuzuxTemari, click the back button.

Lastly, some things before you proceed:

Setting: I decided to forgo that little detail because honestly, this mofo is long enough as it is. Let's just say it's in River country, kay? Kay.

Kakuzu's mask babies: Not present.

Deidara as Kakuzu's partner for their mission: Right, so, do you think the Leader would send Hidan on an undercover mission where subtlety is key and keeping your mouth shut makes the difference between success and failure? Yeah, me neither.

Temari's age: She's 18 in the timejump, so let's make ourselves comfortable and say she's 19 in this.

Timeline: Occurs most definitely before Gaara gets kidnapped by the Akatsuki, or if you want to spare yourself a headache from thinking about it too hard, just think of it as slightly AU. Slighty AU is very good.

Random character insert: Matsuri, a character from the fillers. Don't worry, she's there just for the sake of plot advancement.

WARNING: This fic does have a lemon, although a rather non-descriptive one in terms of vulgarity and actual naming of body parts. This may or may not be suitable to the rating policy, so here's a heads up just in case. (And yes I'm aware this might get me suspended for a week or something if it breaks the rules, but I'd rather you read it all here instead of having to hop over to my LJ. And if this fic does get deleted, I'll get around to posting the clean half here and leaving a link to the rest on my LJ, okay? Okay.)

Face Value

The bittersweet, musty flavour of lipstick smeared her tongue for the umpteenth time in four hours, her eyes squeezing shut in annoyance at the involuntary reflex.

Matsuri, the young chuunin subordinate next to her, gave her a scolding look and discreetly handed her a pocket mirror and the tube of lipstick once more, laughing loudly to distract the surrounding men as Temari quickly retouched her makeup, shoving the products into her small purse.

I can't do this, I can't do this, she chanted inwardly, clenching her fingers around the hem of her kimono. I'm going to kill Gaara when I get home.

As if sensing her unease, her subordinate faked another cheery laugh and slapped her on the back harder than necessary.

Temari managed a wavering smile, although it looked more like a grimace as the drunken men roared with laughter at Matsuri's antics.

The air reeked of sake and pipe smoke, punctuated with the odours of sweat and strong perfume as fancy, high-priced prostitutes circled the group of inebriated men like hawks, heavy-lidded, liner-streaked eyes honing in on those with the most money.

Every so often, one of them would swoop by and whisk away one of the men towards the various guest rooms, leaving Temari with a disgusting taste in her mouth as she regarded them with contempt.

Just masquerading as one of them made her feel filthy.

"How do you do it?" Temari muttered under her breath to Matsuri, all but glaring at the bald man who kept sending her leering looks.

"It's all acting, Temari-san," she hissed back. "Just smile and look happy."

Temari managed a small, cynical smile before glancing askance at her target, the man behind this conglomeration of pimps, drug dealers, and swindlers.

He reclined on an array of silk cushions, sated and pleased with the lavish surroundings and pleasurable company, dark eyes slit from the effects of sake. A few of the prostitutes were huddled by his side, experts in eliciting a smile from his vapid face, fingers clutching at their purses.

Juro Hanbi, she thought inwardly, staring intently at him from the corner of her eye. Fraud. Robber. Kidnapper. Murderer. Recently responsible for hiring missing nin to eliminate small-time dealers on the east coast.

She gritted her teeth.

Along with burning down several houses in Suna he'd illegally obtained ownership documents of to collect the insurance, with no regard for the people who'd still been inside.

I hate this mission, Temari thought to herself, unconsciously licking her lips again. But I think I'm going to enjoy killing you.

As if sensing her malcontent, Juro glanced in her direction and Temari gave him an alluring, bright smile, pleased at the surprised, interested expression that overtook his features.

Before she could arrange herself into a more inviting position amongst the cushions, one of the men sitting near him tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.

Temari's smile vanished instantly, mouth twisting into a scowl as Juro turned away.

"That asshole," she said between gritted teeth. "This is the third time…"

She shifted her gaze to the man who'd gotten Juro's attention, fighting the urge to glare as he calmly nodded in agreement with something Juro said. Then abruptly, his eyes glanced in her direction.

Temari stared, somewhat unsettled by the disarming, vivid green of his irises, the colour almost poisonous in appearance against pitch black sclera. He wore a grey tunic over black pants, and a loose traveling scarf was wrapped around his head and over the lower half of his face, obscuring his features.

From what she could see, he looked like a foreigner.

Somewhat unsettled by his piercing stare, she forced a smile, only to falter when he calmly glanced away, shifting his attention to Juro once more.

An equally foreign-looking man sat next to him, his long, blonde hair tied back in a loose ponytail and bright, electric blue eyes wide with excitement as he gesticulated wildly, his muffled shouts about "fleeting art" and "beauty" reaching her ears through the noise. He was dressed in a fashion similar to the other man, his tunic a blood red.

Suddenly wary, Temari nudged Matsuri with her elbow.

"Keep an eye on the two weird-looking ones by the window…they seem onto us."

As if on cue, the man turned his head again and caught her gaze, and for a moment neither Temari or Matsuri moved, fingers tensing around the kunai they concealed within the sleeves of their kimonos.

Just as Temari began withdrawing the weapon, the blonde man grabbed the other man's attention, tugging on his tunic and bringing him back into the conversation on the other side of the room.

Temari unconsciously released the breath she'd been holding, and didn't even bother faking a smile at the bald man who continued grinning at her from the corner.

"Kakuzu no danna, you haven't answered my question. What's better? Pop art or super flat?"

Kakuzu lowered his eyes to stare impassively at the blonde, brow furrowing slightly at the sight of the pipe in his hand.

"There's a slight problem, Deidara," Kakuzu replied steadily, getting his attention. "The two women on the far side. They're not just prostitutes."

"Really?" Deidara said doubtfully, quickly shooting them a side glance. "How can you tell?"

"Look at the blonde."

"Hmm, she looks pretty pissed off, un."

"It's possible she's an undercover shinobi, Deidara."

He started. "Then she recognizes us—"

"No," Kakuzu said flatly, giving Juro a side glance. "It's him she's after. Possibly an assassination assignment."

"That doesn't concern us, does it? Let her kill him—idiot doesn't know shit about art."

"That may be so," Kakuzu continued. "But we're on assignment, as well. We get our cash at the end of our stay, and we need Juro alive to receive our earnings."

Deidara looked slightly troubled by this, handing the pipe to another man as he scooted closer.

"Do we get rid of them?"

"No. We stay undercover. Chances are that if they recognize us as Akatsuki, they'll want our heads. But keep an eye on them, especially the blonde."

"She's watching you, Kakuzu no danna."

"I know."

"What are you going to do?"

Kakuzu said nothing for a few seconds, staring contemplatively at the sequined cushion at his feet. He could feel her stare on the back of his head, and his lips twitched beneath the shawl at the palpable murderous intent.

"Nothing," he finally replied. "Just ignore them and keep an eye on Juro until we get our payment."

"How long will that take?"

"Depending on how long he plans on making this gathering last. Two days, at most."

Deidara nodded, eventually turning his attention back to the other guests. Kakuzu listened passively to the conversations floating around him, not really listening to either, but more focused on the feel of the blonde's stare against his back.

The tension in the small space separating them was palpable, both recognizing each other as more than what they seemed, and he only lowered his guard once the feeling of her stare against his back receded. And with it, the tendrils of string emerging from beneath his sleeves slowly crept back in.

Temari paced her room, the space silent save for the sound of the ticking clock.

Irritably, she tore off the kimono and replaced it with a silken robe, smearing the half-eaten lipstick from her lips with the back of her hand. She glanced at the clock every so often, ears straining for any noise in the hallway outside her door.

The house was finally silent, the drunks passing out where they sat and the last of the whores disappearing into the guest rooms with their respective customers. Temari and Matsuri had discreetly secured the smallest, furthermost rooms for their own, and as the time neared three AM, Temari felt her impatience grow.

The mission deadline was in two days. She'd been here since the night before without any success and couldn't fathom the idea of staying any longer. And now, just as she'd managed to garner some of Juro's attention, another obstacle appeared in her way.

"Bastard," she muttered under her breath, pacing. "He was doing that on purpose…"

That feeling of uncertainty returned when she recalled the masked man's stare, recalling the poisonous green of his eyes and the intense, warning glower that accompanied it.

Despite the trouble this most likely implied, she couldn't suppress the shiver of anticipation that coursed through her. Unconsciously, she licked her lips, tightening her fingers into fists, feeling them shake with unused adrenaline.

She'd had enough with sitting around and looking pretty for a bunch of petty swindlers. If she had to fight to obtain the mission objective, then so be it.

Taking a deep breath, Temari glanced at the clock again.

Three AM.

Quietly, she shifted through her bag and brought out two kunai, slipping them into the garter around her thigh before she closed the silken robe around her, tying the sash into a loose bow. Grimacing at the thought of having to seduce Juro, she half-heartedly released her hair from the elaborate bun, letting it fall around her face in what she hoped was an alluring fashion.

She held onto the hope that he was so drunk he wouldn't even need to be seduced, and she looked forward to giving him that one last, trustworthy smile before slicing his throat open. Then she'd quietly creep back, wake Matsuri, and sneak out through the window.

Mission accomplished.

Taking another deep breath, she relaxed her shoulders and slowly opened the door, peering out into the dark hallway. Quickly, she stepped outside and closed the door behind her, resting a hand against the wall as she slowly headed towards his room.

A few of the drunken men lay sprawled along the way, passed out before they could get inside their bedrooms, and tiny, hazy lamps cast dim yellow circles of light over the hardwood floor.

When she reached the master bedroom, she took another moment to reassure herself of the kunai concealed within her robe, and another to swallow back the disgust of having to resort to such demeaning measures.

Nobody ever said shinobi duty was clean, honest work, she thought gloomily, taking a step forward. Might as well get it over with.

Her palm settled against the hard, gleaming wood of one of the double doors, just about to push forward when she suddenly felt her breath still at the sensation of something ropelike slowly entwining around her wrist.

Ignoring the sudden tightening in her chest, she forced herself to look relaxed, her lips eventually parting to speak.

"Can I help you with something?"

Despite knowing who it was without having to look, she slowly turned her head to glance at the figure leaning against the wall opposite to the bedroom, his outline familiar enough in the dim yellow light.

"You could go back to your room," he replied, voice husky behind the linen wrapping. "Right now."

Temari stared at him wordlessly, quickly taking in the sight of long, black thread emerging from his figure and entwining tightly around her wrist, steadily growing tighter as she remained silent.

Not just a foreigner, she thought wryly. A shinobi, too. Great.

"I have to make a living somehow," she replied in a faked, soft undertone. "Can't you just—"

She stopped, suddenly, her mouth dropping open when she felt something silken touch against the inside of her thigh, withdrawing again almost instantly.

The outrage gave away to dismay when another set of strings raised the two kunai she'd concealed within the garter, holding them almost tauntingly.

"Don't bother lying anymore," he said flatly, letting the kunai drop into his outstretched hand.

Temari sneered, jerking away her wrist when the strings retracted, all pretense gone.

"Okay, you caught me. Mind letting me go ahead so I can do my job?"

"Actually, I do," he said, straightening from his position against the wall and stepping forward.

Temari didn't retreat, staring up at him as the light illuminated what little of his face she could see. The wrapping was somewhat lopsided now, and she could make out jet black spikes of hair beneath the white cloth.

