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Bruised and Angry Heart, Please be Gentle

Chapter Text

Sakura took a careful sip of her water and resisted the urge to lick her lips. It would only dry them out faster.

“Here.”

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.”

Sakura shuddered.

“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;

“Yes.”

.--.

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.

“No.”

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.

“Denied.”

“I request to be put on Haruno Sakura’s guard detail.”

“Denied.”

“I request-”

“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.

Sakura swallowed.

“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?”

He sounded…disappointed.

“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.

.--.

Chapter Text

Gaara was watching her. She could feel his eyes on her and it made the hair on the back of her neck rise. She did not break out in a sweat this time at least.

She wasn’t quite sure it was Gaara of course, but she had the feeling it was. She carefully did not look in the corners she heard the slight rustling of sand to confirm this.

Sakura tried to ignore the gaze as she went through files upon files of paperwork. The hospital in Suna was an absolute disaster. While they had a focus on chakra control in the academy it was on chakra strings, with all good students getting pulled into the puppet corps. The rest went to poisons, Suna’s other specialty. They had the best toxicologists in the world, but their hospital was shit.

While Suna had gained some medical teachings from Konoha when they had first become allies, it was obviously not flourishing. Konoha had done well due to the Shodaime and Nidaime’s own medical jutsus creations, but also from Tsunade herself who had revolutionized the medical field. Konoha had also been stable for long enough to have solid funding poured into the hospital. Their numbers helped as well, affording more ninja to the medical program. Suna had had none of those things and it showed in how their hospital barely looked modern. It was more reminiscent of a civilian hospital at least forty years behind Fire Country.

To be honest bureaucracy was killing just as many as actual physical ailments as well. Suna was unabashedly hierarchal. Shinobi came first, with civilians only getting treated if there was any extra time to see them. It was a harsh world in the desert and the people reflected that. The weak were left to die.

Sakura wandered the halls as she perused the files. She had no authority here yet and was simply pushed towards the paperwork. She could understand their hesitancy in letting a foreigner around their ninja at their weakest, but the whole point of Sakura being here was to help in the hospital. While she could help with the bureaucracy angle, she was much better at hands on healing at this point. She still hadn’t worked out all the fine points of running a hospital.

So while she wasn’t supposed to be doing any healing yet, Sakura wandered to take in the conditions. She was at least slightly relieved to see sterilization was taken decently serious here, but the actual cleanliness could use some work. She knew some of it had to do with water restrictions. No point in wasting water to mop a hall floor for only a few blood stains in the corner where someone had bled out.

“Please!” a woman screamed in the hall, “He’s just a boy! He needs help!”

Sakura rounded the corner to take in the scene. A woman was kneeling on the ground, sobbing, a boy in her arms looking to be unconscious.

“A doctor will be with you when it is your turn miss, please line up,” the receptionist said with little sympathy, “We will get to you as soon as possible.”

Sakura stared at her, looked at the child, looked at the people in the waiting room. There was a man with a bleeding gash trying to put pressure on it, a man looking to have the flu, another two who must have had a cold, one woman who was holding her wrist as if it pained her. All simple ails at first sight. The unconscious boy should have been jumped in the cue judging by the sheen of fever on him as well.

Sakura looked about the waiting room, looked at the disinterested receptionist and nurse interviewing a patient. She wasn’t supposed to be helping yet.

“Fuck it,” Sakura sighed behind her veil.

She strode over and dropped into a crouch beside the sobbing woman.

“Let me see him,” she commanded, “My name is Doctor Haruno.”

“Please!” the woman sobbed, “He fell unconscious an hour ago and now he’s got a fever!”

“Excuse me, Miss Haruno,” the receptionist tried saying, “I don’t think you’re allowed-”

“He might have an infection,” Sakura said ignoring the other woman, “Does he have any old injuries.”

He did. A deep cut on his arm from dropping a clay pot and having it shatter. It had been sloppily stitched shut and he must not have gotten any antibiotics. While Tsunade would tell her to save her chakra and simply get him on antibiotics Sakura knew with the state of this place, he wouldn’t get them till too late. Sakura let her hands flare green as she ran them up his arm. Infection; bordering on blood poisoning.

Sakura sighed and burned it out of him with a simple wave of her hand. Another few hours and she would not have had the option. She made a chakra scalpel and cut through the stitches before healing that wound up as well.

“Take him home, keep him cool for a bit but the fever should let up within the hour. He will be hungry. Make sure he drinks enough as well,” Sakura said.

“Oh thank you,” the woman blubbered gathering the small boy into her arms, “Thank you!”

“Well, who’s next,” Sakura said standing and cracking her knuckles as she looked at the waiting room.

They didn’t want her around their shinobi until she had proved trustworthy or some nonsense, but they really hadn’t said anything specific about the civilians. She ignored the eyes watching her the entire time.

.--.

“Why?”

Sakura flinched away from the mirror before remembering the red-haired man she was looking at was a reflection and the real one was behind her, the direction of her flinch.

Sakura resisted the urge to spin around and raise a blade. He had already seen her bared back and not struck, she would not spin and act like a coward. Not like facing him head on would be any real help anyways.

“Why what?” Sakura tried for a calm tone as she splashed a handful of water on her face.

The small basin of water ran red but that was from the dried blood on her lip. It was so dry her lips had started to crack and bleed. She would have to use more lip chap.

“Why did you heal those people? You owe them nothing.”

“I am a medic,” Sakura said scrubbing at her nail beds, “It’s what I do. It’s what I was sent to do.”

“No one asked it of you. You were supposed to do paperwork.”

Sakura snorted, unable to help herself.

“And if you think I was going to stand back and watch those people suffer for boring paperwork you must be…”

She cut herself off before she said crazy. He didn’t seem to notice, brow furrowed.

“Did you take an oath?” he asked her, “I have heard Doctors must. It makes them heal.”

“No,” Sakura said, “That’s a civilian thing. Could you imagine a ninja having to take an oath to heal anyone who asked or who needed it? No. I did it because I could, nothing more, nothing less.”

Sakura had been told long ago that a medic-nin was not some righteous doctor out to save everyone who fell before her with ills and ails. No, a medic-nin was a ninja who happened to heal. She still knew how to kill just as easily, perhaps easier with new knowledge. When you knew how to remake something, you learned how to rebreak it just as easily. Tsunade had told Sakura there would be days were her hands rendered things instead of putting them back together but that was the ninja life.

Sakura had learned to heal to help her team, to help herself, not to save the world. She did it to feel the thrill of usefulness, to feel the thrill of a life under her hands. She had the power to give and take life now and it made something ugly like pride flair in her.

So no, Sakura was not a kind soul out to save anyone who needed helping. She used her power at her own will, sometimes for her duty to Konoha.

“Do not mistake my healing for kindness,” Sakura said softly, “I do it because I want to, not because I feel I need to.”

Gaara was silent and when she finally dried her hand and face she turned to face him. He was watching her, so still she felt a shudder run down her spine.

“Naruto spoke of you like you were untouched by hatred,” Gaara finally said, “Like you were one of the best things in the world, so kind and pretty.”

“Naruto looks at the world through his own lens,” Sakura said, “He sees the best in everything. But we are ninja. You know just as well as I do what that means.”

Sakura wondered if his sand would creep up her legs, encase her and rip her apart for breaking this pretty image he had in his mind from Naruto’s letters. Sakura wondered why Gaara had requested her. Was it because he had wanted to see this angel Naruto had seen? Was Naruto and his delusions of how soft and sweet Sakura was going to get her killed? She had always said Naruto was a dreamer and now he had layered her in his dreams, made her out to be something she wasn’t.

Gaara stared at her for a long moment, as if trying to divine her thoughts. And then in a swirl of sand he was gone and Sakura let herself tremble with adrenaline.

.--.

“You’re free to swim if you want,” Temari told her one day.

“Really?” Sakura asked.

“Sure, I do it often,” Temari shrugged, “It’s our oasis after all and not really used for drinking water like the well. Knock yourself out.”

Sakura resisted the siren call of the cool pretty oasis out in the yard for another week after that conversation, too engrossed in the work she had piled up in her room. She wasn’t quite sure she should take files out of the hospital to rework, but well, the house was more secure than anywhere else in the village with the Sand Siblings.

So one evening, when she finally closed a file, she snuck outside under the moon. She hadn’t brought a bathing suit on this trip so her underwear and sports bra would have to do. She went to the far end of the oasis, hidden by tall palms, and shucked her robes off, slipping silently into the blessedly cool water. She sighed in bliss at the soothing feel of the water and dunked under it.

She swam as deep as she could, feeling sand under her fingertips and surfacing with a smile. The moon was full and bright and Sakura floated on the water, staring up at the stars and mapping the constellations.

There was the sound of shifting sand and Sakura looked over automatically to find red hair and teal eyes.

“Gaara,” Sakura gasped, ducking further under the water.

The sand under her feet rebelled and shoved her upwards until Sakura stumbled closer to the shore, thighs dragging through the water as she shuddered once at the feeling of live sand.

“Gaara,” Sakura swallowed trying not to show how her chakra went to her feet, balancing her one the sand so she could react if it came alive again.

“What are you wearing?” Gaara frowned, eyes on her chest.

“A-a sports bra,” Sakura said slowly, resisting the urge to cover her wet chest.

He tilted his head and did not remove his gaze. Sakura got the feeling he had never seen a woman so undressed. In the desert where people stayed covered to battle the sun and where the kunoichi were few and far between and prickly like the cactus, he had probably never been close enough to see one as undressed as she was.

“I didn’t bring my bathing suit,” Sakura added when the silence stretched on.

Gaara dragged his eyes down her, uncaring of how she stiffened under his gaze.

“Do the thing where you went deep in the water,” Gaara finally said.

“Diving?” she asked.

He nodded sharply. Sakura threw herself into the water, happy at the excuse to get away. She dove deeply and only regretted it when sand brushed against her at the bottom of her descent. She nearly screamed at the feeling of grains running across her skin, panic making her kick off it and lunge for the surface. She broke the surface with a harsh gasp and paddled water in the middle.

“Do all Konoha ninja know how to swim?” Gaara asked.

“Yes,” Sakura breathed shallowly, “Do you not?”

But of course he probably hadn’t. There was not enough water in the desert and who would have taught Gaara after all?

“It is interesting,” Gaara said.

He settled on the edge of the water, on leg tucked in so he could rest an arm on his knee. His eyes stayed keenly on her.

“Do it again,” Gaara said.

Sakura dove again to escape his eyes. She ended up showing him the front stroke, back stroke, and butterfly, feeling her heart beating like a drum in her chest as his eyes followed her every move. He must have sensed her panic because the sand did not brush against her again and she was happy to do any tricks not to feel the grains rasp against her skin.

.--.

The hospital really was atrociously ran and Sakura was not let anywhere near the shinobi until one day when some clan head’s son injured himself on a mission and it was declared there was no help for him but prayer. But the man had already heard that Sakura was present in the hospital. All the ninja must have been appraised of the foreigner that was healing their civilians under watchful eyes.

“Heal him,” the clan head demanded, “Or I shall declare war on your tribe.”

It was an empty threat; first being she had no tribe or clan, second being that Suna wouldn’t let the death of a clan heir via accident start a war they might not win. Sakura didn’t say any of this though, just tied her sleeves back and pulled on sterile gloves, barging into to surgery room the other doctors had already left. The nurse she bullied into helping her did so with a tremble in her hand.

Sakura didn’t even notice Gaara in the corner until she was stitching the boy up.

“You better have washed your hands,” Sakura snapped, low on energy and patience.

Gaara gave her an inscrutable expression and simply watched as Sakura tied of the stitches.

“Get lost,” Sakura waved at the nurse, not unkindly.

The woman fled. When Sakura was sure the boy was fine she wheeled him and his IV and heart monitor out of the room, fenagling it all with ease until she found a room to tuck him in.

