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Mercy of the Sun Goddess

Chapter Text

Sakura was not a fan of the heat, nor was she even the tiniest bit appreciative of sand. Dry, dusty air invaded her mouth, clinging to her tongue, dragging its way down her throat as she swallowed. It was a particularly gruesome summer in Sand, which was unfortunate for Sakura. She would much have preferred a mission in Stone or Cloud. Hell, even Rain would be preferable to this horrifying climate.

But duty called and Sakura was in no position to refuse her Hokage, nor could she deny the Kazekage his specific request for her help. No, Sakura was obligated to make this uncomfortable journey, no matter how much she would rather be somewhere far, far cooler.

"How much further do we have to go?" she asked Shikamaru, who possibly looked even more miserable than she did.

"A couple hours, I'd guess," he answered, squinting off toward Suna with his hand shielding his eyes from the sun's brutal rays. "Looks like there's a storm coming, so we're going to want to keep a quick pace."

Sakura sighed and hefted her pack further up onto her shoulder. A storm. Great. Sakura was the type who could usually maintain a good mood even in the worst conditions, but today... Well, today she wasn't having it.

It wasn't that she wasn't grateful for the opportunity she was being presented with. For the second time, she had been asking to come analyze a poison that had affected several Sand shinobi. It was her area of expertise - a place she could really show off her skills. And for the Kazekage, no less!

But then again, that was part of the problem. Sakura respected and acknowledged the fact that Gaara had drastically changed since the first time she had met him. Naruto liked to pretend that the old, violent Gaara never even existed. And given the fact that Gaara's tailed beast was gone now, there might have been some truth to that.

Still, Sakura was a little nervous to see him again. The last time she had seen him he had been unconscious, used as a cushion by that blond Akatsuki member. Another terrifying situation that being in Sand reminded her of.

Sakura swallowed hard some of the dryness in her throat, trudging on toward Suna. She stumbled forward, her feet sinking into the sand where there should have been chakra to act as a buffer.

Shikamaru caught her, his fingers wrapping around her elbow to steady her.

"You're near exhaustion," he said. "Maybe we should stop and try to find shelter. We'll still reach Suna by early morning."

"No," she replied. "I can make it. We'll never find shelter out here."

"But your chakra is already so low," he argued. "You won't be able to run on the sand for much longer."

Sakura pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "I'll be fine," she insisted. "Let's just hurry."

He gave her an irritated look, but didn't argue with her. They both resumed their pace, running as efficiently as possible toward the setting sun. Sakura pretended not to hear when Shikamaru began to mumble about troublesome women.

Nearly an hour later, just when Sakura had reached her limit and felt the last vestiges of her chakra stores deplete, she spotted an ominous dust cloud moving quickly toward them. But just ahead of them, she could see the village gates, the long wall that lined the perimeter of the village.

Tired and a little desperate at this point, Sakura used one last burst of energy she summoned from deep, deep down inside her and sprinted the last leg of the journey without chakra, her feet adjusting to the sand as she ran.

Shikamaru followed suit and soon enough they had reached the village gate.

The guard at the kiosk nodded to them as they approached. He wore a black mask over his face to keep the dust and sand out of his mouth, so Sakura had to lean in close to hear him over the whistling, whipping winds.

"Haruno-san. Nara-san," he said. "You're just in time. This storm looks pretty nasty. Come quickly. Let me show you where you'll be staying."

Grateful that she would soon have a bed and a bathroom and maybe a drink of something cool and refreshing, Sakura followed the guard, keeping close to his heels.

"Temari-sama should be here soon to welcome you," the guard said. "She had something come up that required her immediate attention, but our allies from the Leaf are top priority so she will not keep you waiting for long."

"Oh?" Shikamaru asked, his ears perked up like a dog’s now that Temari's name had been mentioned. "What was it that came up?"

"Forgive me, Nara-san," the guard said. "It's not my place to disclose that information."

Shikamaru gave a noncommittal shrug and continued to follow the guard in silence.

"These will be your rooms," the guard said once they had reached the center of the village. It appeared they were staying in a wing just off the main palace. Sakura was pleased to see that they were in walking distance of the medical ward. The guard led them to a set of two doors across from one another. "You should find your rooms very comfortable," he continued. "There is a bath just down the hall if you need it, though I suggest using it quickly and getting right back to your rooms before the storm sets in."

Sakura flung open one of the doors and peered inside at what would be her new home for the next couple of weeks. It was simply decorated - an ornamental rug under the plush bed, a small writing desk, and a rather large chest of drawers. Satisfied, and relieved to finally be able to rest, Sakura tossed her pack onto the bed.

"That's a good plan," she said to the guard. "I think I'll take a bath now while we wait for Temari."

The guard nodded and took his leave.

"You coming?" Sakura asked Shikamaru after she had fetched a change of clothes from her pack.

"Nah," he said. "I'll wait here for Temari."

"Suit yourself."

 

Sakura sank deep down into the warm water, letting it relax her muscles and calm her mind. The fruity scent of her shampoo made her feel more at home, and having the dirt and grime of the treacherous travel off of her felt so good.

Suna'a bathhouse was much more luxurious than the ones in Konoha, Sakura noted. The baths were carved from white marble, the mahogany wood that lined the floors rich and deep. Even the paint on the walls seemed more decadent somehow - a lush green that nearly hummed with a sort of vibrancy that almost made Sakura feel as if she were out in a dense, fragrant forest.

Of course she expected the palace to be nice - she remembered how nice it was. It was still just a bit overwhelming to find such opulence when Konoha usually shied away from overindulgence in such things.

But that certainly didn't mean Sakura couldn't enjoy it while she was here. She hummed contentedly before dripping a few drops of essential oils into the water and reclining back against the marble.

She heard the door creak open and peeked up to see Temari sidling through the narrow opening. She was covered in sand and dirt, her blonde hair tangled and windswept. There were several cuts and bruises on her arms and chest, but nothing that looked serious, Sakura thought thankfully. Whatever it was that required her immediately attention must had been the root of her disheveled appearance.

"Shikamaru told me you were in here," she said. "You know the storm has just hit so we won't be able to leave the bath until it passes."

"That suits me just fine," Sakura said with a warm smile. "You look like you could use a hot bath, too."

Temari pursed her lips, giving Sakura wry look as she contemplated whether or not she wanted to do that.

"Come on," Sakura urged. "Otherwise I'm the only one naked in here. Who knows how long that storm is going to last?"

"Approximately two hours," Temari replied.

Sakura gave her a look she hoped was inviting, jerking her chin toward the seat in the tub beside her. She even wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

“Okay, I was going to join you, but not if you’re going to look at me like that,” Temari said pointedly.

Sakura raised her hand up and placed the other one over he heart. “I swear I won’t even glance in your direction,” she promised.

With a roll of her eyes and an un-amused glance toward Sakura, Temari set aside her giant fan and began to undress. Sakura busied herself with staring at the ceiling until she felt Temari slip into the water beside her and relax back against the marble with a contented sigh.

“I forget how much better that guest baths are,” the blond said, reaching up to loosen the ties that held her hair together.

“Yes, this is definitely nicer than any bathhouse in Konoha,” Sakura replied.

A silence followed as Temari began to wash her hair in the steaming water. Sakura closed her eyes, listening to Temari’s movements, the water lapping against the edges of the tub. The journey might have been rough for Sakura, but the bath definitely made it all worth it.

“I already briefed Shikamaru on your mission,” Temari said, breaking the calm silence. “I guess I should go ahead and brief you as well.”

“Can’t it wait until our bath is over?”

“I think it would be more efficient to do it now.”

Sakura gave Temari a side-glance, pursing her lips in annoyance. She had no right to complain, of course. She was a guest in their village. Not only that, but she was here on a mission. It would be far too rude to complain.

“Okay,” Sakura said. “Lay it on me, then. Let’s hear about this mysterious poison.”

“Several weeks ago, we had a squad of four shinobi come back from a mission a few miles west of here sick with something we couldn’t identify,” Temari began. “Their symptoms are sweating, double vision, and muscle weakness.”

Sakura sucked in a sharp breath. “That sounds serious,” she said. “What condition are they in now?”

“They are still in the medical ward,” Temari answered. “They haven’t improved or regressed. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing.”

“If their condition hasn’t worsened, that’s definitely a good sign.”

Temari hummed in response. “So far as we know, they were not poisoned by an enemy,” she continued, glancing at Sakura before returning her attention to her soapy hair. “Their mission was routine and non-combative.”

“So what do you believe the cause of their illness is?”

“Based on analysis from the medical labs, we believe this is the result of a plant based poison,” she said. “It appears they inhaled some sort of pollen or dust.”

“But you haven’t been able to find the source?”

Temari shook her head.

“Well, that will make creating an antidote much harder,” Sakura said.

“We have narrowed down the area in which it is most likely that the plant is to be found,” Temari said. “It’s a seven square mile area just to the west of the village. We’ve sent a few shinobi out to look for the plant that caused this, but they’ve all come back empty handed.”

“I see,” Sakura said. “Well, I’ll go out there myself and see if I can’t find the plant. I may be able to come up with an antidote without it, but it will certainly be a much faster process if I could find at least one.”

“There will be more storms coming this week,” Temari said. “So if you insist on going out there yourself, we will lend you a squad of shinobi to assist. We will try to schedule your outings around the storms.”

Sakura reached back behind her back for a towel and rubbed it gently on her hair. “I’d appreciate that,” she said. “And in the meantime I can take a look at those who’ve been poisoned so far. Have the other shinobi who went looking for the cause come back sick as well?”

Temari nodded.

“Alright, then,” she said. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

 

“You could try to look less grumpy.”

“I’m not grumpy,” Shikamaru said, giving Sakura a mean look.

“Well, stop looking like you are,” she hissed. “He’s going to be here any minute.”

They were sitting around the table in the Kazekage’s main dining room. Breakfast had been prepared for them, steaming rising from the dishes in the center of the table. The smell was incredible, Sakura thought. It had been a while since she had tasted Suna food – one of the few things she remembered liking about the village.

Her stomach gurgled and she curled forward, wrapping her arms around her midsection. She felt the blaze in her cheeks, but she tried not to be embarrassed by the perfectly natural sound.

Temari, who sat opposite of Shikamaru and Sakura, looked annoyed as she fanned herself far too aggressively with a small paper fan. “Where is he?” she asked Kankuro, who sat to her left.

“I don’t know,” said the puppet master as he scratched the back of his head. “I haven’t seen him since last night.”

With a groan, Temari pushed herself away from the table, gripping the edge with white knuckled hands. “I’ll go find him,” she said.

“No need.”

Four eyes swiveled to look at the man who had just entered. He was perfectly poised, dressed in his Kage robes. His hair was neatly combed and his eyes were bright and determined. He looked regal enough, Sakura thought, though it was hard to believe that this man was the same one who had tried to kill her during the chuunin exams.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, nodding to Shikamaru and Sakura. “Welcome to Suna. Please, dig in.”

Not needing any more encouragement than that, Sakura reached forward and began piling food onto her plate. Greedily, she shoved a few bites into her mouth, groaning at the delicious taste, the savory, the sweet, the decadent treat that was this foreign and intriguing food.

A sharp thwack against her ankle made her send a glare in Shikamaru’s direction. But when she glanced around the table, she saw that all the sand siblings were watching her with various amounts of amusement. Kankuro looked thoroughly entertained, while Temari’s eyes glinted with merely a hint of humor.

Gaara, on the other hand, was watching her with a furrowed brow, his posture rigid as he took his seat at the table.

“I apologize, Kazekage-sama,” she said after she’d swallowed the massive bite of food she’d taken. “I was ravenous.”

He eyed her with curiosity. His scrutiny made Sakura feel another blush rising to her cheeks.

“I shouldn’t have kept you waiting for so long, Sakura-san,” he answered, the grating timbre of his voice somehow soothing, though it seemed as though it shouldn’t have been. “No apology needed.”

Sakura merely bowed her head in response and continued to eat, taking much smaller bites this time.

“I trust that Temari has filled you in on the situation,” Gaara continued, looking at Shikamaru now.

“She told us about the squad that came back sick,” Shikamaru said. “And that you’ve isolated the region the poison must have come from.”

“That’s correct,” Gaara said. “Our top priority right now is to find the cause of the poison. If it’s a plant, it’s going to cause us a great deal of strife when going west. Right now we have all squads avoiding that location, but that’s simply not viable long term. Luckily no trade routes go through that area, but it is certainly a hindrance to ANBU moving in that direction.”

“Sakura-san said she would be willing to go out and look for the plant that’s causing this,” Temari said, her voice much quieter than it had been the night before when she had been in the bath with Sakura. There was a meekness to her tone now that conflicted with the gritty reputation she usually had.

“Shikamaru-san should be able to handle that,” Gaara said firmly. “Sakura-san will need to look after those who have been poisoned so far.”

Shikamaru looked like he wanted to groan with frustration, but thought better of it. Sakura knew for a fact that he thought this trip would be more like a vacation for him. He didn’t know hardly anything about poisons or plants. He was here to be Sakura’s escort and to assist with the more diplomatic things Sakura had no mind for.

“With all due respect, Kazekage-sama,” Sakura said. Kankuro and Temari both gave her a sharp, warning look. “Shikamaru doesn’t have the knowledge required to find a plant like this. And while I may be able to treat symptoms of the poison, I cannot create an effective antidote until I’ve discovered the plant.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes at her, propping his elbows up on the table. “You were able to create an antidote for Sasori’s poison from the microbes you pulled from Kankuro’s blood,” he argued, his voice authoritative and resolute, though Sakura couldn’t detect a hint of ire coming from the former jinchuriki.

“That was a manmade poison,” she countered. “One I was able to provide myself with a full sample of. At this late stage in their illness, I doubt any of the shinobi affected will have a pure enough sample of the poison to work with.”

Gaara frowned, looking down into his lap. Sakura wasn’t sure if she should have argued with him. She was right, of course. She was the expert and he had specifically asked for her help, so it would have been quite silly to deny her correctness. But she remembered who Gaara was. The village had been terrified of him and now he was their Kazekage. He must not have been used to people challenging his orders.

“Very well,” he said finally. “Today you may go look for the plant yourself. But I expect you to tend to the sick as well.”

Sakura smiled.

“But, Gaara, there are storms moving toward us now,” Temari said. “They should be on us by this afternoon.”

“Then you will take her this morning,” he replied. “And she can look after her new patients this afternoon after she’s returned.”

“I’m taking her?” Temari asked. “What if I get poisoned as well?”

“Wear a mask,” Kankuro said, holding back a sniggering grin.

“That’s a good point,” Gaara said. “Sakura-san, how will you prevent yourself from being poisoned once you’re out there?”

Sakura smiled again, cocking her head to the side. “I’ve developed an elixir that will make us resistant to poisons for a short time. It’s not effective against every poison, but it should be able to handle a plant based one like this with no trouble,” she said. “I’d be happy to share with Temari-san.”

Gaara’s eyes honed in on her again, gauging her confidence, the grin on her face. Sakura knew she had a propensity for arrogance when it came to poisons. They were her specialty, after all. Still, she dropped the smile from her face. It wouldn’t do to boast in front of the Kazekage, even if that was exactly was Tsunade might have done if she were here.

“That settles that, then,” Gaara said. “Temari, please take Shikamaru-san and Sakura-san out to find these plants as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Gaara,” Temari said, though it was painfully clear that she did not want to be saddled with the task. Kankuro help his hand over his mouth to hide his grin.

“And you,” Gaara said to Kankuro. “Wipe that grin off your face. We have a meeting with the council today.”

Kankuro frowned and crossed his arms. This time it was Temari’s turn to hide a grin.

 

________________________________________

Sakura paused, hands on her hips as she surveyed the desert before her. The desert air was dry in her mouth, but the protective mask she had been given saved her from breathing in the sand. To her left, Temari was scanning the horizon, looking for any sign of a mysterious looking plant. To her right, Shikamaru was nonchalantly leaning against a guard post, using his flattened palm to cover a yawn.

“You could help, you know,” Sakura said to him, fixing him with an irritated look.

“Okay, here’s my advice,” he said. “Let’s go back to the village so you can create an antidote from the poison in the squads’ systems.”

She impatiently tapped her foot and flicked his ear with her forefinger. “I can’t do that, you dolt,” she snapped. “I need to find the plant it came from. The faster we do that, the faster we finish this mission.”

“Alright, alright,” he said. “You don’t have to nag.”

Still annoyed, but slightly mollified, Sakura turned back to Temari.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Temari gave her a wry look. “With the wind whipping and the sky darkened by the coming storms, it’s too hard to see,” she said with a regretful shake of her head. “It’s hard enough to find any plant at all, let alone one we’ve never seen before.”

“That’s another thing I find odd about this,” Sakura said. “A plant that excretes a poison that can be inhaled is usually a tall, flowering plant. I haven’t seen anything like that in Suna.”

“Could it possible that it isn’t a plant?” Shikamaru asked.

Sakura tapped her lips with her forefinger. That could certainly be the case. If that were true, though, they would have an entirely different problem.

“Maybe,” Sakura answered. “But the poison’s symptoms seem congruent with a plant based poison and we haven’t checked this entire seven mile radius yet. I think we should keep looking until we find evidence to suggest otherwise.”

Temari nodded in agreement and Shikamaru gave an apathetic shrug.

For the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon, Shikamaru, Sakura, and Temari scoured the desert, searching for the mysterious plant. Every so often, Sakura stopped to check herself and Shikamaru and Temari for traces of the poison in their systems. If any of them had been in contact with it, that would mean that they had been near the plant and somehow missed it.

But never once did she find any trace of it in their systems, so it was with defeat that the trio headed back to the village. They arrived back by late afternoon, exhausted and a little discouraged by their wasted efforts.

Upon returning to the village, Temari was snatched away from them by an ANBU operative and taken back to the palace for official business. She was the Kazekage’s sister, of course, so Sakura didn’t expect her to stay at their side for their entire stay in Suna.

Shikamaru, on the other hand, had no place to be and no job to do, so he took it upon himself to take some leisure time.

“There’s got to be a good place around here to take a nap,” he said, yawning and stretching his arms over his head.

Sakura shook her head with a disapproving frown. “Shouldn’t you be doing something productive?” she asked. “Like improving our relation with Suna or whatever it is that ambassadors do?”

“What can I do with Temari gone?” he asked with another infuriating shrug.

Sakura scowled. “Whatever,” she mumbled. “I’m going to check on my patients now.”

He waved her away with a dismissive hand.

________________________________________

Sakura was pleased to see that her patients were in relatively good condition. While they exhibited symptoms of the poison, they were still able to function normally and go about their day-to-day lives for the most part. Apart from their muscle weakness, which prevented them from being able to take missions, they were still all able to live in their own homes and maintain a regular diet.

So after giving each of them a thorough medical examination and sending them on their way, Sakura headed down to the laboratory to see what she could discover from the samples she had taken.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to work with. The poison from their lungs had mostly dissipated by the time she had taken her samples, and the samples the Suna-nin had originally taken were long expired.

What little she was able to find from the samples wasn’t of much use. The poison was slowly released, she realized. The shinobi must have breathed it in even through their face coverings. Wracking her brain to think of all the types of plants that would release such a poison, Sakura was having a hard time coming up with a reason why a plant would create a slow releasing poison.

Most plants were only poisonous in order to protect themselves from predators. A slowly released poison would not help with that. Perhaps if the plant were ingested, the poison would act more quickly. But unless she could find the plant, she wouldn’t be able to test that theory.

The symptoms themselves were also troublesome. Because they were not too severe, it didn’t seem like the type of poison to come from a plant trying to avoid being eaten. No, particularly the muscle weakness left Sakura feeling a little unsettled. A poison that affected its victim with muscle weakness was usually the type used by a person in combat – someone who wanted to slow someone down or prevent him or her from being able to attack or escape.

A plant would have no reason to want that, unless it was some sort of Venus flytrap like plant that would later eat its prey.

And that was a possibility, Sakura thought. But surely a plant capable of affecting fully grown shinobi with its poison would be large and easy to find.

With a frustrated sigh, Sakura bent forward and rested her forehead against the desk beside her microscope. It had been a long, grueling day and she had barely gotten anywhere with her mission. Tomorrow, she would have to make sure she made better progress.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

Sakura lifted her head, turning her face toward the now open doorway. Temari stood there, leaning against the frame. It looked like she had bathed and changed clothes since their foray into the desert. She even had a smile on her face.

“I was just trying to get a little research done,” Sakura explained, pushing back her chair and getting to her feet.

“Not going well, I presume?”

Sakura shook her head.

“I spoke with a couple of your patients,” the blonde said. “They all had nothing but good things to say about you. Even Hokimi was charmed by your bedside manner and he is notoriously uncharmable.”

Sakura waved a dismissive hand near her face. “I only alleviated their symptoms,” she explained. “The poison seems to be slow releasing, so I doubt their condition will worsen. Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be too serious a case. Still, I’d like to get to the bottom of it quickly.”

“Do we even need an antidote, then?” Temari asked. “Won’t the poison eventually dissipate on its own?”

“Maybe,” Sakura said. “But if it is a plant based poison, then it’s likely that ingesting it is also poisonous. You’ll want to make a note of what it looks like so you can avoid eating it.”

“If?” she asked. “I thought we had established that it must have come from a plant to be inhaled in such a way.”

Sakura bit her lip, glancing down at her notes. “I’m not so sure anymore,” she answered. “I’ll have to keep researching and see what I can find.”

Temari’s gaze was sharp and almost intrusive on Sakura. Sakura was far too exhausted to care about her scrutiny, but she felt a twinge of irritation knowing that they were trusting her to take care of this and she still didn’t have a single lead.

“Well, you can’t do much more in your condition,” Temari said. “You know better than to overwork yourself.”

With a furrowed brow, Sakura glanced to the clock on the wall. It was nearly midnight.

“Come on,” Temari said. “You need to get some rest now.”

Without argument, Sakura allowed Temari to lead her back to her room.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Temari and Sakura headed back out into the desert, this time with a squad of Sand shinobi. Shikamaru had been summoned by Kankuro for some ambassador business that Sakura wasn’t privy to, but she didn’t mind. It was for the best that he wasn’t with them, bringing down the group with his sour moods.

They combed through the desert together, raking through the dunes, the valleys, the crests created by the previous night’s storms. It was still quite dark and windy, and the shifting sands made it hard to tell where they had already been. Luckily for Sakura, Temari and the squad of shinobi seemed to be able to navigate the desert without any trouble. She let them take the lead as she focused on looking for whatever it was that was poisonous.

By midmorning, when they’d still had no luck, Temari stopped to catch her breath, leaning onto her bent knees. Sakura stopped beside her, her hands lit with healing chakra and poised to help Temari if she needed it.

“Are you okay?” Sakura asked. “Do you want to take a break?”

Temari stood up a little straighter, smoothing down her slightly rumpled clothing. Her mouth was set in a determined line, but Sakura could see the jaundiced tone of her skin and a light sheen of sweat that was normal for a civilian out in the desert, but a little strange on a shinobi.

“I’m fine,” the blonde insisted. “I’m just a little stiff, that’s all. I didn’t get a good night’s sleep.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes and reached out to rest her palm on Temari’s forehead. Her skin was clammy and cold, even in the desert’s heat. Temari shoved her hand away roughly, a scowl marring her features.

“I said I’m fine,” she snapped.

Sakura shook her head as she shrugged her pack off of her back and tossed it to her feet. “You aren’t fine,” she said. “I think you may have been poisoned. Sit down. Let me take a look.”

Temari looked like she wanted to protest this new authoritative Sakura’s diagnosis. She hesitated, watching as Sakura knelt down into the sand, waiting for Temari to join her. With a resigned sigh, Temari shifted her weight down to her knees, kneeling down across from Sakura.

Refraining from a triumphant grin (because smugness was never a good thing to show to an ally), Sakura touched her hand to Temari’s chest just above her breasts. She sent a current of chakra into her system, exploring in her lungs and respiratory system, searching for any trace of the poison.

And it took no longer than ten seconds before she came across a tuft of malicious microbes in Temari’s lungs being spread around by her heavy breathing.

“Yes, you’ve definitely been poisoned,” Sakura murmured. She looked over to where the shinobi squad was, still combing through the sand a short distance away. She motioned to get their attention.

“Temari-san has been poisoned,” she informed them when they had come back to her side. “I’ll need to check all of you for poison as well. If you are well, we’ll need to go back to the last area we were in and look there again. We must have missed it.”

They nodded in tandem, lingering at her side.

Quickly, Sakura set to work diagnosing the shinobi squad. Luckily, it seemed that the poison had infected only Temari. Sakura’s own system also showed no signs of it.

“Sakura-san,” said the squad captain, “With Temari-san poisoned and the storm approaching, I think it would be best if we head back to the village now.”

Sakura peered up at the captain, holding her hands over her eyes to shield them from the sun, which had now begun to shine through the sparse clouds. “It isn’t even noon,” she said. “And if we were close enough for the poison to affect Temari-san, then we’re close enough to find it. We can’t go back just yet.”

He shook his head, pressing his lips together in a thin line. Everything but his eyes were covered by his head wrap, leaving only the dark skin around his eyes and the darker glint of his pupils visible to Sakura. She tried not to wither under his disapproving glare.

“With all due respect,” he said slowly and patiently, but with a touch of restrained annoyance, “It will be difficult to traverse this terrain once the storm hits. Even harder with Temari-san out of commission.” He glanced down to Temari, who was propped against Sakura’s side. Her eyes were heavy lidded and her skin had grown even paler in the last half hour. The muscle weakness had set in by now and she would likely have to be carried back to the village.

“Fine,” Sakura said tersely. “You can leave now. Take Temari-san back with you.”

The captain’s eyebrows flew up in surprise, but the expression was whisked away nearly immediately, replaced with anger. “We cannot leave you out here alone,” he said, still exercising his willpower, though Sakura could see she had struck a nerve with him.

Sakura moved to her feet, placing her hands on her hips. “I’m here for one reason and that’s to find a cure for this poison,” she said. “I won’t have you impeding my progress. Now you can stay with me or you can leave, but I’m not leaving until I’ve found the source of the poison.”

The other two squad members seemed to perk up at Sakura’s frustrated tone, drinking in the volatility of her posture. Surely they were used to such behavior, Sakura thought, because Temari was nice, but she certainly had a temper, too. They looked to their captain for guidance. The captain jerked his chin toward Temari and one of the shinobi dipped down to pick her up and tossed her over his shoulder.

“Be careful with her!” Sakura said. “She’s still conscious, you know. She’s probably nauseous.”

“I will be careful with her, Sakura-san,” said the shinobi. Sakura was not mollified. She glanced over at the captain, who had turned his face to the sky and was watching the impending dust cloud that brought the coming storm behind it.

“We need to leave now,” he said, though he was speaking to his squad mates. They nodded to him and set off toward the village in a brisk run. The captain took one step toward Sakura, grabbed her roughly by the waist, and tossed her onto his shoulder.

“What the hell?” Sakura shrieked. “Put me down! I’m a diplomat. You can’t manhandle me like this!”

“I’m sorry, Sakura-san, but I cannot leave you out here,” he said as he followed his squad back toward the village. “It’s too dangerous and you aren’t well-versed in these lands.”

Sakura struggled against him for a moment, contemplating whether or not she should use her chakra-enhanced strength to break free from his grasp. She didn’t want to hurt him, though, because it could reflect poorly on Konoha. Instead, she relaxed herself against him.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “Put me down. I can run on my own.”

The captain paused, dropping her back down to her feet. He hesitated for a moment, watching to see if she would bolt before he resumed his pace behind his squad.

The moment he had his eyes turned away from her, she sprinted back off toward the direction they had come from. They were so close to the source of the poison. They had been close enough for Temari to inhale it. If she didn’t find it today, now, she might never find it again in the bleak expanse of desert dunes. No, the only way this mission could be a success was if she located the source of the poison today and put all her efforts into creating its antidote.

Not even the storm would stop her from completing her mission.

Then she felt a hand around her wrist, yanking her backwards. “Do you cause this much trouble in Konoha?” the captain asked. A dramatic wind swept over the dune they were standing on, blowing a cloud of rough sand into Sakura’s face. She winced, bringing up her arms to shield her eyes. Using that opportunity, the captain lifted her up again and hoisted her onto his shoulder, this time keeping a firm grip on her thigh should she try to kick him.

From her perch on his back, Sakura could see the blackening of the sky, the swirl of ominous sand that was hurtling its way toward them. She no longer felt the compulsion to stay. Instead, a fear crept into her throat, tightening in her chest. The storm looked nasty, she thought. She could see why the Sand shinobi were so afraid of being caught out in one.

“The storm will blow away the poison,” Sakura mumbled aloud, more to herself than to the captain. Perhaps this had been why they hadn’t found it yesterday. With the constant storms, it would be much to hard to locate something so small, something that had been narrowed down to a specific location. The storm could have carried it anywhere. And they had still managed to get so close to it.

“Better the poison than you, Sakura-san,” the captain said.

She didn’t necessarily disagree, but she still glared holes into his back the entire way back to Suna.

________________________________________

Back in the village, Sakura hovered over Temari, her lips pursed as she tried to extract as much of the poison as she could. It was much harder to isolate an inhaled poison, so it took a decent amount of concentration. The medical ward was usually fairly empty, but today, a host of medic nin hovered around Sakura, watching as she extracted the poison in much the same way she had done with Kankuro just a few years prior.

Sakura had gained a bit of a reputation after that, so it was only natural for the Sand medics to want to study her as she worked. She found herself annoyed, though, as they asked far too many questions, interrupted her thoughts, and pestered her as she tried to work. She wasn’t here to teach. She was here to create an antidote.

But so far, all she had done was go on a wild goose chase and get the Kazekage’s sister poisoned.

Shaking the disappointment from her head, Sakura doubled down, focusing her chakra in Temari’s lungs.

“Temari,” said a tense voice behind her.

Sakura removed her hands from Temari carefully and turned to face the Kazekage. He was in his full robes again, his eyes sharp, but his face haggard. It was a face she had seen often enough on Tsunade. Being a Kage must be exhausting, Sakura thought. It didn’t help that he was worried about his sister. The tiny crease between his brows showed her his concern.

“She’s fine,” Sakura placated. “I put her to sleep because this procedure can be a bit uncomfortable. But like the others who have been poisoned so far, she will be fine.”

He didn’t seem mollified by that. He circumvented Sakura and took Temari’s hand.

“She looks pale,” he said.

Patiently, Sakura gave him a strained smile. “She’s okay, though,” she said again. “It’s not serious.”

He turned his gaze to Sakura, his eyes narrow and intense. It came flooding back to her – the things he was capable of, the demons of his past. She was uncomfortable with his scrutiny on her, but she didn’t look away. He was different without Shukaku, she reminded herself. His eyes were different – that she could tell now as he gave her a roving glance with critical eyes, intense but not quite like they had been during the chuunin exams all that time ago. This Gaara was not the same one who had attacked her.

“Were you able to locate the source of the poison?” he asked. It appeared that he understood his demeanor was too intense for her so he softened his gaze.

“We came close,” she explained. “Obviously close enough for Temari to get poisoned. But the squad captain we went out with refused to let me stay and continue searching.”

Gaara glanced toward the window out into the village. The desert couldn’t be seen from their angle, but the darkness of the sky told them everything they needed to know.

“Regrettable,” he said. “But the storm could have killed you.”

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I have a feeling that we were very, very close. Even just ten minutes more could have yielded progress. We were definitely in the right area. If I had only had just a bit more time…”

His brow furrowed. He glanced to the other medics still crowded around Temari’s bed. “In any case,” he said with deliberate slowness, “I’m glad you chose to come back. It isn’t safe to be out of the village during a storm.”

“I didn’t choose to come back!” she nearly screeched. Instantly, she covered her mouth with her palm, her eyes wide as she realized she had just screamed at the Kazekage.

He didn’t seem angry, though, merely curious. His eyes darted between her and the other medics in the room. They seemed to be ignoring their conversation, though Sakura was aware they were listening with rapt attention. Just because their eyes were still on Temari didn’t mean they weren’t just as curious about Gaara’s opinion on the pink-haired foreigner.

“Leave,” he said, his eyes still locked onto Sakura’s. The word was uttered so quietly that it startled Sakura. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the word, but that he would even command her to do such a thing was terrifying. A little nervously, she began to walk toward the door, bowing her head to the Kazekage.

But behind her, the rest of the medics began to leave as well. They shuffled their way to the door, trying to be as quiet as possible.

“Not you,” Gaara said to Sakura. She froze in place, letting the medics filter out around her. Once they had been cleared out of the room and the door was shut behind them, she chanced a look back at his face.

“I apologize, Kazekage-sama—”

“Explain what you meant by that.”

“The squad captain—”

“Hideki,” Gaara supplied.

“Hideki-san,” she continued. “He was concerned about the storm and decided it was best to leave. I told him I wanted to stay for just a while longer and see if I could find the source of the poison.”

“He did not let you,” Gaara said. It wasn’t a question.

“He had one of the other squad members take Temari-san,” she answered. “And when I refused to come with him, he slung me over his shoulder like I was a sack of flour!”

Gaara blinked. The corner of his mouth twitched. Sakura realized he was trying to hold back a smile. Furious, she tightened her fists at her sides.

“I imagine a kunoichi as accomplished as yourself would have been able to free herself from his hold,” he said. Sakura was annoyed by the amusement she sensed in his tone.

“I didn’t want to hurt him.”

His lips turned up in a smile now, and the expression looked so different from the manic smiles she had seen on him before. He looked happy, which was preposterous at a time like this, Sakura thought. But her thoughts didn’t linger there, because it was in that moment that she decided that Gaara was actually quite handsome and his smile suited him.

“I cannot fault Hideki for bringing you back here,” he said, “even if he did have to manhandle you. If you had agreed to come back he would not have needed to do that.”

“Excuse me?” Sakura asked incredulously. “You’re saying it’s my own fault?”

He took a step toward her, his eyes glinting. He was amused still, Sakura saw, which only served to annoy her even more. “Yes, Sakura-san,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, a witty quip hanging from the tip of her tongue. But before she could snap her retort, she thought better of it. Even if he wasn’t the Kazekage, he was still a man who had nearly killed her before, a man who was known to have temper issues.

“It was your fault, Sakura-san.”

Both Gaara and Sakura turned to Temari, who was awake now and trying to sit up. Sakura rushed to her side, her hands already glowing with her green, healing chakra. “Temari-san, please lie back down,” she said. “I’m not finished with you yet. I’m still trying to extract the poison.”

“That’s not what it looks like,” Temari said, glancing over at her brother.

Gaara dipped his head toward his sister and then gave Sakura a nod as well. “I see you’re in good hands, Temari,” he said. “I’ll let you get back to work, Sakura.” Sakura and Temari watched him leave. Once he was gone, Sakura sent a glare in Temari’s direction. She said nothing as she used her chakra to put Temari back to sleep. And an hour later, once she had finished extracting as much of the poison as she could, Sakura left Temari on her bed in the medical wing instead of waking her up to go back to her own rooms.

________________________________________

The storm raged on well into the night. Sakura could hear the winds pelting sand against the roof, howling and wreaking havoc against the stone structures of the village. It was loud and distracting, and coupled with Sakura’s anxiety over her lack of progress so far it was much too difficult to sleep.

A bit irritated, she tossed her covers onto the floor and stood up. Suna was hot – much too hot for Sakura’s usual sleepwear. So she threw on one of the many silk robes that had been hanging in the wardrobe, tying it loosely around her naked waist before she made her way out into the hall.

Suna’s open palace design was beautiful, but it seemed wildly impractical to Sakura. Out in the hallway, she was still covered by the roof above her, but down at the end of the corridor she could see the sand being blown about by the wind and a tiny sliver of moonlight that didn’t do much to illuminate the village.

She had intended to make her way toward the bath again. Perhaps a nice hot soak would help clear her mind and relieve a bit of stress. But the path to the bath would lead her out into the storm, and she definitely couldn’t do that.

Instead, she wandered down the opposite end of the corridor. She passed the medical ward and kept walking. She had never explored much beyond the medical facility in Suna. There was hardly ever an innocuous reason for her to come visit – asking for a tour seeming like an inappropriate thing to do. But this time, she would have to remember to ask Temari for one if she could spare the time.

She gazed in admiration at the beautiful marble textures on the wall, the sconces that shone brightly against that darkness that surrounded everything else. She wondered if the other nations had palaces as beautiful as this one.

Up ahead she noticed a large pane of glass that reflected the scant moonlight back toward her. Intrigued, she approached it and saw that it was a window looking out to the courtyard below. She pressed her palms to the glass and watched the storm. It was difficult to see much through the thick clouds of sand and dust, but that was somehow just as interesting to Sakura as the courtyard might have been had she been able to see it.

Idly, she drew circles on the glass while she watched. It was hypnotic in a way – the swirling sands, the lilting way it smacked against the window. For something that had prevented her from falling asleep just a few moments ago, it was doing a good job of lulling her into tranquility now.

“Not much to see.”

Sakura whirled around, on guard because she hadn’t sense anyone approach her. Gaara stood behind her, his hands clasped behind his back. He was looking over her shoulder through the glass.

“The view of the courtyard from here is beautiful,” he continued. “You should come back once the storm has cleared.”

“Kazekage-sama…”

He approached the window and stood beside her, watching the sand against the glass. “Although,” he said, “I suppose I should have someone come clean the window first since you’ve smudged it with your fingerprints.”

“Sorry, Kazekage-sama.”

He glanced at her, eyeing her face first before noticing her state of undress. Perhaps she imagined it, but Sakura thought she saw the barest hint of a blush on his cheeks. He cleared his throat and returned his attention to the window.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked as she tightened the tie on her robe.

“Oh,” Sakura said. “Well, yes. I’m a little unnerved by my lack of progress with this mission. These storms are making it very difficult on me.”

His gaze returned to her face again, searching for something there that he didn’t seem to be able to find. Sakura found she didn’t particularly enjoy his attention. He seemed too critical, too curious about her. It unsettled her.

“Do you think the storms themselves might be the source of the poison?” he asked.

Sakura blinked as she considered that. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but she supposed it could be possible. The winds could be carrying about all manner of things. That, however, would make the poison impossible to locate, which would severely hinder her ability to complete the mission.

“I hope not,” she answered. “I’m not sure I’d ever find a substantial sample of the poison if that’s the case.”

“You were not able to get what you needed from my sister?”

Sakura shook her head. “Once inhaled, the poison is much too hard to isolate,” she explained. “I think tomorrow I will work on creating some kind of elixir to permanently alleviate the poison’s symptoms. It’s not as thorough as an antidote, but it will at least give you an option if more of your shinobi end up being poisoned and we’re unable to find the source.”

Through the reflection in the glass, Sakura saw Gaara frown.

“But don’t worry, though,” she said quickly. “I’ll head back out after the storm has passed and keep looking. I won’t stop until I’ve exhausted every option.”

The corners of his mouth tilted up into a smile and again Sakura was struck with the thought that he was handsome. She blinked rapidly to clear the thought from her mind.

“I can see why Naruto likes you so much,” he said.

Sakura opened her mouth to respond to that, but she found that she didn’t quite have the words she wanted.

“Don’t fret over it, Sakura,” he said. “I can accompany you tomorrow morning after the storm has passed. We will find the source of the poison.”

“Oh, no, Kazekage-sama,” she said. “You don’t have to do that. I know you’re very busy. I’m sure I can manage—”

He held up a hand to shush her. “You’ll need someone to replace Temari since she’ll be unable to travel in her condition,” he said. “Besides, I need to get away from the palace.”

She bowed her head slightly. It was understandable that he would want to escape from being Kazekage, even if it was just for the morning. Being Tsunade’s apprentice, Sakura understood quite well the struggles and stress of protecting and running the entire village. Although, Tsunade’s way of coping was to drink. If Gaara only needed to be outside the village walls for a while, that was a much more reasonable way to handle the stress.

“I understand, Kazekage-sama.”

They stood together in silence for a few moments. Sakura again grew mesmerized by the sand on the other side of the glass. For a moment she felt like she was looking into a massive hourglass.

Again, she reached up and pressed her palm to the glass. It seemed as though it should feel hot under her skin, but it was cool to the touch.

“The cleaning crew won’t like that.”

She snatched her hand away, clutching it to her chest. She felt a heat flare up in her cheeks. She didn’t like to feel admonished. It was the second time he’d made a comment about her touching the glass.

“I’m sorry, Kazekage-sama,” she said.

But when she glanced over at him again, he was smiling. “Temari has the same compulsion,” he said. “Especially when the winds rattle the glass. She presses her face against it.”

Sakura smiled, too, because it was nice to hear that Temari had a side of her that was childlike and a little less severe. She wondered if Temari ever stood here when she couldn’t sleep, pressing her face to the glass and watching storms.

Silence fell over them again. Sakura stifled a yawn, stretching her fingers to cover her mouth. She felt drowsy now, thanks to the cadence of the storm, the darkness that enveloped the corridor. Her exhaustion was settling in, finally. A bit belatedly, she realized she felt comfortable in Gaara’s presence, in spite of her apprehension about him. Should she have been afraid of him?

No, this Gaara was trustworthy – she didn’t even need to think about it. It was only natural for her to feel comfortable with his company.

“Perhaps you should return to your rooms and get some rest,” Gaara said softly to her.

She turned to catch his eye. He wasn’t looking at her, but there was a warmth on his face that had never been there before Shukaku had been removed. His cheeks were pleasantly flushed, his eyes tired but glimmering with vitality. It was a wonder that a man with a past like his, a childhood so miserable and loveless, could love his village so much in spite of everything they had done to him.

Sakura realized her thoughts were a little patronizing and possibly inappropriate. She was in no position to analyze the Kazekage’s life.

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” she replied, bowing her head low. He gave her a curt nod and said nothing else while she made her way back to her rooms.

Chapter Text

On her third day in Suna, Sakura woke up feeling much more optimistic about her mission. She felt much more confidant she would be successful if she had Gaara’s help. And well, at least she was better off than Shikamaru, who had been forced out of bed before sun up to meet with Kankuro and the village’s financers. Sakura shuddered at the thought, glad to be going out to the desert instead.

Gaara and Hideki’s squad were waiting for her at the gates when she arrived. Together, they ventured back out into the desert. She tried to avoid Hideki’s gaze as they ran side by side on the sand dunes. She understood why he had so brusquely carried her back to Suna, but she was displeased by it all the same.

Instead, she focused her attention on Gaara’s feet as he ran just a few paces ahead of her. She wasn’t familiar enough with this terrain to feel comfortable running without his guidance, so she kept her eyes trained on his back so she wouldn’t get lost. He had foregone his Kage robes today, instead donning his regular shinobi wear.

“Hideki,” Gaara said, his voice sharp and authoritative. “Do you remember where you were when Temari began to show signs of being poisoned?”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” he said, moving to take the lead. Gaara fell back to take Hideki’s place at Sakura’s side.

“What is it that we should be looking for, Sakura?” he asked, his eyes connecting with hers for a brief moment before they returned to the landscape in front of them.

“There’s no way to know for sure what the plant will look like,” she explained. “But usually a plant that emits a poison like this will look like a Venus flytrap. It might be lower to the ground, possibly buried part way in the sand. It’s possible that there will be some sort of bright flower or bud attached to make it more alluring to its prey.”

Gaara nodded in response, looking back over his shoulder to make sure the rest of Hideki’s squad had heard her as well.

Hideki led them to the area they had been in when Sakura noticed Temari had been poisoned. The landscape was completely unrecognizable to her. The group slowed to a more relaxed pace as they began searching through the dunes again, looking for the elusive poison source.

“Kazekage-sama—”

“You may call me by my name, Sakura,” he said, giving her a disapproving look. “You are a friend of Naruto’s so you are also a friend of mine.”

A little flustered, she reached behind her into her pack and pulled out a small vial of liquid. “Gaara-sama,” she said, pretending the waver in her voice wasn’t really happening. “Here is a vial of the elixir that will make you resistant to most poisons. I’m sorry, I should have given it to you before we left.”

He took the vial from her hand and held it up to the sun to inspect it. “Should I drink it?” he asked. Sakura nodded.

“Kazekage-sama, wait,” Hideki said. “It could be poisoned. You shouldn’t drink something unless your food tester has tasted it first.”

Gaara sent a mild glare in Hideki’s direction before he pulled the rubber stopper from the vial and downed its contents in one gulp. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, tossing the empty vial in Hideki’s direction. Hideki caught it, his face aghast.

“Kazekage-sama!” he exclaimed. “What if she poisoned it? She’s a foreign shinobi, remember?”

Sakura crossed her arms, feeling slightly offended that he thought she would poison one of Konoha’s allies. Did he take her for a fool?

“Well, Sakura?” Gaara asked, though his eyes were still drilled into Hideki. “Did you poison the elixir?”

“No, Kazekage-sama—” His eyes flicked to hers. “—I mean Gaara-sama.”

“She said she didn’t poison it, Hideki,” Gaara said. “So let’s focus on the task we’re here for instead of pointing fingers at our esteemed guest.”

Sakura briefly considered whether or not it would be uncouth to send a smug smirk in the Suna captain’s direction. She chose not to.

________________________________________

Several hours scouring the desert left them still empty-handed. Even with Gaara being able to sense things within the sands, shift them in their favor, and use the sand to raise himself up to get a better view, there was still no trace of the source of the poison.

Sakura gave a heavy sigh, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. She felt defeated, she could admit. She hadn’t realized it would be so difficult just to find the damn poison. She hadn’t even started on the antidote yet and she was nearly halfway through the scheduled weeklong stay.

It was almost noon and the sun hung precariously high in the sky, beating down on them relentlessly. The heat was truly stifling – Sakura felt like she could barely expand her lungs well enough to take a solid breath.

“Gaara-sama,” she said, squinting in his direction. She could see his silhouette a few meters away. “Gaara-sama, perhaps we should—”

“Hush,” he said, putting his fingers to his lips. Sakura obeyed, listening intently for whatever it was that Gaara seemed to hear. He crouched low to the ground, his knees buried in the sand. With his palm against the ground, he closed his eyes. Sakura could see his sand trickling out of his gourd, moving to span over the dune they were standing on.

“What is it, Kazekage-sama?” Hideki asked.

Gaara held up his free hand, his eyes still shut as he listened or felt for whatever it was he sensed beneath the sand. Everyone remained deadly silent as they watched him. The winds whipped around them, whistling in their ears, howling in the distance across the dunes. Compared to the turbulence of the storms, the desert seemed oddly still and quiet in spite of the whistling winds.

Then Sakura felt it – a deep, low rumbling beneath her feet. The ground vibrated, causing the sand the hum and shift.

“We need to move,” Gaara said. “Now.”

He began to run back toward them, the sand from his gourd now hovering around him protectively.

But just before he reached them, an explosion of sand and dust and something disgustingly wet erupted between them. Sakura staggered backwards and fell down on her back. She rolled down the side of the dune, trying to shield her eyes and mouth from the swirls of sand. A pair of strong hands caught her and pulled her back up to her feet.

“Sakura-san,” said Hideki, “Are you alright?”

Before she could reply, a large shadow crept over them, followed by a screeching sound so loud that Sakura crushed her palms against the ears to soften the sound against her eardrums. She gazed up into the sky at what had just passed between her and the sun.

It was a creature – large and legless like a giant snake or a worm. Its head was massive, certainly big enough to swallow any of them whole. It was probably at least a hundred feet in length, dotted with fins that glinted in the sunlight. It was covered in a putrid slime that had gathered sand in clumps all along its body. It let out another terrifying screech, exposing rows and rows of sharp teeth.

“What the hell is that?” Sakura breathed.

“Kazekage-sama!”

Sakura looked to where Gaara had been standing and saw that he had moved into the sky, hovering on his sand platform behind the beast. She saw him make a gesture to Hideki, who nodded curtly in his direction.

“We have to go, Sakura-san,” he said. He grabbed her arm and began running back toward Suna, jerking his head toward his squad mates. They moved into formation around Sakura, forming a protective triangle around her.

“No, wait,” Sakura said, digging her heels in to the sand and pulling her arm away. “We can’t leave him here to fight that thing on his own!”

“He’s the Kazekage. He can handle it,” Hideki said. “He ordered us to go back.”

“He may have ordered you, but he didn’t say anything to me.”

Sakura spun around and dodged between the other two Sand shinobi, running back toward Gaara. Unfortunately, she then saw why he had asked them to leave. From beneath the beast she could see a rising wave of sand – a wall of it so large she couldn’t see where on the horizon it ended. Did he plan to smother it with the sand? Crush its body?

“Gaara-sama!” she yelled, praying her could hear her over the din of the beast and the winds.

“Sakura-san, please,” Hideki yelled to her. “You need to come back with us.”

Sakura shook her head and pointed to the beast, still hanging in the sky. It lunged toward Gaara, who had yet to send his wave of sand crashing back down to the earth. “It could be the source of the poison,” she said. “I’m not leaving without a sample.”

“Kazekage-sama gave me a direct order to—”

She couldn’t tell whether or not he finished the sentence. She was already running back toward Gaara, who had dodged the beast and was looking beneath him in her direction. The wall of sand began to crumble, fading back into the dunes. Gaara swung down low the ground, coming back toward her.

The beast hissed and screeched again, this time spitting gobs of slime their way. Sakura leapt backwards to avoid the spray. It might have been the cause of the poison, though she thought this unlikely. Still, she wanted to have a sample of it so she reached into her pack and pulled out a clear tube and scooped up some slime and sand from the ground careful not to let it touch her skin.

“Hideki,” Gaara said, his voice clear now that he was so close. “I ordered you to take Sakura back to the village.”

Sakura ignored the sharp guilt in her gut.

“Gaara-sama, I can’t leave until I’ve collected a sample,” she explained. “This thing could be what’s poisoning your shinobi.”

He turned his eyes on her now, and she shrunk back away from the ire she saw on his face. Behind him, the beast opened its mouth wide and bellowed – a loud, thunderous sound that rattle Sakura’s eardrums and made her teeth hurt. It then plummeted back toward the ground, diving into the sand and underneath them again.

She shielded her face from the sand that sprayed up everywhere and moved into a fighting stance. This wasn’t going to be easy for her – this terrain didn’t lend itself well to her abilities. If she wanted to inflict any kind of damage, she would need to land a direct hit on the beast.

“Hideki, take your squad and go back to the village.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” Hideki replied, bowing low. He spared a hesitant glance toward Sakura before he launched himself back toward the village with his squad mates following close behind him.

Sakura didn’t waste any time. She summoned a healthy amount of chakra into her fist and punched the sand beneath her feet. The impact on the sand wasn’t nearly as satisfying as a punch on solid earth would have been, but it kicked up a large amount of sand nonetheless. She wished Hinata were there with her so she could use her Byakugan to search beneath the sand for the massive beast. But without the Byakugan, Sakura would just have to search the old fashioned way.

In the crater she had just created, Sakura scanned the sand, looking for anything that might be releasing a breathable poison. Finding nothing, she moved to the next dune and did the same thing – creating another crater to search through. But this time when she punched the ground, a low rumbling sound followed. She stilled for a moment, listening intently to hear where beneath her the beast was exactly.

Then, from the corner of her eye she saw it – a nest of eggs. She could see the fumes rising from it – either that or heat that distorted her vision just over the nest. Quickly, she summoned more chakra to her feet so she could run to the nest. With a burst of speed, she lunged forward.

The rumbling beneath her feet grew louder. She could feel it, chattering her teeth and making her vision blurry. Another explosion of sand and slime mushroomed before her. She braced herself for impact, but it never came.

Instead, she found herself hanging from Gaara’s sand platform, his hand clutched tightly around her wrist. She looked down below her and saw the beast hovering protectively over its nest.

“Gaara-sama,” she said as he pulled her up onto the platform. The beast spit another spray of slime in their direction. Sakura squeezed her eyes shut, but Gaara’s globe of sand appeared before them, preventing the spray from reaching the platform. “It’s protecting a nest. I think the eggs are what’s creating the poison.”

He glared at her. She took a step back away from him, a little surprised that he still seemed angry. In spite of his ostensible anger, more sand moved to accommodate her step and prevent her from plummeting back down to the ground.

“That was incredibly foolish of you,” he said through clenched teeth.

“What?”

“You provoked it and you approached its nest.”

She blinked, surprised that he would admonish her for that. It was the entire reason she had stayed instead of going back with Hideki’s squad. She had to have a sample of the poison. “I know, but I was just—”

She was cut off by another loud screeching as the floating beast zipped through the air toward them. A tendril of Gaara’s sand snaked its way toward the beast, striking its head with a sharp blow. The beast bellowed and reared its head back, preparing to lunge again.

Sakura glanced down to the ground below. It wasn’t too far of a drop. If she cushioned herself with chakra, she would be able to land with no injury. Gaara was sending continuous strikes of sand out to hit the beast, which seemed distracted now. Taking the opportunity, Sakura leapt down off the platform.

She landed on a high sand dune and skidded down to the bottom. She could see the crater with the nest inside just a few meters away. Quickly, she began to run towards it.

“Sakura!” she heard Gaara yell, but she ignored it. She glanced above her head up at the beast as it snaked itself across the sky. It still seemed distracted by Gaara, she noticed. If he could just keep it distracted until she could get her hands on an egg…

A dark shadow covered her suddenly, the sand growing darker as she neared the nest. Too nervous to look up at the beast she knew was just above her now, she continued running, trying to keep her breathing steady. As she neared the nest, she realized the eggs were much larger than they had appeared before. They were at least as big as her head and with the poisonous fumes she could see emanating from it, it would certainly be a task to return it to the village without poisoning herself or the Kazekage.

She paused and flung her pack from her shoulder. She reached inside and pulled out a gas mask. She only had one, which she knew she would need to give to Gaara. She could manage the poison in her own system without it – even if she’d rather not have to.

The beast spat another deluge of slime down toward her. She dodged out of the way, but a sand shield appeared to protect her nonetheless.

“Gaara-sama!” she yelled, squinting up toward him. He was directly between her and the sun, which made it very hard to see him. But she could see his location well enough to attach the gas mask to a kunai and launch it up toward him.

It embedded itself in his sand shield before Sakura watched it sink inside. Hopefully he would put it on immediately.

She turned back to the nest. At this point it was too late to coordinate an attack with Gaara. Hopefully she could just make a run for the nest and take off with one and he would follow her.

She kept running and then skidded into a halt in front of the nest. Surprisingly, there was no odor, in spite of the sickly green hue the eggs had taken. She hefted one up out the nest, hoisting it onto her hip like it was a toddler. It was much heavier than she expected, and the shell was slimy and slippery in her grasp. She used a touch of chakra to keep it adhered to the skin of her palms and began to run.

A screech above her head alerted her to the beast’s attack. It swooped down in front of her, blocking her path as it’s belly skimmed along the sand. It bellowed again – a sound that was more frantic, more distressed than any of its previous noises.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I know it’s your baby, but I need it.”

It whirled its head around to face Sakura, moaning like it was in pain. Sakura trembled as she gauged another direction she could run. She spotted Gaara in the sky above her, but he seemed to have all his attention focused on the beast.

Without warning, a wall of sand shot up from the ground, launching the beast high up into the air. The beast wriggled and screeched, righting itself before lunging again toward Sakura, who was now frozen in place with nowhere to run. Again, Gaara sent a wave of sand to save her, knocking the beast over onto its side.

A spell of dizziness washed over Sakura. The poison. She blinked rapidly, trying to dispel the feeling. With her chakra, she explored her lungs, looking for the microbes that any second now would send weakness to her muscles and paleness to her cheeks. She expelled what she could, but she knew that she would need to get back to the village to be able to get rid of all of it.

The wall of sand in front of her dropped back down into the earth. Sakura glanced up at Gaara again. He remained in the sky, attacking the beast with his tendrils of sand.

“Gaara-sama!” she shouted as she began to run back toward Suna. She didn’t look back, hoping that Gaara would follow her and leave the beast behind. Her chakra levels were dwindling as she continued to suck the infected microbes from her lung and expel them through her sides.

The heat was beginning to get to her. Her face and neck were drenched in sweat, her chest felt like it was on fire, and she felt twinges of unresponsiveness in her muscles. Running on the sand became much too difficult. She could no longer pull her chakra precisely to the pads of her feet. She squeezed the egg closer to her body. If she collapsed and dropped it, it would be impossible to find again.

Another eerie screech ripped through the air close behind her. A second later she felt a spray of the beast’s slime against her back. She winced and kept running, hoping that the offending bodily fluid wouldn’t do too much harm to her before she could get back to Suna.

Her back began to sting as the slime on her back cooked in the beaming sun. A muscle spasm in her leg caused her to stumble. Her chakra control was suffering and she miss-stepped against the sand. Her leg crumpled beneath her and she crashed face forward into the sand, careful to keep the egg safe from her weight. She tucked the egg into her stomach, curling around it to protect it as she continued to roll down the sandy slope.

When she had come to a stop on her back, she squeezed her eyes shut. The sun was blindingly white. It made her head ache and her eyes smart. She felt them start to tear up. She blinked rapidly a couple of times. Her vision blurred. Then it began to tunnel. Her arms became too heavy to lift. She opened her mouth to groan, but a raspy wheeze came out instead.

The pinprick of light that was left of her vision vanished into shadow, taking Sakura’s consciousness with it.

 

“How can you not remember?” a familiar voice asked. “Weren’t you studying her this whole time?”

“Of course, Kankuro-san, but this is different—”

“It looks the same to me.”

“That’s enough, Kankuro.”

The voices continued to chatter. Sakura’s head was swimming – a pulsating pain reverberating in her skull. She tried to open her eyes, but they felt glued shut. She tried to open her mouth to speak, but she found she couldn’t remember how.

It must be the poison, she thought. Perhaps being so close to the egg had worsened the effects. Did that mean Gaara had been poisoned, too?

“Gaara-sama, surely you don’t approve of their slacking. Sakura-san is our guest! How can we send her back to Konoha in this state?”

Sakura felt her chakra reserves. They were at a decent level. She must have been out for some time for her chakra to replenish itself completely. Sluggishly, she tried to bring some of it to her head to alleviate the pounding there. She might not have been able to control her muscles, but she could still at least control her chakra.

“I’m with Gaara on this one,” said another voice – Temari’s, Sakura recognized. “This doesn’t look like what happened to me. I just had a bit of muscle weakness and some nausea.”

“Oh, you’re an expert now?”

Her chakra felt cooling and gentle in her head. If she had been able to, Sakura would have sighed with relief. Once her headache was gone, she shifted her focus to her lungs. If she had inhaled the poison, she needed to get rid of it as soon as possible.

“All I know is that something is seriously wrong with her.”

“Obviously.”

The voices continued, but Sakura paid them no attention as she continued to push chakra into her lungs, clearing out what she could of the poison. Once she had finished that, she began working on the tightness in her muscles.

“Maybe we should take her back to her rooms,” Temari suggested. “If the medics can’t help her, we can at least make her comfortable.”

“She’s comfortable enough here,” said Gaara’s voice. “I don’t want to move her again. Not until we know for sure what’s going on.”

Slowly, Sakura was able to flex her fingers. She tightened and curled them, testing her grip strength. Blearily, she blinked her eyes open. The room was spinning in circles, the brightness of the overhead lights pounding into her brain. She squeezed her eyes shut and let out a small groan.

“Look, she’s waking up!”

She felt cool, feminine fingers on her forehead. “Sakura, can you hear me?”

Sakura reached up and gripped the wrist attached to the hand on her forehead. Her grip was weak, but at least she could move.

“I can hear you,” she rasped.

“What a relief,” she heard Kankuro say. “Could you imagine Konoha’s fury if we killed their top medic? Naruto would never forgive you, Gaara.”

Sakura wished she could have seen Gaara’s reaction to that. Slowly, she pushed herself up into a sitting position and opened her eyes. She was in the medical wing on a cot. Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara stood around her, watching and waiting as she gathered her bearings. Behind them, closer to the door was the rest of the medic group she had been working with when she first arrived.

“Are you alright, Sakura-san?” Temari asked.

Sakura nodded, accepting the glass of cold water that Temari pushed into her hands. She drank it in one gulp, not realizing how thirsty she had been.

“You really had us worried there for a second.”

Sakura passed the empty glass back, giving the blond an apologetic look. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice still dry and raspy. “I’m fine. Do you have the egg?”

Temari glanced over behind Sakura’s shoulder. Sakura followed her gaze to where Gaara was standing, watching them disapprovingly.

“Yes,” he answered for her. “We have the egg.” To Sakura’s chagrin, he sounded pretty angry.

Sakura glanced back at Temari. She looked sheepish, which probably wasn’t a good sign. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay,” she said softly. “You should probably get some rest. We’ll leave you alone.”

“Wait. How long was I out?”

“Only a couple of hours,” Gaara answered.

“More like five or six,” Kankuro corrected. Gaara sent a glare in his direction, but Sakura had already figured she’d been out for about that long. There was no way her chakra would have already regenerated otherwise.

“Alright, alright,” Kankuro said. “Everyone out.”

The medics began to file out through the door. Gaara watched them with a sharp eye, seeming to be angry still. Kankuro followed them, Temari hot on his heels. It seemed the Sand siblings could tell that their brother was not in the best of moods and didn’t want to be present for whatever was about to happen to Sakura.

Sakura pressed her lips together in a tight line, waiting for the room to empty so the Kazekage could admonish her for whatever it was that she had done wrong.

Once the room was empty and the thick silence permeated the air around her, Sakura let out a whoosh of a breath. “Kazekage-sama—”

“I’m glad you’re okay, Sakura-san,” Gaara said, though his voice was tight as he expressed his relief. “However, I feel the need to establish some ground rules. This might have been prevented if you had obeyed Hideki.”

“I understand, Kazekage-sama,” she said. “I should have listened when—”

“Yes, you should have listened,” he interrupted again. “But you did not listen. You provoked an ancient beast. You stole an egg from its nest and enraged it. It’s out there as we speak, still wreaking havoc over the desert.”

Sakura blinked in confusion. She naturally had assumed that he would have killed the beast before leaving.

“Why didn’t you kill it?”

The barest hint of a smirk graced his features. “Easier said than done.”

Sakura looked down into her lap, twiddling with her fingers. “I’m sorry, Kazekage-sama,” she said. “I was only trying to find the source of the poison.”

Gaara moved to the foot of her cot and sat down. “I’ve sent a message to the Hokage explaining everything that’s happened,” he said. Sakura felt a twinge of annoyance. It must have shown on her face as well, because Gaara held up a hand to stop whatever she had been about to say. “This was supposed to be a routine mission for you. You almost got yourself killed.”

“Excuse me, Kazekage-sama, but I was doing my mission,” she argued, sure that her petulance was apparent from her tone. “Being killed was a necessary risk.”

“I requested you for this mission. I decide what the necessary risks are.”

Sakura sucked in a deep breath, but she held it in instead of sighing. That might have been true, but she didn’t feel the need to be coddled like a child. Would Gaara have felt the same way if it had been Naruto out there instead of her?

“It’s late, Sakura,” Gaara said. “Get some sleep. You may continue working on the antidote in the morning.”

Sakura tried not to pout as Gaara made his way out of the medical wing.

Chapter Text

Sakura woke up in a sour mood. She was still in the medical wing and every muscle in her body ached with disuse. Her headache was back, her stomach was growling, and she was in desperate need of a shower.

Instead of going back to her rooms to shower, Sakura decided it would be best to have a quick training session to exercise her muscles. Food could wait. What she needed was to beat the shit out of something and vent out all her pent up frustration. She made her way to the courtyard where she remembered seeing training dummies when she had first arrived.

The courtyard was blessedly empty, which Sakura was extremely grateful for. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with strangers. Or any of the Sand shinobi she knew, come to think of it.

She squared away in front of one of the training dummies and began to practice her taijutsu, kicking and punching without the aid of chakra, both because she didn’t want to ruin the dummy and it wouldn’t help her with her muscle fatigue.

Truthfully, Sakura was upset. This mission hadn’t been going at all according to plan. Sakura wasn’t particularly fond of being admonished – even by Tsunade, who had more of a right to do so than even her own parents did. But for Gaara to chide her… Well, it was an unpleasant feeling. He was the same age as her, and a man who just a few years ago had been so loose a canon that he had nearly killed her. She knew that he had changed, that he was a respectable man now, but was he really the Kazekage? That seemed like way too much responsibility.

But then she supposed that his father had been Kazekage. Perhaps he wasn’t so ill suited for it. The villagers certainly seemed okay with his being their leader.

Sakura grunted as she landed a particularly brutal punch on the dummy’s chest.

It wasn’t just Gaara bothering her. She was now halfway through the week’s time she had been allotted for the mission and she hadn’t even started figuring out the antidote yet. Who could have predicted that a giant floating worm beast would be the source of the poison? Hopefully Tsunade would understand if she needed an extension of time.

Though after Gaara’s words, she was more determined than ever to not need more time. If she put enough effort into it, she could get the antidote done fairly quickly now that she had the egg. She would finish her training session, get some breakfast, and then get to work on the antidote. She could finish her mission in plenty of time and get back to Konoha without needing an extension.

And she was really missing Konoha about now.

“I figured you’d be in the labs now that you have that damn egg.”

Sakura turned to find Gaara sitting above her in a tree near the window they had been looking through just the night before. His Kage robes were gone, replaced with his standard shinobi clothes. He looked tired – more tired than usual.

“I was just trying to breathe some life back into my muscles,” she replied. “I’ll get working on the antidote right away.”

She turned back to the training dummy and aimed a high kick for its shoulder. It connected with a loud thud. Some of the tightness in her muscles was dissipating now. She aimed another high kick on the other side.

“Right away?”

She paused, peering at him over her shoulder.

“Would you like me to leave, Kazekage-sama?” she asked. “Is that what you’re getting at?” She glanced around at the empty courtyard. Perhaps he liked to come here to train himself. This was the palace after all. She was in a private wing. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might be encroaching on his space.

Her stomach chose that moment to growl quite loudly, the sound echoing in the quietude of the courtyard. Sakura remembered then that it had been quite some time since she had eaten.

“No,” Gaara said, watching her with a sort of amused curiosity. “But you should probably go get something to eat.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. She didn’t need to be told what to do. But she remained silent because he was still the Kazekage, and if he wanted to tell her what to do… well, he could.

“After I’ve finished here,” she said. She turned back to the training dummy and aimed another kick, this time at its stomach. But before her foot landed, the dummy was knocked down to the stone by a wave of sand.

“Half of the villagers fear me,” Gaara said. Sakura turned around to face him, more than a little confused. “And the other half adore me.”

She put her hands on her hips, watching him carefully. From her past experiences with the Kazekage, she figured she was in some sort of trouble again.

“There aren’t many people in Suna who would defy an order from me,” he continued.

“Sorry, Kazekage-sama, but have you given me an order?”

“Gaara,” he corrected. “And no. But I can’t imagine a villager would stay here in the courtyard after the suggestion I made.”

“I’m not a villager.”

To her surprise, Gaara smiled. “No, you don’t fear me,” he speculated. “And you definitely don’t adore me.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Bother me?” he asked, leaping down from his perch on the tree. He approached the training dummy and set it upright again before turning back to face Sakura. “Not at all. You treat me the same way my sister does. Like a friend. How could I be bothered by that?”

“You seemed pretty bothered yesterday.”

“You are special to Naruto and I cannot let anything happen to you,” he said, his tone taking on a darker note. “Your wellbeing is more important than the antidote for the poison.”

“Then perhaps I should be locked away in a tower somewhere like a princess instead of being a kunoichi and putting myself in harm’s way,” she said sassily.

He raised a nonexistent brow at her.

“You really think you can take me?” asked a familiar voice on the other side of the courtyard. Both Sakura and Gaara glanced over to see Shikamaru and Temari walking into the courtyard, a little too close to one another to be considered merely friendly.

“Of course I can,” Shikamaru answered. He paused mid step when he saw Gaara and Sakura near the training dummies. A furious blush painted his cheeks and he took a massive step away from Temari. “Uh, hi, guys,” he said. “We were just about to spar if you’d like to join us.”

Sakura was about to nod because that sounded like a great way to gain back her muscle strength, but Gaara spoke before she could.

“Actually,” he said. “We were just going to get some food. Sakura is hungry.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but as if to demonstrate Gaara’s point, her stomach growled loudly again.

“Good, then Shikamaru will know that I’m kicking his ass fair and square,” Temari said, pulling her massive fan from her back.

“We’ll see about that,” Shikamaru muttered.

 

True to his word, Gaara led Sakura down to the kitchens to get some food. It was too late for breakfast now, but he watched as she prepared a quick meal for the both of them. She wasn’t particularly good at cooking, but she imagined she was probably better at it than Gaara was.

When she had finished cooking their food, she unceremoniously let his plate clatter on the table in front of him and then took a seat opposite of him.

“You didn’t want me out of the courtyard,” she said. “You just wanted me to cook your lunch.”

“I can’t eat this,” he said. “Not without my food tester present.”

She paused with her food nearly to her mouth and gave him a heated glare. “Then why did you watch me make it without saying anything?”

He smiled before taking a bite of the food. A little unnerved, Sakura busied herself with eating her own food and tried to ignore the Kazekage as he sat across from her, watching her unabashedly.

She tried – she really did – to ignore him while she ate. She just needed to finish her food quickly so she could get back to the medical wing and get to work.

But why was he staring at her like that? Did he want something? Did she have something on her face?

Deciding enough was enough, Sakura slammed her chopsticks down on the table. “Why are you staring at me?”

He glanced down at her hands, white knuckled as they were against the table. Then his eyes found hers and he seemed confused. He seemed to understand that he had hit a nerve (or rather that she did not appreciate his staring).

“How is Naruto doing?” he asked.

Sakura blinked. “Naruto is fine,” she answered, a little unsure of herself. “Same obnoxious loud mouth, as always.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

Sakura felt her ire fading. She didn’t know Gaara quite as well as Naruto did, but she was sure that the blonde teammate had been the catalyst that shifted Gaara’s paradigm. They were both jinchuriki. They understood each other in a way that she never could. It made her feel sad that Gaara missed Naruto, that it was her expertise that was needed here instead of his.

She swallowed hard, feeling almost as if she were about to cry. It was ridiculous and she knew it. But the surge of emotion got the better of her. First Sasuke, then Gaara. Naruto was the one people could relate to. Would she have to suffer like they did to be able to understand them? Why was it that Naruto could form these bonds like this (even with her!), yet she could barely call Gaara her acquaintance? She felt more like an outsider in that moment than she ever had within Suna’s walls.

She chanced a look back up at his face again. He was still watching her, though now it seemed he had refocused his attention. His eyes were sharp on her, searching for whatever truth was in her face that he couldn’t gather from her silence.

“Naruto misses you,” she said eventually, once the silence had become too tense to bear. “And he’s insanely jealous that you’ve become the Kazekage.”

The corners of his mouth quirked up minutely before the smile faded again. It wasn’t a lie, per se. It had been some time since Gaara had become the Kazekage, and Naruto was well over it by now. He more than anyone understood Gaara’s position and respected that he was the right man for the job.

“I have no doubt that he will become Hokage.”

“Me either.”

Silence fell again and it made Sakura feel uncomfortable. She wished that she were more like Naruto, that she could fill the silence with something amicable and friendly.

“I should head over to the labs,” she said after a moment.

Gaara only nodded in response.

 

Sakura felt much more in her element down in the medical labs. The Suna medics had given her a cubicle to work in – one private and well equipped with all the things she might need. They had also left the beast egg for her, encased in a glass tube on her desk. For a while, Sakura fiddled around with the samples she had collected from Temari, avoiding the glass-encased egg on her desk. It seemed too much of a burden now, too much of a reminder of her failure so far.

But after a while, when Temari’s samples yielded no results, Sakura decided it was time to take a look at the egg. The thing was massive, and if Sakura was quite frank, gross looking. It had an awful greenish yellow tinge and appeared to be coated in some kind of mucus. Clumps of sand clung together along the shell, which Sakura noted had a very tiny crack in it near the top.

She carried the tube to the biohazard lab, tiny as it was. The poison that had made her feel weak and nauseous was more potent than the one that had affected Temari. Sakura theorized that this might have been due to sheer proximity of the egg. If Temari had crossed over top of the egg where it was buried under the sand, she may have inhaled enough of its noxious fumes to feel affected. That was the same way it had to have affected the other sand shinobi.

Sakura, however, had touched the egg with her bare skin. She had also been sprayed in the back by the beast. Luckily she had collected a sample of that to analyze alongside the mucus from the egg.

What that meant now, though, was that the egg was highly dangerous and needed to be treated like a hazardous material. Sakura changed into a HAZMAT suit and pried open the glass case.

Her gloves protected her skin, but even through her helmet she could smell the egg. Its odor wasn’t as terrible as its appearance, but it was pungent and chemical. With a small chakra blade, she sloughed off a portion of the slime that coated the shell and put it into another glass vial to be analyzed later alongside the mucus that the beast had sprayed from its mouth.

Her next step was to figure out the properties of the fumes. It seemed that fumes were not coming from the slime as Sakura had previously thought, but from the crack in the egg itself. Sakura assumed that this was a self-defense tactic, as the egg seemed to be in the first stages of hatching. The fumes were released from the crack to prevent predators from stealing the egg.

Sakura tested the crack with her finger, pressing into it to see if it would widen under the minute pressure. It was sturdy enough. If it was anything like a large bird’s egg, it would take several more weeks to hatch, which Sakura was extremely grateful for. She certainly didn’t want to have to deal with a baby version of that horrible sand beast.

With that knowledge in mind, Sakura was unsure of how to proceed. If the fumes were coming from inside the egg, she would have to crack it open to analyze the organic material inside that she would create the antidote from. That was nearly impossible to do with just the smell – otherwise she’d have done it already from the samples she had collected from the infected shinobi’s lungs.

She had two options, she realized. She could use a syringe to poke through the egg’s shell and extract a bit of the embryo inside, or she could use chakra to do the same thing. Using chakra meant permeating the shell. Sakura was unsure of whether or not this would compromise the egg’s ability to hatch. Some wild creatures reacted adversely to chakra and she had no way of knowing if this creature was one of them. And poking through the shell could also compromise the egg’s integrity, though was probably a safer bet.

What she needed was to understand more about the beast.

With a sigh, Sakura set aside the egg, replacing it in its glass case. She could work some more on that when she had learned more about the sand beast. For now, she could contrast and compare the egg’s slime with the beast’s mucus.

She moved back to her cubicle, remaining in her hazmat suit, and pulled out her microscope.

She didn’t expect to find too much in the small samples she had gathered. She knew that the meat of what she needed was under the egg’s shell.

But she was surprised by what she found in the sand beast’s slime. The mucus that covered the egg was innocuous enough – it had no effects like the noxious fumes. It seemed that its purpose was to deter predators simply by being unappealing and making it difficult to hold onto the egg.

The beast’s mucus, however, had entirely different properties. Sakura remembered the tingly feeling on her back after she had been sprayed by it. At first, it hadn’t seemed to have an effect on her. But she remembered the heat of the sun and the way the slime reacted to it.

Slowly, Sakura held a portion of the mucus over a burner, trying to discover what new properties the heat would bring out in it. When the heat yielded no results, Sakura placed a clear vial of the mucus underneath a light.

She noticed a faint glow to the mucus now, and tiny bubbles that rose up from the bottom of the vial as if it were carbonated. They were so small that it was hard to notice, but Sakura assumed that this was the cause of the tingling sensation she had felt before. She turned up the brightness of the lamp and pulled out a journal to take notes on the light’s effect.

For several minutes, nothing else happened. Then she noticed the consistency of the mucus become more liquid and less gelatinous. Curious, she wiggled the tube around, watching as the substance inside no longer stuck to the sides.

Carefully, she placed the new substance under her microscope and gave it a look. She was astonished to find that it had similar properties to acid. She removed the vial and pulled out its stopper. She poured two drops onto a piece of paper and watched as it ate away at the paper.

With a shudder, Sakura reached over her shoulder and touched her back. She had been sprayed with that slime, and while it hadn’t harmed her because she had been cleaned of it before she had woken up, she realized how much damage it could have done to her. If it reacted to sunlight, then the desert was a perfect place for a creature like this to live.

Quickly, Sakura gathered up her things. She had the sudden urge to take a long bath.

 

With her soap and shampoo in hand, Sakura made her way down the corridor toward the baths. She could see that another sandstorm was brewing, so she wanted to make sure to get to the bath before it started. She didn’t care how long she was trapped in there. She even had a book tucked under her arm just in case.

Humming to herself, Sakura turned the corner and collided with a warm body.

“Oh, Sakura-san.” It was Temari, looking worse off than she had when Sakura had left her in the courtyard. She reached out her hand to steady Sakura by grabbing onto her elbow. “I was just coming to check up on you.”

“Oh, you mean about the poison?” Sakura asked. “I’m fine now. In fact, I’ve been in the lab all afternoon and I’m in desperate need of a bath. Want to join me again?”

Sakura could see that Temari wanted to say no. Again, Sakura was distraught by her lack of closeness with the sand kunoichi. Gaara would not have declined the same offer from Naruto, Sakura was sure of it. She suddenly felt homesick and wished that Ino had come with her instead of Shikamaru.

“Actually, yes,” Temari said, earning a surprised look from Sakura. “I’ve been training and sparring all day. I could use a good soak.”

Sakura beamed at her and they walked down the hallway together toward the baths. Once inside, Sakura wasted no time getting undressed and slipping into the heated water. She leaned back against the marble and sighed.

Temari, however, lingered at the edge of the water.

“Sakura-san,” she said and Sakura detected a hint of trepidation in her tone. “Do you often find yourself affected by poisons you’ve been sent to create an antidote for?”

Sakura focused her eyes sharply on Temari, who was still hovering near the water naked. She didn’t seem too abashed to have asked such an offensive question, but Sakura didn’t feel particularly offended by it. She narrowed her eyes nonetheless, hoping that her gaze was intimidating to the Sand kunoichi.

“No,” Sakura answered firmly.

“So this is a special case, then?” Temari asked. Sakura’s eyes lingered on her, and Temari seemed to remember in that moment that she was naked so she slipped into the water, moving to sit near Sakura, but not too near.

“I suppose,” Sakura said, reaching back behind her for the shampoo she had brought with her. “Why are you asking me this?”

“It was a problem when our shinobi came home poisoned,” Temari answered. “It’s an even bigger problem for foreign diplomats to be poisoned here as well.”

“Ah,” Sakura mumbled, understanding what Temari was getting at. “I sensed that Gaara-sama was displeased with me after I’d been poisoned.”

“It’s Gaara’s duty to protect us.” Temari said, watching as Sakura sudsed up her hair. “And you as well, while you’re here. Because of your close friendship with Naruto, he feels an even greater need to make sure you are safe.”

Sakura scowled, but Temari held up a hand before she could reply.

“Believe me, Sakura-san, I know how that feels. I’m the Kazekage’s sister,” she explained. “Do you know how many times he’s pulled me away from a mission he feels it too dangerous for me? To be fair, Kankuro gets similar treatment sometimes, but the point still stands. Gaara is a protector.”

“I gathered that,” Sakura said dryly.

Temari smirked, reaching for her own shampoo. “Don’t take it personally, but I thought you should know that’s why he was upset with you. You’re gotten under his skin. Did you know that?”

“Under his skin?”

“Are you as defiant with your own Hokage as you are with Gaara?”

“I’m not defiant!”

Temari chuckled as she dipped herself lower into the bath, letting the water hit her chin.

“Seriously,” Sakura continued. “I haven’t defied him at all.”

“This is true,” Temari agreed. “But you have to understand. Gaara is used to people trying to please him. He doesn’t usually have to give direct orders.”

“I wouldn’t defy a direct order from the Kazekage.”

“I’m sure Gaara knows that.”

“Then why is he annoyed with me?”

Temari sighed and sat up again, leaning back and glancing over to Sakura at her side. “Let me give you a little tip for dealing with Gaara,” she said. “He doesn’t like to be feared, but he does like to be respected. Showing some defiance is fine, but you’ll need to mollify it with something else.”

“You mean patronize him?”

Temari laughed. “As long as he doesn’t realize that’s what you’re doing.”

Sakura flicked her finger at the water, sending a few droplets flying toward Temari’s face. “I’m not going to do that,” she said.

Temari shrugged in response, but Sakura had to wonder if the blonde had a point. Temari knew Gaara much better than Sakura did, and though she didn’t feel bad about her behavior so far, Sakura did feel the need to appease him in some way. He was her superior, after all, and it was never a good thing to annoy your superiors.

“But what else could I do?” Sakura asked after a few seconds of silence. “You know, to not get under his skin so much?”

“What’s wrong with being under his skin?”

“For starters, he sent a message to Tsunade-sama detailing the events of the past couple of days,” Sakura replied dryly. “And he’s also a Kage. I usually make it a priority to not go pissing off people in positions of power.”

“He’s not pissed off.”

Sakura rolled her eyes. She didn’t know why Temari had even brought Gaara up unless she just wanted to watch her squirm. It was unfair, really.

“You know, Sakura-san,” Temari continued. “I kind of like having you around.”

“Me?” Sakura asked with a dark chuckle. “I think you mean Shikamaru.”

A pink blush adhered to Temari’s cheeks before a scowl lowered her brows and scrunched up her face like a peach pit.

“What is going on with you two?” Sakura asked, unable to help herself. If Temari could do it, so could Sakura.

“There’s nothing going on,” she said firmly. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

Sakura gave her a pointed look. She wasn’t dense – she could see the looks they gave one another. Hell, Shikamaru was a completely different person around her. It was as blatantly obvious as the sun hanging in the sky.

But Sakura decided to cut her some slack anyway.

“So who won?”

Temari looked up, giving Sakura a questioning glance.

“The spar?” Sakura reminded her. “Who won the spar?”

She glanced down into the water again, another blush painting her cheeks. “Shikamaru won.”

Sakura laughed.

Chapter Text

“Gaara-sama said the beast was ancient,” Sakura said before taking another sip of her tea. Across the table from her, Shikamaru frowned. Seated next to him was Kankuro, who also held a mug of hot tea cupped in his hands.

“Yes, that seems to be the case,” Kankuro said.

Shikamaru gave him a dry look. “You told me yesterday you didn’t know anything about that thing,” he said. “So how could you know that it’s ancient?”

Kankuro set down his mug and propped his elbows up on the table. The purple markings on his face were darker than usual. Sakura could see a sheen to them that indicated they were still wet. “There’s a painting of that thing,” Kankuro said. “It’s been displayed in the palace for as long as anyone can remember.”

“A painting?” Sakura asked.

“Yes,” Kankuro said, “but not exactly of the beast. Though it’s definitely in the painting.”

“Where is it?” Shikamaru asked. “I want to see it.”

“It’s in Gaara’s chambers. Above his bed.”

Sakura blanched because that was a highly inappropriate place for anyone other than Gaara to be. She didn’t even know where the Kazekage’s chambers were.

“Do you think he would let us look at it?” Shikamaru asked, unfazed by the painting’s location.

“You could always ask him,” Kankuro said. “Worst he could do is say no.”

Shikamaru scowled again. Sakura could tell he had woken up in a bad mood anyway, and his patience for Kankuro was thin at best. “I’m asking you if you think he will say no.”

Kankuro merely shrugged in response, which seemed to agitate Shikamaru further.

“Where is Gaara-sama?” Sakura asked, trying to mitigate the tension between them. “I’ll ask him.”

“Probably still in his rooms,” Kankuro answered.

This time Sakura scowled at him. “You’re not being very helpful,” she said. “Do you know of anyone who could tell us more about that beast?”

Kankuro tapped his chin with his forefinger, humming thoughtfully. It reminded Sakura of Naruto and suddenly she missed home again. “Ebizo-jiisama might know something,” he said.

Sakura felt another pang of nostalgia thinking Ebizo’s older sister Chiyo, who had passed away the last time Sakura had been in Suna. She blinked rapidly, surprised by the weight of emotions that came flooding back to her.

“Can we speak with him?” Shikamaru asked.

Again, Kankuro tapped his chin, twisting his lips up with uncertainty. “I suppose I could arrange that,” he said. “Ebizo-jiisama doesn’t live in the village anymore, but he lives nearby. I could have someone go fetch him for you.”

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Sakura said. She didn’t want to pull the poor man from his home and drag him back to the village if it wasn’t necessary.

“I’ll arrange it, then” Kankuro said, picking up his mug and taking another sip.

Shikamaru leaned back in his chair. He seemed satisfied with Kankuro’s answer. “Sakura,” he said. “How much longer do you think it will take for you to create the antidote now that you have the egg?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” she replied, “because I’ll have to crack open the egg to see. I’ll get working on it today and see what I can do. I was really hoping I could learn more about the creature before I had to open the egg.”

Shikamaru scooted his chair away from the table and stood up. “Well the sooner you finish it, the sooner we can get back home,” he said. It was a typical thing for Shikamaru to say, but Sakura knew him well enough to know it was a front.

“Oh, please,” she drawled. “You don’t want to go home. You want to stay here with Temari-san.”

Shikamaru’s face turned red all the way to the tips of his ears. “That’s not—”

“Oh, yeah, he’s definitely got the hots for my sister, doesn’t he?” Kankura said to Sakura, an amused smirk on his face.

“I do not—”

“What are you guys doing here?”

Three sets of eyes turned to look at Temari standing in the doorway. Shikamaru’s face reddened further, if that were even possible.

“Sakura-san, shouldn’t you be working on the antidote?” Temari asked, hands on hips. “And Kankuro, you’re supposed to be meeting with the daimyo today.” Her eyes drifted to Shikamaru, but she said nothing to him.

“Actually,” said Kankuro. Temari’s eyes drifted back to her brother, heated by a glare now. “I’m helping to arrange a meeting with Ebizo-jiisama. I think he knows more about the beast.”

“No,” she said authoritatively. “Gaara would never approve of that—”

“Approve of what?”

Gaara emerged from behind Temari, side stepping her to join the others at the table. He plucked a grape from the tray in the center and popped it into his mouth.

“Kankuro wants to set up a meeting with Ebizo-jiisama,” Temari replied.

Gaara looked over at his brother. “Why?”

“Sakura-san wants to know more about that worm beast,” Kankuro said, “for the antidote.”

His eyes flicked to Sakura, who felt unnerved by the attention, but he did her best not to show it. “I’d like to create the antidote without harming the egg,” she said, answering his unasked question. “If I knew a little more about it, I might be able to come up with something.”

“Why do you care about harming the egg?” Gaara asked.

Sakura faltered, unsure of how to answer that. She was just a naturally empathetic person – she didn’t want to hurt a wild animal. Would it be rude to say that to the Kazekage?

“Well, I…”

“You presumed I would kill the beast, didn’t you?” he continued. “I thought that’s what you wanted me to do. Why do you feel differently about the egg?”

Sakura glanced to Shikamaru for help. She wasn’t sure how to answer those questions, and the way Gaara had directed the questions toward her made it feel weirdly personal. Shikamaru was looking down into his lap, seemingly disinterested in the conversation. But Sakura knew he was listening.

“It’s, like, a baby.”

Gaara frowned, unappeased by her answer.

“Gaara-sama?” Sakura asked. He raised a brow. “Kankuro-san said there’s a painting with one of those worm beasts in it. May I see it?”

He looked caught off guard by her question. He sent Kankuro a confused look before returning his attention to Sakura. “Do you think it would help you?” he asked. “It’s just a painting.”

“It’s just that you mentioned that it was an ancient beast and I was wondering how you knew that,” she said. “Is that because it’s in the painting? Is it an old painting?”

Gaara looked uncomfortable now, but he didn’t deny her request. “I will show you the painting,” he said. He turned to Kankuro. “Don’t bother Ebizo-jiisama. I already know he won’t have much new information about the beast.”

“Great,” Temari said. “Kankuro, that means you can meet with the daimyo now. So you’d best get going. You don’t want to keep him waiting.”

Kankuro sent his sister a glare and shove his chair back away from the table. “You just love to spoil people’s fun, don’t you?”

“Not everyone’s,” she said with a haughty grin. Kankuro rolled his eyes as he shrugged past her.

“I wouldn’t give Kankuro a hard time if I were you,” Gaara said to Temari once Kankuro was out of earshot. “You know he’ll tease you about Shikamaru.”

“What?” Temari shrieked.

“What about me?” Shikamaru demanded. Both of them were now sporting equally red faces.

“Come on, Sakura-san,” Gaara said, ignoring Temari’s sputtering. “I’ll show you the painting.”

 

Sakura didn’t quite know what to expect when she entered the Kazekage’s private chambers. Given the luxurious décor of the rest of the palace, she had assumed they would be similarly extravagant. While she couldn’t say that they were extravagant, they were by no means drab.

His bedroom in particular was very simply decorated. It was about the same size as her guest room, which surprised her. The floors were covered with plush carpeting. Golden sconces lined the walls. For furniture there was only a bed and a nightstand, though Sakura was certain she had never seen a bed so big before.

“Here it is,” Gaara said, gesturing toward the massive painting that hung over his bed. Tentatively, Sakura approached it.

Its frame was large and golden, glinting in the light from the sconces on either side of it. The painting itself was a landscape of the desert. Sakura could see Suna’s cityscape on the right side in the background. The forefront of the painting was close shot of a dune, a blur of sand spreading from its harsh peak.

In the background on the left side was a small wormlike creature. Sakura could hardly see it from where she stood. She craned her neck, her brow furrowed as she honed in on it. Did Kankuro really think this would be helpful?

“You may stand on the bed,” Gaara said quietly, “if it would help you.”

Sakura shook her head. “No, no,” she said. “I don’t—”

“It’s fine,” Gaara said, taking a step up onto the mattress. “See?”

Hesitantly, Sakura removed her sandals before she stepped up beside Gaara onto his bed. Now she could see it a bit more clearly – the beast that was definitely like the one they had encountered in the desert. It was floating above a distant dune, the tiniest brushstrokes serving as its glinting fins. Sakura reached her hand up to touch her fingertips to the creature’s likeness, but a tiny wall of sand blocked her.

She recoiled, giving Gaara a confused look. He didn’t have his gourd on his back, but she realized the sand was coming from underneath his bed. He must have kept some there for emergencies.

“You have a habit of touching things you aren’t supposed to,” he said.

Sakura did her best not to glare at him, but she could feel the annoyed look on her face in spite of her attempts to prevent it. “Sorry, Kazekage-sama,” she said. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to touch it.”

He stepped down off of the bed, but Sakura remained standing near his pillow. “The oils from your fingers will mess up the painting,” he said. “But you may look at it for as long as you wish.”

She returned her attention to the painting. She couldn’t see why Kankuro would have thought it would be helpful to her.

“How old is this painting?” she asked. “And who painted it?”

“I don’t know the answer to either of those question, unfortunately.”

Sakura stepped down from the bed, fixing Gaara with a curious look. “Then how did you know that the beast is ancient?” she asked.

He looked conflicted for a moment, unsure of whether or not he wanted to share with her the answer to that question. Sakura waited patiently while he seemed to wrestle internally with the idea of telling her. Or perhaps he was fabricating a lie to tell her instead.

“That was the second time I encountered that beast,” Gaara said finally. “The first time was many, many years ago. Before… before the extraction.”

Sakura inhaled sharply, not quite a gasp, but close enough to it that Gaara caught her eye and gave her an inquisitive look. She didn’t think talking to him about his kidnapping was such a good idea. Surely it was still a sore subject for him.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I was young. A child. I couldn’t sleep and Yashamaru was nowhere to be found,” he began. “I went out into the desert to take a walk. No one stopped me. I came across the beast in much the same way we did. It burst out of the ground, but it didn’t attack me. I don’t think there was a nest underneath it at the time. I suppose that explains why I wasn’t poisoned back then.”

Sakura sat down at the foot of his bed, listening with rapt attention. He sat down beside her before he continued.

“Shukaku talked to it,” he said. “He knew it by name, though I can’t remember what it was now.”

“It’s not a tailed beast, is it?” Sakura asked, surprised by this new piece of information.

Gaara shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he answered. “Shukaku said he had known that beast in the past, that it was ancient. That’s how I knew.”

“Do you think it’s the same beast?” she asked. “Obviously they’re able to reproduce. But if it’s ancient, shouldn’t there be many more of them around?”

“I’m not sure.”

Sakura frowned as she digested these new puzzle pieces. “I wonder if Naruto would be able to speak with it,” she mused. “You know, with the nine tails. Then maybe we could determine if it’s the same beast.”

Gaara seemed amused by this. Sakura thought she saw a spark of excitement in his eyes. “That’s a bit outside the scope of your mission, don’t you think?” he said. “I only need you to create an antidote.”

“Oh, come on,” she said with a smile. “You want to see Naruto. Admit it.”

Gaara shook his head, though he wore an amused smile. “We don’t need Naruto to speak with the beast,” he said. “We are in the process of having it relocated.”

Sakura’s eyebrows flew up in surprise. “What? How?”

“There’s a team of shinobi out there as we speak working on moving it to a hidden area of the desert – a place where no one will accidentally stumble across it,” he answered. “They will be moving its nest and hoping it follows.”

“I see,” Sakura said, a little confused as to why he wouldn’t choose to just kill the thing. “Kazekage-sama—”

“Sakura, please.”

She looked down at her feet. “Gaara-sama,” she amended. “What do you think of me damaging the egg? Do you think it’s ethical for me to destroy it in order to create the antidote?”

“Is that why you’ve waited this long to crack it open?”

She nodded.

He pressed his lips together as he collected his thoughts. Sakura realized in that moment that she liked that about him – he waited until he was sure of what he would say before he opened his mouth to speak. The corners of her mouth quirked into a small smile as she waited for his answer.

“As shinobi I don’t think we have a place setting ethical standards,” he said. “But as far as the egg goes, I think cracking it open to create the antidote is a necessary evil. It might not be the most just choice, but is the right choice for Suna and Suna is my responsibility.”

Sakura hummed in agreement. “I suppose you are right,” she said. “If the poison were stronger… If it put people’s lives at risk I would say breaking the egg is the right choice. But because the poison hasn’t resulted in any fatalities, it feels wrong to take that creature’s baby away.”

“You have a big heart, Sakura,” he said. She noticed he sometimes dropped the suffix from her name, and she wondered what moments he chose to do that in. “—to be so concerned for the beast that nearly killed you.”

She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “It didn’t nearly kill me,” she insisted.

“If I had not been there, it would have killed you.”

She wanted to argue with him some more, but she was quite pleased that he had shared that story with her and engaged in her morality conversation. Those were not things he did as a Kazekage speaking to a foreign diplomat, but as a person merely speaking to another person.

“Well, then I guess I owe you,” she said with a smile, placing her hand over his arm affectionately. “Thank you.”

He stared at where her hand met his arm, a dark expression on his face. Quickly, Sakura pulled her hand away, a heated blush on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Kazekage-sama.”

“You’re welcome, Sakura.”

They stared at one another sheepishly, startled by their overlapping sentences. Too unsettled to continue looking at his face, she turned to look over her shoulder at the painting on the wall.

“I suppose I should get to work, then,” she said.

Gaara said nothing and Sakura didn’t have the courage to look over at him. It just occurred to Sakura that it was highly inappropriate for her to be alone with him in his bedroom. She could feel her cheeks growing even hotter, the fire burning all the way up to the tips of her ears.

“Sakura-san…” There was the suffix again. She ducked her head, allowing her hair to fall out from behind her ear and curtain her face. “Look at me,” he said.

She furrowed her brow, hesitating to comply with his demand. She imagined if it had been Naruto, or Kakashi, or even Shikamaru that they would have grabbed her shoulders and forced her to turn and look. But this was Gaara and he did not touch her.

“Look at me,” repeated, this time with a softer tone.

Slowly, she raised her head and tucked her hair behind her ear, but she did not look at him just yet.

“Why is your face so red?” he asked. He sounded both accusatory and curious.

Sakura swallowed, choosing not to answer that intrusive question. She knew exactly why she was blushing. She was alone with Gaara, a man she had twice now thought of as handsome, in his bedroom no less. Though the nature of their conversation was innocuous, it was also personal and she felt a surge of affection for him, like they were finally friends.

She wondered about Naruto and what he would be doing if he were in her position. He certainly wouldn’t be blushing – that much she knew. So whatever type of friendship her blond teammate shared with the Kazekage, it was not the same as hers.

But just what was the nature of this relationship now? Friends seemed like too close a term. They still barely knew one another. They didn’t bond over similar experiences like Gaara did with Naruto. In fact, it seemed like their shared friendship with Naruto was the one thing that allowed them to have a relationship at all, if it could even be called that.

“Are you okay?”

Sakura looked at him this time, a little bolder now that she could properly think, even if she couldn’t form the words she wanted to say to him.

“I’m fine, Kazekage-sama,” she said. She watched his eyes narrow, and was both amused and a little terrified by it. “I have to go.”

She didn’t wait for his response before she fled from his chambers.

 

The heat in Sakura’s cheeks stayed there the entire time she was working down in the labs. She couldn’t quite say for sure why the interaction with Gaara had left her so unsettled, but she chose not to think about it.

Instead, she busied herself with that damn egg. She was going to have to compromise the embryo – this she knew. She felt better about it after speaking with Gaara, but she wasn’t exactly looking forward to doing it.