The tunic was gone, replaced with a black beater, and she found herself staring at what looked like crude black stitching on his arms and shoulders.

A cold, sinking feeling started somewhere in her chest and slowly descended into the pit of her stomach, and her fingers curled into fists by her sides.

Okay, not just a shinobi, she thought inwardly, staring as the black thread slipped back through a synapse in his wrist. A very peculiar, freaky shinobi with unusual talents.

"Do I need to give you more incentive to leave?" he asked, tone infuriatingly complacent.

"No," she replied, pleased with the way her voice remained steady. "But tell me, is your partner as talented as you are?"

"I don't see how that's any of your concern," he answered.

"I'm afraid it is," she said icily. "I have a certain someone I need to dispose of."

"Do what you will," he retorted. "But only after we leave. Juro is yours after we get what's owed to us."

Temari blinked.

"You're…not his bodyguard?"

"I'm here on business. You can have him after we finish here."

"And when's that?"

"In two days."

Temari grit her teeth.

"My mission deadline is in two days."

"That's not my concern. If you want to try and get past me now, go ahead. I'll just have to kill you."

She glowered at him, opening her mouth to retort when something occurred to her.

"Is that why you kept distracting him?" Temari said through clenched teeth. "Back there, whenever he looked in my direction—"

"He stays alive until I get my payment."

"I can't wait two days."

"Fight me if you want. Either you get your cover blown or you die. You're screwed either way," he said impassively, leaning back against the wall again. "Make your choice."

Temari raised her hand to massage her forehead with her fingertips, glaring tiredly at the floor and the sight of his shadow.

"You know, you'd be doing me a huge favour if you just killed him yourself after getting your payment," she muttered.

"I don't do favours," he said impassively. "But for a price…"

She slowly raised her eyes, staring at him as he lifted his gaze from the floorboards, the green of his eyes catching the dim, yellow light and looking almost reptilian. A faint shiver coursed down her spine, the tightening in her chest re-emerging at the sheer intensity of danger his aura radiated, his stoic demeanor concealing an obviously deadly prowess and a calculating, cold persona.

A bead of sweat trailed down her temple, and she swallowed hard, balling her fists.

It was both humbling and infuriating to realize he was totally out of her league. There would be no point in fighting him.

"What did you have in mind?" she asked lowly.

He didn't reply, merely gazing at her with those unblinking, hard eyes until she felt like he could read every uncertain thought running through her head. And as if realizing what exactly he might have in mind as his 'payment' for getting rid of Juro, she spoke.

"I'm not a whore," she said flatly.

There was a slight inclination of his head, his voice holding a faint undertone of amusement when he answered.

"I didn't think you were."

They stared at each other in silence for a few more seconds, when the doorknob suddenly turned with an obscenely loud click and the door swung open.

Frozen, Temari stared as Juro emerged, hobbling and squinting with bloodshot eyes, but sober enough to make out the two figures standing outside his door.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"Nothing. We were just going back to our room."

Temari shot the masked man a disbelieving look when he straightened and moved towards her, dark eyes holding a hint of warning as Juro squinted at them both.

"Oh," he finally said after a moment, looking between the two and recognizing Temari from earlier. He waved a hand dismissively. "Carry on."

Wordlessly, the masked man started walking without looking back, and when Temari didn't immediately move to follow, she was suddenly jerked forward by a single black tendril of string that had snaked around her waist.

Biting her lip to keep from cursing, she silently followed him to the end of the hall, vaguely discomfited by how he knew where her room was. Pulling the door open, he beckoned for her to get inside, and she felt that sinking feeling re-emerge when he followed her inside, closing the door soundlessly behind him.

Immediately, she turned and assumed a fighting stance, narrowing her eyes at the unconcerned look he gave her as the tendril of thread snaked back into his arm.

"Don't overreact," he said flatly. "I'm leaving once he gets back to his room."

She didn't move, keeping her gaze on him as he leaned back against the wall again, straightening the lopsided cloth that draped his head. When it became obvious that he wouldn't do anything, she gradually straightened, watching him warily from where she stood.

In the faint light of her room, she took notice of the stitches lacing his arms again, staring at them unabashedly, raising her eyes and vaguely wondering if the headdress was there to obscure any he might have on his face.

"If you leave this room again during the night," he suddenly said, interrupting her thoughts. "I'll have to kill you."

"No need to tell me twice," she muttered in response, glancing to the other side of the room. "I get it."

"I'll be watching you tomorrow, so don't try anything."

"I said I get it," she said through gritted teeth.

He fell silent and she glanced out the window, morosely cursing her luck. She had never failed a mission, and she definitely didn't plan on starting now. She had an image to uphold as the Kazekage's sister, and most importantly, her pride wouldn't let her accept anything less.

I could try sneaking past him, she thought, brow furrowing. But then, I don't know his level of skill.

Almost immediately, she recalled the discomforting sinking feeling she'd experienced when she'd been on the receiving end of his glare, sensing how skilled he was, how ruthless.

It was too risky, and she had Matsuri to consider, as well. Getting herself incapacitated would most likely lead to the young chuunin's capture as well.

Temari took a deep breath and exhaled, glaring tiredly out the window until she felt a prickly sensation on the back of her neck. She turned her head, finding him staring at her with a knowing look in his eyes.

"You're thinking of sneaking past me tomorrow."

Damn it.

"So be it," he said bluntly, crossing his arms. "That is, unless you don't mind me watching you for the next two days and having people mistake you for my whore."

Temari stiffened suddenly, turning to stare at him incredulously as he impassively glanced at the chipped black polish on his fingernails.

"I told you before, I'm not a whore," she repeated, eyes narrowing as he raised his head.

"I don't doubt it. You're a poor actress."

"You seem to know a lot about the subject," she said snidely, ignoring the remark.

He shrugged nonchalantly, glancing away again. "I've seen a lot."

Silence settled in following his statement, and Temari resisted the urge to fidget as she glanced between him and the door, aggravated.

"So it'd make you mad if I tried anything tomorrow," she said loudly. "Okay. Will you take my word for it if I say you can trust me?"

"I'm not an idiot."

"I can't wait two days."

"That's not my problem."

She unwittingly took a step forward, fingers clenching by her sides, only aware of how aggressive the gesture must have seemed when he slowly uncrossed his arms and straightened, staring at her with a loose black thread swaying almost warningly by his side.

The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth as she bit down on the inside of her cheek, clenching her jaw as her eyes assessed him, taking in the confidence with which he carried himself, taking in the casual readiness of his limbs as he tensed only slightly, fingers curving by his sides.

Gradually, her fists loosened, eyes lowering towards the ground.

"Fine," she said lowly. "Watch me if you have to. But if you're not done by the end of the second day…"

She let the words hang in the air, the implications heavy.

"For your sake," he said after a moment. "You better hope I will be."

She glared at the arrogant remark, but he continued unfazed.

"And tomorrow, stick to your role. Juro has eyes and ears everywhere. It would be easy for him to discover what you're really here for."

"What, you expect me to act like your whore?" she questioned in disbelief.

"If you want to avoid suspicion."

"Don't expect anything from me. I won't resort to such pathetic measures."

"I gathered that much."

She stared at him intently, eyes narrowed. In response, he merely lowered his gaze to his fingernails again, absentmindedly rubbing a thumb over the chipped polish.

"Tell me your name," she said suddenly, tone imperious. "If I'm supposed to play the part, I should know the name of my customer."

He stared at her wordlessly for a few seconds, and then turned his head away again.


She blinked, slightly surprised, and finally dropped her guard when he glanced at her expectantly.

"Temari," she said in response, calmer now.

He looked at her for only a moment longer before turning away, striding over to the door and opening it. She stared after him as he glanced down the hallway, turning his head slightly to shoot her one last, warning look before he left, letting the door swing closed behind him.

She slept late into the morning, just passing into noon when Matsuri woke her.

The massive house was fragrant of fresh incense and the enticing smell of dinner preparation, the faint clanging of pots and pans audible from the kitchen. The drunks spent the day recuperating from their hangovers, Juro included, and stayed out of sight until evening approached and they felt fit to drink themselves into a stupor once more.

Temari scowled into the mirror as Matsuri adjusted her kimono from behind, smoothing it out and sucking her teeth as Temari's arms remained hanging limply by her sides.

"Temari-san, you really need to get into the role to fool Juro. He won't even glance at you if you keep acting this way," she scolded, clipping her hair up into the same elaborate bun as yesterday.

Temari twitched, all too aware of who Matsuri's words brought to mind.

"I know," was all she said in response, and remained silent until dinnertime passed and the conglomeration awaited their entertainment.

She kept the lower half of her face hidden behind a handheld, ornamental fan as they were escorted into the large room, free to go where they desired. Temari unconsciously headed to the same far corner she'd resided in yesterday, not lifting her gaze until she was settled comfortably behind a few of the guests.

Her eyeteeth scored the skin of her lower lip as soon as she glanced in Juro's direction, finding herself staring at his back, and finding herself eye to eye with the same masked man from yesterday.

He showed no reaction to meeting her gaze, simply giving her a knowing stare before he turned his attention back to the conversation the group had going. The same blonde man she assumed to be his partner sat next to him, looking incredibly bored and blatantly ignoring the heady gazes and whispered endearments of the prostitutes surrounding him.

The night went on, the conversations getting louder and more jovial as drinks were passed around, the air growing smoky and heavy as pipes were brought out. Temari blinked drowsily in the haze, watching the group at the opposite end of the room with tired eyes, backside aching from sitting still for so long.

The ever vigilant man who'd introduced himself as Kakuzu remained by Juro's side the entire time, body language unreadable, showing no sign of disinterest or discomfort as hours passed.

It was nearing eleven PM when the first of the men started disappearing into their rooms with their respective prostitutes, and it was five minutes passed when Temari's eyes widened in hope. The blonde distracted Kakuzu and Juro suddenly got to his feet, staggering off towards the direction of the bathroom.

She snapped her fan closed and gave Matsuri a meaningful look, quickly getting to her feet when the other girl gave her a quick nod.

Temari slipped out through the door, obscured by a group of maids and quickly ditched the fan, reaching inside her sleeve to grip a kunai as she darted against the shadowed walls and crept along the corridor, moving soundlessly towards the bathroom.

Juro could be heard coughing up phlegm behind the closed door, and Temari slid the kunai out from within her sleeve, fingers curling tightly around the hilt as she obscured it behind her back, lowering her eyes and smirking at the sight of the unturned lock in the doorknob.

The coughing fit eventually ceased, and she waited for a burst of laughter from the other room before jerking open the door, whipping the kunai out from behind her back.

The door never opened beyond an inch, because an instant later her arm was ensnared by several black threads and she was violently jerked back, her muffled curse of surprise falling on deaf ears as she was forced inside a room adjacent to the bathroom, the door slamming shut behind her.

Frozen, Temari struggled to catch her breath as she was pinned front-first to the wall, her ensnared arm held tightly behind her back. What felt like worn, cotton linen draped over the back of her neck, evidence of who it was and how close he was as he put his weight into holding her there.

"You're pushing your luck," he said lowly from behind her, and the sensation of adrenaline coupling with the proximity of his voice made the hairs on the back of her neck rise.

She remained silent, knowing that anything she could say would only worsen the situation. Instead, she abruptly reached back with the other hand still holding the kunai, wedging it between her back and his chest and swiping downwards.

His weight ceased almost instantly when he withdrew to avoid the sharp blade, the knife severing the strings instead.