“Room 11,” she told the father who stood at attention in the hall, “He’ll be fine in a few days if he gets enough nutrients and antibiotics.”

The man didn’t even say thanks as he strode off. At least he’d make sure the nurses followed up with care. Sakura had already stripped her gloves but retreated to a small washroom to scrub her hands and dab at the sweat on her face.

“I will tell the council to let you have control of the hospital,” Gaara murmured from the shadows.

“You have that power?” she asked him, too tired to moderate her tone.

“Yes,” he said watching her.

Sakura splashed water on her face and ignored the reflection of him and the shifting sound of sand.

“You are not what I expected Haruno Sakura,” he said in the silence.

“Good,” Sakura said, “I’d hate to be predictable.”

By the next afternoon she had been given free reign of the hospital.

.--.

Sakura was almost nodding off over the paperwork in the privacy of her office. Her office being what must have been a broom closet at one point before she’d arrived. Now it had a tiny desk, a flickering light, and a tall stack of paperwork. But most importantly it was all hers and no one bothered her here unless for an emergency. Sakura had even removed her head wrappings and her sunglasses in the privacy of the room.

Sakura had nearly drifted off when the sound of sand spilling against tile had her stiffening. The click of her lock coming undone prefaced the entrance of Gaara. He stood in the doorway, completely unconcerned with how he had unlocked her inner sanctum and entered without permission.

“Come,” he commanded.

Sakura clenched her jaw and stood. Her first instinct was to snap at him, to snarl and growl like a dog. But then she collected herself and stood knowing that it was only the lack of sleep getting to her. If Tsunade could see her now, see her lack of control, she’d be smacked upside the head.

Sakura followed Gaara from the office and out of the hospital, covering her hair and face and pulling the sunglasses on. The sun had just finished rising, red and looming on the horizon as Suna came alive. Sakura followed Gaara to a small coffee shop near the hospital and only faintly twitched as people slipped out around her, casting worried looks at Gaara. A few elders made of sterner stuff simply watched him like a mad-dog, keeping to their seats.

Sakura followed Gaara to the back corner of the shop and dropped down on the mat across from him when he gave her a sharp look. Her nose twitched with the rich scent of coffee but she said nothing as Gaara sat on his own mat, shifting his gourd.

The owner of the shop hurried over, bowing his head and not saying a word as he laid a coffee setup before them. Under Gaara’s sharp look Sakura let the veil over her face come unclipped to sip at the coffee. She swallowed the thick black drink and shuddered only once. The people of Suna liked their coffee as hot and strong as the sun and she was still not used to the richness. They drank it black too, no cream or sugar like was common in Konoha.

“Am I allowed in here?” Sakura asked faintly as she peered at the few other customers not scared away by Gaara.

They were all men.

Gaara merely gave her a look and sipped his coffee. She supposed for a boy who couldn’t sleep, coffee was a must. She watched him drink his coffee and he watched her in return.

When she finished her cup and went to clip her veil back in black Gaara made a twitchy abortive motion and she froze.

“I want to see your face,” he scowled.

Sakura lowered her hand away from the veil. He gave a growl and reached for her. Sakura carefully didn’t move. He tugged her head wrap off, stripping away cloth until everything above her shoulders was bare, even tossing her sunglasses to the side. She carefully ran her hand through her hair when he sat back down, knowing it was a slightly greasy and mussed. Her skin was no prettier, bone dry from the heat. He poor lips were still chapped and bled sometimes.

Gaara made a gesture at the shop keeper and their coffee was refilled even as the tall man bowed and left them a small board.

“What is this?” Sakura asked as Gaara started to place pieces on the checkered board.

“Chess,” Gaara grunted.

Sakura said nothing more even as Gaara moved a piece and then looked at her. She learned the game through his own moves and how he sneered when she did something wrong. The coffee shop keeper whispered the game’s purpose to her when Gaara won. Sakura drank thick black coffee and played and played as Gaara stared at her, everyone else looking carefully away.

.--.

The nurses at the hospital started to take a liking to her. As did the doctors. All of them saw the work she did and it only took a few weeks to put their suspicions aside to start asking her questions. Sakura was happy to answer any questions. She showed a doctor how to do appendix surgery and showed a nurse how properly chart a patient’s vitals. Sakura showed a janitor how to disinfect an X-ray and showed the receptionist how to make a queue. Sakura became a teacher and found herself run all the more ragged for it.

But there was good with the bad and Sakura also found herself getting more resources, being let in more. She found some of the stiff attitude loosen and felt some of the tension seep from her shoulders.

“You really are quite good,” a doctor told her one day.

Somehow, he made it sound condescending and awed at the same time.

“For a young woman,” he continued, ruining the compliment, “You will be a doctor in a few years with more study.”

Sakura twitched, very aware of the fact that since she was not legally recognized as a doctor by civilians, that he was trying to get some sort of leg up on her after she had had to reteach him basic techniques. It was an ego trip and so she let the man say what he liked with only a slight purse of her lips.

“Don’t listen to him,” a ninja said with a shy smile after the doctor had left, “I think you’re amazing.”

She smiled at the genin who had been pulled into the hospital program due to injury. He would never fight again with the limp and the permanent damage to his hands, but he was still useful in the hospital with his easy manner and organizational skills.

He was a sweet boy and had taken to following Sakura when she was on shift, offering his help where she needed it. Right now he was helping her refile everything and anything.

“You’re a good man, Hiro,” she told the perpetual-genin.

He blushed. It was cute. Maybe that’s why she let him kiss her in the shadow of the file room.

It was a trick of course. No foreign ninja would cozy up to her that quick no matter how pretty she might have looked. It was all a trick to get closer to her, to keep a better eye on her, to find out her motives and loyalty. Sakura would have had to be dumber than a rock not to see it. But it was quite nice of them to come at her so transparently, pushing a genin at her and not an undercover ANBU. Quite polite.

Either way she only got one sweet shy kiss, and then the boy was tossed down the hall like a rag-doll.

“Gaara,” Sakura said sharply at the growling red-head suddenly in front of her.

She carefully did not let her jack-rabbiting heart rate show in her face.

“You are not allowed to touch her,” Gaara told Hiro harshly, “Tell the council to back off.”

He bared his teeth, bared his sand, and growled low and threateningly. The genin wouldn’t even let Sakura heal his bruised ribs after that and Sakura mourned the loss of the helping hands. Willingness to file day in and day out didn’t often come as cheap as shy sweet kisses and an obvious watch. Sakura watched the boy disappear and watched Gaara loom in his corner like an irritated cat and turned back to the filing. If her hands trembled, well there was no one to see it anymore. Sakura reclipped the face veil and pretended Gaara wasn’t watching her like a sand snake.

.--.

“Do you like watching me eat?” Sakura asked, aiming for a bland tone, but voice sounding more tired than anything.

Gaara shifted from his corner and said nothing as Sakura spooned another mouthful of curry in, looking at her paper work. Her life was endless work these days, but it kept her mind off of other things. Other things like the constant eyes of Gaara. She wouldn’t be surprised to turn and find him taking notes one day with how much he scrutinized her.

Some days he was subtle and only the feeling of eyes told her he was watching (or maybe she was just paranoid).

Other days he was blatant, sitting in the chair in her room, watching openly as she ate. It was enough to make a girl self-conscious if she didn’t have so many other concerns.

“I like to see your face,” Gaara answered.

“Is it the hair?” Sakura asked, “Or the eye color? I haven’t seen too many green eyes. But then again I have seen even less teal eyes and you have those.”

“Its…” Gaara paused, “Your face is pleasing to look at.”

“Thank you,” she said dryly.

At least the homicidal maniac thought she was cute. That would be a story to tell Ino when he got back (so the man who tried to kill me at the chunin exam thinks I’m pretty).

Sakura continued eating her food over her paperwork but found her shoulders a tad less tense. Perhaps it was the humor.

.--.

Chapter Text

Sakura sent off her report to Konoha in the hands (or rather lack of) of her slug summon. This scroll wasn’t just a check-in, it also held the ‘all clear’. Hopefully Tsunade would be able to send another team soon, with some people qualified to help her at the Suna hospital. There was only so much one girl could do in a run down hospital lacking funds and education and run by fucking civilians.

Suna was a military city and running on old tribe lines. The hospital wasn’t all that old in their history and it had been revolutionary for the fact it expected people to come to it for help instead of holing up in tribe compounds and using personal medics. The lack of funds and the drought they’d had for the past few years had drained it of funds though and many things had slipped through the cracks. Sakura was doing good work but there was only so much she could do alone.

“Eat.”

Sakura was proud to say she didn’t even flinch at the voice. Instead she tilted her head to look at the blank faced Gaara. He offered up a carved-up mango and Sakura’s mouth watered at the treat. She joined him on the floor against the back wall, under the window and moonlight. She took a bite of the mango and nearly moaned as the juice hit her tongue. Gaara carved up another slice and handed it to her as she finished hers. They sat in silence until Sakura had consumed the whole fruit and was sucking the juice from her finger tips.

She went to wipe her face but Gaara got their first, grabbing her wrists and leaning in far to close. His tongue found her skin before she fully realized what was happening. She couldn’t contain the shiver that wracked her spine as he rasped his tongue over the corner of her mouth.

He pulled back once, licked his own lips, and leaned in again to mash their lips together.

His fingers dug into her wrists and she could feel her bones creak under his grasp as he took and took and took. Sakura pulled back gasping. His gaze was first startled, then angry, then wary as she pulled back. His grip tightened and she resisted the urge to whimper or flinch or run away.

“Gentle,” she murmured.

He loosened his grip in surprise.

“Like this,” Sakura swallowed.

She leaned in closer and brushed her lips against his, face tilting to get a better angle.

“Gentle,” she repeated.

He was flushed when she looked at him, eyes wide and breath bated. She thought he looked…cute like this. Less terrifying certainly. She carefully pulled her wrists free from his grip and he let her but he did not pull away from where he had her crowded against the wall. She felt his knees flush to her thighs pinning her down.

“Again,” he panted once and then leaned forward, demanding.

So Sakura leaned forward and kissed him again. She slowly raised a hand and pulled him closer by his cheek, slotting their mouths together. He tasted of mangoes.

Sakura had kissed people before. Had kissed a cute civilian boy who had taken her on a date, had kissed a cute chunin boy who had done the same. Kissed the cute crippled genin sent to watch her here in Suna. But the one who had taught her to kiss had been Ino. Ino, soft and lovely and shining like the sun, who had giggled and laughed and rolled her in the grass to kiss her senseless.

Gaara was not like Ino. He was not soft and gentle, but he was lovely to look at if she could see past the fear. He was not very good at kissing, but he leaned eagerly into it and let Sakura lead. He let her deepen the kiss, let her brush her tongue over his lip and slip in.

When Sakura tried to pull back he surged after her, demanding more, and Sakura was once again very aware of how caught she was, legs pinned to the ground and back shoved against the wall, Gaara looming over her. She was very aware of the sand that shifted around them, responding to his emotion as it slithered over her ankles, helping hold her down. The grains rasped against her cloth and her skin and in her chest her heart jack rabbited.

“Gaara,” Sakura said, voice high and thin with fear as the sand crept up her shins.

He jerked back, eyes darkening again as fear and anger washed over him. She could see how angry he was at her denial, too used to getting what he wished, taking what he wanted. But he was also afraid, like a child, who wanted something desperately and could see it being taken away.

“The sand,” Sakura stuttered, heart thumping.

He paused and she felt the sand curl higher up her leg as she tried to hide the shaking, tried to hide the terror.

“I will not crush you,” he said flatly.

“I-I know,” she swallowed, voice begging, “I just…please.”

He tilted his head and slowly the sand dropped from her skin.

“Kiss me again,” he demanded.

So she did.

.--.

