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Invocation of the Muse

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“What do you even need for a life-drawing class?” Sakura stared at the rows and rows of sketchbooks, labels boasting all different sizes and materials. Watercolor versus charcoal versus oil versus spiral-bound versus—

“Didn’t you read the friggin’ syllabus?” Ino shook a stapled packet in front of Sakura’s face, and Sakura flinched away. “Eighteen by twenty-four charcoal. BYOC—bring your own charcoal.”

Sakura glared at her. “I don’t waste paper, Ino. She sent us a PDF.”

Ino stuck out her tongue sideways through her grinning lips. What an ugly expression. “And yet you still didn’t read it.”

She ignored her friend and grabbed the correct sketchpad. “All right, that’s that. Where are the charcoal whatevers?”

Several shelf-browsings later, Ino and Sakura stood in the long line to the art store counter, arms full of charcoal, sketchbooks, canvas bags, and other expensive supplies listed on the syllabus. The line moved quickly; the redheaded cashier scanned items and rang up students with blinding speed, moving on to the next customer before the previous one had even left the counter.

“Boy, you’re efficient,” Ino chirped at him as she and Sakura dumped their supplies on the counter. The cashier didn’t respond, but flicked his eyes up at her from where his lightning-fast hands were tossing items into a Suna University-stamped paper bag. Sakura shuffled her purchases closer to the register while Ino paid, but he held up a hand to stop her, the other jabbing numbers into the credit card machine. He hadn’t even said the price.

“One customer at a time.”

Ino made a face at her from behind his turned head, and he stiffened and lifted his bent head as if he could sense Ino’s mockery. Instead, however, he pierced Sakura with an intense, blazing look.

“Next.”

Sakura froze, momentarily forgetting how to use her limbs. She clutched her wallet to her chest and stared. How did genes work like that? How unfair was it, genetically and logically and aesthetically, to give a boy of university age such clear, smooth skin and deep honey-colored eyes?

The cashier snapped his fingers in front of her face, just once, and she recoiled, senses coming to life again. “Next, I said.”

It only took another ten seconds for him to ring her up, silent once more. She and Ino lugged their paper bags out of the art store, huffing under their weight, but Sakura couldn’t help looking behind her at the cashier. His head was down again, face obscured by the next student in line’s body, but his hands were a blur. As the customer paid, he grabbed the next roll of fabric, scanning and tossing it aside in the same movement. The customer hurried out of the store, and the cashier, seeming to sense Sakura’s eyes on him, glanced her way.

“He was fuckin’ rude, wasn’t he?” Ino complained, following her stare. Sakura adjusted her grip on her bags and shook her head.

“Let’s just go.”

She could’ve sworn a ghost of a smile had flashed across his lips as she turned away.


 

Sasori wrinkled his nose as the flat door clicked shut behind him. The TV was on, tuned to the news, which was unusual enough on its own. No one was watching it. Sasori suspected the reason for that—out of character channel notwithstanding—was to mask the moans and grunts coming from his flatmate’s open door. It wasn’t very efficient, and they didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon.

Sasori clicked the TV off—the bed-squeaking paused self-consciously—and headed to his own room, closing the door behind him. He hated wasting electricity when the utilities and water bills were already spiking, his flatmate’s privacy be dammed. Deidara took long showers in addition to his electrical installation work.

He sat at the wheel in the only messy corner of his small room, and was soon lost in his work. There was a certain rhythm to pottery, his foot on the pedal and the creaking of his grandmother’s wheel and his hands on the clay, punctuated by the occasional sprinkle of water. He hadn’t set out to make anything in particular when he sat down, just warm up. The first critique of the year had already been assigned, and he was ready to put the other so-called artists in his cohort to shame, but it wouldn’t do to rush into a project.

It was a bowl. His warmups were always bowls, because it was the easiest thing to do. But it was weak to stick with easy. Perhaps for this critique, he’d make a set of nesting stylized bowls. Take what everyone else would do and make it a little extra. He would’ve preferred woodworking as the first project, but his free ride dictated his coursework, and this experimental design class was unfortunately part of that.

