Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not own Naruto or any of its affiliations…I am merely borrowing its characters and settings to indulge my own fantasies and then share said fantasies with other people who equally do not own Naruto. I am not making any profit off this.

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On the walk, obvious and small


It was odd, what they were doing, but Sakura allowed her mind to wander.

For instance, there was no weather in Iwagakure, Sakura mused. Getting into winter months and it was still relatively warm and precipitation free. She squinted up at the cloudless sky. Squinting partially from the ever persistently bright sun, and partially from tears.

The wooden bat cracked into her forearms once more.

She tasted salt as sweat ran between her lips. No weather even to distract her from her sensei's new torture – rathertraining routine. He seemed to be favouring the hard style martial arts ever since their spar the other week, finding that her defence was less than satisfactory.

"The truth is, Sprout, there will always be times when you can't dodge an attack. Might as well prepare your body for it."

Her entire body, she found out. From her arms to her shins, to her chest and stomach, shoulders, toes, anything; even her ears, one still smarting from being nicked. Granted, some of the exercises did not consist of beatings, as the current one featured, but they were all equally as physically and mentally laborious. Meditating while balancing a cauldron full of boiling water on her abdomen was one of the less extreme methods Deidara had given her.

"Half way through," he chirped. "You're over the lump."

"It's 'over the hump'," she corrected before another loud crack split her ears.

"Nag, nag, nag. Is that all you can do, yeah?"

"Don't I deserve at least that? You are hitting me repeatedly with a reinforced piece of wood that would only splinter from steel being driven into it at 4000 pounds over force."

The sound of a door sliding open interrupted Deidara mid-swing, and the two looked over to find an attractive young woman teetering into the courtyard. "Oh, Sakura-chan," the woman said in a cultivated, dulcet tone. It was Otsuka, the liaison who had greeted Sakura when she first arrived in Iwa.

With a pronounced grumble, Deidara lowered the bat to his side, leaning on it casually as the guest took her time stepping carefully over to them. She was wearing a yukata and sandals which, while pretty, were not suited for the damaged and odd stone pathway.

"What can I do for you, yeah?" Sakura gave her sensei a stern look. He added, reluctantly, "Otsuka-san?"

Ignoring the question, Otsuka took a few minutes to worry and chide over Sakura's condition. Sakura felt her cheeks warm, wishing the mothering could have been done in private and not in front of her ninja instructor.

"I'm fine, fine," she insisted as pleasantly as possible.

When finally satisfied, though only just judging by the cute purse to her lips, Otsuka produced a scroll from within the sleeves of her outfit. "I've brought news from the Tsuchikage-sama. It appears you have a mission."

Deidara let the bat clatter to the ground as he swiped the scroll away, eagerly tearing through the seal. After scanning the text, his excitement immediately dimmed, his pout securing his features. With dramatic disdain, "ooh. I see. We have a mission."

Sakura perked up at this, temporarily ignoring the pain, and similarly plucked the scroll from Deidara's hands. She expected weeding, retrieving groceries, sweeping temple stoops, but Deidara really was not fibbing about Iwa's different approach to ninja training.

"A security check?" She couldn't decide her reaction. Fascination? Disappointment?

Deidara rolled his eyes, not hiding his boredom and disdain with the prospect. Sakura's first impulse was to nag him about being difficult, but she stopped short. Deidara was standing (one hip cocked very slightly) with his arms crossed over his front, and while normally this was humorously comparable to a spoiled child – the cut lines of his biceps and deltoids evident even beneath his mesh tee spoke volumes of Deidara's lifestyle. He was active, he enjoyed physical work. And going from what she had learned about his personality, he didn't exactly appreciate anything dull.

As it was, he already had to deal with a greenhorn that wasn't even from Stone.

She wilted.

Otsuka misinterpreted this, taking their fallen expressions to mean hesitation. "Of course, because of Sakura-chan's recent training, I can request a delay for your start date. Allow you some time to recover and be properly prepared for the mission." The young woman smile reassuringly, unaware of her mistake. "You won't have to worry about your student this way, Dei-kun! She'll be ready to join you in peak condition."