The four-man cell arrived on a dusty morning before the sun had barely risen in the sky. Sakura stood at the gate to greet them as the guards looked at their papers and did a quick search. Sakura was wearing her usual clothes, covered head to toe with barely a patch of skin visible around her sunglasses. But the cell leader looked to her immediately.

“Haruno,” the lead smiled.

She was a pretty woman in her fifties, with laugh lines and crow feet and the shiniest brown hair Sakura had ever seen in her life.

“Hiromi, I had hoped they would send you,” Sakura greeted with a smile that showed none of the soul crushing relief she felt.

“Your report said something about a filing system,” Hiromi grinned.

Hiromi was a nurse and a damn good one, but she was also a genius with administrations and Sakura was happy to see her for that alone. Behind her trailed three chunin ranked ninja Sakura vaguely remembered seeing in the training program when she had left.

None above the age of twenty, none clan-affiliated, none of any real skill. Sakura smiled instead of frowning.

“Let me show you to the hospital,” Sakura said, “As long as you aren’t too tired.”

“A bit,” Hiromi said shouldering her pack, “We’ve been travelling in the mornings and late at night, sleeping during the height of the day but we still have some energy in us. Best show us the hospital and then our quarters.”

Sakura nodded and led the way. She made sure they moved at a moderate pace so their watchers could follow and set up a steady stream of chatter with Hiromi that held only a few codes deep inside it. Safety. Welcoming. No Danger. She assumed the older woman who was much to skilled to ever sag in relief, though some tension left her feet.

The hospital tour was brief and Sakura could see the sort of horrified awe on the other’s faces at how terrible of a system the hospital had in place for administration. Bureaucracy would be the death of many.

When she saw the three students start to lag Sakura seamlessly shifted course and headed for the quarters right next to the hospital, all set up for the ninja who worked in the area. The four would be sharing a nice apartment at the heart of the doctors quarters where they would be well watched.

Sakura watched as the kids (who weren’t any younger than her) dropped their stuff and fought over the shower. They would learn the water restrictions soon.

“How have you faired, Haruno?” Hiromi asked, standing with Sakura in the balcony doorway.

“I have been…good,” Sakura only hesitated slightly, “It has been an adjustment without my…friends.”

Sakura undid the veil over her face and offered a weary smile.

Hiromi was a chunin if only because she had never taken the jonin test and didn’t really have the chakra capacity. She had settled for being a keen eye with a needle and a goddess of paper-work. But she had run plenty of missions in younger days, drawn into the wars like many others. That she survived spoke much more of her then any test.

She looked at Sakura carefully, looked at the stress lines Sakura had gained in the few short months. She looked at the tension that had taken permanent hold in Sakura’s shoulders. Looked at the weight she had lost.

“Sakura,” Hiromi said softly, reaching a comforting hand towards her.

Sand grabbed her by the wrist and tossed it back so hard Hiromi stumbled back a few steps. Sakura didn’t even flinch as Gaara appeared at her side.

“Do not touch her.”

Hiromi had slid into a braced position, hands flaring with a chakra scalpel, eyes wide with adrenaline.

“Peace Hiromi,” Sakura said with a veneer of calm.

Gaara watched her like a hawk, eyes unflinching as Hiromi slowly pulled up and out of the aggressive stance. Gaara turned his eyes away only after he realized she was not and would never be a threat to him. He reached out and reclipped Sakura’s face veil up, hiding her smile away.

“You will burn,” he said shortly, eyes sharp.

Sakura wondered if he liked her skin milk white. Perhaps saw it as exotic as she saw his sandy earth colored skin. Perhaps he just wanted to keep her smile all to himself though she rarely gave it to him.

“Of course,” she said faintly, voice calm and level.

“Come,” he said.

He leapt from the balcony.

“Haruno,” Hiromi said, voice thin, “Sakura.”

“Perhaps only Haruno here,” Sakura said not unkindly, “Welcome to Suna. Do not antagonize Gaara.”

With that warning she followed him away from the Konoha-nin, away from her allies. No one would notice the tension in her shoulders because she had never walked in Suna without it.

.--.

Gaara pinned her to a corner every chance he got, tucking her in the shadows to slot their mouths together. Sakura wasn’t entirely against it as she panted into his mouth. He was a quick learner and he was learning well. And it was a distraction from the fear, from the tension, from the sand.

She just hoped it still stayed private. Which was hard when he did it in the Kage tower, arm braced on the wall as he pressed against her.

But kisses weren’t enough for long when their blood burned hot.

His hand slipped up her shirt one day, cautious but curious and she let it. When he found the cloth too tight to get his hand higher he growled. Sakura made a soothing noise, kissed him, and unwrapped her top. He helped by shoving her sports bra up and let his hands tentatively brush against her breasts,

“Gentle,” she murmured her mantra.

It was like teaching a dog a command and he had slowly started to obey when she gave him treats in return, soft wet kisses and strokes. So he obeyed, grip loosening as he held her breasts and kissed her again.

Sakura understood, despite how fast he had picked up kissing, that he was still uncertain in these things. Sakura who had been working in the hospital for years now had no such uncertainty. She was quite sure she had more knowledge of sex than any of her year mates, more than many older and more experienced then her as well.

She would be surprised if Gaara knew any but the basic lessons they taught children in their youth so mistakes weren’t made.

So Sakura was just as gentle as she commanded him to be and sighed into his mouth to tell him he was doing alright.

“Gaara-sama,” someone called.

Sakura had her top back down in an instant and the frown on Gaara’s face showed how displeased he was with that as he turned to face the messenger who rounded the corner.

Said messenger took in Sakura’s flushed face, the way she was cornered, and the displeased look on Gaara’s face and came up with all the wrong conclusions.

“Ah,” he faltered, holding out a scroll.

Sakura rolled her eyes as Gaara took it and the messenger fled. It would be all over the city by midnight that Sakura was still terrified of Gaara and he no less fond of her. Well, better then thinking she was seducing him at least.

.--.

Chapter Text

Sakura panted quietly, hands buried to the root in her own hair and tried to calm her jack rabbiting heart. Her hands spasmed and she felt something like a scream build up in her throat. The water poured over her gently, and Sakura used the spray over her ears to block the world out. She wanted no part of the world right now.

Water was a commodity in Suna, but Sakura lived in the Kage’s quarters. She lived in the quarters that had once belonged to a dessert king before he changed his name to Kage and picked up kunai instead of curved swords. Sakura had all the water she could desire in a place where water was gold.

Usually she treated water preciously. So much so she was sure she would carry the habit back to Konoha with her. But right here and now, in the darkness of night with a nightmare snarling behind her eyes Sakura barely felt the water itself.

She’d had a patient die today. He’d slipped away under her palms, brought back too late to help. His hair had been bloody, dyed red with all the blood.

Sakura dreamed of him dying and then getting right back up and grabbing her, pulling her, dragging her, down, downdowndown until she was drowning in blood and terror. It was Gaara’s face that smiled at her as he held her down and-

Sakura sobbed once, let a single heaving sob break free of her lips. Under the spray and drip of the water no one would hear her.

.--.

Sakura hadn’t talked to Kankuro. Had seen the man sulking into the kitchen at odd hours, had seen him whittling wood in the courtyard shaded by fig trees, had seen him smoking in the dusty sunset when Temari was out.

They had made eye contact once or twice but never anything more and Sakura was content with that.

Until he knocked at her door, early in the morning, a package in one hand and an offering in the other.

“Good Morning,” he spoke when she gave no inclination of doing so, “May I come in. We can leave the door open.”

“So the maids don’t gossip?” she asked dryly.

“They’ll not do that anyways,” he shrugged, “But it would probably make Gaara feel better.”

“He’s not here.”

“Still.”

So Sakura let him in and left the door open a crack. He handed her his offerings of mango’s, all diced and ready. Sakura bit into one and let the juice revitalize her.

“I have some robes for you,” he said setting the package down, “And a gift.”

“A gift?” she raised a brow.

He unrolled the robes, made of dusty browns and bright reds. There was the…kazekage’s symbol dyed in the back. Sakura stared at it.

“When Gaara is announced as the Kage, you will need to be there,” Kankuro said at her staring, “He requested the robes, they’re from him.”

They were lovely robes, all soft and silky, and probably cost more than she could ever afford.

“And this, is from me.”

He handed her a small wooden tube. They said never taken anything from a master of poisons, but Sakura took it anyways. She looked it over and then tilted her head and felt it closer. When she finally pulled it apart, the formerly seamless wood parted, half sheath, half handle. A small, inconspicuous blade the size of her largest finger but thinner than a card glinted back at her.

“It’s poisoned,” Kankuro warned looking at the blade and not her, “Strong enough to kill a man in two steps. Its why I made the sheath so tight. It won’t open unless intended. No accidental cutting.”

Sakura sheathed it and stared at Kankuro who stared at the blade.

“Why?”

He was silent for a long moment.

“Temari loves Gaara. I think it’s because she remembers him as a child better than I. Remembers him better as a harmless loving child. My first real memory of Gaara is him crushing a man’s legs because the man stepped on his toy.”

Sakura looked down at the blade.

“Temari believes in him,” Kankuro continued, “But I know there is still danger in him. She ignores it because she knows now it won’t turn against us. Everyone else is inconsequential to her.”

That was the impression Sakura had got. Temari would be a strong ruler, would be a good woman. But she listed people in hierarchy of importance. Everyone did to a degree but Temari didn’t even play at caring more then she wanted to. It was easy to see her family was at the top of that list. Everyone else would be under the mercy of her cruelty. Sakura was sure her two brothers could murder a classroom of children and she would be angry but still take their side. Temari was made of loyalty and love and it was sharp deadly blade.

Temari was a good kunoichi but it was easy to see how being raised in the harsh land of suna, in a tribe family, under a harsh father and a dangerous brother, had shaped her.

“She sees how Gaara looks at you, how he treats you, and she’s happy with it because she sees it as Gaara growing. You are a tool to help him do so and so she will make sure you are okay, will care for your health, but ultimately … If Gaara ever turns on you, she shall simply watch. She may dislike it but she will simply watch.”

There was no shake in her hand, no tremble, but Sakura didn’t take her eyes off the blade.

“But…but my first memory of Gaara is violence,” Kankuro repeated, “And the screaming the man did as his legs got pulped. I see how Gaara looks at you. How his sand follows you. How he grabs you.”

“Are you giving me permission to stab your brother?” she laughed, the sound empty to her own ears.

“Yes,” Kankuro said, pulling a smoke out of his pocket, “If he goes too far you stab him. I doubt that poison will actually kill him, but it will keep him down. And then you run.”

“Where too?” She asked bleakly, “If your sister will just drag me back.”

“You run your pretty little head straight back to Konoha,” Kankuro said, striking a match, “And never leave it again.”

He offered her the smoke after a deep breath and she took it.

“Thank you,” she breathed out a cloud of poison.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, “Just keep the blade on you. And don’t let him make you scream like that; be it by crushing your legs or fucking you too hard. Or both at the same time.”

Sakura gave a raspy laugh that may have been a tad revealing in its terror. Kankuro gave her the rest of the smoke and vanished out the door as smoothly as he had come. Sakura finished the smoke, finished the mango, and tried her new robes on, tucking the small blade into her pocket.

.--.

Suna was an explosion of color, more so than usual, with banners and streamers and colored chalk dust everywhere. The streets were filled with people in the dusky evening light, food stands and vendors on every corner as people laughed and danced and celebrated. The road itself was colored with chalk, brushed over cobblestone and a riot of color that clung to the soles of your shoes. The Kage’s tower at the center was draped in banners of the Kage’s symbol, of Suna’s symbols, and arrayed before it was a stage, the elders sitting calmly.