It shouldn’t have been so hard for a kunoichi. Death was a part of everyday life. If she couldn’t handle her comrades dying (and she would definitely have to be able to do that), then she could handle a worm beast baby that hadn’t even been born yet.

And she figured that if she was going to do it, she might as well do it right. Instead of using chakra or a syringe, she cracked the egg in much the same way she would have if she were making an omelet with it.

She shouldn’t have been so horrified by the shell’s contents. The embryo looked startlingly similar to the fully-grown sand beast – a tinier, veinier version of it, wrapped in a thin, organic tissue. Sakura could tell that it was already dead, likely because it hadn’t been properly heated and spent too much time away from the nest. Sakura blinked rapidly to clear the swell of emotion in her chest.

She placed the embryo in a metal basin and set it aside so she could work with the albumen instead.

The substance was clear like an egg white would be, and just as viscous. Sakura could see by the visible fumes that floated above it that this liquid was the source of the poison.

She placed a few drops of the albumen inside a small dish and put it under her microscope so she could analyze the toxic microbes it contained. What she needed was something that could bind to these toxins and change the molecular structure so the toxins would be unable to enact their effects.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, her face pressed to the microscope. Every so often she would pull away to scribble a note or two in her journal. She was happy with the progress she was making, though, especially after spending the first few days in Suna making hardly any at all.

Eventually, she came to a stopping point, unable to continue until she had tested the binds of the antidote and the poison. She arranged her tests in glass tubes and set them on her cubicle desk, ready to be checked in the morning.

She should have gone straight back to her rooms after that. It was early evening now, and there was nothing productive she could be doing. Exhausted as she was, though, she didn’t feel like retiring just yet, so she made her way back to the window she had watched the storm through before.

It was clear now, and Gaara had been right: the view was beautiful from here. She let her forehead thunk against the glass as she watched the clouds float across the sky, grey wisps against navy. The cool colors of the sky contrasted weirdly against the warm tones of the sand, the desert beyond the courtyard. It unsettled Sakura a little, and she couldn’t quite place why.

But after having been cooped up inside for so long, Sakura welcomed that unsettled feeling. In fact, she wanted to be closer to it. She glanced to her right, down the corridor that led to the baths. She could see the sky on the other end, peaking through the open entry.

Deciding a walk and some fresh air would do her some good, Sakura made her way down the corridor, out into the open air. The village gates were up ahead, but she chose instead to scale the wall and hop over into the wild deserts, hoping no one would see her. A Suna shinobi would likely stop her. That had been the theme of her trip so far.

Aimlessly, she wandered through the sands, careful to keep her wits about her and maintain a good idea of where she was in relation to the village. It certainly wouldn’t do to get lost in the darkness of the desert. No one would ever find her out here.

Belatedly, she realized the dropped temperature of nightfall made it far too cold for the sleeveless vest and short skirt she wore, but she was a kunoichi. She could handle a little cold.

She wasn’t really trying to get anywhere anyway. She settled down into the sand near the top of a dune, crossing her legs. The sand was pliant and still warm beneath her. She sank into it, enjoying the way it scratched her thighs and enveloped her. The sand wasn’t really so bad, she decided, when it wasn’t being whipped into her face by heavy winds.

With a contented sigh, she leaned back against the dune and gazed up into the darkening sky. The moon was just a sliver now, casting pale silvery light, however scant, over the desert. Suna was a beautiful place. She often forgot that, having only ever come here when taking in the beauty wasn’t the most pressing thing she could be doing.

But now, with nothing to do but wait, she could relax and enjoy what Suna had to offer. Tomorrow, she thought, she would explore the village a bit more. Maybe she would ask Temari for that tour.

She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself, though it didn’t do much to stave off the cold. Her exhaustion was starting to set in now. Her eyelids felt heavy, but she couldn’t bring herself to close them because the sky was such a beautiful shade of navy and the pinpricks of stars glittered above her head. It was entrancing, really, with nothing to hide her view. Perched so high up on the dune it almost felt as if she were floating in space.

Her fingers felt frigidly stiff as she tried to curl them. Using a little chakra to heat herself up, she sank back against the sand, staring blankly up at the sky. She wondered if Sasuke was looking at the sky, too. Maybe he saw the same stars see did. Maybe they were both looking at the moon right now.

It had been a long time since she’d thought of Sasuke. It was almost too painful to think about now. Almost, but out here on the dunes she felt a bit numb.

She closed her eyes, picturing his face, his aristocratic features that had been so marred by hatred the last time she had seen him she hardly recognized him. It seemed impossible now for him to come back to Konoha, for things to ever be normal.

She had always imagined she would do anything for him, follow him anywhere. Now she wasn’t so sure. Now she was at peace lying back against the sand.

And for now, she didn’t need anything else.

Chapter Text

Sakura woke to a dull ache in her head and a chill so bad her body felt almost completely numb. Groggily, she sat up and rubbed at her eyes. She could feel the sand beneath her still, rough and cold underneath her palm. She must have fallen asleep on the dune.

When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Gaara’s face peering at her. She shrieked and recoiled.

“You’re an idiot.”

Sakura blinked, still a little disoriented. Gaara was crouched down in front of her, far too close to her face for comfort. The sky was still dark behind him and the night’s air had dropped down to freezing. Sakura shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

“How did you know I was out here?” she asked, choosing to ignore the insult.

He made a small noise of disapproval and sat back on his heels. “I didn’t,” he said, shrugging off his Kage robe and handing it to her. “I came out here for a walk and I just happened to find you. You’re really lucky, you know. It could have been another of those beasts, or an enemy shinobi. And if neither of those had gotten you, you might have frozen to death.”

Sakura held his robe in her hand, wondering whether it was appropriate for her to wear such a thing. She looked up at Gaara’s face, and seeing his stern glare and the way his jaw was clenched, she decided it would be best to put it on.

It was still warm from his body heat and Sakura nearly melted into it, grateful for the reprieve from the cold.

“What were you even doing out here, Sakura?” he demanded, moving to sit beside her on the dune.

She shrugged and looked back up at the sky. The sliver of the moon was still visible in the sky, bright against the navy backdrop that covered them. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Just thinking, I guess.”

“You must have a death wish.”

She gave him a furtive glance, a little annoyed by his reprimanding. He looked younger without the Kage robes on and again Sakura remembered that he was her age – too young for this kind of responsibility, even if he was well suited for it. His eyes seemed too sunken, his skin too sallow. Sakura fought the urge to reach out and touch him with healing hand, to fix whatever small headache or muscle pain might be bothering him.

But she kept both of her hands carefully tucked into her lap, wrapped in the length of Gaara’s sleeves.

“What does a girl like you think about, Sakura?”

If it had been someone else asking that question, or if he had asked it with a different inflection, Sakura might have been inclined to lie. But he seemed sincere enough.

“I was thinking about Sasuke.”

She snuck another glance at him, trying to gauge a reaction underneath his stoicism. Gaara was likely not overly fond of Sasuke. She couldn’t help but feel curious about what Gaara thought of her missing teammate.

“Sasuke Uchiha,” he mumbled just loud enough for her to hear. “His whereabouts are still unknown?”

Sakura nodded.

“You must really love him,” he continued, “to come out into the wilderness and risk certain death just to think about him.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes at him, unimpressed by his dry tone. “I didn’t come out here with the intentions of falling asleep,” she pointed out.

“I should hope not,” he said. “In any case, it seems making sure you remain alive is a full time job. Your Hokage should have warned me before she sent you off.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” She spared another glance in his direction and was a little stunned to see an amused grin on his face.

“I’d hardly call myself dramatic, Sakura,” he said. “In fact, I’d argue Sasuke is far more dramatic than I am.” Sakura rolled her eyes. She was used to having to constantly defend Sasuke, so she was easily able to let Gaara’s words roll off her back.

“Sasuke is definitely dramatic,” she said, giving Gaara a bright, fake smile. “It’s not always a bad thing.” Perhaps this little appeasement wouldn’t be taken as an insult, she thought.

But he glared at her again, his eyes darkening. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said.

“Like what?” she asked, bemused.

“With that fake smile,” he said, his voice minutely softer. “People used to look at me like that all the time. With pity.”

Sakura scoffed. “You think I pity you, Kazekage-sama?”

She looked at his face again and saw the stony, irritable look he was giving her. He seemed harmless enough right now, and even though Sakura still felt a microscopic amount of fear of him, she realized that he had no intentions of hurting her. In fact, he had expressed his desire to make sure she returned to Konoha in one piece. This knowledge gave Sakura the confidence to laugh at the somber expression that sullied his features.

“Why are you laughing?” he demanded with a scowl.

“You look so grumpy,” she said, her laughter dying down to a giggle. “It’s unfitting for the Kazekage, don’t you think?”

He narrowed his eyes again, but Sakura could see that he was faintly amused. “I’m not grumpy,” he replied. “And you should know better than to tease the Kazekage. It’s not proper for a foreign diplomat.”

“Excuse me,” she said with exaggeration. “But I am the Kazekage and you can’t talk to me like that.” She flounced the hem of the Kage robe still wrapped around her shoulders, flicking it into Gaara’s face.

“Sakura.”

“Kazekage-sama.”

Sakura was startled to see a grin break out on his face. He brought his hands to the back of his head and leaned back against the dune, resting his head on his palms. “You know, Sakura, I think you’re the first person other than my siblings to ever tease me,” he said.

She bit her lip, unable to take her eyes away from him for a moment. He seemed so relaxed, which was so unusual that he looked like an entirely different person.

“You’re the first Kazekage I’ve ever teased,” she replied, still watching him as he gazed at the sky. He caught her gaze and gave her a look she didn’t quite understand. A strong gust of wind blew past them, casting a cloud of sand into Sakura’s face. She winced and began finger combing it out of her hair.

“You seem very comfortable right now, Kazekage-sama,” she said

He didn’t respond, but he continued to watch as she raked the sand out of her hair.

“You trust me,” she said.

Gaara sat up, resting his weight on his palms as he gave her a scrutinizing look. “You’ve given me no reason not to,” he said defensively. “Should I distrust you?”

She shook her head vehemently. “No, of course not,” she said. “I only meant that given your… your past, I assumed trust wouldn’t come quite so easily to you. I assumed I’d have to do more to earn that.”

“Oh?” he asked with a raised brow. “Were you going to try to earn it then?”

She smiled as she flipped her hair, now free of sand around her shoulders. “If it gets me more missions in Suna, sure,” she replied. “This place is growing on me.”

“Enough for you to want to move here?” he asked. “We could certainly use a medic of your caliber.”

“Kazekage-sama, are you trying to steal me away from Konoha?” she asked. “I don’t think Tsunade-sama will like that.”

“Yes, I suppose that was rather selfish of me,” he said.

Silence settled over them, but it was a comfortable one. They both turned their attention back to the sky, the moon that still hung precariously enough that it looked as though it might fall at any second.

“Do you like being the Kazekage?”

Gaara turned to look at her again. “Do you like waiting for Sasuke to come home?”

Sakura made a noise of surprise with the back of throat, thrown for a loop that he would ask such a thing. She felt a surge of anger rise up in her chest, but she pushed it down until it ebbed away.

“That was a rude thing to ask, Kazekage-sama,” she said, careful to keep her tone as non-offensive as possible.

“I get a certain amount of gratification from being the Kazekage,” he said, ignoring her reprimand. “I’m respected. The villagers love me. So, yes, I like it, even if it can be grating sometimes.”

“That’s why you like it? You like being loved and respected?”

Gaara shrugged. “Who doesn’t?”

Sakura gave him a skeptical glance. She knew firsthand how difficult being a Kage could be. She watched Tsunade struggle with it all the time. “I guess the pros outweigh the cons, then,” she said.

“Do the pros of loving Sasuke outweigh the cons?”

With a groan, Sakura got to her feet. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to this, Kazekage-sama,” she said. “Disparage Sasuke all you want, but I won’t listen.” She took one step back toward Suna before a wall of sand shot up from the ground to stop her. She cast a dark look over her shoulder to Gaara, who was watching her with darkened eyes of his own.

“Sit back down, Sakura.”

Sakura gave a huff and crossed her arms, but she did as she was told and took her seat next to him again.

“I wasn’t trying to offend you,” he said. “It’s a genuine question.”

“You want me to list the pros and cons of loving Sasuke?”

“The only person who loved me betrayed me,” Gaara said. His voice had taken on an edge, a gravel that reminded Sakura of the boy he was back during the chuunin exams all those years ago. “He had to. He had no choice. I wonder sometimes if he had made a list of the pros and cons of loving me, would he have chosen not to. It would have been in his own best interest.”

“Gaara…”

He looked over at her. She saw him suppress a shiver, though whether that was from the cold or the nature of their conversation Sakura couldn’t be sure.

“I don’t know how a person could take for granted when they are loved,” he continued, ignoring the dropped honorific. “It seems the amount of love a person deserves is never the amount they receive.”

“I don’t think love works that way,” Sakura said, though at this point she was sure Gaara was merely thinking out loud. His eyes seemed to have glazed over and his lips were pressed together in a thin line.

“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why you haven’t given up on Sasuke yet.”

“Sasuke lost his entire family,” Sakura said defensively. “He was just a boy. He has the same capacity to love as anyone else, but those he loved the most were taken away from him. It’s no surprise he would be afraid to have those bonds again. Can you imagine losing everything twice over? I don’t love Sasuke because I expect something in return. I love him because I want him to know he won’t lose everything twice. He will always have me. And Naruto.”

“He doesn’t deserve that kind of unconditional love.”

“Nobody does.”

Gaara had no response for that, but she saw the corners of his mouth quirk up in the tiniest of smiles. He did seem comfortable now, resting against the dune while he watched the sky. Again, Sakura was struck by how at ease he seemed around her. Surely her proximity to Naruto didn’t garner that level of trust, did it?

“It’s a wonder that people like you exist to give that kind of love, Sakura,” he said after a few moments of silence. “I hope it doesn’t take too much out of you to be able to do that.”

“It will all be worth it once Sasuke returns.”

Gaara scoffed. “Let’s hope he returns with some love for you, because you need a full time keeper, Sakura-san.”

Sakura growled, a low but inoffensive sound. “I don’t need a keeper,” she said.

“Says the girl who’d be frozen to death if I hadn’t found her.”

“It’s not that cold.”

He gave her a wry look. “You’re still shivering, Sakura-san. You should see your cheeks, too. Pinker than your hair.” He grabbed her wrist and lifted it off the sand. “And look at this. Goosebumps.”

Sakura jerked her hand away and pushed the sleeve of his robe back down over the length of her arm.

“How do you think your Hokage will feel when I send her apprentice back to her frozen solid?” he asked teasingly.

“I’ll thaw out before I get back.”

“And you won’t tell Tsunade that you came close to death several times?”

“I was never close to death!” she screeched.

“Calm down, Sakura, I’m just teasing you.”

“Well knock it off,” she snapped, “because if I recall correctly, one of the times I was, in fact, near death was your fault.”

Gaara recoiled, his brow furrowing as he cast his eyes away from her. She didn’t know what possessed her to say such a thing to him. She could feel the blood rushing in her ears, drowning out the sound of her heartbeat, which was wildly out of control now. It was one thing to say things like that to Naruto or Sasuke, but it was wholly different to accuse the Kazekage of almost killing her, even if it had happened years ago.

“Kazekage-sama—”

“We need to get back to the village,” he said. Sakura paused, her mouth open as she tried to figure out some way to take back what she had said. None of the words she could come up with seemed adequate. “It will be morning soon.”

He stood up, brushing the sand from his tunic.

“Gaara-sama, wait.”

He brushed past her, pausing for only a moment to make sure she was following him. She jogged the few steps he had taken around to step in his path. “Wait,” she said, bringing her palm up to his chest to stop him. His sand was instantly around her wrist, halting her hand a scant inch away from his chest.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said, ignoring the way his sand swirled around her arm.

“I shouldn’t have nearly killed you.” He was staring into her eyes now, and it was the closest she had ever been to his face. She could feel his breath on her face as much as she could see it, and she felt inclined to give him back his robe.

“I can’t rightly give Sasuke a pass where I condemn you,” she argued. “You’ve done far more to right your wrongs than he has. You deserve better.”

He took a step back away from her, letting his sand retreat back into the dune beneath them. “From you?” he asked with disdain. “You’re not a Suna shinobi. I’ve made my amends to them. But you…” He watched her rub her wrist where the sand had irritated it. “I don’t know how to make amends, Sakura.”

“I’m not asking you to do that,” she said.

“Then what are you asking of me? Why did you bring that up?”

“I’m sorry—”

“Do you hold a grudge? Do you want an apology?”

“No, I just don’t want to be that girl I was when you nearly killed me,” she said fiercely. “I don’t need to be protected anymore. I don’t need you to make sure I return to Naruto unscathed, because I can do that myself.”

Gaara crossed his arms over his chest. “If you don’t want protection, you shouldn’t put yourself in positions where it’s necessary.”

“You’re one to talk!”

“That’s where we differ, Sakura-san,” he said smoothly, his tone bordering on haughty. “You don’t want to be protected because it makes you feel weak. I know I’m not weak so the idea that I sometimes need protection isn’t quite so offensive to me.”

Sakura scowled. “I’m not weak.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

She narrowed her eyes, but she had nothing else to say. Their conversation had gone too far off track and there was no way to save it. Instead, she turned her back to him and began making her way back to Suna.

Gaara followed and she could feel his eyes drilling into her back the entire way back to the village.

 

After managing a few hours of sleep, Sakura found herself back in her cubicle again, peering through the glass test tubes at the binds inside. It was with immense relief that she noted that the binds were successful and she would be able to create a solid antidote with what she had discovered.

She set to work immediately, spending the better part of the morning manufacturing as many syringes of her antidote as she could. She was able to recruit some of the Suna medics to help her with this task, so by mid afternoon she had finished with her portion of the mission.

With the medical wing fully stocked, Sakura was ready to wrap it all up and go home. She cleaned up her cubicle, disposing of the hazardous egg and its contents. When she had finished, she set out in search of Temari to let her know the good news.

She found Temari in the courtyard with Gaara, both engaged in a heated spar by the looks of it. Sakura found a perch near the perimeter of the courtyard and watched them, curious to see how it would end.

Gaara was untouchable, it seemed. He was mostly defensive as Temari launched different wind attacks at him using her large fan. Gaara’s sand prevented anything from touching him, moving to block attacks before Sakura had even realized they’d been launched. It was fascinating to watch – this ultimate defense. Sakura was no stranger to extraordinarily powerful shinobi, but she still felt admiration for Gaara and his sand.

And Temari, too, was able to hold her own in spite of her brother’s rather unfair advantage. She was able to deflect the few attacks Gaara sent in his direction, redirecting them with her winds. As she did so, she included a few kunai in those gusts of wind – ones Gaara was only just able to deflect.

Sakura realized that what was needed to best Gaara was speed. Strength aside, the only thing that could get past his ultimate defense was a combination of agility and speed. Sasuke had shown her that during the chuunin exams.

Temari probably knew this as well, but their sparring session definitely seemed more geared toward the kunoichi than the Kazekage. He was letting her test out her moves on him. What a nice brother he was, Sakura thought with a wry smirk.

A kunai struck the tree trunk beside her head with a sharp thud. Sakura followed its trajectory to Gaara who was now watching her watch them.

“This is a closed session, Sakura-san,” he said, his voice tight and authoritative. Temari relaxed her stance, folding her fan and re-sheathing it on her back.

“Don’t be rude, Gaara,” she said.

“I only came to let you know I’ve finished my antidote,” she said. “I’ve left a crateful of them in your medical wing should you need to use them. Shikamaru and I can be on our way by tomorrow morning.”

“Finished already?” Temari asked. “We should try to get in one last bath before you leave.”

Sakura gave Temari a confused look, taking in her grin and the casual way she leaned against the stone pillar beside her. She seemed to be in a better mood than usual – especially to suggest a bath.

“Oh, sure,” Sakura agreed with a smile of her own. “I also kind of wanted to get a tour before I left. I’ve only been here and handful of times – none of which ever seemed like appropriate times to ask for a tour.”

“I’d be happy to give you a—”

“She can show herself around,” Gaara said, interrupted his sister.

“Pardon?” Temari asked.

“Sakura-san is perfectly capable of showing herself around,” Gaara said. “She doesn’t need anyone to give her a tour.”

Sakura gave him an incredulous look, unable to keep her hip from jutting out and her hand from finding a sassy place on it. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“You heard me, Sakura-san.”

“Now hold on, Gaara, what’s gotten into you?” Temari asked. “Sakura-san, I can give you a tour. It’s no problem.”

“What would Naruto think?” Sakura asked, her eyes boring into Gaara’s. “If I got lost on this tour and there was no one there to help me find my way? I’d never be able to find my way back to Konoha.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes. Their conversation from the night before had clearly not been forgotten or forgiven, but Sakura wasn’t going to take his taunting sitting down.

“Perhaps it would be best if you avoided a tour, then,” he replied coolly.

“What the hell is going on here?” Temari asked, her own hip jutting out to match Sakura’s pose now.

“I probably don’t deserve one anyway,” Sakura said, ignoring Temari. She turned on her heel, more than ready to leave Suna and get back to Konoha now. She needed to pack and tell Shikamaru so they could get back on the road as soon as possible. But before she could take another step, a wall of sand shot up to block her path.

Slowly, she turned back around to face Gaara. “Something you need, Kazekage-sama?”

“I’ll allow Temari to give you a tour if you allow her to escort you back to Konoha,” he said.

“Wait, why does she need an escort back to Konoha?” Temari asked with a bemused expression.

“I don’t,” Sakura snapped.

“Then you don’t need a tour guide, either,” Gaara said.

“Seriously, what the hell is going on here?” Temari demanded. “Why are you two behaving like this?”

“Fine,” Sakura said, ignoring Temari again. “If it’s so important to you, she can escort me back to Konoha.”

“Temari, we’re finished here,” Gaara said to her. “You may take Sakura on a tour now, if you wish.”

Gaara’s sand wall receded into the ground before he turned on his heel and left. Sakura and Temari watched him leave, both wearing similar confused expressions.

“Umm, care to explain?” Temari asked once Gaara had vanished.

Sakura sucked in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “Yeah, on the way back to my room,” she said, gesturing to her medic’s apron and lab coat she was wearing, both covered in all manner of fluids now. “I need to change first.”

With a skeptical look, Temari followed Sakura back toward her room. “Gaara’s not usually so antagonistic,” she said. “What’s going on with you two?”

“We had a bit of a tiff over the whole protection thing,” Sakura explained as they meandered down the corridor. “He’s just being an ass.”

“You and Gaara had an argument?”

Sakura nodded, a little thrown off by the incredulity in her tone. “Yeah, don’t you ever have arguments with him?”

“Sort of,” Temari said, scratching her head. “I mean we have disagreements. I’m not sure I’d call them arguments.”

“Well, you were definitely right about him being a protector,” Sakura said. “I deal with that enough at home. I don’t like dealing with it from him, too.”

“And you told him that?”

“Yeah,” Sakura laughed. “A lot of good it did, too.”

“Well, now he’s dragged me into, too,” Temari said with a pout. “I’m going to have to escort you all the way back to Konoha for no reason.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Sakura argued.

“Please. Of course I do. You don’t know Gaara like I do,” she replied. “He’ll know if I don’t do it. Besides, I shouldn’t disobey a direct order from the Kazekage.”

“Oh, I think you should,” Sakura argued as she unlocked the door to her room.

Temari laughed as she followed Sakura inside. “You’re a terrible influence,” she said.

Sakura gave her a wicked grin over her shoulder as she rummaged through her pack to find a suitable change of clothes. It actually felt pretty nice to be discussing Gaara with someone who could understand Sakura’s frustration. Gaara wasn’t used to people talking back or challenging him, but if there were ever a woman to do just that, it would be his sister.

“Umm, what is that?” Temari asked, pointing toward the bed.

Sakura followed the line of her finger to the foot of her bed where Gaara’s Kazekage robe was draped across the mattress.

“That’s…”

“Why is Gaara’s robe in your bedroom?”

“He gave it to me when I was cold.”

“Cold? When were you cold?”

“Yesterday. Last night I went out for a walk and he found me,” she explained, unable to pinpoint exactly why this conversation was making her nervous. “It was really cold outside.”

“A walk? A walk where?”

“The dunes.”

“You went out into the desert at night by yourself?” Temari demanded.

“It wasn’t that late,” Sakura said defensively. She certainly wasn’t going to tell her that she had fallen asleep on a dune. “I was just getting some fresh air.”

Temari gave a disapproving hum, but she said nothing else. Sakura saw her eyes locked onto Gaara’s robe where it lay on her bed. Feeling a bit apprehensive, Sakura disappeared behind the room divider and changed into her clean clothes.

When she emerged from behind the divider, Temari was still staring at the robe. “You’re going to give that back to him, right?”

“Of course,” Sakura said, a little confused by the question.

“Alright, then,” Temari said. “Let’s get started on that tour.”

Chapter Text

Sakura watched as a group of children practiced flinging kunai at targets. Temari stood to her left, watching with a stern face as the children tried their best to impress their Kazekage’s sister and the foreign diplomat with her.

“The academy is massive,” Sakura mused, craning her neck to look up at the large building next to her. She squinted against the sunlight and looked back toward the training grounds where the children were still practicing.

“It was recently renovated to accommodate growing interest,” Temari explained. “Gaara has had a profound impact on many of the children here. They are inspired to join the shinobi ranks because of him.”

Sakura didn’t want to talk about Gaara, so she redirected the conversation. “How many students are enrolled in the academy?” she asked.

“Several hundred at this point,” Temari answered. “Good to know your allies are amassing a nice sized army, right?”

Sakura hummed her acknowledgment as she continued to stare up at the building. It was impressive, the size of it. Tsunade would be amazed to see such massive infrastructure. She wondered if that was the type of stuff Shikamaru dealt with when he came here for diplomatic purposes.

They spent the rest of the afternoon aimlessly wandering more than taking a legitimate tour. Temari led her through the market stalls, tented to keep the sands and winds away from the goods. They walked through the civilian district with its bright lights and little domed homes. It was quaint, Sakura thought, and she thought she could manage the tough weather and terrain if she could live in the coziness of the civilian district.

They toured the training grounds, the public parks, the bathhouses. They wandered through rows of restaurants and booths selling sundries. It was remarkably similar to Konoha, except somehow not.

When they climbed the wall that bordered the village so that Temari could show Sakura the guard towers, Sakura paused and drank in the beauty of the desert and the sun that was just beginning to dip down under the dunes.

“The desert can be cruel, but it sure it beautiful,” Sakura said, watching the wind blow a curtain of sand over the dunes. Temari stood beside her and nodded in agreement. They were both silent as they watched the winds. Sakura cast a furtive glance toward Temari, who had propped her elbows up on the steel guardrail. The view wasn’t out of the ordinary for her, so Sakura wondered about the pensive look on her face.

“Suna is really a lovely place,” Sakura said, prompting Temari to glance in her direction.

Temari frowned and looked away.

“What’s the matter?” Sakura asked, trying to have patience for the blonde giving her the cold shoulder, even though she felt annoyed.

Temari was silent for a moment, but Sakura could see that she was trying to come up with the right words to say. Sakura grew nervous, afraid to hear what might be bothering the Sand kunoichi.

“I can’t stop thinking about finding Gaara’s robe in your room,” she eventually said, her voice icy and reserved.

“Oh, that’s it?” Sakura asked, relieved that her problem was so innocuous. “I told you already. Gaara-sama gave it to me last night when he found me out on the dunes. He was just being nice. I was shivering.”

“He only has two Kage robes,” she argued. “He wouldn’t let you keep one, even if he did let you borrow it. Why was it in your bedroom?”

Sakura scowled and crossed her arms, upset that Temari didn’t believe her. “I’ll give it back to him,” she said. “It’s no big deal. I was only borrowing it because I was cold.”

“His Kage robes, though?” Temari asked. “It’s highly inappropriate for you to wear that.”

“Well it’s not like he had another jacket with him to let me borrow,” Sakura snapped.

Temari’s frown deepened and she dragged her eyes away from the desert to look back at Sakura. “Just tell me,” she demanded. “Is there something going on between you and Gaara?”

Sakura felt her cheeks heat up as she determined the best way to respond to that. Obviously there was not anything going on between her and Gaara. If anything, it was the opposite. Their relationship was tumultuous as best. And whatever friendship they were pretending they had was mostly based off their shared connection to Naruto.

Still, this was something new to consider. Sakura had already admitted, even if was only to herself, that she found Gaara attractive. And Temari had a point – Gaara had allowed her to borrow his Kage robes. Surely that was crossing some kind of boundary.

“Absolutely not,” Sakura answered vehemently.

Temari sighed and turned back to face the desert, letting one arm hang over the edge of the railing.

“Would it really be so bad, though,” Sakura asked, “if there was something between us?” Temari’s gaze snapped back up to Sakura’s face. “Not that there is,” Sakura amended quickly.

Temari shook her head. “No, it wouldn’t be so bad,” she agreed. “In fact, I think I’d be a bit relieved. Gaara has never shown romantic interest in a woman before. I honestly think it would do him a lot of good.”

“You mean he needs to fuck someone,” Sakura pointed out.

Temari gave her a wry look. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” she said dryly.

“Doesn’t he have a whole fan club here?” Sakura asked. “He’s attractive and he’s the Kazekage. I’m sure he’s not hurting for feminine attention.”

Temari gave her a scrutinizing look, peering at her with narrowed eyes. “Gaara is the one who has no interest in women,” she said. “That’s why I found it concerning that his robe was in your room. To my knowledge, he hasn’t let anyone else borrow his Kage robe before.”

Sakura opened her mouth to point out that he had likely not been in a position like he had been that night. Of course Gaara would lend his Kage robe to anyone who needed it, Sakura had no doubt about that.

But Temari spoke again first. “And you guys had that weird argument in the courtyard earlier today,” she said. “You explained the gist of it. I just think it’s very odd that he would even deign to argue with you. He doesn’t usually argue with anyone. He’s mostly just silent.”

“You know him better than I do,” Sakura said. “What do you think that means?”

“It means I need to keep a closer eye on you.”

“Me?” Sakura asked with a sardonic chuckle. “He’s the one acting weird. Besides, I’m leaving soon. Everything will go back to normal.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Temari said. “Still, he’s my brother so I’ve got to keep a protective eye on him, you know?”

Sakura shrugged in response because she didn’t really know that feeling. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me,” she said. “My claws are retracted.”

Temari laughed, but there was an underlying bitterness to it. “That’s right. You’re still obsessed with that Uchiha brat, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re waiting for him to come back, right?” Temari asked.

Sakura frowned and inched incrementally away from Temari. Sasuke was too sore a subject to talk about with her. She sounded to accusing, too judgmental. She should know better, shouldn’t she? She had to have spent far more time than she wanted to defending her younger brother.

“I’m not obsessed with Sasuke,” she said quietly. “But I do love him and I’ll be happy to see him come back home.”

Temari let out a huff a breath – a sound that could have been a laugh, but Sakura had a feeling it was at her expense so she pretended it was just an ordinary exhale. They continued to walk along the wall, letting their hands linger on the guardrail. Their pace was leisurely and slow, allowing Sakura to take in the scenery, the sounds of the village below.

But it also gave her time to stew, unfortunately. If Temari was concerned that Sakura was too close to Gaara… well, she would know, right? She was his sister. She would recognize the unusualness of his behavior. He hadn’t done anything Sakura found to be out of the ordinary, but what if Temari was right? Did Gaara have some other reason to lend her his Kage robe? How had he even found her out there on the dunes all alone?

And was it true that Gaara rarely argued with anyone? If so, why would he choose to argue with her, and about such a mundane thing?

Sakura glanced at Temari, who was now gazing at the village below. She had a dazed smile on her face and a wistful look in her eye. Sakura followed her gaze down to the street below where she spotted Shikamaru and Kankuro walking toward the palace.

“You really like Shikamaru, don’t you, Temari-san?” Sakura asked, flipping the tables around so that Temari was now the one on defense.

Temari straightened her spine and pressed her lips into a tight line. “Shikamaru-san is a fine shinobi,” she said with a clipped tone. Sakura grinned. “Come on, tour’s over,” Temari said.

Sakura didn’t bother to hide her amusement as Temari led her back toward the palace.

 

Sakura sat on the foot of her bed, belly full from the food she and Temari had stopped to eat on their way back to the palace. She held Gaara’s robe in her lap, rubbing the sleeve between her fingers.

Both Temari and Gaara had brought Sasuke up to her and the realization why unsettled her. Her heart had always been on her sleeve – there wasn’t a person in Konoha who didn’t know of her affections for the sole surviving Uchiha.

But what they didn’t know what that Sakura had silently moved on. Of course she still loved Sasuke. She would always be there for him if he needed her. But her crush? That curse had passed. Whatever romantic feelings she’d had for Sasuke were long gone now, dried up from lack of attention.

Sasuke would always be her teammate and friend, but that didn’t mean he had to be anything more than that. No, it hurt too much to think of that rejection, of the life she’d have with him if he ever did come around. She wasn’t Naruto. She couldn’t make Sasuke happy.

She had made her peace with this long ago. But it still stung to think that everyone still thought of her as the useless weakling that pined after Sasuke – especially here in Suna where her reputation should have preceded her.

She fisted the fabric of Gaara’s robe in her hand and clenched her jaw. With a burst of determination, Sakura got to her feet and headed out into the corridor. She had only been to the Kazekage’s office once before, but she remembered how to get there.

When she stood outside his office door, she relaxed her posture. Spontaneity had brought her here, but now that she was faced with the prospect of talking to Gaara, she wanted to carefully construct her words before she barged in. Irritated by the weight of the robe in her hands, she threw it over her shoulders and shoved her arms into the sleeves.

With more force than she had intended, Sakura rapped on his door.

“Come in,” called a voice on the other side.

“Sakura,” Gaara said once she had flung the door open. His eyes were still down on his desk, looking at whatever Kankuro, who stood over his shoulder, was pointing to. “How did the tour—”

He stopped abruptly when he looked up at her and saw her wearing his robe. Kankuro also had a confused look on his face, mouth gaping like a fish. Gaara quickly recovered, fixing Sakura with a disapproving glare.

“Why are you wearing that, Sakura?”

“I just wanted to return it to you, Kazekage-sama,” she said, though she made no move to remove the robe. Instead, she twisted her fingers around the fabric of the sleeve.

“You let her borrow your Kage robe?” Kankuro asked.

Gaara gave his brother a reproachful look. “Take it off, Sakura,” he said to her. Sakura complied, shrugging out of his robe and passing it to him over his desk. He took it and held it in his lap, his brow furrowed as he decided the best way to handle this precarious situation.

He turned to Kankuro and cocked his head toward the door. Kankuro took the hint, but not before he sent a smirk in Sakura’s direction.

“Somebody’s in trouble,” he said, his voice sing-songy as he exited Gaara’s office. Sakura glared back at him until he had shut the door behind himself.

“How was the tour, Sakura-san?” he asked. Again, Sakura felt annoyed by his lack of consistency when it came to the suffix attached to her name. “I imagine a kunoichi with a track record like yours came close to death at least twice.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes before childishly stomping her foot. “Knock it off, Gaara-sama,” she said, inflecting her voice with as much sarcasm as she could muster. “I spoke with Temari today and she was very concerned about the fact that you let me borrow your robe.”

Gaara raised a brow. “How did she know about that?” he asked. “Did you wear it on the tour? That was very foolish of you.”

“She saw it in my room.”

Gaara frowned.

“She was very bothered by it, Gaara-sama,” Sakura continued, her voice a little softer this time. “Why was she so concerned?”

“I don’t know,” Gaara answered, and Sakura suspected he was telling the truth if the furrow of his brow was any indication.

“It’s not just the robe,” she continued. “She was also concerned with the fact that we were arguing in the courtyard. She said you don’t argue with people very much. And earlier this week she said I had gotten under your skin. Do I bother you, Kazekage-sama? Have I done something to upset you?”

Gaara blinked a few times, maybe trying to dispel how unsettled he felt. Sakura was sure she had never seen his pupils so dilated before. She realized just by looking at him that he was nervous now – a sheen of sweat on his brow and a paleness to his skin unfitting for someone born in the desert. She itched to reach across the desk and send a surge of healing chakra into him.

“Sakura-sa—”

“And why do you sometimes use honorifics with my name when a lot of the time you don’t?” she interjected.

Gaara scowled and it looked wrong on his face. “You do bother me, Sakura,” he snapped. “I don’t know what to make of you. You talk back to me and you argue. You don’t do as you’re told.”

Sakura opened her mouth to reply, but she found she didn’t have any words.

“I’m annoyed that you chose not to come back with Hideki your first day in the desert,” he continued. “And more annoyed that you didn’t allow him to escort you back the day we encountered the beast. It’s irritating that you fell asleep on a dune when you could easily have been killed out there. You claim that you don’t like people trying to protect you, yet you do things like that that force others to have to come to your aid. It’s my job to protect you and you make it very hard.”

Sakura swallowed. She was sure she had never heard Gaara say so many words at once and it was harrowing to know they were directed at her.

“You are capable of protecting yourself – I know that,” he continued, his voice less harsh now. “But you are also capable of making smarter decisions.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes and cocked her hip out in standard sassy uniform, but the look on Gaara’s face prevented the words already forming on her lips.

“Don’t,” he said before she could speak. “I don’t want to hear it. You owe me your respect. I am the Kazekage.”

She wanted to tell him that she deserved respect too. She did and she knew it. She was the one who had saved his brother from poison. She was the only who had killed Sasori. She was the most accomplished medic nin in the world and she didn’t need to be spoken to that way, even if it was the Kazekage talking.

But she felt a furious blush rising in her cheeks and she was sure that if she tried to speak her voice would come out as a whimper. This was not what she had expected when she came to Gaara’s office.

That was exactly what Gaara had been talking about, though. She had come here with the intention of getting answers, of interrogating and understanding him. But what right did she have to do that? He was the Kazekage and she was a civilian born girl from another village.

“You don’t respect me, Sakura,” he said.

“I do—”

“You don’t.” He wrapped his fingers around the collar of his robe. “It’s because I’m young, because I’m your age. I’ve seen how you are with Tsunade. Petulant as you are, you respect her. You may not respect me like you respect her, but I am the Kazekage and you still have to show respect, even if you don’t feel it.”

“Kazekage-sama…”

She paused, expecting him to interrupt her again, but he merely watched her. He hardly blinked as he waited for her to continue. Sakura marveled at the turquoise color of his eyes – they seemed so odd and stark against the black kohl around his lashes. Briefly her eyes flicked to the kanji on his forehead before she dropped them back down to meet his gaze.

“I am sorry, Kazekage-sama,” she said, but she could feel the fire still burning in her eyes and she hoped he wouldn’t take that as petulance – as he called it. “You’re right – it is hard for me to accept you in this position when you are roughly my age. I view you as more of a peer than a superior. My behavior has been unacceptable and I assure you it is not reflective of Konoha’s feelings toward you being the Kazekage.”

Gaara eyed her skeptically. Sakura stared back at him.

“So you don’t know why Temari was upset about the robe?”

Gaara glared at her. She knew she was pushing her luck, but Temari had planted a little seed in her. Just how odd was it for Gaara to have lent her his Kage robe? Why had she said those things about Gaara’s romantic interests?

“I shouldn’t have lent you the damn thing.”

“But why did you?”

“Because you were cold!”

Sakura pressed her lips together. She felt too uncomfortable now – she just wanted to be back in Konoha and far, far away from Suna. Gaara was confusing her, which would be unsettling enough if he wasn’t the Kazekage, but he was. She hadn’t realized he was so perturbed by her behavior – she hadn’t felt like she was acting any different than usual.

But there was some truth in what he told her. She had a problem with his authority, even if she didn’t overtly show it. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again, though. She couldn’t risk damaging Konoha’s relationship with Suna, so if she needed to be submissive or less petulant, or whatever it was that Gaara wanted her to be, she would do it.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay?”

“I was only curious – I meant no offense with my question. I was cold so you lent me your robe,” she replied. “Anyway, my mission has been completed so I can be out of your hair by tomorrow morning.”

“Out of my hair?”

“Or,” she began, a little annoyed that that did not seem acceptable to him, “I can leave tonight if you prefer.”

“No, Sakura, you can’t leave tonight, nor can you leave tomorrow morning,” he said dryly. “Shikamaru still has business here. He and Kankuro are working on a new infrastructure plan for Konoha.”

“For how long?”

“A couple more days I imagine,” he replied.

“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?”

“You’re a guest. You can do whatever you want.”

Sakura scoffed, earning another glare from Gaara. “See? This is what I’m talking about,” he said.

She ducked her head. “Sorry.”

With a sigh, Gaara tossed his robe around his shoulders and shoved his arms into the sleeves. He closed the file that was open on his desk and then stood up. “It’s okay, Sakura,” he said. “Truthfully, I understand. It took a while for Suna to adjust to me as well. I shouldn’t be so surly with you for it.”

She raised her chin toward him and cocked her head to the side. He circumvented the desk and moved to stand in front of her. He was nearly a head taller than her, so she had to angle her head upwards to see his face. She caught his scent – sweat and earth and something underneath, something uniquely Gaara. She blinked and looked away from him.

“I’ll be honest. You being ‘in my hair,’ as you put it, has been the most interesting part of this week, even if it’s been the most annoying as well,” he said. The corners of his mouth were quirked up into an almost smile. “I don’t mind you being in my hair.”

Sakura opened her mouth, but again she found she had nothing to say.

“Thank you for returning my robe,” he said. “Now I have some business I need to attend to.”

He circled around her, much too close for comfort. Sakura recognized the intimidation tactic, and that coupled with what he had just said both annoyed and thrilled her. She watched his back as he walked out of his office. He did not turn back to look at her.

 

Sakura knocked on Shikamaru’s door, tapping her foot impatiently. It was beginning to grow dark outside. Surely he was finished with everything for the day. She heard shuffling on the other side of the door, so she continued to wait, though she was irritated that he was taking so long to answer the door.

Eventually, a very frazzled looking Shikamaru flung the door open. “Hey, Shikamaru, I was just talking to Gaara-sama and he said you’ve got some infrastructure stuff to do with Kankuro,” she gushed. She pushed her way through the door, nearly stepping on his feet in the process. “I was wondering how long that was going to take because I’m so ready to go back to Kono—”

She paused when she saw Temari sitting on Shikamaru’s bed. They were both fully clothed, thankfully, but judging by the furious blush on Temari’s cheeks and the disheveled state of her hair…

“What the hell is going on here?” Sakura demanded.

“Nothing. Get out.”

Sakura crossed her arms and glared at Shikamaru. He was stony faced as he stared back at her, but he said nothing.

“You gave me all that shit about Gaara-sama lending me his robe, Temari” Sakura said through clenched teeth. “You’re such a hypocrite!”

Temari stood up, flushed and angry. “I never said I had a problem with it,” she said. “I was concerned because it’s out of the ordinary for Gaara to do something like that. And that has nothing to do with this.”

“Wait,” Shikamaru said. “Sakura, is something going on between you and Gaara-sama? You know that’s highly inappropriate. He’s the Kazekage.”

“There’s nothing going on between me and Gaara!”

“So she says,” Temari remarked dryly.

Sakura clenched her fists and her teeth. This trip had turned out to be far more irritating than she had imagined and now all she wanted was to be back home in her own bed, far away from Gaara and Temari and Shikamaru. Even Kankuro had managed to grate on her nerves.

With a frustrated groan, Sakura stomped her way across the hall back into her rooms, slamming both Shikamaru’s door and her own in the process. No, she definitely wasn’t going to stay here any longer than she had to. Shikamaru could stay if he wanted, but she was going home.

A bit haphazardly, Sakura threw all her clothes and personal items into her pack and flung it over her shoulder. If she left Suna now, she would make it back to Konoha in a couple of days. She could travel faster alone, anyway. She certainly didn’t want to make the trip back with Shikamaru now.

She flipped the lights off in her room, giving it one last glance before she shut the door. She should say goodbye, but she didn’t know who to say it to. She should tell someone she was leaving, but they would likely only want to stop her.

Instead, Sakura made her way to the village gates with silent steps and her chakra masked.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen quickly over the desert and the village was quiet as everyone retreated into their homes to sleep. It was a real shame, Sakura thought, that the company here was so insufferable. Otherwise, she would probably enjoy the quaintness and quietness that Suna had to offer.

Chakra still masked, she made her way to the village gates. The massive wall was lined with guard towers – she could see that they were each manned with two shinobi. She would not be able to sneak out unnoticed, so she hoped no one would care that she was leaving.

She walked along the base of the wall, careful to keep her footsteps quiet. But it seemed that the guards were hardly paying any attention at all to what was happening inside the village. Instead, they all had their attention focused on some unknown point in the distance, well across the dunes. Sakura paused, straining her ears to hear anything.

Far off in the distance she could hear a manic screeching sound.

“How long should we give him before we come help?” she heard a guard above her ask.

“He ordered us to stay put no matter what,” said another voice. “It isn’t like he’ll need our help anyway.”

“But what if he gets himself killed?”

“He’s the Kazekage. He won’t get himself killed.”

Sakura swallowed and peered up at the guard tower that was directly above her. Was Gaara out there in the desert? Was he alone? Another screech echoed in the distance.

She knew that sound. It was the sand beast. Gaara had told her it was supposed to have been moved to a hidden location. Was he out there moving it by himself? Was he fighting it?

With new resolve, Sakura shrugged her pack higher up on her shoulders and began to scale the wall. She already knew she wouldn’t be able to sneak past the guards – they were all looking in the exact direction she needed to go. Instead, she took a more direct approach. She let her chakra leak through its mask before jumping and landing directly behind the guards.

“Hey,” she said to get their attention. “Gaara-sama is waiting for me out there. I’m going to help him with that beast. So don’t attack me, okay?”

The guards seemed unsurprised that she was there. The one on the left frowned while the other gave a quick shake of his head. “No, Gaara-sama told us to make sure no one left the village after he did.”

Sakura shook her head. “Well, he wasn’t talking about me,” she lied. “He specifically asked for my help. I’m a Sakura Haruno of Konoha. I travelled all this way to help him.”

Both guards looked like they wanted to protest that, but Sakura did not give them the chance. She leapt from the wall and plummeted down into the sand, using chakra to buffer the impact. She did not look back up toward the guards as she ran toward the screeching sound.

She would certainly be in trouble for this now, especially after the last conversation she’d had with Gaara. But she wasn’t going to leave while Gaara was in trouble.

She ran as quickly as she could on the sand, careful not to waste any chakra in case she would need it later. Belatedly, she remembered how cold the desert was at night and she felt goosebumps rise up on her bare arms. She would have to remember to come back to Suna and grab some kind of jacket before she headed back home if she was going to be travelling at night.

The beast’s screeches led her far past the farthest into the desert she had been. She crossed the dunes and miles and miles of sand, looking back toward Suna only once to see the tiny figures of the guards atop the wall. Soon the screeching grew louder. She was getting closer.

Up ahead of her the landscape was shifting. The dunes gave way to a massive stone formation. The red and brown stone was smooth and tall, dipping into the ground and coming back up to form arches and walls. Briefly Sakura mused that the formation almost looked like a turtle’s shell if it didn’t contain so many open holes and gaps.

She quickly approached the formation – she could feel that Gaara was close by. The ground was quaking beneath her now – a low tremble, but she knew what it meant. She quickly leapt up on top of the stone where the beast wouldn’t be able to surprise her.

Sakura wasn’t a sensor type, but she could feel that something was wrong. Gaara’s chakra signature was faint, but she knew that he was near her somewhere. She scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of something amiss, but it was so dark. She could hardly see past the stone in front of her.

The tremors in the ground intensified – Sakura struggled to maintain her balance. Then she saw a wall of sand shoot up from the ground a few meters past the edge of the stone. She pulsed her chakra signature outward, hoping Gaara could sense her wherever he was.

Then she saw him – a thin, crumpled figure against the stark sky. He was in the air, falling quickly back down toward the sand. His sand wall must have launched him high into the air. Sakura darted forward, ambling to catch him before he hit the ground and injured himself.

He fell into her outstretched arms and Sakura was horrified to see that he was unconscious, covered in the beast’s slime and a crusting of sand. His hair was matted down to his forehead and his eyes were shut. With a surge of chakra, she found that he was experiencing muscle fatigue – he had contracted the poison.

Quickly she brought him back to the top of the stone formation and set him down. She funneled her chakra into his chest, doing her best to alleviate some of his symptoms. She also noted he had some internal bleeding and was bruised all over his abdomen and chest.

“Kazekage-sama,” she murmured, knowing he likely couldn’t hear her. She shrugged off her pack and reached inside for a canteen of water. She needed to clean off the sand and slime around his injuries, so she ripped open his robe and poured the water onto his skin, using it in conjunction with her chakra to remove the sand and debris.

Near where his sand wall had been, more sand erupted from the ground and with it, the sand beast. Sakura used her hand to shield her face from the spray of sand, peering through her fingers at the beast. It was severely injured, Sakura saw. Before it had been able to float through the air, but now it seemed barely able to crawl along the sand. It moaned – an awful, ear-piercing sound.

Sakura crawled forward, edging close to the sand while keeping herself firmly planted on the stone. It was dying. She could see its blood seeping from some wound on its belly – far too much blood for a beast of that size to lose.

She turned back to Gaara and covered his exposed skin with his robe. “Stay here for a minute,” she said to the still unconscious Kazekage. “I have to go put that thing out of its misery.”

The beast groaned again – Gaara must have done quite a number on it. It writhed in the sand, twisting itself over to expose its bloody belly.

“You poor thing,” Sakura said. She gathered her chakra in her fist and leapt high up into the air so she could get a good angle on it. A well-placed hit on the head would kill it instantly so it wouldn’t have to suffer.

Her fist came down with a sickening crack. She felt the bone of its skull break underneath the weight of her attack. She landed on the ground beside its head, panting. The desert was quiet. She could feel the heat emanating from the beast’s body still, but it was dead.

She returned to Gaara quickly, crouching down by his side. His injuries were severe, but not so bad that she couldn’t take care of them here. She immediately set to work, reknitting skin and bone, closing the wounds, and extracting the poison.

For a moment Sakura was conflicted. She could wake Gaara up now, but she already knew he would be upset with her. She should not have come out here. She should not have tried to leave Suna without Shikamaru or Temari. She took the opportunity to study his face – the paleness there, the way he looked peaceful even during this time of duress. His features were soft and handsome, and Sakura was struck by the fact that he had the aristocratic countenance of a leader.

She knew she should wake him up. Otherwise she would have to carry him back to Suna, and she wasn’t really into that idea.

“Kazekage-sama,” she said, shaking his shoulder gently. “Wake up.”

He was already scowling as she jostled him awake. He winced as she pulled him into a sitting position. “What the hell are you doing here, Sakura?”

“Umm, saving your life, Kazekage-sama.”

He clutched his stomach, fingers probing the exposed flesh there. “You healed me?” he asked. He prodded his fingers into his ribs, his brow furrowed in confusion. He peered over the edge of the rock to find the beast belly-up and still. “And you killed that thing?”

“Well, you did most of the work,” she said. “I just put it out of its misery.”

Gaara cursed as he got to his feet.

“Now hold still, Gaara-sama,” she said, pawing at his arms to coax him into sitting again. “Your injuries were pretty severe – you need to take it easy for a moment. I can carry you back to the village if you’d like.”

“Go back to the village, Sakura,” he commanded, ignoring her protests. “You’re not safe here.” He leapt down from the edge of the rock and padded around the beast, inspecting it with a wary eye. Sakura crossed her arms as she watched him jump onto the beast’s belly and continue to survey the damage. When his eyes began to scan the desert’s horizon, Sakura followed his gaze outward, looking for whatever he was trying to see out there.

“Sakura, did you hear me? Go back to the village. Now.”

Sakura ignored the command again, knowing full well she would be in quite a bit of trouble for this. She leapt down to join Gaara in the sand, squinting to see the horizon in the distance. “Yeah, yeah, I heard you,” she said. “So this is the business you had to attend to? What are you looking for?”

Gaara whirled to face her, a murderous glint in his eye. If he hadn’t seemed so determined to protect her, Sakura would have feared for her life.

“You are the most frustrating person I have ever met,” he said through clenched teeth. “Can’t you just do as you’re told?”

Sakura cocked her hip out and attempted to poke his chest with a prissy finger, but a circle of sand prevented the contact. “I overheard the guards on the wall talking about how you could be out here getting yourself killed and they would never know,” she said. “And by the looks of it, they were right. How exactly were you going to fend off any of those beast’s attack unconscious?” she demanded.

Gaara had the decency to look sheepish, which surprised Sakura enough that she dropped her sassy façade.

“I’m glad you were here to help, Sakura, but you’re not helping your case.”

Sakura sucked in a deep breath and sighed. “Forgive me, Kazekage-sama,” she said with a placating tone. There was no need to exacerbate the trouble she was in, she thought. “I knew you were out here alone and I could hear that thing’s screeching all the way from the village. Was I just supposed to lie in my bed and hope you came back?”

“You were supposed to listen to the guards and stay inside the village walls.”

Sakura could already taste the retort poised on her lips, the sass that was coming back up like a bad case of food poisoning. But before she could speak again, Gaara’s warm palm on her shoulder stopped her.

“But I suppose I can forgive this one transgression,” he said. His eyes were eerily glowing in the scant moonlight and he was so close to her face that Sakura took a miniscule step backwards to put space between her and the unnerving way his eyes had settled on her. “Thank you for saving my life.”

She didn’t quite know what to say – she certainly hadn’t been aiming for forgiveness. She gave him a grim, thin-lipped smile. “What were you doing out here, anyway?” she asked.

“I’ve had shinobi monitoring the beast’s sleeping patterns,” Gaara answered. “This location is known as Turtle Rock. I believed this location to be a good spot to move the beast to because of the size of the rock and its shape. The beast cannot burst up from the ground through it, so it is safe to stand on. It is also far enough away from the village that no one would encounter it unless they were looking for it.”

Sakura nodded in understanding. “Turtle Rock?” she asked. “How clever. If I may point out – this place is a good spot for the beast in more than one way. The acid it spits from its mouth reacts to sunlight. If you were touched by it, you could hide from the sun underneath the rock.”

Gaara blinked in surprise and then looked down to his body, which was still coated in a heavy layer of the beast’s slime.

“I figured that out while creating the antidote,” she said. “But don’t worry, you’ll be fine as long as you clean up before the sun comes up.”

Gaara shrugged out of his Kage robe and began to wipe away the slime on his skin with it. Sakura reached into her pack and pulled out a clean cloth and moved to help him. It was still relatively dark outside now, but there was no reason to leave that slime on him when it could potentially hurt him later.

But as she reached out to grab his arm, a thin layer of sand materialized between them. She glanced up at him, his eyes wavering through the shifting sands.

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s the nature of my sand to guard against touch. You may help.” The sand fell back to the ground and hesitantly, Sakura reached forward and began to wipe his arm with the cloth. She rubbed the cloth along the smoothness his forearm, marveling at how his skin was unmarred by any scratches or scars – a true testament to the power of his sand.

She couldn’t help but notice the way his muscles were taught, bulging from his forearm as she continued to clean him. His heart rate was quicker than normal, she deduced. He must have been uncomfortable with her touch, but he still allowed it.

“I still don’t understand why you came out here,” she said in an attempt to distract him from feeling overwhelmed by her touch.

“There is a pulse beneath the sand,” he explained. “Something that contains chakra, though I don’t think it’s alive. The shinobi team responsible for moving the beast noticed it first. It is faint, but it grows stronger each day the beast is here at Turtle Rock.” He closed his eyes, pausing his movements for a moment. “Can you feel it, Sakura, beneath the sand?”

Sakura, too, stopped moving, though she let her hands stay clutched around the Kazekage’s arm. She closed her eyes, trying to sense what it was he had explained to her.

And she could feel it – a minute flare of chakra somewhere deep below them. There was an abnormal quality to it, one that left Sakura to conclude, as Gaara had, that whatever it was was not alive.

“I can feel it,” she answered, opening her eyes and resuming her cleaning.

“I believe whatever it is down there reacted to the beast in some way,” Gaara said. “I’d like to know what it is and if it might pose a threat to Suna in the future.”

“I see,” Sakura said. When Gaara’s arm had been cleaned, Sakura moved to apply the cloth to his chest, where she could see more slime spread across his collarbone, but he grabbed onto her wrist to stop her. “That’s why you monitored its sleeping pattern – so you could come out here while it was asleep and investigate.”

Gaara held onto her wrist, but he did not push her away. He merely held onto her arm as he regarded her with cool eyes. “Yes, exactly,” he said. “I wanted to minimize any risk of casualties.”

Sakura did not blush, though she felt as though she could have. “I think losing the Kazekage would be the single most devastating casualty you could have accrued here,” she pointed out. “What would Suna do without their leader?”

Gaara released her arm with a roll of his eyes.

“So did you find it?” she continued. “Whatever it is that’s creating this weird chakra?”

Gaara shook his head. “It’s under the sand and the rock,” he explained. “I’m not sure how deep it is below the surface. We might have to tunnel for it.”

“Oh, that’s why you were under the ground when I got here.”

Gaara nodded.

“So how did you get down there? Did you get close to it?”

“I was able to shift the sands around to accommodate my movements, but it was dangerous with the beast lurking around,” he explained. “It can move a lot more freely under the ground than I can.”

“It would help if you could know the location of the chakra source before you start tunneling,” Sakura said.

“Yes,” he said, giving her a mildly annoyed glare. “It would.”

“You know a Hyuuga could easily help you out with this little problem,” she said, ignoring the way he glared at her.

“My experiences with Konoha nin have led me to believe they are too insubordinate,” he said coldly. “I won’t be asking for their help in the future unless it is absolutely necessary.”

Sakura smiled in spite of the fact she felt rather annoyed. “Oh, come on now, Gaara-sama,” she said. “You can’t hold Konoha responsible for my indiscretions. Admit that you wouldn’t turn down Naruto’s help for anything.”

“Okay,” he conceded. “I would not turn down Naruto’s help.”

“And Shikamaru has been helpful, too, hasn’t he?”

“Shikamaru is fucking my sister,” he bit out. “He’s no higher up on the list than you are.”

Shocked by his vulgar language and the rage the roiled off him, Sakura couldn’t contain the short burst of laughter that erupted from her mouth. “Kazekage-sama!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you had this possessiveness in you.”

“I’m not being possessive,” he argued. “Temari can do whatever she wants, but that doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.”

“Hey, Shikamaru is a good guy,” she replied defensively.

“No one who would fuck my sister is a good guy.”

Sakura sniggered into her hand, eyes lit with amusement. He sent another heated glare in her direction as he continued to wipe the slime from the body with his Kage robe.

“I think Shikamaru is good for her,” she continued, watching as he tossed his dampened robe up onto the rock. “She could use a good fuck.”

Gaara’s glare intensified.

“So could you,” she said.

She watched the glare on his face dissipate and melt into a look of total humiliation. Sakura was sure she had never seen the Kazekage look so red before.

“That is highly inappropriate, Sakura-san.”

“Again with the suffix?” she asked. “You’re very confusing, you know.”

“It would be easier if you would just show me the appropriate amount of respect.”

“Sorry,” she said, genuinely apologetic, but not really ashamed. “Don’t let my terrible behavior deter you from hiring a Hyuuga to help you out here. Hinata is much more obedient and docile. She won’t grate on your nerves like I do.”

“She’s not here now and you are,” he said. “So you’re going to help me instead.”

“How could I help?”

“The beast is dead now, so we can tunnel under the sand without its interference,” he said. “You have completed your portion of the mission, but you have to remain here until Shikamaru is finished as well. If I’m forced to endure your company for a few more days, then I can at least put you to good use.”

“Absolutely, Kazekage-sama,” she said agreeably. “I’m at your disposal. What can I do for you?”

He eyed her skeptically, seeming to await some sort of sassy response from her. But Sakura merely stood waiting, her expression as neutral as she could school it. Honestly, she didn’t intend to be such a pest. It was Ino’s mannerisms rubbing off on her.

“How well are you able to manipulate the sand with your chakra control?” he asked. “Can you hit precise points that will enable you to punch tunnels instead of craters?”

“I’ve never tried that before,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin. It was feasible, she decided, but would require a lot of concentration. She was unsure of how far she could extend her chakra to create a tunnel. She had a feeling that if she were to attack the sand in such a way that a tunnel was formed, the tunnel itself would be relatively short.

“Now’s as good a time as any to try,” he said, gesturing to the ground beside him.

“Can’t you just move the sand yourself?” she asked. “Isn’t that your thing?”

“I tried that,” he answered. “I think whatever is down there can also manipulate the sand. I found my tunneling pattern to be inconsistent and I couldn’t figure out why. Your abilities should be unhindered, though, and with my personal sand we shouldn’t have any trouble.”

Sakura had some qualms about that, because his lack of consistency in moving the sand was concerning and seemed like an awfully good reason not to venture down there at all.

“What about the nest?” she asked, thinking of any other excuse to avoid what he was suggesting.

He regarded her for a moment, his brow furrowed but his expression otherwise unreadable.

“The shinobi squad that moved the nest put it underneath the rock, but it was gone the next time they came back,” he explained. “I’m not sure where the nest is now. I imagine it’s somewhere buried beneath us.”

“Surely you don’t want to accidentally injure the eggs, though,” she said. “You said the beast made the chakra source underneath us react in some way. The beast is dead now, so if it was eliciting some kind of effect then we’ll need to eggs to learn what that effect was.”

Gaara made a small noise of acknowledgement with the back of his throat and crouched down low, his knees sunken in the sand. He closed his eyes and pressed his palms into the sand. Sakura watched as he sensed what was below their feet. Sakura, too, tried to sense what she could – the chakra source somewhere below. It was faint now, but still there clear as day.

“Are you able to sense the nest?” she asked.

Gaara shook his head and brought his finger to his lips to silence her. She continued to watch him. She could feel his chakra in the sands under her, shifting and moving beneath the surface. There was a rumbling, static sound coming from the ground – a sound she hoped was Gaara and not something more nefarious.

“I do not sense the nest anywhere near,” Gaara said, his eyes still closed. “Though I imagine the beast left it somewhere it would be safe and well protected after having one egg stolen and the nest itself relocated.”

Sakura hummed in agreement. Gaara opened his eyes and looked at her. Again, Sakura felt unnerved by his gaze and the intensity behind his eyes. Did he always look at everyone that way? How could anyone stand it?

“Go on,” he urged. “Give it a go.”

Resigned, Sakura amassed a precise amount of chakra in her fist and pulled back to hit the ground beneath her feet. Gaara leapt back to avoid the probable devastation, landing deftly back on top of Turtle Rock.

Sakura’s fist connected with the sand. Usually Sakura allowed her chakra to dispel itself however it pleased, letting gravity and physics do all the work. This usually ended in a crater of some sort – an explosion of everything near where her fist landed. But for this to work, Sakura channeled her chakra more precisely, forcing it to go only downwards in the sand, the radius of effect only three feet wide. It was like walking on her hands, she mused. It did not come naturally – the movement, the flow of her chakra felt odd that way.

But when she removed her fist from the sand she was pleasantly surprised to see that she had, indeed, punched a tunnel into the sand. She peered down into the vertical hole she had just made, feeling a sense of accomplishment. She was immediately annoyed, though, to find that the hole was roughly ten feet deep – not nearly deep enough to explore.

“Nice work, Sakura,” Gaara said, hopping down from the rock. “It’s not very long, but as long as you can throw consecutive punches, we should be fine.”

Sakura was about to protest, because throwing consecutive punches sounded like a lot of work – work that would expend a significant amount of chakra. Gaara jumped down into the hole she had made and peered back up at her expectantly.

“Do you think you could make the tunnel a little wider?” he asked.

“I think it already expends too much chakra to feasibly explore while doing this,” she said, refraining from letting a heavy sigh whoosh out of her.

“No matter,” Gaara said, beckoning her to join him with a wave of his hand. “I can move the sand myself.” She looked on as he shifted the sand in the tunnel, pushing it outward to create a wider path for the two of them.

Hesitantly, Sakura hopped down into the hole beside him. She didn’t think this was a great idea, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to let him explore beneath the sand alone. He’d already almost gotten killed once that way.

She shrugged her pack tighter around her shoulders and reared back for another tunnel inducing punch.

Chapter Text

“Stay close to me,” Gaara said as they inched their way along the second tunnel Sakura had just created. “The sands will shift around us and they might crush you. Stay close enough that my personal sand can protect you.”

Sakura heeded his advice, already fearing the sand that was closing in behind them. There was still a circle of dim light above – their one path left to the surface and the fresh air. She punched another tunnel at Gaara’s discretion, this time horizontally instead of vertically.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Sakura asked. More sanded shifted behind them, falling quickly to cover them after being disrupted by Sakura’s hit. Sakura lifted her hand to protect her head from the falling sand, but a steady shield materialized above her, taking any light from the moon with it.

“I can sense the chakra nearby,” he said. “I think we are fairly close. Punch here,” he said, feeling for her hand and grabbing it so he could press it to the sand in front of them.

Sakura was glad for the total darkness that encompassed them, hiding the hot blush on her cheeks. Sure, she had touched Gaara before, but rarely had he been the one to initiate physical contact. She understood the need for it now, of course, but that didn’t stop the way her heart seemed to skip a beat.

She did as she was told, forcing another tunnel through the sand with her chakra. The sands continued to shift around them, but Gaara’s steady sand shield held strong.

They continued like this for some time, with Gaara placing Sakura’s hand where she needed to hit and then Sakura punching. She could feel her chakra level getting lower – and it hadn’t been very high to begin with. She wanted to ask Gaara if they could stop and take a break. She needed to catch her breath and maybe drink some water.

But she didn’t want Gaara to think less of her. She could manage if he was managing.

In fact, Gaara seemed to be faring quite well. She could hear his unlabored breathing, his huffs of amusement each time Sakura pounded into the sand. His palms, unlike hers, were completely dry and warm. Whatever hesitation he might have felt in touching her hand seemed all but gone now.

“You like being down here, don’t you?” Sakura asked, her voice slightly breathless.

“I do,” he said, his voice smooth and mellow. She could hear the grin on his face. “It’s cozy, isn’t it?”

“Cozy isn’t the word I would use,” Sakura said dryly.

She heard him laugh – felt it, really – a low rumble in his back, which was pressed against Sakura’s chest now as they inched forward through the sand.

“Wish I had better company, though,” he said. She could tell from the lightness in his tone that he was joking, but she flicked his ear nonetheless. She heard him grunt, unused to being struck so openly. He shifted away from her slightly and Sakura felt the sand in front of her press closer to her skin.

“Yes, Kazekage-sama, I’m sure it would suit you just fine to have one of those pretty girls from your fan club down here instead,” she muttered.

He laughed again and Sakura was in no mood to admit that she delighted in the sound. He didn’t contest her statement, though, so Sakura continued to press forward, waiting for Gaara to place her hand in the next spot.

They took a few steps more. Sakura tried not to enjoy the warmth of his body because even though she was starting to get cold now, that seemed like too improper a line to cross. Eventually, Gaara’s hand came to rest on her elbow, warm and steady, though he simply held her instead of guiding her arm to its new destination.

“We’re very close, Sakura,” he said. She could feel his breath rustling her hair near her temple. She tried not to shiver, she really did. But the warmth of his breath sent a minute shudder down her spine. Gaara pretended not to notice, but he must have felt it with the way they were pressed together. “I’m going to place your hand in the next spot, but you’ll need to be very careful. I don’t want you to end up crushing whatever it is.”

“Okay,” she said, determined to keep her voice steady and not show how affected she was by his proximity. It was, as he would say, inappropriate.

His hand slid down the length of her forearm and latched on around her wrist. He lifted her hand up to the sand close to her face and held it there.

“There,” he said, his voice still low.

Obediently, Sakura pulled back and punched the indicated spot, carefully this time, expelling her chakra precisely enough to cast away the sand in front of them, but gently enough that if something were hiding in that sand it would not be crushed.

Another low rumbling sound surrounded them. Sakura could feel the sands falling around them outside Gaara’s sphere. Together, they inched forward some more until Sakura felt the smooth coldness of stone beneath her fingers.

“Gaara-sama,” she murmured. “I think I’ve found something.”

“What is it?” he asked, reaching to touch the stone as well. His fingers brushed over hers as he explored the smooth stone in front of them.

“Do you have a flashlight, Sakura?”

“In my pack,” she said, reaching into her pack, which now hung off one shoulder. She procured a headlamp and passed it over her shoulder to Gaara. Gaara took the lamp and flicked the switch, casting cool white light into their little sand bubble.

Sakura squinted until her eyes adjusted to the light. The stone in front of her was illuminated now – the same reddish brown stone as Turtle Rock. It was still mostly obscured by sand, but Sakura could see that it was purposefully carved, smooth with squared edges. Near the bottom, where the sand was still covering it, Sakura could see something etched into the stone.

“Close your eyes,” Gaara instructed.

Sakura squeezed her eyes shut as she felt more rumbling in the sand. She felt a whoosh of air around her as the sand shifted. She felt cold, suddenly, and very exposed. Gaara’s heat disappeared from in front of her. Silence settled around them again, marred only by the occasional rustle of trickling sand.

“You can open them now.”

She opened her eyes and stared at the stone in front of her. Gaara had lifted the sand around them, but she could see that had come at a great cost. His breathing was labored now, and there was a noticeable dip in his chakra signature. She glanced in his direction and noted the strain on his face before she turned her attention back to the stone.

It was definitely the source of the chakra signature – she could feel it humming as she pressed her palm to it.

“It’s a monolith,” she said, her curiosity piqued.

“What does it say at the bottom?” Gaara asked.

Sakura crouched down to the base of the monolith, trying not to think too hard about the fact that Gaara’s attention and focus was the only thing currently keeping her from being crushed by an avalanche of sand.

The symbols on the monolith were peculiar, nothing like the letters she was familiar with. It was a large amount of text, though, and she didn’t want to leave without at least capturing something. She shrugged her pack off into the sand and fished around inside for some parchment paper and a pencil.

“It’s in some other language,” Sakura answered. “I’m going to rub the letters onto this paper. Shikamaru is good at this kind of thing – he’ll be able to tell us what it says.”

Gaara hummed but said nothing while Sakura rubbed her pencil along the paper to capture the etched symbols from the stone. When she was finished, she rolled her parchment back up and tucked it back into her pack.

“What do you think is causing this weird chakra signature?” she asked once she had stood back up and was facing Gaara now. The light from his headlamp shone brightly in her direction. Gaara was cast in shadow somewhere behind the light, but she could see the red tinge of his hair and the ethereal glow of his eyes.

He didn’t answer her right away, instead choosing to stare at her for a moment as she squinted in his direction.

“Fuck, that’s bright,” she hissed. “Could you point that somewhere else?”

He mumbled an apology and brushed past her to inspect the monolith for himself. He, too, crouched down beside the stone, running his fingers over the strange symbols.

“I’ve never seen any writing like this before,” he said. The light from his lamp reflected against the stone back into his face. He looked like a ghost in the white light surrounded by darkness, by trickling sand. “And this chakra… it’s so strange. How could stone be producing chakra?”

He was quiet for a long moment, hand still pressed against the stone. He shut his eyes as if trying to sense something. Sakura remained quiet for a while, allowing him to think or sense or whatever it was he was trying to do.

“Perhaps we’ll learn that once we’ve decoded the message,” she said when he had made no movement for several moments.

He looked up at her as if he just remembered she was there with him. “Yes,” he said softly. “We should get out of here. You must be exhausted.”

She didn’t feel the need to tell him she had been prepared to make a three-day journey prior to their little excursion.

“Come here,” he commanded. She was getting a little annoyed with all of his demands, but she complied anyway because he was the Kazekage. “Grab onto me,” he said once she was standing directly in front of him.

“Excuse me?”

“Here,” he said, lifting her arms and settling them around his neck. “Hold on.”

Sakura felt her face, neck, and ears heat up in a furious blush. Being chest to chest was far more intimate than the way they had been before and Sakura felt cloying nervousness drenching her brain like a slick syrup. Gaara’s hand settled on her lower back as his sand gathered around them, forming his sand sphere.

Without warning, she felt them get pushed forcefully upward. She shrieked and tightened her arms around Gaara, her cheek pressed against his as she clung to him for dear life.

Their upward momentum didn’t last long. They hit a peak, high in the air, Sakura assumed, and well above the surface. And then they were falling, plummeting back down toward the dunes, still encased in Gaara’s sand sphere.

She clung even tighter to him, hoping he would buffer the impact for them when they neared the ground.

But instead, they both crashed to the ground, though Gaara fared much better than Sakura as he landed on his feet, his sand shield disappearing and falling to join the sand on the ground around them. Sakura fell to her knees, gasping as she fought to regain her sense of balance.

Gaara’s hands were on her, lifting her up by her arms. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Sorry, that’s the first time I’ve ever done that with someone else inside my shield, and with my sand control not working properly—”

“I’m fine,” she said, getting to her feet and dusting the sand from her skirt. She brought her hand to her forehead to brush away her hair and found her skin soaked in cold sweat. She grimaced as she brushed her sand caked hair away from her face.

“You’re chakra signature is weak,” Gaara said. She peered at him through her sandy pink strands. “You need to rest.”

“Nice observation,” she said dryly, glaring at him through her lashes. He didn’t look like he was faring so good either.

“Come on,” he said, stooping down in front of her so she could climb on his back.

Sakura shook her head vehemently. “No, absolutely not. I can make it back by myself, thanks.”

Gaara shook his head, too. “Not a chance,” he said. “I’m not leaving you out here alone. Do you really think I’d just leave without you?

“Without me?” she asked.

“I’m assuming you won’t be able to keep up with me if I fly back on my sand,” he said. “Should I just hover over you all the way back to the village?”

“Uhh,” she mumbled, feeling rather stupid.

“Stubborn woman,” he said, shaking his head with vaguely amused disapproval before grabbing her arm and yanking up her onto his sand disc.

Sakura yelped and steadied herself by bracing against his shoulder, glaring at him. But when he stooped down for her to climb onto his back, she didn’t need any convincing to hoist herself up.

 

There was a welcome party waiting for them at the gates – Temari, Kankuro, and Shikamaru all standing at the base of the guard tower, each with a surly look on their face.

“Gaara, what were you thinking?” Temari demanded. “You could have been killed out there!”

“Yeah, we agreed you would wait until me and Hideki could go with you,” Kankuro chimed in.

Gaara gave each of his siblings a dry look as he shrugged past them. “We never agreed to such a thing,” he said. “I said I’d prefer to go alone so no one will get hurt.”

Temari moved to block her brother’s path. “Then why did you take Sakura?”

“I didn’t take her,” Gaara said, his calm tone betrayed by the fierce look in his eyes. “She found me.”

Temari whirled on Sakura. “What were you doing out there?” Gaara’s eyes shifted and focused on Sakura in that unnerving way they did.

“I was inside the village when I heard the beast,” she said defensively.

“Where?” Temari asked.

“Near the guard tower.”

Temari pursed her lips. Sakura glanced over to Shikamaru and Kankuro who were both pretending not to listen.

“So right here in this very spot?” Temari demanded.

Sakura craned her neck, looking up at the guard tower above. She could see the silhouettes of the two guards she had spoken with before. They both waved at her and she waved back.

“Yep. This spot.”

Temari crossed her arms and sucked in a deep breath to continue the interrogation, but Gaara held up a hand to stop her.

“What were you doing out here, Sakura?”

“Oh, you know,” she drawled. “I couldn’t sleep. Just wanted to take a walk.” Absolutely no one looked like they believed her.

“It doesn’t matter,” Gaara said before Temari could snap at her. “Sakura, give Shikamaru the parchment.”

Obediently, Sakura reached into her pack and passed the parchment with the monolith’s strange words over to her comrade. Shikamaru blinked with confusion as he unfurled the paper.

“Shikamaru, I need you to decode that when you have the time,” Gaara instructed. “I understand you have other things to do while you’re here so I will have my strategy team help you out. As I understand it, you are quite good with codes, right?”

Shikamaru twisted his lips as he inspected the foreign letters. “This doesn’t look like a code, Kazekage-sama,” he said. “It looks like some sort of ancient language. But, yeah, I think I can work with this.”

“Good,” Gaara replied. “Now all of you get to bed. It’s late.”

Sakura glanced up at the sky, which was now starting to brighten near the horizon. “Kazekage-sama,” she said. “Perhaps you should head toward the medical wing and get an antidote for the poison. And in the morning you’ll want to have your injuries looked at again—”

“What injuries?” Temari interrupted.

“—just to make sure they’ve healed properly.”

Gaara waved a dismissive hand. “Yes, yes, I understand,” he said to Sakura. And Temari, he turned and gave a wry look. “It’s nothing,” he said to her. “Sakura already took care of them.”

“So you fought the beast?” Kankuro asked. “Did you kill it?”

“Sakura did,” Gaara answered dryly.

“Sakura!” Kankuro exclaimed. “We needed that thing alive!”

“Hey, don’t pin that on me, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said, glaring at the Kazekage. “You were the one who nearly killed it – I just put it out of its misery.”

Gaara gave a noncommittal shrug. “Again, it doesn’t matter. It’s dead and nothing can be done about it now,” he said. “Now everyone go get some sleep.”

No one dared argue with the Kazekage, whose eyes had steeled over and had the stern set to them of mother who’d just caught her son with his hand in a cookie jar. For once, those penetrating eyes were settled on someone other than Sakura – Temari, who had settled a glare of her own in Sakura’s direction.

Sakura wasted no time in getting back to her room.

 

Sakura woke to frantic banging at her door. A meek voice called her name from the other side, though it was barely audible through the solid oak door. Groggily, Sakura got to her feet and found a robe to slip on over her undergarments. She hadn’t fallen asleep until after the sun had risen, and gauging by the light pouring in from the window it must have been close to noon now.

“What is it?” Sakura demanded as she flung the door open.

She recognized the medic standing in her threshold – a young girl no older than fifteen or sixteen. She wore her white medic coat and her mousy hair was tied up neatly on top of her head.

“Gaara-sama is in the infirmary,” she said, her tone much too manic.

“Is it an emergency?” Sakura demanded, feeling a bit of that manic creeping into her own tone. Had Gaara gone at got himself hurt again?

“He came in just a while ago to get his injuries from last night looked at,” the medic explained. “My superior was taking care of him, but he is asking for you now.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes because this was a game she had played before, though usually with Kakashi or Naruto, who both refused to be treated by anyone other than her unless it couldn’t be helped.

“Fine,” she said, pulling he robe tighter around her waist. “I’ll be there in a second.”

 

“Really, Kazekage-sama?”

Gaara looked up at her with unimpressed eyes. He was reclining back against a cot in the infirmary, his hands propping up his head. The medic who had fetched her, and a woman who Sakura assumed to be her superior, were standing beside his cot, fawning over him with chakra lit hands.

“Took you long enough,” he said, shooing the medic and her boss away.

Sakura watched them scramble toward the door and give Sakura a wary look before pulling it closed behind them.

“Are they afraid of you or something?”

He sat up and gave her a glare, wincing in the process. Sakura was immediately at his side because there should be no reason for him to wince now – his injuries should not be painful at this point. She pressed her hand against his chest, surging her healing chakra into his system.

“I was not in the best of moods this morning,” he admitted almost sheepishly. He pulled down the collar of his tunic, revealing a nasty burn that ran along his collarbone. “It seems I missed a spot of that beast’s mucus.”

Sakura hissed through her teeth as she surveyed the damage. It was not extensive, but Sakura had seen the mucus work before so she knew it was probably very painful.

“The medics were unsure of how to treat it,” he explained. “But that’s not surprising. I’m sure they’ve never seen this before. I imagine you’re the only one who knows how this should be treated.”

“Yes,” Sakura agreed. “And here I was ready to be angry with you for dragging me out of bed. I can’t rightly be mad at you now, can I?” She set to work healing the acid burns and reknitting the skin around his collarbone.

“You know Temari is usually the only woman who can get away with being openly angry with me,” Gaara said with an amused tone as he watched her work.

“Oh?” Sakura asked, equal amusement in her own tone. “What happens to the other women who dare to get angry with you?”

“It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure you’ll be the first to know.”

Sakura wanted to laugh, but she had a feeling he was serious so she settled for giving him an annoyed look instead.

“You’re going to help me again today, Sakura.”

“Yeah, I know, I’m doing it now.”

He shook his head. “No, I mean with the monolith. We’re going back today. I’m going to bring it up to the surface.”

“What? Why me? Wouldn’t it be more convenient to take some of your own shinobi? Ones more familiar with the desert?” she asked.

“I might need you to lift it.”

Sakura eyed him warily as she finished healing the burn on his chest. She removed her hands and placed them in her lap, unsure of how to reject his proposal. The idea of going back out into the desert was deterring enough, but being cramped in close quarters with Gaara again was definitely not something Sakura wanted to subject herself to.

“Now that the beast is dead we can go during the day,” he said. “If we bring it up to the surface, I can have the historians go take a look at it. Even if we are unable to understand the language, there must be significant value in a monolith hidden under the dunes, don’t you think?”

“Of course, Kazekage-sama,” she agreed. She didn’t have any personal interest in the monolith and whatever ties it had to Suna’s ancient history, but if the Kazekage asked this of her, then she would do it. “When do we leave?”

“Now. You’re done healing me, right?”

“Now?” she asked incredulously. “But I just woke up! I’m hungry.”

“Go get dressed, kunoichi,” he said, letting his gaze fall to her t-shirt and shorts. “Grab something to eat and I’ll meet you at the guard tower.”

“Kunoichi?” she shrieked.

“Yes, kunoichi. I needed to remind myself that that is what you are,” he said smugly.

“Trying to provoke that anger, are you?”

Gaara smiled, though if he hadn’t been so amused it might have looked more like a smirk. Sakura leaned back away from him, wishing he wasn’t so damn handsome or that he wasn’t the Kazekage. She didn’t like the way his eyes were locked onto her, holding her captive. If he had been anyone else she would have reached up and bonked him on the head.

“Of course not,” he said through his grin. “That’s no way to treat my esteemed guest.”

Sakura barely managed to refrain from rolling her eyes.

 

Gaara was waiting for her at the guard tower when she arrived, wearing her proper shinobi gear and carrying a half eaten protein bar. She glanced up above her, shielding her eyes from the sun so she could peer into the guard tower. There was no one manning the rails.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Sakura asked. “Your siblings didn’t seem to want you to go out there alone.”

“I’m not alone, am I?”

“I think bringing me along only makes it worse.”

Gaara’s brow furrowed. “What makes you say that?”

“You saw how irritated Temari was when we got back,” Sakura pointed out. “Especially with me.”

“I don’t think she was especially irritated with you.”

“She was,” Sakura said firmly, but she didn’t want to delve into exactly how she knew that. Was Gaara aware that his sister thought something was going on between them?

“Well, she’s not the Kazekage,” he said, “Now hop on.” He turned his back toward her and crouched down for her to jump onto his back. Sakura eyed him warily. There was something unnerving about touching Gaara, about being under his ultimate defense instead of outside it. It should have felt like a privilege, but for some reason it felt unsettling instead.

And it prompted Sakura to wonder just why she was receiving this preferential treatment. She couldn’t think of a time where she had seen Temari or anyone else under Gaara’s defense. And for him to request that she tag along when he had made it clear that she annoyed him… well, it raised some more questions.

Dutifully, Sakura climbed onto his back, doing her best to keep as much distance between her chest and his back as possible. She regretted the sharp intake of breath that escaped her when she felt his warm palms hook underneath her thighs.

“You alright?” he asked, turning his head slightly in her direction.

“I’m fine, Kazekage-sama. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“The seamstress is not going to like this,” Gaara said as he climbed up onto Turtle Rock and inspected his Kage robe. Charred bits of fabric swayed teasingly in the breeze, blooming from the frayed hem like curls of smoke.

“You’re lucky we managed to get most of that shit off you,” Sakura said, kicking the robe with her toe.

“But more importantly, now I’ve only got one robe left.”

Sakura glanced over her shoulder at the Kazekage, whose somber expression belied his jesting tone. Behind him the dunes loomed ominously against the grey sky.

“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to find the monolith again.” He hopped down off the stone and into the sand, letting his feet sink in instead of using his chakra to create a buffer. For all his aversion to human touch, he probably quite enjoyed the feeling of sand against his skin, Sakura mused.

She, on the other hand, grimaced as the wind swept grains of sand against her face and legs and arms. It was too rough and too sharp and she wished for the billionth time that week that she was back home in Konoha where there was grass and dirt and fucking water.

With a sigh, she reared back her fist and smashed it into the ground with a precisely controlled burst of chakra. She had come more prepared this time – her chakra level was as high as it could be and she carried two headlamps and some more parchment paper in her pack.

The sand crumbled away, leaving behind a ten-foot deep tunnel, which Gaara wasted no time jumping into. She waited from him to widen the tunnel before she jumped in and landed beside him.

“Can you sense the monolith?” Gaara asked. He was so close that she could feel his breath on her shoulder and she wondered why this close proximity didn’t seem to bother him. For a man who had rarely been touched by another human until well into his adolescence, he had a pretty cavalier attitude toward touching her.

She closed her eyes, feeling outward with her chakra. “Yes, I can feel it,” she said. “It’s fainter now than it was yesterday.”

“I wonder if that’s because you killed the beast.”

Sakura said nothing but aimed another punch at the sand beneath them. The sand crumbled away, vanishing from under their feet. Darkness enveloped them and Sakura didn’t need to look up to know Gaara had executed his sand shield to protect them from the falling sands as they slid down the length of the tunnel.

It was much cooler beneath the surface than it was in the hot sun, so it was with relief that Sakura wiped the sweat away from her forehead and stretched her head upward to pop her neck. There was no bright sun to sting her eyes, or whipping sands to scratch her cheek.

“You’ll get arthritis if you keep doing that.”

“That’s a myth,” she replied dryly. Anyone else might have earned a smack to the back of the head with a comment like that, but Sakura had antagonized him enough and she didn’t need to be in any more trouble.

He didn’t respond, but he lifted her elbow and guided her hand to the sand to her left near her rib cage. “Here,” he said. She could sense the strange chakra of the monolith a fair distance away, but she had no idea how to pinpoint its exact location. Lucky for her, Gaara seemed to know where to go.

She reached back again and punched the sand where he had directed her to and then crawled along the tunnel she had created. She could feel Gaara close behind her still, but this time he was not touching her.

For a moment she felt a strong inclination to panic. Without Gaara the sand would crush her, and even if she were to manage to stay alive beneath the surface she would have no way of knowing which way was up. Her dependence on him was harrowing and she wished she had something he needed, too – something that would level their playing field.

Gaara stayed close behind her as she inched along her chain of tunnels, guiding her by placing her hand in the targets in the sand. Sakura didn’t know whether she was crazy or dehydrated, but she was loathe to admit that she actually enjoyed the gentle way his fingers curled around her wrist, the way the length of his arm brushed against hers as he extended it to reach the sand.

The tunnel began to level out – Sakura presumed they were nearing the monolith as their path became more horizontal. She kept her pace, forcing herself to even out her breaths. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic and she hoped they would reach the monolith soon so she could have some space.

She paused when she came to the end of her most recent tunnel, waiting for Gaara to position her hand. She turned around to face him when she felt no movement from him, though she could feel the heat of his body against her back.

“Gaara-sama?”

“Hmm?”

She shivered, not expecting his face to be so close to hers. She felt the tip of her nose brush along his jaw and she recoiled at the touch, backing up into the sand.

“Be careful,” he said, grabbing onto her elbow and pulling her back toward him. “Try not to move the sand around too much.”

“Are we close?” she asked, annoyed by the tremor in her voice.

“I think so but I’m afraid I don’t know what direction to go.”

Sakura swallowed a dry lump in her throat. “Are we lost?” she asked, her voice a panicked whisper.

“No, we aren’t lost,” he said firmly, and she was comforted by the steady timbre of his voice. “I know how to return to the surface. But the strange chakra… it’s all around us. It’s not coming from a single direction.”

Sakura slowed her breathing and pulsed her chakra outward, seeking the monolith’s odd chakra. Instantly, she recoiled, sucking her chakra back into herself. He was right – it felt like it was surrounding them, thick and heavy. She sucked in a deep breath, but it felt as though she couldn’t fill up her lungs properly.

“Why?” she asked, even though she knew Gaara couldn’t possibly know the answer to that. “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know.”

They were both still for one painful moment. Sakura was cycling through all the worst scenarios in her head, praying that whatever happened, Gaara would be able to get them through it. She would feel better if she could just breathe some fresh air, or see a chink of light from the sun.

She itched to punch another tunnel, to create more space around them so she could stretch her arms or stand on her tiptoes. The tunnel behind them had already caved around Gaara’s sphere where there was hardly enough space for the two of them to stand comfortably. She could feel his breaths, his heartbeats. They were too close and Sakura swallowed again, trying her best not to feel affected by his nearness and the darkness and the way sand was pressing against her everywhere.

“Sakura,” Gaara said. She felt him shift so that only their arms were touching. “Tell me how to create a healing salve for a burn.”

Sakura’s brow furrowed as her mind raced over the unexpected question. “Aloe is the main ingredient,” she answered. “Start with aloe as a base – which I’m sure you could find plenty of out here in Suna.”

“What else?”

She scowled in response. “You don’t need to do that,” she said. “I’m not freaking out.”

“Your breathing is erratic,” he argued. “Just talk about something until you’ve calmed down.”

“I am calm,” she insisted.

“So aloe, and then what?” he asked. “I’ve heard raw honey is good for burns. Would that work?”

“Yes, fine, raw honey,” she snapped. “Raw honey and aloe and a little bit of healing chakra.”

“Sakura.”

A beat of silence.

“What?”

“Can you feel that?” he asked. “The chakra is moving.”

She stilled, feeling outward with her chakra again. She could feel it all around her still, but instead of heavy and thick, it felt… oily and slippery, like it was settling into the sands around them, dripping through the cracks and crevices. She shuddered, disliking the way it felt.

“Are you okay, Sakura?”

“I’m fine, Gaara-sama.”

Morbidly fascinated, Sakura probed the mysterious chakra with her own. She could feel it flowing like molasses around her. Slowly, it rolled over them, or through them, or around them, down into the sand below her feet.

“Follow the chakra,” Gaara instructed.

Sakura contorted awkwardly as she aimed to punch the ground under her feet. But this time, instead of a tunnel, her punch exposed air – a harsh breeze that whipped around them as they began plummeting downwards toward…

Sakura screeched as she flailed her limbs, unprepared for the idea that there was possibly as space for her to fall into. Trickles of sand pelted her, getting into her eyes and mouth and nose. Blinded, she waved her arms around, seeking anything to stable herself with.

Then she felt a strong hand grasp her forearm, snatching her from the air and pulling her upwards.

With her free hand, Sakura, rubbed the sand from her eyes and looked up. Gaara was above her, hovering on his sand and holding her up so she didn’t fall. Hesitantly, Sakura looked down below her dangling feet. She could see nothing but darkness, but she had a feeling a drop from this height would kill her. Something about the breeze – unnatural as it was so far beneath the sand – unsettled her.

Gaara swiftly pulled her up onto his sand. “Are you alright?” he asked. Sakura nodded as she reached into her pack and pulled out the headlamps. She passed one to Gaara and fastened the other over her head.

“How the hell is the possible?” Sakura murmured, more to herself than to her companion. She flicked on the switch of her lamp, casting a white glow over the sand. She looked up above her from where they had just fallen. There was sand above her, defying gravity, it seemed. She could see the hole she had punched and the stream of sand that trickled down from it.

But below her and around her… there was nothing but darkness. The white light of her headlamp dissipated into the darkness. Wherever they were, the space was so massive she couldn’t see any walls of the floor from where she was.

“That chakra,” Gaara said. Sakura glanced over at him, noting the confusion and frustration in his features. “It’s gone.”

“Where the hell are we?” Sakura asked.

“Let’s find out,” he said. Suddenly, his sand swooped downwards. Sakura shrieked and instinctively latched onto Gaara’s arm, squeezing him as though her life depended on it. They sailed through the air – much quicker than Sakura assumed was safe. After all, they had no idea where they were or what was down here.

But with Gaara guiding them, his light casting a glow over the darkness, they found their way down to the floor, a wide expanse of sand that went on for as far as the light could go. Sakura stepped down off the sand platform, using Gaara’s arm for support.

“Be careful,” he said to her as she took several steps across the sand. “We don’t know what’s down here.”

Sakura hummed her acknowledgement as she surveyed the area, looking for anything that might be out of the ordinary. She heard Gaara’s footsteps behind her as he explored what was at her back.

“How is the sand supported?” Sakura asked. “Can you sense any chakra holding it up?”

Gaara’s footsteps stopped. Sakura turned around to look at him, casting her headlamp’s light over his pale features. He was silent, his eyes closed as she tried to sense whatever was in the sand.

“I can’t sense any chakra but yours,” he answered. “But that doesn’t mean much. My own sand shield uses negligible chakra – no one would be able to sense it. We might be seeing that same mechanic at work here.”

Sakura blinked in surprise. She hadn’t known that about his sand shield.

“What should we do?” she asked.

“Stay close to me,” he said, closing the distance between them. “I’m not sure I’d ever find you if we got separated in here. We should look around.”

Sakura had a really bad feeling about this. She followed Gaara closely as they made their way across the sand. She had no sense of the direction they were moving in and she couldn’t sense any chakra other than Gaara’s. The complete isolation and darkness and emptiness bothered her immensely, but she gritted her teeth and ignored the way it made her brain feel slightly fuzzy.

Their pace was leisurely, but Gaara never veered from the straight path he was making through the sand. Sakura stuck close on his heels, feeling more claustrophobic now than she had when they had been cramped together in his sand shield. It felt strange to see nothing but darkness and emptiness in every direction.

Another gust of wind blew over them, rustling Sakura’s hair and sending a shiver down her spine. It was cold down here and she could already feel goosebumps forming on her skin. The wind whistled and echoed around them, emphasizing the vastness of the titanic space around them.

After walking for what felt like an eternity, Gaara paused. Sakura bumped into him and then took a step back. Gaara’s hand came up to steady her, but it paused just before reaching her arm. Sakura watched him expectantly.

“The chakra is back,” he said. He turned sharply to his left and began walking again. “This way.”

Sakura obediently followed him, trusting his judgment. She, too, reached out to feel the chakra signature, though. It was faint, but she could feel it getting closer as they continued along Gaara’s path.

Within minutes, Sakura no longer had to probe with her chakra. She could feel it permeating the air around her. She suspected even a civilian with no knowledge of chakra would be able to sense the cloying energy that seemed to hum and vibrate in her bones.

Then she felt it – a familiar feeling of nausea and an itch in her muscles. She stopped moving and let her eyes and her light survey the sand. Gaara stopped, too, when he could no longer feel her walking behind him.

“What is it?” he asked.

Silently, Sakura pressed her hand against Gaara’s back between his shoulders blades and sent a jolt of chakra into his system. She could sense it there, too – traces of the poison. She shrugged her pack off and reached inside to grab two syringes of the antidote she was grateful she had decided to bring along with her.

“The nest is near,” she answered. “The poison is in both our systems.”

She uncapped the first syringe and jammed it into her arm. “Here, give me your arm,” she said. Gaara eyed her suspiciously before extending his arm to her. She noticed individual grains of sand hovering near his arm where she held the needle poised over him, but they did not block her path as she injected the antidote into his blood.

“Afraid of needles?” she asked, and though she usually would have added a teasing inflection to her tone, this time she was neutral, curious.

“No,” he said with a glare. “But I’m not particularly fond of being pricked with them.”

Sakura gave him a small smile as she tucked the empty syringes back into her pack and shrugged it back onto her shoulders.

A shrill peal of laughter rang out somewhere behind her, echoing through the darkness. Sakura whirled around and took a step back, her light vibrating against the sand as she looked for whatever had made the sound. She swallowed hard and then made herself be perfectly still so she could listen.

Silence settled around them. She could hear nothing but Gaara’s steady breaths.

“Hello?” Gaara asked, raising his voice to carry through the expansive space.

Another giggle, dainty and feminine rang out in the darkness. Sakura took another step backwards, nearly stepping on Gaara’s foot. She couldn’t place the direction the noise was coming from and with the inkiness that obscured her vision she couldn’t see a thing.

“Who’s there?” Gaara called out.

“I didn’t think you’d be able to get here,” said an eerie voice behind them. Both Sakura and Gaara whirled around, but there was nothing but darkness.

“Where are we?” Gaara asked the mysterious voice.

“The catacombs.”

Sakura’s eyes darted around, seeking the source of the voice. Catacombs? But there were no walls, no tunnels, nothing. How could they be in catacombs when it felt like they were exactly nowhere? Were there bodies buried out here? Who used these catacombs and what was their purpose? Sakura took another step toward Gaara, seeking comfort from his nearness as she grappled with this strange new discovery.

“Who are you?” Gaara demanded. “Show yourself.”

“Behind you.”