Sakura saw Deidara's eyebrow twitch and smirked when he withheld from correcting the woman. It would have been too cruel even for him, given Otsuka had flexed her own, rather wanting, bicep muscle and was sporting an encouraging victory sign.

"Thank you, Otsuka-san," Deidara forced between a grimace and dubious attempt at a smile.

The guest was oblivious to his aggravation and seemed satisfied. "Very well! I'm looking forward to your reports, Dei-kun, Sakura-chan."

And then she teetered away just as adorably and awkwardly as she had entered. After the door slid shut once more, Deidara slouched over with a long sigh.

"I guess it's not the most thrilling objective," Sakura tried diplomatically. She bent down to pick up the bat, clenching her teeth as she gripped it, and tried to offer it to Deidara in hopes of cheering him up. Forming a fist caused splitting fissures of pain to shoot up her arms. Chakra ran to her fingers automatically, compensating for her inability to fully curl a fist, and alleviated the pressure instantly.

Her sensei raised an eyebrow at the offer and then frowned. He took the stick and tossed it carelessly over his shoulder. "Be careful, yeah. Any way, that's enough for now. You heard the lady, time to rest up."

As he sulked away, she asked, jumbling the word, "what is Care-ee-eye-at like?"

Keryiat was the name of their destination.

Deidara's tone was remarkably flat. "Keryiat's up north of here. It's a mining town."


Hiking was tiring. Sakura had wrapped her legs and arms as best as she knew how, even allowing her sensei to help, but moving in general was still a hassle. She remembered days in the academy when she would feel like collapsing after an obstacle course or two day expedition exercise – this was worse. No matter how exhausted she felt, even the task of sleeping was not easily manageable. Any little adjustment made itself known to her. Everything was sore.

And yet she felt happier than she remembered feeling as a student. She missed her friends, of course, but she felt as if lately she had been smiling more. As she hissed with the effort of rearranging her pack, it occurred to her that she might be a sadist. How did one find torture and extreme levels of stress to be a happy thing?

Sakura chanced a furtive glance at Deidara, who was walking next to her, and twisted her lips contemplatively.

It wasn't that Iruka-sensei had ever doubted her, on more than one occasion he'd even praised her, it just seemed that perhaps his support was more coddling than anything. The Haruno family was not a ninja clan, and therefore it was a notable accomplishment when Sakura scored higher than her pedigree classmates... Though notable only because it was not expected to happen.

In fact, it hadn't always been encouraged either.

Senior ninjas were not interested in perfect test scores from a Haruno, they looked for perfect test scores from a Nara or a Hyuuga. And from Sasuke. But then – so had she.

"We're almost there, yeah," Deidara murmured, catching her attention. For the last morning of their hundred kilometre trek, he'd been increasingly quiet. Which was almost suspicious coming from him. While not exactly chatty, Deidara did have strong opinions on varying subjects, and he was normally curious about her responses. He was also acutely observant, and then eager to comment on the things that had intrigued him. He'd lost some of that on the mission so far.

"Are we? How can you tell?" With no map, and a rather interchangeable surrounding, Sakura was curious.

His response was nodding his chin to the sky in front of them. Between two of Earth Country's greener and more magnificent mountains, there was something obscuring the sky.

Unlike the hidden village, decidedly in the middle of a dry, rocky desert, this part of the country was climbing ever closer to a maritime climate. Literally climbing, in Sakura's opinion, as they'd been gaining altitude continuously over the entire route. It made sense, according to her general knowledge of geography, as the country's northern region was dominated by a vast coastline. It meant the land and the weather were different.

Also, there were more low hanging clouds, she noticed.

Against those clouds, as her sensei had indicated, Sakura could just see a dark haze stretching up from the crux of the two peaks. Smokestack waste, she belatedly identified. A part of her started to understand Deidara's subdued disposition.