Whipping around, she settled into a fighting stance, the kunai poised threateningly in front of her.

He stood a meter or so away, watching her warily, an annoyed scowl on what little she could see of his face.

"You're making it very difficult for me to not kill you," he said, narrowing his eyes.

"Oh yeah?" she said breathlessly, withdrawing another kunai from her sleeve, holding it out. "What's stopping you?"

She never anticipated the sheer recklessness that overtook her in that moment, her mind buzzing with adrenaline and holding little regard for her safety. The knowledge that someone had the strength to overpower her always elicited a strange reaction; her pride demanded a chance to prove herself, a chance to fight and demonstrate her superiority as a Suna ninja and the sister of the Kazekage.

Kankuro always warned her that her pride could eventually get her killed, and she was finally starting to believe him as tendrils of black thread swayed threateningly by his side, the motion reminiscent of a snake readying to strike.

"You're going to get our cover blown," he said steadily, with as much control as he could muster. "You cause a ruckus and you'll get caught. I kill you and I bring unwanted attention to myself."

"You seem confident," Temari said coldly, a smirk twisting her lips. "What makes you so sure you'll win?"

He didn't need to answer, the slow narrowing of his eyes sending that familiar, cold wave of discomfort through her, speaking volumes about how much they differed in experience, how much of a gap there was in power.

Her frustration only grew at the realization, but she eventually lowered her arms with a resigned scowl, stashing the kunai back in her kimono. Eventually, the threads slipped back into his arms and she watched with something akin to fascination as they disappeared beneath the sleeves.

"If you try that one more time, I won't hesitate to kill you," he said after a moment's silence, the words plainspoken. And this time, she realized with a grimace, she believed him wholeheartedly.

Giving him a last side glance, she turned to leave, her hand settling on the doorknob when she heard the faint flapping of fabric and felt a draft, freezing when she raised her eyes and found herself looking up at him.

"You're not leaving this room," he said flatly. "And neither am I."

"What?" she said blankly.

"We're staying here."

"Are you going to make me?" she said with a sneer, the recklessness returning. "I don't think—"

She stopped mid-sentence, eyes widening when he took a step forward, that intense glower returning and making the green of his eyes appear all the more venomous.

"You'll stay here, even if I have to tie you down."

Temari shot him a scathing look before retreating, moving to the farthest corner of the room to settle into an armchair. His eyes remained on her the entire time, even as he crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed.

"How long are you going to make me stay here?" she muttered after a few minutes.

"Until the others, including Juro, go to bed."

She bit her lip forcefully, nails digging into the armrests as he casually withdrew a stack of folded papers from his back pocket, removing a pencil he'd obscured somewhere between the head wrapping and his ear. She watched him take notes on the papers for what felt like an hour, growing increasingly agitated as the faint sounds of the scratching lead and muffled conversations from the other room filled the otherwise silent space.

After an hour and a half, she finally spoke.

"What are you doing?"

His answer was short, tone clipped.


She gave him a peculiar look although he didn't see it, his eyes focused resolutely on his work. Another full thirty minutes of silence passed, and somewhere around one AM he folded the papers again and placed them back in his pocket.

With nothing else to occupy him, Kakuzu merely sat there, staring contemplatively at the rug, arms resting on his knees.

Temari took the opportunity to study him, teal eyes scrutinizing what little of his face she could see in the dim light, mentally reconstructing what she expected the rest of his face to look like. The concept of shinobi utilizing masks to blend in had never appealed to her, as she always advocated the belief that only the best of their trade could supplement the lack of a disguise with stealth alone. But looking at him, she could immediately tell there was another reason behind the wrapping, and her fingers itched with the urge to peel it away.

She would not admit she was bored, because that would be childish and she prided herself on the ability to refrain from complaining.

But it couldn't hurt to ask him if he was and give herself something to do.

"Aren't you getting bored with this?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I don't get bored," was his flat reply.

"You're that hell bent on getting your money? There's no point, really, since Juro's stingy with his payments."

He didn't reply for a while, and she figured he'd settled on ignoring her until he finally spoke.

"Money is the only thing that has a point."

She stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate on his cryptic response, but he remained silent. Slightly intrigued, she pressed forward.

"There are more important things, you know."

He didn't seem at all affected when he responded.

"Those things don't last."

"They're not supposed to," Temari paused. "That's what makes them precious."

"Permanence is more dependable."

"Dependable is not necessarily better," she shot back. "What are you, a miser? Your life must be miserable."

"It's tolerable."

"Then you're wasting your life. You act like you've got all the time in the world."

A peculiar sensation overtook her when he raised his dark eyes from the floor, giving her a strange, unreadable look.

There was silence for a few minutes following the strange glance, and they settled back to staring at the ground, listening to the muffled voices infiltrating the walls.

Temari thought about Matsuri, hoping the girl wasn't worrying too much about her whereabouts, all too aware that the blonde man was probably keeping a steadfast eye on her. She uncurled her fingers, leaning back into the armchair with a resigned sigh.

This was a situation she'd never thought she'd find herself in, alone in a room with a dangerous missing-nin, talking about philosophy and values as if she wasn't on assignment and he was just like anyone else.

She found herself staring at him again, annoyed with the amount of intrigue she felt. There was a natural fascination, admiration and respect she reserved for those few who were more skilled than her, criminal or not, and she felt the natural compulsion to understand them, to see what made them tick.

That, and she had to admit there was a certain kind of allure he held, in the way he didn't need to speak to communicate his intentions, his peculiar eyes more expressive than words. There was bitterness and a jaded form of apathy in the way he regarded the world. There was a particular brand of tiredness in his movements, the kind that stemmed from tedium and complacency. There was exoticness in his appearance, uniqueness in his abilities. There was that ever-present linen wrapping, obscuring some sort of equally rare, exotic truth she wanted to discover and understand.

There was a man who'd seen it all and then some, and she couldn't help but be fascinated from her point of view, questions worrying her from the inside, itching to be let loose.

Temari did not devote her attention to just anyone, but when someone who earned it came along, she found herself hopelessly enthralled whether she liked it or not.

Figures, she thought sardonically. That I'd have a weakness for things I can't have.

She looked at him, lips quirking into a small smirk.

"You know, there's some truth in what you said. About permanence being more dependable."

He raised his head to give her a questioning look and her smirk widened into a wry grin.

"But it's the temporary, little things that are more meaningful."

He stared at her contemplatively for a few seconds, then averted his gaze towards the doorway.

"I don't know about you," she continued, unaware of the threads unlacing themselves around his wrist. "But I think I'd be better off dead instead of dedicating myself to a cause like yours. You—"

She stopped, suddenly, eyes widening when he abruptly stood up and started towards her. Before she could properly get to her feet, black threads had encircled her wrists and waist and she felt herself lifted and dropped none-too-gently on the bed. The strings retracted long enough for her to gather her bearings and realize how vulnerable a position she was in, but he was already on top of her by the time she could even contemplate a reaction.

A shallow breath caught in her throat and a crushing, dizzying sensation rendered her immobile when she felt his weight settle abruptly on top of her. The sensation sent the blood rushing violently to her face, the feeling of his wrappings draping her face starkly cold in contrast.

All of this occurred in less than a few seconds, and an instant later the door to the bedroom suddenly swung open.

One of the intoxicated, laughing patrons entered with his companion, his laugh dying abruptly on his lips when he took in the sight in front of him.

Temari stared in dumbfounded silence, wide-eyed as Kakuzu turned his head to glare towards the doorway, sounding irritated.

"Get out."

"Ah, I'm sorry, I didn't know this one was taken," he stammered, backing up into his prostitute before hastily darting out the door. The woman managed a short, apologetic bow before quickly following him out, closing the door behind her.

Kakuzu stared at the closed door for a few more seconds before turning back to glance down at her, looking completely unabashed as he pressed his hands into the mattress by her sides and pushed himself off.

Temari sat up almost immediately, red-faced and speechless, goosebumps breaking out along her arms from the abrupt loss of heat. The air almost felt like needles on her skin, and she clenched her jaw to control the involuntary urge to tremble, choosing instead to shoot him an incredulous stare.

He'd moved himself over to his previous position, sitting at the edge of the mattress with his back to her.

"What…" she said hoarsely, horrified by her strangled voice. "What the hell was that?"

"What do you think?" he replied nonchalantly.

When she didn't answer, he glanced at her over his shoulder, sounding annoyed.

"Whores don't talk to their customers. Being seen together in any other situation would only arouse more suspicion."

Temari couldn't speak, unsure of whether she felt more enraged or violated. Wordlessly, and with as much dignity she could muster, she slid off the bed and went back to her seat, trying and failing to look as unaffected as he was.

They sat in silence for nearly an hour, although the time blazed by for her in a plethora of thoughts as she went over what exactly happened, when it happened, and how it happened. She had absolutely no idea what was coming when he'd stood like that, and hadn't been able to fathom a reaction to having him suddenly on top of her like that.

Her mind wouldn't let her get past the stage where the guest had opened the bedroom door, body stiffening and thoughts abruptly ceasing, replaced only with the physical memory of the heat and weight and scent that had doused her senses. The blood rushed to her face each time she tried to recall it, fingers clenching tense fistfuls of her kimono to control the tremors that came with it.

By the time she'd resigned herself to stop trying, he was standing at the doorway and peering out into the hall.

"You can go," he said shortly, pulling back to look at her.

Temari slowly got to her feet, clenching her jaw as she walked by him, shooting him a side glance before departing into the hall. He closed the door behind her, remaining inside, and she finally unclenched her fists and released the breath she'd been holding.

Her thoughts were momentarily replaced with a question as she glanced back at the door, brow furrowing.

Why isn't he following…?

Glancing over her shoulder, she slowly departed into the direction of Juro's room, steadily growing more confident as no one followed or impeded her way. Her fingers were just closing around the hilt of the kunai obscured within her sleeve when she stopped a few feet from Juro's room.

Another figure stood leaning against the wall opposite to his bedroom and Temari felt the scowl return full force when she recognized who it was.

"Kakuzu no danna was right about you," the man said with a small, wry grin, raising his hand and wiggling his fingers in a gesture of greeting. What looked like a tongue emerged from his palm and laved the air in a mock greeting, too.

"Go back to bed now," he said patronizingly, his grin growing wider. "Or I'll have to get Kakuzu no danna to escort you back, un."

Perhaps he'd been expecting her to be the reserved, quiet type, because his eyes widened in surprise when she sneered and flipped him off, making it a point to do it with the hand holding the kunai before turning and walking off down the hallway.

Matsuri was anxiously waiting in her room when she opened the door, and Temari felt the discomforting, burning sensation return as soon as the girl leapt forward and took her hands, demanding to know where she'd been.

Stuck, she thought blankly. In a room with that missing nin.

But she only smiled lopsidedly in response, assuring Matsuri that she was fine. The girl looked as if she didn't believe a single word of it, and Temari didn't blame her as she undressed and tried futilely to hide the tremors racking her frame.

Slipping on the night robe, she quickly bid Matsuri goodnight, assuring her she was fine as the girl reluctantly left the room. Temari crawled into her bed, extinguishing the lamp and feeling completely awake as she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.

A moment later, she reached up to touch her pulse, swallowing when she felt it racing against her fingertips. Gradually, she splayed her fingers over her throat, unsettled by how warm it was, and even more so by the heat in her face. Unconsciously, her fingers traced their way down to her lips as she stared blankly into space, fully immersed in recalling what had happened.