They spun around again in tandem, but this time there was a girl there – fifteen or sixteen at most. Her skin was white as paper and she was dressed in a long black dress that covered her from the nape of her neck down to her feet, though it was so sheer Sakura could see that she was wearing absolutely nothing underneath. She had messy black hair that was piled on the top of her head and a shimmering black veil that covered the lower half of her face.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” she said, her voice crystal clear now. “The elders said you wouldn’t come, but I knew you would. After all, you killed the Sun Goddess.”

Sakura and Gaara exchanged wary glances. “What Sun Goddess?” Gaara asked. “And who is ‘we?’”

The girl giggled again, her dark, milky eyes sparkling with amusement. “You should know, shouldn’t you?” she asked. “You killed her. Come now. I have to take you to see Taiyo-sama.”

She darted off into the darkness. Gaara and Sakura hurried after her, desperate not to lose her in the massive space.

“What’s your name?” Sakura asked once they had caught up with her.

“Sarabi.”

“Where are you taking us, Sarabi?”

“To meet Taiyo-sama.”

“Who is Taiyo?” Gaara asked.

Sarabi stopped cold and spun around to face them. “Taiyo-sama,” she corrected, “is the elder in charge of the catacombs. He will be most pleased to see you.” She turned back around and continued walking. Gaara and Sakura kept close to her as she navigated her way across the sand.

“Why—”

Sakura’s question was cut off by Gaara grabbing her by the arm and shaking his head. “Save your questions,” he said. “We need to focus on what we’re seeing. It will be easy to get lost down here. Stay close to the girl and be careful.”

Sakura nodded and focused all her attention on keeping up with Sarabi. They followed her for some time, the three of them padding along the sand with dull monotony. There was no variation in their path – nothing but blackness and sand and the white glow of their headlamps against Sarabi’s back.

But eventually, the sands gave way to stone beneath their feet, reddish brown like Turtle Rock. Sakura nearly sighed with relief when her aching feet pressed into the firm stone. She didn’t know taking steps on something solid could feel so relieving. Soon, the stone floor was joined by walls that towered high above them. Sakura craned her neck upward to see the ceiling, but it was too far away to see with her headlamp.

Sarabi led them down several corridors, turning and bending along the path until Sakura could hear voices up ahead in the distance. She saw a few sconces on the walls up ahead, casting warm but dim light over the corridor. Grateful for the chance to take off the tight headlamp that rubbed painfully against her temples, Sakura shoved her lamp back into her pack and then turned to Gaara to take his as well.

The corridor opened up into a large room made entirely of marble. It was big and empty, which Sakura presumed was intentional given the nature of the parts of the catacombs they had seen so far. In the center of the room sat a man high up on a marble throne, his eyes dark and milky like Sarabi’s, but his hair a wispy gray.

Beside him was another man, younger and with black hair like Sarabi’s. He caught Sakura’s gaze and then leaned to whisper something into the older man’s ear.

“Taiyo-sama,” Sarabi said, her voice strong and sure. Her footsteps echoed against the marble as she led Sakura and Gaara up to the throne. “I’ve brought you the Fireheads.”

Sakura and Gaara glanced at one another. Fireheads?

“Sarabi-chan, I hope I’m not hearing that you ventured up to the surface to bring these two down here to me,” said the man on the throne.

“No. They found their way to the Cage on their own.”

Taiyo leaned forward, his brow furrowed as he surveyed these two mysterious strangers. “Did they?” he asked.

“Taiyo-sama,” Gaara said, stepping around Sarabi to present himself. “I am Gaara of the Sand. I am the Kazekage, leader of Suna. This is Sakura Haruno, medic nin and apprentice to the Hokage, from Konoha.”

“Fireheads,” Taiyo said, reclining back against his throne. “You brought the Sun Goddess to us and then you killed her. Explain.”

“The Sun Goddess you refer to,” Gaara said. “You are speaking of the snake-like beast that spits acid?”

“The Sun Goddess is not a beast!” Sarabi said fiercely.

“Sarabi-chan, quiet,” said the dark haired man beside the throne, giving the young girl a disapproving look.

“The Sun Goddess blessed us with its… acid, as you say,” Taiyo said. “It sustains us, gives us life. Or at least it did, until you killed her.”

Sakura’s eyes widened, confused by what Taiyo was saying. How could the beast’s – the Sun Goddess – mucus be beneficial to them? As far as she knew, its properties were dangerous.

“It sustains you?” Gaara asked.

“It is our only source of nutrition,” Taiyo replied. “In the ancient days, our people would scavenge the surface for food. But the surface is far too dangerous now. The sun is harmful and no one is allowed to leave the catacombs for that reason.”

“You’ve been ingesting the mucus?” Sakura asked, aghast.

Taiyo’s eyes settled on her for the first time and his gaze was harsh, but not unnervingly so. “We had no choice. There is no food down here.”

Sakura shifted her gaze to Gaara. She was sure he hadn’t expected to find catacombs under here – certainly not ones that housed living people. Technically these people were under his jurisdiction and he hadn’t even realized they existed until now. She was suddenly glad she wasn’t the Kazekage, because this seemed like it would cause some massive problems.

“Taiyo-sama, we’re here to investigate a strange chakra signature we discovered out here,” Gaara explained. “We were searching for it beneath the surface when we uncovered a monolith that seemed to be the source of the chakra. Do you know anything about this?”

“A monolith, you say?” Taiyo said, rising to his feet and slowly descending the steps down from the throne. “It was likely a relic from our people’s past,” he explained. “Back when we all lived above the surface, many temples and monuments were built to honor our warriors.”

Taiyo walked the path from the throne to where Sakura and Gaara were standing, his breath labored and his steps slow. Sakura could see the frailty on him, the way his skin hung from his bones like crepe paper. She itched to reach out and let her healing chakra flow into him.

He paused in front of her and lifted his hand to her cheek. Sakura would have allowed the contact, but before his fingers touched her, a tiny circle of sand materialized to block its path.

“Tell me about that chakra, Taiyo,” Gaara said.

Fascinated by the hovering sand, Taiyo cocked his head and touched the tip of his finger to the sand disk. “How are you doing this?” he asked. Gaara’s sand dissipated under his touch.

“Taiyo,” Gaara said sharply. The man looked up at him, his eyes settling a little darker. Sakura assumed he did not like to be addressed without the honorific. “I need to you to tell me about the chakra so I can determine whether or not it is a threat to my village.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Taiyo answered. “What is chakra?”

Gaara and Sakura exchanged glances again. It seemed they were not getting answers, but instead discovering new questions.

“I’m sure you’ve felt it before,” Sakura said to the gray haired man. “It’s like an energy force. It guided us here from the surface. We could sense it under the sand.”

“Oh, the light,” Taiyo said.

“Light?” Gaara asked. “It sheds no visible light.”

“I think he meant a metaphorical light, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said, though she couldn’t know that for sure. Certain types of chakra seemed to glow in some cases, but in the case of this mysterious chakra that was not the case. “Is that what you meant, Taiyo?”

The elder’s eyes narrowed on her. His eyes flicked over to Gaara before coming back to settle on her again. “You can show your companion the proper amount of respect,” he said tersely. Behind her, Gaara scoffed. “You should show the same amount of respect to me. You are in my jurisdiction, aren’t you?”

Sakura’s face contorted with annoyance. “All of Suna is Gaara-sama’s jurisdiction,” she argued. “He has earned my respect and you have not.”

Gaara grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and pulled her back until they were standing side by side. “I’m not interested in whose jurisdiction this is,” Gaara said, his eyes focused intently on Taiyo. “I am only interested in the chakra. The light.”

Taiyo’s face was hardened now. Though he hadn’t seemed exceptionally friendly to begin with, now Sakura could feel the waves of contempt roiling from his body. “Come with me,” he said. “I will take you to the light.”

Chapter Text

Taiyo led Gaara and Sakura through the catacombs, his heavy black robe leaving a trail in the sand behind him only to be marred by their footprints. Sakura had presumed that the catacombs were excessively large based on what she had seen so far, but the path they were taking now was more like the tunnels she would expect from a catacomb.

The ground beneath them was sand again and the walls were made of stone like Turtle Rock. Sconces peppered the walls, tiny flames burning hotly and casting warmth down the corridors.

Sakura glanced over to Gaara beside her. His lips were pressed together in a thin line and she could see that he was on guard. His tenseness made her worry, too, and she bit her lip with apprehension.

They reached the end of the corridor and Taiyo opened the stone door, revealing a small room, hardly the size of Sakura’s closet back at the palace. It was nondescript, sandy all around – no stone walls this time. And dead center was the monolith, looming so high up that its top disappeared into the sand above.

Taiyo stepped forward and pressed his palm to the writing near the bottom. “This,” he said. “This is where the light comes from. It guides us to the Sun Goddess. Its will protects us from the elements.”

Gaara brushed past Taiyo and skimmed his fingers along the stone. Sakura probed outward with her chakra. This time, she could feel it – the chakra in the stone. It was less viscous now, more like a burning light emanating from the monolith.

“Taiyo,” Gaara said. “—sama,” he added as an afterthought. “What does this text here at the bottom say?”

Behind them, Taiyo cleared his throat. “I do not know,” he answered. “The writings there are from a different time. We longer use it. We no longer understand it.”

“Is this its base?” Gaara asked. “How high up does it go?”

“I do not know.”

Gaara circled the monolith, sliding his hand along the stone. “Sakura, do you think you could lift it?” he asked.

Sakura peered up at the top of the monolith, obscured by the sand above. “I don’t know how big it is, but I imagine so,” she replied. “But not with all that sand in the way.”

“I can move the sand,” he said.

“You cannot move it,” Taiyo said. “It’s much too large and there is too much sand in the way.”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Sakura began. “What are you going to do with it, Kazekage-sama? Why should we move it?”

“I want to have the historians take a look at it,” he replied. “When we get back to the village I’m going to go through the archives and see what I can find on ancient civilizations in Suna. Until then, we should learn as much as we can while we’re down here. We can come back for the monolith later.”

“Taiyo,” Sakura said. Gaara cleared his throat. “—sama, how many people live down here in these catacombs?”

The elder seemed to sense that Gaara and Sakura did not feel the amount of respect for him that he felt he deserved. He crossed his arms across his chest, his eyes hard as he appraised the two strangers. “You killed the Sun Goddess, attempted to steal our architecture, and now you’re demanding more information from me?” he asked.

Sakura opened her mouth to speak, but Gaara beat her to it. “What is it that you wanted from us, Taiyo-sama?” he asked. “Why did you want to meet us?”

“You were strong enough to kill the beast,” he said, his eyes still burning with contempt. “We assumed you were some sort of gods. And what you did with the sand… It’s fascinating, to say the least. But with you here in front of me, I can see that you are human.”

He paused and took in a shallow breath. He approached the monolith and pressed his hand against it. His face denoted a wistful nostalgia, but his posture was rigid and tense. “We had hoped that you could save us,” he continued. “As I said before, we were scavengers before. The beast was what sustained us. It helped us carve out these catacombs and it provided food for us. But now it’s dead. We recovered the nest, but until those eggs hatch we will have no food source.”

“You have the nest?” Sakura asked. “Where is it? Is it near the living quarters?”

“We’ve stock piled a sufficient amount of food for now,” Taiyo continued, ignoring Sakura’s questions. “But what will we do once the food runs out and the Sun Gods have not hatched yet?”

“Where is the nest, Taiyo-sama?” Gaara asked.

Taiyo scowled. “Did you hear me?” he asked. “My people are going to starve—”

“We’ll help you, Taiyo-sama, if you take us to the nest,” Gaara said.

Taiyo uncrossed his arms. His face faltered as if he hadn’t expected to be offered any help. “How could you possibly help me?” he asked, though his tone was softer now. “You Fireheads come down from the surface and think you can help. You cannot create food for us. You cannot give us sustainability.”

“The nest, Taiyo,” Gaara said through clenched teeth.

The gray haired man had his hands fisted in the material of his tunic and his face begun to grow red. “Listen here, Gaara of the Sand—”

Sakura pressed her palm to Taiyo’s chest, her chakra already glowing as she pulsed it towards his heart and muscles. If he could only see what they could do with their chakra, perhaps he would see that they could, in fact, help him. Taiyo reach up to grab her arm, his fingers circling around her wrist to push her away. Sakura did not allow him to, though. She kept her hand firmly planted on his sternum, resisting his push without the aid of her chakra-enhanced strength.

“Get your hands off me—”

He silenced himself as he felt the relief in his lungs, the fatigue in his muscles dissipating. He had a slew of other health conditions in his old age, but Sakura focused on the more pressing ones.

“What are you doing to me, you witch?” Taiyo hissed.

“Helping you like you asked.”

Taiyo jerked his body away from her, recoiling as if she had burned him. “You aren’t gods. You’re demons.”

“Taiyo-sama, Sakura has practiced for many years to be able to heal you like that,” Gaara explained patiently. Sakura was feeling none of that patience. “Her skills are sought after all over the world. She is the best medic you could find. I take great offense that you would refuse her help.”

“This isn’t natural,” he said, his voice trembling now.

“Sakura,” Gaara said quietly, beckoning her close with a wave of his hand. Sakura leaned in close so he could whisper in her ear. “We should leave now,” he continued. “There is nothing we can do here and we’ve already intruded enough. We can come back later to collect the monolith. We can bring food and supplies with us.”

Sakura nodded in understanding. They had disrupted the community in an irreparable way now and the only way to fix it was to civilize these people. They were killing themselves and they didn’t even realize it.

“What are you two whisper—”

Before he could finish his question, Sarabi burst through the door behind him, panting and gasping for breath. “Taiyo-sama,” she wheezed. “Toki-san is in trouble.”

“What’s going on?” Taiyo asked.

“I think he’s dying,” she whimpered. Sakura could see tears glistening on her cheeks. “He isn’t moving very much and he’s so sweaty. His skin looks translucent.”

“Take me to him,” Sakura commanded. If it was the work of the nest’s poison, she would be able to reverse it before the effects were too severe. She could make sure to bring more antidotes with her when she returned.

Sarabi grabbed Sakura’s hand and began dragging her toward the door, her fingers trembling as they clasped Sakura’s. She must have truly been desperate to have accepted the help of a stranger so readily. Sakura glanced back toward Gaara to make sure he approved of this and saw that he was already following close behind.

“Wait a minute,” Taiyo said, his voice raspy as he fought to regain control both of his thoughts and the situation.

But Sakura didn’t have time to wait and it seemed that Sarabi understood that as well.

Again Sakura found herself traveling down the length of the catacombs, following twisting corridors. Sarabi kept her pace quick, not slowing down even as Sakura hesitated when they came to a series of doors in a long hallway – doors she could hear people talking and laughing from the other side.

They took one last sharp turn before they were standing in what appeared to be some sort of makeshift infirmary. Cots lined the perimeter of the sandy walls, each filled with a motionless figure of a person. In the corner was a pipe, rusted but Sakura could see water dripping from the ferrule. Below the pipe was a pile of bloodied rags.

But the smell was what hit Sakura the hardest. It smelled so strongly of death that Sakura suspected some of those cots contained corpses. She glanced behind her shoulder to see Gaara, and Taiyo a couple of steps behind him.

“Stay out here, Gaara-sama,” she said. “This place is festering. You might get sick.”

Gaara looked like he wanted to contest that, but before he had a chance Sarabi was dragging Sakura to a cot near the back of the room.

“Toki-san, one of the Fireheads is here to help you,” she said to the man on the cot. He looked remarkably similar to the man who had been in the throne room with them, but then again almost everyone in the room had similar features – dark hair and darker milky eyes.

Sakura turned the man over onto his back. He was barely conscious and he was drenched in sweat. She recognized immediately the nest’s poison. She pressed her palm to his chest and began clearing out the dangerous microbes in his lungs first.

“Sarabi,” Sakura said, her voice authoritative now that she was back in her element. “The Sun Goddess’ nest. I need to know where it is.”

“There’s no time for that!” she shrieked in response. “Toki is dying!”

Sakura shook her head, her hands still pressed against his chest. “I won’t let him die. I’ll stay here with him if you take Gaara-sama to where the nest is.”

“But why?”

Again, Sakura shook her head. “Don’t worry about it right now, just do it.”

Sarabi glanced hesitantly between Sakura and Toki. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll take him to where we are keeping the nest.”

Sakura didn’t turn around to watch her leave with Gaara. If Toki’s health was indicative of everyone else’s, then she had a lot of work to do.

 

“Sakura.”

Startled by the sound of her name, Sakura whirled around. Her hands were still pressed against her patient’s chest as she let her eyes settle on Gaara’s penetrating ones.

“Sakura, we need to leave now,” he said. “We’ve been gone too long already. Temari will be wondering where I am.”

“What about the nest?”

“Taiyo would not part with it, but I convinced him to move it to an isolated location,” he replied. “Hopefully it won’t affect anyone from that distance.”

Sakura nodded in understanding. “Okay,” he said. “But we will come back tomorrow, right? I worry their prolonged exposure to the nest has had devastating affects.”

Gaara nodded. “Yes, we will come back.”

“Let me finish this patient and then we can go.”

She turned back to the patient on the cot and sent another surge of chakra into his lungs. After working on several of the people on cots, Sakura discovered that their exposure to the nest and ingestion of the beast’s mucus had caused many of their respiratory systems to fail. Some of them could hardly suck in enough air to take a satisfying breath.

The fact that none of them had died from ingestion alone astounded her. Taiyo had claimed that they used the mucus as their only source of nutrition. She had checked their blood work, their overall health and found them to be malnourished, but not so much so that it would kill anyone.

Which raised more questions than it answered. It seemed that the mucus did contain nutrients in spite of its acidic properties. And inside their stomachs it was not exposed to light so the acidic affects were never produced.

But did that make it safe to ingest? Were all of the symptoms related purely to exposure to the nest?

She finished up with the patient in front of her and turned back to Gaara. “I’m really concerned about this,” she said. “I don’t think we should leave the nest here. It’s killing them.”

“They won’t part with it, Sakura. I tried.”

She sighed and stood up, dusting off her skirt. “Okay. Let’s get out of here.”

“Taiyo-sama,” Gaara said, spinning to face the elder, who stood in the doorway watching the two of them with harsh scrutiny. “What would be the best way to go back to the surface without damaging the infrastructure here?”

“There is no direct path to the surface,” he said. “You’ll have to go back the way you came.”

Sakura made a sound of annoyance with the back of her throat. “We don’t know exactly how we got here.”

“Sarabi-chan found you in the Cage,” Taiyo said. “Perhaps you can get back that way.”

“Can she show us the way back there?” Gaara asked. Taiyo glanced over at Sarabi, who was crouched down beside Toki’s cot. She had remained there from the moment she returned from leading Gaara to the nest, her hands clenched tightly around his. Toki was hardly lucid, but Sakura hoped he would realize how dedicated Sarabi was to keeping him company.

“I will, yes,” Sarabi said, her eyes still locked on Toki.

Everyone was silent for a moment, watching Sarabi muster the will to let go of Toki’s hands. After a few moments, she stood up and turned to face Gaara and Sakura. “This way,” she said.

 

“Why is called the Cage?” Sakura asked as Sarabi led them back through the twisting corridors.

“Because if you get lost in here, you are trapped,” Sarabi answered. “Only the elders, me, and Daisuke-san are allowed inside the Cage. We are the only ones who can navigate it.”

“Daisuke?”

“The man who was in the throne room with you,” Sarabi replied. “He is Toki-san’s older brother.”

That explained the resemblance, Sakura thought. “And how are you able to navigate it?”

Sarabi turned to face them, a sly smirk adorning her features. “The monoliths speak to us,” she said. “We can feel them guiding us through the darkness. There are four total and we can sense the directions of each of them.”

Sakura glanced to Gaara to see what he made of this. If they could sense the chakra in the monoliths, could they also use their own chakra as well?

But Gaara merely watched Sarabi turn back around, his eyes low and narrow. Curious, Sakura followed his line of sight to Sarabi’s ass, which was visible through her sheer black dress. With a roll of her eyes, Sakura leaned over toward him and smacked the back of his shoulder.

As expected, a disc of sand shot up to block her attack. Gaara, though, seemed surprised. His eyes darted over to Sakura, who was giving him a withering look. Gaara had the decency to avert his eyes, his cheeks stained pink. Sakura found this charming instead of perverted and she couldn’t help the giggle that bloomed in the back of her throat.

“Can I ask you something, Sarabi?” Sakura asked after they had been walking in silence for a few minutes.

“Sure.”

“Why do you call us Fireheads?”

“Because you have hair like fire.”

Gaara huffed with amusement. “Perhaps we should bring some cherry blossoms back when we return, Sakura-san,” he said. “Then they might call you Cherryhead.”

Sarabi paused. “You’re going to return?”

“Of course,” Sakura said. “We’re going to help you like we promised.”

Sarabi grinned.

 

When they arrived back at the Cage, Sarabi grabbed onto Sakura’s arm, her eyes more serious now than they had been before. “Sakura-san, thank you for helping Toki-san,” she said. “And everyone else, too.”

Sarabi pulled Sakura into a tight embrace. Somewhat awkwardly, Sakura patted her head. “I’m a medic,” she said, unsure of this display of affection from a girl she had just met. “It’s my job.”

“I think I should like to have a job like that,” Sarabi replied. “Maybe you can teach me how. When you come back.”

“Maybe,” Sakura said with a warm smile.

They stepped apart from one another and Gaara moved closer to Sakura to let her into his sand shield. He, too, gave Sarabi a smile before allowed his sand to encircle them. Sakura saw the look of astonishment on Sarabi’s face just as the sand closed around them.

“Hold onto me,” Gaara said. “I’ll try to be more careful this time.”

Obediently, Sakura latched her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his shoulder blade. She felt a lurch of movement as his sand wall shot them up through the Cage’s high ceiling. Sakura clung tighter to him, disoriented by the movement and her lack of sight. She had no idea what direction was up or down – she was entirely dependent on Gaara’s orientation.

Then they burst through the surface and Gaara’s sand shield morphed into his sand platform, with both of them perched safely on top.

“Mm, that was much better,” Gaara said.

“Yeah, definitely,” Sakura agreed. “What now, Firehead-sama?”

Gaara laughed. “We’re going back to the village, but don’t tell Temari where we’ve been,” he said. “She and Kankuro will not approve of what we did.”

“So what are we supposed to tell them?”

“Just avoid the subject at all costs.”

Sakura put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “That’s not going to work, Gaara-sama,” she said. “Temari is ruthless – you know that.”

“Then just avoid her entirely.”

“How am I going to avoid her entirely?” she demanded.

“Okay, fine, you’re right,” he conceded. “That won’t work.”

“We need to be able corroborate a story,” Sakura said. She wasn’t the scheming type, but something about having a secret between just her and the Kazekage was exhilarating – especially one on such a grand scale. They had found an underground society of people who lived off and worshiped that damn sand beast!

“What would Temari believe we would spend all morning doing together?”

Sakura tried to fight the incriminating blush that she felt heating up her face, but judging by the look on Gaara’s face, she did not succeed.

“Why are you blushing?” he asked suspiciously.

“I’m not,” she said, fully flustered. She certainly couldn’t tell him what Temari thought they were secretly doing. “We could tell her we were sparring.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes, but he didn’t press her for more information. “Yes, I suppose Temari would believe that,” he said.

“Really?”

“I have to stay sharp, don’t I?” he asked. “Just because I’m the Kazekage doesn’t mean I don’t need practice.”

“Really, though?” she pressed. “I don’t think our fighting styles are all that suited for one another.”
“All the more reason to spar with you.”

Sakura frowned. She thought she might actually enjoy a spar with the Kazekage, but she didn’t want to set herself up for disappointment by asking for one. She was sure she couldn’t take him – not with his ultimate defense.

But as she wrapped her arms around his torso and let him fly her back to the village, she couldn’t help but wonder if she could actually stand a chance against him.

 

“Where the hell have you two been all day?”

Sakura felt herself withering under Temari’s scrutiny, but Gaara looked as poised as ever as they walked through the palace doors.

“We decided to have a lengthy sparring session,” Gaara said. “You should know about that, shouldn’t you? Is Shikamaru a good sparring partner?”

Temari’s face reddened, but the scowl remained. “You have work to do, Gaara. You can’t just leave the village for hours at a time.”

“I know my work, Temari,” Gaara argued. He cast a glance back in Sakura’s direction. “I’m more than capable of getting everything done today. Sakura and Shikamaru will only be a here for a short time, though. Don’t you think it’s better to invest time in them while they are here?”

Temari looked to Sakura, who gave her an apathetic shrug. Temari narrowed her eyes. The two of them followed Gaara through the palace corridors to his office, their pace somewhat frenzied as they rushed to keep up with him.

“You two were sparring, were you?” Temari asked accusingly. “Who won?”

“I won,” Sakura said.

Gaara stopped cold. He turned back around to look at her. “I won,” he said, his voice brooking no room for argument.

Sakura narrowed her eyes at Gaara who narrowed his right back at her.

Temari stepped between them, jabbing an accusing finger at Gaara’s chest. “I knew it,” she seethed. “There is something going on between you two.”

For the first time she could remember, Gaara’s mouth fell open into a look of pure astonishment. His eyes flicked between Temari and Sakura. Sakura looked sheepish as she struggled to look Gaara in the eye.

“What on earth gave you that impression?” Gaara demanded.

“Your robe was in her bedroom!”

Gaara rolled his eyes.

“And you were gone with her all day,” Temari continued. “Come on, sparring? I didn’t feel your chakra all day. Where did you spar? Because it definitely wasn’t in the courtyard.”

“We went out to the desert, Temari,” Gaara said. “Let it go. You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m not being ridiculous, Gaara, I’m looking out for you,” Temari insisted.

Gaara pulled his chair out from under his desk and sat down, his gaze locked onto Temari’s. “I appreciate your concern, Temari, but even if there were something going on between us, I could handle it.”

Temari opened her mouth to speak again, but Gaara raised a hand to stop her. “No, don’t say anything else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have wasted so much of the day sparring, so you can consider me sufficiently chided. Now go. I know you’ve got a meeting with the vendors at the academy in a few minutes.”

Temari gave Gaara an irritated look, but turned to leave anyway. Sakura followed her, but not too closely. Temari’s wrath was not something she wanted to be on the wrong side of.

“Sakura, stay.”

Sakura winced at the sound of Gaara’s voice, the stern inflection she knew he was using to intimidate her. She watched Temari flinch in front of her, but she merely kept walking until she had rounded the corner. When she was gone and Sakura had composed herself, she turned back around to face Gaara.

“You knew,” he accused.

Sakura nodded. “I knew,” she agreed. “I considered offering that as a potential alibi, but for obvious reasons I assumed you would reject that proposal.”

To her surprise, he laughed. “I’m not so certain that I would have,” he replied. “It seems Temari would certainly have believed it.”

“It’s what she believes anyway.”

His eyes were fixed on her again. Sometimes he looked at her with a gaze that was sharp and penetrating and sometimes he looked at her with pure curiosity. This time it was a combination of both.

“Have you ever been to the Suna library, Sakura?” he asked.

Sakura shook her head mutely. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a small plastic keycard. He slid it across the desk and nodded his head toward it, indicating she should pick it up.

“Here is a pass to get you into the restricted sections,” he said. “I want you to go through the historical archives and see if you can scrounge up any details about what we found today.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes warily as she pocketed the keycard. “No offense, Kazekage-sama, but wouldn’t a Sand shinobi more versed in your village’s history be better suited for this job?”

“I will meet with some of Suna’s historians as soon as possible, but I’m afraid that can’t be arranged until later,” he said. He leaned forward, perching his elbows on his desk. “And I’m dying of curiosity now, my friend.”

She was sure her eyes were entirely slit-like now. “Are you trying to butter me up so I’ll do you this favor?”

He grinned as he leaned back in his chair. “I don’t need to butter you up – you’re here to work,” he said. “But you are my friend and I’d appreciate your willingness to help me out here.”

“How can I refuse, Kazekage-sama,” she said, a little less dry than she’d been going for, “when you’ve asked so nicely.”

His grin widened.

Chapter Text

Suna’s library was so much more extravagant than Konoha’s that Sakura almost forgot that she wasn’t there to peruse, but to do the Kazekage’s bidding. She let her fingers linger along the rich mahogany shelves as she passed, delicately skimming the pads of her fingers across the gilded, leather-bound books.

She craned her neck to look up at the high, vaulted ceiling – the mural of the sky that was painted at the top. It was lit from the perimeter with some kind of rope lighting and it almost looked like the real sky. Her feet clicked against the marble tiles as she walked forward, narrowly dodging a white column she nearly walked into while distracted by the ceiling.

It seemed so odd for Suna to have such elaborate buildings and décor while Konoha was relatively plain in comparison. She wondered if it was a difference in the founders of the villages that caused this – she couldn’t imagine the Shodaime agreeing to build so superfluously.

But while she was here she was going to enjoy it. She padded her way through the stacks, soaking in the dark ambience. She found the door to the restricted sections hidden by the building codes, right where Gaara had told her it would be. She jammed her keycard into the scanner and watched as the sealed door swung open with a hiss.

The restricted section was no-nonsense compared to the rest of the library. The walls were a solid white, the floors linoleum. The shelves themselves were made of a dingy white plastic, lit only by the fluorescent bulbs that hung overhead.

Sakura bit back an annoyed groan. Of course she would be sequestered in the most drab room in all of Suna. She peered at the dusty shelves with mild distaste. Not only was she forced to spend the rest of the day under fluorescent lighting, but she had to spend it studying history (her least favorite subject!) – and it wasn’t even her own village’s!

Dutifully, she plucked a copy of “Becoming Suna: Sifting through the Past” and plopped herself down at the nondescript pine table.

 

A couple of hours of boring research left Sakura completely empty-handed. So far she had found nothing about the sand beast or the mysterious commune deep below the sand. The only thing slightly relevant she had found was a blurb in a history text about the uses of animal parts in ancient Suna tribes. There had been a mention of a slime like substance secreted from a snake, but Sakura didn’t believe the situations were related.

So it was with mild disappointment and only a little bit of annoyance that Sakura found herself back outside Gaara’s office, ready to give him the bad news.

She poised her hand to knock at his door, but she paused when she could hear voices on the other side. Not wanting to interrupt or eavesdrop, Sakura stepped back away from the door.

“Sakura-san, what are you doing here?”

Sakura turned to face Kankuro, who was ambling down the hallway toward her. His face was stern – a sharp contrast to his usual jovial attitude.

“Oh, I was just going to see if there’s anything the Kazekage needs from me while I’m still here,” she said. “Is something wrong, Kankuro-san?”

“Maybe,” he said with uncertainty. “I need to speak with Gaara.”

“He’s speaking to someone—”

The door to Gaara’s office burst open, revealing Hideki, who wore a fuming expression and had his fists clenched tightly at this sides. His eyes darted between Kankuro and Sakura, but Sakura couldn’t help but notice the way his eyes lingered on her. He made a low growling sound with the back of his throat.

“Hideki, what’s your problem?” Kankuro demanded, trying to peer over the man’s shoulder to see Gaara.

“Forgive me, Kankuro-san,” he said through clenched teeth. He offered no other explanation for his behavior before he stormed away, casting one last irritated look at Sakura.

Kankuro and Sakura both watched him leave with confusion. “Why’d he look at you like that?” Kankuro asked. Sakura merely shrugged in response. With a stony expression, Kankuro entered Gaara’s office. Sakura filed in behind him, not wanting to be left out.

Gaara sat at his desk, his expression clouded as he stared down at the file open on his desk.

“What’s the matter, Gaara?” Kankuro asked as he approached Gaara’s desk.

Gaara glanced up at his brother, sparing a moment to give Sakura a glance as well. “Just a rough day,” he answered. Sakura gave him a curious look, but he ignored it.

Kankuro, however, seemed to accept his answer. “I’ve just come back from the guard towers with Temari,” he said. “We noticed some suspicious activity out toward Turtle Rock.”

Gaara’s eyes snapped back up to Kankuro’s face. “What sort of activity?”

“We thought it might have been a pulse of chakra, but the signature is pretty weak,” Kankuro answered. “We were unsure of what it was, but I didn’t want to send a team to check it out until I’d talked to you first. That’s where the beast is, right?”

Sakura glanced back to Gaara, watching his reaction carefully. He didn’t need to hide what he was doing – he was the Kazekage, after all. Sakura wondered why he was being so secretive about everything going on at Turtle Rock.

“It is,” Gaara replied. “But the beast is dead. Go ahead and send a team to check it out.” Kankuro gave a curt nod to Gaara and flashed a smile in Sakura’s direction before he made his way back out into the hall.

“Sakura-san,” Gaara continued. “Have you made any progress in your research?”

Sakura shook her head. “Sorry, Kazekage-sama, I haven’t found anything useful.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

She narrowed her eyes, feeling a surge of that sassiness he seemed to dislike so much. He was pretty good at provoking it. “I spent hours in the library and I wasn’t able to find any useful information,” she said tersely. “Whatever people are living beneath the sand aren’t in Suna’s history books.”

Gaara rested his chin on his palm and let out a weary sigh. “I had a feeling that would be the case,” he said. “If that’s true, then it means those people are either a protected indigenous group or illegal immigrants.”

“I don’t think they’re immigrants, Kazekage-sama,” Sakura said. It hardly made sense for them to be immigrants – they would surely have been noticed as they were traveling.

“I don’t think so either,” he replied. “But if they are a protected group, then we cannot legally interfere with their way of life.”

“But they’ll die down there without intervention!” Sakura exclaimed. “Especially now that we’ve destroyed their food source.”

Gaara gave her a wry look as if he wanted to accuse solely her of destroying their food source, but he merely pressed his lips together instead.

“What should we do, Kazekage-sama?”

He looked up at her with surprise. “We? This is my problem, Sakura-san. Not yours.”

Sakura shook her head again. “You foisted this problem on me, remember?” she asked. “Besides, I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave them all there to die. Whether you like it or not, it’s definitely my problem, too.”

The corners of Gaara’s mouth quirked into a smile. “It is easy to see why Naruto loves you so much, Sakura-san,” he said. Sakura felt warmth bloom in her cheeks. “Let’s wait until Kankuro’s team returns to tell us what they found. Then we can come up with a plan.”

Sakura nodded. “Yes, Kazekage-sama.”

 

When Kankuro’s team returned, it was with one addition in tow – a young, pale girl dressed in sheer black with her head turned skyward.

“Sarabi!” Sakura exclaimed, rushing to greet the girl as the team surrounding her approached the guard tower. She heard Gaara make a noise of disapproval beside her, but it didn’t stop her from pulling the girl into a warm embrace.

Sarabi seemed surprised by the contact, but she smiled warmly at Sakura when she pulled away. “Fireheads,” she greeted, giving Sakura and Gaara both pleasant smiles. “I knew you two would be behind this.”

“Yotoi,” Gaara said sharply. The man at the head of the shinobi team snapped to attention. “Report.”

“When we arrived at Turtle Rock to investigate the strange chakra signature, we found this girl along with the sand beast’s body,” Yotoi replied. “She was trying to move the beast underneath the rock formation when we found her.”

“I was just trying to get it out of the sun,” Sarabi said.

Yotoi ignored her. “We surmised that the chakra must have been hers, but she does not appear to be a kunoichi, Kazekage-sama. We asked her to come back to Suna with us as we did not believe it a safe place for her to be alone.” Yotoi’s cheeks were splotchy and red as he spoke and Sakura noticed the way he and his entire team of shinobi kept their eyes anywhere but on Sarabi.

Sakura bit back a giggle as she eyed the nearly nude state of the poor girl.

“She agreed to come back with you?” Gaara asked.

“She agreed to come as long as she could speak to the Fireheads,” Yotoi answered. “We did not know what that meant, but she mentioned Sakura-san by name. We told her that Sakura-san was currently in Suna and she willingly came with us.”

“And here you are, just like they said,” Sarabi said, still beaming.

“Sarabi, what were you doing above the surface?” Sakura asked. Gaara shot her a warning look, but she pressed on. “You could have been hurt, you know.”

Gaara held up a hand to silence Sarabi before she could speak. “Sakura-san, take Sarabi to the infirmary and give her a full medical examination. You can ask her whatever questions you’d like there.”

Sakura nodded and Sarabi sidled up closer to Sakura, holding onto her arm with slim fingers.

“Yotoi, you may return to your guard tower,” Gaara continued.

“Yes, Kazekage-sama.”

Sakura chewed her lip as she watched Gaara giving orders. He seemed on edge, likely because it seemed inevitable now that everyone would find out about the people under the sand. But why was he so worried about that, Sakura wondered.

With one last glance in Gaara’s direction, she took Sarabi’s hand in hers and led her through the palace to the infirmary.

 

Sarabi stared with open-mouthed wonder at the splendor of the palace as Sakura led her down the extravagant hallways. Sakura couldn’t really blame her – even she found the palace to be unexpectedly gorgeous, and she hadn’t grown up living underground in a cave.

“Everything here is so beautiful,” Sarabi said with awe, craning her neck to look at the crown molding and gold trim that lined the ceiling. “Even the people.”

Sakura cast her a curious glance. Truthfully, she found Sarabi to be one of the most beautiful people she had ever seen. She couldn’t say the same for everyone down under the sand, but at least Sarabi had some good genes.

“You should see Konoha,” Sakura said, thinking of Sasuke. “There’s this family – the Uchiha clan. They are without a doubt the most gorgeous family in the world. Or, they were, rather…”

Picking up on the shift in Sakura’s tone, Sarabi cocked her head and diverted the subject. “Konoha?” she asked. “Where is that?”

“A few days from here,” Sakura answered. “It’s where I’m from. In fact, I’ll be headed back that way any day now.”

Sarabi tsked as she traced her fingers along the seams in the rich wallpaper. “That’s a real shame. I was hoping you could help me.”

Sakura opened the door to the infirmary and led Sarabi inside to a private nook where she had set up a mini-office for herself. Sarabi jumped up onto the patient table, swinging her legs.

“Sarabi, why did you come to the surface? Why did you want to speak to me and Gaara?” Sakura asked.

“My people are dying down there,” she answered, her face darkening. “Taiyo-sama does his best, but after you came down to visit us, I started to believe that he doesn’t actually know what’s best for us. I mean, you guys came from the surface and the sun didn’t hurt you. And it hasn’t hurt me either. So why did he keep up down in the darkness when we could have been up here looking for food?”

Sakura sucked in a deep breath and placed her hands on Sarabi’s chest to send a surge of diagnostic chakra into her system. “It’s not that simple, Sarabi. The sludge you were eating from the beast is acidic when exposed to bright light. It doesn’t get exposed to light in your stomach, which is probably why you didn’t experience any ill effects from it. But if any had been on your skin when you came up to the surface, it could have seriously hurt you.”

Sarabi’s gaze and was cold and critical when she looked up at Sakura’s face, and Sakura felt the juxtaposition sharply. She had been so bright and cheerful when she arrived, but it seemed she took the matter of her people very seriously.

“We had no other food,” she said tersely.

“I know,” Sakura said soothingly. With her chakra, she probed at Sarabi’s stomach, checking to see if any damage had been done after all those years of eating the sludge. She didn’t notice any immediate effects, but she supposed that the sludge was relatively harmless when not exposed to sunlight.

But she could definitely see that Sarabi was malnourished, as Toki had been too.

“Are you hungry, Sarabi?” Sakura asked.

“I’m always hungry,” she replied. Sakura reached into the drawer beside her a pulled out a protein bar. She passed it over to Sarabi, who eyed the colorful wrapper with a skeptical eye. “What is it?” she asked.

Sakura peeled back the end of the wrapper, revealing the chocolate inside. “It’s food,” she replied. “It’s full of nutrition. It’s really good for you and it tastes good, too.”

Hesitantly, Sarabi broke off a small piece of the protein bar and chewed it slowly. Sakura watched as her expression shifted and she smiled as she swallowed, breaking off another piece of the bar.

“Do you like it?” Sakura asked.

“Yes,” Sarabi said. “It’s so sweet! Can I have some more of these to take back to my people when I return?”

Sakura frowned. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Sarabi demanded. “How can you not know?”

“It isn’t my place to offer you what isn’t mine,” Sakura said. “I’m just a foreign diplomat here. Gaara-sama is the one who can help you.”

Sarabi continued to shovel pieces of the protein bar in her mouth, even as she spoke. “Well, let’s go talk to Gaara-sama, then,” she said.

“After I’ve examined you,” Sakura said, feeling much like a patient mother. “I want to make sure you’re in good health, just like I did for Toki-san.”

“I feel fine,” Sarabi insisted.

“I know you do,” Sakura said, “but Gaara-sama gave me strict orders to give you a full medical examination. He just wants to make sure you’re okay.”

Sarabi finished the protein bar in silence, watching Sakura as she kept a steady stream of chakra flowing through her. Sakura wanted to say something to appease her, to assure her that Gaara did care about her and her people. She knew he wanted to help them and was trying to find the best way to do so.

But that wasn’t something she knew how to explain to Sarabi, so instead they sat in tepid silence until Sakura had finished the examination.

 

Following Sarabi’s examination, Sakura brought Sarabi back to Gaara’s office only to find his door closed. They could hear hushed voices on the other side. Sakura was able to recognize Shikamaru’s voice in there, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“We’ll just have to wait until he’s finished,” Sakura said to Sarabi. “I’m not sure what he wants me to do with you.”

“What do you mean? What would you do with me?”

Sakura was saved from having to answer this by Gaara’s office door swinging open. Kankuro held it open, gesturing to the two of them that they should enter.

With some trepidation, because she wasn’t all that comfortable with the current situation, Sakura entered the room to find several older men crowded around Gaara’s desk. Temari and Shikamaru sat near the window, poring over some ancient looking scrolls.

It wasn’t just Sakura who was nervous, though. Sarabi clung to Sakura’s hand as they made their way toward the chairs in front of Gaara’s desk.

“Sarabi, please have a seat,” Gaara said, gesturing to the two empty chairs. “You too, Sakura-san.”

Obediently, Sakura and Sarabi took their seats.

“How did her physical examination go?” Gaara asked Sakura.

“She appears to be in fairly good health given what she was sustaining herself on,” Sakura replied. “She is showing symptoms of the poison, but nothing that can’t be cured with a little vaccine. She is also malnourished – she’ll need to be placed on a careful diet or start taking nutritional supplements. Her lack of exposure to the sun is also concerning here – it is likely that she will burn easily.”

“I see,” Gaara said. “Thank you, Sakura-san. You are dismissed.”

Sakura’s expression faltered. She certainly hadn’t expected to be booted from the room – she felt a certain attachment to this predicament and she didn’t like being excluded from it now.

But with all the people in the room with her, she didn’t feel the same compulsion to argue with him. Instead, she rose gracefully to her feet and gave him a shallow bow. “Yes, Kazekage-sama,” she said, though she couldn’t resist throwing a nasty glare at him as she did so. He seemed amused by this for exactly one second – a wicked grin flitting across his features before quickly disappearing. It irritated Sakura to think that he enjoyed doing this to her.

“Why can’t she stay here with me?” Sarabi asked, looking a little panicked.

“Don’t worry, Sarabi,” Sakura said reassuringly. “You are in good, albeit egomaniacal company.”

The room seemed to freeze as everyone turned to look at Sakura, who had blatantly disrespected the Kazekage with a direct insult (though Sakura didn’t feel it was unjust or excessive by any means). Regardless, she felt her cheeks bloom with heat as she avoided the appalled gazes of the men behind Gaara.

But to her surprise, Gaara laughed. It seemed real and genuine, his face contorted with unrepressed amusement in spite of the seriousness of the situation. His gaze fell squarely on Sakura and he smiled and Sakura felt her chest squeeze almost painfully because she was quite sure he had never smiled so widely at her before and it was disconcerting. And he certainly had not had a good reason to be smiling, because she had just insulted him, even if it was just a teasing jest.

“Get out, Sakura,” he said, his eyes still glittering with amusement.

Sakura bowed again, this time a little lower. “Yes, Kazekage-sama,” she said, and then swiftly made her exit.

 

A little pissed that she had been booted from all the action, Sakura wandered the palace halls. Everyone she knew in Suna was currently holed away in Gaara’s office, so it was an extreme type of boredom she was dealing with here.

She contemplated going back to the library and trying to unearth some more of Suna’s secrets regarding the mysterious people below the sand.

But that seemed like it would only exacerbate her boredom. Instead, she made her way back to the baths. She didn’t know how much longer she would be in Suna (though she expected that Shikamaru’s necessary presence with the monolith’s strange markings would extend her stay), but she wanted to make the most of the luxurious baths that she could only take here in Suna.

So after grabbing her things from her room, she entered the bath, dipping a delicately maneuvered toe into the water. Finding the temperature satisfactory, she sank herself down into the heated water and sighed with relief.

The water was pleasant against her skin where the sand had been quite rough with her. She dunked her washcloth under the water and worked it into a lather. All of the desert’s dirt and grime had done quite a number on her and she relished in the pleasant cleanliness the soap offered her – the sweet vanilla scent and the iridescent bubbles that clung to the water’s surface.

There was a certain mental freedom offered by a nice relaxing bath. No other place offered the same amount of pensive tranquility and stress relief. There were many things to be concerned about now – the health and safety of the underground sand people, the nest and the inevitable beasts that would result from it, the mysterious chakra that seemed to have its own will.

But all Sakura could think about was the warmth that had spread through her when Gaara had smiled at her. There was something peculiar about Gaara and the frigid way he treated people. He had treated Sakura like that when she had first arrived – with a curtness, an arm’s length approach. But it was with relative ease that he warmed up to her, laughed at her even.

She didn’t know why, because she was sure she did nothing to contribute to his feelings in any way, but she felt pride in knowing that there was something about her that the Kazekage found amusing. After all, he had sought her out to bring her back to Turtle Rock. And she would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that she enjoyed being around him.

And Sarabi, too, now that she thought about it. Of course Sarabi was a different story, but Sakura found she enjoyed the young girl’s company as well. Perhaps it was a bit silly of her, but Sakura mused that it would be quite pleasant to have a nice dinner with the two of them – just a friendly and casual outing.

The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to bring Sarabi back home with her. If she truly did want to learn how to be a medic, then maybe bringing her back to Konoha was a good idea. She could train with Tsunade, too. Maybe they could work out some sort of student exchange deal with someone else from Konoha.

Not wanting to get herself too worked up over the possibility, Sakura shifted her thoughts away from Sarabi and Gaara and Suna.

With a pang of homesickness, Sakura realized how much she missed Naruto. Even before her mission to Suna, she hadn’t been able to spend too much time with him due to her busy schedule at the hospital and all the missions he had been taking. She missed him sorely now – she had a feeling he would like Sarabi (or at least the ample view of her).

She missed Ino, too, and the way she always had something snarky to say. If Gaara thought Sakura was sassy, he would have a hard time dealing with her blond counterpart. Ino was probably sitting in some swanky bar now, flirting and teasing and being the life of the party. Sakura wished she was there with her, chatting up some cute boy, letting him buy her drinks.

But she didn’t have room to complain exactly. She sunk deeper into the water with a sigh, letting the bubbles come up to her chin. The water was so deliciously warm and the gentle lull of the water pouring from the faucet left her feeling relaxed and a little drowsy.

Sakura let her eyelids fall shut – they felt far too heavy for her to possibly hold them open much longer. It had been a long, exhausting day and this bath was much deserved. She let her head fall back against the marble and took in a deep breath before slowly exhaling. She would definitely have to ask Tsunade about building a bathhouse like this one when she got back to Konoha. But for now, she would stay in this one for as long as they would let her.

Chapter Text

Sakura stirred, groaning quietly as her vision was flooded with bright light. She blinked to adjust her eyes and realized she was still in the bath. The water was still warm, but the bubbles had dissipated and the scent of vanilla no longer lingered. Gingerly, she reached back behind her for a towel and stepped out of the bath. She could admit that it wasn’t the wisest thing a kunoichi could do – falling asleep naked in the bath, but she’d be lying to herself if she couldn’t admit that it was the most relaxed she had felt since she’d come to Suna.

She quickly wrapped her robe around herself and made her way back to the hall. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but she needed to check in with Gaara to make sure everything had gone well with Sarabi.

But she didn’t have to travel too far. The second she opened the bath door, she was met with narrowed, turquoise eyes and a deep frown.

“Gaara-sama!” Sakura exclaimed, pulling the collar of her robe up closer to her neck.

“Do you have a death wish?”

Sakura sucked in a deep breath, feeling far too groggy to deal with Gaara’s antics at the moment. “What are you talking about?” she asked, unable to disguise the weariness in her tone.

“Falling asleep in the bath?” he demanded. “You could have drowned.”

“I’m a kunoichi, Gaara-sama, give me some credit.” She flicked her eyes down the hallway, scanning to see whether or not they were alone. She could see that they were – the sconces along the walls had already been lit, and far down the corridor she could see the moon shining through the archway. “What are you doing here, anyway?” she asked.

“I’m injured,” he said calmly, extending his palm to her.

Hesitantly, she inspected his hand. Curiously, she leaned in toward him, examining the deep cut in the flesh of his palm. There was quite a bit of dried blood covering his hand – Sakura assumed the incident had happened a while ago and he had staunched the bleeding before coming to her.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Sarabi showed an aptitude with chakra,” Gaara explained. Sakura’s eyes were still fixed on his hand, but she could feel him looking at her. “I tried some simple exercises with her and it seems like she had an inherently good chakra control,” he said. “Perhaps you want to try some exercises with her yourself. That’s really your area of expertise, isn’t it?”

“Sarabi did this to you?” she asked, gazing up at him with a critical eye. He returned her stare evenly and for one second it felt like she was playing some kind of game with him and losing badly. “How?”

“With pure chakra,” he explained. “Like those chakra scalpels you use, only not quite as precise.”

Sakura inspected the cut on his palm – the roughness with which it had been etched into his skin. She could see what he meant. The wound was jagged and had bled far more than an incision she would have made would have bled. It was interesting that Sarabi could manage something so advanced if she had never used chakra before and didn’t really know what it was. Based on what she was seeing, Sakura had a feeling that Sarabi knew more about chakra than she let on.

She didn’t mention this to Gaara, though. If she had a chance, she wanted to speak to Sarabi about this privately.

“You could have gone to the infirmary for an injury this minor,” Sakura said as she funneled healing chakra into his palm.

Gaara merely shrugged in response, though Sakura didn’t miss the barely there pink tinge that had spread across his cheeks. “The best medic in the world is currently in my palace,” he said, his voice betraying none of the embarrassment that the color of his cheeks did. “It would be such a waste not to use her services while they are available to me.”

“So you waited outside the door for me while I was in the bath?” she asked, letting a certain playfulness leak into her tone, because she wanted to play the game, too. “I must say that’s highly inappropriate, Gaara-sama. I was naked in there.”

She looked up at his face then to see what reaction this prompted in his features. She found his eyes lingering far lower than her face, scouring the way her thin robe draped against her body far less discretely than a shinobi of his caliber should be able to pull off. She remembered the way his gaze had also lingered on Sarabi’s backside as she led them through the catacombs. It took immense self-control not to laugh in his face. The poor man probably didn’t deal too much with the fairer sex – perhaps his hormones were starting to get the best of him.

“I wasn’t waiting for you,” he snapped. But then his features softened and he let his eyes come back up to meet with hers. “I mean I was, but not to heal my hand. I came by here and I could sense your chakra. I realized you were asleep and I didn’t want to leave you alone. In case your dumb ass drowned.”

Sakura smacked his shoulder with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary. Without his gourd on his back, he had no sand to come to his defense. With a wince, he rubbed at his shoulder where there would inevitably be a bruise later.

“That’s not a very nice way to speak to a foreign diplomat,” she chided. She smoothed a thumb over the slit in his palm, inspecting her work to make sure everything was properly healed. When he made no other biting remark, she looked back up at his face.

His features had softened again and his eyes seemed newly focused on hers, dark and wide as opposed to their usual narrow brightness. “No,” he said softly. “I suppose it isn’t.”

She closed his fingers into a fist and pushed his arm back toward his chest. “You’re all healed up, Gaara-sama,” she said. His eyes had followed the movement of her hands and were now glued to where her hand was still pressed against his fist. A bit nervously, she pulled her hand away. She wasn’t so sure she was enjoying his attention at the moment.

“Thank you,” he said, again his voice far softer than she was used to hearing it.

With a scowl, she looked up at him again. “You’re acting weird, Gaara-sama,” she said accusingly.

“Just Gaara.”

Sakura blinked in an effort to dispel the sudden confusion she felt. “Pardon?”

“No one is around,” he explained. “You can call me Gaara. No need for formality.”

She narrowed her eyes at him skeptically. “But you’ve already gotten onto me for not showing you the proper amount of respect,” she argued. “You’re sending me mixed signals, Gaara-sama.”

She expected his eyes to narrow at her, but instead he looked more like a cornered animal. “There are only three people who address me without a suffix,” he continued, though he seemed wary and nervous. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to increase that number to four.”

“If it’s okay with me…” she echoed with some confusion.

“I wouldn’t want to force familiarity between us,” he said. She could see the tension in his jaw and the way his shoulders had risen up toward his neck. “If you prefer to call me Gaara-sama, that is okay, too.”

“Familiarity?” she repeated, more confused than before. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at it.”

“You’re my friend, aren’t you?” he demanded with a scowl.

Sakura was amused by the fury accompanied by the seemingly innocent question. “Oh, is that what this is about?” she asked, unable to keep the smile from forming on her face. “Aww, you want to be my friend.”

Gaara frowned.

“So Temari and Kankuro are two of the three,” Sakura mused. “Who’s the third? Is it Naruto?”

Mutely, Gaara nodded. Sakura felt her grin widen. Truthfully, she thought it was sweet that Gaara considered her a friend and that he wanted her to drop the suffix from his name. It seemed to be a good way to put the past behind them with finality. And the idea of being Gaara’s friend was not unpleasant by any means.

“But I still have to address you as Gaara-sama when there are people around?” she asked uncertainly.

“For now,” he said, his voice still soft.

“You got it, Gaara-sama,” she said with a shit-eating grin.

She half expected some sort of scowl or deprecating remark from him. She enjoyed teasing him and riling him up, but it seemed he was in no mood for that.

“We’re going back to Turtle Rock tomorrow,” he said. “Be ready to leave at dawn. I’ll need you to help me move the monolith.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” she said with a mockingly low bow.

Immediately his arm shot out as he slammed his hand against the doorframe behind her, trapping her between his body and the bathroom door. Sakura gasped in surprise and shrunk back against the door. She could feel the heat from his arm near her ear and she could see the strained tension in his jaw.

“I’m constantly teetering, Sakura, between finding you charming and finding you annoying,” Gaara said.

Sakura refrained from scowling, though it was difficult to school her expression into something less irritated and more neutral. Perhaps it had been his particular use of the word ‘annoying’ which she had grown an intense dislike of since it seemed to be Sasuke’s preferred way to describe her. But she knew that Gaara didn’t intend the word to be quite as vicious as Sasuke used it, and this new behavior of his was interesting. She could let it slide this one time.

Mostly because now she was deeply curious about this man who used to be so violent and out of control, yet had matured into a calm, logical, and well-respected Kazekage. What could make a man who had worked so hard to turn his reputation around decide to do such a thing to a foreign guest?

“Which am I right now, Gaara-sama?” she asked with a carefully orchestrated flutter of her lashes.

She watched him swallow, following the movement in his throat. He was scowling still and there was rigidity in his posture that Sakura didn’t quite understand. He pulled his arm away, letting it fall back to his side. He looked defeated and Sakura wondered if he had just lost whatever game he had been playing with her.

“I apologize, Sakura-san,” he said with a clipped tone. For exactly one second, Sakura identified with his struggle, his distaste for the suffix attached to his name. She found she wasn’t exactly fond of him using it on her either. But she had only been using it to tease him and he was using it for… well, she didn’t know. “We’ll leave from the guard tower at dawn,” he said. “Don’t be late.”

With that, he turned his back to her and began walking toward the open archway. His rooms were in the opposite direction, she realized, so he must have been heading out to the desert. She watched him as he retreated and she wondered if he felt relief that this moment was over.

“Sorry for annoying you, Gaara!” she called after him, her last attempt to get under his skin for the night.

His footsteps faltered. He glanced back at her over his shoulder, his expression unreadable. “Goodnight, Sakura,” he said before turning back to the archway.

“Goodnight,” she echoed softly.

 

The next morning Sakura woke bright and early to meet Gaara at the guard tower. When she arrived Gaara, Sarabi, Temari, and Hideki met her at the base of the tower.
She was surprised to see Temari there – she hadn’t seemed too keen on all this Turtle Rock business. Sakura wasn’t even aware of how much she knew about the whole situation.

“Okay, now that we’re all here, let’s go over the plan,” Temari said, her voice authoritative and cold. “Gaara will go ahead of us with Sarabi to make sure she spends the least amount of time in the sun. Hideki, you and Sakura will travel to Turtle Rock with me to meet them there. Once we’re there, Sakura, you will help Gaara move the monolith while Hideki and I round up as many of those people as we can.”

The blond stooped down and picked up a heavy looking pack and handed it to Sakura. “Here, there’s a large tent and some medical supplies inside. We’re going to set up an outpost tent where you can care for any sick or injured people while we shuttle them back to Suna.”

“Wait, you’re bringing everyone back to Suna?” Sakura asked, glancing at Gaara to confirm.

“I spoke to the historians about this and given their unique situation, we believe it’s in everyone’s best interest to bring them back to Suna and allow them to assimilate to life in the village,” Gaara answered.

Sakura glanced to Sarabi to see what she made of this. She had been given a set of standard sand shinobi clothing, which dwarfed her, the sleeves hanging well past her hands and the bottom of the pants rolled up several times to exposed her feet. Her expression was still one of polite happiness and wonder, but Sakura noticed the way she kept tugging at the collar of her shirt nervously.

She wondered what they had told Sarabi about what would happen to her people. She couldn’t help but feel like this decision had been rushed. As far as Sakura was concerned, the best thing to do was to get the nest as far away from them as possible and then slowly wean them onto life above the surface.

But Sakura wasn’t the Kazekage and it wasn’t her place to make such decisions. So she kept her mouth shut and looked back to Temari for further instruction.

“So we’re clear on the plan?” Temari asked sharply. Everyone nodded.

 

Sakura grimaced against the winds that whipped sand into her face, pulling her scarf tighter around her mouth. Temari was on her right, her eyes trained forward as they followed Gaara across the dunes. To her left was Hideki, whose posture was rigid as they sprinted over the sand.

The tension was palpable. Sakura didn’t know what she had done to Hideki, but after the incident outside Gaara’s office she assumed that something had the poor man out of sorts. Sakura felt inclined to believe that she was the cause of his turmoil, if the sly glares he sent in her direction had anything to say about it. She didn’t know why he would be upset with her, but she didn’t want to provoke him any further so she averted her gaze.

Temari, on the other hand, seemed annoyed but also insanely curious. She kept flitting her gaze to Sakura, watching her with a mixture of scrutiny and contempt.

“Is something bothering you, Temari-san?” Sakura asked, making eye contact for just one second before the harshness of Temari’s gaze made her avert her eyes.

Temari did not answer. Instead she kept her eyes focused forward. Feeling a little uncomfortable, Sakura also looked forward, straining to see Gaara ahead in the distance. He was nothing more than a dot on the horizon now – he could be of no help to her here. It wasn’t as though Sakura didn’t like Temari – she considered the kunoichi to be her friend, even if that feeling wasn’t reciprocated. What she didn’t like, though, was Temari’s bitterness toward Gaara’s romantic entanglements. Gaara had the same right as anyone else to have romantic relationships – Temari shouldn’t have concerned herself with it. Sakura wasn’t even involved with him!

Still, Sakura wished she could have used him as a buffer now. Between Hideki and Temari, she was feeling the hostility and would have much preferred to be swept away on Gaara’s sand platform rather than trudging through the dunes with her surly companions.

“You came back out here with him, didn’t you?” Temari asked.

Sakura’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“After you killed the beast,” she continued, her voice tight with restraint. “You and Gaara came back out here together and you found the catacombs. You said you were sparring, but you were poking around under Turtle Rock.”

Sakura wasn’t sure how to broach the topic of her lie. It was obvious that she had been caught or Gaara had explained what happened, but Sakura wasn’t so comfortable discussing her deceit.

“He ordered me to,” Sakura said defensively.

Hideki scoffed. “It seems you are capable of taking orders then,” he said dryly, “at least when it’s convenient for you.”

Sakura tossed a nasty glare in his direction. “I think we all know the danger in blindly following orders,” she seethed. “I was trying to make the best decisions for the sake of my mission.”

“Your decisions make it hard for other people to do their jobs, Sakura-san,” Hideki said through clenched teeth.

“Like who?” Sakura demanded.

“Sakura-san,” Temari said sharply, drawing Sakura’s attention away from Hideki. “Hideki-san has been charged with your protection. The more danger you seek out, the harder his job will be.”

“My protection?” Sakura asked.

Temari’s eyes were narrow as she glanced in Sakura’s direction. “After your several near-death experiences here, Gaara thought it would be wise to assign someone to ensure your safety.”

Sakura’ gaze slid back over to Hideki, who tense jaw and tightly clenched fists gave away his less than favorable opinion on the matter.

“That’s why you were upset the other day,” Sakura asked, “outside Gaara’s office?”

Hideki said nothing.

“I can see why that would bother you, Hideki-san,” Sakura said. “It bothers me, too. I don’t need a keeper. I’ll speak to Gaara-sama about releasing you from that duty.”

Both Hideki and Temari scoffed.

“Good luck with that,” Temari said dryly.

Sakura shrugged. “I’ve have pretty good luck with him so far,” she said, though she instantly regretted the words. It was true that she considered her fortune with Gaara to be favorable – he seemed willing to let her behavior slide, and the weirdness of their camaraderie would probably lend itself well to her particular complaint this time.

But the darkened expression of Temari’s face told Sakura that maybe that was something she shouldn’t have said aloud – certainly not in front of Hideki.

“You guys act like he’s got a finicky temper,” Sakura continued, hyperaware of the way both sets of eyes were drilling into her, “but even when he’s been angry with me, Gaara-sama hasn’t been that bad. I don’t know why you are all so afraid of him.”

“We aren’t afraid of him,” Temari said fiercely. “Gaara would never hurt any of us – we all know that. You don’t know him like I do. You have no right to make comments like that.”

A little ashamed of what she had said, Sakura let her head sink down between her shoulders. Temari was right – she had no right to make such observations aloud, even if she felt they were true. Gaara was her brother; she knew him far better than Sakura did. She and Hideki both knew Suna’s history, the Yondaime Kazekage, and the social climate of the village far better than Sakura did. It wasn’t her place to argue with them about any of it.

That left her feeling a bit lost, though, because she had come here not knowing what to expect from the young Kazekage. Just in the few days she’s spent here so far she felt like she’d gotten a pretty good handle on Gaara, even if she found him to be a little unnerving up close. The way Temari spoke about him made Sakura feel like she should probably take a step back.

But she and Gaara were friends now, weren’t they? He seemed to enjoy her company, and she couldn’t deny that she enjoyed his as well. How could Temari have a problem with that? Didn’t she want her brother to have friends?

“You’re right,” Sakura said softly, her voice barely audible over the whistling winds. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

Temari’s expression softened, but the rigid set of her jaw did not. “Don’t worry about it, Sakura,” she said. “Let’s just focus on the task at hand.”

 

When the trio arrived at Turtle Rock, Gaara and Sarabi were nowhere to be found. Sakura reached out with her chakra, feeling beneath the sand to find Gaara’s chakra signature. She could sense him somewhere beneath her, but she had no idea how he had gotten below the surface without her help. Perhaps Sarabi had found a safer path to the catacombs.

“What the hell is this?” Temari asked, kicking something on the ground. She stood on top of Turtle Rock. Sakura peered up at her from the sand below, already knowing what the sand kunoichi was looking at.

“When I came out here to rescue Gaara from the beast he had been sprayed with its acidic mucus,” Sakura replied, jumping up to join Temari and Hideki on the rock. “He used his robe to wipe it off his skin.”

Hideki let out an impressed whistle, looking at the charred remains of Gaara’s robe. It seemed that the longer the mucus sat in the sun, the more intense its effects were. The Kage robe was nothing but charred thread now.

“The people in the catacombs have been eating it,” Sakura said, watching Temari to see her reaction. “They had no other food source down there so they ate the beast’s mucus and stayed underground away from the sun.”

Temari’s lips were pressed together in a thin line. She was silent for a moment before she let out a heavy sigh. “I had no idea they were out here,” she said softly. “Who knows how long they’ve lived here, suffering…”

“Truthfully, Temari-san, I don’t think they were suffering all that much until we killed the beast,” Sakura said. “I had no idea it was their only source of food.”

Temari raised an inquisitive brow.

“I’m not sure what the long term affects of the mucus consumption are,” Sakura said, answering her silent question. “Assimilating these people to life in Suna, regulating their diets, learning the health effects of their culture… it’s all going to be a long process. I almost wish I could stay here to help you guys figure it all out.”

It seemed Temari didn’t quite know what to make of that. Hideki, though, was in a pricklier mood. “I, for one, will be glad when you leave,” he said with a jesting tone, though his seriousness was prevalent underneath. “You’re a lot more trouble than you’re worth, Sakura-san.”

Even though his teasing was far from affectionate, Sakura couldn’t help but grin at him. Temari rolled her eyes and tossed her pack onto the rock. “Alright, enough of that,” she said. “We need to get started setting up the tents. Sakura-san, you can set up your medical tent there near those arches over there,” she said, pointing to a small alcove made by the rock formation just a few meters away.

Obediently, Sakura took her pack higher up on her shoulder and made her way over to her appointed area.

“Hideki-san, give me a hand with this stuff here,” Temari continued, pulling supplies out of her pack. “We’ll set up a resting area under the rock for those waiting to be shuttled back to Suna.”

Sakura did not hear Hideki’s response as she began setting up her medical tent. She was actually looking forward to using her medical chops in this kind of setting. She had been in Suna for nearly a week now, but she missed her regular shifts at the hospital and this would be about as close to her version of normal as she’d be able to get out in the dunes.

Quickly, she set up her tent and arranged her medical supplies for easy access. Satisfied with her workspace, she pulled back the tent flap and looked back to Turtle Rock where she could see Temari and Hideki bustling about. With a sigh, she closed the tent flap and sat cross-legged on the ground.

There was nothing left to do now but wait.

Chapter Text

Nearly an hour after Sakura had arrived at Turtle Rock, an explosion of sand behind her tent caught her attention. Upon further inspection, she found Gaara and Taiyo hovering on a sand platform within the sandy cloud.

“Taiyo-sama,” Sakura said, noticing the man’s shocked expression and the trembling of his fingers. She reached out a hand to assist him off the platform. The man squinted in the bright sunlight, using his hands to shield his eyes from the rays. “Come with me, Taiyo-sama,” she continued, leading him toward her tent. “Let me give you something to help with the sun.”

She cast Gaara a glance as she led Taiyo away, wondering what his plan was now. He followed Sakura and Taiyo to the medical tent and watched as Sakura gave Taiyo some sunblock and a fresh canteen of water.

“I don’t understand,” Taiyo muttered. “I saw what the sunlight did to my people. How is this possible?”

“That beast was no goddess, Taiyo-sama,” Gaara answered. “That creature was the reason the sun was hurting your people. But you won’t need to rely on it for sustenance anymore, so the sun will not hurt you.”

Taiyo’s eyes widened as he glanced between Gaara and Sakura. He seemed shaken up – his hands still trembled as they fisted in the fabric of his robe. Gaara caught Sakura’s eye and cocked his head toward the tent’s opening.

Sakura reached into her pack and pulled out a few more of the protein bars like the one she had given Sarabi. “Here, Taiyo-sama,” she said, pressing one of the bars into his hand. “Eat this. We’ll give you some privacy while you adjust to being on the surface.”

Taiyo nodded mutely, giving him the strange appearance of docility. She soundlessly exited the tent, Gaara following close behind her.

“I don’t trust him,” Gaara murmured to her after they were safely out of earshot. “But I wanted to get him away from the catacombs so the others would feel comfortable following him. There are easily two hundred people down there.”

“Two hundred?” Sakura asked, surprised by the large number. “How are we going to get them all out?”

Gaara leapt up onto Turtle Rock where Temari was gazing off toward Suna. He moved to stand beside her while Sakura watched from the sand below.

“We’re going to move the monolith first,” he said to Sakura, though he was looking at Temari. “Sarabi is standing near it now so I’ll be able to find it quickly using her chakra as a guide. You’ll help me move it up to the surface and then we’ll create another tunnel – one we can use to help the others get to the surface.”

Sakura nodded in understanding and then leapt up to join the others on top of the rock.

“Temari, I need you to keep an eye on Taiyo while we’re in the catacombs,” Gaara said, his voice hushed in case Taiyo tried to listen in on their conversation. “I don’t trust him, but he’s their leader and they’ll follow him wherever he goes. Make sure he stays here at Turtle Rock until all of the others have been evacuated from the catacombs.”

“Yes, Gaara,” Temari said with a curt nod. “Kankuro and his team are standing by at the guard tower to come retrieve the first wave of rescues.”

Gaara gave her a quick nod of acknowledgement before extending his hand to Sakura. “Ready?” he asked. Sakura looked down at his hand skeptically, unsure of whether or not he wanted her to take it. It seemed like a strange way to get her to come along with him, especially in front of Temari who was already skeptical of their relationship.

But she reached out and took his hand anyway, avoiding Temari’s gaze as she did so. Gaara’s fingers wrapped around her palm tightly and jerked her upward with him as he leapt up onto a materializing sand platform.

He flew them a safe distance away from Turtle Rock and then lowered them back down to the dunes. “This should go much more quickly than last time,” he said. “I already know where Sarabi and the monolith are. Just punch where I show you.”

Sakura nodded and punched the ground where Gaara indicated with a pointed finger.

 

Gaara was right – it took less than half an hour for them to locate the monolith under the surface. Sarabi was there waiting for them beside the base of the monolith. Upon seeing Sakura and Gaara, she rushed toward them, wringing her hands together nervously.

“How is Taiyo-sama?” she asked. “Did he make it to the surface okay? Is he safe?”

“He’s fine,” Gaara assured her. “Thank you for waiting here for us. Now, if you don’t mind helping out some more, we could really use your assistance.”

Sarabi glanced over at Sakura, who gave the most encouraging smile she could. Sarabi seemed appeased by this. She turned back to Gaara and nodded.

“I need you to go back to the catacombs and stay with the others until we can come back and get you,” he instructed. “We’re going to remove the monolith, dig a tunnel, and come back to rescue all of you.”

“Okay,” she agreed. “I can do that.”

“Good,” Gaara said, giving her a small, but warm smile. “Now go on. Help them pack up their belongings. And be careful.”

Sarabi bowed her head to him and then backed away into The Cage obediently. Sakura watched her figure recede, suddenly feeling apprehensive about the whole situation.

“Should we maybe pull everyone out of the catacombs first?” she asked. “Moving the monolith can wait, can’t it?”

“Actually, that’s one of the reasons I needed your expertise,” he said. “There is no open connection to the surface from the catacombs, so we’ll have to create one. Given how cramped our past method was, I was hoping we could create a wider tunnel that would allow us to take the rescues at least part of the way up to the surface.”

“I’m not sure I could create a tunnel that big,” Sakura admitted.

Gaara shook his head. “That’s not what I meant,” he said. “I know you’re capable of moving the monolith. Do you think you could tilt it until it formed a sort of bridge? I prodded around the sand above it and it seems to be at least a hundred feet tall.”

“What about all the sand in the way?” Sakura asked.

“I can shift it around so you can move the monolith.”

Sakura turned back to look at the monolith, the way it towered above them, its top disappearing into the sand ceiling above. She pressed a palm to it, sending a surge of chakra inside. She could feel the minute pulse of a dead chakra inside. It gave her an odd feeling.

“There’s three more of these, right?” she asked. “Perhaps we can use all four to create a large enough bridge to take everyone to the surface.”

“Maybe,” Gaara agreed. “Let’s start with this one.”

Sakura watched as the sands above the monolith began to move, acquiescing to Gaara’s command. Sakura wrapped her arms around the monolith, curling her fingers against the reddened stone, and began to lift.

 

It had taken a good deal of teamwork to move the monolith into a position where it could be walked on. Sakura was constantly hefting and adjusting the monolith while Gaara moved the sands to accommodate her. But after a while they had been able to easily walk the length of the monolith without the aid of chakra.

So the pair of them headed back toward The Cage to locate the other monoliths. Gaara had come prepared with a couple of headlamps, one of which he passed to Sakura while they ambled through the darkness.

“The chakra that the monolith holds seems to flit between them,” Gaara said as they walked. “I spoke to Sarabi about this and she seemed to think that the chakra was some kind of will that was guiding her and the others. Like it’s sentient or something.”

“Maybe it belongs to someone,” Sakura suggested. “Maybe a person.”

“Maybe,” Gaara said. “Sarabi also said that the monoliths are direction markers, so there is one for north, south, east, and west. The monolith we just moved was the west one.”

“Which one next?” she asked.

“North,” he responded. “It’s difficult to tell what direction we’re going down here, but I believe we’re heading toward the north one now.”

Sakura nodded and kept close on Gaara’s heels. Something about being so deep underground, surrounded by sand and darkness and emptiness really skeeved her out. She followed his path through The Cage, trying to pay close attention to her location, remembering any significant detail they passed. But there was hardly anything but sand and darkness. If Gaara hadn’t been leading her, she would be hopelessly lost.

She also didn’t care for the way the vast boringness of the catacombs let her mind wander too much. She wanted to stay focused, to think only of Sarabi and her people, the plan for their assimilation. Hell, even thinking about the monoliths would be a better option than the current topic her brain was stuck on.

A topic that she had realized by now was completely inappropriate. Sakura gritted her teeth and dragged her eyes away from the back of Gaara’s head. For some reason, she was having trouble reigning in her hormones and she couldn’t stop fixating on the back of Gaara’s neck – the pale, smooth skin, the little red baby hairs and clung to his nape. She felt an urge to touch him there just to test the softness of those features, those captivatingly mundane features.

Not just touch, though. No, her thoughts were far more lecherous than that. With cheeks so hot they rivaled the sun, Sakura ducked her head, grateful that Gaara was facing away from her. She wanted to press her lips squarely against the back of his neck and breath in his skin, his hair, that smell of the desert that clung to him – a smell she didn’t even care for unless it was attached to him.

Sakura was well aware that these were just her hormones acting up. After all, she was still a teenager – an inexperienced one at that. It was natural for her mind to wander to those places, even if it was inappropriate. Even Gaara had succumbed to those thoughts, staring at Sarabi and even Sakura a few times in a way more blatant than Sakura thought was acceptable.

Unfortunately everyone had to deal with these thoughts and urges, but that didn’t mean Sakura had to ogle quite as openly as Gaara had. She was a kunoichi, after all, with plenty of self-control. With Sasuke gone for so long, it was normal that she would begin to find other men attractive.

Gaara is the first in the line of many, Sakura thought to herself. There was no need to get hung up on her weird attraction to him. It was purely hormonal.

Gaara stopped suddenly, his heels digging into the sand beneath him. Sakura bumped into his back, her face coming dangerously close to a place she had just imagined it being.

Sakura fought to regain her composure as Gaara turned around to face her. “Something’s wrong,” he murmured to her, his voice tight. “I’ve lost track of all the monoliths. I can’t feel any chakra – not even Sarabi’s.”

Sakura reached out with her own chakra, searching for anything capable of creating a chakra signature. But she, too, found nothing. The space was too vast, too empty. She felt incredibly small suddenly, as if she had been launched into space and was floating among the gas giants instead of rooted safely on the planet with a warm body next to her.

“What’s happening?” she asked in a hushed whisper. “Can you sense Temari or Hideki?”

Gaara shook his head. “No.”

Sakura chewed her lower lips and took a step closer to Gaara. She really, really did not like being down here anymore.

A low rumbling in the sand beneath them caught her by surprise. The sand began to quake and vibrate and a droning hum filled the air. She could feel it like a slow pulse in the sand, as if there was a massive beating heart just under their feet.

“Gaara,” Sakura squeaked. “What the hell is that?”

Before he could answer her, both of their headlamps flickered and then shut off, casting them in total darkness. Sakura let out another frightened squeak and reached out to grab onto Gaara’s arm so she didn’t lose him in the darkness. She latched onto Gaara’s wrist before he moved to grasp her hand, entwining their fingers together.

“Don’t let go of me, Sakura,” he said, his voice smooth like he was totally unbothered by what was happening. Sakura gritted her teeth in annoyance.

But she clung tighter to his hand anyway, because being lost in the pulsing darkness was definitely not something she wanted.

The pulse grew faster, more frantic. Again Sakura reached out with her chakra, desperate for anything that would give her some sense of what was going on. But even the vibrations below them weren’t accompanied by any chakra she could feel. She could feel bits of sand coming up around her ankles, her feet nearly covered in the grit. She shook her feet to get the sand out of her sandals.

Then the hum in the air intensified, growing louder and louder as the sand around their feet jolted and vibrated against the ground. Sakura winced against the sound, plugging one finger into her ear.

She felt Gaara’s free arm snake around her waist as he lifted her up off the ground. She dug her fingers into his tunic, clinging to him, unsure of what he was doing. But when he set her back down on her feet, she realized he had formed a sand platform underneath them and lifted them up off the turbulent sand below.

“Are you okay?” he asked her, his voice far too close to her ear for comfort.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied with a shiver. “Gaara, I think we should get out of here.”

He was silent for a moment. She could feel his fingers curl tighter around hers as he deliberated their next move.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said softly, “but I’m not sure how to get us back to the surface right now.”

Sakura swallowed. “What?”

“I can’t feel chakra in any direction,” he continued, though it sounded more like he was thinking aloud than explaining the situation to Sakura. “I have no idea where we are right now. Something is wrong.”

“But can’t you sense through the sand?” she asked, annoyed by the tremor in her own voice. “Can’t you just, like, move a bunch of sand around until we find the surface?”

“I don’t want to cave this place in,” Gaara answered, his voice steel and iron. “But don’t worry, Sakura, everything will be fine.”

Sakura recognized that as a lie immediately, because she was a kunoichi and she could feel that everything was not fine. Something was very wrong, and if they stuck around for much longer they would figure out what it was.

She wanted to call him out on it, but decided against it. “So what should we do?” she asked, this time steeling her own voice to sound as steady as his.

He didn’t have a chance to answer her. The quaking grew even rougher. Sand began to fall from the ceiling onto the heads before Gaara’s personal sand shield enveloped them. Within the confines of his shield, Sakura could feel the rumbling sand pelting them from every direction. Nervously, she clung tighter to Gaara’s hand.

Beside her, she felt Gaara’s sharp intake of breath. Cautiously, she sent a surge of chakra into him through their linked hands, checking to make sure he was okay.

“What’s wrong?” she asked when she found nothing of note. “What’s happening?”

Again, Gaara’s answer was cut short as the two of them were jolted roughly to the side. Gaara fell into her, pressing her against the walls of his sand shield. She grunted and attempted to help him off of her, but then suddenly they were rolling, tumbling along the deluge of sand. Sakura shrieked as they bounced around inside the shield like candy in a piñata.

They continued to roll, swept away by waves of sand. They were a jumble of arms and legs, flailing about as they tried to regain a sense of control over the situation.

When they came to a stop, Sakura groaned and pulled herself up onto her knees. Beside her she felt Gaara do the same. The rumbling had stopped, leaving a void of silence behind.

“Are you injured?” she asked softly, pressing cool fingers to the skin of his arm, another burst of chakra already coursing through his system.

“I’m fine,” he said, his voice gravel rather than steel now.

They were silent for a moment, each unsure of what to do next. The walls of Gaara’s sand shield still enclosed them, sealing them away from the rest of the world.

“Gaara?”

She heard him draw in a breath and hold it, before he released it with a sigh. “The Cage just caved in,” he said slowly. “It’s gone.”

Sakura blinked, dispelling the sudden nausea she felt. Did that mean they were trapped down here under the sand with nothing but Gaara’s sand shield between them and an entire desert’s worth of sand?

“Gone?” she choked.

There was a tense moment of silence.

“Gaara?”

She was met with silence again. She could feel Gaara beside her, his body rigid. She wished she could see his face – she hated how much she had to rely on him right now. She reached up to turn on her headlamp, but the audible click shed no light. She could feel herself beginning to panic again. She was not a fan of the small, cramped space – the darkness, the cave-in. It was all too much for her.

Before she could let that anxiety bloom into a full blown panic attack, Gaara sucked in a shaky breath of his own and reached for her hand again, slipping his fingers between hers and squeezing tightly.

“Sakura, the entire catacomb caved in,” he said, his voice just barely above a whisper. “It’s all gone.”

Sakura gripped his hand tighter. “Sarabi?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t feel anything, anyone. It’s just nothing down here. Nothing but sand.”

She sensed that Gaara was also on the verge of a freak out, so she sent a surge of calming chakra into him. She felt him tense up even more if that were possible, but after a moment he allowed her to keep funneling chakra into him, relaxing into her care.

“Thank you,” he said softly after her chakra had receded.

The act of helping him out had calmed her down as well, and now she felt a little numb and more than a little confused.

“So can you get us back to the surface?” she asked.

Again, he was silent in response.

“You can’t?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” he said again. “I can’t move any sand but my own. It just doesn’t move. I could try to slingshot us up like I did before, but I have no clue where we are. We might be too far down for that to work. Or we might be directly underneath Turtle Rock.”

“But that’s your thing!” Sakura exclaimed. “You’re Gaara of the Sand, and now that we’re buried under an entire desert’s worth of it, you can’t move it anymore?”

“It’s not my fault,” he said stonily. She could hear the way his teeth gritted together. She waited patiently for him to say something else, to explain to her what was happening or why he couldn’t move the sand anymore.

But he said nothing else. Sakura hoped he was thinking of a way to get out of this mess. A little uncomfortably, Sakura shifted until she was sitting down. There was so little room in Gaara’s shield – it was only meant for him. She crossed her legs underneath her, feeling her knees brush against Gaara’s. It wouldn’t do to panic right now, so Sakura focused on steadying her breathing as she tried to think of a way to get back to the surface.

Temari and Hideki were still at Turtle Rock – they must have felt the quaking and the cave-in. They knew Sakura and Gaara were still beneath the surface. They wouldn’t just leave them out here to die. That thought gave Sakura little comfort as she wracked her brain for a solution.

“Can I just punch tunnels back up to the surface like I did before?” Sakura asked.

“I can’t control the sand around us,” Gaara explained. “If I let my shield down, we’ll be crushed.”

“Oh,” Sakura said lamely. “Well I’m going to send a pulse of chakra up to the surface so at least Temari and Hideki know we’re still alive.”

Gaara didn’t respond as Sakura sent out her pulse of chakra. A moment later she felt another pulse of chakra responding to hers.

“Temari,” Gaara murmured as he recognized his sister’s chakra.

Silence settled over them. It was eerie just how quiet it was. There was no light and no sound. It was like being in a void, a black hole, pure nothingness. The only sensations Sakura could feel were the painful grit of sand against her skin and the aching of her bones as they contorted to fit in the small space.

She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto it for a little longer than necessary before releasing it. Then she instantly regretted it. She swallowed hard, listening to Gaara’s breaths.

“Gaara, I don’t mean to freak you out, but you should try to be a bit more conservative with your breathing,” Sakura said. “There’s s limited supply of oxygen down here.”

Gaara grunted his acknowledgement of this and a moment later Sakura heard his breathing slow down.

“I’m sorry I got you into this mess, Sakura,” Gaara said.

“Oh, please,” Sakura joked. “Like you didn’t intentionally trap the both of us down here just so you could spend some time with me.”

She heard Gaara’s short huff of amusement. “I’m not sure I could tolerate being trapped down here with anyone but you.”

That caught Sakura a little off guard. “What?”

“If I have to be trapped in close quarters down here, at least it’s with someone who smells like vanilla and has magical calming down powers.”

Sakura was grateful for the darkness that hid her blush, though perhaps Gaara could hear how her heart seemed to skip a beat. It was silly, really, her attraction to the young Kazekage. Undeniable, but silly. It wasn’t her first time being attracted to someone other than Sasuke and it undoubtedly would not be the last. If anything, it was only a testament to her perfectly healthy teenage girl brain.

But still, he liked her company and the way she smelled like vanilla, and the butterflies those thoughts kicked up in her stomach were a welcome distraction from their current predicament.

“You forgot to mention my witty humor and stunning good looks,” she replied, shoving down the butterflies to lighten the mood with another joke.

“It’s too dark to enjoy your stunning good looks,” Gaara replied dryly. “And the jury’s still out on your witty humor.”

Sakura reached across the darkness that separated them and shoved his chest playfully. “Don’t deny it, Gaara. You think I’m funny.”

“I think you’re a lot of things, Sakura.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. She wanted to ask him what things he thought of her, but it didn’t seem appropriate to do while they were trapped and running out of oxygen.

“I wish I could see you.”

Sakura blinked, gazing blindly in his direction. “Why?”

Gaara didn’t answer and suddenly she wished she could see him, too.

“I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time this week,” she said once it was clear he didn’t plan to respond. “I wasn’t trying to annoy you.”

“You weren’t?”

“Well, not every time, anyway.”

Gaara chuckled and the sound was much closer to her face than she had anticipated. “It’s refreshing, actually,” he said, “to be annoyed.”

“Really?” she asked. “I assumed being the Kazekage and all that you’d be annoyed quite a bit. Tsunade-sama certainly is…”

“I feel annoyed plenty,” Gaara responded. “But never from someone who intends to annoy me. You’re breaking ground on that front.”

“You may be the Kazekage, but you’re also still a teenager,” Sakura said. “I have to annoy you to make sure you’re still aware of that.”

“Oh, is that what you’re doing?”

“Yep.”

“Well, mission accomplished, Sakura,” he replied. “I never feel more like a teenager than I do when I’m around you.”

Again, Sakura found she didn’t know what to say to that and she really wished she could see his face. She had a sneaking suspicion that Gaara was attracted to her, too, and even though she certainly wasn’t going to act on that knowledge, she wanted to flirt with him and tease him and make him blush.

She was well aware of how inappropriate that was, and how cruel it would be to do such a thing to Gaara – a man who had been deprived of love and touch and affection. But it wasn’t out of spite that she wanted to do those things. She was curious. How would he react if she were to lean forward right now and kiss him squarely on the mouth?

Feeling uncomfortable, both physically, and with her intrusive thoughts, Sakura shifted her legs underneath her. Her knees were pressed hard against Gaara’s – she could feel that they would be bruised later. She dug her fingers into the sand, trying to shift herself into a better position.

“Here,” Gaara said, latching his fingers around her elbow and twisting her around until her back was facing him. He uncrossed his legs and pulled her back until her back was pressed against his chest and their legs were as stretched out as they could be in the small space. “Better?” he asked.

Sakura unwittingly shivered, feeling his breath against the shell of her ear. It was better, but it was also worse.

“You’re a lot comfier than the sand, Gaara,” Sakura said, trying to keep her tone light so as not to betray the fact that her hormones were now acting up like crazy. “But is this really appropriate?”

Gaara didn’t respond immediately, but Sakura felt his hands retreat away from her, moving back to his sides. “Sorry,” he said softly. “I was trying to give you leg room.”

Instead of answering with words, Sakura leaned back into him, letting the back of her head fall against his collarbone. She would like to have seen his face then, to know what he thought of this position, this physical contact that was so unlike what he was used to.

“Are we going to die down here, Gaara?”

“Of course not,” he said so matter-of-factly that Sakura felt completely unable to disagree with him. She had to admit that their situation looked grim, but she couldn’t help but feel comforted by his words. “Temari knows we’re down here. She’ll get us back up to the surface.”

Sakura trusted Gaara’s judgment, but for a moment she felt his trust in his sister was a little much. How could Temari possibly help them now?

“So we’re just going to sit here and wait for her?”

“Unless you can come up with another plan.”

Sakura was quick witted and resourceful, but she could come up with no other plan. So she let out a small sigh and turned her head to rest her cheek against Gaara’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

Sakura wanted to sigh, but the lack of oxygen made her draw in a slow, deliberate breath instead. She held it for thirty seconds before releasing it and drawing in another. She pressed herself further into Gaara, leeching his warmth. She could feel his slow, even breaths – he was asleep, which was best case scenario as far as oxygen went.

But it left Sakura feeling lonely and it gave her mind a chance to catch up with her body. It hadn’t been more than a couple of hours since they’d been trapped, but she was already feeling a little hopeless. She wanted to feel panicked, to let that anxiety motivate her to find a solution. But with the depleting oxygen and her complete lack of control over the situation, all she felt instead was dejected resignation. She was going to die down here and there was nothing she could do about it.

“Gaara?” she whispered. Perhaps if they were both going to die, she should wake him up so that he could spend his last moments alive actually conscious.

She twisted herself around gently, wishing there was just a tiny bit of light so she could see his face. She was certain she had never been so close to him before and she really wanted to know what he looked like up close. Where there colors other than turquoise mixed into those obnoxiously bright irises of his? Were his lashes as red as his hair?

It was too late for those question now – she’d never be able to see those colors anyway. Absently, she reached up and touched the hollow of his throat, feeling the smoothness of his skin. This, at least, she’d be able to know before she died. Gaara had insanely soft skin. Feeling a little bolder, she reached up higher, catching a lock of his hair between two fingers. It, too, was soft, though a little sandy.

And, well, if she was going to die, she might as well make the most of these last moments. She trailed her fingertips down to his forehead, brushing his bangs away so she could touch his scar. Love, she thought as she traced the kanji with the pad of her thumb. What did that word mean to him now?

She wanted to cry suddenly, because she felt sorry for him and sorry for herself. But she couldn’t do that – not when that oxygen was so precious.

She continued her path across his face, running a thumb over his eyebrow. She touched the thin skin of his eyelid, his long lashes ghosting over her finger. She touched the bridge of his nose, drawing a line from between his eyes down to the tip. She wished again that she could see him, could see his handsomeness with more than just her fingers.

It was with minor trepidation that she touched his cheek, imagining the blush that might be there if he had been awake. Cautiously, she moved her fingers to his lips. As she imagined, they were soft, too, just like the rest of him. It marveled her that a man so cold, so devoid of emotion other than sadness and anger, could be so pleasantly soft and warm, even just physically.

But she knew he wasn’t really that man anymore – certainly not with her. He had been kind and emotive and friendly. Shukaku was gone, taking with him the wildness that plagued Gaara’s mind. He really deserved better, Sakura thought. A better childhood, a better father. He had done so much to overcome his problems. It made her miss Naruto even more.

His lips parted under her finger – she felt his breath against her skin, still slow and steady. For a moment she felt the awkward compulsion to put her finger in his mouth, to touch his tongue and his teeth with the same reverence with which she had explored the rest of his face.

But before she could decide whether or not that was a bad idea, said teeth clamped down on her finger.

Sakura yelped and yanked her hand away. It hadn’t hurt, of course, but it had frightened her and embarrassed her and she was glad for the darkness that hid her flaming cheeks.

“I didn’t realize you were awake,” she stuttered.

“Obviously.”

“Sorry, Gaara-sama,” she said. “I just wanted to—”

She was cut off by Gaara’s hand against her face, his palm awkwardly thrust into her cheek. He threaded his fingers through the hair near her temple, testing its softness as she had done to his. He brushed his thumb across her cheekbone and then her eyelashes. She allowed the contact, though it made her feel uncomfortable. She supposed she owed him that, especially if he had been awake the whole time.

He continued his exploration, brushing his fingers over her nose, her chin, her jaw. She remained silent, though she couldn’t help the gasp that escaped her throat when she felt his thumb drag across her bottom lip.

If she hadn’t already been in his lap she would have crawled into it then. It took immense willpower not to kiss him right then. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and she knew Gaara must have been able to hear it, to feel it pulsing in the darkness that was so empty of anything but them. She was going to die anyway, so she might as well just kiss him.

His hand moved north, back up over her nose. He ran a thumb across her eyebrow as she had done to him. Her hands were quivering so she fisted them in the fabric of her shirt. He brushed the hair away from her forehead, letting his fingertips linger at her hairline.

“You have a big forehead,” he said. It didn’t sound mean or accusatory, but it caught her off guard all the same. If they had been above ground, surrounded by sunlight and oxygen, she might have smacked him. If they weren’t so close to death already, she might have been angry with him for bringing up one of her insecurities so nonchalantly.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and Sakura was determined to get a kiss from him before she died. She loosened her grip on her own shirt, preparing to grab his instead.

“But you’re very pretty,” he said softly. She could hear the smile in his voice. It was infuriatingly sexy and it made the thump of her heartbeat increase until she was sure it would launch itself right out of her chest.

She fisted her hands in his tunic and pressed her lips against his, a little awkwardly in the dark. He gasped into her mouth, sucking the air right out of it. His hands came up to rest on the sides of her face – she could feel the warmth of his palms pressed into her ears, muffling what few sounds there were to hear.

Her entire body radiated with heat and nerves and a tingling sensation that was far from unpleasant. She wanted to straddle his legs, to be as close to him as possible and eliminate any space between them.

But when she felt Gaara’s fingers trembling against her hair, she pulled back. There was a tense silence between them, neither knowing what to say or what to do. She heard Gaara swallow and take in another ragged breath.

She wanted to apologize, but she wasn’t exactly sure why. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but she felt like she had stepped across some invisible boundary.

“That was my first kiss,” he said.

That simple admission sent another course of fire down her spine, and even lower. God, she wanted to give him his second and his third and all the ones after that, too, but perhaps that will have been his first and his last.

“Mine, too,” she replied.

“Really?”

Sakura scowled. “Why do you seem so surprised?”

He was silent for a moment, deliberating his answer. Their legs were still tangled together in a jumbled mess. She could hear Gaara’s heartbeat along with hers, both a little out of control.

“Why did you kiss me?” he asked. She was annoyed by the neutrality in his tone, the words as simple as if they’d been written in pencil instead of spoken with any kind of inflection, emotion.

“Because you were touching me and you called me pretty and I just really wanted to.”

Her words were met with silence again, which deeply annoyed her. She couldn’t have been any more honest than that. She deserved a response.

“You know if you could just—”

Gaara shushed her, reaching out to grab onto her arm. He slid his hand down the length of her arm and entwined their fingers together again, though this time it felt immeasurably different.

“Be quiet,” he said in a whisper. She immediately hushed, listening.

At first she heard nothing but silence. After a second or two, she felt rather than heard the deep rumbling that had caught Gaara’s attention.

“What is that?” she whispered.

He didn’t answer. He probably didn’t know. The rumbling continued – Sakura could hear the gritting of sand against sand on the other side of Gaara’s shield. Something was happening. Something was moving the sand. Sakura tightened her grip on Gaara’s hand and was slightly surprised when he squeezed back reassuringly.

“It’s Sarabi,” he finally said, his surprise evident in his tone.

“Sarabi?” Sakura repeated. She reached out with her chakra, seeking the signature that Gaara recognized.

They were jolted suddenly, sliding down another avalanche of unseen sand. Gaara curled his body around Sakura’s, tucking her head under his chin. He took the brunt of their impact against the sand shield, so Sakura pressed her hands to his chest to use her chakra to buffer his impacts.

When they had come to a stop, they both remained still for a moment, waiting for something, some idea of what they should do next. Sakura could feel Gaara’s ragged breath against her ear. After a moment he released his grip on her arms and helped settle her into a more comfortable sitting position.

“Gaara?” she murmured. “Can you move the sand now?”

Gaara grunted and wrapped his fingers around her hand to help her into a standing position. “No need,” he said as he dropped his sand shield.

Both Sakura and Gaara winced as their vision was flooded with bright, white light. Sakura held her hand up to block to light that was burning her retinas. It was absurd that something she wanted so badly just moments ago was now causing her such discomfort.

Once her eyes had adjusted, though, she was able to see Sarabi standing before them, an ethereal glow underneath her translucent skin. Her eyes themselves had become nothing but white orbs of light, sending beams in the direction she was looking, which was evidently Gaara’s face. Around her, the sands were shifting, supported by her mere presence, it seemed. She took a few steps closer toward them and the globe of empty space around them shifted to accommodate her, as if moving out of her way.

“Sarabi?” Sakura asked, her voice trembling.

The beam shifted to her. She squinted, not wanting to look away from the strange, glowing girl. “Sarabi, what’s happened to you?”

Sarabi took another step toward them, and now that her eyes had adjusted better, Sakura could see tears on the poor girl’s cheeks. Sarabi reached out a hand toward Sakura, who immediately took it and pulled her into an embrace.

“The cave in,” Sakura began, the tremor still in her voice. “Sarabi, we thought you were dead.”

Sarabi did not answer. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. Sakura wished she could see her eyes properly, to know that the human Sarabi was still behind them somewhere.

“Sarabi,” Gaara said. Sakura turned to look at him for the first time. He looked as rough as she felt – dark circles under his eyes, unusual paleness to his skin. Sakura assumed she must have been in comparable condition. “We need to get to the surface. Can you get us back there?”

The girl nodded in response, releasing Sakura from her grasp. She grasped Sakura’s hand and began to walk, the sand moving around her as she did so. Sakura couldn’t help but marvel at the strangeness of it all, the glow, the globe of sand that seemed to protect her the way Gaara’s sand protected him.