The bowl collapsed under his fingers, and Sasori hummed in irritation. He hadn’t even realized the aches in his stomach, and the weakness of his body had distracted him. The reason why the pottery wheel was in his room instead of where the rest of his art materials were was precisely because the wheel was purely exercise and thus its creations were impermanent. If Sasori wanted something real to take to the kiln, he’d work on campus. Unfortunately, Deidara took delight in impermanence—got a kick out of Sasori destroying his clay creations.

Loud laughter disrupted him. Sasori sighed and rose, cricking his neck as he opened the door and headed to the bathroom to wash his caked hands.

“Heyyy, it’s my man Sasori!” A shirtless Deidara paused from where he was putting a pair of plates on the table. Sasori’s eye twitched when he saw a busty girl with cherry red curls in Deidara’s t-shirt giggling at the table. In Sasori’s chair. “Finally emerged from your cave, yeah?”

“I could say the same for you.”

Deidara called something probably lascivious after him, but Sasori was already in the bathroom, scrubbing the clay off his hands.

There had been a girl in the art store today.

There had been lots of girls, sure, Sasori reminded himself, leaning over the sink and staring at his reflection. He’d seen them all there before, boring, talentless. But there had been one girl with hair like cherry blossoms in spring, eyes like cut jade. Certainly boring and talentless like all the others. But the idea of a nesting set of cherry blossom bowls appealed to him, hadn’t quite occurred to him until he’d noticed Deidara’s latest lay. 

There was something to be said for finding inspiration in unlikely places, something to be said for the human body after all.

“Move,” Sasori said to Deidara’s conquest upon his return to the kitchen. Outrage sparked in the girl’s eyes, and she looked to Deidara to defend her honor. A smirk twitched on Sasori’s lips when Deidara only shrugged.

“It’s his chair, yeah.”

She slid out of the seat, glaring daggers at him the whole time. Sasori claimed his chair triumphantly and helped himself to the sloppy fried rice in a chipped bowl on the table. But the girl looked mollified when Deidara slid his arms around her waist and pulled her onto his lap with a whisper.

Sasori ate his rice while the lovers abandoned their meal in favor of other activities. Deidara was a loud, messy, hotheaded annoyance of a roommate, but occasionally, he wasn’t as useless as everyone else.

Cherry blossoms, he mused while washing his dishes, leaving the fried rice pan for Deidara to clean up. Cherry blossoms would be impressive.


 

“Why’s your bag so heavy?” Ino complained, rubbing her sandaled foot. She’d kicked Sakura’s bag under the table to make her point about some gossip, and was now regretting it.

“Biochem textbooks,” Sakura sighed. “I’m being robbed, Ino. Suna University is holding me up at gunpoint and demanding I spend my loan money on the most up-to-date editions.”

Ino made a face. “I’m so glad I’m not in STEM.”

“It’s just a minor. I can’t imagine what double-majoring would do to me.”

“Evening, everyone,” a commanding voice rang through the studio. A mumbled “good evening, Professor Mitarashi” followed. The professor, a surprisingly young woman with hair pulled into a quirky bun, raised her eyebrows.

“Man, I hate art students sometimes,” she scoffed. An insulted Ino twitched next to Sakura, who kicked her. “Just call me Anko. I can’t believe how ingrained politeness is in academia. You’re not in a library, folks. You’re in a studio.”

Now it was Sakura’s turn to repress an eye twitch. Her own degree was a Bachelor of Arts—not the fancy Fine Arts iteration—because apparently art history wasn’t fine enough. For all of Anko’s lauding of the fine arts, there still was a need for libraries and politeness.

“Who printed out the syllabus?” A flurry of excited hands gripping packets, Ino’s included, shot into the air. Anko grimaced again. “Who does that? You’re already killing trees by drawing. I sent it out as a PDF on purpose, you know.”

Sakura waggled her eyebrows at Ino, who rightly ignored her.

“All right!” Anko clapped her hands together, the sound echoing against the linoleum floor. The class jumped. “Now that I’ve antagonized everyone in the room, let’s get to the lecture. Got your attention now, at least.”

It was a four-hour studio. Four hours was an inhuman amount of time. Sakura’s longest classes—biochem lab included—were an hour and fifty minutes with a ten-minute break lumped in halfway. Not for the first or last time, she cursed the art history degree requirements. This was her last required class before graduation in the spring, and she’d put it off as long as she could.  While Anko talked about anatomy and charcoal shading and portraits, Sakura took lazy notes on her tablet and thought about the frightening world awaiting her post-graduation. She slid her eyes over to Ino, who was enraptured. At least someone was enjoying herself.