There had been a distinct kind of pain, a fearful clench in the pit of her stomach when he'd crawled over her, the sensation rendering her speechless. It ached and made her feel both vulnerable and exhilarated, the latter making her question her sanity as she lay there contemplating her reaction.

Warmth flooded her face once more as her eyes drifted closed, lips parting against her fingertips as she remembered the feel of his weight and the reactions it had sparked through her body.

He'd had total control. He was stronger than her, alarmingly so. He'd carried a subtle scent comprised of sweet pipe smoke and something heady and masculine, and—she groaned inwardly in dismay when she realized the state she'd brought herself into.

Why? She thought sourly. What is it with me and things I can't have?

And she was loathed to actually admit it to herself, but there was something she found highly alluring about someone capable of dominating her so completely, the strange fixation reflecting her never-ending desire for betterment and strength.

That, and she found men who were weaker than her utterly pathetic.

"God," she muttered to herself, pressing her hands against her blazing face. "Why me."

Her natural curiousity, combined with the intense attraction she had to those more powerful than her made her grimace with the realization that the reason she'd felt so uncomfortable was because she'd liked it.

She'd liked the feeling of being pinned beneath him. She'd liked his smell and she'd liked his strength. She'd liked the momentary glance he'd given her. She'd liked that reckless fraction of a second where she'd wanted to reach up and unravel the cloth draping his face.

It was embarrassing to think of how childish and inexperienced it made her feel, and she hated the feeling of vulnerability that came with wondering if she'd know what to do in a situation like that should she encounter it again.

Cursing him under her breath, she forced her eyes shut and rolled onto her side.

She drifted off to the unsettling thought that she actually looked forward to being under his watchful eye again tomorrow.

The next night transpired in almost exactly the same fashion as the previous.

Temari was annoyed to find herself somewhat agitated the entire day, body tense from a blend of excitement and nervousness. She hadn't forgotten the mission in light of her new…preoccupation, but she found herself more occupied with thoughts of him instead of Juro.

Needless to say, she was still hell bent on getting her mission completed, but now she was looking forward to waiting till the last day to get it done.

She took a seat next to Matsuri in the far corner once evening came, staring fixedly at the floor for a good ten minutes before she finally lowered the fan, glancing over it at the opposite end of the room.

The blonde had Kakuzu's attention again and was gesticulating with an annoyed look on his face, showing him the middle finger at one point, which nearly made her snort with laughter behind the fan. Kakuzu was facing away from her, but she could imagine the impassive look in his eyes as he listened to his partner complain.

Then suddenly, he turned to glance in her direction when his partner pointed at her, and she smiled wickedly behind the fan, eyes narrowing into slits at the glowering expression on the blonde's face.

She shifted her gaze to Kakuzu then, and their eyes met only briefly before he turned his head away again, a small grin playing on her lips as he did.

An hour or so passed until Juro decided to put his newly renovated bathhouse to use, inviting both the women and men to join him as he staggered to his feet and out the door. Temari followed him with her eyes, all too aware of who was watching her when she slowly rose to her feet, exchanging a nod with Matsuri before departing.

"She's going again, Kakuzu no danna," Deidara said, sounding faintly surprised. "Does she have a death wish?"

Kakuzu merely stared hard at her as she followed the group out, throwing a backwards glance his way. A moment later, he was on his feet and muttering to Deidara to watch the other girl, his stride quickening as he followed after her.

He didn't have to go far, finding her lingering at the back of the group, glancing back at him over her shoulder with a wry grin on her lips.

Nonplussed by her expression, he calmly grabbed her wrist and led her away from the group, opening the door to the nearest guestroom and practically pushing her inside.

"Is there a reason why you can't sit still?" he asked once he'd closed the door, scowling at her. "Or do you really have a death wish?"

"Where's the fun in sitting still?" she retorted, snapping the fan closed and tossing it on the dresser. "And since you sort of let slip that you'd rather keep me alive yesterday, I didn't see any harm in taking a stroll."

He glowered at her as she strode over to the side of the room and casually took a seat on the chair, looking completely unaffected by the glare.

She raised an eyebrow when he continued standing there, watching her with narrowed eyes.

"What?" she asked with feigned innocence.

"What are you doing?" he said lowly, sounding suspicious.

"Being cooperative," she replied, raising an eyebrow again.

He eyed her warily before slowly crossing the room to sit on the bed. Her lips twitched with the urge to smile at his expense, teal eyes alight with glee at his vaguely uncomfortable expression.

"What's wrong?" she asked, feigning innocence once more.

He gave her a look.

"If you're thinking this is some sort of trap," she continued. "You're way off."

"Why are you doing this, then?"

"Does there have to be a reason? Maybe I just like being in your company."

He blinked, looking unsure on how to respond to that, so he merely shifted his gaze away to look at the wall.

There was silence for a few minutes, and her wry grin eventually faded into a faintly amused expression as she watched him. It was almost ridiculous how quickly she'd gone from sniping at him to teasing him, the recklessness more alive in her than before.

In no way did she forget that he was a missing nin, a dangerous criminal with no qualms to kill, and in some twisted, morbid way she took delight in confusing him with such petty measures.

"So," she said after a while, tone casual. "What are you planning on using the money for?"

"That's not your concern."

"Of course it isn't," she scoffed. "I'm trying to make conversation."


"Because unlike you, I do get bored."

"You shouldn't have left the room, then."

Temari glared at his impassive response, opening her mouth to retort before she could reconsider.

"Now you're just being an ass."

He didn't reply, looking completely unfazed by the insult. Temari waited for a reaction, her scowl deepening when there was none.

"I just called you an ass, you know."

"I'm aware."

"And you're just going to sit there and take it?"

"I've been called worse," he said flatly.

She sighed, slumping back in the chair, turning her head to gaze listlessly at the bright lamp. He glanced up momentarily when she dimmed the light, lessening the glare before letting her arm drop back into her lap.

The silences were more comfortable, she mused. Forcing conversation was not only unnatural for her but practically futile with him. He spoke only when he deemed it necessary, and in some peculiar way it only added to the intrigue.

A few more minutes passed in silence until a question started nagging her from the inside, curiousity getting the best of her. Clearing her throat to get his attention, she forced her voice to sound as casual as she could make it.

"You've been here for a few days…but I've never seen you accept any of…their invitations."

He automatically seemed to know whom she was talking about, the "their" referring to the prostitutes that swarmed the dining room every evening.

"It's lost its appeal," he said calmly. "And it's a waste of money."

She blinked in response, somewhat surprised by the answer. She'd always assumed that sex never lost its charm for men, be it meaningful or casual. It seemed to be the only thing they thought about.

His departure from the stereotype only added to the intrigue, and she vaguely wondered how long he'd gone without any consensual contact that wasn't violent in nature. He seemed comfortable enough with his strange ability and various stitches to imply that he'd had them for a very long time, and Temari couldn't think of many women who'd be willing to overlook them.

She vaguely wondered what he'd use the money for, besides the obvious reasons. Wasn't the main purpose of getting rich the ability to afford a life of luxury and pleasurable company? It didn't fit, she realized, glancing at him, for a man who lived so frugally to be so obsessed with money at the same time.

"Why do you do it?"

He glanced at her questioningly.

"Why do…" Temari paused, gesturing to the house around her. "…all this? What's the point?"

He didn't seem at all perturbed by her question, that familiar, jaded look appearing in his eyes as he answered.

"It's just something to do."

Her brow furrowed slightly at his response, and she was somewhat unsettled by the sheer apathy in his toneless voice.

"Why not do something more meaningful?" she ventured.

"I told you, those things don't last," he said indifferently. "Relationships, alliances, family. None of it lasts."

"And I told you they're not supposed to. You should treasure them while they do last," she replied adamantly, thinking of her own family and the alliance with Konoha.

"What's the point?" he questioned blankly. "When it'll eventually disappear?"

She stared at him, suddenly tense. His tone had grown more monotonous than normal, as if his responses were growing more automatic as the subject became more sensitive. The increasing apathy with which he answered was slightly disconcerting.

"For the memories, I guess," she said after a while, suddenly unsure. "To die knowing you didn't waste your life."

"Those are intangible things. They're worthless."

"Something doesn't have to be materialistic to have value. It doesn't have to be permanent, either."

"Permanence provides foundation to build on. It's foolish to depend on things that just have sentimental value."

Temari paused, taking a moment to stare at him incredulously. He didn't look at all like he believed what he was saying, eyes just as expressionless as when they'd been sitting in silence.

"If you think that way," she said slowly. "Then there's no real point in living, is there?"

"Living is the same as having something to do," he said tonelessly, staring at some obscure point on the wall, suddenly sounding more tired than she'd ever heard him sound.

"…I feel sorry for you," she said after a while, unable to think of anything else to say.

"You're naïve."

"And you're bitter," she said, reckless again. "But guess who's the happier of the two."

He didn't reply and she slouched back into her seat, not caring if it ruined the kimono as she regarded him with troubled eyes.

"There has to be at least one thing," she said after a moment. "Even if you're a missing nin or whatever, there has to be something that's not materialistic and actually means something to you."

He didn't reply for what felt like hours, although not more than thirty minutes elapsed in silence. Her eyes grew heavy-lidded in the dim light, and she blinked away the drowsiness when she heard the faint rustle of fabric on fabric, opening her eyes to find that he'd crossed his legs, dark eyes gazing contemplatively at the floor.

"The falls," he finally said.

She blinked, regarding him curiously as he closed his eyes briefly before opening them again.

"The waterfalls of Takigakure no Sato."

When she didn't respond, he finally raised his gaze from the floor, giving her a bemused glance when he found her grinning at him.

"What?" he mumbled.

There, the apathy was gone. This was him actually contemplating his answer. This was him showing emotion, as vague as it was. This was him.

"You're not such a lost cause, after all," she said amusedly, loving the way he visibly resisted rolling his eyes, glancing away again.

The tension gradually dissipated with every subsequent question or comment that left her lips, spoken with an ease that surprised even her. He gave her short, clipped answers in response, but genuine ones nonetheless, and she had to remind herself that despite being a dangerous, ruthless missing nin, he was still human.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked finally, after nearly two hours passed with her eliciting responses from him despite his reluctance to answer.

"Why not?" she countered. "It's just something to do, isn't it?"

He fell silent at her answer, completely unaware of how far from the truth it was. Every answer he'd given her only led to more questions, and if she was interested before she was enthralled now, teasing vague, little bits of information from him that only added to the intrigue.

He'd been in every shinobi village at least three times in his life. He originally hailed from Takigakure no Sato. He had a Machiavellian outlook on politics and life in general, and she found that the cold, calculating persona fit him like a second skin. He detested people like Juro. He admitted he had a fondness for spicy things.

And when questioned about why he wore the head wrapping, his only answer had been "it's for your comfort, not mine", which only made her all the more tempted to pull it off.

Her throat was raw by the end of it, but her mind buzzed in a way that left her feeling like she'd had too much sake, even though she hadn't touched the drink once since arriving.

He was more fascinating to her now than ever before, an exotic entity among all the same, faceless drones. In the short time she'd asked questions and he'd answered, his responses painted an image of a man who teased every bit of her intrigue in his direction, and she found herself hopelessly caught up in satisfying that intrigue and getting past the evasiveness and stoic demeanor, wanting to delve deeper into what made him the way he was.

Time elapsed in a way that made her feel like she'd sat there for days and did nothing but absorb his intricacies and personality, never tiring of learning more, and ceasing the endless inquisition was like coming out of a daze when he finally glanced at the clock and stood up.