Sakura squeezed her hand and looked to Gaara. He caught her eye and in the brightness of Sarabi’s light she could see the redness of his cheeks. Together, the three of them made their way to the surface.

 

They broke through the surface and were immediately met with hands all over them, pulling them up to safety. Sakura sucked in air greedily as Hideki pressed a chilled canteen of water into her hands. To her left, Temari pulled Gaara into a hug, her hands trembling as they clung to the back of Gaara’s tunic.

“Thank god you’re alive!” she exclaimed. “We felt the cave in, then both of your chakra signatures disappeared – until we felt Sakura’s, that is. What happened down there?”

Gaara pulled back to give his sister a once over. He smiled at her, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He glanced to Sakura, watching as Hideki helped her stand, then to Sarabi, who was still glowing, though not quite as brightly as before. Taiyo stood a short distance away, watching from the shade of the medical tent.

Gaara watched Taiyo for a moment, scrutinizing the way he was peering curiously at Sarabi. He did not approach them, but stayed in the shade of the tent.

“Sarabi?” Gaara asked, steering the girl toward the tent. “What happened?”

The girl opened her mouth, but still no words came out. There were more tears now, pouring down her cheeks, dropping to the sand beside her feet. Sakura’s hands were on her instantly, probing with her chakra to diagnose whatever might have been ailing her.

But what Sakura discovered instead was that her chakra signature was the same as the one in the monoliths. She quickly helped Sarabi sit down once they were in the shade of the tent. Her glow cast cool light over the shade in the tent. Taiyo backed away from her, hovering near the tent’s opening as everyone gathered around Sarabi to get some answers.

“Gaara-sama,” Sakura said, glancing in the redhead’s direction. “Her chakra signature… It’s the same one from the monoliths.”

Gaara nodded, having already put those pieces together. “I noticed that as well,” he said.

Sakura sent another course of chakra into Sarabi’s system, probing her chakra networks, testing her reserves to see if Sarabi’s own chakra was still in there somewhere, either mixed inside or separated somehow from the mysterious chakra of the monoliths.

As soon as her chakra probed into Sarabi’s reserves, the girl shuddered and fell forward into Sakura’s arms. Sakura caught her with ease and pressed her back against the tent pole.

“Sarabi, are you okay?” Sakura asked.

The girl moaned and blinked her eyes blearily. The glow began to fade from her skin, her eyes following suit quickly. She gasped, sucking in breaths like she had been drowning. Sakura sent another surge of chakra into her to help her breath properly, but Sarabi shoved her hands away. She then buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

Everyone watched, silent as the girl heaved wracking sobs into her palms. Sakura rubbed her hand soothingly over the girl’s knee, unsure of what else she could do.

“Taiyo-sama,” she stuttered once her tears had subsided enough for her to speak. “I’m so sorry. I can’t… I don’t know what happened.”

Everyone turned to look at Taiyo, who was watching Sarabi with a furrowed brow.

“The Catacombs caved in,” she continued. “I felt the monoliths go down, one by one. Each time, the light… it came toward me. Into me, I mean. I can’t describe it. I felt the South monolith go down and a few moments later its light was inside me. And then the others fell, too. And the Cage collapsed. I tried to get to Toki-kun and the others, but by the time I reached them…”

She burst into tears again. Sakura grasped at her fingers, twining them together. She looked back at Gaara, who was now gazing through the tent’s opening, out into the desert. She followed his line of sight to the horizon where she could see dunes in the distance, shifting and rising like waves.

“Is that you?” she asked him softly.

He nodded. “It seems my power has returned.”

“Returned?” Temari demanded. “What happened to it?”

“Immediately after the cave in I was unable to manipulate any sand but my own,” he answered. He then settled his gaze back on Sarabi, who was still crying. “Sarabi, do you know anything about that?”

“No, Firehead-sama, I swear!” she said, suddenly in a panic. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“It’s okay, Sarabi,” Gaara said, crouching down in front of her. His arm brushed against Sakura’s as he reached for Sarabi’s hand. “You’ve been through a lot today. You aren’t in any trouble. We just want to understand what happened.”

Sarabi looked down into her lap where Gaara held her hand, watching her with concerned eyes. Her sobs were now nothing more than hiccups and the glassiness of her eyes had faded.

“Would you like a moment to rest?” Sakura asked her. “Are you hungry? Are you in pain anywhere?”

Sarabi locked eyes with Sakura, the relief evident on her face. “I think I’d like to rest for a while,” she replied. “If that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Gaara said, releasing her hand and standing upright. He turned to Temari, whose dark expression was enough to send a shiver down Sakura’s spine. “Temari,” Gaara said to her, “take Taiyo back to Suna. Now that I can manipulate the sand again, I’d like to retrieve whatever is left of those monoliths.”

Temari nodded curtly, but it was clear from the frown on her face that she did not approve of this. She glanced over to Taiyo who was still watching Sarabi.

“The monoliths are gone,” Sarabi said. Everyone turned to look at her. “They’re in pieces, crushed by the weight of the sand.”

Gaara frowned. “All of them?” he asked. Sarabi nodded. “So there’s nothing left of the catacombs at all?” Sarabi nodded again before her face screwed up in an expression of sheer grief and she began to cry again.

“Okay,” Gaara continued. “New plan. Temari, your orders are the same. Hideki, you stay here and take care of Sarabi. Sakura, you and I are going back under the surface to see what we can salvage.”

Temari and Hideki both nodded, but Sakura blanched upon hearing her orders. Temari led Taiyo out of the tent and began walking toward Suna while Sakura watched Gaara walk back toward the underside of Turtle Rock. When he noticed she wasn’t followed him, he turned to raise an eyebrow at her. She glanced back at Hideki, whose attention was entirely on Sarabi now. He lifted his bedroll out of his own pack and placed it behind Sarabi to make her more comfortable. If Sakura had been in a better mood, she might have smiled at the gesture.

But instead, she rushed to catch up with Gaara, knowing that Sarabi was now in capable hands.

“Gaara, wait,” she said once she had caught up to him. “I really don’t want to go back down there.”

“We have to, Sakura,” he said. “We have to find out what happened down there.”

“But it’s so dangerous!” she exclaimed. “We already almost died down there once. What if something happens and you aren’t able to manipulate sand again?”

“We didn’t almost die, Sakura,” he said. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

She smacked him in the chest, hard. “We did almost die, Gaara. If Sarabi hadn’t come we would have suffocated to death. We were running out of oxygen.” Gaara absently rubbed at the spot on his chest, giving her a curious look. “Besides, weren’t you just getting onto me about having a death wish?”

To her surprise, he chuckled. “Okay, okay, Sakura,” he said. “I won’t make you go down there again. Stay here with Hideki and Sarabi.”

He turned his back to her and the sand beneath his feet began to shift. “Wait!” she called after him. “You’re not going down there by yourself, are you?”

He turned back to her, glancing over his shoulder in her direction. “I think I can manage without your tunnels,” he said. “I can control the sand again now.”

“But what if something happens to you?”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me, Sakura.”

She gave him a pointed look, placing her hands on her hips. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I’m not letting you go down there.”

“Really, Sakura-sama?” he said, the mirth in his eyes seeming weirdly out of place there. “Since when do you have the authority to allow me to do something?”

Sakura tapped her toe impatiently, giving him a disapproving look. They both knew it was a bad idea for him to go back down there. They didn’t even know for sure that there would be anything to find. It didn’t make sense for him to potentially risk his life for absolutely nothing. “If Temari were here, she wouldn’t let you go down there either,” Sakura argued.

That seemed to give him pause. “You’re worried about me, aren’t you?” he asked, his eyes focused intently on hers.

“Duh.”

His expression shifted then, a flicker of something she didn’t understand passing quickly through his eyes.

“Sakura, you understand why I have to go down there,” he said. “I have to get to those monoliths.”

“But why?” she demanded. “Sarabi and Taiyo are up here and they’re safe. The beast is dead and the catacombs are gone now. What could you possibly want to go down there for?”

“Shikamaru has been working on translating the message from the first monolith and it appears to be some kind of historical account of the sand beast,” Gaara explained. “It details things about the mysterious chakra and the beast, but I need the writing on the other monoliths to complete the text.”

“But Sarabi said they were crushed to pieces,” she said. “And you could be, too, if you go back down there.”

Gaara frowned, his gaze flitting over to the open tent. Sakura followed his gaze, seeing the empty opening of the tent. She could hear Sarabi still crying inside, but neither she nor Hideki were visible from where they stood. She looked back at Gaara, who now wore a perplexed expression.

He reached up toward her head and brushed a bit of sand out of her hair. She couldn’t help but feel like something had changed indefinitely between them – this gesture seemed far too intimate.

And it took conscious effort on her part to resist the urge to lean into his hand. As if it weren’t already difficult enough to be a horny teenager, she feared for his life and didn’t want to resist physical contact when it could very well be the last time she ever got a chance to touch him.

Gaara seemed awfully confident that he would not die, though, so when he pulled his hand away and dropped it back to his side, the look on his face was one of amusement rather than the seriousness reflected in Sakura’s. Sakura held his gaze, her hands fisted tightly at her sides. She wanted to balk at how he avoided taking her seriously when she had a valid concern, but then his eyes swept over her in a way that sent sharp heat down into the pit of her stomach.

She watched his pupils dilate as they traveled from her eyes down to her mouth where they lingered for a moment before traveling lower… and lower, grazing over her legs before coming back up to settle on her eyes again. She loved this attention from him, but she also hated it. She couldn’t determine the boundaries of whatever their relationship was and it left her feeling confused.

“You’re right that it’s dangerous,” Gaara said. There was a different sort of resolve in his voice now. “Would it make you feel better to come with me? We could keep each other safe.”

Sakura shook her head.

“Gaara, all those people just died down there. You lost your ability to manipulate sand, and we have no idea why,” she said. “It could happen again and you would definitely be screwed this time since Sarabi won’t be down there to save you. It’s not safe.”

Gaara twisted his lips into a frown and for a moment it looked like he wanted to argue with her some more, but he stayed silent.

“Gaara, please don’t go down there.”

“I like it down there, you know.”

“I bet,” she replied dryly, in no mood for whatever game he was playing.

“And I liked having you down there with me.”

She nearly scoffed, but she restrained herself. “You think you can butter me up?” she asked. “I’m not letting you go down there.”

“I’m not buttering you up – that’s the truth,” he argued. “Besides, I don’t need your permission to go down there. I do want you to come with me, but I won’t force you to if you don’t want to.”

“You only want me to come so I’ll kiss you again, you pervert.”

Gaara blinked and Sakura allowed herself to revel in his surprise. “You only kissed me because you thought we were going to die,” he accused.

“I already told you why I kissed you,” she seethed. She completely understood his line of reasoning, but it stung her to think that he would accuse her of lying about it, or that he thought impending death was the only logical explanation for why she would kiss him.

“Because I touched you?” he asked scornfully. He did not believe her. “I’ve touched many people, Sakura, and it’s never made any of them want to kiss me.”

She almost laughed at his naivety before she caught herself. “Not like that, though,” she said, though her voice was soft and not representative at all of the inner turmoil she felt. She really didn’t want to be having this conversation out here in the middle of the desert – not while trying to convince him to stay safely above the surface of the sand.

Gaara gritted his teeth. She could see that he also didn’t seem fond of their conversation.

“Gaara, please,” she implored, her one last attempt at it before she gave up. “I will kiss you a thousand times if you just don’t go down there. Please.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

He took a step toward her, the expression on his face a mixture of amusement and irritation. He reached his hand up and settled his palm on the side of her neck. She could feel his heat, the unsteady way his fingers curled around the back of her neck. He pulled her toward him and pressed a chaste kiss to her lips. Stunned, Sakura blinked.

“Nine hundred and ninety nine to go,” he said.

Chapter Text

Back in Suna, Sakura leaned over Taiyo’s cot, reaching for the roll of bandages on the other side. Wordlessly, he picked it up and handed it to her, avoiding her gaze. The journey back to Suna had been relatively uneventful, everyone’s heart a little too heavy to speak after witnessing the cave in.

Taiyo had initially declined anyone’s help or offer of food, medicine, or proper desert garb. But by the time they had arrived at Suna, the poor, pale man was so sunburnt that he resembled a lobster more than a human.

Unable to avoid it now, he had allowed Sakura to heal him, expressing obvious relief when her chakra flooded into his system, easing and soothing the burns on his skin.

Gaara stood beside Taiyo’s cot on the opposite side of Sakura, watching as she wrapped bandages around the worst burns on his arms. He frowned disapprovingly, tapping his toe impatiently.

“Are you feeling better now, Taiyo-san?” Sakura asked and she unraveled the bandages.

Taiyo merely shrugged in response. He had hardly spoken at all since they had retrieved him from the catacombs. It was understandable that he would be upset after having his home cave in and everyone he knows die. But something about his behavior was off-putting.

“Are you ready to talk about what happened yet?” Gaara asked him

Taiyo glared up at the young Kazekage. “What is there to talk about?”

“You know more about that mysterious chakra than you let on,” Gaara accused. “We’ve done you a service by allowing you to stay here, so I expect you to be accommodating in return.”

Taiyo’s scowled deepened. “You are the reason my home has been destroyed,” he said through clenched teeth. “You two,” he said, passing a glare to Sakura before looking back to Gaara, “have wreaked havoc, killing our Goddess, poking around in business that isn’t yours. I owe you nothing.”

Gaara’s face darkened, his eyes becoming slit like as he glared at Taiyo. Sakura could see flecks of sand hovering around the opening of his gourd – a telltale sign that he was displeased. Even the most inexperienced civilian would have been able to feel the pure anger that radiated off the Kazekage.

“The cave in was not our doing, Taiyo,” Gaara said calmly.

“You don’t know that,” Taiyo retorted.

Sakura looked to Gaara’s face to see his reaction to that. It was true – they didn’t know the cause of the cave in.

“Regardless,” Gaara said, “our intentions were to help you like we promised to. Even if there had been no cave in, your people would not have survived without our help. It’s a miracle they survived as long as they did anyway.”

“I refuse to help you arrogant Fireheads,” Taiyo replied.

Sakura, seeing that this was going south quickly, decided to change up tactics.

“Taiyo-sama,” she said, her tone as appeasing as she could make it, “We never meant you any harm. We cannot apologize enough for the suffering you’ve had to go through. You certainly didn’t deserve any of it. The only reason Gaara-sama wants this information so badly is because it could help him protect his own people. Surely you can understand that, right?”

Too afraid to glance over at Gaara to see what he thought of her little speech, Sakura kept her eyes focused on Taiyo’s.

She was surprised to see Taiyo’s expression soften somewhat. “Sarabi-chan likes you,” he said to her. “You’re a lot like her in some ways.” Sakura smiled at that, because that seemed like something Taiyo would appreciate. “But I still don’t trust you. Either of you.”

Sakura didn’t know how to answer that. She understood why he would be hesitant to trust her, but she had hoped for Sarabi’s sake that he would at least be willing to answer a few of their questions. She looked to Gaara to see what he wanted to do next.

Gaara seemed to accept that he wouldn’t be getting any useful information from Taiyo today. “Fine,” he said, his expression cold and very similar to the one she had first seen on him before the chuunin exams. “Perhaps Sarabi will know something useful.”

“Leave Sarabi out of this,” Taiyo said fiercely. “She’s just a girl.”

“Hey, now,” Sakura said sassily, “Gaara-sama and I are the same age as Sarabi. She’s not an idiot.”

“You and I both know Sarabi is more than just a girl,” Gaara said, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “The monolith’s chakra was inside her. She used it. It helped her manipulate sand the way that I do.”

Taiyo pressed his lips together. Sakura could see his jaw clenched tightly and a purple vein on his forehead throbbing. “Stay away from Sarabi,” he warned.

“Come on, Sakura,” Gaara said, glancing sideways at her. “Let’s go find Sarabi.”

Sakura nodded obediently, but she didn’t feel like Gaara’ behavior was conducive to getting what they wanted from Taiyo. Sakura liked to think she knew a thing or two about men like Taiyo, and men like Taiyo often had extreme pride. She was well aware that stroking his ego would likely be a much better way to get what they wanted, but Gaara was also one of those prideful men so she couldn’t just explain that to him.

So instead, she followed him out into the hallway.

“Wait a second!” Taiyo called after them, wincing as he tried to stand up, stretching the sensitive skin across his back that was still healing.

“You stay here, Taiyo-sama,” Sakura said, turning back to smile at him again. “I will come back to check on your burns later today.”

Taiyo scowled, but sank back down into his cot, unable to do much else. Sakura quickly followed Gaara out into the hall, watching as he slammed the door behind them. To their left stood a jonin at attention. He bowed low to Gaara.

“Make sure he doesn’t leave this room,” Gaara said to the jonin. “I want him under constant surveillance.”

The jonin nodded curtly and Gaara began to leave, his stride purposeful as he made his way back toward his office.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Gaara-sama?” she asked, rushing to catch up with him. “He already distrusts us.”

“And I distrust him,” Gaara said coolly. “Until I can get to the bottom of this, I have to treat him like a threat.”

“I don’t think that’s the best way to get what you want from him,” she argued.

Gaara stopped. Sakura stopped beside him. “Then what do you suggest, Sakura?”

“Well you could start by not being so grumpy,” she huffed. “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

“Honey,” he echoed. “Well, you’re sweet like honey, so maybe you should be the one to question him.”

“That’s an excellent idea, Kazekage-sama,” she said agreeably.

“I was being sarcastic.”

She shoved him roughly, causing him to stumble. He allowed it – laughed, even, as he righted himself. “I don’t know why you’re so mean to me, Kazekage-sama,” she said.

“Stop calling me that,” he said, giving her a stern glare. “You can question him if you want to. I want to be present, though.”

“He won’t like that,” she argued. “Maybe you should eavesdrop from an undisclosed location.”

Gaara grunted in agreement.

 

Sakura spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in one of Gaara’s private studies with Shikamaru and Temari. She watched as the two pored over a collection of scrolls and files, wishing there was something more she could do to help.

Instead, she drummed her fingers idly on the wooden railing of the balcony, gazing at the sandy streets below. Shikamaru had made large strides in decoding the message from the first monolith. With Temari’s help, he had been able to put together small pieces of the history of the sand beast, though the fragments were somewhat difficult to understand.

Sakura paid close attention while Shikamaru had explained it to her, but she still felt a little confused about the whole thing. The mysterious chakra belonged to the sand beast, who appeared to be more sentient than they had previously believed. The beast was able to manipulate its chakra, sending it outside of its own body and into the monoliths.

“I suspect the monoliths were built by the same people who built the catacombs,” Shikamaru postulated. “This monolith seems to be some sort of homage to the beast, a sign of respect and worship.”

That was certainly believable, Sakura thought. Even Taiyo and Sarabi, who knew relatively little about the beast and its chakra, seemed to show reverence toward the sand beast that had so nearly killed them.

The only problem now was that no one had any clue how the chakra could still exist when the beast was definitely dead. How had Sarabi been able to use it? And how had Gaara’s powers been stripped from him like that? Gaara was right to be concerned about such a thing.

But unfortunately, now they were at a dead end. So while Gaara was off somewhere trying to pull what information he could from Sarabi, Sakura stayed with Shikamaru and Temari, waiting for her opportunity to get more information from Taiyo. It was unfair, really. Sakura was finished with her portion of the mission, and though she felt somewhat invested in the whole situation, she still wished she were back at home in Konoha with Naruto and Ino.

Although, she thought, the interesting turn of events with Gaara was a welcome distraction from her homesickness. Never had she imagined that she would actually kiss Gaara on this little excursion. Granted, there had been some extenuating circumstances. Even though she felt it was probably a bad idea to have done it, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. How could she have possibly picked a better person to give her first kiss to?

She might have felt a little guilty for thinking a kiss from him was a trophy she won if it wasn’t the case that Gaara seemed to take the whole thing in stride.

She shook those thoughts from her head, wishing she could make sense of everything that was happening. There was just too much to be confused about right now and all Sakura really wanted was a nice quiet nap. Or a walk. Or a bath. Or anything other than being stuck in the study with Temari and Shikamaru while they awkwardly avoided making googly eyes at one another.

She glanced back at the desk behind her where Temari and Shikamaru both had their heads buried beneath a mountain of scrolls. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, Sakura slipped through the sliding door and out onto the balcony. She wasn’t helping anyway – they wouldn’t even notice she was gone.

A gentle, warm breeze fanned across her face and Sakura inhaled deeply, taking in the desert’s scent, the food stalls down below that were now preparing for the dinner rush.

Sakura leapt deftly down off of the balcony and onto the road below, following her nose to the market stalls. With only a few days left in Suna (hopefully), Sakura figured she’d enjoy as much of the desert’s cuisine as she could while she was still here.

She found a ramen stall, and though her preference would have been something more culturally unique to Suna, she found a sudden nostalgia for her teammate’s favorite food and copped a squat on the nearest stool and ordered the largest bowl of ramen on the menu.

She chowed down in silence, listening and observing the people on the street around her. Other than the beigeness of it all, Suna’s street was so remarkably similar to Konoha’s that Sakura felt right at home amongst the Suna citizens. She smiled as she chewed her food, her spirits a little higher as she watched a little boy struggle to keep his mother’s pace as she flitted through he market stalls.

Out of the corner of her eye she caught a familiar face and turned to look. Across the street from her, watching from the balcony of a nearby building was Hideki. His eyes were set purposefully on her, but there was amusement quirking up the corners of his lips. She jerked her head toward the stool next to hers, her eyes glittering. She had forgotten all about the Kazekage’s protective order over her.

At first, Hideki seemed determined to stay on the balcony. He gave her a quick shake of his head, gazing off over the village’s wall to the desert beyond. But after another moment, another minute of staring at one another, he relented and leapt down from the balcony to join her in the ramen stand.

“If watching me is as boring as being me, then I imagine you’ve had quite a dry afternoon, Hideki-san,” she said as a more appropriately sized bowl of ramen was placed in front of him.

“You’ve been very agreeable today so far, Sakura-san,” he said sternly, though there seemed to be less hostility than usual in his demeanor. “I’m having such a lovely day. Please don’t ruin it.”

“For your sake I’ll try to stay out of trouble,” she said with a chuckle.

They sat in companionable silence while they ate, an easy coexistence if friendship was too strong a term. She knew the poor shinobi was only doing his job – he never intended to get in her way.

“I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to Gaara-sama yet about your orders,” she said to him. “I had almost forgotten. I’ll talk to him the next time I see him.”

Hideki gave her a disapproving look. “Don’t waste your breath, Sakura-san,” he said. “It is clear he will not change his mind.”

Sakura raised a curious brow. “Oh?” she challenged. “What makes you think I can’t change his mind?”

Hideki rolled his eyes. “Even if it weren’t painfully obvious that there is something going on between you two, I saw him kiss you earlier today,” he answered. “Temari-san already suspects it, so it’s pointless to try to hide it – if you were even trying to. Like I said, I saw him kiss you.”

“Oh, that?” Sakura asked, waving her hand dismissively. “Just a brotherly peck.”

“What a coincidence that the only foreign shinobi ever be assigned a guard also happens to be the only person Gaara-sama gives ‘brotherly pecks’ to,” Hideki said dryly.

“To be fair, there has been only one brotherly peck,” she argued. She really should have known that Hideki would have seen them. Gaara should have known, too, yet he had been the one to kiss her. So really it was all his fault and she would have to remember to tell him that next time she saw him.

“I don’t need to know all the sordid details, Sakura-san.”

“There aren’t any sordid details, Hideki-san,” she retorted. “I know it might be hard for you to believe, but there really isn’t anything going on between me and Gaara.”

Hideki paused, holding his chopsticks a few inches from his mouth to give her an incredulous look.

“I mean Gaara-sama,” she amended quickly.

“If that were true,” he said through his mouthful of ramen, “then he wouldn’t have assigned me to protect you and he wouldn’t have kissed you. But you don’t have to worry, Sakura-san, your secret is safe with me. After all, it was Gaara-sama who gave me this mission and I would never betray his trust.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes, not quite sure she trusted him herself yet. “So you’re not going to tell Temari-san?”

Hideki laughed. “Only if I had a death wish.”

Sakura smiled at that and leaned forward, resting on her elbows. At least there was some comfort in knowing that Hideki wasn’t going to spill her secret to Gaara’s sister.

A commotion in the street behind them made both of them turn their heads to look. They found Gaara and Sarabi ambling along the street, each bearing a warm grin as they greeted the civilians who approached. Sakura smiled as she watched him shake hands and exchange pleasantries with his people. He seemed so natural, so in his element that Sakura would hardly have believed the man had been a social outcast at any point in his life.

She caught his gaze through the crowd, holding it for a minute as her smile widened. It truly did feel nice to see him so happy and so at home. He smiled back and placed a hand on Sarabi’s back, pointing her in Sakura’s direction. Sarabi looked over to wear Sakura and Hideki were sitting and smiled.

“I shouldn’t be here with you,” Hideki said, watching as Gaara and Sarabi approached the ramen stand. “I’m supposed to be watching you from a careful, unnoticed distance.”

“Unnoticed?” Sakura nearly shrieked. “That’s ridiculous – I’m a shinobi. Does he think I won’t notice if I’m being tailed? Anyway, he’s already seen you, so just stay put.”

Hideki grumbled something under his breath, but Sakura pretended not to hear, rising from her stool to greet Sarabi as she approached.

“Sarabi,” she said, giving the young girl an encouraging smile. “How are you feeling? Are you hungry?”

Sarabi smiled, though Sakura could see that it didn’t reach her eyes. Naturally she should be sunken deep into depression by now, but through some miraculous twist of fate, she seemed to be coping with her loss quite well.

“I’m feeling great, Sakura,” she answered brightly. “Gaara-sama took me out to the desert and showed me all the cool things I can do with the sand.”

Sakura blinked in surprise, letting her gaze drift over to said Kazekage. Gaara merely shrugged in response to her raised brow and took a seat on the other side of Hideki and ordered a bowl of ramen for himself.

“That’s great, Sarabi,” Sakura said. She certainly had some questions now, but they could wait until they were no longer in public. Besides, it was nice to enjoy a hot meal with the friends she had made while she was here. There was no need to ruin it with depressing shinobi talk.

Sarabi took the seat beside Sakura and began to eye Sakura’s half eaten bowl. With an amused grin, Sakura slid the bowl along the counter until it was in front of Sarabi. “Eat up,” she said. “The only other place you can get ramen as good as this is in Konoha.”

“That’s debatable,” Gaara said dryly.

Sakura sent him a wry glare of Hideki’s lap. “Oh, come on now, Gaara-sama,” she said. “You and I both know that Konoha has better cuisine, better views, and just all around better shinobi.”

Hideki and Gaara both frowned, but Sakura heard Sarabi giggle behind her.

“I’ll concede on the views,” Gaara said, “but you’re dead wrong about the other two.”

“Well, Gaara-sama, I think I’ll have to argue with you there,” Hideki said, prompting a raised brow from the Kazekage. “The view from the highest guard tower is pretty spectacular.”

Sakura shook her head because there was no way a view of the desert could be half as good as a view of the forest or anything else in Konoha.

“Really?” Sarabi asked, leaning over the counter to get a better look at Hideki. “What’s it like up there?”

Hideki smiled and looked off toward the guard tower in question. “It’s amazing,” he began. “You can see the entirety of the desert on one side, like a big sandy ocean. The dunes look so mesmerizing from so high up. And on the other side, you can see the whole village, all the people, the colorful tents of the market stalls. It’s truly a magnificent sight.”

“I should like to see that,” Sarabi replied. Hideki glanced over at her and Sakura was amused to see a faint blush on his cheeks.

“Oh, Hideki-san, why don’t you take Sarabi up there and show her?” Sakura suggested, unable to contain the playful glint in her eye.

“Oh I would love that!” Sarabi exclaimed. “You don’t mind, do you, Hideki-san?”

“Well, I…”

Hideki glanced over at Gaara because both he and Sakura knew that he should be well hidden and watching after Sakura instead of enjoying a meal with her or taking Sarabi up to the guard tower. Gaara, however, had his eyes focused on Sakura, staring at her with murderously narrowed eyes.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Hideki said when he saw the look on Gaara’s face.

“Oh,” Sarabi said, her face falling dramatically. “Well, that’s okay. I understand.”

“Come on, Hideki-san,” Sakura urged, trying her best to keep the grin off her face. “Sarabi really wants to see it. And you’re not doing anything important right now, are you? What’s the harm in taking her to the guard tower?”

It was now Hideki’s turn to narrow his eyes, his lips pulled into a frown as he glared at Sakura. She could see the retort already poised on his tongue, but Gaara saved him before he could speak.

“It’s okay, Hideki,” Gaara said. “You may take her to the guard tower if you wish. And you may take the rest of the night off.”

Hideki looked surprised, but he immediately stood up and bowed low to the Kazekage. “Thank you, Kazekage-sama,” he said, his voice filled with reverence and gratefulness. He stood and turned to Sakura, fixing her with a mildly disapproving look before he turned to Sarabi and extended his hand. Sarabi leapt up and latched onto his hand, eager to see the guard tower.

Sakura watched them walk away, feeling a little bit like a matchmaker and a little bit like she had managed to pull one over on the esteemed Kazekage.

“He told you about his orders,” Gaara said tersely once the two of them were out of earshot.

“Not quite,” Sakura said. “It was Temari who told me.”

“Why must you be so difficult?”

“I’m difficult?” she demanded. “Why should you assign a fulltime guard to a kunoichi? You think I can’t handle myself?”

“It’s for my own peace of mind, Sakura,” he said with a voice that was far too weary. “I’d like to send you back to Konoha in one piece.”

“What about Shikamaru?” she continued. “Why doesn’t he get a guard?”

“Shikamaru hasn’t shown the same propensity for trouble that you have,” he answered. “Besides, what kind of trouble could he get into behind a desk and some scrolls?”

“He could be fucking your sister right now for all you know,” she retorted.

“Fair point, I’ll have a guard instated for him tomorrow morning,” he replied.

Sakura giggled, feeling a little bit like she had just won, even though she knew she didn’t. “Did you get any answers from Sarabi?” she asked, changing the subject before she started to argue with him for real about Hideki guarding her.

“Sort of,” he answered. “This is pure speculation, but from what she described to me, it seems a lot like she’s possessed by that sand beast in the same way Naruto and I were jinchuurikis.”

“What do you mean?”

“The beast’s chakra is separate from her own,” Gaara answered. “She has her own unique signature, but the one that we felt before was the beast, the mysterious chakra. And after discussing it with her, it seemed that in the time I was unable to manipulate sand, Sarabi has no memory. Something was happening to her while we were trapped and she can’t remember what it was.”

“Do you think Taiyo knows more about it?” she asked.

Gaara nodded. “I believe he does,” he said. “Tomorrow I want you to help me find out what he knows.”

“Of course, Gaara-sama.”

He gave her a look – one she couldn’t read. His eyes flitted to the opposite side of the counter where the cook stood, idly adding ingredients to the pot on the stove. He probably wasn’t paying any attention to them, but they had no way of knowing.

“Uhh, Gaara-sama?” Sakura began. “You know that thing Temari-san was concerned about before?”

Gaara furrowed his brow, but after a moment her nodded.

“Well I think Hideki-san is worried about that, too,” she said. “He saw something at Turtle Rock that made him… concerned.”

“I see,” Gaara said pragmatically.

“You don’t seem surprised.”

Gaara shook his head. “Not now, Sakura.”

She frowned, giving him her most petulant look. For a brief moment he seemed almost amused, but the stony way he clenched his jaw told her he was anything but amused.

Sakura opened her mouth to speak again, to argue or plead her case or really just keep the topic of conversation going. She wasn’t going to let him weasel out of an explanation.

But before she could say anything else, he took his lower lip between his teeth and sighed. Sakura blinked, surprised to see such an expression on the usually stoic man’s face.

“Come on,” he said, jerking his head toward the palace. “We can continue this conversation in my office.”

Chapter Text

Gaara stood in front of his open window, watching people walk by on the streets below. Sakura stood behind him, watching with disinterest. He had been silent from the first moment they stepped into his office and Sakura recognized that he was nervous. Perhaps her attraction to him was what made his apprehension so charming, but Sakura wasn’t afraid to admit to herself that she enjoyed his confliction.

The sky had darkened dramatically within the last hour and off in the distance Sakura could see another sandstorm approaching. She hoped it wouldn’t delay her interrogation of Taiyo tomorrow.

“I ordered Hideki to watch you because I thought you were a flight risk,” Gaara said, his voice breaking the eerie silence that had settled over them.

“What?”

He turned to look at her and his expression was grim. “I could tell that you missed Konoha and your part of the mission was over,” he explained. “And after some of our less than favorable conversations, I assumed you would try to sneak out and go back to Konoha on your own.”

Sakura pursed her lips and rolled her eyes – a perfect reflection of the sassy Sakura he had come to know and love. But inside she felt sufficiently chided. It had been foolish of her to try to leave without Shikamaru, to cross the desert completely alone. She would have made it, of course, but it was a silly thing to put herself at unnecessary risk for in the first place, and she knew it.

“I know that’s partially my fault,” he conceded. “I think I came on a little strong regarding the issue, but I didn’t want to risk you getting hurt or killed.”

“I understand, Gaara,” she replied evenly. “I don’t approve, but I understand. What I’m concerned about is Hideki having seen you kiss me. He suspects something is going on between us.”

Gaara turned back to the window, angling his face away from her so she could not see it, even in the reflection in the glass. The tips of his ears were dusted with pink – Sakura could imagine the blush on his cheeks, too. She reached out and tugged on the sleeve of his tunic, silently urging him to look at her. She wanted to see his face, to gather every bit of him that she could have.

He seemed surprised by the tenderness in her gesture, the way her fingers lingered, curled up in the fabric against his arm.

“Hideki won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” he said softly. She wanted so badly to reach up and push the tendrils of hair in his face away, to test its softness again between the pads of her fingers.

“It’s just that it was inappropriate for me to kiss you,” she explained, trying to work out a way to tactfully explain what she meant. “If Tsunade-sama finds out I did that I’ll be in big trouble.”

Although, Sakura thought to herself, her mentor would probably be glad to know she had moved on from ‘that Uchiha brat.’

“Why did you kiss me?”

Sakura rolled her eyes again because she had already answered this before. But before she could say anything, Gaara spoke again.

“If you knew it was inappropriate, why did you do it?”

“No,” she snapped. “I already answered that once. Why did you kiss me again afterwards?”

“Because you offered it as part of our deal,” he answered. His blush had faded and he now wore an expression that was halfway between a scowl and smirk – one Sakura wasn’t too fond of.

“I’d have offered you anything to keep you from going back down there,” she said defensively, crossing her arms over her chest.

“And you thought that was something I wanted?”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” she asked with a pout.

“Yes,” he said, taking a step toward her. “It did.”

Sakura took a step back away from him, a little flustered by his nearness and the mischievous glint in his eye. She was used to the only glint in his eye being murderous – it was unsettling to see him this way.

But there was also something distinctively thrilling about it. Behind him a gust of wind blew specks of sand against the glass. The scritch scratch sound seemed to beat in time with her breath.

“Sakura, do you want to kiss me again?”

She looked up into his eyes with their damn near iridescence. The corner of his mouth was drawn up into a half smile and Sakura hated that arrogance it belied. It unnerved her that he would openly ask her such a question like he already knew the answer to it.

“No,” she said coolly.

He laughed and it annoyed her that he didn’t seem to believe her. “Would you let me kiss you again?” he asked.

“What?”

“If I wanted to kiss you again, would you let me?” he asked.

“Umm,” she mumbled, taking another step back. She hadn’t been lying about being in trouble. She couldn’t be engaging in casual romances with foreign Kages, no matter how much she really, really wanted to.

The smirk dropped from his face, replaced with a concerned frown. “I’m sorry, Sakura, you’re right,” he said softly. “This is inappropriate.”

He sucked his lower lip back between his teeth, his brow furrowed as he watched her, waiting for her to say something. It was so odd that the Kazekage would worry his lip between his teeth like that, and that he was so concerned over her reaction was so immensely enchanting that Sakura felt her heart hammering in her chest, beating wildly out of control.

With no one around to see them, Sakura could find no reason to deny either of them what they both knew they wanted. She fisted her hands in his tunic and stood up on her toes, pressing her lips against his.

Gaara froze and Sakura lingered against him, not quite ready to pull back and see his face yet. But then he relaxed against her and reached up to curl his fingers around her arms, holding her against him.

Too afraid to keep going, Sakura pushed herself away from him. She stared down at her feet, feeling heat on her cheeks and the tips of her ears.

“That was really inappropriate, Sakura.”

She glared up at him through her lashes. Her heart still pounded in her chest and her head was swimming as she took another step back away from him. He was smiling at her, but it was more of a shy smile.

“You’re not going to tell Tsunade-sama, are you?”

Gaara laughed. “Why would I tell the Hokage I willingly engaged in inappropriate behavior with her apprentice?”

Sakura frowned. “Should we really be doing this, Kazekage-sama?”

Gaara frowned, too, but he didn’t seem offended, much to Sakura’s relief. “What exactly is it that we’re doing, Sakura-san?”

She was startled by the suffix attached to her name – even around other people he had begun to drop the –san from her name. But she supposed that was only fair because she had just called him Kazekage-sama, which she was well aware she used to keep him at a safe distance. Using just his first name seemed far too intimate after having kissed him.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

Gaara nodded, his expression somber. “Then maybe it’s for the best that we nip this in the bud now,” he said. “If people are already suspicious, we shouldn’t give them more reason to suspect something is going on.”

She was startled again by that thought – that this was the last time she would kiss him, because he was absolutely right. It would be unwise for the Kazekage to engage in casual flings with foreign shinobi, and even more unwise to get himself embroiled in drama that could potentially spread uncouth rumors. He had a reputation to uphold, and even though Sakura didn’t plan to create any drama with him, she knew it was too much pressure for a budding relationship. This distance was too great – things would never work out between them and they both knew this.

“That’s probably for the best,” she agreed, though she was unable to keep the disappointment from showing on her face.

She chanced a look up at his face and found him staring at her. Well, not her exactly, but her mouth. Delighted and unnerved by this, she chewed her lower lip. It was too unfair, she thought, that she had allowed herself to move on from Sasuke, recognizing how impossible chasing after him was only to end up smitten with the Kazekage, another unattainable man.

With only a hint of bitterness, she mused that she would have to find some vanilla civilian when she got home – just some boring guy who wouldn’t be impossible and wouldn’t attempt killing her at any point.

“But there’s no one around now,” Gaara said, his eyes still on her lips. She watched his gaze drift lower, lower, lingering on her chest, her stomach, her legs. When he found her eyes again, she could feel the blush still on her cheeks, the heat that had spread away from her face and down to much lower regions. “Perhaps it’s foolish, and it’s definitely selfish,” he said softly, “but I’d really like to kiss you again.”

“You’re right, that does sound foolish.”

“But I’m a teenager and I feel entitled to make a few foolish mistakes,” he explained, “especially where pretty girls are concerned.”

Sakura giggled at that, pleased and in full agreement. Surely she was entitled to make a few of those same kinds of mistakes, too.

“So can I kiss you?” he asked. “Just one more time.”

It was charming for him to ask, even if it was a bit too polite. Sakura had no urge to deny him his kiss, and not nearly enough self-preservation to recognize what she was getting herself into.

So she took a step toward him and nodded, probably a bit too eagerly, but she didn’t care.

Gaara didn’t care either, it seemed. His eyes sparkled dangerously and he smiled as he threaded his fingers into her hair and pressed his lips to hers. His palm was warm against her cheek and he smelled like sun and sand and something deeply masculine. She took another step toward him so that their bodies were flush against one another. She felt Gaara inhale sharply through his nose. His fingers tightened in her hair, his fingernails digging into her scalp.

She didn’t have the words to describe what it felt like to kiss him. Perhaps it was the secretive nature of the kiss, or the fact that she could feel Gaara’s fingers trembling in her hair and his heartbeat hammering against her own chest that made her skin feel so tingling. She felt lighter than air, like if he weren’t holding her down she would just float away.

Her hands moved of their own accord, finding their way to Gaara’s chest. She splayed her fingers across his ribs, twisting them around the fabric of his tunic. Sakura was no stranger to fit men, to muscles and broad shoulders. But touching them like this felt infinitely different. It was easy to forget that Gaara still trained hard to hone his shinobi skills when his sand did most of the work, but as her hands explored his body, she thought she’d never forget that again.

Emboldened by her explorations, Gaara, too, began to let his hands wander. They slid down from her hair, across her neck and down her shoulders. He left reverent touches along her abdomen, her ribs, her waist.

But when Sakura let her hands drift lower, ghosting over his hipbones and then lower, Gaara grabbed her wrists and pushed them back into her chest, taking a step back away from her.

“No, wait,” she gasped, retaking her step toward him.

“Just a kiss, Sakura,” he said through shaky breaths. “That’s what we agreed.”

She made a small sound of disapproval with the back of her throat, but she knew he was right. She struggled to mask her disappointment though, because kissing him ‘just once’ made her want to kiss him more, over and over again.

“Your disappointment is quite flattering,” he said.

She looked up at him with heavy lidded eyes, her lips pouted. Just because she couldn’t kiss him anymore that didn’t mean she still couldn’t tease him.

“What about our deal?” she asked. “I still owe you nine hundred and ninety seven kisses.”

“The deal is off, Sakura.”

“No, it isn’t.”

He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at her. He looked quite regal and authoritative, and if Sakura hadn’t just had his tongue in her mouth, she might have felt intimidated by him.

“Gaara, I’m not going to let you go back down there.”

He blinked. “That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Duh! That’s the whole reason I made the deal in the first place!”

His frown deepened and his furrowed brow indicated he was confused. “Okay,” he said. “If that’s what you’re concerned about, then you have my word that I won’t go back down there.”

“I do?”

He nodded.

She pursed her lips, a little surprised and a little annoyed that he revoked their deal and replaced it with a singular promise. Perhaps he now understood just how dangerous it was to go back down there. Or perhaps he had decided her feelings on the issue were important enough to change his mind.

“So no more kisses then?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “I’m just as disappointed as you are.”

She peered at him with scrutiny, taking in the paleness of his features, the dark circles around his eyes. He really was handsome and kind of sweet and definitely adorable.

“Gaara, how come you’ve never kissed anyone before?”

He shrugged in response. “I never felt the urge to kiss anyone,” he said, “and no one had ever attempted to kiss me before.”

She supposed she could believe that because most of his life had been spent deprived of human touch. Kissing probably wasn’t something he specifically wanted to do, and it certainly wasn’t something anyone would have attempted on Gaara before he became Kazekage. Even after was questionable. Who would just kiss the Kazekage on the mouth like that?

“What about you, Sakura?” he asked. “Why haven’t you kissed anyone?”

She looked up at his face to see if there was any sign of trickery. He must have already known the answer to that question, and it stung that he would even ask, that he would make her say it out loud.

But there was nothing but curiosity in his gaze, his eyes wide as he waited for her answer. She supposed if she could share spit with him she could share other things, too.

“I was saving my first kiss for Sasuke.”

He laughed at that, which angered Sakura enough that she scowled and smacked his shoulder roughly. “What’s so funny about that?” she demanded.

“Nothing’s funny, Sakura,” he said, still smiling as he rubbed his shoulder. “I’m just pleased that I got to have it instead of him.”

“You boys are all so competitive,” she said with a scowl.

Gaara shook his head with an amused smile, but then his expression fell and he raked his gaze over her with hesitant curiosity. “What made you change your mind, Sakura?” he asked. “You didn’t want to die without kissing anyone?”

She wanted to feel outraged that he would think that, but he wasn’t too far off the mark. “I actually, umm, was attracted to you well before that,” she spluttered, “and I just figured if we were going to die anyway I might as well go for it.”

“When?”

“When what?”

“When were you attracted to me?” he asked.

“Now, Kazekage-sama, you aren’t fishing for compliments, are you?”

“Well, if you’ve got any to offer, I’m not opposed to hearing them.”

“I really can’t think of anything,” she said.

He smiled, then he laughed, then he brushed the hair away from her face with his knuckles. The gesture seemed too tender. She wanted to flinch away from him, but she resisted the urge and let him touch her cheek.

“This kind of sucks,” she said, watching his face as his eyes focused on the point of contact between his fingertips and her cheek.

He murmured his agreement and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Sakura, do you remember when you told me I needed a good fuck?”

She made a small noise of surprise with her throat, blinking incredulously. “Don’t push it, Kazekage-sama.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I just meant that you were wrong. I only needed a good kiss,” he said. “Or two or three.”

“I don’t know,” she argued. “You still seem to have a stick up your ass. You could still probably use a good fuck.”

Gaara dropped his hand back down to his side and glanced away from her toward the window where swirls of sand were now obstructing the view. His cheeks were reddened, as fiery as his hair and his rigid posture told Sakura that perhaps that had been a step too far.

“I’m sorry, that was inappropriate,” she mumbled. “I’ll just… see myself out now.”

She turned to walk toward the door, to make a hasty exit from this horrible situation she had put herself in, but he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and shook his head.

“Do you really think that’s true?” he asked.

“Of course,” she nearly laughed. “I can’t think of a single situation in which it’s appropriate to speak to the Kazekage like that.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said with a scowl. “Do you really think I need sex?”

“Oh,” she said with a blush hot on her cheeks. “Well, I mean I guess we all do. You just seem kind of tightly wound sometimes, and sex is a good way to, uhh, relieve stress.”

“I see,” he said, a blush on his cheeks as well, which pleased Sakura. It was nice to know he was just as shy and embarrassed about this situation as she was, even if he acted so reasonable and logical. But when his blush faded, his expression grew more curious. “How do you know this, Sakura?”

“Endorphins are released during sex,” she explained. “And endorphins make you feel good. Sex feels good.”

“How do you know?” he repeated.

She scowled and crossed her arms over her chest. “What are you getting at, Kazekage-sama?”

“Please call me Gaara, Sakura,” he begged. She glared at him. “I’m not getting at anything,” he continued. “I just think that you might be right. Maybe sex is what I need.”

“Yeah, I saw the way you were looking at Sarabi the other day,” she teased.

“She was practically naked,” he said defensively.

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Have you ever thought of… like, touching yourself?”

“Pardon me?”

“I mean I don’t know how it compares to actual sex,” she said, willing herself not to blush. She was a medic and this was a perfectly normal bodily function, coupled with perfectly normal urges. There was no reason to be embarrassed about it, she thought, even as she felt her face getting hot. “But there are certainly some benefits of sex that you can get… you know, flying solo.”

“No, I’ve never thought of that,” he replied evenly. Sakura was too embarrassed to look up at his face to see if he was also still blushing. “Are you recommending it to me?”

“If it gets the job done, Kazeka— I mean Gaara.”

“Do you… do that?” he asked.

“That’s inappropriate to ask, don’t you think?”

“But you just asked me the same thing,” he argued. “Besides, we’re far past propriety at this point.”

“Perhaps we’ve hit our limit,” she said dryly.

“Perhaps,” he echoed. “At least you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll consider your suggestion.”

Sakura didn’t know how to reply to that. What can you say to the Kazekage after he says he will consider jerking off?

“Have you ever seen a naked woman, Gaara?” Sakura asked, wincing nearly immediately after the words left her mouth. Of course she wanted to know the answer to that, but she hadn’t meant to sound as suggestive as it did.

“Sarabi is the closest thing to a naked woman I’ve ever seen,” he replied.

“Will you think about her?”

“Think about her?”

“Yeah,” she said, “you know, when you’re going to town on yourself.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t think I’ll be thinking of her,” he said dryly. Sakura didn’t know why he seemed so miffed by that question – it was perfectly reasonable to think he would think of the only woman he had seen partially naked. “Who do you think about when you do it? Sasuke?”

She scowled and blushed and crossed her arms with a huff. She shook her head so that her bangs fell into her eyes, hiding her face from his intense scrutiny.

“You do, don’t you?” he asked. She could hear the smirk in his voice. “I imagine you’ve seen plenty of naked men in your line of work, but have you ever seen Sasuke naked?”

“I don’t want to talk about Sasuke.”

“Why not?” he asked. “Is it painful to think about him?

The answer to that was definitely yes, but Sakura merely uncrossed her arms and sighed in response. She didn’t like the direction this conversation was going, and it had been so questionable to begin with.

“I’m sorry, Sakura,” Gaara said softly. She now had the courage to look at his face and she found his expression soft and concerned and it astounded her that he could flip a switch like that and tease her one moment, but be so sympathetic the next. “We don’t have to talk about Sasuke if you don’t want to.”

“Why do you want to talk about him anyway?”

“Because you love him.”

“And?” she demanded. “Should I love you instead?”

“I never said that.”

“I know you think I’m a fool for loving him,” she said, “but it’s not like I’m just sitting around waiting for him to love me back. I mean I kissed you, didn’t I?”

“Sasuke is the fool,” he answered. “I’m no stranger to tragedy – I understand Sasuke’s pain. That’s what makes it so hard to understand why he would abandon you. I already know I’m going to miss you when you leave to go back to Konoha. I can’t imagine having an opportunity to be near you everyday, to kiss you whenever I wanted and just squandering it away. Sasuke is an idiot.”

“Sasuke isn’t interested in being near me or kissing me,” she said. “But that doesn’t make him an idiot.”

“Sakura, you are a beautiful, intelligent, and very talented kunoichi,” he argued. “Anyone who would reject you is an idiot.”

“Didn’t you call me in here to reject me?”

He was silent for a moment. Sakura watched the expressions on his face flicker between conflicted and confused. Even in his somewhat agitated state, she still found him incredibly adorable, and after hearing him say all those nice things about her, she felt herself swooning just a little bit.

But it didn’t change the fact that what they were doing was wrong on so many levels. And there was no reason to bring Sasuke into it, either. She tapped her foot impatiently while she waited for him to explain himself, wishing there was a tactful way for her to extricate herself from his office and retreat back into the safety of her own rooms.

“I didn’t realize that you were proposing something to me that I could reject,” he finally said. “I thought we agreed that any type of liaison between us would be too scandalous.”

“I’m not proposing anything to you,” she snapped.

“Then I’m not rejecting you.”

Sakura sighed and glanced back toward the window. There was nothing to see but sand now and the harsh winds rattled the windowpane. “The storm looks pretty bad,” she said after a moment. “I should get going.”

“Sakura…”

“Gaara.”

He took a step toward her, his brow creased. “I know we agreed on one kiss, but can I kiss you just one more time?” he asked.

“Why?” she asked. “You looking for material for when you’re jerking off later?”

He laughed, much to her surprise because she had been expecting a blush instead. “Is that so wrong?” he asked.

She couldn’t argue there. Even if only to herself she could admit that she would probably use the same material. After all, Gaara was the only man she had ever kissed. And each time had left her breathless and warm and tingly. Why shouldn’t she indulge in one last, last kiss?

“It doesn’t seem like a good idea, Gaara.”

“Is that a no?”

She imagined herself back in her own room, her bed back in Konoha. She remembered how she used to fantasize about Sasuke, about the way he might touch her and hold her against him while she touched herself, buried deep under her covers. Only now, she knew that when she returned it wouldn’t be Sasuke’s kiss she imagined in her head.

“I guess one more kiss won’t hurt,” she said, and stood up on her toes to press her lips to his again.

Chapter Text

Curled cozily under her thick duvet, with darkness shielding her from her own sight, Sakura let her hands wander over her body, imagining that they were Gaara’s instead of her own. When she had finished and fallen asleep, she dreamt of him, of his warm smiles and delightfully penetrating eyes.

She felt sheepish when she had finally woken up with stickiness between her legs and a warm contented glow to her skin. She realized that there was nothing inherently wrong with what she had done – in fact she had done it on many occasions with a certain broody brunette in mind instead. But somehow the immense shame she felt gave the whole sordid ordeal a special kind of appeal, even if she didn’t deserve to feel ashamed.

With a weak groan, she rolled out of her bed and wrapped her robe around her body. She collected her soaps and shampoo and made her way back down the hall to the baths. During the night, the sandstorm had raged on while Sakura had been deeply engrossed in other activities. Now she could see the devastation it had wreaked on the palace. Piles of sand littered the floors, some of the sconces had been ripped from the walls by the harsh winds, and a few of them flickered, casting creepy shadows along the walls.

Pulling her robe tighter around herself, Sakura quickly brushed past the storm’s damage and ducked into the baths.

She was surprised to see Sarabi there, leaning back against the marble with her eyes closed.

“Sarabi-chan,” she said warmly. “You’re up early. I figured you’d probably want to sleep in today.”

Sarabi cracked one eye open and gave Sakura a weak smile. Sakura could see the dark circles under her eyes, still wet with what must have been tears. It was easy to forget that while things were still business as usual for Sakura, Sarabi’s entire world had been shattered.

“Umm, I can come back later if you would rather be alone,” Sakura said softly.

Sarabi shook her head and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “No, it’s okay,” she said. “I think I’d like to have some company.”

A little hesitantly, Sakura removed her robe and joined Sarabi in the water. She sat down next to her, but not too close. She instantly felt better in the warmth of the water, the cascade of bubbles that bloomed upward as she dipped into the bath. She inhaled deeply, letting the eucalyptus scent of Sarabi’s soap relax her. Once she had relaxed against the marble and had leaned her head back, Sakura turned to look at Sarabi. The poor girl stared blankly forward, her eyes glassy.

“It’s nice in here, isn’t it?” Sakura asked. “There’s no bathhouse this nice in Konoha. If there was, I’d be there everyday.”

Sarabi nodded with faint acknowledgment, but remained silent, not even sparing a glance in Sakura’s direction.

“Are you okay, Sarabi?”

This did drag the young girl’s attention away from her dark thoughts. “I don’t think so,” she answered. “It’s really hard to be okay when I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, when I’ve lost everything I ever cared about.”

“I’m sorry,” Sakura murmured. “I wish I knew how to help you.”

Oh, you already have, Sakura,” Sarabi replied. Her tone was surprisingly steady. “You and Gaara-sama have been so nice and welcoming. I think I just need some time to process it all.”

“I understand,” Sakura replied. They both fell silent, lulled by the lapping water and the small pips of popping bubbles. Sakura closed her eyes and dipped her washcloth into the water, brushing it between her legs to clean the stickiness still there. She wondered if Sarabi could smell her, if she should have cleaned herself up properly before she ventured over to the baths. It seemed wrong to be cleaning up her self pleasured mess next to Sarabi while she was grieving.

“Sakura, have you ever been in love?”

Sakura swallowed, blindsided by the unexpected question. “Well, I thought I was once,” she answered, picturing Sasuke in her mind. Had she truly even been in love with him, or was what she felt nothing more than a teenage crush, a vapid infatuation?

“What happened?”

“He was hurting,” she explained, though she had no idea how to convey the depth of her feelings about him. She couldn’t really find the words to describe what her relationship with Sasuke had been like. “His entire family was murdered in front of him when he was just a little kid. It made it hard for him to form bonds, I think. I pined after him for a very long time, but he only thought I was annoying.”

Sarabi nodded in understanding, though Sakura didn’t think she could possibly understand what the situation with Sasuke had been like – not from what little she had told her.

“Toki and I were in love,” she said. Sakura felt a hollowness deep in the pit of her stomach. “In fact, it was only a few days ago that he kissed me for the first time. Sakura, you can’t even imagine how it felt. I felt brighter than the sun, bigger than the earth. It was like I had finally come alive for the first time.”

Sakura furrowed her brow because while kissing Gaara had certainly left her feeling something special, it hadn’t been quite like what Sarabi described.

“And now he’s gone forever,” Sarabi continued, her voice watery as she strained to hold in her tears. Sakura wanted to reach over and grab the girl’s hand to give it a reassuring squeeze, but she still held her now soiled washcloth with both hands and she didn’t think that was appropriate.

And she found she didn’t know how to comfort Sarabi. There wasn’t really anything she could say to ease the pain – she had already determined on her own that time was the only thing that would help her. Sakura didn’t know much about loss, but she knew plenty of her peers did. She wished that any of them were here to offer something to Sarabi other than the pathetic blank stare adhered to Sakura’s face.

“Do you still love that boy?” Sarabi asked.

“Sasuke?” she mused. “Mm, yes, I suppose I still love him. In a completely different way, I mean. I’m not in love with him.”

“Sasuke…” Sarabi repeated.

“He’s gone now,” Sakura continued. “He abandoned Konoha to get revenge on the man that killed his family. It’s been years since I’ve seen him and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever see him again.”

“Do you want to see him again?”

Her immediate thought was yes, she definitely wanted to see him again. But would he want to see her? Would he even recognize her? It was harrowing to think that she spent so much of her mental energy on missing him and loving him and that he might not even remember her if they ever did meet again. “I just want to know that he’s okay,” she said, “that he’s happy.”

“Toki may be gone now, but I will always remember how much he loved me and it will always make me happy to think of him,” Sarabi said softly. Sakura flicked a furtive glance in her direction and found her face somber, her eyes closed as she sunk deeper into the water. “I’m sure even if you never see Sasuke again that he thinks of you and is happy knowing how much you love him. That’s not the kind of thing a person can forget about.”

Sakura wanted to laugh. She couldn’t speak to the validity of Sarabi’s statement, but it was hard to derive comfort from it when the truth was a lot more complicated than that. Besides, Sarabi was the one who needed comfort now.

“Maybe that’s true,” Sakura conceded, “but I’d like to put a bit more effort into the people here with me now, the people who love me now. I’ve got my friends and family back in Konoha still. And you’ve still got Taiyo-sama.”

Sarabi ducked lower into the water until the surface hovered at her chin. “Taiyo-sama,” she repeated quietly. “I know Taiyo-sama loves me in his own weird way, but sometimes I wonder if I love him.”

Sakura nodded in understanding. “I know what you mean,” she replied. “Sometimes with leaders, love is different. Gaara-sama, for example. The people of Suna respect him, but they also fear him because of what he’s capable of. He had to earn their love, which I know wasn’t an easy thing to do.”

“Really?” Sarabi asked in surprise. “It’s hard to imagine someone not loving Gaara-sama. I feel as if I love him already and I barely know him. He’s been so kind to me. He’s showed me so many things I didn’t even know I was capable of doing.”

“Yeah, he’s certainly something special,” Sakura mumbled under her breath.

“Taiyo-sama isn’t like Gaara-sama, though,” Sarabi continued. “Gaara-sama is smart and is willing to do what’s best for his people, even if it puts him in danger. Taiyo-sama was only ever interested in self-preservation. He kept us alive, but we weren’t thriving down there. Daisuke and Toki were scheming behind his back to scavenge the surface, to find anything to help us. Taiyo-sama didn’t even realize what they were plotting right under his nose.”

“Wait,” Sakura said, her ears perking up like a dog’s. “What exactly were they plotting?”

Sarabi turned to look at Sakura, shifting herself so that she sat upright. Her expression was dark, but her eyes were pleading as they sought something from Sakura’s – understanding, maybe. Or patience.

“Daisuke knew something about the, ummm, chakra that Taiyo-sama didn’t,” she explained. “He told Toki they needed to wait until the tenth moon day before they could go up to the surface. Neither of them would tell me what they were going to do or why it had to be on that day.”

“The tenth moon day?” Sakura asked. “Does that mean the tenth day of the month? That was yesterday.”

“Yes,” Sarabi agreed. “Yesterday. I knew what they were planning and I had a feeling it was dangerous. That’s why I came up to the surface. I knew if I found you—”

She cut herself off and swallowed, squeezing her eyes shut as if steeling herself for a blow of some kind. “I knew if I found you and Gaara-sama that you could help us. I was trying to protect Toki and Daisuke. I just knew they were going to get themselves hurt somehow. But when I went to find them after you and Gaara-sama had arrived at Turtle Rock, they were in the middle of some kind of ritual. It was terrifying. I begged them to stop. They were bleeding and their skin looked yellow. I didn’t know what to do.”

Sakura was silent, her eyes wide as she watched Sarabi wrestle with what she had seen that day.

“The four lights from the monoliths converged on them,” she continued, her voice a little unsteady. “I’d never felt them all at once like that before. They were drawn to whatever Daisuke and Toki were doing. But then the walls started shaking and the ceiling began to crumble. I remembered Toki trying to shield me with his body as the catacombs caved in. He was glowing and he was stronger than usual. I don’t remember much after that. The sand nearly crushed us – or rather, it did crush us. I blacked out and when I woke up, I was the one glowing and Daisuke and Toki were…”

Silently, Sakura reached out underneath the surface of the water and grasped Sarabi’s fingers, giving them a reassuring squeeze. Sarabi squeezed them back.

“The four lights, the chakra,” she said. “It was in me. It controlled me, not the way Gaara-sama showed me how to control it. It was like I was under a spell. It led me to you two.”

“Did you tell all of this to Gaara-sama?” Sakura asked, hoping her voice conveyed the right amount of urgency and sympathy, though to her own ears it sounded mostly confused.

Sarabi nodded. “Yes. When he took me out into the desert to practice using this chakra.”

They both fell silent again. Sakura wondered what kind of life Taiyo and Sarabi would have here in Suna, if they would stay close to one another or if Sarabi would choose to cut her ties with him. Sakura supposed that was sort of dependent on what she learned today from Taiyo.

But still, it seemed unfair that Sakura could just go back to Konoha and be home in her own apartment, surrounded by her own friends while Sarabi had to start completely over here in Suna.

“At least something good came out of all this, Sarabi,” Sakura said, mustering enough courage to smile at the girl. “You’re a free woman now. You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want. You have so many choices. You can be exactly who it is you want to be now.”

Sarabi blinked, watching the bubbles in front of her rise from the water and pop. “I guess I never thought of it that way,” she said slowly, methodically. “What would you do, Sakura? If you could go anywhere, do anything.”

This time the smile Sakura gave was one from the heart. “I can say with full confidence that I’m very happy doing exactly what I do now,” she said brightly. “Being a medic nin is my reason for living. I save lives, protect my teammates, heal those who are sick or hurt. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than that. And thank heavens I’m good at it!”

Sarabi smiled, too, then she laughed. “I should like to be good at something like that, too!” she exclaimed. “Maybe then I could have saved Toki and Daisuke.”

“I could teach you a few tricks, if you’d like,” Sakura offered, excited at the prospect of someone being interested in what she had to teach.

“Yes, definitely!” Sarabi said and Sakura was pleased to see her smile, her losses forgotten, at least for the time being.

A knock at the door tore their gazes from one another. Sarabi’s brow furrowed, no doubt as she questioned who would knock on the door to the women’s baths, but Sakura knew exactly who it was. She quickly slipped out of the water and tied her robe around her waist. Sarabi did the same as Sakura made her way to the door.

“Now, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said with faux exasperation as she opened the door. “What could be so urgent that it couldn’t wait until Sarabi and I are properly bathed and dressed? You wouldn’t be trying to sneak a peek, would you?”

On the other side of the threshold, Gaara stood, his face stony and his jaw clenched and he appraised the two scantily clad women clustered in the doorway, soaked hair dripping puddles at their feet.

“You’ve been in there quite long enough,” he said tersely. “We have work to do, so if you don’t mind…”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” Sakura said, bowing low with exaggerated reverence. “Just give me one moment to find my clothes.”

Gaara watched, teeth still clenched, as Sarabi and Sakura gathered their things. “What were you two doing in here for so long, anyway?” he asked.

Sakura ducked behind the room divider and began to get dressed. “Oh, we were just making out,” she said with her most no-nonsense tone. She peeked around the divider to see Gaara’s furious blush, though she hadn’t expected the sheer fury that radiated from him. She heard Sarabi giggle on the other side of the divider and decided it was best to not press her luck again.

“Alright, Gaara-sama,” she said, stepping around the divider, fully dressed and ready to interrogate Taiyo. “I’m ready.”

///

Sakura adjusted her earpiece, tucking the cord behind her ear so her hair would hide it. In her pocket, tucked away from sight was the microphone, the top of which just barely poked out of the top of her apron, blending in with the black spandex of her shorts. “Testing, one, two,” she said.

There was a sharp crackle in her ear. “I can hear you,” she heard Gaara’s voice say. She glanced across the courtyard over the where he stood, watching her with seriousness. “You have the list of questions memorized?” he asked her for the billionth time.

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” she said.

“Hideki will be stationed outside the door should you need his assistance,” he said, his voice marbled by the static of the radio. “Taiyo seems to respect you more than anyone else here, so try to maintain that relationship with him.”

Sakura nearly rolled her eyes at his last statement – a statement which might as well have been translated as: don’t be sassy or troublesome. Of course those things were too ingrained in her nature to suppress, but for Gaara’s sake she could roll with the illusion.

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” she repeated, her impatience evident from her tone.

“Proceed when ready.”

Quickly, Sakura leapt up to the balcony above her and flitted down the corridor to the medical wing. Taiyo’s door was close, marked by Hideki who stood guard outside. He nodded curtly when he saw her and held the door open for her to enter.

Taiyo was still slumped against his pillows, his eyes shut, face turned toward the ceiling. Sakura knew he was awake, but he kept up the façade until she had seated herself on the stool at his bedside and pressed her fingertips to his wrist to check his pulse.

“Good morning, Taiyo-sama,” she greeted cheerily as he fake-yawned himself awake and shifted until he was sitting up. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as possible, considering the circumstances.”

Sakura nodded sympathetically and sent a surge of her chakra into his system to check for any kind of damage or disease. His burns had mostly healed by now, but Sakura soothed what reddened skin remained before she rolled her stool farther back away from his cot and crossed her arms.

“You’re healing quite well,” she said. “I’ll advise that you stay out of the sun for now, but once you regain your strength, you’ll be good as new.”

Taiyo grunted, but offered her no words.

“Any idea what your next step will be?”

Taiyo’s brow furrowed and his eyes flicked to hers uncertainly. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Sakura faltered a little because these were not her scripted questions and she had assumed Taiyo would know what she meant. She wasn’t particularly thrilled that Gaara could hear this part of their conversation when he had made it clear she should stick to the script.

But he had also told her to maintain the amicable, if a little terse relationship they already shared, and this was the proper way to do this. After all, she had already had a very similar conversation with Sarabi.

“I mean you have so many options available to you now,” she answered. “You can go anywhere you want, do whatever you want. I’m curious, Taiyo-sama. What will you do with this newfound freedom?”

“Freedom,” he echoed. “I was not under the impression that I had freedom.” His eyes flicked over to the doorway, where Hideki’s silhouette was visible through the small window.

“Taiyo-sama, surely you, as a leader, understand Gaara-sama’s wish to eliminate any threats to his people,” she said patiently. “He means no harm to you and you are not a prisoner here. He only wants to ensure your intentions here are not hostile.”

“I have no intentions here,” he said, his voice dejected. He dropped his gaze down to his lap and for a moment Sakura felt pity for him. “My intentions died with my people.”

“I’m sorry,” she said respectfully. Then, after a beat of silence, she asked, “What exactly were your intentions with your people, Taiyo-sama?”

Taiyo scowled. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” she said softly. “Sarabi still loves and respects you. You still have at least one person who needs you.”

Taiyo’s face softened at the mention of Sarabi. He heaved a sigh and looked up at the ceiling. “Sarabi-chan does not deserve this,” he murmured. “She is such a tender-hearted girl.”

Sakura did not respond immediately, but watched the expressions shift on Taiyo’s face. He cared a good deal for Sarabi – that much Sakura could see. Sakura wondered what their relationship might have been like. Was he more like the Sandaime or the Godaime? Was he too stern with her or he did he have a soft spot for the ‘tender-hearted’ girl?

“I’m worried about her, if I’m being quite honest with you, Taiyo-sama,” Sakura said. “As you know, she’s developed a chakra signature – the light, as you called it. I’m afraid she doesn’t know how to properly wield it. She may end up hurting herself.”

That was a lie, of course. Sarabi might not have proper training with her new chakra, but she wasn’t in any immediate danger because of it. But Sakura wasn’t afraid to exploit Taiyo’s affections for her.

Taiyo cursed, spittle flying from his lips and landing in his lap. “Curse those damn boys,” he said fiercely. “Daisuke and Toki had no idea what they were doing. They had no right to be messing around with such things.”

Now they were getting somewhere.

“Tread carefully, Sakura,” the radio crackled in her ear. “Let him do the talking.”

“What things?” she asked.

Taiyo’s eyes snapped up to hers and for a moment he looked angry, his eyes blazing, his fists clenched tightly around his bed sheets. But then he relaxed, loosening his hold on the linens. His face softened and the look he gave Sakura was desperate, hopeful, and pleading.

“Sakura, you have to take care of Sarabi-chan,” he implored. “The light… the chakra. You know enough about it to teach her how to wield it?”

Sakura nodded, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Please, I beg you. Take her as your apprentice,” he said. “Give her a home and future. She shouldn’t have to suffer for Daisuke’s mistakes. For my mistakes.”

“What mistakes?”

“Promise me, Sakura,” he said. “Promise me that she will be taken care of.”

“Gaara-sama will take care of her the same way he cares for his own people,” Sakura said consolingly.

“No,” Taiyo snapped. “You. You are the only one I trust here, and even that is questionable. Sarabi-chan likes you. She looks up to you. I will cooperate with you and answer your questions if you take her back to your home with you and teach her to heal like you can. She’s already expressed interest in it. She’s a smart girl and a quick learner.”

Sakura blinked, stunned. She was in no way opposed to that idea, but it struck her that Taiyo would offer this compromise between them, that he would send Sarabi away.

“You distrust Gaara-sama that much?”

“He is the reason my home and my people are gone.”

Sakura wanted to argue with that, but she chose not to. Especially since she knew Gaara was listening.

“Please, Sakura,” Taiyo begged. “Promise me you’ll take care of Sarabi-chan. Bring her back to Konoha with you.”

“Don’t promise him that, Sakura,” said Gaara’s voice in her ear.

“You have my word, Taiyo-sama.”

Sakura heard the static crackled of the radio in her ear, but Gaara said nothing else. She imagined he was either frantically pacing the courtyard, or barging his way up to Taiyo’s room. She didn’t really understand why Gaara wanted her to refuse his promise. Even if she had no intentions of taking Sarabi back to Konoha with her, lying to Taiyo was a much smoother way to get the information they wanted.

She waited for a moment to see if Gaara would burst through the door or if he would give her another order over the radio. But before the silence could become tense, Taiyo spoke again.

“I will answer your questions about the chakra, and only the chakra,” Taiyo said, his voice authoritative and powerful, like the one he used down in the catacombs. “I will do this so that you may have all the information you need to take proper care of Sarabi-chan.”

She bowed her head to him in acknowledgement, grateful that he was giving her this much. In spite of how little he and Gaara trusted one another, Sakura couldn’t help but feel like Taiyo was a good person deep down. He cared for his people, and with Sarabi the only one left, he was willing to share confidential information with strangers in order to protect her. If he didn’t want to speak about the other things relating to his people… well, Sakura understood. After all, Konoha had its own secrets, skeletons in the closet. It wasn’t outlandish for him to want to protect his culture and his people. In fact, it was rather pragmatic.

“Thank you, Taiyo-sama,” she said earnestly. “You can trust me with this information. I care about Sarabi, too.”

Taiyo smiled for the first time since she had entered the room and Sakura was pleased to see that his eyes were lit with genuine happiness and appreciation.

“Where to begin,” he started.

But before he could begin, the door burst open, and standing in the doorway was Gaara, his expression blank and yet still somehow harsh. His eyes settled on Sakura, angry and calm, before they drifted over to Taiyo. Behind him, Sarabi peered around his shoulder, her eyes blazing with curiosity.

“What’s going on here?” Gaara asked with feigned ignorance.

Sakura clenched her hands at her sides, willing herself not to snap at the Kazekage for jeopardizing the success of her interrogation.

“Kazekage-sama,” she said dryly. “So good of you to join us.”

Chapter Text

“Taiyo-sama!” Sarabi screeched, launching herself into the old man’s arms. He caught her with a grunt and shifted himself higher up on his cot to accommodate her. Somewhat awkwardly, he patted the top of her head and Sakura found the pinkness in his cheeks charming.

Sarabi clung to him, her arms draped around his neck. She began to cry again, dramatic sobs that wracked her whole body. Sakura tried to put herself in Sarabi’s shoes, to understand the magnitude of her pain. Taiyo was all she had left in the world, and that wasn’t saying much.

“That’s enough, Sarabi-chan,” he said soothingly, smoothing her hair with a wrinkled, shaking hand. “It’s okay.”

Sakura smiled, affected by their touching moment, their shared pain and the consolation they found in one another. She glanced over at Gaara to see his reaction to this only to find him staring at her instead.

“So much for the script,” he mumbled for only her to hear. She scowled at him and put her hands on her hips. He had interrupted her before she could get to the damn script, and that was his own fault.

Gaara looked back at Taiyo, watching their exchange with intense scrutiny. Sakura almost understood why he disliked Taiyo so much. The old man could certainly be abrasive and a little arrogant, and perhaps he wasn’t the wisest leader to ever exist, but it was obvious that he cared about his people. It was strange to Sakura that Gaara wouldn’t feel empathetic toward the old man given his own rocky past and road to leadership.

“I’m actually glad you’re here, Gaara-sama,” Taiyo said. Both Gaara and Sakura stiffened at the sound of the honorific. After hearing Taiyo dismiss Gaara’s commands for respect, it sent off alarm bells that he would choose now to be respectful of Gaara’s position.

“Why’s that?” Gaara asked.

“I wanted to ask you about Sarabi-chan,” he said. “I know you have lots of questions about the chakra and I will do my best to answers those questions on one condition.”

Gaara sent a wry glare in Sakura’s direction before glancing back to Taiyo. “What is the condition?” he asked.

“I’d like for Sakura to take Sarabi-chan back to Konoha with her and teach her how to use her new chakra to heal,” he answered. He bowed his head when he was finished speaking, and Sakura was surprised by the amount of reverence he was showing to Gaara. It seemed that this was rather important to him.

Gaara shook his head, though he managed to look sympathetic. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Taiyo,” he replied. “Sarabi and you are both cultural anomalies – I can’t let either of you leave just yet. Not until I’ve conducted a full investigation of the catacombs and that chakra.”

“Fine,” Taiyo snapped. “Then let her leave when the investigation is over.”

“Sakura will be leaving in a matter of days,” Gaara said evenly. “The investigation will not be over by then.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble for me to wait, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said. “After all, if Shikamaru will be aiding you with the investigation, then I should stay until he is finished.”

The stony glare Gaara sent in her direction was enough to pebble her skin and make her take a step backward. “Shikamaru will not—”

He cut himself short and then sighed, a deep, heavy sigh that made Sakura feel only the slightest bit guilty for making things harder for him. His eyes landed on Sarabi, who still lay draped across Taiyo’s lap. Her face was still buried I his shoulder, but her tears seemed to have slowed, her breath even as Taiyo’s fingers curled around her arm, holding her close.

“Taiyo, you have my word that I will care for Sarabi,” Gaara said. “I will teach her how to use her chakra – it’s something only I can do. Her ability to move sand is unlike anything any other shinobi has, except for me. She has a specific set of talents, so she needs a specific teacher.”

“Who cares about moving sand?” Taiyo demanded. “What good will that do anyone? She needs Sakura’s skills, Sakura’s ability to heal. That is what will be useful to her.”

“She could have saved your home with the proper training,” Gaara insisted.

“And you’re the one to give it to her?”

Gaara nodded.

“Then why didn’t you save my home?”

Silence settled over the room. Sarabi sat up, rubbing at her eyes. She now looked worried, a look she passed between Gaara and Sakura for a moment, unsure of what to do, what to say.

“Perhaps I should be the one asking you that, Taiyo,” Gaara said, and the aura that was radiating off of him was absolutely terrifying. “I lost my ability to control sand when I was down in the catacombs. Saving your home and your people was my goal, but I was thwarted by the loss of my chakra. Sakura and I were trapped down there. We nearly died, too.”

Sakura scoffed, drawing three sets of eyes to settle on her – two with curiosity and one with ire. But Gaara did not let it sidetrack him.

“What happened down there in the catacombs, Taiyo?” Gaara asked.

“I believe I can answer that, Gaara-sama,” Sarabi said. She stood up and straightened her clothes, bowing her head respectfully in Gaara’s direction.

“No, Sarabi-chan, don’t,” Taiyo urged, grasping her hand with trembling fingers.

“It’s okay, Taiyo-sama,” she said, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. “We can trust them. They only want to help.”

Taiyo vigorously shook his head, but he remained quiet, crossing his arms over his chest, his eyes narrowed to mere slits.

“Every hundred years, the Sun Goddess chooses a human to be her mouthpiece,” Sarabi said, sounding very much like she was reciting something from the page of a book. “The Day of Choosing was not supposed to be until a month from now and the ceremony had been arranged so that Taiyo-sama would be the one chosen.”

Sakura opened her mouth to speak, to ask about how the Sun Goddess could chose, but her choice could be prearranged, but Gaara shook his head curtly and held up a hand for her to remain silent.

“The Sun Goddess will always choose someone who is able to sense the monoliths,” Sarabi continued. “That is the test. Taiyo-sama, Daisuke-san, and I were the only ones who could do so, so it could only have been one of the three of us. Given that Taiyo-sama was our leader, we had arranged the ceremony so that Taiyo would be chosen and the chakra would be given to him.”

Gaara blinked and looked to Taiyo, who had shriveled up on his cot, curled underneath his linens like a frightened animal.

“But Daisuke-san and a few others did not trust Taiyo-sama,” Sarabi explained. “They planned to overthrow him and rig the ceremony so that Daisuke-san would be chosen. Only when they heard about the rescue and Taiyo had been brought to the surface, Daisuke-san and Toki-kun began to perform the ritual themselves in their haste to secure the Goddess’s choice.”

“I thought the Sun Goddess was dead,” Sakura interjected, unable to stand how many more questions this was all opening up.

“Her corporal form is,” Taiyo interjected.

Sakura and Gaara exchanged confused glances. Gaara turned around and rapped on the window. Hideki opened the door, poking his head inside, but keeping his feet firmly planted outside the threshold.

“Hideki, go fetch Temari and Shikamaru,” he commanded. “Tell them to meet me in the council chambers as soon as possible.”

Hideki nodded and speed off.

“Taiyo,” Gaara said, turning back to face the room. “Are you well enough to walk now?”

Taiyo nodded and stood up slowly.

“We should move this conversation to the council chambers,” he said. “Sakura, take Sarabi back to my office. Kankuro should be in there.”

“What for, Gaara-sama?”

He shot her a look – one that actually frightened her a little bit with its vehemence. He certainly had an authority about him now and Sakura didn’t feel compelled to question him further, even though she would much rather have gone to the council chambers with him and Taiyo.

“Just do it,” he said, and though his eyes were still hardened, his tone was soft. “Please,” he added. Sakura raised her brows in surprise. He was under no obligation to ask her nicely, but she appreciated it nonetheless.

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” she replied, and took Sarabi’s hand.

///

“This is so unfair.”

Sakura sat at Gaara’s desk, idly twirling a roll of parchment around her fingers. It seemed that Gaara had an actual reason for wanting Sakura to bring Sarabi here. She was currently sitting near the windowsill with Kankuro, drawing him a map of the catacombs on a massive sheet of parchment.

Kankuro looked up from the parchment sprawled over the floor, sunlight glinting from his eyes. “Don’t worry, Sakura, I’m sure he’ll fill you in on all the details later,” he said cheerily. “Truthfully, you’re better off in here anyway. He seemed pretty angry earlier this morning.”

“Angry?” Sakura asked, spinning Gaara’s chair around to face the window. “Why?”

“Who knows?” he replied with a shrug. “He’s been pretty cranky lately. I have a suspicion it has something to do with Shikamaru and Temari, but I can’t say for sure. Which is another reason why it’s best not to be trapped in a room with the three of them.”

Sakura rolled her eyes at that. She wasn’t convinced that that was Gaara’s problem, but she didn’t want to say what she really thought it was.

“It’s because he doesn’t like Taiyo-sama, isn’t it?” Sarabi asked.

Kankuro furrowed his brow and cast her a curious glance. “What makes you say that?” he asked.

“Gaara-sama is always very kind to me,” she explained, “but he doesn’t seem to extend that same kindness to Taiyo-sama.”

“He can come off a little stoic sometimes,” Kankuro admitted, “but that’s just the way he is. It’s not personal, of course. He’s even cold with Temari and I sometimes and we’re his siblings.”

“Yeah,” Sakura agreed. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s hard to blame him for treating you nicer than Taiyo,” Kankuro continued. “You’re so pretty! Even an asexual like Gaara can see that.”

Sakura rolled her eyes so hard it physically hurt. “Gaara-sama isn’t asexual, you dumbass.”

“I’ve never seen him with a girl,” Kankuro said, and the accusatory tone he used told Sakura that she had better tread carefully now lest she out herself.

“I’ve never seen you with one, either,” she retorted.

He glared over at her, his arms crossed. “Just because you haven’t seen me with one doesn’t mean I’ve never been with one,” he snapped. “Besides, you don’t even live here. How would you even know?”

“Well do you?” Sakura asked.

“Do I what?”

“Have a girlfriend?”

Kankuro scowled and turned toward the window. “Let’s just focus on our orders,” he said. He pushed the parchment closer to Sarabi, who gave him a cautious glance before she began writing again.

Sakura turned back to the desk and sighed. After all the weirdness between her and Gaara, she really just wanted to be back home, back in the normalcy of her everyday life. This mission had been exciting, to be sure, but now she just felt uncomfortable being in Suna.

And now she had Sarabi to think about too. She had already expressed interest in learning medical ninjutsu, and Sakura had promised Taiyo he would take her back to Konoha. Truthfully, Sakura was pleased that Sarabi wanted to come and that Taiyo trusted her when he didn’t seem to trust anyone else. Sakura liked Sarabi and could easily picture herself teaching medical ninjutsu to her. It would certainly be nice to have an extra pair of hands around the hospital. And Naruto would certainly like Sarabi.

But Gaara had been opposed to that idea, or at least opposed to making that promise to Taiyo. Did he not want Sarabi to leave? Perhaps he enjoyed her company too much to let her go. With a painful stab of jealousy, Sakura glanced back over her shoulder at the pale girl, watching her draw lines on the parchment.

Kankuro wasn’t wrong – Sarabi was a pretty girl and Sakura had already seen Gaara notice her.

Of course it wasn’t Sakura’s place to feel jealous. Her relationship with the Kazekage must be kept strictly professional and they both knew it. Besides, Sakura wasn’t even certain of what exactly her feelings toward Gaara entailed. Did she have a crush on him? Was it just infatuation? Sexual attraction and nothing more?

Just thinking about it sent a sharp heat down to her gut, which she supposed answered her question. If what she felt toward Gaara was strictly a sexual attraction, then that was something she could work with. It would be easy to move on from and require little to no emotional stress.

Still, she wasn’t exactly looking forward to leaving him and she wished she could kiss him one more time. Or two more times. Really, she just wanted to put the whole situation behind her, which wouldn’t happen until she went back home.

Sakura pushed the chair away from the desk with a groan and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Kankuro asked her.

“To get something to eat.”

///

Sakura strolled through the marketplace, munching happily on some chips. She sun wasn’t quite so hostile today – the storm had cooled things down a little and she actually found the weather to be quite pleasant.

The streets bustled with movement and life as people flitted through with their shopping bags. She could hear a group of kids somewhere nearby squealing and screaming with delight. This was the part of Suna she liked the most, the part she would actually miss when she got back to Konoha.

She gazed off toward the village wall, up at the high guard tower where she could see two figures perched on duty. She knew Hideki was probably watching her from a safe distance somewhere, but even knowing so it felt nice to be alone, or at least away from the sand siblings.

Deciding it might be fun to play a little game, Sakura quickly ducked into a group of people, crouching down a little to hide the brightness of her hair. She didn’t know where Hideki was watching her from, which would make it a bit of a challenge to lose him, but Sakura enjoyed a bit of a challenge.

She slipped into a nearby alley and jumped up onto a fire escape that ran across the length of the building. She hadn’t explored much beyond the east wall and she figured she was due some leisure exploration time.

Stealthily, she crept along the sides of the buildings, careful to keep mostly out of sight. Just to throw Hideki off, she often changed directions at random, or stopped moving altogether for a moment.

Once she had reached the wall, she climbed up to the top and hopped down to the sandy dunes on the other side.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Sakura squealed and spun around to face him. He stood with an arrogant smirk on his face, leaning back against the wall as if he’d been there the whole time waiting for her.

“Hideki-san,” she said, a little out of breath. “What are you doing out here.”

“My job, Sakura-san. You know that.”

“I thought you were in the council chambers with Gaara and the others,” she replied.

“I was.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes at him. She had sort of expected this outcome, but it still stung that he had managed to keep up with her.

“Well, I’m going for a walk,” she said. “You’re welcome to join me.”

“I don’t have much of a choice.”

“You mean you’re not going to try to stop me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a walk, Sakura-san,” he said. “But even if I were not charged with your protection, I’d still advise you to bring someone along. It isn’t wise to traverse the desert alone – especially considering you are unfamiliar with it.”

Sakura thought that was probably true, but she glared at him anyway. “Fine,” she said. “You lead the way then.”

His smiled widened as he kicked himself off the wall and broke into a sprint.

///

Sakura kept Hideki’s pace for a while, conserving her chakra in case something happened out here and she needed it. She had no idea how far out he would take her and she wanted to be certain she’d have enough chakra for the journey back to the village.

Unfortunately, this side of the desert was about as boring as the west side. The dunes looked identical, the sky was the same. The only real difference this time was which side of her the village was on.

“Where are we going?” Sakura asked, sneaking a peek in Hideki’s direction.

“You’ll see soon,” he said. “We’re almost there.”

She turned her eyes forward again and watched as the dunes in front of them shifted. When they reached the base of a particularly large dune, Hideki began to climb up to its peak with Sakura following close behind him.

“Here we are,” he said, dusting the sand from his clothes and standing up straight.

A little out of breath, Sakura joined him on the peak and looked down at what sat below them on the other side.

Beneath them at the base of the dune was a large pond, so bright and blue that it hurt Sakura’s eyes to look at. Surrounding the pond was all kinds of vegetation – thick and lush greenery that made Sakura miss Konoha even more.

“An oasis?” she asked, unable to contain the elation in her voice.

“I thought you might appreciate some greenery,” Hideki replied, smiling back at her. “I know it’s not much, but it’s the best we’ve got out here in the desert.”

Sakura squealed with delight and bounded down the side of the dune to the edge of the water. She crouched down and dipped her fingers into the glassy water, surprised by how cool it was to the touch. It was so strange to be standing on sandy soil in the heat of the afternoon while wrist deep in the chilly water. Around the bank of the pond grew salt grass and arrowweed. Fan palms dotted the bank on the other side, providing a little bit of shade for a passing traveler.

Behind her, Hideki slid down the side of the dune and joined her near the bank. “What do you think?” he asked, dipping his own hand into the water too.

“This is pretty cool, Hideki-san,” she replied, grinning from ear to ear. “Seems like a great thinking spot.”

“Temari-san thinks so, too,” he said. “She comes here quite often.”

Sakura murmured her acknowledgment and sat down in the sand, leaning back on her elbows and closing her eyes. “I think this place might rival the bathhouse,” she said. “I could take great naps here.”

Hideki laughed. “You don’t seem like the napping type.” He sat down beside her, though his posture was a bit more rigid and he seemed to still be on high alert.

“Who doesn’t enjoy a good nap?”

Hideki shrugged and a comfortable silence settled over them. It was kind of nice to be near Hideki. Her initial irritation with him had faded days ago and now she felt he was amicable enough. After all, he had only been following orders. It wasn’t his fault Gaara had ordered him to guard her, nor was he wrong for being displeased with those orders.

“Hideki-san?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much trouble this past week,” she said. “I made things harder on you than they had to be and you didn’t deserve that.”

He was quiet for a moment, his eyes curious as they searched her face, looking for her sincerity. “I appreciate the apology, Sakura-san,” he said. “I understand you weren’t trying to make things difficult.”

“Still, it’s a little unfair that all this stuff with Turtle Rock and Taiyo and Sarabi is happening and you’re stuck escorting me around the village,” she said. “It sucks missing out on all the action.”

“We’re only missing out on some of the action,” he argued. “Besides, it’s an honor to protect you. I’m pleased that Gaara-sama would trust me to protect someone who is so important to him.”

Sakura felt her cheeks heat up and she turned her head away. “I know you don’t believe me,” she said, “but there’s really nothing going on between Gaara-sama and me. What you saw was… just a moment of indiscretion. Our emotions were high. We thought we were going to die in the catacombs.”

Hideki didn’t respond and Sakura was too afraid to look at him to confirm from his expression that he didn’t believe her. It didn’t matter whether he believed her or not, the truth was the truth.

“I’m glad that you don’t resent me, though,” she continued, a little unnerved by his silence. “I know I’m probably not your favorite person, but I appreciate your kindness.”

“You’re actually quite pleasant when you aren’t disobeying orders or getting yourself into trouble,” he mused. “It came as no surprise to me that Gaara-sama would want you to be kept safe.”

Sakura scowled. “I don’t believe that had anything to do with how pleasant he finds me,” she snapped.

“Oh?”

“It was obviously because of my propensity for finding myself in danger,” she muttered sarcastically.

“Yes, I’m sure that was a factor of his decision,” Hideki said. She could hear the good-natured humor in his voice. “But it’s obvious that he finds you charming. To my knowledge, Gaara-sama is not so easily charmed.”

“You’re reading too much into it, Hideki-san.”

“Maybe,” he agreed. “If you say there is nothing going on, then I believe you.”

She peered at him through slit eyes, trying to determine whether or not he meant that. The look of sheer amusement on his face made it difficult to tell whether he was joking or just amused with her reaction.

Annoyed, she shoved him roughly, using just the tiniest hint of chakra and knocking him into the sandy dirt. He laughed as he sat back up. “For Gaara-sama’s sake, I hope you’re telling the truth,” he said, rubbing his shoulder.

“Don’t be such a baby,” she said, watching him roll his sleeve up to glance at the bruise forming beneath the fabric of his shirt.

Without warning, he shoved her back with enough force to knock her face first into the wet sand in front of her. She squealed, spitting out a mouthful of sand when he shoved her again, harder this time.

“Spar with me, Sakura-san,” he said, glee evident on his face.

“You’re on.”

///

Sakura lost, brutally. With Hideki’s long range, wind style jutsus and his intimate knowledge of their terrain, she didn’t have much hope against him. But she put up enough of a fight to leave him limping slightly as they traveled back home at a leisurely pace, enjoying the early evening’s cool air.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to take a look at your leg, Hideki-san?” she asked as they climbed over a particularly steep dune.

“Perhaps when we get back,” he said. “It’ll be dark soon and I’d like to be inside the village walls by then.”

“Are you sure?” she repeated. “You’re slowing me down.”

He glared at her and she giggled, amused by his reaction. She followed close on his heels as he led her back to the village. She felt refreshed after spending some time away from the mess of everything in Suna. She needed a little recreation, a little break from all the Taiyo business.

But now she was tired and couldn’t wait to get back to her rooms and take a nice, hot bath before crashing for the night.

When they reached the base of Suna’s wall, Sakura helped Hideki to sit up against it while she funneled her chakra into his leg, alleviating some of his muscle pain and fatigue. When she had finished, she gave his leg a pat and smiled.

“Good as new,” she said. She extended her hand to help him up, but he quickly stood up on his own, coming to attention.

“Gaara-sama,” he said sharply, bowing his head low.

Confused, Sakura turned around to see Gaara standing behind them, sandwiching them between him and the wall. His arms were crossed and there was a tightness to his features, a clenching in his jaw that indicated he was irritated.

“Where have you two been?” he asked quietly, not quite a demand, but the intent was somehow understood.

“We were sparring,” Sakura supplied.

Gaara looked to Hideki, who nodded respectfully. The last time she told someone she had been sparring, it was a lie – one both Gaara and Sakura were aware of. She wondered if he would think she was lying now.

“Who won?” he asked.

Sakura looked to Hideki who looked right back at her with a sort of bemused expression. “I did, Kazekage-sama,” he said.

“I see,” Gaara replied, a faint smirk on his face. “You’re relieved of duty, Hideki. I can take it from here.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama.”

Chapter Text

“Were you really sparring?”

Sakura narrowed her eyes. Gaara actually looked a little bit angry. Maybe even jealous, but she wouldn’t let herself think that. “What else would we have been doing?” she asked.

To her surprise, Gaara laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “You manage to get yourself into all kinds of trouble, don’t you?”

“You trust Hideki-san to keep me out of it,” she said, not quite a question, but she wanted to confirm what she already knew.

“Yes, and he’s done a relatively good job of it.”

She wanted to scowl and argue with him some more – there was always that urge to sass him, to reject his authority over her because she didn’t need it. She didn’t need his protection or a babysitter or to be kept out of trouble. She was entitled to be in trouble if she wanted to be. After all, she’d done a good job here in Suna, hadn’t she? She had completed her mission, created the antidote, healed everyone she was supposed to have healed.

She had even gone above and beyond the scope of her duties with regard to everything that had happened at Turtle Rock.

Sakura peered at Gaara through her lashes. His arms were knotted over his chest – a position he seemed to favor. Perhaps he thought it gave him an aura of authority and dignity. Well, it did, but she didn’t appreciate the conceited smirk on his face as he seemed to realize she was simultaneously admiring him and condemning him for his arrogance.

“He took me to see the oasis,” she said, stuttered almost. Anything to fill the silence that had filled the air around them. She wasn’t exactly sure what made her feel so uncomfortable standing out here alone with him. Perhaps it was because she knew how badly she wanted to kiss him again, and she knew exactly how much she shouldn’t.

“I see,” Gaara murmured. He looked surprised. “I imagine you were very fond of it.”

“I was,” she answered. “It was nice to see a little greenery. It reminded me of home.”

“Hardly a week away from Konoha and you miss it that much already,” he mused. “Are you homesick or that desperate to leave Suna?”

“I like Suna well enough,” she said, a contrarian tone creeping into the edge of her voice.

Silence fell again and the sky was beginning to darken. A gust of wind blew swirls of sand around them, rustling their hair, scratching their skin.

“Sarabi wants to go back to Konoha with you,” Gaara said, breaking the tranquility of the moment. “Taiyo wants that, too.”

“I know,” Sakura answered. “Sarabi wants to learn medical ninjustu. I think she will have an aptitude for it.”

Gaara’s lips twisted, though Sakura couldn’t tell whether it was a look of annoyance or confusion. “I’ve spoken to Tsunade about her,” he said. Sakura blinked in surprise. “She has agreed to take her in and teach her. She agreed that you would be the best mentor for her.”

Sakura frowned, and seeing her frown, Gaara also frowned. “Is that not what you want?” he asked. “You promised it to Taiyo.”

She flicked her fingers nonchalantly in his direction. “I was telling Taiyo what he wanted to hear,” she said. “I was only trying to get you the answers you wanted.”

Gaara’s frown deepened. “So you don’t want to take her back to Konoha with you?”

“Is that what you want?”

He was quiet for a moment, his lips pressed together tersely as he gathered the right words to say. The concern was etched into his features, coloring his eyes brighter. The warm light of the setting sun gilded his hair, already coppery but now rustier, tousled by wind and sand. She repressed the urge to reach out and brush her fingers along his forehead. She could control herself. She would because they had agreed to that and she wasn’t so horny that just the sight of him standing in the sunset could undo her.

“No,” he finally said. “I want her to stay here. I think she belongs here. She and I have a similar power – one I’d like to help her cultivate. I think she’s best suited to stay here and learn what I have to teach.”

Sakura said nothing, watching him with the same concern she found mirrored in his own eyes. She couldn’t disagree with him. How could Sarabi not be better suited for Suna when she now possessed the same power to control sand that the Kazekage did? After all, she was still a native to these lands. This was her home.

“But she doesn’t want that,” Gaara continued. “I cannot force it on her. Besides, the world needs more people like you. You two are already very similar. I can just imagine how troublesome she’ll be after a few years under your tutelage.”

Sakura laughed, encouraged by his grin and the teasing nature of his words.

“Perhaps after she’s learned all she can, she’ll want to come back,” Gaara said softly. Sakura could see the way it broke his heart that Sarabi wanted to leave.

“Do you… do you like her?”

His eyes snapped up to hers, blazing with something fiery and curious. “You mean the way I like you?”

Sakura nodded mutely, not trusting her voice. She shouldn’t have asked such a thing in the first place because there was no acceptable answer to the question. She could internally admit that hearing that Gaara liked another girl would crush her. Maybe not like Sasuke’s rejections had, but it was never pleasant to hear that a boy she was crushing on liked someone else. But if his answer was no…

If his answer was no, then that was all there was to it. It certainly didn’t mean his feelings toward her were amplified in any way. They couldn’t be, because he was the Kazekage and she was a Konoha-nin and these were both things they already knew.

“Baki warned me about hormones,” Gaara said, his voice almost weary, defeated. “I completely disregarded him thinking no one would ever love me, so why would it matter? But in my short time as Kazekage, I have been loved by many. I’ve met men and women alike who adore me, as conceited as I’m sure that sounds. And of course, many of them prompted exactly the reaction Baki warned me they would – Sarabi included.”

