Sakura took a careful sip of her water and resisted the urge to lick her lips. It would only dry them out faster.
Sakura looked up to find Kakashi offering her a small capped tube.
“Why do you have Chapstick in your pouch?” she smiled faintly.
“Because I know what the desert does to your skin,” he said dryly.
Sakura took the Chapstick and smeared it over her chapped lips. When she offered it back he shook his head and she tucked it away safety, the pleasant tingle of beeswax and peppermint soothing.
“How much longer do we wait?” Sakura asked faintly.
“Not long. They will tire of watching soon and approach us,” Kakashi said idly, careful not to look at their silent watchers.
Sakura tried very hard to sense the men she knew were watching them, but they must have been well cloaked and hidden. That Kakashi could sense them did not surprise her.
“Kakashi,” Sakura said, his name slipping out more weakly then she had intended.
He looked to her and she faltered.
“…I don’t know if I’m ready,” she finally admitted.
He rested a hand on her shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. He leaned in close and bussed his nose over her cheek in what she recognized as reassurance from the touch-hating man.
“You are strong,” he said sincerely, “This will not be what kills you.”
“I will be alone,” she swallowed, “I’ve never done well alone.”
“It will not be for long,” Kakashi said, “I promise, as soon as I can I will join you.”
Sakura didn’t voice her fear that he would never be allowed too. She reached up and squeezed his hand shakily. And then they were standing, four cloak figures emerging from the sand dunes to approach them.
“Miss Haruno,” one greeted, “We are glad you made it safely.”
His tone sure didn’t convey any such feelings as he sounded grim and flat.
“Ah, we’re glad to be here,” Kakashi lied with an eye smile, “I take it you shall be escorting my cute little student to Suna?”
“We will,” they nodded.
“Good, good. Just, ah, make sure she arrives safely,” Kakashi smiled again, “I would hate to hear anything had happened to her.”
His tone seemed light and cheerful but she could see the words hit the men hard as they resisted the urge to flinch away.
“Of course,” one swallowed, “Lets head out then miss Haruno.”
Kakashi squeezed her shoulder once more before dragging his hand away. Sakura breathed deeply once, locking eyes with him as he gazed back. She tugged her rose tinted goggles on and let Kakashi drape a pretty sand colored scarf over her hair and securely around all the skin on her face before she pulled her hood up. Sakura had never been so covered in her life, from fingertip to toes, everything enclosed but billowy with the light fabrics.
“Good luck,” Kakashi murmured.
“Thanks,” she said halfheartedly.
She turned to her guides and with a sharp gesture they were leaping into the sands away from the fire country wind country border. She felt Kakashi’s eye on her until she vanished onto the horizon.
“Why me?” Sakura asked.
“Do you want the truth or something nicer?” Tsunade asked.
“The truth,” Sakura said sharply, not in the mood for games.
“You were requested.”
“Who would request me?” she asked, “No one knows who I am.”
Sakura had once wanted to be someone, wanted to be a name known across the world for her strength. But she knew she wasn’t strong enough yet. She may have learned a bunch from Tsunade, learned medic jutsu and strength unrivaled, but she was still severely lacking. She was not yet done being a student.
That was the reason knowledge of her apprenticeship had never been spread past Konoha’s walls, just like the fact that Naruto was off gallivanting the world with Jiraya. Outside of Konohagakure, Sakura was not a name known, was not someone anyone whispered about. Even if any spies had passed these walls no one cared enough about Sakura yet to know her. So no one should know her well enough to request her.
“I don’t know,” Tsunade said flatly, “But someone did. And I can’t deny it. You know how precarious our position is Sakura.”
And Sakura did know. Apprenticing under Tsunade wasn’t just learning her medical jutsu and her strength. It was learning the village, learning under a Hokage. So Sakura, despite being Chunin, knew far more about the village then she would ever have been allowed otherwise. So she knew the fact that they were still hurting after the Sound-Sand invasion, especially in international eyes. The rest of the countries were eyeing them like hungry wolves.
“I…” Sakura swallowed, “I’m a no-clan Chunin with just enough skills to be a medic nin, no one important if I fail or don’t come back.”
“That’s what the council says,” Tsunade scowled.
Sakura fisted her hands in her apron. She swallowed again as she tried not to tremble.
“Chunin Haruno, do you accept the mission?” Tsunade asked grimly.
