Caught You on the Flip Side

By: firefly

Note: Sorry for the long wait, guys. A lot of you messaged me regarding the fic, and I thank you for your patience and support. :) Thank you also for your reviews. I say this every time but I really can't explain just how much they mean to me. You guys are awesome.

So, here's chapter four, obscenely long and overdue as usual. It was both parts extremely fun and extremely challenging to write, so I hope you enjoy it. :) And remember, reviews are always love!


Two billion years ago, we're bare soul matter, resonating in tune with starbursts and supernovas.

We've had a good run, and we're making time for one final cycle around our dying sun.

We aren't afraid. We know our reunion will be another three billion years in the making, and that when and if we meet again, we probably won't remember each other.

But we're okay with it, because no matter how we manifest—with set convictions or souls warped by time and circumstance—we make a promise that we'll somehow meet. And somehow know.

Because every bit of you resonates in me. And I resonate in you.

And as we burst apart and hurtle into oblivion, the humour in what you say, and the profound sense of peace that fills me afterwards stay with me every step of the million light-years that spread between us.

Until then,

Catch you on the flip side.


Caught You on the Flip Side ch.4

Lead scratched aimlessly over paper, the lines dipping and curving in the hope of spontaneously taking shape. When the page ran out of room and he found himself gazing down at yet another scribble, he scrunched it into a ball and tossed it over his shoulder.

It was with droll sentiment he pictured a cliché trashcan overflowing with discarded drawings.

Grabbing yet another piece of paper, he leaned over his drawing board and started in the centre, well aware it would lead him nowhere. He wasn't alone in his frustration, though, as another ball of paper sailed over his head and the silence was broken by a gusty sigh.

Deidara raised his head.

Ino sat at another table a few feet in front of him. She was bent over her textbook, her left hand fisted into her hair.

She was here most Tuesday afternoons, having no classes or part-time work, and he'd grown used to her company during his brainstorming sessions. If there was one thing he respected about her, it was that she took her work just as seriously as he did and knew when it was time to sit down and focus.

Although now she seemed to be having a little trouble with that.

Rising, he grabbed his stool and carried it over to her table, taking a seat next to her and sliding the textbook over to his side. A molecular model kit lay scattered over the surface.

Deidara glanced over the problem in the book, taking a moment to refresh his memory before he started connecting the pieces. Ino watched in silence, visibly impressed when he finished the model representation of 4-hydroxynonenal and handed it to her.

"Wow." She turned the structure in her hands. "Remind me again why you didn't become a chemist?"

"Too many rules," he replied, flipping through the textbook. "No freedom of expression, un."

She raised an eyebrow. "Freedom of expression?"

He smirked. "Can't experiment with explosives unless you're working for the military, and you know how anal they are. Not enough exposure in that line of work."

He flipped one more page and pointed at another problem in the book. "Try that one."

Ino bit her lip and took the pencil, attempting the solution in her notebook. When she finished, he looked it over and pushed the molecular model kit over to her.

"Ugh," she groaned, picking up the plastic pieces. "This sucks. I thought I'd be done with organic chemistry in my undergrad."

"It's not that hard," he said with an air of superiority. Grinning at her disgruntled look, he indicated the placement of a double bond, "That doesn't go there, un."

Before she could throw it at him, he reached out and took it from her, moving to put it in the right place. Her fingers suddenly encircled his wrist, turning his hand so the palm faced outward.

Deidara looked at her questioningly when she canted her head and squinted at the faint outline of his tattoo. "I always meant to ask about this. Why mouths?"

He didn't reply right away, instead glancing down at his other hand and taking note of how faded the tattoo had become. It had been a long time since he'd given them any consideration and felt like a hypocrite at the thought of telling her what they meant.

But she was waiting for an answer, so he spoke.

"I had to take a philosophy class in university. I hated it, thought it was total bullshit, so I was failing." He paused. "But then we started learning about empiricism...and the theory that sensory perception is imperative to the formation of an idea."

He gestured to the incomplete clay figures nearby.

"Your eyes can trick you. You could make a pile of crap, look at it, and fool yourself into thinking people will like it. But if you conceive it with more than your eyes...use all your senses...put all of you into creating it and perceiving it..." he trailed off, looking down at the tattoo before closing his fist. "They were just reminders not to do anything half-assed."

Ino peered at him thoughtfully. "...they've almost disappeared."

"Yeah." He returned his attention to her textbook. "I know."

They were silent for a moment. Then Ino suddenly slammed her textbook shut and stood up, stretching her arms over her head. "I need a break. Let's go for a walk."

"You go ahead," he said, getting up to head back to his drawing board. "I need to—"

She blocked his way. "No, what you need is some fresh air and time to clear your head. Come with me."

He opened his mouth to argue, then realized it was pointless. Part of the reason he'd stopped to help her out with her chemistry homework in the first place was because he knew he was going nowhere with his own work. Granted, things had been a lot easier since he no longer had the burden of his old art weighing on his mind, but he'd been on a working streak for two months straight since then and knew he was close to burning himself out.

"Fine," he relented. "Where are we going?"

"How about the park?" she suggested, leading him out of the basement. He followed in silence, digging his coat and boots out of the closet and casting a glance back at the calendar on the kitchen wall.

December 21st.

Taking a deep breath, he turned away from it and followed her out into the blustery afternoon. The sky was pale gray and a cold wind rattled the surrounding power lines and tree branches. Leaves left over from fall crunched underfoot, the sidewalks stained white from winter salt. The last snow had long since melted, leaving the roads looking parched and cracked. He shivered, burying his face into the collar of his coat as Ino chatted animatedly along the way.

"Did you get a suit yet?"

"For what?"

"The wedding, Dei. It's in ten days, you know."

He grimaced. "I'll get around to it."

The wedding was another thing. The last two months had been his most productive out of the entire year, and he was loathe to waste even one night while he still had the capability to sit down and produce decent work. Ino, on the other hand, had been practically giddy with excitement over the whole thing. His lack of enthusiasm must have been killing her, he thought with faint amusement.

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye as she continued chattering, a faint smile spreading beneath his collar.

Jei had called him the night after Halloween to give him the bad news, sounding utterly lifeless. If the man harboured any suspicions regarding Deidara's involvement in the fire, he didn't show it. He was plenty consoled by the thought of the insurance money he'd receive in the auction's stead. That, and he seemed wary of setting Deidara off again and jeopardizing his investment in the artist's future works.

Ino had become a regular constant in his life since then, spending more time at his house than she did her own. Staying the night wasn't a big deal anymore, mainly for the regrettable reason that she'd assured her parents—a tad too convincingly—that he was a close, trustworthy, gay friend. He hadn't taken too kindly to that, but he'd gotten over it once he saw the changes her presence was inspiring in his life.