Gaara stood in the center as Mistress Chiyo read out the history of Suna, the history of the Kage. At Gaara’s side, his siblings in ornamental robes kneeled as his family and as his advisors. Sakura kneeled off to the side, the only non-Suna native as, apparently, a vassal of the Kage’s family. It was an honor and a warning. Sakura was under his protection but also his to punish should she ever prove untrue. She felt the eyes of the city on her.

Chiyo breathed out history and oaths and pledges. She read the speech that welcomed him in, and then, with every eye of Suna on them, she crowned Gaara.

In Konoha they would have set the hat on his head and sworn him in before a crowd. In Suna, they crowned their king, recognized only as a Kage outside of the dessert. Gaara wore the ceremonial Kage robes, twin curved blades at his waist and his gourd absent. Around his head he word the traditional headdress. The crown was not a crown truly, but a collar of stones and gold that draped across this shoulders and chest.

As soon as it touched his shoulders the crowds erupted in cheers and prayers. They may still fear him in some ways, but to the general populous, a king was to be feared anyways. They saw a new strong leader, the son of their former king, and they cheered. The alcohol flowing freely helped as well.

Gaara was not a man for speeches and simply stood before the crowd, face stone and said;

“Suna is mine. Its people are mine. And I shall protect it to the end.”

Then the party started. Gaara stayed on the stage as people came close, brushing fingers to the hem of his robes and whispering blessings and prayers. He said nothing in return but they appeared undeterred.

When the fun fully set, the fire-brigade was let onto the Kage Tower roof and started to pull up crates of fireworks. The elders slipped away into the crowds to do their own celebrating and even Kankuro and Temari wandered off, smiling and ready to talk. Sakura stayed seated near Gaara’s feet. She could see her fellow Konoha-nin in the crowd, watched closely by hidden guards still. The younger ones were all faces of awe and curiosity. Hiromi met her eyes through the crowd.

Sakura felt Gaara shift closer, felt his fingers brush against her hair in the way one might absently pet a dog. Sakura had forgone her veil the ceremony, let them see the foreigner at the Kage’s feet, let them feel more secure. Sakura could give up some pride to give the harsh people a moment of relief, at the sense of peace. Sakura ignored Gaara’s hand and met Hiromi’s eyes clearly. The older woman looked concerned, looked a tad scared. But more than that she looked as if she wanted to grab Sakura and run. Sakura tilted her head just the slightest in a bow.

“Come,” Gaara spoke, breaking the moment.

Sakura stood and followed as Gaara wandered into the street, the crowd parting before their new leader. Vendors tried to shower him in gifts and food and he only took it when Sakura looked interested, handing it over to her. Above them the air lit with color and noise and Sakura paused to look up at the exquisite fireworks, mouth full of spiced rabbit meat.

Gaara gave her a moment and then made an impatient noise and she turned to follow. They broke free of the crowds close to the Kage’s residence and the walk suddenly turned silent as the crowds and cheer vanished. The faint crackle of fireworks could still be heard, and when Sakura looked back the city looked alive with color and noise still.

Sakura followed Gaara through the gates, closing them herself since all the staff was out celebrating. She hurried to catch up to Gaara as he strode into the house and down the halls. Sakura only hesitated when Gaara swept into his own room. She had never been inside of it before. Gaara made a beckoning noise and Sakura slowly stepped through the doors.

His room was rather plain but large, painted a dusty beige with large windows and a smattering of sand on his balcony. The only real personal touch were the small potted cactuses on nearly every surface.

Sakura turned to Gaara and found he had already dragged the head covering off and tossed it to the side before taking a seat in his chair like it was a throne. Sakura stood in the center of the room and centered herself and her breathing. Gaara watched her silently for a long moment.

“Take off your robes.”

Sakura paused, thought of saying the door was still wide open to let anyone see. Then she remembered everyone was out and that no one came to his wing anyways. She pulled the covering from her hair away and then undid the laces on her boots. Gaara watched silently as she kicked her shoes off and then reached down and grabbed fistfuls of cloth to pull up over her head. The small blade hidden in wood sat in a pocket but she ignored it. She tossed everything to the side and boldly met Gaara’s eyes.

He stared, eyes slipping across her pale skin and taunt muscles. Sakura had kept working out of course, outside of her hospital duty, but she also knew she had lost weight from stress. She was as skinny as she had ever been even with hard packed muscle.

“Come here,” he demanded.

Sakura did so, unashamed of the pink sports bra and white panties she wore. Her feet sounded loud on the stone floor. When she was in grabbing distance Gaara yanked her into his lap, breathing a tad harsh.

“Kiss me.”

So she did. He pulled her as close as physically possible.

“Congratulations, Kazekage-sama,” she murmured when she pulled back for air.

His grip on her hips tightened and she knew bruises would bloom there by tomorrow.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Everything,” Gaara growled.

But she knew he didn’t know how to take it. Sakura had slept with a man or two, a woman once or twice as well. But Gaara….well she was sure no one had let him close nor he them. But he was a hot-blooded young man with power at his fingers and touch-starved. He wanted so bad he burned with it, was feral with it, but he didn’t know how to take it.

Sakura grabbed his hands and stood, pulling him with her.

“Let me lead,” she said, voice firm but gentle.

She would be what he wanted, soft and gentle and warm, but she also had to be firm or he would take and take and take until she was destroyed. Sakura knew this game well now. She knew she needed to be submissive but firm, a contradiction that was a dangerous game to play.

But Sakura also knew the consequences for losing this game. So she took his hands and dragged him to the bed, let him touch her where he wished, but guided him when he went too far, when he faltered.

“Follow my lead,” she whispered into his ear.

Gaara was a monster, a boy who had never learned to be gentle, a boy with blood under his finger nails and anger in his bones. But Sakura was a kunoichi, she had blood under her fingernails as well, and she was a monster in many ways too. So Sakura took his hands and taught him gentle and led the way.

No one wandered past the door even when they gasped and moaned and screamed. No one heard and Sakura was grateful for that.

.--.

“Hey Sakura,” Temari smiled, “How’s the work?”

Sakura gave her a smile.

“Its fine. Your hospital filing system is a mess but it’s getting better.”

“Ah yeah. Hiromi wasn’t it? The staff say she is a terror but a good one.”

“She likes the thrill of labeling files,” Sakura said dryly.

Temari laughed and held out a bottle covered in cool condensation. Sakura took it gratefully and opened it. It was one of those aloe drinks, not quite water but still cool and refreshing.

“She came to Chiyo-sama the other day,” Temari said offhandedly, “Asked some questions about why you weren’t in the same residents as them.”

“Ah,” Sakura said, getting the hint, “I’ll tell her to back off.”

Temari nodded and watched as Sakura took another drink.

“Why don’t you take the veil off in here? There is no sun to burn you,” Temari finally said.

Sakura pulled back the bottle and let the veil drop back over her face. Sakura looked away to the girls tending the entrance. Her sunglasses tinted everything red and made the world look dusty pink even in the white hospital.

“If Gaara is making you wear it…” Temari let hang, eyes flinty.

Suna was a harsh hot place with a harsher sun. Its people had long learned more coverings, more layers, protected and cooled better than less. Some of the duskier skinned citizens didn’t worry as much, but most wore colorful airy clothes that covered as much as possible to help beat the heat and sun. Before their founding, when tribes had roamed free and independent, many had covered their women up to keep the heat off, but also to keep the gazes off them as well. Some had put into clan law that women must be covered, must have nothing but their eyes visible. It was said to keep women chaste, to keep them from drawing male gaze and instead saving it only for husbands. Some said it was about purity, about being above things such as vanity. Many named it barbaric, said it was oppression to force a woman to cover herself thus.

But Sakura heard the other side as well. Of women who liked the protection these clothes offered, of how they escaped gazes with them, of how no one judged them on petty things like the shape of their mouth. Some women covered themselves and named it oppression when people tried to take their choice away.

Sakura could see both sides.

Temari on the other hand, seemed to barely tolerate them. Sakura supposed she’d been pressured by some to wear them as the traditional Kage’s daughter. She was too loud, to blunt, to open to ever accept being hidden away.

Sakura on the other hand wanted to hide until people forgot about her here.

“Gaara does not demand it,” Sakura said.

She spoke nothing of the way he liked to keep her for his gaze only. But she also spoke nothing of how she hated how people stared at her and her pale skin and her green eyes and her pink hair and her blatant foreignness. Sakura said nothing about the cloth feeling like armor. She meant how she didn’t have to watch her mouth as carefully. Didn’t have to worry about how wide to smile or how not to frown. She didn’t have to worry about vendors startling at her pale skin and her Konoha looks. Didn’t have to think about the way Gaara would watch the way her muscles moved and her skin glistened.

“It is simply more useful,” she said.

“Good,” Temari sighed, a note of relief in her voice as she dug no deeper.

Funny how the girl spoke nothing of the way Gaara had grabbed at her, at the way he crowded her into corners, at the way he growled when people came too close to her. Funny how she drew the line at the way Gaara made her dress. Sakura watched her walk away and shook her head. No one saw the grim smile beneath the veil.

Sakura understood why Kakashi kept his mask, her only wonder was why he picked one you could still make expression out underneath.

.--.

Chapter Text

“Sakura,” Gaara grunted.

“Gaara,” she whined, rocking into him,

He grunted again and thrust harder, arms pinning her down.

Sakura panted and whined and arched and tried to imagine telling anyone she had let Gaara fuck her on the Kazekage desk. She imagined Naruto’s expression of horrified shock if he knew how her breasts bounced and her skin glistened and her hands crumpled important papers, the Kage’s robes hiding her feet from view as they wrapped about Gaara’s hips. Sakura grabbed his shoulders, dug her fingers in and felt something like a smile curl her lips as she moaned. Gaara thrust, trembling against her and Sakura fell into the rhythm of pleasure.

“Stay with me,” Gaara bit into her skin, teeth scraping he throat.

“Gaara,” Sakura simply repeated, inhaling the scent of his sweat and sand.

Now was not the time to say no. Not as he was curled over her, fucking into her on his seat of power. Sakura knew better than to say no now. And yes was never an answer, was never a choice.

“You’re mine,” Gaara claimed, tongue flat against her throat and teal eyes tinged yellow.

“Yes,” Sakura groaned, because that much was true.

For now at least.

.--.

Despite how popular a weapon poison was, no one offered to let Sakura even look at theirs, until Kankuro came a-knocking.

The knife he gave her had created something between them, and there was a wry twist to his lips when he looked at her now. Though he never came when Gaara was nearby. He always waited until Gaara was embroiled in Kage duties.

“I don’t quite fear him,” Kankuro said one day while showing Sakura how to distill a poison out of a cactus, “But there is nothing but blood tying us together.”

“I never had siblings.”

“Probably for the better,” Kankuro laughed, breathing out a cloud of smoke that had Sakura waving her hand.

“Those are going to kill you one day,” Sakura said automatically.

“That’s what people say of being related to Gaara and Temari,” Kankuro wheezed, “At least this brings me comfort.”

She dropped it easily, having had little real concern, but listened closely as Kankuro started to show her how to coat a weapon in poison that made it stick inside of dripping off. Kankuro was easy to talk to, easy to learn from, and he listened to no one but his siblings so no one told him to stop their lessons.

And when Gaara arrived home after a long day and frowned Sakura merely swept him into a hug.

“I can smell him on you,” Gaara said, and he must be speaking of the cigarette smoke because Kankuro hasn’t even brushed up against her accidentally.

“He’s teaching me,” Sakura said simply, hugging him closer.

This is a weakness of Gaara’s; hugs. He liked the cloying pressure, the firm hold, the closeness. No matter what mood he seemed to be in, Sakura could fold him in an embrace and he would calm, would focus on nothing but her.

Sakura learned to use hugs as a weapon.

.--.

“You could run,” Hiromi whispered.

“I could,” Sakura said looking at her clipboard, “But I won’t.”

“Why do you…” she trailed off.

