The Age of Innocence

"Tell me, Miss Haruno, have you ever been with a man?"

And so begins her sexual awakening in the name of art.

My return to fanfiction, I suppose. The title comes from a painting of the same name by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Thought it was fitting in its irony.

I've had the inspiration for this fic for a long time. You know those artsy, sexy, completely nonsensical European arthouse films like Last Tango in Paris or The Dreamers? That was what I was thinking. Lots of sex. Not much logic. I've never seen the films but that's how I imagine them to be. This fic isn't exactly like that (I did more explaining than I cared to in case I had people complaining that makes no sense!) and it doesn't have exactly the right mood but I haven't written a fic that came so naturally to me in a long time.


He loved her work. She could tell by the way he flipped slowly through her portfolio, pausing for more than just a brief moment at every piece. He didn't say anything but words were not necessary when there was a look of admiration, a look of awe, a look of—

"Tell me, Miss Haruno, have you ever been with a man?"

Haruno Sakura looked up in shock.

"I-I'm sorry?"

Maître Cabanel sighed. A Frenchman nearing his seventies, Maître Cabanel had been head of one of the world's most prestigious art schools, the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, for the past ten years. He had a brief career as a painter before accepting that he had little talent for art and choosing instead to pursue his greater strength, which was recognizing talent in others. And while Haruno Sakura showed promise, something far from skill or ability was lacking.

"You have talent, Miss Haruno. Looking at your drawings I see the technical precision of your hand and a fine eye for detail. Your still lifes demonstrate that you can translate reality to paper and your individual works show vivid imagination and creative ability. However," the maître looked up, "I only see the surface."

Sakura shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't understand, maître. How does…being with a man have anything to do with art?"

Maître Cabanel snapped Sakura's portfolio shut. She flinched at the sound, dread filling her stomach.

"It is not simply 'being with a man,' young lady!" He said exasperatedly. "It is the experience of it—a life experience! Our experiences color our perceptions of the world, do they not? Influences the way we do things, correct? Only by going out and seeing everything that surrounds us do we learn more, understand more."

He handed her a piece of paper. It was one of her sketches he had taken out of her portfolio, a pencil drawing of a man in the nude done her first year of college. Sakura vaguely remembered sitting at a wooden easel and examining the upperclassman who took his clothes off as a side job.

"Miss Haruno, what did you feel when you drew this man?"

Sakura looked at her sketch blankly. "Nothing."

"That is why! You felt nothing and therefore you drew nothing!" At the look of confusion on Sakura's face, Maître Cabanel elaborated. "When I look at this drawing I see a very good picture of a naked man who drinks a little too much beer and is very well endowed down there. But that is all this is—a picture."

He took a deep breath. "Miss Haruno, what I want to see is life. Emotion, feeling…that is what art is. Not only a feast for the eyes but a feast for one's soul. I want it to seem as though this man is alive on the page. Right now you are drawing as if you are a spectator. I want you to draw as if you are one with him, capturing his very essence, his very being, with your pencil."

He handed her the drawing. "The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts is a formidable school, Miss Haruno. We are the best art school in France—perhaps the best in the world. And we accept only the best."

"Are you…turning me away?" Sakura asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

Maître Cabanel looked at the ashen face of the young woman before him and felt a pang of pity. She had placed so much hope on this meeting, only to have her career stopped before it even started. It filled him with a deep sadness to be the bearer of bad news but how many others had come before her? Artists blessed with God-given talent, only to eventually drown in poverty and obscurity. It was his job to warn them beforehand, before they got sucked in so deeply they couldn't get out.

Yet there was such earnestness in Haruno Sakura's luminous green eyes, an idealism that he did not want to see extinguished like the others before her. So Maître Cabanel asked, "Why do you want to do this, Miss Haruno?"

Sakura hesitated. Then, "Because...because I want to capture beauty and freeze it for all eternity."