A portion of the weekends became dedicated to making his house a home, since she'd finally put her foot down and demanded that he unpack the boxes crowding his house. His living room actually resembled one now and he was surprised at the amount of sunlight flooding his house once they'd scoured the dust from the window panes. The kitchen was capable of cooking in again, the hallways free to walk in without the risk of being crushed by boxes.

His fridge actually had food in it—of the organic and unprocessed variety, of course, and he no longer felt surprised by the row of vitamins that awaited him on the kitchen counter every morning.

It perplexed him, still, why she dedicated so much time to ensuring his well-being, when he'd made it clear he didn't care what happened to him so long as he finished his artwork on time. He had the decency to feel a twinge of guilt when he lied about getting the right hours of sleep, or when he disappeared into the basement washroom to take his painkillers when she wasn't looking. The feeling didn't last long, though, when he saw the fruits of his labour.

He'd pretty much completed five of the six pieces due in February. The only thing remaining was the centerpiece for the collection. He'd amassed a pile of sketches speculating what it would be, but nothing had stood out to him as of yet.

Ino turned left in front of him suddenly, circling around the black gate leading into the park. Started from his reverie, he moved to follow, finding the place mostly deserted. She took a seat on one of the swings, gesturing invitingly to the empty one next to her.

He shook his head, finding a nearby bench instead. The atmosphere was quiet and serene, both settling into a comfortable silence. The squeak of swing chains was the only sound echoing in the vicinity, and it, too, faded into the background as he leaned back and let his mind drift.

It was with both trepidation and amusement he imagined the reception and the reactions of Sasori and the rest of them to meeting Ino. Receptions had never really been his thing, and he would've considered skipping if Pain hadn't done him a favour. That, and he owed Ino a fancy dinner. He supposed having her with him would make the event somewhat bearable, even if he was sure he'd spend the night pining over his workshop.

He was distracted when Ino's voice cut through his thoughts.

"Hey, look at that..."

Hearing the marvel in her voice, he followed her gaze to see the grey sky overhead turn black with a massive outpour of starlings.

The park darkened as though the sun had gone down, enveloped in the shadows of a thousand birds as they weaved and careened in perfect sync, forming an ever-changing, undulating shape that resembled a different life form altogether. He stared, transfixed by the sheer size of the flock and its uncanny ability to fly in perfect formation without a single starling straying from place.

They hovered above the park for a few more seconds, forming a spiral shape that tapered off into a perfect point, before the entire shape seemed to collapse in on itself and they soared by in a black blur, disappearing into the tree tops at the end of the street.

Deidara stared after them, a strange stillness descending upon him. His breath hitched, a lump rising in his throat.

That was it.

The immense feeling that washed over him then, suddenly and violently, sparked an electric, prickling sensation over every inch of his body. He stood, breath shortening when he realized in a burst of euphoria what he was experiencing.

Pure, unfettered, inspiration.

He continued to stand there, allowing himself to bask in the long-forgotten sensation until he was struck with the need to capture the vision taking shape in his mind.

Paper, he realized suddenly. I need paper.

He jammed his hands into his coat pockets, searching them. When they yielded nothing, he tore it off and searched his jeans, managing to retrieve an old drugstore receipt and a nub of a pencil from his back pocket. Without wasting a second, he dropped to his knees beside the bench to use the seat as a drawing board.

His fingers quickly grew numb in the cold but he didn't feel it, eyes focused intently on the complex arcs and curves taking shape on the paper. Simultaneously, ideas of the size, scope, and structure flashed in the back of his mind, the entire piece conceived in its completion before he even finished drawing it down.

Once he finished, he could only stare at it, an onslaught of familiar, giddy excitement crashing down on him. Oblivious to the cold, he jammed the paper back into his pocket and got to his feet.

Ino was still gazing skyward when he whipped around to look at her.

"I have to go."

She blinked and lowered her eyes, stilling when she took in the sight of him.

His coat lay discarded on the ground and he stood breathless, face flushed and eyes bright. But it was the sight of the radiant, boundless smile spreading over his face that made her stop in shock.

"Deidara," she said, actually alarmed. "Are you okay?"

"I need to go," he repeated, already backing away.

The resurfacing of this sudden, unknown side of him rendered her speechless, and before she could react, he turned around and began running back the way they'd come.

That was enough to startle her into movement. "Dei—your jacket!"

She swiped it off the ground and took off after him. He didn't slow down once, practically bursting into the house when he got there and bounding down the basement steps two at a time. Ino arrived soon after, closing the door he'd left hanging open and following him into the basement.

He was dragging new boxes of clay over to his work station, oblivious to everything around him as he sat on his stool and leaned forward to open the box. These instances were the rarest, when inspiration struck so deep and sound that he could mould straight from the box without any preliminary sketches.

Ino stood behind him, astonished by the enthusiasm and manic energy that seemed to have taken hold of him. It was easy to see that he'd forgotten about her, especially when he turned around a minute later to grab his tools and blinked at the sight of her standing there.

"I've finally got it," he said by way of explanation. "I need to work now, un."

"Okay," she replied, unable to resist smiling at his verve as she moved to gather her things. "But you're going to take a break at some point, right?"

He returned his attention to the clay and didn't reply.

Ino dropped her books into her bag, brow furrowing. "Promise me you'll take a break. I don't want to have to come back and find you passed out in a pile of putty."

"I'll take a break when I feel like it," he said impatiently, opening the box up. "Just go. I need to work."

"I don't know if I can trust you."

Deidara felt a twitch start in his eye. "Ino, you need to leave. I can't work with people hanging over me."

She stopped dead.

"Hanging over you?" she repeated, outraged. "Here I am, stressing over your well-being, and you tell me I'm hanging over you like a big, stinky—"

"I never said that," he said, exasperated. "Just go."

"Deidara—"

He smacked his forehead and spun around. "Damn it, Ino!"

They glared at each other. Ino hefted her bag onto her shoulder and crossed her arms.

"You can't make me."

He blinked. "What?"

With measured deliberation, she sat down at the edge of a table and crossed one leg over the other. "I am not leaving until you promise you'll take a break." She spared him a contemptuous look. "And you can't make me."

He suddenly kicked the box of clay aside and stood up. Ino blinked, her resolute expression wavering when he started towards her. She tended to forget. Even if he had the effeminate features and artsy occupation, he was still a man, and consequently much stronger and brasher than she gave him credit for.

She emitted a shriek that Deidara had braced himself for when he grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder, but he still winced and took quick strides towards the door as she kicked wildly and screamed at him to put her down.

He dropped her unceremoniously over the threshold and slammed the door shut, grabbing a nearby chair to wedge between the floor and the doorknob.

"Go home!" he shouted through the door.

Then he strode over to his industrial-strength clay mixer and turned it on full power to drown out her yelling.

After that, the remainder of the day and most of the night passed in a blur. He worked in a trance, oblivious to hunger and the exhaustion seeping into his muscles, only getting up to retrieve the chair he'd jammed the door with to serve as a makeshift support for the sculpture.