Sakura looked down at her feet, her face hot all the way up to the tips of her ears.

“Look at me, Sakura.”

Obediently, Sakura turned her face toward him, red cheeks and all.

“You loved Sasuke,” he continued. “Maybe you still do. Either way, you’ve got experience that I don’t. I don’t know if this is my teenage hormones or a crush or love or whatever else it might be. I think you’re better equipped to answer that question. All I can tell you is that I don’t feel for Sarabi what it is I feel for you.”

“Stop,” she croaked, the word nearly caught in her throat. “You’re making me want to kiss you.”

He smiled, but he also made a noise of sadness with the back of his throat. “I do care about Sarabi,” he said. “If she wants to leave, then I’m glad it is with you because I trust you.”

Sakura smiled at him, but it was weak.

“I know it is selfish, and possibly wrong,” he said, “but I don’t want you to leave either.”

“I think that’s just the hormones talking,” she joked, though neither of them seemed to be in the joking mood.

“Perhaps,” he agreed. “But either way, I believe I know how you feel with Sasuke gone now. I imagine you must miss him a great deal.”

Sakura crossed her arms, shivering against a particularly strong gust of wind. The last drop of sunlight was quickly melting into the dunes, taking the orange glow of the day with it. “I think you’re wrong about me being better equipped to know my feelings,” she replied quietly. “I don’t know what it is I feel for Sasuke. I never kissed him, but I have kissed you and that’s my only frame of reference.”

“Well, I suppose it’s not love,” he said with a grim smile. “Infatuation, perhaps. Hormones, definitely. But more than that, I just enjoy your company.”

“Really?” she laughed. “It seems like I annoy you.”

“You do annoy me.”

She shot a glare in his direction, but then deciding that wasn’t enough, she lunged forward and aimed a light, chakra-less punch at his chest. She expected his wall of sand, or at least an attempt at evasion. Instead, he caught her fist and uncurled it, pressing her palm against his chest just over his heart.

“What does it feel like when I touch you?” he asked. “I wonder if you feel what I feel. I’m always having to suppress the urge to touch you when you’re near.”

Sakura was sure she’d never felt her cheeks get so hot in her entire life. It wasn’t just the frankness of his words, the undiluted honesty that came from never having been in a romantic entanglement of any kind. It was the way she could feel his heartbeat hammering against his ribcage, so quick and heavy that she was sure she could hear it over the whistling winds.

She was positive that if he pressed his hand to her chest he would feel a similar beat, an echo of his own metronome.

“I have to know, Sakura,” he said, his voice low, but also cautious like he was unsure of himself. “Do you feel this electricity when I touch you?”

A little nervous and entirely consumed by her desire to kiss him, she pulled her hand away. “We agreed not to do this, Gaara.”

His eyes were fixed on her neck, pupils dilated as he fixated on something there, something that obviously pleased him judging by the faint smile – not a smirk, but a genuinely dazed smile on his face. She reached her hand up to her throat and felt her pulse, erratic and out of control.

“Is this what Sasuke does to you?” he asked. “Is this why you love him so much? Are you chasing this feeling?”

Sakura shook her head vehemently. “Sasuke never made me feel like this.”

“Feel like what?”

The question enraged her – he knew what the feeling was. He had brought it up himself. But she had to admit that it also turned her on that he wanted her to describe it to him, to say for herself what his touch did to her.

It was wholly inappropriate, though. She would be leaving to go back to Konoha soon and she shouldn’t be mixing herself up in what she thought she had already disentangled herself from. But she could be honest while also pushing him farther away.

“Like I want to jerk off constantly.”

Gaara blinked. His surprise didn’t show in the wideness of his eyes but the subtle clench of his jaw, the way he swallowed and leaned the tiniest bit away from her. “That’s how I make you feel?” he asked.

She didn’t want to answer that. He already knew the answer, he just wanted to confirm, whether for his own ego or some other nefarious purpose, Sakura didn’t know. Gaara didn’t need to know that Sasuke had often made her feel that way, too, like she needed to touch herself to alleviate the pressure, the desire. It was true that she often thought of Sasuke like that, but it had never been reality that made her do it, only her fantasy.

But with Gaara she didn’t have to fantasize, she could just remember the way his lips had felt against hers, the way their bodies had been pressed together in the darkness.

“Look at me,” he commanded.

But this time she didn’t have the courage. She couldn’t raise her eyes to meet his, couldn’t see the desire mirrored in his turquoise eyes. It was too hard, too tempting. Was he trying to crack her, to get her to break for him? Hadn’t he agreed that this was something they absolutely could not do?

She wanted to shake her head, to tell him to fuck off because he was making this very hard and he must have known that.

“I have to go,” she said instead, and took a giant leap up onto the wall before running back to her rooms as quickly as she could.

///

In the safety of her room, Sakura cried, weeping dramatically because it was so unfair that she could feel all these intense emotions and be powerless to do anything about them. It was unfair that Gaara would subject her to such things, that he understood exactly why their tryst was so wrong, yet he taunted and teased her like this anyway.

It was cruel of him to confess those things to her, to allow her to see exactly how much her presence affected him. Would she ever forget the way his beating heart felt under her palm? Was that what he wanted? For her to fall for him and never forget his touch, his kiss?

She could already attest to his pride, his need to beat Sasuke in the race for her heart. It wasn’t like Sasuke was even running, but she could see how thrilled Gaara was at the idea that he could make her forget about Sasuke. He wouldn’t be able to do that, Sakura thought as she clung to her pillow. Sasuke would always have a place in her heart and Gaara had yet to secure that.

He wouldn’t secure it, she corrected herself. He wouldn’t because she wouldn’t allow it, wouldn’t accept that he was going to win this desperate game he had created.

She couldn’t help but think of Sarabi and the way Gaara’s eyes had lingered on her, the way he had admitted to wanting her to stay here in Suna with him. She knew it was an irrational jealousy. She knew Gaara would never attempt anything with her after she had lost everything, including the man she had loved. He could barely even attempt something with Sakura, as inexperienced as he was with these kinds of relationships.

But still, her heart felt shattered, as ridiculous as that sounded coming from someone who had vehemently denied that there was anything going on between her and the esteemed Kazekage in the first place.

With a frustrated groan, Sakura rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling through watery eyes. How much longer would she have to stay in Suna and endure this suffering? Why couldn’t she just leave now? Her part of the mission was over. No one needed her expertise for anything. They were only waiting on Shikamaru and the rest of the investigation. But what if she left now anyway? What if Shikamaru took Sarabi back with him when he was finished? Sakura was surely needed back in Konoha anyway – the hospital had to be sorely missing her presence by now.

She could already tell that the longer she stayed here to let her feelings fester, the more frustrated and bitter she would become. What if she started to fall for him? What if they inadvertently hurt each other in an irreparable way?

With a strengthened resolve, Sakura got to her feet, rubbing furiously at her eyes with her sleeve. She couldn’t allow that.

///

Sakura banged on Gaara’s bedroom door with a ferocity she didn’t even know she had in her. She harnessed it, fueled it, hoping to use it to steel herself against his next possible assault. She wouldn’t let him manipulate her or kiss her or touch her or whatever else it was he might do to reduce her to a quivering bundle of hotly lit nerves.

“Gaara, open up,” she demanded, knocking her fist against the frame of his door.

It was late and she shouldn’t have been knocking on his bedroom door at such an hour. She had only been there once before, when he had shown her the painting. It had been inappropriate to be in his room then, and it was certainly inappropriate to be there now, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She was too desperate to leave and if this was the quickest way to achieve that, so be it.

“Gaara!” she screeched, continuing to pound away at his door.

She heard a shuffling on the other side of the door and what she presumed was a frustrated groan. A moment later, the door swung open.

Gaara stood in the open doorway wearing nothing but a loose pair of pants. His eyes were bleary, his hair tousled, and his expression a mixture of concern and irritation. Seeing him half naked and half annoyed brought another surge of emotion up to her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut to prevent any of the stupid tears that were burning under her eyelids from falling. What the hell was she even crying for? She suddenly felt like such an idiot.

“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. Her eyes were still screwed shut, but she could hear how annoyed he was. She had interrupted his sleep and she knew how precious sleep was to him, how little of it he got on a regular basis. She felt guilty, but this was necessary for her sanity.

She sucked in a breath, but held it until she was sure her voice wouldn’t waver. It was useless, she knew. He could already see that she had been crying – was still crying. But she didn’t want him to hear it in her voice, too.

“Sakura, what’s wrong?”

She exhaled and opened her eyes. She didn’t like hearing the concern in his voice that melted away the frustration she knew he still felt. She didn’t want there to be anything about him she admired or found charming. For a moment she felt that maybe she was being too dramatic. After all, there was hardly anything going on between them at all. Just a few innocent flirtations and a couple of kisses. Why should she get so worked up over something so small?

But she knew herself well enough to recognize the signs or impending doom. She had felt the same way about Sasuke before he had left Konoha. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again – it would be too painful. She needed to extricate herself from the situation as quickly as possible.

“I want to go home,” she said. “Now.”

Gaara’s brow furrowed and he rubbed at his eyes, still wearing a sleepy expression on his face. “Now?” he asked.

Sakura nodded. “Yes, right now.”

He glanced over at the clock beside his bed. “It’s the middle of the night,” he said. “Can’t this wait until morning?”

She shook her head. “Please,” she said. “I have to leave. I just figured I’d tell you instead of trying to sneak out. I’m no good to you anymore anyway. You’re still got Shikamaru. He can take Sarabi back with him when he’s finished here.”

“You can’t go back by yourself, Sakura,” he said. The sleep was fading from his eyes now, but his expression was still hard to read.

“Then I’ll take Hideki-san,” she supplied. “Or Temari.”

“Don’t be selfish, Sakura,” he replied. “I’m not going to wake them up in the middle of the night. If you want to leave so badly, you can at least wait until morning.”

Sakura clenched her jaw and her fists, trying to determine the most tactful words to say to get her what she wanted.

“Is this because of what I said to you earlier?”

She glanced away from him, repressing the fresh wave of tears. She had never felt so stupid in her life.

“Why are you crying?” he asked. It was demanding, but also still somehow soft, which was all the more reason to be annoyed by it. “I’m really sorry,” he continued, “if you’re crying because of me. I never intended to upset you.”

What could she do now? How could she leave after what he had said? He was right, of course. It was selfish to wake up Hideki or Temari in the middle of the night just so she could get away from Gaara. But she still didn’t intend to stay one more night in Suna. It was a risk to her sanity.

“If you tell me why you’re upset, I will do my best to fix it,” he bargained.

“You can’t fix it,” she snapped. “I’m upset because I don’t want to go through what I went through with Sasuke with you. It’s painful and ridiculous and being away from you is the only way to avoid it. It’s too hard to stay here, especially when you say things like you did earlier. And god, you’re fucking half naked now, like this isn’t already hard enough for me.”

“Well, you did come to my bedroom in the middle of the night,” he argued. “I don’t know what you expected.”

Sakura crossed her arms and huffed. Her tears were drying, but they were replaced by burgeoning rage.

“Look, Sakura,” he said. “I understand your frustration. You think I don’t feel it, too? I agree that this is a tempting situation we find ourselves in, but you can’t just leave in the middle of the night.”

“How could you understand my frustration when you were just flirting with me a few hours ago?” she demanded. “We agreed that nothing could happen between us, but then you said all that stuff and it’s just too hard to hear all that and not act on it.”

“I shouldn’t have said that stuff,” he agreed. “I’m new at this, too, you know. Maybe you’re just stronger than I am.”

She didn’t feel stronger than him – not while he seemed so composed and she was still a trembling mess.

“I want to clear up something, though,” he said. “This is nothing like what you had with Sasuke. I reciprocate your feelings, even though I realize I shouldn’t act on them. I understand your pain now, and I will take that into consideration moving forward. I guess I didn’t understand how much this would affect you.”

Sakura looked down at her feet, not knowing how to respond. She wasn’t entirely sure that he had the right idea. It wasn’t the nature of their relationship that made it similar to her situation with Sasuke. It was the fact that neither of them were attainable, that she’d have to pine for them from afar. It didn’t matter that he reciprocated her feelings, even if that made a warm bubble swell in her chest. All that mattered was that it couldn’t be.

“I will arrange to have Hideki take you home first thing in the morning,” he said softly. “You can manage one more night here, can’t you?”

She didn’t think so, but she felt that admitting that would be a tad dramatic. She felt rather foolish for having come all the way to his bedroom in the middle of the night, blathering like an idiot and crying. She probably looked atrocious, soaked in her own tears.

She nodded, too ashamed to meet his gaze even though she was dying to see the look on his face. She didn’t think she couldn’t handle it quite yet.

“I wish you would reconsider,” he said after an awkward moment of silence. “If you still want to leave in the morning, I’ll understand, but I hope you decide to stay.”

“Why?” she demanded. “What’s the point?”

“Come on, Sakura, why are you acting like this?” he asked. “I think you’re being a bit overdramatic. Would it really be so bad to just miss me? You’ve endured much worse. And besides, it’s not like I’m going anywhere. You could always come visit me. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

Her natural instinct told her to snap back at him, but she fought the instinct because she knew he was right. She was being dramatic and there was no reason for it. He didn’t deserve to have her wake him up in the middle of the night to yell at him just because she couldn’t handle her feelings. After all, he was feeling them, too.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”

He huffed with amusement, which was a bit uncalled for. He knew her propensity for sass, so he should have known better than to provoke it – especially after this tortuous conversation.

“It’s okay, Sakura,” he murmured. His tone was entirely too soft and comforting, velvety like a warm blanket she could just cocoon herself in and fall asleep. Perhaps he was aware of the smoothness of his voice, the gentility that seemed to placate her and make her drowsy. When she dared to look back up at his face, she got caught in a detour, her eyes veering instead to the hard muscles of his chest and abdomen, the impossibly unmarred skin there.

She bit her lip apprehensively, curling her fingers into loose fists lest she reach up and touch what was not hers to touch.

“Let me walk you back to your room,” he said. She glanced up at his eyes and found them heavy lidded, though it was obviously not from drowsiness. He had watched her blatantly ogle him, which was her fault and not his, but Sakura couldn’t bring herself to care. She was tired and wanted to go back to bed before things got out of hand again.

“Okay.”

Chapter Text

Gaara had neglected to put on a shirt, but opted instead to throw his Kage robe on over his bare chest. Perhaps it was foolish of her, but Sakura dragged her feet as she walked, prolonging their nearness because once she left in the morning she knew it would be a while before she would see him again.

Even though she felt acutely aware of her own emotional limits, she felt stupid for wanting to leave and wanting to stay by his side at the same time. It was illogical and confusing and she hated having this internal battle with herself over something so small. Was it really that hard to just not kiss him? She could stay, couldn’t she? Just so she could enjoy his company a little longer and not disappoint him?

“You must think I’m an idiot,” she muttered as they pattered down the dim corridor.

“Yeah,” he affirmed.

She reached her hand out to shove him, but thought better of it and retracted her hand. Gaara watched, amusement glinting in his eyes.

“Don’t want to touch me?” he asked.

“I want to touch you too much,” she mumbled bitterly.

Gaara’s smile was warm and affectionate and Sakura felt her resilience wavering. One more kiss wouldn’t hurt… Or maybe she could just reach over and entwine their fingers together. It wasn’t nearly as intense as a kiss, but perhaps it would alleviate some of that desire.

“Have you considered touching yourself?” he asked.

She peered at him through narrowed eyes, trying to determine whether or not he was joking. At first he seemed amused, but the longer she glared at him, the more his expression shifted to something less confident, more bashful. He reached his hand up to rub anxiously at the back of his sleep-tousled hair, exposing more of his chest for her perusal.

“All the time,” she answered, encouraged by his shyness. “I’m sure tonight will be no different.”

Gaara’s eyes widened with surprise. “You do that every night?”

Sakura shrugged. “Is that weird?” she asked, suddenly self-conscious about her libido. She assumed boys would have a higher libido than she had, but maybe that wasn’t necessarily true. Gaara had indicated that self-pleasure wasn’t something he often indulged in, if at all. Maybe she’d had the wrong idea about boys this whole time.

Gaara shook his head. “You’re a surprising person, Sakura,” he said. “I wish you could stay longer so I could get to know you better.”

“You could move to Konoha,” she suggested.

“Of course,” he chuckled. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Sakura slowed her pace even more as they approached her bedroom door. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him yet.

“Sakura,” he said, his voice becoming more serious. “This thing we’re doing… it doesn’t have to be so serious, you know. I don’t want it to be a source of pain for you. It doesn’t have to be painful.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that as long as we have realistic expectations then we don’t have to worry about how hard or painful it might be,” he answered. “We both know that we can’t be together. But being together doesn’t have to be our endgame.”

“What are you suggesting?” she asked with dangerously narrowed eyes.

He turned away from her, his cheeks red and his arms pulled across his chest self-consciously. It was insufferably adorable, but she had an idea of where he was going and she wasn’t so sure she was into the idea.

“You’re going to go into your room and slip under your covers and you’re going to touch yourself while you think about me,” he said, the redness in his cheeks spreading over his entire face, all the way to the tips of his ears. She could see his pulse racing wildly in his neck. His embarrassment belied the arrogance of his words, and she couldn’t contest them because they both knew it was true.

“But would it be that much worse if I was the one touching you?” he asked, his voice hardly above a whisper.

“So you want to fuck me?” she demanded.

“We don’t have to— we don’t have to do that,” he answered. “But like I said before, being near you and touching you… it’s a high I’ve never experienced before. I used to think killing, spilling blood was the most exhilarating feeling in the world. But it doesn’t even come close to the way I felt when you touched my face when we were trapped underground. It may be selfish, but I want to experience as much of that as I can before you leave.”

For all the possible answers he could have given to her question, she couldn’t have been prepared for that.

“But—”

“It’s okay if your answer is no,” he said quickly, with concern that bordered on charming. Of course she could say no. She already knew that. He might be the Kazekage, but he wouldn’t force himself on her and she knew him well enough to know that. “I mean I want you to want it, too.”

“Oh,” she said lamely, wholly unable to process this weird turn of events. This was the exact opposite of what she had wanted, but it sounded so enticing now that he was presenting her with the idea. And he looked so charming fumbling like an idiot for the right words to convince her to fuck him.

And she found herself not needing much convincing because he was right. What difference would it make if she let him touch her instead of doing in herself? Her feelings wouldn’t go away just because he wasn’t next to her. It was just as unhealthy to think of him as it was to let him touch her.

She recognized the mistake she was about to make, but he was standing right in front of her, shirtless and practically begging to be fucked and how could she deny him that when she wanted it so badly too? What if she never got an opportunity like this again? How much would she regret not chasing this high?

“This is going to hurt like hell,” she warned. She didn’t give him a chance to respond before she gripped the collar of his robe and pulled him down into a kiss.

Gaara seemed surprised by her volition, gasping into her mouth as she threw her arms around his neck. She used her strength to pull herself up off the ground, hanging from his shoulders. Instantly his hands were around her waist, holding her up so he could press her up against the door.

It was clear from the shake of his hands and the harshness of his breath that he had no idea what he was doing. Sakura couldn’t tell for sure whether she knew any more than he did – the vast majority of her sexual knowledge came from Kakashi’s collection of perverted books, so perhaps she wasn’t as knowledgeable as she had hoped.

It didn’t matter, though, because she wasn’t too worried about doing things the right way. This was about pleasure, electricity, that high they were both blindly chasing. Who cared if they did things wrong?

Sakura wrapped her legs around his torso and squeezed her thighs tightly, pressing her body as close to his as it could go.

He broke away from her mouth panting desperately as he fought to regain control of the situation. “Not here in the open,” he said.

Sakura nodded in agreement and dropped back to the floor, flinging the door open behind her.

But instead of following her inside, Gaara paused in the doorway, his ears perked. She watched his eyes widen minutely as he listened to something, frozen in place.

“Gaara?” she whispered. “What’s wrong?”

Gaara’s brow furrowed and then his eyes darkened. She watched the grit of his teeth, the way the muscles in his neck and his jaw clenched tightly with repressed rage. Sakura, too, listened to hear whatever it was that was bothering him, but heard nothing but silence in the empty corridor.

“Hey,” she said, reaching for his hand. “What’s the matter?”

Wordlessly, he pointed toward the door across from them. Shikamaru’s door. Sakura strained to hear what was happening on the other side, but she had a feeling she already knew.

“Is Temari in there?” she asked.

Gaara inhaled deeply without saying a word, but the dark expression on his face told her everything she needed to know. She giggled, amused by his rage over something so small.

“Come on,” she said, “you can’t possibly want to deny her the very thing you’re trying to get from me now.”

His eyes bore into hers, sharp, heated, and a little angry.

“You know they really like each other,” she continued. “Don’t be so angry. You’re spoiling the mood. Besides, they’re probably already finished and fast asleep. It’s too late to do anything about it now. Not that you should.”

He glanced back toward Shikamaru’s door, his expression wavering slightly.

“Come here,” she said, linking her hand around his forearm and pulling him over the threshold of the door. “I’ll help you forget all about them.”

He allowed her to pull him inside and shut the door behind them. “You changed your tune pretty quick,” he said, eying her skeptically.

“I was a virgin when I got here, but I don’t want to be one when I leave,” she said pointedly. “With regards to what you said earlier, I’ve lowered my expectations. This is not a romantic relationship and we don’t love each other. But I can’t get you out of my head and I really want to fuck you. And I know you want to fuck me, too.”

“Can you stop saying it like that?” he asked with a scowl.

She laughed. “Like what? Fuck?”

His scowl deepened, but then it turned to a frown before morphing into a look of dejection. His lips curled downward with displeasure as he cast his eyes away from her. “Maybe this is a mistake,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. She couldn’t disagree, but she felt the stab of rejection acutely.

With a resigned sigh, Gaara moved to sit on the foot of her bed, patting the mattress beside him. Sakura obliged, unsure of whether there was really an option.

“I can’t get you out of my head either, Sakura,” he admitted. “And if I can’t do that now, how will I be able to do it after this? After you leave?”

“Oh?” she said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively, trying to brighten the mood that had darkened enough to suck the life right out of the room. “You’re falling in love with me, aren’t you? Can’t say I blame you.”

“Do you think Shikamaru and Temari are in love?”

Sakura shrugged. “Maybe,” she replied. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

“How do they manage it?” he asked, “The distance.”

“One day at a time, I suppose.”

Gaara sighed again and took her hand in his, holding it tightly in his lap. Sakura fixed her gaze on their entwined fingers, watching as he rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. It was soothing, but also a little exhilarating in its intimacy – a closeness she hadn’t really shared with anyone else before. Perhaps she had been wrong about holding hands being less intimate than a kiss.

“Sakura, I don’t want to fuck you,” he said. She frowned. “I mean I do,” he said quickly, seeing the look on her face. “Just not like this. Being near you is enough, I think.”

Sakura nodded, because she, like him, would never pressure him into doing something he didn’t want to do. And they both seemed to recognize that this was a mistake. An enticing one, but a mistake nonetheless.

“Okay,” she conceded. “But will you stay here with me for a little bit?”

He laughed. “I thought you wanted to get away from me.”

“Only so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch you,” she argued. “But now you’ve rejected me, so I’m not worried about it anymore.”

“I didn’t reject you,” he said dryly. “I retracted an offer that I made in the first place.”

“Fine, Gaara-sama. Whatever you say.”

They were silent for a moment. His grip on her hand tightened and she couldn’t look away from it, entranced by the way just the stroke of his thumb over her finger was sending butterflies whirling about in her stomach.

“Is your skin this soft because you’re a medic?” he asked softly, the casual tone of his voice returning to keep the mood light.

“No, it’s because I’m a girl.”

The silence felt almost deafening now. It was a little awkward to sit there not knowing what to do. If they weren’t going to sleep together, were they just going to sit here and uneasily stare at one another?

“I hope you don’t take this offensively,” he said after a second, “but if I had known all this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have requested you for this mission.”

“Yes, the sand beast and the catacombs were quite a surprise,” she agreed, “and a little outside my area of expertise.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“So what did you mean?” she asked, already knowing the answer, but wanting to hear him say it out loud.

“I hadn’t factored your horniness into the equation,” he said dryly, “and even if I had, I couldn’t have predicted it would affect me so deeply. All those pent up feelings you’ve harbored for Sasuke seem to have translated to an unslakable lust. I wrongly assumed that this lack of genuine affection for me would make it easier for me to keep my distance, but unfortunately I find myself not caring that Sasuke is the one you prefer.”

“I have plenty of affection for you, dipshit.”

He glared at her, but its intensity was muted by the way he continued to stroke his thumb over her finger. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Sakura stopped him before he could.

“What kind of fool would I be to prefer Sasuke over you?” she asked. She knew exactly why he would think that, and Sakura wasn’t so sure that if she was presented with both a Gaara and a Sasuke that wanted her equally that she would legitimately choose Gaara over her childhood crush. But that wasn’t what she was presented with. She was hardly presented with either of them at all – one a missing-nin whose annoyance with her was infinite, and the other a foreign Kage with far too much on his plate to have time for the likes of her.

“Don’t lie right to my face, Sakura,” he said. His thumb froze, but he kept his fingers curled around hers.

“So you think I’ll do this forever?” she demanded. “Pine after Sasuke and never move on? Do you think Sasuke will change his mind about me or do you suppose I’ll just be alone forever?”

“Sakura, that’s not—”

“Why do you have such an obsession with my relationship with Sasuke, anyway?” she interrupted.

“Because you have an obsession with him,” he growled. “You know I’m not particularly fond of him, but I am fond of you and I don’t want to compete with him for you. I’ve been denied enough love for a lifetime. I don’t need my first attempt at it to be a loss before it’s even started.”

She was stunned into silence by his harsh words, enraged a little that he would think of her as a prize to compete with Sasuke over. But she was also sympathetic because she couldn’t deny the nature of her relationship with Sasuke, and he wasn’t wrong to fear rejection or the loss of love.

“Look, Sakura,” he began, taking her other hand and pulling it into his lap. “Whatever is happening here, I know it isn’t serious. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt and I know you know that, too. I’m not emotionally equipped to deal with this kind of loss right now, and that’s why I think this is a mistake. But that doesn’t change the fact that I still… I still like being around you. And I still want to kiss you all the time.”

Sakura swallowed, repressing a sudden swell of emotion in her chest that threatened to spill tears if she couldn’t keep it under control.

“I wish I could have a genuine shot with you,” he said, his tone a little softer. He resumed stroking her hand, but Sakura pulled her hands back into her own lap, sure she couldn’t handle those ministrations again. “But I can’t. Not when we’re so far apart.”

“A three day journey isn’t really that far,” she said, the lightness of her tone belying the heaviness in her heart.

Gaara let out a short, sardonic laugh.

“I’m serious,” she said with a scowl. “Temari and Shikamaru seem to be handling it just fine.”

“Sure,” he agreed, “that might be working for now. But eventually, they’ll want to be closer together. What if they want to get married? One of them will have to move.”

“Who said anything about marriage?” she asked. “I get that you’re the Kazekage and you can’t just have casual flings, but we can be casual without being a fling.”

“We’re already well past casual,” he said dryly.

“That’s only because you’re so dramatic,” she said teasingly.

Gaara cracked a smile because they both knew she was the dramatic one and in spite of all their uncertainty about things, at least they could recognize things for what they were.

She didn’t want to argue anymore, or whatever it was that made this conversation so terse and weird, so with a sigh she laid her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. She felt him tense up beside her, which she found so strange after she had literally had her legs wrapped around his waist and her tongue in his mouth just moments ago. But then after a moment he relaxed and rested his cheek against the top of her head.

“You must be exhausted,” he murmured.

She hummed her agreement and shifted a little closer to him. His warmth was comforting, as was the timbre of his voice and in spite of what he thought, she did have a huge amount of affection for him that made her feel soothed by his presence. She could easily imagine herself lulled to sleep as he stroked her hand with his thumb.

“Come on,” he said softly, shifting his arm behind her until she was cradled in the nook of his arm. “You should get some sleep. You’ve got a long journey ahead of you tomorrow.”

Sakura didn’t protest, even though she had already decided she wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. She let him help her ease back into the bed, her head falling unceremoniously onto the silk covered pillow.

“Goodnight, Sakura,” he said, brushing the hair away from her face.

“No, you said you’d stay with me,” she said, sitting back up to reach out for him.

“Did I?”

She pouted, crossing her arms with an exaggerated huff. When his only response to her hissy fit was a raised brow, Sakura grabbed his arm and dragged him back over to the bed. She pushed him down against the mattress, and he let her, though he seemed displeased.

“This seems like a bad idea,” he mumbled.

“Shush,” she said, joining him on the mattress and laying her head against his chest. “Just until I go to sleep.”

He didn’t respond, though Sakura knew he probably wasn’t too into this idea. But a second later she felt his palm come to rest on her lower back and he pulled the covers up over them both.

“Goodnight, Gaara.”

“Goodnight, Sakura.”

///

The next morning Sakura woke up to an empty bed, though she could feel that the spot next to her was still warm so Gaara couldn’t have left too long ago. She sat there unmoving, wondering whether last night had been a mistake. She had been a tad abrasive and dramatic, and the guilt felt a lot like a hangover. She could feel her head pounding and her chest heavy with regret.

Groggily, she rolled out of bed and quickly dressed herself. She was at a loss for what to do with herself now. She had planned on leaving, but now she wasn’t so sure she wanted to. Besides, what would Sarabi think if Sakura just left her here?

Deciding it would probably be in her best interest to head down to the infirmary to help out where she would be the most appreciated, Sakura flung open her bedroom door only to find Hideki waiting for her on the other side, propped against the opposing wall with a somewhat smug look on his face.

“Nothing going on, eh?”

“Shut up,” she grumbled, pulling her door shut behind her.

“Come on,” he said, his voice gentle, but the smirk on his face unmistakably amused at her expense. “I’m going to take you home.”

“I’m not going home,” she replied. “I’m going to the infirmary.”

“Are you injured?”

She gave him a dry look.

“Gaara-sama gave me strict orders to make sure you got back to Konoha in one piece,” he said, scratching his head with confusion. “He said that’s what you wanted.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s in his office with Taiyo and Sarabi.”

With an irritated groan, she sidled past him and began making her way down the corridor toward Gaara’s office.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “You need to pack your things.”

“I’m not leaving, Hideki,” she called over her shoulder.

She heard him rushing to catch up with her, and was prepared to shrug him off if he attempted to stop her, but he merely walked alongside her, seeming to sympathize with her judging by the consoling look on his face.

“He wasn’t even going to say goodbye,” she said. “He just sent you to collect me and drop me off in Konoha like a parcel to be delivered.”

Hideki looked apologetic on Gaara’s behalf, but it didn’t make Sakura feel any better. “You and I are both aware that it’s rude to sleep with someone and not speak to them after,” he said, “but Gaara-sama is new to all this and he probably doesn’t realize that he hurt your feelings.”

“We didn’t sleep together,” she snapped. “Well, we slept, but we didn’t have sex. Besides, I’m new to all this, too, and I wouldn’t have done that to him.”

He looked like he didn’t believe her, and Sakura didn’t really blame him. It was a fool’s errand to try to convince him that there was nothing going on between her and the Kazekage now. But by now that was likely true, regardless of what Hideki thought or how Sakura felt. If Gaara was just shipping her back to Konoha like a toy he was finished with, then it must be the case that nothing was going on between them. At least not anymore.

“So you’re going to confront him?” Hideki asked.

Sakura nodded, feeling a slow rage building up in her chest. Gaara had been the one to ask her to reconsider, to stay until Shikamaru was ready to leave. He had practically begged her to fuck him and then changed his mind and Sakura had never felt more confused in her life. She would honestly have preferred an outright rejection like Sasuke’s to whatever sticky, hellish mess this was.

“Maybe you should take a minute to calm down first,” Hideki said, seeing the fury that had her jaw clenched and her face darkened. “We can have a rematch so you can take out some of that anger before you talk to him. And you can think about what you want to say.”

Sakura stopped walking, considering what Hideki said. She had no idea what she would say to him, only that she was angry and wanted to vent. But that was exactly what was making her feel guilty, even underneath all the anger she felt. She didn’t need to yell at Gaara, she needed to figure out what she wanted so she could tell him with no uncertainty and get rid off all her confliction and anxiety.

“I’ll help you, Sakura-san,” Hideki said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Whatever you need.”

She glanced over at him, her brow furrowed. “You’re being awfully nice to me, Hideki-san,” she said suspiciously. “Isn’t that a little outside of the purview of your duties?”

“My job is to serve Gaara-sama,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “Whatever is in your best interest is in his best interest as well. Besides, I kind of like you. You’re funny and you keep me on my toes.”

Sakura crossed her arms, tapping her toe as she decided whether or not what he was saying made any sense.

“Come on,” he urged. “We can go back out to the oasis. The weather is nice and sparring isn’t a bad way to start the morning. If after we’re done you’ve decided you still want to leave, I’ll take you straight back to Konoha. And if you decide you want to stay or say something to Gaara-sama, I’ll help you figure out what to say.”

“What makes you think I’d share that kind of thing with you?” she demanded.

Hideki shrugged. “Who else would you be able to talk to about this?” he asked.

He had a good point, Sakura thought. But she still wasn’t sure she felt comfortable discussing something like that with Hideki. He wasn’t really her friend so much as a glorified bodyguard. He had already admitted that Gaara was his primary concern, so she couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t spill everything she said back to him.

But the look of concern on his face seemed genuine enough, and Sakura was feeling a little bit desperate at this point.

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s start with a spar and we’ll see after that.”

Chapter Text

Sakura sulked as Hideki led her back to the oasis, grinning like an idiot over his second victory.

“You know the only reason I beat you is because you’re distracted,” he said, though it didn’t mollify her much when he kept that smug look permanently adhered to his face. “That chakra-enhanced strength of yours is truly something else. I’d love to see the devastation you’d inflict on an actual enemy.”

Sakura glared at him, in a worse mood now than she was when she had woken up. She had certainly been distracted – she couldn’t stop thinking about the way Gaara’s body had felt underneath hers as she’d drifted off to sleep in his arms. She had never shared a bed like that with anyone before, and it had felt so comfortable, so secure and safe to be cradled by him all night.

So why did he have to go and ruin all those good feelings by being an ass today?

“Have you thought about what you want to say to Gaara-sama?” he asked as they found a place to sit underneath one of the fan palms near the edge of the water.

“I’m not sure there’s really anything to say,” she complained. “It’s not like anything can happen between us. Maybe just going home is the best option.”

Hideki cocked his head curiously. “Why can’t anything happen between you?” he asked. “It’s clear the two of you have great chemistry.”

“My place is in Konoha and his is in Suna.”

“That doesn’t seem to matter to Shikamaru-san and Temari-san,” he argued.

Sakura gave him an incredulous look. “You know about them?”

“Everyone knows about them.”

Sakura sighed and leaned back against the trunk of the tree, letting her eyes fall shut. “It’s not just the distance. He’s the Kazekage.”

“Why should that make a difference?” he asked. “It’s not like he would ask something of you that you aren’t willing to give. Gaara-sama is kind and generous. I’m sure he’ll work with you on whatever you’re concerned about.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you want us to be together?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be an impartial party instead of pushing me one way or the other?”

“Sorry, Sakura-san,” he laughed, “I’m not impartial. I like seeing Gaara-sama so worked up over you. At least I do now that I’ve gotten to know you a little better.”

“That’s a bit cruel, don’t you think?” she asked. “Gaara’s heart is probably more fragile than most.”

“Better to have loved and lost, right?”

Sakura wasn’t sure she agreed. “We’re not in love,” she argued.

“Not yet, anyway.”

She gave him a wry look, but the sincerity on his face deflated her a little.

“I thought whatever was going on between us was purely physical,” she said with a sigh. “I can’t help them I find him really attractive. I didn’t really expect him to reciprocate the feeling.”

Hideki was silent in response, and Sakura didn’t blame him. He had really gone above and beyond to help her figure things out, but this wasn’t really something he could help with. And he probably shouldn’t help her, anyway – this was between her and Gaara.

“I think I’m going to go pack,” she said to him. “Maybe some time back at home will give me more clarity. Will you meet me at the gates in an hour?”

Hideki frowned, but after a moment he nodded.

///

With her pack hitched high up on her shoulders and nervous trembling in her fingers, Sakura made her way to Gaara’s office to tell him goodbye before she met Hideki at the gates. He might not have felt it appropriate to say it to her this morning, but she didn’t feel comfortable just leaving without some sort of finality.

So in spite of the nausea brewing in her stomach, Sakura knocked sharply at his door. She heard him say something, though it was muffled by the door. She opened it anyway and found him sitting with his head in his hands, buried beneath various files and scrolls that were piled precariously on his desk.

He looked up at the sound of his door opening and blinked. His face was unnaturally pale and his eyes were dark, rimmed by purplish shadows.

“Sakura… I thought you left this morning.”

“I’m actually leaving now,” she replied, proud of herself for the lack of trembling in her voice. “I just wanted to say goodbye first.”

Gaara stood up and Sakura was pleased by the worried expression on his face, the nervousness that seemed to seep from his pores. He took his lower lip between his teeth as he circumvented his desk, moving closer to her, but still well out of arm’s reach.

“The only storm in this region is moving away from you, so the weather should be fairly nice for your journey,” he said. His uncertainty was palpable and Sakura almost wanted to just bolt now and put him out of his misery. Saying goodbye was obviously not something he felt comfortable doing or he would have done it this morning before he left her bed.

“If only I could teleport back to Konoha and skip the journey entirely,” she said with a tight-lipped smile.

Gaara seemed flustered and not amused by her casual joking. She shouldn’t have been so annoyed knowing that he was just as inexperienced with this sort of thing as she was, but she had half expected a proper goodbye. It seemed that this was the best he could give her and she wasn’t going to fault him for it – not when she was secretly flattered by his apprehension.

“Well, I should get going,” she stammered. “Hideki-san is waiting for me by the gates.”

Gaara nodded curtly. He made no move to approach her – not for a hug or a kiss, nor did he even curl his lips up in a smile. A little awkwardly, he thrust his hand out, extending his arm for a handshake. Sakura eyed his hand skeptically, but seeing that this was the best goodbye she was going to get, she grasped his hand and gave it a firm shake.

“Goodbye, Gaara-sama.”

“Bye, Sakura.”

///

Sakura tried not to let her mind drift to Gaara while she trudged through the sand. The blistering sun was enough of a distraction, at least for the first few hours as Sakura did her best to stay hydrated and keep her skin covered, protected from the brutal rays. Eventually, her mind always found its way back to him, unable to cast out the unnerved way she felt about the whole situation.

Hideki was mostly silent save for an occasional joke or comment here and there. He seemed to understand Sakura preferred silence and allowed her to stew in her own thoughts as they made their way to Konoha.

But by late afternoon, Sakura no longer wanted to be miserable in her silence.

“Tell me something about you I don’t know, Hideki-san,” she said.

Hideki peered at her through his head cloth, nothing but his eyes visible to her underneath the length of his garment. He slowed his pace and moved closer to her so that they were walking side by side.

“What do you want to know, Sakura-san?”

She shrugged. “Tell me why you wanted to become a shinobi.”

Hideki was silent for a moment while he mulled over his answer. When he turned back to face her, there was a crinkle in his eyes that denoted a smile. “I wanted to make my father proud,” he answered, “and I wanted to be able to protect him and my mother and sister.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She’s ten,” he replied, “and she wants to be a kunoichi, too. Although her reasons are a little different than mine.”

Sakura raised an inquisitive brow.

“She’s boy crazy,” he explained, “and apparently there are a ton of cute boys at the academy this year.” Sakura chuckled, because she could certainly understand that. She was fairly sure she hadn’t quite outgrown that stage of her adolescence yet, if this trip was any indication. “Truthfully,” he continued, “I think Gaara-sama is the object of her affection. You’d be surprised by the amount of girls at the academy who are head over heels for him. Or maybe you wouldn’t be.”

Sakura glared at him, dismissing his teasing grin.

“I’m joking, of course,” he said in a weak attempt to mollify her, “but Gaara-sama has legitimately inspired a lot of people to join the shinobi ranks. It’s nice to see him so respected and admired after everything he’s been through.”

Sakura clenched her jaw and looked up at the sky, looking for any kind of distraction. Gaara was the last person she wanted to think about.

“Come on now, Sakura,” he said after seeing the tense look on her face. “It can’t be that bad just to hear his name.”

“It isn’t,” she lied.

His narrowed eyes told her he didn’t believe her.

“Did he give you the farewell you wanted?”

“I got a very pleasant goodbye handshake,” she answered bitterly.

Hideki snickered into his hand. She sent a harsh glare in his direction, already regretting that he was the one escorting her instead of Temari. She knew for certain that Temari wouldn’t tease her about Gaara like this.

“You know I never thought I’d see the day when Gaara-sama found himself smitten with a beautiful girl,” he said. “I also never expected I’d spend so much time with said girl.”

“He’s not smitten,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“Oh, you don’t know Gaara-sama well enough if you really think that,” he replied. “Perhaps this distance will be a good thing for both of you. It isn’t good for him to be so distracted while he has Taiyo and Sarabi-chan to deal with.”

Sakura grunted her acknowledgment, inclined to agree. She couldn’t attest to Gaara’s feelings, but she welcomed some time apart. She needed to clear her head of him and think things over. Distance would give her the clarity she needed. And hopefully, once she came to her senses, she’d already be right where she needed to be – in Konoha.

“I’m sorry, Sakura-san. We don’t have to talk about Gaara-sama anymore.”

“I don’t mind talking about Gaara-sama,” she insisted. Again, he did not look like he believed her.

“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your Hokage?” he suggested.

Sakura grinned. Where to begin, she thought.

///

By the time the sun had begun to dip below the horizon, Sakura had talked off Hideki’s ear, regaling him with tales of Tsunade’s crazy antics and her adventures with Team 7. If at any point during her chatter Hideki grew bored, he showed no signs of it.

They set up camp in amicable silence, and though Sakura still felt slightly uneasy about the whole Gaara situation, she was comfortable enough to feel relaxed as she and Hideki hunkered down at the base of a dune and took some time to enjoy the peace and quiet before sleeping.

“I’ve never really been a fan of the desert,” Sakura said, “but it’s grown on me after this trip. It has a certain charm to it.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Suna, Sakura-san,” Hideki replied with a warm smile.

“You should spend a few days in Konoha once we get there,” she suggested. “I can show you around. Konoha has its own charm.”

“I’m sure it does, Sakura-san, but Gaara-sama gave me strict orders to return immediately,” he said. “There’s just a lot going on right now in the village.”

“Not even for one night?”

Hideki laughed. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’d taken a liking to me,” he joked. He was right, though, and Sakura felt a surge of affection for him.

“Don’t get a big head,” she warned.

“Okay, Sakura-san,” he said with a grin. “Maybe just one night.”

She grinned back at him.

///

A couple of days later, the pair arrived in Konoha. Hideki had stayed for one night, eventually giving in to Sakura’s adamant demands. She had showed him around Konoha, introduced him to Naruto and Ino, and sent him on his way the next morning.

Life returned to normal for Sakura. She kept her rigorous hours at the hospital, trained with Tsunade, and even took a handful of missions with Naruto. She didn’t let her mind drift to Gaara, or even Sasuke in that time. She didn’t want to forget, but she wasn’t quite ready to remember either. She recognized her infatuation for what it was – something temporary, a pain to be dealt with and moved on from.

She thought she did a good job of hiding her budding feelings for the Kazekage. Naruto and Tsunade both were unsuspecting, asking no probing questions.

It was Ino who proved to be Sakura’s demise.

The two of them sat perched on high stools at a bar, sipping beers and eyeing the risk-free, vanilla civilian boys that were constantly trying to catch their attention.

“I think something might be wrong with me,” Ino said, flicking her blonde ponytail over her shoulder. “I’m starting to find Kiba attractive.”

Sakura peered with amusement at her best friend, glad to find herself back in her company. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed her, and being back at a bar with her was comforting.

“Hey, Kiba’s not unattractive,” Sakura replied. “He’s just a dumbass.”

“True,” Ino responded, “but he can be kind of sweet sometimes.”

“I thought you were still hung up on Sai.”

Ino shook her head before downing the last bit of beer from her bottle. “Nah, he’s too much work,” she said. “He’s great an all, but his social skills need help that is far beyond my level of expertise.”

Sakura shrugged and finished her own beer. She was used to Ino’s fickle romances by now, but she wondered whether Ino really, truly liked any of the guys she found herself with. Sakura had found it hard enough to move on from Sasuke even when there was another perfectly acceptable replacement right in front of her. Ino seemed to move on from guys like they were outfits for her to try on.

“Hey, you haven’t mentioned Sasuke once since you got back from Suna,” Ino said, her voice teasing, but also vaguely accusatory. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up on him.”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to talk about Sasuke.”

Ino swiveled on her chair, her eyes wide as she now refocused every ounce of her attention on Sakura. “Am I hearing this right? Sakura Haruno doesn’t want to talk about Sasuke?” she demanded. “What gives?”

“I’ve just moved on, that’s all,” Sakura replied defensively. “Who knows when I’ll ever seen him again, and even if I do, it’s not like his feelings toward me have changed. He doesn’t love me and he never will. There’s no point in getting hung up on him. There are too many other great guys out there.”

Ino squealed with delight and leaned in closer, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “So there’s another guy?” she asked. “Who is it? Tell me!”

“No, Ino, there’s no other guy.”

“Don’t lie to me, you fool,” Ino sassed. “I know you better than that. The only way for you to have gotten over Sasuke is if you got under somebody else. Now spill or I’ll have to drag it out of you.”

“Knock it off, Ino,” Sakura said irritably as she flagged down the bartender for another beer.

“I’m serious,” she insisted. “Come on, are you really over Sasuke now? You’ve been pining after him since you were twelve.”

“I’ve decided it’s in my best interest to move on,” Sakura said calmly. If she showed Ino how irritated she was, it would on spur her on more.

Ino’s roving eye was suspicious, and Sakura felt nervous under her gaze. But after a moment, Ino sighed and placed a comforting hand on Sakura’s shoulder. “If that’s true, then I’m really happy for you,” she said. “It means we can pick up civilian boys together now.”

In spite of herself, Sakura grinned. That didn’t sound like a bad idea.

///

Two weeks after Hideki left for Suna, he arrived back in Konoha with Sarabi in tow. She kept her eyes wide and her face turned up toward the sky at nearly every waking moment, taking in the new landscape, the trees, the intense greenness of everything. Sakura smiled brightly when she greeted them at the village gates, delighted by Sarabi’s wonder and excited to see Hideki again.

“Sakura, this place is amazing!” Sarabi breathed, rushing to pull the pinkette into a hug. “You didn’t do it justice at all!”

Sakura laughed as she pressed her cheek against Sarabi’s. “Welcome home, Sarabi,” she said. She turned to Hideki, allowed her grin to widen as he raked his gaze over her, checking to see the state of her, no doubt, to return to Gaara with the knowledge that both Sakura and Sarabi were safe and sound.

“Hideki-san,” she began, “will you be staying with us another night?”

“I’m afraid not, Sakura-san,” he said with a wry grin of his own. “I have another mission so I need to head back to Suna straight away.”

“Don’t let Gaara-sama overwork you,” she warned.

“I won’t, Sakura-san.”

She gave him a quick hug and watched him immediately disappear back through the trees. She really thought it was better for him to have stayed and rested for the night before he headed back, but Hideki was smart and capable so she trusted he would be fine.

Sakura spent the rest of the day showing Sarabi around Konoha. They ate at Ichiraku’s and spent some time wandering through the civilian district. Eventually, Sakura brought her to the Hokage tower and introduced her to Tsunade.

The Hokage had been warmer than usual, happy to see Sakura with a new student. Sarabi seemed enthused by Tsunade, much to Sakura’s relief. She had worried that her mentor’s harsh demeanor could be off-putting, but Sakura was delighted to see them both get along with one another.

It wasn’t until the pair showed up at Naruto’s apartment that Sakura felt Sarabi had been truly welcomed to Konoha.

“Sakura-chan, what are you doing here?” he asked when he answered his door. Seeing Sarabi peering around Sakura’s shoulder, his eyes widened and a slow grin spread across his face. “Is this Sarabi?”

Sakura’s grin mirrored his own as she nodded.

“Sarabi-chan!” he exclaimed, pulling the surprised girl into a hug. “I’ve heard so much about you? You’re going to be Sakura-chan’s student? She’s the best medic-nin out there, so you’re definitely in good hands. Where are you going to be living? Have you guys eaten dinner yet?”

“Slow down, Naruto,” Sakura laughed. “Aren’t you going to invite us in or should we just stand out here all night?”

He laughed as he ushered them inside. They spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other. Sakura was happy to see Naruto getting along with Sarabi and she had a good feeling about having her as an apprentice.

After spending all night with Naruto, Sarabi and Sakura headed back to Sakura’s apartment, feeling exhausted, but happy. Sakura showed Sarabi to the room she had prepared in advance for her. It was a temporary solution, she told her. Eventually, once she had adjusted to life in Konoha she could get her own place.

“Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me, Sakura,” Sarabi said, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. “After everything that happened back in Suna, I never thought I’d feel whole again, but it’s nice to know I can always rely on you and Gaara-sama. I only hope I can repay you for your kindness someday.”

Feeling like she would cry herself if she didn’t somehow staunch Sarabi’s tears, Sakura waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it, Sarabi,” she said. “We’re all so glad that you’re here. Now go on and get some sleep. We’ll start your training in the morning.”

“Okay,” she said, taking a step back into her room, “but before you go, Gaara-sama asked me to give something to you.”

Sakura watched as Sarabi reached into her pack and procured a sealed enveloped, the white paper marred by the Kazekage’s bright red wax seal. She pressed the envelope into Sakura’s hands and gave her a warm smile. “Goodnight, Sakura.”

“Goodnight.”

///

Sakura sat cross-legged on her bed, holding her pillow tightly in her lap. The envelope sat perched atop her pillow, blinding her with its brightness. She was conflicted, unsure of whether or not to open it now and read it. She was certain whatever the contents of the envelope were would ruin all the work she’d done to forget about Gaara, but that didn’t make the prospect of opening it any less enticing.

But she knew herself well enough to know that she would eventually open it or die of curiosity, so she decided to rip off the bandaid and open it now.

She lifted the wax seal from the paper and peered inside at the contents of the envelope. She pulled out the letter inside, bringing with it a slew of sand. Sakura grimaced and wiped it away from her lap, but it clung to her pillow before gathering into a neat pile the size of a marble and hovered in the air near her head.

Curiously, Sakura touched it with the tip of her finger. The sand spread apart before joining itself together in a ball again. Somewhat hesitantly, she dragged her eyes away from it and back down to the letter in her hands.

 

Dear Sakura,

I’m glad to hear that you’ve made it safely back to Konoha. Though I’m sure you’re happier now that you’re home, you should know that your presence is sorely missed here in Suna. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent most nights since you left thinking of you. Regardless of whatever happens between us, I want you to know how grateful I am to you that you could even think of me as someone to love and I appreciate everything you did for us during your time here in Suna.

Taiyo decided to stay here in Suna and become a scholar. He’s begun learning a thorough history of our village and seems enthusiastic about it. I believe his actions are somewhat inspired by you, seeing how much Sarabi wanted to learn from you. His goal is to become a teacher at the academy. I’m still wary of him, but I’m pleased with his progress so far. He believes that Sarabi will want to come back to Suna one day, which is why I believe he’s so adamant on staying here. I’m not sure he realizes how susceptible Sarabi will be to your charm.

She’s not the only one, of course. Temari and Kankuro send their regards. Now that you’re gone, Temari has loosened up enough to admit that she actually quite enjoyed taking baths with you. Kankuro says next time you visit you’ll have to give him a taste of that experience. Crass as it is, I understand his sentiment.

By now I’m sure you’ve noticed the sand I’ve sealed in the envelope. The sand is from my personal collection. I wish I could say it does something interesting, but without my presence it’s mostly just for show. Unless you close it inside something, it will always stay near you. Perhaps this was inappropriate to give you as it denotes intimacy that we’ve not shared before, but I wanted you to have it. We’ve built our friendship on inappropriateness, so it seems oddly appropriate for you to have it.

Stay safe, Sakura. And visit Suna again soon.

Cordially,

Gaara of the Sand

 

Sakura blinked away the tears she felt forming in her eyes, ignoring them as they fell down onto the letter, smearing the black ink. The ball of sand hovered near her face, wavering slightly. It almost looked like it was peering at her, understanding her somehow. She wondered if what Gaara said was true about it being benign. She knew Gaara well enough to know it could do more than just stay near her, but she didn’t really mind.

She couldn’t deny feeling both elated and heartbroken by his letter. She could already tell that getting over Gaara would hurt much worse than getting over Sasuke. But she wasn’t so sure she wanted to anyway.

She reached over and yanked the chain on the lamp beside her bed, casting darkness over her room. She leaned back against her headboard, hugging Gaara’s letter to her chest. She couldn’t see the sand anymore, but she could hear its gritting movement beside her and it reminded her of the nights in Suna when she fell asleep listening to the sounds of the raging storms.

It helped lull her to sleep, carrying her into dreams of red hair, turquoise eyes, and impossibly tender kisses.

Chapter Text

Gaara stood at the top of the guard tower, scowling with displeasure. He crossed his arms over his broad chest, watching the winds roll over the dunes. Behind him he could hear the bustling in the marketplace. The festivities roiled below. A band played live music behind the distant chatter and cheers that somehow managed to reach him as high up as he was.

“You should stop pouting,” said the dark haired man beside him. “It’s undignified.”

Gaara uncrossed his arms and glanced over at the man who had become a close confidant and friend over the last three years. He was leaning back against the guard rail, his expression amused. Gaara wished he could share in his delight, but he was in no mood for celebrating.

“What are you doing up here, Hideki?” Gaara asked. “Shouldn’t you be down there celebrating with everyone else?”

“Shouldn’t you?”

Gaara scowled deeper, re-crossing his arms.

“Oh, just be happy for your sister,” Hideki said, rolling his eyes. “She’s getting married. What is there to be upset about?”

“She’s leaving Suna,” Gaara supplied. “Why should I be happy about that?”

“Because she’s happy and you should want that for her because you’re a good brother,” Hideki said. “Besides, Sarabi is coming back today. Aren’t you excited?”

Gaara was not excited about that, but he didn’t say as much to Hideki. Truthfully, he was a bit nervous to see the girl again after so long. They had hardly known each other when she left to go to Konoha to be Sakura’s apprentice. She was essentially a stranger to him.

“You must at least be excited to see Sakura again,” Hideki said when Gaara didn’t respond.

Gaara grunted his acknowledgement of the statement, but had nothing to add to it. It had been years since he had seen Sakura. In the interim, he had found himself a girlfriend (at the council’s request) – a girl named Matsuri, who adored him a little too much. Their relationship had been brief, but affectionate. Ultimately Matsuri had decided that being with the Kazekage was too much pressure. Gaara had to admit that he was relieved when she broke up with him. He liked her, of course, but having a girlfriend was much more work than he thought it would be. He rather liked being alone instead.

He was as nervous to see Sakura as he was to see Sarabi. Would things be awkward between them after so much time apart? How much had she changed in the last three years?

“Gaara-sama?”

Gaara dragged his eyes away from the dunes to glance back over at Hideki.

“You’re not going to be this surly when Team 7 arrives, are you?” he asked cautiously. “I don’t want your bad mood to spoil Sarabi’s view of Suna. She’ll take one look at that frown and want to go straight back to Konoha.”

Gaara groaned in irritation, but he was secretly worried about the same thing. What if Sarabi loved being in Konoha too much and decided that she was better off there?

“I’ll try to be in a better mood by then,” he said dryly.

///

He was not in a better mood by then. He stood at the village gates with Temari on his right and Kankuro on his left. He had spotted the squad of Konoha shinobi from his perch on the guard tower and begrudgingly come down to meet them. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see them, but rather that he knew it was only a matter of time now before his sister was taken away from him.

“Cheer up, Gaara,” Temari said, elbowing him in the ribs. “Your girlfriend is coming back.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he grumbled. He had hardly spoken Sakura’s name for the last three years in the hopes that everyone who knew about their tryst would have forgotten about it. It seemed that neither Hideki nor Temari would be able to let it go, though.

Gaara gave a side glance to his sister, catching her profile as she gazed out toward the traveling foreigners. Her cheeks were tinged pink and a warm grin spread across her face. It was refreshing to see her happy for once. Her usual grouchiness wasn’t indicative of her mood most of the times. Gaara realized it was a way to keep stress at bay – to hold people at arm’s length. As upset as he was that she was leaving Sun to marry Shikamaru, he couldn’t deny that he was pleased by how happy she seemed.

“You don’t have to leave, you know,” he said to her. “I’m sure you could convince Shikamaru to move to Suna.”

“We’ve been over this, Gaara,” she said, glancing at him for a brief second. “I’m moving to Konoha and that’s final. It’s not like we’ll never see each other. Besides, you’re getting Sarabi in exchange. Suna needs a medic of her caliber.”

“I’d rather have you.”

“Don’t say that in front of Sarabi,” Kankuro said. Gaara looked over at his brother, who seemed much less affected by his sister’s impending absence. “Come on, admit you’re at least a little excited to have her back here. Hopefully those damn Konoha-nin didn’t teach her how to wear proper clothes.”

Gaara and Temari both shot him withering looks.

“Is she here yet?” asked a voice behind them.

The trio turned to face the man approaching from behind. His milky eyes were wider than usual. He had neatened his hair into a low ponytail, wisps of which smoked away from his face in the breeze. Taiyo was a typical, grouchy old man, but today he wore a smile and just the barest hint of excitement on his wrinkled face.

“See for yourself,” Gaara said, pointing off to the shinobi running toward them. By now they could see the brightness of Sakura’s pink hair against the sandy dunes. It sent a sharp pang through Gaara’s chest. He tried not to think of what exactly that pang was.

“Sarabi,” Taiyo breathed. He lurched forward, smiling as he began to run toward the group. Gaara watched him amble a few more steps before he caught up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. It wouldn’t do to have him run out and collapse into the sand.

As the party came closer and their faces came into view, Temari ran through the gates to greet her future husband, crushing him into a warm embrace. Shikamaru looked slightly less grouchy than usual as he returned her hug and kissed the top of her head. He nodded curtly to Gaara over the top of her head. Gaara nodded back, but pressed his lips together in a tight line. He would vastly have preferred for his sister to have found a suitable Suna shinobi to marry, but he couldn’t deny how happy they both seemed together.

“Taiyo-sama!”

Gaara glanced toward Taiyo, who had swept Sarabi up into a hug. She was much taller now. She had lost a bit of the girlishness in her face, developed a few wrinkles, even. Her eyes were bright and she was every bit as cheery as he remembered her to be as she launched into questions about Taiyo’s life in Suna. Her hands were lit with chakra as they roved over his arms – a trait she’d picked up from Sakura, no doubt.

Taiyo eagerly regaled her with tales of his time in Suna, his eyes absurdly bright. Gaara couldn’t remember ever seeing him look so happy before.

A flash of pink caught Gaara’s attention and he turned to face the inevitable, the moment he had simultaneously been dreading and excited for. Instead, he felt himself being crushed into a hug, his vision filled with blond hair.

“Gaara!” Naruto screeched, pulling away from him to grab him by the shoulders and look him square in the eyes. “How have you been?” he asked, his blue eyes glittering with amusement. Gaara couldn’t help the smile that spread across his own face, the dread in his stomach dissipating instantly.

“Naruto, it’s good to see you,” Gaara said, extricating himself from Naruto’s grasp.

He had only a second to regain his composure before he was tangled in another mess of arms, this time belonging to delicate, pink-haired kunoichi. She wrapped his arms around his waist and squeezed hard enough that he felt all the breath leave his lungs. Naruto laughed and re-wrapped his arms around the two of them, pressing Gaara between their two giggling bodies.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Kankuro said dryly. Gaara quickly pushed the offending Konoha shinobi away and watched as the newest member of Team 7 approached Kankuro with open arms.

“No, Sai,” Sakura said quickly, grabbing his arms and pushing them back down to his sides. Behind him, Kakashi laughed.

“It’s good to see all of you again,” Gaara said feeling a tad overwhelmed by the attention. “I hope your journey went smoothly. You must be exhausted so I’ll have Hideki show you to your rooms immediately.”

“No way,” said Naruto, shoving his way through the village gates. “We’re here to celebrate. Drinks on me, everybody!”

Everyone filed through the gates behind him, cheering and hollering. Gaara watched as they all filtered past him, feeling like a stick in the mud. He still wasn’t quite in the mood to celebrate, but he had to admit that being near his old friends again elevated his mood a bit.

He glanced at Sarabi, who was still deep in conversation with Taiyo as they made their way to the marketplace where the pre-wedding festivities were still in full swing. He wanted to properly greet her, but he didn’t want to intrude on her time with the only person from her old life who still lived.

“Yikes,” said a feminine, acutely and familiarly annoying voice beside him. He looked down near his elbow, where a head of pink hair hovered. She looked older, he noted, though the grin on her face was just as churlish as he remembered her to be. Her eyes were sparkling, lit by some joke he was not privy to.

“What?” he asked, hating how his voice already sounded so irritated. The first word he had spoken to her in years was nothing but a snap of annoyance.

“I thought you’d be happier to see us.”

With a stab of guilt, he turned to face her, to give her his full attention. He noted the tiny orb of sand that hovered above her right shoulder and he cocked his head, remembering how he had sent her that letter all those years ago. He hadn’t forgotten about the sand, but he didn’t believe she would have lugged it around with her for all that time. She must have brought it with her for his benefit.

She was staring at him so expectantly that it was hard for him not to believe that. For a moment he felt himself completely entranced with the way her wide eyes bore into him – such a vibrant green. She was an oasis out here in the desert, a diamond in the rough.

“I am happy to see you,” he said, smiling the first real smile he had felt in days.

“I’m happy to see you, too,” she said, grinning from ear to ear. It was infectious and sent a swarm of butterflies spiraling through his stomach. “Now come buy me a drink, Kazekage-sama. I’ve been in the fucking desert for three days.”

///

Gaara didn’t usually drink. He was the Kazekage, after all, and he needed to be sharp at all times in case something were to happen. Tonight, though, he couldn’t help but feel like he deserved a drink, needed a drink.

Seated next to him was Naruto, already astoundingly drunk as he very loudly reminisced old times with an equally drunk Kankuro. At first Gaara had listened to those stories with a detached sort of amusement. Eventually he became bored when Naruto began to repeat stories, or forget what he was saying halfway through his sentence.

On his other side sat Shikamaru, who seemed every bit as displeased by the festivities as Gaara did. He sat with his chin propped up on his hand, pretending to listen while Temari and Sarabi exchanged pleasantries with one another.

Gaara took a sip of his wine as he listened to them chat.

“Apprenticing under Sakura must have been rough,” Temari teased. “She’s got quite the temper from what I hear.”

Sarabi laughed. “Oh, that’s definitely true,” she said, “but she never really directed it towards me. Poor Naruto got the brunt of her rage most of the time.”

Naruto, who had perked up at the mention of his name, shrugged. “I’m used to it by now,” he said.

“Well, if you weren’t such an idiot all the time you wouldn’t have to get be to it,” Sakura said, but there was a teasing tone in her voice and a warm smile on her face. Naruto smiled back at her, and for the first time, Gaara really wondered what their relationship was like.

“So, Sarabi, did you study poisons under Sakura?” Temari asked. “Suna has called on her several times for her poisons expertise. It would be nice to have someone in house for that.”

“Unfortunately, no,” Sarabi said, shaking her head, “but I’m sure I could be of some use if a poison problem comes up. I actually studied physiology with an extra focus on chakra pathways.”

Temari murmured her approval, and Gaara was inclined to agree. That would certainly be handy to have in Suna.

“Sarabi has near perfect chakra control and a real aptitude for medicine,” Sakura said, beaming at the girl.

“And she’s got a mean right hook,” Naruto chimed in.

Sarabi blushed under the praise, smiling bashfully down into her lap.

“You were trained in the shinobi arts as well?” Gaara asked, taking another sip of his wine. He could feel the alcohol making his head swim now, but he felt more relaxed than he had in a long time, so he took another generous sip before setting his glass down again.

“Just the basics,” Sakura explained. “We wanted her to be able to defend herself if she was sent on a mission as a medic for her team. But like Naruto said, she’s quite strong. With more training, she could be taking A and B rank missions by the end of the year.”

Gaara was pleased to hear this. He intended to train her personally, to hone her skills with sand to be as great as his own. With both skills combined she would be an insanely useful ally and a great asset to Suna. He glanced in Sakura’s direction, grateful that she would take the time to train her. He owed Konoha a favor now, but he couldn’t help but feel that favor was mostly for Sakura.

Sakura, who had been smiling at Sarabi, glanced in his direction. Their eyes met across the table. If he hadn’t felt a little tipsy from the wine, he might have glanced away from her. Maybe he would have even blushed. Instead, he held her gaze, the corner of his lips quirking into a smile. Her smile widened and she averted her gaze, tucking her hair behind her ear. Near her elbow he noticed his orb of sand hovering. For a moment he was tempted to touch her with it, to spread the grains over her hand as if he were holding it.

“Maybe we could spar sometime,” Kankuro suggested to Sarabi. “Sakura may have the superior medical skills, but no one in Konoha can teach you how to be a better shinobi than we can.”

Naruto scoffed loudly, shoving the puppet master’s shoulder. “As if,” he said. “Anyone from Konoha could kick your ass. Even Sakura.”

“Hey!” Sakura shrieked.

“That’s a compliment, Sakura-chan,” Naruto insisted while Kankuro laughed beside him. In his drunken state, Naruto must have found Kankuro’s laughter contagious, because after a moment he burst into laughter as well.

Gaara chuckled, too, as he reached for his glass of wine. He caught Sakura’s eye again. This time there was mirth there, in spite of Naruto’s negligent words. She raised her own glass to him before taking a sip.

Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the company, but Gaara’s mood had vastly improved.

///

Gaara woke up the next morning feeling less than fresh. He wasn’t hung over, exactly, but there was a heaviness to his limbs that he wasn’t used to. His head ached, but not more than he was able to tolerate. He had been used to frequent headaches as a child, so he found it bearable if a little annoying.

Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t take the morning to recuperate. In spite of Temari’s adamant requests for something simple, Kankuro (and the rest of Suna) were set on having an entire week of festivities to celebrate the wedding and to ‘mourn’ the loss of the Kazekage’s sister. Gaara had also been opposed to the excessive parties, but Kankuro could not be talked down.

So he begrudgingly made his way down to the main courtyard, which had been decorated with all manner of pomp and frills. He briefly wondered whether his own wedding would be so extravagant, if he would even have a choice in the matter. He couldn’t imagine that his father’s wedding had been so over the top, but just how had he avoided it when Suna’s people seemed so spirited?

Though the hour was early, nearly everyone had gathered in the courtyard for breakfast. Gaara spotted Naruto and Kankuro arguing in the corner while Shikamaru and Temari chatted with the slew of civilians who had come by to congratulate them. Gaara didn’t envy the two of them, knowing all the polite formalities they’d have to perform for the rest of the week. At least Gaara would be able to escape sometimes under the guise of his Kazekage duties.

On a bench underneath the massive window he saw Sarabi and Taiyo sitting together, chatting animatedly with one another. Gaara snagged a peach from a nearby table and walked over to greet them.

“Good morning,” he said, greeting them with a warm smile. “I hope you’re settled in comfortably, Sarabi. We’re very pleased to have you back here.”

“I’m pleased to be back, Gaara-sama,” she said. “Konoha was a blast and I’ll forever be grateful to Sakura and Tsunade-sama for all they’ve done for me, but the desert is my home. I belong here in Suna.”

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Gaara replied. “It’s what I hoped for when I sent you away.”

“You’ll like it here in Suna,” Taiyo supplied. “I had my doubts, but Gaara-sama is a good, respectable leader and the people here are nice.”

“Oh, you don’t have to convince me,” Sarabi said with a chuckle.

Gaara took a bite of his peach and sat down on the adjacent bench. His head still ached and his stomach was churning, but he knew he needed to eat something. He listened while Taiyo told Sarabi of his time in Suna, his adventures with the historical council. After three years in Suna, Taiyo had become quite the expert on Suna’s history and culture. Though Gaara had been hesitant to trust him at first, his drive and ambition eventually won him over. He had asked to teach history at the academy, and Gaara couldn’t think of a single reason to refuse him.

And it was lucky for Gaara that Taiyo’s curiosity had extended to cultures all across Suna, including the mysterious one he had come from himself. Once the trust between him and the rest of the village had been solidified, he had been all too eager to share information about the commune in the catacombs, the sand beast, and anything else Gaara had been curious about.

Gaara smiled as he listened to them reminisce, gazing at the familiar, happy faces across the courtyard.

There was one familiar face that he did not see, though – a mysteriously absent pink-haired kunoichi. In all the time that she’d had the bit of sand he had given her, he had never once used it to track down her location – the only viable thing he could really have done with it. He hadn’t had the urge to do so until now, but he stifled the feeling.

Having her back in Suna reminded him of how prone to danger she had been the last time she was here. For a brief second he considered that he should have Hideki tail her again, but she wasn’t here on a mission and there was no danger to protect her from. And even though he might want to deny it, it was clear his affection for her was the sole reason for that desire.

Still, he scanned the courtyard, hoping to see the brilliant flash of her pink hair, if only to see that she had indeed managed to survive one night without finding some sort of catastrophe.

Fortune smiled on him then. He saw he enter the courtyard from the west side, accompanied by Hideki who wore a grin as bright as the sun. He laughed at something Sakura said, which prompted her to shove him playfully. Gaara was pleased by the sight, happy to see the two of them getting along so well after all their time apart.

“Gaara-sama?” Sarabi asked. He turned his attention to her. “Sakura mentioned an oasis that she got to see last time she was here. I was wondering if I could have a chance to see it today. I know there are a lot of festivities going on, so I don’t mean to be a bother.”

“Of course you can see it,” he said. “I’ll arrange for Hideki to take you there, if you’d like.”

“Take her where?”

Gaara glanced back up to see Sakura and Hideki standing before them. Hideki’s ears had perked at the mention of his name and he raised a questioning eyebrow, though his attention was focused on Sarabi.

“The oasis,” she said, grinning up at him. He smiled back at her and it made Gaara wonder whether they would get along well.

“Oh, certainly,” he replied easily. “Sakura-san has already stated her interest in seeing it again. In fact, we had planned a sparring session there this afternoon. Perhaps you’d like to join us?”

“Yes!” Sarabi exclaimed. “I’d love to see the two of you in action.”

“I’d quite like to see that, too,” Gaara said, eyeing Sakura with curiosity. He’d love to have his own chance to spar with her. He also wouldn’t mind watching her from a safe distance.

Sakura beamed down at him, looking so much like a ray of sunshine that he swore he could feel heat on his face. Fearing that he was actually blushing, he abruptly stood up. “Of course you’re welcome to come, too, Gaara-sama,” she said, linking her arm through his, “but first I need some breakfast. I can’t kick Hideki’s ass on an empty stomach.”

“You can’t kick my ass at all,” he insisted, but Sakura was already leading Gaara away toward the tables of food, waving her hand dismissively in Hideki’s direction.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in Suna, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said. “I’ve forgotten what kinds of foods I like from here. Help me decide what to have for breakfast.”

They came to a stop in front of a table filled with platters of fruits and pastries. Gaara turned to look at her, sensing she was up to something. He could think of no other reason for why she would have pulled him away from everyone else. Her eyes were alit with mischief, but she seemed to be waiting for him to answer her question.

Instead, his eyes were once again drawn to the orb of sand that hovered just above her right shoulder. He reached out and touched it with the tip of his finger, his hand coming close enough to her face she he could feel the tickle of her cropped hair on his skin.

“Have you had this with you for the last three years?” he asked. He almost instantly regretted the question. Surely the answer would have been no. She’d have no reason to do such a thing. It was indicative of an intimacy they didn’t share.

“Sort of,” she said, which wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. “I usually leave it at home in a box under my bed, but I always take it with me when I go on missions.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” she said, reaching up to touch it herself. The sand enveloped her finger before releasing it and moving around the back of her head to hover near her other shoulder. “It gives me peace of mind, I guess.”

At that, Gaara couldn’t help but smile. “Does it?”

Sakura smiled, too, but Gaara didn’t miss the barest hint of a blush on her cheeks. “Come on, Gaara-sama,” she insisted. “What should I eat?”

“The peaches are fresh,” he replied, unable to contain his grin now. He hadn’t even realized he missed being near her. He could already feel himself glowing, radiating electricity. Was this how he had felt all those years ago? He could hardly remember now, but how could he have forgotten the way her lips had felt against his? Even now as she caught her lip between her teeth, he couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to pull her into a kiss.

“Let me see,” she said, reaching for the peach in his hand. A little stunned, Gaara did nothing to stop her, but instead of taking it from his hand, she curled her fingers around his wrist and brought his peach to her mouth. He watched as she sunk her teeth into the peach’s flesh where he had already taken a bite. She chewed thoughtfully, licking the juice from her lips. He was entranced by her, in awe of her bravery (or perhaps audacity). He was quite sure no one had ever done anything like that to him before and it sent his mind reeling and a sharp heat right through his body.

“Tastes just like the ones back home,” she said dryly.

A little nervous and a little amused, Gaara cleared his throat. “Perhaps some of the candied oranges,” he suggested.

Chapter Text

Gaara had never really been a fan of the oasis. Sure, it was beautiful, but it was nothing compared to the rolling dunes of the desert. Though the water was a startlingly clear blue, it was unsafe to drink and therefore practically useless. The shade provided by the scattered fan palms wasn’t really enough to shield a person from the sun completely. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was only that. There was no practicality.

However, Gaara found himself appreciating that beauty far more today than he ever had before. He watched Sarabi and Sakura exploring near the pond’s bank, dipping their toes into the water and fingering the plants they came across. The wonder on both of their faces made them look so far beyond beautiful that the oasis paled in comparison to them.

Hideki, who stood beside him on the crest of the dune above the oasis, glanced at Gaara with a knowing smirk. “See something you like?” he asked with a chuckle.

Gaara snapped from his reverie and sent a glare in Hideki’s direction. “You’re growing too bold, Hideki,” he said tersely. “You may consider it playful banter, but I’m still the Kazekage.”

“Oof, okay,” Hideki said, putting his hands up in a sign of submission. “I see you’ve got no sense of humor where Sakura is concerned.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing her kick your ass, though,” Gaara said with a smirk.

“Are you suggesting that I let her win?”

Gaara sent another glare in his direction, but before it could reach its full impact, Hideki was knocked off his feet by a whirl of pink. A cloud of sand kicked up around them and when it settled, Sakura stood in its midst, extending a hand to the shinobi lying face down in the sand.

“You wouldn’t happen to be talking about me, would you?” she asked sweetly. Sarabi, who stood behind her, giggled and came to stand beside Gaara.

Quickly, Hideki got to his feet and squared his shoulders toward her. “Last I check the score was me: two and you: zero,” he said, wiping the sand from his brow.

“It won’t be that way for long.”

Amused by their banter, Gaara grabbed Sarabi’s arm and pulled her down toward the oasis where they could watch the spar without being in harm’s way. They settled down underneath a fan palm as Sakura and Hideki engaged in a simple taijutsu spar to warm themselves up.

Gaara watched in fascination as they fought so gracefully that it bordered on dancing. Gaara knew Hideki’s strengths were in long range wind attacks. In a similar fashion to his sister, he used a fan to launch his long ranged jutsus. It was odd to see him in close quarter combat with Sakura, who really excelled when it came to taijutsu.

However, her lethal fists had been nerfed by her lack of precision chakra. She seemed to want to dance before jumping into a serious spar. There was a faint smirk on her face as she launched her fists and feet at Hideki.

For a few more minutes, the pair circled around each other, getting a feel for the land, for one another. When she had decided enough was enough, Sakura aimed a punch for the ground near Hideki’s feet. Hideki seemed to expect this and leapt back to avoid to potential crater. But instead of a crater, there was no hole left in the ground in her fist’s wake. Instead, a rumbling sound coupled by the quaking of the sand indicated she had sent a chakra shockwave through the dune. Gaara was surprised that he could feel it even from this distance – her chakra so thickly but precisely laced throughout the sand.

Hideki was knocked off balance by the quaking ground, but he found his footing just as Sakura aimed another strike toward his head. He caught her fist, which Gaara recognized as a mistake even before she used a burst of chakra to send him flying down the side of the dune and rolling along his back to the far side of the pond.

Gaara knew Hideki well enough to know he wasn’t the type to like to lose. However, when he stood up and brushed the sand from his tunic, there was a mirthful smile on his face.

“You’ve improved since the last time we sparred,” he said to Sakura, who was ambling her way down the dune with a smile of her own.

“Of course I have,” she said. “Now quit going easy on me.”

Hideki needed no further convincing. He whipped the small fan from his back and launched a wind attack at her, sending her body flying back toward the dune she had just climbed down. She landed deftly on her feet, using chakra as a buffer between her and the sand. Hideki didn’t give her a chance to gather her bearings before he was launching more attacks – shuriken and kunai flung from his pouch, followed immediately by a burst of wind that sent the weapons hurtling toward Sakura at a lethal speed.

Sakura leapt out of the way and then aimed another punch at the ground, this time sending another precisely moving shockwave towards Hideki’s feet. The shockwave rumbled the earth beneath them, sloshing the water from the pond up onto the bank where it splashed against Gaara and Sarabi’s legs.

Too fascinated to care that his pants were now wet, Gaara’s eyes were glued to Sakura, watching as she leapt and twirled, weaving her way through Hideki’s ranged attacks to approach him.

Hideki was quick enough to have escaped from her, but Gaara saw immediately that his pride would be his downfall. Instead attempting to get away from her incoming onslaught, Hideki dug his heels into the ground, prepared to hold strong against her.

If she had been any other kunoichi, he might have been able to. He was counting on her to hold back, Gaara thought. That was a mistake Gaara would never have made. She aimed a punch at his torso, which he caught with his palm. Gaara winced as he heard the sickening crack of the bones in his hand shattering.

He screeched in pain, doubling over as he fought to catch his breath. There was concern in Sakura’s eyes as she watched him crumple to his knees, cradling his freshly injured arm, but she held her stance, waiting to see if he had one more trick up his sleeve.

“What the fuck?” he demanded. “You were aiming for my chest! You could have killed me!”

“Oh, please,” she said, rolling her eyes and stooped down to inspect his hand. “I know what I’m doing. You were the idiot that tried to catch my fist.”

“Forgive me for not worrying that you’d use lethal force against me,” he said dryly.

“I didn’t kill you, did I?” she asked.

Gaara rolled his eyes as he listened to the two bicker. He glanced over to Sarabi, who was grinning from ear to ear.

“What do you think, Gaara-sama?” she asked. “Point, Sakura?”

Gaara chuckled and extended a hand to help her up off the ground. Together, they walked over to Sakura and Hideki. “I think I have to give this one to Sakura,” he said. “Hideki, you disappoint me.”

“I demand a rematch,” he said viciously.

Sakura shook her head with a rueful laugh. “I’m sorry, Hideki, but you’re going to have to give that hand a couple of days to heal. Come on, I’ll take you to the infirmary.”

Sakura helped Hideki get to his feet and he sagged against her, wincing as he clutched his arm tightly against his chest. “Fine,” he bit out, “but I won’t let you win so easy next time.”

“Of course not,” she laughed.

///

While Sakura had taken off with Hideki, Gaara found himself blessed with a rare opportunity to spend some time alone with Sarabi. He wanted to approach the topic of training her to use the powers given to her by the sand beast all those years ago, but he was afraid of what her answer might be. It was always a possibility that those powers would remind her of her more painful memories. He didn’t want to bring up such things while she was here for a celebration, while she was still practically a stranger to him.

But at the same time he had seen the way her eyes had lingered on Sakura, a desire almost like jealousy nascent behind those milky orbs. He could sense that she wanted to be stronger, that she had the drive to train hard. After all, she had spent three years training under Sakura already. She must have had the will to keep training.

“What do you think of Suna so far?” Gaara asked her. They stood near the bank of the oasis still, both gazing back toward the village where they could still see the silhouettes of Hideki and Sakura fading against the horizon.

“To tell you the truth, Gaara-sama, I can’t believe how much I missed it,” she said. “Well, not the village so much, but the sand. The desert. I just feel like my heart is buried in these dunes. I belong here; I can just feel it.”

A tiny crease formed between Gaara’s brows as he appraised her. At some point during her time in Konoha, Sarabi had cut her hair short like Sakura’s. It fell dark and blunt against her bare shoulders in stark contrast her feminine features, her milky grey eyes. There was something about her, something Gaara couldn’t quite explain. He sensed something familiar in her, something or someone. He had to agree with her – she belonged here. Something in her ached to be in the desert, Gaara could tell. It made him uneasy to feel that familiarity. The only time he could recall feeling like that was when he’d been a jinchuuriki.

“I mean the village is great, too,” Sarabi said, blushing as she looked down at her feet, unnerved by Gaara’s staring. “I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t.”

“Sarabi, would you like me to train you to be a kunoichi?” he asked rather bluntly.

Sarabi hesitated, her mouth gaping slightly. For a moment Gaara was afraid she might say no.

“You mean you personally?” she asked. “Aren’t you too busy for something like that? Sakura suggested that I join the academy. I know I’m a little old, but I figure—”

“I’m the only one who can teach you how to work with sand,” he interrupted. “I think it’s a great idea for you to start taking lessons at the academy, but I would still like to train you personally as well.”

“Well, how can I say no to that?” she asked with a rather disarming smile. “Everyone in Konoha holds you in such high regards. I wouldn’t dare waste an opportunity to learn what I can from you.”

“Hmm,” he said in acknowledgement. “Hopefully I’ll be as good a teacher was Sakura was.”

“Teaching is an entirely different skill than being a kunoichi or a medic,” Sarabi explained. “At least that’s what Sakura said. She was a great teacher to me and I’ll forever be grateful to her for all that I’ve learned, but man, teaching sure wasn’t her forte. She knows everything there is to know about the human body, but she wasn’t all that great at explaining it.”

Gaara’s eyes widened and he stared at Sarabi in fascination.

“Umm, maybe you don’t tell Sakura that I said that to you,” Sarabi said, scratching the back of her head nervously.

“Of course not,” Gaara said quickly. But that didn’t mean he was over that topic. “So you discussed her teaching methods with her?”

“Well, sort of. We discussed what techniques I needed to learn from her, and what things I could learn from books or other source material easier,” Sarabi said. “There was a lot that Shizune and Tsunade-sama taught me when Sakura was too busy or not quite sure how to explain something.”

“It takes a village,” Gaara said wisely.

“Seriously, though, you aren’t going to tell Sakura I said any of this to you, are you?” she asked. “She’s been so wonderful to me and I could tell she was genuinely trying her best.”

“I won’t say a word.”

///

“So, Sarabi says you’re a shit teacher.”

A flash of emerald fire sent a shiver down his spine. He had sought her out after his conversation with Sarabi, using his sand to locate her. She’d been perched on top of the guard tower, leaning against the railing as she gazed at the bustling activities below.

She had looked rather peaceful up here alone. There was a faint smile on her lips and a glow to her skin. Something about her contentedness was very appealing to Gaara, and he was almost remiss to take it away from her.

Truthfully, though, he found just as much pleasure in the heat of her anger. He felt himself rather amused by the clench of her jaw, the way she gripped the guardrail with white knuckles. Maybe if he provoked her a little more he could bear witness to an explosion. He instantly felt guilty for the thought, wondering where that desire had come from.

“She said that to you?” Sakura demanded, leaning over the rail to peer down at the crowd below. Gaara had the feeling she was searching for a set of familiar, milky eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry,” Gaara said, tugging her sleeve to pull her away from the rail. “I was only teasing you. She didn’t say that. We did have a conversation about her kunoichi training, though.”

“Teasing me?” she asked, peering at him suspiciously. “That’s beneath you, Gaara-sama.”

“As if I wouldn’t pay you back for the little peach incident,” he said dryly.

“Oh, was that an incident?”

Gaara gave her a wry look and moved to stand beside her. He perched her arms against the railing beside hers and leaned out to look at the crowd below. “It was intentional, wasn’t it?” he asked. “You wanted to see how I would react.”

“Well, perhaps,” she said, blushing enough that she felt the need to hide her face behind a curtain of pink hair. Gaara watched her for a moment, feeling the compulsion to tuck that hair back behind her ear. “I don’t want to step on any toes.”

“Whose?” Gaara demanded. “You mean Temari’s? I don’t think you need to be concerned about her anymore.”

“I meant your girlfriend,” Sakura snapped.

“I don’t have a girlfriend, Sakura.”

She drew her gaze away from the streets and up to his face. Her eyes were unyielding and he almost felt the need to look away from her. She seemed angry and confused. “What about that Matsuri girl?”

“We broke up over a year ago,” he explained, beyond elated that she seemed jealous. In all the time she had been in Konoha, Gaara had come to accept his teenage hormones had been the cause of their brief but excited encounters all those years ago. He’d hardly dealt with them since she left – even when it came to Matsuri. His affection for her had always been genuine, but it hadn’t felt anything like this tense thing he had with Sakura, this thing that rose his hackles and stirred something nascent inside him.

“Oh,” she said lamely, the anger fading rapidly from her eyes.

“How did you know about her?”

“Taiyo mentioned it in one of the letters he sent to Sarabi,” she explained, “and Sarabi told me.”

“I see,” Gaara said. He hadn’t been expecting that, but now that he knew, he was very curious about what Sakura had felt upon learning that information. Had she been jealous then? “Did it bother you?” he couldn’t help but ask.

“I’m not bothered by who you’re with, Gaara-sama,” she said, her tone soft and for a brief moment Gaara wondered whether this was the same, brash Sakura. “As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters.”

Gaara smiled, touched by the sincerity of her words. “If only that were so,” he mused.

She looked up at him. He could feel her leaning slightly in toward his body. He caught a whiff of her vanilla scented shampoo and felt her arm pressed into his where it rested against the rails. “What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes wide, her lashes fluttering. That was a trick he recognized from Matsuri. It was always in the eyes – girls always knew how to bend a man over with just a look.

Though he was annoyed by it, he also couldn’t help but want to kiss her. It took immense willpower to keep his eyes locked onto hers, even when hers dipped down to his mouth for just one second. He was amazed by how quickly all those feelings came rushing back to him.

“I have more than my own happiness to think about,” he explained. “I have to worry about what’s best for Suna. Matsuri wasn’t what was best for Suna. Or for me.”

“Oh,” she said again.

Silence settled around them, but it was comfortable. The breeze was warm and pleasant and Gaara found a different sort of solace than he was used to in Sakura’s company. Before when she had been in Suna his feelings for her had been fiery and explosive, but now… Now it was just a smolder, a heat that was still deliciously tempting, but tempered by both of their gained maturity.

“Did you have sex with her?”

“Did I what?”

“Did you have sex with Matsuri?” Sakura asked again. She didn’t seem mad, or even jealous as she asked it. Somehow Gaara knew the question was anything but innocent, but again he couldn’t help but feel pleased that she was probably jealous.

“That’s hardly an appropriate question, Sakura.”

“It’s just you and me up here,” she argued. “We’re friends, remember? You can tell me that sort of thing.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “Do you talk to Naruto about ‘this sort of thing?’”

Sakura laughed, to his surprise. “Of course I do,” she said. “That’s how I know he’s a virgin.”

Gaara blinked and Sakura giggled again. He watched her profile as she looked out toward the dunes. Her eyes were unfairly bright in the sunlight and if she looked at him just so, if she caught his gaze again and fluttered those stupid pink lashes, he might have given her the answer she must have wanted.

“I did have sex with her,” he offered, wincing as he said the words aloud. He didn’t want that information to hurt her feelings, and though he might have denied it to himself, he didn’t want to hurt his chances of rekindling anything with her either.

She took a step back from the railing and surveyed him with intense scrutiny. He watched her eyes trail from his face down the entire length of his body before coming back up to meet his eyes again. The appraisal sent sharp heat through his gut. Even in the heat of the noon sun, Gaara could feel goosebumps erupt on his arms.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked, suddenly unnerved by her attention.

Her appraisal didn’t stop there, though. She walked around him in a circle, her eyes drinking him in in his entirety. He felt annoyed, but also a little turned on at the same time.

“Do I look different now that I’m not a virgin?” he asked.

Her eyebrow flew up in surprise and he was pleased to have caught her off guard with the question. God knows she caught him off guard enough.

“Do I look different?” she asked.

“Are you not a virgin anymore?” he asked. He couldn’t stop himself from wondering who she might have slept with. It was even harder to stop himself from imagining what she must be like during sex. Not even a second after he felt his cheeks start to warm up, Sakura giggled again.

“That’s not an appropriate question, Gaara-sama.”

“Sasuke is still at large,” Gaara continued. “So it couldn’t have been him. And you said Naruto is still a virgin, so it’s not him, either.”

The smile on her face dropped immediately. The entire atmosphere darkened with her expression and Gaara suddenly regretted discussing this topic with her.

“I think I’m going to go find Sarabi,” she said softly, keeping her gaze far from his eyes. She walked toward the ladder, but Gaara’s arm shot out to block her path.

“Wait,” he said. “I’m sorry. I know he’s a sore subject. I won’t bring him up again.”

Sakura froze in place, watching him with hesitancy and what Gaara thought might have been fear. The expression looked out of place on her now. There were cheers and shouts down below them – the festivities still in full swing. She was as well protected as Gaara could have her, surrounded by his shinobi, her own teammates, and even he himself. Whatever it was that brought fear to her eyes frightened him, too.

“Please,” he said patiently. “Please stay.”

“Fine,” she said, her eyes blazing as she shifted out of his reach and returned to her spot on the railing, “but don’t bring up Sasuke again – especially around Naruto.”

“Noted,” he said dryly, absolutely burning with curiosity now.

He moved to stand beside her again, this time giving her a few more inches of space. Together they watched the winds pull sands from dune to dune, listening to the villagers celebrating down below.

“I’m still a virgin,” Sakura said so softly Gaara had to strain to her hear.

He didn’t quite know what to say to that. He was happy to hear that, though he would never tell her that. There was a primal instinct to keep her that way, but he knew that was ridiculous.

“Ugh, why are you grinning like that, you pervert?”

Gaara cleared his throat and straightened his tunic, feeling only a little self-conscious. He opened his mouth speak but didn’t really have any words.

“So what’s sex like?”

Gaara closed his mouth and furrowed his brow. “Well, it’s…” He closed his mouth again, watching her watch him. Her eyes were wide and curious, not judgmental or jealous at all. There was a façade of innocence in the gentle flutter of her lashes, but he knew the question was anything but.

“It’s what?”

Gaara suddenly felt trapped, regretting not letting her go when she wanted to leave before. Of all the conversations he imagined having with Sakura over the years, he never though he’d be discussing with her what sex felt like – certainly not sex with Matsuri, who was really his only frame of reference.

But nothing about Sakura’s demeanor was accusatory. He hadn’t done anything wrong – he was well within his rights to have had a girlfriend. He wished he didn’t feel guilty about it because it wasn’t something he should feel guilty for.

“I’ve heard it’s painful for some women,” Sakura explained. She was looking out toward the desert, twisting her fingers together almost nervously. The wind blew strands of her hair across her face, tangling in her lashes and eyebrows.

Hesitantly, Gaara reached out and tucked the loosened strands back behind her ear, grazing her cheekbone with his thumb. Her skin was incredibly soft, just as he remembered it. She gasped as their skin connected and turned to give him a curious look.

“I would never hurt you,” he said.

He was dangerously close to kissing her. He could so easily lean in and press his lips to hers. After three years of training himself not to think of her, of moving on from what he thought of as nothing more than a hormonal teenage fling, Gaara found himself not caring about the reasons for trying to forget about her. She was here now and this feeling – he couldn’t describe it and he wasn’t all that interested in doing so. All he knew was that he wanted to chase it, to feel it for as long as he could before she was gone again.

His eyelids felt very heavy and he leaned forward, feeling pulled towards her by some magnetic force.

But then she laughed and it was such a cold, demeaning sound that it sent a shiver down Gaara’s spine. He leaned away from her, feeling a little hurt.

“Just what are you implying, Gaara-sama?” she asked, pressing a delicate hand to his chest to push him away even further. He hadn’t even realized how close to her he had moved.

He should have felt embarrassed having been caught implying that he wouldn’t hurt her if they had sex while obviously attempting to kiss her. It would be far too hard to explain that he hadn’t meant to imply that, and well, he kind of did mean to imply it.

“Is it unnerving to you that things feel exactly the same between us as they did three years ago?” Gaara asked her, redirecting the conversation. As close as he had just been to kissing her, he didn’t want to have sex on the brain.

“They don’t feel the same to me, Gaara-sama.”

“They don’t?” he asked, now feeling rather vulnerable.

“I thought you had a girlfriend, you know,” she said pointedly. “So I moved on.”

Gaara felt a painful constriction in his chest. The sting of rejection was sharp and unprecedented in him. He’d had low expectations regarding her visit to Suna, but now that he was faced with the prospect of having her in his palace walls and not being able to kiss her, even just once, left him feeling crushed.

Realizing that her hand was still pressed against his chest, he moved his own hand to cover it, to push it away, but she moved her palm up to his shoulder and then the side of his neck, and finally his face. She was smiling at him in such a strangely arrogant way that he kind of wanted to smack her, but her touch felt deliciously soft, and if this could be the last time he’d ever touch her, he wanted to soak it all in.

“But to tell you the truth, Gaara-sama, I’m kind of enjoying how badly you want to kiss me right now.”

He narrowed his eyes at her, torn between wanting to admonish her for her cruelty or kiss her. “But now you know that I don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.

“Yep!” she said with insane brightness. “I’m tucking that bit of information away for later. It looks like the festival is starting now, so maybe we should head to the marketplace.”

Gaara bit his lip, not feeling so great about the way this conversation had gone.

Sakura’s gaze softened and she let out a sigh. “Come on,” she said, pushing him gently toward the ladder.

Chapter Text

Finding himself smitten with Sakura was a bit of a new feeling for Gaara. Her arm was linked through his as she led him around the marketplace, stopping at stalls to look at jewelry or pastries or whatever other glittering thing caught her eye. He felt weightless under her touch, her guidance. He could feel a terrifying electricity where their arms met. He wished he had opted for a short sleeve tunic that day, so that he’d be feeling her bare skin against his right now, even though he was sure it would probably send his heart into overdrive.

He had forgotten how intense it felt to be near her, and as he watched her flit around the festival, he found that he got just as much pleasure from reacquainting with her.

She brought him over to the carnival games, clapping with delight when the civilian man ahead of her successfully popped a balloon with a dart. Gaara gave her an admonishing look when she stepped in line behind him, a shit-eating grin on her face.

“Are you sure you should be doing this?” he asked.

“Let the lady live, Kazekage-sama,” said the man behind the booth, passing Sakura a handful of darts over the counter. He grinned as Sakura greedily yanked them from his hands. Begrudgingly, Gaara reached into his pocket for the money for the man, but he shook his head.

“This one’s on the house, Kazekage-sama,” he said, bowing respectfully.

Gaara murmured a quiet thank you to the man, feeling a little flustered. He would rather have paid for it – or rather preferred that Sakura not do this at all.

Sakura lobbed all five darts in her had at once, each landing dead center of its own balloon. She cheered and clapped for herself, which Gaara had no choice but to roll his eyes at. Was she being so ridiculous on purpose?

“You win a prize!” said the man in the booth.

“You hear that, Gaara-sama? I won a prize for you,” she said, giggling as she surveyed the choices of stuffed animals hanging over the counter. “Which one would you like?”

“Sakura…”

Before he could chastise her for taking a prize from the man, she shrieked with delight, reaching up for the plush hanging near the back of the booth. To Gaara’s utter humiliation, he realized that said plush was actually a miniature version of himself, complete with a little Kage robe.

“It’s you!” she laughed, clutching the offending toy to her chest. She squeezed it against her cheek, still laughing. Gaara felt a spike of rage the likes of which he’d not felt for a very long time.

Sakura was oblivious to this as she pressed the plush into his hands. “Here you go,” she said, standing so near him that he forgot his rage for a moment, lost completely in the way her eyes seemed to dance as she leaned into him. “I won this for you.”

“Why don’t you keep it?” he asked dryly, pushing it back into her chest.

She looked hurt for a moment, and he felt her sadness more acutely than he might have had it not been for their previous conversation at the guard tower. He was on the verge of a quick apology, already agonizing over what to say to appease her when the sadness was whisked away from her face and replaced with another cheery smile.

“I think I’ll name him Naruto,” she said, tucking the toy under her arm. With her free arm, she grabbed onto Gaara again and began shuffling through the crowd.

“What?” he asked in confusion. She only giggled in response, which annoyed Gaara further. There was such a disconnect between what he felt towards her on a primal level and what he thought of her as she dragged him through the streets. She was teasing him and she knew it. She was practically torturing him for her own perverse pleasure.