“Enough of that,” Anko finally said, wiping her smudged fingers off on her already-blackened capri pants. “Let’s try and put this theoretical shit to work. Let’s get our model in here. Take a break while we get set up.”

“Naked time,” Ino whispered to her, and Sakura rolled her eyes. Ino grinned and flicked her forehead. “You’re blushing. Are you ten?”

“Don’t do that,” Sakura warned, but it came out as more of a whine. 

“At least you’re not modeling, right? You’d throw off everyone’s proportions with your giant-ass forehead.”

“It’s my first drawing class,” Sakura replied, choosing to pretend the age-old taunt hadn’t affected her. “I feel like I took good notes, but I won’t be able to apply them.”

Ino’s expression softened. “It’s totally gonna be okay. You’re here to learn, you know? No one’s judging.”

“Everyone, meet our model. Sasori, you know the drill.” Anko’s voice boomed across the studio again.

“That totally wasn’t a break,” Ino muttered, but Sakura was staring at the model standing in front of the chaise, wrapped in a silk robe. 

It was the cashier from the art store last week. He surveyed the class, casting a slow, bored gaze around the students on stools. His movements were measured, relaxed, and uninterested—a total contrast from his impatience at the store.

He was looking at her now. Sakura held her breath, fumbling with her plastic case, fingers slipping over pencils and brushes and every instrument other than charcoal. The way he looked at her would have been described as electric or hungry in a romance novel, but in reality, his expression was completely unreadable. He looked away, and without any of his previous slow movements, shrugged off the robe.

Everyone in the room was already bent over their sketchpads, charcoal in hand. Anko was on the other side of the room, observing and quietly commenting on each student’s work she passed, and as she started to turn her head Sakura’s way, Sakura quickly followed Ino’s example. Light, precise strokes were already shaping themselves under Ino’s careful fingers. Sakura’s fingers felt heavy on her own charcoal. 

Sasori, as the cashier was apparently named, reclined on the chaise, one arm behind his head and the other carelessly tossed over his stomach. His gleaming red hair was tousled on the beige pillow underneath his head, and he’d closed his eyes, feigning sleep. 

Sakura tried not to focus on how wiry his frame was, how delicate his features were, the way his chest rose ever so slightly with his breathing, the gentle curve to his cock—penis, that was crass, look somewhere else.

Instead, after she’d sketched out a vague approximation of his body, she focused on details. He had painted fingernails, dark on his tan skin and occasionally twitching against his ribcage. He had the hint of a wrist tattoo, something faded red, but that was the hand tucked under his head, so it was a little hard to make out. On his chest, just visible on his sternum and creeping towards one dark nipple, was a white line, perhaps a scar—

“Where’s his cock?” Anko’s voice made Sakura jump, her charcoal stroke going wide. Ino snorted, but she wasn’t alone—the other students in the room tittered from behind their sketchpads. Anko glanced at her phone, and Sakura noticed the class roster on the screen. “This is anatomy. A bio minor like you knows some people have cocks. You see it? He has one. Go on, look.” Anko pointed, right at it. Sakura reluctantly obeyed, trying to unfocus her eyes. “Good. See? Now draw.”

Anko moved on once she was satisfied with Sakura’s furious scribbling, leaving her alone to let her face burn in peace. She looked up and down from Sasori’s body to her sketchpad, painfully conscious of Anko’s praising of Ino’s shading. 

Sakura looked up one more time, only to see Sasori had opened his eyes, just a slit. He didn’t look away when she met his gaze, and Sakura had the distinctly embarrassing sensation that he’d been watching her without her noticing. She swallowed, feeling her hairline tingle. 

His lips unfurled in a smile—no, a half-smile. A flash of teeth and quirked lips. Sakura’s charcoal felt sweaty in her fingers.

His eyes slid shut, the smirk gone as suddenly as it had appeared, and did not reopen again until Anko announced the end of class and wished them all good night.


 

“How was showing off your junk to a bunch of undergrads, yeah?” 

Deidara could rot in hell. Sasori had barely closed the door.