At 6 AM, he reached a point of complete memory loss, unsure what transpired in the gap between him etching out the tail feathers of a starling and finding himself stumbling drunkenly to his feet with Ino's arm around his shoulders.

"Get up, you ass. You're going to bed."

When he turned his head in the direction of the bedroom in the basement, she hauled him towards the stairs.

"No way. You can't be trusted."

He might have mumbled something in return, but was half asleep by the time she managed to get him up the stairs and into the hallway. He vaguely recalled her dumping him on his bed and then immediately passing out.

Twelve hours later, he woke in the exact same position she'd left him. He turned his head towards his bedside clock. It was six in the evening. Feeling incredibly stiff, he lifted his head and stopped short at the sight of Ino at his closet, rifling through his clothes.

His forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Ino, what the hell're you doing?"

"Finally awake?" she said, ignoring his question. "Took you long enough."

A look at her clothes told him she must've just returned from her part-time job. It was with slight chagrin that he realized she also must've dropped by his house earlier that morning to check on him, and then had to drag him to bed.

She didn't seem to be holding a grudge about it, though, turning around to show the suit cover she held against her chest. She grinned. "Guess who did your shopping."

Deidara rubbed his head. "For what?"

"Are you serious? For the wedding!"

Realization dawned on him as he looked at the suit cover. Then he squinted up at her in confusion. "How did you...?"

Ino only smirked and reached into her back pocket, withdrawing something and throwing it into his lap. He fumbled for it, blanching when he realized what it was.

"The suit was 600 dollars," she said simply. "I put it on your credit card."

He dropped it in shock. "You did what?"

"Jeez, you could at least act a little more grateful."

"How the hell did you get my PIN number?"

"I asked you," she said with a touch of irony. "You were so out of it last night you gave it to me."

Taking advantage of his stunned silence, she unzipped the cover and presented the tux with a flourish. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Deidara stared at it without actually taking any of it in. This was too much information to digest first thing in the morning. Or evening, for that matter.

"How do you know that'll even fit me?" he said in disbelief.

"Oh," she turned carelessly back to the closet. "I took your measurements while you were asleep."

He gaped, appalled at her audacity and the fact that he hadn't woken up when she'd done it. She didn't give him a chance to speak, sighing and shaking her head.

"Speaking of clothes—"

She yanked out a t-shirt in disgust and held it up for him to see.

"What is this?" she demanded. "Eddie's Trucking Company? Is your name Eddie? Do you own a truck?"

Deidara slowly closed his eyes and fell sideways onto the bed.

"No? Then this is trash."

She threw the shirt on the floor and proceeded to decimate the rest of his closet.

"Come on, Deidara. You're an artist. That doesn't mean you have to dress like a dirty hipster. You just need a few simple shirts in solid colours that don't look twenty years old. And some new jeans. And pants. Ugh, you're so going shopping with me after the wedding..."

Deidara grabbed one of his spare pillows and clamped it over his head.

December 31st couldn't come fast enough.


Nine days later, Deidara found himself eating his words when Ino hauled an entire suitcase full of her stuff into the house and into one of the spare bedrooms upstairs. When he'd asked, she'd looked at him as if he was insane.

"You haven't been to many receptions, have you?"

"No, but I know you don't need a whole freakin' suitcase to go to one, un."

"You're a guy, so I don't expect you to understand. A lot of work goes into looking this good."

He gave up and left it at that, returning his attention to his fledgling masterpiece, only to notice that Ino was still standing behind him and had fallen silent.

"What?"

"Nothing," she murmured, bending closer to one of the starlings he'd adhered to the wire frame. "You just...did a really good job."

He turned back to it, hiding his obvious pleasure. "You haven't seen anything yet."

"Oh, I believe that. I'm just wondering if you'll be able to tear yourself away long enough for the reception tomorrow."

Reality smacked him upside the head and he grimaced, holding one of the starlings to his chest.

"Stop being such a hermit!" she exclaimed, noticing his reluctance. "One night away from the house won't kill you. Besides..." her voice took on a note of slight concern. "If you don't take a break, you're going to burn yourself out."

He clenched his jaw, setting the clay bird back on its frame. "I'm going, un. It's not like I have a choice."

The surliness faded from his features when she leaned down and kissed his temple. "I appreciate it."

Still, just to spite her, he stayed in the basement for the remainder of the night, working late into the morning and finally dragging himself to bed at some godforsaken hour. He woke around four o'clock in the afternoon, and only because Ino hit him over the head with a pillow.

"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" she sighed when he sat up, sparing a lazy glance at the clock. "You only have two and a half hours to get ready."

"Like I need more than that," he muttered, getting up and trudging past her. "I'll be done before you."

"Ha, here's hoping." As an afterthought, she called after him, "And before you ask, I left your suit in your room!"

"Yeah, yeah..."

He left for the shower, taking his sweet time getting ready. Forcing himself to do it was like working against gravity, his mind and body constantly leaning towards the unfinished masterpiece sitting in his basement. He felt half-tempted to fake a sudden illness, but knowing Ino's probable reaction, decided he liked his head where it was and got dressed.

The only full-length mirror in the house was affixed to the wall between the living and dining room. With grim expectation, he trudged back downstairs, taking a moment to steel himself before stepping out in front of it.

Taking in his reflection, he was unnerved to notice that the suit fit like a glove, prompting him to wonder at Ino's prodigious measuring skills. It was a modern cut, sleek and single-breasted, in all black save for the silken tie; that was a deep scarlet.

He reached up to adjust it, feeling strangely out of place in something so formal, until he heard someone clearing their throat behind him.

"Well, well..."

Deidara dropped his hands and turned. Ino stood in the foyer, a Cheshire-like grin playing on her lips as she looked him up and down. "Hello nurse."

Embarrassed and caught off guard, he rolled his eyes and turned back to the mirror. "Shut up."

"Who's a genius?" she asked, flouncing up next to him and picking an invisible piece of lint off his jacket. "I have excellent taste, don't I?"

"Expensive taste, sure," he retorted, grinning a little at her mock scowl. "Did you use up all your genius on me or did you save any for yourself?"

He aimed a pointed look at her buttoned up wool jacket.

The self-satisfied grin returned in a heartbeat and she stepped back with her hands on her hips.

"Well, I wouldn't want to steal your thunder..."

"But you're going to do it anyway," he said, leaning against the wall. "Let's see it."

He didn't have to ask her twice. With a flourish, she whipped off the jacket and tossed it onto the couch, completing the gesture with a twirl to show off her dress. The only sound in the room that followed was the gentle rustle of black tulle swishing on red taffeta, and for an unbearably long moment, she stood waiting as he stared at her.

"So?" she prompted eventually. "How do I look?"