Sakura knew there was no other answer then;
Suna looked…well, it looked quite like it’s surroundings. It’s large dome like walls were the same color as the sand dunes about it and were high enough to block any sight of the city inside.
“Team 18 returning from retrieval mission with Haruno Sakura,” the first man told the guards.
She had learned none of their names even on the days of their journey. They had not spoken to her at all and she had not tried to broach conversation, more worried about not dying of heat during the day and then not dying of cold as she set her tent up in the night.
“Welcome to Suna,” the guards eyed her, stamping her passport, “The Council wants to see you immediately.”
Sakura didn’t bother protesting or asking to wash up. She simply nodded.
She followed the team into Suna, past the dusky gate. She had expected the inside the match the outside, all dust and sand. But as she passed the gate, Sakura’s jaw dropped. It was… it was…
Suna was like a wave of color.
Everything was brightly colored everywhere she looked. Doors and buildings painted blue, red, orange, green, yellow. Windows were every other color, stained glass and complimenting shutters. Cloth of every color hung like flags and banners, laundry hanging on lines and sashes from lines. The people were just as colorful, their clothes like a rainbow, all billowy and covering to keep the heat off, but not dull.
The air was filled with noise and smells, the thick smell of spices just as heavy as the heat in the air. Sakura couldn’t believe it as they passed carts cooking big pots of curry and meats, the heat making her sweat.
People moved out of their way, recognizing shinobi gear and giving them nods or smiles as they headed down the narrow streets. The buildings here were tall, all made of what looks liked mud and brick but covered in paints and glass mosaics. The streets were cobbled, sand between their bright red cracks. The streets were far narrower than in Konoha, the buildings looming to create shade, bright sheets of cloth stretch between buildings to make even more cover. The light filtered in every color of the rainbow to make the streets awash with color.
Sakura tried to be subtle as she looked at everything and everywhere.
Finally, they stopped at the base of a tall dome shaped building that was far plainer then every other building they had passed. Ninja clung to its shadows, silent guards that watched as they entered. Sakura was led down, not up, and knew they had gone underground as the air became cooler and more still. They stopped before a pair of doors, where the team parted and waved her in. Sakura entered slowly, a guard opening the door for her.
“Haruno Sakura,” the guard announced.
The room looked much like the council hall of Konoha with rows of elevated seating all looking down on the center of the room and an array of elders about it looking grumpy. Sakura slowly pushed her goggles up and tugged the face covering down.
“Haruno Sakura,” the man at the center of the room addressed her, looking even older then the Sandaime had, “I hope your journey was pleasant.”
“Yes,” she said dryly, bowing, “Thank you for the escort.”
“It was no problem, we are glad you came.”
“Enough of the pleasantries,” an old woman to his side snapped, “What do you bring us girl?”
Sakura had been training with Tsunade, which meant she had learned a healthy dose of politics. But Sakura was also alone, nervous, and not in the mood to simper. She pulled forth the scroll sent by Tsunade and handed it to the waiting guard who checked it before handing it to the man at the head of the table. The woman snatched it out of his hands as he rolled his eyes. Sakura eyed them as they read the scroll together. Kakashi and Tsunade had tried to brief her on the elders of Suna. This would be Chiyo and Ebizo; elders and powerful ones at that. They had been ruling the council of Suna, and Suna itself, for the past two years.
“Hmm. She writes flowery words about our alliance and then sends us a paltry chunin as incentive to keep the peace?” Chiyo huffed, “Perhaps the slug princess is losing her touch.”
The woman looked at Sakura to speak as if gauging how the insult hits. Sakura made sure to show her teeth in her return smile.
“Well, what do you bring us girl?” Chiyo repeated.
“I am to help in your hospital,” Sakura said simply, “Administratively and as a healer.”
“Hmph. We’ll see what you can do then Haruno. If you are useless…”
The threat hangs and Sakura showed her teeth in a smile again. The worst they could do is send her home. Unless they want to start a war with Konoha. Sakura tried not to think about whether they wanted war or if Konoha truly would go to war over a partly chunin. Those were just anxious thoughts that had no place here.
“Show her quarters,” Chiyo waved a hand at the guard.
Everyone in the room froze, even Chiyo and Ebizu. Sakura felt her skin crawl but did not turn to face the man behind her.
“I will take her.”