It wasn't an original answer but Maître Cabanel was a kind-hearted man. The young lady had—stupidly, might he add—traveled halfway across the world to see him. If he had known previously, he would've told her not to waste her time but too late, she was already standing in front of him with her world enclosed in a plastic folder. Just for her audacity she deserved something, didn't she?

"I have never made this kind of a proposition…" He began slowly. Sakura's heart fluttered. "But if you prove to me you can draw life, I will let you into this school."

She let out a deep breath she didn't even know she had been holding in. "Oh God, thank you, Maître, thank you."

Maître Cabanel held up a hand. "Do not thank me just yet, Miss Haruno. The conditions of my offer are not as easy as they seem. This skill is not something that can be taught, only refined, and you must discover it for yourself. When you have, come back."

He looked at the calendar hanging on the wall.

"You have until the year's end."

There are two Paris's, separated by the river Seine that flows through the city. To the right of the river is La Rive Droite, the wealthy, glamorous Paris of everyone's imagination. To the left is La Rive Gauche, the bohemian Paris home to students, artists, and other less affluent types. It was here where Sakura lived, in a dingy flat with a view of probably two iron girdles of the Eiffel Tower and walls so thin that she could hear every detail of her roommate's almost daily sexual escapades. Tenten was a lovely girl and she did her best to make the situation work under the circumstances but she was an artiste. Like all artists, she had strange quirks. Hers was an insatiable sexual appetite. She claimed lovemaking inspired her music making and after every ear piercing climax the lovely strains of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto or Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen would inevitably come. Sakura knew she was lucky to be able to hear a future classical music star for free and in the privacy of her own home but she didn't know if the sounds of incessant headboard-banging and heated moans made it worth it.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Tenten said softly to the man holding her just as Sakura came into the apartment. Hyuuga Neji was a classmate of Tenten's at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris; he was the pianist of their chamber music group and, according to Tenten, the two fell for each other over the frenzied last movement of Brahms' Piano Quartet in g minor.

"I think the presto tempo marking turned him on," Tenten had laughed.

If it weren't for her ears, Sakura would have never believed Tenten's handsome boyfriend to be capable of anything other than stoicism.

"Hi Neji," Sakura greeted, brushing past him into the room.

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Sakura."

"I bought croissants," She announced as the door closed behind her.

Tenten clapped her hands. "Breakfast food for dinner? I love breaking the rules."

They ate in comfortable silence, save for Tenten's soft humming. Sakura was too busy thinking about Maître Cabanel's words to notice.

"How did your meeting with the art director go?" Tenten asked, as if reading Sakura's mind. The latter hesitated.

"Well…I wasn't turned down but I wasn't accepted either."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Sakura sighed. "I have to learn how to draw," she held up her hands to mimic quotation marks here, "'life' before I'm allowed in."

"Can't they teach you that?" Tenten said irritably. "Isn't that why they're a school?"

"Apparently it's a talent I must 'discover for myself' because it's 'not taught, only refined,'" Sakura repeated.

Tenten scoffed. "What bullshit. And how do you discover it?"

Sakura's face twisted, half in amusement, the other half a grimace. "By fucking."


"He used my drawing of a naked man as an example. Said there was no life to it. Through sex, I'm supposed to get inspiration." She shrugged. "He says it's a life experience that will further my abilities as an artist. Kind of like how you say Neji helps you grow emotionally as a violinist."

"I see…" Tenten looked at her. "But you have had those life experiences, haven't you?"

She had lost her virginity her second year of college to a stranger after several shots of vodka and a couple of Asaki beers. The only memory she had of the night was the next morning when she saw bloodstained sheets and felt nausea and pain all at once. She hadn't had sex since.