The dress was a deep red, embellished with black floral embroidery, strapless and knee length with the skirt flaring out at the waist. There were a million things he could have said, none of which he could actually say out loud because it would only give her the incentive to milk the compliment for all it was worth. Not to mention he'd been on the receiving end of her teasing long enough.

So he remained silent and adopted a thoughtful expression, approaching her from the side. Ino regarded him quizzically as he crossed his arms and circled her, examining the dress from all angles. After a while, he took a step back and nodded.

"It's nice."

"Nice?" she echoed, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah."

"...that's it?"

He nodded. "We better go before we're late."

She mouthed wordlessly in shock as he turned away and strode over to the closet to get his coat. Stifling a snicker, he watched her examine herself in the mirror, resuming his expression of blank indifference when she glanced back over her shoulder at him.

A few minutes later, he was standing at the door, ready to depart for the taxi waiting outside. When he looked back into the den, Ino was still standing in front of the mirror.

"Ino, the taxi's here, un."

She suddenly whirled to face him.

"Maybe I should go change," she blurted, looking panicked. "Maybe I should—"

She didn't let herself finish, scrambling into the foyer and towards the stairs when he reached out and grabbed her arm.

"Are you crazy? We have to go."

"But I look—" she gestured to herself, at a loss for words. "You said I look—"

He raised an eyebrow. "Nice?"

She grimaced as if he'd uttered a curse word. At her reaction, he couldn't stop himself laughing and pulled her off the steps and back onto the floor.

At her confusion, he decided he'd gotten his share of retribution for the time being and gave her a wry smirk.

"It was a joke, un."

At her surprised silence, he cocked his head at her, voice blunt.

"Do you really need me to tell you that you look beautiful?"

Her eyes widened before narrowing again in suspicion. "Are you joking again?"

He regarded her contemplatively. Then, taking a leaf out of her book, dropped the teasing tone and stepped closer till he was looking her straight in the eyes.

"No."

It must have been the plain honesty in his voice, rather than the actual compliment, that resulted in the wholly unexpected blush that crept into her cheeks. He looked just as surprised by it as she did and retreated to open the door.

"Don't forget your jacket."

She grabbed it in a hurry, sparing him a smile before stepping out into the cold winter air. He shut the door and locked it, hunching his shoulders against the chill and jogging after her to the cab. Upon entering, he slipped the directions to the driver and settled in next to her, the bulk of her dress, jacket, and his coat crowding the backseat. It was a snug fit, and after a while he glanced over at her.

She was checking her reflection in a compact, putting it away when she noticed him watching.

Deidara made an amused snort, raising his gaze to the ceiling. "You really care that much what others think of you?"

"No," she sniffed, sticking her tongue out at him. He lowered his eyes to look at her again when she sank into the seat, mumbling. "Just you, for some dumb reason."


They reached the hotel half an hour later, rushing for the door to the venue when Deidara realized they were ten minutes late—only to enter and find many of the reception guests still loitering in the lobby outside the banquet room.

Ino clasped her hands together, elated by the sight of such refined company and the beautiful array of florals decking the hall, whereas Deidara grimaced at the thought of making the rounds to greet Pain's acquaintances.

He was spared, temporarily, when an unimpressed voice cut through the clamour.

"We were wondering if you'd show, Deidara."

He turned at the sound of his name. Looking vaguely irritated, Sasori nodded curtly as a way of greeting before looking impatiently out the window.

"So like Pain to be fashionably late to his own wedding reception."

"They're not here yet?" Deidara questioned, surprised.

Sasori opened his mouth to reply, only to cut himself short and smirk faintly when he saw the group approaching. "Ah, here they come."

"What the fuck, Sasori? I told you to help me move the damn chairs in the lobby!"

"I am not a janitor," Sasori said flatly. "And control yourself, Hidan. We're at a wedding."

Hidan opened his mouth to reply, only to have Kisame thrust a hand between him and Sasori to shake Deidara's hand.

"It's been a while," he said, genuinely pleased to see him. "You're looking a little livelier than last time." He paused, a knowing smile spreading over his face. "Finally out of your rut?"

Deidara managed a self-deprecating grin. "Something like that, un."

"What the hell took you so long, Deidara-chan?" Hidan suddenly questioned, sounding even more irritated than Sasori.

"Ignore him," Kakuzu cut in, paying no attention to Hidan's glare. "He's just uptight because Konan made him wear a shirt."

"Screw all of you," he grumbled when the others snorted in laughter. "And where's Itachi?"

"Attending to the phone," Zetsu replied, directly behind him.

There was another round of laughter when the priest jumped and backed sullenly away into the corner. Deidara knew exactly what the green-haired man was thinking when he reached out to shake his hand.

"I heard your mission was a success."

"Yeah," Deidara admitted, unable to resist the pride welling up inside him. "Piece of cake, un."

"I seem to recall your lady friend saying those exact words," he grinned. "Where is she, by the way?"

Deidara's eyes widened in realization. Turning, he blinked when he found the space behind him empty, and looked around the lobby until he noticed her conversing animatedly with the florist by the venue entrance.

Zetsu followed his gaze. "We never had a proper introduction."

Deidara hesitated, wondering how a meet and greet with the rest of the group would pan out, but then realized they'd have to meet at some point during the night, anyway. He left the group by the window, weaving his way through the crowd to reach her.

"I never thought stephanotis would compliment calla lilies so well," he heard her gush. "It looks gorgeous. You did an amazing job—"

Realizing he'd be standing there forever if he waited for her finish, he coughed to get her attention. "Ino."

The blushing florist noticed him and timidly bid her goodbye, leaving to attend to the flowers again as Ino glanced over her shoulder.

"Oh, did I ditch you? Sorry, the flowers were just—"

"It's fine," he said, ushering her back to the group. "There's some people wanting to meet you."

Ino looked tickled pink by the idea, about to ask who when he stopped by a group of intimidating-looking men standing by the window.

Her silence made him wonder if she found the prospect daunting. But then Ino took one look at Zetsu and stilled. Their gazes met for a second, and then she strode right up to him and clasped him in a hug. Hidan's jaw dropped and Kisame stared, surprised, as Zetsu's pale face gradually tinged pink. He hesitantly patted her on the back.

Ino pulled away, beaming. "I remember you! Zetsu, right? Deidara didn't tell me you'd be here."

"Oh, well," he managed to say, finding his composure again. "I'm more of a distant acquaintance."

She pursed her lips. "Don't be so modest. You really helped us out last time."

Deidara coughed again when the comment garnered a few curious looks.

Getting the hint, Ino finished with a gracious smile. "Thanks."

Zetsu nodded, still dazed by the greeting as he moved aside to let Deidara introduce her.

She looked completely at ease in their midst and waited expectantly as Deidara gestured between her and the group. "Ino, these are all..." he floundered for the right words. "Uh, mutual friends from university."

"Nice to meet you," Kisame said first, extending a hand. She took it without hesitation, oblivious to the strange look he gave her.