Sakura knew she wanted to say ‘allow it’ but thought better of it. They both knew Sakura has very little in the way of options such as allowing and not allowing.

“I could go home right now,” Sakura clicked her pen, “And no one would ever reprimand me, no black mark would ever go on my record. Tsunade would simply smile and put me to work.”

She made a note on the paper, looked at the patient on the bed who was in for a simple case of appendicitis. She could do his surgery in the dark with one hand tied behind her back and guarantee his survival. Before she had come, he would have had a 50% chance of survival.

“I am a shinobi,” Sakura said, hanging the clipboard back up and making for the door, “and this is my mission.”

“This was not in the mission requirements,” Hiromi said bitterly.

“No, but we adapt,” Sakura grinned behind her mask, “and we flourish.”

.--.

“For you.”

Sakura blinked, coming awake slowly. Exhaustion weighed every limb down and it took a moment to blink the sleep away.

“Hmm?” she asked, looking into dusky teal eyes. He really did have pretty eyes.

“For. You.” he repeated.

She looked at his offering. It was a tiny green cactus with a large pink flower blooming on it. The pot was painted red.

“It matches you,” he said.

Sakura sat up letting the sheet slide from her body. Gaara loomed over her, hands wrapped about the pot and watched the way the material slipped over her bared breasts.

“Thank you,” she said reaching out.

He handed her the pot and she twisted the cactus this way and that to look at the pokey little thing.

“Is it poisoned?” she asked.

He nodded, eyes still sweeping across her skin.

“Thank you,” she repeated.

She had no idea why he was giving her this gift but it was oddly…endearing. She knew the only hobby he had, if you could call it a hobby, was gardening cacti. And he’d found one that matched her coloring but was also poisonous and then given it to her in a pot painted the same color as her robes.

He suddenly took the pot out of her hands and set it down on the nightstand. Then he leaned over with a demanding kiss. Sakura allowed it easily, leaning back into her pillows. He followed her down to the bed and she reached up, working on the ties of his robes.

“What time is it?” she asked into his mouth.

“3am,” he said even as he nosed her skin.

The downsides of insomnia were that most people slept during the night. She wondered faintly as he climbed into her bed if he had been lonely. Probably. That was Gaara in one word; lonely.

.--.

“Wanna spar?” Kankuro asked one day.

Sakura blinked at him over her mountain of paperwork. He was lounging in a roll chair he’d stolen from reception and crammed in her tiny office. A pile of wood shavings lay on the floor from his idle whittling, a tiny puppet hands sitting in his gloved palm.

“Spar?” she asked.

“Yeah. I need to stretch,” he said.

Sakura considered it.

“Okay,” she said.

By the time they reached a training ground, all hard-packed sand and tall boulders, Gaara was waiting, arms folded over Kazekage robes. He said nothing as Kankuro gave him a respectful nod, only watched them step onto the field.

Sakura tucked her veil and sunglasses away but pulled out the googles she’d arrived in and strapped them on. Sand was everywhere, and one arch of a leg could throw it in her face.

“Rules?” Sakura asked.

“Meh, I think we’ll be okay without them,” Kankuro said, “But if you could try not to turn my puppets to dust that would be awesome.”

Sakura nodded and flexed her hands.

She had been doing work out routines every morning and evening, when the sun wasn’t high in the sky, to keep in shape, but she had yet to spar anyone here. Most people didn’t want to talk to the Konoha nin let alone fight her.

“Ready?” Kankuro asked.

“Come at me,” Sakura grinned, feral and tensed.

He did indeed come at her. She dodged the first blow, the second, and then redirected the next. She noted the needles that ran along his fingers and saw the sheen of his favorite poison.

The thing about Kankuro was that he was very, very skilled. If his brother hadn’t been a jinchuriki he would have been in the running for Kage and he had the strength to back it up. He was a master of the Puppet Troupe and THE leading knowledge in poisons after Chiyo. Kankuro liked his peace and quiet though, and she’d noticed that at home in Suna he was a quiet hooded figure with quick eyes but lazy posture.

On a real battlefield Sakura would not have liked her chances against Kankuro, even knowing some of his style and his poisons. But in a nice polite spar she could see the way he used his less deadly poisons, how he went with less deadly puppet traps.

Still, he was skilled and thus Sakura never even noticed the moment he switched out with a puppet; suddenly he was just exploding in spike traps, long deadly lances erupting from his chest to try and impale her.

She dodged by a hair’s width, a new long gash opening itself across her cheek. She burned the poison out with barely a thought, face smoking as the wound sealed shut. She stretched her senses but it was just her and the puppet to her. Kankuro was an excellent puppet master and a mark of that was that you never saw the puppet director. Its what made puppet masters so dangerous; while you thought you were fighting an ordinary man, suddenly they were riddled with traps and poisons and were entirely expendable. It was like fighting armed juggernauts.

If you didn’t find the puppet master you often died.

But this was just a spar and Sakura decided she might as well focus on the puppet.

It was all hot sun and burning sand and the sheen of poison on wood and steel as they danced. Sakura forgot about even Gaara as she twirled and leapt and tried to crush with her fist. It was…it was exhilarating. Sakura felt some of the tension seep out of her, leak from her shoulders and neck. The low level headache she’d had the entire time in Suna faded away with the adrenaline.

Sakura grinned as her blood pounded, as tension slipped away in a battle haze. Sakura, after she had learned how to channel all her temperament into her fists, after she had learned to let go of the idea of being a pretty and good girl, found joy in how battle made her blood sing. She was at home here, every sense sharpened on the idea of winning. Sakura wasn’t just about survival anymore, now she was a girl preoccupied with victory.

Which is why she carried so much tension these days. Suna was not a place you emerged victorious, especially not with Gaara at it’s shining helm. Suna was a place you survived. And maybe not even that.

Sakura brushed the thoughts away along with the sweat on her nose and flipped a pair of knives into her hands.

Sakura went for the puppet with a plan in mind, trying to get above it and realized she wouldn’t be able to gain the height she needed to come down on the puppet as it matched her leap. Just as she came to this conclusion a small disk of sand swirled to life. Sakura took the opportunity. Like stepping stones they appeared and Sakura ricocheted off of them, twisting to lunge at the puppet from above. She twisted around the spike that erupted from the top and came down on the thing like a rockfall.

She’d been watching the joints, watching how it clicked and clacked the whole battle. And now she came for those weak areas, her blade shining in the light as she butchered the puppet.

“Aw, come on,” Kankuro groaned as his puppet fell apart before his eyes.

He stood from the sand, a camouflage tarp slipping off of him, a minor genjutsu fading away. He really was very good at that. His shoulders slumped and Sakura straightened herself knowing the spar was over. Not that either of them were done, but she knew when an ending had been declared.

“Good match,” Sakura clasped a hand to her chest in a typical Konoha salute.

“Yeah, good match,” Kankuro echoed, a smile at his lips even as he looked over his puppet with a careful eye.

Sakura had tried not to damage it too much, aware of how much work he put into them.

“I don’t think I’d like to face you full out on your own home playing field,” Kankuro said thoughtfully, squinting up at her as she pushed her goggles.

“Right back at you,” she agreed.

“Sakura.”

Sakura had almost forgotten about Gaara, but he demanded her attention easily enough. She looked up to find him watching her intensely.

“Let’s go.”

She bobbed her head as he turned on his heel and strode off.

“Thank you, I really did enjoy the match,” Sakura told Kankuro.

Then she spun around and hurried after Gaara knowing he had little patience for dallying. She followed him all the way back to the Kage home and maybe the adrenaline from the fight was still thrumming in her veins because when he pushed her up against a wall Sakura laughed instead of shaking.

The battle had made more than just her hot-blooded and Gaara started his own battle with her, his teeth sharp and his hands merciless. Sakura laughed and pushed right back.

.--.

Chapter Text

Sakura watched as the hospital slammed shutters shut and bolted doors.

“How long until the storm hits us?” she asked a man scurrying past

“Five minutes at most,” he shouted before he was gone.

The siren that had sounded had only sounded two minutes ago and already fortifications were raised. Sakura was impressed with the efficiency even if she was confused as to what to do.

“Let’s go.”

Sakura felt her back muscles tense before she could smooth away the surprise. She looked over at Gaara who was for once not watching her but looking at the dusty sky.

“I should stay in the hospital in case they need me,” Sakura said slowly.

“The storm will last more than two days,” Gaara said.

“All the more reason to stay here,” Sakura said.

Gaara frowned, the expression displeased but Sakura stuck her chin out. There were some battles she would not bow meekly to.

“They can summon you if they need you,” he said looking at her with narrowed eyes, “There is a system of summon that can be used even in the storm.”

Sakura held for a moment then slowly nodded. Gaara held out a hand and she took it. The walk through the village showed her how quickly people in Suna responded to sandstorms as they battened down the hatches. They didn’t even make it halfway before the storm hit them. Sakura tucked her veil more tightly about her face and squinted behind her glasses as winds and sand and dust roared through the narrow streets, tunneled through the village. It wasn’t even the sand that was the problem, it was how fine the dust was as it slipped between every crease of her clothing. Gaara noticed her problem and a moment later a barrier of sand had swirled around her.

“Thank you,” Sakura said quietly.

Gaara had seemed unbothered by the storm and for him to see it bothered her and do something about it…well maybe that spoke of growth.

The storm raged around them and by the time they got to the Kage home, even with his barrier, Sakura needed to shake the dust out. She didn’t protest as Gaara followed her into her room. The servants had made the place secure and Sakura could hear the roar of the storm but none of it slipped inside.

Sakura pulled her clothes off, shaking away as much dust and sand as she could. Gaara kept an eye on her, eyes idly running up and down her skin, but she could see half his attention was on the storm. It sounded like a dull roar outside, similar but different to the windstorms that hit the coast.

A maid knocked at the door and came in with her head bowed. Two more maids followed her and Sakura watched them set up a small table and lay out an array of coffee, dates, and nuts. A chessboard followed and Gaara waved them off as one started to put the pieces on. They scurried off, door shutting behind them sharply.

“The storm will last a few days,” Gaara said as he took a seat, “Join me.”

She wondered if he was inviting her to two days of chess and coffee. Sakura was pretty sure she’d die if she drank coffee for two days straight. She joined him anyways and tried to focus on the game, the roaring a dull echo in her ears.

.--.

.--.

“Sakura!”

Sakura paused and looked around, unsure of who had called her. She glanced about the coffee house and found a hand waving at her, a rather plain face topped with messy brown hair. Sakura blinked once, twice, and then made her way over.

“Here for a coffee?” Kankuro asked lacking the usual outfit and no sight of his paint.

He was an odd sight looking like a normal civilian tucked in a corner

“I was going to grab a coffee,” she agreed.

Coffee had been a new thing for her. Well, this kind of coffee at least, she was more used to iced coffee from the convenience store back home, but Sakura was growing to enjoy it.

“Do you have time to join me?” Kankuro asked.

“I do, but I don’t want to interrupt,” Sakura said glancing at his companion.

The man smiled at her, quite handsome and stood.

“I was on my way out,” he said as he passed her.

She watched the way he and Kankuro shared a lingering glance and then shrugged and took his seat.

“Was that your boyfriend?” Sakura asked as she took her seat.

Kankuro paused and looked at her carefully.

“Yes,” he finally said, voice bland.

“He’s cute,” Sakura raised her hands sensing the defensive posture.

She tried to remember if same-sex marriage was allowed in Suna. It had been legal in Konoha since Senju Hashirama wrote the charter but she didn’t know about Suna.

The host interrupted the moment to pour her a cup of coffee and bring fruits and some little pastry like things to replace an empty plate near Kankuro.

Kankuro reached for a contraption she’d missed in the conversation and brought a long thin tube-like thing towards his mouth. She eyed it as he inhaled and wasn't surprised to smell tobacco as eh exhaled.