Perhaps the memory still weighed heavily on her mind, but as desperately as Sakura wanted to get into the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, she wasn't about to pursue Maître Cabanel's unconventional method of education. Instead, she took the safer, more traditional path of "practice makes perfect." Everyday, she went out into the city to find subjects to draw. There were the usual places—the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées—but Sakura also ventured to La Défense to sketch the glass skyscrapers and to the Catacombs to draw hundreds of human skulls stacked on top of one another.

I wonder if drawing death will help me draw life? She thought in dark humor.

In between sketching Paris' many tourist attractions, Sakura sat in public parks and street cafes and drew Parisians going about their daily lives: a chicly dressed young woman; a hunchbacked old man; a mother playing with her child; a young couple in love.

She was in the Latin Quarter one day, sketching people eating outside a bistro, when a tall, dark figure strode into her line of vision. Momentarily distracted, Sakura looked away from her work to watch as a man with black hair and pale skin walk by. He gave her a passing glance before continuing on his way but the split second look was enough to forever imprint an image of coal-black eyes and a cold, handsome face in Sakura's memory.

One night with him would definitely teach me about life, she laughed, getting back to work.

It was as if God heard her. Several days later, while drinking with friends at a bar in Montmartre, Sakura saw him again. They were sitting at a table in the corner, far away from the other patrons, and it was as if divine will made her look over at the door as he entered. She watched as his eyes scanned the room and settled on her before coming over. Her heart began to pound.

"Sasuke, you bastard!" Roared Uzumaki Naruto, the boyfriend of Neji's cousin Hinata. Sakura was startled. "You decided to show up! Everyone, this is Uchiha Sasuke, one of my friends back in Japan who came to Paris to study art."

Sakura's ears perked up as Naruto began to introduce everyone at the table.

"…And finally, this is Haruno Sakura, Tenten's roommate. You have something in common with her, Sasuke. Sakura's an artist too!"

Slowly, his eyes drifted over to her.

"I see." It was the first two words he had spoken since he arrived.

"Well sit down!" Naruto urged. "The way we're drinking you're not going to be standing up at the end of the night!"

Sasuke obliged and took the only seat available—next to Sakura. She could feel her heart beat faster in anticipation as she summoned up the nerve to talk to him.

"Are you studying here too?"

His deep voice broke her train of thought and she started, so surprised he was talking to her that she didn't hear what he said.


"Are you studying here?" He repeated, slower. She flushed, both because he was talking to her like he was talking to a dim-witted child and because the answer she was about to give him was embarrassing.

"I…not really."

He raised an eyebrow. It was indication enough that he wanted an explanation. Sakura laughed ruefully.

"I came all the way to Paris because I thought a face-to-face interview with the art director of the school I wanted to get into would be best. That way I could explain my thinking behind my work—"

"True art does not need an explanation."

His bluntness threw her off. "I—" She sighed. "It was naive and arrogant of me but at the time, I thought it was a good plan."

They lapsed into silence. Sakura thought she had never felt as suffocated as she did then, having made a fool of herself in Uchiha Sasuke's intimidating presence.

"What school?" He asked finally.

"The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts," she supplied dejectedly.

"Funny," he smirked. "I go there."

He had asked to see her work. While she was reluctant at first, eventually she decided that she couldn't embarrass herself anymore than she already had. Besides, Uchiha Sasuke could probably teach her a few things, given that he was a student at the school she herself couldn't get into.

"This is the drawing he tore apart," Sakura said, pulling out the nude sketch. Sasuke took it and looked it over with a critical eye.

"It lacks spirit," he said finally. Sakura sighed.

"That's what Maître Cabanel said too. But he said that if I can draw spirit, as you call it, by the end of the year, he'll let me in." She waved her hands exasperatedly. "The problem is, I don't know how I'm supposed to go about discovering the secret to drawing life!"

"What did the maître say?"

Sakura laughed. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

Sasuke waited.

"He told me to sleep with someone."

He looked at her. "I was expecting something groundbreaking," he said flatly.

Sakura gaped at him. "Sex as an educational tool?"