"Have we met?"

"I don't think so," Ino replied, cocking her head at him. "Why do you ask?"

He smiled in a bemused way. "You look familiar."

Hidan butted in. "You related to Deidara-chan or something?"

She laughed. "No."

"Oh." His eyes widened and he shot a visibly impressed look over at the blond. "So you're his girlfr—"

"Hidan, at least try to be tactful," Kakuzu interrupted. He took her hand, courteously formal. "Kakuzu."

"Wow." Ino blinked in awe. "You have really nice eyes."

Taken aback, Kakuzu tightened his jaw at Hidan's snort of laughter but managed a stiff thank you nonetheless.

"Save the rest of the introductions for later," Sasori said suddenly, looking out the window. "They're here."

The harried wedding planner burst into the lobby and wasted no time in ushering them into the banquet hall to make room for the bride and groom's entrance. Upon entering the room, it was difficult not to stop dead and block the rest of the entourage coming in from behind them.

"Damn," Hidan said blankly.

For once, they had to agree with his sentiment.

The room was a phantasmagorical display of flowers and crystal, lit a pale, tranquil blue from filtered lights. A month's salary worth of flowers served as a centerpiece for each table, and they didn't have to touch the linens to know they weren't anything less than silk.

Even Sasori, Deidara noticed, notorious critic of everything in the universe, eyed the decorations with approval. They found a table a minute later, sitting just in time for Konan and Pain to step through the door. The room erupted in cheers and applause as the two joined hands and made their way down the carpet, smiling and waving to the guests.

"That's Konan?" Ino questioned, voicing exactly what everyone at the table was thinking. "She's a knockout."

The blue-haired woman was breathtaking in her sleek, sheath gown, hair done up in a French twist and accented with a perfect cluster of stephanotis. Pain was almost unrecognizable without his piercings, appearing almost normal in his tuxedo save for his wild red hair.

Besides Ino, Deidara and everyone else at the table were visibly taken aback to see their one-time boss smiling like that.

"You're shitting me," Hidan said, rubbing his eyes. "Is that seriously Pain?"

"Of course," Kisame said. "He just looks...happy."

An imperceptible shiver ran through the group at the thought.

The new bride and groom took their seats at the head of the room, immediately striking a jubilant atmosphere as guests took turns walking up to congratulate them.

Deciding he'd make his greeting rounds later, Deidara leaned back into his seat, taking note of the occupants at the table.

Ino, Zetsu, Kisame, Kakuzu, Hidan, and Sasori. There was one vacant spot and his eye twitched at the thought of its owner. He was distracted though, when Ino leaned across the table and extended her hand to Sasori.

"I didn't get a chance to introduce myself in the lobby. I'm Ino."

Deidara furtively glanced at Sasori, who gave her an assessing stare and slowly reached out to grip her hand.

"Sasori."

There was a reason his red-haired colleague was known as an introverted loner in the art world, and why even Jei didn't dare test him. Sasori had all the patience of a wasp and a serrated tongue to match, and wasn't at all afraid to show his disinterest in idle chatter.

It was fortunate, then, that Ino somehow managed to choose the exact topic that would hold his attention for more than ten seconds.

"You did Perpetual Motion, right?" she said, smiling at the slight surprise registering in his eyes. "It was one of my favourite pieces at the gallery."

Deidara kept his own surprise to himself, realizing she must've seen it the day they'd run into each other. The piece had caused a stir when it had first debut, for being of interest to both the science world as well as the art. Sasori had constructed an abstract representation of time out of spiralled tungsten, a feat in itself considering the metal's durability. The amazing part, though, had been the metal sphere he'd gotten to spin constantly within the curving spirals, without stopping even once.

There were speculations of magnets being involved and other things along those lines, but Sasori chose to keep the actual truth secret and keep the public guessing. It also happened to be one of Deidara's own personal favourites, if only for its ingenuity. Though he'd never tell the red-haired artist that.

Sasori didn't dither in responding to Ino's compliment, reacting with his typical modest grace.

"You have excellent taste."

Ino smiled pointedly at Deidara. "Thank you."

Sasori noticed, allowing himself a haughty smirk. "Don't look to him for anything regarding artistic merit."

Used to the jibes, Deidara only smirked back. "I can't blame you for your narrow-minded perspective, un. You're practically a dinosaur in the modern art world."

Ino stifled a laugh and Deidara grinned at the contemptuous look Sasori gave him.

"How tragic," he intoned, leaning back in his seat. "That such promising minds should fall into your company."

Ino laughed. "No need to pity me." A teasing note crept into her voice as she leaned into Deidara's side and looked adoringly up at him through her lashes, "I've enjoyed it so far."

In hindsight, he wondered what kind of expression must have crossed his face to make Hidan choke on his drink and make even Sasori chuckle. Ino pulled away and joined in the laughter as if it was nothing, oblivious to the half-hearted scowl he aimed her way.

He was spared any further ridicule when the servers began making their rounds with the appetizers, followed shortly by dinner. Ino struck up a conversation with Sasori again, leading Deidara to wonder what they could possibly be discussing when they headed out of the hall to retrieve her compact from her coat pocket.

It had only been an hour and he was already bored. Idle conversation was okay for a little while, but there wasn't much for him to talk about, anyway. His mind kept returning to the unfinished centerpiece he'd left in his basement, impatience gnawing at him as he glanced apathetically around the room.

It was only when Kisame addressed him directly did he lift his head from the chair's backrest.

"So, where do I know her from?"

Deidara stared at him, bewildered, until he glanced around the table and noticed Hidan, Zetsu, and Kakuzu were also listening. He briefly wondered if they'd goaded Kisame into asking, knowing the question had been inevitable. Hauling himself forward to rest his arms on the table, he scratched his head, voice dropping into a mutter.

"She's the girl from the club you took me to last year."

Kisame was silent, uncomprehending, but then his eyes widened and his face split into a grin. "You sneaky bastard, then you did go talk to her!"

"No. She came and talked to me." He paused, wondering how to explain the bizarre happenings of the night. "It's a long story, un."

"I didn't think you had time for a relationship."

"That's because we're not in a relationship."

"Then you two are going casual—"

"No," Deidara interrupted impatiently. "We're just friends."

He wasn't surprised to see all four of them looking sceptical.

"You're telling me," Kisame began slowly, "that you hit it off with a beautiful girl in a club, been buddies with her ever since, and just decided to bring her along to Pain's wedding?"

"Yeah."

"What, do you paint each others' nails, too?" Hidan laughed. "How'd she get here, anyway? When I called you, you were just leaving your place."

Deidara shrugged, nonchalant. "She spent the night."

They fell silent and stared at him.

He shrugged again, not getting the big deal. "I live in a four-bedroom house, un."

Kakuzu sipped his drink. "Is she mooching off of you?"

"She lives with her parents," he said, annoyed.