“Informative,” Sasori said tersely. Deidara smirked at him from where he was reclining on the couch, in a position not unlike the one Sasori had held for two hours in the studio. He pushed Deidara’s feet off the cushions and sat down, tugging off his shoes.

“Sasori,” Deidara began, uncharacteristically slowly. Sasori raised a brow, but when Deidara didn’t continue, he slapped Deidara’s leg with one of his shoes. His flatmate scowled. “I was thinking, yeah. Trying my best not to annoy you with what I’m gonna say.”

“You were making me wait too long. I hate—“

“You hate being kept waiting, I know, yeah.” Deidara’s imitation of his voice wasn’t accurate in the slightest. “I just was gonna tell you I had, uh, an accident.”

Sasori rose and stretched. His shoes dangled from his fingers, and he headed for his room. “Wet the bed?”

“Fuck you. No, I meant you maybe shouldn’t go in your room right now.”

Sasori’s blood froze in his veins. “Were you in my room, Deidara?” he intoned, voice deceptively smooth.

“No! I mean, only for a little. I needed clay. And—“

Sasori slammed open the door to his room and rushed inside, heart restarted and racing. The fired and glazed cherry blossom bowls lay in pieces on the floor, each one cracked down the middle, all rough edges and waste

“You could try out kintsugi, yeah,” Deidara’s meek voice sounded from the living room. “Like the beauty of the broken, you know, pieced together—“

Sasori tuned him out instead of the more violent alternative. With trembling fingers, he bent and picked up the largest piece, a light green petal from what was once the middle bowl. The glaze shone in the lamplight, like something alive, something ruined.

He gripped the shard in his hand, its edges cutting into the uncallused parts of his palm. The pain gave him something to focus on, even as the split skin oozed red blood.

The critique was next week. He had to seek inspiration, again, before next week. 

“Hey, Sasori, my man,” Deidara, a man who didn’t know when to quit, peeked through the doorway. “I’m sorry, yeah.”

Sasori turned, inch by inch, to face him, clenched fist shaking and dripping blood through his fingers onto the carpet. Whatever showed on his face made Deidara rethink his apology and existence, because Deidara babbled an excuse and fled, the door to his own room booming shut. 

If Deidara was the one who was going to stay, Sasori needed to get out. He pocketed the bloody fragment and took his time wrapping a bandage around his hand. Then out into the night again, autumn air too chilly and the Muses silent.


 

Every time she tried to close her eyes, the sound of her classmates’ laughter assaulted her memory. Sakura had thought she’d had a long enough day to conk her out, but apparently, humiliation overruled exhaustion. She glanced at her alarm clock—too late o’clock.

She had a nine-am seminar in the morning. This wasn’t fair. 

With a frustrated groan, Sakura rolled out of bed, sheets clinging to her body like they were reluctant to let her free. She shook them off and slipped on a pair of sandals, then, after another moment to think, threw on a zip-up hoodie for good measure. Might as well see who was out at the student union.

It was an old habit. Sasuke had often spent the witching hour at the student union, so it was a good place to find him when Sakura couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t there now, of course, but her eyes couldn’t help drifting over to the corner where he used to be found slumped over a cooling coffee and an unread law text.

She ordered a milk steamer with a pump of rose syrup from the barely-conscious barista and was soon back to strolling aimlessly around the empty campus, hands a little warm and pajama-short legs still cold. It was better to ignore it—maybe the combination of hot milk and cold legs would encourage her to go back to sleep later.

Sakura looked in the general direction of her dorm, loathing the thought of being stuck another few sleepless hours in her bed, when the realization struck her. 

She’d left her student ID card in her room.

Sakura pressed the paper cup to her cheek and groaned. She didn’t have her phone, either. The best bet would be to wait until she stumbled upon some other sleepwalker and have them let her in. But what were the odds at this hour? 

Footsteps. Sakura jerked her head away from the cup. Apparently, the odds were good.

A lamppost illuminated a solitary figure, walking slowly on straight pavement towards her. Dark red hair and a delicate face. Sasori hadn’t seemed to notice her, although she was right in front of him.

Odds were against her anyway.

Sakura took a deep breath, deciding to face the source of her embarrassment-induced insomnia. She forced a smile on her face. “Hi. Sasori, right?”