No one protested, and Sakura turned slowly to face him. Sabaku no Gaara stood behind her, arms crossed over his chest and eyes dark in the low lighting. He looked as damned as he had in the chunin exam, all dusky skin and sharp eyes and hair as red as blood.
“Don’t damage her,” Chiyo said simply and Sakura shuddered beneath her cloak.
Gaara looked at her and she felt his eyes dig into her like granules of sand, itching and abrasive. She heard the rustling of real sand and couldn’t stop the tensing of her muscles.
“Come,” he demanded abruptly as he turned and walked out the doors.
Sakura had no choice but to follow. It felt like a funeral procession as the silence of the elders followed her as if already mourning her loss.
“I request to be put on her guard,” Kakashi said crisply.
Sakura stared at him. Tsunade on the other hand, continued signing papers.
“I request to be put on Haruno Sakura’s guard detail.”
“No matter how many times you ask I will say denied,” Tsunade said idly, handing Sakura a stack of scrolls.
“Why?” Kakashi demanded.
“Because the elders of Suna would murder you before the day was out. You know the hatred they carry for your bloodline because of your father,” Tsunade said bluntly.
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Kakashi said evenly.
“Good for you. Still denied. For the simple reason there is no guard.”
“…Excuse me?” Kakashi asked flatly.
“Haruno Sakura is taking this mission solo.”
“What?” Kakashi demanded, tone dangerous.
“We do not have the resources to make this a large mission. Nor do I want to risk too many lives. Sakura will take this mission solo unless she deems it safe to bring more people in.”
Kakashi’s eyes nearly glowed with rage in the dim light and Sakura stared fascinated. Kakashi hadn’t completely vanished from her life with the crumbling of Team Seven. He had returned to his duties as a… Jonin and she had simply seen less of him. He had popped in at odd times to give her lessons or ‘sage advice’ or mooch lunch from her. But she had always felt it was more habit then care. To see him show such genuine like for her was fascinating after such dismissive attitude before. It showed he truly cared and Sakura couldn’t look away.
“You’re sending her into enemy territory unguarded and alone?” Kakashi said lowly, a snarl in his words.
“I am your Hokage, Hatake, don’t growl at me,” Tsunade said sharply.
As if to be contrary Kakashi snarled again. Tsunade finally set the paperwork aside to fully face him, a commanding look on her face.
“Back down,” she said lowly, “You have your orders.”
Kakashi growled again, eyes flickering to Sakura as if to ascertain she was still okay. She saw the subtle brace of his feet. He really meant to fight the Hokage for her, she thought wonderingly. Tsunade and he stared at one another for a long moment. Then the Hokage gave a pleased smirk and sat again, taking another scroll.
“You have your orders,” she repeated, “Sakura will take this mission solo. You have two months to prepare her.”
“Prepare her?” Kakashi asked lowly, eyes narrowed.
“I need her a few hours a week still,” Tsunade said dismissively, “But she’s yours for the rest of the time.”
Kakashi’s gaze slid away from Tsunade to Sakura. Sakura felt her blood pound under his stare.
“I am in your care,” she said dryly, “What’s the plan, sensei?
“…I can’t come with you, but I’m going to make damn sure you survive,” Kakashi said ominously, straightening.
The ANBU mask she was not supposed to be aware of shifted at his hip and Sakura shuddered.
“Hello Haruno,” Temari greeted as Sakura was led through the wide airy front doors.
“Temari, please call me Sakura,” Sakura bowed her head.
Temari grinned at her, wide and fearless. Sakura had only spoken to Temari in passing, the girl the unofficial ambassador from Suna. She spent most of her time with Shikamaru and the Hokage in talks. Sakura only spoke with her because Sakura too was often with the Hokage during these talks.
“Were you the one who requested me?” Sakura raised a brow.
Something crossed Temari’s expression as her eyes flickered back to the man at Sakura’s side. Sakura resisted the urge to swallow. That was both a No and an answer. One she did not want.
“Let me show you to your rooms,” Temari breezed over the pause, “You don’t mind if I steal her do you Gaara?”
Gaara said nothing and Temari steered Sakura down the hall.
“You have an oasis in your yard?” Sakura said for lack of anything else to say as she felt Gaara’s eyes watch them leave.
They had entered the walled compound and it was the first sight that had greeted Sakura, a sparkling oasis of water and palms and plants. The house, tall and painted brilliant white with pale colored windows had looked just as beautiful as the water in the shade of the palm trees.