Zetsu blinked. "And they let her spend the night at your place?"

Deidara struggled with himself for a few moments, wondering if it would be better to just let the truth out, let them have their laugh and leave him alone, or to let them keep pestering him about it. He decided to choose the lesser of two evils.

"She told them I'm gay," he mumbled.

His expression dissolved into a glower as the table erupted in hysterical laughter. Sometimes he really hated people.

Fortunately, Ino chose to return a few minutes later, Sasori following close behind. She seemed unusually pleased with herself, and a glance at Sasori's face offered no clues. He was as impassive as ever. He didn't get a chance to ask, anyway, because the missing member of the table finally chose to make his appearance.

"Itachi, what the hell took you so long?"

Deidara tensed in his seat when the usually sombre Uchiha stopped in front of the table and offered them a barely-there smile.

"Security issues," he said, adjusting his jacket sleeve. "Pain asked me to look into it..."

He looked up and trailed off, taking notice of the only unfamiliar face at the table.

"Hi," Ino said, sounding unusually reserved.

Kisame realized the last thing Deidara was going to do was introduce her to Itachi, of all people, so he took it upon himself to do it instead.

"Ino, this is Uchiha Itachi. Itachi, this is Ino." He glanced at the blond. "Deidara's friend."

Itachi extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."

She stood up and accepted it, tilting her head inquisitively. "I'm sorry...did you say Uchiha?"

When he nodded, she took a moment to examine his face. Then her eyes widened and she went completely still. "You...wouldn't happen to have a brother, would you?"

Itachi eyed her curiously before nodding again.

Her lips parted in shock.

"Sasuke?"

He blinked, surprise trickling into his features. "Yes. How do you—?"

Ino laughed incredulously. "We went to middle school together! He'd mentioned he had an older brother, but—" she shook her head in disbelief. "I haven't seen him in years. How is he?"

The guarded overcast in Itachi's eyes faded, a small smile reappearing on his face. "I was just going to get a drink..."

He didn't have to finish. She was by his side in an instant, signalling a 'be right back' gesture to Deidara before disappearing with him into the throng of people.

Kisame had to fight to hold back his laughter at the dark look that passed over Deidara's face. Sasori rolled his eyes, Kakuzu and Zetsu smirked, and Hidan flicked a crumpled gum wrapper at him.

"You're a dumbass. Seriously."

"Well, we were trying to be tactful," Kisame grinned. "I'm surprised you let her go off with him like that."

Deidara aimed his glower at the other man. "Why would I stop her? She can talk to whoever she wants."

"Yeah, right. That vein in your forehead says otherwise."

"Honestly, I thought you would have gotten over it by now," Sasori muttered. "He didn't intend to win that competition. The judges just happened to be the sorts of fools who interpret garbage as some form of metaphorical, post modern art."

"I dared him to do it," Kisame added. "He still doesn't understand why you're so mad at him."

"That's exactly it," Deidara ground out. "It didn't even occur to him to think how big of an insult that was to real artists."

"Sasori's an artist," Kakuzu pointed out. "And he didn't care."

Deidara grew irate. "Sasori doesn't care about anything!"

"Untrue," Sasori said. Then he reconsidered. "No. Never mind. He's right."

"Well, either way, Itachi certainly has a way with women," Zetsu commented, gazing out into the crowd. "She seems to be enjoying his company."

Kisame followed his line of sight and nodded. "She's got him. He only gets like that when he talks about his brother."

From a distance, they could see Ino doubling over in laughter, obviously in the middle of retelling some childhood story, and Itachi appearing genuinely enthused by the conversation. Deidara's fists tightened under the table and he forced his gaze elsewhere.

"You don't look happy," Kisame drawled.

"Obviously not," Hidan snorted. "Itachi's macking on his woman."

"Hidan," Sasori said, closing his eyes. "Do you even know the meaning of the word 'subtle'?"

Fed up with the entire conversation, Deidara got up and left the table. The servers were clearing the dinner plates and guests were gravitating towards the open bar. Gradually, people began taking to the dance floor, charging the atmosphere with laughter and music.

Deidara weaved his way through the crowd, aiming for the venue entrance for some fresh air. He was stopped just by the door when Ino snagged his arm.

"Where are you off to?"

Thankfully, Itachi wasn't with her and he bit back a retort when he took in her appearance. Excitement shone in her eyes and her face was flushed, and an exhilarated smile played on her lips as she glanced over her shoulder at the dance floor.

As if on cue, the music changed tempo and Ino gasped.

"Oh my God I love this song. Come dance with me!"

He instinctively pulled his arm back. "I don't dance, un."

She pouted. "Why not?"

"Because," he said, searching for an excuse. "It's stupid."

If he thought his response would damper her enthusiasm, he was wrong.

"Hmph, fine. Be a bore," she said, striding off in search for a dance partner. He stared after her, momentarily dreading the idea of her finding and asking Itachi, only to blink in surprise when he saw who she stopped in front of.

Kisame looked visibly taken aback and glanced around to see if she was addressing the right person. "Me?"

Ino didn't deign him with a response and instead seized his wrist, dragging him out onto the dance floor.

Despite himself, Deidara couldn't help smirking in amusement. It was just as well she enjoyed herself the rest of the night, he thought, leaning against the wall and watching her meld into the crowd with a flustered Kisame. He owed her that much.


The party tapered off hours later, sometime around 1:30 AM. The guests gathered in front of the hotel entrance to bid goodbye to Pain and Konan as they departed for their hotel in a limo. Once the car disappeared into the distance, they dispersed, chattering excitedly about what had most certainly been the best reception of the year.

Ino was no exception and left Deidara to wonder how she could still feel so energetic after hours of dancing. She relayed the party's experiences the entire ride home, and despite his headache, he was glad to hear that the night had surpassed her expectations and then some.

Some of her verve evaporated, though, by the time they reached his house, and she stifled a yawn behind her hand when he unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Grateful for the peace and quiet, he kicked off his shoes, eager to rid himself of his formal attire.

He shrugged off his jacket as he headed into the kitchen, tossing it over a chair. Ino pried off her heels in the foyer, wincing in relief before padding after him. Standing by the fridge in the dark, he loosened his tie with one hand while pouring himself a glass of water with the other.

"Want any?" he asked.

"I'm good," she replied after yawning again. "You really missed out tonight, you know."

He turned around at that. She was leaning against the counter, pulling the pins out of her hair and combing her locks loose.

"How's that?" he questioned flatly.

She looked at him as though it was obvious. "You didn't dance with me, doofus."

He rolled his eyes, deciding to take a sip of water instead of answering. She set the pins on the counter, idly lining them up.

"What do you have against dancing, anyway?"

"Nothing. It's just not for me."

"It's not hard or anything."

"I know. Just drop it, un."

She glanced towards him. He ignored her stare, finishing his drink and placing the filter back in the fridge. When he turned around, she pointed a finger at his chest.