She remained sitting when he went to go check the hallway, almost disappointed when he beckoned for her to move out.

"Everyone's asleep," he stated, following her out and closing the door. "You can go."

"Will your partner be guarding Juro's door again?" she asked in a hushed voice, tone sardonic. "Or is it your turn?"

His brow furrowed as he stared at her, sounding somewhat exasperated.

"You went back?"

"Of course I did. You would've done the same."

He suppressed a sigh and glanced off down the hall in the direction of Juro's room. At the same time, the faint sound of shuffling footsteps caught Temari's attention, approaching from the opposite end of the hall.

"Don't bother going back tonight. Deidara will be—" he stopped, suddenly, when she seized two fistfuls of his tunic and spun them around, tightly wrapping her arms around him and backing up against the closed door so he was pressed flush against her.

He stiffened at the abrupt action, about to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing when a soft voice spoke out from somewhere behind him.

"Oh, my apologies," a flustered maid said, arm in arm with one of the drunk guests, taking in the sight of them there against the door. "I didn't know this one was—"

"Taken, yes," Kakuzu finished slowly without glancing back, staring contemplatively down at the top of Temari's head. "Find another one."

She nodded and quickly disappeared around the corner, urgently tugging her companion along.

Temari slowly exhaled as she heard the steps fade into silence, waiting a few seconds before slowly releasing her grip on his shirt, letting her arms drop back to her sides. When he didn't immediately step back, she raised her head to find him staring down at her in silence.

"What?" she said, more heatedly than she would've liked. "Stop staring at me like that and move."

"I would," he said impassively, with a faint undertone of amusement. "But you're stepping on one of my threads."


Feeling incredibly sheepish, she raised her foot, looking consternated at the sight of one long, black tendril of thread slowly withdrawing back into his arm. Once it had completely disappeared beneath his sleeve, he stepped back.

She merely stood there, at a loss for words and now feeling like she'd drank an entire bottle of sake, the ground somewhat unstable beneath her feet.

The air in the hallway was suddenly much heavier than it had been in the room, and she lingered where she was, throat tight with a tenseness she couldn't place. He watched her unabashedly, seeming terribly amused by all of this, seeming like he could read exactly what was going through her mind. The thought was mortifying, almost as much as the realization that her face was bright red.

She swallowed, clearing her throat and forcing herself to sound composed.

"Are you staying here, then?"

His contemplative gaze remained on her. "That depends."

She gave him a vaguely curious look. "On?"

"On whether you plan on leaving or not," he said simply.

She stared at him, momentarily bewildered, but then realized she was still leaning against the door in a rather suggestive manner, that she'd made no move to show that she planned on returning to her own bedroom. It must have given the completely wrong impression and she straightened almost immediately, annoyed for getting so flustered when he seemed so nonchalant.

"I'm going," she said sourly, stepping past him.

He said nothing in reply, settling for watching her walk down the hall before he turned and headed towards his own room. Temari glanced back over her shoulder before turning the corner, the corners of her lips twitching when she saw his retreating back.

Matsuri gave her a curious look when she entered her room, trying her hardest to suppress the strange giddiness she felt and the ridiculous urge to grin.

"Did you get him?" the other girl asked hopefully.

Temari shook her head, biting her lower lip to assume a more solemn expression, but failed miserably.

Matsuri decided she didn't want to know what had her superior acting so strangely, so she quickly bid her goodnight and left. Temari spent a few minutes gathering her bearings after that, sitting on the bed and calming her nerves before she changed into her night robe.

Denial was something she'd never found much use for, and she couldn't bother with trying to convince herself that she wasn't completely enamored with a dangerous missing nin, that she wasn't incredibly intrigued, that she wasn't pleased when they'd touched in the hallway, that she wasn't feeling as hot and bothered as she thought she was.

"I suppose I brought it on myself," she muttered under her breath, blinking through half-lidded eyes at the ceiling. "After turning down everyone in Suna."

He was, after all, everything that constituted attraction in her book. She only regretted not being able to meet him sooner, all too aware that tomorrow would be her last day here, her last day to complete the mission and leave some sort of memorable impression on him before she left.

Exhaling deeply, she shut her eyes and eventually drifted off.

"Finally," Deidara exclaimed when Kakuzu stepped into his room, closing the door behind him. "Where were you?"

"With the blonde," Kakuzu replied shortly, sitting down in the corner of the room. When he didn't elaborate, Deidara raised an eyebrow.

"Did you get rid of her?"


"Then what the hell were you doing?"

Kakuzu paused to contemplate his answer, sounding like he didn't believe it himself when he slowly answered.


Deidara stared at him incredulously for a few seconds, before a slightly amused, slightly sympathetic expression overtook his features.

"She likes you, Kakuzu no danna."

The Falls nin couldn't think of a reply to this, so he remained silent.

"I know it, un. An artist can tell."

"Deidara," he said warningly. "Don't start."

"You're starting to act just like Sasori no danna," Deidara said with a faint scowl. "None of you appreciate my input. You all just—"

Kakuzu tuned him out, having had plenty of practice with ignoring Hidan's frequent tirades. He was still reeling from the sheer number of questions she'd thrown his way, the likes of which he'd never really answered before.

He couldn't remember the last time someone asked him what kind of food he liked, what his interests were, what his philosophy on life was. Prior to tonight, the only other people who'd taken an active interest in him had been interrogation officers, and those experiences had been less than pleasant.

It felt…interesting, he decided, to be talked to for the sheer sake of conversation. It was pointless and frivolous, but left a distinct feeling of fulfillment in some bizarre way, a sensation he could only trace back in fragments to his childhood days nearly a century earlier.

She was adamant and passionate and less naïve than most, but still holding hopelessly romantic notions about life. He'd seen it all and then some, and would continue upholding the belief that none of it lasted. There was no arguing that.

But was it worth it to exhaust time and effort on something that would eventually disappear, simply to treasure the experience while it lasted? She certainly seemed to think so.

Something doesn't have to be materialistic to have value. It doesn't have to be permanent, either.

He mulled over the words, considering them, considering her, and what they implied.

Permanence is more dependable, but it's the temporary, little things that are more meaningful.

"Deidara," Kakuzu suddenly said, catching the blonde's attention.


"What's special about your art?"

Deidara stared at him in silence for a few seconds, wondering if he was being mocked, but the simple, plainspoken question brought a pleased smile to his face a moment later and he scooted closer.

"My art? My art is fleeting—beauty created and destroyed in an instant, allowed to be appreciated in its purest form. My art never ages and it never decays. It's destroyed when it's at its most beautiful, un."

"But what's the point?" Kakuzu asked, nonplussed by his reasoning. "How is it worth anything if it's not there? How is it beautiful if it's destroyed?"

Deidara gave him a peculiar look, as if the answer was obvious.

"My art never dies, Kakuzu no danna. Only the medium does." He paused, a faint, genuinely nostalgic smile gracing his face.

"The worth of my art is in the memory of its last and greatest moment. It's in the experience—in the bang. It's priceless because it's unforgettable, and that's what makes it beautiful. The memory and the experience never decay."

"The experience?" Kakuzu repeated. "Even if it's temporary?"

Deidara grinned, spreading his arms.

"That's the beauty of it, Kakuzu no danna. It's temporary, but you never forget it and you never get bored of it. Art is fleeting, un, and that's what makes it meaningful."

Something doesn't have to be materialistic to have value.

It doesn't have to be permanent, either.

A closed expression overtook Kakuzu's features. "Like all temporary experiences, then."

The blonde paused once more, staring in faint curiousity at the Falls nin's half-murmured response.

"I suppose, yeah," he said slowly. "Did something happen, Kakuzu no danna?"

"No," he responded calmly, rising to his feet and looking contemplative. "I needed a bit of clarification on something."

Deidara bit his lip momentarily, resisting from asking what the 'something' was, and instead asked—

"Do you have it now?"

Kakuzu lowered his eyes to the blonde, suddenly understanding him better than he ever did or could before.

You're after them, too, he mused to himself. The so-called temporary experiences that make life worth living. Like everyone else. Like her.

"When I know for sure," Kakuzu said after a moment, glancing towards the doorway. "I'll tell you."

Deidara blinked at the cryptic response, staring after him as he departed through the door without another word.

Morning came and went in a blur of anxiety and frustration, as both Temari and Matsuri considered what options remained now that they were approaching their deadline.

"I can't get to Juro," Temari said in an undertone as the maids left their evening wear for them on the bed. "Those missing-nin won't let me until they get their payment."

Matsuri bit her lip in worry, looking somewhat embarrassed as she spoke.

"W-Well…we could always be exempt for the unusual circumstances…I mean, the Kazekage is your brother, Temari-san. I'm sure it wouldn't be—"

She fell silent beneath the stony glare Temari aimed at her.

"We're Suna shinobi. We don't give up until there's absolutely no other option left, understand?"

Matsuri nodded frantically.

"You're right, Temari-san. It's just—those two missing nin—"

"Don't worry about them," Temari said, the corners of her lips twitching. "We'll both get what we want in the end."

The younger girl stared at her in wonderment for a few seconds, before nodding resolutely and giving her a trusting smile.

Temari returned the smile and turned away to get ready, watching the clock with mounting anticipation.

She didn't have to wait long, the maids appearing and ushering them towards the front entrance of the house where Juro and his company waited. A pleasant, tingling sensation played in the pit of her stomach when she paused near the congregation, inclining her head slightly to see Kakuzu and Deidara standing near Juro.

He was careful to avoid looking in her direction, although Deidara noticed her staring and raised an eyebrow, looking amused.

Juro announced his plan on unveiling his new garden (renovated with illegally obtained money), and assured the guests that drinks and entertainment awaited them. Matsuri stayed close to Temari's side as they filed outside, the fresh air a blessing after breathing in three days' worth of pipe smoke.

The garden was truly magnificent to look at, and for a moment Temari let herself forget her surroundings and her assignment and appreciated the vibrant flowers and vivid greenery. The closest thing to this that existed in Suna was the medicinal greenhouse, although the variety and magnitude of the plants there paled in comparison.

She took a seat with Matsuri on one of the garden benches, observing Juro and his ever-vigilant company over the crest of her fan.

Deidara, she realized, was fully aware of the looks she discreetly kept throwing in their direction, and a grin pulled at her lips as he nudged Kakuzu in the ribs with his elbow, a mischevious grin on his face.

Kakuzu ignored him completely, and she had to fight to keep from laughing at his strained expression.

Matsuri continued giving her curious looks the entire hour they sat there, looking between Temari and the two missing-nin and growing increasingly bewildered at her superior's pleased smile. Temari was fully aware of her confusion and couldn't bring herself to care, intent on catching his eye at least once.

When she came to the realization that she couldn't get his attention the normal way, she calmly snapped the fan shut and stood, sauntering over to where Juro stood by a cluster of orchids, accepting a drink from one of the servants.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that she finally had Kakuzu's attention, his dark eyes focused unwaveringly on her from where he sat and Deidara looking highly amused by his side. Temari gave him a small smirk before turning her attention back to Juro, inwardly gleeful when she saw him stand up from the corner of her eye.

Juro turned around after getting his drink, pausing at the sight of her standing there and giving him a scintillating smile. He blinked once, opened his mouth as if to say something, but stopped when he saw who'd walked up beside her.

"Ah, Kakuzu-san," he said with forced cheeriness. "Won't you have a drink?"