Sasuke shrugged. "All great artists had lovers. Multiple ones, even. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Chopin and George Sand. Art, visual or not, is emotional. There's nothing like sex that taps into a person's deepest, most private feelings—the feelings that art is supposed to evoke. Have you ever seen The Red Violin?"

Sakura shook her head.

"It tells the story of a violin through its many owners. One of them was a violin virtuoso who had his greatest inspirations in the midst of an orgasm."

Sakura snorted. "Sounds like Tenten."

"And that is why she is a student at one of the most famous music conservatories in the world," Sasuke drawled.

The reminder of her plight stung. Struggling to maintain her composure, Sakura sniffed, "Well I'm going to continue with my previous plan of action by drawing appropriate subjects."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Like?"

She flipped open her sketchbook for him to see. He casually thumbed through the pages.

"The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, a man and a woman, a statue…" He frowned. "Where are the nudes?"

"People don't exactly walk around naked," Sakura pointed out.

"But it's not the technical skill you need to work on," Sasuke argued. "It's the underneath. You can draw architecture and people lazing around all day but that's merely documenting images."

"Isn't that what all art is?" Sakura countered. "Documenting images?"

"How do you feel when you're naked, Sakura?" Sasuke asked abruptly.

Sakura looked taken aback. "E-excuse me?"

Sasuke's eyes bored into her. "You heard me. How do you feel when you're naked?"

Her mouth opened and closed like a fish, no words coming out. "Well, I—"

"You feel vulnerable, right? Unsure, insecure?"

"If you're trying to tell me I'm insecure about myself—" Sakura began hotly.

"Alright. If you don't feel vulnerable or insecure then you feel comfortable, maybe even a bit smug and self-satisfied that you look the way you do."

Was that a compliment? She wondered. Sasuke gave no indication that he comprehended the double meaning behind his words and continued.

"Whatever emotions you feel, you feel them so strongly when you're naked that it shows in your movements and the way you hold yourself. Nakedness is like alcohol. It brings the real you to the surface. For an artist, it's the perfect opportunity to see more than what meets the eye and capture it—something you haven't learned yet."

Sakura saw the truth in Sasuke's words. Slowly, she asked, "How am I supposed to find people willing to take their clothes off for me?"

He smirked. "I paid my way here through modeling, but for you, I'll strip for free."

In college, drawing nude models was a regular part of the curriculum. Sakura had seen so many naked bodies that the human anatomy became just another glass vase or apple to draw—nothing sexual, only scientific.

Reality hit her like a slap to the face when she saw Sasuke naked. A few of the models she drew were physically blessed but they were nothing compared to him. If David was supposed to be the pillar of male perfection, then Michelangelo must have meant for him to be an homage to Uchiha Sasuke. Sakura was so struck by Sasuke's appearance that the pencil fell out of her hand. As she reached down to pick it up, she almost knocked over the easel. She could only stammer out apologies as Sasuke stood there with an amused expression on his face.

"I can see why Maître Cabanel called you a virgin," he said as Sakura finally got a hold of herself.

"He did not!" She snapped indignantly. "And it's just—it's just been a long time since I've drawn nudes, that's all!"

When she finished, Sasuke pulled on his clothes and joined her at the easel to critique her work. He shook his head.

"Still the same. We'll do this again next week."

So they got together again the next week, and the week after that. By the fourth time Sakura had drawn Sasuke in the nude and made no progress, Sasuke had had enough.

"That's it," he said, "we're going to try something else."

"What?" Sakura yelled, almost delirious with frustration.

"I'm going to draw you."

She put up the biggest fight. She was the one with the problems, she said, how was she supposed to improve by sitting there naked? She barely knew him; a lady did not take her clothes off for any man. Oh, and she has always been the artist, not the subject. Sasuke just rolled his eyes and pulled her to him, hands reaching for the buttons of her blouse. Sakura screamed.

"What are you doing!?"