“A waterpipe,” he said to her curious look, “Here.”

She took it curiously and inhaled the sharp tang of tobacco.

“Not my thing,” Sakura coughed handing the thing back.

Her chakra burned away the bacteria on the mouth piece with barely a thought, sterilizing it. She wondered faintly how many germs people passed with those things if they passed them around as easily as Kankuro did. Kankuro took it back easily and nudged the plate of snacks towards her. Sakura picked up her coffee and nibbled on a date in between sips.

“So,” Kankuro said after a long moment, “You’ve been here in Suna for a while now. You must be heading home soon.”

Sakura set her cup down.

“Hopefully,” she said quietly, “I miss home.”

Kankuro was watching her, face solemn.

“Gaara won’t like it,” he remarked.

“No, he won’t,” Sakura agreed.

To be honest she didn’t know what to do. It was true she’d probably be recalled home soon. But…deep down Sakura was worried Gaara wouldn’t understand, that he wouldn’t let her leave. Sakura wondered if he’d write a letter to Konoha pledge Suna’s loyalty and continued peace if they simply gave him a no-name civilian born chunin. Sakura picked her coffee up again to hide the trembling.

All Gaara had to do was deny her leaving and Sakura would be stuck.

“Hey, never mind that now,” Kankuro said lightly, “Lets talk about something else. How is the hospital going? The elders are still in a tizzy after every update.”

“It’s good,” Sakura swallowed, grasping the conversation like a lifeline, “There is still resistance to my changes so many months later, but it’s the minority.”

.--.

Sakura stared blankly at the papers and had to shake her head as she realized she’d read the whole thing without really looking at it.

“Haruno,” Hiromi said carefully, “Maybe you should go get some sleep.”

“I need to finish these,” Sakura waved idly at the pile of papers.

“I’m sure we can handle it,” Hiromi said.

“No, I’ll stay.”

Hiromi backed down but Sakura caught her sneaking worried peeks at her. Sakura knew it was because of how hard Sakura was working herself. But how could Sakura help it? Her year-long mission was now clocked at eleven months. And Sakura was so excited for the end she was dreaming of it; dreaming of anmitsu at her favorite stand near the flower district, dreaming of Ino and her bouquets of flowers and snide words, dreaming of Tsunade and her barking laughter.

But…

But Gaara.

Sakura wasn’t sure she could escape him. But like so many months ago when he’d asked her to stay she hadn’t been able to say yes even to appease him. Yes was not an answer, was not a choice. Sakura was a Konoha-nin and she didn’t want to change that.

Well, she though dully looking at the paper again, that was a worry for another time. Hopefully everything would just stay quiet until the day she was supposed to leave and she could slip away.

.--.

Chapter Text

.--.

Sakura was in the markets when the city shook.

She dropped her bag of goods, dropped her groceries for the week, and ripped a pair of civilians away from a falling object. She hurled them over a food cart just as the item exploded, sending her flying back with the shock wave, her clothes smoking. Screams rose and Sakura tossed another civilian out of the way as he nearly trampled someone. She ripped away her smoking burnt top leaving her in a plain tank-top over breast bindings and the billowing pants tied sharply at her ankles and waist with bright red wraps. She tossed her sunglasses aside and pulled her goggles out knowing she would need eye protection in the sand and against explosives.

Sakura looked up as she felt chakra flare and watched as multiple bombs exploded across the sky and city sending dust and screams into the air. Each explosion was smaller than an explosive tag but it could be because whatever the things were, they were the size of her finger. The shinobi of Suna were quick at least, she’d give them that, as she saw them hurtle themselves into their job, evacuating civilians and heading for the valuable points of the city like the wells and the hospital and the academy.

Sakura took off as well, neatly dodging rubble and panicking people, flying across colorful brick as she honed in on the sound of battle. She rounded a corner and exploded through a puppet, demolishing the wood and sending shrapnel in every direction as she narrowed her eyes through her goggles.

There was a suna-nin down, a lance through his heart, there was a civilian pinned to a wall via a metal cord, there was a platoon of ANBU-like operatives with puppet style masks retreating with blood and sand clinging to them. And in the center was a tall, humped thing with dark eyes and a cloak of black and red clouds. Facing him was the Elder Chiyo, puppets framing her on either side and steel in her eyes.

Sakura wasted no more time; she demolished another puppet, splintered it beneath her gloves and leapt for the hunched figure. He tried to move, tried to dodge but Chiyo was a quick woman for her age and Sakura felt chakra strings attach to her and didn’t fight them. Sakura let her body go with the flow as Chiyo’s chakra strings hurled her in the new direction, her fist hit wood instead of flesh and Sakura fractured the hunched man.

What emerged was a young red headed man with a dull gleam to his skin and a smirk on his lips.

“Take point, Chiyo-sama,” Sakura said as she saw the ANBU-like platoon dragging themselves for cover in the building next to them.

If they were smart enough they would cover them with projectiles. Sakura focused on her breathing and on her fists. There was dialogue happening, but she barely heard it. The red head was Chiyo’s grandson or something, but Sakura only cared for the poison and weapons he spewed indiscriminately. Sakura was grateful for Chiyo’s assistance. Any time Sakura needed a hand there were chakra strings guiding her. Three times she was poisoned, but Sakura had been studying with Kankuro for weeks now and had distilled more than one antidote to most general poisons. What felt more dangerous was how she bled out, widening wounds to hemorrhage the tainted blood before stitching herself back together.

Sakura thought maybe she should feel more adrenaline, more worry than she was. But Sakura had spent almost a year behind enemy lines. It was good to have someone she could actually render to pieces, to finally attack.

The ANBU covered them, even with explosions rocking the city and their own man downed. The help of wind and metal projectiles kept the red head dancing inside the square they occupied. Chiyo was helping Sakura keep one step ahead of the game as the man pulled more and more puppets out. Sakura was fighting an army of dead people turned into weapons and her blood sang.

A kunai caught the edge of his cloak, ripped it away and Sakura realized why none of her hits were dealing damage. The boy was a puppet himself.

Sakura felt something like disgust fill her. Powerful men and their quest for immortality; there were too many stories and to many real-life ones like Orochimaru and it made something in Sakura snarl.

Sakura cleared a coiled spool of steel that went for her throat, Chiyo pulling her back to safety and thought about the fight.

“His heart,” Chiyo said, nodding to the tube in his chest, “It will be the only thing to bring him down.”

Sakura wiped blood off her cheek and spit some into the sand. She was not unscathed, but she was not experiencing any of the poisons she burned or cut away so far.

“Throw me in,” Sakura said grimly.

The nice colorful square was gone, instead there was rubble and death and Suna was not her home but Sakura was mad anyways.

“He’ll get you with something. And the poisons on him personally, well, they’ll all be more than deadly,” Chiyo said and it was not a disagreement but a warning.

Sakura had two general antidotes she’d made still in her pouch. One was for the most deadly poison Kankuro had created and which she should not have even seen, but she supposed Kankuro liked her. The Elders would throw a fit if they knew he’d let her make an antidote for his best poison but it might save her life right now.

In the sky an explosion of sand stretched, blocking the clouds. An explosion rang out and smoke and sand covered the sun for a minute.

“Do it,” Sakura ordered, “Your Kage needs us and we can’t waste any more time.”

Chiyo made some sharp gestures at the ANBU like platoon, or those still alive, and they all unleashed a torrent of wind at Sasori and his dead-kage puppet forcing them into the center of the square even as they did no real damage. Sakura started running, feet sure even as she leapt rubble and bodies and puppet splinters. The chakra strings on her limbs buzzed and when she was almost there they threw her forward with just that much more speed. Sakura launched into the red-head's defense, getting up and close in an instant.

The steel cable went through her gut. She grit her teeth around the pain and grabbed the cable with one hand, holding it steady so it didn’t tear out of her. With that grip she hauled Sasori even closer and briefly engaged in some hand to hand combat. He got in a few good hits and Sakura felt poison already slowing her down, but he couldn’t escape her hold still tangled up in her.

A puppet of Chiyo’s came down on her from above and his distraction lasted long enough for Sakura to shove her hand through the cavity on his chest.

Sakura had held many hearts for her studies, had held them in training, had even held them in surgery and massaged life back into them.

This time Sakura wrapped it in her fist and crushed it. The red head faltered, face almost comical in his surprise. He went to say something, but Sakura, with her fist still covered in his heart blood, punched his head so hard it splintered.

The puppets around them collapsed, strings cut and only Sakura was standing at the epicenter.

Chiyo caught her before she fell. Sakura gasped at the fresh wave of pain but tried to keep her hands steady as she applied the antidote. She widened as many cuts as she could and Chiyo helped draw as much poison as she could out before they closed the small wounds and cauterized a few others. Then they turned to the cord through her gut.

“If it pierced your intestines...,” Chiyo said softly trailing off.

“I redirected it,” Sakura said with gritted teeth, “It missed them at least. Get it out of me.”

And so they both slowly pulled it out, trying to heal the damage as they did so. The wound was a nasty thing, and in the middle of a battle-field Sakura didn’t have time to heal it nicely. They burned it shut.

Sakura was sweating and gasping by the end and even Chiyo was panting, spent. Sakura stumbled to her feet and winced at the pull of the burn and the new healing. If she pushed it, that would reopened despite their healing.

“Take her to the hospital. She’s suffering chakra exhaustion,” Sakura told the hovering ANBU, “The rest of you with me. We need to save the Kazekage.”

They obeyed with no hesitation and Sakura decided she’d worry about what that meant later as they leapt to the nearby roof. Sakura made an extra high leap trying to get a layout of the battle. There was explosion damage everywhere and squads of nin sweeping through the village to deal with more of the bombs. She saw very few civilians left on the street and remembered how quickly the streets had emptied for a sandstorm. Suna had practice battening down the hatches.

The Kazekage and the other invader were both fighting high above Suna on a cloud of sand and what looked like a white bird respectively. Explosions and archs of sand bloomed everywhere, and Sakura’s breath caught as she realized Gaara was on the defensive. He was trying to stop the bombs this blonde man was raining indiscreetly down on Suna.

His ninja weren’t just watching though and Sakura spotted a platoon all on the kazekage’s tower with bows, their arrows guided by wind jutsu they were using to harry the blonde. Someone had bird summons and a large eagle was trying to bring the white bird down despite smoking feathers. Two kunoichi with battle fans were sending blasts of wind blades when the fighting pair swooped low enough.

And there, high above was Temari on her fan riding a wind up with a weasel at her side. Kankuro was below her, puppets spread around him and repressing every bomb that got past Gaara often at his own puppets sacrifice.

“Can any of you get me up there?” Sakura asked flatly.

A platoon member pulled his own battle fan out and grabbed her. He took a large leap and one of the kunoichi throwing wind blades must have seen the plan because she turned to them and with a sweep of her fan sent them flying upwards. The platoon member held his fan out and Sakura held onto it even as they peaked in their flight. Midair he twisted with all his strength and threw her further upwards, a blast of wind chakra behind her.

Temari must have seen her coming because she harried the blond and distracted him. She got thrown back and down towards Kankuro but it was enough that when Sakura came down on him like an arrow, he looked completely caught off guard, spinning to her.

Sakura held her fist out and remembered how desperately Kakashi had worried about her. She remembered how desperately he had tried to train her enough to secure her own survival. She remembered how he had made her train and train and train. And she remembered how one day he had turned to her and told her there was a jutsu that could punch through the sand defense; a technique he’d already taught to someone else for that purpose and it had worked if still ended badly. Sakura remembered Sasuke and how he had seemed leagues above her and whom she realized later had just had a head start and that Haruno Sakura was not lesser.

The sound of a thousand chirping birds filled the air and Sakura rose like a hunter, lightening in her grasp.