“Maybe we should meet up with your teammates,” Gaara suggested when it appeared that Sakura planned to stop at the next carnival game.

Sakura stopped walking, and Gaara stopped beside her. The crowd began to filter around them as she turned to look at him, her expression unreadable. What he could tell from it, though, was that she was thinking something serious. The childish timber of her voice was gone as she leaned forward to speak to him, and with the brightly colored lights of the festival flashing behind her, she almost looked like some sort of mystical creature with her fantastically pink hair.

“Is it selfish of me to want to keep you all to myself?” she asked, practically breathing the question into his ear. Gaara suppressed a shudder and took her elbow in his hand to pull her out of the crowd. Sakura allowed him to led her through the stalls until they reached an alley between a pastry shop and booth selling trinkets. They had relative privacy sandwiched between the walls, which Gaara didn’t realize until that moment was probably a dangerous idea.

“It’s your first full day here and you’re already torturing me,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Torturing you? Gaara-sama, I—”

He placed his palm on the wall beside her head, his expression expectant as he waited for her to continue. Gaara was well aware he had an aura of intimidation about him. For the most part, he sought to lessen its impact on the people he interacted with. He didn’t mean to be that way – it was just how he was. But with Sakura, he appreciated this leg up he had on her since she seemed very capable of flustering him herself.

“I have to admit,” she said softly, “that I expected something quite different when I got here. I assumed you still had a girlfriend, you know, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from teasing you. I mean not in an inappropriate way, of course, but obviously you feel this thing between us, too, so you understand.”

“Yes,” he said tersely. “I understand.” True to her word, she teased him again by pressing her hips forward into his. She still leaned back against the wall with her head and upper back, but her lower half was pressed far too intimately against his and he cursed her audacity. With a shaking hand, he grabbed her hip and pushed her back against the wall behind her.

“But look at you, all worked up already,” she said, unable to contain her grin. “You’ve already almost kissed me once. Is sex like a ‘once you start you can’t stop’ kind of thing?”

“To be honest, Sakura, it seems like you’re more obsessed with sex than I am,” he pointed out. “What’s your game here?”

Sakura scowled, which Gaara found a little surprising. She had been the one to be so frank about her feelings, her questions. She shouldn’t have been offended by the question, especially since he probably would have given her whatever she wanted from him.

“You know I expected things to get easier after I got back to Konoha,” she said, her voice lower, more dangerous now. “I thought about you all the time. I just couldn’t stop. I replayed each of our kisses in my head over and over again because I’d never experienced anything like them before. I didn’t even try to forget about you for the longest time.”

Gaara swallowed, grateful but also nervous to be finally getting somewhere.

“Before I knew it, I realized it had been weeks since I had thought about Sasuke,” she explained. “You had completely taken over. Then I found out you had a girlfriend and I was crushed.”

“So I wilded out a little bit,” she continued. “I went on tons of dates with a bunch of different guys, trying to forget about it. It worked to some extent, but god there was just something about the way that you touched me that I couldn’t forget.”

Gaara licked his lips, suddenly feeling rather parched. He hadn’t known any of that, of course, and there was something about her desperation combined with her honesty that made his heart beat faster and his skin grow clammy.

“And now I’m here again with you,” she said, her voice even softer now. He leaned in closer to hear her, to be near her. He could feel her breath on his cheek, smell her vanilla scented hair again. He was close enough to kiss her now, and he really, really wanted to, but he didn’t. “And you don’t have a girlfriend,” she continued, “and you wanted to kiss me – you want to kiss me now. It feels really good. After all that time thinking about you and wanting you, it feels good to know that you want me, too. So I’m sorry if my teasing bothers you, bu—”

He cut her off with a searing kiss, unable to help himself. Why had he waited? He should have kissed her when he met her at the gates or when she took that bite of his peach. He should have fucked her all those years ago before she left, before he had the opportunity to lose her to someone else.

He had never been under the impression that what he felt for Sakura was love. He was sure he did love her in some ways, though probably not romantic. What he hadn’t expected was for whatever was happening between them to feel so different than what he had felt for Matsuri. He had liked Matsuri well enough, assuming that he would eventually grow to love her. But he had felt relieved when she broke up with him instead of the misery he’d felt when Sakura left. And in spite of her mind games, he couldn’t help but feel blissfully happy to have her back here.

He didn’t want her to go.

He pulled back away from her, watching her expression carefully. This could be dangerous to do to her. He could hurt her even more than she already was, and that was just not acceptable. If she had ached and hurt for so long after going back to Konoha, he didn’t want her to feel that all over again when she left this time.

Except, part of him didn’t care. Part of him wanted to soak up all of her that he could before she left.

He decided, however, that that particular decision was better left to her. If she wanted to keep things professional, he would honor that. And if she wanted to – as she said – ‘wild out’ with him, he certainly wouldn’t say no to that.

So when he leaned away from her and saw the blissful look on her face, the slow grin, the dazed eyes… He felt relief that she was happy and if she let him, he would make her happy again and again and again.

“I really missed you, Sakura,” he said, pressing his forehead against hers.

“I—”

A cleared throat at the entrance to the alley drew both of their attention. Hideki stood between the walls, his face furrowed with concern.

“I hate to interrupt, but you’re needed in the council chambers, Gaara-sama,” he said.

///

Gaara cursed aloud when he entered the council chambers and found Temari and Shikamaru seated at the table, each glaring at him with intensity he wasn’t used to. “I’m sorry,” he said softly as he took his seat at the head of the table. “Something came up that I had to tend to.”

Temari’s frown deepened, her eyes boring holes straight through Gaara’s head. “This has been planned weeks in advance,” she said tensely. “What could possibly have come up that’s more important than signing our marriage license? That’s the entire reason Shikamaru is here.”

“I said I’m sorry,” he said, feeling rather sympathetic toward her. A quick glance at the clock on the wall told him they had been waiting for him for almost an hour. “I shouldn’t have kept you waiting for so long.”

“It’s okay, Gaara-sama,” Shikamaru said, sounding as sincere as was possible for Shikamaru. “Let’s just get started.”

Gaara frowned as Temari passed him the scroll that was her marriage license. All that was needed now was his signature and their marriage could proceed. Temari planned to get married in Konoha, but she needed a license in both Suna and Konoha to get married. He knew that it wasn’t really his choice to give Temari away, but signing the paper felt an awful lot like it.

He signed his name quickly and pushed the paper back towards her, trying to look happy for his sister instead of grumpy.

“Thank you, Gaara,” Temari said. He was instantly struck by the softness of her tone. Temari was a strong woman who liked to puff herself up, to guard herself against the fragility often associated with women. It was new to hear the gentle sincerity in her voice.

Her eyes, too, were imploring, bottomless in their dark hazel color. The urge to pull her into a hug was strong, but he didn’t think she would like that so he refrained.

“I know you aren’t excited about me leaving,” she continued, “and I really hate that you’re so upset. I’m not leaving to get away from you, you know.”

“I know, Temari.”

“You’re a really great brother.”

“I know.”

“And when we have nieces and nephews for you, maybe one of them will want to move here to be with their uncle,” she said with a smile.

“Pardon?” Shikamaru asked, perking up a little.

“I was thinking maybe seven or eight children,” Temari mused, mischief dancing in her eyes. “What do you think, Shikamaru-kun?”

“We can have one,” he bartered.

“We’ll see,” she laughed.

///

Later that night, Gaara sat at his desk in his office, staring blankly out the window behind him. The sky was not quite dark yet, but dim enough that the glow of the village lights spread its ambience across the dunes.

There was a stack of paperwork under his left elbow and a stack of mission dossiers awaiting approval under his right. In theory, he might have been finished with either stack if he had been diligent and efficient with his time, but instead of working he had chosen instead to stare through the glass at the sky. Its color was so bright as the sun was setting, so fantastically pink and fiery that it reminded him of certain someone.

And of course once that train of thought left the station, there was no going back. Prior to her arrival in Suna, Gaara hadn’t thought much about her. He had made a significant effort to pretend that what had happened between them all those years ago was nothing more than a silly fling.

He was still unsure whether or not he believed that. Now, as evidenced by his racing thoughts, he could do little else but think of her, imagine her penetrating eyes and teasing kisses.

Even now he imagined he saw her bobbing pink head speeding across the dunes through his window.

Straightening up a little, Gaara approached his window, cocking his head to the side as he pondered the lithe form that was sprinting up the side of a particularly tall dune. No, he definitely was sure that the girl was not an illusion – just an idiot. For a moment he watched her run away from the village, toward what he assumed must have been Turtle Rock. Perhaps she was just curious, but even Sakura should have known not to go into the desert alone just before dark.

He glanced back behind him at the stack of papers on his desk and let out a heavy sigh. Given the choice between catching up on his clerical duties and admonishing his very stupid, very charming foreign guest, Gaara found himself perturbed by how easy he found it to shirk his duties.

///

By the time he had caught up with her, the sky was an inky blue, cloudless and peppered with stars. Gaara always preferred the sky this way – clear and open to the heavens beyond. There was something inherently beautiful about the visions that were beyond their reach, something magnetic and humbling.

Even that, though, paled in comparison to Sakura, who was panting dramatically as she stood doubled over, ankle deep in the sand. The sandy tangles in her hair did nothing to detract from how beautiful he found her, though the hacking cough she directed into the crook of her arm was less than charming.

Gaara placed a palm on her upper back, his brow furrowed with concern as he watched her sputter and cough. “Here,” he said, reaching for the canteen hooked on his belt. Sakura snatched it from his hands and begun to gulp water greedily.

When she was finished, she pressed the canteen back into his hands, letting her fingers linger on his for a moment longer than was necessary.

“What are you doing, Sakura?”

“I got sand in my throat,” she said defensively.

“Why are you out here in the desert?”

“Oh, that,” she said dismissively. “Well, I was on my way to Turtle Rock. I just wanted to see it again. You know, to see if it looks the same.

“I would have taken you if you have just asked,” he said, smiling at her in spite of himself. He wanted to be annoyed, but he wasn’t. He should be annoyed because it was once again foolish for her to be out here alone. But he just wasn’t.

“You were all busy with you Kazekage stuff,” she countered. “Besides, I don’t need a babysitter to go visit a rock.”

“No, you don’t,” Gaara said, nodding solemnly, “but wouldn’t it be nice to have some company? Come on. Let’s go back to the village and I’ll take you to Turtle Rock tomorrow when the sun is back up.”

Sakura shook her head and tugged on his wrist. “No, I want to see it now,” she argued. “Look how pretty the sky is. Don’t you think Turtle Rock will look even better with all the stars out?”

“Do you always have to be so contrarian?” he demanded.

“I’m just a woman who knows what she wants, Gaara-sama.”

“Is that so?” he drawled. “Well, tonight, Sakura-san, your wish is my command. Let’s go see Turtle Rock.”

“Really?” she asked, unable to contain the hopefulness in her voice.

“You’re going to go with or without my permission,” he said with a shrug. “I might as well tag along. You know, to make sure you don’t find any trouble.”

“Is that the real reason, Gaara-sama? Or are you just trying to get me alone?”

“I’ve already got you alone, don’t I?” he asked with a smirk.

“Hey now,” she said, smacking him playfully. “Don’t be perverted. I just want to see Turtle Rock. Nothing else.”

“Of course,” he said, gesturing toward the direction they needed to be moving. “I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

Sakura gave him a disbelieving look as she hooked her arm through his, though he managed the catch the underlying amusement. Arm in arm, they began to walk across the sand, away from the bright lights of the village. She pressed herself warmly against his side and rested her cheek against his shoulder. He couldn’t help but smile, wanting very much to lean back into her but deciding against it.

For a moment Gaara wondered how she would look all dressed up in Suna formal garb, pressed against his side just as she was now as they walked into a council dinner or some other formal occasion which required the Kazekage’s presence. He could already imagine that the people of Suna would adore her.

He shook the thought away immediately, a little embarrassed to have been fantasizing about such a thing. There was something so raw about the way she clutched him, so genuine in the way she pressed her hip against his side, just to know the way it felt.

“Sakura,” he said, clearing his throat and suddenly feeling rather nervous. “Did you mean all those things you said at the festival earlier?”

“You think I’d lie about things like that?”

“No, I’m just hoping you might have been exaggerating.”

“Why?”

Gaara paused as he considered this. “I don’t want you to be sad when you go back to Konoha,” he answered.

“I’ve thought about that, too, Gaara-sama,” she replied, not meeting his gaze. Instead, her face was turned toward the stars. “But it’s a necessary evil.”

“Is it, though?” he demanded. “We don’t have to torture ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with just being friends.”

“Is that what you want, Gaara-sama?”

Gaara did not answer right away. They walked in silence for several steps while Gaara decided how best to answer that. Of course it wasn’t what he wanted, but in a way, it was. He only wanted what was best for Sakura, what would make her the happiest. But how could he tell her that while basically rejecting her? How could he even consider rejecting her when he knew very well that he had no interest in squandering what time he had with her?

“No,” he said eventually.

“Me neither.”

“Was it worth it?” he asked.

“No,” she laughed, shaking her head. “But maybe this time it will be.”

Gaara hoped that was true.

///

When the rock formation began to appear on the horizon, Sakura’s mood shifted noticeably. In spite of the seriousness of their conversation, she had been just as cheery as she had been the day before. Now, however, she seemed to be more somber. She chewed her lip as they neared the rock formation, a worried crease between her brows.

Gaara said nothing as he watched her pick up speed, ambling toward Turtle Rock. He released her arm reluctantly, and watched as she scrambled up on top of the stone.

“It looks exactly the same,” she said, doing a quick spin to see what the rock had to offer from every angle. Gaara disagreed. The dunes were always shifting and moving – they looked nothing like they had the last time she had been here. Even the rock itself was different. Parts of it had eroded away, new parts of it were covered and uncovered by the sand. But he supposed Sakura wouldn’t realize any of that.

Gaara joined her up on the rock. She sat down against the cold stone, crossing her legs underneath her. He sat down beside her, glancing over at her face to see her staring at him.

“You look different, though,” she said, her fingers coming up to brush a few strands of hair away from his face. He leaned into the contact.

“I do?”

“Yeah, you do,” she replied, her fingers moving down to his cheek. “You have wrinkles now. And you look grumpier.”

“I was half expecting you to tell me how handsome I’ve become,” he said dryly.

“Oh, you’re definitely handsome,” she said. “That hasn’t changed at all.”

Gaara felt a smile forming on his features. He wondered how she could have thought he looked grumpy when he was certain he hadn’t smiled this much in years. Even though it wasn’t exactly new information, the fact that she thought of him as handsome sent his pulse skyrocketing. The way her eyes bore into him as she drank him in set every nerve in his body on fire.

“Sakura, I’m sorry for all the heartbreak you had to endure when you went back to Konoha,” he said softly. “You know I didn’t want that to happen.”

Sakura scoffed and busied herself by fiddling with the hem of her skirt. “The onus is really on me, isn’t it?” she asked. “I knew myself well enough to know what would happen. I know myself well enough now, too, and I’m just stupid enough to repeat that same mistake.”

“Why put yourself through that?”

She sighed and leaned back on her palms, her face turned back toward the stars. “You know when you have cavity and your tooth hurts and you keep sucking air through it just to make sure that it still hurts?”

Gaara grimaced, not sure he liked where that was going. “I’m not a tooth,” he said, his voice laced with petulance.

Sakura laughed, “and I’m sure sucking you would be far from unpleasant.”

Without really considering the action, Gaara reached across the distance between them and smacked the back of her head in much the same way she might have done to him had he said something perverted. Though her words were crass, there was something inherently warm in her expression and he couldn’t help but imagine what she would look like sucking him off, even up here on Turtle Rock, out in the open.

Sakura rubbed at the back of her now tender head, giving Gaara a sheepish look. “I should try to filter the things I say better,” she said with a weak laugh.

Gaara frowned as it seemed like she was skirting the issue. “You really think of me as a decaying tooth?” he asked.

“Of course not, Gaara-sama. You’re just a man who lives really far away from me.”

“Just a man…” he echoed.

“You know I wasn’t trying to torture you, right?”

Gaara gave her a half smile. He knew, of course.

“Maybe if we fuck each other we can get out all this weird tension and it won’t feel so much like torture anymore,” she suggested quite frankly.

“Maybe if we fuck each other it’ll end your unhealthy obsession with perversion,” he countered.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Now you understand.”

Gaara laughed as she rolled his eyes at her. “How about we start with a kiss?” he asked. He didn’t wait for her reply before he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.

Chapter Text

There weren’t a lot of things Gaara found exhilarating. Killing, of course, was one, perhaps the most intense one. The rush of adrenaline always roared in his ears, accompanied by tingling nerves and a thundering heartbeat. Even now, with Shukaku gone, he still relished in defeating his enemies, savoring the intensity of those feelings.

Kissing Sakura came in a very, very close second. There was something delicious about the way she palpitated beneath him, her body squirming as he pressed even closer to her. Her hand had come up to cup his jaw, to hold him steady as she pressed her lips to his. He was amused to feel her fingers trembling and he wondered if she was nervous.

She didn’t seem nervous, however much her hands shook. She kissed him with fervor, with the same passion she’d had for him three years ago. How many men had she kissed in the interim? How many felt as electric as Gaara did now under her ministrations?

Feeling emboldened and a little more determined to make this as enjoyable as possible for her, Gaara grabbed her roughly by the hips and hoisted her into his lap. Sakura broke their kiss to squeal and shifted herself so that she was straddling him, her ankles crossed behind his back. Her eyes were twinkling as she grinned at him, twisting her fingers in the hairs at the nape of his neck. She looked beautiful juxtaposed with the brilliant swirls of purple and pink nebulas in the sky. Between her and the stars, Gaara was faced with more aesthetic appeal than he could imagine and for a moment he could only stare in awe, too stunned to speak.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, teasingly tugging a fistful of his hair.

“Absolutely nothing,” he replied, moving to kiss her again. He didn’t linger this time. He could feel how frigid the tips of her fingers were against his neck, and her nose against his cheek. With the sky fully dark now, the temperature had dropped considerably and she was still in her usual vest and shorts.

So he let go of her just long enough to shrug the Kage robe off his shoulders and wrap it around her. She sighed contentedly, delighting in his warmth as she pulled the collar of the robe up closer to her neck.

“Think of how cold you’d be if you came out here by yourself,” he teased, brushing his thumb across the cold-wrought redness in her cheek.

“Yes, I’m quite lucky you found me,” she said, reaching for his hand and twining their fingers together. It was almost sorely intimate, Gaara thought as he stared at their hands in her lap. “How exactly did you find me?”

His eyes flicked back up to her face and saw amusement there. He realized then that she didn’t have the orb of sand with her, that she must have left it in her room. And after probing out with his chakra, he discovered that that was indeed true. Had she done that on purpose?

“I saw you from my office window,” he answered, narrowing his eyes at her. If she had intentionally left his sand behind so she could sneak around the desert by herself at night, then perhaps it would be wise to reinstate Hideki as her personal guard.

“A likely story!” she scoffed.

“It’s true,” he argued, smiling in spite of himself. “I was trying to determine whether I should do the stack of paperwork on my desk or procrastinate, but once I saw your little pink head bobbing across the desert my decision was made.”

“Gaara-sama, it’s not like you to shirk your duties to fool around out in the desert,” she said with playful admonishment.

“No, it isn’t,” he agreed, “but here we are.”

She grinned as she leaned even closer to him, squeezing her thighs around him harder. “Well then we should make it extra special.” She gently pressed her lips to his, kissing him with a sort of reverence he had never experienced with her before. Her fingers were tender as they smoothed over his chest before winding their way back to his hair again. It seemed impossible to be any closer to her than he was now, but he wanted to be so he snaked his hands under the robe and into the warmth beneath it. He gripped her by her waist, marveling at the hardness of her body, the muscles that confirmed what he already knew – she was a hard-working and deadly kunoichi.

He was tempted to buck up into her or to press her down against his lap and grind her against him. The animalistic urge made the rest of his senses feel fuzzy, but even amidst the hormones and the blood that had migrated from his brain to his dick, he felt a chakra presence nearby – one unsettlingly familiar.

Gaara paused, his fingers still curled tightly in the fabric of her vest. Sakura paused, too, and Gaara understood that she must have felt it, too.

“Gaara,” Sakura murmured softly, a fear in her tone that sent a shiver down his spine. Her eyes had widened and he could see her on the brink of panic. “Gaara, do you feel that?”

“Someone’s out here with us,” he whispered, trying to mitigate the wildness he could see brewing behind her eyes. She was freaked out, which meant she probably knew who was out here with them. The familiarity of the chakra signature suddenly made sense to him – there was only one person who could provoke this kind of reaction from her.

“Sasuke,” she breathed, her eyes focused on something, or someone, behind him.

Gaara had never been a fan of the sole living Uchiha and Sakura’s panic made him feel angry and annoyed. Quickly, he pulled both himself and Sakura up into a standing position and turned to face the foreign intruder.

It was amazing how different he looked, Gaara thought. He was just a boy the last time they had seen each other, but he was a man now. He was taller, darker, hardened into something that barely resembled a human anymore. His eyes with their spinning tomoe and bloody depths were like voids, lifeless yet still laced with bitterness and hatred.

Those terrifying eyes were locked onto Sakura, watching her with a look Gaara couldn’t read. He looked deadly and sinister with his dark hair, so much longer now, floating about his face in the wind.

Gaara latched his fingers around Sakura’s wrist and pulled her behind him. He couldn’t imagine what the Uchiha was doing here, but if he had any intention of hurting Sakura or Naruto, Gaara would not let that happen.

“Sasuke, what are you doing here?” Sakura asked, her voice shaking so much that Gaara could almost feel his heart snapping in two. She took a step toward the edge of the rock where Sasuke’s feet were planted in the sand. Gaara reached for her hand and interlaced their fingers, pulling her back closer to him. He was aware that whatever went on between the two of them was really none of his business, but at the same time, he couldn’t allow him to speak to her until he knew Sasuke’s intentions. It was very possible that he had come to kill her, to break those bonds he so desperately wanted to break.

Sasuke’s eyes were drawn to their entwined hands and Gaara was a little reluctant to admit that he felt immense satisfaction in that.

“I need your help, Sakura,” Sasuke said. The sound of his voice was eerie, like he was some kind of demon instead of a regular mortal man. Sakura was affected by it more than Gaara cared for – he could tell by the shiver that went down her spine and the way her fingers curled even tighter around his.

In fact, she was gripping his hand with bruising force. Gaara squeezed back, unsure of how to comfort her.

“My help?” she asked quietly. Gaara was sure Sasuke wouldn’t be able to hear her over the wind, but he nodded and took a step up onto the rock. He was near enough to them now that he could reach out and touch them if he wanted to.

“Yes,” Sasuke answered, his eyes locked onto Sakura’s face. He spared no glance toward Gaara, nor did he look back at their joined hands. “I’m forming a new team and I need a medic.”

“You already have a team,” she said. Gaara was proud of the fire in her voice, the determination he didn’t think he would hear there. “And I’m already on it.”

“You know what I have to do, Sakura,” Sasuke said dryly. “Naruto will only get in the way. But you and I… we work well together. And I’ve heard your medical skills are unparalleled.”

“So I’m just supposed to drop what I’m doing and follow you?” she demanded.

Gaara couldn’t help the smirk that crept up on his face. It was just so satisfying to hear her standing up for herself instead of fawning all over him. Whether she was truly over him or not, at least she seemed to recognize that going with him would be a mistake.

Sasuke looked at him for the first time then, his eyes sharp and accusing. The heatedness of the stare sent adrenaline coursing through Gaara’s body. He was certain that if Shukaku was still with him, he would be demanding Sasuke’s blood. Gaara was sort of already inclined to that anyway, but he merely gritted his teeth and returned Sasuke’s stare.

“What exactly are you doing?” Sasuke asked Sakura, letting his gaze filter over Gaara in his entirety.

Gaara glanced at Sakura, and seeing the blush on her face he wanted to help her out, to answer the question for her. Of course, he understood her reluctance to say it aloud, especially since they had been caught red-handed. Was she embarrassed? Was she upset that Sasuke had seen her kissing another man?

“Sasuke,” Sakura said softly, releasing Gaara’s hand to take a step toward her estranged teammate. “Come back to Suna for the night,” she implored, reaching for Sasuke’s hand. Sasuke pulled his hand out of her reach, but he didn’t move away from her. “Listen, me and Naruto, we’ll do whatever it takes to help you. If you come back with me, I’ll help you decide what to do, what team you need. Maybe we can reform Team 7 and we can help you avenge your family.”

Sasuke’s expression was wary, but Gaara was surprised to see him looking like he was actually considering her request. Her very inappropriate request, Gaara thought. She didn’t have the authority to invite missing-nin to spend the night in his village.

“I’m a wanted man, Sakura,” he replied. “I can’t walk into Suna’s gates amicably.” His gaze flicked to Gaara, whose heated expression confirmed the Uchiha’s suspicions.

“It’s fine,” she said. “I know the Kazekage.”

“Intimately, it would seem,” Sasuke said dryly.

“Sakura, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Gaara said to her, tugging the sleeve of his robe to get her attention.

She turned to face him fully, turning her back to Sasuke for a moment. The seriousness of that gesture was not lost on him. He knew how much Sasuke meant to her, how long she had waited for him to come back. He could disappear again at any second, but here she was giving her full attention to Gaara when Sasuke was standing right behind her.

“Gaara, please,” she begged, her eyes wavering, reflecting the moonlight back toward him. Moments ago, when Sasuke was nothing but a memory and her arms were wrapped around his neck, Gaara would have given her literally anything she asked for. Now she was practically begging him for something only he could give her and just the thought of saying yes turned his stomach.

“He’s a criminal,” he murmured for only her to hear, though he was certain Sasuke probably heard anyway. “I don’t want him near the villagers.”

“I’ll take full responsibility for anything he does.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes. That was hardly a solution to the problem. He couldn’t risk Sasuke hurting anyone in his jurisdiction. Sakura couldn’t take the fall for that even if she wanted to, and quite frankly he was annoyed that she would even want to in the first place.

“I’m not interested in going to Suna,” Sasuke said. Sakura glanced at him over her shoulder, but kept her body facing Gaara.

“Then what do you want from me, Sasuke?” she asked.

“I want you to come with me to defeat Itachi,” he said, his voice a drone. His expressionless face only served to intensify how devoid of emotion he really seemed. It was such a stark contrast against Sakura’s worry and panic. Had he not missed her in all their time apart? How could he not even spare a smile for a girl who loved him so much?

For a moment Gaara failed to see what Sakura saw in Sasuke. He was cold and inhuman and hyperdriven on a fruitless goal. But Gaara had been the same way, hadn’t he? And if he could be redeemed, then couldn’t Sasuke be redeemed, too?

“Come on, Sakura,” Sasuke said patiently. “I will wait here while you go get your things.”

“Sakura, you can’t go with him,” Gaara said.

Sakura pursed her lips, seeming both conflicted and angry. Gaara didn’t blame her. In fact, he sort of felt bad for her. What was she supposed to do now? She couldn’t just let Sasuke go and Gaara didn’t really expect her to.

“Sasuke,” she said dejectedly, “you know I can’t just leave. Not without at least saying goodbye.”

Sasuke frowned. “You’re declining?” he asked.

The panic that surged into Sakura’s eyes was unmistakable and far too telling of her feelings in that moment. Gaara saw it and Sasuke must have seen it, too. She didn’t want to reject his offer and she didn’t want to leave her friends behind. Both options pained her equally.

But maybe she didn’t have to choose.

“Sasuke,” Gaara said, using as much authority in his tone as he could without sounding haughty. “If you want to take Sakura with you, then come back to Suna with us tonight. She can have a chance to decide what she wants to do and say goodbye to everyone.”

Sasuke’s eyes flew to Gaara’s, less heated now but not any less intimidating. There was just something so off about his gaze and it left Gaara feeling perturbed.

“I don’t have time for that,” Sasuke countered.

“But you do have time to hunt down a new medic?” Gaara asked.

Gaara watched Sasuke’s jaw clench and unclench, though he didn’t seem angry. There was an unnerving ghostliness about his face, an ethereal quality that made him seem more like an apparition than a physical man. Gaara almost felt as if the Uchiha might just fade into the inkiness of the sky behind him, leaving no proof that he had ever been there.

His flightiness and abandonment of Konoha aside, Gaara understood why Sakura and Naruto would treat him like he was fragile. Even Gaara, who didn’t care whether he was around or not, felt afraid that Sasuke would just dissipate into thin air, vanishing forever. He would leave behind two very broken-hearted teammates, and Gaara found this completely unacceptable.

As much as he didn’t want Sasuke in Suna, even stronger was his urge to protect Sakura and Naruto from that pain. If welcoming the bastard into his village would prevent that, it was the least he could do.

“Fine,” Sasuke said curtly. “One night. We leave first thing in the morning.”

Gaara felt more than heard Sakura’s sigh of relief. She was still tense, her body taut as if she were afraid Sasuke might attack her still. But she had what she wanted now, the best that Gaara could give her. He felt her reach for his hand again and link their fingers together. She squeezed hard, which did little to mask the way she was trembling. Even her hair shook around her cheeks and when Gaara looked to her face he noticed her pulse racing in her neck.

He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, too overwhelmed by the intensity of her emotion to look at her. He had just invited the love of her life to spend the night with her under his roof. In spite of the death grip they had of each other’s hands, Gaara could already feel her slipping away from him.

He couldn’t help but wonder what kind of heartbreak he’d just opened himself up to.

///

They approached the village gates after a painfully silent trek back to the village. In the distance, Gaara could hear the continued sounds of the festival, the parties that were still in full swing. On the guard tower above, he spotted Hideki’s form, watching them like a hawk, no doubt, and curious about their new companion.

He spared a glance for Sakura and saw her staring wistfully in Sasuke’s direction. It sent a sharp pang of jealousy through his chest. He knew he had no right to feel that way.

“Sakura, I know you’re cold, but I’m going to need my robe back before we go through the gates,” he said softly.

Her eyes snapped in his direction, harsh at first, and maybe a little frightened, though not because of Gaara. When her gaze warmed, Gaara felt his heart thoroughly crack in two. She dragged her eyes across his form, lingering at the raised hairs on his arm. He wasn’t cold, but he was nervous. Nervous to let Sasuke near his people, nervous that Sakura might decide that Gaara wasn’t worth her time now that Sasuke was here.

He was content, however, to let Sakura believe he was cold. So when she shrugged out of his Kage robe and helped him push his arms through the sleeves, he pretended to relish in the warmth and avoided Sasuke’s gaze, which he could feel lingering on the two of them.

“Thank you for letting me use it, Gaara-sama,” she said, again with all of her attention focused on him. She smiled warmly at him and leaned in to press a chaste kiss to his cheek.

Gaara ignored the heat in his cheeks, sparing a tense smile for her. He was uneasy with Sasuke watching.

When they had reached he gates, Hideki met them on the opposite side of the bars, his head bowed respectfully low to Gaara. “My orders, Kazekage-sama?” He glanced quickly at Sasuke, gathering as much information as he could from the appearance of the stranger.

“We have an extra guest tonight,” Gaara said. “Have the room beside Sakura’s prepared for him. Use discretion.”

Hideki nodded, accepting his orders. “And will Sakura-san be needing my services through the night?” he asked.

Gaara knew what he was asking – if he should resume his bodyguard duties, but it sounded very much like he was implying something a little more salacious. In spite of the macabre air around them, Gaara couldn’t help but laugh.

“No, she will be fine,” Gaara said, though his flicked his gaze over to Sasuke, unsure of the words even as he spoke them.

“Yes, Kazekage-sama,” Hideki replied, bowing his head one last time before he darted off toward the palace.

Now Gaara didn’t really have a plan for what to do next. Getting Sasuke to Suna was as far as he had thought this whole thing through. When morning came, though, Sakura would be faced with the same decision he had been trying to save her from. He hoped that at some point between then and now, that Sasuke would have a change of heart, or that Sakura would decide not to go with him.

He wasn’t going to hold his breath, though.

“Sakura-san,” Gaara said sharply. He could tell she was startled by the suffix and the harshness of his tone. “How would you like to proceed?”

“What?”

“Should I fetch Naruto for you? Would you like to use the council chambers?” he asked.

She looked down at her feet bashfully and he felt a surge of affection for her, which he wished he could un-feel. “I think I need to talk to Sasuke alone,” she said softly.

Gaara eyed her warily. He wasn’t so sure that was a good idea, but if that was what she wanted, then he would give it to her. Or at least a semblance of it. He didn’t plan to eavesdrop on her, though he was absolutely dying to know how their conversation would go. He just wanted to make sure she was safe. He didn’t trust Sasuke.

“Okay,” Gaara conceded. “I will be in my office if you need me.”

She gave him a weak smile. There was still nervousness in her eyes. He wished he could just tuck her under his arm and keep her beside him forever. He wished he could protect her in every way she needed to be protected. There was only so much he could do. He couldn’t think of a single way in which this would end well for Sakura and it broke his heart.

“Thanks, Gaara,” she said. To Gaara’s utter surprise, she stood up on his tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips. He was too stunned to kiss her back. Instead, his eyes drifted to Sasuke, who was watching their exchange with a detached sort of interest.

Feeling a little uncomfortable, Gaara gently pushed her away. He gave her a stern look, hoping to convey just how serious his next request was. “Sakura, I want you to take that sand with you everywhere from now on,” he said, his tone brooking no room for argument. It was silly, of course, because Sakura had limitless affinity for arguing, and he could already see the spark of fire behind her eyes that threatened to burst out at any moment.

But she surprised him again by nodding. “Okay,” she said softly, but in a way that indicated that they would speak more on the topic later.

That would have to be good enough for now.

///

Instead of going back to his office like he had implied, Gaara followed Sasuke and Sakura. He masked his chakra and leapt up to the rooftops. Sakura led Sasuke through the crowded festival. For a moment Gaara worried that they might bump into Naruto or someone else who might recognize Sasuke. Fortunately, they were able to sift through the crowd until they were back at the palace.

She was leading him back to their rooms, Gaara realized. That would make it impossible to eavesdrop (not that he wanted to). It would also make it impossible for him to hide somewhere to watch them. He’d have to be exposed out in the hallway if he wanted to be close enough to intervene on Sakura’s behalf if their conversation went south.

So instead, he sent out a probe of his chakra out, searching for Hideki. He had dismissed him earlier believing that he would be handling it himself. Now, though, he needed Hideki’s help.

It took less than a minute for Hideki to respond to his chakra. He knelt before Gaara, his face grim. “Kazekage-sama.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Gaara said. He knew that his expression must have been grim because of the somber way Hideki regarded him. “I want you stationed outside Sakura’s room tonight. Alert me immediately if anything happens, and don’t let Sakura leave.”

Hideki’s face soured.

“She can’t leave here with him, Hideki.”

Hideki nodded in understanding. “Is that man her missing teammate?” he asked.

“Yes,” Gaara answered. “He’s extremely dangerous and I don’t like him being here in the village. It’s necessary, but he’ll be gone by the morning. Until then, I want as few people as possible to know that he’s here.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama.”

This was usually Hideki’s cue to take off. The gap between Gaara and Sakura was widening and Hideki was still kneeling in front of him, his face curious.

“Why is he here, Gaara-sama?”

Gaara sighed and motioned for Hideki to stand up. “He wants a medic to join his team,” he answered.

“He aimed quite high, then,” Hideki mused. “The top medic in the world? And while she is in Suna, no less. Don’t you find this suspicious?”

Gaara scowled. “Of course I find it suspicious,” he snapped. “That voyeuristic son of a bitch sought her out while she wasn’t in the country. He was looking for her specifically, not just any medic.”

“Voyeuristic?”

Gaara’s scowl deepened.

“Do you want me to spy on them?” Hideki asked.

Gaara considered this for a moment. He hadn’t wanted to eavesdrop because he didn’t want to break Sakura’s trust. What happened between her and Sasuke was none of Gaara’s business, but in spite of himself he couldn’t bear the thought of not knowing what was going on.

Even if he did break Sakura’s trust, even if she decided never to speak to him again, it was worth it to be able to know what to do next. He needed to be able to keep her safe, and though he was loathe to admit that it was at least partially due to jealousy, he needed to keep her away from Sasuke.

“Be discrete,” Gaara advised.

“I always am.”

Chapter Text

Gaara paced the floor of his office, trying to keep himself from biting his nails. He felt a nervous energy about him, which made him anxious. He kept his chakra extended outward, feeling for any disturbance near Sakura’s rooms. Though the sky was quite dark now, the village was still buzzing. Gaara could hear the sounds of the festivals outside his windows and he wished that everyone would just go home already. It was distracting enough as it was, but it also seemed quite foolish for them to be out. Gaara had no idea what Sasuke might do and he didn’t like the idea that any of his people were at risk.

His dread was compounding, folding in on him at breakneck speed. He could feel it rushing toward him like a tidal wave.

But no. That dread wasn’t his.

Gaara rushed out into the hall, looking for the blond head that belonged to the rapidly approaching, familiar chakra signature.

He saw Naruto in the distance, leaping between rooftops toward him. Worried that Naruto might sense Sasuke’s presence if he came much closer, Gaara leapt off to meet him halfway. When he stood in front of the panting blond, he pressed his hand into the man’s shoulder, peering into his eyes. He wasn’t surprised by the concern he found there. He was sure it was mirrored in his own eyes as well, but he did his best to hide it.

“Naruto, where are you off to in such a rush?” Gaara asked, giving the cheeriest smile he could muster.

Naruto wasn’t buying it for a second. “Something bad’s about to happen, Gaara,” Naruto said, his voice laced with panic. “Can’t you feel that? I think Sakura-chan might be in trouble.”

“Sakura? No. She’s fine. I was just with her,” Gaara explained. “In fact, she’s safe in her rooms right now. Said she wasn’t feeling well, wanted to lie down. You know, I think she might be on her period. It’s probably best not to agitate her.”

“No,” Naruto replied, though he paused to give Gaara a curious, skeptical look. “There’s something really wrong.”

“I’m telling you, Naruto, she’s fine,” Gaara insisted.

“I just want to see her to make sure.”

Sensing that there was nothing he could do to dissuade Naruto, Gaara released the man’s shoulder. In all honesty, he just wanted to see Sakura, too. However, Gaara couldn’t help but be aware that a meeting between Sasuke and Naruto could only end in a fight, a massive battle that would level his village, possibly killing some of his people.

Without waiting for Gaara’s approval, Naruto leapt off the roof toward the balcony that led into the guest wing. Gaara had no choice but to follow, dread burgeoning in his stomach. Even as he ambled quickly down the hallway after Naruto, he had no idea what he was going to do.

///

Hideki was still stationed outside Sakura’s room when they arrived. He appeared tense and focused, but otherwise motionless. Gaara considered this a good sign. At least Sasuke and Sakura were still just talking. Or at least not fighting.

Hideki’s jaw clenched and unclenched when he caught sight of Naruto and Gaara. He shook his head vigorously in warning, motioning for the two of them to go back where they came.

“You guys need to get out of here,” he whispered heatedly.

“I need to make sure Sakura-chan is okay,” Naruto insisted.

“She’s fine,” Hideki said. “I’m keeping an eye on her. Now go.”

“Why?” Naruto asked. “What’s going on in there? Is there someone in there with her?”

“Naruto, perhaps we should take Hideki’s advice—”

The door to Sakura’s room burst open just then, and Sasuke’s expressionless face appeared. Everyone seemed to freeze in place for a moment, the air suddenly frosty. Gaara could see Sakura’s worried face over Sasuke’s shoulder. With a wave of nausea, he noticed she was wearing her traveling cloak and her pack was slung over her shoulder.

Naruto’s body was rigid with a frenzied tension. Gaara could see that he was digging his nails into his palms so harshly that little bloody crescents began to appear.

“Sasuke,” he breathed, his rage evident even the near silent utterance of the name.

“Move out of my way, Naruto,” Sasuke said dryly, sparing half a second to glance at his former teammate before he shrugged past him. Sakura quickly jogged after him, passing Gaara with an apologetic look in his direction.

For one numb second, Gaara watched her pass, wondering if that was it. Did she plan on leaving Suna with nothing more than a glance at him? No goodbye, no last kiss, nothing? It made him furious that she could just drop him like that to follow Sasuke. Had all those things she told him in the marketplace not been true? Was she really not over her crush on Sasuke?

“What the hell is going on?” Naruto demanded, running to catch up with Sasuke. Sakura moved to interfere before Naruto could lay his hands on Sasuke. She pressed her hands to Naruto’s chest, her face pleading and desperate.

“Not now, Naruto,” Sakura said quietly. Sasuke paused behind her, glancing over his shoulder for one second to see if she was still behind him. He turned back away from them but didn’t move again until Sakura had released Naruto and trotted up alongside him again.

“Not now?” Naruto called after them. “Not now? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Sasuke just shows up out of nowhere while we’re out of the country and now you’re leaving with him? Where the hell are you going? Are you going to abandon me, too?”

Gaara placed a hand on Naruto’s shoulder and pulled him backward a few steps. As much as he agreed with Naruto, it wasn’t a good idea for him to get too heated. They couldn’t risk getting the nine-tails riled up, though it was apparent from Naruto’s red eyes that it was a little too late for that. Perhaps Sakura’s haste to get away wasn’t a bad idea. Gaara could feel Naruto’s emotions swirling around all of them, thick like a fog. If Sasuke stayed, this wouldn’t end well.

So even though it filled him with rage and jealousy and fear and anxiety, Gaara held onto Naruto and watched Sakura and Sasuke walk away.

Naruto shrugged out of Gaara’s hold and began to amble toward his disappearing teammates, but this time it was Hideki who stopped him. “Let them go, Naruto-san,” he said solemnly. “It will be much worse if you don’t.” Naruto glanced at Hideki, his eyes wild and panicked still, but he seemed to be at a loss for what to do. Even he recognized the danger in going after them, but Gaara knew that did little to assuage the turmoil raging in his head.

Once Sakura and Sasuke were safely out of earshot, Gaara shot Hideki a look. “What did you hear?” he asked.

“Only bits and pieces, Kazekage-sama,” Hideki replied. “They are heading toward Fire Country first to pick up someone – I didn’t catch who – then to Rain.”

“To kill Itachi,” Naruto said quietly. His hands were trembling, fingers curling in and out of fists.

“So that’s it?” Gaara asked, unable to keep the frustration from his tone. “She just packed up and left? No explanation?”

“That’s not like her,” Naruto said. “She would never leave me like this. Not without at least saying a proper goodbye.”

“Do you think he did something to her?” Hideki asked. “Something to convince her to come along with him?”

“She’s in love with him,” Naruto explained. “She’d go anywhere he told her to. It was probably one reason he chose to ask her.”

Gaara and Hideki exchanged looks. Gaara didn’t like to think he knew Sakura better than Naruto did. They had known each other since childhood and were very close. Still, he couldn’t help but feel that Naruto was completely wrong about that. Sakura used to have feelings for Sasuke, and maybe she still had some lingering affection for him. But Sakura wasn’t a fool, and going with Sasuke would make her a fool.

“Tail them, Hideki,” Gaara instructed. “Alert me when they reach the border.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama.”

///

Now with the addition of Naruto, Gaara once again paced the floor of his office. There was something comforting about the blond’s presence in spite of the fact that he was cursing under his breath as he glared at Gaara through his lashes.

“You were the one who said Sakura would never do something like this,” Gaara said tersely, glancing at the sky through the window. The sounds of the festival were gone now, and even though Gaara had wanted them gone before, he now missed the familiarity, the normalcy of it. “We’re just going to have to trust that she knows what she’s doing.”

“Yeah, but this is Sasuke we’re talking about,” Naruto argued. “He’s volatile and dangerous.”

“Which is exactly why we can’t just chase them down,” Gaara countered. “What good would it do, anyway? You’ve never been able to convince Sasuke to return. It won’t happen until he kills his brother.”

“This isn’t about Sasuke, it’s about Sakura.”

Gaara was very much inclined to agree – he couldn’t give less of a shit about Sasuke. “So you think you could convince her to come back?” Gaara asked, hope deciding to creep its way into his tone.

“I think I could drag her stupid ass back here.”

“Really?” Gaara asked dryly, “and what of Sasuke? You think he’ll let her go without a fight?”

“Does it matter?” Naruto asked, almost in hysterics. “They’ve been gone for over an hour. Who knows what that bastard’s done to her by now.”

Gaara glanced back toward the window. “They haven’t reached the border yet,” he said softly. Another glance in Naruto’s direction showed him that the blond was in agony. His face was screwed up into a scowl, but the sagging in his shoulders was indicative of a kind of pain Gaara had not experienced in a long time. Naruto was stung by betrayal again, and Gaara was powerless to help.

“You know they might go kill Itachi and come straight back,” Gaara offered.

“Not likely,” Naruto muttered bitterly. “Sasuke will want to restore his clan so he’ll probably take Sakura to some place where I can’t find her so he can knock her up.”

Gaara was visibly startled by Naruto’s words.

“Why wouldn’t he come back to Konoha to do that?” Gaara asked, feigning nonchalance. He wasn’t aware that he could feel jealousy more acutely than he had when he saw Sakura in her traveling cloak, but the idea of Sasuke fathering her children, taking her away… The feeling left his throat dry and his heart heavy.

“He doesn’t care about Konoha,” Naruto said. “He only cares about—”

Naruto continued to speak, but Gaara couldn’t pay attention. He felt a sharp probe of Hideki’s chakra off in the distance. It felt far more frantic than usual, but there was something about it that was comforting at the same time. Had Sakura and Sasuke reached the border? It seemed much too soon for them to have traveled that far. Gaara knew Sasuke was fast, but with Sakura in tow even he wouldn’t have been able to make it to the border so quickly.

Then he felt something else – a grittiness against his arm. He looked down at his bicep where a tiny orb of sand fluttered around, spreading over his skin before reforming into a little ball.

“Sakura…”

The sand darted toward the window, drawing with it Gaara’s gaze. He watched the orb fly through the window and down to the street below. Was Sakura leading him somewhere?

“Grab your jacket, Naruto,” Gaara said, interrupting the blond’s tirade.

“Huh?” Naruto asked, though he immediately began shoving his arms into the sleeves of his jacket. “Where are we going? What’s happening?”

“I don’t know,” Gaara said.

But he didn’t need to know more. Naruto followed anyway.

///

Gaara ran towards Hideki’s chakra, feeling it compounding with Sakura’s the closer he got to the border. He was only slightly concerned that he couldn’t detect Sasuke’s chakra. Naruto must have picked up on that as well, because his face was soured as they sped across the dune.

Neither of them spoke to one another, each lost in their own thoughts as they made their way toward Sakura, praying for her safety. Even though it was slowing him down, Gaara was glad to have Naruto with him. At least if things did come down to a fight, he wouldn’t be alone.

At this point, he sort of expected a fight. What else could Hideki have summoned him for when they were still so far from the border?

He didn’t have to wonder for long.

Ahead of them one the dunes was a bobbing head of pink hair with a suspicious lump of darkness thrown over her shoulder.

Gaara released a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding in. He stopped running and watched Sakura come to the crest of the dune before Hideki’s silhouette formed behind her. She readjusted Sasuke’s limp body on her shoulder before sliding carefully down the length of the dune with Hideki in tow behind her.

“Gaara-sama,” she said, panting as she approached them and gently sat Sasuke’s body down at her feet. “Naruto, I—”

“What the hell did you do to him?” Naruto demanded, picking up Sasuke’s limp arm and letting it fall back to the sand. “You didn’t fight him, did you? Oh my god, is he dead?”

“Relax, you dolt, he’s not dead,” she said, “and no, I didn’t fight him. I poisoned him when we were in my room. I gave him a slow acting one that will keep him unconscious for at least a day or two. I’m a little surprised we made it as far as we did.”

Gaara stared in awe at her as she bent backwards to pop her spine. She was sweating even in the cold and her hair was atrociously mussed. She brushed it out of her face with less than gentle fingers, her eyes dipped down to the crumpled shinobi at her feet. She looked concerned as she bit her lip, but she was blessedly alive and she hadn’t run away.

“So, uhh, what do you plan on doing with him?” Naruto asked. His eyes hadn’t left Sasuke for even a fraction of a second. He was crouched down near Sasuke’s face, his knees pressed into the chilled sand. The look on his face was one of immense relief, but there was also still pain there. In fact, he was showing so much emotion in his face as he touched a finger to Sasuke’s cheek that Gaara felt like he was invading his privacy just by looking at him.

It must have bothered Sakura just as much, because she chose that moment to turn and look at Gaara. Her lip was still caught between her teeth. Though it seemed like she might have been avoiding his gaze before, there was something reassuring in her eyes, something that made Gaara want to crush her into a hug and never let go of her.

“To be honest,” she said, her voice smaller, weaker, “I didn’t really think this through. I just knew I needed more time. He was going to leave without me if I didn’t agree to come with him, but obviously I couldn’t go with him.”

“Obviously,” Gaara echoed a little more dryly than he’d intended. He watched a flicker of emotion in Sakura’s face. She bit her lips again and glanced down at her feet. When she looked back up at his face, there was clear apology there. She didn’t really have anything to be sorry for, he realized, but the look made his heartbeat stutter anyway.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, her voice cracking. She quickly closed the distance between them and threw her arms around his neck. The action itself didn’t really surprise him. It was the electric shock that went through his body that made him gasp aloud. She pressed her face into his neck, clinging to him so tightly he could feel her warmth seeping into his body. Though he had been initially relieved to find her alive and still in Suna, there was additional comfort in knowing that she had neglected the supposed love of her life to press her body against his, to comfort him because she knew he was upset.

In spite of the severity of the situation, Gaara grinned, unable to contain it. He pressed his palm to the back of her head, holding it against him and smoothing her wild hair down. “What are you sorry for?” he asked, glancing down at Naruto, who was still glued to Sasuke’s side.

Over the top of the Sakura’s head, Gaara made eye contact with Hideki, who gave a quick nod to him before glancing away with just the barest hint of a blush on his cheeks.

Sakura pulled away from him. For a moment he thought she might have been crying. Though her eyes were red, they were dry. She made a sound of discontent with the back of her throat, her eyes wavering with diluted emotion as she searched for the right words to say.

“We should talk about this later,” Gaara murmured to her just as she opened her mouth to speak. He didn’t want to do this in front of Hideki and Naruto, and the unconscious Uchiha on the ground was a more pressing matter.

Sakura nodded and instantly schooled her face into serious kunoichi mode. “What are we going to do with Sasuke?” she asked.

“We’ll take him back to the village with us for now,” Gaara suggested. “We can come up with a plan for what to do once he wakes up.”

Truthfully, Gaara didn’t think they had any right to be doing this to Sasuke. He clearly didn’t want to stay in Suna or he would have. He understood why Naruto and Sakura wanted to keep him around, to have their teammate back, but if he obviously didn’t want to be back, then why force it on him? The best course of action would be to just let him go once he woke up, provided he wasn’t so angry about being poisoned that he tried to attack someone.

He didn’t say as much out loud, of course.

“I’ll talk to him,” Naruto said, carefully hoisting Sasuke’s body up onto his shoulder.

Sakura rolled her eyes. “That hasn’t gone so well the last few times you’ve tried,” she pointed out.

“It’ll work this time,” he insisted.

Sakura opened her mouth to argue some more, but Gaara stopped her with a hand on her arm. She sighed, but relented.

///

Once they were back in Suna and Sasuke had been placed in what was essentially a prison chamber, Gaara let his weight sag against the wall near his office door. With Sasuke being watched by a reluctant Hideki and an overzealous Naruto, Gaara wasn’t quite as worried anymore. Sakura had informed him that the poison’s effects should last a couple of days, so they had time to decide what to do.

What he really needed to do was get some paperwork done. It was well into the evening now. He was exhausted and distracting and had no interest in doing the paperwork, which was why he had decided to linger outside his office door instead of just being a man and getting it done.

Of course the moment he felt a tantalizingly familiar chakra signature approaching, he knew any motivation to do work was gone.

“Gaara-sama,” he heard her voice say. He didn’t open his eyes to look at her. He kept his head reclined against the wall, his eyes closed. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have anything to say. But he was comforted by her presence.

“Gaara-sama,” she repeated, her tone borderline impatient. He opened his eyes to look at her and found her twisting her fingers together nervously. She stood against the wall next to him, clearly working up the nerve to say something. He didn’t want to admit how endearing he found it.

“Yes, Sakura?”

“I’m really sorry about…”

“About what?” he asked. He knew, of course, why she was sorry, even if it didn’t make much sense. She was ridiculously charming while she searched for what to say to him, though, so he felt inclined to indulge himself in her answer.

“I never had any intention of leaving Suna with him, you know,” she explained.

Gaara turned his body toward her, leaning his shoulder against the wall instead. She turned and did the same, but kept her gaze lowered. There was already just barely a foot between them, but Gaara wanted so badly to close the distance.

“Then what are you sorry for?” he asked.

She sighed deeply. Gaara could feel her ghost of a breath on his throat. He felt the compulsion to pull her into an embrace, to comfort her and protect her from having to say what she clearly didn’t want to.

But at the same time, while Gaara didn’t consider himself to be a sadist, he was sort of enjoying her turmoil.

“I mean I saw the look on your face when Sasuke opened that door,” she said, still too nervous to meet his gaze. “It shattered my heart into a million pieces, but I couldn’t tell you the truth in front of Sasuke.”

“I know, Sakura. I’m not upset.”

“You were, though.”

Gaara said nothing. He was embarrassed to admit that she was right. Even though their connection was undeniable at this point, he knew his jealousy was irrational. If Sakura wanted to be with Sasuke, he wouldn’t stand in the way, even if it did bother him.

“It was all I could think about while we were heading toward the border,” she said softly.

Her admission sent butterflies whirling about in his stomach. There was something painfully thrilling about her agonizing over him while she was with Sasuke, the man she had loved for so long. His heart hurt just thinking about it.

“It’s okay, Sakura. I understand.”

“Well, I’m still sorry,” she said, finally looking up into his eyes. He was a little surprised to find heat in them. “We were having such a nice time and that bastard had to go and ruin it.”

Gaara chuckled, which seemed to bring some color to her cheeks. It was amusing to hear her insult Sasuke like that, and charming to hear that’s she’d been having a good time at Turtle Rock.

“We were having a nice time, weren’t we?” he asked, grinning down at her.

Sakura didn’t return his smile.

“Look, Sakura, I know having Sasuke here complicates things—”

“It doesn’t complicate anything,” she insisted. “I’m here to celebrate Shikamaru and Temari’s wedding, and return my apprentice to her home country. Whatever happens with Sasuke won’t complicate that.”

“I wasn’t talking about why you’re here,” he snapped. “I’m talking about me and you.”

“How will having Sasuke here complicate me and you?” she demanded, her hip jutting out. This was the kind of sassiness he remembered from her, but he was in no mood for it now.

“You love him,” he said, trying to temper the growing incredulity in his gut. Was she being facetious? Did she think that her love for Sasuke was of no consequence here?

Sakura said nothing, looking down at her feet instead. She let out a sound that was suspiciously similar to a whimper and he sorely hoped she wasn’t crying. Perhaps he needed to take a step back. Sakura had no obligation to be with Gaara, or to work any of his issues out with him. She had enough to deal with now without him trying to work through his jealousy of Sasuke.

“You know I’m over him, Gaara.”

“I know, Sakura,” he said softly, touching her cheek consolingly. “I wasn’t trying to imply that you weren’t. I was just so happy to be near you again and I don’t want Sasuke to jeopardize that. When I saw you leaving with Sasuke I realized—”

He cut himself off, not sure he wanted to finish that sentence.

“You realized what?” she asked.

“That I don’t want you to leave.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere.”

“No,” he said with a shake of his head. “I don’t want you to leave ever. I don’t want you to go back to Konoha. I want you to stay here in Suna with me.”

“You know I can’t do that,” she nearly whispered. “Besides, you’d probably change your mind after a while. I’ve heard I can be kind of annoying.”

Gaara was a fairly patient man, but he’d grown tired of beating around the bush with her. He wanted a relationship with her. That much had been evident to him from the moment she had taken a bite of his peach. He knew the impossibility of it, how hard it would be to be separated from her all the time. He couldn’t leave Suna as often as Temari had to visit Shikamaru. And Sakura was a busy woman, too. She couldn’t just visit him all the time. At best, they’d see each other a few times a year.

Still, he knew what he wanted. Difficulties aside, he wanted to be with her. Nothing in the world had ever compared to her kiss, and he’d be damned if he gave those up. It had been agonizing to watch her leave the first time, and again when she’d ‘left’ with Sasuke. But he would do it over and over again if he knew she’d always come back to him again.

“Whoever told you that was full of shit,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her.

Chapter Text

Gaara’s eyes flickered between Sakura and Naruto. The three of them stood outside Sasuke’s door, watching, waiting. According to Sakura, Sasuke’s body was fighting off the poison quickly. He would be awake by nightfall. That meant they had to come up with some sort of plan immediately.

Sakura’s eyes were glued to Sasuke’s door. She worried her lip between her teeth. The slight crease between her brows told Gaara she was deep in thought. He watched her press her hand against the door and sigh. She looked defeated.

“If he finds out what I did to him, he’ll never speak to me again,” she said so quietly Gaara believed she was only saying it to herself.

Naruto nodded solemnly. “Don’t worry, Sakura, we don’t have to tell him what happened,” he said consolingly.

“Naruto, what are we going to do?” she demanded. “We have to tell him something when he wakes up. He’s going to want to leave. He might even want to kill you first!”

“That’s not going to happen,” Naruto snapped.

Sakura crossed her arms and pouted while Naruto growled. Gaara could only watch the exchange – he had nothing to offer them. He was only even there to ensure that Suna’s best interests were favored.

“Naruto, I think we just need to let him go,” Sakura conceded.

Both Naruto and Gaara both blinked in surprise.

“This was your idea in the first place,” Naruto hissed. “We’re only in this mess because you poisoned him! Now you’re saying we should just let him go? You think he’ll just walk out of here without you?”

“Of course he will,” she bit out, pointing a prissy finger at his chest. “He needs a medic, not me specifically. He can find a new one.”

Naruto glared at her. Gaara didn’t exactly understand why he seemed so heated, but he knew that their relationship with Sasuke was sticky and not something he really wanted to understand in the first place.

Before Naruto could respond, the sound of footsteps around the corner made everyone pause. They all turned to look as Sarabi rounded the corner, beaming from ear to ear.

“Good morning, everybody!” she said, her cheerful mood sucked into the dryness of everyone else’s as they watched her approach.

She didn’t seem to notice. “Hey, Sakura, I was wondering if you wanted to take a bath with me this morning. I remember how nice the baths here in Suna are. I could use a nice soak.”

Sakura looked very put on the spot by the invitation. Gaara could tell she wanted to reject the offer and linger outside Sasuke’s door all day until he woke up. She likely would, too, Gaara thought. But that wouldn’t be good for her. It would be torture and pain and her thoughts would drive her wild.

“That’s a great idea, Sarabi,” Gaara said. “In fact, why don’t you use the baths in the main part of the palace? They’re much nicer and they’re private.”

Sarabi’s smile widened, as if that were even possible. Her good mood might have been contagious in any other circumstances. “Thanks, Gaara-sama, that’s very generous you,” she said.

“Yeah,” Sakura said dryly. “Very generous.”

Gaara looked over at her to find her staring at him with a mixture of annoyance and disappointment. There was something else radiating behind those malachite eyes, but Gaara found it took difficult to look at her for long enough to determine what it was. Instead, he looked to Naruto. Naruto hadn’t taken his eyes of Sarabi since she’d arrived and he wore a lecherous grin. Gaara could only imagine the kinds of perversions that he was toying with in his head.

“Naruto, you and I can watch Sasuke while Sakura and Sarabi are busy, can’t we?” Gaara asked, more for Sakura’s sake than Naruto’s.

“Oh,” Naruto said, snapping back into focus. He glanced back at Sasuke’s door and then at Sakura, immediately back to being concerned. “Right, yeah. We can do that. Maybe you can come up with some other plans while you’re in the bath, eh, Sakura? You know it doesn’t hurt to have options.”

“Plans for what?” Sarabi interjected.

Sakura shook her head. “I’ll explain it to you in the bath,” she said, sliding past Naruto.

Before she reached Sarabi, she grabbed onto Gaara’s arm. The sudden contact startled him, and now with the closeness of her face he felt nervous – a warm sort of nervous. Her eyes were pleading as she gazed up at him and her fingers felt rigid where they curled in the fabric of his sleeve.

“You’ll tell me as soon as he wakes up, right?” she asked.

“Right,” he said, clearing his throat. “As soon as he wakes up.”

Sakura nodded. He could see her appreciation on her face. She let go of his arm and linked hands with Sarabi. Gaara scratched the back of his head nervously as he watched them leave.

“Gaara, we have to come up with a better plan,” Naruto said once the girls were out of earshot.

Gaara glanced over at Naruto to find him looking in his direction with suspicion. He was bound to notice at some point the newfound closeness that Sakura and Gaara shared now. Gaara hoped he wouldn’t comment on it now.

“If it were up to me I’d have Hideki dump him at the border,” Gaara muttered dryly.

Naruto glared at him, but he said nothing. Gaara watched him slump against the wall before sliding down to sit on the floor.

“He doesn’t want to come home,” Naruto mumbled. “I can’t force him to come back to Konoha. I can’t force him to be my friend. He won’t stop until he’s killed Itachi. He won’t think of anything but that until it’s done.”

Gaara, feeling the tiniest bit sympathetic, moved to join Naruto on the floor. “Naruto, I don’t know if Sasuke will ever come around. He might not. But even if he doesn’t, he’s lucky to have a friend like you. He doesn’t show it, but he has to know how much you care about him.”

“What good does that do?” Naruto asked. “I can’t help him. I can’t take away any of his pain. It’s not like if I just let him go that he’ll kill Itachi and be fine. Killing Itachi won’t bring him the peace he deserves.”

“Then he’s going to need a good friend for when that day comes,” Gaara said.

Naruto’s scowl deepened.

“He doesn’t want to be my friend,” Naruto said fiercely. Then he seemed to deflate, hanging his head down low against his chest. “Maybe Sakura is right. Maybe we should just let him go.”

“Naruto, I’ll support you no matter what you choose to do,” Gaara said.

Naruto lifted his head. The skepticism was back in his eyes.

“Gaara, what are you doing with Sakura?”

The compulsion to lie bubbled up in Gaara’s chest. He knew Naruto used to have a thing for Sakura. With everything happening with Sasuke, Gaara wasn’t sure it was a good idea to be talking about that. Naruto seemed to be in a fragile state and Gaara didn’t want to do anything more to upset him.

“Clearly something is going on,” Naruto continued, his eyes narrowing. “I’m not an idiot. Are you guys together?”

Gaara didn’t know.

“It’s okay, really,” Naruto said, though it was rather unconvincing. “Please just tell me the truth.”

Gaara felt his heart softening a little (and he already had such a soft spot for Naruto). “Fine,” he said begrudgingly. “I like Sakura. I want to be with her. I know how impossible that is. I don’t want to take her away from Konoha or anything. That’s just how I feel.”

Naruto was silent. He tilted his head to look Gaara more squarely in the eye. His gaze made Gaara nervous.

“How does Sakura feel?” Naruto asked after a moment.

It was Gaara’s turn to hang his head. “I don’t know.”

Naruto’s gaze softened. He glanced at Sasuke’s door. “I guess it’s not just Sasuke I have to worry bout taking her away from me,” he said with a weak chuckle. He scratched the back of his head nervously.

“No one’s taking her away from you, Naruto,” Gaara said. “She never intended to leave with Sasuke and I know she won’t stay in Suna to be with me. Konoha is her home and she knows that.”

“Then why are you messing around with her?” Naruto said, his voice taking on a new edge. “You’re just going to hurt her.”

Gaara felt his face burning so he looked away from Naruto. He had a point. Gaara already knew this would hurt her. He already knew he was being selfish.

Beside him, Naruto sighed and rubbed his eyes with his palms. “Sometimes it feels like I can’t protect anyone. My friends are always suffering and I can’t do anything about it.”

“Sakura isn’t suffering,” Gaara said softly, but he wasn’t really sure.

“Of course she is,” Naruto said. “She misses Sasuke, too. And it breaks my heart that I can’t bring him back for her.”

Gaara felt the words like an icy stab to his heart.

“But even if I did, it would be just like it is now,” Naruto continued, oblivious to Gaara’s turmoil. “He wouldn’t want to be there. He would be angry. He’s not the same person he was when he left. I don’t know if I can ever bring that Sasuke, the old Sasuke back.”

Gaara didn’t know what to say. He wished Sasuke had never showed up.

The pair sat in silence, leaning against the wall together. Gaara much preferred the quiet – each word Naruto spoke only served to upset the both of them. But there was comfort to be had in each other’s company, and it was a nice reprieve from his Kazekage duties.

///

Sakura and Sarabi were not in the baths for long. Hardly an hour after they’d trotted off together, they whirled around the corner to where Naruto and Gaara still sat. Naruto had nodded off, but Gaara had kept vigilant watch over Sasuke’s door. He was sure to hear all manner of admonishments from Temari about his lack of productivity, but Gaara didn’t mind.

His main concern was Sakura, who now wore an expression of resolve. Sarabi, too, looked less cheerful and more determined now. Gaara wondered how their conversation went. She looked like she had something to say, and Gaara was all ears. He’d been stewing in his thoughts for too long.

He nudged Naruto awake with his elbow.

“Guys,” Sakura said as Naruto stirred. “Sarabi and I have come up with a plan.”

“What is it?” Gaara asked, moving to his feet. He couldn’t help but let his eyes linger on Sakura, who had left her hair still damp and slightly curling at the ends. She was dressed in simple civilian clothing and looked so casual and carefree. So different from the countenance that said everything but carefree. But she was beautiful nonetheless, and he hated looking at her but he couldn’t look away.

“Instead of me going with Sasuke,” Sakura began, “Sarabi will go.”

“What?” Naruto and Gaara both shouted in tandem.

“Just hear me out,” Sakura said defensively. Gaara glanced over to Sarabi and found her bright eyes to be encouraging. She nodded to Sakura.

“Sakura, what makes you think Sasuke won’t hurt her?” Gaara demanded.

“Yeah, Sakura, this doesn’t seem like a good idea,” Naruto added. “I mean you going with him is honestly a better plan. You could at least defend yourself against him if he attacks you, but Sarabi doesn’t have shinobi training.”

“He won’t attack her,” Sakura snapped.

Gaara wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t say as much.

“I really don’t see how this helps,” he said instead. “We’re trading one person out for another. I don’t want Sarabi to go with him anymore than I want you to.”

“Sasuke doesn’t have a bond with Sarabi,” Sakura argued. “He doesn’t know her, so he won’t care to break any bond with her like he wants to with me and Naruto. Sarabi might be good for him.”

“What if you’re wrong and he kills her?” Gaara demanded.

The look she gave him in return was harsh and it made Gaara flinch. “He’s not going to do that,” she said. “Give him some credit.”

“Gaara’s right, Sakura,” Naruto chimed in. “Sasuke is unpredictable.”

“No, he isn’t,” she insisted. “Naruto, you should understand more than anyone. Sasuke is hurting and he wants to break his bonds with us because they remind him of what he lost. He’s not a cold-blooded killer. He’s a man in pain. He won’t hurt Sarabi. He only cares about killing Itachi. He can’t begin to heal until he’s done that.”

“Are you serious” Naruto demanded. “You think it’s actually a good thing for him to go off to kill his brother? You know that won’t solve his problems.”

“I know that,” she said. “I’m just saying that Sasuke isn’t going to give up on that goal until he’s done it. He’s obviously determined. Helping him accomplish it is the path of least resistance. Sarabi can help us help him.”

“It’s true,” Sarabi piped up. “I want to help in whatever way I can. I know how important he is to the two of you.”

Gaara frowned, unsure of what to say. He didn’t like the idea of sending Sarabi away with Sasuke at all. As her Kazekage, she was meant to do his bidding and not traipse around with Konoha’s most dramatic team until she was just as embroiled in their escapades as they were.

“Suna’s getting the short end of the stick here, don’t you think?” Gaara asked. Everyone turned to look at him. “We need Sarabi’s medical training.”

“Do you really?” Sakura asked dryly. “Because you’ve managed without it so far.”

“She’s a citizen of Suna,” Gaara said, his voice equally dry. “She’s not yours to send out on whatever mission you deem acceptable for her. Does your Hokage know that you plan to do this? Do you think she would approve?”

“Tsunade-sama has nothing to do with this,” Naruto interjected.

“You only say that because you know she doesn’t give a shit about Sasuke,” Gaara said harshly.

The air became thick and tense. Everyone continued to look at Gaara, while he clenched his fists at his sides. It was annoying that Konoha brought their problems to Suna, and even more annoying that those problems were now his. They wouldn’t even allow him the input he deserved to have.

“Maybe this is a bad idea,” Sarabi said meekly. “I was only trying to help, but if it’s going to upset Gaara-sama this much, maybe I shouldn’t go.”

Gaara’s expression softened, but his heart didn’t. If she would agree to stay, he would snatch up that offer as quick as possible.

“How about this?” Sakura asked, her face also a little softer now. “We wait until Sasuke’s wakes up and ask him what he wants to do.”

Silence stretched around them.

“No, that’s stupid,” Naruto said.

“How is that stupid?” Sakura asked, hands on her hips. “The whole point of the plan was to appease Sasuke. What else are we going to do? Sasuke will do what he wants when he wakes up anyway.”

“So why offer him something that isn’t yours to offer?” Gaara asked her, unable to contain that grit that now polluted his voice. “Let him go and find another medic.”

“Sarabi was the one who offered,” Sakura snapped.

Gaara’s eyes slid over to Sarabi, who was blushing and hiding halfway behind Sakura. “Why would you offer that, Sarabi?” Gaara asked her.

Sarabi glanced nervously between Gaara and Sakura. Her gaze seemed to linger a little longer on Sakura, whose face was impassive. Gaara knew her to be anything but.

“Naruto and Sakura opened their homes to me,” Sarabi ventured, her taking on a little more determination. “They treated me like family when I had none. If this is what I must do to repay the favor, then I will gladly do it. They want their friend back, and that’s what I want for them.”

Gaara frowned, then he sighed. “And what about you, Sarabi?” he demanded. “What do you want? For you?”

“For starters, I think I’d like to meet Sasuke.”

Naruto immediately shook his head. “I don’t think that’ll be quite the meeting you think it’ll be,” he warned.

“I have no expectations,” Sarabi said patiently. “At least let me decide for myself whether or not to do this. If I don’t think I can handle Sasuke, then I won’t go.”

Sakura looked between Gaara and Naruto eagerly. It was clear she thought this option was for the best. Her trust in Sasuke was a bit foolish, Gaara thought, but both girls had their hearts in the right places and he hated having to feel like the bad guy.

“Fine,” Gaara conceded. “Let’s see what Sasuke thinks of this.”

///

When Sasuke’s eyes flew open there was a frightening moment where everything in the world seemed weightless. The room, so cramped with Naruto, Sakura, Sarabi, and Gaara all crowded around Sasuke’s bed, seemed infinitely larger. Sasuke’s gaze panned the group of people around him. It was minute, but it was there – a full range of emotion from confusion to pain to pride to anger. Gaara felt uncomfortable watching all those things flicker across the usually stoic Uchiha’s face. It was easier to view him as a callous monster than a human who experiences the very same things he did.

“What happened?” he asked, letting his gaze linger on Sakura. She looked absolutely petrified. Her eyes were wide, but the set of her mouth was stern. Gaara liked to think he knew Sakura well enough to be able to predict what she might say, but he had no clue.

“There was a minor incident,” she said pragmatically, her voice cold and clinical and nothing at all like Gaara figured it would sound based on the way her hands were shaking. “But don’t worry, it’s been resolved,” she continued briskly, seeing the narrowing of Sasuke’s eyes. “And we’ve decided that it would be best if you took a different medic with you. I’m needed in Konoha, but I understand your plight and we want you to take Sarabi with you.”

Sakura gestured to the demure, dark-haired girl who was standing behind her. Sarabi, having no prior experience with Sasuke, seemed to draw the same energy from Naruto and Sakura, and approached Sasuke with her hand extended. Her eyes were wide, too, exacerbated by their milkyness. She didn’t look afraid, but she looked cautious.

“Nice to meet you, Sasuke-san,” she said, bowing her head slightly.

Sasuke’s eyes drifted down to her hand, but he did not reach out to take it. “You understand my plight?” he asked Sakura, turning to her with a new vehemence in his eyes. “You don’t understand anything.”

Sakura’s hesitancy, her compulsion to treat Sasuke like glass dissipated. She cocked her hip out and opened her mouth to speak, but Naruto beat her to it.

“Don’t talk to Sakura-chan that you, you asshole,” he snapped, taking a step toward Sasuke with his fists clenched.

Sakura caught the back of his shirt and pulled him back to stand beside her. “Knock it off, Naruto,” she said lowly.

Sasuke crossed his arms, unimpressed. He scrutinized Sarabi until she retracted her hand meekly. “Really?” she whispered heatedly to Sakura, though everyone in the room could hear it. “This guy?”

Sakura growled and clenched her own fists. “Alright, Sasuke, here’s the deal. You need a medic and I can’t go with you. Sarabi has trained under me and Tsunade-sama for three years, so she is more than capable of being a medic on your team. You can take her with you or you can find someone else on your own.”

Sasuke gave Sarabi another scouring look. To her credit, she didn’t wither. Gaara wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t have cracked under a gaze like that.

Then, Sasuke pulled a kunai out from underneath his sheet. Gaara was alert immediately, his sand already moving to block whatever attack was coming. He couldn’t predict who Sasuke would attack first, so his sand moved toward Sasuke’s kunai to catch it.

But instead of flinging it toward someone, Sasuke stabbed the kunai into his stomach. Sakura screamed and lurched toward him, her hands glowing.

“Sasuke, what the hell are you doing?” she screeched.

Sasuke pushed her away before her hands could touch him, leaving a bloody handprint on her arm. “Let the girl heal it,” he said.

“Fuck, Sasuke, you might have hit something vital!” Sakura continued, still trying to get to Sasuke. Naruto held onto her, pulling her back away from Sasuke’s bed.

“Come on, Sakura, let Sarabi do it,” Naruto said pleadingly.

“Fine, fine,” she said, shrugging out of Naruto’s hold. “Sarabi?”

Sarabi was already pressing her hands to Sasuke’s wound before Sakura could ask. Her glowing green chakra coursed through Sasuke’s stomach, reknitting skin and muscle and whatever organ Sasuke’s kunai might have pierced.

Sasuke watched with keen eyes as she worked. She paid him no attention, her face scrunched up in concentration. When she had finished, she pulled away and gave him an expectant, curious look. Sasuke prodded where the wound had been with his fingers, and finding no pain there, he glanced back up at Sarabi, who looked quite pleased with herself.

“That was pretty stupid, you know,” she said dryly. Then a smile cracked on her features, a glimpse at a sort of brightness Gaara couldn’t remember seeing on her before. “But it was kind of badass, too.”

Sasuke’s stony expression did not waver. If he felt any amusement, he didn’t show it.

“I’ve been idle too long,” he said, tossing his sheets over his legs. He reached down beside the bed where his pack sat and hoisted it up onto his shoulder. “Come on, Sarabi, we have a lot of ground to cover.”

He shrugged past the set of dumbfounded faces and into the hall, turning back for a second to make sure Sarabi was following him.

“You want me to come with you?” she asked almost hopefully.

“Let’s go,” he said in lieu of a real answer.

///

Gaara stood on the guard tower with Sakura on his right and Naruto on his left. They watched Sarabi and Sasuke as they traveled across the dunes. They hadn’t gotten far past the village yet, but Gaara already had a terrible feeling about it.

“Are you sure we did the right thing, Sakura-chan?”

Sakura didn’t look away from the receding dots nearing the horizon. “I don’t know, Naruto,” she said softly.

Gaara’s expression soured. He knew. He knew that this was a bad idea. Sarabi had no shinobi training. She wouldn’t stand a chance against Sasuke if he turned on her. Besides, Sarabi belonged here in Suna – they had already established that. They weren’t doing her any favors by sending her away with a maniac for gods knew how long.

“Don’t look so upset, Gaara,” Sakura said dryly. “Sarabi wanted to do this.”

“Did she now?” he asked, his voice equally dry. He couldn’t help but feel like Sakura had needlessly pressured her into something she probably didn’t care to do.

“You wouldn’t understand, Gaara,” she said dismissively. It made his blood boil. “Or maybe you would, I don’t know. She did it for me and Naruto. She just wants us to be happy.”

“She shouldn’t have to sacrifice herself for your happiness,” Gaara bit out.

Both Naruto and Sakura recoiled as if they’d been bitten.

“Give Sasuke some more credit,” Sakura argued, though the look of hurt on her face was enough for Gaara to feel guilty. “She’s not going to die. She’ll be back.”

“You don’t know that,” Naruto chimed in.

Sakura’s gaze flew to him, concerned, annoyed, and angry. “Don’t say that,” she snapped.

“Even if he doesn’t kill her, or Itachi doesn’t kill her, or whatever other danger they might encounter doesn’t kill her,” Naruto began, “she still might not want to come back. She might stay with Sasuke.”

“Sasuke will come back to Konoha when he’s finished with Itachi,” Sakura countered.

“You don’t know that.”

The trio fell silent. Sakura looked like she might burst into tears. If Gaara had been the crying type, he might have looked that way, too. Naruto and Sakura stared at one another for a moment, embroiled in a heated conversation that took place solely in their eyes.

Then, off in the distance, Gaara felt a sharp stab of chakra nearly exploding in the distance. All three of their heads turned back to face Sasuke and Sarabi. Off against the horizon, they could see a plume of smoke and sand. Sasuke and Sarabi’s forms were nowhere to be seen amongst the sky anymore, instead either gone or engulfed by whatever explosion had rendered the scene before them.

The air was deafeningly silent. Gaara could feel his pulse racing as the uncertainty of what was happening gripped him.

Then he heard a familiar and terrifying bestial screeching.

Chapter Text

Gaara’s heart was pounding as he flew toward the screeching sound in the distance. Below him, Naruto, Sakura, and Hideki were running on the sand. Their shared anxiety propelled them toward Sasuke and Sarabi. Had the beast come back? Was this a different one?

He knew his first concern needed to be Sarabi’s safety, and then he needed to worry about getting the sand beast (if that’s what it was) away from his village. But presently, his mind was going blank. It was an unusual feeling to be at a loss, to have so many thoughts while none of them really made it to the surface. He was afraid.

A bright flash of light immediately drew his attention toward the dunes in the distance. He could no longer see Sarabi and Sasuke from his vantage point, but he didn’t need to. What he saw instead was an orb of white light. He knew that white light. He’d seen it before when he and Sakura had been trapped under the sand. Sarabi had been at the center of it.

Since that day had come and gone, nothing like that had ever happened again. The mysteries of the catacombs had been forgotten after the cave-in. They didn’t matter so much after Sarabi and Taiyo had been rescued and adjusted to life on the surface. Now, Gaara was deeply regretting not investigating the whole ordeal further.

He glanced down to the sand below. Sakura craned her neck to look up at him. He couldn’t see her face clearly from his height, but the small gesture was enough. He found comfort in it.

As they neared the impending scene, Gaara could begin to see Sarabi’s form at the center of the glowing orb. The light seemed to have expanded so much that it loomed over the desert like a second moon. He looked away, nearly blinded by the sight of it.

Behind Sarabi’s floating light was another sand beast, wailing and wriggling through the air. It was embroiled in a battle with Sasuke, who was moving at breakneck speeds to attack it with his katana. For a moment, Gaara could only watch in fascination as Sasuke attacked the beast with such grace and speed. Unfortunately, Gaara could also see that Sasuke was covered in the beast’s mucus.

“Sasuke!” Gaara heard Sakura yell beneath him. He glanced down at her to see her running toward him.

Quickly, Gaara lowered his sand disk and hopped onto the dune beside her. “Wait,” he said, reaching for her arm. “We need to come up with a plan first.”

“He’s right,” Naruto said. “What the hell is that thing?”

Before anyone could answer, another screech echoed through the air. The sand beast’s body came hurling toward them, flailing as it hit the ground, tossing sand up all around them.

Gaara could feel a sudden concentration of chakra, a massive buildup he hadn’t felt before. It was Sasuke. He was rushing toward the downed beast with Chidori crackling in his palm.

“Wait, Sasuke, don’t—”

Chidori collided with the beast’s head, exploding it on impact. Sakura, Naruto, and Gaara all reeled back from the explosion of blood and mucus and sand that sprayed over them. Gaara shot up a sand wall to block most of it, but he could still feel flecks of it on his face and arms.

“Sarabi-chan!” Naruto yelled.

Gaara glanced up at the orb. It was fading rapidly, darkness descending over the dunes. For a moment all he could do was watch as the orb shrank, it’s perimeter coming closer and closer to Sarabi’s body. He didn’t know what would happen when it reached her, but he didn’t think it would be good.

The light disappeared in her chest. She hung suspended in the air for approximately one second before her body began to hurtle down toward the sand. Quickly, Gaara leapt up into the air and caught her, using his sand to bring them both back gently toward the sand. Her body was limp in his arms, but he could still feel the presence of chakra in her body and see the faint pulse beating in her neck.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he lowered her to the ground. Sakura and Naruto were at her side in an instant. Sakura’s hands were shaking as she pressed them to Sarabi’s chest.

Gaara couldn’t help but feel some of her anxiety mirrored in his chest as well. Just what the hell was going on out here? How could there be another sand beast? Where had it been all that time and what was happening with Sarabi? Were they somehow connected?

“Umm, guys…”

At the sound of Hideki’s voice, Gaara looked up. Sasuke was coming toward them. There was fury and ill intent evident on his face, but he wasn’t running. He didn’t look like he would attack them, but it put Gaara on edge all the same.

“Sasuke,” Naruto said, standing up to face his estranged teammate. Gaara’s hand flew to Naruto’s arm, holding onto him but not holding him back. Not yet.

“What the hell?” Sasuke demanded. “Was this all some sort of trap? Did you send me out here with this girl knowing that thing would attack her?”

“What?” Naruto asked, genuine confusion contorting his features. “Of course not. I don’t even know what that thing was.”

Sakura looked up, but kept her hands on Sarabi’s chest. She seemed worried as she chewed her lip. It made Gaara feel worried, too. “Sasuke, you need to clean that shit off yourself now,” she said, her voice surprisingly authoritative. “It’s acidic in the sunlight. Please, it’s very dangerous.”

Sasuke glanced down at his soaked clothes and grimaced. “Acidic?” he repeated.

Gaara glanced up at the sky. The sun had just dipped below the horizon, thankfully. It gave them plenty of time to decide what to do next.

“How is Sarabi?” he asked Sakura. “Is she going to be okay?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, the crease between her brows returning. “All her vitals are fine. Her chakra level is okay, she’s breathing just fine. I don’t know why she unconscious and I can’t wake her up.”

Sasuke made a noise of disapproval.

Naruto, who had seemed to fall into some kind of trance as he watched Sasuke, jerked his arm free of Gaara’s grip. “Drop the attitude, Sasuke,” he said, his voice dangerously low. “We offered you her help and now she’s hurt. You can’t even feel the slightest bit sympathetic?”

“It was clear that whatever that thing was wanted her and not me,” Sasuke said defensively. “This isn’t my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was your fault,” Naruto said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it.”

“It wanted Sarabi specifically?” Gaara asked, both trying to get answers and mitigate the impending argument he could feel coming.

“Gaara, I’ve got to get Sarabi back to the village,” Sakura said, her voice frantic as she lifted Sarabi up and cradled her against her chest. “Something is really wrong with her and I can’t tell what it is.”

Gaara nodded and took Sarabi from Sakura’s arms.

“What about my medic?” Sasuke asked.

“That’s really what you’re concerned about at a time like this?” Naruto demanded harshly.

Sasuke glared at him, but said nothing.

“Sasuke, you need to come back to the village anyway,” Sakura said. “You need to bathe and get all that stuff off of you.”

Sasuke scoffed. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Well, make time for it,” Sakura snapped. Both Gaara and Naruto were surprised by her fierceness. “You can’t avenge your clan if you die first.”

He looked like he wanted to argue, but she did have a point. The begrudging nature of his acquiescence was not lost on Gaara. He would vastly have preferred that Sasuke just leave and perhaps die later on, but for the sake of the better part of Team 7, he would allow it.

///

Back in the village, Gaara stood at the entrance of a hospital room, watching Sakura chew her thumbnail as she hovered over Sarabi’s bed. Gaara could admit he didn’t know much about medical science, but he trusted in Sakura’s knowledge completely, and Sakura seemed quite worried. Gaara felt a little sick to his stomach when he looked over at Sarabi. Her face was serene. She looked peaceful, which would have made him feel better if he didn’t already know that something was very wrong with her.

“Is she in some kind of trance?” Naruto asked from his position at the foot of the bed.

Sakura shook her head. “I really don’t know,” she said. She leaned forward over Sarabi’s chest and brushed the strands of dark hair away from her face. Her fingers ghosted over Sarabi’s nearly translucent eyelids. “Everything is perfectly fine with her. Ever her brain activity seems normal, like she’s just asleep. But if that were true, I’d have been able to wake her up.”

“We need to figure out what that bright light was,” Gaara suggested, leaning against the doorframe.

From the adjoined the bathroom, he heard the groaning of pipes as the water was shut off. The sounds of the water running stopped.

“And we need to figure out what to do about him,” he continued, nodding his head toward the bathroom door.

“Oh, screw him,” Sakura said, her eyes still transfixed on Sarabi’s face. “Just let him go.”

“Sakura, what the hell are you saying?” Naruto demanded.

Gaara said nothing, but he tried to push down the feeling of delight that was burbling up in his chest. Now was definitely not the time for that.

“Look, Naruto, we tried,” she said, turning to look her teammate in the eye. “Sasuke has a mission and he won’t rest until he’s completed it. It has nothing to do with us, so we should just let him go. If he wants to come back afterwards, then of course I’ll welcome him back with open arms. Until then, he’s a free man. He can do what he wants.”

“An accurate conclusion,” came a voice near the bathroom door. Sasuke stood in the open doorway, still wet, still wrapped in nothing but a towel. Gaara scowled. “So does this mean I’ll be leaving here empty-handed?”

“I guess so,” Sakura said. She sounded the appropriate amount of apologetic, but there was an undercurrent of regret and disappointment. Gaara felt it pull something painfully tight against his chest.

“Are you sure you won’t come with me?” he asked her. He crossed his arms over his chest and took a step into the room. Gaara stiffened, and he noticed that Naruto did as well.

Sasuke approached Sakura, who was doing her best to seem un-intimidated by his weird tactic. He sat down next to Sarabi opposite Sakura. His eyes drifted away from Sakura’s, toward Sarabi’s face.

“Is she going to be okay?” he asked.

Sakura was stunned by the question. She opened her mouth and then closed it again. “I don’t know,” she said, words that must be killing her to repeat by now.

Sasuke held in a breath for a second before releasing it. “Sakura, I’d really like for you to come with me.”

Panic surged up through Gaara’s throat. This could be it – the moment he loses her. She should want to say yes because this was everything she always wanted.

But instead, she turned around to look at him. Her eyes met his with a sort of sadness behind them. It broke his heart, but he smiled at her in spite of it – weak, but a smile nonetheless. She could choose for herself. Gaara couldn’t stop her if he wanted to, which he very much did.

Then she smiled back. It wasn’t as weak as his, and it was reassuring to see it on her face.

“I can’t go with you, Sasuke,” she said, her voice a little stronger. “I hope you succeed, though. I want all the best things for you.”

If Gaara didn’t know any better, he might have thought Sasuke was touched by her words. His brow furrowed for a second and his mouth turned down into a frown. His shoulders drooped for just a second before he straightened up again.

“I understand,” he said, standing up. “Tell Kakashi I say hello.”

Naruto and Sakura both opened their mouths in an absurd display of shock. It was so comical that Gaara couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him. At the sound of his laughter, Sasuke’s eyes darted over to Gaara, who automatically straightened his posture under the scrutiny.

“Could you provide me with a change of clothes,” he asked a little too politely. “Mine are ruined.”

“I’ll do it!” Naruto exclaimed, springing up from the bed like a tightly wound coil. “I have some extra clothes that will fit you.”

Gaara was uncertain about that. He didn’t want to have Naruto and Sasuke get into a fight without his presence. He found it hard to imagine that Naruto would just let Sasuke go that easily. But Sakura had done it, and he didn’t think she would do that either. They seemed fairly amicable at the moment. Even Sasuke was behaving with more manners than usual.

Sasuke looked Naruto up and down. Though he didn’t actually do it, Gaara could feel the roll of his eyes. “Fine,” Sasuke said.

Gaara shifted out of the doorway to allow the pair to pass through. As they passed, Gaara covertly sent a sprinkle of sand along with them so he’d be able to keep track of them in case something were to happen.

Once they were gone, Gaara shut the door and sat down on the foot of the bed. Silence stretched between them, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. There was a tenseness in the air, a concern for Sarabi, a mutual understanding of the thickness of emotion that naturally followed an experience like the one they’d just shared. But instead of feeling awkward, it only made Gaara feel closer to Sakura.

“I know you’re worried about Sarabi, but it will be okay,” Gaara said. He firmly believed that, but he was aware that his words were more for consoling her than explaining the truth.

“You don’t know that,” she said softly, “but you’re right about one thing. We need to find out what that light was and why that beast is back.”

Gaara nodded in agreement. “In the morning I will take a squad and go investigate,” he replied. “Until then, I’ll have the village guards keep an eye out for activity.”

Sakura fell silent again. Her fingers moved to Sarabi’s and threaded through them. She closed her eyes and took in a breath as she tried to collect her thoughts.

“Sakura, why don’t you want to go with Sasuke?”

A scowl immediately marred her features. “Why would you ask me that?” she snapped. “Now really isn’t the time.”

“I’m just concerned for you. That’s all.”

“You’re jealous,” she snapped, “which is ridiculous.”

“I’m not jealous,” he replied smoothly, though he knew that was a lie, “but even if I was, why would that be ridiculous?”

“Because I’m not leaving with him,” she explained. “I chose to stay here with you. You know that. What else do I have to do?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said a little stiffly. He hadn’t exactly been under the impression that he was the reason she had chosen to stay. He had assumed it was for Naruto, for Konoha. He didn’t doubt her affections for him, but he hadn’t calculated that they may have been a factor in her decision.

“Then why are you jealous?”

“I’m not.”

Sakura frowned. “You’re acting jealous. I could practically feel how much you hated Sasuke. Just the way you were looking at him…”

“Of course I hate Sasuke,” he said a bit defensively. “He hurt you and Naruto. He abandoned his home and turned his back on the people who love him. The only reason I allowed him into the village was to make you and Naruto happy. Which might have been a mistake, because you don’t seem all that happy right now.”

Sakura blinked slowly and looked back down at Sarabi. It was clear that much of her unhappiness was due to Sarabi’s condition, but she would be a fool to deny that part of it was because of Sasuke.

“But okay,” he conceded, “I might be a little jealous.”

He had half expected her to be amused by his admission, but instead she lifted her head up to glare at him.

“But it’s not your problem,” he added quickly. “You don’t have to do anything. I’m not sure you could if you wanted to.”

“Why are you jealous of him?” she asked.

Now it was his turn to glare at her. That was an absurdly obtuse question. “Umm, because he was your teammate and your first crush and you pined after him for years. Now he shows up and asks you to come with him and I’m not supposed to feel a little threatened by that?”

“You don’t have to feel that way,” she said with a little too much vehemence. “I chose to stay here with you because I like you. If I liked Sasuke then I would have chosen to go with him.”

“Really?” he asked, his eyebrows flying up in surprise. “You would have left Naruto and Konoha behind to go with Sasuke?”

“The end goal is to have Sasuke back in the village,” she said. “He can do that with or without me. He only needed a medic, and I would have been happy to do it. It might have hurt Naruto at the beginning, but if it ended with both of us back in Konoha, I don’t see what the problem would be. When I liked him, it would have been a great opportunity to spend time with him. But you’re the one I want to spend time with. I still want Sasuke to come home, but I don’t care if I’m not the one who goes with him.”

Gaara was silent in response, trying to think of what to say before he spoke again. She was being quite frank about her feelings, which was oddly refreshing to him. He had only had experience romantically with Matsuri, who hadn’t been as forthcoming with her feelings.

“I see,” he said after a moment. “I’m glad you chose to stay because of me. It means a lot to me to know that’s how you feel.”

Sakura’s features softened so dramatically he was afraid she might burst into tears. She reached for his hand, dropping Sarabi’s to hold his instead. “Gaara, you’re a goddamn treasure.”

A short laugh escaped him. That was not what he had expected, but it made him smile and it lessened some of the tension in the room.

“I can’t wait to get you alone again.”

Gaara felt a coil tightened deep in his gut at the sound of those words. There was a heated look on Sakura’s face, which looked almost out of place. It occurred to him that Sakura was eager for the physical aspect of a relationship with him and that thought sent most of the blood away from his brain into a much lower region. It was hardly appropriate given the circumstances, but the damage was already done. He was eager, too, if a little nervous.

Because he couldn’t quite form the words he wanted to explain that he wanted that, too, he leaned across Sarabi’s legs and pressed a kiss to Sakura’s mouth. It was tender and chaste and Sakura was smiling when he pulled away.

“You should go tell Kakashi and Sai what happened with Sasuke,” he suggested. “I’ll stay here with Sarabi until you get back.”

Sakura nodded, though she didn’t look happy about having to tell her teammates about Sasuke. Gaara didn’t know the dynamics of their team, but it was hard to imagine it was the kind of thing Kakashi would be blasé about.

“Okay,” she agreed. “I want to stay the night here with Sarabi just in case she wakes up, so would you mind having someone bring in an extra cot for me?”

“Of course,” he replied.

///

Gaara sat in the dark in Sarabi’s room, watching her chest rise and fall with her breaths. Sakura had been gone for almost an hour. Naruto was still with Sasuke – Gaara could still feel his chakra signature within the village walls. With his sand he could tell that they were near the guard tower. Their presences were calm, not volatile or violent like Gaara had expected. If they were only talking, then Gaara had no complaints. He wondered what that conversation was like.

It was an odd predicament Gaara found himself in. He really needed to be back in his office doing paperwork. Temari would be furious when she found out he hadn’t even touched it yet and even more angry about everything that had happened with Sasuke and Sarabi. Gaara hoped that the festivities would distract her enough that he could resolve everything before she found out.

He wasn’t going to get his hopes up, though.

It wasn’t as though he could just leave Sarabi here alone. She might wake up any moment and he wanted to be here to see what she knew.

And Gaara was getting better at being honest with himself. He wanted to be here when Sakura got back. Sasuke’s arrival threw a wrench into what was already a very precarious situation. Now more than ever he wanted to spend as much time with her as possible, to have as much of her as she would allow.

Yes, he had other things to tend to, more important Kazekage duties and responsibilities. And yes, romantic distractions were beneath him. He was a powerful man who surely couldn’t have a weakness as simple as affections for a girl.

But his jealousy of Sasuke, his inability to focus on anything but Sakura… well, it certainly didn’t feel like he had things under control. He knew he needed to do better.

The hospital door clicked open, drawing Gaara’s attention. Sakura stepped inside, keeping her face hidden behind a curtain of pink hair. She shut the door softly behind her and when she turned to face him, her cheeks were wet with tears.

Doing better could wait until tomorrow.

“Sakura?”

He stood up, worry creasing the skin between his brows. Without a word, Sakura pressed her face into his chest and cried some more. Her hands fisted in his tunic and she leveraged her weight against him. No one had ever cried into his chest before and he wasn’t sure how to comfort her. He wasn’t even sure why she was crying. All he could do was smooth a hand over her hair as she cried.

“Sakura, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“He’s gone,” she mumbled. He was surprised to hear steadiness in her tone. He was also surprised by how vehemently his own body reacted to those words. He felt himself stiffen. If Sakura noticed, she had the grace not to mention it. Gaara couldn’t help but feel a little weird about comforting her while she cried over Sasuke.

Curious, he reached out with his chakra, feeling for the sand he’d sent along with Naruto and Sasuke. There was no Sasuke anymore – his signature had vanished and Gaara hadn’t even noticed. Naruto’s was still there, somewhere. Gaara didn’t pry into where. If he, too, was mourning Sasuke’s loss, then Gaara could give him some privacy.

“Kakashi-sensei was so mad,” Sakura continued, pulling her face away from his chest, but keeping her fingers curled up in his tunic. “We shouldn’t have done all this without consulting him. We should have at least told him Sasuke was here.”

Gaara pulled her hands away from his clothes, linking their fingers together. He hated to see her so sad, both for selfish and selfless reasons. It sucked that the little time he had with her was marred by today’s events. And it sucked that she had to feel this pain when she didn’t deserve it.

He hated how he didn’t know what to say. He hated not knowing what to do to cheer her up. This wasn’t something he’d really done before. Temari wasn’t the type to cry in front of him, though he was sure she cried. She never leaned on him for comfort like this, and neither had Matsuri. He had learned over his late teenage years that words could solve most problems.