"No," Kakuzu said shortly, looking completely unmoved by the fake generosity, glancing at Temari from the corner of his eye.

She tried to suppress the smug smile overtaking her face but failed, returning the side glance with Juro watching them curiously.

Realization seemed to dawn on him and the corner of his mouth twitched, the gears in his mind turning.

"Kakuzu-san," he said loudly, tone almost scolding. "I noticed you didn't join us in the bathhouse yesterday."

"I was occupied," Kakuzu said curtly.

Unfazed, Juro continued in that nauseatingly sweet tone, beckoning to the house.

"You simply can't leave until you try it out. In fact, you're free to go have it to yourself right now, if you want." At this point he paused, eyes shifting between the two of them, a small, leery smile appearing on his face.

"Your lady companion is free to join you as well."

Temari nearly dropped her fan at the sheer audacity of his suggestion, forgetting what type of character she was supposed to be portraying, and Kakuzu seemed to sense this as her fingers tightened into fists by her sides, splintering the fan in her hand.

Before Temari could reach forward and effectively break Juro's face, Kakuzu took a step forward, giving her a hard look.

"I'll take you up on that," he said to Juro, though his gaze remained on her. "So will she."

"Excellent," Juro said happily, relieved. "My servant can escort you back—"

"No need," Kakuzu interrupted. "We'll find our way."

Temari suppressed the urge to give him a look of disbelief, face reddening as he turned away and started walking back towards the house. Glancing between him and Juro, she turned and slowly started following, only to catch sight of Deidara leaning against one of the garden sculptures.

He caught her eye and winked, grinning widely.

If she hadn't been on duty and sticking to her role, she would have flipped him off again. Instead, she just shot him a scowl before following after Kakuzu, hurrying to catch up.

He didn't say a word when entering the house, keeping silent as he navigated towards the back end and crossed through to the attached bathhouse. Temari's steps slowed slightly, throat tightening with something akin to anxiety when he paused next to the door to the change room, glancing at her expectantly.

"What, you actually want to take a bath?" Temari said blankly. "Now?"

"Juro offered it because he wanted to avoid talking about payment," Kakuzu replied knowingly. "And considering how I'll be able to simultaneously keep an eye on you and take advantage of an offer that would normally cost an average month's salary, accepting seemed like a wise decision."

Temari stared as he pulled the door open and gave her another expectant glance. Wordlessly, she slowly walked forward and into the room, throat suddenly so tight she had trouble swallowing. The room split off to two change rooms, a door for both sexes on either side.

She stood there staring blankly at both as he closed the door behind him, walking past her wordlessly and into the men's change room. Almost mechanically, because she couldn't wrap her head around exactly what was happening, she went into the other room.

Ten minutes later, she was leaning against the door leading to the bath, clad in nothing but a towel, staring at her folded kimono with a look of detached shock on her face.

What are you doing? She asked herself blankly. What the hell do you think you're doing?

True, she'd wanted to get his attention. And yes, she'd wanted to be alone with him. But this…

She swallowed hard, pressing her hands to her face, furious with herself for getting so worked up. Admittedly, she'd spent most of the time spent in this place thinking of nothing but him, conjuring phantasms born of attraction and an overactive imagination before she slept, the aftereffects of which left her feeling more hot and bothered than she'd anticipated.

She'd entertained the idea of something vaguely similar to this occurring, briefly pictured how she'd approach a situation such as this. But that's all it had been—thoughts and imagination and nothing else.

The reality of having to share a bathhouse with a missing nin she was dangerously attracted to made her feel both faint and giddy at once, anxiety and anticipation mixing and leaving her torn between wanting to follow through and running away.

Her eyes narrowed in self-reproach at the idea of escaping, and she lowered her hands from her face. Anxious or not, she'd die before letting him of all people get under her skin like that. She was a confident, strong, accomplished kunoichi—hardly inadequate. If anything, she should've felt completely self-assured.

Pursing her lips, she straightened and checked her towel, making sure it was fastened properly, undoing her bun before she turned around and pulled the door open.

A cloud of steam hit her in the face, and she blinked momentarily, stunned at the sheer size of the bathhouse.

Two large, simmering pools of water were in the middle of the room, surrounded by marble benches and smaller, individual pools. The air was heavy, almost oppressively so as she stepped inside, the stone floor warm and wet against her bare feet.

She took another step forward, letting the change room door close behind her, and froze when she saw him sitting nonchalantly on the opposite end of the room, facing the wall depiction of a waterfall in mosaic tiling.

The headdress was finally gone, although she could see a small white towel wrapped around the lower half of his face, his jet black hair draping it from behind in messy spikes. Her eyes lowered to what she could see of his back, just above the white towel around his waist, and her eyes widened.

Stitches ran across his shoulders and back, interconnecting at some points and at others running all the way around to his front. From where she stood, it looked like someone had taken a black marker to his backside, but she imagined they looked exactly like the stitches she'd seen previously on his arms.

They were less disconcerting than she'd imagined, looking peculiar but not exactly grotesque.

But I suppose anything's tolerable after Shukaku, she thought wryly to herself, tracing the lines with her eyes.

"Are you just going to stand there staring?" he asked suddenly, without turning around.

Taken aback at the sudden comment, she blinked in surprise before flushing, turning away and finding one of the marble benches and smaller pools of water. She took a seat, making it a point to face away from him, impressed by the heating mechanisms at the bottom of each individual pool.

The water simmered invitingly, steam coiling in gentle wisps on the surface. She dipped one of the nearby ladles into it, shuddering in pleasure as she poured it over her neck and shoulders, feeling the hot water streak down her back and chest and seep into the fabric of the towel.

The faint dripping and sloshing of water was the only sound in the room, and for a moment she was able to forget that she wasn't alone, drenching herself in the hot, pristine water and relaxing. Her curled, wet hair clung to her reddened face and back, slightly perfumed now from the drops of lavender oil she administered to the bath water.

The soap she used left her hair feeling softer than she was used to, and she found herself completely relaxed after soaping and rinsing it, settling comfortably against her seat.

The first twenty minutes had been spent in blissful silence as she'd enjoyed what the bathhouse had to offer, momentarily forgetting that she wasn't alone, but as she settled back and relaxed, she couldn't help but glance back over her shoulder again.

He hadn't moved an inch, and she blinked when she noticed that his hair was already wet.

Must've finished before I even came in, she thought, the corners of her lips twitching. Miser.

The fluttering sensation in her chest eventually returned as she realized this to be some sort of turning point. Either she kept her silence, finished her bath and left, or she could say something and…let this mission end interestingly.

She bit her lip, turning completely to face him, fingers curving around the edge of her seat.

The words were already leaving her lips before she had time to reconsider.

"What are you going to do after this?"

He raised his head slightly at the sound of her voice, but didn't turn to look at her.

"Get my payment and leave."

Her grip tightened on the seat.

"What if Juro doesn't pay up?"

Will your stay here have been a complete waste of time, then?

"Will you leave here with nothing?" she continued.

Does it necessarily have to be something materialistic?

"No," he responded after a while, tone unusually soft.

She waited for him to elaborate, but when he didn't speak she suddenly found herself standing, taking a few steps closer.

"Will your partner care at all if you don't get what you came for?"

"No," he said again, sounding slightly miffed. "He's not particularly concerned with money."

"Then it's just you," she said, smirking slightly now, feeling both amused and tense as she slowly circled around the pools.

He didn't reply, fully aware of the proximity of her voice gradually growing closer.

"And you?" he asked suddenly. "Will you leave here with nothing if you can't accomplish your mission?"

"No," she said, her voice sounding fainter than she expected as she neared the seat he occupied. "That'd be a waste, wouldn't it?"

Again, he didn't reply, though she could see him tensing slightly as she finally reached the side of the room, parallel to where he sat. He didn't glance in her direction until she was a few meters from where he sat, obscuring the side portion of the mosaic waterfall, one hand pressed securely to where the folds in the towel met.

She took the opportunity to stare at him, taking in the way the stitches on his back continued running and interconnecting over his entire torso, a stark contrast to his skin.

The intense green of his eyes seemed all the more vivid when he glanced at her through a jagged fringe of jet black hair, gaze unreadable.

The air felt as heavy as it did that night in the hall, when she'd pulled him flush against her and reveled in the contact. It was overbearing, even, making her breathing shallow as she realized there were no interruptions to be had here, no rules or watchful eyes.

She was at his mercy, and the realization made her feel more exhilarated and terrified than she'd ever felt in her life.

Neither of them kept track of how long she stood there by the wall, watching him watch her, the air heavy with silence.

Her heart raced, the frantic beating palpable against the closed fist she held over the towel, throat constricted to the extent of being painful.

After what felt like a painfully long time, he finally spoke.

"What do you want?" he asked quietly.

Something ached in the pit of her stomach and for a moment she could only part her lips soundlessly, struggling to catch her breath in the oppressive warmth.

"What makes you think I want something?" she returned slowly, pausing. "Maybe…"

He slowly uncrossed his arms as she took a tentative step forward.

"Maybe…I just like being in your company."

He stared at her intently, instilling that blend of apprehension and excitement she'd first felt when meeting his gaze. A strange, numbing sort of sensation overtook her frame when he slowly stood, dark eyes focused fixedly on her expression as he took a step closer.

Her mind was blank, a strange humming sounding in her ears as he moved towards her, making her unconsciously retreat till the wall rushed up against her back, her arms drifting down to her sides.

Every step he took was measured and methodical, almost predatory in its purposefulness, instilling anticipation till she felt like her knees would give out. By the time he was standing directly in front of her, the wall was the only thing holding her up.

Meeting his gaze at such close proximity was far more disarming and intimate than she'd imagined, the vivid green holding her completely. She waited, unsure of what was supposed to come next. Then he spoke, the sound of his husky voice making the hairs on the back of her neck rise.

"Is this what you want?"

He moved closer and she pressed back harder against the wall, goosebumps flourishing beneath the feel of cool, wet tiles.

"Is this what you meant, back then, about worthwhile, temporary things?"

Her breath ceased completely at the feel of silken threads suddenly meeting with her skin, curving gently over her flesh.

Plumes of steam rose from the pools of simmering water on either side, making her breathing harsh and shallow in the stifling humidity, her face reddening from the oppressive warmth. The unusually silky threads snaked up her thighs and forearms, entwining slowly around her wrists and pinning them on either side of her head.

Beads of sweat and water trailed from her temples down to her neck, slicking the black fibers that held her and eliciting a tightening of the bonds. Her breathing grew increasingly shallow as they snaked up around the scant towel, slipping into the folds.

"Was this one of the things you meant?" he asked, watching her unwaveringly.

Her lips moved soundlessly in admission, her fingers clenching on either side of her head till the words finally escaped into the heavy air, breathless and hoarse with yearning.


The towel came loose, the strings slowly leading its descent to the coiling steam around her ankles to join the one he'd already discarded, the friction of coarse fibers on skin flushing her further.

He stepped closer then, and she made a hoarse, muffled sound in her throat, leaning her head back against the wall and biting forcefully into her lower lip, breathing growing shallower when his thigh slid up between her legs, the texture of the stitches scraping against sensitive flesh.

"If that's what you meant," he said, voice soft near her ear. "Then you wouldn't want this."

She opened her eyes slightly, finding herself staring at a damp bill worth one hundred ryou.

"No," she said, words biting with contempt. "I told you…I'm not your whore."