“It’s a reflection of the power of Kazekage, to protect the source of water for the village,” Temari said, “The village relies on an underground spring, but the oasis is a symbol of it.”
“Ah,” Sakura said, “these are the Kage quarters?”
“In a way. These are my family’s halls, because of that they belong to the Kage. Unlike Konoha, we are a monarchy. The title of Kazekage will belong only to our bloodline.”
“Will you be the next Kazekage then, as the eldest?” Sakura asked.
She had studied the lines of the Kazekage, knew that each member was of the same family, but hadn’t really considered it. What information Konioha had access too was also limited.
“We do not always hand the title to the eldest, but to the strongest,” Temari said.
“Gaara then,” she whispered.
“Yes. The elders have held power for two years of regency, but their time is up,” Temari said simply, “The title shall be passed to Gaara, especially now that he is an adult in the eyes of Wind country.”
Sakura swallowed again. In the Land of fire, 16 was the age of adulthood recognized by the Daimyo. In the harsher land of Wind, 15 was the majority. Gaara, if she was not mistaken, had turned 15 recently and the elders would not be able to contest his claim especially being the age of majority.
“Here’s your room while you stay here,” Temari said lightly, distractingly.
Sakura entered the spacious room with a large bed and small sitting area. There was a tall set of wood and glass doors that opened onto a small veranda. Everything was painted white, a surprising lack of color after her walk through Suna. With the bright sun the room practically glowed. But it was cool, a small breeze entering the room to blow at the shear curtains.
“Thank you,” Sakura said.
“Take your time to settle, dinner will be in a few hours,” Temari smiled at her.
It was not a warm smile but it was not unkind either and Sakura took strength from it.
“Thank you,” she repeated.
Temari left her alone and Sakura slowly shed her cloak, shaking the sand out of it before heading to the little attached bathroom. The water came out of the tap sweet and cool and Sakura leapt in. She knew that water usage was highly restricted in Suna and she would have to grow used to it, but the Kage home had many more allowances and Sakura was not afraid to take advantage of that for now.
Kakashi was a much different teacher when her life was on the line. He drove her hard and desperate and barely let her sleep for how much he tried to cram into her.
“You will kill me,” she panted and sobbed as he pushed her harder and harder.
“No, this could possibly save you,” he said harshly as he drove her to the ground, as he trapped her and snarled at her.
“Not if it kills me,” she cried.
He did not answer just drove her on. She felt like a fox at the feet of a hound. The baying of dogs in her ears and the fear pushing her feet.
Some said Kakashi was not a good teacher. They looked at his genin who all left to find better ones and scoffed at him. But there was a mask she was not supposed to know about and years upon years in an organization that had people dying in the first. He was a captain a leader, and his squads has the lowest mortality rate. They had the best training and came out as the strongest. Kakashi had decades of teaching under his belt. He had just never had to train those who did not even know the basics. He had floundered when faced with children.
But Sakura was not a child anymore, not fragile or breakable, and so Kakashi gave her all his teachings.
“Fight,” Kakashi demanded, blood on his teeth.
Sakura gazed at his face, gazed at the snarl, and snarled back.
“Naruto told me of you.”
Sakura came awake in an instant, eyes snapping open as she rolled over her bed, feet landing hard on the floor. The knife in her hand was short and slightly curved, good for slashing. Kakashi had folded it into her hand months ago and Sakura never went without it anymore.
Sakura stared wide eyed at terrified at Gaara, who sat calmly in her arm chair, watching her with dusky teal eyes. Her room was dark save for the moonlight seeping through her curtains. Sakura barely heard anything over the sound of her heart pounding. She said nothing as Gaara watched her. She watched him back but it was apparent who was uncomfortable and who would win this standoff.
“Naruto told you of me,” she finally stuttered out as the silence pressed down on her.
“We exchange letters,” Gaara said, “he speaks highly of you. He loves you.”
“Yes,” Sakura swallowed, “We are teammates.”
Gaara tilted his head, just the slightest, like a curious predator watching his prey do something confusing.
“And that is enough to love him?”
Sakura ran a tongue across her teeth and felt the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Naruto’s love might be what saved her life right here, but it would rely on her tongue as well.
“Yes, in a way,” she said, hand sweaty around the grip of her knife, “Teams are important. They will watch your back and help you out. In the ninja world death is around every corner and a team is what protects you from that. How can you not love the people you share your life with?”