As they passed the final curve of the mountainside, the lush and healthy plant life fouled under the plumes of Keryiat. Sakura could easily discern a break between the better protected southern mountainside and the plant life directly exposed to the mining operations.

From the road's vantage point above the city, Keryiat's urban sprawl was low and wide; a random spattering of drill towers and chutes spiked upwards above the roofs, cart lines suspended stories off the ground jumped from building to building, and chimneys belched a thick, constant stream of pollutants into the air. All of the structures were composed of random cuts of tin or exposed beams, and all of it stuck somewhere on the grey scale.

Deidara was silent as they descended into the industrial deluge.

Soon the noise of economic drive filled the void. There was the rhythm of pumps, the hum of generators and batteries, and the churning of smelters all conglomerating to create a strange chorus that sang of hard labour. Then there was the sheer amount of labour itself.

The city was packed with people: tall men, stocky women, gangly children; all of them covered in a fine layer of mining dust. Some were engineers or managers, and others clearly miners, but everyone was a part of the grey crowd filling the streets.

Sakura could not decide where to look first. There was so much noise, so much clamour and din, so many faces. Too many young faces, she thought, honing in on a throng of academy age children. They moved like little sentinels, looking to have come from a long shift with their half lidded eyes and drooping postures.

One of the girls in the line was almost Ino's twin – but three kilograms lighter. It was not nearly the satisfying physique Sakura might have thought it would be.

Startled by this revelation, she was too preoccupied to avoid bumping into one of the many people hurrying through the streets. Her canteen clattered to the ground, knocked free in the collision.

"Sorry," Sakura offered immediately, twirling around to apologise.

Not entirely sure if it was the person she had hit or not, nonetheless a worker had found the canteen and held it out for her. The woman smiled, as if unsurprised by the obvious outsider's fumblings. "Here you are."

"Oh, thank you," Sakura said, bowing respectively to the woman. When she straightened, however, the woman's smile had faded, replaced instead by a sneer.

"Some nerve," the worker said around a curled lip, huffing and turning away quickly. "Unbelievable..."

Sakura, entirely confused, shrugged and jogged to catch up to Deidara. Weird, she thought. But then, she amended, maybe it wasn't... All around her, people walking by would spot her and within a moment adapt a disgusted look.

She could have sworn someone spat very loudly at her feet just after she had passed by them. Am I imagining this?

Okay, that time she was definitely not mistaking it. Her eyes had drifted to a man seated at a food stand, and given his rather unattractive and slightly scary visage she had ducked her head somewhat as they approached where he was eating. His eyes had scanned over by chance at first, but then very obviously jerked back to glare at her. For a good three seconds she felt trapped under the stranger's scrutiny. She frowned warily as he proceeded to push his seat out from the stall and say something indiscernible to one of his buddies. At once, four very surly people had all focused their attention on her. She deepened the furrow in her brows and shrank away instinctively, glad that they would soon be behind her. As she continued to move, Sakura kept a very careful eye on the group.

Just as she was about to sigh in relief, the band of four started to follow her and Deidara. Sakura snapped her head around and swore.

"Sensei," she hissed, but her sensei ignored her, distractedly glowering around at the bleak and decrepit city. Jabbing him the arm for good measure, she tried again, "Deidara-sensei!"

He turned to her, grousing, "What, yeah?"

She swallowed heavily and whispered, "there are some people following us."

This didn't seem to faze her teacher much, but obligingly he glanced over his shoulder. He rolled his eyes when he spotted the group.

"Thieves?" he wondered aloud before halting in the middle of the street. "I'll take care of this."

Sakura gripped the straps of her bag as she hung back, for a second actually thankful for Deidara's blunt approach to everything.

His blond head barely passed some of the shoulders of the miserable people now glaring instead at Deidara. Words were exchanged, the first bit coming from her sensei, things like "problem" and "me" and "yeah".

The man who had first spied Sakura answered. He practically snarled as he spoke, wringing a pick axe he was carrying.

Then an odd thing happened.

Deidara turned back to look at Sakura, but instead of meeting her worried, curious stare, his eyes found another point above her brow. His normal cockiness was gone and his eyes were wide.