But his problem was he didn’t know what words to say.

Sakura pressed her forehead to his collarbone and breathed a heavy sigh. He could feel moisture on his tunic from her tears.

“Come here,” he said, using her elbow to guide her toward the extra cot he had brought for her. She allowed him to lead her. When Gaara climbed up on the cot, Sakura followed him wordlessly. He held up his arm for her to settle beside him. She melted into him and continued to cry.

He hated himself for enjoying it. He ran his fingertips across her arms soothingly, giving her a reassuring squeeze every now and then, relishing in her shivers.

He held her until she stopped crying and they fell asleep together.

Chapter Text

Gaara woke before the sun came up. He was on instant alert because he didn’t immediately recognize his surroundings. He sat up, rubbing his eyes blearily. A heaviness against his side prevented him from sitting up fully, and he looked down to find Sakura curled against him. Her face was smushed against his ribcage, her hair a wild mess around her head. Carefully, Gaara removed himself from her tangle of limbs and glanced over at Sarabi.

She was still on her hospital bed, still unmoving. Gingerly, he approached her and pressed the tip of his finger against the pulse point in her neck. She had a pulse, but it was weak. He didn’t know what else to do to check on her, so he pulled her blanket up higher around her shoulders and sat down beside her feet.

He didn’t want to, but he was going to have to leave them to get back to work. He had been away from his office for far too long already.

With one last glance to ensure Sakura was also fine, Gaara exited and quickly made his way to his office.

He was surprised to find Taiyo inside, lounging near the open window. Gaara wasn’t exceptionally fond of people being in his office without him, but Taiyo was a self-made exception. Often during his first few months in Suna he would come to Gaara’s office. Though it was gone now, Taiyo had exhibited the behavior of someone who missed being a leader. Gaara had been kind enough to indulge him and allow him to be fairly closely tied to Suna’s daily governance. After all, Taiyo had some experience with that sort of thing and was often ready with handy advice or a helping hand.

It was all accompanied by a holier-than-thou attitude, but Gaara didn’t find himself too bothered by it. Gaara had come to depend on him for certain things and allowed him to get away with things that others might not.

However, after some time, Taiyo had gleaned that Gaara wasn’t always appreciative of having someone in his office and stopped coming in alone. Gaara was certain that his presence now was probably related to Sarabi.

“Good morning, Gaara-sama,” Taiyo said, his face still turned toward the window. “I heard about what happened with Sarabi and that other Konoha-nin.”

Gaara said nothing, unsure of how much information he wanted to give away, particularly where Sasuke was concerned.

“I went to check on her last night,” he continued, turning to look Gaara square in the eye. “You were in her room.”

Gaara didn’t care for his accusing tone and felt his eyes steel over at the implication. “I was in there with Sakura,” he explained. “We are still unsure of what’s going on with her so she needed to be monitored all night to be safe.”

“She’s fine,” Taiyo said, sensing the worry in Gaara in spite of his terse attitude. “Encountering the Sun Goddess after all this time was probably too much for her to handle. She’ll be okay once she wakes up.”

“You mean you know what happened to her?” Gaara demanded, “With the floating and the light and the being unconscious? Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“I planned to, but like I said, you were in her room with her with the door closed,” he replied calmly.

Gaara clenched his fists, feeling a little angry. “Tell me what you know,” he demanded. He gestured to the chair across from his desk and then took his own seat. “I’ll assume you aren’t here to waste my time.”

“Of course not, Gaara-sama, I’ve already been waiting for you for too long,” Taiyo replied coolly. Gaara narrowed his eyes. “Now,” Taiyo continued, “As you’ll remember, down in the catacombs, we used the Sun Goddess—”

“The beast,” Gaara corrected. “It’s not a Goddess – don’t call it that.”

“Alright, fine, the beast,” he amended. “Until we had seen the eggs, we were under the assumption that there was only one. Of course we had theories and theologies related to the beast’s conception, but it was all rather vague. The presence of another, though… I was hoping that the other eggs wouldn’t have been able to hatch since their mother was killed. That doesn’t appear to be the case, though.”

Gaara grunted his acknowledgement.

“I’m not sure what the relationship between the offspring of the Goddess – the beast, and Sarabi is, but if it is similar to that of hers with the beast, then she will need to tame it,” Taiyo explained.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The chakra that entered her body after the cave-in all those years ago was the beast’s chakra,” Taiyo said.

“Yes, I know that,” Gaara snapped. “You said it was similar to a jinchuuriki.”

“Well, you were the one who made the comparison. I’m still not entirely sure what that means,” Taiyo said, stroking his beard as he leaned against the arm of his chair. “All I know is that Sarabi is irrevocably tied to the beast, even in its death. I suppose I had always kind of hoped that its death would be the end of things, but if this supernatural link exists with the beast’s offspring, then we will likely need to address it. The beast will be drawn to her.”

“I can’t allow that,” Gaara said, shaking his head. “That thing is too dangerous. It drove your people underground – I can’t let that happen to Suna.”

“I’m not suggesting that at all, Gaara-sama,” Taiyo said. “I’m saying that in order to prevent such a thing from happening, you’ll need to learn to control that beast. Sarabi is the only person who can.”

“And you sure of this?”

“Of course not,” Taiyo said, shaking his head. “It’s my best, educated guess. I also believe that Sarabi will be drawn to the beast, too. She can probably sense it now, even in her sleep. Before she left for Konoha three years ago, she told me that she felt like the desert was always calling out to her. She said she felt right at home here and felt like she was leaving a piece of herself behind.”

“And you feel that this wasn’t just sentimentality?”

“If I might be so bold, I think it’s in indication of the bond between her and the beast,” Taiyo exlplained.

Gaara frowned, drumming his fingers against his desk. A quick glance at the window told him morning was approaching quickly. The sun was just beginning to spread light over the horizon.

“So what should we do about it?” Gaara asked, a little annoyed that he was in a position to be needing Taiyo’s advice. “What would happen if we killed this one, too? It didn’t seem to have any affect on Sarabi last time.”

“It’s death last time caused the link between them,” Taiyo argued.

“I thought the ritual you performed caused the link between them,” Gaara countered. “You were trying to harness its power, after all. You planned for yourself to be in Sarabi’s position now, so what would you do at present if things had happened that way originally?”

“Well if things had gone according to plan then you and Sakura would never have been in our catacombs. I’d have been imbued with the spirit of the Goddess and be able to more effectively rule my people,” Taiyo said, the bitterness in his tone unmistakable. Gaara hated that Taiyo seemed to blame him and Sakura for the destruction of his home. He understood why Taiyo felt that way, but Gaara hated it all the same.

“I realize you tie this situation very closely with religion,” Gaara said, treading carefully. He wanted to stay away from the subject of the cave-in, but what he really needed information about wasn’t much better. Taiyo’s people used to worship that beast and Gaara needed to know where he stood on that front now.

“I’m no longer a religious man, Gaara-sama,” Taiyo said, nodding his head curtly. “Old habits die hard, I suppose, but at some point over the last couple of years I began to understand the bubble I lived in and the absurdities I once believed it.”

Gaara pressed his lips together tightly, a little unnerved by the topic. “Then you understand that the beast isn’t a Goddess and that we must do what is in the best interest of Suna and Sarabi – not that goddamn beast.”

“Yes, Gaara-sama, I understand and I agree with you completely.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but said nothing else.

“If I might make a suggestion,” Taiyo began, “once Sarabi wakes up, I think it would be in your best interest to begin her training with sand immediately. I understand you taught her a few things before she left for Konoha.”

“Yes,” Gaara said with a nod. “You want me to teach her to control sand and the beast. Those are the powers given to her by the beast’s chakra.”

“You have experience with that sort of thing – much more than I do,” Taiyo said with a surprisingly genuine humility. “Even if the beast weren’t posing a problem, it’s best she learn what she’s capable of.”

“Okay,” Gaara agreed. “I’ll begin as soon as she’s awake.”

“Very well. I’ll let you get back to work, then.”

Gaara watched Taiyo stand up and smooth down his tunic before exiting. He shut the door behind him with a gentle click. Gaara glanced down at the mound of paperwork on his desk and sighed.

///

Somewhere beneath the mountain of paperwork that had swallowed him, Gaara heard the sound of knocking at his door.

“Come in,” he yelled, righting the fallen papers and scrolls.

The door opened and Temari stepped inside, her face a careful mask of neutrality. Gaara blinked at her, surprised and a little frightened by her lack of emotion. She wasn’t usually one to hide her feelings (as long as that feeling was anger, and Gaara was pretty sure it was).

“Good morning, Temari,” he said with false brightness. “How are the wedding festivities going?”

Temari’s narrowed eyes met his, allowing him to see the anger nascent underneath her stoicism. “You would know if you had been there,” she accused. “Did you think your presence wouldn’t be missed?”

Gaara rolled his eyes and raked his hair away from his face. “That’s why you’re upset? Because I missed the – what was it, a wine tasting?”

“No,” she snapped. “I’m not upset, I’m furious. I’m furious because you knew Sasuke was here and you didn’t tell me. You let Sarabi leave with Sasuke and you didn’t tell me. And then some goddamn Turtle Rock sand beast shit knocked her out and you didn’t tell me.”

“I have no obligation to tell you those things, Temari,” Gaara said wearily, though he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty. It wasn’t for any nefarious reason that he had neglected to tell her those things. It had just not occurred to him. “You’re getting married and you’re leaving Suna. You’re not going to be around to deal with Suna’s problems anymore, so it’s best we start weaning you off of them now.”

“Excuse me?”

Gaara winced.

“So I guess getting married means I stop being your sister, then,” she bit out. “And that I have no place in Suna’s business.”

“Stop it,” Gaara said sharply, clenching his fist under the desk. “This isn’t personal, Temari. I want you to enjoy your wedding festivities and I don’t want you to be bothered by all this nonsense. It’s all being handled. Sasuke is gone and I’ve already discussed what steps to take next as far as Sarabi goes.”

“And?”

“Taiyo and I are going begin to teach her how to control the chakra she inherited from the beast,” he answered. “We’ll begin with sand manipulation, starting as soon as she wakes up.”

“She’s already awake.”

Gaara was instantly on his feet, rushing to the door. Temari pushed out her arm and braced it against the doorframe, blocking the door.

“Gaara…”

Gaara felt his features soften as he looked down at his sister. This was going to be hard for her – letting go of her responsibilities here in Suna. She had always taken them very serious, identified with them even. He didn’t like the idea of causing her any more stress, but he also needed her to understand her new role as a Konoha citizen.

“You must really love Shikamaru,” he mused.

The furious blush that flamed up her cheeks amused him, but he refrained from laughing for her sake.

“I do,” she said. “That’s why I’m willing to make these sacrifices for him. I just… I’m having a hard time right now. I feel like I’m being shut out of my home. Everyone keeps talking about how much I’m going to love Konoha, and I’m sure I will, but…”

Gaara reached out and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You’re always welcome in Suna. This is your home and me and Kankuro, we’re you’re family. If Konoha sucks, you can always come back here.”

Temari grinned at him and then shoved his hand away playfully. “Thanks, Gaara,” she said softly. Then her scowl returned. “But don’t hide shit like that from me again. At least wait until I’m out of the country.”

“Okay,” he said with a laugh, “I’ll try not to have any problems until after you leave.”

///

Sarabi and Sakura were sitting together on her bed, giggling when Gaara entered the room. This was somewhat comforting and loosened the ball of nerves that had tightened in his chest as he had rushed down the hallway to find them.

“Sarabi,” he breathed, unable to hide his relief. “I’m so glad you’re awake. How is she doing, Sakura?”

Sakura straightened her posture and adopted a more serious expression. “All are her vitals are normal and she seems to be fine. I think perhaps she might have just fainted from being overwhelmed,” she explained. She reached across into Sarabi’s lap and clasped her hand.

“Well, that’s good news,” Gaara said, smiling in Sarabi’s direction. “You really had us worried there for a minute.”

“Gaara-sama, I don’t know how to explain what happened,” Sarabi said, her tone wavering. “One minute I was climbing a dune with Sasuke and the next I was waking up here in this bed. I can’t remember anything that happened.”

For a moment she looked likely to burst into tears. Sakura squeezed her hand and Sarabi leaned into her.

“Taiyo explained to me that you have a bond with the sand beast,” Gaara said, treading carefully because he didn’t want to upset her. “We discussed that the best course of action would be for you to learn how to control it by exercising the bond. Before we get to that, though, we need you to become adept with manipulating sand. Immediately.”

“Right now?” Sarabi asked, glancing at Sakura with uncertainty.

“Yes,” Gaara answered. “Right now.”

“Gaara-sama, don’t you think we should let her rest for a moment?” Sakura asked softly. “She’s been through a lot.”

Sarabi shook her head and pushed Sakura’s arm away. A bit shakily, she got to her feet and ambled a few steps toward the door. “No, no, what about Sasuke?” she asked. “Where is he?”

Sakura pulled Sarabi back toward the bed. “Sasuke’s gone, Sarabi,” she said. “He didn’t want to wait for you to wake up, and I’m not so sure you should be going with him anyway.”

“But I thought this was my decision,” Sarabi said, glancing between Sakura and Gaara.

“I thought you were doing it for me,” Sakura ventured. “You still have unresolved business here in Suna. Don’t you think that’s more important?”

“Taiyo told me how you said the desert called to you,” Gaara chimed in. “You belong here and you will thrive here. Do you understand?”

Sarabi’s lower lip trembled and it reminded Gaara that she was still rather young. They all were. It suddenly seemed all so unfair.

“Don’t tell me you were actually looking forward to spending time with that bastard,” Gaara said, only half joking.

“What’s wrong with that?” Sarabi demanded with new vigor. “I’ve seen Konoha and Suna, but I want to see all of what’s between. And the other great nations, too. Is it really that hard to believe that I’d want to travel the world with a good-looking guy like Sasuke?”

Sakura’s squeal of laughter was enough to cut through the bitterness that Gaara felt caking its way around his heart. He glanced over at her, surprised to see her amused instead of… jealous.

“I doubt your experience with Sasuke would have been anything so pleasant,” she said through her laughter.

Wanting to cut that subject short, Gaara switched tactics. “I understand your desire to see the world, Sarabi,” he began. “I hope you get to do that someday soon. But for now, won’t you stay here in Suna and let the desert give you everything it has to offer? There will be time for traveling later. You shouldn’t waste the potential you have now.”

Sakura was glaring at him, though it seemed by her posture she agreed with what he was saying but didn’t care for his sweetly condescending tone. He wasn’t trying to be condescending, but he knew he could often come off that way.

“I guess you’re right,” she said with a sigh. “I just don’t know about all this Sun Goddess stuff. I never asked for this, you know. It was supposed to be Taiyo-sama.”

Gaara sat down next to her, sandwiching her between him and Sakura on the bed. “I know this isn’t ideal,” he said. “I want you to be happy here.”

Sarabi smiled a half smile. Gaara hated that he could see heavy sadness behind her milky eyes. He knew the desert probably reminded her of the family and the home she lost all those years ago. He didn’t want to push her emotional limits. He knew better than anyone what that felt like.

“I’m sure I will be, Gaara-sama,” she said. “But do you think we could wait until tomorrow to start my training? I just don’t think I’m up for it right now.”

Gaara frowned, but it was a small enough request that he couldn’t possibly deny her.

“Okay, Sarabi,” he agreed. “Sakura and I will leave you alone to rest now.”

She smiled gratefully as Gaara reached for Sakura’s arm. Sakura gave him a scrutinizing look before accepting his arm and letting him walk her to the door.

///

Sakura was acting weird. Well, weirder than usual. She trotted alongside him as he made his way back to his office. If he couldn’t be training Sarabi, then tackling the rest of that paperwork was the next priority. He hadn’t asked for Sakura to tag along, but he had no problem with it either. He couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he would turn away her company.

But her body was rigid, tensed like she was ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Her eyes kept flickering through the windows as they passed them as if she were searching for something. Sasuke, perhaps?

“Maybe you should get some rest, too, Sakura,” he suggested politely. “You’ve also been through a lot today.”

“Trying to get rid of me?”

“The last thing I want is to be rid of you,” he said dryly. “I just want to make sure that you’re okay.”

“Well, I’m fine, Gaara-sama,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Should we get started researching the beast now or something?”

Gaara blinked. “Do you mean field research?” he asked in shock. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re out of your mind.”

“How else will we learn more about that thing?” she demanded. “You want to just thrust Sarabi into a situation she can’t handle? She doesn’t have shinobi training yet, you know.”

“I’m not just going to thrust her into it,” Gaara said defensively. “We’re working on sand manipulation first. Shinobi training second. The beast can wait.”

“Can it?” she pressed. “What are you going to do if it attacks the village? Are you going to kill it?”

Gaara stopped short and breathed in a heavy sigh. “What’s with all the questions, Sakura? You know as much as I do.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to figure out what your plans are with that beast,” she said, though she didn’t sound very apologetic. “It’s Sarabi’s life at stake, you know.”

“I’ll protect Sarabi with the same vehemence I attempt to protect you with,” he said a little dryly, though he understood her concern. “Do you want me to instate Hideki as her guard for now?”

“I’m sure he’ll love that,” she said sarcastically.

“Won’t he?” Gaara asked. “Didn’t you try to play matchmaker with the two of them?”

“Don’t try to change the subject, Gaara!” she screeched. “Yes, fine, instate him as her guard, but we still have to investigate the beast! Clearly something strange is going on and we need to learn as much as we can before you just dive into things with Sarabi.”

“I’m not going to just dive into things,” Gaara said, but Sakura didn’t seem to be listening.

“We need to know its sleeping and eating patterns, where it made its nest, what its connection with Sarabi is,” she continued, ignoring Gaara completely. “Field research is the quickest way to figure all those things out.”

“Yeah, right,” Gaara agreed mockingly. “Remember last time we investigated that thing and accidentally killed it and an entire village of people living underground? It’s dangerous. Let me handle this, okay? This has nothing to do with you.”

The look of shock and rage that appeared on Sakura’s face was so absolutely terrifying that Gaara inadvertently took a step backward.

“Nothing to do with me?” she seethed. “Are you really that deluded that you think this situation has nothing to do with me? Are you forgetting who helped you discover those people, including Sarabi? Hell, I saved your life that night! You’d be dead if this whole thing didn’t have something to do with me. Sarabi is my apprentice. I know Suna is your country, but Sarabi is family and I’m going to do everything I can to keep her safe.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes, itching to reach up and smack some sense into her. “Sakura, why do you have to be like this?” he asked wearily, rubbing his eyes with rigid fingers. “Can’t you just trust me when I say I’ll take care of it?”

Sakura pursed her lips in annoyance, which Gaara somehow found amusing in spite of how annoyed he felt, too.

“Don’t make me give you another guard,” he warned. “I don’t want you out of the village walls unless you have a very, very good reason and my permission.”

“Excuse me? I’m not a sand shinobi. You can’t boss me around,” she sassed.

“Would you speak like this to any of the other Kages?” he demanded.

That seemed to shut her mouth at least for a second. This had been a problem all those years ago – her impertinence. She had recognized at the time that she had been disrespectful and wanted to make her own sort of amends for it. Now, though, it seemed like she felt her new relationship with him gave her a free pass. If that was true, then Gaara needed to set her straight.

“No, I wouldn’t,” she said defensively, “but this is different.”

“Would you talk to Tsunade this way?” he pressed.

Sakura rolled her eyes and again he wanted to smack her

“Sakura, I don’t want you anywhere near that beast, do you understand?” he said, his voice, low, dangerous, and absolute. “If you must help in some way, then I’ll direct you to Taiyo for now. But anything involving the beast, Turtle Rock, or being outside the village walls is completely off limits.”

Sakura tapped her toe patiently while she waited for Gaara to shut up (which was clearly what she was doing judging by the look on her face).

“I know you’re only acting this way because you want me to be safe,” she ventured, “so I’m going to do as you say for now.”

“That’s good to hear,” he said, sighing with relief.

“Since Sarabi is safe for now, it’s probably best that I go find Naruto,” she said, glancing down the hallway behind her. They were approaching his office door now.

Gaara subconsciously reached out with his chakra to feel for Naruto’s. He could still feel it along the fringes of the village. He must have been at the guard tower still, even so long after Sasuke had left. He could only imagine the kind of conversation the two of them had, or the one he would have with Sakura soon. He didn’t envy their suffering and he wished there was some way he could at least soothe it.

“Is it okay if I leave, Gaara-sama?”

Startled by the question and the honorific, Gaara glanced at her face to find her looking genuine and concerned instead of sarcastic as he first thought.

“Of course,” he said, blinking in confusion. They stopped in front of his office door. Gaara paused, wishing he could invite her inside. Perhaps he wouldn’t find all that paperwork so unbearable if he had some pleasant company.

“Will you still be here when I’m done?” she asked.

Gaara glanced at the massive pile of paperwork on his desk through the tiny window on the door. “Probably,” he said softly. “Are you going to come back?”

“I could help you with your paperwork,” she suggested with a charmingly demure smile. “I help Tsunade-sama with it all the time.”

He gave her a skeptical look, but her offer had already melted all of the ice around his demeanor. All thoughts of the beast and Sasuke were gone, replaced with hopes that she actually would come back tonight so he could see her smile some more.

“Okay,” he said. “I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

Gaara didn’t know how long he had been sitting there when Sakura finally came back. He knew that it must have been well past midnight by now. She should probably have gone straight to bed, but a little selfishly, Gaara was grateful that she had come back.

He watched her enter over the top of the paper he pretended to be looking at. He had no clue what it was or what he needed to do with it. It had been at least twenty minutes since he had done anything productive and he had been just about to call it a night.

With Sakura here, though, he felt refreshed. Maybe not enough to get much more work done, but certainly enough to try to enjoy her company and forget about the past two days.

“Gaara-sama, you look exhausted,” she said as she clicked the door shut. “How can I help?”

He glanced at her face, gauging her current emotions. Whatever her conversation with Naruto had been like, no vestiges of it remained in her demeanor. Instead, she looked concerned for him and the stack of paperwork on his desk. In fact, the gentle grace with which she bowed her head gave him pause. He couldn’t remember a time when she had ever been so subservient, even in this minuscule way.

There was always something about being near Sakura that lit up a rarely used part of his brain – his arousal. It was always on the backburner and only ever pushed up to the front of his mind when she was kissing him or pressed against him. Now, though, the feeling burst into the front of his brain, pulling all the blood away from his head where it needed to be and down to a more sensitive part of his anatomy.

He felt disgusted with himself for his visceral reaction to just the act of her bowing her head to him. She was offering a productive and useful thing to him and here he was, acting like a teenager.

“How good are you at forgery?” he asked, crossing his legs uncomfortably under his desk.

“Pretty good, I guess,” she said with a shrug. “I can manage Tsunade-sama’s signature pretty well.”

Gaara reached across his desk for a scrap of paper and scrawled his name down for her. She took the paper from his hand, inspecting his signature. He watched her eyes scan over the page, awaiting her final judgment on his signature.

“I think I can do this,” she said, reaching for more paper and another pen. “Just let me practice it a few times first.”

She plopped herself down in the adjacent chair and began scribbling down Gaara’s name. With a weird fascination, Gaara watched her scrawl a large G on the paper, her fingers more controlled, more graceful than his were when it came to penmanship. It showed in the final result – a girlier, loopier version of his signature.

“Mm, needs some work,” she muttered, mostly to herself.

“No, it’ll do,” Gaara said, desperate for a little help. As much as he’d rather be doing anything else, he wouldn’t be able to rest easy until all this paperwork was done and he wasn’t about to waste an extra pair of helping hands.

“Here,” he said, passing a stack of papers across the desk to her. “Can you sign all of these for me? I’ll start on this stack here.”

Hesitantly, Sakura snatched the first page from the stack and signed it with Gaara’s name. She inspected it for a moment, her brow furrowed. “Are you sure this is okay?” she asked. “I think it’s pretty noticeable that this isn’t your signature. Won’t you get in trouble?”

Gaara laughed. “Oh, Temari will be furious if she finds out,” he said. “But let’s just keep this between you and me.”

Sakura gave him an admonishing look, but there was amusement in it too. Gaara averted his gaze quickly, feeling too much like he’d get distracted if he stared at her for too long.

In silence, they began to sign their respective stacks of papers. If he had to wager on it, he’d say he probably had about two or three hours worth of work to be done, but with Sakura’s help, hopefully they could cut that time in half.

As long as no one got distracted.

The sounds of pen against parchment lulled them both into a state of near sleep. They both seemed to run on autopilot for a few moments, grabbing a page, signing it, and then flipping it over into the finished pile. People had warned Gaara about the monotony of certain Kazekage duties. He hadn’t really taken those warning seriously, but he vowed to make sure that Naruto did. It was certainly hard to imagine the rambunctious blonde doing something like this.

Without really meaning to, Gaara glanced up at Sakura. Her eyes were glued to the page in front of her, her lower lip pulled between her teeth. She scribbled his name at the bottom of the page and flipped it over, reaching for another one.

She seemed startled to find him looking at her, and though he felt embarrassed for having been caught staring, he didn’t look away. He couldn’t if he wanted to. She was blushing and she was safe and she was here alone with him in his office and he felt a sudden contentedness when their eyes met that made him smile.

“How did your conversation with Naruto go?” he asked, diverting her attention to something less consuming.

Whatever contentedness had been on Sakura’s face disappeared. He regretted asking.

“He’ll be okay,” she said softly, returning her attention to the pages on the desk. “I don’t really want to talk about that.”

Gaara was silent, a little confused. She was always quite open with him about her feelings and he didn’t like that she seemed to be shying away from him. But he didn’t press her because he didn’t want to push her away, and truthfully, talking about Sasuke wasn’t something he wanted to do either.

Their comfortable silence resumed and Gaara returned his attention where it belonged – on his job.

It didn’t stay there for long, of course. He heard Sakura yawn and he looked back over at her to find her stretching languorously. Her spine popped and she squeezed her eyes shut in the most charming way possible. When she stopped stretching and opened her eyes back up she found Gaara once again watching her and she immediately smiled.

“I can see why you’ve got so much paperwork piled up,” she laughed. “You’re easily distracted.”

“Can I kiss you?”

The blinking look of surprise she gave him was adorable and he couldn’t help but smile at her. Maybe if he just kissed her, then he wouldn’t find her so distracting anymore and he could get some work done.

“I don’t think now is the time for that, Gaara-sama,” she said solemnly.

“It’s never the time for that,” he argued. “We have to make time for it.”

“You make a good argument,” she said, the beginnings of a grin tilting up the corners of her mouth. “Still, though, we’ve got a lot of work to get done and we shouldn’t be procrastinating.”

His heart swelled at the way she referred to his work as their work. She had no obligation to help him, but she was sweet to offer it, to take it as her own work. Still, in spite of how pleased he way by this, he couldn’t help but be disappointed by her rejection. She was absolutely right, though, and he shouldn’t be depending on her to force him to get his work done.

“You’re right,” he agreed, picking up another page to sign. “This paperwork is our top priority.”

He did his best to ignore her, to keep his attention on the pages in front of him. After a few seconds, he heard no movement of paper, no scratching of pen against parchment. Curious and uncontrollable, his eyes wandered back to her.

Her bottom lip was between her teeth again, but this time she was looking directly at him, her eyes wavering with some unspoken words he wasn’t sure how to translate.

“I have an idea, though,” she said softly, “to help with the distraction.”

Gaara’s interest was piqued. She stood up and lifted her chair off the ground. She carried it around to Gaara’s side of the desk and sat it down next to his.

Yes, that was better, he thought. The closer they were to each other, the better. She sat down and scooted her chair even closer to his. Now she was in his peripheral vision. He could feel the heat of her body, just barely, but noticeable. Her arm brushed against his as she reached for another page to forge his signature on. He reached for another page, too and they fell into an easy rhythm.

She was the first to do it – to ‘accidentally’ brush her arm against his. But he was a willing participant. He let his arm linger longer than necessary. He reached for pages he didn’t need. He was barely aware of what he was signing.

Sakura, by contrast, seemed fairly focused. Though she allowed, welcomed the unwarranted touches, she scanned each page before she signed it and stacked it neatly with the others. What a diligent girl she was.

“I have a better idea,” Gaara said, feeling a bit frustrated by his culminating feelings.

He reached down underneath her legs and looped them over his arm, pulling her swiftly into his lap before she had a chance to protest.

“Gaara!” she squealed, scrambling to find her balance before he held her down firmly against his lap. Her back was pressed against his chest – a position they had been in just once before. The urge to press his face into the back of her neck was strong, but he resisted.

“Are you sure this won’t make things harder?”

Gaara laughed. “Oh, things will definitely be harder.”

Sakura elbowed him roughly in the ribs, hard enough that Gaara winced and sucked in a harsh breath. “You pervert,” she muttered, but she didn’t move from his lap, even when he let go of her to clutch his ribs. “How are we supposed to get any work done like this?” she asked.

Gaara reached around her for his pen and blindly signed the page in front of him.

“You signed half of that on your desk,” she said dryly.

He didn’t care. Her bare shoulder was so close to his face that he could see his breath forming goosebumps over her skin. With her position in his lap and his increasingly more lewd thoughts, it was only a matter of time before Sakura would notice the physical manifestation of his arousal.

Not wanting to be the only one aroused, Gaara tilted his head forward and pressed his lips against her arm just below her shoulder. The noise she made in response – something between a mewl and a gasp – sent fire coursing through his veins.

“Gaara-sama, what about the paperwork?”

“Forget the paperwork.”

He almost expected her to argue with him some more. She was usually very diligent about work and keeping things on track. However, Gaara had a plan for that. Before she could utter a word, he grabbed her hipbones and shifted her in his lap so that he could smooth the hair over to one shoulder and press a tender kiss to the back of her neck.

She made that noise again – a sound that Gaara was eager to here more of. The smirk that graced his features was one of undeniable confidence because he knew exactly what to do to hear more of her sounds. Goosebumps had erupted over her arms and shoulders and neck and the stab of pride he felt only served to morph that confidence into borderline arrogance.

Sakura writhed in his lap, eliciting more sensation than he was used to feeling. It sent a shock of electricity coursing through him and he tightened his grip on her hips. He felt his fingers shaking as he snaked his hands up to her waist and then her ribs and then, more hesitantly, her breasts.

While the two of them had shared some very intimate kisses before, a line had been drawn here, where they were now. He wanted so badly to cross it, to show her how good he could make her feel.

But when he felt her push his hands away, he put up no resistance. He could feel her heat in his lap, so deliciously warm and near enough to dampness that he could smell her arousal too. It made the fire in his chest burn even hotter, but it also left him feeling confused.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her, careful not to touch her after she had pushed his hands away.

She sat motionless on his lap for a second, her face obscured by her curtain of hair. Her fingers curled tightly in the fabric of her little skirt – one he tried not to feel distracted by while he waited for her to reply.

All manner of thoughts flew through his head, spurred by her silence. Did seeing Sasuke again change something between them? Did she and Naruto talk about something that made her not want to see him anymore? Was she afraid or nervous?

“You can’t keep putting off your work to fool around with me,” she said, removing herself from his lap entirely.

Gaara listlessly reached for her, missing her sweet heat already. He caught himself before his fingers reached her and he pulled his hand back to himself, using it instead to adjust the uncomfortable situation he had going on in his lap.

“I’m not—”

“But it’s okay,” she said quickly, “I have another idea.”

He raised a brow, watching her with careful amusement. Her attention was drawn far lower than his face, though. He allowed his own eyes to scour her for a moment before they returned to her face. She was still looking down at his lap, but the redness in her cheeks and the pleasant sparkle in her eyes told him it was a look of appreciation instead of one of admonishment.

“Once you finish all this paperwork, you can do whatever you want to me,” she said, her eyes flicking up to meet his. The look was dangerous and smoldering and nothing like the looks she had given him before. He clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to yank her back down into his lap and kiss her with bruising force.

“Anything I want?” he asked.

“Anything.”

His lips curled up into a warm smile, pleased by the thought that she trusted him enough to offer something that could easily lead to something she didn’t like.

“I’ve heard that using sex as a reward can lead to less enjoyment for both partners,” he said casually, his eyes glittering with amusement.

Sakura didn’t seem deterred by his argument. “It’s a reward for both of us,” she said solemnly, moving her chair back around to the other side of the desk. “I’m helping you, remember?”

Gaara didn’t reply. He watched her snatch another page from his desk and jot his name down at the bottom. She added it to the finished pile and grabbed another, crossing her legs and then uncrossing them. She bit her lip again as she worked, her face turned down in concentration.

While she had effectively incentivized finishing his work, she had also laid forth some tantalizing possibilities. Would she let him fuck her right here on his desk? How would he be able to concentrate on anything but that now?

But the way she sat so attentively, doing his work for him, coupled with her previous rejection turned Gaara a little cold. He wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t do what she had suggested. He had control of himself. Besides, she had the right idea anyway. The paperwork had to get done.

So he took a page from the top of the stack and scribbled his name down.

///

Paperwork was an inherently un-sexy thing to do, so it was unfamiliar territory to have a boner while doing it. Gaara shifted uncomfortably in his chair, determined not to look at Sakura. Any attempts he had made before to look at her only stirred feelings that really shouldn’t haven been stirred.

The stack of papers had dwindled significantly, though. A quick glance at the waning light coming through the window told him that it had been several hours since they began, and he was now nearing exhaustion.

Unable to help himself any longer, he glanced over at Sakura. She was signing the last page in her stack. There were dark shadows under her eyes, but she looked accomplished. He felt a little guilty for letting her do all this work for him, for offering her ‘services’ as a reward for it. She looked like she needed a good night’s sleep. Plus, she had been through emotional hell.

“I think that’s the last of it, Gaara-sama,” she said, looking up at him as she placed the last page on the stack. Her eyes were fiery, which was surprising given the monotony of the last several hours.

But then again, he had sat silently in his chair that whole time, thinking of nothing but her longs legs wrapped around him, her mouth pressed against his. Every flutter of her lashes, every sigh that escaped her lips sent more blood rushing south until it had culminated in his current state, which could only be described as desperately horny.

“It would seem so,” he said, clearing his throat.

She chewed her lip again, twisting a piece of cotton candy hair around her finger. “So…”

“So.”

“About my reward…”

“I thought it was my reward,” he said with a grin.

“What do you want?”

It was a loaded question if he ever heard one. It hardly did justice to what he was actually feeling, what he actually wanted, which was to pleasure her in every way possible. A reward for both of them, indeed. While Gaara could hardly consider himself an expert at sex, he knew that his experience eclipsed Sakura’s. He knew that it was possible that her first time could be painful, so he didn’t want to subject her to what he really wanted – something rough and animalistic. It was his mood, not his general preference, but it just wouldn’t do right now.

Right now he had to be gentle.

“Come here,” he said softly.

Obediently, Sakura circled the desk and stood in front of his chair. “Yes, Gaara-sama?” she said, peering down at him with amusement.

“Do you like calling me that?”

“What?” she asked, blinking in confusion.

“You don’t have to use the honorific,” he said, reaching up for her hand and linking his fingers with hers. “But you do it anyway. Is it because you like calling me that?”

Sakura tilted her head to the side, looking down at their joined hands. “I do like calling you that,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “Do you want me to stop?”

He smiled up at her and pulled gently on her arm so that she took another step toward him. One more step and she would practically be in his lap again. “Not if it pleases you,” he said, leaning forward to press a tender kiss to the inside of her wrist.

She shuddered and ambled that one step more. He was still sitting in his chair and she was still standing in front of him, but now she straddled one of his legs. He could feel her immense heat again and he leaned in even closer so he could rest his forehead against her stomach.

For all her softness in appearance, she had the hard, chiseled body of a shinobi. He breathed in the scent of her and nuzzled his face against her. She smelled deliciously sweet and he almost felt content enough where he was to just fall asleep right there. Sakura’s fingers came to rest on top of his head, threading themselves into his hair, combing it and smoothing over it. He groaned softly at the sensation, blown away by how much pleasure he could derive from such a small gesture.

“You’re tired, Gaara-sama,” she said, her voice buzzing through her chest as she spoke. “Would you like to collect your reward tomorrow?”

Blazing with new determination, Gaara stood up abruptly. Sakura stumbled backwards a step, but Gaara caught her wrist and yanked her toward him. He bent down and scooped her up bridal style, shaking his head.

“No. Now.”

///

Sakura was a bit unpredictable when it came to matters of the heart. In some ways, he expected her to be upset that he lifted her as if she were merely a sack of flour and carried her off to his bedroom. But to his utter surprise and pleasure, she seemed to relish being in his arms. She clung to his neck, running her fingers through his hair, pressing kisses to his jaw.

It certainly made walking a bit difficult. He only hoped they didn’t stumble upon anyone else who might have been wandering the palace at this early hour.

“You can put me down, you know,” she murmured in his ear, noticing his struggle to focus on walking. “I’m a big girl. I can walk.”

He didn’t want to let go of her, not even for a second. But his judgment was clouded and he found it way too difficult to think about anything other than her fingers and her lips and her heat.

He kept walking, his fingers digging into his skin as he gripped her with frustration and anticipation. Had he ever wanted anything so badly before? There was no way that he had ever felt anything so compelling, so desperate. Not even Shukaku’s call for blood had ever been this strong. Never with Matsuri or any other woman had he been so… out of control.

“Gaara-sama, put me down,” Sakura repeated, a little more firmly this time. He glanced down at her face, sensing her amusement at his expense. He had no idea what he looked like to her, but judging by her expression it was different than usual.

Obediently and gently, he lowered her legs to the ground and allowed her to stand on her own. Almost immediately he felt the compulsion to pick her back up again, to snatch her up and whisk her away. If she could just not kiss him or touch him for the two minutes it would take to get back to his bedroom…

“I’ve never seen you look so wild before,” she said, her eyes comically wide. She took a step back from him, putting agonizing distance between them.

He closed the distance quickly, pressing her back against the wall behind her. “You’ve been torturing me,” he confessed, wedging his knee between her legs. “I feel consumed.”

“You look consumed,” she said dryly, but her eyelids were heavy and he could see some of that animalistic wildness mirrored in her face, too. It only served to drive him closer to the brink, so when she reached up to touch his face he caught her wrist and pinned it to the wall over her head.

She looked shocked, but not in a disappointed way, so he bent down to capture her lips in a kiss. She responded immediately with a gasp of pleasure and bucked her hips blindly toward his. Gaara grunted, not expecting the voracious combination of pleasure and pain that spread through him at the harsh contact. They needed to get out of this hallway now.

He broke the kiss, pulling back so he could look at her face. She was panting and flushed, her eyes lowered to his chest. He took a moment to relish in her obvious arousal, to know that he was the reason for it. He took deep breaths, willing himself the power to control himself for at least long enough to make it back to his bedroom.

Her fingers came up to the collar of his tunic, yanking at the fabric to expose his throat and part of his chest. He let her, though the feeling of her fingers against his bare chest made him feel like he could explode at any second.

She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the hollow of his throat. It was an intimate and strange sensation, and though he was curious and wanted to see what else she might do if he allowed her to explore his body at her leisure, he was more concerned with getting back to his bed and away from any prying eyes that might be watching.

“Come on,” he murmured to her, tempted to lift her up into his arms again.

But Sakura took the lead this time, linking her hand in his and practically sprinting down the hallway toward his bedroom.

He tried to keep the goofy grin off his face as he followed her, but for once, he decided to just let himself feel this bliss. He had earned it, after all. All his paperwork was finished.

Chapter Text

In the privacy of his own bedroom, Gaara felt a rush of freedom. He was alone with her now, their arms and fingers and tongues tangling together with desperation as they ambled their way over to his empty bed.

Gaara’s excitability had always had a fairly low threshold. Excitement just wasn’t his thing. However, where Sakura was concerned, anything could be his thing. He felt frenzied as he let his hands roam over Sakura’s body, twisting in the fabric of her vest, fumbling with the buckle on her skirt.

He could feel Sakura’s frenzy, too, in the way her fingers trembled in his hair and skittered over his abdomen. She gripped the hem of his shirt and attempted to pull it up over his head. He shifted his arms to oblige her, assisting her in pulling it off and tossing it over into the corner to be cleaned up later.

She wasted no time in exploring every inch of his newly exposed skin. She pressed the tips of her fingers into his chest, running over his abs, his muscles, the goosebumps starting to form under her delicate ministrations.

As distracted as he was by nearly every part of her body, he couldn’t help but find himself drawn to her eyes anyway, ignoring some of the more primal instincts in his body. He wanted to see her clearly now before they passed a point of no return. Sex could very well change things between them forever, and while he was more than okay with that, he also wanted to take a moment just to really take her all in.

She didn’t seem to notice that his attention had softened. Her emerald eyes were smoldering as they roved his body, drinking him in. He felt a shiver make its way down his spine at the sight of her heated gaze. Her hands were soft and light as they feathered over his chest once more before she began to unbutton his pants. Gaara was a little surprised by how brazen she seemed. He hadn’t thought it possible, but she seemed more turned on than even he was.

He watched with fascination as she continued to struggle with unbuttoning his pants. He could sense her growing frustration and it was with faint amusement that he pushed her hands away and began to take off his pants himself.

“You seem eager,” he said, unable to contain his grin. Had anyone ever been so eager to get him naked before? While Matsuri had definitely enjoyed their carnal activities, she hadn’t been nearly so vivacious.

It made Gaara’s head swim.

“I just want to make you feel good.”

The words caught Gaara off guard a little bit, both with their sincerity and the humble way they were uttered. He had meant to take the lead here and make her feel good, but she seemed to have other plans.

He was utterly helpless against her, watching with disbelief as she yanked down his pants and pulled his now painfully hard member into her tiny, impossibly soft hand. He gasped, his body jolting, lighting up all over at the sudden, delicious, electric contact.

It was with distant panic and pure delight that he realized what she was about to do. She dropped to her knees, her eyes impossibly wide as she gazed up at him from the ground.

“I’ve never done this before,” she admitted softly, her gaze drifted away from his face toward the pulsing hardness in her hands.

He was torn between wanting to stop her and wanting to bury his hands in her hair. Matsuri had never done this to him before. She had never offered and he had never asked. Since this was new territory for him, he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Would she be offended if he wanted to hold her head?

“Sakura, you don’t have to—”

Words escaped him completely when he felt her teasing press a kiss to the tip of his member, opening her mouth ever so slightly. She looked up at him, her eyes curious and uncertain.

“So I just put it in my mouth?” she asked.

“Uhh…”

She didn’t wait for his approval before she was circling her tongue around his tip and sliding him down into her mouth.

“Sakura, wait,” he stuttered, his fingers pausing just over her hair.

Obediently, she pulled back. Her eyes were expectant and curious and still a little heated. Her determination to please him was absurdly charming, but it hadn’t been exactly the way he had planned their first time to go. Still, it was incredibly hard to reject her advance, especially since she looked so pleased to be giving it in the first place.

“Get it wet first,” he explained, brushing his thumb over her lower lip, which was damp with her own saliva. He then gripped his member and gave it a stroke, thumbing her spit over himself.

“Oh,” she said softly, chewing her bottom lip as she watched him pump himself a couple of times.

For all her bravado and eagerness to please him, the endearing blush on her cheeks and the demure way she looked away was insanely charming and served to remind Gaara that she wasn’t quite as comfortable with this as she let on.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he told her gently.

“No, I want to,” she insisted, adjusting her position and looking up at him with newly invigorated determination. “I just— you might need to show me how.”

The urge to pry her mouth open with his fingers and force himself inside her mouth flashed across him mind. He was instantly embarrassed by his own intrusive thought.

A little angry with himself for thinking such a violent thing, he almost told her to forget it. They didn’t need to be focusing on his pleasure anyway. She was the inexperienced one, the one who deserved a chance to be explored and pleasured and teased.

The second her lips closed around his member any logical thought flew from his mind. Without meaning to, his fingertips buried themselves in her hair, holding her against him. The wet, roiling heat of her mouth set him on fire, electrifying his nerves and coaxing a wanton groan from him.

She made a small choking sound. His eyes flew open to look at her, his fingers automatically releasing her hair. She didn’t pull away from him just yet, though. She continued to take his length into her mouth slowly, her tongue laving over him in a sinful way. He felt his eyes slipping shut again, which was a damn shame because Sakura had never looked so beautiful before.

When she had his entire length in her mouth, she froze. He opened his eyes again to look at her and found her eyes closed. She had one hand on his thigh, bracing her weight against him and the other was wedged between her own legs, pressed against her damp panties which Gaara could see peeking out from beneath her little pink skirt.

He watched with utter fascination as she rubbed circles on herself. It was so lewd and so wanton and for a brief second Gaara could help but wonder what Naruto would think if he could see the two of them now.

Sakura hummed a low groan, enraptured by her self-pleasure. Gaara’s fingers were instantly in her hair again, tightening as he struggled to keep himself composed. The gentle, sweet vibrations she hummed into him drove him absolutely wild.

He was a mere second from grabbing all of her hair in one hand and manually pumping her mouth over himself. Luckily, before he could resort to such barbarism, Sakura pulled away, releasing his member with a wet pop.

The rush of cool air did nothing to quell the heat roiling in his gut. Sakura’s lips glistened with her spit and he couldn’t look at anything but her mouth, praying that she would return to finish the job.

“Is that wet enough?” she asked.

Gaara’s voice was caught in his throat, which was probably for the best. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say to that, and it was increasingly hard to come up with words. He could see her saliva on his member and the dampness between her legs. They were plenty wet enough now, he was elated to note. He had barely touched her but she already seemed more than ready.

He wanted nothing more than to pick her up, toss her onto his bed, and yank those panties off of her in one fell swoop.

However, Sakura didn’t give him time to come up with an answer before she had taken him in her mouth again, this time taking his entire length immediately. Gaara gasped and brushed the strands of pink hair that had fallen into her face away. She seemed encouraged by the contact and began to bob her head up and down, slowly and sensually.

He supposed he could die happy now, because surely nothing in the world could be as pleasurable as this. His body felt electric, static as he tightened his fingers in her hair again. He stifled a groan as she picked up speed, moaning and touching herself with new fervor.

“Sakura…” he murmured, trying to be gentle as he filtered her hair through his fingers. If she didn’t stop soon, he was going to…

She quickened her pace further, looking up at him to gauge his reaction and determine whether or not he was enjoying himself. When their eyes met, he couldn’t really explain the visceral reaction he had. It was like a stab, a shot through the heart. Fearing that he would come too soon, he took a step back away from her, pulling himself out of her grasp, her mouth.

“What’s wron—”

Before she could finish the question, Gaara had yanked her up off the ground and tossed her onto the bed. Before his blood could cool, he quickly moved to cover her body, pinning her down to the mattress.

“Gaara-sama, what are you doing?”

There was mirth in her eyes, much to his surprise. She might not have been experienced, but she knew exactly what she was doing to him.

“You’re suspiciously good at that,” he accused, peering down at her with narrowed eyes. She looked absolutely stunning with her pink hair splayed around her face like a halo. Her lips were wet and her eyes were bright.

“I’m a medic,” she said with a teasing grin. “I know where all your nerve endings are.”

Gaara chuckled.

“You don’t believe me?” she asked incredulously.

Gaara shrugged.

Sakura thrust her palm up to his chest, covering his heart with her hand. Gaara was a little surprised by the action, but allowed her to smooth her hand over his bare chest with confusion.

“Well, how does this feel?” she asked softly, and then with a burst of chakra through her hand, she set every nerve in Gaara’s body on fire.

The sensation was immediate and overwhelming. Gaara gasped, but felt like he couldn’t suck in a proper breath. He was tingling, humming with pleasure, but not like anything he’d ever felt before. He was only touching Sakura where her palm met his chest, but it felt like she was all over him, inside him, the air he was breathing and greedily trying to suck into his lungs. He was turned on, but it was also a little painful and his muscles felt out of his control.

He took another shuddering breath, feeling his body convulse once and then twice before Sakura removed her hand from his chest.

Gaara collapsed on her the second contact was lost. “What the hell?” he mumbled into her shoulder. He was drenched in sweat after only the few seconds spent under her ministrations. It felt like he had just run a marathon or sparred to exhaustion. His body felt limp, but alit.

“I suppose I should really have targeted a more specific area,” she said. He could sense her grinning, but he kept his face buried in the mattress by her shoulder. “How about right here?” she asked, reaching for his member again.

Gaara grunted and quickly moved to grip her wrist. “No, no,” he admonished. “We can revisit that later, you creepy little thing.”

“Creepy?” she squealed. “I’m not creepy.

Gaara lifted his face to press a sweet, chaste kiss to her lips. “Oh, you’re absolutely creepy,” he insisted once he had pulled away. “But I like it.”

Sakura grinned and craned her neck to kiss him again, this time with a little more heat. His surge of affection for her was almost unbearable. He was honestly quite surprised by her lack of apprehension and her willingness to please him so readily. It was nothing like his first time with Matsuri had been, nor any of the times after that.

She continued to pepper kisses down his neck, her fingers curling and twisting through his hair before gliding down his back and rubbing teasing circles there. She pressed her body up into his, creating delicious friction between them, slow but incredibly sensual.

Gaara wanted to press pause for a moment, to pull away and look at her. Something was brewing inside him – an emotion, not his arousal. He wanted to say something to her, to remark on the journey that their relationship had been. Sakura was a fiery force, a burst of light that awakened something in him that he wasn’t sure how to describe.

Lacking the words to say, he settled for pressing back against her with his hips, pushing her down against his bed. He could feel her enticing heat and pressure against his member, her moistness slick against him. He shuddered and reached for her skirt buckle.

She didn’t even give him a chance to attempt to take it off himself before she was shimmying out of it. With wry amusement, Gaara tossed it to the floor. She still wore her vest and her panties, which Gaara was delighted to see were red. There was something about that color, Sakura aside, that excited him.

“You’re not naked enough,” he noted, tugging on her vest gently.

Sakura shrugged indifferently, pulling the zipper of her vest up even higher up on her throat. “What are you going to do about it?” she teased.

Her heated words sent his heart racing. His dick was painfully hard now as he watched her bite her lip, wriggling beneath him while she waited for his next move.

He didn’t keep her waiting long. He reached for her zipper, but she rolled her shoulders away from him, her smile coy and flirtatious. She batted her lashes at him. He wasn’t sure how such and innocent gesture could get his blood pumping so intensely. He almost wished he didn’t feel so captivated by her. It seemed unfair – like she had some kind of advantage over him here. How could she possibly want him as much as he wanted her? That was impossible.

Again, he reached for the zipper, but quicker this time. He caught hold of it just as Sakura tried to wrench away from his grasp again. She was still smiling, on the verge of laughter judging by the look in her eyes.

As adorable as it was, he needed to wipe that smile off her face and replace it with something else. Something better.

With a little more force than necessary, Gaara tore the zipper down and unclasped the end, pulling the vest open in the process. Sakura made a noise of surprise or something – Gaara lost his ability to focus for a moment. For a second he could do nothing but stare at her freshly exposed breasts, which were small and pale and beautiful, her nipples erect and rosy and practically begging to be touched.

To his utter surprise, Sakura reached up and covered her breasts with her hands. He glanced up at her face, shocked to see redness there. Was she embarrassed? She seemed so self-assured. It was hard to believe she, of all people, would be self-conscious about her body.

“What’s the matter?” he asked softly, pushing a tendril of hair away from her face.

She shook her head slightly, and closed her eyes for a second before opening them up again to look at him. “I’m not like Tsunade-sama or Ino,” she said cautiously, glancing away from him out of shame. “You know…” she continued, struggling to voice her thoughts. “I don’t have, like, womanly curves.”

Gaara nearly laughed at her, but caught himself before it made Sakura feel worse. Her breast envy was unwarranted, but also kind of cute. He grabbed onto one of her wrists and gently pulled it toward his chest and held it there.

“Sakura, you are the most beautiful creature on this earth,” he said, mustering as much sincerity as he could for her, because he wanted her to believe him. He was speaking the truth.

She smiled, but rolled her eyes, too. Perhaps it was because he was so turned on, but her dismissal made a bubble of rage bloom up in his chest. Irritated, he snatched both of her wrists together with one hand and pinned them above her head.

“Say it,” he commanded, his tone darker – a little darker than he had been going for. Even to his own ears, he sounded a little angry, which was not what he wanted Sakura to think.

“Say what?” she asked meekly, her eyes wide though her lips were still quirked up in a dazed half smile.

“Tell me that you’re beautiful.”

She averted her gaze, her cheeks pink again, but in a charming and demure sort of way that sent Gaara’s arousal soaring up again.

“I’m beautiful,” she said obediently.

“Damn right, you are,” he muttered, leaning down to kiss her temple where he could see a cluster of tiny freckles. Then he moved to her cheek and pressed another kiss there, letting go of her wrists so he could hold her face and kiss her properly on the mouth. “You’re so beautiful,” he said to her between languid, gentle kisses, “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Sakura didn’t argue – didn’t have the opportunity to as Gaara continued to kiss her, afraid to pull away until she understood exactly how attractive she was to him. On some level she must have known. Her confidence had always been so alluring to him. She was pretty and she knew it.

Of course he realized that being self-conscious about her breast size was a different thing. She was allowed to feel some insecurities, as silly as they were. But she was perfect as far as Gaara was concerned, and he wanted her to know that.

Eager for a reaction from her, Gaara let go of her face and reached down for her breast, taking a sensitive nipple between his thumb and finger and giving it a firm, borderline rough tug.

The effect was immediate and very satisfying. Sakura groaned. Her pitched elevated as she arched into him, pressing her hips up into his. Gaara grinded back down into her, pushing her hips back to the mattress.

“Did you like that?” he asked, feeling the friction between them grow more intense. He wanted to be inside her so badly.

“Yes,” she said as she nodded, reaching up for his face. Gaara allowed her to tangle her fingers in his hair, expecting her to kiss him.

Instead, she guided his face down toward her exposed breast. This was the Sakura he liked – the one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go after it. He happily obliged her, pressing soft kisses to the tender flesh of her breasts, basking in the sweet sounds she made. She squirmed and wriggled beneath him, grinding herself against his thigh, his stomach, whatever she could reach with her hips.

Gaara growled and he continued to administer kisses and attention to her beautiful chest. Sakura was so worked up now that he could smell her arousal. It was maddening that she was already ready for him. Matsuri always had to ‘warm up’ for lack of a better term. Sakura was ready now and it made Gaara’s throat feel dry and his dick too hard.

But he wasn’t quite done with her yet. He took a sweet nipple in his mouth, sucking and biting and teasing. Sakura’s resulting screech made Gaara wince, as did the way she tightened her fingers into his scalp.

“Gaara-sama, please,” she begged. He didn’t know what she was begging for, but she only had to ask and he would gladly give it to her.

“Please what?” he asked, lifting his face to look her in the eye.

“Just fuck me already.”

How could he say no to that? With little ceremony, Gaara tugged her panties down to her ankles, his fingers teasing the sensitive slickness as soon as the offending fabric was gone.

Sakura arched again, bucking wildly into his hand. Delighted by her reaction, Gaara watched her face as she writhed against him. Her eyes were screwed shut and her lower lip was caught between her teeth. She didn’t really need his coaxing – she was more than wet enough for him already. He just had to explore her a little bit first.

Tentatively, he pushed a finger inside her, enthralled by the way she grinded against his hand, heaving and panting now.

“No,” she said, even as she continued to ride his hand. Gaara couldn’t help but grin. “I can do that myself,” she insisted. “Put your dick inside me, please.”

The chuckle that escaped him made her eyes fly open. There was some heat there of the angry variety, but Gaara knew he could make that dissipate pretty easily.

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, moving his hand from her crotch to his own. He was torn between wanting to look at her face as he entered her and wanting to look at the act itself, the tantalizing act he had dreamed of too often.

The gentle mewl that she made as he guided himself inside her made the choice for him. Her mouth hung open, her brows knit as he eased the entire length of himself down inside her. Her eyes were dilated, boring straight into his. She closed her eyes, wincing slightly as he pushed himself all the way inside her. Gaara was gentle easing himself into her and then holding still so she could adjust.

He began to feel her chakra surrounding his dick – not doing anything to it, but just there.

“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned that he might be hurting her and she was trying to heal herself.

More chakra surged up in her, this time to her hands. In the blink of an eye, she had wrenched him down to the mattress, flipping their positions so that she was hovering over top of him. It caused slick friction and tightness between them that made Gaara grunt.

Sakura was chewing her lip, her heartbeat stuttering in her chest. Fascinated, Gaara watched the pulse point in her neck. They were both perfectly still for a second, staring at one another. If Gaara didn’t feel a thread of uncertainty coursing through him, he might have bucked up into her to get her rolling. It was difficult to read her face, which Gaara hated. He liked to think he could understand what she was thinking, but he didn’t.

He wished she didn’t look so serious.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“Shush,” she murmured, pressing her finger to his lips. Obediently, Gaara remained still and silent. After a few moments, Sakura began to move, slowly riding him. Her fingernails bit into his chest and her pink hair trickled down between their faces as she began to pick up speed.

Hesitantly, Gaara reached up and gathered her hair, pulling it back behind her neck and holding it in his fist. God, she was beautiful. He couldn’t help but feel faintly amused by her furrowed brow and obvious concentration.

Sakura paused for a moment to adjust her angle and then began again, this time fast and a bit more frantic. She moaned, the sound a little desperate and insanely arousing. Gaara tightened his fist in her hair and used his free hand to grab onto her hip and help her ride him.

She moaned again, this time elevated and primal.

“Gaara, please.”

He was a little surprised to hear her utter his name without the honorific. He didn’t now exactly why she liked to use it, but the fact that she didn’t this time made his heart skip a beat.

“Please what?”

She reached for the hand that was on her hip and guided it toward her crotch, watching Gaara’s face to see his reaction.

“Make me cum, please.”

Gaara blinked, feeling a little blown away by her desperation and her lack of shame and her desire for him. He wondered if she even knew how much power she had in that moment because there wasn’t a single thing in the world he would deny her. All she had to do was ask for it.

“Oh, I’ll make you cum,” he said before flipping her back over on her back.

Chapter Text

Gaara woke up alarmed and confused. There was a beating heart pressed against his arm, accompanied by soft, soft flesh and a sound that he suspected was snoring. He relaxed a little and opened his eyes. It was only Sakura, exactly where she was supposed to be. She had latched herself around his arm, her face buried in his bicep and the rest of her body pressed against him so fully that it was difficult to tell where her body ended and his began.

The clock beside his bed told him it was almost noon. He had overslept, or rather, underslept because it had been scarcely an hour since he had closed his eyes. He suppressed a groan and rolled onto his side, facing Sakura. He would give anything to be able to stay in bed all day, but he couldn’t do that.

His movement made Sakura stir. She released his arm, but retracted herself further into the curve of his body. Her body heat was intense underneath the thick cover of his duvet. He was nearly sweating, but he didn’t mind.

With a sigh that might have been content had he not had other obligations to fulfill, Gaara pressed a kiss to the top of her head and attempted to extract himself from her grasp.

Her eyes flew open and he was met with their brunt force, which was really just too much for him so early in the day. Did she have to be so damn beautiful?

“Good morning,” he said to her, reaching up to smooth some of her sleep tousled hair out of her face.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked, her voice hoarse, but undeniably charming in its faux hostility.

He gave up (for the moment) and relaxed in her arms. She stretched languorously against him, so catlike with her grace, the delightful tremor that wracked her body. She then hiked her leg over his waist and pulled herself close to him so that they were chest to chest, her nose brushing along his neck.

In spite of the heat, Gaara shivered, enraptured by her supple body, the way she melted into him. What he would give to wake up like this with her everyday…

“Sakura, I have to get up.”

Sakura did not agree, evidenced by the way her legs tightened around him. He could feel the sticky remains of the previous night’s pleasure still very much present – a reminder that they both needed a bath before they could do anything productive.

“No, just stay here forever,” she countered, her voice muffled by his throat.

“As much as I’d like that, I don’t think my sister would be too pleased,” he said. “She’s probably already furious.”

Sakura pulled away from him to peer into his face. He couldn’t help but smile at her, again struck by how beautiful she was. With her cheek pressed against his pillow and her eyes glimmering, she looked concerned – worried, almost.

“She’s leaving soon,” she murmured. “You probably want to spend time with her, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Gaara affirmed. “But first, we have a sticky situation we need to take care of.”

He reached down beneath the covers and teased the inside of her thigh with gentle fingers, probing at the sticky mess he had left there. She made a closed-mouth noise of surprise and instinctively bucked her hips into his hand. Smiling, he rolled over on top of her, using his hips to pin her down against the mattress.

“You’re dirty,” he said, flitting his gaze over her body, so smooth and soft beneath his. Her cheeks and chest were pleasantly flushed, her breasts practically begging to be touched. He almost did, but he didn’t want to get too distracted. He had other plans for them.

“You need a bath,” he continued, resisting the urge to roll his hips forward into hers again.

“Yeah,” she agreed listlessly, not seeming to understand what he was implying. “Can I use your private bath?”

“Of course,” he replied easily, “but your cleanliness is priority one this morning. I’m not sure I trust you with that task.”

Her eyes narrowed, but understanding dawned on her and it made Gaara smile even wider. “I’m thinking only the Kazekage can handle such a task,” he said, reaching for her thigh and pulling it up until she hoisted her leg around his back.

“I see,” she said pragmatically. “Then I leave that to your capable hands.”

///

Gaara’s capable hands carried her to his private bath, steadier now that his lust had been slaked, at least for the night. There was no telling how he would feel once he got her to the bath, but for now he managed just fine.

As usual, the bath was warm and waiting for him, prepped with all the things he liked – bamboo bath salts and cedar-scented soap. He was in a better mood than usual, and because Sakura seemed to be too, he tossed her unceremoniously into the water. The resulting deluge of water that crashed over him wasn’t his only penance. Sakura, once she had resurfaced, reached for a bottle of shampoo from the corner of the tub and lobbed it at his head with deadly accuracy.

He grinned as he dodged it, wasting no time in jumping in the tub to join her.

“You didn’t have to throw me,” she sulked once the water had calmed down.

“It seemed more fun than lowering you gently,” he said, leaning back against the marble seat with a contentedness he had not felt for some time. Sakura sat down in the seat beside his, sighing and resting her head against the marble lip.

When she closed her eyes, he took the opportunity to admire her, to soak in everything about her that he could see – her rosy lips, her long, pink lashes. There was a faint smile on her face, one that sent Gaara’s heart into a crazy whirlwind of mismatched beats.

Feeling his eyes on her, she cracked an eye open to look at him. “See something you like?” she asked.

“Do you have to go back to Konoha?”

Sakura’s smile vanished and he sensed that wasn’t a conversation she wanted to start having, but he couldn’t help himself.

“Temari’s leaving,” he continued, “and you’re leaving with her.”

“It’s not like you’ll never see us again.”

“I know.”

Sakura frowned and moved closer to him, her side pressed warmly against his. She reached for his fingers and interlaced them. “Come on, Gaara, don’t be so sad,” she said, pressing her lips to his cheek. “You never know what might happen. I’m here now, so let’s not waste our time together.”

“You’re right,” he said, lifting her by her waist and depositing her in his lap. She squealed and tightened her legs around him. “Now let’s get you cleaned up.”

He reached for the washcloth at the side of the tub and lathered it up with soap. The insides of her thighs were slippery and smooth as he brushed the stickiness away. Sakura bit her lip, but remained still while he cleaned her. He dragged the cloth across her skin, up her waist and chest to her shoulders. She moved her hair to one side to allow him better access.

Gaara had never done anything like this before. It felt far more intimate than actually having sex with her had been. She was warm and wet and smiling with pleasure and tried not to feel sad as he scrubbed her clean.

He should never have gotten involved with her. It was just too painful. She shone so brightly that she had burned him, and now with her impending absence, he would feel that pain more acutely. She would feel it, too, he realized. Once she was back home in Konoha, she would miss him. He didn’t want her to hurt and he regretted that he had done this to her and to himself. He had been foolish and impulsive, but it was hard to be remorseful when she was clearly so happy to be here in his arms.

“Gaara, please,” she said, tugging on his hair gently. “Stop looking so sad.”

He looked up at her face, mesmerized by her sparkling emerald eyes. She was frowning with concern – a look her never like to see on her.

He pulled her into a kiss so he wouldn’t have to see her face anymore. She responded with less enthusiasm than he was used to from her. She was languid and slow, reaching for the washcloth as she continued to kiss him. She ran it over his chest and shoulders, brushing away the sweat from the night before.

When she pulled away her face was still concerned.

“What do I have to do to get you to stay in Suna with me?” he asked, running his fingers up her spine.

“You know I can’t stay here.”

“I’ll make a trade with Tsunade,” he offered. “I’ll give Konoha my best medic. I know he’s not on your level, but I’m giving up Temari, too. That must be worth something.”

“Gaara…”

Gaara clenched his teeth together, trying not to sigh aloud. He shouldn’t have let Sakura see him like this. He was the Kazekage – he should be better than this.

Abruptly, Gaara heaved Sakura back into the seat beside him and clamored his way out of the tub. He slipped his bathrobe around his shoulders, avoiding Sakura’s eye.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I need to go.”

He offered no explanation, nor did he have the courage to look back at Sakura’s face. He was sure whatever shock or anger or sadness he saw there would only undo him, and he really didn’t need to be undone today.

He did hear her heavy sigh, though, and it was enough to undo him.

///

Sarabi’s milky eyes were screwed shut, her lip wedged between her teeth as she concentrated on her chakra. Gaara sat beside her on the crest of a dune just outside the village, watching as she swirled a handful of sand in random patterns in the air in front of her.

“Pay attention to your chakra level,” Gaara said, feeling that Sarabi was already beginning to dwindle her reserves. “You don’t have shinobi training yet, so your chakra hasn’t been exercised enough for you to know what that feels like. When you start to feel exhaustion, you need to stop.”

“Yes,” Sarabi grunted, continued to swirl the sand about.

He could feel her chakra lowering by the second. “If your reserve empties, you’ll die,” he warned.

Sarabi’s sand fell back down to the dune. “I’ll die?” she asked.

“In time you’ll learn to increase your chakra control and therefore use a smaller amount,” he explained. “You always want to use the smallest amount necessary for whatever jutsu you’re performing.”

“I don’t know any jutsu,” she said, opening her eyes to look at him.

“I will teach them to you,” he said. “But first, you need to understand your own innate abilities. Use your intuition. What do you think you’re capable of doing with all this sand?”

Sarabi closed her eyes again, humming with concentration. Gaara reached out with his own chakra, trying to sense what she sensed to predict what she might do. He could feel her practically vibrating beside him, her energy high and excited. The corner of his mouth quirked up as he realized just how much of a natural she seemed to be.

The dunes in front of him began to shift. He was surprised that she was even able to move such a large amount of sand without any prior training. The dunes shifted like waves on the sea, giving the horizon the illusion of being the ocean.

Then he felt her chakra spike dramatically. A little concerned, he glanced over at him and saw her chewing her lip as she concentrated. He returned his attention to the dunes and was surprised to find them solidifying before him. The orange-beige grains of the sand morphed into solid grey stone, peaks like mountains forming against the stark sky.

Gaara felt his jaw drop as he watched the grey stone bleed to red clay like the stone structure back at Turtle Rock.

“Sarabi…”

The stone dissipated, returning to its original state. The dunes reformed and crested as Sarabi continued to manipulate them.

“How was that?” she asked, opening her eyes again.

“Umm…”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her brow furrowed.

Gaara shook his head, feeling her confusion mirrored on his own face. “I think that’s enough for today,” he said, his mind racing with all the possibilities. “You need to eat and restore your chakra.”

Sarabi nodded in agreement and stood up, brushing the sand from her pants. “Thanks for today, Gaara-sama,” she said. “That was really fun and I feel like a learned a lot.”

“Yeah,” Gaara murmured in agreement. He had learned a lot, too.

///

“You wanted to see me, Gaara-sama?”

Gaara looked up from the scroll he was holding, glancing at the white-haired man with a little irritation. He had sent for Taiyo almost an hour ago.

“Yes,” Gaara said, gesturing to the seat across from his desk. He could worry about Taiyo’s tardiness later. “I need to speak with you about your people’s history.”

Gaara could see more than hear the tired groan Taiyo made with the back of his throat. He took his seat slowly, keeping his head bowed low with a least a semblance of respect.

“What would you like to know, Gaara-sama?”

“Who built the catacombs?”

“Our ancestors, of course,” Taiyo answered. “I’m not quite sure I could get you specific names.”

Gaara glared at him. “The walls of the catacombs were made of stone,” he continued. “I find it hard to believe that ancient Suna wouldn’t have realized an entire community of people building a stone structure out in the middle of the desert. No offense, but your people were fairly primitive. How could they have pulled off such a feat? How could they have built something underground like that?”

Taiyo frowned and looked away from Gaara. Gaara watched the reflection of the sun in Taiyo’s eyes, awaiting his answer.

“The goddess…” Taiyo began, his eyes growing more distant as he gazed through the open window. “You’re aware that she chooses a mouthpiece. Well, this mouthpiece is capable of not just moving sand, but manipulating it, changing its form.”

“Who was the mouthpiece prior to Sarabi?” Gaara asked, leaning forward to draw Taiyo’s attention away from the window.

“There was none,” Taiyo replied. “This was what caused our people to suffer so much. There was no one to control the goddess, no one to manipulate things the way we had become accustomed to. It was why I was going to try to force the ceremony and become the mouthpiece myself.”

Gaara’s frowned deepened.

“You didn’t trust me then,” Taiyo pointed out, though it sound more like a musing than an accusation. “I only had my people’s best interest at heart. I wanted to help. I thought I could.”

“It’s irrelevant now, Taiyo,” Gaara said, his heart softening a bit at the look of remorse on Taiyo’s face.

Taiyo shrugged his frail shoulders, his gaze penetrating as it fell back on Gaara.

“Did any of the previous mouthpieces have training?” Gaara pressed. “Did they understand innately how to control the beast and use their powers?”

“I cannot say, Gaara-sama,” Taiyo admitted. “That was something I had hoped to figure out for myself.”

Gaara tapped his finger against his lips, swiveling his chair around to look through the window. The sun was hanging low in the sky. Dinnertime was approaching and Temari’s feast would begin soon. He needed to get dressed. He needed to shake all thoughts of Sarabi and Sakura from his mind and be there for his sister.

“So it’s safe to assume that one of these mouthpieces was the one who formed the catacombs,” Gaara postulated.

Taiyo shrugged again. “I suppose so.”

Gaara’s eyes hardened because that seemed like something that Taiyo should have known for sure.

“Okay,” Gaara said softly, turning back to face Taiyo. “You’re dismissed.”

Taiyo nodded and stood up slowly, his bones creaking. Gaara watched him make his way to the door, his movement languid in his old age. “You know, Gaara-sama, I wonder sometimes if you would have this same interest in my people if it had been me chosen instead of Sarabi.”

Gaara felt his words like an icy wash of water over his body. Taiyo disappeared around the corner, but Gaara shot out a wall of sand to block his path.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Gaara demanded, using his sand to force Taiyo back into his office.

Taiyo looked sheepish enough, but there was a bitterness behind his eyes that made Gaara’s scalp tingle.

“I’ve seen the way you look at her,” Taiyo said accusingly. “It’s the same way you look at that Konoha girl. Not to mention Matsuri. How many women do you need to slake your lust?”

Gaara felt his jaw drop, his gut whirling around like a tornado. Was that what everyone thought of him?

“Watch your tongue, Taiyo,” Gaara seethed.

Taiyo bowed his head again, but Gaara didn’t miss the look of contempt in his eyes. “Forgive me, Gaara-sama,” he said curtly. “It’s not my place. However, Sarabi is like a daughter to me, so you will have to accept that I won’t stand for you hurting her in any way.”

“Get out,” Gaara said, already feeling blinded by his rage. He hadn’t felt so angry, so misunderstood in a long time. For a moment he almost felt like a child again, a demon trapped in a boy’s body.

Taiyo wasted no time in disappearing around the corner again. Using his sand, Gaara slammed his office door shut.

///

“You look nice, Gaara,” Temari said, beaming at him as he approached her table. Shikamaru was seated beside her, and the rest of the Konoha-nin were spread around the table. He noticed Sakura and Sarabi sitting next to one another, both absorbed in what appeared to be a serious conversation. He could feel his cheeks warming up at the sight of them, so he sat on the opposite side of Temari, as far away from the pair as he could realistically be.

“Thank you,” Gaara said curtly. He had intended to put on a happy face for his sister, to make this feast enjoyable and pleasant for her. It was one of the last times he’d be able to enjoy a meal with her for a while, and he desperately wanted to have fun and forget about everything else.

It was just so hard to reign in his desire to sulk.

“Damn, you’ve always got to look grumpy, don’t you?” Temari bit out, rolling her eyes.

“I’m not grumpy,” he said, forcing a grin. “See?”

“Ugh, that looks creepy,” she said, but she smiled back – one far more genuine than his. “But at least you’re trying. What do you have to be grumpy about anyway? Still mad that I’m leaving?”

Gaara shook his head. “It’s nothing, dear sister,” he said, his smile growing more genuine as he spent time in his sister’s company. “Let’s just have a good time before you have to leave.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Shikamaru said, raising his glass to Gaara.

Gaara reached for his own cup of wine and took a generous swig.

///

Approximately half an hour into dinner, Gaara could feel his head swimming. He was on his eighth glass of wine with no signs of slowing down. Temari, with a rueful twist of her lips, pulled the glass out of his hand.

“Come on, Gaara, you can’t get drunk like this,” she insisted, holding the glass out of his reach.

“Aww, let him live a little,” Kankuro said, also quite inebriated. “He never does this. He needs to let loose a little bit.”

“It’s unseemly,” Temari hissed.

“But you’re here in case anything goes wrong,” Gaara said, his eyes watery and pleading. He knew in the morning he would feel disgusted with himself, but in the moment he didn’t care. That was what was so great about being drunk in the first place.

“I don’t want to babysit you all night, Gaara,” she said tersely. “I’m the guest of honor, remember?”

“It’s fine, Temari, I’ll take care of him,” Kankuro said.

“You’re drunk, too,” she said dryly, “and we haven’t even had the main course yet.”

Gaara glanced down at the plate in front of him, ravenous. Temari had insisted on grilled fish because it was Shikamaru’s favorite. In spite of all the trouble it was to import fish for this one occasion, Gaara couldn’t deny his sister such a simple request. It had been expensive enough to annoy him, but now he was grateful because he hadn’t seen anything to scrumptious looking in his life.

He eagerly tucked into his food with less grace than was appropriate for a Kazekage. He ignored Temari’s eye roll, instead, grinning through his mouthful of food up at his brother. Perhaps he should get drunk more often. He felt much more affection for Kankuro this way.

Feeling a strong arm wrap around his shoulders, Gaara dropped his chopsticks onto his plate and leaned back.

“Naruto,” he said, beaming up at the blonde.

“Gaara, you’re drunk,” Naruto said, returning his smile. In his inebriated state, Gaara could tell that Naruto was at least a little tipsy, though not nearly as wasted as he and his brother were.

“It’s a special occasion,” Gaara said dismissively.

Again, Temari rolled her eyes.

“Indeed, it is!” Naruto agreed. “This calls for a drinking game!”

Gaara could hear Temari protesting, but he shushed her. “I’ve never heard such a good idea,” Gaara said, grinning from ear to ear.

///

Feeling something rake through his hair, Gaara felt a sudden alarm that sloshed around in his gut. He might have winced had he had the energy, but instead he made a guttural, deep sound. He tried to open his eyes, but they were glued shut. He could feel them crusted over so he reached his hand up to rub at them.

The effort winded him. He groaned louder, which made his head pound furiously. He tried to roll over, but a pair of tiny hands held him firmly in place.

“Don’t move, Gaara-sama,” said an achingly beautiful voice. “You’ll just make it worse.”

“Make what worse?” he rasped.

“You’re hung over, moron.”

There were only two people with the audacity to call him a moron, and he was certain that Temari wouldn’t be cradling his head in her lap like this.

“Sakura, please,” he murmured, absently reaching up for her hand. He could feel her running her slim fingers along his brow, through the hair that he could feel was matted down against his forehead. She kept her fingers away from his grasp, but continued to finger comb his hair.

“Please what?”

“My head is killing me.”

“That’s what happens when you drink too much, Gaara-sama,” she said. He was irritated by the amusement he could hear in her voice.

Blearily, he managed to open his eyes. He winced at the brightness that flooded his vision, but a second later he heard the click of the lamp and the brightness faded.

“We’re in my room?”

“Where else would I have brought you?”

He opened his eyes again, grateful for the near darkness. The moonlight through the window was the only light in the room now, and it cast a silvery glow over Sakura, illuminating her pink hair. Her eyes glinted in the darkness, eerie but still stunning. She was looking down at him with a look of amusement and disapproval, which irritated him, but she was so stunningly beautiful that it made him feel sick all over again.

He swallowed the bile rising in his throat and reached up to touch her face, but she jerked her chin away from him.

“Please, get rid of my headache,” he begged, in too much pain to care that he was above begging.

“You deserve this,” she said, her voice absurdly quiet. There was a strain of seriousness in it that told him this was important to her.

“I’m sorry about this morning,” he said, watching her grit her teeth. He started to sit up, but she pressed down on his chest to keep him in place.

“You’re mad at me because I won’t stay in Suna with you.”

Gaara sighed and shifted so that his cheek was pressed against her thigh. She was incredibly warm and soft, and very, very correct. He didn’t want to feel angry with her. He would never consider moving to Konoha to be with her, so it was unfair of him to want her to move here.

But it didn’t stop him from wanting it.

“I’m not mad at you,” he insisted.

“I have a new respect for Temari,” Sakura mused. “I’m not sure I’m equipped to handle your temper tantrums on a regular basis.”

“This is not a temper tantrum,” he snapped. The vehemence of it made his stomach turn and he curled himself tighter against her.

“I think I prefer you when you’re not so grumpy.”

“I’m less grumpy when you’re around.”

“You seem pretty grumpy right now.”

Gaara scowled, but his expression softened – not because he felt softer but because scowling made his headache worse.

“Please, Sakura.”

She smiled softly at him, looking so angelic bathed in moonlight that it felt like just looking at her for too long would shatter his heart into a thousand pieces. She leaned down and pressed her lips against his forehead in a kiss so tender he couldn’t really be sure she’d kissed him at all.

“No.”

Chapter Text

Gaara woke with his head pounding and his mouth tasting like he’d eaten vomit for dinner. His stomach roiled and he opened his eyes to find himself still nestled between Sakura’s folded legs. They were in his bed still, and it was still dark outside. He could hear Sakura’s soft snoring and her fingers still lodged in his hair.

Feeling very close to throwing up, he extricated himself from her grasp as carefully as he could and rushed to the bathroom. After purging the previous night’s food and alcohol from his system and brushing his teeth, he made his way back to bed.

Sakura was sitting upright against his headboard, her head lolled to one side. He found it extraordinarily charming that she had stayed the night with him in spite of the fact that she was obviously quite angry with him. She may not have fixed his headache or quelled his nausea, but she hadn’t left his side all night.

He slipped into the bed beside her and gently pulled her against his side, adjusting her head so that her neck wouldn’t hurt when she woke up. She instantly melted against his side and he felt himself relaxing. His head was still pounding, but he didn’t feel so nauseous anymore.

He contemplated going to the infirmary to have them soothe his headache, but Sakura wouldn’t be too pleased with him, and perhaps she was right. Maybe he deserved to feel this pain. After all, he’d brought it on himself and he’d treated Sakura unfairly.

Instead, he leaned back and closed his eyes, fighting against the swirling, rocking sensation in his head.

He immediately opened them again because he felt like he would float away with them closed. He shifted uncomfortably and stifled a groan. He could already feel his nausea returning and he vowed then and there to never, ever drink again. He felt Sakura stirring beside him and the motion made his stomach churn.

Another groan escaped him, though he tried to stay quiet for Sakura’s benefit. He should probably wake her and send her off to her own bed. It was humiliating to be in this condition, but he selfishly wanted to keep her in bed with him.

Staring up at the ceiling, he did his best to ignore the ache in his head and the swirling in his stomach, but he could tell that sleep wasn’t going to come to him now.

He had all but given up when he felt deliciously soothing chakra filter into his head. His headache melted away instantly.

“Sakura?”

She remained still and quiet. If he hadn’t already been familiar with the feeling of her healing chakra, he might have assumed that it was some miracle that cured his headache and that Sakura was still asleep. A moment later his nausea was gone, too, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” he said and kissed the top of her head. She didn’t respond or acknowledge him at all. For a second he believed that she might have healed him in her sleep, but he brushed that ridiculous thought away.

He closed his eyes and tightened his hold on her. This time, sleep came much easier.

///

“You must be pleased with her progress.”

Gaara looked down at his sister, who sat with her feet dangling off the edge of the guard tower. She was looking down at the dunes below where Sarabi and Shikamaru were sparring.

“She’s shown remarkable growth, but I don’t think I can take credit for that,” Gaara admitted. “It must have something to do with the monoliths and the beast.”

Temari peered up at him, squinting and shielding her eyes with a flat hand. “Do you think so?” she asked. “Her powers must have manifested a while ago, back when she first came to the surface. Why do you think she’s improving so much now?”

Below them, Shikamaru’s howl drew their attention to the dunes. Sarabi had used a burst of sand to launch him up into the air. He scrambled for balance or something to grab onto before hitting the sand with a loud grunt. Temari tittered and Gaara found her smile infectious.

“I think being in back in the desert has invigorated her,” Gaara said. “She belongs here. She’s thriving here.”

Temari nodded in agreement, but kept her gaze focused on Shikamaru and Sarabi.

“I know you may not approve of this, so I’m going to come right out and tell you so you don’t get angry with me for it later,” Gaara began. Temari’s gaze snapped sharply up to meet his. “I’m going to take Sarabi into the desert tonight and hunt down the beast.”

“You really think that’s wise?” she asked dryly.

“It’s younger than the one we fought before,” Gaara countered. “We know enough about it to be able to defend ourselves properly. I believe Sarabi may be connected to it in some way, and I’d like to find out details.”

“Are you going to kill it?”

“If necessary,” he answered. “I’m also interested in seeing how Sarabi handles real danger. I’d like to see her instincts in actions.”

“She’s not had enough training,” Temari argued. “She could get hurt.”

“I’ll be there to protect her.”

“Take Kankuro or Hideki with you,” Temari implored, “just to be safe.”

Gaara frowned. He’d rather not put anyone else at risk. More people with him only meant more people to protect. But it was easy to understand why Temari didn’t want them going out there alone, so he acquiesced for her sake.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll wear a radio so you can keep in constant communication with us in case something happens.”

Temari shook her head. “I can’t. I have plans with Shikamaru tonight,” she said.

Gaara’s frown deepened. “What plans?” he demanded.

He was horrified to see her face turn red under his scrutiny.

“Personal plans,” she snapped, angling her body away from his so he could no longer see her face. They both looked back down to Shikamaru and Sarabi, who were now sparring with fists. Shikamaru definitely had the upper hand there, but it was amusing nonetheless to watch him lazily swing at her.

Feeling a little annoyed, Gaara sat down beside Temari and let his legs dangle beside hers. He gripped the metal railing with white knuckles and glanced in her direction.

“Temari?”

“What?” she snapped, obviously still annoyed by his prying.

He hesitated for a moment, not sure he wanted to strike up this particular conversation with her if she was in a bad mood.

“How did you deal with living so far apart from Shikamaru these past couple of years?” he asked, his voice filled with uncertainty. He hated that there was no way to hide it, at least not from Temari.

Temari whirled her head around to look at him, her brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” she asked.

Gaara would have rolled his eyes if it hadn’t been abundantly clear that she was genuinely confused by his question.

“The distance,” he said. “Wasn’t it hard not being able to see him whenever you wanted? How did you manage to continue your relationship while you were living in two different countries?”

“Well, yeah, it was hard,” she said, her eyes narrowed and concerned now. “It really, really sucked. At first it wasn’t so bad, but it only got harder as we got… closer. When Shikamaru asked me to marry him I realized that I’d have to choose between living here and being with him. It would have been impossible to have both, even though that’s what I really wanted.”

“But you wanted to be with him more,” he said with a deep frown.

Temari shook her head. “I don’t know if that’s true,” she said, resting her chin on a section of the rail. “I just know that I’m a better person when I’m with him, and I always want to be the best person I can be.”

Gaara sighed. Those hadn’t been the words he expected, and they made him feel more confused.

“Is this about Sakura?”

Gaara scoffed, but it wasn’t that surprising that Temari would be able to see that. There wasn’t much he could hide from her.

“I knew there was something going on with you two, but I didn’t realize it was this serious,” Temari mused.

“We’re not—” Gaara sighed and rubbed angrily at his temples. “We’re not together. We’re just…”

Temari leaned away from the railing and gave him a disapproving look. “Maybe you should be having this conversation with Sakura,” she said dryly. “You’re obvious not on the same page. You aren’t on any page at all.”

Gaara blinked. Of course it made sense for him to discuss all this with Sakura, but he couldn’t help but be afraid of her potential rejection. Even if they could come to an agreement on defining their relationship, would she want to move to Suna to be with him eventually? Did he make her a better person the way Shikamaru did Temari?

“You have too much on your plate, Gaara,” Temari said, rising up to her feet. “All the Sasuke business, Sarabi and the beast, and now your love life. Maybe you should try to prioritize instead of taking things as they come to you.”

Gaara scowled at her, but truthfully he appreciated her advice. She was right – he was letting things get to him, as evidenced by the previous night’s drunkenness. He was grateful that she hadn’t brought that up, at least.

“Okay,” he said, standing up beside her. “As always, you’ve given me helpful advice. If you need me, I’ll be in my office.”

///

Gaara sat at his desk, his chin resting on his hand. He was slumped forward, still not feeling so great after spending most of the night hung over. He had just finished writing a letter to Tsunade regarding the whole Sasuke fiasco. He was certain that things weren’t exactly finished there and he wanted the Hokage to be up to speed on everything that had happened so far.

That was at least one thing he could check off his to-do list.

His next order of business was to handle the beast and Sarabi situation, but nothing could really be done about that until tonight. He was hoping their excursion would shed some light on some of the more elusive details of Sarabi’s powers, but for now there wasn’t much he could do.

He considered maybe speaking to Taiyo again, but he wasn’t sure he’d get the answers he wanted, or even the truth. Taiyo was fairly unreliable when it came to that kind of information, as trustworthy as he was in other areas.

Unfortunately, that only left the Sakura problem to tackle. He almost wished they had left all that paperwork for him to do now so he would have something to distract him.

A gentle knock on his door saved him from having to find something productive to do.

“Come in.”

His door opened and a head of pink haired popped in. The sight of her sent butterflies whirling in his stomach, but they translated as nausea.

“Gaara-sama,” she said, only one foot in the door. “Naruto and I were about to get some dinner. Do you want to join us?”

He almost said no, but his growling stomach outed him.

“I’d love to,” he said, though he’d really rather not, “but first, let me talk to you for a minute.”

He beckoned her inside. She looked skeptical as she clicked the door shut behind her and it made Gaara feel all the more nervous.

“Is everything okay, Gaara-sama?”

“Just Gaara, please.”

Sakura pursed her lips, which was achingly charming and a little annoying.

“I’ve been unfair to you, Sakura,” he began, still feeling unsure of himself. He was hoping he would be rewarded for his honesty here. “It’s not your fault. I’m just feeling frustrated with our situation.”

“You’re going to miss me,” she said. She seemed a lot more sure of herself than he did.

“Yes,” he agreed. “There’s no way around that. You’ll go back to Konoha and take the better part of me with you. I can’t hold that against you. It’s really my own fault.”

Sakura’s cheeks reddened, but she was sort of half smiling in a way that sent his heart thumping against his ribcage. “The better part of you, huh?” she asked.

“I know it’s not a fair thing for me to ask of you, but I know I’d regret it if I didn’t at least try,” he began, deciding to be as direct as possible to avoid any potential confusion. “I want you to be my girlfriend.”

Silence stretched between them, painful and harsh. Gaara held his breath, afraid any oxygen he sucked into his lungs would sound too ragged or make him feel sick.

“But I live in Konoha.”

“I know,” he said, feeling like he was going to throw up any second. “I’m not asking you to move here. At least not right now.”

“Oh.”

Her brow was furrowed and there was definite sadness behind her eyes, which made Gaara feel tense and worried because there should not be sadness on her, ever, but especially not right now. But then her expression softened, still sad but now with a smile. She looked on the brink of tears, which was not a good sign, but there was something devastatingly gorgeous about her gaze.

“You really want me to be your girlfriend?”

He opened his mouth to affirm that, yes, of course he wanted that, even if it was ridiculously hard to be so far away from her. It didn’t matter, he just wanted her in whatever way she allowed, but before he could speak his office door burst open and Naruto barged inside.

“Come on, guys, what’s the hold up? I’m getting real hungry over here,” he said, his blue eyes flickering between the two of them with impatience.

It might have been the first time Gaara was ever displeased to see Naruto.

///

Gaara was a tense bundle of nerves as they made their way down to the market and found a little teahouse for dinner. He was itching to hear Sakura’s answer and annoyed by how she seemed to be relishing in his anticipation. He wanted to assume that her smiles and laughter and general good mood were in part because she had a good answer for him, but he was afraid that such thinking would only lead to disappointment.

The three of them were immediately shown to a private booth in the back of the teahouse – a nice perk of being the Kazekage. Gaara sat down beside Naruto, afraid of the temptation to touch Sakura should he have sat down beside her instead.

“Tell us what’s good here, Gaara-sama,” Sakura said, flipping over her menu. She had a churlish smirk on his face and if he didn’t find her so adorable he would have reached across the table to smack her.

“Just Gaara, please,” he said softly.

“Do they have ramen here?” Naruto asked, running his finger down his menu, his head low to the table.

“I’d recommend the umeboshi,” Gaara said, his eyes flicking up to Sakura’s. He knew that was her favorite, but it was still a genuine recommendation.

“Ooh, that sounds good, Kazekage-sama,” she said, grinning at him from over her menu.

“I don’t see ramen anywhere on the menu.”

“Maybe you should branch out, Naruto,” Sakura suggested. “Try something new for a change.”

“Eh, I’m fine with ramen,” Naruto insisted, still scouring his menu for an acceptable option. “Ramen never lets me down.”

Gaara caught Sakura’s eye, trying to pretend for a second that Naruto wasn’t there. If he were alone with her, would he have the courage to reach out and take her hand? It seemed absurd that he’d had sex with her just a few nights ago but now just the sight of her sent him into an anxious frenzy.

Sakura looked away from him demurely and caught her lower lip between her teeth. He could see immediately that it was a ruse rather than genuine shyness, but somehow that made it all the more appealing.

She was toying with him, which he didn’t think was really fair. He had laid his heart out for her and she was teasing him like it was all a big joke. He glanced over at Naruto, who was humming as he continued to scan the menu.

“Sakura, have you had a chance to consider my proposal from earlier?” he asked, trying to keep his expression neutral.

“Oh, is that what that was?” she asked with an impertinent giggle. “A proposal?”

Gaara willed himself not to blush, which was easier said than done because he could already feel his ears burning. Luckily Naruto seemed to be deeply absorbed in the menu, muttering under his breath about the lack of ramen.

“If I answer now, will you buy my dinner?” she asked, her smile infectious and irritating and perfect.

Gaara couldn’t help but smile back as he nodded. “If you answer yes, I’ll buy all your dinners for the rest of your life.”

“Hmm, well that changes things,” she said, tapping her finger against her chin thoughtfully. “If that’s the case, then I guess I must say yes.”

“Yes?” he asked, the word catching uncomfortably in his throat.

“Yes, what?” Naruto asked, looking up from his menu. “I wasn’t paying attention. What are you guys talking about?”

“Gaara was just saying that he’s buying dinner for us tonight,” Sakura said, her hair tumbling around her shoulders as she turned to smile at Naruto. “So get as much as you want.”

Naruto’s eyes lit up and he smiled at Gaara in a way that made him wonder how Sasuke could be so moody all the time when he had these two goofballs beside him. It made him feel an unexpected stab of jealousy and a little anger at Sasuke for not appreciating what he’d been so blessed to have.

“Thanks, Gaara!” Naruto said. “Next time you’re in Konoha, I’ll buy you more ramen than you can eat!”

Gaara looked to Sakura to find her eyes dancing with amusement. He really wished he was alone with her so he could just clarify that she did, in fact, want to be his girlfriend, that her answer was real. It was agonizing not to know for sure, but the feeling was mitigated at least a little bit by her infectiously bright mood.

In spite of his anticipation and curiosity, he had a good time over the course of dinner. Sakura and Naruto regaled him with tales of their adventures in Konoha. He supplied a few of his own, laughing at their jokes. Naruto didn’t get his ramen, but he seemed content with the other four dishes he ordered instead, and even happier to pass the bill over to Gaara when the time came.

After he had paid and the trio had made their way back out to the streets, Naruto mercifully dipped out, stating that Kankuro was going to show him how his puppets worked, and maybe they’d have a spar afterwards.

Gaara made a mental note to thank Kankuro for that later.

“So,” Sakura said, drawing out the syllable as she sidled up next to him. “We’re alone again.”

They began to walk back toward the palace, their pace leisurely. It was almost dark now, and the village glowed in the evening sun. He could feel Sakura’s heat against the side of his body. It made him feel far too hot in the waning sun. He wasn’t used to people standing so close to him, but he didn’t mind it.

“Not for long, I’m afraid,” he said with regret. “I’m supposed to be training Sarabi soon.” He neglected to tell her that they’d be venturing off into the desert to find the beast. He didn’t think she’d be fond of that information, and he didn’t want her to show up unexpectedly like she was wont to do.

Sakura’s face fell, which wasn’t really a good thing, but it made his heart swell with happiness nonetheless.

“Can’t you just do it tomorrow?” she asked.

Gaara shook his head. “That wouldn’t be fair to her, now would it?”

Sakura crossed her arms, nearly pouting but not quite. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you postponed.”

A smile tugged at his lips. “Are you jealous?”

“Uhh, yeah,” she said, reaching for his hand and linking their fingers together. “I want all of your attention at every waking moment.”

“Because you’re my girlfriend,” he said, sounding much more confident than he felt. It was a question, as much as it didn’t sound like one.

“That’s a good enough reason, isn’t it?”

Gaara stopped short, yanking roughly on her arm so that she came tumbling into his chest. She yelped in surprise and braced herself against him, looking up at him with wide, fiery eyes.

“You’re a tricky little thing, aren’t you?” he said lowly, his eyes narrowed to slits.

“You wouldn’t like me as much if I weren’t,” she said stubbornly.

He wasn’t so sure about that.

“Just tell me straight, please,” he said, trying not to feel annoyed. She looked too pretty for him to feel annoyed with her right now.

“I already told you yes,” she said sassily, reaching up to roughly push his bangs out of his face. “You know I really like you, right?”

Gaara shrugged, averting his gaze.

“What kind of fool would I be to turn down an offer like that?” she demanded.

“You didn’t seem so keen on the idea before,” he said accusingly.

“It’ll be hard,” she admitted softly. “I don’t want to move away from Konoha, so that will put a lot of distance between us.”

Gaara murmured his acknowledgement.

“But I don’t want to regret anything either,” she continued, leaning even closer to him, “and you’re, like, perfect. I can’t let you slip through my fingers.”

Gaara’s heart constricted painfully in his chest and he squeezed her hand before bringing it up to his chest and holding it there.

“It’ll be hard,” he agreed, “but there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be worth it.”

A slow grin spread across her face. He was so happy to see her happy that he grinned, too. Though she meant far more to him than just an item on his checklist, her mentally applauded himself for finishing one more task and leaned down to press a kiss to her lips.

He had meant for it to be chaste because, well, they were in public and there were quite a few people around on the street. Sakura had other plans, though. She tossed her arms around his shoulders and hoisted herself up against him, her fingers curling into his hair. She deepened their kiss, much to his chagrin. Even with Matsuri he had never shown affection like this on the streets.

A wolf whistle from across the street jarred him and he pushed her away with a hot blush on his cheeks. Sakura only seemed amused by this. She turned to face the source of the whistle – a group of genin enjoying their dinner on a nearby patio. They cheered and hollered at Sakura, who waved back cheerily, not a trace of embarrassment on her.

He supposed he had no reason to be embarrassed. The genin weren’t mocking him and Sakura seemed happy. In fact, she was downright glowing. It pleased him to know that it was his doing, and that now he could kiss her whenever he wanted, even out here on the streets.

Because she was his girlfriend, he thought with a dazed smile.

“Do you really have to train with Sarabi right now?” Sakura asked, tugging on his arm.

He wasn’t sure his heart could take all this stimulation.

“Yes,” he said, falling into step beside her, “but your jealousy is kind of charming.”

“Really? Because yours was kind of annoying.”

Gaara made a noise of disapproval. “When was I jealous?”

“Umm, like the whole time Sasuke was here, you dumbass,” she said, “and a little bit when he wasn’t.”

“Oh, I wasn’t jealous,” he lied.