"You're afraid you'd look stupid," she accused.

He gave her a dry look. "You can be really annoying when you want to be."

"Yeah, and you're a chicken."

He narrowed his eyes at that but didn't take the bait, moving to step past her and go upstairs. She matched his movement and blocked his way.

"It's understandable to be embarrassed in front of a crowd. But this time, it's just the two of us."

She fished her cell phone out of her purse and flipped it open. Deidara watched in bewilderment as she searched through its contents. After a few seconds, her eyes lit up and she pressed a button before setting the phone on the counter.

As the first tinny notes of music spilled from the tiny speaker, he realized what she was doing and rubbed his forehead in exasperation.

"Ino, it's freakin' two o'clock in the morning."

"I'll lead," she said, as if she hadn't heard him. "You just follow."

She moved towards him, then reconsidered and walked over to the exhaust fan to press the button for the lowest light setting. The bulb flickered and a dim yellow glow spilled over the stove and tiles.

He looked at her blankly.

"To set the mood," she explained.

"You're nuts, un."

Unperturbed, she walked up to him and held out her hand. When it was met with a faint scowl, she rolled her eyes and grabbed his tie, pulling him away from the fridge. Any further protests were silenced when she stepped out to meet him halfway and hooked one arm around his shoulders, seizing his left hand and bringing it to shoulder level.

In response, his gaze dropped pointedly to her waist.

Ino sighed. "I don't have cooties, Dei."

The jibe was enough to spite him into putting his hand where it was supposed to go. Satisfied, she assumed the lead and took a step forward, expecting him to follow through. He wasn't anticipating her to move so suddenly and took a stumbling step backwards, knocking over the trash can behind him.

Taking the mistake in stride, she turned him in the opposite direction.

"Didn't you learn this in middle school?"

"No," he muttered derisively. "I wasn't the school dance type, un."

She smiled. "Then you're going to learn so you can dance at my wedding. And then I'll do the same when you find yourself a nice girl and settle down."

He snorted at that.

"Oh, right," Ino sighed. "Married to your work."

"Till the day I die. Even if it's been one-sided lately."

She laughed, her voice soft and mischievous. "Maybe you should have an affair in the mean time."

He raised his gaze to her briefly, then looked back down at the floor.

"Well, unlike you," she said, voice dropping into a murmur. "I know exactly what my soul mate will be like..."

Ino pulled back from him long enough to twirl beneath their joined hands, leisurely easing back into position. "Like I said before, he'll be tall, dark, and handsome...kind of on the serious side, but I'll be able to make him laugh. Older by a couple of years, mature, sophisticated, cultured...he'll be family-oriented. He'll love spending time at home..."

Deidara had to bite the inside of his mouth to vanquish the sudden image of Itachi that rose in his mind's eye.

She continued, voice softening.

"We'll meet by chance, and we'll just know."

He did nothing to hide his incredulity. "How can you be so sure of that?"

"Because," she said emphatically, as if that was enough of an explanation. "That's just...how it should be."

"You're delusional, un."

"And you're doomed to be a crazy old spinster."

He smirked despite the feminine denomination, not denying it because she was probably right. After several seconds of silence, she spoke again.

"Dei..."

"Yeah?"

"Have you ever been in love?"

He looked at her from the corner of his eye, vaguely perturbed by her sudden preoccupation with the subject.

"No," he answered eventually. And truthfully.

"You know how they say, when you're in love, you just know?"

He'd heard that adage often enough, so he nodded.

"How are you supposed to know how it feels unless you've felt it before?"

He remained silent, spared having to reply when she answered her own question.

"I think we all knew, once," she said quietly. "We just don't remember."

A few beats passed before he spoke, voice frank. "Your beliefs are too idealistic, Ino."

She pulled back just enough to look him in the eyes.

"Life is short," she said, challenging. "Why shouldn't I believe in whatever makes me happy?"

He returned the gaze. "Because it's not realistic."

She smiled slightly. "If I'd been realistic, you and me wouldn't be standing here right now."

He couldn't think of a response to that, lips pressing into a thin line. Eventually, his silence earned a nudge from her.

"Lighten up," she murmured, closing her eyes and leaning her head against his shoulder. "Sometimes it doesn't hurt to be unrealistic."

Growing tense, he shifted his gaze to her questioningly. She didn't seem to notice, instead relaxing the arm draping his shoulder and shortening the distance between them.

He mused over her words, wondering if she knew what they meant when the stiffness in his posture melted away and the soft weight of her hand melded into his grip; wondered if she knew what possibilities surfaced in his mind when he looked at her.

Sometimes it doesn't hurt to be unrealistic.

He didn't believe her. But in that moment, a combination of the kitchen's familiarity, the late hour, and the warmth of her closeness was enough to make him close his eyes and turn his face into the side of her neck. His next breath flooded him with the subtle notes of perfume lingering in her hair, evoking a deep, soporific feeling.

He felt as if he'd done this somewhere before.

I haven't, he reminded himself.

But still, as they turned in slow circles over the kitchen tiles, the motions became effortless and thoughtless, bringing to mind vague recollections of being somewhere else, surrounded by a soundless void of bright lights. Feeling contentment and euphoria all at once. Entwining with something familiar. Something similar.

Fitting seamlessly together.

Startled, he opened his eyes.

The kitchen was dark, the only light glowing faintly beneath the hood of the exhaust fan. The cell phone had gone silent.

Glancing down, he realized his back was to the fridge and that her forehead had come to rest in the crook of his neck. They'd stopped moving.

Ino slowly drew away from him, then, looking up and meeting his gaze. A strange expression passed fleetingly over her face, but then she smiled sheepishly and glanced at the stove clock.

"I lost track of time." Her smile became teasing. "You're so dancing with me at the next wedding we go to."

He didn't say anything. Her smile faltered slightly and she took a step back before turning to leave. "I'll see you in the morning." She hesitated. "Goodnight."

When he nodded, she left and disappeared upstairs.

He didn't move to follow, instead crossing the kitchen and descending the steps into the basement. His fingers found the light switch. The bulbs flickered to life, illuminating the spread of clay-caked newspapers on the floor and his scattered tools.

In the centre of it all, stood what he'd committed himself to for the rest of his life.

A starling hung precariously near the end of its wire frame. He reached out to touch it, the sight of it prompting a recent, disconcerting memory.

Them arguing over something stupid. Her bending down. Kissing him. Leaving him with a strange feeling welling up inside his chest. Something like nostalgia.

He took a deep breath and exhaled before sitting down.

There were many things he could afford to be, he realized, gathering his tools.

But being unrealistic wasn't one of them.


His final project consumed him in the days that followed. Both his intense focus and unwillingness to leave told Ino he wanted to be left alone, especially in those hours he spent painstakingly etching details into the hundreds of starlings filling his basement.