She had been given this technique, taught it by a teacher with grim eyes and a fear of past mistakes but more afraid for her. Sakura had promised to use it correctly, had promised to never turn it one anyone but her enemies. He had given her the chidori because it could hurt a monster, could kill a demon. He had given it to protect herself from the evils of the world.

And now, with lightening sheathing her, Sakura used it for its first purpose; protection.

Below her Suna fought off this invasion with grim faces, every man and woman turning their blades and chakra on the enemy to save their home and their Kage. Suna was not her home, was not some place she even felt welcome. Suna was not a place she loved or should have put her all into defending.

But teal eyes watched her like she was the world, like she was beautiful . And even if their love was of fear and anger and desperation, Sakura didn’t really want it to end in blood. Gaara was staring at her now, desperate and furious and fearful as he panted, sand dripping like blood. She looked at two monsters, one who had tormented her, dragged her about at his whim, and one whom had done no wrong to her. She looked at Gaara, bowed and defeated, brought low like he had pulled her down.

Sakura had already made her choice before she’d lit her hand with lightening. The sound of a thousand chirping birds clouded her senses.

Sakura screamed with the birds, screamed her raw fury over the entire situation and knew she’d never scrub the sand from her soul, but maybe she could stop the abrasiveness with blood. One blue eye widened, as the battle hungry grin slipped away in raw terror as they both saw the path of her fist.

And then she was sheathing lightening in the man’s heart. Deidara of Iwa fell with shock on his face and a hole ripped through his mouth and heart.

“Gaara,” Sakura rasped, shoulder deep in a man’s chest, his heart in her hand and lightening arching away.

Gaara looked up at her, eyes wide and frantic. There was blood up to her shoulder and Gaara’s desperation thick in the air.

“Sakura,” he whispered.

There was something there…something in his voice.

He looked up at her and she saw desperation and adrenaline, she saw respect, she saw lust. Sakura thought of the way Gaara pinned her down, pulled her low. Thought of the way she had allowed it. Sakura could crumble a mountain with her fist. She could kill a man the same way. But she hadn’t ever fought back, not truly. So was she allowed to claim Gaara a monster for the sweet kisses and the terror she felt sometimes?

Sakura had her arm shoulder deep in a man’s chest, Gaara kneeling at her feet. She had a man’s heart in her hand, literally and figuratively.

And then they were falling.

The explosion of the bird the dead man had been riding was terrifying but Gaara had had enough strength to encase it in his sand and shield the village, even if doing so had been the last of his strength. Gaara and Sakura hurtled towards the ground, no more strength left in their bodies. Gaara reached for her, stretched out his hand, eyes locked on hers and…

Kankuro caught her gently, plucked her from the air and Sakura rolled into his hold with only a faint groan of pain.

“You stupid brilliant woman,” Kankuro breathed, paint smudged with sweat, sand and blood, but eyes wide and bright.

“Hey,” Sakura managed a weak grin.

She caught sight of Temari curled around Gaara in both a catch and a hug as the blonde desperately held her brother.

“I think,” Sakura said, “I think I’d like to go home.”

Around them people were flocking, crying and cheering over the Kage who was strong enough to raise a hand in acknowledgement of all the help. Kankuro stood, holding her close and more people waved and bowed and cried to her, thanking her for saving their village and their Kage.

“Home, eh,” Kankuro said, “I think we can manage that.”

“Gaara…”

“You leave it to me,” Kankuro said, “I’ll get you home.”

Sakura decided for the first time in Suna to really trust someone.

“Okay,” she agreed even as the world faded away

.--.

Chapter Text

Sakura was leaving a surgery room when she found Kankuro leaning against a wall.

“Should you be working when you’re still recovering?” Kankuro raised a brow.

“Too much to do,” Sakura said thinking of how full the hospital was after the attack.

Hiromi had already seen to her, helped Sakura better heal a few injuries she’d had, but they’d both been needed with the influx of burn patients. Sasori of the red Sands and Deidara of Iwa, S-rank criminals that they were, had done a lot of damage. Their attacks had done more damage to the city as well which had left unstable structures and collapsed streets and people had gotten injured trying to do clean up on top of the battle injured.

“Take time to rest,” Kankuro told her seriously, “No one would blame you if you took a few days off to just sleep.”

“No,” Sakura said stubbornly.

He sighed and shook his head but there was a fond twist to his lips.

“How is Temari?” Sakura asked instead.

The blonde hadn’t needed to come to the hospital but had been recommended bed rest.

“Same as you,” Kankuro said, “Should be in bed but she’s running around doing work.”

Sakura nodded with a wince. Temari had broken an arm in three places and they’d had to give her a cast instead of using the large amount of chakra it too to heal a fully broken bone. Hopefully when the injured list shrunk they’d properly fix it but Sakura knew how hard it would be to do paperwork and work with her dominant hand broken until then.

“How are all the patients here?” Kankuro asked.

“The worst off have been helped or…” she winced thinking of those who hadn’t be saved, “It’s mostly non-emergency cases now. Lots of skin grafts and burns to keep an eye on though.”

He nodded.

“So the hospital will be busy for…”

“It will be crazy for another week,” Sakura said, “After that it should calm down.”

“Good. Two weeks then,” Kankuro nodded.

“Two weeks?” Sakura asked.

Kankuro stepped close, into her personal space.

“In exactly two weeks you pack your bags and meet me at the gates at 7pm,” Kankuro said so low she barely heard it, “You got me? Let your team know to be discreet.”

She stared at him for a long moment, barely breathing.

“Yeah,” she finally said, “Yeah. Thank you.”

He gave her a pat on the shoulder and disappeared around a corner. Sakura stared after him and decided she needed to get Kankuro something really nice.

.--.

“Hey,” Sakura said softly.

Gaara looked up from his desk, eyes furrowed. The frustration ebbed away as he looked at her until he nearly smiled. She’d never seen him smile but this was damn close.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, looking at his bandaged hands.

The demon helped heal damage but even it had been exhausted after Gaara had tapped its chakra to manipulate enough sand to save the village from a bomb the size of a wagon after Deidara had died.

“Fine,” Gaara said looking Sakura over carefully.

“Let’s do dinner,” Sakura said abruptly.

Gaara stared at her.

“I was thinking we could go get that curry you like,” she said nervously.

He still stared. They’d done dinner a few times, went to the coffee house more often. But it was never by Sakura’s invitation. He stared for a moment longer and then nodded slowly.

“Good,” Sakura tried to say brightly, “Let’s go.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

He looked at his paperwork and then at her again.

“It will do the people good to see you out and about,” she tried.

Gaara had been so busy here he’d barely been seen outside. He nodded finally and when he stood he left the papers behind. Sakura took his hand when he was close enough and Gaara stared at their clasped hands the entire way out of the Kage tower.

The curry place he liked wasn’t far away and was one of the places untouched by the bombs. As such it was quite busy, but any restaurant would have room for their Kage, and a table for two was made and set immediately. Sakura ignored the glances sent their way knowing it was because today she’d forgone the head wrap and her pink hair was very visible and it was obvious who she was.

The curry was good. A tad to hot for Sakura but she was used to the spice of Suna now and she wolfed it down. Gaara spent most of dinner staring at her but he did take a moment or two to glance at his people and out the small window at the streets. When they finished the curry the owner dropped them off some sort of small cake that was soaked in syrup and tasted amazing.

“Hey, I had a question,” Sakura said after the desert was gone.

Gaara tilted his head, listening.

“Can same-sex couples get married in Suna?”

Gaara stared at her as if confused.

“Can a man marry a man or a woman marry a woman?” She tried to further explain.

“…Would they want to?” Gaara asked, and she could hear genuine confusion in her voice.

Sakura reminded herself Gaara had been raised as a half feral killing machine who hadn’t known what love was, not even familial love.

“Some,” Sakura said, “There are some people out there that do not like the opposite sex, they aren’t attracted to them. Some men like to date other men, some women like to kiss other women. In Konoha they have the same rights as a heterosexual couple. They are allowed to get married and inherit their partners things if they should die.”

Gaara stared at her.

“I have never heard of it,” Gaara finally said, “I am unsure if it is allowed.”

“You should make it legal,” Sakura said with absolutely no subtly, “Its not fair that a man can marry a woman he loves, but a man can’t marry a man he loves. Love is important in our violent lives.”

“Love is important,” Gaara agreed slowly.

“The council might not like it,” Sakura said, “But…could you please try?”

He stared at her.

“This is important to you?” he asked curious.

“Yes,” Sakura said, “Very.”

She said no more. It wasn’t her right to out anyone.

“Then I shall do it,” Gaara said, and that was that.

When they finally left the restaurant the sun was sinking, the air cooling, and people were out in droves. Many were going about their usual business, stepping over rubble to do so, but just as many were helping with clean up. Gaara halted in front of a group that were trying to fully knock down the last wall of a collapsed brick house.

Before the people even knew their kage was there sand whirled up and knocked the wall down while also cushioning the blow so that it didn’t fragment or hurt anyone. The people gaped and turned to Gaara before realizing who we was and Sakura saw beaming smiles grow as people bowed and then thanked Gaara profusely. Gaara seemed puzzled by their good cheer.

Sakura supposed Gaara had been accepted as Kage, was respected, but his people had still held some fear in their hearts for the cold vicious boy he had been. Sakura wondered though if Gaara realized what he’d shown his people as he fought off the two invaders. Wondered if he realized he’d shown a caring heart that really did want to defend his citizens. The people of Suna had seen how he had worked so hard in their defense and they would remember it for a long time to come. Gaara had proved to be a Kage who loved his people and now they freely showed love in return.

Sakura had been worried about leaving, had been worried not only about Gaara not letting her leave, but worried about how Gaara would react to the one person who had shown him anything resembling love beyond his siblings leaving his side.

But looking at the citizens of Suna who beamed at their Kage she thought, maybe he would be okay.

.--.

Sakura wandered through the marketplace like she was out for an evening stroll and spent some money at a few stands, tucking things away into her pockets, carrying a large bag of take-out under one arm. Everything she owned was sealed on her person.

Finally, after what felt like enough time, she wandered for the gates. The sun was dipping low, close to setting, and the sky was awash with brilliant colors. It made Suna all the more colorful and Sakura looked around with her shades off to get her final fill of the place.

She found Kankuro lingering at the gates and Hiromi and her team found them a moment later.

“Well, let’s go,” Kankuro said, nodding to the guards who glanced at them curiously but didn’t try to stop them.

They set off across the sands and Sakura tried so hard to keep her pace instead of pushing harder. As the moon rose they kept going. The desert was cold at night but still easier to handle than the beating hot sun of the day. It was only as the reached an oasis a good few hours out of Suna that they stopped. The sun was not yet rising but dawn would be soon. Kankuro showed the chunin team how to set up their tents deep in the sand to stay cool while also not disturbing the few plants of the oasis.

Hiromi found Sakura standing on the edge of the sand staring back towards Suna.

“Did we just slip away in the night,” Hiromi asked carefully.

“Yeah,” Sakura said.

“Did…did we have permission from the Kazekage to do that?”

“No.”

Hiromi was silent for a long moment.

“Should we not be pushing harder then? To get more distance?”

“No. Here is fine,” Sakura said, “Go get some rest Hiromi. We will come wake you when it’s time to go.”

Hiromi relented and joined her team in their tents. Kankuro came and stood beside Sakura.

“Still have that take-out?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said nodding to the bag she’d carried.

“Well, let’s start,” he said, “I’m starving.”

And so they sat near the edge of the water and peeled open all the containers of curries and spiced meats and bread. It was cold by now but the great thing was they were all foods that still tasted good as such.

They had barely taken their first few bites when an angry whirlwind of sand swept upon the oasis. It stopped before it hit them and a furious looking Gaara stepped out of the winds, Temari at his side.

They both faltered when Kankuro and Sakura waved at them over the array of take-out.

“We brought your favorites,” Kankuro told Temari, “That stand at the corner of Red Street.”