“Good, because I was thinking of hunting him down and accepting his offer,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eye. “He still needs a medic, you know.”

He eyed her warily, sure that she was joking, but unable to help the sting her words brought.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she said, reaching up to smack him. He didn’t allow her to, instead catching her wrist and shoving it back toward her chest. “You know I’m just teasing you,” she said.

He was well aware of her penchant for teasing him. He only hoped he’d come to appreciate it eventually.

But underneath her façade, he could tell that Sasuke’s reappearance and subsequent disappearance still bothered her. He assumed that the whole Sasuke thing was something that would follow her for a long time. He wanted to believe that his jealousy was normal – Sakura would have no reason to bring it up otherwise. Maybe she relished in it the same way he relished in hers.

The difference was that he’d never had any romantic feelings for Sarabi, and Sakura must have known that.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Sakura said, her brows knit in concern. He realized he’d been frowning. “The Sasuke thing is still a little raw. I won’t bring him up again.”

“No,” Gaara said, stopping once again and pulling her shoulders around to face him. He cupped her neck in his hands, relishing in the feeling of her skin against his, her eyes glittering in his direction. “I’m sorry. That was on me. Now I have to go, but I’m going to come find you when I’m finished, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, leaning into his hands.

He bent down to kiss her once more, just because he could.

Chapter Text

Gaara couldn’t quite explain it, but he felt a sense of belonging being out in the desert alone with Sarabi. The desert had always called to him, always felt more like home than even the palace walls. It was clear that Sarabi felt the same way. She was practically glowing as they ambled across the dunes. He was surprised to notice that clouds of sand gathered near her feet with each step she took, dissipating back into the ground when she had passed.

It was strange, but there were a lot of things about Sarabi that were strange.

“Are we far enough away from the village yet?” she asked, glancing back at him over her shoulder.

Before he answered, Gaara reached out with his chakra, feeling for some sign of the beast. The desert felt perfectly still.

“A little bit farther,” he called out.

They continued making their way past the dunes, each lost in their own thought. The sky was impossibly bright while littered with stars. The moon hung high and silvery, casting cool light over the sand.

Gaara glanced toward Sarabi, who was now nearing a peak of a tall dune. She was graceful and lithe as she climbed, but Gaara could see a shiver run through her in the night air. When they had both reached the top, Gaara shrugged out of his jacket and passed it over to her.

Sarabi blinked at him in surprise.

“What?” he asked in confusion.

“Nothing,” she said suspiciously. “I just thought you and Sakura were… together or something.”

Gaara pushed the jacket closer toward her, brushing it against her arm. Reluctantly, she took it and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“How did you know about that?” he asked.

“Sakura is my closest friend,” Sarabi said, sadness straining her voice. It was easy to see that Sarabi would miss Sakura just as much as he would. “We tell each other everything.”

“Everything, huh?”

She eyed him suspiciously again and then glanced off toward the horizon.

“You looked cold,” he explained. “That’s all.”

She pulled the collar of his jacket closer around her neck, still gazing out across the dunes. The wind whipped her dark hair around her face and she shivered again.

“Sakura was depressed, you know,” Sarabi said matter-of-factly. “Sort of, I mean. She was fine most of the time, but sometimes I’d catch her in bouts of depression. She’d be sad for no reason sometimes. I used to think it was because of Sasuke. It’s all she and Naruto would talk about when the two of them were together.

Gaara felt that stinging stab of jealousy again, so he looked away from Sarabi. He didn’t want her to see it if it would somehow show on his face.

“But now I think it’s because of you,” she continued. “Whenever the subject of you came up, she would always light up. She loved talking about you. I think that’s what threw me off. She’s so much happier now that she’s here around you all the time. She just missed you, I guess.”

There was a sharp crackle in the radio on Gaara’s ear. “No sign of the beast yet,” Hideki’s voice said through the static, “but there is an unidentified chakra source coming southeast of your position. Twenty clicks.”

Gaara reached up and clicked the mic button on his radio. “We’ll check it out,” he murmured to Hideki.

Sarabi looked to Gaara expectantly, waiting for his instruction. “Southeast,” he said to her, pointing out the direction to her.

Wordless, they leapt off, sliding back down the dune into the valley below.

“Why did you tell me all that?” Gaara asked, after a few minutes of silence.

Sarabi shrugged, but Gaara knew better.

“Why are you suspicious of me?” he demanded.

Sarabi stopped, so Gaara stopped beside her.

“I’m not suspicious of you,” she said tersely. “You’re a good man – I can tell. And you’re a fine Kazekage.”

“Then what’s the matter?”

“Taiyo seems to think you have less than pure intentions with me,” she said shortly, refusing to meet his eye.

“Do you believe him?”

Sarabi merely shrugged again.

“Taiyo’s heart is in the right place,” Gaara said, scratching the back of his neck nervously. This was exactly what he hadn’t wanted. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s being overprotective of you.”

Sarabi crossed her arms, still refusing to meet his gaze.

“Sarabi, look at me,” he commanded.

Obediently, she turned to look at him, her milky eyes focused intently on his. Her posture was angry and he wondered if that was on Sakura’s behalf of her own.

“Sakura told me she caught you staring at me one time,” she said, petulantly jutting her chin up.

“You’re a beautiful girl, Sarabi,” he replied tightly. “I know it’s easy to forget because I’m the Kazekage, but I’m still an adolescent. It’s unreasonable to expect me to be perfect all the time. I meant no disrespect to you.”

“What about Sakura?” she asked. “Did you mean disrespect to her?”

“Of course not,” he replied dismissively. “I love her.”

Sarabi cocked her head to the side. “You do?”

Gaara tensed, wondering whether it was appropriate for him to have said that to Sarabi before he said it to Sakura.

“I do,” he answered. “She’s my girlfriend. Of course I do.”

“She’s your girlfriend?” Sarabi shrieked, grabbing onto his arm. “When did that happen? I thought for sure you were just fooling around with her.”

Gaara winced and withdrew his arm. “Why would you think that?” he asked.

“Because of what Taiyo and Sakura said,” she explained. “And you were with that Matsuri girl before. You know that broke Sakura’s heart, right?”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said, feeling something tighten in the pit of his stomach. He had been angry with Taiyo for assuming that something was going on between him and Sarabi, but now he had to wonder. Had he given him a reason to think that? Was he doing something wrong?

Sarabi held up her hands defensively. “You know I appreciate everything you’ve done for me,” she began. “I’m just trying to look out for Sakura. I know she’d do the same for me.”

Gaara frowned. “You don’t need to—”

A deep rumbling beneath the sand cut him off. He could feel the vibrations moving closer at a rapid speed so he grabbed onto Sarabi’s arm and jolted her up into the air. From the safety of his sand disc, he sent out a probing pulse of chakra.

“Is that the beast?” Sarabi asked, clinging to his arm to keep her balance.

“I don’t know.”

Silence stretched over the dunes. With his chakra, Gaara could feel what he was certain was the beast beneath them.

“Now’s as good a time as any to start your training, right Sarabi?” Gaara asked, keeping his voice low.

“What? You mean you want me to fight it?” she squealed. He could feel her fingers trembling as they clung to his arm.

“It’s okay, don’t be scared,” he said soothingly. “You’ll be okay. I’m here with you. Just trust your instincts. You don’t have to fight it. Do what comes naturally to you.”

“My instincts are telling me to get the hell out of here,” she snapped.

A little disappointed by the lack of fight in her, and a little annoyed by their previous conversation, Gaara shoved Sarabi off the side of his sand disc. She wailed as she plummeted toward the sand, flailing her arms while Gaara watched from above. For a moment Gaara was afraid he might have to catch her before she hit the ground, but a second later she had created a sand disc (well, sand blob, really) of her own. It caught her just before she hit the dune.

“What the fuck?” she yelled up at him.

“That was good,” he yelled down to her. “Keep using your instincts like that.”

He wasn’t exactly sure because it was hard to tell from this distance, but she looked furious.

The rumbling returned. Gaara could hear rather than feel it this time. With his chakra clamoring outwards, he could feel the beast speeding toward them underneath the ground. He returned his attention to Sarabi, who had lifted herself up to match his height.

“What are we going to do?” he asked her.

Her eyes were wide – almost comically so. It was clear she was unused to being asked that question. She pursed her lips together and let her eyes drift down toward the ground.

“Let me think for a second,” she murmured.

Gaara obliged, letting her decide what course of action to take. His ultimate goal here was to learn as much about the beast and Sarabi’s link as possible. He couldn’t think of a direct way to accomplish that, so letting Sarabi take the reigns was a good way to see what she was capable of and what she was comfortable with.

“Are we trying to kill it?” she asked him, her eyes flicking over to his.

Gaara didn’t have a chance to answer as the beast burst up into the air, spraying sand over the two of them. Gaara watched as the beast coiled up in the air, screeching so loudly he was sure his eardrum had been shattered. He winced and held his palm against his ears, surprised by the decibel of sound. He hadn’t remembered the previous beast sounding so loud.

When the sound dissipated, Gaara looked back up to see the beast lunging toward Sarabi. He swooped his sand disc over toward her, ready with his personal sand to deflect any of the beast’s attacks.

The beast’s maw yawned open and launched a spray of acid over Sarabi before Gaara could reach her with his sand. He winced, watching her wipe the filth out of her eyes. They would need to get her cleaned up really good before she could be out in the sun again.

Maybe this had been a mistake, he thought.

Gaara raised his sand to strike the beast’s head, prepared to draw its attention away from Sarabi so that she could recover. The beast screeched again, piercing the air with its angry wail. It lunged toward Gaara, its eyes wide with rage and panic. Gaara dodged and leapt backwards toward a deep valley, hoping to give Sarabi cover.

“Gaara-sama!” he heard her call out.

He slid his way down into the bottom of the valley, guiding the beast down and away from Sarabi. At the bottom, the beast screeched again and lashed out at Gaara, sending him flying back into the side of the dune. He used his sand to quickly brace himself and keep the spray of sand out of his face. He peered back up at the top of the dune to see Sarabi sliding down into the valley.

He wanted to call out for her to stop, to head back toward the village. He was concerned for her safety now, but they hadn’t accomplished their goal yet and it seemed like Sarabi had some sort of plan.

The beast poised itself to strike again, manically flailing toward Gaara at breakneck speed. He positioned a wall of sand between them to guard against the attack – there was no way to dodge it at the bottom of the valley. He could feel rather than see the beast lunge toward him again – or rather toward his sand wall.

Before his eyes, the wall of sand hardened into grey stone. He heard a sickening crack as the beast struck the wall headfirst. There was a tense beat of silence as the sand and dust settled.

The wall shifted back into sand and Gaara released his hold on it, sending the sand tumbling back into the valley. The beast’s limp body lay before him, knocked unconscious but still breathing.

Sarabi stood near its tail, her eyes lit up. She was sparkling in a way he’d never seen before. Fascinated by her new demeanor, he leapt over the beast to approach her.

“That was fantastic,” he said, grinning at her. “You found a way to subdue the beast without killing it.”

“I know!” she squealed, giddy with excitement. “Now we can take it back to the village for Sakura to study.”

Gaara reeled back in surprise, already shaking his head. “No, that thing isn’t coming anywhere near the village,” he said firmly. “The only thing I’m interested in learning is the bond between you and the beast. There’s no reason to bring it back to Suna. It’s not safe.”

“The bond between me and the beast?” she demanded, her hands on her hips in a way that was very Sakura-like. “What do you mean?”

“The beast,” he said gesturing to the slumbering creature behind him, “is the offspring of your Goddess, remember? That one gave you its chakra. Whatever happened to you when you encountered this thing with Sasuke is a clue. We need to figure out what it was.”

“So you came out here to recreate what happened?” she asked. She didn’t sound happy.

“I came here to learn in whatever way I could,” he said defensively.

“I could have died!”

Gaara blinked. “Really?” he asked, a little skeptically and a little afraid. “You were in a coma, but it didn’t seem life threatening. Are you sure you could have died?”

Her face reddened and she seemed to be even angrier now. She stamped her foot childishly – another Sakura-ism she had picked up. “You misled me,” she said. “I thought we were coming out here just to train.”

“I don’t know what gave you that impression.”

“So we really came back out here so you could pit me against that thing and see how I’d do?” she demanded harshly.

Gaara gave her a noncommittal shrug. “I guess so.”

Sarabi stood, her fists clenched tightly as she seemed to puff up with anger. After a moment she deflated, the winds breezing gently through her hair. She sighed and flicked her bangs away from her face, casting her eyes toward her feet.

“Come here,” Gaara said, gesturing again toward the beast.

He approached its massive head, Sarabi in tow behind him. She still seemed rather irritated, but unlike Sakura she obeyed him anyway. Near the beast’s head, Gaara could sense its chakra paths still active even in its unconscious state. He reached for Sarabi’s hand and pressed her palm against the beast’s head.

“Reach into the beast with your chakra,” he instructed. “Tell me what you feel.”

Sarabi closed her eyes to concentrate. Gaara could feel her surging chakra as it flowed into the beast, probing and exploring. She gasped and took a tiny step backward, though she kept her palm pressed against the beast. Gaara watched intently as she bit her lip, continue her exploration.

With his own chakra, Gaara reached out to see what she was doing. He was startled when he felt just one chakra presence – a combination of the one he had come to know as Sarabi, and the beast’s slightly less sentient one. Said chakra pushed so roughly on his own that he staggered backwards a few steps.

Sarabi was breathing heavily, her eyes still screwed shut. Gaara watched for another moment, but he began to grow unsettled. He reached out with his chakra again, but was met with another firm push that kept him at bay.

“Sarabi, what’s happening?” he asked softly, taking a step toward her.

She didn’t answer and he could see that she was trembling now – not gently, but almost quaking, vibrating. “Sarabi?” he asked, his voice laced with concern. “Are you okay?”

He took another step, now in reach of her shoulder. He clamped his hand down on her, jolting her out of her trance. The beast stirred beneath her palm, a high pitch moan seeping from its mouth.

“He’s in pain,” she murmured, eyes still closed. She removed her palm and held it against her chest, cradling it.

“Well, yeah, he just dove into stone,” Gaara agreed. “Did you feel his pain?”

“No, I…”

Sarabi’s eyes flew open. They were unfocused, which was apparent even in their milkiness. They saw straight through Gaara, though he moved closer to her once more out of concern. She took a step backwards away from the beast, letting it roll over onto its stomach. His stomach, Gaara thought.

It adjusted itself further, kicking up the sand and dust around them. It rose up into the air again. Gaara instinctively reached for Sarabi’s hand and forced her to take a step backward with him.

From the air, the beast looked at Sarabi. Gaara had a hard enough time distinguishing the ranges of human facial expressions, so this left him more lost than usual. All he knew was that the beast was definitely looking at Sarabi and not attacking her.

Then its head turned and he focused those unsettling, beady eyes on Gaara instead. Gaara froze, unsure of what to expect. The beast let out another terrifying screech and sprayed a deluge of its mucus over him. Sarabi attempted to come to his aid, flinging up a wall of sand between him and the beast. He mentally applauded her effort, but she wasn’t quite quick enough.

Drenched in acidic mucus, Gaara wiped his eyes and glanced toward Sarabi. The beast moaned again, sounding very much in pain.

“We should let him go,” Sarabi said, shrugging out of his jacket, which was also drenched in mucus.

“I agree,” Gaara said, although it didn’t seem to matter whether he did or not. The beast lunged high up into the air and then dove into the sand before them, darting back into its tunnels under the ground.

They stood silent and still as the rumbling faded. When the desert was silent again, Gaara breathed a sigh if relief. He whirled around to face Sarabi, searching her face to better understand what she was feeling.

Her expression was worried, but he couldn’t gather much else from it.

“What happened when you touched it?” he asked.

“I could see what he was seeing,” Sarabi explained, “and I couldn’t feel his pain, per se, but I could sense his emotions. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”

Gaara waited a moment to see if she would offer anything else. She kept her gaze off toward the horizon.

“Okay, let’s get back to Suna and get cleaned up,” he said. “We can reconvene in the morning to discuss this. I’ll let you get some rest for now.”

Sarabi’s gaze snapped over to him and this time it was easy to see her anger. “Sakura wouldn’t have liked knowing that you were bringing me out here to fight him,” she said shortly. “I’m going to tell her, you know. You shouldn’t have tried to hide it.”

Gaara took a step toward her, towering over her in a way that he hoped was intimidating. He actually felt quite amused with her ire, but she didn’t need to know that.

“You’re no longer under Sakura’s tutelage,” he said lowly. “You’re under mine. If this is how I choose to train you, then you will have to accept it. Tell Sakura if you wish, but I meant her no harm by omitting the truth. I didn’t want her to come out here after you.”

“Yeah, she hates how overprotective you are.”

Gaara narrowed his eyes at her. “It seems you’ve become a lot like her during your time together,” he said carefully.

Sarabi crossed her arms, unwilling to back down. She did have a fire that reminded him a lot of Sakura, but it was different on her. More annoying, he thought. Perhaps his rose colored glasses distorted his opinion of Sakura a little bit.

“Alright, that’s enough for tonight,” he said, rubbing his temples in resignation. “We should go to the infirmary immediately to get decontamination baths.”

Sarabi tsked and began to stomp back toward the village, not bothering to hide her irritation with him. Gaara wasn’t so sure he deserved her ire. He hadn’t done anything wrong, really. All of it had been in her best interest, in Suna’s best interest. If she was angry on Sakura’s behalf still, well… He didn’t know what to do about that.

Just when he thought things were beginning to go well with him and Sakura, now there was one more thing added to the mix. Were she and Sarabi really that close? Would they discuss things with each other that he had said to them in private?

Feeling a bit deflated, Gaara followed Sarabi, wondering why all of the women in his life had to be so troublesome.

///

Hideki met them at the gates, his expression worried from what Gaara could tell. He rushed to greet them when they came into view.

“Gaara-sama,” he said reverently. “What do you need from me? What happened out there?”

“We’re both fine,” Gaara reassured him. “We need to be decontaminated immediately. The beast is gone. Not a threat for now.”

The three of them began to make their way toward the medical wing. Once they arrived and Sarabi had been whisked away, Hideki followed Gaara into preparation area for decontamination.

“Sakura came looking for you earlier,” Hideki warned, his expression guarded. “She heard the beast’s screeching. I didn’t let her leave the village, but she seemed pretty angry. I thought you might want to know.”

“What did you tell her?” Gaara asked, careful to hide his exasperation from Hideki. He didn’t want him to think he was upset with him.

“That it was all part of Sarabi’s training,” Hideki replied.

Gaara appraised Hideki, taking in his rigid posture and tense features. He was aware that Sakura and Hideki had a fairly close relationship. Usually that didn’t bother him, but today he couldn’t help but wonder about it. Sakura could charm literally anyone, it seemed. Between him and Sarabi, it seemed clear that Gaara’s relationship with Sakura wouldn’t be exclusively between the two of them.

He had no intentions of hurting Sakura in any way, of course, but he would still have to be careful with those extra pairs of scrutinizing eyes.

“Do you know where she is now?” Gaara asked.

“I believe she went back to her rooms, Gaara-sama.”

///

Once Gaara had been properly bathed and cleaned of any remnants of the beast’s mucus, he made his way toward Sakura’s room, bracing for the worst.

She was reclining against the windowpane when he entered, her face tilted up toward the sky. The moonlight reflected on her face made her look ghostly, but she didn’t look upset. Gaara hoped that was a good sign.

Silence stretched across the room. Sakura didn’t look at him, keeping her eyes on the stars instead.

“I’m back,” Gaara said softly.

Sakura looked down into her lap.

“Are you upset?” he asked even softer.

She finally looked at him. Their eyes met in a tense sort of way, but her expression was unreadable to him. She stood up and slowly made her way over to him. He watched her leisurely gait with trepidation. There was unequivocal sadness in her eyes, which only served to confuse Gaara even more.

Then she wrapped her arms around him, trapping his own arms against his sides. She pressed her face into his chest and let out a sigh, breathing warmth over his skin.

“No,” she said, her voice muffled. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

Gaara placed his palm on top of her head and held her against him. “You didn’t need to worry,” he said reassuringly. “I had everything under control.”

“Is that why you didn’t tell me?” she asked fiercely, though some of that fierceness was mitigated by the fact that she had yet to pull her face away from his chest.

“Tell you what?”

She pulled away then to glare at him, but he was just so pleased to have her back in his arms again that he couldn’t let go just yet. He pulled her back against him, holding firm when she struggled for a second before giving up and allowing him to brush his fingers through her hair.

But a second later she shoved him back rather forcibly, her face glowering. Her eyes were incredibly fierce, her gaze so sharp it sent a shiver down Gaara’s spine. There was something animalistic there, but Gaara couldn’t quite place it.

“When I’m around you, it feels like I’m on fire,” she said lowly, “like every nerve in my body is lit.”

Gaara swallowed, trying to mask his confusion.

“Being angry with you makes it worse,” she continued.

Gaara blinked and watched her slide into a fighting stance, her fists clenched but trembling.

“Sakura, what are you doing?”

“I’m mad at you for hiding the truth from me, but I sort of understand why you did it,” she explained impatiently. Gaara cocked his head with more confusion. “I’m still mad at you, though. I want to fight you.”

He was silent for a moment, drinking in the sight of her. He had been expecting her anger, but he hadn’t expected a fight. Not a physical one, anyway.

“What if I don’t want to fight you?”

Her answer came as a swift punch aimed at his chest. Gaara caught it with his hand instinctively, always deceived by her short stature and tiny hands. It was easy to forget she could break every bone in his body with little effort.

Fortunately for him, her punch was free of chakra. He had a suspicion this meant she didn’t really want to hurt him – just to release some of the tension she was feeling.

An apology bubbled up in his throat, but he forced it back down. If this was what she wanted instead, he could indulge her.

With the hand that had caught hers, he grabbed roughly onto her wrist and forced her to step backwards. He could feel the goosebumps erupt on her arm under his palm. His eyes flew to hers, confused and curious and a little dark. She was wide-eyed and frozen, but incredibly alert. He could see that she had meant what she said about her lit nerves. She was gorgeously glowing in a way that he could only describe as being, well, alive. She was alive.

“Is this what you want?” he asked, pushing her even further back until she was against the window. He was delighted by how pliantly she acquiesced for him. He gripped her wrist even tighter, certain it would leave a bruise.

She didn’t answer, but she didn’t need to.

“Or do you want something else?” he asked, letting go of her wrist and trailing his hand down to her hip. He watched her breath catch in her throat and a pleasant flush appear over her neck and chest. He understood that animalistic gaze now, and he couldn’t help but smirk.

Gaara wasn’t usually one for that kind of arrogance, but seeing her writhe against him with angry, sexual tension… That certainly wasn’t what he had expected when he came to her room, but how could he complain?

“Something else,” she said, gaining back a little of her vivacity.

His smirk bloomed into a full grin. He was amused and pleasantly surprised by her behavior. He wondered if she would always be surprising him like this, or if he would come to be able to predict her eventually.

Because she seemed in the mood for it, Gaara grabbed the back of her thighs roughly and hoisted her up onto his hips. She anchored her arms around his neck, her nails biting into his skin. She leaned close to kiss him, but before their lips met, Gaara tossed her onto the bed and crawled on top of her.

She looked a little miffed, pouting up at him in a way that was sexy and adorable at the same time. She craned her neck to kiss him again, but he shook his head, smiling as he pulled away from her.

“You think because you’re my girlfriend that you can just kiss me whenever you want?” he demanded.

While he had planned for the snide comment to prod at some of the tension between them, he had assumed it would be the sexual kind and not the angry kind. Sakura reached up and smacked the back of his head. In his pleasure-fogged haze, he wasn’t able to properly block her attack, so he was surprised to find the back of his head smarting.

“Sakura,” he murmured, a little shocked that she would dispense the mood like that.

Before he had time to process it, she reached up and smacked his head again in the same spot.

“Hey,” he snapped, reaching for her wrists and pinning her hands down against the mattress. “What the hell?”

She looked amused and angry and horny all at the same time, writhing beneath him and panting. Her arms were covered in goosebumps and he could see that her nipples had become hard underneath that thin white shirt of hers. If she was trying to rile him up, it wasn’t exactly working the way she intended.

“Let me kiss you,” she commanded, her voice hardened like steel.

Gaara gripped her wrists tighter together, pressing her further down into the mattress. He knew she could easily escape his grip, but that was part of the fun.

“No,” he replied coolly, narrowing his eyes. “I’ll decide when you can kiss me.”

She bucked her hips up into his wildly, eliciting a groan from him. All of the blood that had been anywhere else in his body rushed straight to his dick.

Apparently, she could decide, too.

Too lustful to deny her any longer, he bent down and crushed his lips against hers, still pining her arms above her head. She struggled against him for a moment, but he held her down firmly, kissing her with a near bruising force.

He was horrified by how turned on he was by her struggling.

Feeling a bit confused, he rocked back onto his heels, releasing her hands. She sat up instantly to fill the space between their bodies, her hands flying through the buttons on his shirt. He let her undress him, watching her nimble fingers to ground himself.

“Kazekage-sama.”

“What?” he snapped, annoyed by the formal address.

“Take your shirt off,” she said, gesturing to his now open shirt.

He didn’t move immediately, appraising the situation as best he could. She was riling him up in the worst combination of ways. She was beautifully turned on, but he wasn’t quite feeling the same way. He was turned on alright, but he was also pretty confused.

“When the Kazekage does something wrong, who punishes him?” she asked, moving to pull down his sleeves herself. He allowed her to remove it, but he felt rigid.

“The Kazekage doesn’t get punished,” he mused.

“He will today.”

Chapter Text

When Gaara woke up, he wasn’t in his own bed. He could feel Sakura curled up against his side, her breath slow and even. He glanced at the window and saw that the sun was just beginning to make its way up into the sky. He needed to get up soon, but he had a little bit of time.

Groggily, he rolled toward Sakura and pulled her back against his chest. She stirred against him, but settled happily into the space that seemed to hold her so perfectly that it was impossible somebody else could ever fit there.

He had to admit that she had thrown him for a loop last night. With Matsuri, sex had been pretty straightforward. Pleasant, but basic.

He knew Sakura had a fiery vein running through her, but he hadn’t put together how that would translate in the sex arena.

Vivaciously, apparently. He had absolutely no qualms with their rough, pleasurably painful romp. It had just caught him off guard. Who knew Sakura could be so wild?

He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of her – her fruity shampoo and the smell of their sex. He usually found it quite difficult to fall asleep anywhere but his own bed, but with Sakura beside him he felt like he could easily drift back to sleep.

Unfortunately, there was a sharp knock at the door.

Begrudgingly, he rolled out of bed, mindful of Sakura. When he swung open the door, he wasn’t entirely surprised to see Sarabi there.

“Gaara-sama,” she said dryly, but his state of undress did cause her cheeks to redden, so he reached down to pick up his shirt, which had been haphazardly discarded the night before.

“Shh,” he said, putting his finger over his lips. He pointed to Sakura, who was still sleeping soundly in her bed.

“You’re disgusting,” Sarabi hissed.

Gaara narrowed his eyes at her. “How am I disgusting?”

“You beat me to Sakura so you could get one last fuck in before I tell her the truth,” she accused, poking his chest with a prissy finger.

Deciding to be amused instead of annoyed, Gaara smiled. He palmed her shoulder and gave her a good shake. “You’re too much like Sakura now,” he said. “Hopefully some time in the desert will fix that.”

She violently shrugged his hand off of her and stomped into the room. Gaara had already made the decision that it would be best to just leave the two of them alone to discuss him in private. Of course this was a discussion he’d like to hear, but he would let them have some privacy.

“You’re a good friend, Sarabi,” Gaara said as he glided through the door. He turned back to see Sarabi’s deflation. “I’m glad Sakura has you to look out for her.”

///

Before Gaara made it back to his room to change, he was accosted by Kankuro in the hallway. Gaara’s shoulders sank as his brother approached. While Temari had already suspected his relationship with Sakura, Kankuro was dense and less observant about such things. However, now that Gaara was clearly still in his previous day’s clothes and making his way back to his room at such an early hour, it must have been obvious.

“Gaara, where have you been?” Kankuro demanded, his voice harsher than Gaara had expected. “I noticed some strange activity in the desert last night and I came to find you but you weren’t in your room.”

“What activity?” Gaara asked, already pushing thoughts of Sakura and Sarabi from his head.

Kankuro fell into step beside Gaara and they began to walk back to Gaara’s room. “I saw the beast last night,” Kankuro explained, “It was—”

“He,” Gaara corrected automatically, though he wasn’t sure why.

Kankuro also seemed confused. “He?”

“The beast is a he,” Gaara explained. “Please continue.”

“The beast – he was flying around in weird patterns. I could see it from the guard tower,” Kankuro continued. “It— he didn’t attack anything, he just flew around, moaning.”

“What sort of patterns?” Gaara asked, flicking his eyes over to his brother. He had yet to put on his face paint or cowl yet, and Gaara found he actually preferred his brother like this – just himself, the version he kept only to those closest to him.

“It was hard to tell,” Kankuro said with a shrug. “It was swirls and curves and stuff. It seemed pretty abstract.”

Gaara frowned and tapped his lips with his pointer finger. Could those patterns be something important? He needed to know – especially if this behavior continued. Could it have had something to do with Sarabi touching the beast last night?

“I would have stayed longer to observe the pattern, but I couldn’t find you,” Kankuro said. “Where were you last night?”

Gaara quickened his pace, not willing to have this conversation with his brother right now. Kankuro was a keen shinobi, too, so he could probably smell the sex all over him. Gaara grimaced.

“Hey, come on,” Kankuro said, grabbing Gaara’s shoulder to stop him. “It’s just me. You can tell me where you were – I won’t tell anyone.”

Gaara sighed. It wasn’t like they had to keep their relationship a secret. It was official now, so there was no point. He had already kissed her in public. The news was bound to spread eventually.

“I was with my girlfriend,” Gaara said tersely, avoiding Kankuro’s prying eyes.

“Matsuri? I thought you guys broke up a long time ago.”

“Not Matsuri,” Gaara snapped, though he instantly felt guilty.

Kankuro took it in stride. “Who is it, then?”

“Sakura.”

“Sakura?” Kankuro asked, dumbstruck. He really was clueless if he couldn’t see the obvious tension between the two of them. “Sakura Haruno? Konoha’s medic, Sakura? The Hokage’s apprentice, Sakura?”

“Yes, that Sakura,” Gaara snapped, feeling less guilty this time.

The expression on Kankuro’s face morphed from confusion to happiness in less than a second. He clapped his hand over Gaara’s back roughly, leading them back into a leisurely walk.

“That’s fantastic!” Kankuro said.

Gaara felt some tension in his shoulders dissipate. He hadn’t even realized it was there.

“She kept you busy all night, huh?”

Gaara scowled and shoved his brother’s hand away.

///

Gaara sat at his desk, fresh after his bath and change of clothes. He picked absently at a dish of sliced peaches as he reviewed his to-do list for the day.

Per usual, his mind was not on his work. Instead, Sakura had burrowed her way into his brain like a worm, nestling and hiding in corners so that no matter what he was doing, she was always on his mind.

She would be leaving in a couple of days now, he thought sadly. He tried not to mope as he bit into a slice of peach, even if there was no one around to see it.

Last time she had left, he had given her a letter and an orb of sand. Curious, he reached out with his chakra to feel for said sand. As expected, he found it near her rooms, probably tucked away safely with the rest of her things. She had told him before that she would bring it on missions with her, which gave him a small degree of comfort. He didn’t expect her to carry it around with her all the time, but it was nice to know that if she went missing for whatever reason, he would at least have a starting point to find her.

That gift, however practical, had been selfish and just the tiniest bit possessive. He had given it to her specifically so he could know where she was, so that he could know she was safe. Of course he had no business knowing those things – not back then.

But now it wasn’t just Sakura: pretty girl from Konoha that was leaving. It was Sakura: the Kazekage’s girlfriend. He needed to get her a gift that reflected her new title, that would show her how important she was to him. Something she would like.

Gaara decided that Naruto would be able to offer him the best advice on such a matter. He was close with her, after all. Besides, Gaara needed to speak with Naruto anyway. He had to inform him of his new relationship with Sakura now that it was official.

Not even a few minutes after Gaara had sent someone looking for him did Naruto burst through his office door. His smile was damn near radiant, for what reason Gaara didn’t know. He figured Naruto would still be sore about the Sasuke fiasco, but instead he seemed better than fine.

“You asked for me, Gaara-sama?” he asked with a strange sort of perverted grin.

A little off-put, Gaara eyed Naruto with suspicion.

“Yes, I need to talk to you about something,” Gaara said after a beat of silence.

“By ‘something’ do you mean Sakura?” he asked, wiggling his brows suggestively.

Gaara’s face dropped and he glared over crossed arms at the blond. “Sakura told you already?”

“Of course, she tells me everything.”

Of course. She tells Hideki, Sarabi, and Naruto everything. Gaara refrained from sighing, but he already felt the acute sting of something gone wrong. He instinctively wanted to feel upset that Sakura would tell Naruto without asking, but he was here attempting to do the same thing.

They probably should have told him together.

Before Gaara could follow that train of thought, Naruto’s arm snatched him into a tight hug. Gaara went rigid, but then relaxed and reached a hand up to pat Naruto’s back.

“Congratulations, Gaara,” he said as he pulled away. “I’m so happy for you guys.”

A little surprised by his genuine happiness, Gaara couldn’t help but catch his infectious smile. “Thank you, Naruto,” he said. “That means a lot.”

“Now, I trust you, Gaara,” Naruto said, his expression sobering up. He held Gaara’s shoulder with tight fingers, which Gaara supposed were meant to be threatening, but somehow it seemed comical to him. “That’s why I’m going to spare you a long speech about taking care of Sakura,” he continued, “but that girl, she’s got fragile feelings, you know? I’m going to be pretty upset if you break her heart.”

Gaara would be pretty upset if he broke her heart, too, but that wasn’t something he could promise with certainty, so he settled for an agreeable nod of his head. Naruto seemed to accept it. His fingers loosened just a little.

“And she’s a virgin, you know?” Naruto said, his tone hushed. “You gotta be careful with virgins. It can be painful for them.”

Gaara choked back the laugh the bubbled up in his throat. “She’s a kunoichi,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, but you still don’t want her to feel pain, do you?”

Gaara tried to keep his expression neutral, his thoughts flashing back to the night before. A little pain wasn’t so bad.

“No, I mean that her hymen is already—”

“Oh my God, are you guys talking about my hymen?”

Both Gaara and Naruto turned to look at Sakura, who was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed.

“We’re actually having a private conversation here, Sakura,” Gaara said solemnly. While he didn’t want to send her away, he needed to get her a gift soon and he couldn’t do that with her around. “Why don’t you go have brunch with Temari and Sarabi?”

“You want me to go hang out with the girls while you discuss my hymen?”

Gaara drank in the sight of her – her mostly amused expression and relaxed posture. He took by the wry twist of her lips that she had spoken with Sarabi earlier that morning. He really wished he could have stayed to hear how that had gone.

He nodded to her as he let his eyes float down to her body. She was wearing civilian clothes today – an orange sundress cut in a Suna-esque style that draped over her lithe body elegantly. He’d never seen her look so stunning before. He couldn’t recall ever seeing her dressed up for a special occasion, but now having a taste of it he wondered what she would she would wear to Temari’s wedding.

“What if I want to have brunch with my boyfriend instead?” she asked.

He suppressed the delighted shiver that ran down his spine at the sound of her claim. He hoped Naruto didn’t notice.

“How about you have brunch with Temari and Sarabi now, and then when I’m finished with my business I’ll come find you so we can have a spar?” he offered.

“A spar?”

“A spar!” Naruto exclaimed. “That sounds fun. Let me join!”

Gaara dragged his eyes away from Sakura to look at Naruto, who was beaming at him with anticipation.

“No, not this time, Naruto,” Gaara said with a shake of his head. “Let me have my fun with Sakura before you take her away from me again.”

Naruto’s face fell yet again. “Clean fun only,” he warned. He looked to Sakura. “And I get him when you’re done.”

Gaara found Sakura’s short bark of laughter in response to be both annoying and endearing. “Who are you to be giving orders to the Kazekage and his girlfriend?” she teased.

Naruto grinned sheepishly.

“Besides,” she continued flippantly, “he already defiled me.”

His grin disappeared, much to Gaara’s horror. He shifted his gaze to Gaara, his eyes positively demonic in their current state. Had he not known any better, Gaara might have though the nine tails was awakening in the dawning of his understanding.

“You slept with Sakura?” he demanded.

“She’s my girlfriend,” Gaara replied defensively.

“But she’s—”

“She’s what?” Sakura asked contrarily.

Gaara shot her look. She had to have known that Naruto would react that way and said that intentionally to get under his skin.

“I thought you were a virgin,” Naruto said softly to her. “That’s what Ino said you told her right before we left Konoha to come here.”

“Ino told you what?” Sakura demanded, but even Gaara knew that girl’s penchant for gossip.

“You deflowered my Sakura?” Naruto asked, whirling back to Gaara.

“Again,” Gaara said patiently, “she’s my girlfriend.”

“You weren’t even gonna tell me?” he asked.

“Why would I tell you?” Gaara asked. “Do I need to ask for your permission first?”

“Well, no, but—”

“You know what, Naruto, why don’t you join our spar?” Gaara asked, deciding it might actually be fun to trade blows with his old friend and his new girlfriend at the same time. “I’m suddenly in the mood to fight you.”

Gaara was pleased to see both Sakura and Naruto looking delighted by his suggestion.

“You’re on,” Naruto said, his face hardening with determination.

///

After he had ushered Sakura from his office, Gaara was unable to meet Naruto’s gaze again. His concern for the deflowering of Sakura was, well, weird, he thought. Now there was a tension in the air between them, which would make it difficult to have a proper conversation about gifts for Sakura.

Unfortunately, Gaara didn’t have time to wait out the awkwardness.

“You and Sakura will be leaving soon,” Gaara stated, clearing his throat nervously. “I would like to get Sakura a gift before she leaves and I need help getting her something she will like.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, sounding a little dumbstruck. “Well, I know girls like things like flowers and chocolates.”

Gaara scowled. “I want something Sakura specifically would like,” he explained. “That’s why I’m asking for your help. You know her better than I do. What sort of gifts does Sakura like to get?”

Naruto frowned and tapped his finger against his lips as he thought. The silence that stretched between didn’t give Gaara much hope.

“Well for her birthday last year I gave her a sweater,” he finally offered.

“A sweater?”

“Yeah, it was a nice one,” he replied. “Pink, fuzzy, just like she likes.”

“I can’t give her a sweater, Naruto,” Gaara said dryly.

Naruto was unfazed by Gaara’s exasperation. “Okay, what about jewelry, then?” Naruto said, at last coming up with something not stupid. “Maybe like a pink necklace or something?”

“It won’t be pink,” Gaara said dismissively, “but jewelry is a good idea.”

“Why no pink?” Naruto demanded. “It’s her favorite color.”

Gaara shook his head. “If I give her jewelry, it should be something fairly recognizable,” he explained, “something that would link her to me. I want people to know that she is mine.”

“She’s not just yours,” Naruto muttered with irritation.

Gaara frowned and appraised the petulant look on Naruto’s face. He supposed that Naruto felt close to the same way that Gaara had felt when he found out about Shikamaru and Temari. Sakura was like a sister to him.

“I’m not taking her away from you, Naruto,” Gaara said, his tone a little softer. “She’s going back to Konoha with you, isn’t she?”

“Right,” Naruto said sarcastically, “until you break her heart or she moves here to be with you – whichever comes first.”

Gaara didn’t have anything to say to that. That was pretty much the plan. Well, not the breaking her heart part, but the other part. Still, Gaara didn’t like to see Naruto upset.

“You never know,” Gaara said, trying to sound light and not serious. “I could die and she could end up staying in Konoha.”

The abrupt growl that erupted from Naruto caught Gaara off guard. “Don’t even joke about that,” he said harshly.

Gaara felt his heart softening. It was always easy to remember what made Naruto such a good friend. His concerns and affections were as genuine as they come, and Gaara suddenly did feel a real pang of regret for potentially taking away his sister one day.

“I’d rather her just come here to be with you than for you to die,” Naruto said, fixing Gaara with a serious look.

Slightly uncomfortable with the seriousness of it all, Gaara cleared his throat. “Luckily, that’s not a condition of our relationship,” he said, moving away from Naruto toward the window.

The morning sun glinted off the windowpane and cast long shadows across the wooden flooring in his office. He liked mornings best now that he was accustomed to getting the proper amount of sleep.

“How about one of your earrings?”

Struck by the thought, Gaara reached up to touch her earlobe, running his fingers over the three studs in his ear. They weren’t anything ornate or special, just simple jewelry to fit his preferences.

“Would Sakura like these?” Gaara asked, turning to face Naruto. “They’re rather plain.”

“I’m sure she’d at least pretend to like anything you give her,” Naruto said.

Gaara shot him a wry look. He reached up and removed one earring from each ear, leaving him with two studs in each earlobe still. He held them in his palm and watched the sunlight glint off of them. They were far more understated that what he had in mind. Essentially, he wanted to give her a giant necklace – more like a sign, really – that said “Kazekage’s girlfriend” on it.

He had a feeling she wouldn’t like that very much, but these earrings? Maybe those could work.

“Does she even have her ears pierced?” Gaara asked.

Naruto shrugged. “If she doesn’t, then she can get them pierced,” he said flippantly. “Now come on, let’s get something to eat now.”

Gaara glanced back down that earrings in his palm one last time before pocketing them and following Naruto out the door.

///

Gaara and Naruto joined the girls for their brunch, deciding it was best to eat in preparation of their sparring session later on. The girls were nearly finished by the time they arrived, but Gaara and Naruto seated themselves nonetheless. Gaara chose the seat next to Sakura this time, a little more excited by the prospect of sharing touches and affection with her in public now.

She seemed receptive to this idea, linking her hand with his the moment he sat down. She held his hand in her lap and she continued her conversation with Temari. He was instantly light-headed feeling the warmth emanating from a portion of her anatomy that he knew to be quite sensitive.

“Did you conclude your private business?” Sakura asked, her voice low for only him to hear.

Gaara glanced up at Temari, who had shifted her attention to Naruto. They were arguing over something mundane that Gaara didn’t quite feel like giving his attention to, but Gaara hoped at some point he could get his sister’s opinion on his gift idea. She would be knowledgeable about that sort of thing, he thought.

But now was not the time, so he returned his attention to Sakura who was watching him expectantly and damn near glowing. Had she always been so beautiful? He remembered taking note of her interesting hair color the first time he had seen her nearly a decade ago. He wasn’t so sure he had thought of her as beautiful then, but his mind had been in a different place.

Perhaps it was his hormones, but he now found it difficult to do much other than soak in how pretty she was with her bright, glassy eyes and deliciously supple skin and slightly pinkened cheeks.

“Gaara?”

“Yes?” he asked, clearing his throat. “I mean yes, we finished,” he said, tugging her hand over to his own lap. Hopefully that would make him less distracted.

“Well, while you were discussing incredibly important private things with Naruto,” she began, “Sarabi, Temari, and I were talking about the sand beast.”

Gaara raised a brow. He had yet to revisit the topic, but he was hoping to finish all that business after Sakura and Temari left. He loved the both of them dearly, but they often tried his patience where the beast was concerned.

“We think you should let Hideki try to observe and mark down those patterns the beast uses,” Sakura explained. “Sarabi thinks he’s trying to communicate with us.”

Gaara nodded in agreement. He had thought as much, too. Taiyo had informed him that before his people had gone below the surface, they used to speak to the beast as if it were a jinchuuriki. If a similar mechanic was at work here, then the beast was sentient and perhaps it was true that Sarabi was actually his mouthpiece.

“He’s been observing the desert each night looking for activity,” Gaara replied. He reached for his glass of water, feeling rather thirsty now that Sakura’s hand was dangerously close to his manhood. She shifted her fingers in between his beneath the table.

“Has he found anything?” she asked.

Gaara shook his head.

“Perhaps you should bring Sarabi back out there again,” Temari suggested, nudging Sarabi with her elbow.

Gaara’s gaze flitted between the three women, suddenly feeling as if he were being teamed up on. “Sarabi didn’t seem too thrilled by that last time,” he said cautiously.

“I didn’t like being kept in the dark,” she pointed out dryly.

“You know, Gaara, we know you find our concern annoying, but we’re only trying to help,” Sakura said, squeezing his hand to mitigate what was perhaps a bit of harshness in her tone. “It doesn’t seem like the beast wants to attack the village, so it seems like trying to communicate with it will get you the best results.”

Gaara glanced to Naruto, who looked very much like he only cared about the finer print on the menu he held just a scant inch away from his nose.

“I agree,” Gaara said to Sakura, brushing his thumb over the back of her hand. He didn’t like that they were discussing this without him, though. He didn’t say as much, deciding it would be wiser not to. In his head, though, decided he would be more proactive about this whole beast situation.

“I’d like to help, Gaara-sama.”

Gaara looked to Sarabi, who was watching him with one eyebrow raised. She seemed sassier than usual, but he chalked that up to spending too much time with Sakura. Perhaps she was still upset about the fact that he hid the truth from her and Sakura.

“Okay,” he acquiesced. “We can try again in a couple days.”

“I’ll go with you,” Sakura said.

Gaara was already shaking his head before she had finished the sentence. “There’s no reason for you to come along, Sakura,” he said, trying to sound patient and not like he was trying to get rid of her. “I don’t want to needlessly put you in harm’s way.”

Sakura opened her mouth to speak again, and Gaara could see by the fire in her eyes that it was not going to be pleasant.

Thankfully, Temari was able to speak first. “Sakura, you’d be better suited for a satellite team,” she suggested, catching Gaara’s eye and giving him a subtle nod. “Gaara and Sarabi can go out and hunt down the beast while you and I stay closer to the village, ready to either provide backup or medical attention as needed.”

Sakura mulled this over for a second, glancing at Temari and then Sarabi. “What do you think, Sarabi?”

“I think Temari’s idea is perfect,” she replied, though her gaze was on Gaara instead of Sakura. “I’m worried that too many people will antagonize the beast.”

“It’s settled, then,” Gaara said, his voice brooking no room for argument. He held onto Sakura’s hand with nervous fingers, hoping that their years apart had granted her more wisdom. Avoiding her gaze, he looked down at their intertwined fingers.

This was only going to get harder, he imagined. Sakura would not stop being a kunoichi and he wasn’t going to be around to protect her while she was in Konoha. He wouldn’t be too bothered by that were it not for the fact that she had a tendency to run headfirst into danger.

Gaara glanced at Naruto, who was still deeply engrossed in his menu. Naruto would protect her. Gaara knew that for a fact. He didn’t need to worry.

Chapter Text

Gaara’s back hit the rocky ground with a sickening crack. He winced, curling his body against the sharp pain in his ribs and spine. Before he could get used to the position on the ground, he was forced to roll over onto his stomach to get away from Naruto’s onslaught of fists.

Reeling from Naruto’s astounding aggression, Gaara leapt back up to his feet, ignoring the screaming pain in his ribs. Flecks of sand hovered around him, ready for their next destination. Naruto’s eyes were wild – not lost in the kyuubi, but in something else that was just as primal.

It didn’t take a genius to know that Naruto was letting out some of his frustrations on Gaara, at least where Sakura was concerned. Gaara understood. If he could have one good sparring session with Shikamaru… Well, he wasn’t so sure that was a good idea.

Naruto struck again, launching a flurry of fists toward Gaara’s head and chest. Gaara was careful to block and dodge each blow, observing rather than fighting back. He’d have his chance eventually.

Finally finding a crack in his defense, Gaara launched a barrage of sand toward Naruto just as he flicked his eyes over to Sakura who was watching from the sidelines with an amused grin. While not caught completely unaware, Naruto staggered a little, bracing himself against the mighty wave of sand.

When it had cleared and a very disheveled Naruto was left standing in its wake, Gaara allowed the barest hint of a smirk to show through his stoic exterior. “You seem agitated, Naruto,” he said. “Are you alright?”

There was an understanding between them that Naruto cared deeply about Sakura as a friend, but had also had a crush on her at one point. Though Gaara knew that such a crush had long disappeared, and had never been too viable an option for Naruto anyway, he also couldn’t help his beastly competitive side. He had reveled in being victorious over Sasuke, and now it was all too easy to feel victorious over Naruto as well.

Naruto had wanted her, but now she belonged to Gaara. It should have made him feel guilty. Naruto had always been a soft spot for Gaara, lurking in his feelings and burrowing into emotions that Gaara didn’t know he even felt. But this was different. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it felt good.

Naruto’s eye twitched. Gaara knew he was once again suppressing the urge to look over at Sakura. Gaara chanced a look over at her for a brief second. Her face was unreadable, but her posture was undeniable. Her hip was cocked and her hand was braced on it.

Unable to help control it, Gaara’s smirk widened into a grin. Yes, it did feel good to have won over Sakura’s heart. She was a beautiful, strong kunoichi, brash and full of vitality. She was insanely smart and the most talented medic he had ever met before. She was ambitious and driven and headstrong. Sakura was damn near perfect and everything Gaara could ever have asked for.

And she hadn’t chosen Naruto or Sasuke. She had chosen Gaara. And yeah, that felt pretty good.

Feeling a sudden swelling of chakra around him, Gaara brought up his sand shield just as a barrage of Naruto clones began to attack. When he let it back down, Naruto’s clones popped into oblivion, leaving one slightly breathless and really angry looking Naruto standing in front of him.

“Why do you seem so angry?” Gaara asked, tilting his head with curiosity. It did feel fun to taunt Naruto, especially as Sakura looked on. However, he still wanted to know what Naruto’s answer might be.

With a slight lean in toward Gaara, Naruto glanced back toward Sakura and lowered his voice so she couldn’t hear. “I can’t believe you had sex with her,” he muttered bitterly. “You didn’t even wait until you were married.”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “Are you waiting for marriage?” he asked skeptically. “Is that why you’re still a virgin?”

Though he hadn’t meant for it to sound as cruel as it had, it was clear from the scrunched up features on Naruto’s face that he took it as another taunt. Gaara genuinely wanted to know the answer to that question, but he didn’t think now was the time to press the issue.

Naruto attacked again, this time with a kunai in each hand. He flailed wildly at Gaara, a little more haphazardly than Gaara thought he should have. It was clear that he was frustrated, but not angry enough for the kyuubi to make an appearance. For a brief moment Gaara wondered what that must have been like.

Gaara continued to duck and dodge his blows, returning one every now and then. It was kind of refreshing to be sparring like this against an opponent like Naruto. There was just enough heat in it to make Gaara feel the rush of adrenaline in his gut, yet no one was in any real danger.

When Gaara began to notice Naruto’s demeanor becoming even more hostile, he suspected that soon he would reach a breaking point. It certainly wouldn’t do for Naruto to begin sprouting tails and going off the rails.

The next blow that Naruto swung landed squarely on Gaara’s jaw. The resounding crack made his entire head explode with pain. He staggered backwards before falling down into the sand. He hoped the violence of his blow would make Naruto come to his senses. Gaara brought up a sand shield to deflect any blows that might still come, but when nothing touched his sand, he dropped it back down into the ground.

“Are you okay, Gaara?” Naruto asked, his eyes less heated now as they roved over Gaara’s injured face.

He could feel the blood dripping down his cheek onto his neck. His jaw had been popped out of place so he couldn’t open and close it properly enough to answer. Instead, he reached up and attempted to jolt his jaw back into place before a delicate, soft hand blocked his path.

“Don’t,” Sakura warned, crouching down in front of him to inspect the wound. She placed her hands on either side of his face, prepared to properly do what he had just attempted. He knew he should feel some apprehension about the impending pain, but he was content enough with the feel of Sakura’s skin against his and her bright eyes focused on him so intently that he barely even felt it as she pushed his jaw back into place.

Naruto, however, winced at the unpleasant popping sound, fidgeting nervously while Sakura sent her healing chakra coursing through Gaara’s head.

“Sorry, Gaara, I just got a little too excited, I guess,” Naruto said bashfully, toeing the sand

“Nonsense, Naruto,” Gaara said, grinning as he let Sakura help him stand. He sidled past her and grasped Naruto’s shoulder with a firm hand. “That was the most exciting spar I’ve had in a while. It’s always nice to face a worthy opponent.”

Naruto didn’t seem too appeased by this. If anything, he seemed suspicious. “So are we going to continue?” he asked.

Gaara shook his head, gently rubbing the stubble on his jaw. It still smarted, but thanks to Sakura it was a much more bearable pain. “No, why don’t we just say you won that one?” he suggested, hoping the concession would ease his mind a little about the Sakura situation.

“Yeah, let me have a turn with him now,” Sakura insisted.

Naruto’s glower returned at that. He gave Sakura a petulant look, but Sakura was ignoring him. Her eyes were on Gaara, which made his scalp tingle. God, he wanted to fight her. Any excuse to touch her, really.

“Fine,” Naruto agreed, stalking over to where Sakura had previously been sitting.

Gaara whirled to face Sakura, his eyes dancing with amusement. Her hip was still cocked and her eyes were bright, too. There was a cocky smirk on her face that he was just dying to wipe off.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked with mock condescension. “I’m not going to go easy on you, you know.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said with a wink. “I’ve been practicing some new moves.”

Gaara didn’t have time to deliberate on what she meant by that. Immediately he was on the defensive, blocking her lethal fists as they flurried toward him. He was quick to recover from the shock, using his fists to catch hers as they rained down on him. It was a temporary solution. He knew it was only a matter of time before she began to pack chakra behind those insane fists.

Wanting to prevent that from happening, Gaara shot a wall of sand up between them and used the advantage to put some distance between him and her. By the time he had dropped the wall again, she had already circumvented it and was heading straight for him again, her eyes positively piercing.

He stopped running and turned sharply to face her. She quickly closed the distance between them and aimed what he presumed was a chakra laden punch toward the ground. He had seen her use this technique before against Hideki – shockwaves sent through the sand by her monstrous strength. That may have worked on Hideki, but Gaara had a real advantage here. This was his desert, his sand. She wouldn’t be able to out-manipulate him with his own sand.

Before her fist connected with the ground, Gaara used the sand directly beneath her feet to launch her up into the air. He shielded his eyes with his hands as he watched her lithe body pass between him and the sun. He saw her reach toward the pouch at her hip and launch a cluster of shuriken at him from her peak in the air.

Feeling a little amused, Gaara dodged the weapons without the aid of his sand and glanced back at Naruto. The blonde was still sulking, but looked greatly invested in having Sakura kick Gaara’s ass.

While he wouldn’t have really minded losing to Sakura, Gaara also really wanted to walk away having won both spars today. Defeating two thirds of Team 7 was quite an achievement.

The second Sakura hit the ground, she was already rushing him again, her fists cocked. Knowing what she was capable of, he didn’t think it wise to try to block her fists with his bare hands, but he didn’t really want to use his sand either. He couldn’t have anything blocking his view of her.

And boy, what a view it was. There was nothing quite as exhilarating as a deadly, gorgeous woman with a spark of real heat in her. He wouldn’t call himself distracted, per se. He was easily able to dodge her attack still. It was just that now that they were so close again, he could see the sheen of sweat on her remarkably smooth skin. He could see her pink lashes clumped together with moisture, either sweat or tears that had made their way to her eyes.

He longed to reach out and touch her, so he finally returned a blow, aiming a light punch toward her chest.

Sakura easily evaded his blow, but Gaara wasn’t quite satisfied. In fact, he couldn’t help but feel a brief, but sharp stab of annoyance that he hadn’t touched her at all when he wanted to so badly.

As she stepped away from his reach, he used another jolt of his sand to push her toward him again, extending his hand so that he could reach out to grab her. Once she was back in his reach, her face glowering, he latched his fingers in the fabric of her vest.

He hadn’t exactly planned on what to do with her next. Of course now that he could feel the heat of her body against his fingers he wasn’t so keen on hurting her.

All he really wanted to do was kiss her.

Sakura seemed agitated by his actions, which amused him. She was right to be annoyed because he wasn’t giving this spar the dedication it deserved. One day he would fight her properly. Today, with his mood more… sensual, for lack of a better term, and Naruto close by watching, he wasn’t really in the right headspace to destroy her.

She attempted to twist herself out of his grasp, pushing on his hands to get him to release the fistful of her vest he still clenched. Sensing that she was about to use chakra to shake him off, Gaara tugged hard.

He had expected this to force Sakura to walk toward him. He had only wanted to pull her toward his chest. However, she was unwilling to budge and used chakra to keep herself firmly rooted where she stood.

The result was a very topless, very red Sakura left standing in the desert sun, bared for all to see. Well, bared for Naruto and Gaara to see.

Gaara dropped the torn vest to the sand, regretting this very much now that he could see the more primal fury radiating from Sakura.

“You pervert!” she screeched, her hands coming up to cover her breasts. She took a step forward to reclaim her vest from the sand, but Gaara snatched it up first.

He wasn’t sure what compelled him to do such a thing. He was very much entertained by the half-naked, angry Sakura stomping her way over to him now. Her ire seemed real enough, but Gaara couldn’t find it in himself to be bothered by it. The way the sun made her body glow was far too mesmerizing to be thinking of anything but that.

It took monumental effort to drag his eyes away from her long enough to see Naruto’s retreating form as he ran back toward Suna. Whether he left out of rage or rather because he didn’t want to see what was about to happen, Gaara had no clue.

“Do you think he’s mad?” Gaara asked, flicking his eyes back to her.

“I’m mad,” she deflected, reaching again for her vest.

Gaara held it out of her reach once more, unable to help the smirk on his face as she released one breast in order to free up a hand.

“Are you really?” he asked dryly. “Are you going to punish me, then?”

The look of shock on her face was extraordinarily satisfying. It lasted only a second before she was charging at him again. With Naruto gone, she didn’t seem quite as concerned with keeping herself covered.

It was then that Gaara decided that he would definitely lose a spar to a half-naked Sakura. His focus was lax and his eyes were not on anything that would be useful in helping him defeat her.

“Give me my vest,” she said, stomping her foot in the sand to create a shockwave to knock him off his feet.

Unfortunately for her, that tactic didn’t work. Gaara was easily able to take control over the sand, quelling the shockwave before it could impair him in any way.

“Make me,” he teased.

She stomped her foot again, this time churlishly instead of for violent purposes. “Is this what you consider a fair fight?” she demanded.

Feeling a little guilty, Gaara tossed her vest back to her. She caught it, looking a little surprised and little suspicious.

“I did genuinely want to fight you,” he said consolingly, “but my intentions changed pretty quickly.”

Sakura eyed him, waiting for his explanation.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said. “It was too distracting. I just want to kiss you.”

“You’re full of it,” she snapped, her eyes blazing.

He grinned as he watched her push her arms back through her vest sleeves. She left it hanging open, her chest still exposed to him. The sun had reddened her pale skin and it would be stinging later on unless she healed it. He could tell now that she meant to use this weakness against him.

He watched her slide back into her fighting stance, her clenched fists raised up to eye level.

“Come on, Sakura, you don’t want to fight me,” he said softly, letting his eyes scour the rest of her body, too. She was pure perfection, plainly visible for him in the harsh sunlight. He couldn’t help but admire the dips and curves of her body, the subtle blush on her breasts, the shadows that carved the shape of her against the dunes.

She flung another kunai at him, casually this time. He deflected it, his eyes never leaving hers. “You’re not taking me seriously,” she complained.

Gaara grinned. “I take you very seriously, Sakura,” he said, moving the quickly cover the distance between them. “Very, very seriously.”

When he was close enough, he pushed her down to the ground, climbing atop her to keep her back pressed into the sand. She grunted and struggled against him, but not nearly enough to dissuade him from touching her.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “Get off of me.”

“No.”

The glare she directed up at him was petulant, but charming. Unafraid of her now that she was pinned beneath him, Gaara allowed his fingers to brush across her cheek, testing her reaction to something softer than a punch.

He was pleased by her near immediate reaction. She leaned into his touch, her eyes still blazing but softened now that she was distracted a little bit. He carefully noted the hitch in her breath as he trailed his fingers down to her neck and slid them along her collarbone.

“I don’t understand how perfection like this could exist,” he mumbled, more to himself than to her. She was absolutely mesmerizing.

“Come on, Gaara, you’re going to give me a big head,” she teased, reaching up to brush a lock of red hair out of his eyes.

The touch was so tender and light, so much different than the lethal jabs she had made at him just moments ago. He leaned down to kiss her, unwilling to let the opportunity pass him by. He could never waste any chance to kiss her – not when she was leaving soon and he wouldn’t be able to touch her whenever he wanted anymore.

Sakura arched her back, pushing her hips up toward his. Gaara eagerly embraced the contact, slipping his hand underneath her to palm the small of her back. The sand beneath her was warm and gritty and the juxtaposition between that and her soft skin was hypnotic.

It took every ounce of his self control not to rip her little pink skirt off and fuck her right there in the sand. He trailed kisses from her mouth along her jaw to her neck, humming his approval against the heat of her skin. He could taste her salty sweat and feel her blood pulsing through her veins in her neck.

“Is this what you wanted all along?” she asked, practically purring as she writhed beneath him. “You brought me out here to romp in the sand?”

“Of course not,” he replied, using the tip of his nose to draw circles on her neck and shoulders. “I want to spar with you. It’s just so easy to get distracted. You’re so pretty, you know.”

“So if I satisfy your carnal needs, will you give me a proper spar?” she asked, her hands shuffling along his back.

“If that’s what you want, Sakura,” he said, smirking into the kisses he continued to trail over her skin.

Sakura’s legs wrapped around his waist and her arms latched over his shoulders. Her immediate acquiescence stoked a fire deep in his gut – one that burned like a hot star in his stomach, curling and coiling and urging him to touch more of her, to slide his hands down the length of her and explore everything she had to offer him.

Her fingers tightened against his scalp, curling into his hair and holding his face against her neck. Obligingly, he continued to kiss her there, reveling in the way she squirmed against him, clutching their bodies close together.

“Are you sure we should be doing this here?” she asked, her voice gloriously breathless.

He pulled away from her for a second, mesmerized by her glowing skin and mussed hair. Flecks of sand clung to her hairline and temples, so he reached up to gently brush them away. She would be covered in sand, no doubt, by the time they were done. He almost wondered if that was a good enough reason to stop.

“Is there somewhere else you’d rather be?” he asked, feeling amused and turned on and just elated to be in this position with her. He would take her anywhere she wanted to be.

She considered this for a moment, her brow furrowed in thought.

“No,” she said with a shake of her head, which caused more sand to find its way into her hair. This time he didn’t brush it away, reminded of the first time he had kissed her when they had been trapped in the catacombs beneath the sand. He hadn’t been able to see her then because of the darkness, but he remembered the way he had touched her face and felt the flecks of sand that clung to her skin.

He leaned down to kiss her once more, enamored by her teasing half-smile and sunlit, pink hair.

“What do you want?” she asked, softly, stretching like a kitten beneath him.

“What do you mean?” he asked, propping himself up on his elbows to gaze at her.

Sakura took the letting down of his guard as an opportunity to flip their positions, twisting them both until she hovered over top of him, her hair dangling down between them and tickling his cheeks.

“You can’t spar with me until you’ve been sated,” she hummed. “So what can I do to sate you?”

Gaara felt a tingle of electricity between them at the heated undertone in her words. She lowered her face to his neck and began to press kisses there like he had done to her. Gaara didn’t answer right away, unable to process his thoughts and turn them into words. She continued to trail kisses down his neck, tugging aside his collar as she got closer to his chest. His hands flew to the back of her head, tangling in her hair and keeping her against him.

“Is this enough?” she asked teasingly, pressing her hips forward into his. Gaara bit back a groan and moved his hands down to her hips to steady them. “Or do you want more?” she asked, rolling her hips even harder in spite of Gaara’s firm hands.

A little blearily, Gaara glanced back toward the direction he knew the village to be in. No one would be able to see them here, of course. There was too much distance and he would be able to sense anyone approaching. They were free to do whatever they wanted now, which gave Gaara the confidence to slip his fingers into the buckle of her skirt and unclasp it so that it dropped into the sand.

“More,” he demanded, his hands already roving over the newly exposed skin of her thighs and ass.

Sakura giggled and was all too happy to oblige, much to his amusement.

If there was ever a moment, a memory that Gaara wanted to preserve forever, it couldn’t have been anything other than this one. The sun, the sand, Sakura – all of it made his heart clench and his skin tingle. He held tightly onto Sakura, perhaps feeling a bit more emotional than he wanted to be.

She rolled her hips against his again, the pink tips of her hair tickling his collarbone. She leaned forward to kiss him again, but Gaara stopped her by flipping them over again, pressing her back into the hot sand.

“I can’t get enough of you,” he murmured in her ear, burying his fingers in the sand beside her face.

He felt her grin against his cheek, her fingers toying with the hem of his tunic. “You can have as much of me as you want,” she murmured back.

Gaara helped her pull his tunic over his head and tossed it away into the sand. The feeling of skin against skin was electrifying. Gaara pressed himself harder against her, holding their bodies flush.

He really wished that were true. He couldn’t have as much of her as he wanted. He wanted all of her. He wanted her to never leave his side again. She belonged in the desert with him. She belonged beside him, his angel. His kunoichi. His beautiful, charming, powerful girlfriend.

He kissed her with a reverence he didn’t usually show. He had never quite felt reverent of anything but, well… Sakura, she was something else. She deserved his reverence. Anything less was unacceptable.

It was true that she would go back to Konoha soon, and Gaara wanted to feel sad about it. He did feel sad about it.

But this moment was dedicated to his reverence of her. He would enjoy it, preserve this memory so that anytime he felt sad or lonely he could just recall the time he’d taken an angel from heaven and fucked her on a sandy dune under the hot sun.

Chapter Text

Gaara took a long swig from his canteen, relishing in the feel of the cold water in his throat. He could feel it pool all the way down in his stomach, making him regret skipping lunch that morning.

The sun was blistering the exposed skin of his hands, so he pulled them inside his Kage robe. He was quite used to Suna’s heat, but something about this swelter felt unnatural.

“How many of these are there?” Gaara asked Hideki, who stood to his right.

Hideki glanced off toward a group of dunes to the west and pointed. “There are ten markings here on this side of the dunes and fourteen markings on the other,” he explained. “All evenly spaced out.”

Gaara crouched down into the sand, peering at the swirling mark that had been drawn there. It was so large it was hard to see what it looked like, but whatever it was it had clearly been drawn with purpose.

“I’m going to get a bird’s eye view of it,” Gaara said, summoning a floating sand disk. He hovered up toward the sun, pulling the brim of his Kage hat down to shield his eyes.

The markings had appeared the night before, Gaara concluded. The winds would easily have swept them away had they been there for more than several hours.

Looking down at them now, he found that he recognized them. He flew even higher, rising up until he could see both sets of markings on either sides of the dunes. They were the same markings he remembered from the catacombs on the monoliths. He thought of the rubbings he had taken all those years ago, still stashed away somewhere in his office.

Quickly, Gaara made his way back down to the earth.

“Hideki, I’m going to need a pencil and paper,” he said.

Before he had even finished the sentence, Hideki was already fishing them out of his pouch. Gaara took them with an appreciative nod.

“I thought you might, Kazekage-sama,” Hideki said, returning the nod. “I should also point out that Kankuro has been out here watching the beast fly in patterns. He’s been doing his best to write them down, but it’s difficult to making them out while that thing is in the air. I have a hunch that the patterns it made in the air are similar to these here in the sand.”

Gaara pressed his lips together. Sarabi was right. The beast was trying to communicate with them. That thought was somewhat comforting. Hopefully it meant that the beast meant them no harm.

“Fetch Kankuro, Shikamaru, and Taiyo and meet me in my office,” Gaara said, before flying back up into the air to transcribe the markings.

///

Gaara sat at his desk, running his fingers over the rubbings he had made so long ago. The corners were curled up now, the edges slightly yellowed. They’d been stuffed into a drawer, long forgotten until now.

There was no mistaking it now – the beast hadn’t just randomly returned. It was here for a reason and Gaara needed to know what it was.

The markings swirled in his vision. He could find no rhyme or reason in their loops and curls. When comparing them to the ones he had drawn from the sky, he was able to recognize the same characters, but he had no idea what they meant.

“Shikamaru,” Gaara said, looking up at the trio standing in front of his desk. “Do you still have your notes from when you tried decoding these?”

Shikamaru gave a noncommittal shrug. “I never really had any conclusive notes,” he admitted. “With the small sample I had of the language, it was hard to determine anything concrete.”

Gaara frowned. He had been hoping they weren’t going to have to start at square one again. He flipped the page with his drawings around so that everyone else could see them. “Do any of you recognize these markings?” he asked, carefully watching Taiyo’s face.

Though Taiyo had been a decent citizen during his time in Suna, Gaara couldn’t forget everything that had happened with the catacombs. He was certain that Taiyo knew more than he was letting it, but how could Gaara figure out what he knew?

“Yep, that’s the same,” Kankuro said matter-of-factly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rolled up scroll. He unrolled it on Gaara’s desk, revealing his own hand drawn versions of the exact same markings. His were much cruder, their loops wider and longer. At times there were small differences – a marking displayed reversed or an extra loop here or there.

But it was undeniably the same.

“Taiyo,” Gaara said, bringing the milky-eyed elder’s attention to him, “clearly the beast is trying to say something to us. Any idea what it might be?”

“Not a clue, Kazekage-sama,” he said, bowing his head so that his wispy bangs fell into his eyes, obscuring them from sight.

Gaara didn’t believe that for a second. He frowned and glanced over at Kankuro, who also wore a suspicious expression.

“So you don’t know of any other writing like this besides what was written on the monoliths?” Gaara pressed.

Taiyo shook his head. “The writing of our people was lost to us, as you know,” he explained, his voice growing darker with each word. “What little of it we could find was kept safe in the archives as we could never translate it with what little information we had.”

“Archives?” Shikamaru asked. “You mean like books and scrolls?”

Taiyo nodded. “Yes, there were a handful of scrolls with this kind of writing. We were never able to translate them before the catacombs were destroyed.”

Gaara tensed at the almost accusatory way Taiyo mentioned the cave-in – as if Gaara had been personally responsible for the destruction. He bristled uneasily when his eyes connected with Taiyo’s and he felt a distinct contempt in them.

“Taiyo and Shikamaru,” Gaara said sharply, commanding attention and respect with his authoritative tone. “I want the two of you to head down to the library and work on trying to figure out this language. If there is any record of Sarabi and Taiyo’s people in Suna, it will be with the historical archives.”

“Forgive me, Kazekage-sama, but I’m not sure I’ll be of any use to you,” Taiyo said, his eyes still blazing with heat. “I’m not familiar enough with this language.”

“Then I’m sure you’re curious to learn more,” Gaara snapped, feeling a bubble of rage burst in his chest. “It would surprise me if Suna’s most renown history teacher wasn’t curious about his own culture.”

An awkward silence settled over Gaara’s office. Gaara could see that Taiyo’s jaw was clenched and a vein throbbed near his temple. If Gaara hadn’t already been suspicious of Taiyo, he certainly was now.

“Very well,” Taiyo said, his voice strained. He bowed low to Gaara and then turned to face Shikamaru, who had never looked more like he wanted to simply float away into the sky, or be anywhere but Gaara’s office. Shikamaru gave a lengthy, irritated groan, which prompted a glare from Gaara.

What had he done to deserve all this disrespect?

Without another word, both Taiyo and Shikamaru filed out of the room. Gaara was grateful when his office door shut behind them and he was left with only the company of his brother.

“What the hell was that about?” Kankuro asked, moving to sit on the corner of Gaara’s desk.

Gaara sighed and shook his head. With weary hands, he rubbed at his temples. “I don’t trust Taiyo,” he said. “He’s hiding something from us and we need to find out what it is.”

Kankuro opened his mouth to speak, but before any sound came out, the office door burst open again, revealing an angry Temari.

“What reason could you possibly have for taking my fiancé away from me during our wedding celebration?” she demanded, cocking her hip out to the side.

In spite of her ire, Gaara was pleased to see her.

“Sister, dear, please come sit,” he said, gesturing toward the chair across from his desk.

“Gaara,” she said, a slow warning.

“I needed his help with something,” Gaara answered, realizing he wouldn’t get anywhere with her until he did. “Now come sit down and help your village out before you leave it forever.”

Temari rolled her eyes at his drama, but did as she was told, careful not to leave Kankuro out by glaring at him on the way.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Taiyo is hiding something from us,” Kankuro said.

“Something about the beast?” she asked. “How do you know?”

“I don’t know,” Gaara said with defeat. “Maybe Shikamaru can suss it out of him. But in any case, we’ll need to keep an eye on him. Tonight I’m taking Sarabi out to do some more investigating on the beast. I’m going to have Hideki tail Taiyo to see what he’s up too during that time. You can have Shikamaru back then.”

Temari gave him a dry look. “Okay, but I’ll be in Sakura’s satellite team, waiting to back you up.”

“No problem,” Kankuro interjected. “I can take your place. Go enjoy all your time with your future husband, sister.”

“No, no, I’m still going,” she insisted, giving Kankuro a glare through the corner of her eye. “This is the last bit of Suna business for me to handle before I leave.”

“It’s settled, then,” Gaara said, feeling a little anxious. There was no telling what could happen with the beast tonight and he didn’t like to feel so uncertain. Not where the safety of his village was concerned.

“It’s going to be fine, Gaara,” Kankuro said, sensing the unease in his brother. “We can handle this.”

Gaara wasn’t so sure, but looking at the confident faces of his brother and sister made him feel a little better.

///

Sarabi was nervous, which made Gaara nervous. She was fiddling with the hem of her tunic as they made their way out to the dunes. She had wisely suggested they head toward Turtle Rock, so as soon as the sun had gone down completely, he and Sarabi headed out into the desert.

A few clicks east of their location, Gaara could feel Sakura and Temari’s chakra signatures. They were docile, waiting for any sign of distress from Gaara or Sarabi. He felt both comforted and unnerved by their presence. It was nice to know that both Sakura and his sister would be here to help him should he require it. It was also horrifying to know that they were in potential danger. What if the beast went wild and he couldn’t manage to protect them?

He shook his head to clear those thoughts away. He couldn’t dwell on that now. He needed to focus on Sarabi.

“Do you have a plan?”

Sarabi’s eyes snapped over to his. “What?”

“For trying to communicate with it,” he clarified. “Do you have some sort of plan or are we just going to wing it?”

“I don’t have a plan,” she said, her voice panicked. “I thought you had a plan.”

Gaara reached out and placed a comforting palm on her shoulder, slowing down their pace to a leisurely walk. “Don’t worry about it,” he said softly. “We don’t need a plan. We just need to stay calm and focused.”

Sarabi didn’t look placated by his words. She worried her bottom lip between her teeth, glancing off toward the rock formation that was just starting to come into view.

“I’m scared,” she confessed. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Don’t be scared,” Gaara said earnestly, grabbing her by both shoulders to force her to look at his face. “Just remember everything that you’ve learned. You can handle it. I won’t let anything happen to you, and Sakura and Temari are waiting to give us back up if needed. We’ll be fine.”

She closed her milky eyes and sucked in a deep breath. For a few moments she attempted to even out her breath. Her fingers were trembling where they were still fisted in the fabric of her tunic. Gaara wished there was something he could do to make her less nervous. It was easy to forget that while he and the people he surrounded himself with were fearsome, practiced shinobi, Sarabi was basically a civilian. She had never been on a mission before, never killed someone.

She was right to be nervous.

“Okay,” she said, puffing out her chest with all the bravado she could muster. “I’m ready.”

Silently, they ambled toward the rock formation. Gaara grew more and more nervous with each step. What if the beast attacked? What if he couldn’t protect Sarabi?

When they reached the reddish stone, Gaara climbed atop to survey the landscape. This would be an excellent vantage point for scouting the beast’s location. Hopefully it was nearby.

Realizing that Sarabi was not behind him, Gaara looked down at the sand below. She was standing with one hand braced against the stone, looking out toward the north. He couldn’t see her face, but the tenseness in her posture worried him.

“Sarabi?” he called down after her.

Hearing her name, she glanced up at him. Her eyes were wide, almost glowing in the moonlight. It reminded him of when she had found him and Sakura after the catacombs had collapsed.

She pointed to the north and then put her finger to her lips. Gaara fell silent, reaching out with his chakra to see what she was trying to tell him.

His chakra told him nothing. His sand, however, was easily able to sense the beast below, moving toward them at breakneck speed.

“He’s coming,” Sarabi said, finding a solid foothold on the stone so that she could climb up beside Gaara.

Gaara reached for the mic of his radio and clicked down the button. “Beast is approaching,” he said, listening to the static crackle on the other end. “No visual yet.”

A beat of silence followed.

“Copy that,” said Temari’s voice in his ear. “We’re on standby.”

He could practically feel Sakura’s energy somehow. He could just imagine her, rigid and ready to spring into action at any second. He would really have hated to be in her position.

The ground beneath them began to rumble – a sensation that Gaara was quite familiar with now. The beast was getting closer. Sand began to quake up from the ground and a low, vibrating hum filled the air.

It grew louder and louder. Gaara and Sarabi scrambled for their balance as the stone began to shift and quake. Quickly, Gaara formed a sand disk and pulled Sarabi up onto it beside him.

“Look,” Sarabi said, pointing to a spot off in the distance.

She didn’t need to. The rumbling stopped, a deafening silence stretching out across the desert. A split second later, the beast had burst up from the sand like they had seen him do so many times before.

Gaara brought up his sand shield to deflect the sand and debris that crashed over them like a wave. No sooner had he dropped it did Sarabi leap off the disk and begin running toward the beast.

“Sarabi, wait!” he called after her. It was dangerous enough for her to go off after it on her own, but Gaara already knew that she didn’t have a plan.

The beast’s horrifying screech pierced the air, this time a dramatic wail. Gaara pressed his fingers to his ears to muffle the sharp sound. He gritted his teeth with a wince, feeling the sound vibrate through every bone in his body.

“Is everything okay out there?” he heard the static crackle of radio ask in his ear.

He peered out into the settling dust, looking for Sarabi. He spotted her down below, her dark hair billowing out behind her wildly. She was standing firm, looking up at the beast. Her perfect stillness was concerning. The beast whirled and swooped through the air, circling around her but not touching her.

“I’ve got a visual on the beast,” Gaara muttered into his radio. He didn’t want to confirm their safety just yet, but he knew if he didn’t respond at all that Sakura would attempt to charge in.

Another static crackle told him that Temari had said something else, but whatever it was had been drowned out by another earsplitting screech.

A spray of mucus erupted from the beast’s maw, his aim straight for Sarabi. Gaara felt for his sand, forming it into a sand wall to protect her, but before he could finish, Sarabi had brought up a wall of her own.

Gaara marveled at the sheer size it. Even with an entire desert’s worth of sand at his disposal, he had never created a wall so large, so tall before. He watched with wide-eyed fascination as Sarabi hopped aboard her own sand disk and began to float up toward the top of the wall.

With the beast still hissing and spitting on the other side, Gaara had no choice but to join her up at the top. He needed to maintain a visual.

At the top of the wall, Gaara noticed the sand beneath Sarabi’s feet begin to harden and turn to stone. It spread slowly along the length of the wall, solidifying beneath his feet. Such a technique would have required a massive amount of chakra for him to do, but he could easily tell that Sarabi was not using chakra to achieve this.

She stood poised elegantly on the crest of the wall, maybe twenty feet from where Gaara stood. He began to approach her, but a whirl of sand blocked his path.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said to him, her milky eyes flicking over to meet his. He was surprised to see certainty and resolve there. Her mouth was set in a grim line as she returned her attention to the beast, her hands both extended outward toward its massive head.

“Sarabi, what are you doing?” Gaara called out, taking another step toward her in spite of her warning.

More of her sand came up into his path. Gaara tried to manipulate the sand away from him, to clear himself a path to her, but something was wrong. There was a thick, cloying feeling in the sand, something that made it difficult for him to control. He remembered that feeling, that oily, slippery sensation in the sand that made it immovable, unstoppable.

It was the last thing he had felt just before the catacombs had collapsed.

“Sarabi, whatever you’re doing, stop it right now,” Gaara commanded, raising his voice so she could hear him over the whipping winds.

Ignoring him completely, Sarabi walked until her toes were teetering over the edge of the wall, which was now completely solidified into rough, grey stone. She leaned forward as the beast approached her, it’s massive head looming in front of her.

When it was near enough for her to touch, she pressed both palms to its slimy head just above his beady eyes.

Something in the air shifted. Sarabi’s sand fell down, opening a path for Gaara to reach her. The air was humming with electricity – Gaara could feel it quite clearly now that Sarabi’s sand was gone. The air was thin up so high, but there was a distinct stickiness to it, a humming, throbbing, cooing sound.

Intrigued, Gaara eyed the beast, watching as he closed his eyes and allowed Sarabi to hold her hands against his head. Was he purring?

In Sarabi’s distraction, Gaara was able to sneak up beside her, coming just close enough to be able to touch her and pull her away from the beast should it attack.

“What’s happening?” Gaara asked, noticing the way her milky eyes had glazed over and her skin was pebbled with goosebumps. “Are you communicating with him?”

Sarabi didn’t answer.

“Sarabi?”

The he felt it – the chakra. It was the chakra from the monoliths, the chakra that flowed through Sarabi. Gaara could feel it culminating in the beast.

“Sarabi, you’re giving him your chakra,” Gaara said, astonished by her ability to do such a thing when she’d had no real training with chakra manipulation before.

Sarabi did not respond, taking another precarious step toward the beast. The beast pushed his head closer to her, moaning with what appeared to be delight. Gaara felt its power growing as Sarabi continued to funnel her chakra into him.

But no, she wasn’t. She wasn’t voluntarily giving it to him. He was sucking it right out of her like she was nothing more than a juice box.

“Sarabi, stop,” Gaara said again, this time a little more desperately.

He realized then that she couldn’t hear him. Her eyes were screwed shut, but he noticed a pinprick of light shining from the corner of her eyes.

“No,” he breathed. “Sarabi, you have to stop.”

He reached out and clapped a hand on her shoulder so that he could yank her back to his side. The moment her hands left the beast’s sticky hide, it reared its head back and yowled, filling the air with its desperate, angry wail.

“I’m going to need some backup,” Gaara said into his mic, pulling Sarabi’s limp body against his. He lifted her up and tossed her onto his shoulder. He had no idea what was happening to her, but if it was anything like what had happened in the catacombs or whatever had happened with Sasuke out here, Gaara didn’t want her to have any part in it.

“On our way,” Temari’s voice said in his ear.

He was both relieved and worried.

With Sarabi still flung over his shoulder, Gaara dropped down to the other side of the wall. She was unconscious, but she was breathing. Her chakra was too low, he realized. She wouldn’t wake up until it had been restored.

He dropped her body into the sand and pressed a hand to her forehead. Hopefully Sakura would be here soon to make sure she was okay. Until then, Gaara needed to make sure she was safe.

On the other side of the wall, the beast howled again. There was a loud, sickening thud on the other side, followed quickly by another and then another. Gaara looked up at the wall and saw a crack forming at the top. The beast was trying to break through it to get to Sarabi.

He needed to get her out of here.

He could sense Sakura and Temari approaching quickly. They would be here in a matter of minutes, but until then Gaara needed to make sure the beast didn’t touch Sarabi again. She didn’t have any more chakra left to lose.

The beast slammed into the stone again, enlarging the crack until it almost reached the ground. Gaara picked Sarabi back up and lugged her body farther away from the wall. The beast spit another spray of acid, some of which managed to make its way over top of the wall. Gaara created a sand shield around Sarabi and hoped that would be enough to protect her for now.

When he was certain that Sakura would be arriving any moment to help Sarabi, Gaara leapt back up toward the wall. Their first order of business was to try to communicate with the beast. Without Sarabi, they had no way of doing that. All they had were the drawings Kankuro had made of the beast’s flying patterns.

Gaara fished them out of his pocket and unfolded the creased pages. Staring down at the strange symbols, he felt confusion. He had no idea what they meant, but he hoped that the sight of them would at least let the beast know that they were trying to understand him, that they didn’t want to hurt him.

The beast slammed into the wall again, this time, splitting it into two. The resounding crack reverberated through the air. Gaara pressed his fingers to his ears again, certain that he had just ruptured an eardrum.

“Gaara!”

Sakura’s voice filled him with dread and relief. He turned to find her pink head bobbing across the dunes at full speed, Temari in tow behind her.

“Sarabi’s unconscious,” he said into his mic. “Have Sakura tend to her immediately.”

“Copy that.”

The beast continued to wail on the other side of the wall, but all Gaara could focus on was Sarabi’s limp body and the head of pink hair running toward it.

One more time, the beast slammed its head into the wall, tearing it apart until chunks of stone and debris rained down on them. Gaara was hardly aware that Temari had unfolded her fan and launched a stream of wind to deflect what she could. Gaara had raised his own sand wall between the beast and Sarabi to protect her of what debris remained.

Sakura came to a stop near Sarabi’s body, her hands glowing and green and pressed into the girl’s unmoving chest. Her wide eyes were alert and focused when she looked up at him, her hair blowing wildly in the wind.

“We have to get her back to the village,” she yelled over the wind and wails.

Gaara looked back toward the toppled wall where the beast was nursing his self-inflicted wounds, coiled tightly in a ball. If they took Sarabi back to the village, the beast would follow.

But what other option did he have? He couldn’t kill the beast before they had discovered what it was trying to say. What if killing it also killed Sarabi? It was a risk he didn’t want to take.

“Gaara?”

His eyes flicked over to Temari, who stood waiting for her instructions.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

He had absolutely no clue.

Chapter Text

Gaara’s heart was pounding in his chest, wind whipping his bangs into his eyes. The height at the top of Sarabi’s sand wall was dizzying. He could feel himself teetered as he gazed down at the expanse of sand below.

Behind him, Sakura was down below, cradling Sarabi in her arms. Gaara didn’t want to think about the two of them at the moment. He was still unsure of Sarabi’s condition and he was sure that whatever Sakura might be able to explain to him would only exacerbate his fear.

Instead, he tried to focus on the task at hand. In front of him, the beast was wriggling around in the air. Repeated attempts to head slam the stone to get to Sarabi had obviously left it in bad shape. It writhed about, wailing and groaning. Though the crack in the wall was substantial, it seemed Sarabi’s handiwork was enough to keep the beast at bay – at least for now.

But until he could come up with another way of communicating with the beast, Gaara needed to keep it occupied. With Sarabi still unconscious, he was at a total loss for what to do.

“Did Sarabi do this?” asked a voice beside him.

Gaara glanced to his right and saw that Temari had joined him at the top of the wall. She gaped down at the solid stone beneath her feet. Gaara couldn’t blame her.

“She did,” he replied evenly. “How is she doing?”

Temari gave a slight shake of her head, looking off toward where the beast was still whirling through the air.

“Tough to say, isn’t it?” she asked. “Sakura can’t even tell what’s wrong with her past chakra exhaustion.”

“Just like before,” Gaara muttered under his breath.

Another wail pierced the air, drawing Temari and Gaara’s attention. The beast swirled up high above them and then dove down toward the sand. Gaara had no clue how deep Sarabi’s sand wall went beneath the sand, but he didn’t want to take the risk that the beast could burrow under it and get to Sarabi and Sakura.

Calling on a massive portion of his chakra, Gaara attempted to solidify the sand beneath the beast just before its head hit the ground. Unsurprisingly, the sand didn’t immediately bend to his control. Whatever force had taken from him the ability to control the desert’s sand before had come back in full force.

But with what little control he did have, Gaara was able to create sand packed densely enough to still keep the beast from diving beneath the sand. Its head smashed into the ground with a sickening crack. Gaara winced as he heard the bones in its massive neck crackle under the immense pressure.

If Sarabi were awake, he could have her build a cage around the beast to keep it still until they could communicate with it. Without her, he could barely control the desert’s sand. All he had was the sand in his gourd.

Gaara knew any attempt he made to subdue the beast would likely harm it. It seemed to have a propensity to harm itself and Gaara wasn’t really prepared to lose it to death just yet.

He looked back down behind him at the dunes, scanning for Sakura’s pink hair. Panic seized his throat when he saw Sarabi’s limp body propped up against a mound of sand with Sakura nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Sakura?” he asked, his voice steel and ice.

Temari leaned down to peer across the desert, looking for Sakura as well. “I told her not to leave Sarabi’s side,” she said brusquely.

Perhaps she had gone back to the village for help, Gaara thought. Maybe she needed something – a tool or a medicine – to better care for Sarabi. Gaara prayed to whatever gods would listen that this was the case.

The beast, which had slumped against the sand, nursing its wounds with quiet, shuddering whimpers, suddenly jolted, its body flipping over onto its back. It screeched and began to writhe again, but was clearly too injured to do much of anything else anymore.

This was good, Gaara thought, because it was still alive, but now it was relatively well-subdued. However, it was the lithe, pink-haired kunoichi that had flipped the beast over that sent Gaara’s heart into a frenzy.

“Sakura, what the hell are you doing?” he yelled down to her, swooping down on his sand disk to join her on the ground. She was climbing up onto the beast’s belly, her glowing, green hands roving over its scaly hide.

Under whatever ministrations she was making, the beast stilled. Gaara fear she might have killed it for a second, but as he got closer he could see it was still breathing. The rise and fall of its chest moved Sakura up and down, but she clung to its belly anyway, her hands still green, still pressed against its scales.

“Are you out of your mind?” he demanded, reaching up to grab her and yank her off of the beast. “You were supposed to stay with Sarabi.”

“She’s dying, Gaara,” Sakura said breathlessly, flicking her sweaty bangs from her eyes with a delicate finger. Her hand went straight back to the beast’s belly, where Gaara drew his attention.

“What are you doing?” he asked, curious and afraid now instead of volatile. “Can you save her?”

Sakura pressed her lips together, moving her head so that her hair would be released from behind her ear and create a curtain to shield her face from him. “It stole all her chakra,” she explained quickly, her voice shaking. The emotion in her voice made dread fill Gaara’s stomach. “We have to get it back to her,” she continued. “She won’t last much longer without it.”

Gaara glanced up at the wall, where Temari still stood, waiting for her instructions.

“Okay, so how do we get it back to her?” he asked, trying to stay calm. Inside, he felt all his emotions roiling. He had no idea what to do, how to save Sarabi, or how to understand the beast and its purpose in his desert.

“I don’t know, Gaara, how did it get out of her?” Sakura snapped.

Gaara winced a little at her accusatory inflection, but brushed the emotion aside because that was not something he could deal with right now.

“Temari,” he said into his mic, pressing down on the radio talk button. “Find Sarabi and bring her over here.”

Temari remained motionless at the top of the wall. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Gaara?”

He wasn’t sure. “She’s going to die if we do nothing,” he said quietly into the mic.

Temari’s silhouette was still for a few seconds more. There was a static crackle in Gaara’s ear like Temari had pressed the talk button and then decided not to speak after all. She disappeared over onto the other side of the wall.

“I’ve relaxed the beast’s muscles to the point where he is completely paralyzed,” Sakura explained, removing her hands from the beast’s belly and leaping down on to the sand. “He’s still alive, but he won’t be able to move for a while.”

Gaara was at her side in an instant, pulling her into a crushing embrace. She was pliant in his arms, but she didn’t return his hug. Gaara wasn’t too bothered by this – he was too relieved to have her safely in his arms again. There was something immensely comforting about having her near him, even though he would far rather have left her back within the safe confines of the village walls. Breathing in the sweet scent of her hair, he felt himself relaxing into her, his stresses melting away.

It was then that he realized she was funneling her healing chakra into him, calming him down like she had done all those years ago in the catacombs.

Temari landed deftly beside them, Sarabi’s body flung over her shoulder. Sakura quickly shoved Gaara’s chest and lifted Sarabi’s body off Temari’s shoulder.

“What are you planning to do?” Gaara asked, watching helplessly as Sakura brought Sarabi’s body over to the beast and laid her down in the sand beside him.

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “Are chakra transfusions a thing?”

“Sakura, I think Sarabi did this to herself,” Gaara said, hoping that the theory he was about to provide was correct. “Maybe she can reverse it, too.”

“She’s unconscious,” Sakura argued. “She can’t do much of anything right now.”

Gaara glanced up at Sarabi’s sand-turned-stone wall. She hadn’t used chakra to build it, but Gaara wondered if some of her chakra was perhaps stored in it, keeping it solid while her body was still unconscious.

Curious as to the strength of Sarabi’s creation, Gaara prodded at her wall with his chakra and sand, trying to see if he could return the stone to its original sand state, or at least gauge how large it truly was.

To his dismay, he couldn’t budge it with his sand. While he would have liked to be able to tear down this barrier that now stood between him and his village, he also hoped that it meant that Sarabi’s chakra was ingrained in the stone, ready to return to its master.

“Sakura,” he said, sounding authoritative now that he felt a little more control over the situation. “Sarabi created this sand wall and I can feel her chakra still in it, keeping it solid and standing. Maybe there’s a way we can get that chakra to return to her body.”

Sakura considered this, her eyes flicking between the wall and Sarabi’s body. “How much chakra do you figure is there?” she asked, peering up at the massive wall. It was nearly impossible to see the top of it from their position on the ground.

“Not much,” he admitted. The technique she had used didn’t really require chakra. Whatever chakra remained in the stone and sand was whatever Sarabi had deemed necessary. “But hopefully it will be enough to keep her alive.”

“Okay, so how do we get to it back into Sarabi?” Temari asked.

“Let’s bring her back up to the top of the wall,” Gaara suggested. “We need to figure out a way to stop the jutsu she used to create the wall. Maybe then its chakra will go back to her.”

Temari, who had just carried Sarabi down from the top of the wall, shook her head with disapproval. “There’s no guarantee that destroying the wall will bring back her chakra,” she argued. “And even if it does, we don’t want to be standing on top of it when that happens.”

“We need to keep her away from the beast,” Gaara replied, trying not to sound angry that his sister was disagreeing with him.

“Or maybe the beast is the answer to all this,” Sakura said. Gaara and Temari both turned to look at her. “All Sarabi’s chakra is inside the beast. Do you think that’s what it was trying to tell us? That it wanted Sarabi’s chakra?”

The beast was still paralyzed, but whimpering softly from its position in the sand. Sakura approached it, prompting Gaara to follow closely just in case it were to break free from the paralysis and attack. Sakura placed a palm on the creature’s head, her hand glowing with chakra again.

“Bring Sarabi to me,” Sakura said to Gaara, keeping her hand against the beast’s cheek. Gaara didn’t like how near to its terrifying jaws she kept her hand, but he quickly did as she asked and brought Sarabi’s body over to her.

Hesitantly, he placed her down in the sand at Sakura’s feet.

“With the beast paralyzed, I think I’ll be able to transfer Sarabi’s chakra back to her,” Sakura said, shifting Sarabi’s body so that she was parallel to the beast in the sand, “but the beast is resisting my paralysis. I won’t be able to keep him still much longer.”

“Are you sure you can do this, Sakura?” Temari asked, glancing skeptically between the beast and Sarabi’s body. “You’ve never done anything like this before.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Sakura insisted. “I need to act quickly, so please be quiet.”

Temari and Gaara exchanged nervous glances. Sakura knelt down into the sand between the beast and Sarabi. Gaara noticed that her hands were trembling and her vest was soaked with sweat. He had the sudden urge to rush over to her and kiss the top of her head and convince her that everything would be just fine.

She reached one hand out to Sarabi’s chest and pressed her palm to the girl’s heart. Sarabi’s body convulsed weakly. Sakura bit her lip apprehensively and then reached toward the beast’s belly.

The second her hand connected with the beast’s hide, a burst of light filled the air like an explosion, blinding Gaara and forcing him to close his eyes. He could hear the low grit of sand moving, and the rumbling earth beneath his feet told him the beast was back on the move again.

Blindly, he ambled toward Sakura, reaching his hand out of her. “Sakura!” he yelled, panicked and nervous.

A hand on his elbow stopped him and pulled him back.

“Gaara, wait,” Temari said, tightening her grip on his arm. The two of them stood side by side, straining their eyes against the brightness. Gaara’s heart was pounding in his chest. Wherever in the light Sakura was, she made no sound and Gaara couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening.

The beast wailed. The rumbling in the earth stopped, but the screeching continued. Slowly, the light began to wane. Gaara squinted, trying to make out what was happening in front of him.

The beast was up again, whirling through the air and wailing. Desperately, Gaara rushed forward, searching the sand and debris for Sakura and Sarabi. Temari was close behind him.

“Sakura!” he called out again, growing more frantic. “Sarabi!”

He closed in on them two of them, their bodies twisted together, half buried beneath the sand. Frenzied, he and Temari began to pull them both out of the sand.

Sakura’s skin was clammy and cold, but there was a quick heartbeat puling in her wrist that gave him immense comfort. Once she was freed from the sand, she gripped Gaara’s arms with tight fingers, her eyes wild and filled with fear.

“Sarabi?” she asked, her eyes flitting around, searching for her young apprentice.

She and Gaara both turned to where Temari held Sarabi’s limp body.

“Oh my God,” Sakura breathed, reaching for her. The dre