"Relax," Sasuke said, bored, "It's not like I'm raping you."

"You might as well be!"

He fixed her with a hard glare, momentarily stilling her. "Do you want to get into the École?"

Sakura was so shocked that she could only nod meekly.

"Then you'll walk in the shoes of a model for one day and feel what they feel."

She began unbuttoning.

It was more than uncomfortable, Sakura thought as she sat there, watching Sasuke's eyes move from one part of her naked body to another. Her arms, her legs...her breasts, the unshaven triangle between her thighs. She was almost overwhelmed by the feelings of insecurity bubbling up inside her. Did Sasuke think she was too fat or too skinny? Was her chest too small for his liking? Did he like girls clean down there? Did he think she was beautiful? And then she wondered why the hell she was thinking the things she was and resumed resisting the urge to cover herself. She was relieved when Sasuke's eyes finally moved up to her face but that feeling was short-lived when she became unsettled by the way his eyes seemed to trace the shape of her lips, the curve of her face. And when his eyes met hers, she tried not to squirm under the full force of his gaze.

A few hours later, Sasuke's voice broke the suffocating silence.

"Come here."

She didn't know if he meant they were done or not so she chose not to put on her clothes, settling instead for covering herself as she padded over to him.

"Look," he instructed.

She did. And it felt like the first time she had in her life. Sasuke had drawn everything her mirror showed her when she looked into it and more: the tightness of her pose, the subtle disquiet in her eyes. She was a young woman unsure of her future and he had captured every detail of it, from the optimism to the hesitance. Sakura was overwhelmed by Sasuke's brilliance.


And then she realized what she said and she looked at his amused face in horror.

"T-that's not what I meant!" She said hastily. "I mean you—you—are a very, very talented artist and—"

"Now do you see?" Sasuke interrupted, ignoring Sakura's hurried explanation.

She stopped. "I—yeah…I do...thank you."

They stood in silence, looking at the sketch. But sometime during those brief few minutes Sakura felt Sasuke's gaze shift from the easel to her and she became very aware of her nakedness and their proximity. She shifted backwards.

"I-I should get going," she stammered out, "it's late."

He looked at her and Sakura felt her breath hitch. Sasuke's eyes had gotten impossibly darker and they were fixed on her with an intensity she had never seen before. It made her nervous.

"What do you have to do?" His voice was soft. Deadly.

She took a few more steps backwards. It was futile for Sasuke matched every one until Sakura's back hit the wall and he trapped her against it. He could almost feel her erratic heartbeat.

"What do you have to do?" He asked again.

"I—have to—dinner for Ten—ah!" She let out a gasp. One of Sasuke's hands had come to rest on her hip, fingers lightly stroking her side.

"You were saying?"

Sakura never answered.

Their relationship was explosive. Sasuke was a complicated, dark individual and Sakura was full of repressed passion. Both had previously channeled their emotions into art but with the provision of a new outlet—sex—they unleashed their pent-up rage on each other. They had so frightened Tenten and Neji that the former finally understood how Sakura felt, apologized, and proceeded to ask her roommate to move out. Sakura was more than happy to oblige—finally she and Sasuke had all the privacy and available surface area necessary for sexual freedom. They had sex everywhere; once, Sakura was working on a large painting of a vase of flowers when Sasuke came over and made love to her on the canvas. The flowers were no more after their heated encounter but their bodies had twisted the vibrant colors so that the end result was a beautiful abstract piece.

Art and sex were inseparable concepts to them. For Sasuke, Sakura was not only his lover but his muse as well. She was frequently the subject of his works outside of class. He photographed black and white scenes of Paris that had her in every frame and drew her while she was reading, painting, or dressing in the morning. He even did a series of erotic photographs, setting the camera up to take pictures of them making love. After developing them in a dark room he had set up in his apartment, Sasuke framed a few and hung them up on the bedroom wall. It never failed to get Sakura off, seeing tastefully blurred images of herself and Sasuke engaged in wanton behavior.