Gaara was silent.
“These are the bonds he speaks of,” the man finally said, “They are born out of necessity?”
“Well no,” Sakura said, “They can be, but that’s not what keeps them strong. Compassion, empathy, love, these grow out of knowing someone. I …I didn’t like Naruto when I first met him. You could say I hated him.”
Gaara shifted and there was something in the way he did it that made a sweat break out across her forehead.
“But I grew to know him, to love him,” Sakura rushed out, “In the way he stood firm, in the loyalty he showed, in the love he gave. He showed himself to be a man worth loving and so I grew to love him.”
“…your words make no sense,” Gaara growled, “How does love grow from hatred, it cannot be as simple as simply showing love in return.”
“How can you not love someone who loves you,” Sakura shivered, “How can you not love someone who is always there, who respects you, who loves you?”
Sakura knew she wasn’t explaining it well. But she’d never had to explain love., It was something most people just understood.
“So if someone hates you, just love them till they love you?” Gaara said sounding something close to disgusted.
“I mean,” Sakura swallowed, “If their hate is valid, if you wronged them, it may take a while. They may never love you fully, but its not impossible. Hate is a burning thing, its hard to hold onto for long. Treat them with love and slowly you will smother the hatred.”
It was something Naruto would say. Fighting Hate with Love. He was an idealist like that. Sakura on the other hand…well Sakura knew what Gaara wanted to hear right now. He wanted to hear Naruto’s words and she would give them to him.
Gaara contemplated her words and then stood abruptly, which sent Sakura lurching back a step, her blade rising from where she dropped it. He eyed the blade with something like disinterest.
“Naruto spoke highly of you. It was for your life he fought me during the invasion.”
Sakura shuddered as she remembered the sand crushing her slowly into unconscious, remembered how her bones creaked and the air was pressed from her lungs. She remembered what slow strangulation had felt like.
“I requested your presence here,” he said, “So that I could see why he loved you. Do not disappoint me Haruno Sakura.”
And then he was gone in a whirlwind of sand. Sakura fell to her knees wracked with shudders so bad she felt like retching. Her fingers were numb with how hard they gripped the hilt of her knife. She leaned over and pressed her forehead to the cool stone floor.
“Remember what Kakashi said,” she told herself.
It was going to take all her mental and physical skill. Suna was the enemy still and Sakura was a sacrifice to see if they were true to their word. She now had another danger before her as well. And she knew without a doubt that Gaara was the most dangerous one of the two. She wouldn’t take her eyes off of him.
“Remember what Kakashi said,” she repeated, “Survive.”
Sakura held a pair of sunglasses up and looked at their shape carefully in the mirror across from her.
“Very good make those,” the vendor said eagerly, “Made of Konoha wood and Suna glass. They’ll protect your eyes from our sun for sure, miss!”
Sakura nodded faintly and pulled them on. They turned the world pink, tinted with rose colored glass and Sakura felt like a child looking at a pastel colored world.
“Something darker if you don’t mind,” Sakura finally said.
The vendor eagerly found her a different pair, lenses dark enough to hide her eyes and darken the world to a gloomy grey and blue. She paid him with only half-hearted haggling and set off down the street. She had already gotten enough local robes to cover her form, the soft billowing material much cooler than anything she owned. She’d found a head cover as well, one that fell loose to cover her neck and curl under her chin securely. Sakura had picked a soft red colored set of robes, drawn in tight at her waist with a yellow sash. Her ankles and wrists were wrapped with white cloth to hold billowy ends in, soft boots to cover her feet unlike her sandals, and full gloves instead of her usual fingerless ones.
She hovered over a vendor who sold face veils. The traditional veil attached to the headdress and hid everything under her eyes down, leaving only the strip around her eyes visible. It was typically a woman’s veil, meant to hide their face away from curious eyes. At one point it had been an enforceable piece of clothing, required for all women out in public. But that was before the ninja village, before Suna was held by a Kage. This was from the days of tribes and nomads and now it implied a religious, historical, or fashion statement.
Sakura bought one in the same red as her head covering and robes. The vendor eagerly helped show her how to wear it properly in a way it would not come loose and fall off. In a fight she would have to ditch it, but in every day activity it would not budge.
She was slowly covering every inch of her skin to protect it from the harsh Suna sun.
And well, if she ended up hiding the fact she was not a local Suna nin from first glance, all the better.