Sasori stopped in his tracks. He blinked a few times before he seemed to recognize her.

“I don’t know your name.”

If only he’d said he didn’t actually know her. “I’m Sakura,” she said before she could regret it. “You’re out late, huh?”

“What are you doing?” he asked, acknowledging her question with a quick jerk of his head. “It’s dangerous for a young woman to be out at night in a pair of shorts.”

Sakura’s lips pressed in a thin line. “I can handle myself, thanks. I know self-defense.”

Sasori only pointed at her legs, polish glinting under the streetlight glow. “Self-defense doesn’t protect you from the wind.”

Sakura bit her lip and looked at her own legs, as if surprised to see them there. “I guess. But I’m locked out of my dorm. Can you let me in? It’s just past the Union.”

“Nope.”

Sakura’s head shot up, a scowl coming naturally to her face, but Sasori was expressionless again. No malicious eye-roll or predatory smile. He tilted his head and stared back with hooded lids.

“I’m a grad student,” he explained, gesturing vaguely to the campus gates. “I live off-campus. No dorm access in my ID.”

Sakura’s shoulders drooped. “Guess I’m stuck for a while,” she said with a little mirthless laugh. “Maybe there’s someone in the library.”

“I’m going there, too.” He fell into step beside her. He didn’t look prepared for the weather, either, for all his comments. He wore a grey v-neck t-shirt and jeans, hands now shoved into the pockets. She couldn’t see his tattoo and absently wondered what it was.

There was no one in the library but the bored student workers, who said no, they weren’t allowed to leave or lend her their IDs. Sakura seethed, and Sasori, silent and leaning against the circulation desk, didn’t bother to help. 

“At least it’s warm in here,” he remarked after she’d stormed away into the empty reading room. “You could probably sleep on one of those couches if you’re tired.”

The sofas weren’t the most appealing of choices, given how many Suna University students had planted themselves in them over the years, but a sudden surge of fatigue and the need to lie down had her walking towards one of them without thought. She sank onto the well-used cushions and lay down, self-consciously looking around for Sasori, but he was gone.

Sakura jolted awake when the sound of loud voices floated in, growing steadily in volume. She hadn’t even realized she’d fallen asleep. She sat up, groggy, ruffling her already-ruffled hair, blinking the world into focus. 

Sasori sat across from her on an armchair that had not been there before, leaning over a sketchpad that had also not been there before. His eyes slowly rose from his work after she’d stared for a second too long, but he shot an irritated look at the door, where the noisy students were trailing in. 

“What are you doing here?” Sakura asked, voice heavy with sleep. The irritation faded out of his expression as he slid his gaze back to her.

“I’m drawing you,” he said, as if that explained everything. When she bristled, a pleased grin slashed across his face. “Practicing. I have to produce something new for my critique next week. My flatmate destroyed my original work.”

Sleep hung too heavy on her to follow the logic of his sentences. “Sorry to hear that,” was all she could manage.

“You could go back to sleep,” Sasori suggested, returning to the sketchpad. She heard the light brush of pencil on paper and reached up to her hair self-consciously. “It makes for an interesting contrast.”

“Contrast?”

Sasori paused. He looked deep in thought. The students were settling into the other couches and armchairs, jostling backpacks and flipping pages. “Between your fire and your embers,” he finally decided. Then that sharp smile appeared again, and he narrowed his eyes. The intensity burning in his amber irises made Sakura tug her hair hard enough to hurt. She felt powerless to look away. “Between you drawing me and me drawing you.”

Sakura looked away, fast, memories of laughter ringing in her ears and blood rushing to her cheeks. “Sorry,” she mumbled, but Sasori made a disapproving hum.

“Don’t offer useless apologies. It’s the exchange of art and practice. The price of immortalizing one’s work.”

She didn’t want to look at him, him or his body. She was too tired to make sense of his words.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Ten in the morning.”

Sakura leapt off the couch and tripped on her sandal. Sasori raised his eyebrows, mouth open to speak, but whatever he was going to say, she didn’t have time to hear.

It was only later, after she’d stayed after the seminar ended to apologize to her professor, that she thought about what he’d said. 

Fire and embers.

She wondered how the sketch of her sleeping had turned out. She wondered if she even wanted to know.