For Sakura, sex directly influenced art. She had begun to dabble in painting and their lovemaking guided it. When Sasuke made tender love to her, she painted in pastels: blush pinks, buttery yellows, warm corals. Her lines were soft, the strokes languid. When they had lighthearted sex—quickies, role-plays gone embarrassingly wrong—her work was just as carefree. And when they had sex so intensely that third parties, whether they were neighbors or furniture, were affected, Sakura's work was just as forceful. Once, they had a terrible fight and in a blind rage, Sasuke grabbed her and threw her to the floor, savagely taking her against the hard wood. It wasn't lovemaking—it was fucking. The next day, feeling bruised and battered, Sakura turned to her work with a heavy hand, paints as red as the blood that had flown from his vicious thrusting.

The months flew by. Before Sakura knew it, it was the end of the year. It was time to meet with Maître Cabanel once again. In the week leading up to it, Sakura agonized over what to show the director. She and Sasuke went over all of her pieces meticulously, critiquing the merits and demerits of each. It was not in the least bit therapeutic for Sakura and she sought release through sex. By the end of the week, Sasuke's back was littered with deep crescents from Sakura's nails and his pelvis hurt from how forcefully she had rode him.

The day of the meeting, Sakura was so beside herself with worry that she could barely function. Sasuke tried to loosen her up but for once, sex was not the answer; in the end, he just picked out her clothes for her, made her breakfast, and walked her to the school. After telling her not to worry, he left to go to class himself. Sakura didn't know how long she stood there in front of Maître Cabanel's office, a stack of paper and canvas in hand, before the door opened and the director's head poked out.

"Where is that girl—oh there you are, Miss Haruno! I was wondering where you were…come in, come in!"

She followed him into the room. When they were seated, Maître Cabanel looked at her expectantly. "Well?"

Wordlessly, Sakura handed over her work. She watched as he went through the stack slowly, examining each piece in great detail. It was like the first time, only this time Sakura wasn't as naïve as to think the director was speechless at her brilliance. It was all she could do not to hyperventilate and faint from the pressure.

The maître had reached the bottom of the pile. Picking up the last piece—the final nude drawing of Sasuke she had done that had gotten his approval—he stared at it for a long time. When he looked up at Sakura, there was no expression on his face.

"This…is art."

Sakura's eyes widened.

Maître Cabanel smiled. "Welcome to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Miss Haruno."

Being a first-year student at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts meant going back to the basics. Sakura was placed under the direction of Maître Page, a stout little man with a vicious temperament but a genius artistic mind.

"Some of you are already money-making artists. Others of you have already gained recognition. In my classroom, however, you are all nothing!"

A nude model was sitting in the center of the classroom and Maître Page motioned to the students to take their seats. "You will begin by drawing the human body. If you have done this before and think this is below you, be warned: by the end of the year, half of you will be eliminated."

It was like a death threat. Everyone got to work immediately. Maître Page took to pacing about the room, demeaning every student.

"What is this? Have you never seen the male organ before? Erase it and draw it again!"

"That is not an arm. That is a sausage. Are you a cannibal?"

When he made it to Sakura, he looked at her work with beady little eyes and pursed lips.

"Draw what you see, not what you think," he said finally before moving away.

When Sakura looked at her drawing, it wasn't the model in front of her she had drawn. It was Sasuke.

Sakura didn't realize it but she had become so dependent on Sasuke that he was no longer just a lover or a teacher—he was her entire life. Mental, emotional, physical—every one of her needs could only be satisfied by him. When Maître Page demeaned her, it was Sasuke she turned to. When she found her creativity stunted, Sasuke helped her rediscover it. Every waking moment, Sakura wanted—needed—Sasuke. Even in her dreams, he was there. He was such a dominant presence in her life, so dominant that her mind came to think he was meant to be there.