Temari looked at him, blinking, and then at the food, then at Gaara. Gaara was staring at Sakura and she patted the ground next to her in invitation.

“Break bread with us,” Sakura said.

Gaara stared for a moment more and Sakura wasn’t sure this was going to work. Then he sat. Sakura served him and despite looking busy and uninterested, his siblings were staring in anticipation. Finally Gaara bit into the bread and all tension left them.

The old tribe tradition of breaking bread around an oasis was a peace statement. It was an agreement that no violence would take place around such a precious resource. In the old days, even waring tribes would break bread around an oasis to share the water.

They ate in mostly silence and When the food was gone or packed up Kankuro stood and drew Temari away, leaving Sakura and Gaara in peace.

“You left Suna,” Gaara finally said flatly.

“I did. If you didn’t realize it’s been a year. My mission was over.”

“…You didn’t say goodbye,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Gaara, if I had come up to your office to say goodbye, would you have let me leave?” Sakura asked pointedly.

His silence answered her well enough.

“Kankuro got me past the gates, got us here and arranged this. We are not in hearing range of any of your citizens, you can yell at me or get angry or upset with no judgement,” Sakura said.

Because having a fight about this in Suna would have been a nightmare. Shinobi might have felt obligated to stop Sakura if she started yelling at their Kage or tried to disobey any order to stay. Gaara would have been able to keep her trapped in his walls with simple commands. And if it had come to yelling, if Sakura had kicked up a fuss, it wouldn’t have been good for Gaara’s people to see him forcing a foreign kunoichi to stay in his home. That would be a political nightmare and might hurt new relations he’d built with his people.

It was best to get everything out of the way here out in the sand.

Gaara was silent for a long time, staring at her.

“I’m going home Gaara,” Sakura said when the silence stretched endlessly.

He didn’t yell or do anything. He simply stared at her. Sakura made a decision.

“Come on,” she said, “Let’s go for a swim.”

“I can’t swim,” he repeated the words of so long ago when they’d been in the Kage’s oasis.

“Then I’ll teach you,” Sakura said as she should have all those months ago.

.--.

Chapter Text

“Kakashi,” Sakura breathed.

She felt the press of tears, felt the relief like a drug pound through her veins. In one move all the tension she had been holding for a year seeped out of her. She lost her footing, lost all strength, and only Kakashi’s arms kept her from hitting the sand-packed ground. She clung, fingers digging into his flak jacket as she trembled with the relief that seeped into her marrow, chasing the fear away. She was so light she was light-headed.

Kakashi made a soft snuffling dog noise that meant comfort and pressed their clothed cheeks together. His one hand splayed across her back, holding her upright, the other came up, unclipping the veil and letting it fall to the side, before removing her sunglasses. He set her back on her feet, crowded into her space, and gripped her face with both hands. His thumb brushed against her dessert dry skin and over the stress lines at the corner of her mouth.

He took in the gauntness, the tension etched into her skin, and gave a mournful little growl.

“It’s okay,” she swallowed back the tears, “It’s okay now.”

Sand slithered across her ankle, curling across her boot, but Sakura didn’t shudder or shiver. Instead she slowly pulled away from Kakashi, eyes locked with his as she smiled.

She turned back to Gaara who was watching with a sort of resentful acceptance. His mouth was etched in a frown, teeth peeking out between the snarling lips. His angry teal eyes were narrowed and his sand restless. There had been no angry words over the past few nights of their journey across the sands. They hadn’t spoken a single word about her departure, simply lay in one another’s company. Gaara had curled around her in her tent, dodged her heels in the sand, kept her within his personal space at all times. He had almost seemed to cling to her the closer they got to the border and Sakura had not protested.

Kankuro was watching the other Konoha-nin, eyeing them with a smoke already tucked in his idle fingers. Temari was already greeting Nara Shikamaru, tongue and smile sharp. Sakura slipped back to Gaara’s side, uncaring of the eyes watching them now. Hiromi and her chunin were silent, already used to this ritual. Naruto was practically buzzing with energy but waiting as patiently as he could just behind Kakashi. The last member of the four-man cell, Choji, was sitting patiently beside Shikamaru.

They had picked a good team to come greet them. Two sets of good teammates, Shikamaru already introduced to the Suna delegate and calm Choji who would have his friend’s back. And then Naruto and Kakashi, the power to match Gaara but with the personal touch of Naruto as friends. It was the perfect team in terms of power-show and caution as well as respect.

“Gaara,” Sakura murmured, “Thank you for your care this past year.”

Gaara didn’t let her sweep into a bow, instead he stepped closer to her, into her personal space and grabbed her wrists.

“Stay,” he demanded.

But this was one request Sakura would not indulge, would not give into, one whim she would not allow.

“No,” she said easily, a smile curling her lip, “I’m sure I’ve taught you enough to understand why I must leave.”

He leaned in close, nosing the skin by her eye as he breathed in.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“I will be your first love but not your last,” she said softly instead of returning the sentiment.

“Stay,” he whispered again, tone begging instead of demanding.

She saw cracks at the edge of his façade, his eyes crinkling, his mouth drooping. She broke his grip on her wrists and reached up, tilting his face down so she could kiss his cheeks.

“Oh Gaara, I’m just a letter away. I promise to visit, but Konoha is my first love.”

His mouth crumpled and he reached up to grip her hands almost pleadingly.

“You will find love. I think I’ve taught you well enough,” she told him.

“…did you ever love me?” he asked.

“Oh Gaara,” she sighed, “I will hold you in high regard forever, but…”

She could never have said this in Suna, would have feared him too much. But after all of it, after the entire year, and with Kakashi at her back watching carefully and Konoha so so close, she could do this. Now was the time for truth. She had taught him enough he would not break to hear these words now.

“I’m sorry,” she told him, “I am fond of you, but I don’t think it’s love.”

He gripped her hands so hard her bones creaked. There was something like anger in his gaze, but also desperation.

“Sometimes, love is hard to grow,” she told him calmly, “But you know what, love isn’t everything either. I am fond of you, I respect you, I trust you. That can be enough.”

“I wanted your love.”

“I would give it to you if I could,” she said, “But what we had, it’s enough isn’t it?”

He breathed deeply and Sakura waited.

“Yes,” he finally decided.

She offered him a beaming wide smile she had never given him before. She pushed all the happiness she felt at the moment into it. It was free of stress, free of tension, and free of fear. She beamed at him and he blinked as if blinded, looking wonderingly at her face.

Gaara leaned in and kissed her, deeply, passionately, desperately. He clung like she was being ripped away from him and she allowed it as he took as much as he could from her one last time. Behind her she heard a few strangled noises but this wasn’t about them.

“Goodbye,” Sakura whispered one last time as they parted.

“Never goodbye,” he said, “You shall always be on my mind.”

She smiled but knew those were a boy’s words. Maybe he would always remember her as his first love, but he had not known her well enough to truly remember her how she was. He would remember impressions and what he wanted. She let him have that though. Sakura pulled back and turned back to her team.

Naruto was looking like someone had smacked him with a fish. Shikamaru watched with sharp eyes that were far to knowing and Choji had looked away respectfully. Temari looked pleased and Kankuro, off to the side, gave Sakura a respectful nod and a flick of his fingers. Kankuro’s address was written down and tucked in her pocket and she knew she’d always have that friend in Suna. The chunin, much like Choji, had glanced away respectfully but Hiromi watched with concern and perhaps a touch of relief.

Kakashi looked at Sakura squarely, eyes assessing and she looked right back, chin lifted. When he clasped her shoulder she smiled.

“Are you proud of me Kakashi-sensei?” she asked, voice strong, “I survived.”

He looked at her, seemed to flay her with his eyes, and smiled.

“I’m as proud as I have ever been of you Sakura,” he told her.

It was enough.

.--.

The jonin exam was a breeze and Sakura passed it with flying colors to the astonishment of the other Konoha-nin, bypassing all the rookie nine apart from Neji to become the highest ranked member of their generation. She immediately went and took more tests at the hospital the same day and had the medic-nin cheering at the fact she hadn’t lost her touch. Her new expertise in poison had specific nin come a-knocking looking for advice even before she was declared a master at that art by Shizune.

Naruto, back home for good, had a million and one questions. Sakura answered precisely none about her time in Suna. Didn’t even look at him if he mentioned it. The name Gaara never passed her lips no matter his pestering.

Tsunade pulled her into a briefing and then into a hug, practically crushing her. And if a few tears were shed, no one could see behind the locked Hokage’s door. If Tsunade had to heal some permanently tense muscles, had to give her a personal dietary regimen to get back up to a healthy weight, no one heard. If Tsunade rested a hand on her shoulder and said she had been recommended to send Sakura to rape counselling, no one knew when Sakura shook her head and said with a slight smile, it hadn’t been like that. Sakura went to see a therapist anyways, one that Tsunade trusted explicitly, and it was simply for being on a long term solo mission.

And Kakashi…well Team Seven, mostly back together minus one traitorous teammate, went on missions sometimes. Naruto was learning from Jiraya still and Tsunade was assigning him tasks that would help him in his bid for Kageship one day. Sakura, now a jonin, was stationed at the hospital half the time but the other half she was paired with Copy-nin Hatake Kakashi. They made a good team. So good in fact they were often sent after certain criminals of S-rank stature. The sound of thousands of chirping birds now often heralded the appearance of two in-sync hunter-nin who moved seamlessly together both with fistfuls of lightening.

Kankuro she kept in touch with, the only one she kept in correspondence with back in Suna (though every once in a while Kankuro’s letters would have a small scribbled message from the Elder Chiyo). One day a letter showed up from him and it was simply a copied piece of new legislation that had just passed back in Suna. Same sex marriage was legal and though he never said anything Sakura knew he knew she’d had a hand in that. If her power over Gaara had given her the control to do one thing, she was glad it had been that.

And Gaara…

.--.

Years later there was a woman on Gaara’s arm; a tad mousy and quiet but pretty enough. Gaara gazed at Sakura from under straight red hair and there was something in his gaze like desperation. She recognized the want from all those years ago. But there was also a question

Is this okay?

“Hello,” the woman smiled at Sakura, “You must be Sakura. Gaara told me so much about you.”

“All good I hope,” Sakura said, cringing at the cheesy answer.

She really should know the woman’s name, know she’d been told it, but for the life of her Sakura couldn’t find a reason to care.

“He told me you were the one to teach him what love was,” the woman beamed, “So I have to thank you for that.”

“Oh no, I didn’t teach him about love,” Sakura smiled, “I just taught him to be gentle.”

The woman looked confused behind her smile but she laughed as if the answer Sakura gave was funny and retreated back to Gaara’s side.

Dusky teal eyes gazed at her and something like a smile curled Gaara’s lips. He looked…softer. Sakura gazed back and wondered how this had happened. Maybe she really had helped. Gentle, she remembered her mantra.

Sakura watched as he was careful with the woman on his arm, as he was responsive to her and her needs, quick to speak for her but also to let her speak. She watched them move around together seamlessly.

And Sakura felt…

Well she felt a tad jealous. She was jealous that this woman got this softness, this new gentle caring Gaara.

But Sakura also felt…happy. Content. She may have only had Gaara when he was new and raw and anything but gentle, but she was content with that. She’d never meant to keep him. Never meant to have him at all but he had been a pushy demanding boy who took what he wanted. And somewhere along the line Sakura had become indulgent of that.

It was good to see him like this, to see him happy, normal.

It was good to see Gentle had stuck and looked good on Gaara.

“Sakura,” Kakashi called.

She looked away from Gaara up the dusty street to Kakashi, slouched and lazy, grinning in the sunlight. Sakura went to him and did not look back at the boy with blood red hair and sandy skin and angry teal eyes. She did not look back at the tall gentle man who stood at his wife’s side so happily and calm.

Sakura only liked to look forward these days.

.--.