He inclined his head slightly as if amused by her adamancy, and made a soft sound of agreement in his throat before pressing it against her skin.

She arched her back, groaning softly as he pressed the damp bill against her throat, pushing it lower to trail over glistening skin. His palm was hot and heavy against her collarbone, and she withheld a sharp intake of breath when he pushed the damp money down against the sweating synapse between her breasts.

"You don't want this," he repeated, tracing it along her stomach now, down her thigh, around her hip.

It took a few seconds for her to catch her breath over the ministrations, and she breathed out a defiant "no", almost wilting in relief when he withdrew the money.

The stitches on his thigh pressed up between her legs at the slight shift, and her breath hitched at the sensation, hands straining against the bonds. Her reaction was impulsive and instinctual, he noticed, a sure sign that she'd never experienced something like this before.

"You're impatient," he observed, staring down at her as he slowly retracted the bonds from around her hands. "But I've been around long enough to know…"

Her hands automatically moved to his shoulders as he paused, her eyes sliding shut as he gradually closed the synapse and pinned her between himself and the wall, slick threads tightening around her legs, lifting her and bringing them together around his hips.

"…nothing good comes of rushing."

She couldn't answer, throat closed up as her heart hammered in her chest, a mix of anxiety and anticipation eliciting a hard clench in her abdomen that was both painful and pleasurable.

His hands, strong and warm slid down her sides once more before he cupped one beneath her right thigh, placing the other against the tiles for support as he leaned forward, lowering his head towards her shoulder.

Her fingers twitched suddenly against his shoulders, clenching slightly so as to stop him, and he raised his eyes to give her a questioning look as she forcibly swallowed and unstuck her throat.

"Wait," she said hoarsely, voice thick. "Just…"

Intense, green irises watched the approach of her fingertips as she reached up towards the towel obscuring his face, and he inclined his head slightly, words quiet and warning.

"You might not like what you see."

"My whole life," she said unwaveringly, taking hold of the cloth. "I've lived in fear of someone who's turned into a hideous, drooling monster on more than one occasion. If you think a few stitches will bother me…you've got another thing coming."

He didn't reply, watching her silently as she carefully took hold of the cloth and slowly pulled. It unraveled easily and a moment later fell to the wet tiles, the impact deafening in the silence that followed.

The same black, crude stitches that marred his body ran across the lower half of his face, as if lacing together the two halves. They were pulled tight and seemed alarmingly natural, his skin free of any abrasions they may have caused, intact and whole around the punctures.

She stared at them wordlessly for a long time, eyes slightly wide with something akin to fascination as she reached up and ran her thumb over one, pleased to see they didn't run the full length of his jaw, leaving his mouth visible.

They weren't anywhere near as alarming as she'd imagined them to be, her gaze and fingertips settling against his mouth. Slightly startling, but nothing more.

He merely watched her as she explored the length of one of the stitches, his eyes flickering slightly at the feel of her fingers on his lips, a sensation he'd long-since forgotten once the modifications had been added, years earlier.

Despite the jaded form of appeal he obtained from pleasurable company, the jaded sensation of flesh on flesh, he still felt goosebumps break out along his arms as she touched his face, the intimate gesture just as jarring and intense as the first time he'd felt it, decades ago.

Minutes passed with her just exploring the face he'd hidden from her since the first day, as if she was trying to memorize it with her fingertips.

Then suddenly, her fingers crept back over the nape of his neck, pressing slightly into the flesh, her eyes slowly lowering to his mouth. He stared at her, blinking when her fingers pressed harder into the back of his neck, drawing him closer.

He'd gotten so used to satisfying his instincts, living on nothing but necessity, living the life of a miser both physically and emotionally. The idea that she wanted to share a gesture as intimate and affectionate as a kiss was more profound and meaningful than the simple tryst of bodies he'd gotten used to.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt it, the anticipation and the pleasant, throbbing ache in his throat that came with something as personal as this. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this vulnerable.

And when her lips pressed against his own, the sensation was disarming and frightening and violently intimate, dizzyingly intimate, ridiculously intimate when he'd already felt the rest of her bare flesh. But he couldn't find a comparison for the gratification he felt from such simple contact, and gathered his bearings long enough to respond, letting her rest her head back against the wall.

A searing heat played in the pit of her stomach despite the chasteness of the first kiss, a faint, muffled noise sounding in her throat when she absorbed the sensation.

Her fingertips pressed into his shoulders when she withdrew silently, long enough to take a shallow breath before tilting her head up again, parting her lips slightly, pressing and closing them against his own and reveling in the soft friction.

There was no distinct response until she pushed harder and felt him reciprocate, her toes curling at his backside as he cautiously parted his lips in response, almost shuddering at the faint, barely audible moan she released against his mouth.

He could feel a pulse somewhere, unsure of whether it was his or hers, the tempo hard against the side of his face as a tingling sensation engulfed wherever she touched him, the sensation almost dizzying.

Her fingertips pushed harder into his shoulders, the pressure relenting when she slid her palm up over the back of his neck, pushing forcefully. Another faint moan was muffled between their lips as the contact almost became bruising, her legs tightening around his hips at the twinge of aching pleasure.

A few shallow breaths sounded and ceased abruptly as he suddenly released his hold from beneath her thigh, hand sliding up over her neck and fingers curving beneath her jaw, turning her face up to his as he pushed her back harder against the wall.

The cold of the tiles was a startling contrast to what she could feel against every other inch of her body, and she unconsciously let her lips part at the sensation, pushing her tongue just between the synapse so it grazed feather-light over his lips.

The taste that settled on her tongue was an intoxicating blend of sweat and salt and smoke, heady and intense. His fingers twitched slightly against her jaw line at the light brush of her tongue, his breath hitching in the slightest as she repeated the fluid action, this time brushing against his upper lip, feeling the intoxicating taste settle on her tongue once more.

At some point, somewhere between the increasingly shallow, hitched breaths that sounded between kisses, he inclined his head forward and the heat against her tongue doubled when it brushed against his, the contact brief and silken but more intoxicating than anything she'd felt up to that point.

The kiss grew increasingly intense with every subsequent, gentle sweep of tongues, taste and sensation overpowering her senses, rendering her oblivious to the tightening of her legs around his hips and the way her other hand slid up his neck, fingers reaching up to entangle themselves into his wet, jet black spikes.

The silken strands slid through her clenching and unclenching fingers, and she pulled till they lost all sense of caution and forced their mouths together, brows furrowing as the gentle brushing of tongues dissolved into a series of deep, probing caresses, growing steadily rougher, more desperate.

She could feel his muscles clench beneath the hand she braced against his back, fingers pushing into the flesh, short nails sliding over the slick skin. The side of her neck burned from the heat of his palm, the pull of his fingers through her wet hair almost painful as he cradled the back of her head, hips pushing forcefully into her own.

Any attempt to hold back the moans was abandoned, and she nearly wilted in ecstasy at the sound of her own pleasure-filled groan, the sound almost harsh in clarity when it wasn't muffled against his hot mouth.

The black threads ensnaring her legs and holding her against him allowed her to touch him as she pleased, hands sliding over his back, down his arms, over his chest, the texture of the stitches sliding under her sweaty palms. Then her arms were back around his neck, fingers entangling into his hair, lips and tongues meeting fervently between whispers, pants, and moans.

He gradually descended with his kisses, letting her lean her head back against the wall and close her eyes as his mouth trailed from her jaw line down her throat, tongue brushing hotly over her glistening skin, tracing the contours of her collarbone.

Where his mouth couldn't reach, the black threads caressed her almost like silken fingers, encircling her stomach, her hips, her breasts, squeezing gently as her breaths hitched at the sensation.

She opened her eyes partially when she felt the warmth of his lips travel back up her throat, descending into the juncture between her shoulder and her neck. Her breathing grew more erratic when the strings moved farther up her thighs, venturing dangerously close to where she ached most.

A hoarse, muffled sound caught in her throat when she felt the first caress there, the sensation sending a wave of tingling pleasure through her legs, making her toes curl. She wrapped her arms around his neck once more, burying her face against his chest as another slow stroke made her tremble violently, raising the pitch of her voice another notch.

She could feel him breathing slowly and steadily against her shoulder, muscles incredibly tense beneath her touch as the threads brushed up against her with increasing pressure, making her nails dig into his back.

"Stop," she panted, voice weakening. "I can't…"

"Wait for it," he murmured near her ear, the sound of his voice making goosebumps flourish on her skin.

Another violent tremor wracked her frame when she felt the next firm stroke, pushing lower and closer to her centre, and she pressed her forehead against his collar bone, gasping for breath.

The strokes continued till her nails were digging into his shoulders and the sounds of her hitching pants and strangled moans echoed off the surrounding tiles, the administrations growing frictionless with the increasing wetness.

He stopped just as her breaths started shortening sporadically, withholding her release and waiting for her to catch her breath. When he raised his head, he found her staring up at him with wide eyes, cloudy teal reflecting desire and something he didn't expect.

There was acceptance and captivation, a begging gleam for communion, completely unlike the vapid stares he'd grown so accustomed to. His brow furrowed slightly as she touched his face again, said his name for the first time, the sound of it spoken so breathlessly and yearningly abandoning him to instinct.

The strings retracted, leaving him to pull her up higher, hand sliding down her thigh and curving beneath it to hold her against him, his other hand alternating between bracing him against the wall and tilting her face up to his as she brought his head down in a fervent kiss.

"Now," she whispered breathlessly in between kisses. "I want…" Her tongue brushed slowly over his lower lip. "Now…"

He pressed forward slightly, fighting off his own hitched breath at the sensation of her readiness, making it a point to incline his head forward and rest his forehead in the crevice between her neck and shoulder. Closing his eyes as he held her hip, he moved forward, entering her slightly and pausing, letting her adjust and take a deep breath before he pressed forward completely.

Her mouth dropped open in a soundless cry, nails digging into his shoulders as he filled her in one fluid motion, the sensation only slightly painful as he stilled against her, breathing harshly near her ear, grip tight on her hip.

The sporadic clenches of her around him were almost painful in their intensity, and he took a deep, slow breath to stave off the low sound that caught in his throat. He waited till she became less tense, her fingers loosening their vice-like grips on his shoulders before he withdrew slightly, waiting once more before pushing forward again.

Her breath quickened only slightly in response, and the second time he withdrew it was nearly completely before pressing forward deeply, hips pushing hers against the wall. This time, a loud "oh" left her lips at the smooth motion, legs nearly going limp around his hips, head dropping forward onto his shoulder.

The effort it took to keep it slow was tremendous, but utterly worth it as he savoured the feeling of every deep stroke, every loud and soft moan she released near his ear.

Her thighs slid against his sides with each slow thrust, fingers clenching and unclenching at his hair as their movement gradually became more natural and fluid. Almost as pleasurable as the physical sensations were the sounds of her whispered encouragements against his ear; her voice lilting with ecstasy till it was almost unrecognizable.

In the oppressive warmth of the room, the exertion of holding her up against him and controlling himself so rigorously made his skin burn to a degree he hadn't thought possible, steadily making it more and more difficult to withstand the agonizingly slow pace.

When he experimentally pulled her forward upon entering her, she actually cried out, legs seizing momentarily around his hips. He paused at the reaction and she clung tighter in response, whispering for him to continue, wanting it deeper now that she'd felt it.

He gave it to her, grip tightening on her hip as his thrusts gradually gained momentum, forcing her weight against the wall completely. Her mouth opened soundlessly at the increasingly intense sensations, harsh, ragged gasps escaping her lips once he found a steady rhythm.