Sakura felt her chest seize uncomfortably, unused to this expression.

Her sensei turned to the miners for one last second before he was suddenly propelling right towards her. He covered ten metres before Sakura could fully register his movement. And then he was in front of her.

"What –" she attempted, cut off as Deidara pulled her fully against him. She crashed into his body, arms stuck to her side as he clamped a hold tight across her back and flew.

Almost, any how. Sakura could hardly tell that Deidara was running at all, there was just a lurching force as he pushed from the ground, and then a rush of wind surrounding them as he moved. She was crushed against him with the speed and his unwavering grasp.

They stopped on a small, somewhat obscured roof, a wave of air and kicked up particles following a second after. Sakura's face was flat against Deidara's sternum, held in place by an insistent hand at the back of her head. His heart was racing in his chest. She could hear it perfectly, aware that it matched the pace of her own.

"Shit," her sensei breathed, drawing the syllable out. "That was fucking close, yeah."

"Sensei?" The question was muffled against his chest. Their position was a little painful for her.

He released her slowly, bringing both his palms up to either side of her face. Tentatively, Sakura watched Deidara's face for some sort of explanation. But again he wasn't meeting her eyes. His arm moved, and she felt the ever present weight of her hitai-ate slip away.

"I got so used to seeing you in this." He trailed off, "I didn't even think..."

Everything clicked. Sakura slammed her palm into her forehead. "Oh, stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid." Punctuating each one with another slap.

"Of course they'd be pissed seeing a Leaf kunoichi here. They have issues enough with us Iwa nin." He swore, and again, "that was close, yeah."

"Do you think word will get around?" she asked, clutching the headband to her chest once Deidara had handed it over.

"Hmm. Pink haired Leaf nin in town? Noo, that won't be talked about."

"Ugh, fine." Sakura huffed. "Well? What do we do? Henge?"

"Do you feel like you can hold a henge for hours at a time, yeah?"

She didn't answer, instead rested a hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow. Better idea, genius?

He did have a "better" idea, as it turned out. An hour later Sakura was hovering anxiously in the middle of a broken into barracks room. Deidara had just returned from a short absence with a paper bag under his arm, smiling slyly like a cat as he slipped through the window.

The sight of one of her sensei's more normal expressions eased Sakura's trepidation, if briefly. She was immediately suspect when he all but sauntered to the single table between two bunk beds. With his back to her, she could hear some rustling and other vague noises, but was clueless to his actions.

Deidara faced her again, smile still on his lips.

Glancing at the opened box on the table behind him, Sakura drew her brows together as she tried to see what it was in the uncooperative light of the setting sun.

Pictured on the box front was a pretty, smiling model with her hair spilling over her shoulder.

"Oh no," she said, crossing her arms across her chest with recognition. "No, no, no!"

"It's no big deal, yeah." He had a little bottle in his plastic covered hands.

Sakura wasted no time diving to the window, fingers glowing with chakra, ready to bolt – sore limbs be damned. A strong hold wrapped around her middle and in a blink she found herself in the room's tiny attached bathroom.

"Relax," her sensei all but purred, too happy with his plan.

Hell no! She tried to claw herself from Deidara's grip, wriggling and twisting with mounting panic. "Wait, wait! Sensei, wait! Please?"

He directed her away from the door, out manoeuvring each of her desperate lunges. It took another moment for Deidara to get her to the sink, where Sakura was spitting and hissing as he shook the bottle of brown dye over her scalp. He stood at her back, bending her forward over the porcelain ledge as she tried to beg and scrape away from her horrible fate.

"Come on, come on!" she insisted, reaching around frantically with a free arm, searching to latch onto an escape route. Deidara had disabled her right hand in his own, and kept her lower limbs still by crushing her waist into the sink with his hips firmly pressing into her.

There was a horrible, indescribable noise as he emptied the bottle onto her head. The dye concoction was cool on her skin as it landed in her prized locks. One sustained whimper continued well into Deidara applying the rest of the colouring.