Three months after Sakura's acceptance into the École, the letter came. It was a simple white envelope with Sasuke's name and address printed neatly on the front, plain and unassuming. Sakura had handed it to him and promptly returned to sifting through the rest of the mail. When she looked up, an unsettled look was on Sasuke's face.

"What's wrong?" She had asked.

Sasuke had shaken his head. "It's my father. I have to go back to Japan for a few days."

It was a vague explanation but Sakura had accepted it. They made long, sweet love and the next morning, she saw Sasuke off with a kiss on the lips and the promise of something lovely when he came back.

He never did.

Days had become weeks and weeks had become months before Sakura, almost insane from waiting, sought out Uzumaki Naruto for answers. Hinata's boyfriend had only looked at her in confusion.

"Didn't Sasuke tell you?" He asked. "He's not coming back. He's not going to be an artist anymore. His father died—he's taking over the family company."

Her world ended that day. She lay in bed—Sasuke's bed—not eating, not going to class, not painting or drawing. She might as well have been dead—only the feeble beating of her heart and the crushing emotional pain of losing the most precious thing in her life was there to remind her that she was indeed still alive, trapped in the hell hole that was this world without Sasuke. Sakura didn't cry. The pain she felt was beyond something tangible. She could only stare at the ceiling and relive the months she and Sasuke spent together. It was like having him back again and Sakura wanted nothing more.

On the third day, Naruto, Tenten, and Neji broke down the front door. Taking one look at the emaciated, hollow-eyed woman on the bed, they dragged her into the car and drove her to the hospital. She had been hysterical, fighting tooth and nail against leaving, but their combined strength overwhelmed hers and she was given a sedative as soon as she arrived. When she woke up, it was Tenten next to her.


"How did I get here?" Sakura croaked. Her throat hurt from the effort.

"Your art teacher called me after you skipped class several times without giving a reason. I knew something was wrong—you'd never skip class—so we came over."

"How did he have your number?"

"Our apartment and our number," Tenten emphasized, "was what you originally put down on your application." She hesitated. "I heard…about Sasuke. Are you alright?"

Sakura turned away.

Tenten sighed. "I'm sorry, that was stupid of me to ask."

They sat in silence.

"You should move on," Tenten said quietly.

Again, Sakura didn't answer. Tenten continued. "He's not worth it if he didn't even have the decency to tell you himself."

"Get out."

There was a brief pause before a rustle of clothing and the sound of the door opening and closing. Sakura closed her eyes and let the pain consume her.

She was discharged from the hospital a few days later. It was Naruto and Hinata who took her home—Tenten wisely chose to stay away. While his girlfriend bustled about the apartment, seeing that everything was in order before heading into the kitchen to prepare a meal for the three of them, Naruto tended to Sakura.

"These are beautiful," Naruto commented, looking at framed sketches of different flowers hanging on the living room wall. "Did you do these?"

Sakura nodded silently.

"You're so talented. Man, I wish I was as gifted as you."

He droned on but his words became a dull buzzing in Sakura's ears. She was remembering the afternoon she had done those drawings. The creative juices had been flowing particularly smoothly that day and it was as if her pencil had a mind of its own, traveling across the page to form roses and cherry blossoms and jasmines so real it was as if their powdery floral fragrances were emanating from the paper. She had created life that day and was filled with feelings of pleasure and exhilaration at having done so. A small smile touched Sakura's lips as she reminisced of her success but it quickly faded upon realizing that she no longer knew what those feelings were like. It was as if she had abandoned art, forgetting it while lost in the affairs surrounding Sasuke, and Sakura found herself reeling at the despairing emptiness inside her. She looked at Naruto, who was still talking, and cut him off.

"Get me a pencil and a piece of paper."