Each deep stroke had her nails scoring his back, had her muscles seizing at every brush against that spot she couldn't place, had her alternating between digging her teeth into her lower lip and moaning and panting her appreciation with a mantra of cries for more.

Despite his best efforts to keep his breathing steady, he found it impossible with the way their deep, sensuous pace let the pleasure seep to every cell in his body, the feeling of muscles growing tight and lax at intervals beneath her searching hands and sliding thighs making him forget at times to keep breathing.

He hadn't taken the time to indulge in something like this for years, his moments with lovers brief and too fast-paced to be savoured. They'd never responded like this, either, never kissed him or spoke, merely taking it for the sake of business and leaving before the non-existent afterglow could even settle in. It was unfeeling.

But this, her…

He pressed his forehead against her shoulder, forcing her back against the wall and as deep as he could go, eyes screwing shut at the sound of her crying out his name.

She was an embodiment of the passion and warmth they lacked, a ghost of sensations he'd left in the past. She said his name like she knew him, touched him as if he meant something, every breath and word leaving her lips tinged with passion and feeling.

And when she wrapped her arms around his neck and desperately pulled him closer so her lips pressed against his temple, she made him feel like he was worth something.

As soon as he lifted his head her lips were on his, hips stilling against each other at the sudden action, the feeling stemming from the one gesture making him lose grip on her and himself.

She slid down the tiled wall, her soft moan muffled against his mouth as he thoughtlessly kissed her back, too caught up in what he'd been missing out on for years to care that they were soon on the tiled floor, her body pressed flush against his as he moved on top of her.

His hand slid beneath her hip, running down the length of her thigh before he raised it to hook around his hips. Her hand moved up the back of his arm, nails raking gently over his back before her fingers buried themselves into his hair again, back arching when he leaned in and reached a depth of penetration that was almost painful.

She broke the kiss long enough to gasp for breath, tilting her head back against the wet tiles, blonde hair plastered to the column of her throat and flushed face.

"Don't," she said breathlessly, eyes opening partially and meeting his own. "Don't stop this time."

He wordlessly complied when he lowered his head to the juncture between her neck and shoulder, waiting till her arms were around his neck before he slowly withdrew and pushed back in, finding a gradual rhythm again.

The hot water and steamy mist let them reach a fluid, effortless pace, skin gliding easily over skin, rendering the rocking of their hips frictionless. And at some point soon after, her hand reached up and found the one he braced against the floor, her slim fingers slipping beneath his arm and over his palm, fingers entwining with his.

He almost stilled completely at the act, feeling a peculiar sensation in his chest when she gripped it, fingertips pressing into the backs of his knuckles.

She was making him remember—first touches, first kisses, first loves. She brought the suppressions back, brought back the vivid memories of when these things had meaning, when he reciprocated them, when they were reciprocated back, before it all disappeared and living became like clockwork.

The emotions they spawned were just as intense as the first time he'd felt them, as a teenager, a young man. They evaded the effect of time, untouched by its eroding, jading hands, brought back by this young one who for some reason wanted to make her own memories with him in them.

It was temporary, a quality he hated and avoided for the sole reason that he wanted to keep it, hoard it, make it permanent and solely his.

Her breath hitched near his ear, nails raking gently over his back, and he pressed his forehead against her temple, pulling her closer.

This was temporary. She was temporary. The indescribable sensation overtaking his body was temporary, and he wanted to make it last and make it his for as long as he could, memorizing the distinct curve of her hips and the soft tan of her skin, the shape of her mouth and the feel of her around him.

Temporary. Fleeting, like Deidara would say. Beautiful. Meant to be felt and remembered and treasured with the heart and mind. Invaluable. Priceless.

Is this what you meant? He mouthed soundlessly against her temple, squeezing her hand back.

And he knew she did, with the way she clung tighter when their gazes met, making him a memory and making him hers for the short time they had remaining.

They kept the intense, sensuous pace, focusing more on sensation than achieving climax, enough pleasure stemming from the grind of hips and deep penetration to make up for it. She couldn't complain, not when each meeting of hips placed exquisite pressure on that aching spot between her folds, bringing her closer to release with each subsequent touch.

Her soft moans gradually increased in pitch, mingling with the sounds of his increasingly laboured breaths, fingers squeezing tightly around his as he put more force into his movements, quickening slightly in response to the erratic tightening of her inner walls.

She was close, and he strived to make this last as long as he could, drawing it out until he finally lost the slow, controlled movements at the advent of his own release. The last few minutes dissolved in a haze, their momentum growing faster and harder all at once, replacing the pangs of pleasure with one steady, aching stream of ecstasy.

He released her hand to grab her hip and pull her closer, and her arms automatically encircled him, fingers splaying out against his back and nails snagging in the stitches.

All at once, her hitching gasps reached a crescendo and her voice broke into a soundless scream, her nails raking over his back and legs seizing around his hips at her release. He bit down hard on his lower lip, burying his face in her shoulder as spasms wracked her from the inside, her muscles tightening around him almost painfully.

Her head tilted back against the tiles, harsh moans catching in her throat as her toes curled from release, hands attempting to pull him as close and deep as possible.

His fingers gripped her hips with bruising force when he followed soon after, breath catching in his throat, body reeling with the intensity of release and the smell and taste and feel of her dousing his senses.

The white haze that permeated his vision remained long after climax and long after their bodies wilted in exhaustion, chests heaving as they struggled to catch their breath. When he separated himself from her and made to move away, she tightened her arms around him, pulling him back down against her.

"Wait," she muttered breathlessly, lips brushing against his ear. "Don't go yet."

He didn't reply, merely glancing at her from the corner of his eye as a closed expression overtook his features. Wordlessly, he lowered his head back to her shoulder, hearing her exhale slowly in contentment.

She didn't need to tell him, he mused, letting himself relax. He planned on milking this experience for all it was worth, temporary as it was.

He knew it now, and he planned on savouring it.

This is what she meant.

The transition from remaining in a blissful state of afterglow on the bathhouse tiles to having to redress, act like nothing happened, and go back outside—only to find that nobody but Deidara and Matsuri were there—was not a pleasant one.

"Juro's gone," Deidara said flatly.

It was an hour later and the four stood together in the empty garden. Kakuzu stared at him blankly for a few seconds before slowly exchanging looks with Temari, who looked a bizarre blend of consternation, guilt, and smugness.

"Did he run?" Kakuzu asked, not seeming all that surprised.

"Yes, soon after you two disappeared from the party," Matsuri said from where she leaned against a garden sculpture. "He grabbed his money and took off."

"And the others?"

"They panicked and ditched the place. When Juro ran it sort of gave them the impression that there were shinobi here on assignment," Matsuri replied, looking faintly annoyed. "All that time spent here for nothing."

Temari glanced at Kakuzu from the corner of her eye, suppressing a small smirk as he made no reaction to the comment.

"What do we do now, Kakuzu no danna?" Deidara questioned after a few moments.

"That's obvious," the Falls nin said shortly. "We go after him and get our money."

He paused, then, glancing momentarily at Temari from the corner of his eye.

"And we kill him for running out on us."

"Oh, good," Deidara said, looking visibly happier now. "Let's go, un."

Temari stared at him openly now, waiting for him to say something, but he merely turned away from his partner.

"Go wait at the gate. I'm coming."

The blonde gave him a small, knowing grin before jauntily walking off in the direction of the front entrance. Matsuri looked between the two of them, face reddening when realization dawned on her, and she quickly mumbled something about going to go wait at the back entrance before taking off.

They were alone, and neither was willing to say the first word.

It felt strange, Temari thought, to be expecting some sort of farewell or meaningful response from someone like him, a stoic, detached sort of miser who also happened to be a ruthless criminal and fugitive. But she couldn't help but expect something, and broke the tense silence amusedly.

"You said you didn't do favours."

He gave her a look and she automatically grinned.

"I don't," he affirmed, staring at her meditatively over the replaced shawl. "But our goals coincide now, so it might seem that way."

"You're a terrible liar."

His brow furrowed slightly in exasperation but he did nothing to deny it, glancing away from her amused expression.

"You might as well write your mission up as a success. Juro's a dead man."

"I don't know about that," she said with a faint smile. "Can I really take your word for it?"

"I'm dependable, yes, if that's what you mean," he said flatly.

Temari didn't reply, merely watching him and appreciating what little time she had to remain in his company. He seemed well aware of this and gave her that much, lingering there for no other reason than to let her have her wish.

She was guarded and realistic and practical, shrewd and professional, but she was still a young woman and felt a distinct sense of regret at having to part with someone she'd gotten to know so intimately. She was young and prone to attachment, and had to clench her fingers by her sides to keep herself from getting anymore involved with him, realizing how futile an attempt at any sort of relationship would be.

"Did you change your mind at all?" she ventured after a few seconds, almost hopefully.

Do you still think you're leaving here with nothing?

He looked at her for a long time, blinking once before speaking, his voice quiet.

"A little."

A grin slowly curved her lips at the reluctant admittance, loving how he resisted glancing away from her triumphant expression.

Another moment of silence passed, and before he could turn away and start back towards the entrance, she slowly approached him.

He watched her unwaveringly, gaze unreadable as she stopped, fingers twitching uncertainly by her sides before she reached up.

Her hands settled over his shoulders, and a moment later she was on her tiptoes, pulling his head down and pressing her mouth to his through the thin linen covering his face. The cloth did little to reduce the feel and warmth of her lips, and for a few moments he could actually pretend it was the real thing.

The longer she stayed there the harder it became to pull back, so she forced herself to withdraw once the gratification became too great and the concept of leaving became too difficult to fathom.

Their gazes met when she pulled back, and then she took a step in the other direction, turning her body away from him slightly.


He said nothing in response and didn't need to, his lingering glance meaning more to her than any words could. They turned away from each other at the same time, and began walking without looking back.

Matsuri said nothing to her when Temari met the young girl by the gate, her mouth pressed into a thin line and teal eyes misty. Wordlessly, she took her belongings from the girl and took off in front of her, determined to get far away from the house before temptation urged her to look back.

Deidara was grinning widely by the time Kakuzu made it to the front gate, his arms crossed complacently as he straightened from his position against the wall. The Falls nin glanced at him, raising an eyebrow.

"I saw that," Deidara said, still grinning as he inclined his head back towards the house.

Kakuzu scowled.

"You weren't supposed to."

"I'm an artist, Kakuzu no danna. Relationships with such explosive potential are pure inspiration, un."

Kakuzu refrained from making a caustic remark and started walking, keeping his expression carefully neutral.

Deidara fell into step beside him, having enough sense to keep quiet as he noticed the odd, forced silence in the other man.

When they'd left the house far behind them and the sun began descending towards the horizon, Deidara finally spoke.

"Kakuzu no danna?"


"Back then, when you said you needed clarification on something…did you get it?"

He paused, dark eyes gazing contemplatively at the sinking sun before he inclined his head in a nod.


Deidara looked at him curiously. "And?"

Kakuzu glanced at him, regarding him silently and with something akin to understanding.

It's in the experience—in the bang. It's priceless because it's unforgettable, and that's what makes it beautiful. The memory and the experience never decay.

"I thought about what you said, Deidara," he said calmly.

The blonde looked on in faint surprise as Kakuzu moved ahead, his tone quiet with contentment.

"You were right."


Note: Reviews are highly appreciated.