"You toad," Sakura accused weakly, giving up on running away now that the deed had started. She felt like crying. "You're a total arsehead."

"Whatever," he said, his voice low and still the tiniest bit smug. "Why don't you just relax, yeah."

Or can you not even handle this, Leaf Kunoichi, she imagined him adding.

Reluctantly, she did begin to let her haunches drop. After a while she was rather pliant, contented both by his ministrations and the unintended warmth of him standing so close. There was something enjoyable about the way he was working his hands through her hair, alternating between massaging and combing. It was firm but slow and steady.

She sighed. A little low, long.

Deidara's hands slowed and then stopped altogether as he stepped away. She had to peek an eye open at this, not too aware they'd actually drifted shut. "Sensei?"

"This needs to set. Rinse it in about twenty minutes." His purr had dissipated, she noted absently.

"Ok..." but the door was already slamming shut.


Later that evening, two people slinked through the back alleys of Keryiat. One was a disgruntled brunette girl and the other was a rather striking young man.

"I can't believe you get to wear a henge," Sakura growled. She was petting her hair, now hanging down one side of her front in a braid, and glaring at her sensei's obvious jutsu-induced visage.

She knew for a fact he would sooner croak than stain his platinum hair pitch black.

"I'm capable of maintaining it, yeah," he reminded her. The style had changed as as well, free to fall down his back instead of tied in the typical loose ponytail. His clothes, like hers, had been switched to a tailored two-piece, dark grey gi. Around their forearms and above their ankles were matching sets of black wraps.

Surprisingly, these few changes had worked effectively enough. Sakura didn't recognise herself at all.

"Toadarse," she repeated for the millionth time. After Deidara sniggered and again refused to feel anything relative to sympathy or remorse, she changed subjects. "How are your clones?"

Sakura was referring to the two Deidara had set off earlier for the outskirts of the town, one as himself and the other transformed to look as she had that morning. He was hopeful they would help detract any lingering suspicion about the two real shinobi who were about to report for the mission.

He inclined his head. "Fine, yeah." And then he groaned, worrying her, before he declared, "this would be so much better if you could, I don't know, use some ninja techniques."

Rolling in her eyes for her naivety, she took his bait. "What do you mean?"

"Using chakra for faster travel." He stopped walking to bring a hand to his chin contemplatively. Sakura backtracked to stand with him. Deidara was staring at the ground very seriously. Then, aloud, "I could teach you now, yeah."

Sakura looked around and took note of the lopsided, erratic architecture around them. Split levels, oddly hanging rooms, rickety fire escapes, random piles of unused materials, abandoned scaffolding, discontinued cart tracks, lines and lines of leaking pipes, shards of snapped metal and broken glass. Randomly nailed everywhere were hazard signs.

"All right," she agreed, lifting her shoulders. Both people present, though neither mentioning it, knew that Sakura had already nearly taught herself how utilise chakra in such a way.

He explained what else he could. "It's not just about leaping over a ledge onto your feet, you've got to gauge distance and quickly understand your environment. There'll be obstacles and tight spaces, yeah. And sometimes you'll have to use your hands to swing or vault. You'll need to think about what can support your weight, and for how long. Or how your angle of impact could screw you if you're not careful, yeah. And the faster you go, the harder all of that becomes."

Maybe too soon, after all. She swallowed thickly.


Her sensei didn't leave her a choice; he was gone before she could shake her head 'no'. "Ugh! Y-you jerk!"

It was a nasty habit how he always took off so readily, simply assuming she would somehow scrape after him.

Several minutes later she landed on the balustrade of Keryiat's most distinguished building, elbows knocked, hair dishevelled, and lungs screaming for air. Too winded to care, Sakura rolled, perhaps collapsed, forward to land sprawled on the seventh floor balcony.

Deidara's face, curtained by ebony hair, blocked her view of the ceiling.

"Could have done better on the finish, yeah," he teased, offering a hand. Sakura exhaled heavily and gathered herself before graciously accepting it.