Getting back into art turned out to be the best medicine Sakura could have asked for. She returned to school the following week and as soon as she stepped into the classroom, the familiar, comforting smell of musty charcoal dust wafted into her nose and it was like a sedative a thousand times more powerful than the one forced into her that day her friends took her to the hospital. Even the threatening presence of Maître Page couldn't deter her spirits. As soon as he saw Sakura, the plump little art teacher dropped a few photographs on her easel and barked, "Your incomplete assignments!" before bustling off to terrorize other hapless students. Sakura merely shook her head in amusement before examining the photographs and recreating them by hand on the paper in front of her. As she did, all thoughts of Sasuke flew from her mind. It was like coming home after years spent away from it; like meeting up with an old friend and telling her all the secrets you couldn't in the time spent apart from each other. It was a wondrous sort of therapy for her tortured soul and Sakura felt herself feeling more at peace than she had in a long time.

"I suppose I've seen worse."

Sakura looked up to see Maître Page grimacing at her work before moving on. She smiled inwardly—her notoriously difficult to please teacher had just complimented her in his own way.

She was one of twelve students allowed to advance after completing her first year of studies. No longer was the curriculum made up of drawing nude models everyday; they were finally allowed to work in color—pastels, acrylics, oils, watercolors—and the full extent of Sakura's artistic ability exploded into existence. She was like God; with a single hand she could create images so powerful they seared one's soul. Even Maître Page was impressed. In class one day, he held up a painting Sakura did of a woman taking off her pearl earrings before the vanity, an unsure frown marring her beautiful features.

"Look at this," he commanded. "It breathes."

Two years later, Sakura graduated at the top of her class. She was flooded with offers to show her works from numerous art galleries around the world: Paris, New York, St. Petersburg. She was the artist of the moment and everyone wanted to see whom the critics were proclaiming a genius taking the art world by storm.

"Where do you want to grace your presence with first?" asked Maître Cabanel. The man who had first set Sakura's career in motion had retired from his post as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and was now a sort of advisor to Sakura, whose artistic mind couldn't handle the technicalities of the business.

She shrugged. "Somewhere in Tokyo. I haven't been home in a while."

Maître Cabanel ended up arranging an exhibition for Sakura at Youth, an art gallery in Tokyo's Ginza district. Run by Rock Lee, a high-energy man with a bowl cut and bushy eyebrows, Youth was famous for showing an eclectic mix of art—a result of the unique company its owner kept.

The night of the showing, Sakura was so nervous she could barely stand straight. It was like the days leading up to her second meeting with Maître Cabanel, only much worse. It didn't matter that she graduated at the top of her class from the best art school in the world. It didn't matter that art critics everywhere hailed her as the next Picasso. The proverbial butterflies in her stomach were giving her a hell of an upset stomach and it was all she could do not to throw up the meager contents of her dinner. What if people suddenly realized that her work was amateurish—that she only got into her alma mater by a stroke of luck? What if she couldn't sell anything and she was doomed to being a penniless pauper for the rest of her life?

People were starting to come through the doors. She watched from the back of the room as they came into the gallery and toured the clean, white space, looking at the art on the walls. When they reached her, recognition lighted their eyes and they introduced themselves, all the while enthusiastically singing her praises. It did nothing to soothe Sakura's frazzled nerves. So far, the wine and cheese were being consumed rapidly but not a single work had been sold.

She was in the middle of a conversation with a large group of people when Rock Lee came over and said with an enthusiasm even more potent than usual, "It sold! The abstract vase of flowers sold!"

It was the most exciting moment of Sakura's life.

"Come meet the buyer, Haruno-san!"

Sakura eagerly followed Lee past the wine and cheese table, the increasingly larger groups of people, and the freestanding walls in the middle of the room. She couldn't believe it. Someone had actually bought a painting of hers! She was a true, established artist now, all thanks to this wonderful, kind-hearted person who—

The words of gratitude died on her lips.

"Haruno-san, I'd like you to meet Uchiha Sasuke."

Yes, that's the end. For sure.

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