Still, she made sure to leave him breakfast by his bedside table, knowing he wouldn't bother to eat otherwise. The winter holidays meant no school for her but posed longer work hours, and that first week of January found her scarce around his house. He was relieved for it, throwing himself into his work to distract from his disquieting thoughts. Thoughts of doubt towards his commitments, thoughts that he could make room for other things, other people alongside his profession, thoughts that he'd had for a long time and hadn't acknowledged until now; that art was slowly killing him. That art and he were drifting apart.

The muscle pain and fatigue were obvious symptoms of that, building to a point of agony and going ignored as he drowned them in painkillers, fuelling himself on ambition alone.

It'll be worth it, he assured himself repeatedly, even as the skin of his hands cracked and bled, staining the clay red. It'll all be worth it when it's done.

The scope of his vision was too much to be completed within a single week, though, and he found his body turning on him by Friday. It hurt just to move and the prospect of sitting hunched over in a cold basement for another night was enough to sap whatever energy he had remaining.

That was how Ino found him when she dropped by that night after work, stopping dead at the sight of him slumped, motionless over his drawing board.

She released a breath she hadn't known she was holding when he lifted his head at the sound of her coming in.

"You scared the crap out of me," she breathed, putting a hand to her chest as she walked over. "Are you okay?"

He attempted sitting up and playing off his obvious pain and exhaustion, but the effort was too much and he dropped his head back into his arms.

"Fine," he muttered, briefly closing his eyes. "Just sore, un."

She gave a critical onceover to his work area. "I'm not surprised."

Returning her attention to him, she bit her lip, hesitantly reaching out to touch his shoulder. When he couldn't hide his flinch, a resigned look crossed her face.

"One of these days, you're going to kill yourself." She dropped her hand. "I just came by with some dinner. Wanna come up and eat?"

"No," he said, finally lifting his head and wincing as he straightened his back. "I'm not hungry—"

He didn't finish, because Ino gasped in shock at the sight of his bloodied fingertips and dropped her bag to the floor.

"Dei, you jackass!" She took one of his hands in hers for a better look. "What did you do to your fingers?"

"Nothing," he groused, pulling his hand back. "That happens."

Throwing him a glare, she undid her jacket and tossed it over a chair, turning in the direction of the washroom.

"Where do you keep your bandages?"

He mumbled something about the medicine cabinet, only to realize his mistake a fraction of a second later. By the time he was on his feet to go after her, it was too late.

She emerged from the washroom moments later, holding something in her hand.

There was an unbearably long silence.

"What are these?" she asked quietly.

His eyes shifted between her face and the three bottles she held in her hands. At his silence, she looked down at the labels again.

"Did you know," she said slowly and deliberately, "that taking these together could be fatal?"

When he didn't answer, she raised her head again. "Did you know that?"

He clenched his jaw, knowing in that instant the look on his face was more defiant than apologetic, because her brows knitted and she retreated into the washroom. Startled, he moved to follow, only to stop suddenly in front of the doorway when he saw her holding the open bottles over the toilet.

He froze, under the impression that it would only take the slightest twitch on his part for her to go through with what she was threatening. She tipped the bottles slightly and the tablets clicked against each other, sliding to the lip of the container. One of them slid over the edge and fell into the toilet bowl.

Deidara's annoyance escalated into fear.

"Don't do it," he croaked. "I need those."

Her eyes hardened.

"No, you don't, and I'll be damned before you develop an addiction to painkillers on my watch."

His blood ran cold when she turned the bottles and the pills rained into the toilet. They hadn't settled to the bottom before she pushed the lever and flushed.

Deidara stood frozen, fury coalescing with horror. He couldn't commit to either, though, and continued to stand there in stunned silence until she grabbed his arm and pulled him to his room.

In hindsight, he supposed it didn't matter to her how brusquely she'd pushed him, face first, into his bed. She knew he was in too much pain to protest, let alone resist. He muffled a curse into the bedspread and raised his head to see her pulling the chain on the bedside lamp.

Then she left the room, returning with her bag.

She pulled a clip from it and quickly pinned her hair up, then retrieved a small bottle and sat on the mattress next to him.

There was a rustle of fabric as she hoisted her bag next to her and sifted through its contents. Then he felt something tug on the hem of his shirt and heard the unmistakable sound of snipping. Too tired to protest, he merely lay there until she finished and peeled away the thin material.

The drops of oil sprinkling onto his skin went unnoticed, but then she touched his back and his eyes opened slightly against the pillow, squinting when she ran her palms over it. The oil had an acridly sweet smell that was nauseating at first, but grew more tolerable as time went on.

Eventually, she focused on the spot just below his left shoulder blade, fingers prodding the tense muscle to test his reaction. When he made none, she leaned forward and pushed into it. The pain flared into a sharp, penetrating sting, bleeding out around into the muscle. He resisted the urge to swear and instead buried his face into the bedspread, gritting his teeth.

She stopped instantly, leaning down near his ear. "Relax."

He turned his head and spoke through a clenched jaw.

"That hurt like hell."

"I know. But it'll get better. Just keep breathing and try to relax."

The pressure increased and he sucked in a breath as she once more pushed the heel of her hand into the sorest part of his shoulder. His knuckles whitened around the fistfuls of sheets, eyes squeezing shut and breath hitching in pain.

She did it twice more, gently and methodically, until the pain lost its edge and faded into something dull and tolerable. It was just as agonizing for the remaining sore spots, but gradually he grew numb to it, the tension seeping from his shoulders.

His breathing slowed and he closed his eyes again, lost in the smell of linen and ointment. Thoughts floated aimlessly in the back of his mind, leaving him feeling strangely detached. He was almost dozing until she gently worked a hand under his shoulder and eased him onto his back.

She removed his shirt and dropped it to the floor, sparing him the sudden cold when she leaned over him. The ceiling grew dim and he blinked slowly at the pressure of her thumbs against his temples and the throbbing spots on his forehead.

It hurt and felt good at the same time. His pulse dropped.

She moved her hands lower, thumb tips brushing his lashes, and a deep wave of drowsiness coaxed his eyes closed.

The faint scent of water lilies cut through the smells of oil and clay, and he suddenly felt compelled to take her face, hold her there, and confide in her that his marriage was falling apart. He didn't realize he'd given into the urge until he opened his eyes to the sight of his fingertips tracing the line of her jaw.

She stilled, meeting his gaze. In that instant, he wondered if she could hear the thought that broke free from the muddle and stopped at his lips.

It scares me, he thought, unguarded. How much I trust you.

A closed look came over her features. A moment later, she raised her left hand and wrapped her fingers around his, slowly lowering his arm back to his side.

"Stop thinking," she whispered. "And go to sleep."

She smoothed his hair away from his face, tracing her thumb over the furrow in his brow until it receded and his eyes drifted shut.

He couldn't remember ever falling asleep so fast in his life.