"I might have also broken one or two things," she mumbled sheepishly, thinking back to the roof she'd accidentally slammed a foot through.

"Think they'll notice?" was his sly response. Sakura shared in it. She was glad to see her sensei had come back to himself a little. He tagged on, "now for Mr. Tootsi."

"Tsuji. Tsuji Jomu." The name of their client, she recited.

Deidara waved his hand absently. "Same difference."

"'Tsuji-san' is fine."

Sakura started at the sudden arrival of a third person. Standing just beyond where she and her teacher were huddled was a man. He was middle aged and dressed well, with a stern but not altogether unappealing face. He was also their client, further reflected in how he managed to avoid the grey coat of dirt everyone else in the area wore.

Deidara looked nonplussed, making Sakura wonder if he had timed saying the name incorrectly with the man's arrival.

"Reporting from Iwagakure," her sensei said, flat tone back in place.

"Tsuji-san." Sakura bowed in greeting, trying to recover from Deidara's rude address.

"Hn," Tsuji returned. He walked to an open door and directed, "my office."

He disappeared inside, leaving the student and teacher to trail behind. Deidara scoffed and mouthed a choice word for their client. Sakura was tempted to agree but hid it better.

The room was the nicest thing she had so far seen in Keryiat. It was modern and comfortable, very clean. Behind the large desk, each stationed in either corner, were two hulking masses of muscle. No one acknowledged the hired guns.

Tsuji sat down in a very plush chair and brought together his fingers as he considered both Deidara and Sakura. He decided to address the former.

For the first few minutes they talked, the conversation was one-sided. Tsuji went on about manufacturing and production, how the mining and refinery business was one way of strengthening both Earth and its hidden village, and how important it was to maintain good revenue.

Sakura was not exactly sure how this was related to their job until finally Tsuji became quiet. He moved to slide a single manilla file across the polished wood of his desk, letting it rest in front of her sensei.

"I'm sure you'll find nothing disagreeable," he said.

Deidara hadn't inched once during the whole speech. Very slowly, he reached to retrieve what she guessed was their check list. What did it include? She hadn't seen any fencing or guard towers, or anything that resembled security aside from the two silent figures in the office.

Tsuji said, catching her attention, "you could not have arrived sooner, Shinobi-san. Two foreign ninja were seen in the streets today. Walking around casually, if you could imagine."

Her sensei feigned some reaction at this, assuring he would deal with that problem first. More words were exchanged, none of which she contributed, and then they were dismissed, given a week to carry out the job.

"Sensei," Sakura tried once they had returned to the balcony, but her teacher said nothing before taking off into the shadowy city. It was difficult following him without the tell tale glare of his normally blond head. Over rooftops and between elevated tracks, she would only catch a glimpse of his shadow from a dull light here and there. She eventually became aware that they weren't going back to where they'd rented a room earlier. Frustrated after crossing a rather long and shabbily tiled roof, only for Deidara's silhouette to disappear again over its edge, she called out, "this isn't funny any more, Sensei!"

She peaked over the edge into a poorly lit alley that was intermittently obscured by rising puffs of smelly steam. There was an outline of an old run of scaffolding about a story down. Rolling her eyes, she dropped to it, disappointed when she landed more heavily and loudly than she would have liked. An inappropriate word slipped through her lips, just before a hand clamped over them.

Immediately, Sakura was struggling and snarling, but then a familiar voice whispered to her to "quit barking, yeah."

The hold was withdrawn. She seethed, as quietly as could, "a little warning next time!"

There was an unamused response, then a signal for her to stay silent and to follow closely. The scaffolding they were on ran along the side of the extra long building, parallel to a line of filthy, near opaque windows. There was a lot of noise coming from inside, and after straining to see why, Sakura realised they were looking into another large barracks. There were lines beds and swarms of people hurrying between them. Some mattresses were already occupied.

"What are we doing here," she asked, not bothering to whisper any more. She really doubted anyone would be able to hear them.

Deidara kept his eyes on the people below them, a crease between his eyebrows. "These are our targets. They're the security risk."